Cars and more cars

The 101st Indianapolis 500 automobile race will start today at noon.   This is the iconic American car race – highly tuned vehicles racing around an oval track for 500 laps.     It doesn’t do much for me (but then again, car racing doesn’t really seem like a sport to me at all), but as a historical marker, the Indy 500 is fascinating.

The first Indy 500 was run in May of 1911, after a group of Indianapolis businessmen, eager to attract visitors and customers to their hometown, had been trying to organize such a race for over two years.  Eventually, 46 cars entered the race;   automobile manufacturers as well as tire producers saw the benefits of the race in terms of free advertising for what was still a luxury item – automobiles.    They raced on a surface paved with 3.2 million paving bricks (hence, the term “Brickyard Classic”).  The bricks would eventually be paved over with asphalt, the most recent repaving taking place in 2004.




Interesting note:  23 different car makes were included in that inaugural Indy, but only three of those have survived to 2017:  Buick, Fiat, and Mercedes.  Henry Ford, while attending the 1911 race, having chosen not to enter a car, but then again, the Model T probably wouldn’t have done well against the better powered European models.

In 1914,  the organizers of the race banned the drinking of alcohol by drivers during the race…apparently, the winner of the 1913 Indy had polished off an entire bottle of champagne while driving to victory, and the race promoters wanted to discourage such behavior.  Probably a good idea.

The Indianapolis 500 was suspended during U.S. involvement in World War I and World War II.   Fuel and oil were desperately needed by the military, and in fact, during World War II, gasoline and motor oil were rationed items.   It was considered patriotic to suspend automobile racing during World War II, but also, the race organizers were concerned that gas rationing would affect attendance.

Attendance was at its highest in the 1950s and 1960s, reflective of America’s love affair with cars and speed, but attendance has declined since then at various times;  NASCAR has proven to be a big rival of Indy racing, as well as the growing importance of television,  yet there still is nothing like the Indianapolis 500.

Flaherty wins a soggy 1956 Indy 500
The 1956 Race was won by Patrick Flaherty

This weekend also marks the anniversary of another iconic vehicle – the VW.  Eighty years ago, in 1937, Adolph Hitler launched the manufacture of a “People’s car” – the Volkswagon.  With a design coming from Austrian Ferdinand Porsche, this vehicle was supposed to enable all German citizens to enjoy the freedom (a relative term in Nazi Germany!!!) of driving around beautiful Germany.    Production, however, was delayed, and the first cars intended for ordinary citizens did not come off the assembly line until mid-1939 – and almost immediately suspended as the Germans began World War II.

Australian troops enjoying a ride in a captured VW

In fact, the VW was almost entirely a military vehicle used in the North African campaign, and then in Russia, during World War II.  At the end of the war, because of its association with the Nazis, the VW company nearly went bankrupt;  it did produce a limited number of vehicles, but it was unable to penetrate foreign markets for over a decade after the end of the war.

Volkswagon WW2

But a new generation of management hired a prominent New York advertising firm in 1959 to try to gain entry into the U.S. automobile market, and the advertising campaigns initiated in the 1960s dramatically expanded sales in the U.S.  In an age when Americans were motoring around in 6 or even 8 cylinder cars that gulped gasoline, the VW stood out for its small size and temperate use of fuel, as well as its low price.    The timing of the VW’s entry into the American car market was also important in that American families were beginning to add a second car, either for the housewife to run errands or for her husband to drive back and forth from work – and the VW seemed perfect.  (One of the only problems, though, was that most of the VWs still relied on a stick shift, and many Americans had gotten used to automatic transmissions.  I was lucky – my father believed that every driver should know how to use a stick shift, and I learned to use a clutch and shift when I was only 11!).

VW advertising 1959

The “Punchbug”, as one advertising campaign called it, became one of the most popular small cars on American roads in the 1960s, so popular that even Walt Disney produced a series of movies based on “Herbie the Lovebug”.   When the gas crisis hit the U.S. in the early 1970s, VWs became even more beloved.

Eventually, the VW company stopped selling the Punchbugs here in the U.S., only to revive the style in the early 21st century, at a much higher price than those of us who grew up in the 1960s could ever have anticipated.  They are something of a luxury item now, and certainly many generations removed from Hitler’s idea!


Is it Sunday morning already?

I woke up this morning to the news that Trump had fired the FBI director suddenly – and had a deep sense of Deja Vu.  Memories of the shock of what historians call the Saturday Night Massacre immediately came back to me.

The Saturday Night Massacre refers to a major turning point in the Watergate scandal that began in  June of 1972, when a group of men were arrested for burglarizing the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.  Within days, reporters had found ties between the burglars and White House employees.   Over the following months, President Richard Nixon denied any knowledge or involvement in “dirty tricks” that had been designed to silence political opponents or rivals,  and he won his 1972 re-election bid in a landslide (admittedly, against a weak opponent).  But by early 1973, the President’s cover-up was beginning to unravel.   As his trusted associates began to defect – or Nixon began to throw them overboard- he claimed that it was the media’s fault (hmm…more deja vu?)  Both the House and the Senate set up committees to investigate, and in May of 1973 the Attorney General, independent of the President, appointed a Special Prosecutor to also conduct an investigation.

In the summer of 1973, the Senate committee held riveting hearings that ultimately revealed the existence of tape-recordings of conversations in the Oval Office, and the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was eager to listen to them.  He issued a subpoena to President Nixon in the autumn of 1973, but Nixon refused to turn them over, citing “executive privilege” – a concept he interpreted as meaning the President was above the law.   When Cox continued to pressure the White House to comply with the subpoena, Nixon ordered the Attorney General to fire Cox;  Attorney General Richardson refused, and resigned in protest.  When the Deputy Attorney General also refused to fire Cox,  he also was asked to resign – which he did.  Both men had promised Congress, back in May, that the Special Prosecutor would truly be independent, and they had meant it.

The Justice Department was now leaderless, and eventually the Solicitor General of the U.S. had to fire Cox.   Congress appointed another Special Prosecutor, but the damage to Nixon was immense.   He now looked like he had something to hide (which he did, as we know now).

And it’s that appearance of trying to hide something that troubles me about Trump’s firing of the FBI Director.   The FBI is supposed to be independent of politics, and admittedly James Comey has not been apolitical (just ask Hillary Clinton).  But, more importantly for our political process, his agency was the only agency diligently investigating the role of a foreign nation – Russia – in our democratic process.   We know the Trump team has had ties to Russia:  Michael Flynn was chummy enough with the Russian ambassador in December to text message him!   A former Justice Department official in a position to know has already testified to Congress that Flynn had been “compromised”.  What exactly does that mean?   And was it just Flynn who had suspicious relationships with Russian officials?   We don’t know, and as ordinary citizens, we have to depend on our government officials to find out for us.  Without the government doing it, we then have to rely on the media, which may or may not be accurate.

I’ve already written to my Congressman and Senators about this, since I passionately believe in the power of the ordinary citizen to make change.    We have a right to know, and we need to know.  Otherwise, this democratic experiment of nearly 250 years will collapse.

“Canteen Girls” in World War I

World War I YMCA Canteen II


The U.S. entered World War I a century ago next month, and this was a dramatic event.  Up until then, the U.S. had avoided foreign entanglements, taking the advice of our first President, George Washington.  Although thousands of men had volunteered for the Spanish-American War in 1898, that was a relatively brief skirmish and had little effect on the civilian population.  But our entry into World War I would demand participation by women as never before.

American women had certainly supported our combatants before, particularly during the Civil War, when the U.S. Sanitary Commission relied on women to knit, sew, and roll bandages as well as volunteer as nurses.   But women would fill additional roles in World War I, both here and abroad.   Women became train conductors, traffic guards, telegraphers, and telephone operators;  some went out into the fields to work as “farmerettes”, while millions of housewives voluntarily gave up meat on Mondays and wheat on Wednesdays as well as knit socks, vests, and scarves for our boys in the trenches.

But hundreds of young American women wanted to do more.  These women, what many historians refer to as representative of the “New Woman”, had already been supporting themselves as office clerks, teachers, or saleswomen, and many lived independent of their families.   Mainly white and with at least a high school education, they desired to play a larger part in the war effort.

Some volunteered  for the military, where they primarily were confined to either nursing or clerical work.  Some, though, found work as “Hello Girls!”, working as switchboard operators both in the U.S. and in Europe.   Some particularly courageous women volunteered as ambulance drivers;  this was particularly risky, as they were working close to the front as well as trying to navigate muddy, dangerous roads in perilous circumstances.

Many women went to work in Europe as part of private efforts.  A woman from Syracuse, Dora Sedgewick Hazard, for example, created a hospital unit to train and place local women in nursing jobs in the Endell Street Hospital in London.  A suffragist, she was contacted by a British suffragist, Dr. Flora Murray, to help recruit an all-female nursing staff.  Eventually, Hazard made arrangements for twenty women from central New York to get basic training and then travel to London as part of the “Hazard Hospital Unit” to serve as nursing orderlies.  The first group arrived in London in July of 1918;  while most of the women returned to their homes at the end of their six-month contract, others prolonged their stay to continue to care for soldiers after the war.

Hundreds of women also volunteered to go to Europe to staff YMCA Canteens.  These Canteens were established early in our involvement in the war to provide wholesome recreational facilities for American men either stateside or in Europe.   One of the big worries about sending American “boys” abroad was that they might get caught up in immoral activities (drinking and sexual dalliances) and come home with venereal disease (my grandmother’s uncle apparently caught “the Frenchwoman’s disease” and died a few years after the war).   The Canteens were set up to provide simple, non-alcoholic refreshments, such as cocoa and doughnuts, as well as offering a safe place to read American newspapers and magazines, write letters home, read, and relax.  While some of the Canteens travelled with specific Army units, and thus were little more than a tent, others were more permanent structures.

To provide our fighting men with another reminder of home, women staffers were hired.  They first had to attend a six-week training course, in which they were given lessons in singing, dancing, first-aid and French, then they travelled overseas on a military vessel.  One of these Y girls was from Syracuse, and she wrote home to a friend of the new adventures she was having.  She also took a camera with her, and her photo album from the time period shows her sightseeing in Paris as well as visiting devastated villages and abandoned trenches.

C848 f. 431 #215
A “Y Girl” with other people during World War I in France.

Canteen work, though, was difficult;  the female staffers had little time off, and many of them suffered from stress-related illnesses.  They were responsible for the daily routine of the Canteens, which were open 12 to 18 hours every day, as well as organizing dances and concerts for entertainment.  Living conditions also were less than ideal, as the photo above indicates.  Some of the Y girls found it difficult to walk the fine line between being a friendly face at the Y and turning into a  potential romantic partner, while others chafed at the demands of male supervisors.   The Syracuse girl mentioned above eventually chose to work for the Y in Paris as a stenographer rather than at a Canteen.

The Canteens remained open even after the Armistice, providing moral support to  homesick men eager to get back to their families, and the Y girls eventually sailed home as well.   Many of them remained active in their communities, particularly during World War II.


African-Americans and the Movies

We’re in Oscar season, once again,  and one of the most talked about films this year is
“Hidden Figures”, featuring strong performances from black actresses.  Other films starring African-Americans were also nominated:  “Moonlight” and “Fences”.   After the controversy over the absence of black faces from last year’s nomination lists, the Academy of Motion Pictures changed its membership procedures to include more African-American members in recognition of their long participation in movie-making.

African-American movie-making actually goes back to the silent era;  the first film featuring an all-black cast was made by a French studio in 1912.   The first of what film historians call “race films” made by an American company was in 1915 (the same year D.W. Griffiths released his controversial epic “The Birth of a Nation”), and over five hundred movies starring black actors and actresses would be produced into the 1950s.  Before the modern civil rights movement would put pressure on many institutions to open new opportunities, most of the major film studios in Hollywood would not cast African-Americans in anything other than stereotypical roles (think servants – cooks, maids, chauffeurs, and “mammies”), knowing that movie houses in much of the nation – particularly in the South- would refuse to show such films.

Yet, there was a huge demand among African-Americans around the country for films starring black actors and actresses, and some white investors quietly formed film companies to produce “race films”.  Yes, there were some black-owned studios, the most famous being the Micheaux Film Company of Chicago, but most of the race films were financed by white-owned companies such as Million Dollar Productions.   But while the money came from white entrepreneurs, the films themselves were written and directed by blacks, and of course had black casts.


The focus of most of these films was “racial uplift”;  writers carefully avoided the issues of poverty, crime, and social injustice.  Many of the characters were solidly middle-class, and the genres were similar to those found in mainstream movies:  romance, westerns, comedies, and musicals.  Many black comedians such as Moms Mabley, who would appear on the Johnny Carson Show and Laugh-In, got their first national exposure in these race movies. Black musicians, such as Duke Ellington, also were highlighted in these films.  Singer/dancer/actress Lena Horne made her film debut in 1938’s “The Duke is Tops” (the Duke is of course Duke Ellington) when she was only 20 years old.


Another black actress whose career was launched in race films was singer Dorothy Dandridge, whose first credited role was in “Four Shall Die” in 1940.  She, like Lena Horne,  would crossover into mainstream films shortly after this role, appearing in numerous movies until her premature death in 1959.





Just as major movie studios had white singing cowboys (Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers among them),  race films had singing cowboys as well.  Perhaps the most famous was Herb Jeffries, who starred in several westerns, including “Harlem on the Prairie” and “The Bronze Buckaroo”.   Jeffries eventually left acting to focus on a variety of other ventures, particularly singing with various jazz bands.



Black audiences flocked to these movies.  In the South, of course, these films only were shown in black-owned movie theaters, and while many northern theaters were still segregated,  race films were regularly scheduled in larger cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia, where there were large populations of blacks, most of whom had migrated North during the Great Migration.  In search of better jobs, good schools, and no Jim Crow laws, more than one million African-Americans fled the South after 1914, and found jobs in the automotive industry and steel mills.   They established black-owned businesses such as beauty parlors, barbershops, restaurants, newspapers, and radio-stations, and also opened up movie theaters that could show race movies.   Seeing black faces, in often complex roles, was important to a population largely ignored by the media until the 1960s.race-films-movie-poster

A Republic That Loves Royalty

It has always fascinated me that we, citizens of a republican nation proud of its overthrow of a monarchy in the 18th century, have been so enamored of royalty.   For example, in December, newspapers and electronic media were full of news and speculation about the love life of Prince Harry of England.    We are very proud that we do not have a monarchy, yet we seem to be entranced by stories about princes and princesses.

This interest in royalty is by no means new.   When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in February of 1840, her wedding sparked a trend that has not abated here, including white wedding dresses, bouquets of flowers, and elaborate receptions after the ceremony.  Later in the 19th century, as wealthy American women began to marry European royalty, Americans eagerly paid attention to all of the details, including the lists of wedding presents.

Many members of royal families were just as curious about Americans as we were about them, as evidenced by the many visits paid by royals to the U.S.  In March of 1902, Prince Henry of Prussia, the younger brother of the bombastic Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and a grandson of the late Queen Victoria, visited the U.S., and his train made a short stop here in Syracuse, New York.   When his train pulled into the station, the mayor, a welcoming committee, and ten representatives of German women’s societies in Syracuse were there to meet him;  thousands of other people crowded into downtown as well to try to gain a glimpse of the handsome, and (unlike his brother) genial, prince.  (One newspaper estimated the crowd at 12,000 while another newspaper asserted the crowd was over 15,000;  then, as now, crowd estimates were open to interpretation/exaggeration).   The crowd yelled “Hurrah!  Hurrah for Prince Henry!” and there was nearly a stampede as the crowd surged closer to the Prince’s party.  The Prince apparently never lost his composure.

Prince Henry of Prussia, bearing a startling resemblance to two famous cousins, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of England

Another grandchild of Queen Victoria, Queen Marie of Romania, visited Syracuse two decades later.  In 1922, Queen Romania visited the U.S. with two of her children;  her train stopped in Syracuse for only 15 minutes, but the publicity for her visit had started weeks before.  An estimated 20,000 people surrounded the train station, and an official welcoming committee presented the gracious monarch with a huge bouquet of flowers in the colors of Romania (red, gold & blue).  Also there to greet her was a member of the Onondaga Nation, wearing full war paint (was there a chance that the Onondagas were going to declare war on R0mania?).  The city council was also there, having adjourned their meeting, and sitting members of a grand jury were also released so they could see the Queen, who the Syracuse Herald later proclaimed had “won the hearts of Syracuse.”

Queen Marie of Romania, widely considered one of the most beautiful women of her era

But fascination with royalty wasn’t just limited to members of European royal families.  In 1902, the Crown Prince of Siam, Vajiravuda, also travelled throughout the U.S. after completing his education in England.  He particularly asked to visit Syracuse.  Why?  His Siamese tutor had taught him how to type – on a Smith-Premier Typewriter, manufactured in Syracuse.  This particular typewriter was the first to use a Siamese alphabet keyboard.   So, when the 22-year old prince came here to visit, Lyman C. Smith, the founder of the company, hosted a large dinner party for the prince at his home.  The prince ascended the throne of what today we know as Thailand in 1910, where he worked to improve his nation’s educational system, having also  been deeply impressed by Syracuse University.


The Crown Prince of Siam during his visit to the United States

Prince Harry of Great Britain has not visited Syracuse – yet – but such a visit would probably still bring out the crowds!



Less than one week from today, a new President will be inaugurated.   I won’t be watching the ceremony, but that’s nothing new for me.  The last Presidential inauguration I watched was in January 1989, when I was home with a newborn baby, and I watched Ronald and Nancy Reagan walk hand-in-hand off into the sunset (OK, it wasn’t the sunset, but you get the idea).  It was all carefully staged, and, frankly, I don’t care much for the pomp and circumstance of it.  However, looking back at various inaugurations is interesting!

George Washington’s first inauguration wasn’t even held in Washington, D.C. – because there was no Washington, D.C. in 1789.  Instead, he was inaugurated on the steps of a beautiful old business in the Wall Street district of New York City (today, there is a statue there to commemorate the event).federal-hall-nyc


By the time the third President, Thomas Jefferson, was sworn in, there was a federal capital;  Jefferson walked down to the Capital building, was sworn in, then walked home.   He, too, disliked big ceremonies, but  he also recognized how bitter the 1800 campaign had been (the outgoing President – and loser of the 1800 election- John Adams left town before the ceremony), and decided to keep a low profile.  (Ah, a lesson in there, perhaps?)thomas_jefferson

But John Adams was not the first outgoing Chief Executive to skip town to avoid greeting his successor.   Our 17th President, Andrew Johnson, also moved out of the city before the new President, Ulyssses S. Grant, took the oath of office.   Of course, Andrew Johnson had been accused of being drunk when he was sworn in as Lincoln’s Vice-President in March of 1865, and then had been impeached by Congress, so there weren’t a lot of people he wanted to see in Washington by March of 1869.


The inauguration set for March of 1877 had its own set of challenges.  The 1876 contest between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was so close that even the electoral college could not decide a winner:  there were disputed votes in Florida and Louisiana.   A congressional commission was established to investigate and try to determine the winner, but in the beginning of February of 1877, when it was time to send out invitations to the Inaugural ceremony and related events, the printer had to write to Congress to ask whose name he should put on the invitations!  This seemed to be the spark that Congress moving, though, and the Republican, Hayes, was declared the winner by the commission.

Since the time of Thomas Jefferson, though, it has become customary that the outgoing President ride to the Capitol with the incoming President.  George H.W. Bush, gracious and well-mannered, admits he actually enjoyed that ride with his successor, Bill Clinton, and the two men have since forged a firm friendship.   But there was one such ride that was not so enjoyable:  in March of 1933, the outgoing President, Herbert Hoover, rode to the Capitol with the man who had beat him in the 1932 election, Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Hoover refused to speak to the sociable FDR for the whole trip;  rather than just  sit there (it was an open limousine), FDR started waving to the crowds of citizens lined up on Constitution Avenue.  This was unprecedented, and some critics called it undignified, but FDR’s infectious grin captivated the tense Americans (the Depression was getting worse, not better);  unlike the dour Hoover, FDR seemed to be thrilled to be taking on the burdens of office. I wonder what Barack Obama will have to say to his successor next week?


Rocky – no, not the Boxer!

I grew up in upstate New York in the 1960s, and for me, there only ever was one governor – Nelson A. Rockefeller (yes, that Rocky!)    He was the guy everyone always complained about – yet he was elected governor four times.   He died (somewhat scandalously) in 1979, and for many there are two enduring symbols of his tenure – the Attica uprising, and the state government complex in Albany (crudely termed “Rocky’s Last Erection.”)  Yet, there is so much more about the man, as historian Richard Norton Smith has revealed in his critically acclaimed biography,  On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller.

Before he was a politician, Rockefeller was an art-lover and a keen fan of building projects.   Shortly after graduating from Dartmouth in 1930, he became one of the planners of Rockefeller Center, as well as a member of the board of the brand-new Museum of Modern Art in New York City.   He adored modern art and what is known as “primitive art”, the art of pre-industrial societies (this was a passion shared by his son Michael, who disappeared in 1961 while exploring the jungles of New Guinea).  He also was passionate about Latin America, and this is how he landed his first political work, as an adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Working for the State Department in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Rockefeller met with many leaders of Latin American nations to try to establish strong alliances.   Fluent in Spanish, and an admirer of Latin American painters, sculpters, and writers, Rockefeller made a significant contribution to cementing relationships that would prove vital to our national security during and after World War II.  Of course, it can be argued that there was a major conflict of interest in his activities, since the family oil business  had profited from Venezuelan oil fields for years,  but Rockefeller also worked hard to establish air routes, open shipping lanes, and encourage Latin American leaders to improve working conditions in their nations.

He ran for governor of New York State in 1958, winning easily on the Republican ticket.  He immediately brought his energy to improving infrastructure and education.  The New York State Thruway, linking New York City to Lake Erie, was constructed during his first and and second terms, and Rocky vigorously lobbied the federal government to build Interstates 81 and 88.  The State University of New York system is one of the largest in the nation, with some 27 campuses scattered across the state.  Here, too, we see Rocky’s passion for style and architecture:  each campus has its own unique building style, admittedly not always appropriate  (one of the buildings on the Fredonia campus is built like a pyramid, which makes many of its exterior doors unusable during the winter, when the winds from Lake Erie can blow a person off the side of the building).

But Rocky’s liberal Republicanism was falling out of style by the late 1960s;  he had already been shunned by the Republican national leadership in 1964.  He hadn’t helped his own chances  at getting to the White House when he divorced his wife of over 30 years and married a much younger woman who was forced to give up custody of her own four young children, this in a time when no divorced man had ever been elected President.  His handling of the violent Attica prison uprising, in which dozens were killed,  all but destroyed his hopes of becoming a national figure,  but he was lucky:   he had befriended a Michigan politician named Gerald Ford, who asked him to become his vice-president after the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974.    However,  it was obvious that the Republican party was moving to the right, and Rocky was dropped from the ticket when Ford ran for election in 1976.

By then, Rockefeller knew his career was over.   For the next couple of years, he dabbled in various projects, ultimately beginning to write his memoirs.   In January 1979, he died suddenly while “working with his assistant” on his autobiography.   HIs assistant was a young writer who was rumored to have met the paramedics while wearing her bathrobe…  While Rockefeller’s extramarital infidelities were widely known, even by his wife Happy,  it still seems a tragic end to a fascinating life.