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Saturday, August 01, 2009

THE FATHER OF ROME

I think the very best argument for clerical chastity is not that it is sinful but that it is very hard on the children. Lord knows we have plenty of examples. Clerical marriage was officially outlawed in 1123, and as somebody once said, offenses are not declared illegal unless people are actively offending. Historian Henri Daniel-Rops has estimated that half of the children born out of wedlock in entire 15th century in Burgundy were fathered by priests, Bishops and Cardinals. The general validity of that estimate was personified in the Papacy of Alexander VI.The church in the 1400’s had lost its moral ascendancy by aligning itself with politicians. Each of the Royal houses of Europe had come to expect their “share” of the 24 members of the College of Cardinals. And the cardinals echoed in small the behavior of their royal masters. Consider the three cardinals vying to replace that “…inert mass of flesh” that had been Pope Innocent VII, the pope who did his best to become the literal “…father of Rome”. The three were Ascanio Sfiorza, Guiliano della Rovere and Rodrigo Borgia. Sfiorza (above) was the front man for his father, the Duke of Milan, who was allied with the Kingdom Naples, which controlled all of southern Italy.Rovere (above) was the archbishop of Avignon, and front man for King Charles VIII of France. Charles bankrolled Rovere’s campaign for the papacy to the tune of 200,000 ducats. Borgia was, presumably, representing the newly united Spanish House of Castile, Ferdinand and Isabella. But the truth was that the Borgias paid allegiance to no one but themselves.The papal election of 1492 took place for the first time in the Sistine Chapel and required four votes between August 8th and the 11th to select a new nuncio. Eight of the cardinals were pledged that anyone other than Rodrigo Borgia should be chosen. Winning over the remaining 16 Cardinals (to achieve the required 2/3rds majority) cost Rodrigo so much silver that his preferred source of funds in Rome, the Spannocchi-Miraballi Bank, came close to collapsing. Sfiorza, who had thrown the election to Borgia, was rewarded with the Vatican Chancellorship. The defeated della Rovere slunk back to France complaining that the “pontifex maximus” had been sold –but not to him. A poem popular at the time echoed his envy. Rodrigo Borgia, it said, “sells the Keys, the Altar, Christ Himself—he has a right to, for he bought them.”Rodrigo (above) was, according to The Catholic History of the Popes, handsome and imposing. He had a “…cheerful countenance, persuasive manner, brilliant conversation, and intimate mastery of the ways of polite society.” The new Pope chose the title of “Alexander VI”, but that was about all that he changed. Alexander kept his mistress, Giulia Bella, and publically used his children (by an earlier mistress), to reinforce his Papacy.In 1493 Alexander married his 13 year old daughter Lucrezia (above), to Giovanni Sforza, a cousin of his Chancellor. An elder son, Juan, was named Duke of Gandia, and presented with several large chunks of Church property as a kingdom.And Alexander appointed his 17 year old son Cesare (above), as one of twelve new Cardinals he named (each of whom paid the Pope about 120,000 ducats). But Alexander’s largess to his children only proved the dangers of prelate parenthood. On June 16th 1497, Juan’s body was pulled from the Tiber. His throat had been slashed and his corpse was riddled with knife wounds.In that same year Rodrigo decided that he no longer needed to appease the Sfiorza family, and annulled Lucrezia’s marriage, alleging that Giovanni was impotent. Lucrezia (above again) was described by Niccolo Cagnolo as “…of middle height and graceful of form…Her whole being exudes good humor and gaiety.” That “gaiety” could not have been helped by Giovanni’s reaction to being labeled impotent by the Pope. He spread the nasty story that Lucrezia was actually the concubine of her father the Pope, and her brother, Cesare. Rodrigo responded by writing to Lucrezia, “Do people say that I am both your father and your lover? You must know that for those destined to dominate others, the ordinary rules of life are turned upside down…” Well, it was not exactly a denial. And Alexander then married the now 17 year old girl to Alphonse, the son of the Duke of Naples. That marriage seems to have been an actual love match, if only by accident.But then, one afternoon in July of 1500, while crossing St. Peter’s Square, Alfonso was set upon by a gang, beaten and stabbed. Wounded, Alfonso was brought into the Vatican, where Lucrezia helped nurse him. Returning one afternoon to his chamber she discovered his corpse. It seemed that, as was reported at the time, “Since Don Alfonso refused to die of his wounds, he was strangled in his bed.” On 30 December, 1501, Lucrezia was wed by for a third time to the heir of the Duke of Ferrara, giving Alexander influence over one of the richest estates in Italy.It was all almost enough to remind you that the original name “Vatican” was from the Latin “Vaticanus”, or “Place of Sorcery”. In ancient times the hill across the Tiber from Rome had been occupied by the stalls of fortune tellers who sold their predictions in open competition. But now the Church had a monopoly on divination, and frankly what followed was far too predictable.Cesare resigned his Cardinalship and began a career of military conquests, building his own empire and eliminating anyone who competed with him, or his father. At the end of December 1502, his enemies were lured to Cesare’s camp and killed.Cardinal Orsini, leader of the twelve who had originally opposed Rodrigo, was like wise lured to the Vatican with the offer of a truce and thrown into the dungeon of the Castle St. Angelo (above). Twelve days later he was dead. His jailer admitted, “I turned the business over to my assistant, for I did not want to know more than was good for me.” That was the way politics was run in the 14th century Holy See. Alexander then seized Orsini’s property and even had Orsini’s mother thrown out of her home.Another old enemy, Cardinal Michiel, was poisoned by Cesare in April of 1503, supposedly using a ring with a secret compartment. The Cardinal's wealth was gobbled up by Alexander. Even when one of Alexander’s allies, Cardinal Ferrari, died of natural causes, the Pope seized his property as well. With the Borgia’s around, no death went to waste.In the summer of 1503 , an observer noted that the 72 year old Pope Alexander VI “…grows younger every day, and is extremely cheerful” Johann Burchard, the Papal Master of Ceremonies, recorded in his diary that “On Saturday morning, August 12th, the pope felt unwell, and at about three o'clock in the afternoon he became feverish. Fourteen ounces of blood were taken from him…Early on August 17th, he was given some medicine, but he worsened and at about six o'clock on the following morning, he made his confession…”. He sat up in bed and said, “Wait a minute.” He then died, August 18, 1503.Continued don Burchard, “Don Cesare, …(sent) a large number of retainers to close all the doors…One of the men took out a dagger and threatened to cut Cardinal Casanova's throat and to throw him out of the window unless he handed over the keys to all the pope's treasure. Terrified, the cardinal surrendered the keys, whereupon the others entered the room…and seized all the silver that they found, …about a hundred thousand ducats….In the meantime, valets took what had been left behind….nothing of value remained except the papal chairs, some cushions and the tapestries on the walls.”And Burchard recorded that the final insult came with the coffin. “Six laborers or porters, making blasphemous jokes about the pope or in contempt of his corpse, together with two master carpenters, performed this task. The carpenters had made the coffin too narrow and short, and so they placed the pope's miter at his side, rolled his body up in an old carpet, and pummeled and pushed it into the coffin with their fists.” It was a sorry ending for an “extremely cheerful”, extremely greedy Pope. Alexander VI's successor forbade praying for him because, “It is blasphemous to pray for the damned”. Cesare died trying to hold onto his empire in 1507. And Lucrezia died at the age of 38 trying to give birth to her eighth child, in June of 1519.You have to believe they would have all been happier if Rodrigo had not chosen to become Pope.


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Friday, July 31, 2009

A VERY BAD IDEA

I don’t suppose there is any way of knowing exactly when the idea was born, but at some point in early 1881 it occurred to New York City actress Miss Jennie Rhett that she needed to stand out from the chorus. My guess is that she read a newspaper story about two young women who had recently fallen off an excursion barge into the East River. Miss Rhett searched amongst the piers of the lower east side of Manhattan until she found the young swimmer who had saved the women. He was handsome, smart and just as ambitious as she was, and Irish too. And that was when I suspect that this idea was born. Some time later Miss Rhett was discovered off Coney Island Beach near the new Iron Pier, floundering in the sea. Just in the nick of time a tough young Irishman pulled her to safety. Later, in front of a small crowd and a reporter, Miss Rhett presented the young man with a “gold locket” in gratitude for his bravery. The reporter did not think to ask what a young Irishman from the Bowery was doing swiming at Coney Island. In any case, it made a small news story. And sadly it does not seemed to have propelled Miss Jennie Rhett to the stardom she sought. After this publicity stunt she disappears. But the young Irishman had learned an important lesson, and we will hear from him again.New York City in the 1880’s was the kind of place where any idea seemed possible, even fame and fortune for those surviving on their wits in the Bowery or "Hell’s Kitchen". The twin towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, begun in 1870 and nearing completion, were the hightest structures in New York. But as tall as they were, they still seemed human in size.Standing at the foot of the Brooklyn tower it was possible to feel the audacity of a world which, still powered largely by horses and humans, made the 5,989 foot long unsupported throw across the open expanse of the East River. So it was not surprisingly that the next step in the evolution in this bad idea should leap into some lunatic’s mind even before the great bridge had been completed.One night in 1882 a young man was detained by bridge employees on the unfinished center span of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was in the process of undressing. Eager not to be seen as a common pervert, the young man identified himself as “Professor” Robert Emmet Odlum, from Washington, D.C.; a well named swimming instructor and author of pamphlets on diving. "Professor" Odlum told the police he had made a $200 bet that he could safely dive from the bridge. After explaining to Mr. Odlum that he could not hope to survive the 175 foot drop, the “Professor’s” mother was notified and he was put on a train back to Washington. The New York City police made a note to never admit Mr. Udlum onto the bridge again, even after it opened in May of 1883.It was at this point in the evolution of the bad idea that chance intervened, in the form of a love-sick 22 year old woman in far off Bristol, England.On May 8, 1885 Miss Sara Ann Henley received a note from her boyfriend breaking off their engagement. In a fit of pique Miss Henley walked half way across the Clifton Suspension Bridge, above the Avon River Gorge, and threw herself off. As she plummeted the 245 feet toward oblivion her crinolined petticoats caught the air like a parachute and slowed her descent. She was even more fortunate when she landed in shallow waters along the shore, where her landing was softened by thick forgiving mud. She was badly injured, but she lived. Her extraordinary survival made all of the English papers, and was picked up and republished in America.A week after Miss Henley’s great fall the New York police got word that ‘Professor’ Odlum had been inspired to give the Brooklyn bridge another “go”. They alerted the toll collectors, and on Sunday afternoon, May 19, 1885 (ten days after Miss Henley’s plunge) a collector reported a suspicious cab lingering on the bridge. Officers found it parked against the outside rail half way across the span. But it was a decoy. While they were searching the cab, two wagons further back, "Professor" Odlum leapt from beneath a covered flatbed wearing a swimsuit emblazoned with his name, clambered over the railing and before the cops could reach him, threw himself into space.Imagine Robert Odlum’s surprise when he discovered that the cops had been right. He entered the water feet first (as was the accepted diving position at the time) and shattered every bone in his frame from heel to skull. He was pulled from the river unconscious and died a half hour later. His friends shipped his body home, and Robert’s sister came to town ten days later to demand that the coroner explain what had become of her brother’s liver and heart. She never got a satisfactory answer, but my guess is they had both been reduced to jelly by the impact. A little math shows that “Professor” Odlum hit the water going sixty-three and a half miles an hour. At that speed water is as fluid as cold concrete.But it was Robert Odlum’s tragic foolishness that was the catalyst for the return of the Irish hero to our story.He was 23 years old by this time, making his living as a newsboy and a bookie amongst the denizens of the Bowery. Like a certain actress he had worked with, Steve Brodie now needed to escape the chorus; except in his case the chorus was a carcophony of poverty. The story that he later told police was that a friend, James Brennan, had dared him on a $100 bet that he would not dare jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. But I doubt that Mr. Brennan had ever seen $100 in his life.Steve Brodie claimed to have made the leap on Friday morning, July 23, 1886. Mr. Brennan claimed to have witnessed the jump. There was even a sworn affidavit from a barge captain who had pulled the daredevil from the river. Sceptics said Brennan had thrown a dummy off the bridge while Brodie had swum out from shore, but it didn't matter if the story was true or not. Overnight, dardevil or spinner of tall tales, everyone in New York knew the name of Steve Brodie, the man who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge.Brodie parleyed his 15 minutes of fame into his own bar, with a little theatre in the rear where he re-enacted his alledged dramatic plunge into the East River several times a week for the tourists. In 1891 promoters built a Broadway melodrama (“Mad Money”) around his dive and another in 1894, (“On the Bowery”).And on the wall next to a painting of his fabulous plunge, was displayed the following homely, “Cursing and swearing don’t make you any tougher in the eyes of people that hears you, Steve Brodie".In 1895 Mrs. Clara McArthur, married to a disabled railroad worker and mother of a young daughter, jumped off the bridge at 3:30 in the morning. She was seeking a share of Steve Brodies’ pot of gold for her destitute family. The desperate Clara was wrapped in an American flag. She had water-wings strapped under her arms and a punching bag tied to her back to keep her afloat after landing. Her socks were filled with sand to keep her feet below her head (again, the accepted best attitude to enter the water).But Clara landed on her side, spreading the impact over the length of her entire body. That is what saved her life. The shock ripped the water wings under her arms to shreds. She struggled to the surface, but the punching bag kept flipping her over onto her face, and the socks kept pulling her down. Clara finally passed out, face down in the water. Two men in a rowboat waiting under the bridge managed to pull her to safety. She never made a dime from the effort, even though she had several reliable witnesses that she had actually made the jump. The Victorian public simply didn't want to know the details of a woman forced to risk her life to provide for her family. Clara McArthur is one of only ten people (two of them women) known to have jumped off the bridge since the 1881, who survived the plunge.Steve Brodie is not counted as one of those ten. He was always an agreable fellow. If he had money, his friends and family shared in it. He gave generously to charity his entire life. But it is extremely doubtful that he actually made the jump. He tried to extend his fame by claiming to have lepted off a railroad bridge in upstate New York, and later claiming to have gone over Niagara Falls wrapped in inner tubes and metal bumpers. The Niagara stunt, real or not, almost killed him. He settled in Buffalo, New York, and operated a bar there for a few years before his asthma forced him to move to San Antonio, Texas, where he died in 1901 of complications of diabetes. Steve Brodie was all of 38 years old. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery, in Woodside, Queens, New York. Thankfully the idea of jumping from the bridge for fame and fortune died with him.The longest living survivor of all these daredevils was the accidental one. Sara Ann Henley (below), the woman who tried to commit suicide in 1885 by jumping 240 feet off the Clifton Suspension bridge, finally earned her angel’s wings in 1948. She was 84 years old, married, but with no children, perhaps because of injuries sustained in her fall into the Avon River Gorge. Such feats, for fame or to protest fortune, are never good ideas.
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Thursday, July 30, 2009

TOWER OF BABEL

I would say that Victor Lustig knew his audience. The invitations arrived during the late spring of 1925, via special delivery, on stationary of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. The letter invited the addressee to a confidental meeting with the Deputy Director General to be held in the evening at number ten Champs-Elysees, in a suite at the Hotel de Crillon. It was an invitation the recipients, five Parisian scrap metal dealers, were unlikely to refuse.The Hotel had been constructed by Louis XV as government offices, before being bought by the Crillon family and converted into a five star hotel. Its interior was adorned throughout with 17th Century tapestries, Louis XVI gilt and brocade furniture, sculptures, paintings and other valuable art works. Government ministries held public and closed door meetings in the hotel every day. Besides, who would reject the opportunity of seeing the rooms where Marie Antoinette took piano lessons, or where Charlie Chaplin slept? The five 'petit bourgeois' businessmen were suitably impressed.The guests were greeted by an officious bureaucrat who identified himself as Msr. Robert Tourbillon, personal secretary to the Deputy Director, Msr Victor Lustig. The ministry, explained Msr Tourbilliuon, was about to offer a valuable business opportunity to these five men. However, he insisted, everything said in this room must remain confidential. If the guests did not agree with this stipulation they should leave at once. None of the businessmen budged from their seats.A few minutes later Msr. Lustig bustled into the suite and after reminding his guests of the absolute need for secrecy, quickly got down to the subject at hand. The men in the room may have read recently, explained Msr. Lustig, that the government was facing a major and expensive renovation of Msr. Eiffle’s Tower.The tower had been controversial from the moment it was opened on March 31, 1888. Three hundred workers had spent 3 years welding 7,000 tons of iron, fashioned into 18,000 pieces connected by 2,500,000 rivets into an open framework tower which was half proof of concept construction and half work of art. It stood 1,000 feet high, making it the tallest structure in the world; and one of the most dispised.The Paris press referred to it as “…a truly tragic street lamp.” Three hundred influential artists and politicians publically protested the “…useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower”. “Is Paris going to be associated with the grotesque, mercantile imaginings of a constructor of machines?” The inventor of the short story, Guy de Maupassant, had lunch every day in the restaurant on the second level of the tower. When asked why, he explained because it was the only place in Paris where he did not have to look at the ugly thing while digesting.The problem was that seven million tons of iron were not cheaply dismantled. Besides, Msr. Eiffel retained ownership of the “"odious column of bolted metal” for twenty years. In 1909 ownership finally passed to city of Paris, but the tower was making a profit, as de Maupassant’s angry patronage of the restaurant amply proved. And then, to a younger generation which had never known Paris without Msr. Eiffel’s tower, it had become a symbol of France, thanks to its role in the Battle of the Marne. So the tower stayed put. But by 1925, years of defrayed maintenance were catching up with the tower.Every seven years the tower required a year and a half of attention from dozen of workers, applying fifty tons of paint, using 15,000 brushes. Worse, rust and decay required replacement of many structural supports. The Tower was in need of a loan. And in 1925, as the tower officials prepared the public for the refurbishing bill, newspaper articles detailed the expense and difficulties involved. And now, Msr. Lustig explained, the government had come to the conclusion that the tower was not worth the expenses. And so the decision had been made to bring the tower down.The five dealers had been chosen, they were told, because of their professional discretion. If word of the tower’s imminent demise were to become public ahead of time, they were warned, sentimentality might prevent the sale of seven tons of scrap iron. So, Msr. Lustig told the five men in the room, they had four days to present their sealed checks to Msr Tourbillon. The highest value check would have the privilege of dismantling the Eiffel Tower. The value of the high grade iron in the Tower was about the modern equivalent of $2.8 million, meaning the bids could be expected to be in the half million dollar range.Each of the dealers left the room that night with their minds buzzing. There was not much time to budget the project, to figure labor, equipment and insurance costs. And one of the dealers, Andre Poisson, was also concerned about the secrecy and haste. Begging Msr. Tourbillon’s pardon, he asked for a further meeting with Msr. Lustig. What he did not realize at the time, was that just by asking for another meeting, Msr Poisson had insured that his check would be the one accepted.At the second meeting Msr. Lustig listened politely to Msr. Poisson’s concerns. But instead of answering his questions, Msr Lustig said that it was a shame his petty government salary required him to struggle so much to make ends meet. Msr. Poisson understood immediately. In the language of bureaucrats everywhere, Msr. Lustig had just asked for a bribe. Msr. Poisson breathed a sigh of relief. He had no doubt now that Eiffel Tower job was perfectly legitimate and that he had the inside track. Twenty-four hours later Poisson handed over to Msr. Lustig a cashier’s check for $500,000 and a healthy bribe. And then he returned to his office to await the public announcement of his contract to dismantle the Tower. The announcement never came. However both of Msr Poisson's checks were cashed. When Msr. Poisson called the Ministry of Post Office and Telegraphs and asked to speak to Msr. Tourbillon, he was told no official by that name existed. Worse, there was no Deputy Director General named Lustig. Slowly, Msr. Poisson came to the sickening realization that he had paid half a million dollars to buy the Eiffel Tower. Msr. Torbilion was actually an American con man named “Dapper” Dan Collins. Victor Lustig, AKA Count Victor Lustig (above), was a Cezch con man who had been working cons in the United States for a decade. He would never be prosecuted for his sale of the Eiffel Tower, but he would be arrested for other scams and would end his days in Alcatraz prison, dying of pneumonia in 1947. He was just 57 years old.This year the Eiffel Tower is 121 years old. To the best of Parisian authorities’ knowledge, it is sold thousands of times every day.
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