Monday, April 16, 2018

Martin Scorsese's "Silence"

Martin Scorsese's Silence

 Kathleen Spaltro.

(c) Copyright (2018) by

All Rights Reserved.

Movies are often good, sometimes great, but rarely are films true masterpieces. Even more rarely is a film both a cinematic and a spiritual masterpiece. I wanted to watch Martin Scorsese's Silence (2016) again precisely because my first viewing had impressed me so much.

This truly amazing film comes from a director who once studied for the priesthood and whose sensibility has always remained deeply and authentically religious.

Silence masterfully renders human doubt, sadness, mercy, and devotion in an echo chamber in which unceasing human noise cannot conceal the silence of God while people suffer torment and persecution.

Einstein said something that illuminates this film: "God is subtle, but He is not cruel."

The film is subtle and leaves itself open to interpretation from many points of view. A Christian may feel as disturbed and moved by it as an atheist may feel. It imposes no doctrine, but it suggests a great deal.

The film asks, "Why is God silent?" But then it questions the assumptions underlying the question. It asks, "Is God silent?" It asks, "What is God?"

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Perennial Appeal of Communes

The Perennial Appeal of Communes

Kathleen Spaltro

(c) Copyright (2018).  All Rights Reserved. 

Baby Boomers like myself associate communes with the hippies of the Sixties and Seventies, but the appeal of the commune actually has attracted people for many centuries. A recent book about social experiments conducted in Illinois estimated that, in the 300 years that ended in 1964, visionaries established 516 "intentional communities" in North America. Of the 120 American communes begun between 1800 and 1850, 24 succeeded; these pre-Civil War societies usually were religious and Christian.

Despite their varying agendas, whether religious or secular, communes have persuaded many people who have tired of conventional communities to enlist as obedient followers espousing a cause or ideal of individual behavior or societal organization. As a member of a contemporary commune in Dorset, England, has explained, "It suits people who want to change, and those who want to be among people. A lot of the people [at Osho Leela] have gone through life, got married and had kids, and are just not happy with life. Then they turn to something like this."


I admire the idealism that motivates some members of communes to transcend the expectations of our highly individualistic society, and I find interesting the accounts of the organizational, interpersonal, economic, sexual, parental, and authority issues that challenge and sometimes destroy intentional communities. Sometimes the overriding motive is spiritual, and the people are noble, and I have always found saintly projects intriguing. The establishment of a monastic rule that governs a religious community, for example, creates one kind of intentional community.

But the more common fates of marriage, establishment of a nuclear family, and membership in one or more extended families sufficiently challenge most of us. Whether we succeed or falter as wives or husbands, parents, and adult children, we accept our society's norms. To reject these norms, to declare and act upon our dissatisfaction, requires more discernment and personal strength than we can easily muster. It may also require presumption and arrogance.

Our motives may be noble, or they may be merely self-serving. As Bernard Shaw wrote in 1913, "All movements which attack the existing state of society attract both the people who are not good enough for the world and the people for whom the world is not good enough." He had expressed this insight a decade earlier:  "The reformer for whom the world is not good enough finds himself shoulder to shoulder with him that is not good enough for the world." Shaw's friendly opponent in argument, G.K. Chesterton, agreed that the societal norms that we reject may well have a solid foundation in human nature:  "Tradition is the democracy of the dead."


Most of us are probably neither saints nor scoundrels, but perhaps the allure of experimental community attracts a preponderance of both saints and scoundrels. Sometimes, in the pursuit of individual and societal perfection, even saints may exhibit very unsaintly traits.

I thought of this when I visited a museum in Harvard, Massachusetts, that includes the Fruitlands farmhouse, a relic of the ill-fated commune founded in 1843 by Bronson Alcott. His much more famous daughter, Louisa, wrote a hilarious sendup of her father's commune, the short story "TranscendentalWild Oats." As a girl, Louisa was a cold, hungry, and involuntary participant.

Paul Elmer More's essay on Emerson included a section on the Fruitlands commune and Bronson Alcott. More crushingly explained Alcott's intention " to plant 'a love colony,' as their Eden was called, where the brotherhood of man should reign unpolluted by the lust of property, and by their illustrious example to aid 'entire human regeneration.' … The men of the colony were so absorbed in the contemplation of the mystery of holiness that the fruits of the field rather languished. As Alcott's daughter said, they 'were so busy discussing and defining great duties that they forgot to perform the small ones.' The barley crops somehow would not harvest themselves, so they were got in by the women while the masculine sages were wandering off in the amiable desire of 'aiding entire human regeneration.' Things grew worse and worse, until it came to a question of leaving or starving. It is very pretty to declare that the body is 'all sham'; but you can't feed it by shamming work."

Before Isaac Hecker founded the Paulist Fathers, he belonged to the Brook Farm (1841) and Fruitlands communes. More quoted Hecker in More's demolition of Bronson Alcott:  "by some unaccountable means the serpent seems to have crept into this Eden, as he did into the original experiment. The 'love colony' soon developed into a circle of disappointed, jealous, fault-finding men and women, who found it to their advantage to seek shelter from one another by scattering in the wicked world. This is one of Father Hecker's memoranda: 'Somebody once described Fruitlands as a place where Mr. Alcott looked benign and talked philosophy, while Mrs. Alcott and the children did all the work.' It is well to look benign, but another of the colonists wrote in a different vein. 'All the persons,' he complains, 'who have joined us during the summer have from some cause or other quitted, they say in consequence of Mr. Alcott's despotic manner, which he interprets as their not being equal to the Spirit's demands.' It looks a little as if these spiritual demands were not unaccompanied with spiritual pride; and pride, we remember, is sometimes said to have been the sin that broke up the original Eden."

It is well to remember that our attempts to transcend ourselves, to become perfect, may so strain our frail human nature that they create and reveal even more, and worse, imperfections. As the philosophy of the lamasery at Shangri-La is explained to a Western visitor, “If I could put it into a very few words, dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation. We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excesses of all kinds—even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself.”

Monday, February 26, 2018

Mary Astor

Real Tinsel:

How Lucile Langhanke of Quincy 
Became Mary Astor of the Silver Screen

Kathleen Spaltro

(C) (2018) All Rights Reserved. 

"Behind the phony tinsel of Hollywood lies the real tinsel." — Oscar Levant

For both good and ill, the talented actress Mary Astor—the veteran of almost 45 years of silent films and talkies, stage and TV—also wrote, often and well. American newspapers salivated in 1936 over extracts from Astor's allegedly graphic sex diary that her ex-husband threatened to submit as evidence in a child custody trial. Long after both her scandal and her stardom had faded, Astor wrote two best-selling memoirs, My Story and A Life on Film; the financial success of her autobiographies encouraged her into writing novels. Astor's novels and her diary aside, her memoirs stand as well-written, insightful, and intelligent testimony to a life spent struggling with the residue of exploitation by people she should have been able to trust—a life spent discerning phony tinsel and all too often finding real tinsel in its stead.

Parental Hate

Astor graduated from being the practically cloistered daughter of smothering, controlling, disapproving, and demanding parents to being the rebellious wife in four failed marriages fraught with emotional disappointment and financial distress. She served as a lodestar for parents and husbands seeking to capitalize on her exquisite, delicate beauty and her acting ability with its consequent large salaries. Naturally, this sensitive girl, untrained in life's practical tasks and confused about parental, sexual, and spousal love, grew up into a brittle woman, uncertain about trust, inclined to make bad decisions about money and people, and full of self-hate. Indeed, the adult Astor would conclude that her parents' legacy to her was hate.

Born in Quincy's Blessing Hospital on 3 May 1906 as Lucile Langhanke, she was the only child of Otto Langhanke and Helen Vasconcells Langhanke. Emigrating from Germany sometime between 1889 to 1891, Otto had come to Quincy in 1904 and taught German from 1906 at Quincy High School. The high school fired him in 1912 after a fistfight in the school halls with another teacher but reinstated him by 1915 and retained him in 1916. Other occupations included decorating store display windows in 1914 at the Stern Clothing Company and running his own poultry farm. Born in Jacksonville, Helen was a drama teacher who wanted to be an actress; she also taught German in 1917 at the Quincy College of Music and Art (as had Otto from 1905). 

When Lucile was born in 1906, her family lived in an apartment over a saloon. In 1908, their address was 725 1-3 Hampshire; from at least 1910 until 1913, their address was 1837 Broadway. In 1913, they rented a 12-room Victorian mansion on North Twelfth Street, just north of the Soldiers' Home and outside Quincy city limits. Lucile loved being by herself on this eight-acre farm. When Otto got his teaching job back, the family left the farm for Kentucky Street in Quincy, and Lucile attended Highland School, a two-room schoolhouse.

The author of a German language textbook and teacher's manual, and a faculty member for the 1917–1918 school year, Otto lost his teaching job at Quincy High School again because of anti-German feeling. The Quincy Daily Journal on 5 April 1918 reported a resolution unanimously adopted by the board of education to "remove German sympathizers and the German language from the public schools" at the end of the school year. This prompted the Langhankes' exodus to Chicago.

There they resided in an apartment on East 47th Street, and Lucile miserably attended public school. After Helen became a teacher of literature and drama at the Kenwood-Loring School for Girls, 4600 Ellis Avenue, Lucile was admitted as a tuition-free pupil; she loved the school and enjoyed her mother's teaching. Lucile graduated in 1919.

Trapped by Beauty

Lucile won attention by entering beauty contests in 1919 and 1920 sponsored by Motion Picture magazine. On the strength of this thin reed, the Langhankes moved to New York, where Otto sought to promote Lucile as a fledgling actress. The gifted photographer Charles Albin created some hauntingly beautiful photographs of her; they finally caught the attention of movie executives, got her parts in silent films, and eventually won her contracts as the newly renamed "Mary Astor." When Astor won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Great Lie in 1942, she commented, "twenty-two years ago this coming June I first faced a motion picture camera—I hasten to add I was very young." In 1920, she was only 14—and a very young, very intimidated child-woman.

For many years, Otto was Astor's business manager and controlled/spent her income. More than that, Otto and Helen controlled their daughter's every move. "I had never been permitted to grow. Too early I became a very valuable piece of property to my parents, closely guarded, closely watched. I was not permitted to make decisions, therefore I could not learn how to make decisions.… No imprisonment could have been more thorough and more stultifying….The closely guarded young girl of European countries is trained for womanhood and marriage. For me there was no goal—except tomorrow's movie job. I escaped—the desperate flight of a child into an unmapped and unknown adult world. And I rushed headlong into nothing but trouble!"

"I had no personal life. There was no school, no beaux, no parties, no friends of my own age. There was just Mother and Daddy and the people in the studios. And I was chaperoned ever more and more closely." Her parents opened her mail, read any letters she wrote, did not allow her to venture out alone, not even to the mailbox, and discouraged any friendships outside the family.
More even than this: besides controlling her money and her every waking moment, Otto berated her as a disappointing, stupid, bad daughter. "I was a constant failure; he indicated his disappointment with windy sighs and shakes of the head." "He was going to be a rich man if it killed me….I was a real disappointment, that I could see." Helen's attitude was no more accepting. Inscribing her diary, "This is for Lucile—she asked for it!", Helen left for her daughter to read after Helen's death "a shocking hymn of hate for me from the time I was born."

This child-woman on the brink of stardom was ripe for financial and emotional exploitation by others, including her first lover and the love of her life, John Barrymore, 42 to her 17. "I was all messed up in an affair with a man twenty-five years older than I and I was terrified if I ever so much as whispered a thought of my own." Barrymore shocked his timid virgin-mistress by implying that her parents had guessed about their affair and tacitly accepted it as way of controlling her and increasing her financial value to them. He challenged her to break from Otto and Helen—"They'll just make a meal ticket out of you"—but she was not yet strong enough to leave her parents for Barrymore. Losing him prompted her to rebel, finally, but, unmoored from parental control, she was unprepared to recognize exploitive motives in others or to manage her own life well.

Four failed marriages and recurrent financial stress, as well as a sex scandal fueled by speculation about the real content and the forged pages of her private diary, left deep wounds. "I hated everything, including myself—especially myself. Drinking helped for a few hours at a time, but alcohol will soothe and relax only for a while. Then it will turn and viciously exaggerate the moods of the drinker. And this drinker's moods were not the kind that could safely be exaggerated."


Her lifelong struggle with alcohol was eased at times by her religious faith, which encouraged self-awareness, self-acceptance, freedom from "the confining mass of self-centered thinking—infantile, emotional, ineffective solutions to problems that had bound me deeper and deeper in loneliness and misery." Weak in many ways, she yet had a strong core: "I was fortunate enough to have an inherent vitality; the deepest need, survival, was very strong." Astor's courageous description in her memoirs of her plight demonstrates great strength underlying manifest weakness.

Self-acceptance demanded the rejection of "Mary Astor," the imposed identity and enforced ambition. Even at the beginning of her career, "the feeling I was to have always [was]: 'What's this got to do with me?' " "As well as I know the actress, Mary Astor—every movement, every shade of voice, and I learned to manipulate her into many different kinds of women—she is still not 'me'." Writing as "Rusty," in a late-life letter to her only childhood friend, Marian, she confided, "I have been going through a battle royal with the devils that seem to pursue me….when I first turned my back completely on 'Mary Astor' 'She' was furious! And I fled and kept running. And ran into 'her' everywhere I went….let's let 'Mary Astor' belong to history. Let her have her Oscars and her glory—and let 'her' die. Damn her. She is no part of my soul…. So have faith in your friend and pray for Rusty."

For Further Reading

Astor, Mary. A Life on Film. New York : Delacorte Press, 1971.

________. My Story:  An Autobiography. Garden City, NY:   Doubleday & Company, 1959.

Egan, Joseph. The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s. New York: Diversion Books, 2016.

Mary Astor Papers: Marian Kesler Collection. Quincy Public Library, Quincy, IL.

Oral History Interview with Mary Astor in Hollywood Film Industry Oral History Project, Columbia Center for Oral History Archives, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York. [Astor was interviewed by Nicholas  Benton on 7 June 1971 in Fountain Valley, CA.]

Quincy's Historical Newspaper Archive.

Sorel, Edward. Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936. New York : Liveright, 2016.

This article originally appeared in The Woodstock Independent.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

"Mr. President"

"Mr. President"

Kathleen Spaltro

(c) Copyright (2017).  All Rights Reserved.

"Always an honest Man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses." Thus Benjamin Franklin in 1783 characterized John Adams. Reading such a frank assessment by a contemporary restores our sense of the flesh-and-blood fallibility of great Americans. Over-idealization dulls our interest, but the idiosyncrasies of personality and character that create inner and interpersonal conflict intrigue us.

I first became aware of Adams's conflict with Franklin when I watched the superb HBO mini-series "John Adams." I consider this series the best historical dramatization American TV has ever produced; I had absolutely no interest in Adams before watching  the series, but it altered my attitude completely.

Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams star in a warts-and-all rendition of the American Revolution, its aftermath after the colonists' unlikely victory over the British with the help of the French, and Adams's career as reluctant revolutionary, ambassador, vice president to George Washington, president, and happy retiree to his farm outside Boston. He comes across as brilliant, incorruptible, vain, touchy, emotional, impulsive, usually dissatisfied and unhappy, but absolutely deeply in love with his mate—in a phrase, a lovable, if difficult, man of integrity.

The relationship between John and Abigail is fascinating. It touches me that their letters addressed each other as "My dearest friend." Their eldest son, John Quincy Adams, later president, also expressed an immense regard for his mother. Abigail Adams must have been extraordinary to have kept the devotion and respect of two such brilliant men of great integrity. To me, she seems like a Roman matron of the Roman Republic.

Despite his marital happiness, Adams felt recurrent unhappiness in his appointed and elective roles. By nature a passionate advocate,  he was simply not Machiavellian enough to relish politics or intrigue. In this, he was bested by his fellow revolutionary, betrayer, enemy, and friend reclaimed in old age, Thomas Jefferson. Ironically, Adams's perceptions of the untrustworthiness of human character ring truer than Jefferson's aspirational and idealistic views. Envisioning the American republic as "a government of laws and not of men," Adams sought to restrain the misuse of power.

He also disagreed with his friend's vision of the role of the United States in the world. As Gordon S. Wood explained, "Jefferson believed that the United States was a chosen nation with a special responsibility to spread democracy around the world. More than any other figure in our history Jefferson is responsible for the idea of American exceptionalism. Adams could not have disagreed more. Deeply versed in history, he said over and over that America had no special providence, no special role in history, that Americans were no different from other peoples, that the United States was just as susceptible to viciousness and corruption as any other nation. In this regard, at least, Jefferson’s vision has clearly won the day." But we would have had a happier past and present if we had heeded Adams.


More Machiavellian presidents than Adams include some of our greatest: Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. I count them as three of our six greatest presidents: Lincoln, Washington, FDR, TR, Eisenhower, and Truman. That does not mean that I idealize them or think them faultless but only that I recognize their mastery of the requirements of presidential leadership.

In the fourth episode of Ken Burns's splendid documentary "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," Teddy Roosevelt is dead at 60, burned out after having lived his 9 lives; FDR is battling polio, as well as resuming his political career as Governor of New York State and presidential candidate; and Eleanor (TR's niece as well as FDR's wife) is creating a separate life as her own person--a life that she fears losing as First Lady after FDR's landslide victory in 1932.

Both male Roosevelts determinedly fought for goals that they conceived to be good and that often were good. The series, however, reveals their shadow side as well—the tremendous egotism and ruthlessness that perhaps always accompany great leadership. TR seems extremely charismatic, very impressive, and yet incredibly insensitive—a man who was a stranger to introspection. Even though FDR idolized his cousin Ted as "the greatest man I ever knew," FDR was quite different. Perhaps no more introspective than TR, FDR seems nevertheless a more inward person--charming, devious, and cunning, determined to have his will and never crushed more than temporarily by defeat.


John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt could not have differed more in personality. But none of them approaches the level of mystery of Lincoln's enigmatic personality and character. So many portrayals of Lincoln in fiction, history, and biography have attempted to unriddle him for us.

Simultaneously ingenious, irritating, and impressive, George Saunders's recent experimental novel "Lincoln in the Bardo" glimpses Lincoln's human vulnerability and uncertainty as he grieves for his dead boy, Willie, and worries about conducting the Civil War:  "There was so much to do, he was not doing it well and, if done poorly, all would go to ruin. Perhaps in time (he told himself) it would get better, and might even be good again. He did not really believe it."

"Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House" by Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln's seamstress, "her only companion, except her children, in the days of her great sorrow," tantalizes with Keckley's intimate glimpses of Lincoln as a father and husband. Commenting "We are indifferent to those we do not love, and certainly the President was not indifferent to his wife. She often wounded him in unguarded moments, but calm reflection never failed to bring regret," Keckley contrasted the characters of Mary and Abraham in a simple anecdote.

"Mr. Lincoln was fond of pets. He had two goats that knew the sound of his voice, and when he called them they would come bounding to his side. In the warm bright days, he and [his youngest son] Tad would sometimes play in the yard with these goats, for an hour at a time."

 " 'Well, come here and look at my two goats,' Lincoln invited her. 'I believe they are the kindest and best goats in the world. See how they sniff the clear air, and skip and play in the sunshine. Whew! what a jump,' he exclaimed as one of the goats made a lofty spring. 'Madam Elizabeth, did you ever before see such an active goat?' Musing a moment, he continued: 'He feeds on my bounty, and jumps with joy. Do you think we could call him a bounty-jumper? But I flatter the bounty-jumper. My goat is far above him. I would rather wear his horns and hairy coat through life, than demean myself to the level of the man who plunders the national treasury in the name of patriotism. The man who enlists into the service for a consideration, and deserts the moment he receives his money but to repeat the play, is bad enough; but the men who manipulate the grand machine and who simply make the bounty-jumper their agent in an outrageous fraud are far worse'."

"Mrs. Lincoln was not fond of pets, and she could not understand how Mr. Lincoln could take so much delight in his goats. After Willie’s death, she could not bear the sight of anything he loved, not even a flower. Costly bouquets were presented to her, but she turned from them with a shudder, and either placed them in a room where she could not see them, or threw them out of the window. She gave all of Willie’s toys—everything connected with him—away, as she said she could not look upon them without thinking of her poor dead boy, and to think of him, in his white shroud and cold grave, was maddening."

"I never in my life saw a more peculiarly constituted woman. Search the world over, and you will not find her counterpart. After Mr. Lincoln’s death, the goats that he loved so well were given away—I believe to Mrs. Lee, née Miss Blair, one of the few ladies with whom Mrs. Lincoln was on intimate terms in Washington."

This complex, strange, and gifted man who overindulged his beloved sons and enjoyed playing with their pet goats also challenged Congress most somberly in 1862, "Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.…We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth."

First appeared in The Woodstock Independent