sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-06-12 04:46 pm

And one day, sooner or later, you will remember my words

There was no jackhammering today, only carpentry and buzz saws, so I slept nearly eight hours. (The jackhammers started just as I began this post, which was surprisingly thoughtful of them.) Last night's dreams were a mix of dental nightmares and a complex plot in which I was being slowly poisoned so that my body could be used for components in some kind of mechanical interface. My fingernails had turned a kind of solid hematite black and each time it felt heavier and heavier to breathe, but there was no reversing what had been done. I wanted to kill myself in some way that would render me unfit for the intended purpose, but I think I woke up first. I have no idea where that came from.

[livejournal.com profile] strange_selkie sent me an excellent obituary for Leslie Howard.

What he was doing, not quite in the services, was morale and propaganda work, touring and lecturing in neutral Portugal and Spain where his anti-Nazi films were popular and his public appearances enthusiastically received, which considering that Spain at the time was Franco's has always impressed me. This next sentence will fall down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories if I'm not careful, because the last time I checked, the attack on BOAC Flight 777-A was something historians were still arguing about. Here are the data: on its regular return flight from Lisbon to Bristol, on June 1, 1943, the Douglas DC-3 Ibis was shot down by Luftwaffe pilots over the Bay of Biscay. There were no survivors. Here things start to get strange. Howard's son Ronald always believed it was an assassination. It is quite true that the Nazi government, specifically Joseph Goebbels, hated Leslie Howard—in his radio broadcasts, his filmmaking, his fundraising, the actor was eloquently and tirelessly and effectively anti-Nazi, and the fact of his Jewishness only worsened the sting. William Joyce, the most famous "Lord Haw-Haw" of Germany Calling, is supposed to have promised Howard's execution as soon as Germany successfully conquered Britain. Whether Goebbels had him on a hit list or not, it seems to be a fact that he took out an exultant headline in Der Angriff when the news of Howard's death broke. (He called him "Pimpernel Howard," as if he really were the resistance hero of Pimpernel Smith (1941), the ostensibly dreamy archaeologist spiriting Jews and dissidents out from under the noses of the Third Reich. I love that movie. Someday I will even see it in a format that is not terrible library VHS.) The commander of the eight Junkers Ju 88s that shot down Flight 777-A always maintained it was an accident: they mistook the unarmed, camouflage-painted civilian aircraft for a military one and only realized their error once the damage was done. And now we are into the conspiracy warren, where we find theories like the one that Howard and his stout, cigar-smoking manager were mistaken for Winston Churchill and his tall, wiry bodyguard, or were courageously doubling for them, or that Howard's goodwill-touring presence in the Iberian Peninsula was itself, Pimpernel-like, only a cover for the intelligence activities which resulted in his untimely death; seriously, there are books about it. There are documentaries. It's a case where I do not really expect the truth to be known; I'm not sure enough information exists anymore to be certain. Personally I don't find it unbelievable that Howard had intelligence connections, since at this point the number of actors or writers or other artistic figures who worked for the SOE in WWII is starting to get ridiculous. (Christopher Lee! We were just talking about you!) I'm less convinced of the targeted assassination somehow, although I suppose I could just be underestimating the power of art. Either way, he was fifty years old and he had a face like an angular cat and I would have loved to see the movies he made after the war, in which I am not alone. I missed his yahrzeit this year. I suppose this paragraph will have to do.

[identity profile] csecooney.livejournal.com 2015-06-12 10:36 pm (UTC)(link)
I love Leslie Howard! I had no idea about his death, or about his anti-Nazi efforts. That just makes me LOVE HIM MORE!

[identity profile] sovay.livejournal.com 2015-06-13 12:56 am (UTC)(link)
I had no idea about his death, or about his anti-Nazi efforts. That just makes me LOVE HIM MORE!

Leslie Howard is magnificent. His wartime films are fascinating—The First of the Few is a perfectly decent biopic, but Pimpernel Smith is an amazing, numinous reworking of The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Gentle Sex is a clear propaganda effort, but it's also a historically valuable, straight-up feminist film. His son collected a number of his essays and broadcasts under the title Trivial Fond Records in 1982—I've been looking for it for years. I don't have a Tumblr, but I'd subscribe to Leslie Howard Forever (http://lesliehowardforever.tumblr.com/) if I did.
Edited 2015-06-13 00:56 (UTC)

[identity profile] ethelmay.livejournal.com 2015-06-12 11:56 pm (UTC)(link)
It's actually the third anniversary of my father's death today. I don't usually think in terms of anniversaries, but it struck me when I was reading Lee's obits that it must be about that time, and it was. (My father, like Lee, died at 93, and also served in the RAF. Not as a spy. He would have been an absolutely gawd-awful spy.)

[identity profile] sovay.livejournal.com 2015-06-13 12:49 am (UTC)(link)
It's actually the third anniversary of my father's death today.

His memory for a blessing.

(My father, like Lee, died at 93, and also served in the RAF. Not as a spy. He would have been an absolutely gawd-awful spy.)

What was he like?

[identity profile] ethelmay.livejournal.com 2015-06-13 01:38 am (UTC)(link)
As far as being likely to be a bad spy goes, he was impulsive, hot-tempered, and a bad liar. Also not terrific at learning languages, though reasonably expressive in English.

But if you mean in general, well, that is a large question. http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/seattletimes/obituary.aspx?pid=158107772 will give you a general outline. He was the sort of father who was pretty good with babies and small children (much more involved than many fathers were then), and terrific once we were adults, but very difficult to get along with in later childhood and adolescence. It didn't help that he and Mom started a family in the 1950s, with all that implies, and found themselves with teenagers in the late 60s and 1970s, with all that implies. I suspect also a touch of PTSD from the war, though unlike many POWs he didn't suppress his experiences, and seemed to enjoy talking about them.

I have a lot of caches of his letters (he used to keep carbons of all his letters, including quite personal ones to his girlfriends, so I have both sides of the correspondence in some cases). There are a whole lot between him and his father during the war that I am thinking about publishing at some point. He also wrote a war memoir, frustratingly incomplete (one of the middle chapters, the one about India, he never got to, it seems -- he did write up the whole POW experience).

[identity profile] sovay.livejournal.com 2015-06-13 07:00 am (UTC)(link)
will give you a general outline.

I admit my first reaction was that "The Puget Sound Probability and Chowder Society" is a great name for anything.

I was asking about the spying, but thank you for giving me a larger idea. I'm glad he became a better parent again once you were adults.

There are a whole lot between him and his father during the war that I am thinking about publishing at some point.

You should! And possibly even the incomplete memoir. That sounds like fascinating material to have.

[edit] Unrelated to any of the above, is your new icon an owl of Athena?
Edited 2015-06-14 18:41 (UTC)

[identity profile] ethelmay.livejournal.com 2015-06-14 09:58 pm (UTC)(link)
I suppose it must be Athena's owl. I've had it for a couple of years. I think I got it from here: http://dms.wellesley.edu/detail.php?term=skyphos&module=objects&type=keyword&x=0&y=0&kv=12819&record=2&module=objects

I could have sworn I looked at it first because of a post by either you or nineweaving, but now I can't find anything like that. I did find one where I said there ought by rights to be sippy cups made like this. (The British Museum does sell a replica of a similar one, but it's over a hundred pounds.)

[identity profile] gwynnega.livejournal.com 2015-06-13 01:57 am (UTC)(link)
I love Pimpernel Smith too. I don't know why I keep forgetting that Howard was Jewish.

[identity profile] sovay.livejournal.com 2015-06-13 06:58 am (UTC)(link)
I don't know why I keep forgetting that Howard was Jewish.

It wasn't part of his star persona, the same way being intelligent and whimsical was; I don't even know how much it was an active part of his life, because—as mentioned above—all I have are his films to go on. But when I found out, I thought at once of his flawless upper-class Englishness and then of the ball scene in Pygmalion (1938), where Esme Percy's Karpathy thinks he's seen through Eliza's secret: "She's a fraud . . . Can you show me any Englishwoman who speaks English as it should be spoken? There is no such thing. The English do not know how to speak their own language. Only foreigners who have been taught to speak it, speak it well." Lilian Blumberg was Anglo-Jewish, Ferdinard Steiner was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant. Leslie was born in London, but he lived for five years in Vienna as a child before the family returned to England. (There are photographs (https://inafferrabileleslie.wordpress.com/galleries/leslie-the-man/) from this time! And from much later; it's a panorama. But I have now seen Leslie Howard as a toddler. He's weirdly recognizable around the eyes.) He came back with a second language that had to be drummed out of him and a Germanic last name that he first changed, then dropped. If he grew up into the quintessential Englishman, I suspect he learned it as well as Eliza her lady's voice. His most famous characters are the ones with more than one face. And I hope he found it hilarious that Shaw's failure mode for perfect English is being mistaken for Hungarian, because I think it's pretty funny.
Edited 2015-06-13 07:01 (UTC)

[identity profile] gwynnega.livejournal.com 2015-06-13 09:13 pm (UTC)(link)
I love those photos of Young Leslie Howard.

And I hope he found it hilarious that Shaw's failure mode for perfect English is being mistaken for Hungarian, because I think it's pretty funny.

That is awesome.

[identity profile] strange-selkie.livejournal.com 2015-06-13 11:56 pm (UTC)(link)
Well, that is definitely a thing that should be taken note of. What a strange piece of a strange war.

[identity profile] sovay.livejournal.com 2015-06-14 06:39 pm (UTC)(link)
What a strange piece of a strange war.

It's been haunting people for seventy-two years and I don't expect it to stop any time soon. You watch the last five minutes of Pimpernel Smith, the ghost prophesying out of the dark, and it looks like foretelling. It wasn't his last film, but it resonates too powerfully not to feel weird.

[identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com 2015-06-14 01:58 am (UTC)(link)
I haven't read the obit yet but wow! Just your musings on it are fascinating enough! A movie about Leslie Howard as a Pimpernel Smith-style hero would be lovely and recursive.

[identity profile] sovay.livejournal.com 2015-06-14 06:57 pm (UTC)(link)
A movie about Leslie Howard as a Pimpernel Smith-style hero would be lovely and recursive.

Now that you mention it, fictionalized or not, I'm not sure there are any movies about Leslie Howard. There's a documentary called A Quite Remarkable Life that attracted some attention three to five years ago, but it never played anywhere around here; I'm not even sure if it was released outside of film festivals. [edit] It seems to have been retitled The Man Who Gave a Damn (http://www.themanwhogaveadamn.com/) and claims a release date of 2015, so I can hope!

I can't think of any novels in which he figures as a character, either. There must be poems. I never wrote him one. I don't know why. He's no closer to me than Christopher Morcom.

[identity profile] schreibergasse.livejournal.com 2015-06-14 02:09 am (UTC)(link)
There was no jackhammering today, only carpentry and buzz saws, so I slept nearly eight hours.
Oh, hurrah!

I suppose this paragraph will have to do.
Well, *I* think it's a pretty good tribute...

[identity profile] sovay.livejournal.com 2015-06-14 06:40 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, hurrah!

It is amazing what a difference not waking up to window-shaking construction makes to one's morning!

Well, *I* think it's a pretty good tribute...

Thank you!