Monday, December 6, 2010

Untold Tales

"F. Scott Fitzgerald...liked Champagne or gin, but when he was trying to cut back would limit himself to thirty bottles of beer. A day."
Makes you stop a second, but a story not out of line with what we know about Fitzgerald's long slow suicidal dance with alcohol. And when we read stories about the irascible Mark Twain, with knowledge of his dark final days, they ring true even though some of them are probably partly fictional. A good story that fits the context is a good story, not a lab report.
And we're all curious about what others are up to, from the lows of celebrity gossip to research into lives bigger and more interesting by far than our own. I'm long past shallow hero worship; what makes exceptional people tick is fascinating, then instructive. And the more you explore, the more funny, bizarre and astounding things people are capable of you come across.
Bill Peschel, copy editor and page designer at the local Patriot News, has written Writers Gone Wild, full of generally unknown aspects of writers' lives. Creative types' lives are the most interesting to me (vapid celebrities and amoral politicians, not so much), and probably you. They seem to be, when long-suppressed details become known, bigger even than their estimable creations. Badder, too.
Peschel said writing this book cured him of the "pretty notion that art can improve your life...great works are created by unhappy bastards -- Hemingway, O'Hara, Rhys -- and it didn't improve their lives one bit."
One story, though, is just good fun and, a hundred years later, still makes you grin.
Like Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf's life arced from a promising beginning to a desperate end. But before she was Woolf, she was Virginia Stephen, one of the brilliant Bloomsbury Group. In 1910, she and five others pulled a prank on the Royal Navy: they wangled an invitation to board the fleet flagship, HMS Dreadnought, posing as a royal delegation from Abyssinia (picture above -- note the darkened skin). They spoke gibberish, exclaiming "Bunga bunga!" to show their appreciation of modern things. An officer familiar with Virginia didn't recognize her! The Navy was mighty embarrassed, but the imposters hadn't broken any law, and they got away with it.
Later, during World War I, after the Dreadnought had rammed a German submarine, some wag sent a congratulatory telegram which read "Bunga bunga!"


  1. Probably your interest in creative types is they use their time to be creative. Have fun, not producing product for someone else.
    A friend of mine and I went into a new establishment. We sat at the bar. The bartenderess asked what we wanted. We spoke to her in Swedish. Great time for a couple of hours. Even got some phone numbers out of it.