The longest goodbye

Long Embrace (photo)Freeman, Judith. The long embrace : Raymond Chandler and the woman he loved. New York: Pantheon, 2007.

The subtitle pretty much covers it in this by turns revelatory and frustrating chronicle of tough author Raymond Chandler’s relationship with his much senior wife Cissy. It was a classic case of a most unlikely romance. They met in California soon after the end of WW1. He was working as an oil company executive, in reality little more than a glorified accountant. She was then into a second marriage which she eventually left in 1920. Chandler’s mother, whom he took care of and financially supported, disapproved of Cissy thus Chandler demurred from marrying her until his mother’s passing four years later.

The whimsical, theatrical Cissy was a curious choice for the wafty, über-Anglophile Raymond, who was born in Chicago but raised and educated in England. Cissy grew up in rural Ohio and moved to New York at twenty, where her free spirited ways included modeling for nude photographs, the same impulse of which may have expressed itself later in her fondness for doing housekeeping chores unclothed. Along the way she adopted the more modish appellation ‘Cissy,’ her birth name having been the singularly unstylish Pearl Eugenie Hurlburt. Upon her arrival in California she continued her bohemian ways, and her genuine artistic talents included being a fair amateur pianist. It all made for quite the contrast to the reclusive, rather cool Chandler.

Cissy had the habit of gradually taking years off her age as she got older. Her fetching looks and buoyant energy helped sell the deception. It’s been speculated that Chandler thought her to be at least ten years younger than her actual age at the time of their marriage, and some sources suggest he never knew her real age.

Cissy Chandler photo
As a result of erratic work habits, among them drunkenness and a roving eye, Chandler was sacked from his plum job in 1933. In a lean but by all accounts happy decade for them in the 1930s he supported himself and Cissy by writing short stories for Black Mask and other magazines. Then Chandler hit the big leagues with the first Philip Marlowe novel The Big Sleep in 1939, after which one success followed another. Curiously, Cissy never much cared for his tales. But no matter. Chandler suddenly found himself a literary luminary, one of the spoils being lucrative if sporadic work as a screenwriter. This led to other rewards, of a type, mostly temptations in the form of secretaries and starlets, temptations to which Chandler sometimes succumbed.

Chandler spent much of the late Forties and early Fifties caring for Cissy, who by that time was in frail health. Their ill-advised trip to London in 1952 only made matters worse. Cissy passed on in December 1953 and in one sense Chandler also died then, even if it took five years of steady drinking for the physical demise to catch up. His final years were an uneasy combination of basking in celebrity status, visits to London, writing what barely passed for a final novel, and half-hearted attempts at liaisons with women, all experienced through a perpetual alcoholic haze. He died in March 1959, and his funeral was attended by seventeen people.

Chandler left instructions that his and Cissy’s letters be destroyed. The lacuna is one of the maddening aspects of Chandler scholarship, and it’s been the bane of biographers to otherwise explain a tough guy’s devoted loyalty – after a fashion – to a woman eighteen years his senior. Freeman offers no definitive explanations but gives us tantalizing glimpses, clues, and most of all, atmosphere, inevitably focusing on the city Chandler/Marlowe loved to hate, Los Angeles.

If I always knew what I meant, I’d be a genius – Raymond Chandler

An avowed Chandler obsessive – she calls him ‘Ray’ in the book – Freeman gives us a portrait that’s more mood piece and meditation than conventional biography, much less literary criticism. She lovingly describes her dutiful pilgrimages to the more than 30 homes and apartments where Chandler and Cissy lived in Southern California. She also recounts more spartan sleuthing at UCLA and the Chandler Archives at the Bodleian Library at Oxford (all 83 boxes).

The Long Embrace’s many pluses include the author’s smooth prose and the well chosen, in many cases not so familiar, photographs, several taken by the author herself. However – lots of sources are tossed about in the text and while there’s the obligatory acknowledgments section we’ve nary a footnote, not even a general bibliography.

Nonetheless Freeman weaves a beguiling, well nigh irresistible tale, presenting her story much like a twisty-turny mystery novel. Her prose is so good we sense the long shadow of Chandler hovering over her and creeping into her writing. This passage, for example, which might have rolled off the pen of the great man himself:

… or do you just make a fantasy world and a man named Marlowe and live with him thereraymond chandler photo 3 for much of the time, looking for that one male friend you never had? It’s a place to go anyway. A place to hide out and be your best self, away from all the needy good women. There you can meet real female foes, and sex sirens, blonde bombshells, ladies who can’t get enough, and you can be the one to tell them to get lost. You can have the bon mot for every occasion.

Then this, albeit less Marlowesque, observation:

Perhaps he may also have had longings for men. Women were so complicated. Men were comfortably simple in comparison, and a man’s world is an emotionally safe world.

In sum, The Long Embrace is a terrific book and Chandler buffs will lap it up like catnip. It gives us greater insight into Chandler’s psyche but in its way also renders him more of an enigma than ever.

Further reading : Michael Dirda, Raymond Chandler, gritty enchanter,Times Literary Supplement 26 Oct 2012 ; Raymond Chandler (the hard-boiled Proust): A Mysterious Something in the Light ; Dilys Powell, “Ray and Cissy.” In: The World of Raymond Chandler. Ed. Miriam Gross. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977), 81-87.

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“People in our line of work don’t retire”

memory photo 1The Memory of a Killer. Sony Pictures Classics, 2006. Original title: De zaak Alzheimer. Erik Van Looy, director; Erwin Provoost & Hilde de Delaere, producers ; Carl Joos & Erik Van Looy, screenwriters. Based on the novel by Jef Geeraerts. Originally released as a motion picture in 2005. Performers: Jan Decleir, Koen De Bouw, Werner De Smedt, Jo De Meyere. Summary: International hit man Angelo Ledda decides to retire after he begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s. He reluctantly accepts one last job, but when learning one target is a teenage girl, he breaks the deal. Dramatic repercussions follow.

style ****
substance ****

As portrayed in the popular media the proverbial sympathetic assassin is often more likeable than his marks. This is partially explained by the had-it-coming quality of the victims: pornographers, mafia chieftains, drug kingpins, fellow hit men (only sleazier), war criminals, brutal dictators, and so on. As our title character puts it so well, if over-simplistically, he actually helps the police by ridding the world of the bad guys.

Films like Prizzi’s Honor, The Whole Nine Yards, Day of the Jackal, The Professional, and Matador, other movies too, I suppose, have flirted with the unlikely theme of the hired killer as quasi-hero. And true to the tradition, our (anti)hero in Memory of a Killer engages our sympathies even while committing some unpalatable transgressions, killing a couple of good guys among them. But there are mitigating factors: he suffers from oncoming Alzheimer’s Disease, a most inconvenient affliction in his line. We also admire his professional, and humanistic, standards – he doesn’t kill children, and his mantra ‘you don’t touch children’ plays an important part in the story’s thread.

In one sense Memory is just a good mystery thriller with a bit of a twist at the end. But in other ways it’s so much more. The best assassin movies are as much about character as anything else and Memory does not disappoint. In its deceptively brisk 123 minutes it explores many shadings of character good, bad & in between, and in best noir-esque fashion reveals – or perhaps obscures – the murky nuances of individuals on both sides of the law. A nicely handled American style inter-departmental turf war subplot adds texture to the proceedings.

One reviewer compares this film with El Secreto de Sus Ojos and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the comparisons are apropos: the crime thriller genre executed with European pacing and tone which emphasizes inner and not outer action.

A Belgian production made with limited resources put to maximum use, Memory’s cast and technical values are first rate. Jan Decleir, perhaps best known to American audiences as the ruthless bailiff in Character, here is cast in much the same mold: a dedicated, world weary pro with his own sense of honor. Decleir is just plain terrific, his marvelous take on the role serving as the glue that holds the film’s narrative together. Other nice performances abound: Koen De Bouw’s intense, no-nonsense lead investigator; Werner De Smedt as De Bouw’s wise-guy sidekick; and Jo De Meyere as the nervous industrialist who has shady secrets. Deborah Ostrega’s high class call girl and Lone van Roosendaal’s scrumptious, not-so-grieving widow add fetching support.

There’s not a lot new here but the tried and true formula has seldom been presented so effectively. A minor masterpiece then with more than a hint of Law and Order, just better, lots better, Memory will keep your interest and nudge you to root for the right side to come out on top. In sum, it’s that all too rare species in modern cinematic fare: a police thriller with a heart.

Memory photo 2

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I recently came across a discussion of the use of the term ‘smoked.’ It got me to thinking about its offshoots smoking, and even more so, smokin’. I like the term very much but per usual my curiosity took over: how did the phrase come about and when did its usage begin? Well, some unofficial evidence suggests it’s been around at least since ca. 1990, when Jim Carey favored us, in quintessentially most unsubtle manner, with: SSSSMOOKIN !!!!!! in the movie The Mask.

In any case the most common current usage is the phrase smokin’ hot. Even a cursory perusal of the Web confirms this to be the case, the term usually used to describe a young or youngish female who possesses considerable physical enticements and/or dresses very stylishly (read: in a sexy way). And yes, sometimes it’s used to describe a male. I also like its less frequently used sibling fever hotThere’s also the, however tenuously, related usage of ‘to smoke,’ similar to ‘to scorch’, i.e. to defeat decisively: “The Packer receivers smoked/scorched the Browns defense for lots of yardage.”

Digression: since the proverbial practice we call the euphemism, discussed elsewhere on this blog, softens the blow of the message, then a phrase like ‘smoking hot’ seems to do the opposite, i.e. exaggerating or intensifying the meaning or message to be conveyed. I suppose the term for the opposite of euphemism is the durable hyperbole, thus its closely related sibling hype. Now that I think of it there’s quite a gallery of hype/hyperbole which employs smoke or heat imagery: ‘his star burns bright’; ‘to burn out’; ‘he’s on fire’; ‘red hot’; ‘she looks hot.’

No smokin’ please, we’re British

Finding the historical evolution of the term, however, is a challenge. The redoubtable Oxford English Dictionary opines with a predictably dry definition that doesn’t even address the current practice:

b. quasi-adv. in smoking-hot.

1816   M. Keating Trav. (1817) I. 219   The paunch of a goat..cut out, and applied..smoking hot, to the part.
1842   S. Lover Handy Andy xxi,   Where tea and coffee, toast and muffins,..were all smoking-hot together.

Paunch of a goat indeed! A long way from a hot girl in a red dress … But we get closer to the mark, in a vague sort of way, with the phrase ‘the smoking gun,’ and here the OED is on much more solid, and comfortable, footing, offering a wealth of historical detail in the process:

1. Emitting or giving out smoke. Also fig., spec. as smoking gun, smoking pistol (U.S.), a piece of incontrovertible incriminating evidence.

c1374   Chaucer tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. (1868) i. metr. iv. 12   Þe vnstable mountaigne þat hyȝt veseuus, þat wircheþ oute..smokyng fires.
1382   Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) Matt. xii. 20   He shal nat quenche smokynge flax.
c1400   Pilgr. Sowle (1483) iii. vii. 55   The forneis was al enflammed with smokyng fyre.
1592   T. Kyd Spanish Trag. i. sig. A2,   Ere Sol had..slakte his smoaking Charriot in her floud.
1611   R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues,   Fumeau, a brand, or smoaking sticke.
a1684   J. Evelyn Diary anno 1666 (1955) III. 458   Clambring over mountaines of yet smoking rubbish.
1781   Gibbon Decline & Fall (1787) III. xxx. 171   The prospect of the smoking ruins.
1815   Scott Guy Mannering I. viii. 124   This day have ye quenched seven smoking hearths.
1894   A. Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes 93   The chaplain stood with a smoking pistol in his hand.
1387   J. Trevisa tr. R. Higden Polychron. (Rolls) VII. 331   Lanfrank..despisede þe smokynge..speche of mysbyleved men.
1587   R. Greene Euphues sig. C4,   Hir heart offred smoaking thoughtes to Venus.
a1698   W. Row Suppl. in R. Blair Life Robert Blair (1848) x. 171   Our smoking desires for a more strict union..did break forth into a vehement flame.
1974   New Yorker 21 Oct. 135/1   Some are still searching for what has come to be termed ‘the murder weapon’—or ‘the smoking gun’—the definitive piece of evidence that the President committed a crime.
1975   Collier’s Year Bk. 10/2   After the new transcripts were disclosed..members of Congress abandoned Nixon in droves. ‘I guess we have found the smoking pistol, haven’t we?’ asked Representative Barber Conable.
1976   Woodward & Bernstein Final Days 269   Buzhardt felt that here was a potential smoking gun.
1976   Woodward & Bernstein Final Days 271   He had heard the President approve the plan, he had heard him suggest the exact wording. Buzhardt had found the ‘smoking pistol’. He had heard the President load it, aim and fire.
1977   Time (Atlantic ed.) 19 Sept. 24/2   In fact, there may well be no ‘smoking gun’—no incontrovertible, black-and-white evidence of wrongdoing by Lance.
1979   N.Y. Times 12 Jan. D14   We haven’t got a smoking pistol. Unfortunately, everyone is zeroing in on this as a cause, but the case isn’t that strong.

I’m especially fond of these two entries:

1587   R. Greene Euphues sig. C4,   Hir heart offred smoaking thoughtes to Venus.
a1698  W. Row Suppl. in R. Blair Life Robert Blair (1848) x. 171   Our smoking desires for a more strict union..did break forth into a vehement flame.

… which seem to anticipate the current definition of ‘smoking.’ Otherwise one searches in vain throughout the genteel OED for smoking hot in the modern sense.

As a contrast, the Online Slang Dictionary does not disappoint, predictably providing more colorful examples:

adjective   Very good, superb
“Chick got some smokin’ head.”
“This weed is smokin’.”

However … sometimes such spicy phrases can have unexpected confluences and connections. See here and here for examples. The latter source puts it so well: “Naturally, as with most debates about language, there aren’t any black-and-white answers—just a lot of strongly held and earnest opinions and points of view.”

Ultimately whichever brand we may … smoke, I leave you with a thought all writers might take to heart: that is, put pen to paper and produce some smokin’ hot text!

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Lulu in Hollywood (book review)

Lulu in Hollywood photo 1Brooks, Louise. Lulu in Hollywood. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Introduction by Kenneth Tynan. Originally published: New York : Knopf, 1982. Contents: Kansas to New York; On location with Billy Wellman; Marion Davies’ niece; Humphrey and Bogey; The other face of W.C. Fields; Gish and Garbo; Pabst and Lulu.

style ****
substance ****

An upcoming screening of Pandora’s Box here inspired me to check out Louise Brooks’ Lulu in Hollywood. And while I’m skeptical of film star autobiographies – being as they are of selective memory and frequently ghost written, and not very well at that – I nonetheless thought Lulu worth a try [1]. And I’m very happy I did give it a try.

Actually Lulu is not strictly a biography, though it contains reminiscences and biographical elements. Rather, it’s a stylish and perceptive, but most of all pungently honest, series of essays Brooks wrote for Sight and Sound, Film Culture and various other publications in the 1970s. Like the actress herself, Lulu in Hollywood has gotten plenty of attention over the years from critics and commentators. Still, I knew after reading just a few paragraphs that I needed to pen my own, possibly redundant thoughts.

Paraphrasing William Shawn in his Introduction to the 1982 edition, it may come as a surprise that an iconic film actress can write so well. I would up the ante and add that Louise wrote brilliantly and with a cranky incisiveness that would make Dorothy Parker envious.

Her literary polish and analytical bent should come as no surprise  – she read everything from Shopenhauer to Edith Wharton on the set – and further confirms that she indeed was that rare creature in Golden Age Hollywood: a film star who was an intellectual. It all figured into her complex psychological mix, which was very much at odds with the movie star gestalt and contributed to her eventual, one might say inevitable, excommunication in the early Thirties.

Louise Brooks photo
But perhaps Louise got in the proverbial last laugh by virtue of the public’s rediscovery of her work a half century later and especially through these alternatingly terse and florid reminiscences and impressions. Like so much about the Louise Brooks persona onscreen and off, there’s something fresh, timely – and timeless – in the pages of Lulu in Hollywood. This passage, for example, singled out by Shawn in his introduction, in which she wistfully considers her approach life:

And so I have remained, in cruel pursuit of truth and excellence, an inhumane executioner of the bogus, an abomination to all but those few people who have overcome their aversion to truth in order to free whatever is good in them.

Wow! Now that’s a sentence. Then this from the chapter “Humphrey and Bogey,” in which she disses Bogart’s tough guy image:

Being myself a born loner, who was temporarily deflected from the hermit’s path by a career in the theatre and films, I can state categorically that in Bogart’s time there was no other occupation in the world that so closely resembled enslavement as that of a film star.

The book is full of similar gems of style and, more important, stunningly perceptive insight. The only regret is that she didn’t turn her talents to writing fiction. Had she penned even one novel, much like the woman herself it would have been something to behold.

[1] One film star autobiography that’s a notable exception is Errol Flynn’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways, considered elsewhere on this blog.

Further reading : Recommended read: Lulu in Hollywood ; Dan Callhan, Louise Brooks: The Martyrdom of Lulu.

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Worldly wise

woman of the world   n.  (a) a secular woman, a laywoman; (b) (now the usual sense) a woman who is experienced in the ways of life or the conventions of society, freq. expressed by a pragmatic or down-to-earth attitude.

a1470 Malory Morte Darthur (Winch. Coll. 13) (1990) II. 995   The grettist parte of thys gurdyll was made of my hayre, whych somme tyme I loved well, whyle that I was woman of the worlde.
1616   T. Gainsford Rich Cabinet sig. Z8v,   A man must not onely beware of vnhonest and filthy talke, but also of that which is base and vile, for example, to scratch the scabbes of sinne, to name weomen of the world scuruy whores.
1780   F. Burney Diary Apr. (1904) I. vii. 328   She is an easy, chatty, sensible woman of the world.
1822   M. Edgeworth Let. 10 Apr. (1971) 393   Lady Clare is a painted—made up—vulgar thorough going woman of the world.
1844   A. W. Kinglake Eothen viii. 125   Presently, (though with all the skill of a woman of the world,) she shuffled away the subject.
1900   Public Opinion 4 Jan. 15/1   The members of this order are women of the world, of any denomination, without special vows.
1973   J. Porter It’s Murder with Dover xii. 119   They were hardened women of the world and knew a cheap skate when they saw one.
2001   Daily Mail (Nexis) 6 Dec. 56   She is a rich, experienced woman of the world, who makes a healthy living by exploiting her beauty and sex-appeal.

    ‘Woman of the world’ Oxford English Dictionary Online. [Woman  P2. Connected by a preposition with another noun. Part B.]

That kind of woman

In a recent post I used the phrase ‘woman of the world,’ then immediately cast a pinch of doubt into the mix by asking: what exactly is a woman of the world? This question leads to the more important consideration: how, and when, did the saying come about? The OED entry above gives us a useful if selective historical progression. Whatever the ultimate answers, it’s another of those delicious euphemisms that conjures up all sorts of associations, depending on, among other things, one’s point of view and life experience. For better or worse, I always think of Pamela Harriman as the ultimate incarnation of the idea.

Thus my own take: an affluent (usually unattached) woman of fiftyish-plus years who is well educated, has traveled widely, possesses immense social skills and whose persona suggests the sexual adventuress, also one who is not taken in easily by charm or deception. [Not that far off really from OED’s more genteel definition above].

And lest I be accused of sexism, what about the saying ‘man of the world’? I’ve come across it less frequently, and in any event the phrase doesn’t carry the same emotional charge as its female counterpart, at least not for me.

In stark contrast with its more weighty sibling above, the gives us this pitifully bland offering: man (or woman) of the world  A person who is experienced in the ways of sophisticated society.

The Mirriam-Webster dishes up a similarly innocuous: 1 a sophisticated or worldly woman; 2 a woman of the world of fashion or high life.

But the Urban Dictionary chimes in with a predictably more colorful, and more contemporary, spin:

Woman of the world

That one girl at every party, bar, workplace, school, etc. that everyone stares at while she walks by because of her beauty.
Every guy is afraid to approach her because of her amazing looks, and the fear of instant rejection; But every once in a while a brave man will approach her, but be warned you should be a master of flirting if you even want 5 seconds with her.
Some common traits of a woman of the world is always in the latest high brand fashions, a love for sunglasses, a love for any type of accent, and usually a gay friend; But these traits may differ girl to girl.

Well, whatever its merits, Urban’s take is quite a bit hipper – and younger – than mine. Thus the conclusion from my initial research: ‘woman of the world’ is one of those common sayings we know the meaning of (more or less), but like so many examples in the brave world of euphemisms, things are a bit murky on exactly how the saying came about.

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The closest embrace

twelve minutes photo 1Kassabova, Kapka. Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story. London, Portobello Books, 2011. Summary: After a decade-long love affair with the dance, Kapka uses her personal story to open up the hidden world of tango, with its aficionados and desperados, its endless practice and its fleeting passions.

style ****
substance ****

‘Tango was invented by people with too much desire’

The mystery and mystique of the worldwide subculture we call tango has never been dealt with so eloquently or accessibly – if a trifle self-indulgently – as in Kassabova’s sinuously readable tome, which might be described as a combination travelogue and memoir with a pinch of psychoanalysis.

Kapka, who’s written eight non-tango books and now lives in Scotland, has a backstory as fascinating and international as her decade long obsession with el tango. She migrated from Bulgaria as a child with her family in the early 1990s to New Zealand, where she wandered into a tango café one summer night in Auckland in 2000 and her life changed forever. Twelve Minutes is the impressionistic account of her ten years of travel and self-discovery, but mostly of her immersion in the darkness and light of tango.

My goodness, can this lady write! Her sweaty, heavy breathing prose flows off the pen like pearls languishing through olive oil on a summer night, the hothouse style a perfect match for the murky, dusky world of tango.

A quibble or two: the brief glossary of terms, as well as the pausas interspersed throughout the text, are a welcome compensation, but there’s no index or reading list. More pictures would also have been a plus. But who cares, when confronted with such scrumptious passages like:

All Latin American dance, and all couple dance around the world and through the ages, celebrates happiness through the human body … Moving to it makes you laugh and forget your troubles.

Not so with the tango. The tango is about your troubles. It’s where you go to process your troubles. Tango is one big trouble with a twenty-four hour soundtrack. Tango reminds you that if you don’t currently have troubles of a romantic, existential, financial or any other kind – well, sooner or later you will. The good news is, tango makes trouble exciting.

Then, a few chapters later, this revelation during a visit to the Third Congreso Internacional del Tango Argentino:

To those who form a dance couple, the external world is not an audience – it’s a rumor, a murmur, a backdrop to the main event of whatever happens between two people who are dancing together.

This is the most important lesson I’ve learnt. The authentic tango experience is an exclusive space that only includes you and your dance partner, whoever it is, and for however long. In this sense partner dancing is like lovemaking.

But, be warned: only in this sense. If, God forbid, you get things mixed up, if your brain gets scrambled by this exclusivity – as it invariably will – well, then you’re doomed. As doomed as I was.

And this:

Tango looks like the dance of love. It feels like the dance of love. It sings of love. Love is tango’s ultimate carrot. But try to take the song outside the dance hall and you’ll end up with the stick.


Conversation ruins an exceptional dance, because an exceptional dance already contains all the conversation you need.

And similar nuggets follow on every page.

Twelve Minutes of Love is classified as fiction by libraries – will one ever understand the hearts and minds of library catalogers? But as the man said I digress. Perhaps author Kassabova has followed the time-honored practice of changing a few names and places to protect the guilty, and thus the book takes on a fictional patina. Whatever. The important thing is the story, personal and deeply felt, populated with colorful characters, events and history, and devastatingly honest.

Further reading: Lucy Walton, Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story by Kapka Kassbova (interview).

twelve minutes photo 2

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Brief candles : Samson Francois (1924-1970)

SamsonFrancoisphoto1Samson Francois, 1924-1970. Netherlands : Philips Classics, 1999. Works by Bach-Busoni, Chopin, Mozart, Schumann, Fauré, Debussy, Prokofiev, Ravel. [Great Pianists of the 20th Century, v28].

“I am not lying. I am living out my imagination.”
 – Samson Francois.

“I’d rather sit well at a bad piano, than sit poorly at a good one.” – Samson Francois

style ****
substance ***1/2

Samson de la nuit

When Samson Francois was good he was very good indeed, and when he was not so good he was … well, at least perversely fascinating. The present Great Pianists CD presents a nice cross section of his many strengths – and occasional weaknesses – as an interpreter and offers evidence that he was very good most of the time.

Francois’s playing might be described as free, almost whimsical and improvisatory, with a fondness for alternatingly sprightly and slowish tempos that somehow always hung together and made sense. Short version: virtuoso playing at the service of a subtle and imaginative intelligence.

Francois’s musical gifts were apparent at an early age: he gave his first recital at six. His studies included lessons with Yvonne Lefébure at the Ecole Normale de Musique and classes at the Paris Conservatoire with Marguerite Long. He proved an apt if not always easy pupil. Mme. Long admitted the young Samson was the only student she ever slapped, and when she later reminded him of the incident, he said: “Madame, it was a privilege to be the only one.”

Mme. Long’s rebuke did nothing to stem the momentum of Francois’s career, which included awards and first prizes in competitions. By the post-WWII years he was already recognized as one of the premier performing musicians in France.

It’s no surprise he was at his best playing the music of composers of his homeland. Chopin too, which he played in a delicate, nuanced, eminently French manner. Happily his recorded output was fairly large, and enthusiasts have in turn uploaded a ton of Francois onto YouTube. I recommend Chopin and Fauré, as a start anyway.

Samson Francois photo 2Francois the man was as mercurial and colorful as his playing. He was what one might dub the original bad boy of French classical music, and his undisciplined ways included a taste for the high life that – as one critic put it – made Arthur Rubinstein look like a wallflower [1]. One of his favorite extra-curricular activities was the frequenting of jazz clubs, and the jazz influence may partially account for his picaresque interpretations. His was also a composer of some note, and his compositions include a concerto for piano and orchestra and incidental music for film.

Alas, Francois’s free spirited ways eventually caught up with him. Constant travel, concertizing and recording sessions also figured into the mix. Photographs taken during the last decade of his life reveal the gradual erosion of his once film star looks and give us an idea of the toll that was piling up on his body and psyche.

Samson Francois photo (Scarbo)It seems appropriate then that he would make his exit in most untimely fashion: he collapsed during recording sessions for a complete traversal of the works of Debussy and succumbed to a heart attack soon after. Dying with his boots on as it were. He was forty-six years old.

Francois was such an individualist both as an artist and human being that it’s nearly impossible to place him in a school or tradition, the generally Gallic flavor of his playing notwithstanding. The one performing artist he might be compared with was the eccentric Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Their interpretive similarities included elegance, transparency, and absolute technical command. They were both at their best in Debussy, Ravel and Chopin, less effective in the heavier German repertoire [2]. Also there was a vague physical resemblance. Ultimately both had an unapologetic, take-it-or-leave-it attitude as to lifestyle and, more important, their performances and basic approach to their craft.

Through greater familiarity via the Web and recordings, coupled with the sheer force of his personality, Francois’s reputation has been creeping up in critical and popular esteem to where he nudges for a spot in the pantheon of the century’s great keyboard masters as is witnessed by his inclusion in the above-referenced collection. Also his name has been listed in the Gramophone Hall of Fame. He was certainly was of the most original and creative performing artists of the Twentieth Century.

[1] John Bell Young, “Samson Francois,” American Record Guide, Sep/Oct99, v62n5, p290.

[2] There were differences as well. Arguably the more severe interpreter, Michelangeli was reclusive and mysterious in his private life. By contrast Francois, the gregarious man-about-town, took a freer approach to his life and art.

Samson Francois photo 3

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