A Bally Happy Birthday to P. G. Wodehouse!

The wonderfully talented and impossibly prolific P. G. Wodehouse was born 134 years ago today in Guildford, 27 miles southwest of central London. He was educated at Dulwich College (as was Raymond Chandler, as it happens) and after a short stint working at a bank, he turned to writing humorous fiction, a change in direction for which readers around the world should be eternally grateful.

P. G. Wodehouse’s best-remembered characters are the affable but dim upper-cruster Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, but he created many other memorable and recurring characters, among them Psmith, Lord Emsworth and Mr Mulliner.

P. G. Wodehouse quote

In the early 1900s, he composed lyrics for songs Jerome Kern was writing for shows at London’s Aldwych Theatre. A decade later, he achieved success on Broadway in collaboration with writer Guy Bolton and a number of composers, including Kern.

The 1930s saw Wodehouse achieve his greatest success as a writer, but because he was splitting his time between England and the United States, he had tax troubles, which he solved by moving to a house near Le Touquet, France. As the Germans advanced through northern France the spring of 1940, Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, tried to drive to Portugal, from which they intended to fly to the United States, but they experienced car trouble and had to return to their home.

Wodehouse was imprisoned by the Nazis, first in a prison near Lille, and later in Tost (then in Germany, now known as Toszek in Poland). Public pressure was put on the Nazis to release Wodehouse but to no avail. His internment lasted until June 21 1941, not long before his sixtieth birthday, when he was sent to the Hotel Adlon in Berlin. Soon thereafter, Wodehouse perhaps unwisely took part in five broadcasts to the United States via German radio, along with the the Berlin-based correspondent of the Columbia Broadcast System. Wodehouse seems to have seen these broadcasts as something of a lark—they were humorous commentaries entitled How to be an Internee Without Previous Training—but many in England and elsewhere saw Wodehouse as collaborating with the enemy and the broadcasts created quite an uproar.

Wodehouse tried to return to England to repair the damage and explain his participation in the broadcasts, but he was not allowed to leave Berlin. He later wrote, “Of course I ought to have had the sense to see that it was a loony thing to do to use the German radio for even the most harmless stuff, but I didn’t. I suppose prison life saps the intellect.”

The Wodehouses didn’t manage to leave German until September 1943, when they were allowed to go to Nazi-occupied Paris. They were residing there when the city was liberated on August 25, 1944. Finally, in April 1947, they sailed for New York. They felt oddly uncomfortable in New York City, a town that had suited them well in earlier decades, and eventually made their home in Southhampton on Long Island. Though Ethel returned at least once to England, in 1948, P. G. remained in the U.S. after 1947 and he never again set foot in England.

In 1975, it was announced that Wodehouse was to be awarded knighthood, in the same honours list as Charlie Chaplin. All was finally forgiven.

Thankfully, P. G. Wodehouse is remembered today for his wonderful work, not his wartime missteps. He wrote upwards of ninety books, forty plays, two hundred short stories and other works between 1902 and 1974. He died of a heart attack on Valentine’s Day, 1975, in a Southhampton hospital.

Happy birthday, Mr. Wodehouse, wherever you may be, and what ho!

Happy Birthday, Django Reinhardt!

Today marks the 104th anniversary of the birth of the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. He was born in Belgium and lived in Romani (gypsy) encampments near Paris after the age of eight. As a child, he played violin, banjo and guitar, but it was as a guitarist that he made an indelible mark.

His accomplishments may be viewed as all the remarkable given he was burned in a fire at the age of 18, causing the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand to be paralyzed. Thereafter he had to concoct his own unique fingerings for creating chords on the guitar.

As a young musician, Django came under the influence of Louis Armstrong and other jazz musicians, and his musical path was set. Around this time he met violinist Stephane Grappelli, with whom he would soon form the influential combo, the Quintette du Hot Club de France.

Django toured the US in the autumn of 1946 as a guest soloist with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, but he soon returned to France as some promised solo gigs on the West Coast failed to pan out.

In 1951, he retired to Samois-sur-Seine, near Fontainebleau, though he continued to play gigs in Paris. He was intrigued by bebop and began to incorporate its vocabulary into his playing.

He died of a brain hemorrhage walking home from the Avon train station following a Saturday night gig. He was just 43.

Here’s an all-too-brief clip of Django performing his two-fingered, five-stringed magic:

Formerly Famous: Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs

Many a 1930s screwball comedy mined the eccentricities of the well-to-do, but it’s hard to imagine even the most imaginative screenwriter coming up with a character as eccentric as Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs.

Carstairs, a ballyhooed champion speedboat racer in the speed-crazed 1920’s, wasn’t memorable merely for being the fastest woman on water. Her visible tattoos, penchant for cigars, and preference for men’s clothing ensured she stood out in a crowd.

Born in London in 1900, Carstairs inherited her wealth from her maternal grandfather, Jabez Abel Bostwick, a founder of the Standard Oil Company. Given her family’s financial standing—not to mention the influence and power that accompanied it—it’s perhaps not surprising that Carstairs’ approach to life was adventurous, her personality brash and self-assured.

Living in Paris in her teens, Carstairs had her first lesbian experience, about which she later remarked, “My God, what a marvelous thing. I found it a great pity I’d waited so long.” Soon thereafter, she took part in an affair with Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s niece.

Carstairs served as an ambulance driver in France during World War I before traveling to Dublin to join the Women’s Legion Mechanical Transport Section. She returned to France following the signing of the Armistice to help to rebury the war dead as a member of the Royal Army Service Corps.

Carstairs returned to London to launch an all-female chauffeur service called the X-Garage in 1920 before selling that concern and turning her focus to speedboat racing.

Carstairs won a handful of championships in the 1920s, including the prestigious Duke of York’s Trophy, the Royal Motor Yacht Club international race, and the Lucina Cup. “I liked the boats,” Carstairs said. “I liked the way they behaved. I understood them.”

Carstairs earned the respect of her male counterparts in the world of speed-racing, and she proved to be a supportive and generous friend to many. Sir Malcolm Campbell, who held the world speed record on land and on water at various times in the 1920s and ‘30s, is said to have described Carstairs as “the greatest sportsman I know.”

Though she lived openly as a lesbian, Carstairs married her old friend Count Jacques de Pret in 1918 in order to gain access to her trust fund and appease her drug-addicted, adulterous mother, Frances Evelyn Bostwick, who disapproved of her daughter’s sexual proclivities. Upon Evelyn’s death, though, the marriage was annulled on grounds of non-consummation.

Carstairs bedded dozens of women in her life—among them, reportedly, actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich—but avoided long-term romantic attachments. It was said she kept a photographic file of 120 of the women she’d slept with, but her life’s companion was Lord Tod Wadley, a stuffed leather doll 12 inches in height that was a gift from a girlfriend in 1925.

What fostered Carstairs’ attachment to Lord Wadley is unclear, but she was rarely without him and even had tailored clothing made for him on Saville Row.

In 1934, Carstairs purchased Whale Cay (pronounced “key”)—a small island 30 miles northwest of Nassau and 90 miles east of Miami—for the sum of $40,000. She moved there and set up what might be described as a relatively benign fiefdom.

Quickly making the island her own, Carstairs hired locals from her own and neighboring islands to clear away vegetation and build an extravagant plantation that boasted a huge house for herself and her guests as well as small cabins for her workers, a dock, a school, a church, a fish cannery, and a general store.

Carstairs also undertook a reworking of the island’s social structure. New laws were created according to her whims (adultery and alcohol were outlawed), she took for herself the right and privilege to name all the island’s newborns, and she formed a private militia—complete with uniforms and machetes—to enforce these laws.

Shortly after arriving on Whale Cay, Carstairs had impressed the locals, many of whom were adherents of a form of voodoo known as obeah, by throwing a knife so skillfully she cut off the head of a snake several yards away. Many of the island’s residents also attributed special powers to Lord Wadley, so it’s not difficult to understand how Carstairs came so quickly to assume an almost royal role on the island.

Carstairs, who played host at Whale Key to many famous friends over the years (among them the Duke and Duchess of Windsor), was often seen by the island’s longtime residents riding about on her motorcycle, with the ever-present Lord Wadley strapped in behind her.

In 1975, long since out of the public eye and afflicted with failing health, Carstairs sold Whale Key, thereafter dividing her time between Miami and Long Island. When she died in 1993, her beloved Lord Wadley was cremated and buried along with her.

This story originally appeared in the Spring/Fall 2012 issue of Zelda, the Magazine of the Vintage Nouveau.

Still Changing After All These Years

“It’ll be a great place if they ever finish it.”
—O. Henry, on New York City

In 1929, photographer Berenice Abbott returned to the United States from Paris, where she’d spent eight years, first serving as Man Ray‘s photographic assistant and later establishing her own reputation as a portrait photographer.

She intended to spend only a few weeks in the U.S. but was so taken by the transformation New York City was undergoing, with dozens of tenements and other older buildings being razed to make way for the new skyscrapers that were cropping up all over the Big Apple, that she decided to remain in New York.

She supported herself for some years with portraiture, but she dreamed of documenting the modernization of New York in much the same manner Eugène Atget, a documentary photographer whose work Abbott had championed during her years in Paris, had captured a changing Paris decades earlier.

In 1935, the WPA supplied Abbott with money, a photographic assistant, and a team of nine research assistants. She spent the next four years documenting Depression-era New York.

These resulting images are remarkable in their ability to conjure an earlier time in the life of this most dynamic of cities, for showing modern-day New Yorkers and the city’s visitors just how much the city has changed in the ensuing 75 years. New York City not only doesn’t sleep, it refuses to sit still.

A few years ago, we did a bit of strictly amateur “after” photography to contrast with Abbott’s “before” shots, even as her photographs were an updating of what had come before. Stroll with us through these neighborhoods, all south of 23rd Street; treasure what remains from Abbott’s time and imagine what is still to come.

To view the then-and-now images side by side, just click the thumbnails below.

If you’re intrigued by the above, you’ll find much, much more of Berenice Abbott’s work here.