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5 Artistic Rivalries That Got Ugly

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by Elizabeth Lunday

1. Voltaire exposes Rousseau as a Deadbeat Dad (5 times over?!)

They say you're not paranoid if someone's really out to get you. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was paranoid, but Voltaire was really out to get him, too. The two philosopher/writers started sniping at each other in the 1750s. At the time, Voltaire was an established leader of French philosophical circles and Rousseau (yet to write The Social Contract and Émile) was just a newbie. But the balance of power began to shift when Voltaire moved to Rousseau's native city of Geneva in 1754. Although Rousseau had left Geneva in 1728, he remained devoted to the city's strict Calvinist standards, which included a ban on public plays. So when he heard Voltaire was not only putting on private dramas but also urging city authorities to admit plays into the city, Rousseau wrote an outraged letter condemning theatricals. In return, an annoyed Voltaire wrote to his philosopher friends saying that Rousseau had only criticized the theater because Rousseau had written a bad play.

Rousseau went off the deep end. He dipped his pen in vitriol and scratched out a letter to Voltaire that began, bluntly enough, "I do not like you, sir." He went on to outline all the (perceived) slights he'd received from Voltaire and concluded, "In a word, I hate you." Voltaire thought Rousseau had lost his mind and publicly advised his fellow philosopher a course of soothing baths and restorative broths. Henceforth, Voltaire would miss no opportunity to slam his enemy. He mocked the plots of Rousseau's novels, insinuated Rousseau had inflated his resume, and bashed Rousseau's book Julie as "silly, middle-class, dirty-minded, and boring." Finally, in 1764, Voltaire wielded the most powerful weapon he possessed—a secret about Rousseau he'd picked up in Geneva. Using a pseudonym, Voltaire wrote an open letter accusing Rousseau of abandoning his five children at the door of an orphanage. The accusation was shocking—and true.

Rousseau, in a politician-worthy statement of denial, could only claim, "I have never exposed, or caused to be exposed, any infant at the door of an orphanage." He was telling the truth, but only because the children had been taken inside the orphanage. Further scrambling to justify his actions, Rousseau responded with his book Confessions, now recognized as one of the first true autobiographies. An ugly quarrel, it seems, marked the invention of a new literary form.

2. 100 Years of Attitude: Mario Vargas Llosa punches Gabriel García Márquez in the face

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Colombian Nobel-prize winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez and Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa together helped to revolutionize Spanish-language literature with their forays into magical realism. The two met in 1967 and immediately became inseparable. In 1971, Vargas Llosa wrote a book-length study of García Márquez' work. García Márquez became the godfather of Vargas Llosa's son.

Then, at a 1976 film premiere in Mexico City, García Márquez spotted his pal Vargas Llosa sitting a few rows back and went to greet him.

"Mario!" he exclaimed with open arms, just before Vargas Llosa punched him in the face.

The two authors have neither spoken to, nor seen, each other since. For years, that is all anyone has known about it. What hasn't been known, however, is why. The men have only said the quarrel was "personal." Much of the speculation has focused on politics. (At one time, both were supporters of Fidel Castro, but Vargas Llosa grew disillusioned with the dictator.) Others have suggested Vargas Llosa was jealous of his friend's world fame. But the cold war hit the papers again this January after a Spanish newspaper announced that the 40th-anniversary edition of García Márquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude would include an introduction by Vargas Llosa. Headlines announced that the feud was over—except that it wasn't. García Márquez' literary agent explained that Vargas Llosa had only allowed an out-of-print 1971 essay about García Márquez to be included in the volume. Hardly a reconciliation, but it meant the feud was news once again. And that's when the story behind the Mexico City fight started to come out. Turns out, the quarrel wasn't about literary fame or political leanings. As we all should have guessed, it was about a woman.

The trouble started, sources say, when Vargas Llosa fell madly in love with a Swedish stewardess. He ran off to Stockholm with her, leaving behind his wife, Patricia (who was, incidentally, also his first cousin). Devastated, Patricia went to her husband's best friend for advice. The first thing García Márquez reportedly did was suggest she divorce her husband. Then he "consoled" her. (It has been suggested this "consolation" involved more than a pat on the back.)

Eventually, Vargas Llosa returned home from Sweden and reconciled with his wife. Apparently, Patricia told all. The authors' next encounter was at the theater. After landing his punch, Vargas Llosa supposedly shouted, "How dare you come and greet me after what you did to Patricia in Barcelona!" And while neither author has confirmed this version of the events, the brouhaha has Latin American literary types buzzing yet again.

3. Lillian Hellman vs. Mary McCarthy

One January night in 1980, playwright Lillian Hellman (The Children's Hour, The Little Foxes) sat up in bed while watching The Dick Cavett Show. Novelist and critic Mary McCarthy was on the program discussing books when Cavett asked her which writers she considered overrated. "Lillian Hellman," McCarthy promptly replied. "Everything "¦ every word she writes is a lie, including "˜and' and "˜the.'"

Hellman may have been 74 years old, nearly blind, and unable to walk, but she could still use the telephone. She called her attorney and ordered him to sue McCarthy— along with Cavett, the show's producer, and the station—for $2.25 million in libel. The result was a public slug-fest, with all of America's writers taking sides. Norman Mailer tried to act as a peacemaker via an article in The New York Times, but it only proved to annoy both sides. Hellman even offered to drop the suit if McCarthy publicly apologized, to which McCarthy responded, "But that would be lying."

To the surprise of everyone, including Hellman's attorneys, the New York Supreme Court refused McCarthy's request to dismiss the case on May 10, 1984. Sadly, Hellman didn't have long to enjoy her victory; she died less than two months later. McCarthy, who'd been facing financial ruin, was less than satisfied, complaining, "I didn't want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court." Since then, the case has been remembered in legal circles as raising important free speech issues. As Harper's magazine quipped, "If you can't call Lillian Hellman a liar on national TV, what's the First Amendment all about?"

4. Dueling Pianos: Johann Mattheson almost kills George Frideric Handel

Johann Mattheson met fellow composer George Frideric Handel in 1703, when the 21-year-old Handel moved to Hamburg to take the position of violinist and harpsichordist for the opera-house orchestra. This made Handel something of a young celebrity, but Mattheson was something of a celebrity himself, being a former child prodigy and a popular local composer. The two hung out quite a bit, and Mattheson even gave Handel advice on writing his first opera.

But the friendship hit a roadblock in December 1704, when Mattheson premiered his third opera, Cleopatra. Mattheson not only wrote and conducted the piece but also sang the part of Antonius. (Busy guy, Johann.) During the first three-quarters of the performance, Mattheson was on stage. But half an hour before the end, Antonius commits suicide, which left Mattheson at loose ends. Deciding to take over at the harpsichord, he headed for the orchestra pit and whispered to Handel, then tickling the ivories, to scoot over. A very much miffed Handel refused to give way.

History doesn't note the effect of the musicians' brawl on the performance, but it does record that Mattheson challenged Handel to a duel. According to Mattheson, the two retired to the street, took up swords, and started slashing. Also according to Mattheson, his sword broke when it struck one of Handel's large metal coat buttons, which is the only reason George's life was spared. Either way, Handel went on to bigger and better things (Messiah, for one), while Mattheson remained in Hamburg churning out oratorios. Watching Handel's rise from afar, he once complained that Handel had stolen the melody from one of his operas. (Probably a true charge, actually, as Handel was notorious for "borrowing" melodies.) Finally, toward the end of his life, Mattheson filled his autobiography with stories of his world-famous buddy, taking as much credit as possible for himself.

5. Domed for Failure: Lorenzo Ghiberti vs. Filippo Brunelleschi

The trouble between famed sculptors Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti started in 1401, and, according to some art historians, the Italian Renaissance started then, too. It was the year the two up-and-coming artists were among those asked to enter a competition to design a pair of bronze doors for the baptistery at the Florence Cathedral. Ghiberti ended up getting the job, but the details are debatable. He claimed the committee voted unanimously in his favor, but there's evidence that when officials asked the two artists to work together on the project, Brunelleschi scoffed at the offer and stormed off to Rome to study Classical architecture.
Who would have known, then, that Ghiberti and Brunelleschi would find themselves in competition again in 1418—this time to design a dome for the same cathedral. When the artists displayed their models, it was no contest. Brunelleschi's dome was not only architecturally elegant, it was structurally superior. Ghiberti, however, was the town's golden boy, so while Brunelleschi was given the main responsibility for the project, Ghiberti was awarded the same salary just for assisting.

That's how matters stood at the dome until 1423, just as a major piece of structural support was to begin construction. Armed with a cunning plan, Brunelleschi began complaining of a pain in his side and staggered home to bed. Naturally, the workmen turned to Ghiberti. While the bewildered artist tried to figure out Brunelleschi's model, the supposedly ill artist sat at home issuing reports of his imminent death. Then, miracle of miracles, Brunelleschi made a complete recovery. Rising from his bed a healed man, he inspected Ghiberti's work and announced it a shoddy piece of construction that would cause the entire structure to collapse. He ordered Ghiberti's work demolished and executed his own plans, which elegantly solved the structural problem.

Soon thereafter, Ghiberti was fired from the cathedral project. He never again attempted architecture, concentrating instead on refining his sculptures. Meanwhile, Brunelleschi saw the cathedral completed in 1436. It was the first dome ever built without a supporting frame, the largest dome in existence at the time, and remains the largest masonry dome in the world.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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