CLOSE
Original image

5 Things You Didn't Know About Graham Greene

Original image

I'll start with a full disclosure: Graham Greene is one of my very favorite writers. While his work runs the gamut from weighty explorations of human evil like Brighton Rock to genuinely funny farces like Our Man in Havana, there's just something consistently mesmerizing about his crisp prose and ability to work a moral or philosophical dilemma into even his espionage thriller "entertainments." Let's take a look at five things you might not know about the moralist/novelist:

1. He Wasn't Big on School

Going to boarding school can be tough on anyone, but it was particularly rough for Greene, possibly because his father was his headmaster. Greene's status as an introverted misfit at school led to a number of botched suicide attempts, including drinking chemicals, eating nightshade, and attempting to drown himself in the school's pool after eating handfuls of aspirin.

Obviously none of these attempts worked, so Greene resorted to running away in 1920 at the age of 16. He didn't get too far, though, and when his family regained custody of their wayward son, they sent him to live with a London psychoanalyst for six months. Greene later called this period of psychoanalysis one of the happiest stretches of his life, but it didn't cure him of his suicidal tendencies. Just a few years later he would begin playing Russian roulette after the end of a love affair.

2. Shirley Temple Probably Wasn't Buying Up His Books

Getty Images

Even after his novels started selling well, Greene worked as a freelance journalist, often writing film reviews. One of the films Greene reviewed for the magazine Night and Day was the 1937 Shirley Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie. Greene cut into the movie and its star with characteristic zeal. At one point in the review he wrote, "Her admirersmiddle-aged men and clergymenrespond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire."

Yes, Greene basically theorized that the nine-year-old Temple's appeal was primarily sexual and accused her fans of being dirty old men. No, that didn't sit too well with Temple's managers or her film company, 20th Century Fox. They sued Greene, Night and Day, and the magazine's printers for libel for suggesting that Temple was being trotted out for prurient reasons.

The case ended up in court in March 1938. Greene was to be tried in absentia while he was on assignment in Mexico. Temple's counsel quickly worked out a settlement with the magazine for around 3500 pounds, but because Greene was in Mexico, the judge couldn't extract any cash from him.

Things didn't turn out so well for Night and Day; the huge financial blow helped force the magazine to fold a few months later. Greene did a bit better for himself; the exile in Mexico helped give him the setting for the masterpiece The Power and the Glory.

3. Caribbean Dictators Weren't Huge Fans, Either

Getty Images

When Greene wasn't grappling with Catholicism, he was usually writing about espionage or some sort of political intrigue. This subject matter didn't always win him friends in the countries in which he set his novels. Fidel Castro didn't like the light comic tone of Our Man in Havana because it downplayed just how repressive his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, had been.

Castro's whining was nothing compared to Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier's reaction to The Comedians, Greene's scathing 1966 novel about Duvalier's Haitian regime. The book displays the brutality of Duvalier and the Tonton Macoute, the despot's personal secret police, and Duvalier was none too pleased to have his dirty laundry aired by such a well-known novelist.

Duvalier launched an unsuccessful counteroffensive by going on a pamphlet-writing smear campaign against Greene. In his autobiography Ways of Escape, Greene recalled that Duvalier accused him of being, "'A liar, a cretin, a stool-pigeon... unbalanced, sadistic, perverted... a perfect ignoramus... lying to his heart's content... the shame of proud and noble England... a spy... a drug addict... a torturer.' (The last epithet has always a little puzzled me.)"

4. He Had Firsthand Espionage Experience

Getty Images

Greene's novels are set all over the world, from Cuba to Haiti to Vietnam to Africa, and he'd been to all of those places. His reputation as a jet-setting journalist and novelist made it easy for Greene to get in and out of various countries, a trait the British intelligence office prized. MI6 recruited Greene as an agent during World War II and stationed him as an intelligence agent in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The arrangement worked out well, as the British government got intelligence and Greene got the setting for The Heart of the Matter, one of his very best novels.

Interestingly, Greene's spymaster supervisor and close friend within the agency was none other than Kim Philby, the infamous double agent who fed sensitive information to the Soviets for nearly three decades. For a lot of people, finding out their buddy was possibly the most notorious mole in intelligence history would have ruined the friendship. Not for Greene. He kept in touch with Philby after the double agent went into exile in Moscow and even wrote the foreword to Philby's 1968 memoir My Silent War, a show of support that some speculate may have cost Greene a shot at the Nobel Prize.

5. He Wasn't Raised Catholic

iStock

If you've read much Greene, this one's the real shocker. Although he always argued that he was a novelist who engaged Catholic themes rather than a Catholic novelist, Greene's probably the first name that pops into your head if you have to name a Catholic novelist. (In a 1978 interview, Greene said, "I've always found it difficult to believe in God. I suppose I'd now call myself a Catholic atheist.") His most overtly Catholic novels, The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, Brighton Rock, and The Heart of the Matter all rank among his best known and strongest works.

Surprisingly, Greene wasn't raised in a Catholic family, though. He didn't convert to Catholicism until the age of 21 in 1926. What made him convert? Well, a woman had a hand in it. Greene's transformation into Catholicism was partly influenced by Vivien Dayrell-Browning, the woman who would become his wife. (Vivien had some writing chops of her own; when she was 16 she had published a book of poetry with an introduction by G.K. Chesterton.)

Greene ended up leaving Vivien and their two children for a mistress in 1947. As strict Catholics, the Greenes never divorced and remained married until Graham's death in 1991.

Vivien didn't just sit around and weep about her departed husband, though. She filled her time by becoming one of the world's foremost authorities on dollhouses.

She began collecting 18th- and 19th-century English dollhouses during the 1940s, and after buying her first house at an auction and toting it home on the bus, she was hooked. Vivien began traveling the world in search of dollhouses and eventually built up a collection of 1500. She also published two scholarly works on the subject, and her collection became so well known that Graham helped subsidize an addition to her Oxford home that she transformed into a dollhouse museum.

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.

twitterbanner.jpg

5 Things You Didn't Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs, but there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams' mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

Original image
Getty Images
5 Things You Should Know About Robert Todd Lincoln
Original image
Getty Images

Robert Todd Lincoln was Abraham Lincoln's oldest son and the only Lincoln child to survive into adulthood. While he didn't make quite the mark on history that his father did, Robert Lincoln had a pretty interesting life himself. Let's take a look at five things you might not know about him:

1. He Was on Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Staff

Getty Images

Part of Abraham Lincoln's mystique lies in his humble roots as a self-made man who found education where he could. His eldest son didn't have to go through quite as many trials and tribulations to do some learning, though. Robert left Springfield, Illinois, to attend boarding school at New Hampshire's elite Phillips Exeter Academy when he was a young man, and he later graduated from Harvard during his father's presidency.

After completing his undergrad degree, Robert stuck around Cambridge to go to Harvard Law School, but that arrangement didn't last very long. After studying law for just a few months, Lincoln received a commission as a captain in the army. Lincoln's assignment put him on Ulysses S. Grant's personal staff, so he didn't see much fighting. He did get a nice view of history, though; Lincoln was present as part of Grant's junior staff at Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

After the war ended, Lincoln moved to Chicago with his mother and brother and wrapped up his legal studies.

2. The Booth Family Did Him a Favor

Getty Images

In 1863 or 1864, young Robert Lincoln was traveling by train from New York to Washington during a break from his studies at Harvard. He hopped off the train during a stop at Jersey City, only to find himself on an extremely crowded platform. To be polite, Lincoln stepped back to wait his turn to walk across the platform, his back pressed to one of the train's cars.

This situation probably seemed harmless enough until the train started moving, which whipped Lincoln around and dropped him into the space between the platform and train, an incredibly dangerous place to be.

Lincoln probably would have been dead meat if a stranger hadn't yanked him out of the hole by his collar. That stranger? None other than Edwin Booth, one of the most celebrated actors of the 19th century and brother of eventual Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln immediately recognized the famous thespian "“ this was sort of like if George Clooney pulled you from a burning car today "“ and thanked him effusively. The actor had no idea whose life he had saved until he received a letter commending him for his bravery in saving the President's son a few months later.

3. He Had a Strange Knack for Being Near Assassinations

Getty Images

Lee's surrender wasn't the only history Lincoln ended up witnessing, although things got a bit grislier for him after Appomattox. As he arrived back in Washington in April 1865 Lincoln's parents invited him to go see Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater with them. The young officer was so exhausted after his journey that he begged off so he could get a good night's sleep. That night, of course, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln's father, and Robert Todd was with the celebrated president when he passed away the next morning.

By 1881, Lincoln's political lineage and prominence as a lawyer qualified him for a national office, and he became Secretary of War under the newly inaugurated James A. Garfield. That July, Lincoln was scheduled to travel to Elberon, New Jersey, by train with the President, but the trip never took off. Before Lincoln and Garfield's train could leave the station, Charles Guiteau shot the Garfield, who died of complications from the wound two months later.

Oddly, that wasn't all for Lincoln, though. Two decades passed without a presidential assassination, but Lincoln's strange luck reared its head again in 1901. Lincoln traveled to Buffalo at the invitation of President William McKinley to attend the Pan-American Exposition. Although he arrived a bit late to the even, Lincoln was on his way to meet McKinley when anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot the president twice at close range.

Following these three bits of bad luck Lincoln refused to attend any presidential functions. He dryly noted that there was "a certain fatality about the presidential function when I am present."

4. He Realized His Mom Was a Little Nutty

Getty Images

Mary Todd Lincoln is fairly widely renowned today for being mentally ill, but it wasn't quite such an open secret when she was still alive. Robert, however, realized that his mother needed psychiatric help so she didn't become a danger to herself or an embarrassment to her family, so he had her involuntarily committed to a mental hospital in 1875 following a hearing that declared her insane.

Mary Todd was none too pleased about this plan. She not only snuck letters to her lawyer to help her escape from the institution, she also wrote newspaper editors in an effort to convince the public of her sanity. Mary Todd's ploy worked; at a second sanity hearing in 1876 she was declared sane and released from the Batavia, Illinois, sanatorium to which she'd been confined. However, by this point she'd been publicly humiliated and never really patched up her relationship with Robert before her death in 1882.

5. He Made Some Serious Dough on the Railroads

iStock

Once he got his legal practice up and running, Lincoln found a particularly lucrative clientele in the booming railroad industry. He spent most of his career working as a corporate lawyer for various railroads and train-related companies; the only breaks were his four-year stint as Secretary of War under Garfield and successor Chester A. Arthur and a four-year hitch as a minister to Britain under President Benjamin Harrison.

One of Lincoln's major clients was the Pullman Palace Car Company, for which he served as general counsel. When founder George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln became president of the company, and in 1911 he became chairman of the Pullman Company's board. His lofty position in one of the country's most lucrative companies made him a millionaire and enabled Lincoln to build a sprawling estate, Hildene, in Manchester, Vermont.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios