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How Pearl Harbor Led to a War on Pinball

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On April 2, 1976, 28-year-old magazine editor Roger Sharpe stood before a pinball machine inside the New York City Council chambers, holding the future of the game in his hands. Pointing to a spot on the machine, he announced, “If I pull this plunger back just right, the ball will go down this center lane.” Pinball’s Babe Ruth was calling his shot. Sharpe pulled back the plunger and let the ball fly.

Back in 1933, by Prohibition’s end, temperance types had found a new target: pinball. One of the game’s biggest opponents was New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who swept into office that year on an anti-gangster platform. Promising to “drive the bums out of town,” LaGuardia started by cracking down on mafia-run slot machines. When mobsters replaced slots with pinball machines, he waged a years-long campaign to ban those too.

To pinball novices, the game looked like a crapshoot, completely impervious to a player’s skill. The fact that some machines offered up to $2 payouts to winners only amplified the gambling confusion. In LaGuardia’s view, pinball picked the “pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money."

LaGuardia’s crusade got a boost when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. With America at war, LaGuardia argued that pinball machines weren’t just a corrupting influence; they were artillery in camouflage, a waste of metal.

On January 21, LaGuardia got his wish. A Bronx court declared pinball to be gambling even when no money was at stake. Police rounded up 3,000 machines over three weeks of Prohibition-style raids.

War Machines

In newsreel-ready stunts LaGuardia smashed machines with a sledgehammer before the pieces were dumped into the city’s waterways. The New York Times headline read "Pinball Machines to Help Win War." The contribution was real. The military received 10,000 pounds of scrap metal courtesy of pinball machines, enough to make four 2,000-pound bombs. As for the machines’ legs, thousands were turned into billy clubs and distributed to police.

Within the span of a few years, pinball had been banished from communities across the country, including Los Angeles and Chicago, the heart of pinball culture. But just like the prohibition of alcohol, instead of stopping the game, the ban drove pinball underground into seedy places like sex shops. Hollywood even adopted pinball as a standard prop, using the machines to give street cred to rebellious characters.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that pinball mounted a slow comeback. In 1974, Los Angeles overturned its ban. In 1975, the film adaptation of The Who’s Tommy, the story of a “pinball wizard” with “crazy flipper fingers,” renewed interest in the game. If kids couldn’t play Bally’s Tommy-themed pinball game in their hometown, they could at least see the movie.

When the New York City Council finally held a hearing to reconsider the decades-old pinball ban in April 1976, the game’s advocates asked Sharpe, an expert player, to prove that the game relied on skill and not chance. The GQ editor had learned to play in college and had honed his skills on contraband machines in New York. He would go on to literally write the book on the game, 1977’s effusively titled Pinball!

After he called his shot, with an entire courtroom watching, Sharpe sent the ball exactly where he’d pointed. It was a true skill shot: The council’s committee voted unanimously in pinball’s favor.

This article originally appeared last year in mental_floss magazine.

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History
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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