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How Shirley Temple's Lawyers Launched Graham Greene's Career

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In the fall of 1937, the British magazine Night and Day published a review of the Shirley Temple movie Wee Willie Winkie. The author of the review was Graham Greene, a relatively unknown novelist and the magazine’s literary editor.

Greene hated Wee Willie Winkie, a doltish adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story set at the height of the British Raj. But he saved special enmity for Temple’s fans, whom he described as lecherous “middle-aged men and clergymen.” Temple, then 9 years old, had been trussed up by the producers to look like a “complete totsy.” Witness, Greene suggested, the “sidelong searching coquetry” of her eyes or “her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance.”

Just a few weeks later, Greene and Night and Day were slapped with a libel suit for damaging the names of Temple and the film’s studio, Twentieth Century Fox.

Temple “is going to cost me £250 if I’m lucky,” Greene wrote to his brother. She cost him more than that: Night and Day, which had been plagued by financial problems since its inception, crumbled in the face of the libel suit, leaving Greene without a day job. In March, the King’s Bench heard the case. Calling Greene’s libel “a gross outrage,” Chief Justice Gordon Hewart awarded Twentieth Century Fox £3,500 in damages, £3,000 of which was to be paid by Night and Day and the remainder by Greene himself.

But Greene wasn’t around to hear the ruling. Weeks earlier, on January 29, he and his wife, Vivien, had fled London on the hulking cruise liner Normandie. It was the start of a journey that would take Greene from Manhattan to New Orleans to San Antonio and then deep into the jungles of Mexico—and eventually, after much suffering and pain, provide him with the material needed to write The Power and the Glory, his masterpiece.
    
For many of Greene’s readers, it’s surprising to learn that the Catholicism-obsessed writer was actually a late convert. He was raised Anglican in Berkhamsted, a cloistered town in the east of England. In his early twenties, while working as a journalist in Nottingham, Greene met Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a poet of minor acclaim. In order to please his future wife, in 1926 Greene agreed to be baptized in the Nottingham Cathedral.

His decision to travel to Mexico in 1938 was no accident, nor was it spontaneous. The West had fascinated Greene for years—in particular, a pair of states in the Mexican highlands, Tabasco and Chiapas, where a long anti-clerical campaign had left hundreds of priests dead, all but eradicating any trace of Catholicism. Greene wished to chronicle what he called, “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth.”

The shuttering of Night and Day and the libel suit were all the impetus he needed. He convinced his publisher to give him a modest advance for a travelogue, then set about planning his itinerary, a short stay in Mexico City and a tour of Tabasco and Chiapas, ending in the mountain town San Cristóbal de las Casas, where he had heard Catholicism was being practiced in secret. After several weeks, he would return to London, where he could publish his observations.

The first leg of the journey passed uneventfully. Greene left Vivien in New Orleans and crossed the border near Laredo, Texas. He stayed in Mexico City briefly—just long enough to admire the “great bold thighs” of the local dancers—before sailing to Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco.

Greene found the dirt and heat of Villahermosa unbearable. Everywhere, he was watched by police, who “ambled drearily across in the yard in the great heat with their trousers open.” Greene equated these horrors with the absence of faith. “One felt one was drawing near to the center of something,” he wrote, “if it was only of darkness and abandonment.”

With the help of a few friendly locals, Greene chartered a plane for Salto de Agua, in Chiapas. He remained intent on seeing San Cristóbal de las Casas. But upon landing in Salto de Agua, he found endless expanses of jungle, perforated by rutted and overgrown trail. His only option was to hire a mule and a guide and ride some 100 miles north, to San Cristóbal.

The trip was torturous. His guide spoke little and had a nasty habit of trotting off into the distance without his charge. Greene begged frequently to stop; the guide politely refused. By the time he entered San Cristóbal a few days later, Greene’s entire body was in revolt. He was tick-bitten, sore in his legs and back, and afflicted with terrible stomach pains. Still, he was pleased to be among the faithful again. On his first day in San Cristóbal, he attended mass in a low-slung house on the edge of town. The priest wore a motoring coat, a tweed cap, and amber-tinted glasses.

“Mass was said without the Sanctus bell,” Greene noted. “Silence was a relic of the worst penal days when discovery probably meant death.” Now, Catholicism was practiced quasi-openly—although a complex system of bribes was required to keep police at bay. After the ceremony, Greene hobbled across the plaza and ducked into the Santo Domingo cathedral. At the altar knelt an Indian couple. As Greene watched, the pair sang a slow duet in a language that he did not understand.

“I wondered,” he later wrote, “what prayers they had said and what answers they could hope to get in this world of mountains, hunger and irresponsibility.” That question was still on his mind a year later, as he sat at his London desk to write a novel that would capture what he had witnessed.

The Power and the Glory is Greene’s most deeply Catholic novel and also his most thrilling. On its face, it is a novel of simple contrasts. The hero is a nameless priest who wanders the jungles of Southeast Mexico on muleback, chased by a nameless lieutenant and his henchmen. The relentless lieutenant, a socialist, finds the idea of God repugnant. He has “a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all.”

The priest, on the other hand, believes there is nothing but God: “God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge,” he concludes. The priest knows of what he speaks. He is a criminal himself: a drunkard, the father of an illegitimate child, a coward—afraid of being captured and equally afraid to push onward.

“Let me be caught soon,” he prays.

The allegory—the fallen but steadfast believer versus the vicious atheist—is sustained until the final pages, when the priest is shot dead in a prison yard. He collapses into a “routine heap beside the wall—something unimportant which had to be cleared away.”

But the book also suggests that there was nothing routine about his death. “He was one of the martyrs of the church,” a local woman proclaims after he is gone. In fact, despite the booze on his breath—or perhaps because of it—he may be a “hero of the faith.” Greene likely believed as much himself. In an essay years later, he wrote that the “greatest saints have been men with more than a normal capacity for evil.”

Most writers, if they are exceptionally lucky, produce one good book in a lifetime. In the space of two short years, Graham Greene completed three. The first—the one actually under contract, detailing his Mexican travels—was apparently the easiest to write. Titled The Lawless Roads, Greene finished it in just a few short months. The proofs arrived from the publisher in Christmas of 1938 and were sent back the following March, by which point Europe was enveloped in war. London suddenly took on the appearance of an armed camp. There were trenches dug in the parks and anti-aircraft guns in the squares.

Greene was worried. He’d had to pay out £500 for the Shirley Temple fiasco—not enough to bankrupt him but enough to leave his family in relatively dire straits. To earn some extra money, Greene decided to churn out a thriller, The Confidential Agent, yet he could not lay down a second fiction project, which he was already calling The Power and the Glory. (The title comes from the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”) Greene decided that he would simply write both books at the same time.

“I see no further for the next twelve months than the grindstone,” he pronounced. In order to gain a modicum of peace, he rented a studio in Mecklenburgh Square, far from his wife and their two small children. Still, distractions abounded. Chief among them: Dorothy, the daughter of Greene’s new landlady. Dorothy was stout and a little plain—a friend of Greene’s described her cruelly as “absolutely a non-starter” in terms of attractiveness. But Greene was smitten, and he and Dorothy were soon sleeping together. It was an affair that was to last several years, eventually destroying Greene’s marriage. It was his great sin—his own “spot of decay.”

In the evenings, Greene would visit with Dorothy. During the day, he worked on his two books: The Confidential Agent in the morning, sometimes 2,000 words at a stretch, and The Power and the Glory in the afternoon. To keep up the pace, he consumed massive amounts of Benzedrine, a fast-acting form of amphetamine. He finished The Confidential Agent in a stunning six weeks, in an “automatized Blur,” but it was The Power and the Glory, published in 1940, that was to make his name, bringing Greene the kind of recognition he had always craved. It was “his finest novel,” John Updike wrote many years later, “full of energy and grandeur” and “compassion.” It won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize in 1941, and John Ford later adapted it for the silver screen.

Greene himself loved it greatly. In an interview with The Paris Review, he placed it alongside Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair—a group of novels that shared, in his reckoning, a Catholic concern. The protagonists in those four books, he told his interviewer, “have all understood in the end.” They are redeemed, in one way or another.

Some in the Catholic Church didn’t see it that way; initially the Church condemned Greene’s book. “Novels which purport to be the vehicle for Catholic doctrine frequently contain passages which by their unrestrained portrayal of immoral conduct prove a source of temptation to many of their readers,” wrote Cardinal Griffin of the Vatican’s Holy Office.

But years later, during an audience with Pope Paul VI, Greene brought up Griffin’s words. The Pope, who had read The Power and the Glory, reportedly smiled.

“Mr. Greene,” he said, “some parts of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that.”

For Greene, it must have been the ultimate blessing.

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

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was 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's 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.

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presidents
George Washington’s Incredible Hair Routine

America's Founding Fathers had some truly defining locks, but we tend to think of those well-coiffed white curls—with their black ribbon hair ties and perfectly-managed frizz—as being wigs. Not so in the case of the main man himself, George Washington.

As Robert Krulwich reported at National Geographic, a 2010 biography on our first president—Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow—reveals that the man “never wore a wig.” In fact, his signature style was simply the result of an elaborately constructed coiffure that far surpasses most morning hair routines, and even some “fancy” hair routines.

The style Washington was sporting was actually a tough look for his day. In the late 18th century, such a hairdo would have been worn by military men.

While the hair itself was all real, the color was not. Washington’s true hue was a reddish brown color, which he powdered in a fashion that’s truly delightful to imagine. George would (likely) don a powdering robe, dip a puff made of silk strips into his powder of choice (there are a few options for what he might have used), bend his head over, and shake the puff out over his scalp in a big cloud.

To achieve the actual ‘do, Washington kept his hair long and would then pull it back into a tight braid or simply tie it at the back. This helped to showcase the forehead, which was very in vogue at the time. On occasion, he—or an attendant—would bunch the slack into a black silk bag at the nape of the neck, perhaps to help protect his clothing from the powder. Then he would fluff the hair on each side of his head to make “wings” and secure the look with pomade or good old natural oils.

To get a better sense of the play-by-play, check out the awesome illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton that accompany Krulwich’s post.

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