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20 Colorful Facts About Blue Velvet

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Following the critical and commercial failure of Dune, his adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel, David Lynch was determined to make his next film a much more personal endeavor. The result was Blue Velvet, a critically acclaimed neo-noir that begins with the random discovery of a severed human ear, and only gets stranger from there. Lynch earned his third Oscar nomination for the film, which starred Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, and Dennis Hopper in a bizarrely enigmatic role. To celebrate the movie's 30th anniversary, here are 20 colorful facts about Blue Velvet.

1. THE FILM WAS INSPIRED BY BOBBY VINTON’S COVER OF “BLUE VELVET.”

"Blue Velvet" the song was originally released by Tony Bennett in 1951, but Vinton covered it in 1963, which was the version that inspired director David Lynch. According to Lynch, “It wasn’t the kind of music that I really liked. But there was something mysterious about it. It made me think about things. And the first things I thought about were lawns—lawns and the neighborhood.”

2. MOLLY RINGWALD WAS CONSIDERED FOR THE PART OF SANDY.

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At the height of Molly Ringwald’s '80s superstar fame, she was reportedly Lynch’s first choice for Sandy. But her mom read the screenplay for Blue Velvet and found it so offensive that she didn’t even pass it on to her daughter to read. The role eventually went to Laura Dern.

3. THE ROLE OF DOROTHY VALLENS ALMOST WENT TO HELEN MIRREN.

Helen Mirren was who Lynch pictured as songstress Dorothy Vallens. Although it didn’t end up working out, she got pretty far along in the process. Lynch has even said, “Helen Mirren really helped me on that script.” Eventually, she turned down the part that would eventually go to Isabella Rossellini.

4. LYNCH DISCOVERED ISABELLA ROSSELLINI IN A RESTAURANT.

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Rossellini and Lynch were introduced by mutual friends when they all happened to be dining at the same restaurant in New York City. Lynch learned that Rossellini was both a model and actress. But, during their encounter, they mostly talked about Helen Mirren, as Lynch was still trying to get her to accept the part. Apparently, during a lull in the conversation, Lynch told Rossellini, “Hey, you could be the daughter of Ingrid Bergman.” Of course, she is the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. Two days later, Lynch sent Rossellini a note asking if she would like to read the script.

5. ANOTHER IMPORTANT RESTAURANT MEETING HAPPENED WITH LYNCH, MACLACHLAN, AND DERN—AT BOB’S BIG BOY.

Laura Dern was surprised to learn that she didn’t have to read for the part—Lynch felt she was right for the role upon meeting her. But to make sure that she had chemistry with Kyle MacLachlan, who would play her love interest, Lynch conducted a crucial meeting at the fast food chain.

6. LYNCH INTENDED FOR ROSSELLINI’S BEAUTY TO BE OVER-THE-TOP.

Rossellini once explained, “I was fascinated by the way David Lynch found something comic about my beauty.” As Lynch scholar Martha P. Nochimson has observed, “Lynch covers the extremely beautiful Rossellini with absurdly exaggerated ‘glamour.’” The dramatic blue eye shadow and curly wig aren’t necessarily enhancing Rossellini’s beauty. They are adding something uncanny to the equation.

7. FRANK BOOTH WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO INHALE HELIUM.

They had helium on set while filming the rape scene, but the gas didn’t have the eerie effect that was intended. Dennis Hopper later told David Letterman, “I tried it and I sounded a little like Donald Duck.” So, he talked to Lynch and they decided to choose a substance that wouldn’t be voice-altering. The gas isn’t mentioned by name in the film, but Hopper told Lynch that when he read the script, he imagined the substance as amyl nitrate because that is a disorienting drug, unlike helium.

8. JEFFREY SAYS “I’M IN THE MIDDLE OF A MYSTERY” AT THE FILM’S MIDPOINT.

An hour into the film, Jeffrey says the line. The film is exactly two hours long.

9. LYNCH TOOK A LOWER SALARY IN ORDER TO HAVE FINAL CUT OF THE FILM.

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Despite Lynch’s previous film, Dune, being a flop, its producer Dino De Laurentiis showed an interest in Blue Velvet. Lynch was also disappointed with Dune, so he knew he wanted final cut when it came to Blue Velvet. The film’s budget was originally $10 million, but Lynch agreed to cut the budget as well as his salary for complete artistic control. The only condition: De Laurentiis insisted that the film be no more than two hours long. The budget was lowered to $6 million and the film clocks in at 120 minutes.

10. THERE ARE SUBTLE REFERENCES TO ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S ASSASSINATION IN THE FILM.

Lynch fans have found references to Lincoln’s assassination in many of his films, and Blue Velvet is no exception. For example, Frank Booth shares a surname with John Wilkes Booth. At the end of the film, when Don Vallens is shot, there are obvious parallels to Lincoln’s assassination. Then, of course, there’s the blatant fact that Jeffrey must cross Lincoln Street to get to the bad part of town.

11. LUMBERTON IS A REAL PLACE.

Wikimedia Commons

The film was shot in Wilmington, North Carolina, which was also the production location for two popular teen series: Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill. Though Lynch didn’t base the town in Blue Velvet on any town in particular, Lumberton, North Carolina exists 70 miles away from Wilmington. The mayor’s office of Lumberton was contacted and the rights to their town’s name were acquired. 

Lynch thought that Wilmington was the perfect shooting location for Blue Velvet because he pictured his story taking place in a more northern town (and it also happened to be where the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group's new studios had just been built). Wilmington had the older neighborhoods that he desired.

12. ALL OF ROSSELLINI’S NUDITY WAS INTENTIONALLY NOT TITILLATING.

This was particularly important to Rossellini, as she was portraying a woman who had been abused. According to her, “What I had in mind, you know the butcher shop where you see these carcasses of cows cut in the middle and open. It’s the sort of images you have in Francis Bacon ... you have these images of cows and flesh ... And that’s what I wanted to portray.”

13. ONE NUDE SCENE WAS BASED ON A CHILDHOOD MEMORY OF LYNCH’S.

The scene in which Vallens walks outside naked has roots in Lynch’s past. Rossellini explained, “David Lynch has told me that when he was a little boy, and he was going home with his brother, they saw a naked lady walking in the street. And it didn’t feel titillating. They didn’t say, ‘Ooh, a naked lady.’ They started to cry. They understood that something violent or frightening was happening. And he wanted to convey that idea.”

14. TO LYNCH, THE SCENE AT BEN’S APARTMENT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT SCENE.

The scene in which Ben lip syncs “In Dreams” for Frank is what Lynch considers the eye-of-the-duck scene, meaning the pivotal scene in the film. He has said, “The key to the whole duck is the eye and where it is placed. It's like a little jewel … When you're working on a film, a lot of times you can get the bill and the legs and the body and everything, but this eye of the duck is a certain scene, this jewel, that if it's there, it's absolutely beautiful. It's just fantastic."

By the way, in case viewers don’t immediately recognize this as the eye-of-the-duck scene, Lynch gave the bar outside of Ben’s apartment a fairly obvious name: “This Is It.”

15. BUT, THE SCENE WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO CONTAIN ANOTHER ROY ORBISON SONG.

During production, Lynch and MacLachlan traveled together from New York City to Wilmington. On their way to the airport, Roy Orbison’s “Crying” came on the radio. Lynch was inspired and said, “I’ve got to get that for Blue Velvet.” When the two arrived in Wilmington, he got ahold of Orbison’s greatest hits. But, when he heard “In Dreams,” he immediately preferred it to “Crying.”

16. DURING PRODUCTION, LYNCH MET ANGELO BADALAMENTI, WHO WOULD LATER SCORE THE FILM AS WELL AS TWIN PEAKS AND MULHOLLAND DRIVE.

Rossellini was not a singer and had been working with a teacher in Wilmington, but there was still something missing. So, producer Fred Caruso called his friend Angelo Badalamenti. Badalamenti flew to Wilmington and worked with Rossellini for three hours. During that session, they developed an interpretation of the song that Lynch loved. Lynch had been hesitant of this outside help, but really hit it off with Badalamenti and a long-term professional relationship was formed.

They ended up recording the final version the day after Rossellini filmed the scene in which she walks outside naked. She had been up until four in the morning and had a cold, but Badalamenti convinced her to do the recording. 

17. LYNCH PLAYED MUSIC ON SET TO INSPIRE THE ACTORS.

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While filming the scene in which Sandy is walking with Jeffrey, Lynch played Shostakovich music over loud speakers on a residential street. According to Dern, “He felt that we needed to walk to the music and the mood should feel like that piece of music.” The Russian composer was actually very important to the creation of Blue Velvet. Lynch wrote the screenplay while listening to Shostakovich: No. 15 in A major. He has claimed, “I just kept playing the same part of it, over and over again.”

18. THE PREMIERE WAS PICKETED IN LONDON.

The subject matter of the film is obviously troubling and Lynch is notoriously quiet about the meaning of his films. Audiences didn’t know what to make of Blue Velvet, and they definitely weren’t getting any assistance from its auteur. So the film’s release was met with some pushback. This applied to film critics as well. For example, on Siskel & Ebert, Roger Ebert called the film “cruelly unfair to its actors.” 

“Well, I can understand that for sure,” Lynch has since responded about the offensive nature of Frank’s sadism and Dorothy’s masochism. “But without that relationship, there wouldn’t have been a film.”

19. ROSSELLINI’S TALENT AGENCY DROPPED HER WHEN THEY SAW THE FILM.

Rossellini had been working as a model for a while and just before she started working on the film, she signed with ICM Partners. It didn’t last long. According to Rossellini, “When they saw Blue Velvet on a private screen, they asked me to leave.”

And that wasn’t the only group in Rossellini’s life that disapproved of the film. She has also said that the nuns who taught her in high school saw the film and called her up to tell her that they were praying for her every day. 

20. ROSSELLINI AND LYNCH DATED FOR FOUR YEARS.

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Interestingly, Rossellini had been married to Martin Scorsese for four years until they divorced in 1983. Three years later, after production on Blue Velvet ended, Lynch and Rossellini dated publicly. They split up in 1991, soon after she played Perdita Durango in another Lynch film, Wild At Heart. In Rossellini’s memoir, she claimed that Lynch left her. 

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20 Things You Might Not Know About Garfield
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Everyone’s favorite lazy, lasagna-loving cat made his debut 40 years ago, but Garfield is still just as popular today. The comic strip spawned a TV show plus a number of video games, feature films, books, and, of course, holiday specials—not to mention one very memorable car window craze. We sat down with Garfield creator Jim Davis to nail down a solid list of 20 things you might not know about the wisecracking feline.

1. JIM DAVIS ORIGINALLY INTENDED TO FOCUS THE STRIP ON JON.


Courtesy of Jim Davis

“I ran some early ideas at a local paper,” Jim Davis tells Mental Floss, “to see how I felt about it and I called the strip Jon. It was about him, but he had this wise cat who, every time, came back zinging him. He always had the great payoff. At the time, I worked for T.K. Ryan—the cartoonist for Tumbleweeds—and I showed it to him and told him how every time I got to the punch line the cat zings him. And T.K. said, 'Well, what does that tell you, Jim?'" he laughs. “The strip must be about the cat. Go with it.”

2. JON WAS A CARTOONIST IN THE VERY FIRST COMIC STRIP, BUT IT WAS NEVER REALLY MENTIONED AGAIN.

“I didn’t want to tread on the fact that Jon’s a cartoonist because my biggest fear was getting a little too inside," Davis says. "That it would be a little too easy for me to write. I didn’t want to lose the readers just for my own enjoyment, or for a handful of peers. Also, I purposely gave him a job right off the top for the reason that The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet never explained what Ozzie did for a living. Nobody ever knew because he was always in the house with Harriet and Ricky and David. Just hanging around. So I thought I would give Jon a job right off the top to avoid being asked what he does for a living in interviews.”

3. GARFIELD WAS NAMED AFTER DAVIS'S GRANDFATHER, JAMES A. GARFIELD DAVIS ...

... who was named after President James A. Garfield. That’s quite a connection. Now just imagine a fat, wisecracking, lasagna-eating cat as the President of the United States of America. (Sounds like a dead-ringer for William Howard Taft!)

4. GARFIELD IS SET IN DAVIS'S HOMETOWN OF MUNCIE, INDIANA, BUT THAT'S ALSO MOSTLY LEFT UNSAID.


Courtesy of Jim Davis

“I would like for readers in Sydney, Australia to think that Garfield lives next door,” Davis says. “Dealing with eating and sleeping, being a cat, Garfield is very universal. By virtue of being a cat, really, he’s not really male or female or any particular race or nationality, young or old. It gives me a lot more latitude for the humor for the situations.” The farm that Davis grew up on reportedly had 25 cats, several of which he based the Garfield character on.

5. DAVIS MAINTAINS COMPLETE CONTROL OVER GARFIELD'S FINAL PRODUCT, BUT HE NO LONGER DRAWS THE DAILY COMIC STRIP.

“I’m sitting here working on the writing right now,” he says. “I see gags and I work with assistants on the strip and stuff like that. We do roughs and it all filters through me so that it has one voice. We all get together occasionally in the same room and draw and work on shapes of fingers and gestures and expressions and things like that so that if any one of us draws it, you can’t tell which one did it.”

6. HE REGRETS AT LEAST ONE LICENSED GARFIELD ITEM.

According to Slate, Garfield merchandise brings in $750 million to $1 billion annually. Davis’s creation has been adapted and licensed more times than anyone could probably count, and of all of those items, there's one that Davis isn't thrilled with. “A few years ago there was a Zombie Garfield,” he says. “It was really gnarly and I thought, 'Oh, this will be fun.' So I did it and it sold okay. It was really interesting. But then I looked at it later and I go, ‘It did nothing for the character’s advancement.’ I figured I just did it because it was cool and everybody was doing it at the time. I just didn’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling after doing it. But those T-shirts go away," he laughs.

7. GARFIELD HOLDS THE GUINNESS WORLD RECORD FOR BEING THE WORLD'S MOST WIDELY SYNDICATED COMIC STRIP.

Garfield is syndicated in more than 2500 newspapers and journals. The cat also has more than 16 million fans on Facebook. That’s one seriously popular feline.

8. GARFIELD'S CHARACTER DESIGN HAS CHANGED MANY TIMES OVER THE YEARS.

There's one constant, though: The fat cat has always been—and will always be—fat. “If he lost weight, that would effectively end Garfield as we know it,” Davis says. “Garfield sends a healthy message in that he’s not perfect. He knows that and he’s cool with that. He’s happy with himself. If everybody were, there would probably be fewer disorders of all natures. He’s not perfect. In fact, he’s the imperfection in all of us underneath. I think that makes him probably easier to identify with than a slim, athletic character in the comics.”

9. DAVIS REALLY ENJOYED SCARING KIDS WITH GARFIELD'S HALLOWEEN ADVENTURE.

"It was such a challenge to try to think of something that could be scary, but fortunately we got to work with animation—we could marry scary sounds with scary music and scary images, and set the stage for a scary experience," Davis says. "Even down to the use of the actor’s voice. C. Lindsay Workman [who voices the old man that tells Garfield and Odie about the vengeful ghost pirates] was just a great character actor. I think we took our time to build to a scary scene where the ghost pirates invaded the house to look for the buried treasure. We tried to throw as many elements together as possible to create a situation where, at least for a few minutes, it could create a scary situation for the young viewers."

10. CREATING THE GHOST PIRATES IN THE HALLOWEEN TV SPECIAL WAS MUCH MORE DIFFICULT THAN YOU MIGHT THINK.

“We did it in our own art department (here at Paws, Inc.) because we wanted to make it just right,” the Garfield creator told us. “It was done with a white, chalky pencil on a rough texture so that everything would be really grainy. Back then, we animated on real film, so in order to get that glow we did what’s called a double burn. We exposed the film twice to overexpose the ghosts, and that gave it that eerie glow. We were totally in control of the process and the results turned out very well.”

11. IN 2011, A FULL-LENGTH STAGE MUSICAL CALLED GARFIELD LIVE WAS STAGED IN MUNCIE.

The musical was supposed to start touring the United States in September 2010, but was delayed until January 2011, when it premiered in Muncie. Davis wrote Garfield Live, while Michael Dansicker and Bill Meade handled the music and lyrics.

12. DAVIS LOVED THE CASTING OF BILL MURRAY AS THE VOICE OF GARFIELD IN 2004'S GARFIELD: THE MOVIE.


Muncie Magazine

“It was because of Bill Murray’s attitude [that he was cast],” Davis tells us. “It wasn’t really so much his voice. It was the fact that he embodies the attitude that Garfield has always displayed in the strip. Lorenzo [Music] obviously wasn’t a choice since he passed away years ago, and when the producers said, ‘Bill Murray would like to do the voice,’ I thought, ‘Oh, cool.’ My biggest concern about doing a CGI Garfield with live action was that people wouldn’t buy into the fact that this was our Garfield—the Garfield we’d known all these years. But I thought that as soon as they heard Bill Murray’s voice they’d get it. There will be that emotional tag going with his voice. That will establish the fact that, ‘Yes, this character has attitude.’”

13. THERE'S A GREAT LINK BETWEEN GARFIELD VOICE ACTOR LORENZO MUSIC AND BILL MURRAY.

Lorenzo Music provided the voice of Garfield in all of the cat’s TV specials from 1982 to 1991, as well as during the 1988 to 1994 run of Garfield and Friends. Music also provided the voice of Peter Venkman in The Real Ghostbusters. Murray, of course, played Venkman in the Ghostbusters films and would, in 2004, provide the voice of Garfield in Garfield: The Movie. “I didn’t know about the relationship with Ghostbusters until years later."

14. THE MACY'S PARADE ONCE CITED SHAMU THE WHALE AS THE PARADE'S LARGEST BALLOON, BUT DAVIS SAYS GARFIELD WAS LARGER.

“In the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, they had published that their biggest balloon ever, by volume of gas, was Shamu the Whale with over 18,000 cubic feet," Davis says. "The fact is that the Garfield balloon was filled with 18,907 cubic feet of helium. So we just confirmed that the Garfield balloon, in fact, was the largest one by volume of gas.”

15. THERE ARE ONLY THREE COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD WHERE GARFIELD IS NOT NAMED GARFIELD.

“In Sweden, Garfield is known as Gustav,” the Garfield creator says. “There are only three countries in the whole world where he’s not Garfield and they’re all in the Nordics.” The other two are Norway and Finland.

16. THE STUCK ON YOU GARFIELD PLUSH WITH SUCTION CUPS WAS THE RESULT OF A MISUNDERSTANDING.


Amazon

In the 1990s, it wasn't unusual to see a number of cars with little Garfield plushes stuck to the windows with suction cups. But that wasn't the original design—or the intended use. “I designed the first Stuck on You doll with Velcro on the paws, thinking that people would stick it on curtains,” Davis says. “It came back as a mistake with suction cups. They didn’t understand the directions. So I stuck it on a window and said, 'If it’s still there in two days, we’ll approve this.' Well, they were good suction cups and we released it like that. It never occurred to me that people would put them on cars.”

17. THE GARFIELD COMIC STRIP BOOKS HAVE BEEN HUGE HITS.

“The 11 Garfield comic strip books have all been number one on the New York Times Bestseller List,” Davis says. “At one time there were seven on the list simultaneously. At that point, they changed the way the list was done because other publishing houses were complaining that their authors couldn’t get on the list because of Garfield. Garfield at Large (1980) was number one for two solid years. Over 100 weeks.” The title of every compilation book is a reference to either food or Garfield’s weight.

18. STEVEN SPIELBERG AND STEPHEN KING ARE AMONG THE MANY CELEBRITIES WHO OWN ORIGINAL GARFIELD STRIPS.

They both contacted Davis personally for the strips; the cartoonist happily obliged.

19. DESPITE GARFIELD BEING INSANELY POPULAR FOR DECADES, DAVIS IS STILL MOSTLY ANONYMOUS.


Muncie Magazine

“Being a cartoonist, you really enjoy a lot of anonymity,” he says. “You take a half-dozen of the biggest cartoonists and walk them down any street, nobody would notice them. They only know their characters. So I just hide behind Garfield. The only time anyone knows the name or spots me is if I’m out on book tour and I’m meant to do publicity. We don’t suffer any of the kind of attention problems that I think people do on TV or in movies. It’s not a big deal. I’m sitting here in the countryside of East Central Indiana, so it’s pretty quiet.”

20. DAVIS'S FATHER'S FAVORITE COMIC STRIP WASN'T GARFIELD.

Davis's father and namesake, who passed away in 2016, liked Garfield but preferred another comic strip: Beetle Bailey. “Nobody else knew that until today,” Davis tells us.

This article originally appeared in 2014.

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13 Incredible Facts About Frederick Douglass
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock

The list of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments is astonishing—respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader, presidential consultant—even without considering that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his birth 200 years ago, here are 13 incredible facts about the life of Frederick Douglass.

1. HE BARTERED BREAD FOR KNOWLEDGE.

Because Douglass was a slave, he wasn't allowed to learn to read or write. A wife of a Baltimore slave owner did teach him the alphabet when he was around 12, but she stopped after her husband interfered. Young Douglass took matters into his own hands, cleverly fitting in a reading lesson whenever he was on the street running errands for his owner. As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he'd carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white kids in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.

2. HE CREDITED A SCHOOLBOOK FOR SHAPING HIS VIEWS ON HUMAN RIGHTS.

Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

During his youth, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays, dialogues, and speeches on a range of subjects, including slavery. Published in 1797, the Orator was required reading for most schoolchildren in the 1800s and featured 84 selections from authors like Cicero and Milton. Abraham Lincoln was also influenced by the collection when he was first starting in politics.

3. HE TAUGHT OTHER SLAVES TO READ.

While he was hired out to a farmer named William Freeland, a teenaged Douglass taught fellow slaves to read the New Testament—but a mob of locals soon broke up the classes. Undeterred, Douglas began the classes again, sometimes teaching as many as 40 people.

4. HIS FIRST WIFE HELPED HIM ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY.

Portrait of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass's first wife.
First published in Rosetta Douglass Sprague's book My Mother As I Recall Her, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Anna Murray was an independent laundress in Baltimore and met Douglass at some point in the mid-1830s. Together they hatched a plan, and one night in 1838, Douglass took a northbound train clothed in a sailor's uniform procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man. Anna soon joined him, and they married on September 15, 1838.

5. HE CALLED OUT HIS FORMER OWNER.

In an 1848 open letter in the newspaper he owned and published, The North Star, Douglass wrote passionately about the evils of slavery to his former owner, Thomas Auld, saying "I am your fellow man, but not your slave." He also inquired after his family members who were still enslaved a decade after his escape.

6. HE TOOK HIS NAME FROM A POEM.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but after escaping slavery, Douglass used assumed names to avoid detection. Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass, then using the surname "Johnson," felt there were too many other Johnsons in the area to distinguish himself. He asked his host (ironically named Nathan Johnson) to suggest a new name, and Mr. Johnson came up with Douglas, a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.

7. HE'S CALLED THE 19TH CENTURY'S MOST PHOTOGRAPHED AMERICAN.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a "democratic art" that could finally represent black people as humans rather than "things." He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.

8. HE REFUSED TO CELEBRATE THE 4TH OF JULY.

Douglass was well-known as a powerful orator, and his July 5, 1852 speech to a group of hundreds of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, is considered a masterwork. Entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," the speech ridiculed the audience for inviting a former slave to speak at a celebration of the country who enslaved him. "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine," he famously said to those in attendance. "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Douglass refused to celebrate the holiday until all slaves were emancipated and laws like the Compromise of 1850, which required citizens (including northerners) to return runaway slaves to their owners, were negated.

9. HE RECRUITED BLACK SOLDIERS FOR THE CIVIL WAR.

The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Douglass was a famous abolitionist by the time the war began in 1861. He actively petitioned President Lincoln to allow black troops in the Union army, writing in his newspaper: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass worked tirelessly to enlist black soldiers, and two of his sons would join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, famous for its contributions in the brutal battle of Fort Wagner.

10. HE SERVED UNDER FIVE PRESIDENTS.

Later in life, Douglass became more of a statesman, serving in highly appointed federal positions, including U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to appoint Douglass to a position in 1877, and Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison each sought his counsel in various positions as well.

11. HE WAS NOMINATED FOR VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called "the first female presidential candidate from a major party" during the 2016 election.) However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it (and Woodhull's candidacy itself is controversial because she wouldn't have been old enough to be president on Inauguration Day). Also, though he was never a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.

12. HIS SECOND MARRIAGE STIRRED UP CONTROVERSY.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.
Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.

Two years after his first wife, Anna, died of a stroke in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist and feminist who was 20 years younger than him. Even though she was the daughter of an abolitionist, Pitts's family (which had ancestral ties directly to the Mayflower) disapproved and disowned her—showing just how taboo interracial marriage was at the time. The black community also questioned why their most prominent spokesperson chose to marry a white woman, regardless of her politics. But despite the public's and their families' reaction, the Douglasses had a happy marriage and were together until his death in 1895 of a heart attack.

13. AFTER EARLY SUCCESS, HIS NARRATIVE WENT OUT OF PRINT.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, his seminal autobiography, was heralded a success when it came out in 1845, with some estimating that 5000 copies sold in the first few months; the book was also popular in Ireland and Britain. But post-Civil War, as the country moved toward reconciliation and slave narratives fell out favor, the book went out of print. The first modern publication appeared in 1960—during another important era for the fight for civil rights. It is now available for free online.

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