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13 Close-Up Facts About Sunset Boulevard

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Sunset Boulevard, one of Hollywood's most cruelly accurate depictions of itself, is now 65 years old—older, even, than its main character, who's washed up at 50. Sunset Boulevard is no has-been, though. If anything, its observations on the greedy machinations of Tinseltown are truer now than they were in 1950. (Norma Desmond would be quick to point out that, thanks to computers and iPads, the pictures have gotten even smaller.) 

It came out the same year as another behind-the-scenes showbiz classic, All About Eve, which took most of the Oscars. But trophies or not, Sunset Boulevard has stayed near the top of the list of great movies about moviemaking. Here's some backstage information to enhance your experience the next time you visit the Paramount lot. 

1. MAE WEST WAS BILLY WILDER'S FIRST CHOICE TO STAR.

Initially, writer-director Wilder envisioned the movie as a straightforward comedy, and the famously saucy West seemed like a perfect fit. But she wanted to rewrite her dialogue (as was her custom)—a nonstarter for Wilder, who seldom let his actors change their lines even slightly from what was on the page. It's probably just as well, since the darker, more nuanced story that eventually emerged was quite different from West's wheelhouse anyway.

2. MONTGOMERY CLIFT WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR JOE GILLIS.

The much sought after but highly finicky leading man accepted the role, then backed out. Some speculated it was because he was dating an older woman at the time (actress Libby Holman, 16 years his senior) and didn't want people to think the movie was a parody of that relationship. Clift's biographers say it was because he had a strong following among older women, who wrote him letters describing how they'd like to mother him, and he didn't want to encourage such behavior.

3. IT WAS PARTLY INSPIRED BY AN EVELYN WAUGH NOVEL.

The British author's satirical The Loved One was published in 1948, after Waugh had spent time in Hollywood observing the film industry and, of all things, the funeral industry. (The book is about a failed screenwriter who works for a cemetery and lives with a forgotten silent-film star.) Wilder and his co-writers reversed several elements, and there was no official connection between the movie and Waugh's book. But as commentator Steve Sailer points out, more than one contemporary source mentions it as an inspiration. Sunset Boulevard's cinematographer, John Seitz, said Wilder "had wanted to do The Loved One, but couldn't obtain the rights." And gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (who appears in the movie as herself) wrote that "Billy Wilder ... was crazy about Evelyn Waugh's book The Loved One, and the studio wanted to buy it." 

4. GLORIA SWANSON AND CECIL B. DEMILLE USED THEIR REAL PET NAMES FOR EACH OTHER.

When Norma Desmond visits her old friend at Paramount, she affectionately calls him "Mr. DeMille" (not Cecil or C.B.), and he calls her "young fellow." In real life, when Swanson and DeMille had worked together, that was what they always called each other. It's kind of sweet, actually. 

5. THE OPENING SCENE HAD TO BE SCRAPPED BECAUSE THE AUDIENCE FOUND IT TOO FUNNY. 

Sunset Boulevard now begins with police cars racing to Norma Desmond's house, where a dead body is floating in the pool. But it originally began in the L.A. county morgue, with toe-tagged corpses—including Joe's—speaking to each other (in voiceover) about how they died. It was meant to be slightly humorous in a morbid way, but the audience at the first test screening found it flat-out hysterical, setting the wrong mood for the rest of the picture. When two more test audiences reacted the same way, Wilder cut the scene and the movie was saved.

6. THE UNDERWATER SHOT WAS NOT FILMED UNDERWATER.

One of the few showy bits of camerawork in the film is near the beginning, when the corpse floating in Norma Desmond's pool is seen from underneath. But it was too difficult to put a camera underwater to get the shot, so Wilder and cinematographer John Seitz came up with an ingenious solution: they put a mirror on the bottom of the pool and filmed the reflection from above.

7. NORMA DESMOND'S HOUSE WAS ON A DIFFERENT BOULEVARD, AND WAS LATER SEEN IN ANOTHER MOVIE.

The interiors of Norma's decaying mansion were actually a set at Paramount Studios. The exterior shots were of a house located not on Sunset but Irving Boulevard, near the corner of Wilshire, owned by the J. Paul Getty family. Like most old things in L.A., the house has since been replaced by an office building. But before that happened, it appeared in Rebel Without a Cause as the abandoned mansion in which the kids hang out. Also, the house didn't have a pool, so Paramount paid to have one installed on the condition that if Mrs. Getty didn't like it, they'd remove it after filming was over. (She liked it.)

8. WILLIAM HOLDEN'S WIFE DIDN'T APPRECIATE THAT KISS.

Brenda Marshall, Holden's wife since 1941, was visiting the set when Holden and Nancy Olson had their kissing scene. Wilder, ever the merry prankster, told Holden and Olson to keep kissing until he called "cut": he was going to fade out at the end of the scene, and he needed to make sure the kiss didn't end prematurely. Well, they kissed, and kissed, and kept kissing, and the crew began to snicker, and finally Marshall's voice rang out: "Cut, dammit!" Everyone had a good laugh, though the record doesn't reflect whether Marshall joined in.

9. HEDY LAMARR WANTED $25,000 TO DO A CAMEO.

When Norma visits DeMille at Paramount, he's in the midst of shooting Samson and Delilah, which really is what he was up to at the time. For added meta-truthfulness, Wilder wanted to have that film's lead actress, Hedy Lamarr, be there too, so that DeMille could ask her to let Norma sit in her chair (you know, those behind-the-scenes chairs that have the star's name on them). For this Lamarr wanted $25,000 (which would be about $250,000 in 2015 dollars). Wilder changed the scene so that DeMille offered Lamarr's chair to Norma without Lamarr being present. But even to show a chair with her name on it, Lamarr wanted $10,000. So Wilder gave up, and DeMille (who was already being compensated) gave Norma his own chair. 

10. THE SILENT FILM NORMA WATCHES HAD GREAT BEHIND-THE-SCENES SIGNIFICANCE.

In her private screening room, with butler Max running the projector, Norma cuddles up with Joe to watch one of her own films. The footage we see is from Queen Kelly (1929), which starred Gloria Swanson and was directed by Max himself, Erich von Stroheim. Queen Kelly nearly ruined both of their careers: von Stroheim was replaced as director midway through after complaints from Swanson about the racy material and arguments with the producer (JFK's father!) over the spiraling budget.

An ending for the film was cobbled together, but the movie was never shown in the U.S. The clips in Sunset Boulevard were the first American audiences had seen of it. For Swanson, whose career was already being threatened by the advent of talkies, Queen Kelly was another blow. Still, whatever hard feelings there may have been between Swanson and von Stroheim, they were gone by the time Sunset Boulevard came along.

11. ERICH VON STROHEIM RESENTED THE MOVIE.

The actor-turned-director-turned-actor-again, who had indeed been one of the great silent-filmmakers, winced at playing a character so self-referential and demeaning, but he needed the money. He called it "that goddamned butler role" for the remaining seven years of his life.

12. IT WAS THE END OF A LONG PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN BILLY WILDER AND CHARLES BRACKETT.

Brackett was a New York-born novelist and screenwriter, head of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1930s, and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1949 to 1955 (during which time he won two screenwriting Oscars—good news for conspiracy theorists). Brackett was also a frequent collaborator with Billy Wilder, co-writing and producing a dozen movies with him (including The Lost Weekend) before Sunset Boulevard proved to be their last.

Wilder was, well, the wilder of the two, often bawdy and crass, while Brackett was genteel. This dynamic served them well for years, each man's extreme tendencies being balanced by the other's, but during Sunset Boulevard it finally became unworkable. A disagreement over the montage where Norma puts herself through hell getting thinner and younger for her comeback nearly resulted in physical violence: Brackett thought it was too mean, while Wilder felt it was necessary to show what lengths a desperate actor would go to in Hollywood. Wilder's version is the one they went with (he was the director, after all), but the argument marked a turning point for him, and he decided never to work with Brackett again. Their partnership ended in a professional and gentlemanly manner—there was no airing of any dirty laundry—but it did end. 

13. THE LIVE MUSICAL VERSION WAS ALMOST 40 YEARS IN THE MAKING. 

You probably know about the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of Sunset Boulevard that premiered in London in 1993 and headed to Broadway in 1994 with Glenn Close in the lead role. But attempts to turn the movie into a stage musical began almost immediately, spearheaded by none other than Gloria Swanson. With unofficial permission from Paramount, she worked for a few years with writer Dickson Hughes and actor Richard Stapley developing a show called Starring Norma Desmond (later changed to Boulevard). But in 1957, Paramount formally asked Desmond to stop, the studio bosses having decided not to grant permission after all.

A few years later, Stephen Sondheim became interested in writing a musical version of his own, working with writer Burt Shevelove (with whom he ended up writing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). But when Sondheim pitched the idea to Billy Wilder at a party, Wilder said, "You can't write a musical about Sunset Boulevard. It has to be an opera. After all, it's about a dethroned queen." Sondheim respectfully stopped work on the project and, on the same grounds, later declined an offer to write the score for a proposed movie remake. 

Additional Sources:
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On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, by Ed Sikov

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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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