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Sussex Torpedoed, Rasputin’s Influence Grows

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 230th installment in the series.

March 24-25, 1916: Sussex Torpedoed, Rasputin’s Influence Grows

After Germany resumed its campaign of unrestricted U-boat warfare against Allied and neutral shipping in a war zone around the British Isles at the beginning of March, it was only a matter of time before the simmering diplomatic conflict between Germany and America threatened to boil over again too. In fact the flashpoint came even sooner than most people expected. 

At 2:50 p.m. on March 24, 1916 the French steamer Sussex, an unarmed ferry carrying civilian passengers and mail across the English Channel, was torpedoed without warning by the German U-boat U-29, fresh from sinking four British, French, and neutral merchant ships over the previous five days. Although the explosion split the ship in half and the bow sank, the rest of the Sussex didn’t sink, and was later towed to safety and repaired.

A number of passengers provided eyewitness testimony about the torpedo attack. Two passengers, Edward Huxley and Francis Drake, stated in their affidavit:

Without the slightest warning there occurred a loud, roaring explosion. Wreckage and tons of water were thrown into the air higher than the masts, and the water came down on the boat as far back as the stern. We went forward and saw the entire forward part of the ship, including part of the bridge and the forward mast, gone. Some men and women jumped overboard at once, and we threw over rafts and seats to them… After 10 minutes of watching we decided that as the ship was apparently not sinking, we would stay with her. 


Of her roughly 380 passengers and crew, around 50 died in the attack or drowned afterwards, partly due to mishaps when deploying the lifeboats; the rest were rescued after drifting in one of the watertight hulks for nine hours (above, a photo taken on board the Sussex after it was torpedoed). Another passenger, Edward Marshall, recalled the hours of waiting for rescue before a French fishing trawler, British torpedo boat, and British destroyer finally arrived to rescue them:

I went among the wounded. Their injuries were freakish. Both of one man’s legs were twisted till his feet pointed backward. Another’s face had been blown in by the explosion and presented an extraordinary spectacle. He was unconscious… I went below, having done all that I could, and having fallen once or twice on the slippery decks. There, in which I think must be the steerage of the ship, we huddled, shivering, some women sobbing, one or two, definitely crazed, shrieking constantly, a few children crying, by now weakly, and moans coming from the lightly injured. 

At first glance there was no cause for a diplomatic falling out between Washington and Berlin, as no U.S. citizens had been killed – but several Americans were injured, and U.S. public opinion, guided as always by outraged newspaper reports, focused on the fact that the attack could easily have resulted in American fatalities. Following Secretary of State Robert Lansing’s strong protest against the resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare when it was first announced in February, President Woodrow Wilson had no choice but to launch a new round of diplomatic brinksmanship with Germany. 

As in previous conflicts over the sinking of the Gulflight, Lusitania, Falaba, and Arabic, the situation was complicated by the fact that the German U-boat in question was still at sea and incommunicado, and the Germans contended the Sussex may have hit a British mine in the channel. Nonetheless, scores of witnesses reported seeing the torpedo trail, and after several weeks spent trying to deny involvement the German foreign office finally admitted responsibility in early April.

In a letter delivered to German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow on April 18, 1916, Secretary of State Lansing warned his counterpart that Berlin was once again playing with fire, noting that the sinking violated Germany’s own pledges not to sink passenger ships. Lansing advised that, 

… the Imperial Government has failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation which has resulted, not alone from the attack on the Sussex, but from the whole method and character of submarine warfare… Again and again the Imperial Government has given its solemn assurances to the Government of the United States that at least passenger ships would not be thus dealt with, and yet it has repeatedly permitted its undersea commanders to disregard those assurances with entire impunity. 

The letter went on to issue an ominous threat, after condemning these methods as

… utterly incompatible with the principles of humanity, the long-established and incontrovertible rights of neutrals, and the sacred immunities of non-combatants… Unless the Imperial Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government of the United States can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether. 

As before, the threat to break off diplomatic relations was understood as an immediate preamble to the opening of hostilities. Less than two months into the new unrestricted U-boat campaign, by mid-April Berlin would once again find itself facing war with the world’s most powerful neutral nation. 

Rasputin’s Influence Grows 

One sign of Russia’s growing instability was the constant changing of the Tsar’s cabinet, with four different prime ministers serving from 1915-1916 alone, and dozens of other ministers coming and going in a revolving door government.  Following the failed attack at Lake Naroch in mid-March, Tsar Nicholas II shuffled his cabinet yet again, dismissing Minister of War Alexei Polivanov, a respected administrator, and replacing him with Dmitry Shuvaev, previously the quartermaster general, on March 25, 1916.

Although Polivanov was supposedly relieved because of the repeated defeats suffered by the Russian Army on the Eastern Front, his real offense was crossing the Tsarina Alexandra and her court favorite, the malign holy man Rasputin, who objected to Polivanov’s liberal views and personal dislike of Rasputin. His replacement was a sign of Rasputin’s growing power, as he waged proxy wars against his opponents in the cabinet and the Holy Synod, the ruling body of the Russian Orthodox Church. 

Shuvaev was by all accounts a “non-entity,” as even the Tsar himself seems to have admitted. Sir John Hanbury Williams, the chief of the British military mission to Russia, recorded Nicholas’ remark about the new Minister of War in his diary on March 25, 1916: “In conversation with him on appointments, he said he would much prefer a level-headed man who was a good judge of men and knew how to work a good staff to a very brilliant man who centred too much in himself.” 

The French ambassador to Petrograd, Maurice Paleologue, was much more blunt, writing in his diary on April 2, 1916: 

General Polivanov, the War Minister, has been relieved of his functions and replaced by General Shuvaïev, a man of mean intelligence. General Polivanov’s dismissal is a serious loss to the Alliance… He was not only an excellent administrator, as methodical and ingenious as upright and vigilant, but possessed the strategic sense in a very high degree… He seemed to be a last line of defence of the existing regime, capable of protecting it both against the extravagances of absolutism and the excesses of revolution. 

Rasputin’s influence on the court was common knowledge at all levels of Russian society. On March 23, 1916, Paleologue recorded a conversation with an unnamed aristocratic woman about the precarious situation of Foreign Minister Sazonov, in which she stated her own disgust at the growing power of the Siberian peasant: 

“Yes, but how much longer will he be in power? What's going on behind his back? Is there anything brewing that he knows nothing of? No doubt you know that the Empress hates him, because he has always refused to bow the knee to the abject scoundrel who is bringing Russia to shame. I won't tell you who the ruffian is; I couldn't pronounce his name without being sick.” 

On March 29, 1916 he recorded another alarming conversation with Vladimir Kokovtsov, the former prime minister, who warned that Rasputin – notorious for his late-night partying and frequent visits to prostitutes – was bringing the church into fatal disrepute: 

“The religious forces of this country will not be able to withstand the abominable strain upon them much longer. The Episcopate and high ecclesiastical offices are now completely under the heel of the Rasputin clique. It’s like an unclean disease, a gangrene which will soon have devoured all the higher ranks of the Church. I could shed tears of shame when I think of the ignoble traffic that goes on in the offices of the Holy Synod on certain days.” 

While most of Rasputin’s opponents were whispering these sentiments behind closed doors, some were willing to risk the Tsarina’s wrath with open denunciations. The liberal Russian newspaper New Times stated the case against Rasputin in dramatic terms, and hinted at the extreme measures already under contemplation in some quarters: 

How has an abject adventurer like this been able to mock Russia for so long? Is it not astounding that the Church, the Holy Synod, the aristocracy, ministers, the Senate, and many members of the State Council and Duma have degraded themselves before this low hound? The Rasputin scandals seemed perfectly natural [before but] today Russia means to put an end to all this. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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30 Memorable Quotes from Carrie Fisher
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Just days after suffering a heart attack aboard a flight en route to Los Angeles, beloved actress, author, and screenwriter Carrie Fisher passed away at the age of 60 on December 27, 2016. Though she’ll always be most closely associated with her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher’s life was like something out of its own Hollywood movie. Born in Beverly Hills on this day in 1956, Fisher was born into show business royalty as the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.

In addition to her work in front of the camera, Fisher built up an impressive resume behind the scenes, too, most notably as a writer; in addition to several memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels, including Wishful Drinking, Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, The Best Awful, Postcards from the Edge, and The Princess Diarist (which was released last month), she was also an in-demand script doctor who counted Sister Act, Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Wedding Singer among her credits.

Though she struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness, Fisher always maintained a sense of humor—as evidenced by the 30 memorable quotes below.

ON GROWING UP IN HOLLYWOOD

“I am truly a product of Hollywood in-breeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result.”

“I was born into big celebrity. It could only diminish.”

“At a certain point in my early twenties, my mother started to become worried about my obviously ever-increasing drug ingestion. So she ended up doing what any concerned parent would do. She called Cary Grant.”

“I was street smart, but unfortunately the street was Rodeo Drive.”

“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That's my word for it.”

ON AGING

“As you get older, the pickings get slimmer, but the people don't.”

ON INSTANT GRATIFICATION

“Instant gratification takes too long.”

ON THE LEGACY OF STAR WARS

“People are still asking me if I knew Star Wars was going to be that big of a hit. Yes, we all knew. The only one who didn't know was George.”

“Leia follows me like a vague smell.”

“I signed my likeness away. Every time I look in the mirror, I have to send Lucas a couple of bucks.”

“People see me and they squeal like tropical birds or seals stranded on the beach.”

“You're not really famous until you’re a Pez dispenser.”

ON THE FLEETING NATURE OF SUCCESS

“There is no point at which you can say, 'Well, I'm successful now. I might as well take a nap.'”

ON DEALING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

“I'm very sane about how crazy I am.”

ON RESENTMENT

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

ON LOVE

“Someone has to stand still for you to love them. My choices are always on the run.”

“I've got to stop getting obsessed with human beings and fall in love with a chair. Chairs have everything human beings have to offer, and less, which is obviously what I need. Less emotional feedback, less warmth, less approval, less patience, and less response. The less the merrier. Chairs it is. I must furnish my heart with feelings for furniture.”

“I don’t hate hardly ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.”

ON EMOTIONS

“The only thing worse than being hurt is everyone knowing that you're hurt.”

ON RELATIONSHIPS

“I envy people who have the capacity to sit with another human being and find them endlessly interesting, I would rather watch TV. Of course this becomes eventually known to the other person.”

ON HOLLYWOOD

“Acting engenders and harbors qualities that are best left way behind in adolescence.”

“You can't find any true closeness in Hollywood, because everybody does the fake closeness so well.”

“It's a man's world and show business is a man's meal, with women generously sprinkled through it like overqualified spice.”

ON FEAR

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

ON LIFE

“I don’t want life to imitate art. I want life to be art.”

“No motive is pure. No one is good or bad-but a hearty mix of both. And sometimes life actually gives to you by taking away.”

“If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

“I shot through my twenties like a luminous thread through a dark needle, blazing toward my destination: Nowhere.”

“My life is like a lone, forgotten Q-Tip in the second-to-last drawer.”

ON DEATH

“You know what's funny about death? I mean other than absolutely nothing at all? You'd think we could remember finding out we weren't immortal. Sometimes I see children sobbing at airports and I think, 'Aww. They've just been told.'”

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12 Surprising Facts About Bela Lugosi
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On October 20, 1882—135 years ago today—one of the world's most gifted performers was born. In his heyday, Bela Lugosi was hailed as the undisputed king of horror. Eighty-five years after he first donned a vampire’s cape, Lugosi's take on Count Dracula is still widely hailed as the definitive portrayal of the legendary fiend. But who was the man behind the monster?

1. HE WORKED WITH THE NATIONAL THEATER OF HUNGARY.

To the chagrin of his biographers, the details concerning Bela Lugosi’s youth have been clouded in mystery. (In a 1929 interview, he straight-up admitted “for purposes of simplification, I have always thought it better to tell [lies] about the early years of my life.”) That said, we do know that he was born as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugoj, Hungary (now part of Romania). We also know that his professional stage debut came at some point in either 1901 or 1902. By 1903, Lugosi had begun to find steady work with traveling theater companies, through which he took part in operas, operettas, and stage plays. In 1913, Lugosi caught a major break when the most prestigious performing arts venue in his native country—the Budapest-based National Theater of Hungary—cast him in no less than 34 shows. Most of the characters that he played there were small Shakespearean roles such as Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Sir Walter Herbert in Richard III.

2. HE FOUGHT IN WORLD WAR I.

The so-called war to end all wars put Lugosi’s dramatic aspirations on hold. Although being a member of the National Theater exempted him from military service, he voluntarily enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. Over the next year and a half, he fought against Russian forces as a lieutenant with the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry. While serving in the Carpathian mountains, Lugosi was wounded on three separate occasions. Upon healing from his injuries, he left the armed forces in 1916 and gratefully resumed his work with the National Theater.

3. WHEN HE MADE HIS BROADWAY DEBUT, LUGOSI BARELY KNEW ANY ENGLISH.

In December 1920, Lugosi boarded a cargo boat and emigrated to the United States. Two years later, audiences on the Great White Way got their first look at this charismatic stage veteran. Lugosi was cast as Fernando—a suave, Latin lover—in the 1922 Broadway stage play The Red Poppy. At the time, his grasp of the English language was practically nonexistent. Undaunted, Lugosi went over all of his lines with a tutor. Although he couldn’t comprehend their meaning, the actor managed to memorize and phonetically reproduce every single syllable that he was supposed to deliver on stage.

4. UNIVERSAL DIDN’T WANT TO CAST HIM AS COUNT DRACULA.

The year 1927 saw Bela Lugosi sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime. A play based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker had opened in London in 1924. Sensing its potential, Horace Liveright, an American producer, decided to create an U.S. version of the show. Over the summer of 1927, Lugosi was cast as the blood-sucking Count Dracula. For him, the part represented a real challenge. In Lugosi’s own words, “It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success.” It certainly was. Enhanced by his presence, the American Dracula remained on Broadway for a full year, then spent two years touring the country.

Impressed by its box office prowess, Universal decided to adapt the show into a major motion picture in 1930. Horror fans might be surprised to learn that when the studio began the process of casting this movie’s vampiric villain, Lugosi was not their first choice. At the time, Lugosi was still a relative unknown, which made director Tod Browning more than a little hesitant to offer him the job. A number of established actors were all considered before the man who’d played Dracula on Broadway was tapped to immortalize his biting performance on film.

5. MOST OF HIS DRACULA-RELATED FAN MAIL CAME FROM WOMEN.

The recent Twilight phenomenon is not without historical precedent. Lugosi estimated that, while he was playing the Count on Broadway, more than 97 percent of the fan letters he received were penned by female admirers. A 1932 Universal press book quotes him as saying, “When I was on the stage in Dracula, my audiences were composed mostly of women.” Moreover, Lugosi contended that most of the men who’d attended his show had merely been dragged there by female companions.   

6. HE TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER.

Released in 1931, Dracula quickly became one of the year's biggest hits for Universal (some film historians even argue that the movie single-handedly rescued the ailing studio from bankruptcy). Furthermore, its astronomical success transformed Lugosi into a household name for the first time in his career. Regrettably for him, though, he’d soon miss the chance to star in another smash. Pleased by Dracula’s box office showing, Universal green-lit a new cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lugosi seemed like the natural choice to play the monster, but because the poor brute had few lines and would be caked in layers of thick makeup, the actor rejected the job offer. As far as Lugosi was concerned, the character was better suited for some “half-wit extra” than a serious actor. Once the superstar tossed Frankenstein aside, the part was given to a little-known actor named Boris Karloff.

Moviegoers eventually did get to see Lugosi play the bolt-necked corpse in the 1943 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. According to some sources, he strongly detested the guttural scream that the script forced him to emit at regular intervals. “That yell is the worst thing about the part. You feel like a big jerk every time you do it!” Lugosi allegedly complained.

7. LUGOSI’S RELATIONSHIP WITH BORIS KARLOFF WAS MORE CORDIAL THAN IT’S USUALLY MADE OUT TO BE.

It’s often reported that the two horror icons were embittered rivals. In reality, however, Karloff and Lugosi seemed to have harbored some mutual respect—and perhaps even affection for one another. The dynamic duo co-starred in five films together, the first of which was 1934’s The Black Cat; Karloff claimed that, on set, Lugosi was “Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene stealing. Later on, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.” During one of their later collaborations, Lugosi told the press “we laughed over my sad mistake and his good fortune as Frankenstein is concerned.”

That being said, Lugosi probably didn’t appreciate the fact that in every single film which featured both actors, Karloff got top billing. Also, he once privately remarked, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”

8. HE LOVED SOCCER.

In 1935, Lugosi was named Honorary President of the Los Angeles Soccer League. An avid fan, he was regularly seen at Loyola Stadium, where he’d occasionally kick off the first ball during games held there. Also, on top of donating funds to certain Hungarian teams, Lugosi helped finance the Los Angeles Magyar soccer club. When the team won a state championship in 1935, one newspaper wrote that the players were “headed back to Dracula’s castle with the state cup.” [PDF]

9. HE WAS A HARDCORE STAMP COLLECTOR.

Lugosi's fourth wife, Lillian Arch, claimed that Lugosi maintained a collection of more than 150,000 stamps. Once, on a 1944 trip to Boston, he told the press that he intended to visit all 18 of the city's resident philately dealers. “Stamp collecting,” Lugosi declared, “is a hobby which may cost you as much as 10 percent of your investment. You can always sell your stamps with not more than a 10 percent loss. Sometimes, you can even make money.” Fittingly enough, the image of Lugosi’s iconic Dracula appeared on a commemorative stamp issued by the post office in 1997.

10. LUGOSI ALMOST DIDN’T APPEAR IN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN—BECAUSE THE STUDIO THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD.

The role of Count Dracula in this 1948 blockbuster was nearly given to Ian Keith—who was considered for the same role in the 1931 Dracula movie. Being a good sport, Lugosi helped promote the horror-comedy by making a special guest appearance on The Abbott and Costello Show. While playing himself in one memorable sketch, the famed actor claimed to eat rattlesnake burgers for dinner and “shrouded wheat” for breakfast.

11. A CHIROPRACTOR FILLED IN FOR HIM IN PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Toward the end of his life, Lugosi worked on three ultra-low-budget science fiction pictures with Ed Wood, a man who’s been posthumously embraced as the worst director of all time. In the 1953 transvestite picture Glen or Glenda?, Lugosi plays a cryptic narrator who offers such random and unsolicited bits of advice as “Beware of the big, green dragon who sits on your doorstep.” Then came 1955’s Bride of the Monster, in which Lugosi played a mad scientist who ends up doing battle with a (suspiciously limp) giant octopus.

Before long, Wood had cooked up around half a dozen concepts for new films, all starring Lugosi. At some point in the spring of 1956, the director shot some quick footage of the actor wandering around a suburban neighborhood, clad in a baggy cloak. This proved to be the last time that the star would ever appear on film. Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956;  he was 73 years old.

Three years after Lugosi's passing, this footage was spliced into a cult classic that Wood came to regard as his “pride and joy.” Plan 9 From Outer Space tells the twisted tale of extraterrestrial environmentalists who turn newly-deceased human beings into murderous zombies. Since Lugosi could obviously no longer play his character, Wood hired a stand-in for some additional scenes. Unfortunately, the man who was given this job—California chiropractor Tom Mason—was several inches taller than Lugosi. In an attempt to hide the height difference, Wood instructed Mason to constantly hunch over. Also, Mason always kept his face hidden behind a cloak.

12. HE WAS BURIED IN HIS DRACULA CAPE.

Although Lugosi resented the years of typecasting that followed his breakout performance in Dracula, he asked to be laid to rest wearing the Count’s signature garment. Lugosi was buried under a simple tombstone at California's Holy Cross Cemetery.

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