Search

Articles & Essays

Jack has written more than 500 articles and essays for The Atlantic, Scientific American Mind, Wired, American Heritage, The History Channel Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and many other publications.

Read his articles and essays here.

Jack El-Hai's Books
  • The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
    The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
  • Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
    Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
  • Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
    Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
  • The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
    The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
Follow Jack on Twitter

Monday
Jun112012

E.G. Marshall's Invented Past

When the actor E.G. Marshall died in 1998 — remember him in the movies Twelve Angry Men and Interiors, as well as a slew of TV shows, including The Defenders? — the world’s media took note. Newspapers and magazines passed along many tidbits on Marshall’s life: that he was born on June 18, 1910 (Variety), that he was “of Norwegian stock” (People magazine), that his full birth name was Edda Gunnar Marshall (The Times of London), and that he “was educated at Carlton [sic] College and the University of Minnesota” [London’s Independent]. 

Much of it was wrong.

I was interested in Marshall’s Minnesota roots, so I began an examination of the late actor’s past. I discovered that records at the Steele County Courthouse in Owatonna, Minn., listed him as being born on June 18, 1914, as Everett Eugene Grunz, the son of Charles and Hazel Grunz, who claimed only German, Scottish, Irish, and English ethnicity. “There is no Norwegian ancestry in the family that I know of,” I heard from Joe Grunz, Marshall’s youngest and only surviving sibling, who lived in Williams, Minn. 

The Grunz family moved from Owatonna to St. Paul when Marshall was about eight, and he went through the public schools there. Joe Grunz speculated that his brother may have used a busy thoroughfare in St. Paul, Marshall Avenue, as the inspiration for his stage name.

Then I contacted Eric Hillemann, the archivist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. (my own alma mater), who had spent several years tracking the actor’s slippery past. “I saw him listed among people who were well-known Carleton alumni,” Hillemann told me. “I checked his file through the college’s central records. It was clear there was a mystery about him.” No Carleton records, in fact, suggested that Marshall was ever a student. Similarly, the University of Minnesota’s archivists were unable to find any paper trail of a student named Everett Grunz or Everett Marshall. “To my knowledge, he did not go to college,” Joe Grunz said.

So how did all this false information about Marshall’s origins make it into print? Over the years, Marshall apparently supplied the information himself to the editors of such reference works as Who’s Who in America, Current Biography, and Who’s Who in the Theatre. When he died, obituary writers around the globe consulted those sources, and the rest is (or isn’t) history. (Books like The Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors continue to include the incorrect information, as does Marshall’s Wikipedia entry.)

I asked Clifford Stevens, Marshall’s last agent, why the actor would fib about his past. “E.G. had a good time being mysterious about his early years,” Stevens told me. “It’s not that he was ashamed of his past. He just liked to keep it mysterious.” A sad consequence is that new fans of Marshall’s artistry may never know the true story of his life.

Wednesday
Jun062012

The Cherry Sisters: good or bad?

Somehow, 100 years ago, five apparently talentless siblings from Marion, Iowa, reigned as America’s most famous female vaudeville team. For many years I have gathered information on the Cherry Sisters — Ellie, Lizzie, Addie, Jessie and Effie — and have found their lives full of puzzling events and psychological enigmas. Why did audiences come to see them? Did they really need netting to protect them from fusillades of rotten vegetables from the audience? And then there’s the biggest question of all: Did the Cherry Sisters realize they were bad?

Their atrocious performances — full of acrid singing, childish skits, and awkward religious tableaus — brought them notoriety. Early in their stage careers, a Cherry Sisters stage show in Dubuque, Iowa, sparked the worst riot in the city’s history. The audience mocked the Sisters’ singing by raining cabbages, onions and even an old tin wash boiler on the stage, and tore up the seats. One witness to a Cherry performance complained that the Sisters sang in “totally unclassified tones, indescribably in their awfulness. All expectations of a rank performance were disappointed. It was lots, lots ranker than anyone in his sane moments ever imagined.” 

Another published slam announced that “the mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom.... Effie is spavined, Addie is knock-kneed and springhalt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs without calves, as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle.” Critics catalogued their badness in terms never applied to men. And so things went for years in their performances from Des Moines to Chicago to New York — on and off from 1893 to 1936. 

The actress Marie Dressler was said to have been uncertain of the authenticity of the Sisters’ badness. A frustrated Des Moines Register writer declared that “either the Cherry Sisters are completely sincere and take themselves seriously, or they are the most accomplished actresses the world has ever known.”

I’ve concluded that the Cherrys “played bad” to keep folks coming to their shows. Though undoubtedly lacking in artistry, they exploited badness to stay in the public eye. It was their brand. When Addie and Effie performed at a radio station barn dance in 1936, Effie — who twice ran farcical campaigns to become mayor of Cedar Rapids — was asked whether she thought their act good. “Good?” she shot back. “There’s 2,500 people out there, isn’t there?... Good! You’ve got to be good to pack as many people in as we have for 40 years.”

Like us all, the Cherry Sisters were complicated. They didn’t appreciate insults but kept taking them. They complained of the moral impurity of other performers (singling out Mae West for special scorn), but sued when others judged them harshly. (Their infamous libel lawsuit against a newspaper, argued before the Iowa Supreme Court, produced a landmark decision that upheld the right of the press to publish public criticism and fair comment.) They craved privacy and drew attention to themselves.

After Effie became the last Cherry to die in 1944, most people who recalled the Sisters at all remembered them as simply bad. That’s a shame, because the Cherrys were bad and so much more.


Thursday
May312012

Crunching History for Television

Last week I had the chance to tell a history story on Almanac, my local public television station’s weekly public affairs and news program. (You can view my segment here.) I accepted the producer’s invitation to appear on the show even though I knew that condensing a complicated history tale is fraught with peril.

Thanks to the talents of the producer, Brendan Henehan, and the program’s host, Cathy Wurzer, everything went well. In about seven minutes, I told the story of Homer Smith, an undeservedly forgotten black journalist of the 20th century who played a role in an undeservedly forgotten episode in the history of U.S.-Soviet relations and the beginnings of the civil rights movement. Smith was one of 22 young African Americans who traveled to the USSR in 1932 to appear in Black and White, a Soviet-sponsored propaganda film about race relations in America. I’ve been interested in (some would say obsessed by) Smith and his fellow would-be actors for decades, and I recently explored one aspect of the wondrous Black and White controversy in this article

Smith remained in Russia for 14 years, working for a time as the only black reporter covering the eastern front during World War II. Then, after the war’s end, he escaped to Africa with the help of an Ethiopian diplomat and, after initial opposition from the State Department and the FBI, returned to the U.S. Once an enthusiast for the Soviet regime, he now wrote articles against it. He published a book about his experiences, Black Man in Red Russia, in 1964 but died practically unknown eight years later.

In my limited time on the air, my challenge was to be entertaining as I got across Smith’s journalistic skills, sketched the story of the Black and White film, and hinted at the complexity of his political turnaround. Most importantly, I had to convey why his life was significant.

The last point of Smith's significance was especially hard, at least how I wanted to handle it, because it forced me to do some personal thinking. I believe all writers who investigate historical topics need to frequently ask themselves why they’re caught up in the tales they tell. Coming up with answers leads us down useful and surprising paths when we start writing and have to chisel topics into stories. 

Luckily for me, Cathy’s questions kept me focused and moving ahead. I think Homer Smith’s story, as I told it on TV, is coherent. What do you think?

Page 1 ... 6 7 8 9 10