On Progeny and patrimonial lineage
A Girl named Poppy
CNN has been sporting quite a few interesting documentaries recently: Steve Jobs, Life Itself (Roger Ebert), the Sixties, the Seventies, The Black Panthers. Last month they aired a different kind of documentary; it was comprised of a dozen or so “shorts.” Each segment was a story by one of their news anchors on the topic “The Person who Changed my Life.”
Unfortunately, I did not see most of the segments. I did see the one by Poppy Harlow. I was moved by whom she identified as “the person who most changed my life”, and the story she told about him and their relationship. That person was her father, who died when she was still a young teen. It’s a very good production video of a touching story; a success story that is both likely and unlikely.
Likely: we all “like” to think that success can, in most cases and in some way, be traced from a parental influence. Unlikely: Poppy’s career turned out to be nothing like her father’s. You can watch the video here. Poppy Harlow: The Person who Changed my Life.
It reminded me of several other stories that I’ve been holding onto for no particular reason, except to maybe share them here. I won’t say these are similar to Poppy’s story, but they are not all that different either. I will limit them to a total of a mere three segments. (And a very brief fourth follow-up).
- “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”
– Howard Beale (Network) –> watch the Mad as Hell Scene.
If you haven’t watched the iconic 1976 movie “Network”, then watching the scene via the link above is probably all you need in order to get an excellent cultural reference. It applies as much today as ever. It will probably always be “timely.”
Peter Finch’s (1916 – 1977) portrayal of crazed news anchor Howard Beale in “Network” earned him an Oscar: the Academy Award for Best Actor. The award was posthumous; he died suddenly – age only 60 – of a heart attack January, 14, 1977, two and a half months before that year’s Academy Awards ceremony. He was the first person to be awarded an Oscar posthumously for an acting performance.
Finch’s award for “Network” was no fluke. Before that he had earned five BAFTA awards for Best Actor (that’s British Academy of Film and Arts). He was also nominated by both the British and American Academies for several other prominent awards.
The effect of Finch’s patrimony is difficult to ascertain, but it is very interesting to investigate.
Australian George Ingle Finch had a very successful career as a chemist. Among his achievements: developed an improved catalyst for synthesis of ammonia; conducted groundbreaking research into solid state physics, surfaces and thin films, electron diffraction, electron microscopy; and the electrical ignition of gases. In 1944 he was recognized with the Hughes Medal of the (British) Royal Society. He was president of the esteemed Physical Society of London 1947-49. And yet, this is not what he is most known for, nor (probably) his greatest effect on young Peter Finch.
In 1914 Finch the elder was in London, where he was doing research at the Imperial College of Science and Industry. That’s where and when he met Alicia Fisher, daughter of a Kent barrister. Soon after World War I broke out he was assigned to the Royal Field Artillery. Sometime shortly after the start of his military service, in 1915, George and Alice were wed. [As an Australian he was still a subject of the crown, and duty-bound to serve].
While George was away, Peter was conceived. He arrived September 28, 1916 – with George obviously still away. Officially named Frederick George Peter Ingle Finch – perhaps in a way to honor Alicia’s absent husband – he went through most of his life as Peter.
When George returned there were some accounts to settle. He soon divorced Alicia and, with his sister, took full legal custody of Peter. Shortly thereafter young Peter was sent off to France to live with relatives, where he was mostly reared by George’s mother – Peter’s putative grandmother. In the meanwhile George had some dreams to fulfill. He wanted to be a mountain climber.
Those were still the days of the great British adventure; adventure as experienced by, and performed by, the privileged gentry. Yes, the British gentry, of which Finch was certainly not a part. Sailing the world, going to the Yukon gold rush, safaris in Africa, climbing mountains – these were things done with as much creature comfort as possible. Often smoking cigars, dining on quail and herring, sipping brandy, while attired in tweed – that was how to adventure. At least the British gentry’s mode.
That was not how to attack a beast like Everest. Finch joined the Alpine club and set out to join three attempts to make the ascent of Everest in the 1920s with the much more famous climber, the legendary George Mallory.
Finch was an outsider, a colonial farm boy. He had done some climbing in the Alps while studying in Zurich before getting his post at Imperial College. For the Himalayas he brought oxygen canisters, which came in at a hefty 16kg for eight hours supply. On the second British Everest attempt in 1924, Finch was allowed on the ascent team; he made the highest effort on Everest to that date, over 27,000 feet. (Everest tops out at 29,028 ft; that’s 8,848 m). He might well have summited, had he not felt compelled to assist an enfeebled novice companion back to safety.
Finch was, in the eyes of many experts, the best technical climber of his time, despite it being merely a hobby, and he not being a gentlemen. He was sneered upon as a country boy, a colonialist, and an outsider who would “cheat” by using oxygen. He was left off the other two ascent attempts.
In the end, Finch was right. 
And in the end, it’s hard to know his influence on his “son”. When Peter was 10, George fetched him up and took him back to Australia. Peter always knew that George openly denied that Peter was his biological son. He also knew of his “father’s” attempt at Everest, and his contributions to science – although George was never much recognized for either until later in his life, when Peter was already well on in his acting career.
The younger Finch’s career started out as bumming across Australia during the Great Depression with a traveling troupe, picking up odd acting roles. During World War II he served in the Army, manning an anti-aircraft gun to fend off Japanese during the bombing of Darwin, and serving in the Middle East.
He didn’t let the war slow him down much: he produced, directed and acted in plays for the troops. When the war was over, his career only delayed a bit, he hit the ground running, took every opportunity, worked hard, and became one of the most famous actors of all time: British, Australian, or, of the world.
- 2. “Tell yer uncle why there ain’t no snow in California”
— “Don’t look at me! I didn’t take it!” – Cousin Peal and Jethro (Beverly Hillbillies)
1960s sitcoms. They were corny. Some were corny and popular. Among them, “The Beverly Hillbillies” was regularly the top rated TV show in America. During its eleven year run it was only occasionally bumped from #1, usually by The Ed Sullivan Show.
The adorable Donna Douglas, who played Ellie Mae Clampett on the show, passed on about a year ago (January, 2015) at age 82, leaving Max Baer, Jr (Jethro Bodine) as the last living member of the cast.
Both skilled and successful actors, Douglas and Baer would end up with constricted acting careers, as they were so very type-casted by their successful roles on Beverly Hillbillies. [Although Douglas made a 1959 pre-Hillbillies recording in The Twilight Zone episode “The Eye of the Beholder”, wherein she played a woman undergoing a surgery to have her appearance fixed so that she would look more normal. The surgery was a failure: she was just as beautiful after the bandages were removed. The episode was not shown until 1960. — Yes, Donna Douglas, even as Ellie Mae, was inherently beautiful.]
As a Beverly Hillbillies side note and question: can anyone provide an accurate description of the familial relationships between Granny, Uncle Jed, Ellie Mae, Jethro, and Aunt Pearl? (Whom did I forget? Was some sort of incest implied?)
Hopelessly typecast, Douglas more or less gave up acting when the series ended in 1971 and moved on to a successful career as a Gospel singer and inspirational speaker.
Baer, however, did not give up the camera.
Sports enthusiasts might recognize the name Max Baer as a former World Heavyweight Boxing champion. A big brute of a man, with a literally deadly right hand, Max Baer, Sr was indeed the Heavyweight Boxing Champion. That would be “Jethro’s” real life father.
Max Baer, Sr was one-quarter Jewish – acquired from his half-Jewish father. Although he rarely practiced Judaism, he eventually decided to embrace it as a public gesture, nonetheless.
Baer broke into worldwide recognition as a champion contender just as Adolf Hitler assumed the German chancellorship, and ultimately the dictatorship, of Nazi Germany. He became a bona fide contender when he beat the great German boxer, Max Schmeling, in June 1933. Schmeling was a recent (although not current) heavy-weight champion. He was the reigning German Heavyweight champion.
Baer was disgusted by the warmth and favoritism shown by the Jew-hating Hitler and the Nazi party apparatus toward Schmeling. Baer was willing to make a public statement, and so he began wearing a very prominent Star of David on his boxing trunks for matches. He started wearing the Star for the match against Hitler’s favorite, Schmeling. And he continued to do so. He was wearing the Star of David embroidered trunks when he won the World Heavyweight Title a year later, June, 1934, when he defeated the then current title holder, Prima Carnera.
And he was wearing the Star, 364 days later, when he lost the title in The Cinderella Match against Irish-American New York longshoreman, James (Jimmy) “Cinderella Man” Braddock.
Unfortunately the otherwise terrific movie about that fight (The Cinderella Man) casts Baer in an extremely negative light. However, it was based partly on fact: Baer considered part of the job of boxing champ to be an entertainer, and he could be pretty darned silly when in that role. The movie played up the goofy and obnoxious role-playing of Baer (in an obvious shallow attempt to get viewers to appreciate underdog Braddock all the more). The movie also failed to prominently show Baer’s trunks, and their plainly visible Star of David. (Blame that on the producer, Ron Howard — Opie).
Shortly after Baer Sr’s boxing retirement, World War II broke out for the United States. Baer served as a physical conditioning trainer for the US Army Air Force. He continued to sporadically act in films (he had started in 1933) and served as celebrity referee for boxing matches.
In November 1959 Baer was in Hollywood for several television commercials (they were done “live” in those does – very few 2nd takes). While shaving at the Roosevelt Hotel, Baer felt a chest pain. He called the front desk, asking for a doctor. They told him they’d send a “house doctor” right up. Ever playful, Baer replied: “No dummy, I need a people doctor.” In hospital later that morning he was joking with doctors when … a second attack hit him. “Oh God, here I go …”
He was only 50 years old. (I am often humbled by how people achieved so very much … and then died … far younger than I am now). His son Max Jr would be making his first appearance on TV in just a few weeks, under contract with Warner Brothers, with whom he would eventually star in The Beverly Hillbillies. Baer, Sr is rated #22 in Ring’s list of all-time boxers. He is among a very few boxers who’ve won by knock-out over 50 times. Two deaths are attributed to his mighty right arm. He was devastated by each.
Max Jr’s career after the Beverly Hillbillies remained in the entertainment industry. Hopelessly typecast by his role as Hillbilly Jethro Bodine until 1971, his acting career was largely over. After that he wrote, produced and directed movies, including “Macon County Line”, in which he also played a rare serious role. That movie made $25 million for an investment of just over $100,000 – a record ratio that lasted until the Blair Witch Project (1999).
He also had the idea of turning popular songs into movies. It was Baer, Jr who came up with turning Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe”, a hit ’60s song, into a cinematic feature. [The lyrics are below… if you’d like to follow along while listening).
In retirement, Baer continues to make a few TV appearances and has long been attempting to develop a casino in Carson City on the Beverly Hillbillies theme. It has been fraught with legal issues and odd competition.
- Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
– The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
William Greenleaf Eliot died January 23, 1887 in St Louis, Missouri. He founded the first Unitarian Church west of the Mississippi in 1837, at the corner of 4th and Pine – perhaps 1000 ft from where the famous Gateway Arch has stood since 1964. Outgrowing that location, in 1852, Eliot led the congregation in building and moving to a larger worship space at 9th and Olive. This is only a few blocks from where the stately Post Office and Customs House, and the Library, would be built decades later; those still stand. In 1880, Eliot again led the building of a new Church, at Locust and Garrison. This site was on the Register of National Historic Places. It unfortunately suffered a devastating fire in 1982, and was completely razed in 1987.
That’s just the beginning of William Eliot’s curriculum vitae and significance to St Louis. He’s most notable for founding Washington University in St. Louis (initially called Eliot Seminary). He was influential and critical to founding many civic institutions, including: the St. Louis Public School System; the St. Louis Art Museum; the Mission Free School; the South Side Day Nursery; and the Western Sanitary Commission that provided medical care and supplies during the Civil War. He also contributed to the development of the Colored Orphans’ Home, Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home, Memorial Home, Blind Girls Home, Women’s Christian Home, and many other charitable institutions.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited St. Louis, he had the opportunity to meet Eliot and subsequently called him “the Saint of the West.” Besides founding Washington University in 1853, Eliot donated generously to its construction and served as chancellor from 1870 to 1887.
In 1859 William Eliot founded Mary Institute, a school for girls which he named after his daughter, who had died very young. It is now part of the co-educational Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School (MISLCDS).
It’s hard to know the further effect he had on American culture and literature. In fact, his effect on world culture and literature. Why? William Eliot was also the grandfather of Thomas Stearns Eliot, who was born the year after William’s passing. Going by his initials, T.S., Eliot is renowned in his own right as one of America’s and the world’s most acclaimed poets, essayists, playwrights and literary critics.
It’s hard to imagine young Thomas, spending his youth going between St Louis and New England (due to family ties in the Boston area) and not being very aware of his grandfather’s contributions to society. Frail as a child, “Tom” turned to literature, embraced it, and found inspiration in fellow Missourian, Samuel Clemens.
I’ve read, recited and committed to memory quite a bit of verse over my many decades. Poe, Frost, Longfellow … even Lewis Carrol. And yet, somehow, I’ve not connected much with Mr Eliot the younger. As an aerospace engineer and amateur historian, perhaps I can be forgiven.
As a sop to fellow enthusiasts of the 1904 World’s Fair: As a teen, young Tom attended the Fair – it was in his hometown, after all. The 47-acre Philippines Igorot “village” living exhibit inspired him to write some short stories and poems. This experience also probably influenced his decision to pursue anthropological studies at Harvard – where his grandfather’s name still stood large. 
Yes, perhaps I can be forgiven for not taking to Eliot’s writings. T.S. eventually turned away from much of what his grandfather was proud of. In 1910 he moved to Paris; then, in 1914, to England. And there he stayed. He eventually gave up both his Unitarian faith and US citizenship, becoming both Anglican and a subject of the crown.
T.S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as a British subject, in 1948.
- Depression Youth; Military Service
My wife and I think of, and talk about, our fathers quite often. They had a lot in common. Both grew up in humble households during the Great Depression. It’s easy to see that this helped make them thrifty, resilient and loyal. They both served in the US military in the ‘40s, Audrey’s dad in the US Navy – in fact a Pearl Harbor Survivor; my dad in the occupation of Japan. It’s easy to see how this helped mold them into the prototypical “Greatest Generation” male: the strong quiet type; able to lead and command; yet equally capable of following and taking orders: organization men. They each loved their family and country dearly, loyally, sincerely … yet often from a reticent and in-charge position and point-of-view.
For the rest of their lives, they felt it was a duty to stay very informed on current events, and they loved to encourage discussion that swirled around world events – including past and current.
I have no idea how our three children’s lives will play out … hopefully very long after we are gone. I’d like to think that there is something of the following in them, and that – in some way – part of it comes from their parents. Just as we received something in this regard from our parents:
- Inner Strength and Self-Discipline
- Loyalty and Love
- Kindness and Compassion
- Service and Simplicity
- Living in the Moment
- Honesty and Humility
- Graciousness and Generosity
- Patience and Perseverance
- Forgiveness and Fortitude
Obviously no one is perfect. I certainly am not; neither is my wife. Neither were our fathers. Still – we cling to the positive influences and traits … and gently release the rest. Life is too short to be concerned with anything else.
And I wish the same strengths and virtues for you and yours.
Joe Girard © 2016
email joe: Email Joe (for addition to email list, or discussion not related to this post. Comments can be added below)
 Heath Ledger duplicated this sad/happy circumstance, passing on before he could be receive the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as The Joker in 2008’s Batman sequel “The Black Knight.” Ledger died from a prescription drug overdose (likely due to abuse from ongoing viral infections and insomnia issues). Ironically, both Ledger and Finch were Australian. Ledger was only 28.
 The air pressure at 28,000 ft elevation is only one-third that at sea level. That means 67% less oxygen for the lungs while working severely hard at steep ascent grades. Famed Kiwi Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, were the first humans to summit Everest, in 1951. They used supplemental oxygen, as have the vast majority of those who’ve successfully achieved the full ascent.
The first summit without oxygen was not until 1978. In 2013, a total of 658 climbers attained the summit; only 9 did so without oxygen. There were also 8 deaths.
 Finch’s biological father was Wentworth Edward Dallas “Jock” Campbell, an Indian Army officer. Alicia Fisher Finch later married Campbell in 1922. (what’s with the Brits and all those middle names?)
 The St Louis 1904 Exposition was huge. Hyuge. Just the Igorot Village living exhibit was larger than many famous World’s Fairs … e.g. The complete 1962 Seattle World’s Fair (which gave us the Space Needle and the Monorail) was only 32 acres … vs the Igorot village at 47 acres … the whole 1904 Fair covered nearly 1280 acres (two square miles)!
Final notes: You can watch The Twilight Zone episode online (The Eye of the Beholder). It’s easier to listen to Bobbie Gentry singing Ode to Billie Joe … one of my favorite Ballads (right up there with “West Texas Town of El Paso.” If you do, here are the lyrics so you can follow along.
And just for grins….
Ode to Billy Joe
(written, sung and performed by Bobbie Gentry)
It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay.
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered out the back door: “y’all, remember to wipe your feet!”
And then she said, “I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge.
Today, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”
And papa said to mama, as he passed around the black-eyed peas:
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please.
There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow”
And mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow;
Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge.
And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
And brother said he recollected when he, and Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece o’ apple pie; you know, it don’t seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”
And mama said to me, “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning, and you haven’t touched a single bite.
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today.
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way …
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge,
And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge”
A year has come and gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe.
‘n’ Brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going ’round, Papa caught it and he died last Spring,
And now Mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything.
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.