Tag Archives: Monroeville-AL

About Us; About You

Writing History; Recreating and Creating History

My mother, God rest her saintly soul, took up writing the last decade or so of her life.  She made a serious study of it, even joining writing clubs and taking experienced mentors.  Over the next several years she crafted a series of essays about her life: from growing up on the plains of Alberta, to raising a flock of six wild kids; plus moving from Canada, to Chicago, to Milwaukee, to Arkansas and finally to Colorado.  Eventually she compiled a few dozen of those essays into an autobiography which she self-published just two years before she passed away.  I’m so very glad she did.

Many authors have written stories and essays by incorporating elements of their own life into their works, in semi- or even full-autobiographical form.  The characters of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” closely resemble herself, her family and acquaintances as a youth.  The fictional town of Maycomb, AL closely resembles her own girlhood hometown of Monroeville, AL.

Samuel Clemens’ novels – particularly those about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer – include many adventures and characters from his boyhood hometown of Hannibal, Missouri – although he places them in fictional St Petersburg, complete with a cave.

The list of authors who have created this way is near endless.  Hunter S Thompson: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Charles Dickens: David Copperfield.  And we recognize: Aleksander Solzhenitsyn; Roald Dahl; Ernest Hemingway; Charlotte Brontë  Theirs are timeless and often moving works.

Question: Will you write about your youth, your life, your experiences? Our literary works don’t have to be moving or timeless; but we should all write.  Why? To express ourselves.  To leave a legacy to our posterity about our lives and our thoughts.  Somewhere in the decades and generations hence, a child or young adult descendant will wonder what their ancestors were like.  What YOU were like. Send them a message.

But don’t just make it up.  As Harper Lee said: an author “should write about what they know, and write truthfully.”

“Literature transmits incontrovertible condensed experience — from generation to generation. In this way literature becomes living memory ….” – Aleksander Solzhenitsyn


“Home is where your story begins” — Annie Danielson, Colorado CEO of the year, 2009


My dear friend Kevin Shepardson is now in a rehab hospital in Phoenix. Reports I get are that he is doing well; in fact – miraculously well.  Although now safe from terminal danger, he still has “a very long row to hoe.”  He has great loving support from his family and many friends.  Still, he can use all the prayers, good wishes and thoughts you can send his way.

I’d written recently that – until his New Year’s Eve day cardiac arrest episode – Kevin published a daily news letter, often with musical tributes to some event or holiday.  Each year in December he includes a daily musical tribute. Every day’s inbox has a new Christmas or Winter Holiday Seasonal themed musical delight, right up to Christmas Eve Day.

This past December 23 his musical selection was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – which has to be one of the saddest Christmas carols ever.

Just the title conveys a lack of joy: Little Christmas? It’s like you’re being spurned by a lover: Farewell shot: “Well, have yourself a merry little rest of your life.”

The slow sadness of the song is actually appropriate.  The lyrics — composed by Hugh Martin in 1943 — were for the otherwise cheery musical movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”, to be sung by the beautiful and gifted Judy Garland during the only really sad part of the movie.  The plot at this point has her family tormented by an imminent move to New York just as big things are happening in their lives. Young ladies are falling in love and the 1904 World’s Fair is about to occur in St Louis!

In Kevin’s Dec 23 newsletter, he described a bit of the song’s history.  It was originally even much sadder. Its lyrics went:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last.
Next year we may all be living in the past.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Pop that Champagne cork.
Next year we all may be living in New York.

No good times like the olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us … no more.

But at least we all will be together
If the Lord allows
From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas … now.

(Most dreary lines in blue)


Wow. Makes me kind of weepy just reading and humming to myself now.

  • This Christmas “may be your last.” That’s just morbid.
  • “No good times”??? How sad.
  • “Faithful friends who WERE dear to us will be near to us NO MORE.”

Oh my.  No wonder Garland refused to sing the song that way.  She just couldn’t do that in the saddest scene in the movie to poor little 6-year old co-star Margaret O’Brien, who nearly stole the show as Ester’s (Garland’s) younger sister, Tootie.

Fortunately, the movie’s lyricist Hugh Martin eventually relented and re-wrote the song closer to the carol we know so well:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light.
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Make the yuletide gay.
Next year all our troubles will be miles away.

Once again as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us … once more.

Someday soon we all will be together,
If the fates allow.
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas … now.

Much better, but still rather somber when sung at ballad tempo, less than 80 beats per minute.  And it still has that line “have yourself a merry little Christmas” … and ends with “We’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

Muddle through?? Geepers. It was enough to help Margaret O’Brien gin up a few tears … to set her off to a fit of downright bawling – and destroying snowmen. And yet: It’s the original recording and still a very good one.

Well, there have been many covers of “Merry Little Christmas”, most notably by Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra asked Dean Martin to help him lighten up the song for his album “A Jolly Christmas.” It just wasn’t “Jolly” enough.

Martin changed the line with “muddle through” to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Dean and Frank made several other changes, which are shown in the notes below. You can hear it from the album here:  {Click the button or skip to 14:05 on the playback}

That’s a long way of getting to say this: Sally Benson’s story has had a heck of a ride over the last 111 years.  And … any way you look at it, we’re very, very glad this past Christmas didn’t fit the original two lines of “Merry Little Christmas” for Kevin.  It certainly was not your last, buddy!!  Stay strong my friend.  Peace and much healing to you.


During World War II Americans craved entertainment that distracted them from the woes and worries of everyday.  Through much of the war, most news was not pleasant, even when the allies were winning.  For almost four years, US military service personnel perished at a rate of over 300 per day.  Casualties were over 800 per day.

The home front craved entertainment that had light, joyful stories that weren’t terribly deep. Something to take their minds off the awful news, both local and from around the world. Everyone was affected by death and severe injury in their family and among dear friends. The war was fought on the home front as well as in Africa, Europe, the Pacific.  So, who can blame them?

And the entertainment industry stepped up to meet those desires. Many entertainment creations of that era met these criteria. But two in particular share several remarkable coincidences.  These are the musical play “Oklahoma!” and the musical movie “Meet Me in St Louis.”


  1. First, they are period productions, placed during jauntier times, in the first decade of the 20th century; during the Edwardian/pre-war era.

    • >“Oklahoma!” is placed in 1907, in Indian Territory just as Oklahoma is about to become the 46th star on the flag.
    • “Meet Me in St Louis” is placed in 1903-4, in, … well …, St Louis, just as the World’s Fair is about to come to St Louis.
  2. Second, each production originally contained the Rogers and Hammerstein song “Boys and Girls Like You and Me”. Producers dropped the number, twice, at the last minute due to running time.
  3. Finally, each was based on another story. In both cases, that other story was substantially autobiographical.
    • “Oklahoma!” is based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs”, written by Lynn Riggs. Riggs was born in 1899 near Claremore, Indian Territory. He was 1/16th Amerindian*.  He grew up and went to school in, and near, Claremore — which is also the closest significant town to the setting of “Oklahoma!”
    • “Meet Me in St Louis” has a bit more history that I’m familiar with. It’s based on the book of the same title. That book, in turn, is slightly expanded from a series of semi-autobiographical essays that Sally (Redway) Benson wrote for The New Yorker magazine, from 1941 to 1942.
      • The essays were called “5135 Kensington”, which was her family’s address in a middle class neighborhood, located just over a mile from the main entrance to Forest Park, St Louis, where the 1904 World’s Fair occurred.


*: I have concluded that, sadly, there is not a perfectly appropriate term for this race of people.  “Native American” fails, since there are generations upon generations of other races dwelling here in the Americas who have no other place to call their native land.  “Indian” fails since that clearly belongs to the Indian subcontinent.  They are worthy of their own clear and distinct name, so I have accepted what some others have proposed: Amerindian.


Leaving “Oklahoma!” for another time, let’s skip over to what became of Benson’s autobiographical essays: Meet Me in St Louis.Promo1

MGM was casting about for possible cheer-you-up movie plots wherein they could cast their greatest rising star – Judy Garland – when they came across Benson’s essays.  They decided it could be made into a screenplay for a musical movie, in order to showcase Garland’s beauty, grace and voice.

Only 21 at the time, Garland initially refused the role. She didn’t want to play a teenage “girl next door.” She was an adult now.

Indeed she was an adult.  During production, she and director Vincente Minnelli fell in love – resulting in the second of five Garland’s marriages.

“Meet Me in St Louis” is full of music, song and gay dancing  (duh, it’s a musical!). As full of music as it is, the movie’s songwriters — Hugh Martin (lyrics) and Ralph Blaine (music) — only composed three original tunes for the movie. These were: “The Boy Next Door”, “The Trolley Song”, and the aforementioned, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

These were written specifically to be sung by Judy Garland – (although she doesn’t come in on “Trolley” until over a minute — almost halfway through — after she sees her potential beau make it to the trolley.)

Both “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” are among the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie songs of all time: “Trolley” coming in at #26 and “Merry Little Christmas” at #76.

No surprise, especially to Judy’s many fans, that she also holds AFI’s #1 spot with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Meet me in St Louis” ranks as AFI’s 10th best musical movie of all time.  Easy guess that “Singing in the Rain” is #1.

Although screenwriters took some liberty with Benson’s original texts, much of it remained faithful to her writings of her childhood memories.

  • The address of the Smith home is exactly the same as that of her childhood: 5135 Kensington Avenue
  • The names of all the family members (mother, father, four girls, one boy) and the maid are all exactly the same as Benson’s family — even the nicknames. The family’s surname, Smith, is actually Benson’s mother’s maiden name.
  • Opportunities to show what else was going on in St Louis at the time were skipped – for example Scott Joplin lived and performed just a couple miles away. Ragtime was very fresh and popular. Benson didn’t write about these because, as a young child of six years old, she didn’t remember it. She wrote about what she knew.

Today we remember “Meet Me in St Louis” for much more than “Sally Benson first wrote her essays based on her childhood memories.” She certainly had no idea where it would go – that it would be garnished with famous actresses and memorable songs.

It’s probably most remembered for the Christmas carol that Martin and Blaine wrote.  The song immediately became popular with servicemen abroad – and their loved ones at home.  Why? It heralded a happier time in the near future – next year – when we all “will be together”, “all our troubles will be miles away” and “out of sight.”  And indeed, the war ended the year after the movie’s release.

When you write your memories, no one can know what will become of them.  They probably won’t be adorned with beautiful actresses, showy songs and marquis lights.

But I can assure you this: somewhere, sometime, someplace, someone will be interested in them.  Perhaps your descendants, or a friend’s grandchild, or a grand-niece or nephew.  When they read your rambling musings, your journals, your essays – well – those works will indeed become timeless and moving works of art.

If it’s daunting, start slow and easy.  Keep copies of the notes, letters and cards you send and receive.  Start a journal, or a blog.

Write about your experiences and thoughts. Therein will lie your  memories, your “you”. Write about as many of your yearnings, loves, disappointments and successes as you dare. Yes, there — wherever you put them — available and preserved, for future generations.

As true as that is for you and me, I know this.  Last Christmas was, miraculously, not Kevin’s last.  Nor was it yours.  As soon as Kevin recovers enough to write – he will.  It seems it may be soon. And now he has so much more to write about.  I can’t wait to read it all.  And some day, his grandkids and great-grandkids will be glad that he did.

Live well. Be inspired. Write. Create.


Joe Girard © 2015

Note: Sally Benson is also well known for writing “Junior Miss”, which was also made into both a play and a movie. The movie starred Peggy Ann Garner.  It was also based on a series of semi-autobiographical stories that she first published in – yes – The New Yorker.

Most of her New Yorker essays were published under the nom de plume of “Esther Evarts.”



Taylor, Mike: CEOs of the Year, Mark & Annie Danielson; Cobizmag: https://www.cobizmag.com/articles/ceos-of-the-year-mark-and-annie-danielson1


AFI top movie songs

AFI top musical movies

NPR: The Story behind Have Yourself a Merry little Christmas

Some good back story on movie Meet Me in St. Louis. And a lot of detail on the plot.

Notes: comparing the versions of the song: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Garland v. Sinatra (changes for Sinatra version – 1957 – in Blue)


Lee’s Gift

Forward to this 2015 release.

This essay was originally published on my earlier website (which is still up, but not maintained) to commemorate a 50-yr and a 83-yr anniversary, in January, 2012. Given the recent announcement that a sequel may come out this coming summer … [New York Times — Author to publish second novel] well, I thought it appropriate to re-publish the essay on this site. You, dear reader, will note that it will be in need of some factual updating. That is, if reports of a sequel turn out to be true.


A shy bookish gal from a small town in Alabama, Nelle Lee, is trying to “make it” in the big city of New York in the 1950s.  Her dream was to make it as a writer.  Now, seven years later, she struggles with an odd collection of unpublished short biographical sketches while working various menial jobs, including employment as a reservationist for Eastern Airlines.

Introverted and reserved, she has managed to make a few friends, including a Broadway composer, Michael Brown, and his wife, Joy.  Magic was about to happen.  But they didn’t know it.




Nelle was born to attorney Amasa Lee and Frances (nee: Finch) Lee, their fourth and last child, in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1926.  Always an outsider and a tomboy, she took to the books and fell in love with literature at a young age.  She was convinced that she could become a writer, although she tried her hand at law school and a year at Oxford in England before deciding for sure what she would try to do.  Everywhere she went, she was ever the loner and individualist, focusing on her studies and showing no interest in being anything like a southern belle.

One can only imagine how difficult it was for such a girl in New York.  Despite steady encouragement from her friends, the Browns — and from another emerging writer who had achieved some renown and happened to be from her home town and same school, “Bulldog” Persons — young Miss Lee had not yet completed any work of significance.  She shared her character sketches with her friends, and they were impressed.  But her regular day jobs got in the way of making significant progress on a complete story.

The Brown’s major gift to Miss Lee came at Christmas, 1956.  Michael Brown, who had written the tune Lizzie Borden for a play a few years before, had earned a sizable fee for getting some scores accepted.  His wife suggested that they use part of the money to allow Miss Lee to take a year off from work and focus on her writing.  And so he did.  And so she did.

Lee got a literary agent and got to work, completing a manuscript oddly titled “Atticus”, a somewhat autobiographical story centered around characters and events of a small southern town, not unlike her own hometown of Monroeville.  One of the major characters in the story, a boy named Dill, was based on her old hometown friend “Bulldog” Persons.

Through multiple rejections Lee grew more and more frustrated and unsure of herself.  She soldiered on, with the support of her friends the Browns and Bulldog, and the encouragement of her agent.  She continued to work on the script and waited through multiple publisher reviews … and rejections.

Finally, the book was published in 1960, by Lippencott & Company.  For a shy girl from a small town in the south, the reaction of the country was overwhelming.  She was stunned into numbness.  As one of the most moving and appreciated books in American history, it immediately resonated with readers across the country and around the world.  Millions and millions were sold.  In short order she won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, and the book was made into a movie which won three Academy Awards … and still ranks as the 25th best American movie of all time.

The novel itself has since been named the Best American Novel of the 20thcentury by Library Journal.

Miss Nelle Lee is known to us as Harper Lee, as she has gone by her middle name since mid-adulthood.  Her only novel was renamed by the publisher: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In a fortuitous historical coincidence, the book and the movie burst onto the national and world scene at the same time as the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr and others; it coincided with the brave voting registration drives and the Freedom Riders.

“Bulldog” Persons’ real first name was unusual: Truman.  For his last name he took the nom de plume Capote.  When the book was published, but before anyone knew how popular it would become, Lee traveled to Kansas with him to do research for a story that would turn into one his most famous works: In Cold Blood.  For all practical purposes, it was the closest she came to writing again.  Only a couple of essays.

Lee’s last public interview was March, 1964.  Only one story, yet she left us with so much.  The story still moves us today.

The role of Atticus, played by Gregory Peck, gave him the singular role for which he will be remembered forever.  The American Film Institute named the role of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird  the top film hero of the last 100 years.  Lee and Peck remained close the rest of his life, until he died in 2003.  Several of his grand children have Lee in their names.

The movie’s character young Scout Finch (the autobiographical Lee, with the same last name as Lee’s mother) was played by 10-year old Mary Badham.  At the time, she was the youngest ever to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor or Actress.  Like Lee, she remained largely out of public view since then.  During the movie she formed a lifelong friendship with the warm father-figure of Gregory Peck.  They stayed in regular communication until his death; she always called him “Atticus.”

The movie gave us the first screen appearance of Robert Duval.  Near the end of the movie, an odd looking young man appears, and Scout says: “Hey Boo.”  Duval’s smile is touching.  He played mentally challenged and kindly Arthur “Boo” Radley.

How do you write a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird?  Unimaginable that such an oeuvre could be a first effort!  How do you write another story, another novel?  Harper Lee tried a few times, but the bar was too high.  All those efforts are filed under “U” for unfinished.  Harper Lee was a shooting star, a comet who lit up our sky, and gave us a tremendous story for the ages.  And then she was gone.  She has lived a relatively reclusive life since then, privately splitting her time between New York with her sister, and her old hometown, Monroeville, Alabama.

Thank you to the Browns, whose gift of friendship, encouragement and financial support made Harper Lee’s manuscript completion and publication possible.  And Thank you Harper Lee.  Thank you for overcoming your shyness and insecurity long enough to hang in there to give us the gift of To Kill a Mockingbird, which allowed us to see ourselves so much better.


“I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house; and that he’d rather I’d shoot at tin cans in the backyard. But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted — if I could hit ’em; but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.
— Atticus Finch (in Haper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”)


Joe Girard © 2012


[1] Lizzie Borden, by Michael Brown: http://www.guntheranderson.com/v/data/lizziebo.htm

[2] This essay was to jointly commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of the movie and the 83rd anniversary of Dr King’s birth.

January 2012.

February 2015 note: I hope this is not a hoax.  How surprising that this “new” book was actually written first!  No wonder it took Ms. Lee so long to come out with “To Kill a Mockingbird.”