Graeme Wood

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The Oscar Farce

The Academy Awards ceremony has seen its share of strangeness

Originally appeared in The Daily.

Emil Jannings, the first man to win an Oscar, would go on to become a Nazi. In 1929, the newly convened Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences informed Jannings that he would be honored as the year’s Best Actor for his roles as a Russian officer in “The Last Command” and as a Milwaukee bank clerk in “The Way of All Flesh.” Jannings accepted the honor, but didn’t attend the ceremony, preferring to go back to Europe — he had a German mother and had been born in Switzerland — and in a few years, he joined the movie industry of the Third Reich.

By turning down an invitation to the first Academy Awards ceremony, Jannings spared himself from becoming embroiled in an event that was somehow even duller and less funny than the preposterous ceremonies the movie industry has inflicted on itself for the subsequent 81 years. That first ceremony wasn’t recorded or broadcast, and only 300 people showed up. In the years that followed, ceremonies were dominated by orotund speechifying by such thrilling figures as Charles Curtis, the prohibitionist Kansan and U.S. vice president. If the speeches in the current ceremonies seem too long (they are limited to 45 seconds), bear in mind that in the early years they didn’t even get around to passing out the first award until after midnight. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Daily, , ,

A polygamist raid undoes a governor

First published in The Daily.

From the red cliffs overlooking Short Creek, Ariz., anyone could see an invading army coming from miles away. Perhaps that’s why the first Mormon families chose to settle there. On July 26, 1953, when the attackers finally came, they attempted to creep in under cover of darkness, during a total eclipse of the moon. Short Creek’s sentries spotted the trespassers anyway, and blew up a charge of dynamite to warn the town. Everyone gathered in the local schoolhouse to sing songs praising God and spend their last few minutes together. Then the government troops arrived. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Daily, ,

James Joyce and Freedom of Speech

Originally appeared in The Daily.

Landmark 1933 trial defeats would-be censors of racy ‘Ulysses’

It takes a fanatic to fight a fanatic. And in 1933, two gangs of fanatics faced off: on one side, a coalition of Christian moralists and guardians of decency, and on the other, a group of free-speech absolutists. At issue was the right to import and distribute a novel in which a leering Irish shopkeeper pleasures himself while watching a girl flash her undies at him from across a beach. The novel was “Ulysses” by James Joyce. On Dec. 6, a most unfanatical man, Judge John M. Woolsey of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, was called upon to pick a side.
Read the rest of this entry »

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Gadhafi’s Killer Mercenaries

Originally appeared in The Daily.

Libyan refugees and opposition groups say the most feared presence on the streets of Tripoli are mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa who drive around in tan-colored military jeeps and shoot anything that moves.

The country remains a swirl of rumors, but a constant theme is trigger-happy, non-Arabic-speaking foreigners who try to spread fear and persuade protesters to return to their homes. “We don’t know where they’re coming from,” one man told a Reuters TV crew after fleeing across the Egyptian border. “They’re African mercenaries. They’re shooting people randomly.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Empire State Building takes a momentous hit

Accidental 1945 bomber crash recalls the more sinister events of 9/11

Originally appeared in The Daily.

In New York on July 28, 1945, the clouds were low and spirits were high. The war in Europe was over, and although no one knew it, the war in the Pacific would soon be over, too. When Paris was liberated a few months before, Allied pilots performed dramatic aerial stunts, including one that was especially daring: flying a B-25 Mitchell bomber under the Eiffel Tower. In New York, the B-25 would again be the star of the day’s events, but this time tragically.  Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Daily, ,

America’s First Public Transsexual

Originally appeared in The Daily.

A carpenter’s son, George Jorgensen was raised to be a good Lutheran kid, hardworking and decent, like the generations of skinny Danish farmers from whom he was descended. During his teenage years in the Bronx, when he realized he was falling in love with a male classmate, he knew instinctively that his feelings were not homosexual, but rather the love of a girl for a boy. So in 1952, at the age of 25, the God-fearing young man went to Copenhagen and had his genitals surgically removed so he could become the girl he thought nature intended him to be. George’s new self, known to the world as Christine Jorgensen, debuted on December 1, 1952, on the front page of the New York Daily News.  Hearst newspapers paid Jorgensen $20,000 for an exclusive interview; the banner headline read “EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY.” Read the rest of this entry »

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With Mubarak Gone, Will Egyptians Divide?

Originally appeared in The Atlantic.

CAIRO, Egypt — Hosni Mubarak with donkey ears, Hosni Mubarak with a Hitler mustache, Hosni Mubarak as Colonel Sanders — once the protesters started heaping on the scorn, they couldn’t stop. It was a long time coming.
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Filed under: Atlantic Monthly

The Olfactory Menace

A brief history of Smell-o-Vision.

Originally appeared in The Daily.

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