Graeme Wood

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The Twin Towers

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The World Trade Center site is now hallowed ground, and to denigrate the architecture of its enormous rectangular towers is vaguely uncouth, as if to denigrate not just the towers but the great city that produced them. But critics were not always so respectful. When the towers went up in the early 1970s, everyone found something to hate. Those who liked shiny glass skyscrapers moaned at these opaque figures now marring the skyline. More classically inclined critics asked whether this was where modern architecture had brought us — to big rectangles, witless and inert, as ugly as they were inhuman. The unkindest cuts came from those who said they were not up to the Big Apple’s standard — “so utterly banal,” wrote the critic Paul Goldberger, “as to be unworthy of the headquarters of a bank in Omaha.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Jersey Gore

Originally appeared in The Daily.
For today’s summer vacationers, the Jersey Shore presents few dangers worse than bad calzone, unwanted encounters with reality TV stars, and venereal disease. But the beach bums of yesteryear faced a danger much more terrifying, and not curable with a dose of Imodium or penicillin. It measured about 10 feet long, stalked swimmers along a 125-mile stretch of coastline, and feasted on human flesh throughout the summer of 1916. No one can be sure, but most scientists now think the culprit was one or several great white or bull sharks. Read the rest of this entry »

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Project Runaway

Alamo deserter lives on to become Texas’ most infamous coward

Originally appeared in The Daily.

In August 1990, when President George H. W. Bush wanted to send a message to Saddam Hussein, he used the toughest language he knew: that of his adoptive home state of Texas. Bush warned Saddam that “a line has been drawn in the sand,” and that the U.S.-led coalition would remove him from Kuwait by force if necessary. Saddam was not a man of rhetorical subtlety in any language, but he could be forgiven for wondering what “line in the sand” his adversary was talking about. If the dictator did not know his Texas history, the imagery would have perplexed him — and if he did know his Texas history, it might have perplexed him even more. Was he supposed to cross it, or not?
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Silent as a Grave

An accused Salem witch pays for the right to say nothing in court

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The right to remain silent is a beautiful thing. In 1692, at the height of the Salem Witch Trials, a gray-bearded farmer was asked whether he was a wizard and he refused to say. He was brutally executed. But if the Constitution has secular martyrs, that old farmer, Giles Corey, is surely the patron saint of its Fifth Amendment, and one of history’s greatest champions of keeping one’s trap shut. Read the rest of this entry »

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Knights of the Castle

Originally published in The Daily.

In 1921, in the early days of meat inspection, an American cow’s journey from factory to restaurant was still long and uncertain, a public-health gamble for everyone but vegetarians. Ground beef was especially suspect. If you, the diner, dared to sink your fangs into a burger, your greasy mouthful might contain an unpleasant surprise: if you were lucky, part of a cow; if you were not — something else. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Bay of Pigs

The cartoonish Bay of Pigs plot falls short in every way

Originally appeared in The Daily.

When Fidel Castro kicked the capitalists out of Cuba in 1959, he created an embittered exiled class only too eager to help his main enemy, the United States of America, oust him as soon as possible. If you want to topple a government, its exiles can be a tempting tool: They have money, spies on the inside and a level of rage so incandescent, you could read a map by it on a moonless night. Unfortunately, as President John F. Kennedy learned 50 years ago today, all that and a few hundred million dollars in military training won’t buy regime change.
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Tragedy at a Nuclear “Playground”

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The Idaho Falls meltdown killed three, but American nuclear experiments continued

 

According to the United Nations, the plume of radiation from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactors has already started hitting the United States, starting with Alaska and reaching California this weekend. The doses of radiation will be minute, scientists say — ranging from completely undetectable to detectable but harmless, similar to the amount one gets from eating a few healthy supermarket bananas. In other words, when it comes to radiation exposure, the American West has had worse. Read the rest of this entry »

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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 »

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