Art Mystery: Who Was Edwin Elmer

Edwin Elmer as Young Man
{Click on Images to Enlarge}  

I love art, but like many fans I sometimes OD on my favorites. It's always a great joy to discover someone new, or to become immersed in an art mystery. Place Edwin Romanzo Elmer (1850-1923) in the second category. To date I have viewed just six of his works—five oils and a chalk drawing. Though his niece Maud, wrote a small piece about him, we still know only the sketchiest details of his life.

Edwin was born in Ohio, the youngest of twelve children in a farm family that moved to Buckland, Massachusetts when Edwin was six. About all we know is that the family was poor but close-knit and religious. Edwin was particularly fond of his brother Samuel, whose portrait is on display at Smith College. It's a rather handsome picture housed in a neo-medieval frame that one would ordinarily think should hold some pre-Raphaelite offering. But Samuel seems dignified and at home inside the fancy woodwork.


 Insofar as I know, Elmer honed his art in Buckland and did some inventing as well as painting. There is a picture of his wife Mary at work on a machine that sewed silk ends onto a type of twisted horsewhip Edwin developed. It sometimes shows up to illustrate talks and books on rural industry, though that's probably a misreading. In all likelihood we are viewing a domestic scene from the Ashfield home into which the Elmers moved after 1890.


We'd probably not know Edwin Elmer at all were it not for an event from that year. Edwin grew up in a large family, but he and Mary had just one child, Effie Lillian. In 1890, nine-year-old Effie died of appendicitis and Edwin poured out his grief on canvas. His Mourning Picture, which inspired an Adrienne Rich poem of the same name, also hangs at Smith College and is much beloved by visitors. Some don't linger long enough to understand that they are viewing a quintessential late Victorian period grief scene. At first glance the painting is charming—a precious child in the sunlight embracing a lamb. A kitten is at her feet and typical girl toys are on the lawn fronting a handsome frame home. Then we look harder and notice that the parents are in formal black mourning clothing and sitting in shadow. The ovine references Christ, the Lamb of God. All of a sudden the details and tone seem like a marriage of Magritte's surrealism and Edward Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom.

The painting originally hung in a local post office, and then disappeared until Maud showed it to a Smith College curator in the 1950s. Were it not for that, would anyone have bothered to look for more details? As noted, the Elmers moved to Ashfield after Effie's death and lived with Mary's parents. At some point they went to New York City, where Edwin trained at the Academy of Design. Was this his only formal art training? He also invented some stuff there, including an improved butter churn, the whip snap machine in the picture with Mary, and a bracket for shingles.

It is said that Edwin painted landscapes both in Massachusetts and New York, but the only other pictures of his I know are a chalk scene of a Buckland apple orchard (at Smith) dated 1906, and Magic Glasses, an 1891 painting at Vermont's Shelburne Museum that tries to mess with our perception with a magnifying glass sitting in a crystal goblet that reflects a set of windows. We don't know if the windows are in front or in back, but the Shelburne Museum also owns the goblet, which sits beside the painting in a separate display case. Smith College also holds Our Village Carver, which dates
from 1906. It wasn't on display when I was there a few weeks ago

I'm sure there must be other works, but I've not been able to authenticate a few random images I've run across. The only other thing I can tell you is that Edwin was stricken with abdominal cancer and took his own life in 1923. Label this mystery "to be continued."  


House of Names a Superb Retelling of Agamemnon's Hubris


Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 275 pages

It's hard to go wrong writing a novel based on Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks pretty much invented Western drama, which means they were the early masters of its key elements: mayhem, murder, intrigue, betrayal, ghostly visitations, and sex (in all varieties). Not that Colm Tóibín needs to mine the past for inspiration; he's already proved his chops as one of the better fiction writers of our times (The Blackwater Lightship, The Master, Brooklyn). Still, why not put one's literary skills to work with a retelling of Greeks immediately after the Trojan War?

Tóibín draws from various sources—Aeschylus, Euripides, Homer, Sophocles—and has developed a synthesis that is uniquely his own. First, a note on the multilayered meaning of the book's title. Ancient Greeks practiced bisexuality and slept around like springtime rabbits, but its social structure was patriarchal and familial. One of the more famous houses was that of Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king who commanded the combined Greek forces during the Trojan War. In many ways, though, the collective house name was more important than the individual male whose name it bore. History was often orally transmitted, with cycles of tales centering on a particular house of names. In Tóibín's novel, lesser houses also 'survive' only when its tales are told—long after its last descendants have passed. A house of names matters deeply—even to an old woman who is herself never named. 

For those who have forgotten so much mythology that Homer now evokes "Simpson," here is a quick recap of the germane part of the House of Agamemnon story. The winds did not cooperate with Agamemnon's departure for the Trojan Wars. At the behest of a soothsayer, the king agreed to sacrifice his beautiful daughter Iphigenia in exchange for favorable winds. He sails off, is gone for ten years, and returns home victorious, with Cassandra as war booty. (She's doubly imperiled, her other curse being that she can foresee the future but no one believes her prophecies.) Much has happened in the decade in which the king has been gone, including the fact that his wife Clytemnestra has taken a lover, the wily Aegisthus. One thing hasn't changed: Clytemnestra has never forgiven her husband for sacrificing Iphigenia and has been plotting revenge since the day her daughter was killed. Also, her son Orestes is missing. He was sent away as a boy shortly after his father left for war for reasons that vary according to which playwright tells the tale. In Tóibín's story, his sister Electra is suspiciously implicated in what is, in essence, a kidnapping and imprisonment, though it may have all been Aegisthus' doing. Agamemnon's triumph is a short one; he will be murdered by Clytemnestra's hand and she in turn will meet a bloody end.

That's the Greeks for you; there's no drama unless there's more blood than found in the punchbowls of a vampire ball. Tóibín divides his short novel into sections told from the points of view of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra. His is not just a recounting of myths in modern language á la Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology. There is seldom a single narrative thread in Greek myths, which frees Tóibín to create a new synthesis. I don't know of any tale in which Leander and Orestes appear together; in House of Names we first meet young Orestes in an awful detention camp that's like a Dickens boarding school in chitons. He will eventually befriend a sickly lad called Mitros and Leander, who becomes his soul and bedmate. The three will escape and spend years at the seaside home of a mysterious old woman. In Tóibín, Leander is a much stronger figure than Orestes; both lads (minus Mitros) will return home shortly after Clytemnestra has dispatched Agamemnon. Orestes will avenge his father's death, Leander will lead a revolt, Electra plots, and it's not going to end well for anyone. Hey, that's what makes it a drama, not a fairy tale. That and the fact that spies and treachery abound everywhere—think the "little birds" of Lord Varys in Game of Thrones. Trust me when I tell you that you'd not want to be a member of a prominent ancient Greek family.

House of Names is beautifully written. Consider this small sample in Clytemnestra's voice as she remembers the death of her childhood nurse/nanny: "I went out and looked at the sky. All I had then to help me was the leftover language of prayer. What had once been powerful and added meaning to everything was now desolate, strange, with its own sad, brittle power, with its memory locked in its rhythms, of a vivid past when our words rose up and found completion. Now our words are trapped in time, they are filled with limits, they are mere distractions, they are as fleeting and monotonous as breath. They keep us alive, for which we should be grateful. There is nothing else."

Tóibín's prose is reminiscent of the novels and poems of Robert Graves (1895-1995), who also based many of his works on Greek and Roman mythology. House of Names deserves to be mentioned in the same august company. It is imaginative, well crafted, and eloquent. As you read Tóibín, keep in mind what I said about the importance of the name of the family; it will help you make sense of motives that would otherwise seem illogical. In ancient Greece, reputation is more potent than adoration (or a long life).

Rob Weir

Moonglow Not Chabon's Best, but Holds Intrigue


Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 428 pages

Michael Chabon's Moonglow is a novel. Or is it? The book's narrator is called Mike and two of its major characters have no name other "my grandfather" and "my grandmother." Many have speculated the book is either wholly or partially autobiographical, assertions upon which Chabon coyly refuses to comment. Is it or isn't it; that's not really the question. Better to ask is it a good book, and my assessment is that it's a mixed bag. It is, at turns, eloquent and gripping, but also plodding and self-indulgent.

The book's set up is that Mike is summoned to his grandfather's deathbed and, over the course of ten days, hears tales that are part confessional, part historical, and part familial. As befits such a scenario, the book plays lose with linear time. Our first major incident unfolds in 1957, but the book's core is revealed in a 1944 exchange between grandfather and William Donovan, who headed the Office of Strategic Services—the forerunner of the CIA—during World War II. Donovan was recruiting intelligence officers to go deep into Germany during the war's waning days and unearth information about Nazi rocketry. As a man nicknamed "Wild Bill," he wasted no time with pretense. "You've been looking for trouble your whole life," says he to grandfather. The book's central tension is whether that's literally true, or if our protagonist is simply the sort of chap that trouble always manages to find. He's certainly the sort who marches to a different drummer, a trait we glimpse in his adolescence, the war years, the 1950s, and into old age.

Donovan's task suits grandfather well, as he is an introspective man obsessed with rockets. As a youth, when not hustling pool, he built detailed scale models of missiles and launch facilities, a hobby that took on greater sophistication and continued throughout his life. By 1944, he was also obsessed with Wernher von Braun, whom he wished to eliminate. In the book, he came close to finding his quarry; there is a harrowing showdown between he and Stolzmann, another Nazi scientist failing to pose as a farmer. Of course, we know that he didn't get von Braun. If you think that the morality of government today has problems, consider that Operation Paperclip granted residency and eventual citizenship to at least 1600 Nazi scientists, including von Braun. Many of these individuals became the foundation of both America's nuclear weapons programs and of NASA. This gives poignancy to the grandfather, who has retired to Florida and never misses a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral.    

If only von Braun were his only tension. After the war grandfather acquires a French-born wife who already has a child: Mike's mother. She's exotic, vibrant, wild, a Jewish survivor of Nazi death camps, and as mad as a March hare. Grandmother spends much of Mike's childhood in and out of asylums before dying—often obsessed with images of the "Skinless Horse." To say that grandfather didn't live a conventional life is an understatement. About that 1957 'incident,' Mike's grandparents were living in Philadelphia when grandfather went berserk when he lost his job with a barrette manufacturer who fired him to give a job to a recent parolee: Alger Hiss! Hiss left prison and grandfather went to Wallkill for almost murdering his ex-employer. Add "jail bird" to his checkered résumé.

Moonglow, which takes its name from a Benny Goodman standard, is filled with quirks such as these. There are also offbeat relatives such as his flamboyant rabbi brother and a late-in-life love interest; also amusing incidents involving bad theme parties, a missing cat, Tarot cards, python hunting, and grandfather's propensity for finding himself amidst smart alecks and fast talkers whom he can't decide if likes of loathes. On the more serious side there are questions about Jewish identity, PTSD, and mental illness. A Zippo lighter operates as Chabon's version of Chekov's gun. Some of my favorite parts are of Chabon's descriptions of 1950s culture. You can almost sniff your way through the decade via remembrances of the smells of Lifebuoy soap, Prell, Ban, smoke-filled rooms, and Tom Collins cocktails.

As noted, the structure is non-linear. Although this gives the hook of capturing remembrances verisimilitude, it also makes for ragged reading on occasion. There are also passages that reference and are inspired by Gravity's Rainbow, which isn't necessarily a good thing. That Thomas Pynchon novel also covers World War II and rocketry, but I'm among those who found it overrated, unreadable, and pretentious. Some of those traits rubbed off on Chabon. When he's at his best, Moonglow is like The Things They Carried in the way it blurs fiction and non-fiction. Unlike Tim O'Brien, Chabon isn't consistent within that voice. I'm sure that some readers will find his handling of Nazi death camps—his protagonist helps liberate Nordhausen—oddly matter of fact in tone and ponder over why a Jewish character would allow a rocket obsession to take precedence over the surrounding horrors.

  Whether autobiographical or not, Moonglow is a bit like its namesake title. It mostly glows dimly rather than brightly, thought illumined d by the occasional supermoon. It's certainly worth reading, but it doesn't rank among Chabon gems such as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, Telegraph Avenue, or the Pulitzer-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Rob Weir


Molly's Game Deals Middling Hand

Directed by Aaron Sorkin
STXfilms, 140 minutes, R (language, some violence, drugs)

The toughest review to write is of a work that neither stinks like rotten fish nor soars like a hawk. Molly's Game falls into that category. One thing is certain, though: its hype is greater than its delivery.  

Jessica Chastain plays the role of Molly Bloom (b. 1978) and most of what you see actually happened. Bloom hails from a high-achieving Colorado family—one brother is a two-time Olympian and former NFL player, the other a surgeon—and her psychologist father really was her ski coach before a devastating back injury destroyed Molly's Olympic dreams. As in the film, Molly was on her way to law school before impulsively moving to Los Angeles for a gap year in the sun. Her family cut her off and she needed to earn her own freight, a journey that took her from waitress to high-stake poker gopher for real estate agent/nightclub owner Darin Feinstein. His name is changed to Dean Keith in the film and is played with abusive creepiness by Jeremy Strong. The film club is called the Cobra Club, but the real one is the Viper Club where River Phoenix overdosed in 1993. Eventually Molly spun off her own game—one with buy-ins routinely in excess of $10,000. Among its clients was a veritable bad boys' celebrity list, among them: Leo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Macaulay Caulkin. They are thinly veiled in the film, though their names were public before Molly's book hit the stands in 2014. The movie's Player X (Michael Cera) is partly a composite, but he is mostly Tobey Maguire, who—sad to say—is apparently a world-class asshole who gets his kicks from belittling people. Molly's Hollywood game was glitz and glamour that catered to the arrogant, rich, and amoral. As Molly learns, everyone there is running a game of his own—always his—and as smart as she is, hers is not the hand that commands the power grid. Although she gains wealth from running the game, we're talking the kind of stakes in which one player lost $100 million in a single evening.

One of the lessons of the film is that Molly is, in her own way, arrogant as well. When she's shut out of the Hollywood game, she transports it to New York City, whose high roller rubes and regals have even deeper pockets, if less celebrity star power. Molly's game has rules. Gorgeous women in sexy attire abound, but there is no sex or procurement thereof; her Playboy bunnies are chosen for their business savvy as well as their curves. Also, no drugs, no players she doesn't vet, and no rake for Molly as that would constitute an illegal unlicensed casino. Technically, Molly works for tips and hospitality services. All is legal and aboveboard—until it isn't.  Call it a classic case of diving into water too deep and too swift. Three years after she bowed out, ehe FBI raided her apartment, clapped her in irons, froze her accounts, and brought charges of money laundering and illegal sports gambling. She needed a lawyer, but had no way of coming up with a $250,000 retainer fee. In the film, lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) takes her case for reasons unclear even to himself. This is an invention; in actuality she had a team of lawyers—whose future payment was indeed uncertain—and the lead attorney was white, not African American. Molly's book and arrest was tabloid fodder back in 2014, until the next yellow journalism sensation chased her off the front page.

Molly's Game is a tight story, even if parts of it are invented. Molly was true to her word and did not out anyone not already fingered, but she was not as pure as presented on the screen. (There was a plea bargain, despite what the film says). There is much that can be said about the hypocrisy of a society that gives the odds on every sporting event, but declares most betting schemes illegal. There is even more to be said about one that busts a woman who facilitates gambling but doesn't touch the famous male players. Indeed, one might tackle the entire question of "victimless" crimes. Molly's Game infers such issues but in the end, it's a fairly routine film that we've seen before. Replace the cards with billiard balls and you have The Color of Money. Make it stocks and you have The Wolf of Wall Street or Other People's Money. Make it about thoroughbred horses and take your pick. Indeed, the story is much the same with poker itself, from Smart Money (1931) to Owning Mahowny (2003) and beyond.

Jessica Chastain redeems what would otherwise be a stock white hats/black hats film by gendering the story. Still, there are all the usual Hollywood tropes:  the loudmouth, the lovable loser, the tragic loser, the folksy judge, shadowy mobsters, a teary parent/parent confessional, the repentant… . Chastain stuns with her physical presence as well as her acting; she is drop-dead gorgeous and plays Molly as one part sophisticate and one part cocky naïf. It's the kind of role Julia Roberts would play, but with less depth. Chastain's radiance is such that the film feels meatier than it actually is, though I must give a shout out to Kevin Costner's secondary role as her father who is much better than I would have imagined.  But this film is ultimately like the real Molly Bloom—smart, but not smart enough. Both Chastain and the film are being touted for Oscars, but my money's on those smarter films and performances.

Rob Weir