When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Posts by William Cook

Drastic Diet

Maria Callas, as she appeared in a CBS television talk show in 1958

1957: Magazines and newspapers marvelled when Maria Callas managed to shed 28 kilograms in 11 months; they carried before-and-after photographs of her transformation from a frumpy 92 kilos to a slender 64.

Callas lost weight by strict adherence to a diet of one meal a day, small servings of fresh fruit and raw meat, no pasta, no bread and no alcohol. But when the opera singer later became infested with a tapeworm (probably consumed with the raw meat), gossip columnists gleefully suggested that she had deliberately swallowed it as part of a diet regimen.

Source: Anne Edwards, Callas: Her Life, Her Loves, Her Music (2001), pp. 115, 116, 160, 161

Shabby End To Career

Nina Hamnett, portrayed by Roger Fry in 1917

1956: In the 1920s, Nina Hamnett was a promising artist, but by the 1930s and ’40s she had become a shabby figure who spent too little time in the studio and far too much time in the pubs and clubs of London’s Fitzrovia and Soho. “She was dirty, smelt of stale bar-rooms, and very pathetic.” At the York Minster pub, she made her favourite seat indelibly hers by urinating on it; sometimes she would be sick into her handbag before staggering home at night. On 13 December 1956 she fell from the window of her upstairs flat in Paddington and was impaled on the railings below. She died a few days later.

Source: Denise Hooker, Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia (1986), pp. 184, 242, 250, 258

Blake Versus Parks

Rosa Parks, with Martin Luther King in the background, photographed in about 1955

1955: Driver Jim Blake must have thought he was simply enforcing regulations when he ordered four black passengers on his bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to give up their seats for a white man. Instead, Blake’s action on the afternoon of 1 December provoked the Montgomery bus boycott, a milestone in the American civil rights movement.

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Speed Readers

1954: Jack and Bobby Kennedy attended a speed reading course in Baltimore, but Jack’s later claim to be able to read 1,200 words a minute – three or four times the average – was probably exaggerated.

Source: James P. Pfiffner, The Character Factor: How We Judge America’s Presidents (2004), p. 28

Sensitive Stomach

1952: A severe case of amoebic dysentery earlier in his career meant that Sir Evelyn Baring, the new governor of Kenya, suffered from indifferent health. He was prone to bouts of exhaustion and debilitating intestinal pain and his stomach was “so sensitive that he would pick out the small slivers of orange peel from his marmalade before spreading it on his morning toast”.

Source: Caroline Elkins, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (2005), pp. 34, 381

Bump In The Road

1951: The National Safety Council reckoned that towards the end of the year the total number of deaths from traffic accidents in the United States since the advent of the automobile would reach 1 million. In December, the millionth death was reached and passed, like a bump in the road.

Source: The New York Times, 24 December 1951

Slugs And Shaws

George Bernard Shaw, photographed in 1925

1950: The playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw died on 2 November. Three weeks later, in accordance with the terms of his will, his ashes were mingled with those of his wife, who had died in 1943, and scattered in the garden of their village home.

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Christie Lends A Hand

1949: Agatha Christie joined her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, at Nimrud, in Iraq. Christie lent a hand, cleaning ivories recovered from the excavations. She discovered that a very fine knitting needle and her face cream were “more useful than anything else for gently coaxing the dirt out of the crevices”. She used so much cream that within a couple of weeks “there was nothing left for my poor old face”.

Source: Agatha Christie, An Autobiography (1977), pp. 456–7

Occupational Hazard

1947: Britain had 383 known opiate addicts: 219 of them female and 164 male, including (seemingly an occupational hazard) 82 doctors, three pharmacists, one dentist and one vet.

Source: Richard Davenport-Hines, The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics 1500–2000 (2001), p. 297

The Right Feel

1946: The Swedish aircraft manufacturer Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, SAAB, branched out into cars. The bodywork of the first prototype was produced by hand, hammered into shape with the steel panels resting on horse manure, which supposedly gave the panel beaters the right feel.

Source: Björn-Eric Lindh, Saab: The First 40 Years of Saab Cars (1987), pp. 17, 20

Stylish In Stripes

1945: Bessie, comtesse de Mauduit, returned to Paris from Ravensbrück concentration camp still dressed in her striped uniform, but looking elegant all the same (“encore vêtu de l’uniforme rayé des déportés et très élégante tout de meme”). Another inmate, a head seamstress from the Schiaparelli fashion house, had restyled her uniform.

Source: Jean Galtier-Boissière, Journal 1940–1950 (1992), pp. 410, 413

Right Priorities

1944: Major-General Charles Gerhardt, commander of the American 29th Division, was a stickler for discipline. Amid the carnage and destruction of Omaha beach on D-Day – mangled corpses, smashed landing craft, burned-out vehicles and discarded weapons – he yelled at a soldier for dropping orange peel.

Source: Antony Beevor, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (2009), p. 153

“Smoke Began To Rise With A Hiss Or Whistle”

Parícutin erupting by night, photographed by R.E. Wilcox of the U.S. Geological Survey

1943: For weeks, the Mexican village of Parícutin had been jolted by earthquakes. On the afternoon of 20 February, as farm labourer Demetrio Toral and his oxen ploughed a cornfield, wisps of smoke appeared from a furrow they had just completed.

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Unsinkable Ship

1942: Habbakuk was the code name for a secret British project to build a huge, unsinkable aircraft carrier. The project never got beyond research and the early stages of development, but if the vessel had been constructed, it would have been twice as long as the Queen Mary. Even more remarkable was the intended construction material – a frozen mixture of water and wood pulp. In essence, Habbakuk would have been a gigantic iceberg with a flat top to serve as a flight deck. The ice, of course, would have made it unsinkable; the wood pulp was for reinforcement.

Source: Georgina Ferry, Max Perutz and the Secret of Life (2007), pp. 98–110

Suspicious Activity

1941: The attack on Pearl Harbor interrupted Donald Keene’s Japanese studies at Columbia University. Japanese in the United States were classified as enemy aliens, and the day after the attack, New York police detained Keene’s teacher, Tsunoda Ryūsaku. Japanese residents were suspected of gathering information about American defence facilities, although the most serious evidence against Tsunoda seems to have been that “he had been observed taking long walks without a dog”.

Source: Donald Keene, The Blue-Eyed Tarōkaja: A Donald Keene Anthology, ed. J. Thomas Rimer (1996), pp. 8–9

Deadly Device

1940: In Warthegau, Polish territory annexed by Germany in 1939, Herbert Lange’s Sonderkommando used a large van fitted with a sealed chamber to eliminate mental patients. To allay suspicion, the side of the vehicle carried the logo of a well-known German coffee company – “Kaiser’s Kaffee-Geschäft”. Once the patients were loaded, carbon monoxide was piped into the chamber.

Source: Patrick Montague, Chełmno and the Holocaust: The History of Hitler’s First Death Camp (2012), pp. 21–30, 64, 199–211

“Animalistic Hopping”

1937: The Lambeth Walk, a jaunty number from the musical Me and My Girl, was a success first on the London stage, and then in dance halls around Britain and on the Continent. Fascist leaders in Europe, however, took a dim view of the craze. In Italy, the dance was condemned for its “ugly, coarse, awkward motions and gesticulations”, and in Germany it was denounced as “Jewish mischief and animalistic hopping”.

Sources: The Times, 19 May 1939; The New York Times, 8 January 1939

Dahl Dislikes Dust

1936: After two years’ training with the oil company Shell, Roald Dahl anticipated an exotic foreign posting – somewhere with tall coconut palms, silvery beaches, jungles, lions and elephants.

Head office called him in to meet one of the directors. “We are sending you to Egypt,” the director said.

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Papal Divisions

1935: During a visit to Moscow, the French foreign minister, Pierre Laval, urged Joseph Stalin to improve the lot of Catholics in the Soviet Union. Stalin was utterly contemptuous of Catholics and the Vatican. “The Pope!” he snorted. “How many divisions has he got?” (To which the perfect riposte would have been: “The same number that Karl Marx had.”)

Source: Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, I: The Gathering Storm (1950), p. 121

Attractive Feature

John Betjeman, phototgraphed in the 1920s

1932: Penelope Chetwode met her future husband, the journalist and promising poet John Betjeman, for the first time. Asked shortly afterwards what it was she liked about him, she replied, “He has green teeth.”

Source: Bevis Hillier, Young Betjeman (1988), p. 373

What If . . . ?

1931: On the afternoon of 22 August, a young British aristocrat named John Scott-Ellis was making his way along Brienner Strasse, in Munich, in a little red Fiat. “Although I was going very slowly, a man walked off the pavement, more or less straight into my car.” The 42-year-old pedestrian was bowled over, but quickly picked himself up, politely shook hands with the driver, and went on his way.

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Women At War

1929: A distinctive feature of the so-called Igbo women’s war was the way the women shoved the men aside to lead resistance to British rule in Nigeria.

The principal cause of the disturbances (“war” is an overstatement) was a clumsy attempt to conduct a census of women in the southeast of the country, provoking fears that the colonial authorities planned to impose a poll tax. “We women are like trees which bear fruit,” protested one woman. “You should tell us the reason why women who bear seeds should be counted.”

Women orchestrated and took a leading part in protest marches, the harassment of local officials, the burning of court buildings and the looting of European factories. They thought troops wouldn’t fire at them, but they were wrong; about 50 women were killed and a similar number wounded.

Source: Harry A. Gailey, The Road to Aba: A Study of British Administrative Policy in Eastern Nigeria (1971), chaps. 4–6

Fixed Date

1928: After more than a thousand years of putting up with Easter chopping and changing between dates in March and April, Britain decided to pin it down. Parliament passed the Easter Act, under which the festival was fixed for “the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April” – between 9 and 15 April. Straightforward, except that the act included a proviso that “regard shall be had” of the opinions of churches and Christian bodies. Ninety years later, those opinions are still unclear and the law remains in limbo. Easter continues to fall on the first Sunday following the first full moon on or after the March equinox.

Source: www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/
1928/35/pdfs/ukpga_19280035_en.pdf