Today is “Grab Bag” day here at Entertainment Legends Revealed, where each week we feature a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (that is not featured on the other four days of the week, that is). Each week you will see grab bag legends from one of these following 25 “Grab Bag” categories (I might expand the list in the future, but for now, we’re sticking with these 25).
This is the second in a series of examinations of legends related to poetry and poets and whether they are true or false.
POETRY LEGEND: Poet Marianne Moore was asked to come up with a name for the brand of car that eventually became known as the Edsel.
Marianne Moore was one of the most acclaimed Modernist poets of the 20th Century, with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award on her mantelpiece.
A darling of the New York literary circle, Moore branched out into other areas, as well, particularly the sports world.
Moore was a major supporter of the New York Yankees, and even threw out of the first pitch for the 1968 season (she had a stroke later that year, and would pass away in 1972 after a series of strokes).
She also was a big fan of Muhammad Ali, even writing the liner notes to his spoken word album, I Am The Greatest…
But perhaps the oddest area where Moore lent her services was as an auto marketer!!
One of the biggest public relations production of the 1950s was the debut of Ford’s latest line of cars, which was set to debut in 1958.
Ford noticed that their line of Lincoln cars, which they had devised as a middle class brand, had trended upward and was now basically an “upper class” car, if you would. So Ford felt that they might as well change their marketing and push the car from that angle, and then introduce a new line of cars to take over the “middle class” spot in their lineup that the Lincoln once held.
Especially with salaries on the rise in the mid-50s, they felt that by the mid-60s the middle class of America would have much more buying power, and they wanted to have a car there for those people.
The car was only known as the E-Car (experimental car), and Ford hired an advertisting agency to come up with names for the line of cars.
The ad agency, Foote, Cone and Belding, ended up giving them over 6,000 possibilities, none of which went over big with Ford (although they liked the names Citation, Corsair, Pacer and Ranger enough to use them as the sub-set names for the line of cars, you know, like Lincoln Premiere, Lincoln Continental, etc.).
So, with over 6,000 possible names, the head of marketing research at Ford, David Wallace, sent out an unofficial request to Marianne Moore for her input and suggestions.
And her suggestions were pretty out there (but awesome)!
She suggested names like “Resilient Bullet”, “Ford Silver Sword”, “Mongoose Civique”, “Varsity Stroke”, “Pastelogram, “Andante con Moto” and perhaps her most (in)famous, “Utopian Turtletop.”
In the end, Ford decided on the one name that, at the beginning of the process, they said they did not want to use, Edsel Ford (founder of the company)’s first name, Edsel.
Wallace wrote to her to say:
We have chosen a name out of the more than 6,000-odd candidates that we gathered. It fails somewhat of the resonance, gaiety and zest we were seeking. But it has a personal dignity and meaning to many of us here. Our name, dear Miss Moore, is—Edsel.
Now perhaps the name was not particularly good, but more likely, the car just wasn’t all that unique, so even though it had one of the biggest promotional pushes in the history of advertising, the Edsel line was a failure and closed up shop within two years of its 1958 debut.
If only they had named it the Utopian Turtletop…
POETRY LEGEND: Some of Shel Silverstein’s poems for Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic originally appeared in the pages of Playboy.
STATUS: False (with a basis in truth)
Reader Jeff asked:
I know that Shel Silverstein, now most famous for his illustrated books of poems for kids, was a songwriter and contributor for Playboy as well. I think I heard a rumor that some of the poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends or A Light in the Attic started out in Playboy, as odd place for a children’s classic to sprout from. Any truth to that?
As Jeff notes, Silverstein did, indeed, get his start in the entertainment industry working for Playboy.
While he did not start with the company, he got involved very early on, in 1956, to be precise, when the magazine was not even two years old.
A cartoonist, Silverstein first contributed cartoons to the magazine before gradually adding more material, including a popular travelogue series.
Soon, Silverstein was the second-most popular feature of the magazine – trailing only, well, you know, the naked ladies.
Eventually, he expanded his work into books.
His first Playboy-influenced work was 1961′s Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book, an “adult primer.”
It was basically a satire of children’s book from an adult perspective.
Silverstein clearly was not thinking about children’s work at this point in time. Heck, later that year he released the more explicit A Playboy’s Teevee Jeebies oh la la.
However, his editor at Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom, felt that Silverstein’s sensibilities would work well with stories for children.
So she convinced Silverstein to try to do children’s books.
Silverstein wrote a few books, including 1964′s The Giving Tree…
All the while he was doing these works, Silverstein had been working on some poetry that he never got around to publishing.
Nordstrom suggested that he try to pursue writing poems for children, as his poetry sensibilities seemed to lend itself to that style of poetry.
So in 1964, his first collection of poetry was released as Uncle Shelby’s Zoo (nowadays it is called Don’t Bump the Glump!)…
This book consisted of poems along with cartoons, almost ALL of which came from the pages of Playboy originally.
This is likely where the confusion comes in – the cartoons in this children’s work DID come from Playboy, and that IS pretty funny (and I’m sure Silverstein got a kick out of having the cartoons in his children’s book coming from an adult’s only magazine).
Uncle Shelby’s Zoo was a moderate success, but Silverstein found success in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a songwriter, so it was not until 1974 that he put out a follow-up to Uncle Shelby’s Zoo (by which time the first book had already gone out of print).
The follow-up, Where the Sidewalk Ends, was a major critical and commercial success and was quickly followed up with another book of poetry in 1976.
In 1981, Silverstein would put out his second-most famous book of children’s poetry, A Light in the Attic.
But no, none of the works in these two books originally appeared in the pages of Playboy (Silverstein would remain great friends with Hugh Hefner, though, for the rest of his life – Silverstein passed away in 1999).
Thanks to Jeff for the question!
POETRY LEGEND: Poet Wallace Stevens converted to Catholicism before he died.
The idea of someone converting to another religion is a pretty commonplace situation.
And someone converting while on their death bed is even MORE conventional.
And yet, in the case of award-winning poet Wallace Stevens, his conversion was treated quite unconventionally…
Stevens was an interesting fellow in that he became a world-renowned poet after spending most of his life as an executive for an insurance company.
Stevens worked for The Hartford insurance company and did not come out with his first book of poetry until he was 44 years old, in 1923.
And he did not become a SERIOUS poet until 13 years later.
From the late 30s up through his death in 1955, however, Stevens was a prolific writer of poems and soon became one of the most acclaimed Modernist poets of the 20th Century, winning the National Book Award in 1951 and 1955 (the latter posthumously).
In any event, at the end of his life, Stevens came down with stomach cancer. He was admitted to St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, CT, and in April of 1955 (he would die in August), Stevens was baptized as Catholic by Father Arthur Hanley.
This was witnessed by over a dozen people. It pretty clearly happened.
However, circumstances dictated that it was effectively concealed for decades after the fact.
The first problem was that Stevens did not wish for his family to learn about his conversion.
In his recent book, The Good Life, Charles Colson wrote about Stevens’ conversion:
Despite the peace that Stevens found in the weeks before his death, his conversion made everyone around him nervous, even the clergy. Stevens asked Father Hanley, Sister Bernetta Quinn, and others who knew about his conversion to keep the matter from his family. He was afraid that his wife would come to the hospital and become hysterical. This reflected class prejudices. Converting to Catholicism for a Hartford patrician was like becoming “honorary” shanty Irish. That was simply not done. It could get you thrown out of the country club.
Whether you agree with Colson’s reading into WHY Stevens kept it hidden (I think Colson over-exaggerates a tad), the main point is that he kept it hidden.
The second problem is an extension of the first. Because he kept it from his family, his daughter Holly refused to believe it happened. Ms. Stevens controlled her father’s literary estate, and she exercised that control in a peculiar fashion – if someone wanted access to her father’s papers, they would have to agree to not talk about her father’s conversion.
Finally, on St. Francis’ side of the issue, they ALSO wished to keep quiet. The Bishop of the archdiocese both:
A. Did not want to cause a big argument with Stevens’ family
and, more importantly…
B. Did not want people to think that St. Francis was in the business of converting Protestants to Catholics on their death beds, especially, as Colson notes, in the heavy Protestant area of Hartford.
So for decades, it was as if Stevens’ conversion never took place (it was not like his family gave him a Catholic funeral). It was only in the late 1970s/early 1980s that independent researchers dug into the situation and discovered the truth of the matter, and today, most all historians agree that Stevens did, in fact, convert.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org