Kentucky Travel: “Not Barry Manilow and a Glass of Wine”

Derby HatThe first question everyone asked when they learned we were going to the Kentucky Derby this year was—“Do you have a hat?!” Yes, I did, and here’s the photo to prove it! It was like wearing a dinner plate on the side of my head.

Unlike the unlucky folks who didn’t spring for under-cover seating, we were nice and dry, even though the May 5 race was the wettest Derby on record, by far. Our seats were great—right across from the winner’s circle and in full view of the finish line.

Given the television coverage, which we watch year after year, mint julep in hand, we were prepared for the elegant hats, the snazzy men’s suits, even Johnny Weir. But we were surprised Churchill Downs’s food options aren’t any better than those at our local AAA baseball team. Our Derby package came with a tent buffet (only so-so), and I pitied the patrons who had to depend on the track’s concession stands. Though we’d been warned off the premade mint juleps readily available, the one the bartender in the tent made from scratch was delicious.

The Derby itself—“the most exciting two minutes in sports”—was of course the pinnacle of the Louisville portion of our trip, but we saw lots of other sights in town, notably:

  • 21C Hotel Art

    Art at the 21C Museum Hotel; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

    The Louisville Slugger museum and a tour of the factory, which makes millions of baseball bats every year. Down Louisville’s Main Street are plaques in the sidewalk commemorating key ball players, along with life-sized replicas of the bats they used. And here I thought if you’ve seen one baseball bat, you’ve seen them all.

  • A guided tour of the modern art collection at our downtown hotel, the 21C Museum Hotel (If you’re interested in modern art and don’t know about this small but growing boutique hotel chain, you’re really missing something!).
  • The Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. The 12th president’s tomb was of peculiar interest to me, because recent genealogical research unearthed a photo of the gravestone of my three-greats grandmother, which says she was a descendant of President Taylor. A modicum of digging proved this to be more fake news.
Lexington horse farm

Lexington horse farm; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

  • The nearly 300-acre Cave Hill Cemetery, with its graves of Louisville founder George Rogers Clark, Muhammad Ali, Col. Sanders, Confederate and Union dead, and more than 100,000 other Louisville residents, famous and not-so.
  • A bus tour that took us to Lexington and two horse farms, where we “met” the sire and grandsire of Derby winner “Justified” and saw lots of new foals. Also were briefed on racehorse breeding. “It’s not Barry Manilow and a glass of wine,” our guide said. No indeedy.
  • A pleasant self-guided walking tour of Old Louisville, one of the country’s largest remaining Victorian neighborhoods.

Where we fell short was on the Urban Bourbon Trail. We visited only three of the 40 or so bourbontastic watering holes included in our passport, and even forgot have it stamped in one of them. On a five-day visit, that performance would have to be judged weak.

Reading on the Go

When you travel to Kentucky, here are some books you might take along.

Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs’s iconic twin spires; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Got the Horse Right Here!

horse racing

photo: TNS Sofres, creative commons license

It’s Derby week, and attention turns to things equine. The horses are huge, but run on the most fragile of ankles. The jockeys are small, but mostly heart. Racing is a quick way to burn money. No wonder storytellers have capitalized on its dramatic potential. This is a repost of my favorite horse books and screen entertainment, with the addition of Triple Crown, a crime novel by Felix Francis, carrying on his late father Dick’s call to the post.

Horse Heaven – by Jane Smiley. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, yet I found this novel way more satisfying. She’s developed a stableful of engaging characters as you follow the fates of several horses bred for racing, a risky proposition in the best of times. As much about people and their passions and predilections as about horses, of course.

Lords of Misrule – by Jaimy Gordon. Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, this novel is set in the lower echelons of horse-racing, among people for whom the twin spires of Churchill Downs are a distant dream. She has an almost miraculous way of capturing the way horse people think and talk.

The Horse God Built – by Lawrence Scanlan. This one I haven’t read, but it was too tempting to include a book about Secretariat—“the horse God built.” Secretariat won racing’s Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes) in 1973, with track-blistering performances. This nonfiction book is Secretariat as seen through the eyes of his groom and a story of friendship. This is one of six great nonfiction books about racing compiled by Amy Sachs for BookBub.

Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand, was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and real-life jockey Gary Stevens. A heartwarming story, this production includes footage shot from the midst of a race—an unforgettable view of why this sport is so dangerous. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%, audiences 76%.

Luck – HBO. For the full immersion experience, try this nine-episode series, developed by David Milch. It’s all-star cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Richard Kind, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon and, again, jockey Gary Stevens (who raced in the 2016 Kentucky Derby at age 53). The three touts, convinced they’re on track for riches, are priceless.

The King’s Choice

The King's ChoiceLet me guess. You know as few of the details as I did about how neutral Norway reacted to the invasion by German forces during three tension-packed days in April 1940. Well, now there’s Erik Poppe’s remarkable 2017 movie (Neflix!), based on true events, in which you’ll see a fine and memorable demonstration of courage and leadership (trailer).

As the Nazis hunt them, Norway’s King Haakon VII (elected as head of the constitutional monarchy in 1905) and his family, along with his weak-kneed cabinet, must flee Oslo. The cabinet had ignored the king’s warnings of possible German aggression and is in disarray. In any case, the king is the only person Hitler wants his envoy to negotiate with. The monarch faces agonizing decisions for himself, his family, his country. We are repeatedly reminded of how difficult it is to see issues clearly in a crisis, where imminent action is needed and no options are without substantial risk.

Back in Oslo, a Norwegian fascist plots to take over the government and negotiate with the Germans. His name was Quisling. And, instead of becoming the national hero he must have envisioned, his name became synonymous around the world with “traitor.”

Jesper Christensen is superb as King Haakon VII, Anders Baasmo Christiansen plays the untried but decent son, Kronprins Olav, and Karl Markovics is the frustrated German envoy, Kurt Bräuer, who truly wants to negotiate with the king, but who has very little time or sway with the fast-moving military machine.

The Norwegian countryside in late winter is as grim as the situation, snow on the ground, grey skies, almost as if the film were shot in black-and-white. It was Norway’s entry for Best Foreign Language film last year. Godfrey Cheshire on RogerEbert.com says it “deserves recognition for the excellence of every aspect of its making.” Subtitles.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics’ Rating: 84%; audiences 81%.

What Happened Next . . .

This is not part of the movie, but historian Lynne Olson praises King Haakon’s courage in her book, Last Hope Island, a fascinating–and previously unexamined–chronicle of what happened when King Haakon and six other European monarchs made their way to England and worked with the British government to aid the Allied cause.

King Haakon’s specific contribution to the war effort was that Norway’s Navy and Air Force and some army units followed him to Britain. Perhaps most important, he made available to the Allies the loyal 1,300-ship merchant marine fleet, the world’s largest and most modern, a prize the Germans dearly wanted.

On the Big Screen: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

The Death of Stalin

Death of Stalin

Steve Buscemi & Jeffrey Tambor

The Death of Stalin, from director Armando Iannucci (trailer) satirizes the cynical, self-absorbed group of leaders surrounding the Communist dictator and their desperate jockeying for position both before and after his death in 1953.

Banned in Russia, the film is based on a graphic novel by French writers Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin (Amazon link), full of one-liners and sight gags. Undoubtedly, some of the humor arises out of a characters’ sense of release—having lived under such extreme repression, day in and day out, guarding every word and eyebrow twitch, a giddy humanity bubbles up once the leader dies.

Late one evening, Stalin decides he wants to hear an orchestra concert that was broadcast on the radio. No one thought to record it, and the anxious scramble to recreate the concert illustrates the high-pitched fear of displeasing him. (Bringing in baffled street people to pad the audience was a nice touch.) Stalin murdered the pianist’s family, and she slips a vitriolic message into the recording jacket that causes the dictator have a stroke. His comrades can’t find a doctor for him because, they readily acknowledge, all the “good doctors” have been purged.

Stalin’s potential heirs include Nikita Kruschev (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi), who is put in charge of a lavish state funeral where things, inevitably, go awry. Due to his position on the Central Committee, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is “in charge,” with terror and venality at war behind his eyes. Vyacheslov Molotov (Michael Palin) is the only inner circle member unaware that Stalin’s unexpected death has spared him a grim fate in Lubyanka prison. The head of state security, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) oils his way into nearly every scene, always plotting and loathed by everyone.

As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker, it’s a comedy, “grossly neglectful of the basic decencies, cavalier toward historical facts, and toxically tasteless” and “ten times funnier . . . than it has any right to be.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 95%; audiences: 79%.

Cezanne: Portraits of a Life

Cezanne

Paul Cézanne, “Self Portrait in a Bowler Hat,” (1885-86)

This beautiful documentary, directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer), was created to accompany a joint exhibition of some 60 of Paul Cézanne’s portraits being mounted by London’s National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Better known for his still lifes and landscapes, the portraits, which New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl says were “the genre most resistant to Cézanne’s struggle” are nevertheless worthy of careful attention. Certainly the museum staff who provide commentary for the film have been captivated by them. Yet the artist’s struggle is evident in his letters to his friends, read in voice-over.

What I found most thrilling were the extreme closeups of the painted surface that seeing the works on a big screen provided. In a postcard (!) or print in a book, or even glanced at in a gallery, the paintings may look rather flat, but the huge enlargement allows you to see the many layers of color used to create that surface and to appreciate these works in a completely new way. Some of the landscapes and a few still lifes also receive this close-in treatment.

Although Cézanne masterfully depicted the faces and the hands of his subjects, he said that these were not what constituted the “portrait” of a person, but indeed the whole canvas—the clothing, the chair, the background, all together, were the true portrait. See it if you can.

The exhibit has had its Paris and London runs and will be in Washington March 25-July 1, 2018.

On Stage: A Loverly New “My Fair Lady”

my-fair-lady-poster2This spring Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre is presenting the first new production of Lerner and Loewe’s irresistible musical My Fair Lady in a quarter-century. Opening night for this production, directed by Bartlett Sher, is April 19. We were lucky to get good seats for a preview performance and enjoyed it tremendously.

Lauren Ambrose (Claire in Six Feet Under) plays the redoubtable Eliza Doolittle, with spirit and a knock-your-socks-off singing voice. It turns out she had classical voice training, but this is the first time since high school she’s had a role that let her use it.

Ambrose’s Eliza is more than Higgins’s life-sized doll, as she’s transformed from cockney flower girl to elegant lady. In a New York Times interview, she said, “I’m fighting for the dignity of the character.” This helps counter some of the show’s ideas that are uncomfortably dated, though Henry Higgins remains a deliciously irredeemable throwback. His “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” is right out of a time capsule. Yet the play as a whole overcomes that successfully in this #MeToo moment.

You’ll recognize Harry Hadden-Paton, who plays Professor Higgins, from numerous roles on British television, most recently in The Crown. Unlike Rex Harrison, he can actually sing. The cast-member who is our sentimental favorite is Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering. We met him when he played Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express at McCarter Theatre, and seeing Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins was a delicious treat!

Any actor playing Alfred P. Doolittle has the gift of two rousing numbers—“A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and Norbert Leo Butz plays them for all they’re worth, supported by his two semi-sober pals. He has everything he needs to bring the house down, and, boy, does he. Great support from the huge (29 members!) and hugely talented ensemble.

Michael Yeargan’s main set is on a revolving turntable, and the rest is designed for quick scene changes and continuous movement. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are loverly, especially for the scenes at the Ascot races—a golden opportunity for the costume designer to pull all the stops. The red taffeta coat Eliza wears to the Embassy Ball is a brave and dramatic choice for the red-haired Ambrose. That’s a scene where her dress has to be up to the drama of the moment: “She is a princess,” after all. But I’m still trying to figure out what color that dress was.

I especially appreciated that the orchestra—part of which appears on stage for the ballroom scene—did not drown out the singing.

MFL is often considered “the perfect musical.” If you’ve never seen the show, or if you haven’t seen it in years, it will leave a big smile on your face. “What in all of heaven can have prompted you to go?” The promise of a terrific evening at the theater!

American Writers Museum: Chicago

book coversOn the lookout for something new and interesting to do in Chicago? Try the American Writers Museum, the first U.S. museum devoted to authors. If you are a writer, you may find it’s a tangible uplift. It both celebrates American writers and shows their pervasive influence on “our history, our identity, and our daily lives.”

The museum is huge in heart, if not in size, and, unless you’re one of those people who must read every word of every exhibit (in which case you’d better set aside a day or two), you can probably explore it in under two hours. Although it doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, the museum nevertheless includes authors and works from throughout the nation’s literary history—poetry, song lyrics, speeches, drama, fiction, nonfiction, journalism,and more. The displays are well designed and captivating.

So many iconic American writers are associated with Chicago—from Studs Terkel to Nelson Algren to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Carl Sandburg to Sandra Cisneros—it’s fitting that there’s currently a special exhibition on the talent nurtured there, complemented by an exhibit of photographs by Art Shay of writers at work (and play).

When I visited, a school group was there, and it was amusing to hear the teacher explain the operation of a typewriter. “There’s this ribbon thing, see, and there’s ink on it . . . And then when that bell rings, you move the carriage back.” Numerous hands-on exhibits let museum-goers experiment and play with words. Poetry construction. Where words come from. Where writers come from.

You can vote for your favorite novel. To Kill a Mockingbird leads the list, followed by The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. My guess is the “voters” feel less confident about 21st century books and fall back on what they studied in school. That process needs an infusion of more recent stellar work. I’d like to see Jennifer Egan’s Black Box there. Kids could relate to a novel in tweets.

The museum isn’t just about the already-written, though. It also has an extensive educational program, including the Write In Youth Education program for students in middle and high school. And series of panels gave good advice about craft and process for writers of any age.

The AWM, which opened only nine months ago, has been chosen in a USA Today Reader’s Choice poll as “Best Illinois Attraction” and by Fodor’s Travel as one of “the World’s 10 Best New Museums.” Find it at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, Second Floor, Chicago, IL 60601.