The Colgate Scene
Graham Russell Gao Hodges
Like her star embedded in the hard pavement of Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame, the career of Chinese American actress Anna May Wong has for many years remained to the public eye flat, fixed, and largely overlooked. Even among those able to recall her silver screen image of the 1920s through the 1940s, she evokes the vocabulary of "dragon lady," "China doll," or, most pernicious of all, "traitor to her race." For the few who have submitted her films to scholarly scrutiny, she is dismissed as the poster child of her era's rampant "cinematic Orientalism." In short, the memory of Anna May Wong has been as typecast as the roles the film industry compelled her to play.
How, then, does one go about prying Anna May's star from the cement of stereotype? The only solution, according to Professor of History Graham Russell Gao Hodges, is meticulous and determined biographical and historical research into the complexity of the person behind the image. Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend represents precisely such an effort. Drawing from on an exhaustive examination of personal letters, film archives, government files, newspapers, and movie magazines from Australia to Austria, and even a trip to her ancestral hometown in China, Hodges has reconstructed in sympathetic detail the glamorous yet troubled life trajectory of a pioneer Chinese American actress.
As the biography makes abundantly clear, despite her origins in America, Anna May Wong belonged to the world; or, as Hodges observes, she was "the global representative of modern, articulate Chinese womanhood." Driven to leave the United States by racist Hollywood dictates that relegated her to roles under white actors in "yellow face" and by taboos against interracial love that had her die dozens of deaths at the ends of her films, Anna May Wong carried her already established career to a comparatively tolerant Europe at the age of 23. As a cosmopolitan nomad among adoring fans all across the continent (who learned German and French, as well as an upper-crust English accent along the way), she quite consciously used her international fame and personal charm to counter the ignorance and misperceptions of China and the Chinese. In the 1930s and 1940s, she responded to the Japanese invasion of China with a newfound sense of Chinese identity and a commitment of her talents and celebrity to war relief -- an effort sadly unable to overcome her ambiguous reputation among China's intellectuals and politicians. After fading gradually from public view, Anna May Wong died in 1961 at the age of 56.
To read Anna May Wong's biography is to understand the extent to which the drama, depth, and complexity of her off-screen life surpassed that seen in even the best film roles she was allowed -- which leads perhaps to the question of who among today's favored Hollywood stars could be cast in a film depicting her life. And from there, one has to wonder just how much Hollywood has changed since the era of Anna May Wong.
John Crespi is the Henry R. Luce Assistant Professor of Chinese language and culture.
James D. Hornfischer '87
Military history is replete with accounts of heroic last stands against monumental odds, such as the Spartans facing the Persians at Thermo-pylae in 480 B.C., or Texans tangling with the Mexican army at the Alamo in 1836. In such instances, the defenders usually inflicted heavy causalities before being overwhelmed and annihilated by their attackers. Like their counterparts at Thermopylae and the Alamo, the American sailors and aviators who waged battle against the Imperial Japanese Navy off the Phillipine island of Samar in October 1944 were vastly outnumbered. However, instead of being martyred in a glorious defeat, the outgunned flotilla of American destroyers, destroyer escorts, and escort carriers turned back the most powerful surface force the Japanese navy has ever sent into combat.
James Hornfischer's The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors is a stirring account of a World War II naval engagement that is unprecedented in American history. The Battle off Samar was the central action of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a colossal struggle waged across thousands of square miles of water in and around the Phillipines by warships from the United States, Australia, and Japan.
By the time Japanese Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita's Center Force burst into Leyte Gulf on the morning of October 25, 1944, most of the Japanese warships sent to challenge the Allied invasion of the Phillipines had been destroyed or had turned back toward home. Expecting to be met by the battleships, cruisers, and aircraft carriers of the American Third Fleet, Kurita instead faced the comparatively tiny Task Unit 77.4.3 (nicknamed Taffy 3), led by Rear Admiral Clifton A.F. Sprague. "This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can," Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland told the crew of the destroyer escort U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts as the lightly armored vessel turned to charge at the Japanese fleet. During the next two and a half hours, the Roberts and the rest of Taffy 3 put up such ferocious resistance -- at a cost of 850 lives -- that Kurita was forced to withdraw.
Hornfirscher skillfully weaves together the wider historical ramifications of the battle with detailed stories about the men of Taffy 3 -- most of whom had never seen an ocean before the war -- who kept crippled and doomed ships afloat while fighting almost literally to the last shell. He also provides a perspective on the Japanese approach to the battle, contradicting the traditional view of Kurita as a bungler who should have pressed ahead. Horn-fischer is not so generous to some American admirals, whose inattentiveness to the battle's aftermath doomed many survivors to the elements or shark attacks. Still, Horn-fischer spends much more time extolling the sacrifices made by the American navy off Samar than berating the high command:
"As Herman Wouk wrote in War and Remembrance, `The vision of Sprague's three destroyers . . . charging out of the smoke and the rain straight toward the main batteries of Kurita's battleships and cruisers, can endure as a picture of the way Americans fight when they don't have superiority. Our schoolchildren should know about that incident, and our enemies should ponder it.'"
Kathryn Bertine '97
(Little Brown & Company)
Anyone who attended a Colgate men's hockey game at Starr Rink between 1994 and 1997 most likely caught a glimpse of Kathryn Bertine skating, jumping, spinning, and bringing smiles to faces that would otherwise be watching the dutiful rounds of a quiet Zamboni. Bertine's first book is an autobiographical account of her skating life from before she came to Colgate, and takes the reader on a guided tour of the sordid underside of the world of professional ice-skating shows.
The journey Bertine describes includes a humorous account of some of the less glamorous aspects of professional skating: the travel, the repetitive routines, the troupe politics, the loneliness, and the inevitable opportunities to wear oversized animal costumes. Throughout her narrative, Bertine constantly strives to frame her professional experience in the context of her childhood dreams and adolescent expectations, knitting together her idealistic expectations with her newfound realities.
Early in her story, Bertine presents a cautionary tale as she describes and examines the cultural undercurrent of eating disorders that taints and slowly poisons almost every skater in "the show." Her description of the insufferable Sunday weigh-ins, and their relationship to the intense competition for treasured solo roles, takes on heightened meaning as she describes the onset of her own struggles with anorexia.
Bertine thoughtfully traces her progress through the disease as she processes the psychological impact of these societal stereotypes of beauty and glamour, layered upon an intellect that, deep down, truly does understand and embrace all that is healthy and athletic. In wrestling with her own personal issues of control, validation, and self-judgment, Bertine eventually comes to find herself connected to -- instead of being imprisoned by -- her body image. If Sunday is really just a metaphor for judgment day (characterized by the weekly weigh-ins) all the Sundays left to come represent our collective opportunities to seek and find a higher power.
Murray Decock '80 is associate vice president for development and instructor in piano.
Gabriel Schechter '73
(Charles April Publications)
With spring training back in full swing, Gabriel Schechter's Unhittable! Baseball's Greatest Pitching Seasons is an essential read for baseball aficionados or anyone who loves to argue about sports. Utilizing statistics, charts, quotes, and Schechter's intimate knowledge of the national pastime, Unhittable! dissects the greatest seasons of 25 different pitchers throughout the history of major league baseball, including Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Smoky Joe Wood, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, and Pedro Martinez. Focusing on game-by-game accounts of each season, Schechter shows how these great seasons were achieved and how each was regarded in its time.
"This book is not an attempt to quantify greatness, although it is full of numbers," Schechter writes in the introduction. "It tells the stories behind the greatest pitching seasons of the 20th century, without pretending to be the absolute arbiter of pitching greatness."
And what stories Schechter has to tell. There's spitballer Ed Walsh, who had a 40-15 record in 1908 despite pitching for a Chicago White Sox team that averaged only 3.4 runs per game. With the American League pennant on the line, Walsh pitched more than 77 innings during the last three weeks of the regular season. There's Lefty Grove, whose 31-4 record in 1931 could easily have been 34-0! There's Warren Spahn, who in 1963 at age 42 had a 23-7 record, including a marathon duel with the much-younger Juan Marichal that didn't end until Willie Mays slammed a home run off Spahn in the 16th inning. There's also Dwight Gooden's 1985 season, when he became the youngest pitcher ever to win 20 games in a season, and achieved a level of success he never repeated.
This reviewer thought he was a student of Bob Gibson's stunning performance in 1968, when the St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer threw 13 shutouts and set the modern earned-run-average record with a 1.12 ERA. Schechter observes that during June and July that season, "Gibson had completed the most extended stretch of dominating pitching in baseball history," giving up all of three runs in 105 innings.
Baseball purists might balk at the inclusion of campaigns such as Nolan Ryan's 1973 season (a record 383 strikeouts, but a win-loss record of 21-16), or Randy Johnson's 1999 season (when the fireballing left-hander had a record of 17-9), over great seasons by hurlers such as Lefty Gomez, Hal Newhauser, Robin Roberts, Whitey Ford, Jim Palmer, or Marichal. However, Schechter freely admits his list is -- despite all the charts and graphs -- a subjective chronicle. Therein lies much of the charm of Unhittable!, because it gives baseball fans a treasure trove of information to carry on arguing about who were the greatest pitchers ever, while reliving the magic of each season in the sun.
Ken Baker '92
(The Lyons Press)
Ken Baker always wanted nothing more than to play ice hockey in the pros -- until a brain tumor cut his dreams short while he was in college. After surgery and several years of [rehabilitation], Baker, who in high school was a top prospect for the U.S. Olympic team, put his successful journalism career on hold to attempt the seemingly impossible: a comeback.
He moved away from his family to join the Bakersfield Condors, a minor-league team in the dusty oil town of Bakersfield, Calif., as a third-string goalie. At age 31, Baker became the oldest rookie in all of pro hockey, facing 100-m.p.h. pucks and long bus rides, hostile fans and cheap motel rooms, body bruises and battle-worn teammates.
From his visit to an NHL training camp to his first nerve-rattled minutes as a pro, Baker joins the rookies who still dream of making it to the Show, the veterans long past their prime, and the obsessive fans who keep them going. There's the coach who tests Baker at every turn; the troubled captain who gets arrested for battery on his wife; the former NHL goon who stages fights out of boredom; and the team's other goalies, who eye the newcomer [warily], all of them knowing there's only room for one of them in the net. Baker's pro hockey adventure ends up teaching him nearly everything he will ever need to know about life.
Ken Baker is the west coast bureau chief for Us Weekly and his work has appeared in the Washington Post, Premiere, and ESPN the Magazine. He is also the author of Man Made: A Memoir of My Body.
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