From Famine to Feast: Photos of Asa Candler Jr.

“Mama wrote me you wanted one of my pictures. I must tell you I have not one to my name. I am not so conceited as to have several pictures of my self laying around in my room. Besides no one ever cared enough for me to want a picture of myself. They only ask for it for politeness. Now I don’t say this about you but people in general.”

– Asa Candler Jr. to his sister Lucy, March 1, 1901, age 20

I can’t imagine a scenario where anyone lands on this blog by any means other than via a search engine query for Asa Candler Jr., so I’m going to skip the preamble explaining who he was. If you’re lost and wondering what this is all about, here’s a helpful overview.

Despite his prominent profile in the Atlanta community, pictures of Buddie Candler are hard to come by.  However, I’ve spent the last 18 months researching his life and have rounded up a fair number from various sources. I’m on a month-long hiatus from Buddie storytelling in order to give myself mental space before diving into editing-mode. This blog will eventually contain supplemental stories and details that the book necessarily omits for the purpose of narrative flow, but I can’t start planning those out until I’ve edited and know what’s in and what’s out. Posting photos requires less storytelling than any other kind of update, so here we go in chronological order.

Let’s get started.

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First we have one of the earliest photos that I can confirm in Asa Candler Jr’s life.  The photo above is dated 1898, from the classic Candler family portrait that you’ll find in just about any resource that covers his father’s life.  Buddie was born in August of 1880, so he was 17 or 18 here.  Because his birthday comes in the latter part of the calendar year, all age estimates from here forward assume his age on January 1.

I want to point out some clear defining characteristics which are important when making a positive ID and making sure photos are oriented correctly.  Buddie has a defined philtrum and thin upper lip.  He has his mother’s nose, which includes a broad bridge and apex.  He also has a more arched left eyebrow than right.  This slight arch gives him a quizzical or attentive expression that many writers interpret as mischievous or humorous.  His brother Walter, bottom middle, has a slighter version of it, and later in life William appears to have a similar arch.  I’m not inclined to believe it says anything about his state of mind; it’s just a natural asymmetry.

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Above: 1898. The photo above quite possibly predates the well-known family portrait.  It’s from the 1898 Emory College yearbook, which would have been produced at the end of his Junior year, so this is likely a 17-year-old Buddie.  He was the manager and organizer of the school bicycle club.  Safety bicycles (the precursor to the bicycles we know and love today) were still something of a newfangled contraption, quite expensive and considered by many to be a short-lived fad; a toy for rich boys and girls.  One resource tells a story about Buddie spending his school supply budget on a bicycle against his father’s wishes.  Another resource claims that the act of defiance that got him kicked out of school was when he rode his bike on campus after they were banned, and his Uncle Warren —then Emory President —busted him mid-ride.

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Above: 1899, Senior yearbook photo.  This is the other well-known photo.  Anywhere you look online you’ll find either this one or the family portrait from the year before.  He would have been 18 in this photo if it was taken before August. You can find the oval-cropped version on Emory’s archived yearbook directory or you can find the original uncropped version, as shown above in the second photo.  Arched eyebrow, defined philtrum, broad bridge.

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Above: 1903, age 22, taken at Callan Castle, his parents’ mansion in Inman Park.  The resource that published this photo erroneously labeled it as the dinner following the wedding of his older brother Charles Howard.  However, Howard can be seen sitting to the left of center in a dark jacket, not wedding attire.  His wife Flora is to the left of him.  Just over the top of Howard’s head you can see the top of Walter’s head. Above and to the right of Walter you can see Helen, Buddie’s wife, and then Buddie himself (eyebrow gives him away every time).  On the right side of the table you see a bride and groom standing before a doorway.  That’s Lucy, Buddie’s sister, and her new husband Bill Owens.  Lucy and Howard were both married the same year, which is likely why the two events were confused in the photo’s caption.  To the left of Bill we see mother Lucy Elizabeth, and to the right of Lucy we see father Asa Sr.  To the right-front of Asa Sr. we see the top half of youngest brother William’s head.  The happy couple in the center foreground are likely Bill’s parents.

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Above: 1909, age 29, with the whole family: parents, children and grandchildren.  To the left we see Buddie and his wife Helen. Above Helen we see Walter and his wife Eugenia with their newborn baby (likely Asa IV, placing the photo in August or later, which is why I’ve incremented Buddy’s age a year). We see doting grandmother Lucy Elizabeth and proud grandfather Asa Sr. at the back center, and to the right of them we see Lucy and Bill.  To the far right we see Howard’s wife Flora leaning against the wall, and Howard is left of her in front of Lucy and Bill.  The young man all the way to the right in the front row is William, who wasn’t yet married.

The baby in the portrait at the center of the photo is Asa III, Buddie’s first-born son, who died of illness before his first birthday.  Some sources claim Buddie wanted to name his next-born son Asa IV in order to keep the name going in the direct line of descendants, but Helen and Asa Sr. both disapproved of the idea.  One of Buddie’s great-grandsons tells a story about Walter naming his son Asa IV against Buddie’s wishes, and claims they had to come to a peaceful agreement to allow Buddie’s first-born grandson to be named Asa V in order to return the name to its rightful lineage.

Moving on.  1909 also gave us a bumper crop of press photos:

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Atlanta Speedway Construction – Promotional Photo, Summer 1909

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Atlanta Speedway Opening – Promotional Photo, Fall 1909

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Amateur race competitor – Atlanta Speedway event, Fall 1909

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Amateur race driver, Fiat – Atlanta Speedway event, Fall 1909

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Honorary passenger, exhibition lap – Atlanta Speedway, opening race day Fall 1909

Above: All of these were taken between July and October, and all are associated with his activities at the Atlanta Speedway racetrack.  I wrote about my favorite Atlanta Speedway story here, but there’s so much more to tell in future updates. It was during this time that he adopted cigar smoking, emulating his favorite professional race car drivers.  He was described as reckless, a speed demon whose heavy, “beefy” frame helped him to wrestle cars around tough turns.

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Press photo, 1910

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Above: 1910, age 29. This is the first professional headshot that shows up in the press, usually rolled out during PR campaigns to save his reputation from the rumors and dramas that seemed to follow him around.  Some of his descendants would have you believe the rumors and dramas are all the result of jealousy, but I challenge that position.  No man is all good or all bad, and Asa Candler Jr. was no exception. He was capable of callous vindictiveness, and earned some of the reputation that dogged his legacy.  During periods of public scrutiny he would engage in a practice known as “paid puffery” to correct the record and impose his version of the truth.  Unless cross-checked against other references to confirm or debunk his claims, one might be inclined to believe his versions.  Not me. I’ve cross-checked and debunked.  More on this in future updates.

The photo above was occasionally printed facing the other way, but I believe this is the correct orientation based on the facial characteristics listed at the start of this post.

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Participant in one of several rural-road Pathfinder tours, 1910

Also 1910. Looking a little full around the chin, Buddie. During this period he escaped one of his biggest public dramas by setting off on an around-the-state tour of Georgia with two friends, “Mack” McGill and Frank Weldon.  Mack was his usual driver, and they took shifts driving over several road tours.

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Race photo 1911

Clearly not all of the photos I found are good. Above: 1911, age 30, taken at the finish line of a race at the end of the Atlanta Speedway’s short life.  This photo was in honor of a winning driver and his family, along with a few prominent Atlanta citizens.  Buddy is seen here wearing his usual driving duster and cap.  Lacking visible physical characteristics, I identified him by a process of elimination based on the photo’s caption.

Now let’s get into some clearer headshots from the 1920s.

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1922, posed headshot

Above: 1922, age 41.  This one was originally published or digitized a little squished and flipped the other way.  Based on his facial characteristics I believe this is the correct orientation and I used other photos as reference to adjust the aspect ratio.

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1923, family portrait

Above: 1923, age 42.  This is from a small family photo. The hair of his youngest son Samuel is seen in the bottom left corner. The full version includes Buddie, Helen and Samuel without the other kids.

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1925, possibly another semi-candid shot.

Above: 1925, age 44.  Featuring photo masking around his hair that likely cropped a little too close.

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Another 1925 photo, this one a candid shot during a meeting between race car driver Ralph DePalma (left) and Atlanta Mayor James L. Key.  Photo obviously pulled from the Atlanta History Center archive.  Their caption had the men labeled all wrong.  It claims the Candler in this photo is Asa Sr. and noted their names out of order.  My hope is that they will update their record now that the correct information has been provided.

In 1927, at 46 years old, we get a study of contrasts.

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1927, formal headshot.

First is a stern headshot, although I believe the furrowed brow is due to the pince-nez.  He looks younger and slimmer here than in other photos from this era, with less gray hair, so there’s a good possibility that this one predates 1927. This is the first year that I can account for its publication.

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1927, candid photo

Next, the smiling photo above showed up in a few places in 1927.  The Candler family faced a slew of legal and romantic dramas during the mid-1920s, and this one was used by the press in both favorable and critical contexts.  Setting that aside, it’s another example of his “jolly” expression that the press, when they liked him, spoke highly of.  This photo can be found facing either direction and may be squished in some scans.  I used facial features and other photos for reference to orient and correct the aspect ratio.

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1927-1935, precise date unknown

I have not been able to definitively date the photo above.  Based on the setting and his appearance over the following few years I feel 1927 is a reasonable approximation.  I would say no later than 1931 but I can’t rule out as late as 1935.

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1927-1935, precise date unknown

The photo above looks like it could have been taken on the same day as the previous one so I’m placing it in the same approximate location on the timeline.

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1928, shipside with his yacht the Amphitrite.

Above: 1928, age 47.  This is a few years into his boating obsession.  His original yacht was named the Helasa, a portmanteau of Asa and Helen.  Helen passed away in 1927 and he remarried about six months later. At that time he replaced the Helasa with an even more palatial yacht named the Amphitrite.  In the photo above he’s seen wearing his captain’s hat.  Buddie always wore activity-appropriate hats.

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1929 standing by one of his airplanes in an activity-appropriate hat.

Above: In 1929, at age 48, Buddie bought a 165 hp open-cockpit Waco biplane, which he had painted maroon with the word “Briarcliff” across the side.  I will put together a post about his various airplanes sometime in the future.  At the time that this one was taken, personal airplanes were almost unheard of.  This is thematic throughout his life. Whether it was bicycles, cars, boats or planes, Asa Candler Jr acquired expensive transportation as soon as he was able to.  In 1929 he also bought airplanes for his son John and his daughter Martha.

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1930, with a different airplane and hat

Above: 1930, age 49. By early 1930 Buddie had moved on from the open-cockpit style airplane to a closed-cabin Lockheed Vega, the same model flown by Amelia Earhart.  During this time he liked to hop into his plane to pop up to New York to shop for magic tricks (more on that in a future post) and fly home the same day.  It’s important to note that although John and Martha learned to fly their planes, Buddie did not pilot his own.  He hired pilot Beeler Blevins, a big name in Atlanta aviation history, to be his private chauffeur of the skies.  Like Mack McGill, he let experts take the wheel but took credit for records set.

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1931, drinking a bottled Coca Cola

Above: 1931, age 50.  This photo is clearly candid but it was published in a strange context.  In 1931 Buddie purchased a Lockheed Model 9 Orion and attempted to beat one of Charles Lindbergh’s flight records, because that’s the kind of thing Buddie liked to do.  This photo accompanied one of the many articles that covered the event.  It features some strange artifacts such as outlining around his hand and nose that give it an oddly touched-up effect.

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1933, visiting the sea lions who lived in his front yard.

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1933, around the time he shut down his personal zoo.

Above: 1933, 52 years old.  Asa Candler Jr. is most well known in the Atlanta area for his short-lived private zoo.  More on that in a future update, including a possibly controversial opinion that challenges the conventionally accepted story of its origin.

He’s starting to put on a lot of weight now, and starting to look aged beyond his years.  There may be good reason for this, since this would have been near the end of his years-long battle with alcoholism.  By his own admission he had his moment of clarity while driving home from his Uncle Warren’s house, when suddenly he recalled a moment when he bonded with his Bengal tiger and heard God speak to him.  The zoo dismantling was finalized in 1935 and Warren died in 1941.  The epiphany probably struck during this window of time.

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1939, enjoying a hamburger at a fraternity picnic.

Above: 1939, age 58.  Although he never rushed a fraternity himself (after his brother Howard had him blackballed from Kappa Alpha in 1896) he attended several different fraternity events as a guest of honor during this period.  He was a well known, well connected wealthy man who never spent a day at home if he didn’t have to, so he was invited out a lot and typically accepted.

His cane started showing up in photos as early as 1930, but in 1922, during a wild court case involving his brother Walter, Asa Jr. was accused of assaulting someone with a cane. It was noted in the press that the victim’s description of the cane matched the one Asa Jr. was known to carry.  I have theories about this event and the origin of the cane that I will share in a future update.

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1940s, unconfirmed date.

Above: This photo accompanied Asa Candler Jr’s obituary in 1953 but when compared to photos of his last few years it’s clear that this headshot was taken well before his death.  I estimate that it was taken in the early 1940s, which would have been his early 60s.

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1947 at the Westview Cemetery Mausoleum

Above: 1947, age 66. This photo is from a radio program that covered the opening of his final obsession, the Westview Cemetery mausoleum.  I’ll have lots to say about this in a future update.  In this photo he walks beside a radio announcer who carries a big microphone on a long cable while onlookers sit beneath the porte-cochére that connects the main mausoleum to the incomplete administration building (which is still incomplete to this day).

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1948 at a public event.

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1948, a very small Buddie shown in a room at Briarcliff mansion just before he moved out.

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1948, at another public event

Above: 1948, age 67.  As early as 1946 Buddie was showing signs of planning to sell Briarcliff mansion.  He was throwing all of his money into developing Westview Cemetery and battling a hoard of lawsuits that were proving very expensive to fight.  In 1946 he doubled down on his mausoleum project and sold off a slew of large property holdings.  He also started renovations at the Briarcliff Hotel and Apartments to build out the penthouse suite that he would occupy after the sale of Briarcliff Mansion.

This brings us to 1949-1953, ages 68-72.  He spent 1949 doing everything his heart desired with the money that the sale of Briarcliff Mansion freed up. The next few photos appear to be from around the same time period, although they were part of a compilation published in 1953 following his death. After 1949 his health declined and he slowed down significantly so I suspect these are closer to 1949 than 1953.

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1949, on the tarmac.

Above: 1949 confirmed, age 68. This was taken plane-side before departure for an extended African safari trip with his grandson Asa V.

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1949, with a fresh kill.

Above, 1949, confirmed. This is a cropped version of a photo showing Asa Jr. with his grandson Asa V in front of a large bull elephant that he shot while on a 2-month African safari. I’ve chosen not to share the full photo because the sight of the dead elephant may be disturbing for those who object to the practice of elephant hunting.  I’ll have more to say about Buddie’s hunting in a future update.

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1949-ish, in his infamous trophy room at Westview Cemetery.

Above: 1949-ish, 68-ish years old. As the Briarcliff era came to a close Buddy moved his hunting trophies to a large, round building on the Westview Cemetery property.  He permitted school children to come in and view his collection and occasionally held dances and fund raisers there.  This latter activity landed him in another public controversy.  Native Atlantans who grew up during the trophy room’s heyday recall the full African elephant specimen that was displayed there.  While most of the trophies were eventually donated to Fernbank Science Center, Westview records are unable to account for the location of the elephant.

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1949 at a public event.

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1949-ish, showing a Methodist bishop how to use flight control headphones.

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1949-ish, at a black-tie affair.

And that brings us to the last 2 photos I have of Asa Candler, Jr.

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1950, at a public event to pick out a new elephant for Zoo Atlanta.

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1950, showing off the hunting rifle he used to kill an elephant in his trophy room at Westview Cemetery.

Above: 1950, age 69.  I appreciate the contrast between the last two photos.  In the first we see jolly Buddie, warm and welcoming with smiling eyes.  In the second we see serious Buddie, on guard and intensely focused, deep in one of his obsessive hobbies.  In one he’s helping the city to acquire and fall in love with a new elephant.  In the other he’s demonstrating his skill as a hunter who slaughtered a wild elephant (with the help of safari staff).  This seemingly incongruous pairing perfectly exemplifies the life of Asa Candler Jr.

In the summer of 1950 Buddie fell ill after working hard to help Zoo Atlanta raise money to replace their elephant named Coca, who came to live with them after he shut down his private zoo.  Coca was loved by the community, and her death was felt as an intense loss for the city’s children. He worked tirelessly to campaign for her replacement and offered to fly a few lucky children to an exotic animal farm to choose the new elephant themselves.  The new elephant was welcomed to her new home with a ticker tape parade.  Buddie went into the hospital soon afterward and remained there for two months.  His son Samuel made statements to the press that sounded like perhaps they weren’t sure he would pull through.  He did, and continued on for another three years.

In 1951 at age 70 Buddie won the right to sell off all of his holdings in spite of the open court cases still pending against him.  He informed the Georgia Supreme Court judge that he was old, in poor health, and intended to make himself insolvent so he could leave everything he had to his family.  Two years later he died of what sounds like liver cancer. Liver cancer is a very rare primary cancer.  Risk factors include cirrhosis from long term alcohol abuse and fatty liver disease brought on by long term obesity.  While I have no definitive confirmation that liver cancer was the cause of death or what risk factors could have contributed to it, it would be unsurprising if this suggestion were true.  It would jive with what can be confirmed about his life and lifestyle.

And that brings us to the end of his life and the end of the photos.  I’ve only omitted one photo from a candid moment while he was vacationing on Sapelo Island because the scan is so dark and unintelligible that it adds nothing to his history.  If you have any questions about photographs throughout Asa Candler Jr.’s life please feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to provide answers. Thanks for reading!

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The Braskification Effect

Have I ever told you about Bill Brasky? He’s a ten-foot-tall, 2-ton son of a bitch and the best damn salesman that ever lived. To Bill Brasky!

Back in the Will Ferrell days, Saturday Night Live briefly had a recurring sketch that featured a group of drunken businessmen who discussed a shared acquaintance by the name of Bill Brasky, with each story escalating and becoming less and less realistic with every detail. He starts out as six feet tall and every time it comes back around he’s grown another foot until he’s big enough to palm André the Giant’s head.

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Damn straight.

The original sketch drags on too long, as only a moderately funny SNL bit with a forced catchphrase can. But I think about the Brasky sketch a lot. It reminds me of my current project. Duh, everything reminds me of my current project.

I want to introduce the world to the life of Asa Candler, Jr., wealthy second son and namesake of the man who started Coca Cola and turned it into a multi-million dollar empire. Plenty is known about his father. His portrait hangs in World of Coca Cola in downtown Atlanta. His legacy is woven through Atlanta’s history during the last two decades of the 1800s and first two decades of the 1900s. Landmarks bearing his name abound. Multiple books have been written about Asa Sr., analyzing his business acumen and his role in establishing marketing practices that turned 5 cent sodas into an unstoppable brand.

But Asa Candler, Sr. is not a Brasky.

Asa Jr., or Buddie as he was known to family and close friends, is something of a Brasky in the Atlanta area.  When you ask locals if they know about Asa Candler, Jr., the answer is either blank silence or a secondhand recitation of vague, booze-infused anecdotes with no source.  If you’ve ever heard anything about our Bill Brasky, you’re familiar with that twenty-foot-tall loony who let man-killing wildcats terrorize the Druid Hills neighborhood. Ask anyone and his story goes a little something like this:

“Have I ever told you about Buddie Candler? Eccentric man! Alcoholic, too. Bought a zoo while drunk and let the animals run free. Monkeys and tigers, everywhere.”

Or:

“Buddie Candler? Why, he opened a public pool on his front lawn and a laundromat in his mansion. Went broke pissing away his money on harebrained schemes. Which schemes? Have you heard about the zoo? To Buddie Candler!”

Or:

“Buddie Candler put a giant pipe organ in his house. Built a whole music hall to hold it. He owned Briarcliff Mansion, the Briarcliff Hotel, and the famous Hotel Clermont, too. This whole road is called Briarcliff because of him. Do you know about the zoo? Had four elephants named Coca, Cola, Pause and Refreshing. Three cheers for Buddie Candler!”

The zoo.  It’s always the zoo.  It’s the same stories again and again, always coming back to the zoo.  It seems odd to me that a legend can hang on a single life choice, although I will admit that the two years of the menagerie’s existence were certainly exciting.  Maybe it is enough to hang a legend on.

My project started because I asked myself a seemingly innocuous question: why is Briarcliff Mansion called Briarcliff Mansion? It was a simple Atlanta history question. While searching for the answer I first learned of the existence of the mansion’s owner and his family, his “Braskified” history, as most people do. That wasn’t good enough. None of that answered my question. The house was called Briarcliff before there was ever a zoo. So I kept digging. Eventually I answered my question, but I discovered so much more, and what I found shifted my subject from a place to a person.

No man can be a Brasky.  The whole premise of that sketch is that legends grow beyond believable proportions in no time.  But as I researched I turned up more stories, big stories, stories I’d never heard anywhere else. I turned up details that I had to cross-check and regard with skepticism before accepting them as truth. Story after story, inch by inch, my Brasky grew.  I realized three things:

  1. Owning a zoo isn’t the most interesting part of Asa Candler Jr.’s history.
  2. Asa Sr. gets credit for some of Asa Jr.’s adventures, which diminishes their scale.
  3. The recorded history across several existing organizations have the facts wrong, and the truth really is more interesting than fiction.

During the Brasky sketch Saturday Night Live takes you on a narrative arc that’s typical of their type of short form comedy. They establish the premise, that Bill Brasky is a person who made a big impression on his friends. They build the premise to the point of absurdity, taking the audience beyond the suspension of disbelief by expanding on his details until he quite literally couldn’t exist. And then, to borrow a term from the magic industry (apropos of my subject, but that’s a story for another time), they reveal the prestige, the twist that deflates the audience’s assumptions and ties up the premise.

In the case of the original Brasky sketch the prestige is startlingly absurd. A deep, reverberant voice like God himself calls out, “did you say Bill Brasky?” The camera switches to a high, oblique angle that’s pointed down over the shoulder of a gargantuan man as his friends crane their necks to peer up at him. They raise their glasses and cheer. The twist: Bill Brasky is real, and he’s bigger than their biggest claim.

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“It’s Bill Brasky!”

And here’s my prestige: Braskified Asa Candler, Jr. is real, too. And he’s bigger than anyone imagined.  I know you’re not supposed to reveal your prestige before you tell the story, but what can I say, I’m a rebel.  Besides, for this project the prestige isn’t the fun part.  The fun part is the premise. Come along with me, let’s explore how this premise plays out.

Braskificafion dehumanizes its subject. It creates a caricature, distinct and unique and exaggerated, which is essential if the legend is to live on.  Average people don’t become legends.  But when you dig into the truth, you often find that the men and women behind their legends are often closer to average than their legend claims. It’s not often that you run into someone whose legend fails to measure up to who he really was.

I’ve spent the last year and a half hunting a giant, expecting to learn that he was an average man. An average man with quirks, sure, but surely not a giant. As I complete the first draft of my adaptation of his life story I’m forced to crane my neck upward and squint at the sheer size of the tale. I didn’t take him down to size at all. In answering my original, innocuous question I discovered that the commonly known stories don’t begin measure up to the real man.

So here’s to Asa Candler, Jr., the greatest car racing, magic performing, game hunting, dairy farming, mega-yachting, airplane flying, cemetery building, music loving, dry cleaning, zoo keeping, celebrity hobnobber the world has never known.

Lots more to come on this blog.  Book publication date… um… TBD.

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Watch the full sketch HERE.

 

The House on the Rock: Attempt #1

I’m approaching the one-year anniversary of my visit to the House on the Rock, the infamous roadside attraction hidden way out in the countryside of central Wisconsin. Next door neighbor to Frank Lloyd Wright’s beloved Taliesin, the House on the Rock (henceforth HotR) is a complex and indescribable experience, or at least it is for me.  I posted a year ago in anticipation of my visit to Alex Jordan’s wonderland of nightmares, and assumed I would post an update immediately upon my return.  Instead I’ve spent a year in relative silence, aside from a few verbal explosions that probably sounded like complete nonsense to my listeners.

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Like this guy trying to tell you a bedtime story.

In that previous post I shared my thoughts on Stendhal Syndrome, a physical response experienced when exposed to an experience, often art, of great personal significance.  It exists somewhere between elation and panic, a hysteria that jerks you out of normality and pushes you into that place I’ve described as riding a rollercoaster while suffering from the flu.  It’s both exhilarating and terrifying.  It sounds awful on paper.

But I’ve experienced it, and I enjoy it.  I love balancing on that edge between elation and terror.  It’s that perfect balance point between the fight or flight response and being irresistibly drawn to something.  Push-pull.  I refer to this kind of thing as a reality-fucking experience.  I went to Wisconsin to have my reality momentarily fucked.  I went in knowing what I was getting into. I know my triggers.  Everything I’d seen of HotR seemed right in my sweet spot.

I went, expecting to experience sensory overload, unease, and imbalance.  And boy howdy, did HotR deliver.

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Try to make heads or tales of this photo, I dare you.

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And try to make sense of this one.

Sometimes there are concepts that have no name in English but exist in another language.  Concepts that deserve to be named. Schadenfreude is a well-known German word for glee at another person’s unhappiness. Saudade is a Portuguese word that means wistful longing for something that may never be recovered. I’m fond of the Japanese word boketto, which means staring vacantly into the middle distance. I’ve done a lot of that in contemplation of writing this. And I’ve come to realize that I’ve been silent about HotR because the words I would use to describe it don’t exist in any language I speak.

That sounds dramatic, I know.

But truly, this place speaks in the nonverbal language of images and symbols.  It speaks in tableaus, in cyclical, recursive themes that appear again and again throughout.  It’s the language of dreams, and you hear it in the part of your brain that speaks in dreams, too.  Have you ever tried to describe a dream to someone and it came out like, “I was at home, but it wasn’t my home, and my brother was there but then he became my third grade best friend, and I’m not sure if I was inside or outside, but then I was in a locker room and couldn’t find any clean toilets!”  That is exactly what describing HotR sounds like.  Dreams aren’t linear.  HotR isn’t linear, either.  And trying to describe either in a linear fashion makes you sound like a raving lunatic.

Neil Gaiman touched on this in an interview where he described how he toned down his description of HotR for his book “American Gods,” because no one would believe an accurate description.

“It’s a real place. A lot of people think I made it up, but I didn’t. But what I did wind up doing in the book was tone it down a bit so people would believe it. I started leaving things out… like the hundred-person artificial orchestra and the giant carousel that’s 50-foot-high on which ancient Victorian dolls just go round and round staring balefully. I think I did mention the four horsemen of the apocalypse hanging from the ceiling in that room. But it’s kind of impossible to describe and it does have the biggest carousel in the world. And you are not allowed to ride on the biggest carousel in the world… except they let me. And several years ago, they let Bryan. And the photographs of us on the biggest carousel show the happiest men in the world. You would think we might have outgrown going round and round on carousels, but we have not.”

Neil Gaiman via Citypages.com

See? Almost incoherent, and he’s totally aware of that.  It’s impossible to sound sane while describing it.

HotR fucks your reality because it doesn’t reside in reality. It resides in your subconscious.  Or more accurately it resided in Alex Jordan’s subconscious and you experience it by looking through the eyes of your own subconscious. You see an incoherent display of incongruous objects that are placed with specificity and intent, and you find it impossible to explain the scene you’re looking at.  But on some level you kind of get what Jordan was thinking when he put them together.  Or maybe you don’t get it, but you can kind of feel around the edges of it.

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You spend much of your visit staring into dimly-lit corners and asking yourself, “what am I looking at here?”

For many visitors, the unavoidable conclusion is that Jordan’s subconscious message is delivered from a broken place. And if you walk in unprepared with your own broken places unshielded and vulnerable, your broken places will meet Jordan’s unbroken places and it’ll fuck your reality eight ways from Sunday.

Some of us look for experiences like that.  It’s like taking peyote in the desert and wandering through a hallucinatory world of visions in pursuit of greater spiritual enlightenment. It’s like that episode of the Simpsons where Homer eats Guatemalan Insanity Peppers.

Which happens to be my favorite episode.  Coincidence? Surely not.

Not everyone will experience HotR as a reality-fucking experience.  Some people look at it and see nothing more than a curious display of oddities and junk, a one-man flea market where nothing is for sale.  They see a musty, dusty hoarder’s collection, an amateurish attempt to curate an incomprehensible pile of clutter into something resembling a museum.  Those people are 100% correct.  That’s exactly what it is.  But it’s more than that, too.  It’s also a physical manifestation of a troubled mind who created this unsettling “attraction” with intention.  It’s an emotional crisis put on display.  Alex Jordan had ideas.  To him the experience that was born of these ideas made sense. And he lacked the judgement to realize that his ideas are the kinds of ideas most people keep hidden from the outside world.  He put them on display and placed items where they were placed because, to him, that’s where they belonged.  On the surface it looks like barely organized chaos– which is is– but to Jordan the chaos made sense.  It told a story. How fucked your reality gets depends on how deeply you read into his story.

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Make no mistake, you’re here to experience the depths of Alex Jordan’s nightmares, and possibly confront your own.

But the story is problematic.  It’s not written in a language anyone but Jordan speaks.  And half the time I wasn’t sure whether Jordan himself could read his own story.

The day after visiting HotR my travel companion and I went next door to Taliesin, home of Frank Lloyd Wright.  During our tour the guide spoke of Wright’s habit of describing design in language terms.  Describing the elements in a design as the structure’s vocabulary, and tailoring the space through editing.

“You must be consistently grammatical,” Wright said, for a building, “to be understood as a work of Art.”
PBS “Inconstant Beauty: The Passion of Frank Lloyd Wright”

When you visit a Frank Lloyd Wright house, the vocabulary is clear.  It’s edited.  It’s grammatically consistent.  It makes sense because it speaks in a language you comprehend.  This is true of most houses.  That’s why you can go into almost any kitchen and find the utensil drawer.  We’re all operating from familiar vocabulary. The grammar of houses is consistent.

House on the Rock has no more grammatical consistency than a box of magnet poetry.  It has words, it has fragments of phrases.  But it has no consistent grammar, no rules to govern its vocabulary.  Its editing– and it is most certainly edited– is more like mimicry of editing than actual editing.  It’s like a parrot that learned to imitate its owner. Sure, it speaks in words, but there’s no comprehension there.  It’s not communication.  It doesn’t follow rules.  It’s a simulacrum of language.

Taliesin is an essay.  House on the Rock is a word salad.

Take this automaton orchestra room, for example. Word salad? Music salad.

For some people, it’s fun.  It’s harmless.  It’s a delightful curiosity.  For others, it’s unsettling, even anxiety-inducing.  While we were on site we saw plenty of fellow visitors who experienced HotR in starry-eyed delight.  We saw kids who had been dragged there by their parents who were bored out of their skulls.  We saw a lot of quiet introspection, beetled brows on faces that gazed at displays of utter nonsense in bemused introspection.  And we witnessed lots of emotional crisis on the same level we were experiencing it.

We would turn a blind corner into a corridor only to be confronted by some disturbing display, and we’d hear a subvocal “holy shit,” or “Jesus Christ,” or “what the hell?” from a fellow visitor.  Many times we were the ones mumbling in dismay.  More than once I made silent eye contact with a complete stranger and we exchanged a moment of pure connection and understanding that what we were seeing just wasn’t right.  Sometimes that eye contact would yield a shared chuckle.  Other times it yielded a shared shudder or shake of the head.

And the experience, if you do all three houses, requires hours to get through.  We were there for five and a half hours and frankly we rushed the third house because closing time was approaching and we both experienced a shared rush of panic at the idea of being accidentally locked inside.  By the time we got to the third house, the experience took a sinister turn. Some of this was Alex Jordan’s intention.  Some of this was the natural result of being inundated by the constant disorientation of the experience.

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Like the multi-tiered mannequin topped doll carousel that’s easily the most disturbing part of the whole experience, served up at the end when you’re too psychically exhausted to defend yourself from the horror.

Oh dear, I’m doing a terrible job of this.  I’m going to have to try again some other time.  Next time I’ll start at the beginning and walk through it all, with plenty of photos and videos.

The best I can do is to try to summarize the experience.  The House on the Rock is like spending five hours locked in another man’s fever dream, from which you are not allowed to wake up.  Does that put a fine enough point on it?  I hope so. Because I can’t begin to share what it was without explaining how it was.  Or something.  I don’t know. Language is leaving me again.

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Desperately Seeking Landrum

I want to tell you about Landrum Anderson, but I can’t.  End of blog post.  Bye!

Okay but really, in researching the estates of the Candler family for a previous post, I gathered a tremendous amount of information about extended family members, friends, associates, and employees.  Thanks to the remarkable efforts of biographers who came before me, the names of several family servants were captured instead of being lost to time.  One of those servants was Landrum Anderson.

Who Was Landrum Anderson?

Landrum, known as “Brother Landrum” according to Candler family lore, was the lifelong servant of Asa Candler Jr., owner of Atlanta’s Briarcliff Mansion.  Landrum and Asa Jr. met in 1901 in Hartwell, GA, during a brief period when Asa Jr. was sent to North Georgia to run his father’s cotton mill.  When Asa Jr. returned to Atlanta in 1906, Brother Landrum came with him.  Family lore says it was Asa Jr.’s wife Helen who insisted upon retaining Landrum and allowing him to move south with them.

When Asa Jr. and family moved to Inman Park, Landrum moved with them.  When they relocated to Briarcliff Farm, Landrum went with them.  When they tore down the farmhouse and built Briarcliff Mansion, Landrum was there.  He lived in a small house on the property, rented at a price of $1 per month from his employer.  That’s about $15 per month in today’s dollars.  And, again according to family lore, Brother Landrum was there until the end, still working for Asa Jr. when Asa died in 1953. He lived only one more year and then passed in 1954.

Landrum is unusually persistent through Asa Jr.’s history.  A common element I’ve found in my research into the life of Asa Candler Jr. was that he had few relationships that lasted for very long. He had some friends and servants who stayed with him for years, but no one other than blood relatives stuck by his side like Landrum Anderson.

So who was Landrum Anderson? That’s not an easy question to answer.

The Southern Problem

Brother Landrum was born in the rural South in the post-Civil War era.  This was a murky time for records of Black Americans.  During the slavery era, slaves were often listed as property belonging to the slave owner, not as people with vital records.  The 1870 census was the first record that captured African Americans by name, but is hardly complete.  Even if names were captured accurately, they could have been changed and birth names lost to history.  Residence locations often changed with few records to follow.  Jim Crow laws suppressed voter registration, so those records are spotty for decades.  I have very little to go on if I want to trace his history and find his family. I have a name in four census records and family accounts given by Asa Candler Jr.’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  You’d think that would be enough.  It’s not.

Hard Data

In 1910 Landrum Anderson first appears on a census at Asa Jr.’s house in Inman Park.  He’s listed as 40 years old, and his occupation is listed as butler. Elsewhere in the record it’s noted that he cannot read or write.  He was the only servant on staff at the time. Also listed as a resident is Helen’s brother William, who was granted employment by his brother-in-law as a machinist at the Candler Building. Asa Jr. had a long history of finding jobs for people in his inner circle, or using jobs to pull people into his inner circle. But that’s a story for another day.

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1910 Census Record

In 1920 Landrum appears again as a servant, this time living at Briarcliff Farm with the Candler family.  Other servants who stayed with the family are also listed.  Landrum’s wife Jessy (maid) appears, as do Fanny Upshaw (cook) and Eli Johnson (chauffeur – automobile).

Once again Landrum is noted as 40 years old.  If I’ve learned anything from old census records it’s that no one really cared much about capturing the correct vital stats of servants, especially if they weren’t White. Sometimes they didn’t even bother spelling their names right.  In the 1920 record all staff are noted as literate, although it would not be unusual for this to be inaccurately reported.

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1920 Census Record

Now we get to the 1930 census record.  On this one the census taker noted in the margin “West of Briarcliff Rd (Candler Estate)” across several names.  Most of the names are listed in labor type jobs and the locations are listed as “private estate.”  Through other research I can confirm the Cruz brothers as butler and valet and James Stark as the groundskeeper. My assumption is that all names between the Candlers and Mary Anderson were Briarcliff staff members and their families.  This shows how the staff size ballooned once Briarcliff Mansion took shape.

In the 1930 record Landrum is listed as 25 years old.  His wife’s name is spelled Jessie instead of Jessy, and their daughter Mary appears, noted as 6 years old.  This time it says Landrum cannot read or write. By contrast, it says Jessie did not attend school but can read and write.

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1930 Census Record

Then we come to the 1940 census record, the last one available since the 1950 census won’t be made public until 2022.  In this one Landrum’s information is different.  It’s individualized, less generic.  His birthplace is listed as South Carolina.  His age is 67 instead of an incremental number ending in 0 or 5.  And this time his name is spelled Landers.

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1940 Census Record

Jessie’s name is spelled consistently with 1930, but Mary is now Alice, and she’s now listed as Adopted Daughter, age 16.  Which makes sense if she was 6 in the previous one, but why did her name and relationship change? Was Landrum her father or not?  More importantly, is Landrum’s legal name actually Landers? What the heck happened in 1930?  Did someone who didn’t care to know much about the servants rattle off names and fudge the details?  Possibly.

In 1954, just a year and a half after the passing of his lifelong employer, Landrum Anderson, or Landers Anderson, as he was officially recorded in the Georgia Death Index, passed away.  He spent over 50 years of his life serving the Candler family.

Landrum Death Index

But here, too, we have problems.  If he was 67 at the time of his death, why was he listed as 67 in the 1940 census record? Which age was correct?  Which of any of the ages were correct?  If the 1910 record was correct, he would have been born in 1870, and would have been 84 at the time of his death.  If the 1920 record was correct, he would have been born in 1880 and would have been 74 at the time of his death.  If the 1930 record was correct he would have been born in 1905, 4 years after he met Asa Candler Jr.  I think we can comfortably discard the information in the 1930 record.  If the 1940 census was correct he would have been born in 1873 and died at the age of 81.

My concern here is that the information in his death record, his age and spelling of his name, was copied over from the last census.  It might be as questionable as any of the other records.

So when I go searching to find out where Landrum came from and whether he had any other family, what do I do?  Do I search for Landrum or Landers? Do I search for a birth date of 1870, 1873, 1880 or 1887?  What if none of those are correct?  Do I search for a birth location of Georgia or South Carolina?

Side Note About Location

I hadn’t questioned where Landrum was from until very recently. I just took it for granted that he met Asa Jr. in Hartwell, GA and all of the documentation I could find said born and raised in Georgia.  Then I found the 1940 census where his name was different and the information seemed more specific.  His birth place in that one is South Carolina.  Have I been wasting my time looking for family in Georgia?

I did a Google search, not really optimistic but sometimes Google gets its little fingers into unexpected sources.  I got some hits for the phrase “Landrum Anderson,” like social media profiles for living people of the same name.  Then I saw one where the person’s last name was “Landrum” and they were listed as living in a town called “Anderson.”  I clicked just out of curiosity.  Anderson… South Carolina… Wait a minute…

Anderson to Hartwell 23 miles

Hartwell, GA to Anderson, SC.  Just 23 miles.

I had made the assumption that Anderson was a surname adopted from his family’s former slaveholders.  That’s still plausible, but I realize now that it could have come from the town in which his family lived.  If you look for the surname Anderson in Anderson, SC, during the immediate post-Civil War era, you’ll find a large number of African American results.  And Anderson wasn’t named for a slaveholder. It was named for a Revolutionary War hero.  These people were probably named after the location, not a family.

Then I looked at Anderson’s history.  It was a cotton town, a mill town, the first fully electrified town in the South with an electrically powered cotton gin at the mill.  In 1901 a flood knocked out the hydroelectric dam that supplied power to the mill, putting it out of commission.  The town remained dark until 1902.  So in 1901 a hell of a lot of mill workers were put out of work.  In 1901 Landrum Anderson met Asa Jr. at Witham Cotton Mill in Hartwell, GA, the next closest mill town.

It’s all speculation, of course.  I still can’t find anything to confirm Landrum’s existence prior to the 1910 census.  I have nothing for 1900 and the 1890 census was mostly destroyed in a fire.  That damn fire made researching Candler residences in Oxford, GA quite a challenge, too.

In another interesting research side-journey, I found that South Carolina has another location-based coincidence for me to ponder.  In northern SC, about 60 miles from Anderson, there’s a section of the state comprised of three towns at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains.  This section is known historically as the “Dark Corner.”  The Dark Corner was the only part of South Carolina that stood with the Union and refused to vote in favor of a measure to reject federal law just prior to the Civil War.  Their refusal to be “enlightened” in the eyes of those who wished to fight for state’s rights (code for slavery), landed them with this nickname.  One of the Dark Corner towns was Landrum, South Carolina.

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The Dark Corner of South Carolina: Glassy Mountain, Gowensville, and Landrum.

Could be a coincidence.  Hell, the location of Anderson could be a coincidence.  Or it could be confirmation that Landrum’s names were drawn from locations, which would not be terribly unusual at the time.  Perhaps Landrum was indeed named Landrum rather than Landers and he was indeed born in South Carolina.  At this point I can’t discard or confirm any hunch or lead.

One More Dead End

I have one other tentative lead to explore.  A brother, or at least someone I suspect was his brother.  Lucy Candler, Asa Jr.’s sister, employed a man named Henry Anderson, and he appeared on the 1930 census under the household of Lucy’s second husband, Henry Heinz.

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1930 Census Record for Henry Anderson

Henry is listed with a nice round number, age 50.  Black, widowed, illiterate, and of course born and raised in Georgia.  Probably no more accurate than any of Landrum’s information, although I do find the detail that he was widowed to be oddly specific.  Regardless, simply because of the shared names and the close relationship between their employers, I am considering a possible link between Henry and Landrum.  Unfortunately Lucy’s life was a tumultuous one, and her household situation changed frequently enough that her census data shows all different locations, cohabitants and staff on each record.  Henry only shows up this one time.  I can’t find a shred of information on him otherwise.

Sorry for the Cliffhanger

So this is where I am right now, stuck at an impasse.  I still have hope that I’ll stumble upon new information that will lead me to more answers. But for now I have four untraceable people: Landrum or Landers Anderson, his wife Jesse or Jessie, his possible brother Henry, and his daughter Mary or adopted daughter Alice.  I can find no birth records, no death records, no marriage records, or anything else apart from what I’ve shared above.

So who was Landrum Anderson?  I want to tell you, but I can’t.  End of blog post.  Bye!

The Infuriating Case of Angelo Herndon

I’ve spent more evenings than I can count researching Atlanta history in various newspaper archives. Sometimes I find a story that I have to follow to the end. On October 27th I found the story of Angelo Herndon, a young African American man who was arrested for distributing Communist literature in 1932. In 1933 19-year-old Herndon was sentenced to 18-20 years hard labor on a chain gang.

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This was considered mercy, since the 60-year-old reconstruction-era statute the court applied could have carried a death sentence.  Which, in turn, was considered proportional punishment, since Herndon had committed an egregious violation of Southern mores by inviting both Black and White participants to his gatherings.Herndon2

Herndon was sent to Atlanta’s prison where he suffered in brutal conditions.

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The story made national news and Georgia was held up as an example of backwards, regressive, racist Southern laws, and the national public outcry rallied enough support to win Herndon a retrial. In 1934 after some 18 months on a chain gang he walked out of prison thanks to crowd-sourced bail equivalent to nearly $250,000 in today’s dollars.

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The KKK called in a threat to attack and lynch him if they intercepted him on the road so he traveled to New York via escort.  (To read more about lynching in Atlanta, I recommend the Leo Frank story, as described by LeoFrank.org.  Warning, contains graphic detail and actual photographs of Frank’s body. Know your limits and exercise discretion.)

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In December of 1934 Herndon was granted an appeal to the US Supreme Court where by all accounts he was expected to win his freedom handily.

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Instead, in October 1935 the Supreme Court refused to hear the case on a technicality and sent him back to the Georgia prison. He remained in prison while advocates fought for him again.

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In December 1935 the statute under which he was convicted was ruled unconstitutional. He was held another 20 days to allow the state to appeal.

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The state of Georgia appealed and he remained in prison.

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In June of 1936 the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the decision and ruled that the act was in fact constitutional. In November of 1936 Herndon was granted another chance before the US Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of the statute once and for all. In August of 1937, more than 5 years after his arrest, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in his favor, striking down the statute and setting him free. 5-4.

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Free speech just barely squeaked by in the highest court of the land. This harrowing story demonstrates how laws are subject to interpretation, and are never above challenge or revision.  I recognize that Angelo Herndon’s case may fall on unsympathetic ears in today’s society, a post-Cold War culture that views Communism as the philosophy of our enemies.  But the fundamental right of expression without government suppression is a freedom we should never compromise on.  Angelo Herndon’s fundamental right to the free expression of ideas was taken from him in 1932, and if it were not for the thousands of voices nationwide that rose in his defense he would have languished in prison, likely until his death.

Always remember the Voltairean principle, penned by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (erroneously attributed to Voltaire himself):

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

To read more about the social context in which Angelo Herndon’s case played out, including a perspective on racism, the Great Depression, and the spread of Communist ideas in the South during the 1930s, please visit the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Home Is Where the Existentialism Is

My current project started because I visited a historic house.  Initially it was a frivolous outing, a place to get some interesting photographs before grabbing lunch at an awesome noodle house.  I should have known that I would get myself wrapped up with questions about this place because that’s what I do.

I write about locations like characters.  In my novel Wall City, the district of Walton Commons has a personality and a presence that I felt deeply invested in.  During the process of writing I realized that I usually pivot my stories and characters around highly specific locations and invest as much time in developing those locations as I invest in my protagonists.  Places are important.  More specifically, homes are important.

In dream symbolism, which you can either accept as legitimately insightful or reject as nonsense, houses represent the self.  Rooms represent aspects of the self.  Recurring dreams about houses can indicate that your subconscious is struggling with something deeply rooted in yourself, your personality or your inherent qualities. (Typically I’d include a link here to source these claims, but they’re all domains like psychicdoodads.net or dreamwitchery.org. Not exactly scientific journals.)

As I understand it, Jungian therapists identify the house as specifically representing the human psyche. To explore a house in a dream is to explore the nature of your own consciousness.  Rooms represent different aspects of consciousness. The house represents the you that is you.

I dream about houses so frequently that it’s almost more noticeable when I don’t.  I dream of dusty, abandoned, undiscovered rooms, fully furnished but never explored. I dream of uninvited guests occupying my house when I’m not ready to entertain.  I dream of rental houses where previous guests have left messes that I’m afraid I’ll be held accountable for. Houses, houses, houses, every night.

When I dream of recurring symbols I usually spend some time trying to dissect what they mean to me.  Recurring symbols tell me that I have something bugging me on a subconscious level that needs to be worked out. Inevitably when I figure out what’s bothering me, *poof* the dream symbol disappears.

Not houses.  The houses remain.

In May of this year I visited the House on the Rock, as I mentioned in a previous post.  When I reread that post and consider what I’d stated as my goals, I feel confident that I found what I was looking for and more.  I need more time to process before I can sum it up in any meaningful way, but it was intense, it was overwhelming, and it was chockablock with symbols.  Touring this absurd roadside attraction was like swimming in a lucid-dream from which I was not allowed to wake up.  I experienced fear, joy, anxiety, hilarity, and yes I had moments of that elusive Stendhal Syndrome-like physical response that I was hoping to trigger.

But I’m not ready to talk about that yet.  What I’m thinking about today is that at the core of this place is a house.  That’s obvious, it’s called the House on the Rock.  But on a deeper level, this place spoke to me as emblematic of its creator’s psyche.  It’s the him that was him. It’s like a thought exercise that was intended to remain in his dreams and help him work out his damage, but somehow leaked out into the real world.  And then he started charging people admission and inviting them in.

Not everyone who visits the House on the Rock will feel an intense connection.  Because at its core it’s a house, I connected intensely.  This sounds tautological.

Let me go back to where I started.  My current project started out as research into a single house. It evolved into research into a series of houses.  If it were purely an architectural interest, it would would be satisfied by the discovery of dates, styles, designers and square footage.  But it’s not about the houses.  It’s about the people.  These houses stand as all that remain of the them that were them.  Try to parse that sentence, I dare you.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to tour Lullwater House, the early-20th century mansion that now serves as the residence of every sitting Emory University president. On the way there fellow author A. K. Anderson asked me what I hoped to get out of the visit, what I was looking for.  I had to think for a moment to compose an answer. Ultimately it was simple: I was looking for someone who I wanted to understand.

By that point my research had expanded to include the former owner of Lullwater House.  I’ve read all there is to read about him and I understand all that I can extrapolate from those resources. But his home, that tells part of his story, too.  He infused himself into his home. He chose the details, he chose the colors, he chose the furnishings.  He chose to outfit every full bathroom with a regular shower head, then chose to build his own “gentleman’s bathroom” with a 13-head monstrosity, all for himself.  His own wife got one shower head.  His children got one shower head.  He gave himself 13, an extraordinarily extravagant feature in the 1920s.  I had learned as much as I could about him from letters and old newspaper clippings and family memoirs, but this single detail made so much sense and filled in so many gaps about him.  He was his house.  The house is still him.

That can seem like a depressing prospect if you’re not happy with where you live.  My house is not palatial, it needs a new roof and one of the downspouts has rusted through. Is that the me that is me?  Maybe.

From a writing perspective a house is a powerful symbol that can represent the underpinnings of a character.  The qualities of the house enable you to show rather than tell some of the qualitative detail of the character.  In Wall City I got to know the protagonist’s mother by describing her kitchen. I knew her, I’d done character definition work prior to writing. But I didn’t truly know her until I explored her home.  And hopefully by sharing that exploration my reader can know her without simply stating her qualities.

I’m now nearly 13 chapters and 96,000 words into my current project.  My working title is the name of the mansion that kicked off my interest.  But at 96,000 words I’m only just now writing the moment when the house was built. The story is inspired by his house. The research is about his house.  But in reality it’s about him.  And I found I couldn’t write about that house or him until I went back and found the houses that came before. 96,000 words later I’ve finally arrived.

It strikes me as absurd when I take a moment to think about it.  I have to write 50 years of the owner’s history in order to understand his house.  And I have to understand his house to understand him enough to write about him.  The two are so intertwined that I find it impossible to separate them.  I recently found a floor plan of the existing mansion that cleared up some missing information about the location of key rooms.  The excitement I felt when I realized where the original kitchen was located is kind of embarrassing to recall.  But it matters. On my fourth visit to the property I spotted an architectural detail that established a second grand facade on a wing that now sits behind a later addition. I was thunderstruck. Silly, perhaps, but it matters.

It matters because the second decorative facade opened up all kinds of questions about why it existed, why it faced the direction it faced, and why it was covered up by the addition.  The answers to those questions can be deduced from what I’ve learned of him, and the conclusions drawn from those answers feed back into a better understanding of him beyond what archival media can tell me. I’ve gone tautological again.

I still don’t know where the master bedroom was. I know where it was originally located, I know why it was moved, and I have some guesses about where it was relocated to. But I don’t know for sure.  The location matters. Because he would have made a decision and that decision would have been influenced by who he was as a person.  If I can understand that person well enough, I can guess where it was located.  And on the other side of the same coin, if I can find out where it was located, I can work backwards to deduce what may have informed that decision.

In the end, what does any of this matter?  I’m still not sure.  I’m whiling away my days and nights working on a puzzle that no one else on earth cares about.  His own descendants would be bored to tears by the amount of detail I’ve compiled.  But I’m pondering a question that’s still unanswered even after eight months and 96,000 words.  It’s a question that won’t leave me alone.

What is the question? I’m not sure. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the main characters learn that a supercomputer has calculated the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.  The only problem is, no one knows the question.  The answer is “42.”  They have the answer. They need the question.

I have a house.  It’s my 42.  What is the question?  I think the question is, “who was the person who built this house?”  I want to know the house, but really what I want to understand is the story the house tells about the person.  So all of this research, all of this work and all of this passion has been an effort to crack the code and finally understand the house’s story.  It’s all that remains of the man. Once it falls, and unfortunately it seems likely to fall rather than be resurrected, its story will be erased. His story will be erased.  And that kicks off an existential crisis that’s powerful enough to blow your hair back.

This house is a manifestation of my ever-present existential dread.  Like the House on the Rock, it’s become a real-world manifestation of my deepest fear of being erased and lost to time and memory.  If I can’t conquer this house’s story, if I can’t piece together its history and meaning, I won’t be able to resurrect the man.  He’ll be lost to time and memory.  And if I can’t resurrect the man and write him back into existence, I’ll have to face the possibility that resurrection is an impossible dream.  I’ll have to ponder the possibility that no one will resurrect me someday, and I’ll be lost to time and memory, too.

It’s no wonder I dream of houses every night.

De-Extinction: Historical Fiction is a Woolly Mammoth

The other day the kids and I watched a video on a PBS-funded YouTube channel called “It’s Okay to Be Smart.” The episode focused on the possibility of resurrecting long-extinct species by Jurassic-Parking the DNA of preserved tissue, but instead of velociraptors they looked at Woolly Mammoths.

The video discusses the challenge of resurrecting lost species through the process of cloning. True cloning requires DNA but DNA degrades over time, even when preserved in ice.  Creating a clone requires all of the DNA.  Not 25% or 50%, you need 100% of the genetic information to recreate a creature.  The host of the video used a lovely analogy which really appealed to me, given the metaphorical leap I’m about to take:

“Imagine the genome as a huge book. If you lose every tenth word, would you still be able to read the story?”

The video goes on to explain that in order to resurrect a mammoth we would need to fill the gaps in the DNA with something else that’s close enough to be compatible. In this case, an elephant.  The way I picture it is like building a scaffolding out of mammoth bits and filling in structural supports and details with elephant bits where needed. In some areas you may have a significant amount mammoth DNA and require very little elephant.  In other areas you may need to rely almost entirely on elephant.  The gaps aren’t evenly distributed.  The front legs might be mostly mammoth.  The rear legs might be mostly elephant.  But it all lives together as one animal.

This raises a question.  Even if you use an absolute minimum of elephant DNA, can you call the resulting animal a mammoth?  Like some kind of modern day Ship of Theseus exercise, how much mammoth is needed for the mammoth to be a mammoth?

Imagine you’re writing a historical fiction, or perhaps a literary biography about someone from the distant past.  Hopefully you’ve chosen to do a little research, or better yet a LOT of research.  Imagine you’ve found original sources of historic records, primary documents of events and transactions, and let’s say you can account for a significant portion of your subject’s life.  Can you use this information to de-extinct them?

If you research long enough, will the person you recreate be a mammoth, or is that an impossibility?  Will you inevitably need to fill gaps with elephantine extrapolations?  How many of your mammoth’s DNA gaps can you replace with elephant DNA before the resulting work is no longer a mammoth at all?

This isn’t exactly an innovative question, but I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating it lately.

“As soon as something dies, its DNA starts to fall apart.”

The instant we die, our histories start to fall apart.  The truth as we know it, the conversations we had, the private thoughts we never shared, the emotions that drove our decisions, all of that becomes gaps in our mammoth DNA.  If we’re lucky we’ll leave records behind that can be used to piece our stories back together when we’re gone.  If we’re not lucky, well, we’ll disappear. We’ll become shadows at best, remembered for a handful of events, but otherwise gone.  If those events go undocumented, eventually they’ll disappear, too. Our historical DNA will degrade to nothing, and our scaffolding will collapse.

If some enterprising storyteller discovers our stories after we’re gone, maybe they can piece together enough, through diligence and commitment, to nearly de-extinct us.  But the operative word is nearly.  We will never fully be revived as mammoths.  The very moment present becomes past the integrity of the mammoth starts to degrade. In that instant we start the process of becoming mammoth-elephant hybrids.

“Hacking elephant genes could give us something that looks like a mammoth, but would it be a mammoth or just an elephant wearing a disguise?”

As I research my current subject I think of de-extinction more frequently than is probably useful.  I feel the heavy weight of responsibility to capture facts as facts.  Facts are objective, permanent.  I have a scaffolding of facts.  Facts are my mammoth.  But between the facts I have to fill in with… what, exactly?  Truth?  Truth and fact are not the same.  Truth is subjective, extrapolated from facts.  Truth is what I believe happened, based on everything I’ve learned.  Truth is my best guess, but even if delivered with integrity, it’s not the same as fact.  Truth is my elephant.

When you’re working with someone else’s mammoth scaffolding, you’re the one who chooses the bits of elephant to fill the gaps on their behalf.  I don’t know what my subject felt, who he spoke to, what thoughts drove his decisions.  I don’t know his truth.  I know facts, I know what he did and when he did it and where he went and how he got there.  I know what he said when he wrote it down.  I know what others said about him.  But everything in between is elephant. It’s my version of the truth, not his.

Before I came across the mammoth-elephant analogy, I called this fragility of history “whalers on the moon.”  This phrase is a reference to the second episode of “Futurama,” in which the main characters visit Earth’s moon, which has become a tacky theme park. They ride through a parody of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disney World.  Herky-jerky, merrily cavorting robots sing a song that supposedly tells the story of how the Moon was first visited by man.  But rather than telling the story of the Apollo landings, they present an insane hodgepodge of historical references that claims pirate-style pioneers hunted whales on the moon.

This absurd scene is a commentary about how quickly history gets twisted and misrepresented once it’s no longer the present.  As soon as a moment is gone, fact and truth get all muddled together, and the truth of it becomes subject to interpretation.  And that interpretation can become misinterpretation, and that misinterpretation can become the new truth.  “Whalers on the moon” is about the way we blindly accept the history that’s presented to us, and how in the end truth is subjective, malleable, changeable, and it’s up to us to decide whether we care enough to distinguish it from fact.

So maybe you decide to write historical fiction or a literary biography.  Maybe you set out to de-extinct a woolly mammoth but end up using so much elephant that the true mammoth is fundamentally lost.  And maybe your account of events goes unchallenged.  Your elephant goes unscrutinized.  And then you become the writer who whalers-on-the-moons the woolly mammoth into the mash of fact and fiction you created, and the real woolly mammoth is forgotten forever.

Does it matter?

As I work on my current project, which strains and struggles to remain more literary biography than biographical fiction, I think about mammoths and elephants and whalers on the moon.  Every time I set up the scaffolding of fact that I can document and footnote and support with source material, I’m keenly aware of the cross-supports of elephant that I’m forced to add.  I’m okay with some elephant.  It’s necessary, and as long as I’m thoughtful and respectful of the elephant parts I use, I don’t feel particularly conflicted about it. But every time I add a bit more elephant I worry about whether I’m penning the lyrics to whalers on the moon.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  Maybe we have to be okay with the knowledge that we can never de-extinct a true mammoth.  If it has fur and tusks and a trunk maybe the difference between a mammoth and a mammoth-elephant hybrid is academic. Maybe it doesn’t matter if history becomes whalers on the moon.  The mammoths sure aren’t complaining.

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Here we see a fine example of the majestic woolly mammoth with its best friend, the dodo bird.

Story Time: The Death of The Merry Widow

Back around the year 1900, within a span of about 10-15 years on either side of the turn of the century, automobiles roared into existence and rapidly evolved from a twee plaything of the wealthy to an essential part of daily life throughout the industrialized world. Prior to 1895 most Americans had never seen an automobile in action. After 1905 nearly everyone knew about these amazing machines. The span of time between “get a horse!” and “prices as low as $300!” was surprisingly short.

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1901 advertisement for the Locomobile steam car. Tiller steering, anyone?

We all know that Henry Ford’s Model T changed the auto industry in 1908 and made car ownership feasible for the middle class. We don’t often hear about the cultural elements that laid the groundwork for the Model T’s market dominance.  In our mind’s eye we see prim, old-timey men with excellent posture, wearing derbies and suits, puttering around in little open-top carriages.  We picture flickering black-and-white film reels of sped-up characters cranking engines and stumbling as their machines roll off without them. We think of the punchlines of slapstick comedy that Buster Keaton perfected, making every subsequent car joke until present day derivative of his mastery.

The Model T raises vague memories of elementary school lessons in the concepts of mass production and assembly line efficiency, and high school economics chapters on the economy of scale. We don’t think of the speed of the Model T’s predecessors.  We don’t think of horsepower.  We don’t think of feats of engineering and record-setting and beasts of unparalleled power. But that was exactly the environment that gave rise to the Model T.

At the turn of the century automobiles were bespoke machines, assembled by hand and extremely expensive. It was the Brass Era, when luxurious horseless carriages had all-brass trimmings, tufted-leather seats, horsehair-stuffed benches, and lacquered wooden frames. The top models were crafted to be the best, sold to the wealthiest members of society, and often over-engineered for speed and performance. This limited the acceptance of the car in the broader culture, as manufacturers didn’t bother targeting anyone but the devastatingly wealthy. Growth of the American auto market was initially slow as a result.

Europe took to the introduction of cars before America caught on. It was the establishment of road racing as a sport in Europe that lit the fire beneath America’s boiler (steamer puns, ha!).  Europeans set speed records again and again, establishing names and fame and accruing bragging rights that American auto manufacturers couldn’t compete with.  This didn’t sit well with some of the offspring of the wealthy families of the Gilded Age.  Men like William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. looked across the ocean and wondered why the US couldn’t compete.  These men brought racing to our shores and established the first road races in the early days of the 1900s.

Enter Henry Ford and the Ford 999.

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Barney Oldfield and Henry Ford

Henry Ford acquired the capital to establish his automobile manufacturing business by winning a race against fellow car manufacturer Alexander Winton in a 26hp model of Ford’s own design in 1901.  His first business broke up due to disagreement with his partner, and in the aftermath of that breakup he invested $5k (over $100k in 2017 dollars) in the development of a pair of speed machines known interchangeably as the 999. Cited inconsistently as anywhere between 70 and 100hp, this stripped-down speed demon was steerable by a handlebar-style tiller, something like a mountain bike.

When the car failed to start at its debut race in 1902 Ford sold the 999 to a young man named Barney Oldfield for $800. Oldfield was a bicycle racer and had previously only tried a gasoline-powered bike before tackling the 999.  He learned to drive on Ford’s machine and won his first race the very same day.  Oldfield went on to become one of the the most famous early race car drivers, a record setter and the first man to ever drive a car over 60mph. His most famous car was the “Blitzen Benz.”

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Oldfield and his mechanician. During the early days of racing a driver needed a mechanician to monitor gauges, perform repairs on the fly, and call out road hazards while the driver gave his full attention to wrestling unresponsive steering mechanisms over rough roads and tight turns at high speeds.

But hang on, I’m not actually here to tell you about Henry Ford and the Ford 999.  I want to share a lesser known story about a Pope-Toledo known as “The Merry Widow,” whose ignoble history I’ve pieced together through a number of original sources dating back to 1909.

As I mentioned, Willie K. Vanderbilt was one of the wealthy young men whose taste for luxury and love of automobiles combined with a natural jingoism to establish American auto racing. In his first effort to legitimize the sport he created the Vanderbilt Cup road race in 1904.  This nearly-annual race that took place over unpaved roadways on Long Island quickly cemented the automobile’s place in American culture. It was here that auto manufacturers vied for placement, to establish their names among the best for speed and reliability. The 1904 race was won by a French Panhard, followed by a French Clement-Bayard, and an American Pope-Toledo.  And oh yes, there’s film footage.

The 1905 Vanderbilt Cup race was attended by more than 100,000 people, which made it the largest sporting event in U.S. history to date. A French car took the win again. The closest American placement went to a Locomobile, which came in third.  American brands were desperate for a win.

Here’s some more footage because it’s absolutely amazing to watch.

This next one shows how absurd and disastrous the steering was during those days. Check out 17:53 for an impressive accident and 22:55 for a frightening one.  At 24:00 the footage shows a dead driver being carried away from an accident.

In 1906 the French won the Vanderbilt Cup again, and in the race’s aftermath Willie K. and his rich friends established the American Highway Association and built the Long Island Motor Parkway, the first road built explicitly for automobile use.

In 1908 Americans got their win. A Locomobile known as “Old 16” piloted by big-name driver George Robertson took the cup for the very first time. Americans had established that they could compete with French and Italian brands and the race world exploded with entrants who fought to take titles and set as many records as possible.

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Old 16 crosses the finish line at the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup road race

By 1909 racing had embraced the concept of the “stock-car,” which usually stipulated that the entrants had to be models which were up for sale to the general public with a minimum number of models already manufactured.  The stipulation could vary from race to race, and many races included events for both stock cars and specialized racers. While some drivers owned their vehicles, oftentimes manufacturers would enter races themselves and hire established drivers prior to race day to pilot their machines to victory.

The list of names one encounters when reading about this period in American history contains familiar ones, like Louis Chevrolet, who drove a Buick in what seems like the punchline of an ironic joke in hindsight. Names like Fiat and Renault still exist, but others like Christie, Isotta, Stearns, Simplex, Apperson, Matheson, Marmon, and Pope-Toledo, just to name a few, have faded from common memory. But during their day they were hot contenders for racing titles and highly sought-after by wealthy car enthusiasts.

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An ad for Toledo, prior to its acquisition by Pope.  In 2017 dollars that competitor price range works out to about $200k on the bottom end, nearly $300k on the top end.  The least expensive Toledo offering listed, the 12hp model, works out to about $50k. Even if you ignore the red herring of competitor prices, this was not a car for the everyday man.

Pope-Toledo started out as the Pope Motor Car Company. Pope struggled to compete in a hot automobile market and attempted to diversify into a number of lines by acquiring other brands.  They offered the Pope-Hartford, Pope-Robinson, Pope-Tribune, Pope-Waverly, and Pope-Toledo.  The Pope-Toledo was the most expensive of its lines, and was marketed exclusively to the very wealthy, especially those who had a need for speed.

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But come on. This is an undeniably gorgeous car, is it not? Notice the right-hand drive. Until the Model T dominated the market with its left-hand drive, there was no standard. Right or left, wheel or tiller, steering was up to the manufacturer and the preference of the driver.

The Pope-Toledo brand was well-respected and the quality of fabrication was undeniable, but there just weren’t enough rich playboys to go around. Unable to keep up with the exponentially expanding field of competitors, Albert Pope filed for bankruptcy in 1907 and passed away in 1909. His company limped along for a few more years after his death before closing its doors.  It just wasn’t cost effective to produce the way they produced when Ford was cranking out mass-marketed affordable models. But they tried their hardest to make their name, and in 1909 they built a beast of a car that became known as “The Merry Widow.”

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Photos of the Merry Widow are few and far between.

Profiled in an article in the Atlanta Constitution on July 2, 1909, this vehicle was built especially for the Vanderbilt Cup race but for some reason never appeared in a Vanderbilt Cup line-up.  Instead the Pope Motor Car Company gave the car to Asa Candler, Jr., a wealthy and well-known amateur driver from Atlanta, Georgia. That same month Candler kicked off an ambitious project to build the Atlanta Speedway and hold record-breaking races by November of that year. This Pope-Toledo, valued between $10-35k, was gifted to him as a thank-you for his efforts to support auto racing.  Now, let’s split the difference on that valuation and call it $25k.  In 2017 dollars that works out to more than $600k.  That’s an expensive racer.  Pope wasn’t kidding around, they wanted a win and they wanted it now.

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Atlanta’s Trophy

At 136hp, this four-cylinder powerhouse was called a “two-mile-a-minute car” by the press.  Its tank held 36 gallons of gasoline and could go 500 miles without fueling up (for the curious, that’s a gas efficiency of about 13.8 mpg).  Described as “nearly all engine” the chassis was stripped down to the essentials. It weighed 2,202 lbs, of which the engine accounted for 1800 lbs.  Painted a color known as “French gray,” one fanciful writer described it as a “graveyard rabbit,” just one of the many grim phrases used to describe this vehicle during its short life.  The exhaust pipes that emerged from the side of the hood were described as sounding like a Gatling gun when driven at high speeds.  Guaranteed to reach 125mph, Pope’s test driver clocked in at 127mph during its maiden drive and claimed it hadn’t topped out yet.

Allow me to put this car into context. Some of the biggest names in racing were lined up for the first Atlanta Speedway event in November of 1909.  They brought their biggest and baddest cars.  In reviewing the list of entrants, only three of the competing cars approached the 136hp Pope-Toledo. None exceed it.

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Strang’s Fiat, Oldfield’s Benz, and Christie’s Christie are The Merry Widow’s closest competitors in terms of horsepower. Some historic sources list Louis Strang’s Fiat as a 200hp machine, but others record it as 120hp. I haven’t determined yet which is accurate.

Notice you don’t see The Merry Widow in that line-up.  This is where her story gets fun.

The 1909 Atlanta race was open to professional drivers only, with the exception of one amateur event.  This meant Candler couldn’t drive his own car in the big races.  And although he wasn’t averse to driving fast (in my research I’ve seen him described as “reckless,” “fearless,” and “one of the worst” to ride with) I’m not sure he would have wanted to drive in this race.  Wealthy men who owned showy race cars liked to hire big names to drive on their behalf.  It was what one did, when one had the means.  This meant the President of the Atlanta Speedway had to find someone to drive his car or he wouldn’t be represented at the event.  God forbid.

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One story says Candler tricked a well-known baseball team manager into taking a spin around the track with him. When they finished the manager declared he would rather walk back to the train station in downtown Atlanta than get in the car with Candler again.

During an exhibition race on October 23, 1909, which was intended to drum up press for the November event, Candler hired a young man named Louis Cliquot to drive The Merry Widow in a speed trial. Cliquot was a rookie, totally unknown to the racing world.  If you go searching for his racing record you will come up nearly empty-handed. As it turns out Louis Cliquot was actually a local Atlanta kid named Florence Michael who had chosen Louis Cliquot as his alias. I have only found a single record of Louis Cliquot competing outside of the 1909 Atlanta event.  In 1910 he drove a Knox, led for zero laps, and dropped out due to a broken crankshaft. And then his racing career was over.

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The first line-up of big names at the October 23 exhibition race. Interestingly, I don’t see The Merry Widow here even though she was definitely taken out at least once for a speed trial.

Candler hired this young man, a novice in the racing world, to drive his most powerful car at the exhibition race.  I’m making a point of this because The Merry Widow enjoyed a fairly unpleasant reputation among sports journalists who covered the auto racing beat.  Driven to purple prose, writers described the car as ornery, temperamental, spiteful, and my favorite description, “a car of ill-repute and worse manners.” Many drivers had passed on the opportunity to drive it, preferring not to run afoul of its fury. But young Cliquot was keen to establish his name in the racing world, and the invincibility of youth probably played a part in his willingness to take on the beast. Fortunately the exhibition went off without a hitch and Cliquot drove the Pope-Toledo without incident, although he kept it well below the two-mile-a-minute mark.

Then the November “Auto Week” arrived.  On the first day of the five-day event Louis Cliquot went into the Pope-Toledo’s garage at the track and hand-cranked the engine.  These were the days of turning a rod beneath the radiator on the front of the car, that classic mechanism we’ve all seen in old cartoons.  Cliquot went to crank the engine, when suddenly it backfired and kicked back, wrenching the crank into a reverse rotation and fracturing his arm in three places.  Cliquot was out, not to race again until May of 1910, and then never again.

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“Wide track, plenteous entries, generous attendance.”

Candler was back to having no driver, and this would not stand.  He approached Charles L. Basle, one of the two Renault drivers, and asked if he would take on the Merry Widow. Mind you, these were professional drivers, so this request came with a paycheck. Given the last-minute urgency and Candler’s reputation for playing fast and loose with his money, it was likely a hefty offer.  Basle worked on the engine for a day, trying to tune it up to racing condition.  In those days race cars went down in the blink of an eye, setting records one second, rattling to broken bits the next. Frequent tune-ups were part of the game.  Basle put some time in but ultimately decided to politely decline.

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Basle in his Renault in 1908

He passed the opportunity over to Hugh Judson “Juddy” Kilpatrick, who had arrived with the Hotchkiss that he’d driven in the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup race.  Unfortunately for Kilpatrick the Hotchkiss was dead on arrival and refused to be resurrected. This left Kilpatrick without a car, and without a chance at any of the prize money, much less the cup. He was a racer of great renown, having set the straight-away record at Long Island at 37 seconds for a mile, but now he was out of the running.  Candler agreed to let him drive the Pope-Toledo if Kilpatrick was willing to take it on.

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Kilpatrick and his Hotchkiss at the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race

Kilpatrick took a look under the hood and tinkered around to see what he could do. Walter Christie approached Kilpatrick and advised him not to drive it.  He said it was too dangerous, that its speed was greater than the cylinders could stand.  Christie was an auto manufacturer as well as a racer, so he knew machines.  And he knew 100+hp machines, having brought one himself to the races. His own racer had been speed tested by Barney Oldfield, who later played up its dangerous performance, dubbing it the “Killer Christie.” It’s telling that Walter Christie was willing to get behind the wheel of the Killer Christie but advised Kilpatrick to give The Merry Widow a pass. Kilpatrick disregarded his warning and agreed to pilot the Pope-Toledo for Thursday’s events.

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Walter Christie, in no way dressed appropriately for racing, in his 1909 racer. More about his racer and Barney Oldfield’s performance driving it in exhibitions can be found here.

On day four of the five-day event Kilpatrick got the Pope-Toledo up and running. Before the long day of races began he requested a chance to take it around the track and get a feel for it before vying for a win in the 50-mile free-for-all.  At 2 miles per lap, his chosen race would require 25 laps without major incident. A test drive was a fair ask. He and his mechanician, Roland B. Church, climbed in and set off on their first circuit.

He quickly got The Merry Widow up over a mile a minute. Walter Christie manned the stopwatch and clocked her at 85mph as she went into the turn at the south end of the track and accelerated into the back stretch.  That was when something went wrong.

As Kilpatrick and Church flew into the back stretch the engine blew a piston and two cylinders ejected through the hood of the car, shooting high into the air and blowing the hood off. Kilpatrick reached for the clutch but found it frozen.  The engine ignited in a 20-foot sheet of flame as the car veered uncontrollably to the outer fence, where the banked track dropped off sharply on the other side. The fence took the blow and redirected the car back onto the track but the impact bucked Kilpatrick and Church free. Without so much as a safety belt there was nothing to hold them secure, so they flew an estimated 150 feet, over the fence, and down into the ditch on the other side where a pile of brush took the brunt of their fall.

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Banked turn with outer fence visible. Photographed at an exhibition race.

The car “turned turtle” by hurling itself onto its side before tumbling over and over until it came to rest in the middle of the track.  Then, as one writer of the day described it, “it burst into flame out of spite.”

The Atlanta Speedway featured a state-of-the-art track surface, developed in response to an accident at the Indianapolis Speedway’s first race where chunks of asphalt broke apart, resulting in the death of a driver (this was just one of five deaths that occurred at that event). Atlanta’s track was built on a substrate of red clay, topped with Augusta chirt and coated in a special oil to bind the road surface together.  Unfortunately for The Merry Widow, Asa Candler, Jr., and the 40,000 race attendees, this special asphaltum was flammable.  The Merry Widow burned furiously for over an hour before crews could extinguish the flame and safely remove her from the track.  They hurled the charred hulk of iron and steel over the fence and then moved on with the day’s events.

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The broken fence and the unrecognizable heap that was The Merry Widow.

Kilpatrick and Church were fine, incidentally.  Although they were tossed more than 150 feet over the bank and into a ditch, they both walked away from the accident.  On-scene emergency crews found Church climbing back up the bank to the track, laughing and without a scratch on him.  Kilpatrick had a few minor cuts and bruises as well as burns on the right side of his face where the flame had blown back from the engine. His right eyelid was burned, and due to concern over the possibility of losing his sight, he was rushed to the hospital. Christie visited him in the hospital later, and Kilpatrick reportedly said to him, “You were right, Walter, I sure was lucky.” Christie responded, “You bet you were.”  Kilpatrick fully recovered from his injuries.  The carcass of The Merry Widow was unceremoniously disposed of and never rebuilt. Out, out, brief candle.

As a post-script to The Merry Widow’s story I should mention day five of the races.  Now that The Merry Widow was dead, Atlanta Speedway President Asa Candler, Jr. was left without a car to compete. So he did what any wealthy car enthusiast with more pride and money than sense would do. He approached the driver with the best performance over the past four days and offered to buy his car.  That driver happened to be George Robertson, the very same driver who bagged the first American win in Old 16 at the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup.

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Drivers during that time required powerful upper bodies and beefy arms in order to wrestle with steering at high speeds.

Robertson had showed up to the Atlanta races with a red 90hp Fiat (sometimes reported as 60hp, but less consistently so) and set impressive times in event after event.  He had the most solidly winning machine on the track at that point. On Friday morning, the last day of the event, Candler approached Robertson and offered to buy his Fiat right then and there.  That would make Robertson his driver, and give him the best chance for a win in the hotly anticipated 200-mile race. Robertson accepted and the line-up was set.

Robertson was the favorite to win, and for 163 miles he held the lead.  Then the Fiat’s chain gave way and the car ground to a halt.  He did his best to perform a fast repair and get back into the race but he was unable regain the lead.  Impressively, he came in second in spite of the breakdown, but the win went to L. A. Disbrow in his Rainier.  In third and fourth place both Renaults put in solid times, emerging from the five-day event with the best demonstration of reliability.  Ray Harroun in a Marmon was a distant 5th, and only did that well because every other car dropped out.

Louis Strang’s oil pump broke.  Louis Chevrolet’s Buick had a total breakdown of its transmission.  Both of the Chalmers-Detroit cars were out at the start.  The Apperton threw a spring.  In the end only 5 finished the race out of the 11 that started.

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Speed merchants and pals: George Robertson, Walter Christie, Louis Strang (Christie’s nephew, incidentally) and Barney Oldfield.

And where was Barney Oldfield in all of this?  It turns out his Benz was outclassed from day 1.  Unable to beat the big Fiat, he sat most of the races out.  Resigned to his fate, Oldfield told reporters, “Louis Strang has the fastest car in the world at present.”

What Oldfield did with his free time at the track during those five days and the drama that erupted in the months that followed is a story for another day.

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Asa Candler, Jr., President of the Atlanta Speedway and Edward M. Durant, Secretary, before the drama of 1910.

Let’s Talk About Stendhal Syndrome

Stendhal Syndrome describes a set of hysteria-like symptoms that a person may feel when exposed to a piece of art that they deem significant or stimulating in some way.  Symptoms may include rapid heartbeat, light-headedness, and vertigo.  Somewhat like trypophobia, the fear of holes that everyone on the Internet swears they have (don’t google it, you’ll regret it), it’s a phenomenon that undoubtedly exists but isn’t considered a disorder by any official medical organization.

But it is a real phenomenon.  If you’ve ever gasped at a piece of art or described it as “breathtaking” you’ve stood at the fringe edge of a Stendhal Syndrome experience.  I’ve experienced it plenty of times, but nothing gives me the sensation more than photos of the Meenakshi Amman Temple. Like this one:

And this one:

And literally every photo on this page.

This phenomenal temple makes me dizzy.  It makes my heart race. It gives me a fluttery feeling in the… well I can only explain the location as the Sacral Chakra.  I get a sensation that’s similar to the one I get when standing in a very high location and the fear of heights kicks in.  It’s an adrenaline-fueled rush of elation and I’m simultaneously compelled to stare at it and look away.

I believe everyone has the capacity to experience Stendhal Syndrome.  If you haven’t experienced it, you haven’t yet found your special stimulus.  But it’s out there.  Humans have a universally irrational response to beauty, one that exists well outside of the bounds of pragmatic necessity.  We all have it, it’s just a matter of degrees.

I’m never more aware of my physical self, of my innate meat-ness, than when I’m looking at these photos.  That, to me, is what Stendhal Syndrome is.  It’s something that is so stimulating to the visual cortex that it overwhelms the non-corporeal space of the imagination and spills over into the physical realm, into the meat-ness of the body.  Like synesthesia or deja vu, the brain misroutes the signal and the body becomes a thinking organism from head to toe. In the throes of the physical response, the body thinks. The body sees.

I’ve never been able to tap into this sensation without exposure to a stimulus.  I simply can’t.  It’s not voluntary, it can’t be induced. But when a stimulating sight enters my visual space, the overflow into the physical space is immediate.

It’s a sensation I love.  I have a few known aesthetics or combined qualities that can trigger it, and I’ll admit that I seek them out. I enjoy the mental electric shock, the synaptic panic that momentarily turns every muscle fiber into an honorary optic nerve. It’s a flash of full-body thinking, full-body seeing.

One of the fundamental qualities that triggers it is geometrical complexity, as evidenced by the temple above.  This quality combined with dim lighting and quiet isolation create a surefire trigger.  The idea of an intricately appointed palace where no one is present to appreciate its complexity gives me that sacral chakra shiver.  Scenes like the one in Yubaba’s suite in Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant film “Spirited Away” go right to my sweet spot:

And virtually every photo of the famous House on the Rock in Wisconsin triggers the sensation.  I will be visiting the House on the Rock in May and my hope is that the visual complexity of this bizarre, overstimulating place will have me resonating in the cognitive overdrive of Stenhal Syndrome.

A good encounter with a Stendhal-inducing experience can leave my imagination vibrating like a tuning fork for days or even weeks.  And like rainwater slowly filtering through the soil to fill an aquifer, these experiences fill my creative reservoir.

In “Princess Mononoke,” another Miyazaki masterpiece, the following line appears:

I’ve come to see with eyes unclouded by hate.

I often think of this line when seeking out a Stendhall-eqsue experience.  But in my version the line is incomplete.  I’ve come to see with eyes unclouded by….. what?  Unclouded by expectations?  Unclouded by reality?  Unclouded by the security of normality?  Maybe there is no end to my version.  I’ve come to see with unclouded eyes.

That’s what I hope to do when I arrive in Wisconsin.  I hope to have an experience that I can enter with unclouded eyes.  I hope to see.  If I’m lucky, what I see will rattle my imagination and set off a physical response, and I’ll catch a hint of that tantalizing sensation of full-body thinking from head to toe.

If I can catch that hint, no matter how fleeting, the trip will have been worth it.

And if I can reach the end of my life and say “I’ve seen it all, there is no more to see,” it will have been a life well lived.

Brain-Ache: The Passion Problem

When I started this blog my goal was to occasionally post items of personal interest, the strange and unexpected rabbit holes that I find myself going down now and again.  Some topics recur, such as nuclear energy and accidents.  I have a fascination with stepwells that often sends me into hours of searching through photo galleries and amateur videos.  Underground cities are like catnip to me. And although I’m skeptical of all paranormal phenomena, I consume everything I can find about the unexplained, like numbers stations. I have a bad habit of listening to recordings late at night when my imagination gets away from me. Once you pick up a mystery, how can you put it down? This is what I intended to blog about.

I am intensely fascinated by the dynasty of China’s Emperor Qin, which means I search for new archeological information about his buried tomb more frequently than researchers can report findings. I spend too much time reading about fictional monsters, in particular those imagined by H. P. Lovecraft and Dan Simmons’ Shrike from the Hyperion Cantos.  And my love of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky runs so deep that it practically permeates my blood, and searches for fan depictions of the beast sometimes dominate my browser history.

Recently I turned to the internet to look up the etymology of the word “okay” and ended up spending an entire weekend reading about Victorian-era slang.

It doesn’t take much to send me down a rabbit hole.  I may spot a photo, say an image of Luna Park in Sydney, Australia.  A thought pops into my head: How many recreational places use a motif of a giant face? Turns out there are a lot. Whoops, it’s 2 a.m. and I have to be up in 4 hours.

And God help me, once I found out she existed, how was I supposed to resist spending three days researching the origin and evolution of Laffing Sal?  Trust that that little escapade ended with me logged into my eBay account, looking for an original 78 rpm record of the Laffing Sal recording. Because that’s how I do.

The problem with passion is that it can become all-consuming.  I describe myself as an “all in,” personality.  When I fixate on something fascinating it becomes all I can think about, and doing anything other than acquiring knowledge burns like fire. It fills my brain to excess.

When I’m on a research bender I experience physical symptoms, exhilaration and the adrenaline rush of discovery, a literal high.  But I also experience headaches and nausea when I don’t give myself breaks. I become quite literally sick of my interests.

Writing is a flavor of this passion problem.  Rather than inputting information, writing is an intense exercise of outputting information.  But it’s just as all-consuming and it comes with its own highs and lows that manifest as physical sensations. When research and writing coincide, it can feel simultaneously like riding a roller coaster and coming down with the flu.

This is the quandary I find myself in now.  My previous post about Briarcliff Mansion contained just a tiny fraction of the information I’ve gathered so far in my research into the Candler family. I went looking for a small answer and fell down a rabbit hole so deep that I don’t know when I’ll climb out. I’m supersaturated with the subject and still uncovering new details every day. I’ve visited locations and walked properties and compiled endless notes and made phone calls to strangers who understandably pause in bewilderment when I explain my reason for calling. It’s a bit like a fever that hasn’t broken yet, and I feel both energized and poisoned by it.

I’m a fan of the work of genius monologuist Spalding Gray. In his performance titled Monster in a Box about his struggles while attempting to write his first novel, he says the following:

“And finally I did get down to the writing. I got down to it and it was awful. I don’t know why I’d romanticized it. It’s disgusting. Writing is like a disease, it is a disease. It steals your body from you.” – Spalding Gray

I often think about his description of writing as a disease that steals your body from you. I can’t say I disagree. The feverish pitch of research in the relentless pursuit of “accuracy,” whatever subjective criteria defines it, is both gratifying and toxic. I have overdosed on the minutiae of history. But then I sit down to write and the minutiae contaminating my brain makes the difference between fiction that feels like fiction and fiction that feels real. The brain-ache is an essential part of my process.

Binge research-writing is the compulsion to go all-in, to consume beyond capacity, and doing so produces a lovely flush of reward hormones when the urge is satisfied. The aftermath is sometimes filled with awkward, self-conscious, even embarrassed self-reflection as I realize how many hours my family and friends have spent listening to me drone on and on. Did I consume all of that? Yes. Am I going to do it again? Yes.

So where does that leave this blog? In limbo, perhaps, but certainly a future exists. Right now as I struggle to turn historical records into story I can think of nothing else, and all other interests cease to catch my attention. When I’m done I’ll be well and truly done, and in the meantime I’ll keep feathering the throttle, trying to maintain the balance between the thrill and the agony of an all-consuming passion.