Rock the Oscars 2019: Marjorie Lawrence

Opera star Marjorie Lawrence, CBE, was born in Australia, but spent the last two decades of her life in Arkansas.   Her triumph over polio to return to the opera stage was the subject of the Oscar winning film Interrupted Melody.

First singing in her native country, she rose to star in the opera halls of Europe before conquering the Metropolitan Opera.  Lawrence had contracted polio as an adult while on a trip to Mexico.  She eventually returned to the stage, usually singing while seated or reclining.  She also had an extensive recital career.  She performed at the White House at the invitation of Franklin Roosevelt and later Lyndon Johnson. During World War II, she performed at Buckingham Palace.  When Queen Elizabeth II made her a Commander of the British Empire in 1977, the Queen fondly remembered that wartime concert.

Eleanor Parker as Lawrence in INTERRUPTED MELODY

In 1949, she wrote her autobiography Interrupted Melody. The next year, Hollywood was interested in making it into a film.  Lawrence only wanted to agree to that if she herself did the singing.  In 1955, MGM released the film starring Eleanor Parker as Lawrence and Glenn Ford as her husband. Lawrence did not provide the singing voice; Eileen Farrell did.  Lawrence was openly critical of the film, though some suspected it was because she did not get to sing for it.  By the time of the filming, her vocal range was not what it had been, which is apparently what led MGM to make the decision not to use her.

Despite Lawrence’s disdain for the film, the film was financially successful.  It was nominated for three Oscars: Original Screenplay (though it was actually based on a book), Eleanor Parker as Best Actress, and Costume Design for Color motion pictures.  Sonya Levien and William Ludwig won the statuette for their screenplay.

Lawrence and her husband bought a ranch near Hot Springs in 1952.  She spent most of her life there afterward though she was a vocal coach at Southern Illinois University and Tulane. She also welcomed international students to her home for coaching.  In 1975, she started working with students from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  She was also an early member of the Arkansas Arts Council.

Lawrence died in January 1979 and is buried in Hot Springs.

Little Rock Look Back: Thurgood Marshall confirmed to SCOTUS

On August 30, 1967, Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.

Ten years earlier, Marshall had been spending much time in Little Rock as he fought for the Little Rock Nine to be allowed to integrate Little Rock Central High School.  While he was in town, he would stay at the home of L. C. and Daisy Bates.  One  can tour the home today and see the bedroom in which he, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee, and other Civil Rights leaders stayed while visiting Little Rock.

His involvement with the Little Rock Nine came about from his role with the NAACP. In had been in that capacity that he was lead attorney for the Brown v. Board of Education decision which paved the way for the Little Rock schools to be integrated.  He worked with local attorneys such as Wiley Branton Sr. and Chris Mercer on the Little Rock efforts.

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy named Marshall to a seat on the US Court of Appeals. Unsurprisingly, a group of segregationist senators tried to hold up the appointment.  In 1965, he was named to the position of Solicitor General by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Regrettably there is another Arkansas connection to Thurgood Marshall’s appointment to the Supreme Court.  As he had with the 1961 appointment to the Court of Appeals, Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan vigorously opposed the nomination of Marshall.  As a member of the Judiciary Committee he tried to hold it up.  In the end, McClellan did not vote on Marshall’s appointment when it came before the full Senate.

The final vote was 69 for and 11 against with 20 not voting. Of the 11 former states of the Confederacy, Arkansas’ J. William Fulbright, Tennessee’s Howard Baker & Al Gore Sr., Texas’ John Tower & Ralph Yarborough, and Virginia’s William Spong were the only six votes for yes.  There were six who did not vote, and 10 Nay votes.

The remaining Nay vote came from West Virginia’s Robert Byrd. Among those outside the South who did not vote were future Democratic presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy,  Edmund Muskie and George McGovern as well as Republican former actor George Murphy.  Montana was the only state with neither senator casting a vote one way or the other.

Marshall served on the US Supreme Court until October 1991, when he retired due to failing health. He died in January 1993, just four days after Bill Clinton became president.

JFK at 101

101 years ago today, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born to Joe and Rose Kennedy, the second of nine children. Groomed for leadership by his parents, he was thrust even more into the path of political greatness following the World War II death of his elder brother Joe Jr.  A war hero himself, following his leadership after the attack of PT-109, he was first elected to Congress from Massachusetts in 1946. He would be re-elected in 1948 and 1950.  In 1952, he challenged incumbent Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and beat him.  He was re-elected to the Senate in 1958.

Kennedy had been seen as a strong potential Vice Presidential candidate for the Democrats in 1956. But his father discouraged this fearing that a loss to Eisenhower/Nixon would set him back in the future.  In 1960, the young, dashing Senator from the Bay State sought the Democratic nomination.  After a contentious primary season where he often ran against senate colleagues, Kennedy headed into the Democratic convention with the most delegates.  He added his chief rival, Texas Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson as his running mate.

After a close election, the Kennedy-Johnson ticket bested Vice President Richard Nixon and his running mate Henry Cabot Lodge (the selfsame former Senator who had been defeated by Kennedy 8 years earlier).

Following the oldest President (at the time), the young Kennedy administration seemed to captivate the country.  During his 1,000 days in office, Kennedy faced many challenges both foreign (Bay of Pigs, Cuba missile crisis, start of Vietnam) and domestic (civil rights, organized crime). His ambitious “New Frontier” focused on education, additional services to rural areas and medical care for the elderly.  He also focused on getting the US to the moon.

Together with Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, JFK embodied not only his generation but the mood of the country.  And his quotes resonate today including:

My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Ich bin ein Berliner

On October 3, 1963, President Kennedy delivered remarks at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds.  Only a few weeks later, he would be felled by an assassins bullet in Texas.  In the speech, the President praised Arkansas’ congressional delegation including Senators John McClellan and J. William Fulbright and Congressmen Took Gathings, Bill Trimble, Wilbur Mills and Oren Harris.  Each of these men held senior leadership positions in key committees.  The main focus of the speech was to discuss President Kennedy’s vision for a new economy in the South.

The President was actually in the state to speak at the dedication of the Greers Ferry Dam. He agreed to make that appearance as a part of a negotiation with Congressman Mills as they were deadlocked over changes to the tax code.  He had previously visited Little Rock in 1957 when he came to the state to address the Arkansas Bar Association meeting in Hot Springs.

Little Rock Look Back: Wilbur D. Mills

While later known more as a punchline due to personal fallibilities, for decades Wilbur D. Mills was one of the most powerful men in the world.  As the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee from 1958 to 1975, he was the architect not only of an overhaul of the tax code, but also determined ways to finance Medicare, Medicaid, and many other federal programs of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford years.

Wilbur Daigh Mills was born in Kensett on May 24, 1909.  When Mills went to Congress at the age of 29, he was the youngest man elected to that time.  A scant four years later he joined the Ways and Means Committee.

Because Mills rarely had an opponent (only 1942, 1966, and 1974), he was able to focus on learning the ins and outs of the tax code. As long as he delivered some federal dollars to his largely rural district every so often, he did not have to preoccupy himself with the daily issues many in Congress face.  It was not until 1963, when Arkansas lost two of its six congressional seats, that Mills had Little Rock in his district. Prior to that, Searcy had been the largest city he represented.  (There had been concern that Rep. Dale Alford, who had upset incumbent Brooks Hays in 1958 before losing his seat due to reapportionment four years later might challenge Mills. But Alford opted to retire instead of taking on the powerful Mills.)

President Kennedy’s visit to Little Rock and Greers Ferry in October 1963 was the result of bargaining with Congressman Mills over some tax policy.  Mills gave in to JFK a bit, and JFK agreed to come to Arkansas to speak in Little Rock and at the dedication of two dams.  In recognition of his national clout, Mills was briefly considered a contender for the 1972 Democratic nomination for President.

Though he probably struggled with alcoholism for years, he had been able to keep his behavior in check until 1974 when his car was stopped in Washington DC for not having its headlights on. Though Mills was not driving, he was inebriated.  Another occupant of the car, a stripper with the stage name Fanne Fox ran from the car and frolicked in the Tidal Basin.  It became fodder for worldwide headlines.

The incident happened about a month before Election Day, when Mills was facing Republican Judy Petty.  A contrite Mills spent the remaining days in the campaign in Arkansas and won re-election by 59% of the vote.  (Though later in November, he again was in the headlines when Fox pulled him on stage with her at a club in Boston.) In January 1975, he stepped down as Ways and Means Chair.

In 1976, he opted to retire from Congress and did not seek another term.  In retirement, he practiced law in Washington DC before eventually moving back to Kensett full-time.  He died in 1992.