The Writer's Almanac for May 13th
It’s the birthday of English novelist Daphne du Maurier (books by this author), born in London (1907). Her parents were wealthy, but bohemian, theater people. Her father was a successful actor-manager, and he was frequently unfaithful. Her mother, as du Maurier remembered her, was a cold woman. “I can’t remember once being held by her, feeling her arms round me, sitting on her lap,” she told a friend. “All I can remember … is someone who looked at me with a sort of disapproving irritation, a queer unexplained hostility.”
Her parents bought a summer home in Cornwall when du Maurier was a teenager, and she felt a strong affinity for the place. She and her sister loved to explore the coast, and she wrote about it in many of her books and stories. She published her first novel when she was 24, and her descriptions of Cornwall captivated an army major named Frederick Browning. He sailed to Cornwall to see it for himself, and met the author, and three months later they were married. But du Maurier found some letters written to her husband by his former fiancée, who had committed suicide. She became consumed with jealousy of this dead woman, and that jealousy inspired her novel Rebecca (1938). When she sent it off to her editor, she warned that it was “a bit on the gloomy side,” and she had serious doubts about whether people would read it. She modeled the novel’s gloomy mansion, Manderley, after an abandoned house in Cornwall that she and her sister had discovered back in 1926. The house was called Menabilly, and she was fascinated by it. She took a lease on the house in 1943, and lived there for 26 years. Even though it was cold and rat-infested, she once said she loved it “more than people.”
Alfred Hitchcock adapted three of du Maurier’s works to the screen: Jamaica Inn (1939) wasn’t a big hit, but Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963) became movie classics. Hitchcock was a friend of du Maurier’s father. Sir Gerald was an actor who had appeared in Hitch’s movie Waltzes from Vienna (1933); he even told French director François Truffaut that he considered Sir Gerald “the best actor anywhere.” The two men both loved playing practical jokes, and Hitchcock once invited Sir Gerald to a black tie and tails party, but he told him it was a fancy dress party instead, so Sir Gerald showed up in costume. In spite of their friendship, Hitchcock never met Sir Gerald’s literary daughter. Truffaut once asked him how many times he had read The Birds; Hitch said he read it only once, and very fast. Daphne du Maurier was quite happy with his version of Rebecca, but didn’t like the film The Birds, perhaps because the director had kept very little of her original story.
French novelist Tatiana de Rosnay recently published a new biography of du Maurier; it’s called Manderley Forever (2017). A new film adaptation of My Cousin Rachel hits theaters this summer.
Today is the birthday of singer and songwriter Richard Steven Valenzuela (1941), born in Pacoima, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. He’s better known as “Ritchie Valens,” and you’ve probably danced along to two of his biggest hits, “La Bamba” and “Donna.” Ritchie Valens’s career only lasted eight months. He died in a plane crash in Iowa in 1959, alongside fellow 1950s rockers Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. He was only 17.
Ritchie Valens grew up listening to traditional Mexican mariachi music and flamenco guitar, but he also soaked up a lot of R & B and jump blues. When he was five, his dad bought him a trumpet and Ritchie taught himself to play the drums. By the time he was a teenager, he was giving impromptu concerts in the bleachers at his high school, earning him the nickname “Little Richard of San Fernando.” A local band called The Silhouettes asked him to join them. He made his public debut on October 19, 1957, and when a record producer came calling, Richard Valenzuela followed. The producer shortened his first name to Ritchie, and his last name to Valens.
Ritchie Valens had a girlfriend named Donna. They’d dated about a year before deciding to see other people. One night, he called her up and sang a song he’d written about missing her. She liked it, but didn’t think much of it until several months later, when she was driving in a car with friends, and the song came on the radio, and she realized her boyfriend was about to become famous. Donna became famous, too: even Elvis Presley had his bodyguard try to arrange a date with her. Pretty soon, Valens dropped out of high school to go on tour. He appeared on The Perry Como Show and American Bandstand.
Ritchie Valens biggest hit was “La Bamba,” a hard-driving, peppy song he sung entirely in Spanish. The song is a traditional Mexican folk song dating back to the 1830s that’s popular at dances, weddings, and festive dinners. In Mexico, it was mostly played on a small guitar and with a harp as an accompaniment. Valens grew up in an English-speaking household and wasn’t fluent in Spanish, so he learned the words phonetically, getting the lyrics from his aunt. The song became a massive hit, with Valens becoming a pioneer for mixing traditionally Latin sounds with rock music.
During his lifetime, Ritchie Valens only recorded two albums and 33 songs.
It’s the 31st birthday of actress Lena Dunham (books by this author), born in New York City (1986). Dunham is also writer, producer, director, and star of the popular HBO show Girls. Girls first aired in 2012, and its finale aired in April of this year. Dunham’s work with the show earned her the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing of a Comedy Series in 2013, making her the honor’s first female recipient. That same year, Dunham was included in TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World list. “I think if you feel like you were born to write,” Dunham said, “then you probably were.”
Four years ago today, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield departed the International Space Station to return to Earth after almost a year in space.
Hadfield was the first Canadian to command the International Space Station, as well as the first Canadian to walk in space many years earlier. He made an effort to publicize his time in space via social media and television appearances. His zero-gravity acoustic cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which Bowie himself called, “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created,” has been viewed on YouTube over 35 million times.
Hadfield said that he made the video because it offered, “a chance to let people see where we truly are in space exploration.” On Earth, the performance became the subject of a legal battle hinging on the idea of copyright in orbit. Because copyright laws relate to their respective country of origin, it was unclear what jurisdiction a music video recorded in space would fall under. His was the first music video ever recorded outside of Earth’s atmosphere.
In 2015, Hadfield released his own album of songs that he had recorded aboard the ISS, called Space Sessions: Songs from a Tin Can.
It's the birthday of the woman The London Times called "the leading Scottish poet of her generation": Kathleen Jamie (books by this author), born in Renfrewshire, Scotland (1962). Her family didn't keep a lot of books, although her mother would check out thrillers from the library. There were two copies of the poems of Robert Burns, prizes given to Jamie's parents when they were still at school. She started writing poetry in high school, and when she was 19, used money from a writing award to travel around the Himalayas. The next year, when she was still in college studying philosophy, she published her first book of poems, Black Spiders (1982). Her latest is a collection of poems titled The Bonniest Companie (2015).
When we were young, we were told that poetry is about voice, about finding a voice and speaking with this voice, but the older I get I think it’s not about voice, it’s about listening and the art of listening, listening with attention. I don’t just mean with the ear; bringing the quality of attention to the world. The writers I like best are those who attend.