The Writer's Almanac for May 19th
Today is the birthday of Nora Ephron (books by this author), born in New York City (1941). Ephron started as a reporter for the New York Post, and then wrote a column for Esquire. In the mid-1970s she helped then-husband Carl Bernstein rewrite the screenplay for All the President's Men. Their version ended up not being used, but she was offered a job as a screenwriter.
She's since written several successful screenplays, some of which she's also produced and directed. She's best known for romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally. . . (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and You've Got Mail (1998). Her latest movie was Julie and Julia (2009). Recently, she's been publishing essay collections on the theme of aging: I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006), and I Remember Nothing (2010).
Today is the birthday of Malcolm X (books by this author), born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska (1925). When he was four years old and living in East Lansing, Michigan, white supremacists set fire to the family's home. The East Lansing police and firefighters—all white—came to the house when called, but stood by and watched it burn. When he was six, his father was murdered. Police declared his death a suicide, which invalidated the family's life insurance policy. Little's mother never recovered from her husband's murder, and entered a mental institution when the boy was 12. When he was 14, he told his high school teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer. The teacher told him to be realistic and consider a career in carpentry instead. Little dropped out of school the following year.
He was arrested for larceny in 1946, and while in prison, an older inmate encouraged him to use his time to educate himself. Little began checking out books from the prison library, and when he found his vocabulary too limited for some of them, he copied out an entire dictionary word for word. He also began a correspondence with Elijah Mohammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, and once released, became one of their most prominent organizers. He took the surname "X" to symbolize his lost African heritage.
But in 1964, Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam when he learned that his mentor was having multiple affairs, contradicting his own teachings. Seeking clarity, Malcolm that year made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Here, for the first time, he related to people of all races, and returned to America with a new message. He stopped preaching the rigid separatism that had been his trademark, and instead called for people to work together across racial lines.
At the end of 1964, over many conversations, Malcolm X dictated his life story to the writer Alex Haley. The book was almost finished when, in February of 1965, Malcolm X was shot and killed while speaking at a rally at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. He was 39 years old. A few months later Alex Haley published The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). It has since seen over 40 editions and sold in the tens of millions.
It's the birthday of playwright Lorraine Hansberry (books by this author), born in Chicago (1930), the youngest of four children. Her father was a prominent real estate broker, and active in the fight against segregation. When Hansberry was eight, her parents bought a house in a white neighborhood. The house came with a restrictive covenant, which stipulated that it couldn't be sold to a black person, so Hansberry's father arranged for a white co-worker to buy it for him. Once the family moved in, they were subjected to violent harassment from many of their white neighbors. Her father filed discrimination charges and the case went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court, which declared restrictive covenants unconstitutional.
Hansberry decided to become a writer after she saw a performance of Sean O'Casey's play Juno and the Paycock in college. She moved to New York, took some writing classes, and went to work for Paul Robeson's magazine Freedom. She wrote her first play, A Raisin in the Sun, in 1957. It was inspired by her family's experience with racism in that white neighborhood in Chicago. The play opened on Broadway in 1959, and it was a big success, going on to play for more than 500 performances over two years. It was the first Broadway play to be written by a black woman. For most of the audience, it was the first time they had seen the life of a regular black family portrayed on stage or in film.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®