The Writer's Almanac for May 9th
On this day in 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of the world’s first commercially produced birth control pill. The tiny pill in the circular case was called the Enovid-10 and became known, popularly, as “The Pill.”
Methods of preventing pregnancy weren’t new, of course: the ancient Egyptians were fond of mixing a paste of crocodile dung and using it as a pessary. Even famous lover Casanova claimed that half a lemon was a useful cervical cap. Condoms had been around as far back as 3000 B.C., when they were made of fish bladders. But religion and morality also played a role in contraception, or the lack of it, and when Margaret Sanger, opened the first family-planning clinic in the United States in 1916, she became a birth control advocate and pioneer. Sanger believed early on that women needed something, like a pill, that they could take to block ovulation.
In 1951, a chemist named Carl Djerassi, working in a lab in Mexico City, synthesized the key hormones that made possible the ingredients for a successful contraceptive in pill form. There were years of clinical trials and at first, drug companies were afraid to market the pill for fear of boycotts by religious groups, but there was also a remarkable change in the culture: more women wanted to stay in college, even after marrying, and to delay children for careers. When a representative from the Food and Drug Administration announced approval for “The Pill,” he said: “Approval was based on the question of safety. Our own ideas of morality had nothing to do with the case.”
The pill was tiny, discreet, affordable, and almost 100 percent effective. It cost 11 cents to manufacture and a month’s supply was $2.00. It was the first medicine ever designed to be taken by people who were not sick, and it paved the way for the sexual revolution and the feminist movement.
Today, the number of women completing four years of college is almost seven times what it was before the introduction of “The Pill.”
It’s the birthday of poet Charles Simic (books by this author), born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, which is now Serbia (1938). His childhood was dominated by World War II and the Nazi invasion. His father was repeatedly arrested and thrown in jail, finally fleeing to Italy. Simic didn’t see his father again for nearly a decade, until the family reunited in Chicago in the United States in 1954.
Life in Belgrade during and after the war was harsh, but Simic found bright spots. He says, “We had poverty, Communist indoctrination, but also a few American movies, and jazz music on the Armed Forces Radio.” American noir movies, in particular, would influence his later poetry. His favorite films were The Asphalt Jungle and The Naked City. He settled for a year in Paris with his mother and brother while their visas were being sorted out. His thick accent made school difficult, but Paris is also where he discovered poetry by Verlaine and Rimbaud and where his mother fed his fantasies about America by bringing home Life and Look magazines. Simic and his brother devoured the glossy photos of cars, girls in bathing suits, and rock musicians.
Charles Simic wrote the first poem he knew was good and wanted to keep while he was living in New York City, where he worked odd jobs like house painting and selling dress shirts in clothing shops. The poem was The Butcher Shop. He says: “I wrote it in 1963, when I was living on East Thirteenth Street. In those days, there were still Polish and Italian butcher shops in that part of town with wonderful displays of sausages, pig knuckles, slaughtered lambs and chickens. I never in my life went past a butcher shop like that without stopping to take a close look. Of course, it reminded me of Europe, of my childhood. I slaughtered chickens when I was a boy, saw pigs have their throats slit and then be butchered afterwards.”
Simic said: “I write to annoy God, to make Death laugh. I write because I can’t get it right. I write because I want every woman in the world to fall in love with me.”
When asked how one should prepare for a life in poetry, Charles Simic answered: “There’s no preparation for poetry. Four years of grave digging with a nice volume of poetry or a book of philosophy in one’s pocket would serve as well as any university.”
On this day in 1994, South Africa’s newly elected parliament chose Nelson Mandela (books by this author) as the country’s first democratically elected president. More than 22 million South Africans had voted in the election, the first time that black citizens had been allowed to participate. Mandela was the overwhelming winner.
Before his election day win, Mandela served nearly 30 years of his life as a political prisoner of the South African government under apartheid. As a leader of the African National Congress party, Mandela had long resisted the racist Nationalist government via peaceful demonstrations, boycotts, and acts of civil disobedience. When he organized a paramilitary group to further resist after the government’s massacre of peaceful black activists, he was charged with treason and eventually sentenced to life in prison.
Mandela spent the majority of his sentence in a small cell without a bed or plumbing. He worked in a quarry, and was allowed to write and receive only one letter every six months. His visitations were limited to 30 minutes per year. Even in prison, he led a movement of civil disobedience that resulted in officials improving the facility’s conditions for inmates.
Mandela served as South Africa’s president from 1994 until 1999, though he was politically active all the way up to his death in 2013 at the age of 95.
It’s the birthday of Billy Joel (music by this performer), born in the Bronx (1949). Soon after he was born, his family moved to Long Island’s Levittown, the first suburb in America. His dad was a classical pianist, and his mom made sure that young Billy learned the piano too. He started playing when he was four years old, and showed a natural talent. His father left when Billy was eight, and his mother moved with the two kids to Hicksville. She worked hard to support the family, but money was very tight. Billy fell in with a rough crowd, and took up boxing in his teen years.
He was not quite 15 when he saw the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, and decided then and there that he would make music his career. He joined a succession of bands. He sneaked into a Jimi Hendrix concert by carrying around a bunch of electrical cables and pretending to be a roadie. He eventually dropped out of school to work on his first album, Cold Spring Harbor (1971), which was not a success. He moved to Los Angeles and took a job playing piano in a lounge on Wilshire Boulevard, using the stage name “Bill Martin.” That job ended up inspiring his first big hit, “Piano Man.” He stepped away from the pop music business for a while, beginning in the 1990s, in favor of composing classical music, which he released on the album Fantasies and Delusions (2001).
“I never wanted to be an oldies act, but I suppose I am,” he said in a recent interview. “I never wanted to be a nostalgia act, but I suppose I am. But I listen to Beethoven, and that’s really old stuff. Is that nostalgia? To me, that music is as alive as it ever was.”