Satan’s Lexicographer

“The world is my country, to hate rascals is my religion” he once said, and for more than forty years—before he mysteriously vanished—he blasted away at the delusions, pretentions, posturings, hopes, dreams, foibles, and institutions of all mankind. His name was Ambrose Bierce …

If Ambrose Bierce, America’s first exponent of black humor, crudest epigrammist, and most terrifying teller of horror tales, is now finally coming into his own, it is because thinking Americans are finally recognizing the relevance of his vision—that America is not the Peaceable Kingdom and its citizens are no less aggressive, fearful, pretentious, and greedy than all other members of the human race. Read more »

Porn In Philly, 1912

Pornography seems to be doing very well these days. Every fair-sized town has its “adult-book store,” and x-rated feature films have advanced from their first big-city beachheads of the midigGo’s to occupy theatres in suburban shopping centers. Naturally, the vigorous state of the industry has not gone unnoticed. A national news magazine, for instance, devoted a cover story to the proliferation of pornographic films, topless bars, and what are universally and euphemistically known as “massage parlors.” Read more »

The Don Quixote Of Opera

No other impresario ever matched the record of the indomitable Max Maretzek in bringing new works and new stars to America

He was called “the indomitable Max,” “the indefatigable Max,” “the hardy pioneer,” “the Napoleon of Opera.” About that Napoleonic designation Max Maretzek himself disagreed. It would be more accurate, he ruefully said, if he were described as the Don Quixote of Opera. And in a way he was right. For some forty years the indomitable, indefatigable Max tilted at the American public and at assorted singers, mostly Italian, making and losing fortunes in the process.Read more »

A Greeting From Coney Island

Today the place is one great migraine headache of noise and neon, and it takes a very observant visitor indeed to pick out the few pathetic remnants of the old glory: a scrap of decorative wrought iron on top of a building, a carved wooden allegory in the clammy depths of an ancient tunnel of love. But in its day Coney Island was the incarnation, in wood lath and plaster, of all that Americans found grandiose, compelling, and titillating.Read more »

Fox Hunting In America

Riding to hounds has been as much of a sport among well-to-do Americans as among the British gentry

Ask anyone where fox hunting originated and odds are he will respond promptly, “Why, the British Isles, of course.” Indeed, the cry of “Tallyho!” conjures up visions of Lord or Lady Poddlesmere galloping across the English countryside, leaping mammoth hedges for hours on end, and sipping strong waters around the fireside at the end of the day. As it turns out, though, we Americans can lay just as much claim to pioneering the sport as our cousins across the Atlantic, and probably no one will ever know for sure who is entitled to the honors. Read more »

The Colossus Of His Kind: Jumbo

Pried loose from a furious Great Britain to meet a tragic death in the New World, this huge elephant made a fortune for his owner, delighted millions, and added a new superlative to our language

It is a warm summer evening in 1882, in a small town in New England, and the circus of Messrs. Barnum, Bailey, and Hutchinson has come to town for a one-day stand. The “Greatest Show on Earth ” is suitably canopied : three huge tents in a meadow on the outskirts of town—one tent each for the museum and the freak collections, and the big one, the one with four rings that seats thirty thousand people, towers in the middle.Read more »

War Among The Stars

The hiss of a poisonous snake warns the passer-by to keep his distance or risk a dangerous bite. Man’s hiss is far deadlier; a single one, uttered in Scotland, killed more than thirty people three years later in New York City. On March 2, 1846, the curtain of Edinburgh’s Theatre Royal rang up on Hamlet before an audience that, like all in that queenly city, was notable for its reticence. In the role of the youthful prince, William Macready labored under other handicaps as well.Read more »

Oscar And The Opera


The curtain of the Manhattan Opera House rose for the first time at nine o’clock on the night of December 3, 1906. But the crowds of curious New Yorkers who came to have a look at the new theatre and its audience had begun lining the sidewalks of Thirty-fourth Street before seven. By eight o’clock the block was so jammed with carriages that the cross-town streetcar lines were brought to a standstill.Read more »

Paul Morphy, Chess Prodigy

Could he have beaten Bobby Fischer?

Oliver Wendell Holmes once celebrated Americans as a people “which insists in sending out yachts and horses and boys to outsail, out-run, out-fight, and checkmate all the rest of creation.” The concluding champion on his list was Paul Charles Morphy, whose youthful exploits in chess during the 1850’ won the admiration of poets, scientists, and thousands of ordinary buffs. Read more »