Winslow Homer Studio Tour New Mecca for the Art World

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Story and photos by Timothy Gillis

PROUTS NECK, September 29, 2012 –

Winslow Homer died 102 years ago today, at the age of seventy-four, in his studio on Prouts Neck with his two brothers present. The reputation of this great American artist was secured because of the later work he created while living in this studio, which looks out on Saco Bay south of Portland. Making observations and sketches of the rugged coast and then painting pieces in his studio, Homer created his masterworks mainly in Maine, from 1883 until his death. “Weatherbeaten” (1894) is one of his most popular works and lends its name to the current exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art. “Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine,” a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit of thirty-eight Homer pieces, only allows sixty visitors at a time, and the Studio tour in Prouts Neck is an even tougher ticket to get. Only ten people, three times a day, are able to take the requisite van ride from the PMA to Homer’s house, every day except Sundays from now until December 2. The wait (and $55 ticket price) is worth the trip. And now fans will have to wait longer as the tour is sold out this season, though people can make reservations for the spring.

With these tours of the newly restored Studio and the property surrounding it, including a walk down to the coast to see Cannon Rock and other inspirants up close, visitors see Homer’s paintings come to life. It’s an amazing tour. Anyway one turns to look, familiar flashes of famous paintings come into view. Look left and see “Northeaster” (1895), look right and see the “Rocky Coast” (1882-1890). One can even imagine “Wild Geese in Flight” (1897) with field replacing rock, and “Fox Hunt” (1893) with snow covering the rocky coast. Such are the visual inspirations everywhere that make this tour so popular.

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“Some things are larger than life. This is one of them,” said Bruce Brown, curator emeritus at the Maine Center for Contemporary Art in Rockport, now celebrating its 60th year. The weather and the tour combined for an almost surreal mix of representational art and the reality that inspired it.

“Yesterday (the day of the tour) was the perfect summer’s day,” Brown said. “But I suspect that it would be just as meaningful to visit even on a stormy and cold day as so many Homer paintings addressed the power of water rushing headlong into the steadfast cliffs.” Brown, now retired after twenty-one years at MCCA, was on one of the first public tours of the Studio, which started this past Tuesday. He joined nine others, their docent, and their driver in the PMA’s black Mercedes van, which takes visitors the twelve miles from the PMA where they meet to Homer’s property in sleepy Prouts Neck.

“The trip out in a small bus was just right as we passed through the Scarborough marshes and then more of an open bay to our destination.  It set the stage for our visit out on the rocks by the studio,” Brown said.

Kristen Levesque, director of public relations at PMA, trailed the van recently with this reporter in tow, to get an inside glimpse at the newest Mecca in American art.

We slowed down when entering “Prouts,” as it is simply known by locals, cruising through this small, private enclave with no public parking and an omnipresent police patrol. Most visitors know that if they patronize the Black Point Inn, they can park there and perhaps enjoy a brisk cliff walk, but other than that, the area is secluded and fairly hard to frequent. “Basically, the only way to see the Studio is to go to the Museum and get a ticket,” Levesque said.

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The area gets its name from the Prout family, who lived there. After them, the Libby family came and bought some land and tried to change its name to Libby’s Neck. “But the name didn’t stick,” Levesque said.

Homer came to Prouts Neck in 1883 when his father and brother purchased most of the land there. Instead of moving in with his brother, Homer had the former carriage house moved 100 feet closer to the sea and renovated to provide a piazza studio for his work.

The PMA started a fundraising campaign in 2004 for the “purchase, exhibitions related to the Studio, future education programs, and an endowment,” Levesque said.

Homer first exhibited at the PMA with “Signal of Distress” in 1893, eleven years after the Museum was founded. “Homer’s in our DNA” Levesque said.

Thomas Denenberg, Portland’s former chief curator who organized the exhibit before moving to the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, has a crowning jewel in one of his last projects for the PMA. The new director, Mark Bessire, is excited to be part of the historic restoration.

“The opening of the Winslow Homer Studio will be a pivotal moment in American art history. For the first time, visitors will be able to experience the Studio as it was during Homer’s time and discover the actual location where he created his best-known paintings,” said Bessire. Brown shares the director’s enthusiasm, and expects the Studio to become a shrine for years to come.

“First and foremost, it is a rare privilege to visit a truly sacred place in the history of American art,” Brown said. “The Portland Museum deserves great credit for accomplishing a Herculean task that has taken six years and millions of dollars to make such an experience possible. The renovation has been done with great care. It is to the Museum’s credit that the furnishings and objects belonging to Homer have been kept to a minimum and do not interfere with the architectural design achieved by John Calvin Stevens early in his career.”

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Visitors enter through a locked, automated gate and park in front of the Studio. They take a quick look at the ocean vista before going inside, to Homer’s former kitchen and dining room, where he enjoyed wild game on an open-fire roaster. The artist was thought to be a hermit, but that’s one of the myths, probably self-perpetuated in his attempts to secure privacy for his painting. A sign saying “Snakes snakes mice” is testament to this drive for privacy. The next room, a downstairs studio added later, has ten chairs in two rows and a PowerPoint plays on a TV set up on an easel designed to look like an artist’s palette, one of several subtle modernities to bring Homer into the technological age. The upstairs has another TV set-up with chairs, and the piazza offers a dizzying view. A camera, newly installed on the roof of the Studio, plays the live feed back at the Museum so visitors there can see what Homer saw, minute by minute for hours.

Darlene Jarrell, a docent at the PMA for the last two years, led this particular tour, and engaged visitors with a detailed narrative that echoed the artist’s work, emphasizing his later years as the most important. Jarrell said she has led numerous tours for all kinds of artists, but this one is special.

“My heart is here. I think the Studio is a marvelous addition to PMA’s collection,” said Jarrell, an art history major at Barnard College (of Columbia University) with a master’s degree in the science of speech language pathology. She told the tour that Homer’s paintings told narratives and that those stories were often open-ended. A visitor asked a question about Homer’s influence on N. C. Wyeth. Such is the enthusiasm that everyone associated with the Studio has for Homer that a security guard offered an answer.

“Our guide did a terrific job in sharing so much information about Homer’s life and career in detail with grace and deep interest,” Brown said about Jarrell. “Her enthusiasm for sharing her considerable knowledge about Homer was both heartfelt and contagious.  She offered an exemplary and comfortable tour.”

Brown’s own enthusiasm is not derived from the novelty of the experience. He has “been to the studio several times in the past in a much more informal setting when Doris Homer was alive,” he said. “They were wonderful times, too, but this is the Homer experience of the present and future. I can’t think of anything more that the tour might have accomplished. It was a life enhancing experience that will remain with me for many years to come.”

Those who don’t get a chance to see the Studio before it closes for the season on December 2 will get a chance in the spring, when it opens again. A couple of such hopefuls were enjoying the cliff walk and bumped into the second phase of the tour, the up-close look at Homer’s coast.

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Audrey Johnson, who lives on the Spurwink Road, had tried to get tickets for her mother’s birthday, but the waiting line is long. Beverly Johnson, her mom from Durham, New Hampshire, said the cliff walk that day was a perfect substitute. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” she said.

Princess Doe Case Gets New Leads after 30 Years

Modern technology extracts evidence from hair, tooth

By Timothy Gillis

BLAIRSTOWN, N.J. –

The Case of Princess Doe, a teenage murder victim unidentified for more than thirty years, is closer than ever to being solved. One of the most notorious unsolved crimes in New Jersey’s history has baffled police since her bludgeoned body was found in Cedar Ridge Cemetery on July 15, 1982.

Now new evidence has been discovered using isotope analysis of hair and a tooth, and these findings are hitting the airwaves and print media in the hopes of providing a spark to the cold case. The story has been on CNN and will feature on “America’s Most Wanted” tonight at 9 p.m. (on the Lifetime channel).

Isotope analysis of her hair by Isoforensics Lab in Salt Lake City indicate that she is either from the midwest or northeast. (Study of the isotopes in hair will reveal where she was in the last year of her life.) The evidence suggests she was a transient, police officials say, moving from one geographic region to another until she ended up in New Jersey. Testing on a tooth by the University of South Florida revealed just this week that there’s a 40 percent chance she’s from Arizona, a 40 percent chance she’s from the northeast, and a 20 percent chance she’s from elsewhere in the United States. (Study of a tooth reveals more than hair. It indicates where a person was brought up, as enamel forms and makes the record permanent.)

“At first glance, it seems like we have a lot of area to deal with,” said Det. Justin Boyce of the Warren County Prosecutor’s Office. “But it allows us to exclude a lot. We can confirm that she was born in the U.S. Now we want to saturate these areas with information, in the hope that her story will ring a bell, and someone will come forward with information.”

Over the years, there have been many grieving parents who thought Princess Doe might be their missing daughter, Boyce said. But in each case, the DNA didn’t match and disproved their hopes.

For police, these isotope analysis discoveries are significant because they give them new leads on a case that has baffled them for three decades and left her grave marked Princess Doe, as she was dubbed by locals.

Boyce took over the case from Det. Stephen Speirs, who had worked on it since 1999. Although Speirs is retired, he is still searching for clues.

“I’ve had a great relationship with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” Speirs said. “They have a forensic unit there. I had a meeting in February with them about a project called ALERT, or Area Law Enforcement Response Team. They’d taken a bunch of retired law enforcement personnel. They hire them on and send them out to help police agencies like ours. They wanted to use Princess Doe as a test case for project ALERT.”

The group is made up of a retired US marshal, forensic scientists, and other specialists. “They prepared a precise report on what we can do. With a high resolution CAT scan, using the skull and scanned at the Smithsonian Institute, they created an image that’s so lifelike it’s chilling – a 3D model,” Speirs said. “The Center did an image in 2005, but it was 2-D. This image is 3-D and looks molded out of clay. We’ve got that image out there in hopes that someone will recognize her.”

Also scheduled to appear on the “America’s Most Wanted” segment is Christie Leigh Napurano, author of a probing fictional account of who this 14-18 year old girl might be. Napurano who was born just weeks before the discovery of Princess Doe’s body and grew up hearing countless tales of Princess Doe. She said it always haunted her.

Upon reading news articles in 2007 about the 25th anniversary of Princess Doe’s death, Napurano became fascinated by the fact that after two and a half decades, Princess Doe’s identity still had not been discovered.  She wondered how it was possible that no one had ever claimed this girl or reported her missing. She lives in Hoboken, N.J., but says folks back home have been very positive about her book.

“Blairstown is a very small, close-knit community. Things like this just don’t happen. If you’re from there, you know this story,” Napurano said. “It’s been saddening people for thirty years. Two hundred people at her memorial service this year, which was held in July.”

Residents were mortified at the grim discovery of her body, Napurano said, and then further disheartened as she remained unidentified.

“When she was found, the people in town raised the money to get her a proper headstone because they didn’t want her to be buried in a ‘potter’s field.’ It’s an unfortunate thing. That’s what hits home. It could happen to anyone. How could a little girl go missing and no one identify her?”

For the novel, her first, she tried to imagine what could have happened, and gave Princess Doe a name, a family, and a tragic series of events that culminate in the foregone conclusion.

Napurano said the process of writing the book inspired dark theories about the possible killer, wondering perhaps if maybe her family did it, and that’s why she hasn’t been ID’ed.

She has already started the next book, which is sort of a prequel to Princess Doe. “That’s all I’ll say for now, it’s kind of from a different perspective,” she said.

While a victim’s remaining unidentified for so long is rare, the general circumstances are not. “They find 4,000 unidentified persons per year,” she said, “And by end of year, 1,000 remain unidentified.” There are 13,500 unidentified deaths currently, according to dna.gov.

Napurano was interviewed for the “America’s Most Wanted” segment. Producers from the show were sent up for the memorial service in July, where Napurano spoke.

“As time goes by, it gets more disheartening. But because technology has become more advanced, time is actually on our side.”

Second Debate by Senate Candidates a Livelier Mix

By TIMOTHY GILLIS

PORTLAND, MAINE – For the second day in a row, candidates for the US Senate discussed hot-topic issues and tried to distinguish themselves from their opposition. Thursday’s debate, which was held at Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, was hosted by E2Tech and moderated by its board of director’s co-chair Jeffrey Thaler. The two-hour discussion seemed livelier than Wednesday’s opening round that featured only two of the three candidates in a less interactive format.

Cynthia Dill taught a government class Wednesday at Southern Maine Community College, and was unable to join Angus King and Charlie Summers for the first debate, which was all about business. At that debate, it was reported that King, an Independent, and Summers, a Republican, didn’t seem to disagree on much. The addition of Dill, a Democrat, and the format selected by Thaler, which allowed candidates a chance to question each other, combined to make a substantive debate between three politicians becoming increasingly distinct. If anything, at yesterday’s debate, disagreements were the norm.

Summers advocated for revisiting an exploration of nuclear energy, while King and Dill were shocked at such a suggestion. In the interactive session, King said he hadn’t prepared any questions but that he’d have to ask Summers, regarding nuclear energy, “Are you serious?” King said the expense involved ruled it out, while Dill said that, until there was a safe way to deal with nuclear waste, it was off the table as an option.

King sided with Dill again when discussing climate change. Summers would not “accept the scientific consensus that climate change is happening, and is being primarily caused by human activities.” He said that “humans certainly have an effect on our environment” but there are also “a lot of other natural factors” and that the “climate change debate is one that needs to be broadened.”

Dill said she believed the “exact opposite of what he (Summers) said. I believe definitely climate change is happening, and definitely human activity is playing a role… causing not only (global) warming but this crazy weather we’ve been having.”

King explained that he wasn’t texting someone but was calling up a graph on his smartphone to show Summers the rate of CO2 emissions over the last million years, highlighting the drastic increase around 1860 or so, with the Industrial Revolution.

“I don’t think anybody can look at this scientific data and come to any other conclusion that something very serious is going on in the atmosphere and that it relates to what we, as human beings, are doing,” King said. “Now what the effect of the increase is – that’s a matter for scientific discussion. But I don’t see how you can possibly avoid the science… Something’s going on there, and we ignore it at our peril.”

Such widely divergent opinions ruled the day, and these results were planned, according to Thaler and others at E2Tech. Jeff Marks, executive director of E2TECH, said the intent was to have a debate that was “interactive and fast-paced and focusing on questions based on economic development issues, energy and environmental policy, as well as innovation and technology.”

Thaler said he had moderated debates before, and wanted to use a format that actually elicited differences of opinion and not just an airing of previously prepared soundbites. The first debate had questions and answers, but no follow-up questions and no interactivity between the candidates, which Thaler believed would help give the audience a more clear-cut view of these people and their proposals.

The program for the debate had each candidate’s views on energy and the environment, technology, and economic development. Dill and King had page-long responses submitted to E2Tech. Summers provided a paragraph.

Before the debate, Dill was asked if the topics for the day’s discussion were mutually inclusive. In other words, could a candidate be “for” economic development and “against” environmental protections that might inhibit economic growth? Could someone favor preservation over marketing and the commercial use of natural materials? Or were all of the categories political buzzwords with which one must always concur.

“You need a balance between all of these issues,” she said. “You need to have all options on the table.” Summers said he also favors an all-of-the above policy. King said energy and the environment were inextricably linked, and that his preference is to explore wind power and natural gas, which he called “America’s second chance” and an “unparalleled opportunity to get off oil, to get off coal.” He noted that the danger is we not become as dependent on natural gas as we are now on oil, but develop other resources like wind and solar power.

Dill said extraction methods for natural gas were dangerous, and that the energy source was non-renewable. “I’m the only candidate in this race with legislative experience and policy experience that’s leading Maine on energy and environment issues,” she said, adding she was also the only candidate wearing green shoes in honor of the debate’s topics.

Summers touted his military experience. He’s a member of the Naval Reserve, and has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was assistant to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and won an award for combat service. This experience gives him a unique perspective, he said. “Every day we’re buying oil from the Middle East, essentially paying the people we’re fighting against,” Summers said.

Summers asked Dill if she supported the president’s timetable on withdrawing troops from the Middle East. “Because that has so much to do with energy and the environment,” she quipped before saying she did agree with the timetable.

Dill asked King if he supported a tar sands pipeline, to which King said “That’s Canada’s call,” adding that the best way to save on oil is to not buy it in the first place.

All three candidates agreed that the Clean Air Act, landmark legislation pushed by Maine’s own Ed Muskie, should not be weakened, with King and Dill in favor of strengthening it. Summers said he was against “feel-good legislation,” in general, and would consider reviewing provisions of the act but praised its forty-year-old initiative.

Very little was said about technology, but each candidate had some suggestions for economic development. Dill encouraged support for small businesses like Scratch bakery in South Portland. The bagel shop got a loan for solar windows to heat water for making bagels. King said he would push for federally-supported research and development. “We have to invent our way out of the problems we’re in,” he said.

In their closing statements, Dill said she was pleased to be talking about something other than ads and money. “I’m the strongest candidate on energy and the environment, the only candidate being straight on the Keystone (tar sands) project,” she said, also claiming she represents a new generation of politics in Washington, while her opponents were status quo.

Summers closed by saying it is important to have a United States senator with the depth and breadth of experience he has had, having worked on Olympia Snowe’s staff and owning a small business in Maine. “I managed hotels in Bangor and South Portland. I own a business in Maine. I understand what it means to have energy costs directly affect your business,” he said, also alluding to his military background. “It’s one thing to say you support the troops. Everyone supports the troops. It’s another thing to have that experience.”

King finished the debate by noting that, forty years ago, the Clean Air Act passed the US Senate unanimously. Today’s national government gridlock is a grim contrast to those earlier days of bipartisanship. “The system itself doesn’t work. I’m running for the mirror image of the reason Snowe left. She said ‘I can’t get anything done.’ I think we have to try it a different way. It’s why I’m running as an Independent,” King said, adding a micro-anecdote about a guy he met in northern Maine who told him. “All my life I’ve wanted to vote for none of the above, and you’re it.”

The second debate offered each Senatorial candidate a chance to carve out a unique persona that would offer voters a distinct choice in November. Sponsors for the debate were New England Clean Energy Council, Fairchild Semiconductor, Stantec, Mainebiz, Pretiflaherty, TRC, ReVision Energy, and Sevee and Maher Engineers. The debate was recorded by USM’s AV staff and will be made available on the E2tech website at http://www.e2tech.org.

Bowling for Charity? The Dude Abides

By Timothy Gillis

When Dave Cousins went to a Lebowski Festival at One Longfellow Square several years ago, he knew most of the set pieces were present. There were people dressed in costume as characters from the film, a viewing of the cult classic, and plenty of white Russians to make soggy any mustache.

“But I knew something was missing,” he said. It wasn’t until he was discussing his passion for The Dude (as the main Lebowski is known) with a friend that the answer came to him. He was chatting with Colleen Kelley, owner of Silly’s Restaurant in Portland, when she told him “do this for the right reason.”

The right reason, it turns out, is for charity. So each year, as Cousins and company get ready to roll another strike for their love of “The Big Lebowski,” they try to find a local person or agency worth bowling for.

Viva Lebowski, now in its third year, is a celebration of the film through bowling, games and trivia, and of course, white Russians. But it’s also much than that. It’s a clever way to have fun while raising funds. Cousins has traveled far and wide to attend several “Lebowski-fests,” in such locales at New York, where he attended the cast reunion and met Jeff Bridges, who plays The Dude, as well as the actors who portray his bowling buddies, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi. He’s been to the festival in Louisville, which he says is “the grand daddy of them all,” and he won “Best Dude” at a Lebowskifest in Boston. Despite all the excitement of making new friends with similar interests in big metropolitan areas, Cousins likes to come home for Portland’s own version. And the understanding that there’s an underlying cause much more serious than the comedy makes all his efforts – running around on First Friday, stapling posters to telephone poles – worth it.

“We raise money for charity,” said Cousins. “We charge admission but give away all the ticket sales.”

In 2010, his first year of involvement, Cousins gave the money raised to Nick Stevens, who owns 13th Cookie Bakery in Portland. He has multiple sclerosis, now in remission, “which is good news,” Cousins said. “MS, though, is one of those diseases that comes and goes. He was going through a relapse at the time, walking with a walker, a patch over one eye. He couldn’t work at his own bakery.”

In 2011, Viva Lebowski gave money to the American Heart Association. Juris Ubans, a tennis friend of Cousins, went in for surgery that summer. Ubans had been the organizer for Sunday morning tennis at the Racket and Fitness Center, in Portland, where Cousins coaches a few times a week. Cousins, who opened Top Tier Creative, a web design company in May, wanted to try to give something back to the man who had made Sunday mornings a great get-together for aging tennis hacks.

This year, Viva Lebowski is donating its money to United Way of Greater Portland. The entrance fee is $20, and things start to roll at Bayside Bowl around 8 pm Friday night, September 14.

“Bowling for the evening is in shifts,” Cousins explained. “There will be light-hearted trivia contests where I play game show host. Around 10:30 pm or so we will play the movie. Some folks say, ‘we’ve seen the movie a thousand times, can we just bowl?’ and I tell them, ‘You can bowl the entire night.”

Bayside Bowl has been closed for renovations for two weeks now, so Viva Lebowski is also like a sneak preview of the changes made there. For more information, visit vivalebowski.

Davy Rothbart “finds” Portland, Maine

By Timothy Gillis

The creator of Found magazine, Davy Rothbart, will be at SPACE gallery this Friday, September 14, sharing some of his favorite “finds” from over the years and reading essays from his new book, “My Heart is an Idiot.”

His brother, Peter Rothbart, a guitarist with the band “The Poem Adept,” will provide musical interludes to the readings, some of which have spawned a song to accompany the story.

“Some of my all-time favorite finds come from the Portland area,” said Davy, whose tales have been told on This American Life, the NPR Sunday segment that features quirky and compelling anecdotes from Main Street, America. “We get a lot of this sent in from Portland, Maine. I’m not sure why that is.”

One of the finds that Rothbart shared with the audience on a European tour was “an algebra test found in Portland by a guy named David Meiklejohn, a filmmaker, who was working at (what was then) Casco Bay Books. The kid’s obviously struggling with algebra, but instead of leaving the answers blank, he came up with clever responses to each one, making light of the test.”

The teacher, rather than admire this student’s creative spark, humorlessly crossed out every problem with a red x, and gave him a zero.

“On the back, this kid had a long jabberwocky-style poem in rhyming couplets,” Rothbart said. “Someone in another state wanted to start a scholarship fund for him. We tried to track him down and came to learn, soon after writing this test, he was in a car accident and passed away. Word (about the test being in Found magazine) eventually got to his friends and family. They remembered him as this creative, mischievous kid.”

The student in question, Aaron Harmon, 22, died Nov. 10, 2001, in an automobile accident in Casco. Rothbart said that, while that story had a tragic ending, perhaps his family and friends were able to appreciate that his sense of humor was shared across the country in the widely-read magazine.

Rothbart, whose work has appeared in GQ, The Believer, SLAM magazine, and Maxim, writes a regular column in Grantland. Lately, his new book has Peter and him hitting the road most nights. He spoke this week from Burlington, Vermont, as he was setting up for a show there, remembering the early days of the magazine.

“Found was intended as a little ‘zine. We had no idea it would get this big. People send us stuff from all over the world, now,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
Rothbart will stop by Longfellow Books Friday at 4:30 pm, to sign books and chat with locals.

“I’m not reading, though,” he said, wanting to save the sting of his stories for later that night at SPACE. That show, which starts at 8 pm, will mix words, music, and even a locally-made film of Portland people with found items. “I’m going to get up there with a stack of found items from over the years, and try to read them with the same passion and energy they were written with.”

His brother, Peter, has written several songs based on found items, and will play those, some of which, according to Davy, are “haunting.” One such song, “A child to call our own,” is based on a find from issue six of the magazine.

“It was found in this burnt-out abandoned shell of a car in Hawaii. This woman had written a letter to god after her second miscarriage, questioning her faith, really sad,” Davy said.

Quite a bit of the material is at the other end of the emotional spectrum, however, and will leave folks laughing.

One of Peter’s songs is based on a cassette tape found in Michigan, a “booty tape” with several tracks all centered on the one theme, songs like “Wave your booty in the air” and “The booty don’t stop.” Peter added some verses and sings it as a folk ballad.

The show will also feature audience participation, as Davy gets someone from the crowd to talk to him about life, which, according to him, “is what Found magazine is all about – getting a glimpse into people’s lives, real people.” It’s these unexpected encounters that make all the travel worth it to the Rothbarts.

“On the way to the Grand Canyon once, hitchhiking, a guy with silver hair, said he always dreamed of going to the Grand Canyon. Guys at work said he’d never make it. He had quit that day, spent all his money getting that far. So here’s this guy whose lifelong dream was to go to the Grand Canyon, and I got to spend the last two hours of his trip with him,” Davy said.

Kurt Vonnegut, jr., in Slaughterhouse-Five, suggests such a trip ends with not much more than a fearful pants-wetting at the canyon’s edge, but for Rothbart the story is all about the trip there as much as the final destination.

“Vonnegut also wrote about a note found in an accordion. We used that in an early issue,” said Davy, who hopes for a “rowdy, energetic music and reading show” at SPACE Friday. “Join in. It’s really a gigantic community art project.”

Meiklejohn, the local filmmaker, has been making “a ton of awesome and hilarious videos starring people from Portland,” said Davy, including one with zombies on a feeding melee, except for one who is off in the corner reading “My Heart is an Idiot.”

Davy said they are “going to show a bunch of these videos. I’m sure people will recognize their friends from around town.”

Julia Child biography a tasty treat

Celebrity author in town to promote book

By Timothy Gillis

Even prodigious authors sometimes gets writer’s block. Bob Spitz, the well-known author of biographies on the Beatles and Bob Dylan, has a new book out on beloved TV chef Julia Child. Although the bio is a richly-detailed, imminently readable work, he said writing hasn’t always come easily.

Spitz was in Maine this week with his wife, Becky Aikman, for a friend’s wedding. He stopped by Longfellow Books to sign copies of “Dearie,” and spoke about the writing process.

Bill Lundgren of Longfellow Books was talking to Spitz about some of Maine’s own literary stars, sharing an anecdote about how writers help each other in times of frustration.
He said Monica Wood, whose book “When we were the Kennedys” is one of the few outselling “Dearie,” recently assisted fellow writer Paul Doiron. He was struggling with “Bad Little Falls,” his publisher was unhappy with it, and he called Wood looking for advice.
“Monica invited him to visit for a weekend. She made them a pot of tea, and they sat down and went at it,” Lundgren said. “By the end of the weekend, the book was fixed.” Doiron, the editor of Down East magazine, dedicated the book to her. Spitz said the same type of support came his way when he was younger.

“I was in the middle of “Barefoot in Babylon” (about Woodstock), and it was a mess. Rafael Yglesias took me to Washington Square Park. He took a look at what I had and helped me. He taught me all about writing.”

Actually, Spitz hasn’t always been a writer. The one-time Rolling Stone music critic comes from a musical background. He played guitar for a little-known rocker named Bruce Springsteen. He became his first manager and played guitar for him 1971-1975. Next he managed Elton John from 1975-77, during the “Yellow Brick Road” era. A current project has him ghostwriting Graham Nash’s memoirs. “I’m not putting my name on it,” Spitz said. “He’s a great guy. I’m just going to write it and give it to him.”

Though he has already turned his attention to new projects, he loves to talk about “Dearie,” which is #7 on the New York Times best-seller list after just two weeks.

“Julia not only changed the way we ate, she completely changed the way we live. She got us to sit down and enjoy a meal. Most women were told that convenience meals were the way to go, with canned food and frozen vegetables,” he said. “Julia launched PBS. There were no networks, just independent tv stations, with a local professor giving a talk. They syndicated her. No one had done that for an educational program.”

Her husband Paul Child designed all the war rooms in southeast Asia, and would animate all the troop movements so they could see how the war was developing in front of them. He was an intellectual, friend with the Hemingways and Gertrude Stein. And Julia downplayed her own role in the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. While she always maintained she was just a secretary, she knew the identities and whereabouts of all US spies, so she had top-level clearance.

When she met him, she was an “empty vessel,” according to Spitz. “Paul took this and began filling her up, got her to read philosophy, taught her about food and great art. The irony is he was a failed artist, all his life. He was a magnificent photographer, a world class artist. He became Mr. Julia Child, but he never resented her for her success.” Spitz met Julia Child in 1982, when she was in her 80’s.

“Someone told me she needed a young arm to hold onto,” he said. “It was a great opportunity. And I had the presence of mind to record her. I told her I wanted to write her biography. She called me and told me she was unhappy with her current biographer, and I told her I would write her book as soon as I got done with the Beatles.”

That project was supposed to take three years, but it took almost nine. During that time, Julia passed away and his fourteen-year marriage dissolved. Spitz doesn’t regret her not getting to see his finished, however. “I don’t owe my subjects anything. That book (The Beatles) almost killed me. I got divorced, got custody of my 11-year daughter, was working on that book day and night,” he said.

Next up for Spitz was the geographic cure. “When “The Beatles” was finished, I turned 50 years old. I left New York City for the suburbs. I ran away to Europe, learned how to cook – I was trying to put my life back together,” he said. “Through cooking, you can find an equanimity.”

That appreciation of the culinary arts comes through powerfully in “Dearie,” for which Spitz spent four years researching the lives of the Childs. Some of the best information for the book came from her husband’s writing. “Paul wrote a letter to his twin brother (Charlie) every day for forty years,” Spitz said. “It’s some of the most beautiful prose I have ever read.” Some of the surprises that Spitz uncovered during his research?

“Well, number one was that Julia at age of forty couldn’t cook, couldn’t so much as boil water. At fifty, she had never been on TV. At fifty-one, she reinvented herself. How do people do that? And then go on to make a mark as important as Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy.”

Spitz attributes her remarkable success to the passion with which he confronted even the most mundane of domestic tasks. “If she wanted to roast a chicken, she roasted fifty of them, to try to figure out he best way to cook them,” said Spitz, who was smitten by how meticulous, how scientific she was, how much she cared about getting it right.

“I went though all of her testing notes,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like it. It was like looking at the work of a Nobel prize winner. And she documented everything, so it was all there for me to look at.”

Spitz sees a correlation between the famous chef and the other luminaries he’s chronicled. “I knew one or two months into the research for Julia, that it was the same book as the Beatles, that I was researching the life of someone who was so unique, who came from a place that didn’t nurture her. She believed in her talent, despite what everyone was saying. She went against the world, against all odds. Like Lennon or McCartney, I felt I was writing a book about the same person. They practiced their craft in Hamburg, (Germany) and she did in the kitchens of Paris and Marseille and did it the same way, with the belief that they were going to create something that was special.”

The best-selling writer has found the perfect muse. He remarried five years ago to Becky Aikman, a twenty-year feature writer for New York Newsday. Her own book, called “Saturday Night Widows,” is coming out in January. “She was a young widow,” Spitz explained. “Her husband was a well-known writer, Bernard Lefkowitz. He died at 66, when she was in early of 40s. She decided Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief was bullshit. She met every month on a Saturday night for a year, with five other young widows, and the arc of their life is amazing.” Aikman took those Saturday night experiences and weaved them into text. “‘Julia’ might be on the best-seller list, but her book (Aikman’s) is the best book in our house,” Spitz said. The two work in the same room, with back-to-back writing desks. “I wasn’t sure how it would work, but it’s been great.”

The next book for Spitz that will carry his name on it will be a biography of Ronald Reagan, “a full-scale presidential bio the way (David) McCullough does it.” Spitz said he didn’t vote for Reagan but “it’s a great American story. I like to take someone who is beloved, and do an enthusiastic but critical biography.”