Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Boy In The Box The Unsolved Case of America's Unknown Child by David Stout

One of the saddest stories in all the unsolved mysteries of the world is that of The Boy In The Box, America's Unknown Child. On February 25, 1957 the bruised and battered blanket-wrapped nude body of a malnourished thirty pound little boy, aged somewhere between four and six years old, was found stuffed in a cardboard box with a J.C. Penney's label, thrown away in the rubbish-strewn woods of Fox Chase, Philadelphia. Ever since that day, investigators, both official and armchair criminologists, have been trying to give justice and a name to this child. Some of the original detectives assigned to the case, like Rem Bristow, of the medical examiner's office, never gave up and spent most of their adult lives relentlessly pursuing every clue no matter how far-fetched or unlikely.

This is a case where no one can say more should have been done. This unknown child has touched people's hearts from the start and not a stone has been left unturned to try to solve this mystery. There were door-to-door searches, hospital birth records were meticulously combed through trying to match the boy's footprints with those taken of newborns, schools, both public and private, for healthy children as well as the mentally challenged, were searched and all pupils accounted for, as well as children placed in foster homes, orphanages, and other institutions by the welfare system, immigration records were also searched, and detectives followed up leads about families who led a nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place in search of work. Detectives even talked to children playing in schoolyards and playgrounds to ask if any of their little playmates were missing. There were marks on the boy's body indicative of intravenous insertions or, since some were in the groin area, a hernia operation is also a possibility, and a diagnostic dye had been injected into one of his eyes, so doctors and nurses were questioned in the hope that someone would remember this little boy. There was a massive media campaign to identify him, posters and flyers were everywhere, flyers were even mailed out with gas and electric bills, the child's corpse was even dressed up in typical schoolboy clothes donated by one of the detective's and photographed sitting upright in the hope that this would jog someone's memory. A deathmask was even made using a new dental plastic instead of the standard plaster of Paris so that even after the child was buried they would still have a three-dimensional likeness of his face. Since the child's hair was hacked off very crudely, either just before or after death as strands of it still adhered to his naked body, some have even speculated that the reason he remains unidentified is that, for whatever reason, he was raised as a girl, and cutting off his hair was a deliberate act to make identification more difficult so sketches of what he might have looked like as a girl were made, albeit later in the case instead of near the start. The remains were even exhumed in 1998 and DNA extracted. All to no avail. The mystery remains unsolved to this day.

This is the first book to fully chronicle the mystery, and it is a heartbreaking and riveting read I recommend to anyone interested in true crime and unsolved mysteries.

There is also a website dedicated to this case, http://www.americasunknownchild.net/ though updates are infrequent as "time is the enemy" in a case like this where anyone who might have known this little boy's name is advancing in years and may even already be dead. This site is connected to investigators still dedicated to solving this case and any information can be submitted to them there.

The image at the top of this post is the original poster showing the child's face as well as a man's blue corduroy cap that was found at the scene, which may be a clue or may have nothing at all to do with it; it could have blown off a passing motorist's head or been lost when someone was dumping junk as that area of the woods was a popular dumping ground. I apologize if anyone finds my including this image offensive, I can well understand, it hurts my heart every time I see this child's battered face, but due to the nature of this case, I felt compelled to include it.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Of Nightingales that Weep by Katherine Paterson

I read this book years ago when I was about ten years old, and for some reason it bubbled up in my mind again out of the blue and I went looking for it. I remember how unusual it seemed to me at the time of that first long ago reading, it was the most adult children’s book I had ever encountered, it was also the first historical novel with an oriental setting that I had ever read, it’s set in twelfth century Japan. It’s still an unusual little novel and I’m glad I revisited it.

Eleven year old Takiko is the daughter of a samurai warrior who was killed in battle. She is brought up believing that “the daughter of a samurai never weeps.” When her mother remarries, they leave their life in the city behind and move to a rustic farmhouse in the country.

Takiko is horrified when she meets her new stepfather, Goro is an ugly dwarf, his work as a potter has given him a powerful chest and strong arms that hang down to his knees, and the sun has burned him chestnut brown. She hates everything about her new life, including exchanging her elegant silks for homespun, and working at menial tasks like shelling beans, washing, and sewing. But everyone works on a farm and she is expected to do her part.

At thirteen, her beauty and talent as a koto player win her an appointment as a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court. Takiko is overjoyed to leave the farm. Takiko is happy at court and her beauty and singing soon attract a handsome young samurai, Hideo.

When war erupts and the court is forced to flee, Takiko must choose between the man she loves and her loyalty to the royal family she serves.

The story has a rather unusual ending that rather surprised me as a child, which I won’t spoil now for any prospective readers, and, reading it again as an adult after the passage of so many years, it still did a little, but I was able to appreciate it more now and, as an author myself, to applaud the author for having the courage to write it when it would have been so easy, and maybe even tempting, to travel the expected route.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Twilight of the Immortal by Marilyn Jaye Lewis

This novel takes readers back to the decadent days when movies were in their infancy, where silent screen and theatrical stars lived a lush existence of unbridled indulgence and excess, and a sexually free and easy lifestyle where “anything goes.”

The star of this monumental production is Rosemary McKisco, a stage struck young heiress who runs away from marriage to a famous Broadway producer and hitches her star to eccentric and openly lesbian Russian star Nazimova, and, as one of her girls, goes to Hollywood. She becomes the confidante and a sort of “personal assistant” to both the greatest lover of the silent screen, Rudolph Valentino, and his domineering wife Natacha Rambova, as well as grapples with her own ambiguous sexuality and a certain aimlessness and lack of drive regarding her own life and career.  She loves the lifestyle that goes with being an actress, the independence and freedom, and fabulous clothes, but doesn't really like acting or feel the compulsion to pursue a career. She just wants to live, luxuriously, but not actually earn a living. 

At 600 pages, this is a rather lengthy first person novel, filled with fascinating details and tidbits about the lifestyle, personalities, gossip, and scandals in theatrical and movie circles 1916-1927, as well as society and couture fashions. Ultimately, I think how much the reader enjoys this one hinges on how they feel about the heroine/narrator. Some may find Rosemary’s aimlessness, her drifting and lack of drive, annoying or intriguing, while others may be able to sympathize and happily drift along with her, basically hitchhiking through life in the limousines of the rich and famous, sleeping in their beds, and taking crumbs from their tables. But if your primary reason for reading this is the silent movies and their stars, particularly Valentino and Nazimova, and the brilliant but controlling designer Natacha Rambova, or to revisit that lost glamorous world, you’ll find very little here except a gossipy, fictionalized account of their sex lives which the heroine of this novel either watches from the wings or plays an active role in.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Forever by Mildred Cram

This novella, first published in 1934, is an ethereal fairy tale that tells the story of “A love that was longer than life and stronger than death.”

It’s the story of Colin and Julie. They first meet in a beautiful valley and fall in love when they are two souls waiting to be born. They promise to find each other again and to be lovers on earth the same as they were in heaven.

Colin is born in England, a much desired son, a handsome, dark-haired scion of wealth and privilege. He grows up to become a lawyer with a knack for untangling the lingering problems of the past—lost wills, old grants, and forgotten deeds. At twenty-six he’s engaged to a nice girl, but he finds himself inexplicably drawn to visit the Chamonix Valley in The Alps. A place he’s never been or seen.

Julie is born in America, she’s the prettiest girl in Philadelphia, and married to a banker who adores her, but she is tormented by the same longing, pulling her to the same alpine valley.

Colin and Julie meet in the valley that has been calling to both of them. It’s as though they've known each other all their lives. They fall instantly in love.

Since this is an old book, long out-of-print as of this writing, that can sometimes be hard to find at a reasonable price for a casual reader, I am going to break my usual rule and tell the rest of the story and how it ends, so if you plan on reading this and don’t want spoilers skip to the final paragraph please.

They vow to meet in the hotel ballroom the next evening, Julie promises to wear the white dress and red slippers Colin likes and they will dance to his favorite waltz, The Blue Danube. But the next day both are killed in separate, unrelated, accidents and their happy ghosts reunite in the ballroom for their promised waltz.

This is a sweet and charming story of romance and reincarnation and a love that never dies. I became curious and sought it out after reading that it was a particular favorite of my favorite leading man from Hollywood’s Golden Age—Tyrone Power. Apparently the story had special meaning for him and he often gave copies of it as gifts and hoped to star in a movie adaptation. Unfortunately that film was never made, which is a great pity as I know he would have been magnificent in it.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Errol & Olivia Ego & Obsession In Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

From the moment Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn were first paired together in Captain Blood the chemistry between this on-screen couple was electric. His wild, sex appeal, and her delicate elegance set the silver screen on fire. They would star together in a series of eight films, mostly grand, romantic, adventure-filled costume pictures, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, They Died With Their Boots On, and The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Off-screen there was an attraction as well. But Olivia, a young, career-driven actress, held herself aloof, even though he admittedly stirred her, and sometimes she had to fight herself not to give in, she knew that Errol Flynn could never be faithful to anyone, not even himself. Though he wooed her, Olivia was determined to be more than just “Errol Flynn’s girl” and a damsel in distress. She felt that their on-screen pairing typecast her. She had to fight for the good roles, including Melanie in Gone With The Wind.

This book is an excellent, photo-filled joint biography of one of the movies’ legendary romantic couples. The author even hints, albeit discreetly since Olivia de Havilland is still alive and could possibly sue, that the two might have succumbed to temptation and, for a brief time, been lovers off-screen as well. If you love classic movies, and have enjoyed the pairing of de Havilland and Flynn, and are curious about their lives, and the possibility of a love affair that might have lept, however briefly, off the silver screen, this is definitely a worthy addition to your library.