Saturday, August 15, 2009

Jane Addams (1860 - 1935)

At 17, Jane enrolled at Rockford Female Seminary, where her father was a trustee, though she had hoped to go to Smith College and earn a liberal arts degree. Her teachers at Rockford were sure she would make a good overseas missionary, but Jane resolutely refused.

Graduating at the top of her class in 1881, she moved to Philadelphia to begin studying at the Women's Medical College, at a time when few women were doctors. However, plagued by depression and problems stemming from curvature of the spine, she withdrew from college six months later.

She then agreed to join her step-mother on a Grand European Tour, but to her escort's dismay, she seemed far more interested in the plight of the poor in European cities, than in finding a husband or looking at cathedrals. Jane returned to America at 23, still unwell and depressed at the apparent lack of direction in her life.

At 27, she revisited Europe, this time with a friend from Rockford, Ellen Gates Starr, who was destined to become a life-long friend and partner. After visiting settlements in London's East End staffed by Oxford undergraduates, they returned to America determined to start something similar of their own. Having finally found a sense of purpose, Jane's health improved dramatically. The two women used their savings to buy a house in the worst of Chicago's slums.

At first they were met with curiosity from their neighbors, but their deeds spoke volumes, and they were soon drawn into the teeming life of the district. Using their education and upper-middle class social connections, they proved highly efficient at raising awareness and money for their cause. They learned to deal effectively with politicians and the media to improve sanitation, street lighting and housing in their area. They provided day-care for women working in factories, fair legal representation for local people, and meeting space for union organizers. Addams recognized the high cost of assimilation into American culture for immigrants, especially older ones, so she set up a museum and arranged for an arts and crafts center, musicians and story-tellers to help preserve ethnic traditions, while at the same time providing English translators and instructors to those who requested them. She also refused to support Prohibition, arguing that saloons provided an important gathering space for the community, despite the many problems that arose from alcoholism.

The size of the settlement and the scope of its work grew steadily, until it was second in size only to the University of Chicago. Co-ops were formed to purchase housing and coal at cheaper rates. The volunteer staff grew by the hundreds, and included women such as Florence Kelley, Frances Perkins and Mary Eliza McDowell, who were to go on and become reformers in their own right. Meanwhile, Addams published ten books on reform and in 1917, traveled to the Netherlands to beg the British and German Prime Ministers to submit the war to arbitration. Her involvement in peace efforts won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, and at the time of her death, there were settlement houses in every large American city.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Joy Adamson (1910 - 1980)

Joy Adamson's novel, "Born Free," awakened the Western world to the alarming loss of wildlife and habitat in Africa and other areas considered gaming havens. Today's wildlife preservation movement owes much to her popular story of how she raised, and then set free, a lion cub named Elsa.

Born into an upper-class Austrian family, Joy earned a degree in music and took up sculpting. She was taught to ride and shoot at an early age. She killed her first buck at 16, a feat she then refused to repeat. She decided to go on to medical school, but left to get married. Two years later, at 27, she divorced and went to Kenya to visit friends and fell in love with East Africa. Her botanical sketches earned her a place on a scientific expedition, where she met her second husband. She went on to illustrate seven more books of flora, and documented her botanical findings with specimens she forwarded to Kew Gardens in Britain. After this marriage ended, she met George Adamson, senior warden for the Kenya game department. They married in 1944, and she began a life that "amounted to 360 days a year on safari."

In 1957, George brought home three lion cubs, whose mother had been shot, and Joy agreed to nurture them. Raising three lion cubs soon became too much, so two of the cubs were sent away to zoos, hand-picked for their humane treatment of animals, while Elsa, the smallest, stayed behind. Because her infant charge had been born free, Joy was determined that the lioness would not be tamed or domesticated. She was allowed to roam free around the compound. She rode on the top of a Landrover, swam in the Indian Ocean with them, and accompanied Joy on art expeditions. However, as Elsa reached sexual maturity, the Adamsons were forced to prepare for her a return to the wild. After much trial and error, they succeeded and continued to enjoy yearly reunions with Elsa, although Elsa gently discouraged too much interaction with her cubs.

In 1960, at age 50, Joy wrote about the experience in her first novel, "Born Free," which was an instant international success. She used her fame to publicize the plight of wild animals around the world, and pledged every penny earned by her book and its three sequels to wildlife preservation.

In 1966, Columbia Pictures released a movie version of the book, further popularizing Elsa's story. Zoos responded by creating more humane conditions for animals, such as larger outdoor habitats, and a new form of travel known as "ecotourism" began.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Dorothy Arzner (1897 - 1979)

Unlike many women of her era, Dorothy had options. Born into an upper-middle class family in San Francisco, Dorothy was sent to Westlake, a private school for girls, by her stepmother who was concerned about her "tomboyish ways."  Set on medicine, Dorothy underwent two years of pre-med studies at the University of Southern California. During World War I, she left to join the Los Angeles volunteer ambulance corps, then worked in a doctor's office. But she soon tired of medicine: "I wanted to heal the sick and raise the dead instantly."

In 1919, after a chance visit, she found a job as a typist at Paramount Studios. But she was a terrible typist. She soon found another job in continuity. Then she was invited to help edit a film, and proved so adept that she was given another reel to cut, this time without supervision. Dorothy worked day and night, cutting 32 movies in one year and becoming chief editor.

In 1922, she cut Rudolph Valentino's "Blood and Sand."  Her intercuts between stock and original footage in the bull-fight scenes were masterfully executed and saved the studio a fortune. She soon gained a reputation for efficiency and economy. She also wrote several scripts, but what she longed for was the chance to direct. Frustrated, she threatened to quit unless she was given the chance to direct an A movie. The studio acquiesced.

In 1927, at age 30, she was given, "Fashions For Women," to direct, which she completed in two weeks. As Paramount's first woman director, she received more press than the leading actress. The film was a success with the critics and at the box office, so she was signed to a long-term contract with Paramount.  She went on to direct seventeen movies over a thirty year span.

Known for her deep respect for writers, she was also considered a starmaker, and is credited with launching the careers of Clara Bow (The Wild Party), Lucille Ball (Dance, Girl, Dance), Rosalind Russell (Craig's Wife), Ruth Chatterton (Anybody's Woman), and Katherine Hepburn (Christopher Strong). She also worked with Joan Crawford (The Bride Wore Red), and directed Paramount's first talkie, "The Wild Party."

Throughout this period she dressed in men's clothing and was well-known amongst the gay Hollywood set.  She met Marion Morgan, who was to become her life partner in 1927. They lived together in a luxurious Hollywood Hills home, and later in the California desert, until Morgan's death in 1971.  She also directed fifty Pepsi commercials for Joan Crawford; made training movies during World War II for the Women's Army Corps; and taught film at UCLA, to a grateful Francis Ford Coppola, amongst others.

She is the only woman director who survived and thrived in the studio system.  Although often dismissed as a maker of "weepies" by the (mostly male) critics, close analysis of her movies reveals complex characters and an emphasis on female intelligence and loyal friendships.  She was the first woman admitted into the Director's Guild of America, and in 1975, she finally received the recognition she deserved : a gala tribute honoring her as a pioneer woman director.