Here’s one of the 20th century’s most influential interpreters of popular song, Frank Sinatra, glamorizing smoking, drinking, and leaving a bar drunk right after last call. So much of what I hate most about midcentury popular culture is wrapped up in this piece, yet I love this song. Why? Because it brings together three legendary musical talents in one perfect moment to tell a familiar story in a style so compelling that you have to lean in and pay attention.
Composer Harold Arlen wrote many of the greatest tunes of the last century, from “Over the Rainbow” to “Blues in the Night” to “The Man that Got Away,” and, of course, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote 1500 pop tunes from “Laura” to “Moon River,” and was nominated for 19 Academy Awards for his songs, winning four of those Oscars. Some of the duo’s finest compositions were the songs they wrote together during the 1940s. Arlen wrote several of Judy Garland’s greatest hits, and Mercer, though married to someone else, was Garland’s lover for a time in the early 1940s, and he considered her the love of his life. His beautiful song “Skylark,” written with Hoagy Carmichael and brimming with unfulfilled longing, was written for her.
Garland’s great friend Frank Sinatra was one of the key interpreters of both Arlen and Mercer, and when Frank gets a slow, melancholy song about lost love, he’s hard to beat. His styling here is impeccable: pained and haunted, dreamy and hopeless. The song seems simple and straightforward, but it’s full of surprising intervals and clever internal rhymes—it’s one of those sophisticated compositions that begs for a clean, spare performance, and that’s exactly what Frank gives here.
I’m always surprised when a meat eater shows me disrespect and derision when seeing that I choose not to eat meat. I frequently hear the trope that vegans and vegetarians are inherently self-absorbed and annoying to be around. Those who enjoy meat often write that vegans are preachy or difficult. But you know what? In 30 years as a lacto-ovo (dairy- and egg-eating) vegetarian, I’ve never come across that in person.
Yes, I’ve politely asked waiters to accommodate my needs. I’ve asked about alternatives to meaty preparations of dishes, and been disappointed when every vegetable dish, soup and salad on a large menu is prepared with meat or meat byproducts. But I have not glared at my tablemates, lectured people on their dietary choices or berated chefs. It is not rude or unreasonable for me (or a Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Seventh Day Adventist, keto-diet-follower, gluten-free diner, diabetic, GERD sufferer or anyone else) to ask politely for food that meets our particular needs.
I occasionally meet (and often read about) omnivores who see those of us with different culinary needs as being troublesome, inconvenient or even, somehow, threatening. Some have confided in me that they secretly feel squeamish when thinking about having animals killed for their meals, so they resent vegetarians for merely existing. They’re uncomfortable around people who avoid meat since our presence reminds them that the pink packages they purchase from the meat counter were once parts of living beings. Our existence proves that meat isn’t essential to health or happiness, and some sadly find that threatening to their comfort and traditions.
Shortly after I established Apple’s Vegetarian Club, I got a threatening anonymous message via intracompany mail. Why? Because I was so bold as to offer recipes and nutritional info and invite people to join me for lunch to discuss health and animal welfare. I didn’t publish polemics or accost people with speeches; I simply made information and encouragement available in a conference room once a month.
Over the five years during which I published Style With Substance, a newsletter of cruelty-free product news, I occasionally received hate mail telling me that I was going against God and nature by offering alternatives to cosmetics and household products that maimed and killed animals unnecessarily. Haters wrote that vegetarianism and a search to avoid animal cruelty were proof of my satanic and anti-Christian nature. But did I ever attack people for using makeup tested on rabbits or wearing leather jackets? Not once. I only offered alternatives to those who cared to find out about them. Did my newsletter include screeds or attacks on those with different views? Never. Indeed, I cautioned readers who wanted to contact companies to urge them to stop testing on animals to always be polite and respectful. But some people truly detest those of us who suggest that alternatives to the norm are possible and even beneficial.
My mother took my vegetarianism as an affront to her, though I never once put her down for eating meat or said that my choices made me superior. When she ate meat at the same table, I did not glare at or shame her. She chose to interpret my desire to live my life differently as equivalent to a slap in her face and a personal rejection of her. She decided it meant that I thought myself too good for her and her way of life—something I never said nor believed.
I’ve read that vegans can be pedantic and overly assertive and confrontational; in my 30 years as a vegetarian, I’ve never witnessed that happen in person. Not once. Do they exist? Sure; I’ve seen articles in which cranky vegans were quoted. I’ve been disgusted by the destructive, ugly, illegal antics of PETA and the Animal Liberation Front and other extremists who have sparked backlashes against gentler supporters of animal welfare. I’ve seen photos of confrontational vegans. But I have not met those people. I’ve met literally hundreds of vegans at vegetarian clubs, festivals and special events over the course of three decades, and made many more vegetarian and vegan friends in the course of a life lived in liberal communities near San Francisco, Seattle and Boston. If nasty vegans were truly so common, don’t you think I might have run across one?
I’ve also read and heard people whine that I must hate good food because I don’t eat meat or fish, but my vegetarian daughter and I are foodies who truly love fine dining, sophisticated preparations and presentations of beautifully prepared foods from all over the world. The mischaracterizations of those of us who simply, quietly don’t want to consume animals are common, and mystifying.
So why did and do people like Anthony Bourdain and Julia Child and Gordon Ramsay detest vegetarians so? Why do they judge our tastes and choices so harshly, assume that we are rude, tasteless, boorish or unsophisticated? Bourdain wrote, “Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.” He described vegans as vegetarians’ “Hezbollah-like splinter faction.” He went on to say that vegetarians are a “persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn” and that “They make for bad travelers and bad guests. … [If] you’re unwilling to try things that people take so personally and are so proud of and so generous with, I don’t understand that, and I think it’s rude. … Being a vegan is a first-world phenomenon, completely self-indulgent.”
Julia Child said of vegetarians, “Personally, I don’t think pure vegetarianism is a healthy lifestyle. It’s more fear of food—that whole thing that red meat is bad for you. And then there are people who don’t eat meat because it’s against their morals. Well, there’s nothing you can do with people like that. I’ve often wondered to myself: Does a vegetarian look forward to dinner, ever?”
Gordon Ramsay, who recently said that he’s following a vegetarian diet himself, used to find it hilarious to hide meat in food prepared for vegetarians who made it clear that they do not wish to eat meat. He delighted in subverting the deeply held beliefs of people who find meat eating problematic for ethical or health or other reasons—something equivalent to sneaking bacon into an Orthodox Jew’s or an observant Muslim’s lunch, or forcing a Hindu to eat steak tartare, or refusing an allergic diner’s request that you leave out an ingredient out of sheer petty spite. It’s not just contemptible—it’s immoral.
The truly rude, inhospitable, judgmental and threatening people in this world tend not to be those concerned about eating animals. Those who tease me and tell me I’m oversensitive, stupid, rude or unsophisticated aren’t vegans. I don’t want to tease or attack meat-eaters; I don’t find derision, contempt or lack of respect for strongly held ethical beliefs amusing or acceptable for anyone. So please, before you tease another vegetarian, joke about hiding bacon in their food or roll your eyes if they ask whether there’s chicken stock in something, think again about how you’d feel to be mocked, chided and derided for living according to your private principles. Live and let live.
[Illustration: A Feast for the Eyes, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1590]
It’s true: Hamilton totally earns the hype. My sweetheart treated me to a touring company performance of the musical here in Boston last night, and it was the first time either of us had seen it. It was a tour de force.
It’s a constantly moving, singing, dancing, quite literally spinning masterpiece of intricate physical, vocal and emotional involvement among cast, crew, musicians, choreographers, set designers and visionaries. Everything is held aloft by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant rhythm, rhyme, and lyrical passion and inspired by Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow’s erudition.
It starts with a pow and never slows down, and turntables within turntables spin against each other to allow for even more movement and multiple simultaneous stories to play out before your eyes.
There is very little spoken dialog separating the musical numbers—it’s a constantly flowing, beautifully paced river of rhythm, full of emotion yet always supported by a framework of fact, a propulsive political urgency and this historical imperative: Make this moment count. Make your vision real. Fight for what matters. Keep on trying. You can rest another day—acknowledge your power to make a difference right now and turn that potential power into positive action. It’s honest, with no holds barred: thrilling, merciful, inspiring.
Despite the show’s famously color-blind casting and incorporation of musical and rhythmic styles deeply influenced by modern Black and Latinx music, the musical does have problematic elements. Its most troubling aspect is that it celebrates several white Founding Fathers (like George Washington) who were racist enslavers. Some find largely positive portrayals of men like Washington, Burr, and Hamilton by Black or Latinx actors troubling because it makes the characters feel more relatable and sympathetic.
A number of thoughtful commentators consider Lin-Manuel Miranda complicit in whitewashing American history. This view does have some validity. Yet I also appreciate that Miranda explores Hamilton’s flawed behavior and his self-absorbed nature, and shows how pettily even revered founders behaved toward each other. He allows us to feel deeply conflicted about often likeable and sometimes noble people who also did shameful, even despicable things. Miranda’s musical also makes clear how the glorification of war and violence as a means to end differences or defend honor inevitably results in tragedy. And, of course, as a work of art, Hamilton is original, captivating, and sometimes deeply moving. It is flawed and sometimes troubling, like many important pieces of art. But it is art nonetheless.