Monthly Archives: May 2020

Actor and director Clint Eastwood is born

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/clint-eastwood-born

Best known to his many fans for one of his most memorable screen incarnations–San Francisco Police Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan–the actor and Oscar-winning filmmaker Clint Eastwood is born on May 30, 1930, in San Francisco, California.

With his father, Eastwood wandered the West Coast as a boy during the Depression. Then, after four years in the Army Special Services, Eastwood went to Hollywood, where he got his start in a string of B-movies. For eight years, Eastwood played Rowdy Yates in the popular TV Western series Rawhide, before emerging as a leading man in a string of low-budget “spaghetti” Westerns directed by Sergio Leone: Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). All three were successful, but Eastwood made his real breakthrough with 1971’s smash hit Dirty Harry, directed by Don Siegel. Though he was not the first choice to play the film’s title role–Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman all reportedly declined the part–Eastwood made it his own, turning the blunt, cynical Dirty Harry into an iconic figure in American film.

Also in 1971, Eastwood moved behind the camera, making his directorial debut with the thriller Play Misty for Me, the first offering from his production company, Malpaso. Over the next two decades, he turned in solid performances in films such as The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Escape From Alcatraz (1979) and Honkytonk Man (1982), but seemed to be losing his star power for lack of a truly great film. By the end of the 1980s, after four Dirty Harry sequels, released from 1973 to 1988, Eastwood was poised to escape the character’s shadow and emerge as one of Hollywood’s most successful actor-turned-directors. In 1992, he hit the jackpot when he starred in, directed and produced the darkly unconventional Western Unforgiven. The film won four Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Film Editing, Best Director and Best Picture, both for Eastwood. He also found box-office success as a late-in-life action and romantic hero, in In the Line of Fire (1993) and The Bridges of Madison County (1995), respectively.

As a director, Eastwood worked steadily over the next decade, making such films as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), Absolute Power (1997) and, most notably, the crime drama Mystic River (2003), for which he was again nominated for the Best Director Oscar. The following year, he hit a grand slam with Million Dollar Baby, in which he also starred as the curmudgeonly coach of a determined young female boxer (Hilary Swank, in her second Oscar-winning performance). In addition to Swank’s Academy Award for Best Actress, the film won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman) and Eastwood’s second set of statuettes for Best Director and Best Picture.

In 2006, Eastwood became only the 31st filmmaker in 70 years to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America (DGA). That year, he directed a pair of World War II-themed movies, Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). The latter film, which featured an almost exclusively Japanese cast, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and a fourth Best Director nomination for Eastwood.

Off-screen, Eastwood has pursued an interest in politics, serving as mayor of Carmel, California, from 1986 to 1988. He was married to Maggie Johnson in 1953, and the couple had two children, Kyle and Alison (who co-starred in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), before separating in 1978 and divorcing in 1984. Eastwood also had long-term relationships with the actresses Sondra Locke and Frances Fisher (with whom he had a daughter, Francesca). He married his second wife, Dina Ruiz Eastwood, in 1996. Their daughter, Morgan, was born that same year.

His more recent films include J. Edgar (2011), American Sniper (2014), Sully (2016), The Mule (2018) and Richard Jewell (2019).

Poet Walt Whitman, author of “Leaves of Grass,” is born

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/walt-whitman-is-born

May 31, 1819 is the birthday of poet Walt Whitman, born in West Hills, Long Island, and raised in Brooklyn.

Although Whitman loved music and books, he left school at the age of 14 to become a journeyman printer. Later, he worked as a teacher, journalist, editor, carpenter, and held various other jobs to support his writing. In 1855, he self-published a slim volume of poems called Leaves of Grass, which carried his picture but not his name. With this book, Whitman hoped to become a truly American poet, as envisioned in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet” (1843).

Whitman spent much time in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island, attending cultural events, taking long walks, and sometimes riding on coaches and ferries as an excuse to talk with people. In 1856, the second edition of Leaves of Grass included his “Sundown Poem,” later called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

In 1862, Whitman’s brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, and Whitman went to care for him. He spent the rest of the war comforting both Union and Confederate soldiers. His poem “Oh Captain, My Captain,” mourned Lincoln’s assassination. Whitman worked for several government departments after the war until he suffered a stroke in 1873. He spent the rest of his life in Camden, New Jersey, and continued to issue revised editions of Leaves of Grass until shortly before his death in 1892.

Three U.S. presidents close chapters on the Cold War

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/three-u-s-presidents-close-chapters-on-the-cold-war

On May 30, 1988, three U.S. presidents in three different years take significant steps toward ending the Cold War.

Beginning on May 28, 1988, President Ronald Reagan met Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev for a four-day summit in Russia. Upon his election in 1980, Reagan had abandoned Nixon, Ford and Carter’s attempts to diffuse political tensions between the two superpowers and instead instigated an enormous build-up of arms and rhetoric against the Soviet Union. The Soviets could not keep up with the U.S.’s massive defense spending and this, along with Gorbachev’s policy of granting increasing freedom to Soviet citizens (glasnost), helped to erode hard-line communism within Russia. 

 In a remarkable and symbolic address to a group of Moscow University students on May 31, Reagan stood in front of an enormous bust of Lenin and spoke openly about freedom, technology, creativity and his desire to see the Berlin Wall torn down. He told the students your generation is living in one of the most exciting, hopeful times in Soviet history when the first breath of freedom stirs the air and the heart beats to the accelerated rhythm of hope, when the accumulated spiritual energies of a long silence yearn to break free.

READ MORE: The Myth That Reagan Ended the Cold War With a Single Speech

Two years to the day after Reagan’s 1988 visit, and just about a year after the 1989 demolition of the Berlin Wall, Reagan’s successor George H. W. Bush met with Gorbachev in the United States to discuss the reunification of East and West Germany. Bush and Gorbachev outlined a plan that would unite the separate communist and democratic spheres into one nation not seen since World War II. In 1991, after an aborted communist coup against Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin became president and the Soviet Union was officially declared over, dismantled and re-named Russia. Most of the former Soviet satellite territories were granted their independence. Russia then initiated tentative steps toward a capitalist economic system.

On this day in 1994, President Bill Clinton pledged continued cooperation with Russia in a New World Order, declaring that the U.S. would no longer point nuclear missiles at Russia, ending the antagonism and fear of mutually assured destruction that characterized the half-century-long Cold War between the two superpowers.

READ MORE: The Cold War Timeline

Germans conquer Crete

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/germans-conquer-crete

On May 31, 1941, the last of the Allies evacuate after 11 days of battling a successful German parachute invasion of the island of Crete. Crete is now Axis-occupied territory.

On the morning of May 20, some 3,000 members of Germany’s Division landed on Crete, which was patrolled and protected by more than 28,000 Allied troops and an almost equal number of Greek soldiers. The German invasion, although anticipated, was not taken seriously; the real fear was of an attack from the sea. Those initial 3,000 parachutists were reinforced—to the tune of an additional 19,000 men, arriving by parachute drop, glider, and troop carrier.

The Allies remained optimistic; many of the German soldiers who dropped from the sky died or were injured on impact. The rest were undersupplied and inexperienced. But by the May 26, British General Bernard Freyberg, commander of the defense of Crete, already reported that their position was hopeless. Evacuation of Allied troops began on the 28th. By the night of the 31st, the last of the Allies that would make it out had left the seaport of Sphakia; 5,000 men would be left behind in the hands of the Germans. The total loss of Allied land soldiers in the Cretan engagements was 1,742; a further 2,265 sailors were lost at sea. Three cruisers and six destroyers had been sunk. The Germans suffered a loss of about 4,000 men.

Strangely, Hitler, despite the victory, considered his “losses” too great to pursue further gains in the Mediterranean and finally drive Great Britain out of the area.

READ MORE: How Did the Nazis Really Lose World War II?

Big Ben rings out over London for the first time

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/big-ben-goes-into-operation-in-london

The famous tower clock known as Big Ben, located at the top of the 320-foot-high Elizabeth Tower, rings out over the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, for the first time on May 31, 1859.

After a fire destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster—the headquarters of the British Parliament—in October 1834, a standout feature of the design for the new palace was a large clock atop a tower. The royal astronomer, Sir George Airy, wanted the clock to have pinpoint accuracy, including twice-a-day checks with the Royal Greenwich Observatory. While many clockmakers dismissed this goal as impossible, Airy counted on the help of Edmund Beckett Denison, a formidable barrister known for his expertise in horology, or the science of measuring time.

The name “Big Ben” originally just applied to the bell but later came to refer to the clock itself. Two main stories exist about how Big Ben got its name. Many claim it was named after the famously long-winded Sir Benjamin Hall, the London commissioner of works at the time it was built. Another famous story argues that the bell was named for the popular heavyweight boxer Benjamin Caunt, because it was the largest of its kind.

Even after an incendiary bomb destroyed the chamber of the House of Commons during the Second World War, Elizabeth Tower survived, and Big Ben continued to function. Its famously accurate timekeeping is regulated by a stack of coins placed on the clock’s huge pendulum, ensuring a steady movement of the clock hands at all times. At night, all four of the clock’s faces, each one 23 feet across, are illuminated. A light above Big Ben is also lit to let the public know when Parliament is in session.

READ MORE: That Time Big Ben Stopped

First Indianapolis 500 held

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-indianapolis-500-held

On May 30, 1911, Ray Harroun drives his single-seater Marmon Wasp to victory in the inaugural Indianapolis 500, now one of the world’s most famous motor racing competitions.

The Indiana automobile dealer Carl Fisher first proposed building a private auto testing facility in 1906, in order to address car manufacturers’ inability to test potential top speeds of new cars due to the poorly developed state of the public roadways. The result was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, built on 328 acres of farmland five miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis. The idea was that occasional races at the track would pit cars from different manufacturers against each other in order to showcase their full power and entice spectators to check out the new models themselves. In 1911, Fisher and his partners decided to focus on one long race per year, as opposed to numerous shorter events, in order to attract more publicity. The purse for the grueling 500-mile race would be the richest in racing.

On May 30, 1911, 40 cars lined up at the starting line for the first Indy 500. A multi-car accident occurred 13 laps into the race, and the ensuing chaos temporarily disrupted scoring, throwing the finish into dispute when the eventual runner-up, Ralph Mulford, argued that he was the rightful winner. It was Ray Harroun, however, who took home the $14,250 purse, clocking an average speed of 74.59 mph and a total time of 6 hours and 42 minutes. The Wasp was the first car with a rear-view mirror, which Harroun had installed in order to compensate for not having a mechanic in the seat next to him to warn of other cars passing.

Impressive as it was, Harroun’s 1911 speed would have finished him 10th in the 1922 Indy 500. Barely a decade later, nearly all the cars that started in the race were smaller, lighter, more efficient and far more expensive than consumer cars. Their aerodynamic bodies featured narrow grills and teardrop-shaped tails; knock-off wire wheels made for quick, efficient tire changes; and the new straight-sided tires lasted much longer than their early pneumatic counterparts. The best cars were equipped with four-wheel hydraulic brakes and inline 3.0-liter V-8 engines made of aluminum. By the mid-1920s, the Indy 500 had become what it is today–a high-paying event for the world’s most expensive cars.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrives in Washington for a summit

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/gorbachev-arrives-in-washington-for-summit

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrives in Washington, D.C., for three days of talks with President George Bush. The summit meeting centered on the issue of Germany and its place in a changing Europe.

When Gorbachev arrived for this second summit meeting with President Bush, his situation in the Soviet Union was perilous. The Soviet economy, despite Gorbachev’s many attempts at reform, was rapidly reaching a crisis point. Russia’s control over its satellites in Eastern Europe was quickly eroding, and even Russian republics such as Lithuania were pursuing paths of independence. Some U.S. observers believed that in an effort to save his struggling regime, Gorbachev might try to curry favor with hard-line elements in the Russian Communist Party. That prediction seemed to be borne out by Gorbachev’s behavior at the May 1990 summit. The main issue at the summit was Germany.

By late 1989, the Communist Party in East Germany was rapidly losing its grip on power; the Berlin Wall had come down and calls for democracy and reunification with West Germany abounded. By the time Gorbachev and Bush met in May 1990, leaders in East and West Germany were making plans for reunification. This brought about the question of a unified Germany’s role in Europe. U.S. officials argued that Germany should become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Soviets adamantly opposed this, fearful that a reunified and pro-western Germany might be a threat to Russian security. Gorbachev indicated his impatience with the U.S. argument when he declared shortly before the summit that, “The West hasn’t done much thinking,” and complained that the argument concerning German membership in NATO was “an old record that keeps playing the same note again and again.”

The Gorbachev-Bush summit ended after three days with no clear agreement on the future of Germany. Russia’s pressing economic needs, however, soon led to a breakthrough. In July 1990, Bush promised Gorbachev a large economic aid package and vowed that the German army would remain relatively small. The Soviet leader dropped his opposition to German membership in NATO. In October 1990, East and West Germany formally reunified and shortly thereafter joined NATO.

READ MORE: How Gorbachev and Reagan’s Friendship Helped Thaw the Cold War

Jonathan Levin is tortured and killed by his former student

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/jonathan-levin-is-tortured-and-killed-by-his-former-student

Jonathan Levin, a popular 31-year-old English teacher, is stabbed and shot to death in his Upper West Side apartment in New York City. The son of Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin, Jonathan was known by many to be wealthy. When he did not show up for work, investigators searched his apartment and found his lifeless body bound to a chair with duct tape. Levin’s bankcard was missing from his wallet, and $800 had been removed from his account around the time that he was killed.

Police learned from Levin’s answering machine tape that Corey Arthur, a former student in Levin’s remedial English class at William H. Taft High School in the Bronx, called Levin on May 30 to arrange a meeting. Apparently, Arthur and his accomplice, Montoun Hart, tortured Levin with a kitchen knife in order to get him to tell them his debit card code. They turned on the vacuum cleaner and stereo to cover up his screams.

Arthur, arrested a week after the murders, first claimed that he had been at Levin’s apartment smoking crack when two other men came in and killed him. However, his story lost its credibility at trial when his fingerprints were found on the duct tape. Even still, Arthur denied being the one who pulled the trigger of the fatal shot.

Arthur was found guilty of second-degree murder and received 25 years to life in prison. Hart, despite his 11-page signed confession, was acquitted after convincing jurors that the confession had been coerced out of him when he was drunk.

Playwright Christopher Marlowe killed in tavern brawl

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/christopher-marlowe-killed-in-tavern-brawl

Playwright Christopher Marlowe, 29, is killed in a brawl over a bar tab on this day.

Marlowe, born two months before William Shakespeare, was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker. A bright student, he won scholarships to prestigious schools and earned his B.A. from Cambridge in 1584. He was nearly denied his master’s degree in 1587, until advisers to Queen Elizabeth intervened, recommending he receive the degree, referring obliquely to his services for the state. Marlowe’s activities as a spy for Queen Elizabeth were later documented by historians.

While still in school, Marlowe wrote his play Tamburlaine the Great, about a 14th century shepherd who became an emperor. The blank verse drama caught on with the public, and Marlowe wrote five more plays before his death in 1593, including The Jew of Malta and Dr. Faustus. He also published a translation of Ovid’s Elegies.

In May of 1593, Marlowe’s former roommate, playwright Thomas Kyd, was arrested and tortured for treason. He told authorities that “heretical” papers found in his room belonged to Marlowe, who was subsequently arrested. While out on bail, Marlowe became involved in a fight over a tavern bill and was stabbed to death.

Bandit Pearl Hart holds up an Arizona stagecoach

Previously posted at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/pearl-hart-holds-up-an-arizona-stagecoach

The amateur bandit Pearl Hart and her boyfriend hold up an Arizona stagecoach on May 30, 1899.

Little is known about Pearl Hart’s early life. She was born in Ontario, Canada in 1871, and moved to Toronto as a child. She eloped when she was 16, but her husband abused her and the marriage did not last. Eventually, Hart took up with a dance-hall musician and minor gambler named Dan Bandman, and in 1892 the couple moved to Phoenix, Arizona. When Bandman left to fight in the Spanish-American War, Hart relocated to the Arizona mining town of Globe, where she began an affair with a German drifter named Joe Boot.

Short on money, the couple determined to hold up a stage, though neither of them appears to have had any prior experience as robbers. On this day in 1899, Hart (dressed as a man) and Boot stopped a stage on the run between Globe and Florence. After taking $421 in cash from the three passengers, Hart took pity on them and handed back $1 to each so they could buy something to eat when they arrived in Florence.

Unskilled in the art of the getaway, Hart and Boot left an obvious trail and the sheriff of Pinal County arrested the couple four days later. Boot was jailed in Florence, but since the town had no detention facilities for women, Hart was jailed in Tucson. Within several days, Hart had apparently charmed several men into helping her and she escaped. Her freedom, however, was short-lived. A lawman recognized her in Deming, New Mexico, and returned her to Tucson.

Tried and convicted in a Florence court, Boot was sentenced to 30 years and Hart to five. Neither served out their terms. After several years of good behavior, Boot was made a trusty and walked off while doing fieldwork, never to be heard from again. After about a year in prison, Hart became pregnant. Eager to save the Arizona Territory the embarrassment of having to explain how Hart arrived at this condition while imprisoned, Governor Alexander O. Brodie pardoned her on December 19, 1902.

Hart’s life after her release is shrouded in myth. According to the romantic version, Hart leveraged her single experience as a stage robber into a career in show business, billing herself as “The Arizona Bandit.” Some said she traveled for several years on the vaudeville circuit, others that she toured briefly with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Historians have been unable to verify either of these claims. The more mundane but likely version has it that Hart quickly married an Arizona rancher named Calvin Bywater and settled down to a quiet life of domestic bliss. If Mrs. Cal Bywater was indeed Pearl Hart, she lived into her 80s and other people described her as “soft-spoken, kind, and a good citizen in all respects.”