An artist and the FBI, Marvin Gaye, Woody Allen, and the first modern detective: newsletter, April 10, 2020

April 12, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: newsletter.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,5xx) on Friday, April 10, 2020.

A friend has died of COVID-19. He was not a close friend but someone I had known for just a few months. I would see him once a week at a group I met with — before we stopped meeting in groups — and he would inevitably be cheerful and ready to talk and share. His wife also attended the group, and one of the great frustrations is that the members of the group cannot offer her our sympathies in person.

This experience is being repeated again and again around the world. We read the numbers, but when it happens to someone we know, it becomes very personal.

I hope that you are well and that you are thriving in whatever isolated state you find yourself. Do what is necessary to keep well and content. Happy reading and writing this weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,592 subscribers and had a 30.4 percent open rate; 2 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Arnold Mesches covered dramatic courtroom scenes as an artist and was subject to decades-long surveillance by the FBI

Can redacted FBI files, with their various typefaces and thick heavy black lines, be considered works of art?

Artist Arnold Mesches believed so, and when he finally received the files the FBI had collected on him through many years of surveillance, he was struck by their visual qualities.

Documentary writer and producer Alix Lambert writes about Mesches “inspiration” in a recent article in CrimeReads:

Excited by the files and their graphic qualities (the thick dark lines of redactions carried a painterly quality), he began a series of works (painting and collage) titled: The FBI Files. Mesches merged the FBI’s redacted pages with painted depictions of MAD Magazine covers, Playboy covers, film canisters, Russian statues, Richard Nixon, soldiers, American flags, and a collection of other details deeply personal to him, yet simultaneously pop and universal. Source: The Artist Who Captured America’s Most Dramatic Courtroom Moments—And Was Hounded by the FBI | CrimeReads

If you have ever seen the courtroom sketches of the trials of Sirhan Sirhan (who murdered Robert Kennedy in 1968) or Charles Manson in 1970, you have seen the work of Arnold Mesches. He was hired by CBS News to cover those trials and others of the era as a courtroom artist.

But Mesches was far more than a courtroom artist. Born in the Bronx in 1923, Mesches found himself in Los Angeles in the 1940s working as a studio artist and involved in left-wing politics. That’s when he came to the FBI’s attention, and they devoted a great deal of time and effort to watching him — and paying informants to spy on him — during the next 30 years.

When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were awaiting execution for spying in  1951, Mesches produced a series of 30 paintings using their images as a protest to what the government was about to do to them. Five years later, all of those painting plus 200 other works were stolen from his studio. Mesches suspected that the FBI was behind the theft, and when he finally received him redacted files from the bureau, he had even more reason to think this was so.

All of the files for three months before and three months after the theft were missing from the file — which had more than 700 pages in it.

Mesches life in art ranged from studio work to courtroom reporting to teaching to major exhibitions — and even to a role in a major movie. He died at the age of 93 in 2016. Lambert’s article and his New York Times obituary give a fascinating account of this important artist and his work.

Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye asked ‘What’s Going On?’

Despite a volatile temper and an extremely troubled personal life, Marvin Gaye was one of many Motown talents whose smooth tones and distinctive rhythms filled the rock ‘n roll airwaves during the 1960s. Not only could he croon with hits such as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “Too Busy Thinking about my Baby,” but he also had a talent for writing and producing hit records.

By the spring of 1970, Gaye’s successes could not shield him from the depths of depression.

His drug addiction, his constant fighting with his family, his endless professional disputes with Motown’s founder Berry Gordy — all weighed in on him as did his social concerns such as the continued war in Vietnam, the persistence of poverty and social injustice, and the broken promises of the civil rights movement.

Most of all, however, Gaye felt deeply the loss of Tammi Terrell, his sometime-lover and his partner in songs such as “It Takes Two,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By,” among others. Terrell had collapsed while on tour with Gaye in 1967 and had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. She had stopped touring but continued to record while also undergoing numerous operations.

She died on March 1, 1970, just a month short of her 25th birthday.

Three months later, Gaye began the recording work on What’s Going On, an album that would eventually reach the top of the charts and would be the definition of Gaye’s musical legacy. It was a concept album full of questions and protest where the songs blended into one another. Not only was the album a million-seller, but three singles from the album reached the top of the charts.

Berry Gordy at first resisted releasing the album, thinking that it was too political for playing on the radio. He did not want Motown to stray from its original concept of making music recorded by black artists appealing to white audiences. Gaye insisted on its release, and when Gordy continued his refusal, Gaye went on strike and refused to work with Motown any longer.

Finally, Gordy gave in and the album was released in March 1971. Within a month it was at the top of the R&B charts and soon reached iconic status.

In the long run, the album’s success failed to save Gaye from himself or his circumstances. He spent much of the 1970s outside the U.S. and in the throes of drug addiction and professional and personal disputes. On April 1, 1984, Gaye intervened in a fight between his mother and father at their home in Los Angeles. Gaye and his father had never gotten along, and his father took a gun and shot his son in the heart, killing him instantly. 

Gaye died one month before his 45th birthday.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

The arrival of the bees

One of the ways that a beekeeper starts new hives is to order “packages” of bees, and I mentioned in last week’s newsletter that I received four packages of bees, and that they had been installed in four hives, thus replacing the bees that I had lost last fall. 

A package contains three pounds of bees, or about 10,000 worker bees. Inside the wooden crate is a smaller wooden box that contains a queen. The queen has to be separated from the rest of the hive like this until she is “accepted” as queen by the other bees. This takes a few days, and she is eventually released and starts doing her queen duties — laying eggs for the survival of the hive.

Getting the bees into the hive boxes is a process that actually is a lot of fun — although it can be a bit scary the first time you do it. It involves opening the box and then shaking the bees into the hive. The queen box has to be placed in separately and with some care. Several years ago, I did a video of this process so you can see exactly what it all looks like. Here’s the YouTube link:

The bees are now in their hives, the queens have been released, and the crimson clover is starting to bloom. So all is normal and going well.

From the archives: The ‘private eye’ in literature begins with the real-life character of Eugene Francois Vidocq

The genesis of the private eye lies with a 19th Frenchman named Eugene Francois Vidocq.

Eugene Francois Vidocq

Vidocq’s life and legends, some of which he created through his partially fictionalized memoirs, were the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), which is considered the world’s first detective story.

All of the famous detectives of literature — including Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone — owe something to the real-life Vidocq.

As a young man in the 1790s, Vidocq appeared to have a promising career in the army. His trouble was that he was too imaginative – and maybe too hot-headed – to follow the rules. He strayed to the wrong side of the law, and there he remained for the next decade and a half.

Committed to prison by the courts several times, Vidocq always managed an escape. He had a generous, affable nature that sometimes got him into trouble — such as the time he forged a pardon for a fellow prisoner. He was a master of disguise, which also aided him in eluding the authorities. He made an escape by marching out of town in a funeral procession.

In 1809 he found himself in the hands of the police again, this time facing a long, harsh prison sentence. He boldly switched sides, telling the police that he could go undercover (to use a modern term) and help them capture dangerous and highly sought-after criminals.

For nearly two years, he did this with some notable success. He later wrote in his memoirs:

I believe I might have become a perpetual spy, so far was every one from supposing that any connivance existed between the agents of the public authority and myself. Even the porters and keepers were in ignorance of my mission with which I was entrusted. Adored by the thieves, esteemed by the most determined bandits (for even these hardened wretches have a sentiment which they call esteem), I could always rely on their devotion to me.

Eugène François Vidocq, Memoirs of Vidocq, p. 190

Vidocq also – obviously – had a talent for self-promotion, which he used to great effect for the rest of his life.

And that life was, indeed, remarkable. It included

  • establishment of a plain-clothes criminal investigative unit for the French police, which inspired a similar unit for  Scotland Yard in Great Britain and eventually the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States;
  • identification techniques of criminals that relied on extensive record-keeping;
  • criminal investigation procedures that included ballistics examinations, crime-scene analysis, and even the beginnings of finger-printing;
  • founding of the first private detective agency, which he did in 1833 after tiring of constantly squabbling with police.

Vidocq was never shy about proclaiming his successes, taking credit for his accomplishments, and comparing his genius to the bumbling methods of the uniformed police. His fame spread through Europe and the United States, particularly as he cultivated close friendships with famous French authors of the day such as Honore de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Alexander Dumas, just to name a few. Each of these writers created characters for their novels based on Vidocq.

Today, Vidocq is not well-known, not as much as he should be. As Mike Ashley has written

As with so many originals, Vidocq’s life has become so overshadowed and masked, not only by those he inspired, but by his own legend as well, that today, if he is mentioned at all, it is to dismiss his achievements as fiction. But he was real, and he was a true living legend.

Source: The Great Detectives: Vidocq – Strand Mag In this article from issue 4, Mike Ashley looks at the life of Vidocq, a thief turned detective who was to prove the inspiration for many great fictional detectives.

Biographies of Vidocq:

  • Edwards, Samuel (1977). The Vidocq Dossier: The Story of the World’s First Detective (1st ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN0-395-25176-1.
  • Hodgetts, Edward A. (1928). Vidocq: A Master of Crime. London: Selwyn & Blount.
  • Morton, James. The First Detective: The Life and Revolutionary Times of Vidocq. Ebury Press. ISBN978-0-09-190337-4.
  • Stead, John Philip (1954). Vidocq: Picaroon of Crime.

This item was originally published in the newsletter in January 2018.

Woody Allen’s book ‘Apropos of Nothing’ gets less than sterling reviews

Woody Allen’s autobiography — subject of acceptance and then rejection by Hatchette publishing house — did indeed find a publisher.

(See the previous post: Whither Woody Allen, his family, his publisher, his reputation, etc.)

Maybe having your book rejected by a publisher is not such a bad thing after all. Allen’s autobiography, Apropo of Nothing, has received scathing reviews since its recent publication.

Monica Hesse, in the Washington Post, wrote:

The original controversy over the book’s publication had to do with Dylan Farrow’s longstanding accusation that Allen, her adoptive father, had molested her in 1992. “We stand in solidarity with [Dylan Farrow] and survivors of sexual assault,” read the out-of-office messages of Hachette employees participating in the walkout. The allegations were investigated at the time; Allen has denied them, and he was never charged.

Fortunately, you do not need to reinvestigate these charges to have feelings about this book: Both guilty and innocent people can be boring, vindictive and self-indulgent.

You need only ask yourself: Do you like 400-page books in which wealthy 84-year-old Oscar-winning directors, who successfully navigated New York and Hollywood for half a century with unlimited creative control, who shaped mass pop culture into their own worldview, now portray themselves as innocent naifs who just can’t catch a break? Source: Woody Allen’s book ‘Apropos of Nothing’ is at least a familiar kind of bad – The Washington Post

And here is part of what Dwight Garner said in the New York Times review:

Like many of our fathers and grandfathers, Allen is a 20th-century man in a 21st-century world. His friends should have warned him that “Apropos of Nothing” is incredibly, unbelievably tone deaf on the subject of women.


Nearly every time a woman is mentioned, there’s a gratuitous pronouncement on her looks. Early on, he chases “delectable bohemian little kumquats” in New York City. While in London filming “Casino Royale” (1967), a James Bond spoof, he writes, “one could stroll on the Kings Road and pick up the most adorable birds in their miniskirts.” Birds? I kept waiting for him to sail to Australia to scoop up a basket of “Sheilas.” Woody Allen’s New Memoir Is Sometimes Funny — and Tone Deaf and Banal

Woody Allen has repeatedly said of late that he has reached a point in life where he doesn’t care what other people think. That a good thing.


Check out last week’s newsletter

Alice K.: Thanks for a great newsletter last week.  I enjoyed the articles on Handel’s Messiah and J.S. Bach.  One of my favorites written by Bach is Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. Josh Groban sings it beautifully on his album, and it’s also on YouTube.  I could talk about music all day long!

Jean T.: Living in social isolation here in London because I’m diabetic. Watching a TV programme called Gogglebox I heard my favourite malapropism for the current situation “I don’t really want to live in that social hibernation”. Seems appropriate to me. 

Deer are moving into empty streets in London,  we are seeing more of our urban foxes and goats are moving into Welsh villages. Nature is fighting back. 
Kathy R.: While not a fan of classical music, I am enjoying the Brandenburg Concertos as I read the rest of the newsletter and do other computer work.
Sunny S.: Every year over the Christmas holidays, my mom pulled out her complete record set of Handel’s The Messiah. Yes, real records. I’m getting old!  My older brothers would roll their eyes (even though one of them was a skilled pianist).  As for myself, hearing The Messiah brings great joy and fond memories. 
Thank you for the reminders.
Marcia D.: I read some Dianne Harman NW Cozy Mysteries. They take place in Seattle and Bainbridge Island. It’s always interesting to read about places that you know. Also read the Tattoist of Auschwitz and the Winemaker’s Wife!
I have to take the bus to the grocery stores. Metro is letting everyone ride free due to the Virus and they blocked off the disabled
seating from non-disabled. Non-disabled get on and off at the back door. Disabled the front door. Since I use a walker, I use the front door. 
I use a walker because I sometimes get vertigo due to being beat up by a mentally ill person at Pike Street Market.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Yet another rose
Best quote of the week:

The more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. Vincent van Gogh, painter (1853-1890)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Bach’s letter of application, the challenge of new words, Handel washed up, and more on Ida Tarbell; newsletter, April 3, 2020


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2 comments on “An artist and the FBI, Marvin Gaye, Woody Allen, and the first modern detective: newsletter, April 10, 2020

  1. Professor:
    Thanks for the acknowledgement of Marvin Gaye. The troubled artist has almost become cliche;still, the art itself, like water, finds its way through the cracks.

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