Billy Wilder the journalist, what happens when you rule the world, and many readers react: newsletter, May 7, 2021

May 9, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: newsletter.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,374) on Friday, May 7, 2021.

No one, I hope, would accuse me of being an arch-conservative when it comes to the language, although I might have those tendencies when it comes to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. With diction (the choice of words and phrases in writing), I tend to be a little less rigid.

Still, the way certain words are used does bother me. Take the word “crisis.” Journalists love this word — it’s short and has a lot of impact — and they tend to use it whenever there is a “situation” and especially when there is a hint of conflict. Thus we have everything from a “crisis of conscience” to a “crisis at the border.” Rarely does what is being reported on actually rise to the level of a crisis (a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger).

So, the next time you hear something described as a “crisis,” ask yourself if the situation involves trouble or danger, and if so, how widespread is its impact. You may decide it’s not a crisis after all.

I hope that your weekend is crisis-free.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,356 subscribers and had a 27.5 percent open rate; 4 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.

Billy Wilder, a journalist before he was a screenwriter or director

The great movie director Billy Wilder — whose six Academy Awards rank him among the best who have ever stood behind a camera and told the people in front of it what to do – was once asked what was the accomplishment that gave him the most satisfaction.

The answer from Wilder, being Wilder, was a surprise. The accomplishment that gave him the greatest pride, he said, was being the answer to a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle. He had accomplished that not once, but twice, “17 across and 21 down.”

The answer was not just whimsical or eccentric. Instead, it harkened back to Wilder’s youthful days in Vienna and Berlin where, with an overabundance of energy, he worked as a newspaper reporter, arts reviewer, and crossword puzzle creator. 

Wilder was born as Samuel Wilder in 1906 into a family of Polish Jews. He got the nickname “Billie” from his mother and later changed it to “Billy” when he immigrated to America. Wilder grew up in Vienna and had no interest in formal education or in learning the family business. Becoming a journalist allowed him to be a full participant in Vienna’s exciting and raucous street life.

Wilder was a glib and easy talker, and he could interview anyone and just about everyone came his way. He once bragged that he had interviewed Sigmund Freud, his associate Alfred Adler, the playwright Alfred Schnitzer, and the composer Richard Strauss, all in the same morning.

A visit to Vienna by the American jazz band led by Paul Whiteman provided Wilder the opportunity not only to listen to and review high-quality music and to meet more of the rich, talented, and famous, but also to change his own circumstances. Whiteman liked Wilder so much that he invited Wilder to travel with the band to Berlin.

In 1926 Berlin was everything that Vienna was, only more so. Wilder continued to meet and make friends easily, and he attracted the attention of the influential people who recognized his talent and energy and who gave him a helping hand on his way. Wilder wrote incisively about the people he met, the events he saw, and the things he experienced. His journalism was informative and well-structured.

Berlin was home to a thriving and well-regarded movie industry, something that Wilder was drawn to almost immediately. After several uncredited ghostwriting gigs, Wilder received sole credit in 1928 as the screenwriter for the movie Der Tuefeldsreporter (Hell of a Reporter). The movie was about a peripatetic journalist in Berlin, not unlike Wilder himself, who also had a cameo role in the film. It was, as they say, the start of something big.

Two years later in 1930, Wilder wrote the screenplay for Menschen on Sonntag (People on Sunday). Much about that movie foreshadowed the characters and the scenes he would use in many of his Hollywood productions. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Wilder, who is Jewish, left for Paris. There, he made his debut as a film director with the movie Mauvaise Graine in 1934. Wilder had found his calling, and before that movie was released, he abandoned journalism in Paris and relocated himself to Hollywood.

It took Wilder less than a decade to establish himself has a major talent in the film industry, both as a writer and a director. His status has since risen to that of a legend. The memorable films that he produced, the screenplays he wrote, and the stars he developed and worked with are all too long for a single list.

Wilder always believed that a good movie started with a well-written script. The writing should fit the style of the director and the actors who were working with it.

A compilation of Billy Wilder’s journalism, Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, has recently been published and is available to those who want to know more about how this man became such a giant of the film industry.

Heads and Tales podcast: Marguerite Higgins

My latest literary and artistic efforts have come to fruition with the publication of a new book: Heads and Tales: Caricatures and Stories of the Famous, the Infamous, and the Just Plain Interesting. The book is now in paperback and ebook form, but also accompanied by something else: a podcast series.

This week’s episode is about Marguerite Higgins and No Place for a Woman.

The book is currently on Amazon and can be accessed with this link:

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

What happens when you rule just about everything

What happens to a nation that becomes the largest, most far-reaching empire in the history of the world, making the Romans look like pikers by comparison? Things start to go downhill, that’s what.

That is where Great Britain found itself as the 19th century turned into the 20th. Much of that century had been peaceful, thanks in great part to Britain’s imposing her will through a vast network of colonies and dominions. Her huge navy “ruled the waves,” in her own words.

But with the new century, Great Britain found that things were coming unglued. A new industrial power across the Atlantic, the United States of America, was on the rise. Germany, jealous of Britain’s hegemony, was becoming more warlike. British colonies themselves — for example, South Africa — were restless and wanting to go their own way.

All of this is to subject of a new book by historian Simon Heffer titled The Age of Decadence. It was recently reviewed in the New York Times by Richard Aldous, who wrote:

“What fools we were,” King George V told his prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, in 1930, looking back to the era before World War I. In the context of the wartime catastrophe his generation had delivered, the king may have had a point. That was the time of Rudyard Kipling’s “long recessional” and A. E. Housman’s “land of lost content.” Arthur Balfour, prime minister from 1902 to 1905, lamented “some process of social degeneration” that “may conveniently be distinguished by the name of ‘decadence.’” Joseph Chamberlain, the most charismatic politician of the late-Victorian age, put it more pithily. “The Weary Titan,” he said in 1902, “staggers under the too vast orb of its fate.” Source: Britain at the Turn of the 20th Century Was Dealing With a Lot, Badly – The New York Times

And there is a message for Americans in this bit of history, according to the review:

For many Americans today, perhaps fearing late-stage decadence and their own Weary Titan, this story may strike close to home. For in Simon Heffer’s telling, the history of Britain from 1880 to 1914 is one in which “a nation so recently not just great, but the greatest power the world had ever known, sustained in its greatness by a rule of law and parliamentary democracy, had begun its decay.”

The message is not all gloom and doom, however, as you will see if you read the entire review.

The many wars of colonial America

You may remember something from your American history class about the French and Indian War, the one that preceded the American Revolution. While that war gets included in most history courses, the three smaller wars that preceded it during the last part of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century often go unmentioned. So, we will mention them here: King William’s War (1688-1697), Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), and King George’s War (1744-1748).

Each of these wars pitted English colonists against their French counterparts in Canada with Native American tribes often in the mix. They were little more than outpost skirmishes in the larger wars that were taking place in Europe, but locally they were often vicious and brutal. The ultimate result was the by the 1760s the French had given up all of their claims to any territory in Canada.

One of the things that resulted from the fighting in King William’s War was that Massachusetts issued the first paper money in America. We will have that story next week.

Verse and Vision: Poems and painting from a couple of years ago

(I shared this list last month in a newsletter but later found out that none of the links in the original version of the newsletter work. I have tried to correct that with the list below.)

A couple of years ago a colleague at the Blount County Public Library asked me to record a poem because April is National Poetry Month. One thing led to another, and by September, I had made about 20 video recordings of poems recited as voiceovers for watercolor paintings that had some relationship to the poem or the poet.

Before April 2021 gets away from us, I thought it might be a good idea to reprise that list in honor of this year’s National Poetry Month, and I hereby invite you to revisit any of those videos with the links below:

Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abby by William Wordsworth

The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

1492 and The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The House of Rest by Julia Ward Howe

Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott

Ole Bert: In His Own Words by Bert Garner

In the Highlands and Consolation by Robert Louis Stevenson

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

The Old Clock on the Stairs by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Evening Star and Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

My Heart and I by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Most of these videos were recorded out of doors on a small porch at the side of my house. I did that because the natural light is better than anything I can set up inside. Now that the weather is turning warmer, I may revive this Verse and Vision series. Any suggestions about poems or paintings would be greatly appreciated.


Vic C.: Hey Jim, two things about you violinist.  First, she reminds me of someone who should be strutting with the Mummers on New Years Day in Philly (my hometown) next year.  Secondly, unless I’m mistaken, her center of gravity seems to indicate an imminent reversal of fortune: she’s gonna fall over, backwards.  It’s not that I’ve got a fixation on derrieres, it’s just that among my many experiences (most now only seen in retrospect), when I was on the slopes instructing beginner skiing, I always made sure that everyone understood that where their posteriors were positioned would pretty much determine whether or not they would fall and how fast they’d go.  It’s been many years since I last went skiing and I know I’ll never do so again, but my body still remembers the ‘proper’ position when I’m not on a level surface.

Eric S.: Your mention of The Naked and the Dead struck a nerve with me. I wrote a letter to Norman Mailer years ago saying his WWII novel was important to me as a future journalist. It helped me understand how war changes people for better or worse. He wrote back, thanking me for my letter. Thanks for reminding me and others of The Naked and the Dead.

Sandra G.: Yes, gardening is yet to happen here too & YES, it certainly is rewarding to see fruits of one’s labor– spiritual even. Eleanor Roosevelt was certainly a woman to pay attention to & admire!! 

Sheila P.: You are so right about seeing the seeds sprout! It’s so exciting!

Curtis D.: The old folks said if it thunders in February it will frost on that day in April.

Dan C.: The US Army is ALWAYS right. Even when they are wrong, they are right.
Amy L.: As always, I learned several things by reading this week’s newsletter. I’m a big fan of First Lady ER, so her radio speech script about entering the war was most interesting! I can’t imagine any other First Lady feeling confident enough (or powerful enough) to be the first to announce such momentous news. I was also intrigued by your article about Norman Mailer….such a gifted writer with lots of personal troubles, it seems. Thanks for the enlightenment! 
Vince V.: I will always wonder if Mailer would have had the success he enjoyed without his brashness and public persona as a literary rebel. I read NAKED AND THE DEAD when I was too young and EXECUTIONER’S SONG when I was searching for journalism in all the wrong places. Mailer certainly seemed to enjoy being Mailer.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Foul ball!

Best quote of the week:

There is a beauty in discovery. There is mathematics in music, a kinship of science and poetry in the description of nature, and exquisite form in a molecule. Attempts to place different disciplines in different camps are revealed as artificial in the face of the unity of knowledge. All literate men are sustained by the philosopher, the historian, the political analyst, the economist, the scientist, the poet, the artisan, and the musician. Glenn T. Seaborg, scientist, Nobel laureate (1912-1999)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, 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: The Army gets it right, Eleanor gets an audience, and the love triangle scandal of the 1870s: newsletter, April 30, 2021

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