Charlie Chaplin Crashes my Interview with Pola Negri

I’m at the café with Pola Negri, the femme fatale from the Kingdom of Poland who appeared in German films such as Die Augen der Mumie (1918) and Mad Love (1921) before she made her first Hollywood film in 1922. Charlie Chaplin joins us at the table.

“I met Charlie at the Palais Heinroth,” Pola tells me.

I know the place well as it’s the swankiest hot spot in Berlin. Pola says that Charlie entered unrecognized, conspicuously underdressed among all the swells in evening dress.

Charlie remembers it like this:

“I was guided by the Palais Heinroth manager to a table located at the most obscure part of the room and I’m surprised by a slap on the back and a voice calling out my name.”

It’s Al Kaufman of the Lansky Corporation.

“Come over to our table,” says the manager of the Famous Players studio in Berlin. “Pola Negri wants to meet you.”

Negri laughs at the memory.

“A little man with a sad sensitive face fought his way up to our table. Were it not for his odd appearance, so dapper and so pathetic. He had such a strange physiognomy, with tiny feet and an enormous head that made him seem top-heavy. The only physically attractive thing about him were his hands, which were never without a cigarette.”

“Pola was so beautiful,” Charlie remembers. “Beautiful jet-black hair, white, even teeth and wonderful coloring. She was the centre of attraction.”

The silent screen star blushes.

“What a voice she has,” he says, traveling back in time to the moment. “Her mouth speaks so prettily the German language. Her voice has a soft, mellow quality, with charming inflections. Offered a drink, she clinks my glass and offers her only English words, ‘Jazz boy, Charlie.’”

On Christmas Eve of 1922, Charlie gave Pola a large diamond that he intended to set within an engagement ring. However, in March, he announced to the papers he was too poor to marry her and she ended their engagement.

The curious can hear more about “jazz boy Charlie” by going to Stan Laurel crashes my interview with Charlie Chaplin


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Flowers for Jean-Dominique

I want to write…but…

I’ve heard those words spoken in that configuration many times over the years; from friends and from aspiring writers and, if I’m to be completely honest, from my own lips. But, they have no authority here and they are as evanescent as yesterday’s blank page. The words are meaningless in light of the extraordinary accomplishment of the dead Frenchman that is buried in front of me.

I’m standing before the grave of Jean-Dominique Bauby at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris—a journal in one hand and a pot of chrysanthemums in the other—paying my respects to this uncommon writer. It is a wistful yet joyous celebration of le Jour des Morts and le Jour des Mots—the Day of the Dead and the Day of the Words.

I open my journal and read the words I’ve transcribed into it, taken from the only book written by the man in the ground at my feet.

Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day. My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible diving Bell holds my whole body prisoner. My room emerges slowly from the gloom. I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children’s drawings, posters, the little tin cyclist sent by friend the day before the Paris-Roubaix bike race, and the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined these past six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock.

These are elegantly descriptive sentences, almost Hemingway-esque in their simplicity, and they come from a man enduring circumstances that have driven others to the edge of terror and tumbling into the abyss of insanity. 

No need to wonder very long where I am, or to recall that the life I once knew was snuffed out Friday, the eighth of December, last year.

The year was 1995 and I was a thirty-one-year-old Brooklyn playwright and professional storyteller for children in Manhattan. In the summers, I taught English and drama at an American boarding school in the Italian region of Switzerland—and I had been in Paris just a few months before the events written about by my writing muse. I had also been to the Père-Lachaise, a regular haunt, to drink a bottle of wine in the company of Oscar Wilde.

However, my life and my struggles at the time were nothing compared to the existential nightmare of Jean-Dominique Bauby. My brain and body were intact.

Up until then, I had never even heard of the brainstem. I’ve since learned that it is an essential component of our internal computer, the inseparable link between the brain and the spinal cord. I was brutally introduced to this vital piece of anatomy when a cerebrovascular accident took my brain stem out of action.

The accident that Bauby writes about:

In the past, it was known as a massive stroke, and you simply died. But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony. You survive, but you survive with what is so aptly known as “locked-in syndrome.” Paralyzed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move.

But, how…how was Jean-Dominique able to communicate the words you’ve just read? 

In my case, blinking my left eyelid is my only means of communication.


Of course, the party chiefly concerned is the last to hear the good news. I myself had twenty days of deep coma and several weeks of grogginess and somnolence before I truly appreciated the extent of the damage. I did not fully awake until the end of January. When I finally surfaced I was in room 119 of the Naval Hospital at Berck-sur-Mer, on the French Channel coast–the same Room 119, infused now with the first light of day, from which I write. 

Again, one wonders with a wonderment beyond the pale: How did he write these words I’ve transcribed?

Enough rambling. My main task now is to compose the first of these bedridden travel notes so that I shall be ready when my publisher’s emissary arrives to take my dictation, letter by letter.

He writes these words by dictating his memoir, one letter at a time, to his clever and efficient conversational co-conspirator, Claude Mendibil, who lists the letters in accordance with their frequency in the French language.

In my head I churn over every sentence ten times, delete a word, add an adjective, and learn my text by heart, paragraph by paragraph. 

By a fortunate stroke of luck and intuition, Bauby’s physical therapist noticed that he could blink his left eyelid—his paralyzed right eyelid had been sewed shut to prevent his eyeball from drying up—and she had devised a communication system called partner-assisted scanning, which utilized his singular muscular ability to dictate a beautiful memoir called Le Scaphandre et le Papillon. 

And, what are those travel notes of which Bauby babbles about? They’re excursions of the imagination, of course—the only recourse for a traveler physically bound and rooted in place like an oak tree. But, his thoughts branch out, stretching beyond the boundaries of place, allowing his mind, which he likens to a diving bell, to take flight like a butterfly.

You can wander off in space and time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court. You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and ambitions.

Ten months and two hundred thousand blinks later he completes his magnificient memoir and promptly expires from pneumonia on 7 March 1997, two days after his book is published.

I set the pot of chrysanthemums on his grave, move to a nearby bench, open my journal, and write like there are no excuses.

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On the delusion of money equaling happiness…

“We need to deconstruct the fantasy we have around the equation of happiness and money.”

I’m speaking with Aaron Kipnis, author of The Midas Complex: How Money Drives Us Crazy and What We Can Do About It.

“There’s a strong belief in America that if some money makes you happy more money will make you happier,” Kipnis says. “But, that’s a drug addict’s fantasy. It’s not really pragmatic or even true.”

“One hit makes me feel good,” I say. “So two hits will make me feel even better.”

“Exactly,” he says. “This is the path that a lot of Americans are on with money.”

“I’ve been poor all my life,” I say. “Basically, struggling to make ends meet paycheck to paycheck. It seems to me that more money would make me a lot happier.”

“If you’re poor, more money will make you happy,” he says. “Because, when you’re poor you don’t have adequate housing, food, medicine, transportation—and you are possibly locked into work that isn’t very rewarding.”

It’s a truth I cannot deny.

“Moving up the scale to middle class will increase your overall happiness,” he continues. “But moving up past that won’t. It may expand your range of opportunities and bring certain kinds of momentary happiness, but it won’t increase your overall well being.”

“So, what does increase my overall happiness,” I ask.

“What increases your overall happiness—above what Erich Fromm calls the pleasant sufficiency of needs—is your relationships with people that you love, meaningful work, meaningful engagements with others…all the things that the creatives know about how to be happy and why they’ve chosen creative lives over lives that are just dedicated to making money. But you do need enough money for that pleasant sufficiency of needs, because poverty in of itself is potentially injurious to your mental and physical health.

I think about my counterculture roots as a boy and my choice to live a bohemian lifestyle as an adult, which isn’t working for me now as a parent. 

I want to have economic stability and job security for my daughter, but the nature of my work precludes it.

“It used to be possible to live a bohemian lifestyle in America, a more creative life, but I think that’s more difficult to do than it was in past eras because of how economics has been structured to try to channel everyone into high productivity.”

“And, it’s a trap,” I say. “Because that economic model seems to foster a working class of wage slaves that claim to never have time to do anything but their jobs—and, even then, most people on that hamster wheel (if you’ll pardon the cliché) feel pressured to work extra hours to maintain their job security.”

“We’re the most time impoverished people on the planet,” Kipnis agrees. “We have less free time. Less time for love, less time to be with our families, less time for reflection, less time to dream, less time to sleep. We’ve dropped off the list of the top ten happy nations in the world. We’re one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but not one of the happiest.”

“So, this is where the deconstruction of the fantasy comes in?” 

“Yes. Deconstructing in our minds that the main road to happiness is increasing wealth. And, we have to stop selling off the assets, the real wealth—the psychological, emotional, creative, spiritual, well-being.

“All those things the artistic, creative, bohemian types tell us are important.”

“The creatives have it right: Live a beautiful life, a meaningful life, a life that’s full of intimate relationships with others, with nature, and with your own body.

“So, how do you do that in a society that is saying the only way to be happy is to sacrifice those things so that you can have more money?” 

You have to bust that myth. That’s the first step, kind of breaking that spell—and that’s what I call the Midas complex: That you just have to keep having more and more.

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To be continued…
This essay will be written in 336 word installments until it is finished.

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Aaron Kipnis, Ph.D. is author of The Midas Complex: How Money Drives Us Crazy and What We Can Do About It (2013), Knights Without Armor (1991/2004), coauthor of Gender War, Gender Peace (1994) and What Women and Men Really Want (1995), and a contributor to many anthologies and journals. His most recent book is Angry Young Men: How Parents, Teachers, and Counselors Can Help “Bad Boys” Become Good Men. Work in progress is about the psychology of poverty. Dr. Kipnis is core faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute where he has taught for 17 years. Outside the classroom, Aaron is a featured expert for national news media and an advisor to organizations such as the Little Hoover Commission’s Task Force on Youth Crime and Violence, The Center for Psychology and Social Change, The California Youth Authority and The Harvard School of Education.


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The Dissident [Redux]

I was chatting yesterday with my childhood friend, Jacob Pander, who has re-released a full-color graphic novel that he and his brother, Arnold, had written and illustrated twenty years ago, and originally released in print form in glorious money saving black-and-white.

The Dissident—which is being released online in daily increments throughout 2017—can be viewed at The Dissident Daily.

A dissident is a person who opposes official policy, especially a policy made by an authoritarian state, and the remastering of this graphic novel by the Pander brothers couldn’t come at a better time—as most of liberal America is preparing for a regime change that appears to have many of the qualities of a fascist state. 

The Dissident Opt Out – Synopsis

On New Year’s Eve 2032, HANS NOBEL, a journalist with a photographic memory, finds himself at the center of a political uprising when an activist movement called ECHO rebels against an oppressive system that uses personal online information to oppress its citizens. 

When the national election is cancelled, the public is fed up and join the ECHO’ activists who have “opted out” of social technology. Echo plans an uprising timed to coincide with a hack of the system’s data hub called “The Nucleus” where all personal information is stored, in order to ensure the “Opt Outers” identities will remain anonymous and safe from reprisal. 

Hans is tasked to hack and destroy the Nucleus’. But as forces close in Hans must become a human back-up-drive, running into the heart of the uprising in Times Square to deliver the code to Fathom and save the Opt Outers from mass persecution.

I have most of the original black-and-white run of Triple X, which I bought at Forbidden Planet in New York as individual issues in the nineties, and I’m wondering: Have you created new content or is The Dissident purely a colorized re-release with a name change? 

We’ve actually done a remastering to the original artwork as well. Mainly cleaning up and streamlining the figure inks. Arnold has also added more narration to the original book based on concepts and character development established in issue zero. We are also talking about adding some additional pages throughout the original story that keep the NYC story established in chapter zero linked to the Amsterdam story. These we still need to draw. The comic was a large endeavor originally and it still is!

I’m confused about the release year. I was in NYC from 1992-1995 but you say the story was released in 1997.

The graphic novel was released on January 1st, 1997. The original series in ’94. 

Whew! Memory intact. 

I know the feeling.

Are all the pages released online this year new or will some be the remastered pages from the ’97 release? Also, are you releasing a full-page every day for 336 days or just those one-panel and split-panel pages you sent to me a few days ago? 

We will be releasing the online as panel and split panels. The format looks better online. The first pages released will be the all new pages from chapter zero Opt Out, and then will be followed up with the original Amsterdam story. We will probably release the original in the panel/split panel format as well.

Serialized, like Stan Lee did with his Spider-Man run in the newspapers. Will the entire story be released in print and digital form before the end of the 336 day online run?

So the 336 hook is really connected to the original GN printing. Eventually we want to collect it into print version. We will be approaching publishers once we’ve had the online version out for awhile. Our hope is to build a new following behind the book via the daily release. In away it is a social media publishing experiment.

I see. So, does that mean the publishing rights have reverted back to you and Arnold?

Yes. We were able to get all the original art scans from Dark Horse and have been remastering those original files. We had originally planned on calling it The Dissident so it’s great to have it back in our hands to present it the way we’d originally envisioned it.

So, I imagine the Kickstarter crowd funding gave you the financial freedom to work on this project without losing out on income you could be making by doing something else.

Yes, it gave us the ability to dive into the work and helped subsidize releasing it for free online. However with the addition of chapter zero we loaded on more labor than originally planned so have had to generate other income streams throughout the year to keep the production on track. It’s been worth it though, as Opt Out really sets the emotional stage for our protagonist and also addresses the current social technology landscape we are all living in now.

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To be continued…   

The Pander Brothers – BIO

Jacob and Arnold Pander are graphic novelists and filmmakers who write and direct feature films, commercial spots, and music videos. Their award-winning films have played in festivals around the globe and their music videos have been featured on MTV.

The Pander Brothers’ original graphic novels have been published by Image, Vertigo, Dark Horse Comics, and Oni Press, and they’ve worked on franchise projects for Marvel and DC Comics, including Batman and X-Men. The Pander’s visual storytelling has been nominated for the Eisner and Manning awards for groundbreaking artwork in the comics medium. Their published works include the titles Batman: City of Light and Batman: Apocalypse Girl—as well as 63 other comics and four graphic novels. In 2015, they published their critically- acclaimed graphic novel, GirlFIEND, called a “visual feast” by CBR (Comic Book Resources). 

Dubbed “a power duo of creativity” by SOMA Magazine, the multi-faceted Pander brothers also produce and direct films, shorts, and commercials through their production company, Collaborator Studios. The brother’s award-winning debut feature film, “Selfless,” starring Mo Gallini (“2 Fast 2 Furious,” “End of Days”) premiered at the 2009 Comic Con International in San Diego. Among other honors, their collaborative and individual film and video works have been featured on MTV, screened at the prestigious London Institute for Contemporary Art, taken top prizes at the New York and Chicago Underground Film Festivals, and toured Europe and Japan. Their fashion-centric artwork was featured on “America’s Next Top Model,” and they were featured digital illustrators for the Wacom Intuos Stylus 2 campaign. The brothers recently played guest hosts for “The Comics Trip” on the ComicCon HQ web channel.


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Stan Laurel crashes my interview with Charlie Chaplin

I’m in a café with Charlie Chaplin and he’s regaling me with one version of his history. He says he was born into poverty amid the squalor of South London on 16 April 1889—the same year that the Moulin Rouge opened in Paris. Charlie’s birth took place in a gypsy caravan as it was traveling through Birmingham. His mother, Hannah, would never tell Charlie who his father was or if she even knew.

The funny thing about this interview is that Chaplin’s lips are moving but no sound is coming out. Of course, he’s a silent movie star, I should have expected a dumb show. Fortunately, there are subtitles in my mind.

Chaplin started as a music hall performer among comics and mimes and magicians and mesmerists, performing before booze soaked audiences that watched the acts through a haze of tobacco smoke. At eighteen, he joined Fred Karno’s burlesque of mimes and acrobats. 

Karno, a theater impresario and comedian, was known as the father of the custard-pie-in-the-face gag—and Charlie was still with Fred Karno’s Army in the autumn of 1910 when the touring company left Southampton aboard the SS Cairnrona and crossed the Atlantic bound for Canada.

Not surprisingly, a piano crashes through the ceiling above and crushes our table, depositing an unkempt Stan Laurel at our feet. I’m reminded of Slim Pickens riding an atomic bomb at the end of Doctor Strangelove.

Stan dusts the ceiling plaster from his suit and says, “I was Charlie’s understudy and room-mate for the tour. When we reached the shores of Quebec, we were all on the deck of the [converted cattle boat], sitting, watching the land in the mist. Suddenly, Charlie ran to the railing, took off his hat, waved it and shouted: 

“America, I am coming to conquer you! Every man, woman and child shall have my name on their lips—Charles Spencer Chaplin!”

We all booed him affectionately and he bowed to us very formally and sat down again.”

The curious can hear more about Hannah’s wayward son by going to Charlie Chaplin crashes my interview with Pola Negri.


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Words in Revision