Miss Kitty: Amanda Blake’s Cheetahs

Born in Buffalo New York on 20th February 1929, Beverly Louise Neill was a descendent of Kate Berry, the celebrated American Revolutionary War heroine, who warned the Continental Army that the British were approaching shortly before the Battle of Cowpens in 1871. Relocating to California with her parents, she started a course at Pomona College, but decided to quit a year later to pursue a career as an actress after becoming involved with a local community theatre.

At the age of 20, having changed her name to Amanda Blake and touted as ‘the young Greer Garson,’ she won her first movie role in Stars in My Crown (1950) a drama about a Civil War Veteran’s who becomes the gospel minister of Walesburg, a lawless town where he struggles to gain acceptance. In 1950, she also featured in Duchess of Idaho with Esther Williams and Lena Horne, as well as the film noir Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard. A string of minor film and television appearances ensued in productions such as Scarlet Angel (1952), Sabre Jet (1953), A Star is Born (1954), The Glass Slipper (1955) and High Society (1955). It seemed that in spite of her feline beauty and seductive husky voice, Blake was never to be a major leading lady or a huge Hollywood star.

Above: Gunsmoke – Miss Kitty Season 7 Episode 3 (1961)

In 1955, she accepted a part on a new television series called Gunsmoke. Originally a radio programme, set in Dodge City, Kansas during the 1870s, Blake was cast as Miss Kitty Russell, the feisty dancer and later, the proprietor, of the Long Branch Saloon. She would appear on small screens across America as Miss Kitty for nineteen seasons until she asked to be written out in 1974, remarking that, ‘nineteen years is a hell of long time for someone to be stuck behind a bar.’ The show ran for one more season after Blake’s departure, with the final episode airing on 31st March 1975. Continue reading

Never Forgotten: Tommy Ward’s Elephant

‘Done up like Tommy Ward’s elephant,’ is a common expression in Sheffield. Used to describe someone laden like a beast of burden, the idiom dates back nearly a hundred years, to the days of the local scrap metal merchant and ship breaker Thomas Ward, and Lizzie, his rather unusual employee. As the head of Thomas W. Ward Ltd, one of his company’s most prestigious tasks had been the demolition of the SS Majestic. Built by the White Star Line in 1890 and captained by Edward Smith, who went down with his new ship, the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912, she was turned into scrap at Ward’s Morecambe yard in 1914. A family business, Ward’s brother Joseph was also involved, and was appointed Chairman of the Scrap Advisory Committee to the Ministry of Munitions during the war.

In 1916, having given up his horses for the war effort, Ward hired Lizzie from William Sedgwick, who was struggling to look after the animals of his popular travelling menagerie, after a number of his employees had been conscripted. Indian elephant Lizzie was one of the show’s main attractions, but on a practical level, Ward’s need for her was greater – her immense strength enabled her to undertake the workload of three horses.

For those who had never seen a real elephant before, the sight of Lizzie lugging scrap metal and munitions across the city was an unusual spectacle. However, she soon became a well-known figure, with stories appearing about her exploits in the press, including the occasion when she was accused of breaking a window to steal a pie that had been left to cool, or the time when she was alleged to have pinched and then eaten a cap from the head of a cheeky schoolboy. In February 1916, an article about Lizzie featured in The World’s Fair newspaper claiming that some of the city’s remaining horses, who had crossed her path, ‘were startled by this unexpected ‘dilution’ of their labour, and sniffed and shied as the elephant passed.’ Continue reading

Wings of Peace: Sadako Sasaki’s Cranes

The 6th August 1945 started out like any other sunny morning in the Japanese city of Hiroshima in the Chūgoku region of Honshū, the largest of the country’s four main islands. Hiroshima’s 350,000 residents went about their business, ignorant of the fact that the city had been chosen as the target for ‘Little Boy,’ the American codename for the first atomic bomb to be used as a weapon of war. Seconds after Little Boy was dropped, the once bustling metropolis became a scene of apocalyptic carnage.

It is estimated that up to 80,000 people were killed instantly, with a further 70,000 suffering horrific injuries. The majority of Hiroshima’s buildings were reduced to rubble. Dr Michihiko Hachiya who witnessed the dreadful aftermath and kept a diary of his experiences, which would later be published in 1955, remembered how, ‘There were the shadowy forms of people, some of whom looked like walking ghosts. Others moved as though in pain, like scarecrows, their arms held out from their bodies with forearms and hands dangling.’

Above: British Pathé footage of the bombing of Hiroshima (1945)

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Fighting Forms: The Expressions Of Franz Marc

The son of Wilhelm Marc, a successful landscape painter and Professor at the Munich Akademie der Bildenden Künste, and his devout Calvinist wife Sophie, Franz Marc was born in Munich on 8th February 1880. Unsurprisingly, given his background, the younger Marc was fascinated by art from an early age and had seemingly inherited his father’s formidable talent.  Though he had hoped to study theology and become a minister, in accordance with his mother’s wishes, instead Marc chose to read philosophy at university. However, after a year of compulsory military service, a rethinking of his future options, led him to turn his attention back to his first love – art. At the age of 20, he entered the Akademie der Bildenden Künste and his tutors included the renowned illustrator, Wilhelm von Diez, who was to have a profound influence upon Marc’s own work.

In 1903, Marc spent several months in Paris, where he encountered some of the greatest names in Impressionism, but it was the Post-Impressionists, such as Gauguin and van Gogh, who truly seized his imagination. Returning to Munich in late 1903, Marc found his own studio in Schwabing, a bohemian part of the city. It was there that he met the art dealer, Annette von Eckardt, and the two quickly started an affair, despite her being married with two children and nine years his senior. In fact, von Eckardt and her husband, a respected professor of Sanskrit and Indology, acted as Marc’s patrons; but her volatile relationship with the fledgling artist lasted only two years, during which time Marc suffered from bouts of depression and his creativity was adversely affected.

Shortly after the end of his involvement with von Eckardt, Marc befriended two female painters who were both connected to the Women’s Academy of Munich Artist’s Association, Marie Schnür, a 36 year-old teacher there, and her pupil Maria Franck. Attracted to both women, in May 1906, Marc persuaded Marie and Maria to go with him to Kochel am See in Upper Bavaria, to spend the summer painting. Not only did they paint, they also engaged in a ménage à trois, with Marc capturing both his lovers on canvas as they sat gazing at the municipality’s glorious scenery. Continue reading