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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Hollywood and Broadway director Rouben Mamoulian is the subject of a new book by Milwaukee's Dave Luhrssen.

New books offer new looks at Mamoulian, Jensen and the Civil War


For all the words written, all the energy expended on telling the story of Hollywood in all its richness, the life of director Rouben Mamoulian has been little more than a footnote at best.

Enter Milwaukee writer Dave Lurhssen, whose biography, "Mamoulian: Life On Stage and Screen," has just been published in hardcover by the University Press of Kentucky.

The book traces the life and work of the Armenian immigrant from Russia in the context of innovations in film from the 1920s through the 1950s.

"I think I became aware of Mamoulian through my ties with the Armenian community, and realized that here was a guy who directed the Broadway premieres of three of the most outstanding (Broadway) musicals – 'Porgy & Bess,' 'Oklahoma!,' 'Carousel' – and several movies any film buff is familiar with – 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,' 'Queen Christina,' 'Mark of Zorro' – and yet, hardly anyone knows his name.

"Mamoulian's story was a gap in the history of film. I wanted to fill it."

What Luhrssen discovered was that Mamoulian was among the first directors to successful transition from the silent era to "talkies." He also found that although Mamoulian was respected – he has a star on the Walk of Fame – he rarely stepped into the limelight. Outside of reporting on an affair with Greta Garbo, the tabloids generally ignored Mamoulian.

He also dug into the politics that affected Hollywood during the Cold War.

"The final addition to the book was early last year," says Luhrssen, "when the FBI finally provided me with what apparently is only a portion of their file on Mamoulian. Fortunately, he was neither an FBI informant nor a Communist Party member – that would have thrown off the whole book! But it was fascinating to read the extent to which the FBI spied on anyone who had any remote ties to the Soviet Union."

Though Lurhssen began the book after successfully pitching it to the publisher around 2007, he says it was a project that unfolded across the years since.

"The Mamoulian book was written in stages," he recalls. "Once they gave the green light, I wrote another chapter, then had to put it aside because of other projects. It was written like that, with the writing of each chapter widely separated in time. I was pleasantly surprised when I read the galley that all the chapters flow together."

Some other new books focusing of Wisconsin subjects include:

William H. Tishler, professor emeritus of landscape architecture at UW-Madison, has collected some of the writings of acclaimed landscape architects and conservationists, Jens Jensen, in a new hardcover published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

"Jens Jensen: Writings Inspired by Nature" contains three dozen Jensen essays that solidify his position as one of the great naturalists and landscape architects, especially in the upper Midwest. Included are pieces that discuss his best-known projects: Chicago's West Park System, the Indiana Dunes and The Clearing in Door County.

Another essay, published in 1940 in The Capital Times, argues for the protection of Devil's Lake.

"Devils lake and its surroundings are one of the few outstanding monuments in Mid-America, and as such belongs to all the people of this great Midwestern empire."

Bless you, Jens Jensen.

Also from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press comes "The Wicked Rebellion: Wisconsin Civil War Soldiers Write Home," out in hardcover.

Edited by John Zimm, who works for the press, the letters in this lovely 214-page book were drawn from the WHS' Quiner Collection of more than 11,000 Civil War letters. The collection was created during the war, when Edwin B. Quiner subscribed to every newspaper in Wisconsin and enlisted his daughters to help clip and save letters from soldiers published in the papers.

The letters included help illustrate how the war affected the North, what life was like in Civil War camps, reports from battles and thoughts on slavery and emancipations. They bring the bloodiest era of American history right to Wisconsin's doorstep.

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