Degas, Dancers and Phrenology

Little Dancer of Fourteen Years

Sookie St. James is like most chefs, passionate about what she does,  so much that she hates conforming to the wishes of her vegetarian customers. In Haunted Leg, she begins to rant;

“You don’t dictate to an artist, you don’t tell him what to do. I mean, no one ever walked up to Degas and said, “Hey, pal, easy with the dancers, enough already. Draw a nice fruit bowl once in a while, will ya?”

As Sookie mentions, Degas is best known for his numerous portraits of ballerinas. If you were to look at the walls of an average ballet studio, you would probably find at least one Degas.

Although typically known as a painter, Edgar Degas also explored sculpting. His only sculpture shown in exhibition is The Little Dancer of Fourteen which is an excellent example of the theory of phrenology.

Phrenology chart mapping out the different aspects of personality

Phrenology (sometimes known as Cerebral physiology) is the “science” of head reading, where it was thought that personality could be determined by the physical features of the subject; specifically, the raised bumps on one’s forehead. Phrenology was first developed by Dr. Franz Joseph Gall in the 18th-century. Gall’s research was the result of numerous brain dissections and traits he noticed from classmates.

Although phrenology was thought to tell whether a subject had better language skills or musical abilities, it also was believed to find predispositions for criminal behaviour. This where Degas’ statue gets more interesting. The subject, Marie de Goethem, was known as an “opera rat” who became a ballerina to end the impoverished life she was born into.

Marie’s facial features were exaggerated to reflect the phrenology teachings of the time. Her nose was more angular, and her stance denotes criminal behaviour which caused outrage upon its exhibition.

Modern critics note the similarities between phrenology, racism and classism. Pointing out that the characteristics of criminal predispositions are commonly found among people of colour.



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Dawn Powell: The Unknown American Writer

When asked who your favourite writer is, you might say Hemingway, Dickens, Shakespeare, or any number of infamous authors. But, one that wouldn’t be commonly mentioned would be one of Rory’s favourite authors, Dawn Powell.

In Help Wanted, Rory recommends a book to her friend, Lane, which sparks this conversation:

“Dawn Powell, I’ve never heard of her.”

“Nobody has, which is a shame because she wrote 16 amazing novels, 9 plays and there are some who actually claim that it was Powell who made the jokes that Dorothy Parker got credit for.”

Dawn Powell is not a common name to most readers. She’s what is known as a “writers’ writer” – someone obscure that as Gore Vidal once wrote, “always just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion.”

Dawn Powell and her husband Joseph Gousha

Powell was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio in 1896. Dawn’s life was forever changed when her mother died when Dawn was only seven years old, and her father remarried a few years later to an abusive woman named Sabra Stearns. After her stepmother burned some of her notebooks in 1910, Dawn Powell moved in with her Aunt Orpha who encouraged her literary aspirations.

The Diaries of Dawn Powell written by Tim Page

Before her death in 1965 Dawn had completed 16 novels, ten plays, dozens of short stories, and been nominated for a National Book Award. Had it not been for Gore Vidal’s editorial on her books in 1987, her works would have remained out of print.


Vidal’s work on Dawn Powell inspired Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tim Page to begin his lifelong quest to bring her to notoriety. After publishing his biographical novel, Dawn Powell: A Biography, Page attempted to sell some of Powell’s diaries. Despite his efforts, Dawn Powell was still too unknown to warrant a bidding frenzy, and the auction was called off.

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A Sharp Wit and a Round Table

During an argument in Secrets and Loans, Lorelai states “You think I sit around all day swapping witticisms with Robert Benchley at the Algonquin?”

As everyone knows, Gilmore Girls has a fast paced dialogue full of witty remarks and references; in fact, that’s what this blog is based upon. From 1919 until 1929 another group of witty intellectuals met regularly at the Algonquin Hotel.

Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorthy Parker and Alexander Woollcott

The group came to be during a friendly roast for Alexander Woollcott, the theatre critic for the New York Times. Everyone had such a great time that it was suggested that the group meet daily. So, the Algonquin Round Table came to be.

The main fixtures of the table were: Woollcott, Benchley, Franklin Pierce Adams (known as FPA), Dorothy Parker, Robert Sherwood, George Kaufman, Heywood Broun, and Ruth Hale. Although many other notable members of the literati pulled up a chair like Edna Ferber, Harold Ross and Jane Grant.



In the room where it all happened, a portrait hangs portraying key members of the group

The Algonquin Round Table was a networking group of sorts, members were not only friends but collaborators. In fact, when Harold Ross and his wife Jane Grant first pitched the idea for a literary magazine, The New Yorker, their relationships with these famous writers were why they were able to launch it. The first issue included pieces written by Parker, Benchley and Woollcott.

The infamous table in the corner of the Algonquin Hotel was the Salon or Les Deux Magot of its’ time. It remains to be a spot where literary deals are made under the portrait of the sharp-tongued members who made it iconic.


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The Curse of the Winchester Rifle

In “Love, Daisies and Troubadors”, Luke breaks into Lorelai’s house and begins to fix things around her home, including her cheap locks. Like Sarah Winchester, Luke turns to home renovations to avoid his emotions. Lorelai encourages Luke to resolve his issues with his girlfriend Rachel which “starts with ceasing work on the Winchester Mystery House here.”

Sarah Winchester married William Wirt Winchester in 1862, the heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. In 1866 the couple had a daughter, Annie, but unfortunately, she died 40 days later due to Marasmus.

Sarah Winchester, cursed by spirits and doomed to continue construction on her 160 acre property

The death of her daughter was not the only tragedy in Sarah’s life, in 1861, the year after he inherited his family fortune, William died of Tuberculosis. Following William’s passing Sarah inherited $20 million dollars (in 1880 dollars), 50% of Winchester stock, and approximately $1,000 in royalties each day.

Like many people during this time, Sarah believed in Spirituralism which involves séances and the appeasement of spirits. Sarah visited a psychic who told her that she was haunted by the spirits of those who were killed by the Winchester rifles that her husband’s family produced. To ward off these spirits, Sarah was told to build a house where construction never stopped.

Sarah purchased 160 acres of farmland in San Jose, California. Following orders of the psychic, Sarah’s new house was under construction 24/7, as she feared if it ceased for even a moment, she would die. Sarah’s devout belief in Spiritualism was heavily represented in the construction of the house, the number 13 is represented in custom made chandeliers, stain glass windows and the like.

Despite her efforts, her death came two decades later on Sept. 5, 1922. After her death, the house was turned into a popular tourist destination as there are many architectural oddities; such as the infamous door leading to no where.

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Michael Jackson Attempted to Buy the Elephant Man’s Bones

In 1×18 The Third Lorelai arrives in Hartford. Known loving as Trix, the “reigning Lorelai” offers to set up a trust

Trix proposes a trust fund for Rory to pay for her education

fund for Rory. Given her grandmother’s vast wealth, Lorelai is worried what this large inheritance will do to her 16 year old daughter. While discussing this with her friend Sookie, Lorelai states “I don’t care if she buys a house, or a boat, or the Elephant Man’s bones.”

Lorelai isn’t mentioning hypothetical frivolous expenditures, but the very real attempt that Michael Jackson made to buy the Elephant Man’s bones from the London Hospital in 1987.

More than a hundred years after Joseph Merrick’s death, Michael Jackson attempted to buy his skeleton. Jackson was known to spend exorbitant amounts of money to get what he wanted, as demonstrated in the video below. However, the London Hospital, which cared for Merrick for the latter portion of his life, denied Jackson’s offer of $500,000. The hospital continues to keep Merrick’s remains for medical research purposes.

Born in 1862, Joseph Merrick developed physical deformities which affected his entire body. At this time it was common for people with abnormalities to become exhibitions in human oddities shows, this led to his moniker as The Elephant Man.

Merrick has been the subject of numerous plays, books and films which show his yearning to be “normal.” Joseph’s deformities, particularly his large head, caused great stress on his body, and required him to sleep standing up. Unfortunately, it is believed that Merrick’s death in 1890 was a result of him sleeping laying down, causing his head to suffocate his body while he slept.

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Barbara Hutton: The Heiress who spent $900 Million

In 1×06 “Rory’s Birthday Parties“, Emily and Lorelai go shopping for birthday gifts. Emily continues to suggest lavish gifts not suitable for her 16 year old granddaughter. This causes Lorelai to say “I’m shopping for Rory; you’re shopping for your imaginary granddaughter, Barbara Hutton.”

Barbara Hutton is best known as a frivolous heiress who lived extravagantly, married consistently, and ultimately died a pauper.

Barbara’s parents were both independently wealthy; her father, E.F. Hutton, started a successful brokerage firm, and her mother, Edna Woolworth, was the daughter of F.W. Woolworth.

Although known mockingly as “the poor little rich girl,” Hutton’s life was not without tragedy. Her mother committed suicide and the very young Barbara found her mother’s body. After Edna’s death, her father was too busy to care for her, and Barbara was shipped from relative to relative.

On her 21st birthday, Barbara inherited $50 million (approximately $900 million). Soon after, Barbara began the opulent lifestyle she became known for. Hutton had a particular affinity for expensive jewelry and amassed an impressive collection.

Barbara Hutton and the infamous Pacha ring

Hutton searched for love, marrying seven men including multiple members of European royalty. However, her most famous husband was Cary Grant; together they became known as Cash and Cary, but divorced after a few years of marriage. With the exception of Grant, all of Barbara’s husbands took advantage of her vast fortune and spent her money without regard.

Barbara experienced another tragedy when her only child, Lance Reventlow, died in a plane crash. When something, or someone couldn’t fill the void, Barbara turned to drugs and alcohol. With multiple divorces, and her growing dependency on narcotics Hutton’s seemingly endless fortune was dwindling.

In 1976, Barbara suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 66 with only $3,500 to her name.

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Mommie Dearest: The Crawfords and The Gilmores

The core relationship of Gilmore Girls is that of Lorelai and her daughter Rory. Critics of the show state that Lorelai is a bad mother due to her strong friendship with Rory. Therefore, it seems fitting that the first post in this blog discusses a famous mother-daughter relationship that was toxic, to say the least.

After Rory exclaims that she doesn’t want to go to Chilton, the pair get into a fight which causes Lorelai to say “Aw, you’re not going to give me the ‘Mommie Dearest‘ treatment forever, are ya?”

Mommie Dearest is the autobiographical book by Christina Crawford which was later adapted into a cult classic film of the same name. Christina is the adopted daughter of iconic film actress, Joan Crawford.

After her mother’s death, Christina published her novel which outlines the abuse her mother inflicted on her. The most well-known example of this abuse involved a wire coat hanger. Christina describes one evening when Joan barged into her room while she was asleep and threw open her closet doors. Upon finding a finding a wire hanger Joan went into a booze-filled rage, then beat her daughter with said hanger.

The film inspired by Christina’s book was intended to be a serious biopic, starring Faye Dunaway. But, the film became a campy hit, due to the overly acted scenes which lead the audience to laughter rather than the intended tears.

Since Christina released her novel a year after her mother’s death these reports were never verified. Christina succeeded in tarnishing her Joan’s image, at least to the younger generation more familiar with “Mommie Dearest” than with the woman who inspired it all. However, Joan got the last laugh, in her will she left nothing for Christina and her son Christopher “for reasons that are known to them.”

All Gilmore Girls episodes are available to stream on Netflix.

Research material was found in part from the podcast, You Must Remember This.

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