Mark Twain was born on November 30, 1835—two weeks after the perihelion of Halley’s Comet. “I came in with Halley’s Comet,” Mark Twain commented in 1909. “It is coming again next year. The Almighty has said, no doubt, ‘Now there are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” He died on April 21, 1910—one day after the comet had once again reached its perihelion.
About how statements get written up by the press, Andy Warhol wrote, “It would always be different from what I’d actually said—and a lot more fun for me to read. Like if I’d said, ‘In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,’ it could come out ‘In fifteen minutes everyone will be famous.’” About the future, Andy Warhol also wrote, “I really do live for the future, because when I’m eating a box of candy, I can’t wait to taste the last piece. I don’t even taste any of the other pieces.”
A sect of violent Islamic agents founded in eleventh-century Persia to fight the Fatimid caliph in Egypt became known as the Hashshashin, which translates as “eaters of hashish”; their grand master supposedly administered the drug to demonstrate the paradise that would follow agents’ service. From the name Hashshashin, Christian Crusaders derived the word assassin.
In his third-century Interpretation of Dreams, Artemidorus lauded the soothsaying accuracy of Aristander, to whom Alexander the Great, while besieging the city of Tyre, Tyros in Greek, reported that he had dreamed of a satyr dancing on his shield. Aristander said that “satyr,” satyros in Greek, could be broken into “sa” and “Tyros,” meaning “Tyros is yours,” and encouraged Alexander to redouble his attacks. The Macedonian did, and he took the city.
In 1903, Mark Twain comforted Helen Keller, who had been accused of plagiarizing her story “The Frost King,” telling her in a letter, “All ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” He took a harder line on his own intellectual property, however, campaigning so vigorously for stringent copyright laws that the American Bar Association later recognized him for his efforts.
Discussing the “secret and more adult” appeal of Shirley Temple, Graham Greene wrote in his review of Wee Willie Winkie in 1937, “Her admirers—middle-aged men and clergymen—respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialog drops between their intelligence and their desire.” He also noted her “neat and well-developed rump” and “dimpled depravity.” Twentieth Century Fox sued for libel, Greene fled to Mexico, and a court ordered a settlement of 3,500 pounds.
“The death of a newborn child before that of its parents may seem an unnatural, but it is strictly a probable, event,” observed Edward Gibbon in his Memoirs. He was his parents’ first child; the next six all died in infancy. Some twenty years earlier, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, “One half of the children who are born die before their eighth year…This is nature’s law; why contradict it?”
Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, was well known in his lifetime as a comic dramatist. An early performance in Florence of The Mandrake caused Pope Leo X to insist that its actors and scenery be brought to Rome in 1520. In the prologue to Clizia, a play inspired by Plautus, Machiavelli wrote, “Comedies were invented to be of use and of delight to their audiences.”
Astrologers of the Ayyubid Empire predicted in 1186 that the world would end September 16 of that year; a dust storm, stirred up by planetary alignment, would scour the earth of life. Sultan Saladin criticized the “feeble minds” of believers and planned an open-air, candlelit party for that evening. “We never saw a night as calm as that,” an attendee later remarked.
Referring to the printers’ strike that began in St. Petersburg in 1905 and helped to inaugurate the October Revolution, Leon Trotsky wrote, “They demanded a shorter working day and a higher piecework rate per thousand letters set, not excluding punctuation marks. This small event set off nothing more nor less than the all-Russian political strike—that is, a strike which started over punctuation marks and ended by felling absolutism.”