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The Eclectic Lives BehindAlice Neel’s Portraits

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My introduction to the painter Alice Neel was a screen print that hung on the living room wall of my grandparents’ home in Woodstock, N.Y. — a provocative portrait of Neel’s pouting granddaughter lounging on a striped chair. That portrait then moved within my family, to Minneapolis, San Francisco and, finally, to my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan — down the street from where Neel painted and lived —  where it now hangs on my wall.

I discovered last weekend, when I saw Neel’s stunning retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that the same striped chair has appeared in many of her paintings. The many portraits in the exhibition, “Alice Neel: People Come First,” were of Neel’s friends and lovers, or of well-known artists, activists, critics, scholars — including many radicals my grandmother admired, among them Mike Gold, an author and activist, and Linda Nochlin, a celebrated feminist art historian.

I became curious about Neel’s subjects and learned about their lives from their obituaries in The New York Times. Below is a sampling.

Jackie Curtis was a playwright, director and performer who acted in Andy Warhol films like “Bad” (1977), a comedy about a hairdresser who runs an electrolysis parlor in her home, and the 1971 satire “Women in Revolt.” He also wrote screenplays for Warhol, including “Flesh” (1968), about a hustler working on the streets of New York City.

He began to write plays in the late 1960s, and often took the lead female role in them.

Read his obituary here.

Andy Warhol’s paintings and prints of presidents, movie stars and soup cans made him one of the most famous artists in the world.

Neel’s portrait of him, “nude from the waist up, revealing his scars and the surgical corset he wore after he was shot by Valerie Solanas,” as Phoebe Hoban wrote in the introduction to “Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty” (2010), demonstrates the collaborative exchange Neel had with her subjects.

James Farmer was a principal founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and the last survivor of the “Big Four” who shaped the civil rights struggle in the United States in the mid-1950s and ’60s.

His main colleagues in the civil rights movement were the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young of the National Urban League and Roy Wilkins of the N.A.A.C.P.

Read his obituary here.

Linda Nochlin was a celebrated art historian whose feminist approach permanently altered her field.

She earned a place of honor in both art-historical and art-world circles in January 1971 with the groundbreaking essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

Her answer examined assumptions behind the question, enumerated the centuries of institutional and social conventions that had militated against women’s succeeding in the arts, and discredited what she called the myth of innate genius.

Read her obituary here.

Henry Geldzahler was a curator, critic and public official whose enthusiastic advocacy of contemporary art made his name synonymous with the art scene in New York for three decades.

He began his career as a curator of American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the age of 33 he put together the museum’s sweeping centennial exhibition, “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970,” a highly personal selection of 408 works by 43 artists that thrust the staid Met into the swirling currents of modern art and led one journalist to call him “the most powerful and controversial art curator alive.” He excluded Alice Neel from the exhibition.

Read his obituary here.

David Bourdon was a critic who was closely involved in the innovative Manhattan art world of the early 1960s and was one of the early writers on the Minimalist movement.

Among his books were studies of the artists Christo (1972), Alexander Calder (1980) and Andy Warhol (1989). His book on Warhol was a detailed insider’s account of the artist’s career in which he reported having assisted Warhol in producing a series of his 1963 Elvis Presley silk-screen paintings. A friend of the artists Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, he also wrote about the Earth Art movement in the late 1960s and ’70s. He was a past president of the United States section of the International Association of Art Critics and an arts editor at Vogue from 1983 to 1986.

Read his obituary here.

Geoffrey Hendricks and Bici Forbes had been married for years and had two children when they faced up to a conundrum.

“By the time of our 10th wedding anniversary,” Mr. Hendricks recalled years later, “which is June 24, 1971, it was like: ‘Well, what should we do? Because we’re both gay.’”

Hendricks was an artist who was part of the boundary-stretching Fluxus movement, so it was perfectly in character when he and his wife, the artist known as Nye Ffarrabas, decided to turn their disunion into performance art. On their 10th anniversary, they staged what has become known as the Flux Divorce in their Manhattan home.

Read his obituary here.

Alice Childress was an actress and a writer of plays and novels, including “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich.”

In a review of “Hero” in The New York Times in 1973, the playwright Ed Bullins wrote: “There are too few books that convince us that reading is one of the supreme gifts of being human. Alice Childress, in her short, brilliant study of a 13-year-old Black heroin user, achieves this feat in a masterly way.”

Read her obituary here.

Michael Gold, Neel’s friend, lover and mentor, was the author of the novel “Jews Without Money” and other works of social protest. He was a columnist for the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker and a founding editor of New Masses, a copy of which is visible on the bottom left of Neel’s portrait. The title of Neel’s retrospective at the Met comes from a 1950 article about her that Gold wrote for The Daily Worker.

“But for me, people come first,” he quoted Neel as saying. “I think I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being in my portraits.”

Read his obituary here.

Cindy Nemser was an art critic and historian who, half a century ago, began calling out sexism in the art world, decrying the way women artists were treated and how their work was evaluated.

Nemser was already writing for arts publications in 1969 when someone invited her to an early meeting of Women Artists in Revolution, a New York coalition that pushed back against the marginalization of women in the art world. At the time few women had gallery representation or were being shown in major museums.

Read her obituary here.

Benny Andrews was a figural expressionistic painter and teacher whose work drew on his African-American roots in Georgia.

He was a vivid storyteller who used memories of his childhood in the segregated South to create narrative-based works that addressed human suffering and injustice. Over his lifetime, his social concerns ranged from the civil rights struggle and the antiwar movement to the Holocaust, poverty and the forced relocation of American Indians.

Read his obituary here.

Erica Ackerberg is a photo editor on the Obituaries and Books desks at The New York Times.

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From the Schlump With the Shiv, Two Plays Turned Podcasts

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Shawn now plays Ben, a doctor who has invented a genetically modified nutrient called Grain No. 1. When fed to animals, Grain No. 1 causes them to eat voraciously and reproduce constantly, thus ending the world’s food shortage. But as the effects of this change move up the food chain, Grain No. 1 not only unlocks a “molecular inhibition” with devastating digestive consequences, it unlocks a pandemic of sexual inhibition as well.

Though “Grasses” at first seems like a cautionary tale about food science and ecological end times, most of its considerable length — like “The Designated Mourner,” it is broken into six segments of about 30 minutes each — is devoted to that sexual unloosening. Ben’s beloved penis now becomes an almost autonomous creature, and its adventures a kind of Rabelaisian picaresque. These adventures involve a harem including not only his wife, Cerise (Julie Hagerty), his lover Robin (Jennifer Tilly) and another lover, Rose (Emily Cass McDonnell), but also a fantastical, queenly cat named Blanche.

Yes, Shawn goes there. And goes there.

When I saw the New York premiere of “Grasses” at the Public Theater in 2013, I found its prurience and misogyny taxing, even though both were deployed satirically. With almost no action — also like “The Designated Mourner,” the play proceeds as a lecture or reminiscence, with occasional illustrative scenelets — it depends entirely on delivery, which onstage became monotonous. However high minded, the pornographic passages, like pornography generally, quickly paled, and the larger story, contrary to the play’s theme, seemed underfed.

Either the podcast is a vast improvement or the world has sunk so much closer to the level of Shawn’s dystopic fantasy that I’m now forced to take it more seriously. In any case, “Grasses,” as well as “The Designated Mourner,” are beautifully rethought for the ear by the director (and longtime Shawn collaborator) André Gregory. The music and sound by Bruce Odland serve both to establish the surreally foreboding mood and to keep you moored in the otherwise drifting timescape of the narratives. Even the plays’ length is turned to good effect in a format that allows you to serialize the experience.

It helps that the actors — all of whom performed their roles in earlier New York productions — have voices of uncommon timbre and distinctiveness. Paradoxically, you know better who’s who without seeing them than you ever did onstage. Ben’s women are especially terrifying, whether flirting or purring or, eventually, whooping like maenads. They are ids run wild in a society losing its mind.

Awful as that is, the men played by Shawn are ultimately more dangerous. Their adenoidal squeak and chuckly delivery disguise both the stripping away of human culture and the ineffectuality of that culture that are his chief themes.

His delivery is crucial. When Mike Nichols played Jack in David Hare’s 1997 film of “The Designated Mourner,” his suave cosmopolitanism made him dangerous from the start. But Shawn’s infernally ingratiating style suggests that true danger comes from not seeing it until it’s too late. His world doesn’t end with a bang or even a whimper but with an anecdote, cheerfully delivered. He may be an apologist for the worst of humanity’s outrages, but he’s also mounting your leg: a beagle of the apocalypse.

The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colors
On major podcast platforms; gideon-media.com

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It’s Hollywood Barbie’s Moment (and She’s Bringing Her Friends)

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For 62 years, Barbie has been the hardest-working woman in the toy aisle, using a dizzying array of outfits and accessories — and, lately, changing body shapes and skin tones — while gliding from one career to the next. Astrophysicist Barbie. Ballerina Barbie. Chicken Farmer Barbie. Firefighter Barbie.

But she has never pulled off the ultimate transformation: Barbie, live-action movie star.

Time and again, her corporate overlords at Mattel have teamed with Hollywood studios to make a big-budget film in hopes of forging a new revenue stream while giving Barbie new relevance. Time and again, nothing has emerged, in part because Mattel has tried to micromanage the creative process, alienating filmmakers. (You want Barbie to do what?) Financial turbulence and executive turnover at Mattel haven’t helped.

A similar situation has played out with other Mattel brands, including Hot Wheels, American Girl and Masters of the Universe — a humiliation given the success that other toy companies have had in Hollywood, which loves nothing more than a movie concept with a built-in fan base.

The inventive “Lego Movie” took in nearly $500 million at the global box office in 2014 for Warner Bros. and the Lego Group, resulting in a sequel and two spinoffs. Paramount Pictures and Hasbro have turned the Transformers action-figure line into a $5 billion big-screen franchise over the last 14 years; a seventh installment is on the way and will undoubtedly deliver the same halo for Hasbro as the previous films, driving up the company’s stock price and turbocharging demand for Transformers toys.

With money like that on the line, Mattel has clung to its Hollywood dream. “There is ‘Fast and Furious 9’ and Hot Wheels zero,” said Ynon Kreiz, Mattel’s newish chief executive, referring to Universal’s hot-rod film franchise, which has taken in $6.3 billion worldwide since 2001. “That is going to change.”

There are signals — 13 of them — that Mattel is not playing around this time.

Under Mr. Kreiz, who has overseen a stunning financial turnaround at the company since becoming its fourth chief executive in four years in 2018, Mattel has moved to turn its toys into full-fledged entertainment brands. It now has 13 films in the works with various studio partners, including “Barbie,” a live-action adventure starring Margot Robbie (“I, Tonya”) and directed by the Oscar-nominated Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”). Ms. Robbie, who is also one of the producers, described the big-budget film in an email as being “for both the fans and the skeptics,” a theatrical endeavor that will be “really entertaining but also completely surprising.”

The script, by Ms. Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (“Marriage Story”), even pokes fun at Barbie and Ken, her plastic paramour.

As in, what happened to their genitals?

“I’m excited about this movie because it’s emotional and touches your heart and honors the legacy while reflecting our current society and culture — and doesn’t feel designed to sell toys,” said Toby Emmerich, chairman of the Warner Bros. Pictures Group, where “Barbie” is pointed toward a 2023 theatrical release.

The dozen other films in Mattel’s pipeline include a live-action Hot Wheels spectacle; a horror film based on the fortunetelling Magic 8 Ball; a wide-audience Thomas the Tank Engine movie that combines animation and live action; and, in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment, a big-screen Masters of the Universe adventure about the cosmos that includes He-Man and his superheroic sister, She-Ra.

Mattel, Universal and Vin Diesel are collaborating on a live-action movie based on Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, a tabletop game introduced in 1966. Lena Dunham (HBO’s “Girls”) is directing and writing a live-action family comedy based on Mattel’s Polly Pocket line of micro-dolls. Lily Collins (“Emily in Paris”) will play the title role and produce; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is the distribution and financing partner.

“Young women need smart, playful films that speak to them without condescension,” Ms. Dunham said.

Mattel has also announced movies based on View-Master, American Girl and Uno, the ubiquitous card game. (If you think an Uno movie sounds like a satirical headline from The Onion, consider this: There are non-Mattel movies in development in Hollywood that are based on Play-Doh and Peeps, the Easter candy.)

All or some or none of Mattel’s movie projects could connect with audiences — if they come to fruition at all. That is the nature of the Hollywood casino.

“Familiarity with a toy or character is a start, but no movie makes it without clever character and story development,” said David A. Gross, who runs Franchise Entertainment Research, a movie consultancy.

Toys have a surprisingly strong track record as film fodder. Other hits include the 2016 animated musical “Trolls,” based on the wild-haired dolls, and “Ouija,” which cost $5 million to make in 2014 and collected $104 million worldwide. (Pixar did not base “Toy Story” on a toy, but it has populated the franchise with classics, including Barbie.) But the genre has also had wipeouts, notably “Battleship,” which Universal and Hasbro based on the board game and cost more than $300 million to make and market. It arrived to $25 million in North American ticket sales in 2012.

“UglyDolls,” adapted from a line of plush toys, was a smaller-scale box office disaster for STX Films in 2019. Mattel itself got bruised in 2016 when “Max Steel,” a modestly budgeted film based on an action figure, arrived to near-empty theaters. It received a zero percent positive score on Rotten Tomatoes, the review-aggregation site.

“Unless you can make something that feels really sticky and really interesting and really authentic, there’s no point in doing it,” said Robbie Brenner, who heads Mattel Films, which was created in 2018. (Mattel’s previous movie division, Playground Productions, was started in 2013 and folded in 2016.)

Ms. Brenner said she had approached all of Mattel’s properties with the same question: “How do we flip it on its side a little bit while still respecting the integrity of the brand?”

Mr. Kreiz said he was not interested in making thinly disguised toy commercials. In a shift from the Mattel of the past, “we want to give our filmmaking partners creative freedom and enable them to do things that are unconventional and exciting,” he said. “Focus on making great content and the rest will follow.”

He added, however, that Mattel did not “sign a deal and disappear.”

The message appears to be resonating in Hollywood, allowing Mattel to attract A-plus talent. The “Barbie” team is one example. Tom Hanks has agreed to star in and produce an adaptation of Major Matt Mason, an astronaut action figure introduced by Mattel in 1966; Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning writer of “A Beautiful Mind,” is working on the screenplay. Marc Forster (“World War Z”) is directing and producing that “Thomas & Friends” movie. And Daniel Kaluuya, who won an Oscar in April for his role in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” is involved with a Mattel film project based on Barney, the interminably perky purple dinosaur.

Even Ms. Brenner has a sophisticated film pedigree. She produced the AIDS-medication drama “Dallas Buyers Club,” which received six Oscar nominations in 2014, including one for best picture. (It won three: actor, supporting actor, and makeup and hairstyling.) Before that, she was a senior executive at 20th Century Fox and Miramax.

Mattel’s momentum in Hollywood has resulted, in part, from a turnaround at the company as a whole. Mattel has fixed many of its core problems, making it less risk averse, according to Richard Dickson, Mattel’s president and chief operating officer.

“Five years ago, the foundations that our brands were sitting on were not strong enough,” Mr. Dickson said.

When Mr. Kreiz arrived in April 2018, the toymaker was reeling from gut punches, some self-inflicted. It had lost Disney’s lucrative princesses toy license to Hasbro. A crucial retail partner, Toys “R” Us, had evaporated in a cloud of bankruptcy. Millennial parents had turned on Barbie, dismissing her as vapid and noninclusive. And some of Mattel’s other stars — American Girl, the glam Monster High crew — were adrift, unsure of how to compete for the attention of a generation of iPad-wielding children.

Total revenue plunged to $4.5 billion in 2018, from $6.5 billion in 2013, and a profit of more than $900 million in 2013 became a loss of $533 million.

Mr. Kreiz stabilized Mattel by restructuring its supply chain and reducing costs by $1 billion over three years, in part by closing factories and laying off more than 2,000 nonmanufacturing employees. At the same time, a long-gestating modernization plan for Barbie began to pay off in a major way. She now comes with roughly 150 different body shapes, skin tones and hairstyles; Wheelchair Barbie was such a runaway success last year that Wheelchair Ken recently arrived.

In 2020, with parents looking for ways to entertain children at home during the pandemic, Mattel sold more than 100 Barbie dolls a minute, Mr. Dickson said. (Juli Lennett, toy industry adviser for NPD Group, backed him up.)

Revenue totaled $4.6 billion last year, and Mattel posted a profit of $127 million. In the first quarter of 2021, sales increased 47 percent from a year earlier, the company’s highest growth rate in at least 25 years. Mattel’s stock price has climbed 52 percent since Mr. Kreiz took over.

Mattel, based in El Segundo, Calif., is now turning to the next phase of Mr. Kreiz’s growth plan. With a vast catalog of intellectual property, Mattel wants to become more like Marvel, which started as a comics company and transformed into a Hollywood superpower.

“In the mid- to long term, we must become a player in film, television, digital gaming, live events, consumer products, music and digital media,” Mr. Kreiz said.

And by player he means player. Mattel has a long history in direct-to-DVD animated movies, for instance, but its television division, run by Fred Soulie, is working to capitalize on the streaming boom. The company has been making one or two Barbie cartoons for Netflix annually, an arrangement that is expected to continue. “Masters of the Universe: Revelation,” an animated series from the filmmaker Kevin Smith (“Clerks”), arrives on Netflix on July 23.

In total, Mr. Soulie has 18 shows in production, including a revamped “Thomas & Friends” and a new incarnation of “Monster High.” An additional 24 are in development.

“We’ve been planting a lot of seeds,” Mr. Soulie said, “and we’re about to see the results.”

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Review: Serving Murder in ‘The Dumb Waiter’

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Have you ever gotten stuck in a dingy basement without even a cup of tea to quench your thirst? Service these days just isn’t what it used to be.

That’s the plight of the two hit men in Harold Pinter’s absurdist comedy-drama “The Dumb Waiter,” a trim and tidy production that is being streamed live by the Old Vic Theater in London.

In “The Dumb Waiter,” one of Pinter’s early comedies of menace, as the critic Irving Wardle called them, the two men sit idling in a basement room of what was apparently a former cafe. They’re waiting, Godot-style, on orders for their next job, making small talk that highlights their differences. Ben (David Thewlis) opts to follow procedure, though he’s coy when discussing the details with his partner. Gus (Daniel Mays), on the other hand, has his doubts about their occupation and the way they do things. He wishes for less seedy locations, more clarity on the jobs and better hours. And he has many questions. When the pair inexplicably start getting very specific food requests via a dumbwaiter, the job suddenly changes.

The Old Vic’s production of the 50-minute one-act play, directed by Jeremy Herrin, is as polished as an assassin’s gun. Well, maybe not Gus’s, since Ben scolds his partner for his grubby-looking firearm. Appearances are important to Ben, after all, and, this being a Pinter play, so are rituals. Ben is inflexible and exacting, resolved to the simple order of their usual assignments. Gus is more circumspect and increasingly uneasy about his occupation.

Hyemi Shin’s set design — a gray, lifeless room with two beds — feels appropriately bleak and isolating. Waiting, as if trapped, in a room until you’re given the OK to leave? It sure felt all too familiar to me. The grave confines of the men’s basement room seem to suggest a space where anything can happen — from a murder to a series of communications delivered by a dumbwaiter.

And that small elevator for food is a perfect vehicle for Pinter’s quirky doses of comedy: It descends from the heavens (or, rather, a top floor), deus ex machina-style, bringing messages that change the characters’ relationships to each other and totally redirect the action of the story. And Thewlis and Mays’s characters grow progressively agitated: Ben turns more hostile and resolute, while Gus becomes more anxious and doubtful.

The symbolic meaning behind this play isn’t so easy to decipher. Is this a philosophical statement on two antithetical approaches to life, a parable about our responses to order and chaos? Or is this political, a story about what happens when you fall in or out of line with an institution like, say, the government? Or does the play exist in — to steal the name of another Pinter work — some kind of surreal no man’s land, a cyclical purgatory where the two men relive this same situation?

I’d prefer to hedge my bets and say it can be a little of all three. Pinter’s texts so often make the space for several interpretations at once, even if they seem to contradict one another. And yet in this perfectly effective production I wondered if the play lacked some stronger sense of a perspective — whether there wasn’t enough space given for the possibility of surprise. Because chances are you’ve already guessed how this one ends. The dumbwaiter interrupts the hit men’s mundane chatter but doesn’t veer the production off course from its clear road map to the conclusion.

Though it’s a small complaint, because even for its mild predictability, this production of “The Dumb Waiter” makes a presentable and enjoyable feast of Pinter’s work. Grab your gun: Dinner is served.

The Dumb Waiter
Through July 10; oldvictheatre.com. Running time: 50 minutes.

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The Lives of Flies – The New York Times

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The subtitle of Jonathan Balcombe’s new book, “Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World’s Most Successful Insects” leads to the first question on this week’s podcast. Why “successful”?

“Their diversity, for one,” Balcombe says. “There’s over 160,000 described species — and it’s important to add that qualifier, ‘described,’ because it’s estimated there may be about five times that many that are undescribed. Insects make up 80 percent of all animal species on the planet, so that says something right there about how incredibly successful they are, and flies are arguably the most species-rich subset of insects. It’s estimated there’s about 20 million flies on earth at any moment for every human who’s on the earth. And they occupy all seven continents.”

Marjorie Ingall visits the podcast this week to discuss her essay about why she finds it troubling that children’s literature focuses so relentlessly on the Holocaust.

“Just as Black kids deserve more than books about slavery and suffering — they deserve books about Black joy and Black excellence — so too do Jewish kids deserve books that reflect the incredible diversity and often happiness of their lives,” Ingall says. “And I think sometimes we push the Holocaust because we want to tell kids: ‘Look where you come from; look how important it is to be Jewish; look how people died because they were Jewish.’ When we’re talking about children’s books, that is not a way to make kids feel a connection.”

Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history as it celebrates its 125th anniversary; and Elisabeth Egan and Joumana Khatib talk about what they’ve been reading. Pamela Paul is the host.

Here are the books discussed in this week’s “What We’re Reading”:

We would love to hear your thoughts about this episode, and about the Book Review’s podcast in general. You can send them to [email protected].

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Robert Downey Sr., Filmmaker and Provocateur, Is Dead at 85

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Robert Downey Sr., who made provocative movies, like “Putney Swope,” that avoided mainstream success but were often critical favorites and were always attention getting, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 85.

The cause was Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Rosemary Rogers, said.

“Putney Swope,” a 1969 comedy about a Black man who is accidentally elected chairman of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, was perhaps Mr. Downey’s best-known film.

“To be as precise as is possible about such a movie,” Vincent Canby wrote in a rave review in The New York Times, “it is funny, sophomoric, brilliant, obscene, disjointed, marvelous, unintelligible and relevant.”

The film, though probably a financial success by Mr. Downey’s standards, made only about $2.7 million. (By comparison, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” that same year made more than $100 million.) Yet its reputation was such that in 2016 the Library of Congress selected it for the National Film Registry, an exclusive group of movies deemed to have cultural or historical significance.

Also much admired in some circles was “Greaser’s Palace” (1972), in which a Christlike figure in a zoot suit arrives in the Wild West by parachute. Younger filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson (who gave Mr. Downey a small part in his 1997 hit, “Boogie Nights”) cited it as an influence.

None other than Joseph Papp, the theater impresario, in a letter to The New York Times after Mr. Canby’s unenthusiastic review, wrote that “Robert Downey has fearlessly descended into the netherworld and come up with a laughing nightmare.” (Mr. Papp’s assessment may not have been entirely objective; at the time, he was producing one of Mr. Downey’s few mainstream efforts, a television version of the David Rabe play “Sticks and Bones,” which had been a hit at Mr. Papp’s Public Theater in 1971.)

Between “Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace” there was “Pound” (1970), a political satire in which actors portrayed stray dogs. Among those actors, playing a puppy, was Robert Downey Jr., the future star of the “Iron Man” movies and many others, and Mr. Downey’s son. He was 5 and making his film debut.

That movie, the senior Mr. Downey told The Times Union of Albany, N.Y., in 2000, was something of a surprise to the studio.

“When I turned it into United Artists,” he said, “after the screening one of the studio heads said to me, ‘I thought this was gonna be animated.’ They thought they were getting some cute little animated film.”

Robert John Elias Jr. was born on June 24, 1936, in Manhattan and grew up in Rockville Centre, on Long Island. His father was in restaurant management, and his mother, Betty (McLoughlin) Elias, was a model. Later, when enlisting in the Army as a teenager, he adopted the last name of his stepfather, Jim Downey, who worked in advertising.

Much of his time in the Army was spent in the stockade, he said later; he wrote a novel while doing his time, but it wasn’t published. He pitched semi-pro baseball for a year, then wrote some plays.

Among the people he met on the Off Off Broadway scene was William Waering, who owned a camera and suggested that they try making movies. The result, which he began shooting when John F. Kennedy was still president and which was released in 1964, was “Babo 73,” in which Taylor Mead, an actor who would go on to appear in many Andy Warhol films, played the president of the United States. It was classic underground filmmaking.

“We just basically went down to the White House and started shooting, with no press passes, permits, anything like that,” Mr. Downey said in an interview included in the book “Film Voices: Interviews From Post Script” (2004). “Kennedy was in Europe, so nobody was too tight with the security, so we were outside the White House mainly, ran around; we actually threw Taylor in with some real generals.”

The budget, he said, was $3,000.

Mr. Downey’s “Chafed Elbows,” about a day in the life of a misfit, was released in 1966 and was a breakthrough of sorts, earning him grudging respect even from Bosley Crowther, The Times’s staid film critic.

“One of these days,” he wrote, “Robert Downey, who wrote, directed and produced the underground movie ‘Chafed Elbows,’ which opened at the downtown Gate Theater last night, is going to clean himself up a good bit, wash the dirty words out of his mouth and do something worth mature attention in the way of kooky, satiric comedy. He has the audacity for it. He also has the wit.”

The film enjoyed extended runs at the Gate and the Bleecker Street Cinema. “No More Excuses” followed in 1968, then “Putney Swope,” “Pound” and “Greaser’s Palace.” But by the early 1970s Mr. Downey had developed a cocaine habit.

“Ten years of cocaine around the clock,” he told The Associated Press in 1997. His marriage to Elsie Ford, who had been in several of his movies, faltered; they eventually divorced. He credited his second wife, Laura Ernst, with helping to pull him out of addiction. She died in 1994 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mr. Downey drew on that experience for his last feature, “Hugo Pool” (1997).

In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter, Allyson Downey; a brother, Jim; a sister, Nancy Connor; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Downey’s movies have earned new appreciation in recent decades. In 2008, Anthology Film Archives in the East Village restored and preserved “Chafed Elbows,” “Babo 73” and “No More Excuses” with the support of the Film Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to film preservation. At the time, Martin Scorsese, a member of the foundation’s board, called them “an essential part of that moment when a truly independent American cinema was born.”

“They’re alive in ways that few movies can claim to be,” Mr. Scorsese told The Times, “because it’s the excitement of possibility and discovery that brought them to life.”

Mr. Downey deflected such praise.

“They’re uneven,” he said of the films. “But I was uneven.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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A New Novel Gives Wings — and a Megaphone — to an Inspiring Woman

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ISLAND QUEEN
By Vanessa Riley

Vanessa Riley was intrigued when she encountered the figure of Miss Lambe in Jane Austen’s unfinished final novel, “Sanditon.” Given the dearth of people of color in 18th- and 19th-century British literature, she wanted to know where the wealthy colored debutante had come from. Was she a product of a progressive authorial imagination? Or had real-life Miss Lambes merely been excised from popular culture and public memory?

The quest to “find Miss Lambe” turned into a long and meaningful one for the author — a 10-year journey, which revealed that Austen’s aims may have been progressive but they weren’t born of fantasy. As Riley wrote, “Finding Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, the women of the Entertainment Society, and so many other Black women who had agency and access to all levels of power has restored my soul.”

Riley’s commitment to restoring these unsung women to their rightful place in the popular imagination was a driving force behind her riveting and transformative new novel. Yet her chosen subject bears little resemblance to a pampered heiress like Miss Lambe; the contours of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas’s life have a much harsher bent. Called “Doll” or “Dolly” when she was young, Dorothy was born to an Irish planter and an enslaved woman in 1756 on the island of Montserrat. In her 90 years, she endured bondage, assault and abuse, secured her own freedom against incredible odds, accumulated great wealth and considerable influence, and became the founding matriarch of a prosperous Caribbean clan.

It’s a powerful story, and Riley tells it well. The author’s most important creative decision is to put this remarkable yet very human woman not just at the center of the story, but in full control of it.

The novel is framed like a diary Dorothy is writing for her family. This device is Riley’s invention, but the story she tells draws heavily from historical records — and the journal format turns out to be the perfect fit for this outsize yet vulnerable subject. There’s a beautiful intimacy in Dorothy’s first-person narration, both in substance and expression: the candid ebb and flow of her complex long-term relationships with men, mutually beneficial yet unsatisfying arrangements; how she fought to find love in the wreckage of slavery; the children she births and nurtures; the business she builds; the relentless search for stability and security in a world that offers neither to women like her. By turns vibrant and bold, defiant and wise, Riley’s tone and words are well suited to her subject.

Though the story is epic in sweep, its genius lies in its revelation of Dolly’s heroism and her flaws within that subjective voice. Because she’s both ambitious and human, the stories Riley’s protagonist shares don’t always match her pronouncements. Take, for example, her claim when she was fighting a tax targeting women like her: “Being silent on matters of justice — that’s something I’ve never done.” Thomas accomplished tremendous things. But she was a businesswoman, not a freedom fighter. She denounced slavery in principle, but not practice; her lovers owned slaves and her own eventual participation in the institution, though ambivalent, was extensive. That Thomas profited from enslaved people is undisputed, and even she (in her fictional guise at least) acknowledges this as an irreconcilable stain — that “the soul I sold had beaten the men of Demerara,” but had also made her become “what I hated.”

While Riley is clearly sympathetic to her protagonist, she makes no excuses for her behavior. Instead, “Island Queen” underscores how Dorothy’s choices (like so many others’) grew from her drive to survive. In her existence between family and property, she made the most of her meager privileges.

Though Dorothy’s life is extraordinary, the reason her triumphs and stumbles hit so hard is that Riley does a brilliant job of connecting those events to something bigger. “Island Queen” provides an incisive interior view of some of the thorniest aspects of West Indian colonial culture: the roots of color and class privilege, the implications of concubinage and common-law marriages, and the participation of some free people of African ancestry in slavery. Evocative and immersive, Riley’s narrative bears that weight with grace; discovering Dorothy’s story is a singular pleasure.

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Using the Wisdom of Dance to Find Our Way Back to Our Bodies

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Somewhere in the middle of April, I started taking up space again in the world, the bigger one outside of my apartment, beyond my neighborhood. Taking up space is a bizarre feeling after a year spent inside. It’s sometimes exhilarating, sometimes terrifying. It’s always strange.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we’re not just walking around without masks, we’re learning how to re-enter our bodies. It’s wild out there — meaning the merry, unnerving combination of New York City and lifted restrictions — but it’s still time to hold on to all that is slow.

The pandemic, devastating in so many ways, has also been a chance to explore the value of the body and of the everyday, a chance to refocus your eyes, to realize, as the dance critic Edwin Denby wrote: “Daily life is wonderfully full of things to see. Not only people’s movements, but the objects around them, the shape of the rooms they live in, the ornaments architects make around windows and doors, the peculiar way buildings end in the air.”

In his 1954 essay “Dancing, Buildings and People in the Streets” (also the title of a later volume of writings), Denby explores the art and act of seeing, both in performance and in the daily dance of life. During the pandemic, I thought a lot about Denby’s essay, a reminder not to stop looking at the details of daily life. People slowed down. And you could study your body just as you could study the world.

As vaccinations have increased, the world has changed, though it is not what it was nor what it will become. This spring, there were dances to watch again in person; by May, I wondered if it was time to buy an unlimited MetroCard. Some of this was great — like when members of the club world performed at the Guggenheim, in “Ephrat Asherie’s UnderScored,” part of the Works & Process series. Some of it was forgettable. But much of it seemed right for the moment: processions in nature, a participatory installation at MoMA, an intimate studio showing. In different ways, they all reflected the time we’re in — a liminal, in-between place that’s not going to last forever. (Hold onto it.)

Watching performances now isn’t just about the dance itself, but a window into where we stand — perhaps even a way to put the world on pause for just a moment longer. What does it mean to watch and move through space, both in terms of dance and in life? How does the way you feel affect how you see? What should be retained from the pandemic, and what could dance teach us about that?

Dance is sprouting up all around us; it is purposeful, serious, healing, transgressive, inclusive and beautifully loose. And while theaters haven’t completely opened their doors, choreography has spread across rooftops and parks, studios, graveyards and museums.

Processions, those performances with a built-in cast, are everywhere, too. Why now? They’re practical, of course — held outdoors, they don’t require excessive choreographic construction. And they feel right for this in-between time: they’re not exactly shows but events created in the moment. And how they turn out — meaning how they look and, more important, how they feel — depends on who shows up.

The recent 2021 River to River Festival, in association with Movement Research, presented three processions, led by Miguel Gutierrez, Okwui Okpokwasili and the Illustrious Blacks. What does it mean to inhabit our bodies — and the city — as individuals and as a group? “It was almost like reopening doors of possibilities as we are emerging from the pandemic and entering into this new world,” Lili Chopra, executive director of artistic programs at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, said. “It’s a participatory moment that you’re doing together but that you can take with you.”

In a procession led by Gutierrez at Teardrop Park in Lower Manhattan, it was about thinking about the land we were walking on; it was also about slowing down and seeing. Before we started walking, we executed, at Gutierrez’s instruction, a movement in which our outstretched arms cupped and scooped the air forward and back.

To him, the action could invoke many things; it could be a summoning gesture or contain the idea of conjuring. It could be about moving energy or banishing. He spoke about waving as a gesture of reawakening: “Healing,” he chanted, “is not a space of forgetting.”

In a time when it seems like a lot of people have pushed the last year and a half out of their heads, the gesture was grounding and soothing. It also reverberated: As we walked toward the park, a pair of children in a high-rise apartment could be seen rippling their arms in the same meditative slow-motion; they were behind a window but their attention — they watched, they copied, they moved along with us — made the procession matter even before it really started.

Moving as a collective, especially after so much solitude, has a hypnotic effect. That idea of togetherness was at the core of Global Water Dances 2021 at Locomotive Lawn in Riverside Park South in June, which used movement to bring attention to the cause of clean and safe water. Martha Eddy, the dance educator and one of the event’s coordinators, helped to lead a dance in which participants, dancers and audience members alike, made waves with their bodies.

“You start to feel harmony,” Eddy said of the liberating power of moving with others. “And we’re building some kind of collective effervescence that both feels the angst and then releases the joy of what humanity can create.”

But effervescence, I’ve found, isn’t only about large groups; it isn’t even about being outside. In a series of one-on-one showings, the dance artist Kay Ottinger performed a solo by Melanie Maar as part of a larger project she initiated with three mentors. Each is passing on a practice or a piece. For Maar’s solo, Ottinger rotated her body with a heavy strand of wooden beads wrapped around her waist. Rocking forward and back while circling her hips over the course of 20 minutes, she transformed the room, a dingy studio at Judson Church, and the air within it.

There is a priceless thing about live performance: The energetic exchange between a dancing body and one that is still and attentive. Mirror neurons — how a brain cell reacts to an action, either when it is performed or simply watched — are charged. That’s what I felt with Ottinger and in “Embodied Sensations,” a participatory work by the artist Amanda Williams, who is based in Chicago. Trained as an architect, Williams cares about space; her piece was one of my favorite experiences of bodies in space — and my body in space — of the past year.

For “Embodied Sensations,” presented in the vast atrium space of the Museum of Modern Art, Williams teamed up with Anna Martine Whitehead, a performance artist from Chicago; the spectator’s job was to perform movement instructions amid a maze of piled furniture — benches and chairs that had been removed from parts of the museum because of social distancing protocols.

Each performance featured four prompts that spectators performed twice over 30 minutes. One of mine was, “Take three full minutes to do absolutely whatever you want inside this space.” Another contained a more direct instruction: “Imagine that a black hole is at the center of this space. Make your way to the edge of the black hole and practice resisting its pull.”

If the pandemic heightened our awareness of our bodies, “Embodied Sensations” was a way to explore who has the freedom to move and why. One instruction was, in part, to “Imagine yourself as a walking goal post, or a moving target. Decide if you want to get caught.”

In an interview, Williams said: “I can imagine what my brother’s answer would be, what my 7-year-old’s answer would be, what my white upper-middle-class classmate from Cornell’s answer would be. Then to see those people perform was amazing.”

But even when the instructions were less loaded, their execution had layers of meaning. During the first round, I felt as if I was performing the instructions; the second time around, I just did them and that had a loosening effect. I was in space, wearing a mask, and I could breathe. Deeply.

All the while, certain instructions echoed moments from the pandemic experience: “Choose any space,” one read. “Close your eyes, listen and smell intently for about 2 minutes. Choose someplace new, keeping your eyes closed. For one minute, focus on how you feel. Repeat even if you’re bored or tired.”

Haven’t we all been bored and tired over the last year and a half? Alone with our feelings? Without the space to move big, we looked within, to the body. And for those of us who usually see many live performances, we had to pay attention to the bigger world — examining the angles in nature, the choreography of the everyday. Both were gifts. Now, there’s little shortage of dance events, and here are two: STooPS BedStuy, an annual arts event, is July 24; on Aug. 7, Dance Church, a guided improvisation class from Seattle, makes a tour stop in New York.

Or, as a re-entry experiment, borrow from Williams. Close your eyes. Focus on how you feel. And then repeat. Think about how your body, not just buildings, end in the air. It’s all about relishing the in between.

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At the Avignon Festival, a Bleak Start

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AVIGNON, France — The Avignon Festival couldn’t have set the stage any better for Tiago Rodrigues. On Monday, the director from Portugal was announced as the next director of the event, one of the most important on the European theater calendar. The same night, his new production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” starring Isabelle Huppert, opened the 2021 edition, which runs through July 25.

Excitement was high, despite the enormous line to enter the Cour d’honneur, an open-air stage installed on the grounds of Avignon’s Papal Palace. The French government requires proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test for all events with more than 1,000 audience members, and the checks led to a 40-minute delay and grateful applause when the preshow announcements finally started.

Two hours later, the reception was noticeably less warm. While Rodrigues has brought well-liked productions of “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Sopro” to Avignon in recent years, his “Cherry Orchard” is an oddly amorphous proposition, built around actors who often seem worlds apart onstage.

It doesn’t help that Huppert plays Lyubov, the aristocratic landowner who remains blind to her family’s financial plight, like a close cousin of Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie,” which she just performed in Paris. She brings the same diction and the same childlike, brittle energy to both characters, down to her trembling lips.

The production accommodates Huppert rather than the other way around, and doesn’t require her stage partners to blend in, either. Rodrigues hasn’t enforced a specific acting style, and the community at the heart of “The Cherry Orchard” never really coheres.

A few performers make the most of it. In a welcome departure from French habits, Rodrigues opted for colorblind casting: Lyubov’s relatives are all played by Black actors, as is Lopakhin, the self-made man who ultimately buys Lyubov’s estate. In that role, Adama Diop is by turns forceful and sympathetic. The role of the aging Firs, who yearns for the glory days of the aristocracy, is taken with lovely lightness by a veteran of the French stage, Marcel Bozonnet.

In lieu of Lyubov’s beloved trees, the stage is filled with the Cour d’honneur’s old seats, which this year were replaced with new wooden ones. There is even a heavy-handed number about the renovation — one of several interpolations to Chekhov’s text — from Manuela Azevedo and Helder Gonçalves, who provide live music throughout.

“Things will change,” Azevedo sings. “Even these chairs changed places.” It’s a nice touch, but here as elsewhere, this “Cherry Orchard” is too anecdotal to say much about the world. Rodrigues will presumably return to Avignon in 2023, the first edition he is scheduled to oversee. Let’s hope for a little more insight then.

“The Cherry Orchard” aside, this year’s lineup finally gives women some prime spots, after years of male-skewed programming under the current director, Olivier Py. The premiere of “Kingdom,” by the Belgian director Anne-Cécile Vandalem, suffered its own delay because of heavy rain, but those who waited were rewarded with the festival’s finest new work up to that point.

“Kingdom” is the conclusion of a trilogy Vandalem started in Avignon with “Tristesses” in 2016, followed by “Arctique.” The overall theme of the three plays is “the end of humanity,” according to the playbill, and after tackling far-right extremism and global warming in the first two, Vandalem offers a bleak tale of utopia gone wrong in “Kingdom.”

In it, two families have opted to forgo the modern world and return to nature. Yet they come to resent one another because of land disputes and perceived slights, and their sustainable way of living becomes untenable.

Vandalem is fond of weaving video into her work, here by way of cameramen ostensibly filming a documentary about one of the families. They follow the central characters into their small cabins, which are visible and surrounded with trees and water onstage, yet closed to the audience.

Intimate moments are seen only on a large screen, and this setup draws the audience into the characters’ lives with greater realism than is achieved by many plays. The cast sustains the narrative tension with understated force — all the way to the unraveling of their small world.

“Kingdom” was far from the only bleak offering of the festival’s early days. The Brazilian theatermaker Christiane Jatahy also returned, with “Between Dog and Wolf,” a creation freely inspired by Lars von Trier’s 2003 film, “Dogville.” Nicole Kidman’s role onscreen as an outsider mistreated by the community in which she seeks refuge is taken here by the actress Julia Bernat, also of Brazil.

The cast is constantly filmed, with less precise editing than in “Kingdom,” and most of “Dogville’s” twists and turns are recreated, but Jatahy also finds some distance from her source material. Bernat and others address the audience directly at several points, and they break character to explain the movie’s ending. After that, they elaborate on what they see as the rise of fascism in Brazil and elsewhere.

There is dark subject matter, and then there is “Fraternity,” Caroline Guiela Nguyen’s much anticipated follow-up to her 2017 hit, “Saigon.” “Fraternity’s” supernatural premise is similar to that of the HBO series “The Leftovers”: a portion of humanity (in “Fraternity,” 50 percent) has simply vanished, leaving their loved ones reeling.

Unlike “The Leftovers,” however, “Fraternity” is in no way subtle in exploring grief. Over three and a half hours, it drains and badgers viewers emotionally: Many around me cried at least once. After so many people have died of Covid-19 in the past year and a half, this is dangerous territory, and Guiela Nguyen addresses people’s sense of loss like a bull in a china shop.

The action takes place in a “Center for Care and Consolation,” designed for survivors to process grief by leaving video messages for the departed. These are performed by a laudably diverse group made up of professional and nonprofessional actors from around the world. (Multiple languages are spoken in “Fraternity,” with rather clumsy live translations by other performers.)

Perhaps because the amateurs are still finding their feet, the acting often feels one-note, with much yelling and little in the way of emotional arcs. The plot revolves around the idea that people’s hearts slowed almost to a halt after the Great Eclipse, as the disappearance is known, which in turn slowed down the universe. Some related sci-fi developments soon grow silly, especially when an oversize plastic heart is brought in to absorb the survivors’ memories of their lost partners and relatives, in a bid to keep the planets moving.

At least Guiela Nguyen didn’t hold back on what was an ambitious, humanist project, and it’s a treat to again see Anh Tran Nghia, the star of “Saigon,” even though she’s underused. But theatermakers also have a duty to take care following a real-life tragedy. Bombarding the audience with relentless pain doesn’t necessarily lead to catharsis, and we’ve all been through enough.

Avignon Festival
Various venues in Avignon, France, through July 25; festival-avignon.com.

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Slow-Wheeling to the Sea – The New York Times

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“People will look,” warned Minna Caroline Smith in Lapham’s Quarterly about her pioneering tricycling touring of the coastal North Shore in eastern Massachusetts. It wasn’t just that the self-powered adult tricycles were novel, but so, too, were the women riding them. It was 1885.

The gender shock may now be gone but as the only person steering a tricycle on the same roads a century plus later, I knew exactly what the incisive Smith meant. My weekend travel convenience, a low-riding recumbent trike powered by hands instead of feet, was arguably even more attention-getting. This was a first try at adaptive bike touring. After a lifetime of riding around the world, I was changing to a hand cycle after spine cancer and a complication that left my legs partially paralyzed.

I had hesitated initially, aware of how low-riding would look. When I finally flipped the mental switch, I went all in. In the ultralight, performance trike I had rented from a shop called Northeast Passage in Durham, N.H., I was supine with my legs suspended in aluminum stirrups as if stretched on a low chaise longue with my head and upper torso propped up with a back-cradling husband pillow. The pedal hand grips were eye level, the black cranks and silver chain whirring around in front of me like a hamster wheel. A long pole with blinking LED lights and an orange flag trailed behind me to alert the rest of the world to notice me.

In two days retracing Smith’s 35-mile route from Malden Center to Cape Ann, I had kids gush at me and my curious rig, and young adults clandestinely stick their iPhones out car windows to catch me on video. One person whooped so unreservedly it shattered the village quiet in Manchester by the Sea.

“Do you fall asleep in that thing?” an older man in the Magnolia section of Gloucester asked covetously. At Manchester’s Singing Beach, a motorist complained I was hard to see and offered a safety suggestion. “You should go find a track somewhere,” he said.

I was glad to be riding again. I identified with the 19th-century Smith, not as a freethinking crusader exactly, but as part of the disenfranchised — a disabled man trying to join able-bodied fun. I felt a tie. Our modern, mixed-gender, middle-aged party consisted of six riders: a few experienced cyclists, others first timers. My wife Patty used a pedal assist e-bike, the rest standard issue road bikes. The vibe would be low key; there was no need to rush.

Boston’s North Shore has always been a premier cycling destination. “In and Around Cape Ann,” a popular wheelman’s guidebook published in the 1880s, lauded the views from the largely well-tended and graded dirt lanes. In 1898, in the heyday of the pre-car bike riding mania, a Boston newspaper printed a lavishly illustrated map of our bike touring route, devoting hand-drawn individual panels to snapshots of bridges, churches, elm tree-shaded gateways and signature offshore views.

The modern route’s start was no Currier & Ives postcard — a bustling Route 60 fronted our suburban hockey rink parking lot gathering point. But minutes later the automotive tumult disappeared as we set out on the Northern Strand Trail, an eight-mile, newly constructed rail trail through Everett, Malden, Revere, Saugus and coastal Lynn. The trail is also part of the East Coast Greenway, a partially completed 3,000-mile bike and pedestrian network linking towns and cities from Key West, Fla., to Calais, Maine.

The wide, well-marked trail was a revelation, creatively bordered with community gardens, vibrant murals, public sculpture and assorted green spaces and sprawling salt marshes. The road surface began with pavement then continued on gravel and dirt (since our Northern Strand ride in 2019 there have been several trail improvements, including a handsome new bridge across the Saugus River, and pavement throughout).

We traversed on the trail beneath the Route 1 overpass and around the Revere Showcase cinemas. All of us, lifetime New Englanders and some living only a handful of miles away, kept saying some variation of the same thing: We had no idea any of this was here.

The Rumney Marsh Reservation, a gorgeous 600-acre salt marsh bordering the trail and spanning parts of Saugus and Revere, would have sent Smith’s poetic heart soaring. Only five miles from downtown Boston, the habitat was a stopover for migratory birds and a permanent hangout for majestic tidal giants like great blue herons, one of which we saw flying overhead.

Large oak and birch trees, as expected, lined the path; not expected were shallow-rooted Norway maples splintered across it, the result of a recent nor’easter. Over the eight miles of the Bike-to-Sea path between Malden and Lynn’s winding seaside boulevard there were at least a half dozen trees down, precipitating all types of inventive bypasses: under, over and basically through the roughage.

My low rider, not necessarily viewed as a versatile all-terrain machine because the seat bottom is mere inches from the ground, was actually so low I could roll beneath splintered tree limbs. Where it couldn’t, I accepted a nudge, or even in the case of a then-crumbling Saugus River footbridge, a brief portage. I wasn’t demoralized — I needed help. It was an all-for-one, one-for-all group adventure.

We rode a final paved, auto-free path into downtown Salem, part of a new network of protected lanes throughout the city, this one accessed at start and finish by black metal gates resembling high wheelers. Smith’s group stopped here, too, for lunch, as well as for a touring portrait taken at the iconic, 17th-century Salem Common.

We knew about the photograph from digital reproductions, but were surprised to find the Essex Institute-owned original framed and hung in three-and-half by two-and-half-foot glory at the Witch City Mall. Their formal attire — long dark dresses for the women, militarylike uniforms for the men — belied their unmistakable sense for self-satire.

The men in particular were hams, sitting on the ground before their thrown-down penny farthings, as the high-wheel bikes of the day were known. One of the riders looked off sideways, as if ruminating on an entrancing vision (he was looking in the exact southerly direction of present day Goodnight Fatty), the sensational cookie and soft serve mainstay in the brick courtyard across the street.

The 1885 ladies lost much of their party after the official photo was taken; the remaining riders continuing on to an inn in Manchester. We didn’t get quite as far, ending a 20-mile day at the Wylie Inn in the city of Beverly. The inn (owned and operated by Endicott College) is on the grounds of a historic summer estate and is one of several magnificent Gold Coast homes dotting headlands and secluded waterfronts.

We happened to meet the owners of one of the heralded estates the next day. We were admiring a perfectly sculpted Kettle Cove bay in Gloucester, about six miles northeast of the Wylie Inn, when an older couple emerged from a hidden overgrown trail onto the shoreline street. “This is Black Beach,” offered the man, practically dressed in high wading boots, shell jacket and heavy briar-repelling gloves. “The other one is White, but we don’t call them that, we call them, Pebbly and Sandy.”

My father, Oliver Balf, was one of the numerous New York City artists who came to Cape Ann in the 1940s. Like many others he came for the summers and stayed for good. I am pretty sure as a young man his eye was drawn to the same en plein-air backdrops we saw throughout the weekend: the working fishing boats chugging about pocket harbors, low banks of starchy offshore clouds against a wide, cold-water blue sky.

On the second day, we cycled the long route between Beverly Farms and Gloucester, detouring off Route 127 onto Ocean Street and Shore Road, each stunning spur routes to ocean views. We came across a sign, etched in granite, that read, WOE TIDES and a weatherworn wooden arrow above a stone for “Old Salem Path.” On one attempt to take a shortcut back to the main road, we bypassed Thunderbolt Hill, a steeply curving, granite-lined drive near Singing Beach in Manchester where James Fields, the founder of The Atlantic Monthly, once entertained Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Touring with a hand trike, two big wheels behind me and a third centered in front, was surprisingly great. I was sitting, of course, able to relax and leisurely take in the passing countryside. But I was thrillingly entertained on downhills, leaning like a slalom skier to carve corners at speed. The pedal power from my upper body was steady and dependable, and as the tour continued, though I knew I looked different, I didn’t feel different. Trikes and e-bikes help level the playing field. More inclusive tours, and a greater variety of them, are likely to follow. But it was also good to know you can set off with old cycling friends, one of whom saw fit to ride all weekend in a period tweed vest, tie and collared shirt.

Minna Caroline Smith had initially planned for their trip to end in Magnolia, but a deepening craving for Gloucester clams brought her another four miles to a hotel near Pavilion Beach. We figured the trip would end in downtown Gloucester, too, but after a perfect fried fish and chowder lunch at the Causeway Restaurant, a noontime local favorite, we went farther, 12 miles in all, keen to round Cape Ann and thoroughly use up the day.


Todd Balf is the author of several nonfiction books and most recently, a memoir about his disability journey called Complications.


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