Today’s column is inspired by the February birthday of that Hollywood dynamo, the dashing, the debonair, the one, the only, Abraham Lincoln!
You might think this is the first time that Lincoln’s birthday has ever rolled around with him being in the running for an Oscar. You would be wrong. In February 1940, Raymond Massey was Oscar-nom’d (as us entertainment insiders say) for portraying Lincoln in the film “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” (He got passed over in favor of Clark Gable for “Gone With the Wind” you’re thinking? You would be wrong again. The statue went to Robert Donat for “Goodbye Mr. Chips.” But I think Donat portrayed Lincoln in that film, right?)
This column was originally designed to be a compendious lexicon of Lincoln-related trivia. Then I read a quote from a Lincoln scholar who said something to the effect of “There’s nothing trivial about Lincoln.”
Oh really? After a Herculean research effort lasting most of the past 17 minutes, I herewith offer a treasure trove of diverting factoids about Lincoln that I’m quite sure you never heard before:
Lincoln was a lawyer, and did business with several partners throughout his career, the first being a fellow named John Todd Stuart, who, judging from his majestic last name, was no doubt a brilliant legal strategist, courtroom tactician and all-around swell guy.
Now, thanks to John Todd Stuart, I’m compelled to run off on a few minor tangents; won’t you come along?
First, the screen is for several long seconds during “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” with a sign reading “Stuart & Lincoln”; I mention it in the humble hope that you’ll never again think of Abraham Lincoln without also thinking of a certain lame-brained weekly columnist.
Secondly, the Internet Movie Database doesn’t list anyone playing the John Todd Stuart role in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” But the Stuart character is portrayed in the 1939 film “Young Mr. Lincoln” (featuring Henry Fonda as Lincoln), which was directed by John Ford, who (cue “eerie coincidence” music) was born on the same February day as. . .No! not Lincoln. . .my little sister!
Thirdly, I think the two tangential moments above demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that, in my hands, Lincoln CAN in fact be linked to serious trivia!
Early in his lawyering career, Lincoln defended a man (whom we’ll call “Fonda”) charged with assault and battery by a neighbor (let’s call him “Massey”). The alleged crime occurred when Massey began pelting Fonda first with bad language, followed by punches and blows. Fonda, in the act of defending himself, accidentally beat the snot out of Massey. So Massey pressed the charges that led to a trial.
Lincoln illustrated Fonda’s plight with the following story: a man walking along the road carrying a pitchfork is attacked by a farmer’s dog; in his effort to keep the dog at bay, he injures it with the pitchfork. The farmer points at the pitchfork and cries “Why didn’t you come at the dog with the other end?” To which the pitchfork-bearer replies “Why didn’t the dog come at me with his other end?”
This effectively made Lincoln’s defense that “the other fellow brought on the fight,” and left most in the courtroom agreeing that it would make a fine scene in a motion picture of Lincoln’s life, if someone would just get around to inventing motion pictures.
Besides the fact that our paths intersected often with people having the last name “Stuart,” I have something else in common with Abraham Lincoln. Like him, I am somewhat, uh, organizationally challenged. History records that his law offices were in a perpetual state of clutter. In a valiant effort to stay one step ahead of total chaos, Lincoln kept an envelope on his desk labeled “When you can’t find it anywhere else, look into this.”
During one of his famous debates with rival politician Stephen Douglas, Douglas joshed Lincoln for at one time being a mere store clerk, and one who sold liquor at that. To which Lincoln replied, “Yes, I once sold liquor, and I must say that Mr. Douglas was very attentive on the other side of the counter.”
There’s a lesson here, don’t you think? Douglas wouldn’t have endured such teasing if he’d just come at Lincoln with his other end.