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Franz Kafka's life wasn't so kafkaesque after all, TV miniseries shows

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Franz Kafka's life wasn't so kafkaesque after all, TV miniseries shows

Max Brod (left), a recognized writer at the time, relentlessly promoted the writings of his friend, Franz Kafka, played here respectively by David Kross and Joel Basman in the Austrian-German series Kafka, now streaming in the U.S.

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If you’ve ever felt powerless when confronted with faceless bureaucracy, confounded by absurd accusations or simply hopeless, chances are the word “kafkaesque” might sum up your situation.

But a television miniseries released in the U.S. this month shows Prague-born author Franz Kafka, whose work inspired the word, as anything but kafkaesque. Tortured recluse he is not here.

Instead, Kafka is a wrangler of labyrinthian bureaucratic systems, so successful in fact that his bosses do all in their power to keep him at home and prevent him from enlisting in World War I. That’s the story according to Kafka, a six-part series that was co-produced by Germany’s ARD, Austria’s ORF and Superfilm.

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“We all think we hear of the bureau, or the office, that it’s a dark world and it’s apocalyptic (for Kafka). But in the real world, it was a paradise,” Director David Schalko told NPR’s Michel Martin during a joint interview with Joel Basman, who plays the title role.

Schalko said he was inspired to take on the project after reading Reiner Stach’s three-volume biography of Kafka, originally published in German between 2002 and 2014. In rejecting the usual tropes of equivocating Kafka’s angst-ridden works with the writer’s life, Schalko’s biopic offers a lush, more humanly complex picture.

Max Brod (David Kross) and his wife Elsa (Tamara Stern) escaped Prague on one of the last trains to leave the city before Nazi forces took control, recognizing the danger to Jews like himself. He carried Franz Kafka's papers with him in a suitcase.

Max Brod (David Kross) and his wife Elsa (Tamara Stern) escaped Prague on one of the last trains to leave the city before Nazi forces took control, recognizing the danger to Jews like himself. He carried Franz Kafka’s papers with him in a suitcase.

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One perspective per episode

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The first theme is the author’s relationship with his close friend Max Brod — who ultimately defied Kafka’s wish to have all his manuscripts burned and instead posthumously became his biographer and literary executor.

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The other episodes focus on the his (bourgeois) family, three of his lovers and his role as an insurance lawyer.

Kafka's domineering father Hermann (Nicholas Ofczarek) plays a central role in his life and writings.

Kafka’s domineering father Hermann (Nicholas Ofczarek) plays a central role in his life and writings.

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In episode four, Kafka wins successive court cases and contracts for the company. He is held in high esteem by his superiors at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. They also admire his writings and press him to review their own mediocre texts. It’s an admiration that Kafka does not reciprocate.

“He was very good rhetorically and he was fighting for the insurance company,” Schalko said. “It’s not the silent Kafka who is not able to talk in front of other people. It shows a complete different Kafka.”

The series alternates between biographical material, historical context and scenes from Kafka's writings.

The series alternates between biographical material, historical context and scenes from Kafka’s writings.

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Basman says he felt compelled in portraying Kafka to “get away from the cliché of him being a depressed person. First of all, he’s a funny man. He’s got humor. And of course, he’s got his issues, and we all got them in our lives, but he was far away from depressed.”

A century since Kafka’s death

The series’ release coincides with the 100th anniversary of Kafka’s death this month. And it comes at a time of renewed interest in the writer, who has become an unexpected hot item among a younger generation reflecting on alienation via posts on TikTok.

Just last year, readers could finally access a new translation of Kafka’s diaries, by Ross Benjamin. Prior versions relied on a manuscript heavily edited and redacted by Kafka’s friend Brod, whose version was polished and removed lewd, homoerotic and unflattering material concerning Kafka and himself.

The unfiltered version shows a more hesitant Kafka who often left his thoughts unfinished mid-sentence — not surprising for an author who never didn’t complete the three novels he started and whose characters struggled with the impossibility of finishing tasks.

Kafka's longtime fiancée Felice Bauer (Lia von Blarer, right) got so fed up with his constant equivocation that she confronted him alongside her friend, Grete Bloch (Marie-Luise Stockinger), an event that inspired the novel The Trial.

Kafka’s longtime fiancée Felice Bauer (Lia von Blarer, right) got so fed up with his constant equivocation that she confronted him alongside her friend, Grete Bloch (Marie-Luise Stockinger), an event that inspired the novel The Trial.

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“The feeling to wake up and feel like vermin, like an insect, and feeling the shame and get canceled by the others, is a feeling you know from social media very well,” Schalko said, while pointing to arbitrary arrests in Russia as another example.

“He also writes about the bureaucracy and how it feels to be a human being in a system that doesn’t see you as a human being. And that’s a big issue in our times as well.”

In a memorable scene in episode three, Kafka brings home for dinner a traditional Yiddish theater actor he befriended, Yitzhak Löwy. But Kafka’s domineering father, Hermann, disapproves and says Löwy is dirty and compares him to an insect.

The confrontation inspired Kafka to write his novella The Metamorphosis, the story of a man who turns into a bug. Kafka had also written a 100-page letter criticizing his father — the closest he came to writing an autobiography — though he neither sent nor published it.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, played by Lars Eidinger, is shown moved to tears after reading Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the story of a man who turns into an insect that was inspired by a confrontation between Kafka's domineering father and the writer's Yiddish actor friend Yitzhak Löwy.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, played by Lars Eidinger, is shown moved to tears after reading Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the story of a man who turns into an insect that was inspired by a confrontation between Kafka’s domineering father and the writer’s Yiddish actor friend Yitzhak Löwy.

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“For his father, it was more important to be accepted by the elites of Prague; he tried to maybe even hide his Judaism,” Basman said.

The Swiss-born actor says he could relate to this ambiguity in Kafka’s family identity because his own father is originally from Israel but he’s an atheist.

“I was never Jewish enough, but I also was never Swiss enough… I realized, okay, people want to brand you and if they can’t brand you, they don’t want you on their team,” Basman said.

“I think for Kafka, religion was also just a journey of getting to know himself because it was hidden by his father so strongly that he took this journey by himself.”

Kafka was engaged four times and never married, keeping most relationships long-distance via extensive letter-writing. His penultimate relationship was with the writer Milena Jesenská (Liv Lisa Fries), who recognizes his talent.

Kafka was engaged four times and never married, keeping most relationships long-distance via extensive letter-writing. His penultimate relationship was with the writer Milena Jesenská (Liv Lisa Fries), who recognizes his talent.

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Kafka and women

The women in Kafka’s life also left an indelible mark. He was engaged several times but never married. One of his fiancées was Felice Bauer, Brod’s cousin. The pair meet and only get to know each superficially before Kafka sends her hundreds of agonizing letters for months on end, through an initial parting, a second engagement and a final breakup.

Fed up with Kafka’s constant equivocation, Bauer at one point confronts him, letters in hand, with her friend Grete Bloch — another recipient of letters from Kafka — by her side. The episode drawn from the writer’s life inspired his novel The Trial, published posthumously in 1925.

The protagonist Joseph K. navigates an absurdly complex bureaucratic system and makes mistakes that make him look guilty of an unknown crime for which he is put on trial and then executed “like a dog.”

Two men in leather coats (Raimund Wallisch, left, and Gerhard Liebmann) lurk in the background, a representation of the angst and absurdities of bureaucracy that concerned Kafka.

Two men in leather coats (Raimund Wallisch, left, and Gerhard Liebmann) lurk in the background, a representation of the angst and absurdities of bureaucracy that concerned Kafka.

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Kafka is available to stream on ChaiFlicks. New episodes will release weekly.

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The broadcast version of this story was produced by Mansee Khurana. The digital version was edited by Obed Manuel.

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The late 'Jeopardy!' host Alex Trebek will be honored with a U.S. postage stamp

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The late 'Jeopardy!' host Alex Trebek will be honored with a U.S. postage stamp

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek is seen during a 2012 rehearsal. Next month, the U.S. Postal Service is releasing a Forever Stamp honoring Trebek, who died in 2020.

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The U.S. Postal Service for 73 cents, please.

A new Forever Stamp set to be publicly released by the agency next month will pay tribute to longtime Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, who died in 2020.

The stamp resembles the blue-and-white clue panel on the iconic trivia show, with the following prompt: “This naturalized U.S. citizen hosted the quiz show ‘Jeopardy!’ for 37 seasons.”

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Underneath and upside down is the answer written in the show’s signature interrogative format: “Who is Alex Trebek?” (Trebek was born in Ontario, Canada.)

The stamps will be sold as a set of 20 that resembles the TV program’s game board, with categories including “entertainment” and “famous Alexes,” alongside a photo of Trebek himself.

The USPS will issue the stamps beginning on July 22 at 4 p.m. Pacific time. A sheet of 20 will cost $14.60.

Forever Stamps are set to jump in price from 68 cents to 73 cents in July.

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Current Jeopardy! host Ken Jennings announced the new stamp Friday during the show.

The philatelic tribute comes as Jeopardy! celebrates its 60th year on air, after debuting on March 30, 1964.

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Want to be fearless? Try this fierce Zen priest's belly button method

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Want to be fearless? Try this fierce Zen priest's belly button method

If there are many paths up the mountain that is spiritual self-discovery, writer, strategist and Zen priest Cristina Moon is on one with an especially steep incline. “I think the majority of paths have a lot of switchbacks, but some people want straight up the mountain,” she said. “That works for them, it worked for me.”

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In her new memoir “Three Years on the Great Mountain: A memoir of Zen and Fearlessness,” (Penguin Random House) Moon details a spiritual journey that led her from working as a human rights activist in Burma (now Myanmar), to running marketing for a corporate mindfulness training group in the Bay Area, to ultimately living at Daihonzan Chozen-ji, a Zen temple and martial arts dojo in Hawaii known for its monastic intensity.

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She eventually became a Zen priest herself, and continues to live at the temple today, where she trains in a particularly rigorous form of Japanese swordsmanship called kendo. She also instructs students in martial arts, ceramics and other Japanese art forms to aid them in the discovery of what Japanese Zen Buddhists call the “true self” — a version of oneself that is happy, free and beyond fear and any self-imposed limitation.

Moon knows the arduous path she chose is not for everyone, but her hope is that by writing honestly and vulnerably about the challenges and growth she experienced in her first three years at Chozen-ji she will inspire others to seek teachers and communities that will best help them meet life’s obstacles with fearlessness.

“In training hard, it is possible to find your way home,” she writes in the book’s introduction.

Moon spoke to The Times about her transformative experience at Chozen-ji, what it means to face challenges with “your belly button facing forward” and how all of us can work towards living life with less fear.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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One of the goals of the Zen Buddhism you practice is to cultivate fearlessness, which feels very relevant right now, given that, between war, climate change and political turmoil, there’s a lot to be afraid of in our world. What does fearlessness mean to you and how can we work to achieve it?

Photo of Cristina Moon

Cristina Moon (Michelle Mishina Kunz)

In a very practical sense fearlessness is simply: Can I figure out how to live my life without hesitation? If I see an opening, if I see an opportunity, can I just go for it 100% without being held back by fear? And, can I inspire or transmit that to other people as well?

Overcoming my fear at the beginning of my time at Chozen-ji was really straightforward stuff, like not ducking and getting small when someone was about to hit me over the head in [the Japanese martial art] kendo, or not being afraid of being uncomfortable and being in pain while sitting for long periods of meditation.

But for anyone doing any kind of physical training or exercise, it’s the same thing. When you push yourself through the moment of doubt, when you’re running up a hill, and you think, I’d love to give up now and walk up this hill, but I know I’m almost there. There’s something about doing it physically that allows you to do it in other parts of your life emotionally, mentally and interpersonally.

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In your time at Chozen-ji you studied kendo — the way of the sword and chado — the way of tea. Can you describe these disciplines and what they had to teach you?

“Do” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word “tao,” which is sort of a universal energy, a universal truth. When you append that word to a discipline or an art, it basically says that you can take this martial or fine art and use it as a way of training that will shape who you are.

“Ken” means sword, and “do” means way, so kendo is the way of the sword. It’s a traditional Japanese martial art form that is pretty intense and aggressive. Back when samurai actually existed it was done with metal swords, but now we use bamboo or wooden swords. In our approach to kendo we don’t learn any defensive maneuvers. We train in how to go forward and cut straight.

The goal is that you are cutting more down the center, faster and with less hesitation then your opponent, so even in the face of attack, you’re the one landing the hit first. That particular kind of training cultivates fearlessness so that you don’t mind getting hit. You can face the hit and still move forward and do what you have to do.

“That particular kind of training cultivates fearlessness so that you don’t mind getting hit. You can face the hit and still move forward and do what you have to do.”

— Cristina Moon, on the Japanese martial art of kendo

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Chado, or the way of tea, is very different. Chado is remarkable because it incorporates philosophy and all the art forms — cooking, calligraphy, aesthetics, the tea itself and the sweets, ceramics — it really is a whole integrated space when you are in the tearoom. What I didn’t realize before I started training is that male samurai were the original people who trained in tea ceremony. It was something that was done as a counterpoint to their lifestyle and livelihood — a brief moment of peace.

What they both have in common is the cultivation of what’s called “kiai,” or the vital energy. The ideal is that the separation between kendo opponents, between the person and the sword, between the tea host, the utensils and the guest — all those boundaries disappear. It is an opportunity to experience the interconnectedness and the oneness of everything.

Your book details how difficult training at Chozen-ji can be. In addition to the physical exertion of long meditation sittings and martial arts, your teachers were constantly correcting you. Did you have to build a tolerance to being told you’re doing something wrong?

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Book jacket for "Three Years on The Great Mountain A Memoir of Zen and Fearlessness" by Cristina Moon

(Courtesy of Shambhala Publications)

In Hawaii we call it scolding. You get scoldings for all sorts of things, and it’s one of the first things anyone who comes to train at Chozen-ji has to figure out how to deal with. Sometimes the feedback is very warm, but it’s jarring for people when it’s sharp. We’re always reminded that if the scoldings and feedback stop, that’s actually when you should get concerned because it means people have given up on you.

We don’t do anything because it’s precious or holy. So, how you hold your hands, how you walk, how you tie your hakama [traditional Japanese martial arts training clothes] — all of those things are meant to help you learn how to pay attention and also, heighten your senses.

I love this phrase in your book: “approaching life with your belly button facing forward.” What does that mean to you?

It means tackling the challenges and opportunities in life head-on rather than trying to find a sneaky or clever way away around things. It means honesty and integrity, and in particular when things are hard, to be willing to face it.

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You titled one chapter in your book: “2-1=3.” Can you explain that?

That’s a formulation I have to credit to one of the teachers here, Kangen Roshi. It’s this idea that when you let go of something you can free up all this energy and space to have an understanding that is so much more transcendent than the everyday understanding we have about the world being zero sum and how things are supposed to work.

He also gave me a copy of “Jitterbug Perfume” by Tom Robbins. In the end of that book a couple of characters die and they are at this way station to figure out if they are going to go to heaven. The test is that you weigh your heart on a scale against a feather and only the hearts that are lighter than the feather go to heaven. The idea is that you have to have let go of all of your baggage. You have to let go of everything.

The book details the first time you did sesshin, an intense week of training where you only get four hours of sleep a night. One of your teachers said, “Stop feeling bad for yourself, and wasting all that energy.” Why was that a breakthrough moment for you?

Sesshin is an extreme situation where you have to figure out how to let go of your baggage and the things that are holding you back. The conditions make it so that you don’t have a choice.

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On that first sesshin I was preoccupied with how tired I was. I had this monologue in my head that was like: “I’m so tired. I can’t do this. I don’t think I can make it.” For me, the most effective scolding was to be told: You are young, you are healthy, you’ve been doing this every day for six months. And look around you at all these people who are not in as good shape as you, who don’t know what they’re doing, who don’t have as much experience as you, and what impact are you having on these people by being so down.

TAKEAWAYS

From “Three Years on the Great Mountain”

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After that, every time that voice started up that said, “I’m so tired,” I would just sort of say, “No!” and put more energy into whatever I was doing. Very quickly I realized that I had more energy.

The really painful and difficult realization coming out of that was that for my entire life I had been leaving something on the table.

Most people are probably not going to leave their jobs and homes to live and train at a dojo in Hawaii for three years. What are some things they can do in their everyday lives to challenge themselves, like you did?

My experience at Chozen-ji is really abnormal. Ninety-nine percent of the people who train here don’t live at Chozen-ji; they have jobs, they have families, they live on Oahu and they come here one or a couple days a week. But my advice to other folks is to find the dojos that exist in your communities. A great place to start is the martial arts dojo or the boxing gym. It’s something that is accessible for people who are ready to rethink how they want to approach their life.

I know that after an eight-hour workday and an hour commute it’s tempting to just drink a beer, eat dinner, watch four hours of Netflix and go to bed. But how is that preparing you for the things that are inevitable that you are going to face in your life — the best and the worst, the hardest moments?

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A lot of people are experiencing fear and anxiety about the future. What have you learned that might help someone overcome those particular fears?

The real answers are not the rational ones we are seeking. Even beyond something like climate change, we can be certain that everyone we love is going to die and so are we, and there’s something that comes from embracing that in a certain way that can lead one to actually be free and happy and to cherish the life that we do have. The worst thing we can do is become depressed or nihilistic or give up, knowing that’s the outcome for all of us.

It’s actually a pretty amazing opportunity to be able to live, knowing that that’s coming. Maybe every moment matters. Maybe what I’m doing right now matters. How can I make it matter?

I’ve read a lot of Buddhist memoirs and self-help books over the years and I’m struck that yours is the first one I’ve read written by an Asian American woman. Have I missed others or have there not been others?

There are a few. Sharon Suh wrote “Occupy This Body: A Buddhist Memoir,” but I think that was a very small press. Chenxing Han published the memoir “One Long Listening” about her experience in Buddhist chaplaincy and also about losing her best friend to leukemia. Those are the two I know of that are very recent.

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As much as my book is very much a Buddhist book, I did try hard to make it relatable and read more like a mainstream memoir. And that was for exactly this reason: Our stories aren’t out there. I think there is a greater movement toward representing the Asian American people in the Buddhist space generally, but we still have a long ways to go.

A tray with a Japanese tea set and a cherry tree branch with blossoms

(Maggie Chiang / For The Times)

Shelf Help is a new wellness column where we interview researchers, thinkers and writers about their latest books — all with the aim of learning how to live a more complete life. Want to pitch us? Email alyssa.bereznak@latimes.com.

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It's too hot. Our sundress season of discontent isn't helping

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It's too hot. Our sundress season of discontent isn't helping

A woman on TikTok asked: What is a sundress? Ten million views later, the debate is still raging. Above, Four models in summer dresses in 1972.

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“What is a sundress?” wondered a young woman in plaintive tones on TikTok. “I own every dress. Which is the sun one?”

Nearly 10 million views later, that burning question continues to light up social media. Reaction videos included an influencer in Atlanta spelling out how “sundress season” in her Black community means Skims-style dresses that are long and tight, rather than flowy skirts with a fitted bodice. A good-natured, self-described mansplainer admitted that, although no expert in women’s fashion, he knows what he likes. Specifically, what he called “milkmaid style” dresses, preferably in yellow. “Cause we are simple,” he says. “Yellow, sun.”

Taylor Swift in a sundress at The CMA Music Festival on June 13, 2010 in Nashville, Tenn.

Taylor Swift at The CMA Music Festival on June 13, 2010 in Nashville, Tenn.

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Which cuts to the crux of the sundress stakes. It’s not just what a sundress is, says Vox writer Rebecca Jennings. It’s who a sundress is for.

“Some men were complaining that women aren’t wearing sundresses ‘like they used to,’” Jennings notes. “Which feels like a very reactionary response to changing gender dynamics.”

Models Endy Cartnell (left) and Selina, on the King's Road, Chelsea, London in 1973.

Models Endy Cartnell (left) and Selina, on the King’s Road, Chelsea, London in 1973.

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Jennings traced the early days of what we now call the sundress in an expansively researched essay called “The sundress discourse, explained.” The garment, she wrote, became a summer staple in the postwar period, popularized by pioneering female sportswear designers such as Claire McCardell and Carolyn Schnurer.

“They’re dresses that were meant to be worn without these fussy undergarments,” she explains, meaning without girdles or even pantyhose. The designer Lilly Pulitzer, known for her bright prints and boutique-y brand, helped make sundresses, at first a style associated with children, respectable even for grown women.

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A mother and daughter in 1955.

A mother and daughter in 1955.

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The sundress as male fetish object joined the cultural conversation through the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Jennings says. In a 2010 episode, the resident toxic male creep does a whole bit about sundresses. And since then, the mainstream cultural discourse around the sundress has changed accordingly, as reflected in some of the TikTok videos responding to the original query.

Disputes over sundresses right now are really about contemporary concerns, Jennings suggests, ranging from fast fashion to obsessions over gender norms. But, she adds, none of this should stop sundress fans from reaching for that lightweight little frock in the closet designed with hot weather in mind. “It’s not the sundress’s fault,” she points out, with a laugh.

American actress, singer and dancer Marpessa Dawn pictured on a balcony on June 1, 1960.

American actress, singer and dancer Marpessa Dawn pictured on a balcony on June 1st, 1960.

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Edited for radio and the web by Jennifer Vanasco.

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