August 22

There are 3 entries for this date: Claude Debussy Diana Nyad Annie Proulx

    Claude Debussy

    Claude Debussy

    On this date in 1862, AchilleClaude Debussy, the originator of “musical impressionism,” was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, the oldest of five children. Becoming a student at the Paris Conservatoire at 11 years old, Debussy went on to win the 1884 Prix de Rome. From 1887 on, he spent his life writing musical compositions, rarely performing.

    His most famous works are “Claire de Lune” and the orchestral “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” based on a poem by his friend Stephene Mallarme. His works included orchestral suites, preludes, a ballet and “Pelléas et Mélisande,” his only completed opera.

    Debussy married Marie-Rosalie Texier, known as “Lilly,” in 1899 but became increasingly irritated by what he saw as her intellectual limitations and lack of musical sensitivity, according to music scholar Robert Orledge. They divorced in 1904, and in 1905 he married Emma Bardac, who had already given birth to his daughter, Claude-Emma.

    In 1915 he underwent one of the earliest colostomy operations after a colon cancer diagnosis. His health continued to decline and he died at age 55 from cancer during the bombardment of Paris by Germany. “His themes — so frequently taken from Mallarme, Verlaine, Baudelaire, etc., — sufficiently indicated his entire rejection of creeds, and he had a secular funeral.” (Joseph McCabe, A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists, 1920) (D. 1918)

    PHOTO: Debussy in 1908 at age 46.

    “I do not practise religion in accordance with the sacred rites. I have made mysterious Nature my religion. I do not believe that a man is any nearer to God for being clad in priestly garments, nor that one place in a town is better adapted to meditation than another.”

    —Debussy, quoted in "Claude Debussy: His Life and Works" by Léon Vallas (1933)

    Diana Nyad

    Diana Nyad

    On this date in 1949, endurance swimmer Diana Nyad (née Sneed) was born in New York City to Lucy Curtis and William Sneed, a stockbroker who died while she was an infant. When she was 3 her mother married Greek land developer Aristotle Nyad and the family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Taking her stepfather’s name, Nyad emerged as a swimming sensation. Despite hardships such as sexual abuse by her coach and a less-than-stable household, she won accolades as a high school swimmer.

    A battle with endocarditis prevented her early Olympic aspirations, but within a year she recuperated and went on to pursue a college degree. She was briefly a pre-medical student at Emory University (expelled for parachuting out of her dormitory window), then earned degrees in English and French as well as Phi Beta Kappa status from Lake Forest College in 1973.

    After graduation she resumed her focus on long-distance swimming, setting major records, including swimming around Manhattan in under eight hours in 1975. She set the women’s record for swimming 10 miles across Lake Ontario and subsequently broke a series of distance records at locations such as the Suez Canal, the Nile River and the Caribbean.

     On Sept. 2, 2013, she accomplished an arduous, 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida, unaided by shark cage or fins. In 1978, at age 28, she first attempted the journey from Cuba to Florida but her dream was derailed by unsafe conditions necessitating an unwieldy shark cage.

    A year later, after setting a world record for crossing from the Bahamas to Florida, she took a 30-year hiatus from long-distance swimming and worked in broadcast journalism, including on “Wide World of Sports” on ABC and NPR’s “The Savvy Traveler.” In 2011 she decided to reattempt the trip from Cuba to Florida. She tried three more times until finally accomplishing the feat in her fifth attempt at age 64. She attributed her success to mental strength and discipline more than physical stamina. 

    Nyad is a multilingual motivational speaker who was honored by the International Swimming Hall of Fame and National Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Her books include a memoir, Other Shores (1978). She is “out” about her long-term relationship with a woman. She completed a 48-hour charity swim to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.

    She was featured in a controversial episode of Oprah Winfrey’s “Super Soul Sunday,” during which she discussed her identity as an atheist in “awe” of the universe and humanity.

    I’m not a god person. … I’m an atheist who’s in awe.

    —Nyad on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" (Oct. 13, 2013)
    Compiled by Yuna Choi; photo by Helga Esteb,

    Annie Proulx

    Annie Proulx

    On this date in 1935, novelist Edna Ann Proulx (rhymes with prew) was born in Norwich, Conn., to Lois (Gill) and George Proulx, parents of English and French-Canadian ancestry. Her maternal forebears came to America 15 years after the Mayflower in 1635.

    After living in North Carolina and elsewhere with her family, she graduated from high school in Maine and briefly attended Colby College, where she met her first husband, marrying in 1955 at age 20. She graduated with a B.A. degree in history in 1969 from the University of Vermont and an M.A. degree from Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) in Montreal in 1973.

    Proulx worked as a freelance journalist in Vermont after abandoning a Ph.D. program. She had married twice more after divorces and had a daughter and three sons. She published her first novel, Postcards, when she was 56 in 1992. The next year she published The Shipping News, which brought her acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. It was adapted as a film in 2001.

    She won the O. Henry Prize for the year’s best short story in 1998 for “Brokeback Mountain,” which had appeared in The New Yorker. It was adapted as a movie in 2005 and won several film industry awards, including the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, co-written by Larry McMurtry.

    She moved to Wyoming, the setting for “Brokeback Mountain,” in 1994 and continued to write. She’s the author of eight books, the latest as of this writing, Barkskins, in 2016 after moving to Washington state. In 2017 she received the Fitzgerald Award for Achievement in American Literature.

    In 2003 she told The Guardian newspaper that apart from “bouts” of Sunday school, religion really hasn’t been a factor in her life. She was not impressed by the worship services that had attracted her mother and sisters in North Carolina: “I was already ‘inoculated’ and too old to catch religious fervour. … I’m an admirer of self-reliance and the natural world and people who can get along in it.”

    In Wyoming she had no time for the evangelicals she encountered: “Very bigoted, extremely right-wing and full of hatred for people who are not like they are.”

    PHOTO: Proulx in 2018 at the National Book Festival; photo by Fuzheado under CC 4.0.

    “She says there has been ‘little religion’ in her life. Perhaps the closest expression of her belief system is the slogan ‘Take care of your own damn self.’ ”

    —Proulx, quoted in The Guardian (Jan. 3, 2003)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

Freedom From Religion Foundation