by Kitty Kelley
Remember that iconic scene in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”? Mary’s editor, Lou Grant, played by Ed Asner, says, “You know, Mary. You’ve got spunk.”
She beams. “Why, thank you, Mr. Grant.”
He growls. “I hate spunk.”
Lou Grant would’ve been brought to his knees by Elsinore Justinia Robinson, who was spring-loaded with spunk — hell-bent, fire-popping spunk. As the highest paid female columnist for Hearst newspapers, she was syndicated to 20 million readers and wrote like a rocket, filing over 9,000 stories in 40 years. A passionate autodidact, she also wrote poetry, short fiction, and essays, and published many children’s books that she illustrated herself. In 1934, she wrote her memoir, I Wanted Out.
Yet for being one of the most famous people in America, Elsie Robinson was virtually forgotten after her death in 1956. Now, decades later, we have the first biography of this female phenom, described by her biographers as an “all-around badass!” Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert spent more than 11 years researching and reporting to write Listen, World! How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman, the life story of this life force.
Born in 1883, Elsie grew up in Benicia, California, a small town which “permitted uncorked hedonism,” and where F Street divided the community. Downtown was “saloons…and sporting women.” Uptown was churches and knee-bending nuns. Elsie lived uptown — the “good” side of town — near the high stone walls of St. Catherine’s Convent, but she prized downtown.
“Goodness, though it promised halos in heaven, certainly didn’t offer a lively gal many breaks on earth,” she wrote in her memoir. “Bad Women, on the contrary, had practically unlimited freedom and fun.”
Elsie was a “lively gal” times 10, a free spirit from the West as unsinkable as Molly Brown, and as uncorseted by social strictures as Annie Oakley. When Christie Crowell, a widower from the East who’d traveled to California after the death of his young wife, first met Elsie, he was captivated by her enthusiasm. Soon, he proposed, and she accepted.
He happily wrote to his parents with the news, but they responded with grave reservations. They felt their already-shaky social status in Brattleboro, Vermont, would not be enhanced by a young woman from a working-class family in the town that spawned the California Gold Rush, hardly a citadel of moral rectitude. So, they did all they could to dissuade their son from pursuing the marriage.
“After months of epistolary discourse, the Crowells set down their terms,” write Scheeres and Gilbert. “Christie could marry Elsie on one condition: she must attend a seminary school to learn household management, elocution and the Bible…to become a fitting bride for their son.”
You might think that, at this point, the high-spirited Elsie would tell Christie and his parents to stuff their seminary school, but in the early 1900s, a young woman’s options were severely limited — either marry or mildew — so Elsie agreed to their terms. As she would later learn, however, even a married woman’s status was no higher than the family dog’s. She stayed with her husband for nine years, until Christie demanded a divorce on the only grounds available — adultery. Reflected Elsie:
“So solemn was marriage, so shameful divorce that the thought of separation had never as yet crossed my mind. Someday it will seem incredible that any woman should have faced such shame, such deliberate torture as I was about to face.”
On almost every page of this engaging biography, the authors weave in bits of Elsie’s writings, putting her opinions and insights into italics so the reader knows exactly what was on her mind. They don’t have to speculate about how Elsie felt living in the same house with her snooty in-laws; they have her diaries, interviews, letters, and newspaper columns to tell them. Yet even with such a cornucopia of information, the authors still insert “might have felt,” “surely thought,” and “was likely oblivious” here and there, sprinkling “perhaps” and “presumably” throughout their presentation of this fascinating woman who survived every obstacle she ever met.
The highlight of Elsie’s life was the birth of her only child, George, who suffered from severe asthma attacks, forcing him to miss weeks of school. In 1926, the young man found a small lump in his foot that was surgically removed. But after being released from the hospital, he was wracked by fever, chills, and severe chest pain. Elsie wrote a column filled with her anguish:
“I’m afraid…Fear runs through all my life. I cannot mark its course with a definite line, but its grim shadow tinges my brightest moments and noblest dreams…I have only found one way to manage fear…Go on! No matter how terrible your inward agony, go on! Don’t wait until the darkness lifts. Grab each small task, whether it appeals or not! Keep doing something! Go through the gestures of normal life! Eat, talk and smile as though all things were well. Then gradually your inner body will conform to your firm fighting front. Your thoughts will cease their maddened hammering at your skull. You will not banish fear, but you’ll have conquered it and made it run to heel.”
Hear, hear, Elsie!
George Alexander Crowell took his last rasping breath at age 21 with his mother by his side. Elsie tried to outpace her unmanageable grief with round-the-clock work. “There are no details when the thing you have loved best goes on. Only a wailing, witless darkness…the sense of utter bankruptcy.” In 1928, the 48-year-old Elsie finally buckled to the unmitigated pain and suffered a nervous breakdown.
Throughout her life, Elsie Robinson used her national platform to express her increasingly progressive views. She supported labor unions; she ridiculed Prohibition; she denounced the death penalty. During the 1930s, she railed against the Nazis and rallied Americans to support Jewish refugees. She condemned racism and excoriated the Daughters of the American Revolution for refusing to let Paul Robeson perform in their concert hall.
“And on what, may I ask, do you base your supremacy?” she wrote in her syndicated column. “You didn’t choose your ancestors…You happened to be born white…you could have put aside ignorance and prejudice and contemptible snootiness…and given your lives for unity. But you weren’t big enough. You weren’t brave enough.”
God bless you, Elsie!
Listen, World! is a glorious biography for all the women who deserve to see themselves on life’s pedestal — and for all the heroic men who help lift them up.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
No one hosts a more spectacular dinner party for a better cause than David Bruce Smith. His heavy parchment invitations of exquisite calligraphy arrive each fall to announce his Grateful American Foundation’s Book Award for the best children’s book of the year. The 2022 recipient was Michelle Coles for her first novel, Black Was the Ink. Coles joined previous winners, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer for her 2021 children’s book, The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayer, and Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963 by Sharon Robinson, daughter of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball.
The Grateful American Book Award comes with a check for $13,000, “a patriotic nod to the 13 original colonies,” says Smith — plus a lifetime pass to the New York Historical Society because, he says, “It’s hallowed objective is to celebrate knowledge,” and a medal, “designed by my mother, Clarice,” a noted artist who died a few months ago. Smith’s late father, Robert H. Smith, donated hundreds of millions to educational and cultural organizations throughout the Washington area, and his son and heir now continues his family’s philanthropy. David said his father, an immigrant’s son, “described himself as a ‘grateful American,’ which seemed a perfect name for my dream.”
“I started the Grateful American Foundation in 2014 because I heard an NPR report which indicated that Americans had a low level of historic literacy,” Smith said. “My friend, Bruce Cole, then Chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, suggested I create a book prize. So, with help and advice, I did just that. I selected 7th to 9th graders as my target because that age is probably one of the most difficult times for adolescents…. It’s my feeling that if a kid doesn’t want therapy, a book can — at least — be a paper psychiatrist.”
Smith, who’s dedicated to building youthful enthusiasm for American history, and co-authors a lively blog entitled “History Matters,” has written and published 13 books, many about his family, including his grandfather, Charles E. Smith, whose legacy remains the life communities he built during the 1960s in Washington and Maryland.
For this year’s celebration, Smith chose the Perry Belmont House, a magnificent Beaux Arts mansion, near Dupont Circle on New Hampshire Avenue NW, built in 1909. Guests were agog as they arrived. “Sublime, isn’t it,” said John Danielson, walking up the baroque marble steps and gesturing to the sculptured décor and channeled stonework. “A stunning home from a bygone era to celebrate David’s triumph in creating the Grateful American Book Prize.”
A man of immense charm, Danielson is chairman of the Education Advisory Council for the financial services firm of Alvarez and Marsal. He lives in Georgetown and seems to know everyone in the city, as he graciously introduces Douglas Bradburn, CEO of Mount Vernon and his wife, Nadene; Matthew Hiktzik, producer of the 2004 Holocaust documentary film, Paper Clips; Mindy Berry, Senior Executive at the National Endowment for the Humanities; Teddi Marshall, C-suite business executive; Doreen Cole, whose late husband was the longest serving chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities; writer Michael Bishop; Neme Alperstein, teacher with the NYC Dept. of Education; Courtney Chapin, Executive Director of Ken Burns’s Better Angels Society; Scott Stephenson, director of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Robelen, long-time editor for the Washington Independent Review of Books and her husband, Carter Reardon, instructor with the Dog Tag Fellowship Program for veterans at Georgetown University.
“Helping those who bring history to young people is an important purpose of this evening,” said David O. Stewart, who’s written several prize-winning books, including George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father.
Knight A. Kiplinger opened the award presentation by introducing himself as a history nerd. “I come from a long line of history nerds,” said the publishing mogul. “My late father, Austin Kiplinger, and I (both of us journalists, too) have been passionate supporters of local history.” The results of that family passion — the Kiplinger Collection and the Kiplinger Research Library — now reside in the renovated Carnegie Library on Mt. Vernon Square, which has morphed into the D.C. History Center.
All history nerds and grateful Americans gave the evening rounds of rousing applause.
Originally published in The Georgetowner, November 9, 2022
by Kitty Kelley
Lights! Camera! Action!
Andrew Nagorski’s Saving Freud ought to be coming to a theater near you. This nonfiction work crackles like a novel and sparks with the razzle-dazzle of a big-screen extravaganza: an unforgettable cast of characters (think The Dirty Dozen), spine-tingling suspense (The Day of the Jackal), a death-defying savior (maybe Mephisto), and Nazis — the epitome of evil.
“This book is definitely not The Sound of Music, but it’s part biography and part thriller,” Nagorski told an audience recently gathered at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, to discuss the publication of his eighth book. Having written Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, The Nazi Hunters, and 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War, the former Newsweek bureau chief has mastered the Nazi terrain.
The plot of Saving Freud centers on how a group of six loving friends of the world-famous psychoanalyst finally convinced him to leave Austria in 1938 on the jack-boot heels of Hitler’s storm troopers as they invaded Vienna.
Even as the Nazis banged down the doors of his office and home at Berggasse 19, Sigmund Freud, then 81, still believed he’d be spared the catastrophe that had befallen other Viennese Jews. Without saying a word, he glared at the intruders looting his apartment. Hitler’s minions seemed visibly intimidated. They addressed him as “Herr Professor” and backed out of the apartment, loot in hand, stating they would return at another time.
When the Nazis then burned his confiscated books in the public square, Freud seemed unperturbed. “What progress we are making,” he told a patient. “In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.”
Freud could’ve escaped years before, but he refused to join the hordes of Jews fleeing Vienna in the early 1930s. Referring to himself as a “Godless Jew” and an atheist, he maintained he was immune from persecution because he was not religious. His sole allegiance to Judaism, he said, was to not deny being born a Jew. He also considered himself apolitical and therefore safe from the upheaval thrashing around him.
Interestingly, while revolutionary in his thinking, Freud led a conventional life centered around hearth and home. “I’m all for sexual freedom,” he once remarked, “but not for myself.”
Nagorski admits that when it came to the Nazis, Herr Doktor Freud, a world-shaking intellect known for his revolutionary theories, was “naive…astonishingly naïve.” Others might say dumbfoundingly reckless given that he was determined to live out his days in Vienna even after the Anschluss in March 1938, when Germany annexed Austria.
At that point, Freud’s adoring circle whirled into action, determined to seek asylum for him and his family in London so he could realize his life’s wish “to die in freedom.” The group included Maria Bonaparte, princess of Greece and Denmark, who lived in Paris as a practicing psychoanalyst after seeking Freud’s help to achieve orgasm. She provided Freud with the protection money he needed to bribe his way to safety.
Another member was William Bullitt, U.S. ambassador to Russia and France, who’d sought Freud’s counsel when his marriage was falling apart. During their sessions, they discovered they both despised Woodrow Wilson and later collaborated on a biography of the former president that was published in 1966 to “overwhelmingly negative” reviews.
Also part of the group was Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham, granddaughter of the renowned jeweler who founded Tiffany & Co., who became the lifelong partner of Freud’s beloved daughter Anna. Next was Ernest Jones, a onetime patient and close friend of Freud’s, and president of the International Psychoanalytical Association. Jones flew to Vienna in 1938 to insist that Freud leave the country. “This is my home,” the psychoanalyst said. “Your home is the Titanic,” retorted Jones.
Max Schur, who became Freud’s physician and treated him for the throat cancer he suffered as a result of refusing to give up cigars, played a role, too. When Schur’s family emigrated to the U.S. to escape the Nazis, the doctor remained in Vienna until Freud’s departure for England. Only then, after arranging for Freud’s medical care in London, did Schur join his own family in America.
Dr. Anton Sauerwald, a Nazi bureaucrat, is the shocking thunderbolt in this rescue saga and the team’s unlikeliest member. He was assigned by Nazi high command to rifle through Freud’s financial documents and destroy his historic library, but as an admirer of the pioneer of psychoanalysis, he did neither. Instead, Sauerwald removed evidence of Freud’s foreign bank accounts and arranged for his massive collection of books, papers, and journals to be secretly stored in the Austrian National Library, where they remained hidden until after the war.
Each figure was crucial to the rescue because it took all six working in concert to get Freud to leave his home and office for England, where he spent the remaining 15 months of his life at 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, in North London. There, his rescuers had recreated his consulting room in faithful detail.
The British press heralded his arrival with effusive coverage, and Freud’s new life of freedom gave him great pleasure. As he wrote to his brother in Switzerland: “Our reception was cordial beyond word. We were wafted up on wings of mass psychosis.” He was welcomed into the Royal Society of Medicine and visited by prominent guests like H.G. Wells and Salvador Dali.
Still, Freud missed Vienna. “The feeling of triumph on being liberated is too strongly mixed with sorrow,” he confided to a friend, “for in spite of everything I still greatly loved the prison from which I have been released.”
Freud’s life of freedom ended for good on September 23, 1939, when his pain became excruciating and, as he told his physician, “the torture makes no sense anymore.” Remembering his promise, Dr. Schur gave his patient an injection of morphine which led to Freud’s “peaceful sleep.” As his adored Anna later told a friend:
“I believe there is nothing worse than to see the people nearest to one lose the very qualities for which one loves them. I was spared that with my father, who was himself to the last minute.”
Saving Freud seems to have been written for the silver screen, and one can only hope that someone like Steven Spielberg finds his way to this book.
(Collage of press clippings from Freud Museum.)
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Sometimes, the sons of famous fathers are cursed. “They’re born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple,“ according to the adage. Seldom do they hit a home run. Not so the namesake of director, producer, screenwriter, and cinematographer George Stevens (1904-1975), who elevated films from entertainment to enlightenment with A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Greatest Story Ever Told.
His son — “Young George,” “Georgie,” or “George, Jr.” — was born on third base, but now he’s nearly 90 years old and is proudly waving his scorecard in My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington.
George Stevens Jr. is Tinsel Town royalty. He springs from five generations of stage actors, silent screen stars, and drama critics, including his father. Stevens père, a two-time Academy Award winner, was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during WWII and headed a film unit that documented the D-Day landings at Normandy, the liberation of Paris, and the Allied discoveries of the Duben labor camp and the concentration camp at Dachau.
Stevens fils found these treasures and more in his late father’s storage bin and put them to good use in this work, a phenomenal history of Hollywood that’s as much a paean to a beloved father as it is an accomplished record of the adoring son, who propelled the family legacy forward into television (at 27, George Jr. was directing Alfred Hitchcock Presents for CBS) and prize-winning documentaries. In addition, he founded the American Film Institute (AFI) in 1966 and, for 38 years, produced The Kennedy Center Honors.
There are more names dropped in this memoir than in the Book of Jehovah. “Bobby and Ethel”; “My good friend, Tom Brokaw”; “Teddy”; “My rabbi, Vernon Jordan”; and “My buddy Art Buchwald.” One wonders if Stevens has ever known a no-name plumber or lowly key grip. Here’s just a sample of his life on the celebrity circuit:
“My calendar shows days filled with organizing a new [film] school and stimulating evenings during which I spread word about AFI to the Hollywood community; ‘Dinner at the [Gregory] Pecks — Mr. and Mrs. Jean Renoir, Omar Sharif and Barbra Streisand; dinner at home — John Huston and Shirley MacLaine; dinner at Danny Kaye’s with Pecks and Isaac Stern; dinner at George Englund’s w/Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, Robert Towne.’”
Despite the marquee names (and there are pages of them), there is no braggadocio. In fact, there’s a bit of the fanboy in this man who once asked President Clinton to sign their scorecard after playing golf together. George Stevens Jr. displays the self-deprecating style of someone enthralled by his work, engaged by his politics, and enriched by his friends. His memoir, gracefully written, shows a man who knows that blessings accrue to those who take the high road.
Accustomed to flying smooth skies, Stevens was not prepared for the turbulence he encountered when David M. Rubenstein, chair of the Kennedy Center, forced him out as producer of The Kennedy Center Honors. Stevens writes that Rubenstein came to his office on a Good Friday in what “proved to be a disturbing and somewhat bizarre meeting…[Rubenstein] seemed to apologize, saying this was his most difficult meeting since the time he fired George H.W. Bush and James A. Baker from his Carlyle enterprise.” He continues:
“Again, insufficient paranoia had let me down. David’s riches, after all, had come from hostile takeovers of corporations — ousting existing management, cutting costs and reaping windfalls. On reflection, my response was less tempered than I would have liked. ‘I think you’ll have to look around for a long time to find producers who will give you five consecutive Emmys.’”
Since parting ways with the Stevens Company in 2014, The Kennedy Center Honors has won a few Emmys but not yet “five consecutive” ones. For his part, Stevens writes, “It’s too bad it ended the way it did, but the passage of time now allows me to look back on the somewhat indecorous circumstances of my departure with what Wordsworth called ‘emotion recollected in tranquility.’”
Just when the reader is floating on the sweet vapors of a golden life among the good and the great, Stevens brings you to your knees with the worst that can befall a parent. In 2015, he and his wife, Elizabeth, lost their 49-year-old son, Michael, to stomach cancer. This chapter, entitled “Courage,” is a chapter no parent ever wants to write. Stevens keeps it short:
“Not a day goes by that I do not think of Michael Stevens.”
He ends his book as he began it — by extolling the work that has defined his life for decades. He quotes Bertrand Russell, who wrote about the same subject at the same age in “The Pros and Cons of Reaching Ninety”: “A long habit of work with some purpose that one believes is important is a hard habit to break.”
Last seen, Stevens was heading for his office “to ponder stories that might become films, though an awareness that each new film is a commitment of years makes me a little less keen to toss my cap over the wall. However, now that the storytelling juices that have been devoted to this book are freed up, who knows what lies ahead.”
We can only hope.collection
(Photos: George Stevens Sr. with George Stevens Jr., Michael Stevens from Stevens Family Collection, Margaret Herrick Library and the Academy Film Archive https://www.oscars.org/collection-highlights/stevens-family-collection/?)
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
“For all sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’”
These woeful words from Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier might apply to politicians and lovers and horses who’ve never made the winner’s circle. Those losses are particularly painful for politicians who are expected to concede gracefully and congratulate the fiend who just walloped them. As Rep. Morris Udall said after losing the 1976 Democratic nomination for president, “It’d be less painful to get mowed down by an 18-wheeler.”
Hillary Clinton felt the same way in 2016 after winning the popular vote for president by over 4 million votes but losing the Electoral College by 306-232, and thus the presidency. The former secretary of state/U.S. senator/first lady was poised to claim victory with prepared remarks thanking “my fellow Americans” for “reaching for unity, decency and what President Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature.’”
But those better angels flew away as Clinton acknowledged her loss to Donald J. Trump with civility and just a couple of tears. After thanking her family, staff, volunteers, and contributors, she apologized to them, becoming the first presidential candidate in history to say “I’m sorry” in a concession speech.
Now we’re finding out what Clinton would’ve said as president-elect had she won the campaign that cost over $581 million. Her six-page victory speech, never given, is reported in full by Jeff Nussbaum in his creative new book, Undelivered: The Never-Heard Speeches that Would Have Rewritten History.
Some of the unspoken speeches unearthed by Nussbaum’s dogged research and informative text spark jump-up-and-down joy, particularly those in the section entitled “The Fog of War, The Path to Peace.” Each of its three segments is noteworthy, beginning with the words of apology General Dwight D. Eisenhower would’ve delivered if the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, had failed.
“The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do,” he wrote in a brief, four-sentence statement. “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” Nussbaum, a speechwriter for Democrats, recognizes Eisenhower’s words as “an object lesson in the language of leadership and responsibility.”
Knowing that “victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan,” President John F. Kennedy prepared a never-delivered speech to the nation in 1962 to announce airstrikes on Cuba “to remove a major nuclear weapons build up.” The president had gathered his top cabinet officers — hawks and doves alike — to debate the issue and discuss what to do.
“Each one of us was being asked to make a recommendation which would affect the future of all mankind,” wrote Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “a recommendation which, if wrong and if accepted, could mean the destruction of the human race.” For 13 days, the U.S. teetered on the edge of war with the Soviet Union, until Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev blinked and removed his missiles.
The third example of an undelivered speech that might’ve changed history is Emperor Hirohito’s apology for Japan’s role in World War II, which he wrote in 1948, lamenting the “countless corpses…[left]…on the battlefield [and] the countless people [who] lost their lives…Our heart is seared with grief. We are deeply ashamed…for our lack of virtue.”
Now to the bits that don’t stir jump-up-and-down joy. Much of Nussbaum’s book reads like a garrulous guy on a binge while his editor is A.W.O.L. The author meanders back and forth from a third-person narrative to first-person asides, political anecdotes, pesky footnotes, and lame jokes (see the one about St. Peter and speechwriters). He jams his book to the brim with historical information, proving that he’s read widely, and is hellbent on sharing every bit of his findings, which he piles into 374 pages of main text, 38 pages of notes, a 30-page bibliography, and a 28-page appendix. (Dear Santa: Please put a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in Nussbaum’s Christmas stocking.)
An example of what might be described as logorrhea begins in the first chapter and deals with late congressman John Lewis’ proposed speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Lewis’ original remarks were deemed too fiery for Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, who refused to make the morning’s invocation if Lewis didn’t tone down his rhetoric. March organizers pressured Lewis, saying that without the Irish Catholic prelate, they might lose support from the Irish Catholic president, which would influence Congress and doom Civil Rights legislation. So, Lewis compromised.
At this point, the author-in-need-of-an-editor interrupts his story of Lewis’ speech to relate his own stories of being a speechwriter at the Democratic National Convention from 2000 through 2020. He rambles on about Melania Trump, who lifted from Michelle Obama’s speech, Al Sharpton’s refusal to use a teleprompter, and Barney Frank’s speech impediment, and includes brief mentions of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, his wife, Anne, and the GOP convention’s keynote speaker, New Jersey governor Chris Christie. (P.S. to Santa: Please add Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style to that stocking.)
Eventually, Nussbaum circles back to the dilemma facing Lewis, but only for a few pages before he interrupts the narrative again with more reflections on his own speechwriting. Then, and only then (thank you, Jesus), does he return to finish the story of Lewis and his 1963 speech.
Note to readers: Lewis’ undelivered speech is just the book’s first chapter. You’ve got 14 more to go. (P.P.S. to Santa: Forget your sleigh. Use FedEx.)
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
(Photos: John Lewis at the Lincoln Memorial, 1963 © Estate of Stanley Tretick; Hillary Clinton conceding, 2016, PBS/YouTube)
by Kitty Kelley
The spectacular cover of Charles McGrath’s The Summer Friend deserves its own trophy. It shows a photograph of an apricot sun setting on gentle waves that lap a sandy beach. Sea grasses sway in a breeze that has blown away footprints, never meant to last too long. The sand-dune fencing beyond the shore also bends to the wind, a force of nature that will not be denied. The elegiac scene could just as easily be an early morning sunrise, but since it wraps around a book of memories, a setting sun seems more appropriate.
The Summer Friend celebrates a seasonal bond between two men, both nicknamed “Chip,” who favor khaki pants and meet every summer to share their passion for fishing and sailing and golf. Still, the title puzzles. Why “the” instead of “my” friend? Is it because “the” imposes a certain emotional distance, as if the author is referring to a casual acquaintance, whereas “my” speaks to a closer relationship promising something more intimate?
In this case, “the” seems to represent the surface level of many male friendships compared to the deeper bonds that women establish. The Summer Friend peeks inside the psyche of one such male friendship between not-quite bros forever but seasonal pals. As such, this memoir is pitch-perfect for outdoorsy dads, sons, brothers, uncles, nephews, and the like.
McGrath, a scholarship student at Yale (class of ’68), made his way as a man of letters, having been deputy editor of the New Yorker and a former editor of the New York Times Book Review. Currently, he’s editor of Golf Stories and an occasional contributor to Golf Digest.
Despite his literary credentials, there’s a bit of whoopee cushion in the writer, who recalls with glee the cigarette load, a practical-joke device he and his brother inserted into the tip of one of their mother’s Old Gold cigarettes. When she lit up, it exploded.
“Childish, I know,” writes McGrath, now 76, “but the memory of my mother standing there, wide-eyed, with an exploded cigarette in her mouth still makes me tear up with laughter.”
Not surprisingly, the prankster grew up to love fireworks; even today, as a grandfather, he spends hundreds of dollars on July Fourth celebrations, where he shoots off poppers, rockets, salutes, and crackers by the brick and half-brick. In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to “Blowing Stuff Up.”
The chapter that most defines McGrath, however, is “The Camp,” and his memories of the month-long vacations his family took to the type of log-built lodge familiar to many households across the country back then. For the McGraths, it was “a temporary sun-dappled idyll, a glimpse of another kind of life,” where kids bought penny candy, red hots and little wax bottles filled with sweet, syrupy liquid:
“Part of what made the Camp important to all of us — even to my mother — was that it was a toehold on specialness, a perch on the middle class, where we really had no business belonging. People like us didn’t have summer places. None of our neighbors at home did.”
Growing up in the 1950s with miniature golf, drive-in movies, and souped-up cars, McGrath learned about sex from eavesdropping on “hot rodders” tinkering under their rides. “I concluded that sex, like auto mechanics, must be largely a matter of know-how. You had to understand what went on under the hood.”
By now, you’ve deduced that this memoir is more about the author than his subject, and parts are achingly sad, particularly when McGrath writes about his parents. His mother, who married beneath her social status, appears to have been overly fond of Manhattanites and frequently berated his father for his failings:
“Social class and [his] insufficiency as a provider were ongoing themes in my parents’ marriage.”
It was a sentiment shared by McGrath himself. Looking back, he regrets that his father died “before we could get over being disappointed in each other.” He fantasizes about grabbing his dad’s arm and going for a sail, which is reminiscent of “Field of Dreams,” the film about a son who builds a baseball diamond and bleachers to reconnect with his father: “Build it and they will come.”
Here enters the other Chip, the cheerful summer friend who never disappoints. Together, the two men while away their days golfing and fishing and sailing. They make regular trips to the dump to scavenge discarded clubs; in the evenings, they barbecue and drink “brewskis” with their wives. In 30 years, there’s never a cross word between them.
McGrath goes long and deep on sailing and devotes pages to his beloved Beetle, the last mass-produced wooden boat still being sold in America. “The joy of this never gets old for me,” he writes, “the flutter of the sail, the slap of the bow wave, the burbling of the wake, the tug of the tiller, the lift of the stern quarter as it catches a swell.”
The details of sailing are numerous, sensual even, though he also waxes poetic about birds:
“Gulls everywhere; the cormorants loitering, shrug-shouldered, on rocks and pilings; and the egrets, which perch motionless in trees when they’re not mincing through the shallows.”
McGrath vividly recollects, too, the days he and Chip would meet at the crack of dawn, dragging their used clubs, and drive to five different courses to play 90 holes of golf by 9 p.m., when it was too dark to continue. They did this in tennis shoes because they considered cleats an affectation. The author reflects on these excursions with the pride of Hannibal crossing the Alps with 37 elephants. But personal details of his friendship? Not so much. “It was as if [Chip] had inside him a vast cellar where he could shove away all sorts of worries and bothers,” McGrath writes. “I’m not much better.”
Even when Chip is dying of cancer, in and out of hospitals, unable to walk, relegated to using a cane, then a walker, and finally incontinent and strapped to a bed — even then — the two men talk about the weather and the prospects for the Red Sox.
Shortly before Chip dies, McGrath reaches inside himself and writes a letter, saying for the first time how much their bond has meant:
“I said he was what Romantics used to call a genius loci — the spirit of a place, its embodiment in a person…I wrote down things I had been wanting to say for years…it was too late. And possibly I said too little. This book is what I should have given him.”
Yes, it’s too late for the summer friend, but certainly not for readers.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
In accepting the 1950 Nobel Prize for Literature, William Faulkner (1897-1962) mourned the state of young writers, who’d “forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about.”
If only Faulkner, a white man from Mississippi who never renounced his own racism, could meet Putsata Reang, a gay American woman born in Cambodia whose memoir, Ma and Me, contains all that Faulkner championed in writing — “the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.”
Faulkner created a fictional universe (Yoknapatawpha County) to find the truths of “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice”; Reang finds those truths in the nonfiction she writes about coming to America as a refugee.
“Put,” as her family calls her, was bundled in her mother’s arms at the age of 1 as her parents and six older siblings escaped from Phnom Penh in 1975 before Cambodia fell to the Communist Khmer Rouge. Making the trip to America aboard a ship, Put’s mother carried her malnourished, half-dead baby on deck, frantic to find a doctor who might speak Khmer. Instead, she ran into the ship’s captain, who crisply informed her that, if her child died during the voyage, she’d have to throw the dead body overboard because “we are so over-crowded here…[and] the corpse will spread disease to everyone else.”
Such a burial was abhorrent to a Buddhist mother, so Ma re-consecrated herself to keeping her baby alive, telling Put years later how many times she had come so close to dying. “Out of all my kids, you were the weakest. You were the smallest of all. You were the hardest to take care of.”
Sponsored by two local churches, the Reangs found their way to Corvallis, Oregon, where they arrived with an extended family of 15 — two parents, seven children, one grandparent, and various cousins, aunts, and uncles:
“We were the talk of the town — the first Cambodians to settle amid the city’s corn and fruit fields and its thirty-five thousand mostly white residents.”
Life in America became a series of painful accommodations for the family: to a new language, to new people, to poor-paying migrant jobs picking berries every season. For the children, there was the obligation “to show gratitude to our parents for their quiet sacrifice.”
Reang felt an even greater debt than her siblings because her mother had saved her life. She writes starkly that “I hate my father” because of his cruelty, which may be why she poured so much love into her mother. “[M]y need for Ma was vast…I felt…as if my mother and I were one. Her dreams were my dreams. Her fears were my fears…I refused to go anywhere far from Ma.”
Growing up as a tomboy wearing her brothers’ clothes, Reang was in her 40s before she could publicly acknowledge her sexual identity, once described by Lord Alfred Douglas in a letter to Oscar Wilde as “the love that dare not speak its name.” Ma was horrified when her daughter confessed to being queer, and Reang was heartsick, knowing she “had become the thing I was most afraid of: a disappointment in my mother’s eyes.”
When Reang decided to marry April, the woman she loved, she had the full support of her siblings, but her parents, deeply shamed by what they viewed as an abomination, refused to attend the wedding. The family’s honor within their Cambodian community had been sullied, their reputation ruined.
In this memoir, Reang writes like a flower blooms — beautifully. She describes “sun-plumped blueberries” and “mud-caked knees” and someone who “limp walks” to see “seaplanes splash-land.” Flying into Cambodia on her first return to her country of birth, she’s mesmerized by what she sees:
“Endless acres of rice paddies spread out like squares of carpet patched with seams of irrigation ditches, and the golden spires of pagodas jutted up from between palm trees with fronds dancing in the breeze, lighting and rising like helicopter blades — a land cut through with the purest light.”
While Reang remains psychologically divided as a Cambodian living in America, a homosexual living in a heterosexual world, and a daughter disowned by her beloved mother, she finds peace. “I had believed that Ma and I were so close that we were fused together,” she writes. “I did not know I could exist separate from her, that I could have dreams of my own rather than live out the dreams she had for me.”
William Faulkner would tip his hat to such a writer. He hoped that his Nobel acceptance “might be listened to by the young men and young women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will someday stand where I am standing.” Putsata Reang, born decades after Faulkner’s speech, might just be a contender.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Most people agree that faith, hope, and charity are the cardinal virtues, but not Winston Churchill. He pronounced courage to be paramount “because it is the one human virtue that guarantees all the others.” Without his courage during WWII, Britain might’ve succumbed to oppression and tyranny, but by summoning his “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” the 65-year-old prime minister inspired his country — and ours, eventually — to fight to defeat the Nazi onslaught of terror.
“Success is not final; failure is not fatal,” he said. “It is the courage to continue that counts.”
Standing behind that monumental man was his courageous wife, Clementine, who sacrificed herself, her children, and, at times, her mental stability to be all that her husband required of a spouse, as well as a parallel partner in his success.
Sonia Purnell’s fulsome 2015 biography, Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, does justice to the great woman behind the great man. In it, Clementine Hozier Churchill (1885-1977) emerges as “a terrible mother” but a devoted wife to her remarkable husband as the couple triumphantly surfed turbulent waves, politically and personally. So tempestuous was their marriage at times that Clementine, who suffered bouts of depression, once considered divorce. Another time, she attempted suicide, and in 1963, she was hospitalized and given electroconvulsive therapy.
Living with Winston Churchill, who seemed to thrive on commotion and chaos, took fortitude that Clementine could not always muster, which occasioned her numerous trips to spas and her many cruises and safaris and vacations without her husband. “[S]he may have spent up to 80 percent of their marriage without him,” said her daughter-in-law.
Nor was motherhood a loving refuge for Clementine. “Father always came first, second and third,” said Mary Churchill Soames, the youngest of their five children. Neither Clementine nor Winston spent much time parenting, and they sent their children to boarding school at an early age.
Their firstborn, Diana (1909-1963), married and divorced twice, suffered several nervous breakdowns, and took her own life a year after she started work for Samaritans, an organization devoted to preventing suicide. Their only son, Randolph (1911-1968), was “dangerously spoiled” by his father and, to his mother’s consternation, was drinking double brandies by the age of 19. Randolph gambled with abandon and lost frequently, but his father always paid his debts. Noel Coward observed that Churchill’s only son was “utterly unspoiled by failure.”
In 1921, the Churchills suffered parents’ worst nightmare when their 2-year-old daughter, Marigold, died of septicemia. Within months of the little girl’s death, Clementine became pregnant with her last child, Mary (1922-2014), who, according to Mary’s son, Nicholas Soames, “led a very distinguished life.”
Sarah (1914-1982), who became an actress, appeared in several movies, and was married three times. Following the death of her last husband, the only one of whom her parents approved, she began an affair with Lobo Nocho, an African American jazz singer, and was later arrested and jailed for drunk driving. During WWII, Sarah’s parents had encouraged her affair with Gil Winant, the married U.S. ambassador to Britain, as part of what Purnell calls “Operation Seduction U.S.A.” The prime minister and Clementine did anything and everything they could to endear their country to America and persuade the U.S. to join an allied effort against the Axis.
To that end, the Churchills also facilitated the love affairs of their daughter-in-law, Pamela Digby Churchill, who lived with them during the war while Randolph was fighting abroad with the Fourth Hussars. With their approval, Pamela ardently pursued the CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, whom “Winston had long since identified…as the conduit to the hearts and minds of US popular opinion.”
The prime minister also turned Pamela loose on American envoy W. Averell Harriman, who would become her third husband decades later. Clementine could not abide the humorless Harriman, “who flaunted his wealth and connections, oiling his way from one grand cocktail party to another,” but tolerated him because he was vital to the war effort.
Churchill himself spent immense time and energy befriending Franklin Delano Roosevelt, despite the fact that, according to Purnell, the U.S. “had been miserly in its support for the last democracy in Europe to hold out against fascism.” One of the saddest passages in the book is FDR’s cold dismissal of Churchill’s affection and admiration, which never dimmed — even after Tehran in 1943, when the U.S. president “clearly chose Stalin over Winston, finding it ‘amusing’ when the Russian leader bullied his British ally.”
“My father was awfully wounded,” recalled daughter Mary. “For reasons of state, it seems to me, President Roosevelt was out to charm Stalin, and my father was the odd man out.”
Clementine’s life was wrapped in the vibrant colors of her 56-year marriage to Winston, who died at the age of 90 in 1965. “His towering reputation across the globe was secure,” writes Purnell, in no small part because of his wife. When she placed her funeral bouquet at Bladon, the parish church near Blenheim Palace, the Churchill ancestral seat, she whispered: “I will soon be with you again.”
Four months later, Prime Minister Harold Wilson made Clementine a life peer in her own right as Baroness Spencer-Churchill of Chartwell. She proudly took her seat in the House of Lords and voted in favor of a bill abolishing capital punishment.
Although she outlived three of her children and had to sell a few of her husband’s paintings to support herself, she no longer suffered from depression or needed electroshock therapy. She lived well in London, going to the theater, attending galleries, and seeing friends. Clementine died at home at the age of 92, secure in her place alongside her husband’s monumental legacy.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
“April is the cruelest month,” wrote the poet T.S. Eliot, and for followers of Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1968, was the cruelest day. At 6:01 p.m. on that Thursday, the beloved preacher of nonviolence was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Hours later, riots erupted throughout the country as angry mobs smashed windows, trashed stores, and blew up cars, leaving dozens dead and more than 100 cities smoldering. President Lyndon Johnson finally summoned the National Guard to restore order.
More than five decades later, some scars remain, but Dr. King’s dream of a beloved community still shines, even in the poorest pockets of the country. I recently joined Stanford University’s “Following King: Atlanta to Memphis” tour, led by Professor Clayborne Carson, senior editor of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Vols. I-VII. Traveling by bus for a week — masked, in the era of covid — we patronized only minority-owned hotels and restaurants.
We began in Atlanta with a visit to Dr. King’s last home, the one he purchased after winning the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. We toured the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and learned from a freshman at Morehouse College why he values his education on the 61-acre campus of one of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), which is close to Spelman College, an HBCU for women:
“We both fall under the umbrella of Atlanta University Center, so we can attend classes on either campus…Our slogan here at Morehouse is ‘Let There be Light,’ and while it’s prevalent in my generation [Class of 2025] not to speak your mind lest you be canceled, here, people are not making fun of you or out to cancel you. They tell us: ‘Say your ignorance in class so you don’t say it in the world.’”
Before leaving Atlanta, we visit the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock now serves every Sunday as pastor. The rest of the week, he serves as Georgia’s junior senator in the U.S. Senate.
Boarding the bus, we headed for Montgomery, Alabama, home of the Confederacy, where we visit the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, created by Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the nonprofit that guarantees the defense of any prisoner in Alabama sentenced to death. For many of us, this is the most upsetting museum on the tour because it forces you to see the terrible connection between 1865 and today.
The EJI has identified more than 4,000 Black men, women, and children who were lynched. At the site’s center hang 800 rusted steel monuments, one for each county in the U.S. where documented lynchings took place. Entering the museum, we were confronted with replicas of slave pens, where we saw and heard first-person accounts from enslaved people describing what it was like to be ripped from their families and await sale at the nearby auction block. We learned what “sold down the river” means: Many enslaved people were punished with a transfer from the North to harsher conditions in the South. Etched in bronze is Harriet Tubman’s quote, “Slavery is the next thing to hell.”
On a nearby street corner, we meet the artist Michelle Browder, who showed us her outdoor gallery honoring “Mothers of Gynecology”; her 15-foot-high sculptures depict three enslaved women subjected to brutal experiments for “supposed” medical advancement.
From Montgomery, we were bused to Birmingham (aka “Bombingham”) and the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were killed by a bomb as they prepared to sing in their choir on September 15, 1963. The pastor’s undelivered sermon that Sunday was entitled “A Love that Forgives.”
Weeks before, 300,000 people had gathered peacefully on the National Mall in Washington, DC, to hear Dr. King’s soaring “I Have a Dream” speech. Later, he was jailed in Alabama. While there, he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on scraps of paper and bits of toilet tissue that his lawyer smuggled out piece by piece on each visit. Dr. King’s message berated white moderates “devoted to order, not to justice,” particularly those white church leaders “more cautious than courageous.”
From Montgomery, we traveled to Selma to meet our no-nonsense guide in the projects. “We’re in the ‘hood now, so if you hear a pop-pop, duck,” she said. People on the bus squirmed as she delivered her blunt commentary:
“Selma is a city of barely 20,000, and 80 percent of us are African American, still living in the poorest wards…Voting registration has shrunk because folks ask, ‘What’s voting done for us?’ We’re a broken economy, a broken community…Hate groups study us as a failed model of Democratic policies.”
Rain fell as we walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate general and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and the site of “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, when police attacked Civil Rights marchers with horses, clubs, and tear gas.
We later stopped in Meridian and Jackson, Mississippi, enroute to Memphis, where we visited the Lorraine Motel, with its white plastic wreath of blood red roses marking the spot on the second-floor balcony where Dr. King was assassinated. The plaque beneath reads:
“They said one to another,
Behold, here cometh the dreamer,
Let us slay him
And we shall see what will become of his dream.”
– Genesis 37.19-20
The motel site has been expanded into a complex of buildings incorporated as the National Civil Rights Museum in 1991, the first in the U.S. dedicated to telling the Black Civil Rights story. It’s also been called “The Conspiracy Museum” because its second floor, entitled “Lingering Questions,” chronicles the capture and arrest of James Earl Ray and explores myriad conjectures about whether Dr. King’s killer acted alone.
Outside on the street, a tiny woman named Jacqueline Smith protests the $27 million museum complex. She weighs no more than 90 pounds, but her outrage is ferocious. She’s been standing on the corner every day since 1988, when she was evicted from the motel to make way for the museum’s construction.
“What’s the point of all this?” she asks. “What does this rich museum offer the needy, the homeless, the poor, the hungry, the displaced, and the disadvantaged? Dr. King said: ‘Spend the necessary money to get rid of slums, eradicate poverty.’ This museum was built with non-unionized labor. Dr. King was all for unionized workers. This museum celebrates his murderer… does the John F. Kennedy Library celebrate Lee Harvey Oswald?”
Someone starts to speak, but Jackie brooks no interruption. “Why don’t you white people do what’s right for a change?”
Quietly, we return to our bus, edified by Dr. King’s vocal disciple.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
George Soros, now 91, cites 1944 as the best year of his life. He was 14 years old, living as a non-practicing Jew under the Nazis in Hungary, and hiding in various places throughout Budapest. His adored father had changed the family name from Schwartz to Soros, and moving from house to house, young George learned to cope with danger and live with risk.
These early life lessons, plus an education at the London School of Economics, catapulted Soros into immense personal wealth as a financial analyst. Fluency in French, German, Hungarian, and English helped him master the international markets in which he accrued that wealth. His Quantum Fund — which made $5.5 billion in 2013 — became the most successful hedge fund in history. Yet, at the age of 49, Soros decided to stop making money and start giving it away instead. In 1979, he founded his Open Society Foundation and began rewriting the definition of global philanthropy. In doing so, he changed the world.
Ascending into the philanthropic strata of billionaires, Soros soon surpassed the largesse of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, and even Bill and Melinda Gates, giving an estimated $35 billion to open up previously closed communist societies across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
It’s fascinating to read Peter L.W. Osnos’ George Soros: A Life in Full in 2022, as Vladimir Putin plunders Ukraine, and to realize how prescient Soros was in 1989 to foster openness in those former autocracies. Along with education for all, “We…need a market economy that protects minorities and we need the rule of law,” Soros has said. His foundation — which began by bankrolling a $100 million project to revive preschool education over five years — seeks to help our imperfect world achieve those very things.
Of course, closed societies don’t often enjoy being pried open, and Soros’ efforts were detested in nations where despots ruled and corruption festered, such as Angola, Suharto’s Indonesia, Peru, Zimbabwe, Malaysia, and Russia. In the past, Soros has also challenged Israel’s “racist and anti-democratic policies” and questioned whether that country is “really a democracy.” His support for progressive and liberal causes continues to make him a target of the political right, which demonizes him via anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
In 1997, after endowing Central European University in Hungary with $880 million, Soros decided to bring his Open Society Foundation to the U.S. He began in Baltimore, where he instituted fellowship programs, community development initiatives, work development programs, and job markets. Today, his foundation funds more than $250 million a year in programs and grants across the country, but Baltimore remains the flagship of his American success.
To capture Soros’ life, editor Osnos employs an interesting subgenre of biography by assigning eight writers who’ve known the man at various stages in his life to present their impressions of this survivor, philanthropist, activist, global citizen, and all-around scourge of the far right. Osnos, who founded the publishing house PublicAffairs, explored the technique in 2000 when he assigned three journalists to write a book on Putin’s ascendance to the presidency of Russia.
Now, presumably, Osnos’ goal is to make the George Soros diamond sparkle in all its facets. Unfortunately, the editor fails to edit. Perhaps he’s reluctant because he’s self-publishing this book with his wife and states that the project “has been funded by a private equity that is backed by Soros’ wealth…That money will be repaid from revenues the book accrues.” Osnos arranged to distribute the book through Harvard Business Review Press “to assure the broadest possible reach for the book in the world marketplace.”
Some chapters overlap, duplicate information, meander off subject, and layer the reader with lengthy opinions. Sebastian Mallaby’s chapter, “The Financier,” is best read by those holding a degree in economics, while Orville Schell’s “A Network of Networks” presents a mouth-watering account of “some of the most brilliant, accomplished and engaged people on the planet” invited for luxurious weekends at Chateau Soros, described as akin to “being summoned to the court of Louis XIV.”
The book’s best chapter by far is “Philanthropy with a Vision” by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, whom Osnos introduces as “a black man and proudly gay.” Consequently, readers might expect to find something in Walker’s essay pertaining to his race and/or sexual identity. Here, the editor really ought to have edited himself because nothing in Walker’s cogent and erudite chapter reflects anything about either, only his shining admiration for a philanthropist dedicated to leaving the world a better place than he found it so many decades ago.
Thank you, Darren Walker, and God bless you, George Soros.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books