by Kitty Kelley
If the definition of wunderkind is to teach writing at Harvard at the age of 25, meet Roger Rosenblatt. He decided when he was “almost three years old” that he wanted to be a writer, and he promptly ascended into the literary stratosphere, earning a Ph.D. in literature and writing short stories, essays, articles, speeches, plays, books, and poetry.
He was a columnist for the Washington Post, editor of U.S. News, literary editor of the New Republic, and director of education for the National Endowment for the Humanities. For three decades, he wrote essays for TIME, including a cover essay, “A Letter to the Year 2086,” chosen for the time capsule placed inside the Statue of Liberty at its centennial. His essays for the PBS NewsHour won two George Polk Awards, one Peabody, and an Emmy.
Now, at 80, Rosenblatt has written his 20th book from his lofty perch as distinguished professor of English and writing at Stony Brook University.
As you can see from the cover, the title confuses. Big red letters blare “THE STORY I AM,” while smaller black ones murmur, “Mad About the Writing Life.” Be assured that both are appropriate. Rosenblatt has culled from his previously published oeuvre to write this book, proving that he’s indeed “mad about the writing life,” particularly his own, which more than validates the big red “I” — because the story is all about him and his passion.
Rosenblatt is not a man stooped by modesty. He writes of his trip to Dublin to study with Frank O’Connor, the great Irish short-story writer who idolized William Butler Yeats. O’Connor, also unencumbered by insecurity, spoke often of his relationship with Yeats, always putting himself on the same high rung. Rosenblatt writes: “I shall never forget the day he told me, ‘Roger, you are the best writer since me and Yeats.’ Such a wise man, O’Connor.”
In addition to O’Connor, Rosenblatt name-drops E.L. Doctorow, Alex Haley, and James Salter, all once blessed to be in his circle, while he archly dismisses William Strunk and E.B. White, saying their Elements of Style is a “mere grammar guide” hardly worth reading.
Just when you’re tempted to throw Rosenblatt’s book into the bin marked Egoistic Excess, you land on words that expand your heart: “Until my daughter, Amy, died, I had always believed that good things would simply befall me…I’d led a charmed life but then…”
Ten years ago, the wunderkind and his wife were walloped by the worst that can befall parents, forced to bury their 38-year-old daughter, a pediatrician, whose sudden death left behind a husband and three young children. Without hesitation, the 70-year-old grandparents moved in to help their surviving family.
Rosenblatt does not believe in God, so he could not derive comfort from religious faith. In fact, he states, “My anger at God remains unabated.” Instead, he writes to keep his daughter alive, to keep death at bay, to make life endurable:
“As a young writer, I was the dandiest cleverest wit and wise guy — a cinch if one possesses the meager gifts. But…after witnessing enough pain and plain courage in the world, I simply reversed course and started writing about the life before my eyes.”
He’s borrowed well from a lifetime of learning and sprinkles his prose with the poetry of Roethke and Stevens and Wordsworth. Occasionally, he waves his own wand to hyphenate words most effectively: “The Spaldeen-moon hangs low”; “turrets that look like witch-hat tops”; “day hook-slides into night.”
He believes that all writing is essay writing, “an endless attempt at finding beauty in horror, nobility in want — an effort to punish, reward and love all things human that naturally resist punishments, rewards and love.”
As a writer, Rosenblatt feels he’s improved because of his daughter’s death:
“My work is sharper now, and more careful. Happily would I trade all the books I’ve written…for one moment with my daughter Amy alive, but since that bargain is impossible, I write to fill the void her death created.”
Rosenblatt shares his creativity with his graduate students, once giving each a flower and instructing them to write a one-page essay about what it smelled like. “Follow your nose,” he told them. “You will plunder the past to explain the present and make the present more intense.”
This book of writing fragments — some chapters are a page, others a paragraph — is not to be read for instruction. Rather, it’s a hymn of praise for the craft of weaving words in order to survive, which Roger Rosenblatt sings to himself with style and grace.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
The cover of Pelosi by Molly Ball shows its subject in high heels, big sunglasses, and a bright, burnt umber coat, looking movie-star glamorous. The picture captures her leaving a White House meeting with President Trump, where she’s once again left him flatfooted and flabbergasted. It wasn’t the first or last time Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would bring the president to heel.
On their first introduction, she’d made herself known as No Nonsense Nancy. Three days after his inauguration, Trump invited her and other congressional leaders to the White House for a reception. The newly elected president, who’d lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million votes, confounded his guests by saying, “You know I won the popular vote.”
He’d cobbled together some dubious anecdotes and tried to impress his guests, who knew better. Embarrassed for him, they shifted uncomfortably, and no one said a word. Then the speaker broke the awkward silence.
“That’s not true,” she told the president. “There’s no evidence to support that.”
Under the crystal chandeliers of the White House, Pelosi had spoken up like the child in the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale who shocked the kingdom by telling the naked emperor he wasn’t wearing any clothes.
Nor was this her first presidential tangle. She’d cut her teeth years before on George H.W. Bush shortly after coming to Congress as a representative from California. When the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989, crushing Chinese demonstrators demanding reform, Pelosi, who represents one of the largest concentrations of Asian Americans in the U.S., denounced the “butchers of Beijing.”
She proposed legislation to waive student visa requirements to allow pro-democracy students to stay in San Francisco rather than return home to be persecuted. President Bush, once envoy to China, threatened to veto any legislation that might affect international relations.
Pelosi’s bill passed the House and the Senate, but Bush vetoed it. The House overrode his veto, but Bush lobbied the Senate by writing personal notes to Republican wives, telling them to tell their husbands that he promised to issue an executive order that would have the same effect as Pelosi’s legislation but not tie his hands. Bush prevailed by five votes in the Senate.
Months later, with still no executive order, writes author Molly Ball, Pelosi “was furious” that the president thought he could flick off “the little bleeding heart liberal from San Francisco.” Somehow — Ball does not explain how — the Washington Post came into possession of one of Bush’s notes promising the order. The story embarrassed him into acting, and he quickly issued it.
The reader is left to wonder if “the little bleeding heart liberal” had had something to do with how the Post got its story, or if the story was simply serendipitous for Pelosi and her legislative initiative. Such a missing detail is a rounding error for a journalist of Ball’s stature, especially since she had access to Pelosi to write this book, following the two cover stories she’d written on the House speaker for TIME.
Ball reports that she conducted more than 100 interviews for the book, most of which she folded into the narrative without attribution. Such is the dilemma of writing about a powerful person still alive and able to exercise immense influence.
The book is expertly crafted and thoroughly researched, but readers are kept at a remove, being deprived of on-the-record quotes from Pelosi’s family — including her husband, five children, and in-laws — as well as friends, political adversaries, staff, supporters, donors, and colleagues past and present. Did Ball consider asking former Speakers Newt Gingrich or John Boehner to hold forth, or inquire of Tom DeLay, the former Majority Leader, about his political negotiations with Pelosi?
Ball tells us that Madam Speaker doesn’t drink or smoke or say bad words — and, a devout Catholic, she never gossips. She walks the marble floors of the U.S. Capitol in four-inch heels, gets her hair done every morning, and dresses like a woman worth $60 million, a figure that doesn’t include her Georgetown penthouse overlooking the Potomac, the mansion she shares with her husband in San Francisco, or their 16.5-acre vineyard in Napa Valley.
As the most powerful elected woman in the country, Pelosi has become a target for Republicans, and she wears her bull’s eye with pride. Still, it is startling to read that, in 2010, the GOP spent $70 million to air 161,203 ads attacking her — and, in 2018, they spent $100 million more.
Pelosi’s proudest legislative achievement is getting the Affordable Care Act passed for President Obama. When the legislation was floundering, she bolstered him: “You go through the gate. If the gate’s closed, you go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we’ll pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we’ll parachute in. But we’re going to get health care reform passed for the American people.”
Obama devotees may be dismayed to read that, while he was focused on his own reelection in 2012, he refused to contribute anything to congressional campaign committees, including Speaker Pelosi’s. At the time, she was celebrating 25 years in Congress with a weeklong festival, including lavish fundraisers and concerts with Bono and the Grateful Dead.
All she wanted was a personal appearance from Barack Obama. She pleaded with his campaign strategists, reminding them of all she’d done for the president. They refused, saying her toxic image might hurt him. Finally, she called Obama herself, but he didn’t take her call, and he never called her back.
Makes you understand the wisdom of Harry Truman, who said: “You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.”
In that instance, Obama barreled down a one-way street marked “me, me, me,” while Pelosi maneuvered multiple lanes marked “you,” “me,” and “us.” Following his re-election, the president came to value the speaker as the best ally he could have to push his legislative agenda. With her, he achieved healthcare, cap-and-trade, and Wall Street reform, plus a massive stimulus package. She was, in her own words, “Mother Loyal.”
Pelosi is less a life story than a legislative treatise and a detailed testament to the laws No Nonsense Nancy has proposed and gotten passed in her more than three decades in Congress. To this day, Obama praises Pelosi as “one of the most effective legislative leaders in history.”
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Addiction memoirs are a particular genre. They present unequal parts of noir autobiography, gothic fiction, sci-fi and dystopian horror, along with bits of black humor. They are books about recovery, which can only be written by those who have jumped off the train headed for oblivion. Their stories of survival plunge readers into realms of degradation that kill all but the lucky and the brave.
A few such memoirs, like David Carr’s The Night of the Gun and Mary Karr’s Lit, ascend as literary revelations. But, whatever the prose, each addiction memoir validates hope and proves that demons can be conquered. The victory usually comes at the cost of steel bracelets, nights behind bars, sleeping in alleys, suicide attempts, several stints in rehab and then a solid 12-step program, all of which Carder Stout illustrates in Lost in Ghost Town: A Memoir of Addiction, Redemption, and Hope in Unlikely Places.
Stout’s name will resonate with Georgetowners who remember his family from when they lived, as he writes, in the “7,000-square-foot mansion … that was a hundred years old” at 31st and P Streets. His parents partied with Washington’s nouveau riche society from the ’70s to the ’90s, regularly chronicled in the glossy magazines Dossier and Washington Life, celebrants of charity balls and embassy galas.
If money is life’s report card, the Stouts got straight As — for a while. “My dad said, ‘You must always act rich,’” Stout writes.
His father, Anthony Carder Stout, known as Tony, founded National Journal, then established a foundation to build a memorial in France honoring Americans who served in World War II. The $4 million he raised from veterans for the memorial mysteriously disappeared, and Stout was forced off his own board. “He conned the vets,” writes his son. Following a report of mismanagement by the General Accounting Office, the Internal Revenue Service began investigating, which led to an expose by 60 Minutes. Then the FBI moved in, and Tony Stout fled town.
His mother, Julie Jeppson Stout Park, known as Muffy, was an heiress of Norton Company of Worcester, Massachusetts. Stout writes he had “mad love” for his mother, but “she live[d] inside a bottle of vodka.” For a while “[s]he was the Grande Dame of Georgetown society, throwing lavish parties in her palatial mansion. After my father left her, she had a string of drug-addled boyfriends who robbed her of her dignity before they left her.” Weak from years of alcoholism, Muffy Stout fell down a flight of stairs to her death in 2008. Tony Stout, having run through millions, died broke nine years later.
Stout paints a lacerating portrait of his parents, particularly his father, who was never around while he was growing up. “I didn’t know where my dad was most of the time. There were always bags in the hallway, and I didn’t know if he was coming or going. When he was there, he got mad a lot and when he yelled, it felt like the whole house shook.” He recalls his father as “a small man with a big opinion of himself … [he’d] find a lady and run off somewhere and leave his kids behind.”
While Stout is unsparing when he writes about his parents, he’s equally unflinching about himself, first as an adolescent: “the stealing, the eating disorder, the cheating on girlfriends, the lies, the betrayals, the evil wishes and the time I wore girls’ underpants to school in the second grade.” Then, as an adult, a crippling addiction to crack cocaine took him “to the other side … I was dead.” He describes “one botched suicide attempt” when he “ingested an entire bottle of Advil PM with a fifth of bourbon and a heroin chaser. I ended up sleeping for thirty hours.”
You can’t get more of a cliché than a trust-fund baby neglected by rich parents, loved only by the family’s black maid, who tumbles into drug addiction, stealing and selling family heirlooms to support his habit as he careens towards self-destruction. But Stout elevates the cliché to a colorful saga of chapters that alternate between the sunny streets of Georgetown and the bloody back alleys of Ghost Town in Los Angeles.
The spirited narrative is a tribute to his college degree in creative writing. Stout puts his Ph.D. credential on the cover of the book. This might seem a bit of braggadocio, until you read his press release and realize the degree took him 10 years of study to achieve. His perseverance deserves as much applause as his scholarship and sobriety.
Carder Stout now lives his happily-ever-after life in Southern California with a wife and two young children. As he relates at the end of his book, he is a practicing psychologist, treating “a clientele that includes Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy winners.” He opens his memoir with a ringing endorsement from Gwyneth Paltrow, followed by praise from actors Will Arnett and Billy Crudup. You then understand why Stout’s main drug dealer called him “Hollywood.”
Originally published in The Georgetowner
by Kitty Kelley
Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007) was a storyteller known for her childhood fables, religious tracts, and fanciful science fiction. Although she wrote 50 books, her masterpiece was A Wrinkle in Time, which won the Newbery Medal in 1963. The book, still in print, inspired two Disney film adaptations, plus a TV movie and a 2018 theatrical film directed by Ava DuVernay, starring Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey.
Now, to further burnish L’Engle’s legacy, Charlotte Jones Voiklis has compiled a book of her grandmother’s earliest short stories entitled The Moment of Tenderness. Most of the 18 stories in the collection were written in the 1940s and 1950s and re-imagined and revised to reappear in other forms in L’Engle’s later works. As short stories, they were never published at the time, and probably for good reason.
While fascinating to a loving grandchild, the average reader might be less than dazzled by “the scraps and stories and studies” Voiklis found in boxes yellowed with age in her grandmother’s study. Voiklis maintains that the stories show the writer’s growth, which may be enough to satisfy only her most devoted fans.
L’Engle, who majored in theater at Smith College, moved to New York City and tried to succeed as an actress in the 1940s, writing short stories on the side that she could not get published. On tour for “The Cherry Orchard,” she fell in love with a fellow actor, Hugh Franklin. They married in 1946 and, having given up on succeeding on stage and short on money, they moved to Goshen, New York, where they opened a general store.
Such biographical details help to more fully understand L’Engle’s fiction, in which she poured out the truths of her life as a child abandoned by her father and a wife betrayed by a philandering husband who took mistresses throughout their marriage.
Deeply religious and drawn to make-believe, L’Engle wrote several revisionist memoirs that read as fantasies. In one, she wrote that she was sent to boarding school because her father was gassed in the war. In reality, her parents wanted to live their own lives — and her father lived a long, carousing one before dying suddenly of a heart attack.
In another memoir, L’Engle presented her marriage as content and happy: “There in the chapel of the church, Hugh and I made promises, promises which for forty years we have, by some grace, been able to keep.” Her family, aware of Franklin’s many affairs, dismissed L’Engle’s 2004 memoir in the New Yorker as “pure fiction.”
The keystone of this collection, which gives the book its title, tells the story of two couples living in Mt. George, Vermont, a setting much like Goshen, where the village is divided into natives and nouveau riche newcomers. The couples meet and socialize. One husband, a doctor of “quiet earnestness” born in Mt. George, listens intently to the other wife, a newcomer, while their spouses whirl gaily at the country club dances on Saturday nights.
The man’s attentiveness is in itself a moment of tenderness for the wife, who is pregnant, and she decides she wants this general practitioner to deliver her child, rather than the wealthy obstetrician her husband prefers.
She is besotted with the gentle doctor’s hands, his brief touch of care and concern. He becomes the family’s doctor, making house calls to tend to her and her children. “[I]t is not love I want from him,” she relates, “just those little moments of tenderness.” This culminates later in an unexpected kiss from the doctor, followed by an abject apology. “This is something I’ve never done before,” he said. “Please believe me.”
Shushing him, the wife says:
“Why…we aren’t going to let it make any difference. We aren’t going to have an affair…so why shouldn’t we say it just this once? There’s so little real love in the world, isn’t it wrong not to acknowledge it when it happens. What you’ve just said is going to make all the difference in the world to me, just to know that somebody sees me as a human being…as me. And it can’t hurt anybody, can it, if you know that I’m thinking about you and caring when you’re up all night and tired and maybe discouraged sometimes? We’re not going to say it again or let it make any difference in the way we live our lives, so how can it be anything but good to have said it just this once and to know it for always.”
The doctor looks at her with a steady, serious gaze. “What a wise little star you are. Yes, we’ll always know, and the knowledge will be good.
Ah, the magic of a such a moment of tenderness — an elegiac title for an affectionate, if ill-advised, tribute.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Clarence Thomas, the longest-sitting justice on the current Supreme Court, is referred to as the silent one because he hardly speaks during oral arguments. Instead, he sits quietly in his black robe and listens to his colleagues joust with the lawyers presenting their cases to the high court.
Rarely, if ever, asking a question, he dismisses those who criticize his silence. “Let them read my opinions,” he says. “I say what I have to say in my opinions.”
In those opinions, Thomas shouts at the top of his lungs.
He advocates for crushing Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to abortion. He links birth control and Planned Parenthood to the eugenics movement of a century ago. He opposes race mixing, sees integration as harmful to African Americans, and thinks the state should support separation of the races.
He attacks every effort to bring African Americans into mainstream white America and rails against voting rights, property rights, gender equality, affirmative action, and legally mandated segregation, except in prisons. In effect, the second African American to sit on the Supreme Court presents as a racist with misogynistic views that are foreboding, leaving little room for progress and none for hope.
In 1985, Thomas addressed the graduating class of Savannah State College on what he calls the unholy triumvirate: “I am here to say that discrimination, racism and bigotry have gone no place and probably never will.” That dystopian view enunciated more than three decades ago has hardened over the years as it continues to inform his jurisprudence.
Corey Robin, who teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, rejects “virtually all of Thomas’s views” as “disturbing, brutal, even ugly,” but he wrote The Enigma of Clarence Thomas to “make us sit with that discomfort rather than swat it away. This is not so that we adopt Thomas’s views, but so we see the world through his eyes — and realize, perhaps, to our surprise that his vision is in some ways similar to our own. Which should unsettle us even more.”
There have been numerous books written about Thomas, but Robin’s is unique in that it takes the justice’s written opinions and examines them against the backdrop of Thomas’ own life: Growing up in Pin Point, Georgia, he experienced the prejudice of Jim Crow, but came to feel its lash “much worse” when he moved north to go to Yale Law School. There, as one of only 12 black students, Thomas says he felt the object of the most intense snobbery and suspicion:
“You had to prove yourself every day because the presumption was that you were dumb and didn’t deserve to be there on merit.”
At that time, Thomas, a black nationalist devoted to Malcolm X, identified as “a radical” who voted for George McGovern (D-SD) for president in 1972, although he said he thought the liberal Democrat was “too conservative.” Decades later, Thomas has become the darling of conservative Republicans, and President Donald Trump’s favorite justice.
Most civil rights activists support affirmative action as a needed step to try to rectify the sins of slavery, but Thomas sees it as an insulting sop to African Americans. To him, it’s a white program for white people because it elevates whites to the status of benefactors who dole out privileges to the few blacks they decide are worthy.
Here, it’s interesting to recall that Thomas’ 1991 nomination to the Supreme Court was orchestrated by two such white benefactors: President George Herbert Walker Bush and his White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray.
Robin writes that, as early as 1981, Thomas had decided he wanted to be appointed to the Supreme Court to replace the aging Thurgood Marshall, the court’s black liberal. The only problem, Robin writes, was that Thomas had no views on the Constitution. So, despite his “shoddy record” as chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), he undertook a crash course on the nation’s founding text and, through a twisted legal labyrinth, came to the conclusion that there’s a White Constitution and a Black Constitution. A unifying Constitution is a fairytale.
In Thomas’ America, blacks and whites will never live happily ever after. This stark interpretation of the Constitution informs most of his written opinions on race, to the disappointment of progressives. As Rosa Parks said of Thomas in 1996, “He had all the advantages of affirmative action and went against it.”
On the last page of his book, the author admits that racism is a permanent stain on the soul of America, but he suggests that people of good conscience cannot stop waging the moral battle to try to right the insidious wrong. His message is to fight for our better angels and, in the words of our greatest president, to try for “a more perfect union.”
I agree with Corey Robin; Justice Clarence Thomas does not.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Racing in the European Grand Prix is like playing at Carnegie Hall, singing at the Met, or scaling Mt. Everest: it is the epitome of excellence, achieved by few, but thrilling thousands. Enzo Ferrari called it “this life of fearful joys.”
In 1938, the Grand Prix involved something more than two race-car drivers pitting themselves and their countries’ fastest automobiles against each other in a 100-lap race for superiority. In that particular year, the Grand Prix came down to:
Dreyfus vs. Caracciola
Delahaye vs. Mercedes
France vs. Germany
Good vs. Evil
In his newest book, Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best, Neal Bascomb documents every detail of the contest between René Dreyfus, an American-financed French Jew, driving a Delahaye 145, and Rudi Caracciola, representing Germany in a Silver Arrow Mercedes. It was a titanic struggle between two nations that would lead one to humiliating defeat and the other to resounding victory.
Bascomb begins the story in 1933, when Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany and, as leader of the Third Reich, makes a major speech promoting Germany’s automobile industry, which he pronounces his “beloved child.” Hitler’s Silver Arrow Mercedes and their blond, blue-eyed drivers stood for more than sporting prowess.
“They represented the master race conquering the rest of the world,” Bascomb writes, showing that Daimler-Benz wasted no time ingratiating itself with the Fuhrer by immediately increasing production of military trucks, armored vehicles, aircraft frames, and tanks. Soon, Nazi propaganda trumpeted, “A Mercedes-Benz victory is a German victory.”
Within five years, Germany had annexed Austria. In March 1938, a month before the Grand Prix, Caracciola, Germany’s premier race-car driver, issued a public proclamation endorsing Hitler’s policies and supporting the Anschluss:
“We racing drivers are fighters for the world-class German automobile industry. Our victories are at the same time triumphs of German engineering and workmanship. The Fuhrer has once again given our factories the opportunity to build racing cars…their unique successes over the past four years represent a glorious symbol of the efforts of our leader.”
The glamour attached to the 1938 Grand Prix drew worldwide attention, and victory seemed assured for Germany as Dreyfus, unlike Caracciola, did not have a world-rated record of wins. In addition, the Delahaye 145 seemed like a plodding mule next to Daimler-Benz’s sleek thoroughbred.
But Dreyfus had the financial backing of American Lucy O’Reilly Schell, a rally driver herself. The only child of wealthy parents and “decidedly nouveau riche and unapologetic about it,” she inherited millions from her father’s fortunes in construction, factories, and real estate, and married a man who didn’t work. So she financed their shared passion for racing.
The wealth of detail in this book will rivet automobile enthusiasts; others might want to take a pass. For example, “The prototype Mercedes engine, a supercharged 3.3 liter straight-eight…was…not a revolutionary design, [but] it benefited from ultraprecise construction and a host of improvements, allowing for horsepower measurements 50 percent greater than the Alfa P3.”
Those familiar with race routes will recognize the locales in which Bascomb chases every hairpin turn, every straight, and every rise and fall: La Turbie outside Nice; the Nürburgring in the Eifel Mountains; Montlhéry, south of Paris; Monaco through the streets of Monte Carlo; and Pau on the edge of the Pyrenees between Spain and France.
The author whirls readers around curves, bullets down hills, and twists ulcer-making bends with death beckoning at 250 mph. “Grand Prix racing was like all motor car racing,” Bascomb writes, “balanced on the very brink of death.”
Documenting the 100 laps of the 1938 Grand Prix demands much from a writer whose verbs must ricochet off the page like rocketing electrons: zoom, careen, brake, zigzag, swoop, streak, charge — faster and faster and faster — until victory is finally achieved.
Only then does the Frenchman step out of his Delahaye 145 in front of Hitler as the band strikes up “Le Marseillaise” to celebrate France’s triumph over Germany. René Dreyfus was to the French what Babe Ruth was to Americans: a bona-fide hero, which gives Neal Bascomb’s eighth book a Cinderella ending and a surefire film adaptation.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Journalists will enjoy this memoir, but anyone who’s suffered a setback or come face to face with failure will profit and take heart. By looking back on his life, Martin Tolchin (known to everyone as Marty) offers a way forward, and not just for those trying to succeed in journalism.
He shows that what it takes to survive and thrive in any profession is courage, which, Winston Churchill said, “is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities … because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”
Tochin begins his book, Politics, Journalism, and the Way Things Were: My Life at the Times, the Hill, and Politico, at the beginning, growing up in the Bronx, the only child of progressive parents. Not quite a red-diaper baby, he was enough to the left that he joined a Marxist study group at the Bronx High School of Science.
This — plus attending a Pete Seeger concert and receiving a pamphlet from Katharine Hepburn that began, “I speak because I am an American” — was enough to mark him as a “subversive” during the McCarthy era.
With self-deprecating humor, he writes: “I graduated from Bronx Science by the skin of my teeth.” He had no chance to enroll at an elite East Coast university. “My college adviser said, ‘We’ll start in Colorado and work our way west.’ That’s how I ended up at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City after a short stint at Idaho State College in Pocatello.”
Following college and law school, he joined the Army, but as a “subversive” he could not practice law unless he named the names of those in his Marxist high school study group. He refused. “So three years of law school went down the drain,” he writes.
In addition, he was given only a general discharge, which marked him for years, until the Supreme Court struck down the Army’s policy of withholding honorable discharges for political activities prior to induction.
Yet there are no bitter recriminations in Tolchin’s narrative, which is suffused with gentle humor, including the time he was in the Army and crept into a darkened Carnegie Hall late one night with a date. Spotting the piano in the middle of the empty stage, he began playing, and the maintenance men, enchanted, began lighting the hall tier by tier.
“When I finished they applauded. I think my uniform prompted their kindness, but the fact is I’ve played Carnegie Hall,” he writes.
After his Army stint, unable to practice law, Tolchin took a two-day course offered by the Veterans Administration titled “How to Get a Job.” He shares the wisdom he learned: First, decide what you enjoy doing; if you do what you love, you’ll never regret working. Then, write no fewer than 100 CEOs of the companies that do the work you want, offering to work in any capacity as long as there’s room for advancement. Then, initiate — don’t respond — by saying: “May I call your office on (date) to ask for an appointment.”
Tolchin wrote 110 such letters. One of the four responses he received was from the New York Times, where he started as a 25-year-old copyboy. Looking for stories to write, he haunted laundries, churches, police stations and restaurants, always asking: “What’s everybody so upset about in the neighborhood?” Inevitably, he got a good story.
After chasing cops and cons, he landed on the women’s page writing features. Lured to the newsroom, he could not write under deadline, he admits. So the Times put him on “night rewrite” from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., and within 18 months he was writing 1,000 words an hour.
Tolchin worked for the paper for 40 years, covering the good and the great. After retiring as a White House correspondent, he started The Hill as a weekly newspaper; it now operates as a U.S. website. Then, at 76, he helped launch Politico, now a global website. Finally, at 92, he’s decided to retire … “for the time being.”
His is a thoroughly delightful book by a writer who puts the smile in likability. My only carp is with the publisher’s presentation — a skimpy paperback with tiny type, squeezed margins and no photo gallery. It’s like giving someone a cashmere sweater in a sack. The package is unworthy of the present.
Tolchin’s book deserves to take its place in the pantheon of journalistic memoirs with Growing Up by Russell Baker, My Life and the Times by Turner Catledge, Personal History by Katharine Graham, A Child of the Century by Ben Hecht, Letters to the Nation by Molly Ivins and by Jeannette Walls.
Given the sorry statistics facing journalism today, one wonders about the future of that pantheon, considering the Gallup poll Tolchin cites that shows Americans’ trust in journalism has fallen since 1976, when it was at an all-time high of 76 percent, to an all-time low of 32 percent.
Tolchin doesn’t analyze what happened in those four decades to cause Americans to lose trust in the media, but he reports an eye-popping political cleavage: the level of trust in the press is 76 percent for Democrats, 42 percent for Independents and 21 percent for Republicans.
Despite these sorry statistics, Tolchin remains an optimist, and in the classes he teaches he encourages students to pursue journalism. “If you’re interested in people and ideas, enjoy constantly learning and want to have an impact on your community, nation and the world, you should seriously consider a career in journalism. It’s given me a great ride.”
The same can be said for his book.
Originally published in Georgetowner March 11, 2020
by Kitty Kelley
Many intriguing stories spring from the “what if” crevices of a writer’s imagination to conjoin fact and fiction, which is how Paul Wolfe came to write his second novel, The Lost Diary of M.
“M” refers to the ex-wife of CIA operative Cord Meyer, Mary Pinchot Meyer, the artist who had an affair with John F. Kennedy in the White House. Months after the president’s assassination, Mary was mysteriously murdered in broad daylight while walking along the C&O Canal in Georgetown. The accused assailant was found not guilty.
“The lost diary” refers to the journal Mary kept, which was found after her death by her sister, Tony Bradlee, then married to Ben Bradlee, later executive editor of the Washington Post. Tony turned her sister’s journal over to their friend James Jesus Angleton, CIA chief of counterintelligence. The diary was never seen again, nor its contents ever revealed.
Given those established facts and a cast of real characters, Wolfe takes off in the voice of Mary, who, according to public record, was an LSD disciple of Timothy Leary who shared drugs with JFK. Enter here the fictional fantasies of “what if.”
What if Mary’s diary was not destroyed? What if it reveals her life as an ex-CIA wife? “I learned the secrets of codes and agents and networks and interrogations.” What if her diary contains all that JFK confided about the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis? What if she discovers the CIA plot to assassinate Kennedy — she refers to the Warren Commission and its finding of one lone gunman as “Fictions from an Assassination.”
What if Mary storms a society ball in Washington and boldly confronts her former husband with evidence of his agency’s perfidy? What if that revelation eventually leads to her killing? What if her diary reveals her preposterous plan for world peace by having her circle of Georgetown wives give their powerful husbands LSD to lead them to “cellular evolution,” which moves them to see the folly of their power-seeking ways, and — voila! — they end the Cold War?
(I use the word “preposterous” for this fictional fantasy which Wolfe labels “Chantilly Lace,” but it’s probably no less harebrained than the actual CIA plan to assassinate Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar and, failing that, poison pills hidden in a cold cream jar.)
The challenge in writing a novel based on real people and events is making the nonfiction details so accurate that readers will accept the creative leaps. For the most part, Wolfe succeeds. One glaring exception, however, occurs when he has JFK saying to Mary that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That iconic phrase belonged to Martin Luther King Jr. Its placement in the novel is particularly jarring when Mary tells readers: “Then he asks me to bend toward justice and nudges the back of my neck.”
Wolfe weaves his facts and fictions so tightly, you might need Google to see if John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, and his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles, really did have “intimate business dealings with Hitler’s pals.” (They did.)
Did the British spy Kim Philby defect to the Soviet Union because he had a German mistress there, whom he later married? (He did.) Was there really an Operation Midnight Climax run by the CIA that financed bordellos and sent drug-addicted prostitutes to pick up men late at night, bring them back, and ply them with LSD-laced drinks so that agents watching behind a hidden screen could monitor the drug’s effects? (There was — and they did.)
Having hoovered the JFK oeuvre, which, according to Wikipedia, now numbers 1,000-2,000 books, Wolfe illuminates his characters with telling details: Kennedy’s “back brace,” Mary’s “unshaven arm pits.” He nails the columnist Joseph (“Joe”) Wright Alsop V as an effete snob who refuses to dine in a Paris restaurant if the wine cellar is too close to the Metro. Alsop maintains the vibrations of the train will disturb the sediment in the bottles.
Wolfe writes with grace, and many of his sentences sparkle: “The words of Ted Sorenson, the devout Unitarian, the megaphone of Jack’s mind, a poet of politics.”
So much of The Lost Diary of M will ring true to those who’ve followed the comet of Camelot, or who lived in Washington during the days when J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI and sent his agents to hire out as waiters and bartenders to listen for gossip. One hostess confides: “The best pastry chef I ever employed turned out to be an FBI agent.” Seems comical in the age of A.I., when Alexa outperforms Mata Hari, but that was the 60s.
Kennedy aficionados and conspiracy theorists will enjoy a thumping good read and appreciate Paul Wolfe’s prodigious research, while journalists may note with interest his mention of Ben Bradlee in the author’s note, and how he questions Bradlee’s “tortuous half-century of conflicting and contradictory narratives about his ex-sister-in-law, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and his denials of his own CIA affiliations.”
What if…this is a clue to Wolfe’s next novel?
What if…Wolfe writes about a revered newspaper editor with agency connections who is driven to…
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
“I loved reading This is Happiness by Niall Williams because, in our current political turmoil, I appreciated being taken back to the soft ringing of bells in Ireland and the escape to an eccentric little town as enchanting as Brigadoon,” said Sarah Gorman, the book club captain. Noting that the biggest problem the residents faced was the arrival of the electrical grid, she said she found the book a sheer delight — “despite all the rain.”
The group laughed recounting all of the book’s numerous raps and rhapsodies about rain. “It was either sleeting or sprinkling or pouring or pinging or soaking or misting,” said Carey Rivers, who mentioned that Williams’s previous novel, History of the Rain, had been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.
“Well, you probably couldn’t have a novel about Ireland without a little rain,” said Stephanie deSiboar, who had chosen the title and hosted the club’s monthly dinner. “I admit the rain must’ve been oppressive, but I became so involved with the story I felt like I was living in Faha [the fictional town in County Clare].” She said she finished reading the book in two days.
Others said they took longer because the narrative pace was slow — “so very, very slow,” said Laura Rivers, a paintings conservator with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, who had flown in to spend the holiday weekend with her mother. “So slow I still haven’t finished it.”
“The language was just too luxurious to rush,” said Kit Krents, recently retired administrative director of law firm Cleary Gottlieb. “I savored every sentence and can’t remember a story that has moved me as much. But, be cautioned,” she added, “you can’t pick up this book if you’re in a hurry and want a fast read.”
Susan Burrows, a law library professional, agreed. “The writing is so lush that I began reading paragraphs out loud to my husband. Drove him crazy, but the words are so rich, the language so luscious, that I just had to share them.”
“The characters in this book are not looking for change, which disturbs things and upsets their routines. They’re happy as they are,” said Gorman. “Hence the title.” The verdict that evening was a unanimous rave for This Is Happiness, the story of an old man looking back on his youth as an orphan. Having left the priesthood and gone to live with his grandparents in an Irish town that time had almost forgotten (until the arrival of electricity), he’s writing out his memories “because at the end we all go back to the beginning.”
His look backwards forms the loose plot of the book, which all agreed is carried by strong writing and vivid characterization; this is a book club that prizes fine writing.
“In fiction, most of our choices are Man Booker prizewinners or runners-up,” said deSiboar. “We don’t read sci-fi or mysteries or fantasies.”
“In nonfiction, we’ve tended recently to World War II authors like Erik Larson and Lynne Olson,” said Rivers, “but …
Before she finishes her sentence, the group begins listing their favorite books over the years. They collectively attempt to come up with their top five, using A Gentleman in Moscow, a 2016 novel by Amor Towles, as their gold standard.
Everyone agrees the list should include Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch of 2013 and Christine Sutherland’s 1984 historical work The Princess of Siberia. “That’s got to be in the top 100 books of all time,” said the captain.
But then the group diverges, offering a literate inventory that includes the 2015 novel A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Viktor Frankl’s 1946 Man’s Search for Meaning, the 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety, from 1971 and 1987, respectively.
By 9 p.m., the captain announces the hardest part of the evening, which, she explains, is selecting the next book to read: “The choice usually goes to whoever shouts the loudest.”
Originally published in The Georgetowner February 26, 2020
by Kitty Kelley
Adrienne Miller does not mince words when she dictates the duty of book reviewers: “The reviewer’s job is to evaluate the book on its own terms and to determine how well the book succeeds — or doesn’t — within those terms.”
So informed, I cautiously offer what will become obvious while reading In the Land of Men — Miller, 47, writes with daunting authority and suffers no lack of self-confidence.
Growing up in Marysville, Ohio, as the only child of “permissive” parents, she writes that as a youngster she was extolled for “my quiet intelligence.” Academically gifted, she recalls her “Jamesian moment” (I presume that’s Henry, not Jesse) as seeing “Amadeus” eight times when she was 13. That Milos Forman film, plus an “enduring obsession” with Thomas Jefferson, formed the landscape of her adolescence: “I was an odd child.”
Her family moved to Akron when she was 9. There:
“The sunsets, at first, before I finally started paying attention, didn’t seem as striated or as luminous as they had back in the flatness of Marysville, and new categories of precipitation fell from the sullen, but possibly more interesting, northeast Ohio sky.”
Following college “at a Midwestern no-name university” and a couple of go-fer years at GQ, her “quiet intelligence” made noise. She put herself forward to become the literary editor of Esquire at the age of 25, and, she writes, she was fully entitled to the position. “It’s not as if one can earn a Ph.D. in ‘literary editor.’ Instinct, taste and judgment can’t be taught. And I knew I had instinct, taste and judgment. I was my own first choice, and that’s all that mattered.”
She held the job for eight years, beguiled by Esquire as “the chief platform for American short fiction from the forties through the seventies: Norman Mailer, Raymond Carver, Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Tim O’Brien, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas and Ernest Hemingway.” Not a woman in the bunch; hence, the title In the Land of Men.
Her publisher is positioning her memoir as a feminist wail from the male trenches. But, while Miller blasts some unnamed men for sexual assaults, her book is actually a knee-bending homage to one particular man who dominates every page: David Foster Wallace, the 46-year-old writer destroyed by his demons; he committed suicide in 2008.
“[H]is artistic triumph in the face of such tremendous psychological and emotional odds was a miracle for which we all must be forever grateful,” she writes. She reveres Wallace for writing Infinite Jest, which Time listed as one of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.
Miller sanctifies his thousand-plus-page book as “the novel that had changed the world,” and “changed our language.” She ranks it alongside the universe-bending genius of the pyramids, Beethoven’s Ninth, and Chartres Cathedral.
Besotted by Wallace, Miller edited four of his short stories for Esquire. “He was the fiction writer with whom I’d work the most frequently at the magazine.” She moved quickly from being his editor to his lover, noting “the relationship fast-trackiness” of their affair:
“There was a sense that David, more than any other living writer, was read compulsively, his sui-generis-ness unbearable to all…[It] is true that I regarded David not merely as a great writer but as one of the greatest and most uncompromising artists of all time.”
She rhapsodizes about “so radically name-y a name: David Foster Wallace.” She recalls every item he carried in his canvas bag, and all they discussed over their first lunch. She relates detail after detail of their decades-old telephone conversations — whether preserved in a diary, tape recordings, or fevered memory, she doesn’t say.
“I looked at David. David looked at me. His eyes were a rich chestnut flecked with gold.” Oh, dear. A bit too Barbara Cartland-y here, but it’s a rare lapse in an otherwise literary-soaked tribute to one man’s memory.
“David was Augustinian,” Miller writes, which may send you to Google to try to figure out the connection between the 5th-century bishop of Hippo, whose prolific writings influenced all of Western Christianity, and Wallace, who wrote two novels, three collections of short stories, two books of essays, and several magazine articles.
In the Land of Men proves that Miller has read widely and deeply. She cites Tate, celebrates Nabokov, quotes Pindar, genuflects to Mozart, and even begins a dialectic on the virtuosic talent of John Barth.
She commands an astonishing vocabulary, too: “the rhizomatic conversations”; “an anvilesque collection”; “a self-serving sockdolager of rage.” Throughout the book, she employs an eccentric style that would give Strunk and White the bends, adding “y” to words for no fathomable purpose: “workshop-y,” “science-y,” “kind of date-y,” “magazines were so interminably magazine-y,” “a self-help-y version,” “ugly and rape-y.”
For the most part, though, she makes magic on the page. She describes the 24/7 “Jackie deathwatch” outside Kennedy Onassis’ Fifth Avenue apartment as “a stream of people united in one brow of woe.” Some of Miller’s literary references sent me scrambling to the Internet, such as when she was once made to wait at a stage door for Wallace and “felt preposterously like the Person of Consequence in Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’: Do you know to whom you are speaking?”
Minutes later, she sees “some Fanilow-type people were waiting for him on the sidewalk.” (If you’re a child of the seventies, you’ll know she’s referring to the fans of Barry Manilow. If not, you’ll run to the Urban Dictionary.)
She dismisses a high-school classmate as “Charles Bukowski, but on paint thinner.” (Of course, you know that Bukowski, who died in 1994, was a German-born poet who celebrated prostitutes and drug addicts.)
If you’re a devotee of David Foster Wallace, you’ll devour this memoir with pleasure. If not, you may enjoy the cultural scavenger hunt and appreciate how much Adrienne Miller makes you stretch. After all, as Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books