Doing Justice

by Kitty Kelley

With Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law, Preet Bharara writes himself into the diamond circle of Clarence Darrow. There have been other good books by lawyers — including Louis Nizer’s My Life in Court and One Man’s Freedom by Edward Bennett Williams — that have enriched our understanding of the law and its application by practitioners of the bar. But Darrow set the gold standard in 1932 with The Story of My Life, which recounts one of the most extraordinary legal careers in American history.

In recent years, we’ve had to turn to the fiction of John Grisham (The Firm, The Client, The Pelican Brief, etc.) and the work of Aaron Sorkin (including his Broadway adaptations of “A Few Good Men” and To Kill a Mockingbird) to appreciate the vexing complexities that challenge doing justice.

But now we have an un-put-down-able primer from the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY), written with immense skill and engaging style. He’s tough, smart, and funny. He does not condescend to readers without legal credentials but clearly explains what “confirmation bias” is, what “proffers” are, and why most trial lawyers won’t risk irritating judges with “a motion for reconsideration.”

He tells riveting stories from real-life experience and attributes his near-perfect record as a federal prosecutor to the hard work and preparation that his team invested in achieving convictions in cases such as the Madoff/JPMorgan Chase Ponzi scheme and a scam defrauding a fund for Holocaust survivors.

Impressive is Bharara’s professional generosity. He dedicates his book to the “fearless women and men of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York” and, throughout its pages, he cites those who helped him achieve enormous success, naming numerous attorneys, as well as investigators and police detectives.

He wins admiration when he admits error. “We did not always get it right…we pursued cases that some people thought were overreach, and we walked away from others that some were dying to see us bring.”

In 2012, Bharara made the cover of Time with the headline: “This Man is Busting Wall Street.” Yet some critics, like William D. Cohan in the Nation and Jesse Eisinger, author of the 2017 book The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives, fault him for not indicting anyone after the 2008 financial crisis.

Bharara addresses the “odious conduct” by Wall Street thugs, writing: “No one likes the fact that bad actors got away with harming many innocent people,” but “we can only bring cases when the facts and the law lend support to an indictment.”

He prosecuted gangs, banks, drug lords, insider traders, arms traffickers, Russian money launderers, and “the epidemic of corruption in Albany.” In a chapter entitled “Three Men in a Room,” he draws a shady picture of New York governor Andrew Cuomo, State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, and State Senate majority leader Dean Skelos:

“Power in New York state is unduly concentrated in the hands of…just 3 men…who famously made all important decisions for the people of New York, mostly behind closed doors.”

He convicted two of the three and regrets not being able to wrestle the law into a choke-hold on the governor. “I have a lot I could say about the people we did not charge, after lengthy investigations. But I won’t. It is what it is.”

The SDNY is frequently referred to as the “Sovereign District” or the “Mother Church” because of its sterling record of criminal prosecutions. The New York Times calls it “one of New York City’s most powerful clubs,” because, as Bharara explains, its lawyers “are among the best-educated, most credentialed, highest achieving young lawyers in the country. Many clerk for the Supreme Court and are at the top of their class at the most prestigious schools.” Even he admits to having been intimidated by some of the résumés that crossed his desk.

But Bharara’s bona fides bow to none: Valedictorian of his high school, he graduated from Harvard and Columbia Law School, where he was a member of the Columbia Law Review. After several years in private practice doing white-collar defense work, Bharara served as chief counsel to Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and was appointed by President Obama to be U.S. attorney for the SDNY, which, he writes, is “the best place I will ever work.” He held the position from 2009 to 2017 and racked up numerous convictions.

Following the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump asked him to remain in his position, which gave him prosecutorial jurisdiction over many parts of Trump’s business empire. Seven weeks after the inauguration, Trump wanted him to resign. Bharara refused and was fired.

He later said on his podcast, “Stay Tuned with Preet,” that he believed the president would have asked him “to do something inappropriate” if he had stayed longer in the job. He joined New York University School of Law as distinguished scholar in residence, but he seems destined for broader horizons. Maybe Senator Preet? Possibly Governor Bharara?

Preet Bharara writes that you will not find God or grace in legal concepts or in formal notions of criminal justice. But be assured that you’ll find God and grace in this fascinating book.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

 

Bad Blood

by Kitty Kelley

As a little girl, Elizabeth Anne Holmes was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up:

“I want to be a billionaire,” she said.
“Wouldn’t you rather be President?”
“No,” she said. “The President will marry me because I have a billion dollars.”

This youngster knew what she wanted, and she got it. By the time she was 30, she was worth $4.6 billion. She dropped out of Stanford after two years to start her own company and, by 2014, as CEO and founder of Theranos (her combination of “therapy” and “diagnosis”), Holmes was hailed by Forbes as “the youngest woman to become a self-made billionaire.”

She had announced that she’d devised technology to test blood with a painless pinprick rather than the painful needle in the arm that had been used for years. Her company slogan: “One tiny drop changes everything.”

Her technology promised to provide a complete blood work-up for at least 100 tests, including glucose tolerance, electrolytes, diabetes, kidney function, herpes, HIV, Zika, Ebola, and all types of cancer. She said her technology could diagnose heart disease and impending strokes — all with a quick and easy finger-stick.

This scientific breakthrough promised to revolutionize healthcare, and Walgreens and Safeway signed up to provide Theranos’ service to their customers, while the Department of Defense wanted it for servicemembers around the world. By transforming lab testing with innovative technology, Holmes seemed to have discovered the Holy Grail of microfluidics, which had bedeviled research laboratories for decades.

Fortune canonized her on its cover because she pledged that her healthcare company would do good and help humanity. The Wall Street Journal described her as “the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.” High praise followed from the New York Times, the New Yorker, and a fawning interview with Charlie Rose on PBS.

She gave massively popular TED Talks and was bolstered by an impressive board of directors that included former Secretaries of State George Schultz, who hosted her 30th birthday party, and Henry Kissinger, who tried to fix her up with dates. Other members included former U.S. Senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Bill Frist (R-TN), former Navy Admiral Gary Roughead, and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis: all older men, but none with a background in bioscience.

The fact that Holmes was a young woman in the male-dominated world of Silicon Valley played to her advantage, which makes it interesting to note that she did not choose one woman to sit on her board.

That board of prestigious men made Theranos a magnet for multi-millionaire investors like Betsy DeVos and Rupert Murdoch. By 2017, Holmes’ private company was valued at $9 billion — that’s b-for-boy billion. In the parlance of Silicon Valley, Theranos was a “unicorn” — a privately held startup valued at over $1 billion. Uber, a ride-hailing app, is the poster child for unicorns.

Today, Elizabeth Holmes is the poster child for corruption, the epitome of degradation. Her company has cratered under the staggering weight of her deceit, all of which is documented in riveting detail by John Carreyrou in Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, soon to be a motion picture starring Jennifer Lawrence. Holmes and her business partner, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, also her lover, have been indicted for criminal fraud and could face up to 20 years in prison.

Carreyrou, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, charts the rise and fall of Holmes as a hungry young woman who saw herself as Marie Curie, the only female scientist to win two Nobel Prizes. A zealot, Holmes told employees she was building a religion, and if they did not believe, they had to leave.

Many did, but those who were fired or retired had been forced to sign life-shackling non-disclosure agreements, swearing never to reveal anything about their employment or employer. She retained David Boies, one of the country’s most famous lawyers, to enforce those contracts, which, for years, shielded what was going on at Theranos — how the company threatened employees, cheated on proficiency tests, diluted blood samples, misled inspectors, masked malfunctions, reported inaccurate readings, used non-functional devices, and ignored quality-control failures.

They even built a fake laboratory in 2015 to impress then Vice President Joe Biden, who later raved to the press that Theranos was “the laboratory of the future.”

As Carreyrou emphasizes, people’s lives were at stake because most physicians rely on blood tests for diagnosis. If healthy individuals are misdiagnosed, they can be subjected to costly and precarious treatments; if individuals with life-threatening diseases go undiagnosed, they can die.

If you believe in whistleblowers, as I do, and genuflect to the First Amendment, you’ll applaud John Carreyrou and Bad Blood for turning over a slimy log in Silicon Valley and showing us what slithered out

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Real Wallis Simpson

by Kitty Kelley

Anna Pasternak boasts a famous name, thanks to her great uncle, Boris Pasternak, who wrote Doctor Zhivago and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. With such big boots to fill, she sets out, in The Real Wallis Simpson, to redeem the tattered image of the Duchess of Windsor and “to bring [her] favourably back in the eyes of the world.”

In 1994, the author collaborated with Major James Hewitt to write Princess in Love, described by People as his “diss and tell” about his affair with Princess Diana. The magazine described him as “The Lady’s Chatty Lover.”

Pasternak begins this book with an eye-popping dedication: “To Wallis, Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Windsor.” Back in the day, that dedication would’ve rained down wrath from all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and surely banned the book’s publication in England, while causing palpitations in those who live and die by Debrett’s Peerage.

His/Her Royal Highness, or HRH, the honorific bestowed on royalty or those who marry royalty, was denied Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson, the twice-divorced American who married King Edward VIII after he abdicated his throne for her, “the woman I love,” in 1936.

He then became the Duke of Windsor and she became the duchess, who, as such, was entitled to the curtsies and courtesies of royalty. But they were never to be hers because the palace, in the person of her in-laws, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, despised “that woman.”

The knock-down, drag-out over that title was deliciously detailed in 1985 by Michael Thornton’s Royal Feud: The Queen Mother and the Duchess of Windsor. From the moment of the king’s abdication, Wallis Simpson knew that, without the royal protection of “HRH,” she would be tossed in the trash bin of history as the villainess who deprived England and all her dominions of their glittering monarch.

The duke dedicated the rest of his life to trying to obtain the royal title for his wife, to seeing that she would be received by the reigning king and queen, and that the event would be recorded in the Court Circular, the published list of official royal engagements. All to no avail.

It’s important to note that, next to HM (His/Her Majesty), no initials are more sacred to monarchists in their class-bound society than HRH. This was evidenced by the fight Diana, Princess of Wales, waged to keep her royal designation after her divorce from Prince Charles.

As mother of the future king of England, Diana felt she was entitled; the palace and Prince Charles felt otherwise. Losing her royal status reduced her in the eyes of the public and cost her much in terms of respect and protection.

Two decades later, however, royal strictures were relaxed enough that the honorific was bestowed on Meghan Markle, a divorced, biracial woman who identifies as African-American, when she married Diana’s second son, Prince Harry, sixth in line to the throne. So Pasternak’s dedication might be shrugged off now by the palace as nothing more than a cheeky bid for book sales, but it’s part of her impassioned plea for the Duchess of Windsor, who, she contends, is the subject of antipathy to this day.

The story of the most scandalous love affair of the 20th century has been told often in books by and about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and most recently in the Netflix series “The Crown.” Readers of The Real Wallis Simpson will find nothing new in this book, no previously unpublished interviews, no revelations from the padlocked Windsor archives.

Pasternak does her best with the public record, and she writes engagingly about the duchess as being “warm” and “witty,” but her earnest effort at restoration is undermined and falters because of her omissions: specifically, the Nazi stain on the Windsor image.

Pasternak makes no mention of the duke and duchess accepting a 12-day paid trip from Adolf Hitler in October 1937 to tour Germany as his personal guests, which some historians suggest might’ve been part of Hitler’s plan to place the duke back on his throne as a puppet king once Germany invaded Britain. The photograph of the Führer wearing a swastika armband and leaning over to kiss the hand of the delighted duchess jolted British subjects, who would soon sacrifice much in the war. The New York Times covered that visit with the headline: “Duke of Windsor Salutes, Cries ‘Heil Hitler.’”

The duke was not alone at that time in supporting appeasement. Joseph P. Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James, also espoused isolationist views but, once the Nazi jackboot fell on Britain, Kennedy was recalled by President Roosevelt, and Prime Minster Churchill ordered the Windsors to the Bahamas, where they lived luxuriously until the war’s end, while the king and queen stayed in London during the Blitz. Throughout, the duke continued making political comments many found defeatist, even traitorous.

The Windsors remained exiled from England for the rest of their lives and deprived of all royal prerogatives. They lived rent-free in a Paris mansion hosted by the French and reigned indolently over café society as gilded guests of fashionable nightclubs, resorts, and restaurants. The duke spent his days designing jewelry for the duchess, and she spent her nights bedecked in it. Pasternak footnotes that the Sotheby sale of that jewelry, in 1987, broke all records at $50 million.

Only after the duke and duchess died were they finally allowed to permanently return to England, where they now lie side by side in the royal graveyard at Frogmore on the grounds of Windsor Castle.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Food on the Move

by Kitty Kelley

Food on the Move is an uninspired title, especially for a book that presents epicurean dining on some of the world’s legendary railways. Why couldn’t the publisher’s title-meister have devised something more enticing? Maybe Gourmet Getaways around the Globe or Fantasy Feasts on Romantic Rails?

For a book that promises to illustrate the history of elegant cuisine on nine lines across five continents, Food on the Move sounds as mundane as “Meals on Wheels.”

Granted, the book’s emphasis is on food served while one is traversing the glorious mountains on the Darjeeling Himalayan Line or gazing at the staggering outback on Australia’s Ghan Railway, where the scenery seems to be just as spectacular as any menu.

But travelers on particular train lines expect food to be part of the adventure, whether it’s eating boiled cod with egg sauce on the Flying Scotsman, sipping South African wines on the Blue Train from Pretoria to Cape Town, or slurping solyanka (spicy meat soup) on the Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and Vladivostok, which, at 6,000 miles, is the longest continuous railway in existence.

The sights described in this book seem as delectable as the 36 mouth-watering recipes presented, which, according to the editor, have all been home-tested. Much of the text is written in the past tense of nostalgia because much of the luxury of railway travel has disappeared as a result of two world wars, the Bolshevik revolution, and the Cold War. During these times, the railways across Europe were disrupted, and many lines suspended operations and changed their routes; others were stripped to provide transport for soldiers and munitions.

The book is best at capturing the pre-war glamour of white-jacketed waiters serving four-course dinners with four flights of wine in wood-paneled dining cars complete with china, crystal, and silver, particularly on the Orient Express, once known as “The King of Trains and the Train of Kings.”

Officially inaugurated in 1883, the Orient Express “made the world smaller” for European royalty, nobility, and wealthy travelers, but that golden age of train travel ended in 1914 with the onset of World War I.

Still, the magic of the name lingered, and the Simplon Orient Express was launched years later to follow the original route from Paris to Istanbul, which attracted writers like Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, and John Dos Passos, and, in 1934, inspired Agatha Christie to write Murder on the Orient Express.

As that train left the Gare de l’Est in Paris and traversed Milan and Venice toward Athens and the kingdoms of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the menus changed in each country, and some persnickety passengers objected to the thick coffee in Turkey and the Ouzou in Athens. They far preferred the food in Italy, where a typical dinner began with a clear soup, ravioli, steak tortellini, Bel Passe cheeses, fresh fruit, cassata, and Strega.

Over time, standards slipped on the world’s most famous railway and service declined so much that, by 1975, the travel writer Paul Theroux pronounced the Orient Express dead to discriminating travelers, having been murdered by its lack of luxury and indigestible cuisine. Theroux wrote that the food on the Orient Express was far worse “than the poorest Madrassi train where you exchange stained lunch coupons for a tin tray of vegetables and a quart of rice.”

That killed the legendary line until James Sherwood, president and CEO of Sea Containers Ltd., stepped in four years later with an investment of $20 million. He believed that he could revive the illustrious name and the peerless service once provided. And he did — for a while, adding new routes such as Venice Simplon Orient Express, Nostalgie Istanbul Orient Express, Pullman Orient Express, which runs between Paris and London, and the EuroNight Orient Express. But the luxury of the original went the way of once upon a time.

While the years of legendary rail travel succumbed to aviation and high-speed trains, you can still, according to this book, travel in style on various lines, including the Santa Fe Super Chief, Canada’s long-distance railways, and Japan’s Bullet Train, which looks like a great white shark with a royal blue stripe gartering its belly as it shoots down the track at 200 mph.

If your bucket list includes riding the world’s richest rails, but you’ve run out of bucks, this book will provide vicarious pleasure, particularly for foodies and/or train devotees. With its coated-paper pages of semigloss finish, color plates, lovely vintage illustrations, extravagant 20th-century menu reproductions, and photographs, Food on the Move gives you a contemporary report as well as a romantic history of railway travel. And despite its clunky title, it’s a book that train lovers will cherish.

Aaaallllll aboard!

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Friend

by Kitty Kelley

If The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a 2018 National Book Award winner, slipped under your reading radar, run — don’t walk — and grab this 224-page treasure, which you’ll gobble in joyous gulps.

Your reward will be an elegiac read about love and life and death and grief. The sparse prose sparkles and draws you in, making you feel as if you’re reading intimate revelations from the diary of a woman who’s been slammed with horrific news: Her beloved friend, mentor, and one-time lover has committed suicide.

The deceased has left behind three wives, many former lovers, no children, and one huge dog: a Harlequin Great Dane named Apollo — the only named character in the book. Wife Three foists Apollo off on the narrator, who, against her better judgment and the “No Pets” rule of her New York City apartment, takes the 180-pound hound, but vows the custody is temporary.

As a writer, the narrator uses her journal to try to understand the awful why of suicide, and the reason her friend, who was not suffering from a terminal disease, chose to end his life. She seeks answers from Wife One, Wife Two, and Wife Three, but, getting none, she begins to read about suicide.

She learns that those who drown themselves for love in the Seine tried to scramble out of the water, but those who drown because of financial ruin sank like stones. She is taken aback when she learns that writing in the first person, as she is doing in her journal, is a known sign of suicide risk. Another predictor is knowing a suicide victim.

Desperate to shake off the tentacles of grief, she turns to a therapist and explores her relationship with the deceased. We never know the dead man’s name, but we learn that he was a handsome professor with hazel eyes who could not bear to be alone. He spoke with a BBC accent and regarded his classroom as his sexual playpen.

In her journal, the narrator quotes W.H. Auden, who said he did not like men who leave behind them a trail of weeping women. She then addresses the dead man: “Auden would have hated you.” She chides him for being “restless, priapic,” and for allowing his sexual romps to threaten his career, his livelihood, and his marriages.

She speculates that his mirror might have presented the ugly truth he could not accept, and the blow to his vanity proved to be fatal. Seeing that he had aged beyond his ability to seduce, he lost his will to live. “A power has been taken away, it can never be given back again,” she writes.

Then she pauses to wonder “why we call a womanizer a wolf. Given that the wolf is known for being a loyal, monogamous mate and devoted parent.” She writes that beyond his self-conceit, the deceased was out of step with his students, especially the young women he called dear,” who did not revere literature as he did, and certainly did not revere him.

She posits that perhaps his suicide saved him from being shamed by the #MeToo movement, and she wonders if he decided it was better to exit life by his own hand than continue living in a world that no longer valued him or his work.

There is no intricate plot that holds this lovely book together other than the bond that develops between a dog and his owner, which eventually leads both to comfort and consolation over their shared loss. Their immutable connection is something all animal lovers will understand.

As a writer in residence at Boston University, and having taught writing at Princeton, Amherst, Smith, and Columbia, Nunez allows her narrator to hold forth on writers and writing, and her narrator does not hold back. She raps students from top schools who cannot write a sentence, and thumps those who refuse to read a writer who has a bad habit or a tiny eccentricity:

“I once had an entire class agree that it didn’t matter how great a writer Nabokov was, a man like that — a snob and a pervert, as they saw him, shouldn’t be on anyone’s reading list.”

Such provocative observations will make the book intoxicating for some, while others may find too much exclamation about writers and writing and writing seminars, but that is the life shared by the narrator and the deceased — their love of literature and the books that enriched their lives.

I was enthralled by Nunez’s many literary references and the way she folds in Isak Dinesen and Toni Morrison on the subject of grief and, a few sentences later, glides into Henry James and Philip Roth on the agony of writing.

In between, she summons insight from Milan Kundera and his interpretation of Genesis. She traverses from Tolstoy to Lady Gaga with style and grace, and fittingly quotes Flannery O’Connor, who said: “Only those with a gift should be writing for public consumption.”

Sigrid Nunez has such a gift.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Rising Out of Hatred

by Kitty Kelley

The cover of Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist grabs your attention, and the not-so-subtle design suggests the message within: HATRED jumps out in bold black letters from a parchment cover that starts with white at the top, seeps into grey, and, at the bottom, melds into a dark ash, an achromatic color that means a “color without color.”

The schematic design seems to be a metaphor for the gradual conversion of a white supremacist to multicultural humanity where the color of a person’s skin no longer determines acceptance.

Within the body of the book, Eli Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Washington Post, guides readers through Derek Black’s journey as the leading trumpeter for white nationalism to finally renouncing his place in that orchestra of hatred.

An only child homeschooled by white supremacist parents, Derek’s bedroom was festooned with Confederate flags. His godfather and mentor was David Duke, a former member of the American Nazi party, who describes African Americans as “basically primitive animals” and taught young Derek that “our clear goal must be the advancement of the white race and separation of the white and black races. This goal must include freeing of the American media and government from subservient Jewish interests.”

An avid student, Derek absorbed every word. As a child, he designed a website for children featuring racist games and anti-Semitic songs that attracted more than 1 million visitors. Later, he launched a 24-hour online radio network and hosted a weekday show with his father, Don, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and founder of Stormfront, the first hate website, that claimed more than 300,000 registered members by 2015, most of whom supported Donald Trump for president.

On their daily radio shows, Derek and his father advocated for interests from a whites-only country to skinheads and neo-Nazis. Four days after Barack Obama was elected president, Derek, then 19, announced to his listeners: “We can take the country back. The great intellectual move to save white people started today.”

Given his full commitment to white supremacy and Holocaust denial, plus his natural ability to communicate at white supremacist conferences, especially by singing songs while playing his guitar (he once entertained fellow extremists by performing the 1972 song, “The Monkey that Became President”), Derek was considered a prodigy and was pushed by his father and his godfather to be their heir apparent.

Then Derek entered the New College of Florida, a liberal-arts honors college in Sarasota, where he befriended a dark-skinned Peruvian and dated a Jewish girl. He continued doing his daily radio shows with his father, but from a secret place off campus, never mentioning his life as a white supremacist to anyone at school. Soon, though, he was exposed by a student, who posted Derek’s racist articles and anti-Semitic radio shows on the school forum, sparking a campus-wide controversy.

Most students shunned him, flipping him off publicly, and some even dropped classes he attended. The exceptions were two Jewish male students, who invited him to Shabbat dinners on Friday nights in hopes of enlarging his world vision.

Here enters the heroine of the story — Allison Gornik, who also attended those dinners but tried to avoid talking to Derek because he represented everything she opposed. Over time, though, they developed a relationship and, with spectacular patience on her part, plus saintly compassion, she managed to lead him from darkness to light, to recognize the wrongs he’d committed and the need to try to set them right.

At her urging, he eventually emailed an open letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights group that battles racism and hate groups. He admitted that his past actions had been “harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent.” He disavowed white nationalism and promised never to participate in any form of discrimination in the future. With that letter, he broke with his family and tried to put distance between his past and his future by changing his name.

There is no happily-ever-after ending to this story, as the rise of white nationalism seems to be firmly established in the White House, where Donald Trump advocates a border wall harking back to the Klan Border Watch that David Duke suggested in 1977.

That same xenophobia and racism are surging throughout Europe in Hungary, Poland, France, Germany, and Scandinavia, which makes Allison Gornik the only bright light in Saslow’s dark story. She proves that one principled person can make a difference in depriving hatred its abhorrent advance.

She represents the audacity of hope, that “thing with feathers that perches in the soul” and, according to the Belle of Amherst, “sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Who Is Michael Ovitz?

by Kitty Kelley

The bright red book cover blares its question in big white letters: “WHO IS MICHAEL OVITZ?” You might answer: “WHO KNOWS OR CARES?”

Unless, of course, you’re interested in Hollywood agents and the backstories behind such movies as Jurassic Park, Ghostbusters, Tootsie, Dances with Wolves, Gandhi, Out of Africa, and Rain Man. Then you’ll want to read this memoir of the wunderkind who co-founded Creative Artists Agency, Inc., the colossus that turned Hollywood on its ear and reconfigured the bottom line of the entertainment industry.

Who knew that Paul Newman’s legendary career once needed to be saved? Or how David Letterman made it to late-night television? What movie did Steven Spielberg give up in order to direct Schindler’s List and why? How did Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols, Barry Levinson, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro come to be represented under the same tent? How was Tom Cruise’s early profile as a Scientologist minimized? And why was Robert Redford considered “such a pain in the ass”?

Michael Ovitz answers these questions and more with flair and no false modesty.

Born a yeoman, he yearned to be a knight. He depicts himself as a poor Jewish kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley of California, where he envied “eastern-educated guys who grew up on Park Avenue” with “rich parents and fancy cars.” Early on, he knew he wanted more than his salesman father’s “boxed-in life” could provide. His blunt and bitter grandmother, who lived with the family, spoiled him, saved him from spankings, and told him constantly: “You can be better than your father.”

Years later, when Ovitz, worth millions, was being hailed as “the most powerful man in Hollywood,” his “sweet” father was being forced to retire after 44 years of selling liquor for Seagram. Ovitz went to Seagram’s CEO: “I’d like…a favor and I’ll owe you,” he said. (Ovitz and his CAA confreres had mastered favors.)

He asked that his father be kept employed and offered to pay his salary, plus taxes. The CEO said, “Your dad’s a wonderful guy and everybody likes him…you don’t have to pay us anything.” His father worked for Seagram until he was 80 and never knew why the company had made an exception for him.

Unfortunately, Ovitz did not possess his father’s warm personality. To the contrary, he describes himself as “the iron fist” who never wanted a velvet glove. “I was the all-business tough guy,” a “driving control freak…calculating and determined and tightly wound.”

As a youngster, he was a head shorter than his classmates and a target for bullies, so he studied martial arts. “I hated feeling powerless and vulnerable,” he writes. “Bullied as a child, I spent my life bullying back.” He also became a social mountaineer (“I was an effective brown-nosing kid in a hurry”), which got him elected president of his 10th-grade class and later his college fraternity.

His immigrant parents, who never went to college, wanted him to become a doctor, but Ovitz became obsessed with the movies and the heroics of John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Errol Flynn. “I’m a frustrated artist. I couldn’t paint or sculpt. I wasn’t musical and I sure couldn’t act…So I did the next best thing with my life. I spent it around artists.”

After graduating from UCLA in three years, Ovitz got a job in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency, which had produced other tycoons like Barry Diller and David Geffen. Soon, he realized that the fast track there was too slow. So, with four other WMA agents, Ovitz started CAA in 1975, which revolutionized Hollywood by upending the powerful studio system and seizing control for the artists — actors, directors, and writers.

He became the public face of the world’s leading talent agency and reigned supreme for 20 years, making the cover of Business Week and the New York Times Magazine. He assembled a world-class art collection, socialized with David Rockefeller, and was courted by President Clinton to raise money for the Democrats.

Ovitz resigned from CAA to become president of the Walt Disney Co., where his best friend, Michael Eisner, was CEO. Ovitz lasted 15 months, during which time his friend circulated emails calling him a “psychopath” and “a habitual liar” and then fired him, which may explain why Eisner comes off here as Judas Iscariot.

After a lawsuit by Disney shareholders over his severance pay, Ovitz walked away with $38 million in cash, plus $100 million in company stock. One imagines him licking his chops while writing this section and quoting the judge, who called Eisner a “Machiavellian” CEO who “enthroned himself as the omnipotent and infallible monarch of his personal Magic Kingdom.” Eisner was forced out a decade later.

For those who enjoyed The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans and Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street by David McClintick, this book is delicious, and, yes, a bit malicious, as it settles scores.

The writing engages and amuses throughout, even the sideswipes. Ovitz recounts how devastated his CAA partner Ron Meyer was when Michael Douglas and Cher won Oscars and did not thank him in their public remarks. “Cher did thank her hairdresser, though.”

Now, does this book tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Well, it’s a memoir, one man’s burnished recollections of his glory years, the famous friends he made and lost, the vengeful enemies he acquired, and the high price he paid.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Tuscan Child

by Kitty Kelley

Rhys Bowen is the pen name for the British woman who has written The Tuscan Child, and she appears to be a writing machine, having churned out 40 mysteries, including the Constable Evan Evans series, the Molly Murphy series, the Royal Spyness series, the Red Dragon Academy series, and the Boyfriend Club series for young adults.

In addition, she’s written two volumes of short stories for the Molly Murphy series and the Royal Spyness series. Under her own name, Janet Quin-Harkin, she launched the Sweet Dreams series, plus wrote 11 more novels, including Wanted – Date for Saturday Night, The Boy Next Door, Who Do You Love?, and Love Potion.

Perhaps the frothy titles led to the pseudonym, which has rocketed her into stupefying levels of productivity much like her counterpart, Barbara Cartland, who published 723 romance novels by the time she died at the age of 99. Bowen is only 77, so maybe her female fan base can look forward to yet another series springing from the heroine of The Tuscan Child, who sets out to solve a mystery à la Nancy Drew.

Unfortunately, Bowen’s heroine does not have the style and panache of Carolyn Keene’s: no roadster, no loving lawyer father, and no devoted boyfriend named Ned. Instead, Joanna Langley is the poor child of an unloving father, and the girlfriend of a swinish boyfriend with whom she’s been living until he dumps her for someone who better enhances his career.

This break-up comes on the heels of a car accident that causes Joanna to miscarry a pregnancy that she has embraced but the swine has insisted she terminate. Tossed out of his London apartment, she moves her battered self, her broken heart, and her few belongings in with a girlfriend and sleeps on a cot. A short time later, her father dies and, as her mother is also dead, Joanna is now an orphan — or so she thinks.

Joanna travels to her childhood home in the English countryside to arrange her father’s funeral. In going through his personal effects, she finds a small box containing a strange religious medal and a love letter he had written to a woman named Sofia, which mentions hiding “our child.” The letter had been returned to him in 1944 marked “addressee unknown.”

Joanna knew her father, a former RAF pilot, had been shot down over Italy toward the end of WWII, but she knew nothing else because he never shared that part of his life, or much more, with her. So she decides to head for Tuscany to solve the mystery of the hidden child and to see if she might have a sibling, which she hopes might give her a semblance of family and bring her closer to her aloof father.

We follow her into the lavender hills of central Italy to the fictional village of San Salvatore, where we delight in her discovery of food — real food with fresh ingredients. Accustomed to boiled meat, blanched vegetables, and plastic carryout, she stays with an Italian woman, who introduces her to the glories of sun-kissed tomatoes, warm olives picked ripe off the tree, oven-baked biscotti, and sweet wine pressed from garden grapes. In these scenes, stolid prose starts dancing as Joanna savors the abbondanza of a Tuscan kitchen.

As we know, Bowen is no rookie; she’s mastered the rules of her genre. First: Hook them from the get-go. So she opens with: “He was going to die, that was quite obvious.” Second: Tease with cliffhangers. Most of hers are formulaic (“He had no idea how dramatically things would change by morning”).

But midway through, when Joanna can’t get water from her shower, Bowen sends her to — the well. What does she find? (Bowen asks a lot of questions to push her plot forward). “A man’s body jammed head-first into the well.” Move over, Nancy Drew. Joanna now has a murder to solve, as well as the mystery of the child.

Third: Give them a fairytale romance, which Bowen dutifully delivers when Joanna meets Renzo, who — surprise, surprise — is single, impossibly handsome, immensely wealthy, and who wants to be a chef. What could be more delicious for a young British woman who didn’t know the difference between paste and pasta?

The book alternates between Sofia’s chapters during WWII and the sleuthing of Joanna almost 30 years later. In the first chapter, the British pilot is hiding in a bombed-out Franciscan monastery, where he finds an underground chapel full of relics, statues, prayer books, and magnificent paintings, including (hint, hint) Leonardo da Vinci’s “Madonna with the Child.”

The airman has been saved from starvation by the food Sofia sneaks to him on midnight visits unseen by the villagers. He shows Sofia his amazing discovery, which they decide must be concealed from the Nazis.

Religiosity pervades this book from the beginning. Sofia’s a devoutly Catholic woman who lights candles, goes to confession, and believes in a retinue of saints for every disease and dilemma: St. Blaise for sore throats; St. Rita for wounds; St. Clara for weather.

Joanna, unlike Sofia, makes it clear that she is not a believer, particularly in Catholicism. She says she “finds Catholic churches to be frightening places — one step away from black magic.”

Now, some Catholics who believe in the sacred seal of Confession might be more offended when the mystery is solved due to a priestly judgment (or misjudgment) on saving the village from the Nazis. They had discovered the crashed plane and knew the British pilot had escaped and was being hidden by someone in San Salvatore. What then transpires provides the twist needed to solve the mystery.

The result: Sofia is last seen being carted off by the Germans; the pilot escapes to England and, never able to find Sofia, he marries his family’s charwoman, who gives birth to Joanna. She, in turn, becomes the protagonist of a book that can best be described as a Hail Mary pass.

 

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Library Book

by Kitty Kelley

As a writer who reveres libraries and genuflects to librarians, I was predisposed to embrace The Library Book by Susan Orlean. I just didn’t expect to fall in love so quickly. But by page three, I was head over heels when I read how she made magic of the mundane. Strolling through the grounds of the Central Library in Los Angeles, she noticed: “Pigeons the color of concrete marched in a bossy staccato.”

God really is in the details.

Orlean, a staff writer for the New Yorker, was onsite in downtown L.A., “a glassy landscape of office buildings,” to research the cause and effect of the single biggest library fire in U.S. history, which occurred in April 1986. You may not recall reading about the library disaster; it occurred the same day as the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, when most of us were waiting to see if we were about to witness global incineration.

The Library Book is not simply an investigation into a fire that burned for seven-and-a-half hours and left 400,000 books in ashes and 700,000 more covered in soot and slime from the over 3 million gallons of water sprayed to extinguish the flames. In addition to the mystery of who or what started the inferno, the book becomes a fascinating mix of crime and history and biography and investigative journalism, all told by a superb storyteller who holds you in thrall to the pathology of arson, a subject you might not realize you care about until you pick up this book, which the publisher has generously bound in red paper-over-board and embossed in gold.

Orlean takes you on her journey as she interviews detectives, policemen, and firefighters. She gives you the physics of fire and the terror of libricide. You become engaged; you want to find the culprit; you agonize for the traumatized librarians; you cheer for the hundreds of volunteers who rush to help remove the smoked wreckage from the Central Library; you applaud the man — the wonderful man — from ARCO who opens his corporate headquarters across the street to warehouse the damaged books, and then helps raise $14 million to rebuild the library.

With this book, Orlean wrote a love story to her mother, who first introduced her as a little girl to the pleasures of reading at the Bertram Woods Library in Cleveland, Ohio. Sadly, her mother slipped into dementia and died before she could read her daughter’s tribute to libraries and her homage to librarians, who stand as the citadels of civilization.

Orlean makes music with her words; they warble and trill across her pages and sing straight into your heart. She writes about the mission of a library as “a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”

She makes you see a library like a giant oak tree spreading its branches to give shade and comfort and beauty to a community. The destruction of either tears an ugly gash in the landscape, leaving a crater of dashed dreams. Yet, as she reports, there are more than 200 library fires in the U.S. every year — and most are set on purpose.

If it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, it’s a crime against humanity to burn a library, because, as the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote in the 19th century: “Where they have burned books, they will burn human beings.” World War II proved that prediction by destroying more books and libraries than any event in history, and killing over 60 million people, making that war the world’s deadliest. The chain that links books and libraries and human beings is indisputable.

Orlean opens her book by quoting from William Faulkner’s Light in August: “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” So, it seems fitting to conclude here with a quote from Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize address, in which he talks about the writer’s duty to write from the heart “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” Susan Orlean has done her duty with The Library Book

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

A History of France

by Kitty Kelley

Imagine you have an 88-year-old grandfather who lives in London and is crossing the pond to tell you about his newest book. Besotted by all things French, he intends to take you from Gaul to de Gaulle in 400 pages, and your mother insists you give him respectful attention. After all, he’s written 23 history books, edited 11 more, and narrated 30 television documentaries. He’s also hosted the BBC Radio game show “My Word!”

On top of that, he’s a viscount.

(That’s a British title that confers immense prestige on a man, who gets to be addressed in the U.K. as “Lord.” In the five degrees of British nobility, viscount is less than duke, marquess, or earl, but higher than baron. At royal investitures, each nobleman wears a coronet and a crimson coronation robe with a white miniver fur collar.)

So now you’re prepared for John Julius Norwich and A History of France, which is the viscount’s Valentine to Francophiles.

“I have loved every moment of the work on [this book],” he writes in his preface, “and see it as a sort of thank-offering [sic] to France for all the happiness that glorious country has given me over the years.”

He indicates this may be the last book he writes, and, sadly, he’s right; he died this year, a few months after its publication. He ended his French history at 1945, leaving the Fourth and Fifth Republics to another chronicler.

The preface intrigues as Norwich begins with the first words Charles de Gaulle wrote in his memoirs: “Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idee de la France.” (“All my life, I have had a certain conception of France.”)

Lest you think the author identifies with Le gran Charles, be assured that he applauds him as “one of the greatest men in all [French] history,” but lambasts him for “almost unbelievable pusillanimity and small-mindedness.” To underscore this point, Norwich writes: “No wonder Churchill used to say, ‘The heaviest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine.’”

Being the son of Duff Cooper, for whom the title Viscount Norwich of Aldrich in the County of Sussex was created in 1952, the author casually drops the names of de Gaulle and Winston Churchill, men he had met through his father when he was a teenager.

He recalls meeting de Gaulle at a commemorative luncheon on the third anniversary of the D-Day landings. Young Norwich had arrived late after all the plates were cleared, except for de Gaulle’s plate of apple pie, into which he was tapping his cigarette ash. The hungry young man asked the general if he might have his dessert, and the general immediately pushed the plate over, apologizing for the ashes.

The teenager replied: “I said that it would be an honor to eat the general’s ash — a remark that proved a distinct success. It was my only conversation with the great man; but unlike most of those he had with my father or Winston Churchill it could hardly have been more friendly.”

The author’s preface becomes even more intriguing when he mentions spending Christmas 1944 in the British embassy in Paris, where his father was serving as ambassador. There, the young man meets the poet Louise de Vilmorin, “my father’s mistress,” whom, he claims, “my mother loved…almost as much as my father did,” adding that his mother, Lady Diana Cooper, “had no conception of jealousy” about his father’s many lovers.

And we’re still only in the preface!

If you’re as curious as I was, you might be tempted to Google Duff Cooper, whom you’ll find described by London’s Telegraph as “a legendary womanizer” whose “many…early liaisons left his wife in tears but as his health failed, she accepted them.”

In addition to the aforementioned poetess, these liaisons included Singer sewing machine heiress Daisy Fellowes, socialite Gloria Guinness, fashion model Maxine de la Falaise, and writer Susan Mary Alsop, with whom Cooper had an illegitimate son.

Now the author’s family history is looking as interesting as any of the 58 French kings he writes about, including Charlemagne, with his “five legal wives and four supplementary spouses.” I confess: I ran to Google again to learn that “supplementary spouses” are “an important but often unrecognized relationship” in a marriage, rather like the third leg of a tripod.

After reading the preface, one almost wishes Norwich had written his own memoir and left the history book to French scholars. He states that he did not write his book for professional historians, and certainly none would nominate him for a Pulitzer.

He breezes through the Crusades in a few pages, dusting off two centuries’ worth of battles, from the Fall of Jerusalem to the Fall of Constantinople. Along the way, he introduces a variety of regents, from Clovis I to Napoleon III, with 18 Louises in between, plus an odd duck named Dagobert I, who wore his trousers inside out. (Why? We’re not told.)

You may have difficulty keeping separate “King of Franks” (as France was originally called), “King of France,” “King of the French,” and “Emperor of the French,” but, remember, you’re getting your history in one drive-by gobble rather than dainty little sips.

You can’t help but be amused as you meet various kings, including Robert the Pious (he liked to pray), Philip the Amorous (he was excommunicated for adultery), Louis the Fat (he weighed a lot), John the Posthumous (he lived just five days), John the Fearless (he loved waging war, but then, all French kings did), Charles the Bold, Philip the Fair, and Philip the Good (he founded the Order of the Golden Fleece).

You’ll appreciate the author’s Oxford credentials when he writes that King John of England “was responsible for the murder” of his nephew, Prince Arthur of Brittany, which, Norwich adds, provided “Shakespeare with one of his most poignant scenes.”

(The Groucho-glasses-wearing duck will drop down and pay you $25 if you can name the Shakespeare play to which Norwich refers, because he doesn’t tell. He assumes you are as educated as he is and will know the Bard’s “The Life and Death of King John.”)

Far be it from me to question an esteemed viscount, but I was startled to read that when St. Denis, third-century bishop of Paris, was beheaded, he “calmly picked up his severed head and walked several miles to the site of the abbey that bears his name while preaching a sermon on repentance.” No documentation, but in a sly footnote, Norwich quotes Madame du Deffand: “It’s the first step that counts.”

Regarding Madame: Again, consult Google and then — Ça Alors — continue your merry romp through A History of France.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books