by Kitty Kelley
Christmas at the White House this year dazzles with gold ribbons and sparking lights, fir boughs, fir wreaths and the delicious scent of 33 fir trees. Crystal stars sparkle above the red-carpet colonnade in the East Wing to welcome the 7,000 lucky people who received invitations from the president and first lady.
Once guests present their credentials and pass through security — which entails three Secret Service stops, two police dog sniffs and one pat-down with a metal wand — they walk to the driveway to enter the people’s palace, where everything shines and glistens in the public rooms.
Topiary trees are festooned in big red velvet bows, mantels are banked in red roses and doorways lead into rooms of wonder. The gold Vermeil Room pays homage to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who established the White House as a museum. Her portrait by Aaron Shikler hangs on the wall, a lovely elusive image.
Over the fireplace is a smiling Lady Bird Johnson and across the hall is the White House library, containing 2,700 books. It appears to have been decorated by elves who know that Reading Is Fundamental. Tiny books are tasseled to trees and wrapped in ribbons around the mantel is a beguiling tribute to literacy. Miniature books, leather-bound with tiny gold titles, hang from the room’s Christmas tree.
Visitors gasp aloud as they wander into the East Room, pose in the Green Room, exclaim over the China Room, sigh in the Blue Room. The Red Room delights with its creative décor of children’s games — playing cards cascade from the trees with dice, jacks, tiddlywinks and Scrabble squares spelling the message of the season: “PEACE … LOVE … JOY.”
The State Dining Room pays tribute to America with a gigantic gingerbread White House (200 pounds of dough slathered with 25 pounds of frosting) surrounded by the country’s landmarks. The display showcases the genius of White House chefs, who have conjured confectionary creations of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Space Needle in Seattle, Mount Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota, the Alamo in San Antonio, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
The sumptuous tour culminates in the Grand Foyer, where carolers sing amid a crush of fir trees — 20 feet tall — all dusted with snow and gold bulbs and sparkling lights. Emblazoned high on the wall is the Great Seal of the United States with the words, “E Pluribus Unum,” Latin for “Out of many, one.”
As everyone leaves the White House, aides hand each guest a small red package filled with Hershey’s kisses and a lovely laminated pamphlet entitled “The Spirit of America Christmas at the White House 2019.”
Originally published in The Georgetowner December 18, 2019
by Kitty Kelley
Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, led a troupe of D.C. theater hounds to London recently to see British theater — inside and out. “Since Arena is celebrating its 70th anniversary as the largest theater company in the U.S. dedicated to American plays and playwrights, this seemed like a good time to see what the Brits are doing,” she said.
Arena’s weeklong tour offered a full course of culture: six plays, two operas, three art galleries, a private tour of Tate Modern, coffee with an international art collector in his Cadogan Square flat, lunch in the House of Lords, fish and chips at a gastropub, a trip to Shakespeare’s birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon and many flutes of champagne. Throughout, there were nannies the equal of Mary Poppins and brainiac guides, who seemed to have earned six degrees apiece from Oxford.
We were chauffeured to and from Brown’s Hotel in the heart of Mayfair to see plays that baffled the imagination and gripped the heart. We walked the City of London on a magical tour to see the original Roman settlement that became the famous “Square Mile,” where residences “now cost a minimum of $8 million.”
From the Old Vic to the Young Vic, we explored behind the scenes, touching the props (see Martha Dippell kissing a stuffed rhino), pulling the curtains and walking the boards. We even discovered a “non-religious church” in Islington, not far from the Almeida Theatre,that “believes not in God, but in good.” (For proof, visit new-unity.org.)
A highlight of the tour was meeting Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, who many theatergoers will remember from his years at Center Stage in Baltimore, from 2011 to 2018.
“Now I’m back home in England and a bit of an anomaly — a black man in British theater,” he said. “In 2005, I became only the second black Brit to have a play staged in the West End, and until 18 months ago I was the only black artistic director in the western hemisphere … We have a long way to go.”
From his experience living in the U.S. and the U.K., Kwei-Armah said the British are obsessed with class distinctions and refuse to discuss racial issues, whereas Americans are decades ahead of the British on race but avoid the subject of class. “You are in denial, and out of fear of talking about the working class and the underclasses, you put all your college-educated into the middle class.”
Because British theater is partially subsidized by the government, ticket prices in the U.K. are lower than in the U.S. ($15 to $50 in the U.K. compared to $100 and above in the U.S.) and attract younger audiences. “But in both the U.S. and the U.K., 70 percent of all theatergoers are women,” said Kwei-Armah. “Because of our government subsidy, we can take plays to prisons and refugee centers where they’d never have access to high-quality theater or any theater at all. We go to them.”
Kwei-Armah turned deadly serious on the subject of Brexit. “We are in the midst of a rather profound nervous breakdown here, and Brexit will nearly collapse theater in London and eviscerate all our touring companies,” he said. “We are living in suspense and don’t know what’s going to happen, but we do know it’s going to be nasty, very nasty.”
The Arena Stage troupe returned to Washington, D.C., thoroughly energized by their London theater adventure, which all pronounced “ab fab” (Brit-speak for “absolutely fabulous”).
Originally published in The Georgetowner December 4, 2019
by Kitty Kelley
For those who love history and enjoy biography, David M. Rubenstein has delivered a masterstroke with The American Story, in which he presents his interviews with authors of notable biographies. Among them are David McCullough on John Adams; Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton; Taylor Branch on Martin Luther King Jr.; Walter Isaacson on Benjamin Franklin; Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson; and Doris Kearns Goodwin on Abraham Lincoln.
In total, The American Story is a delectable smorgasbord of U.S. history, covering 39 books discussed by 15 authors, some of whom have written more than one biography.
The American Story grew from an idea Rubenstein proposed in 2013 to present a dinner series for members of Congress entitled “Congressional Dialogues,” in which he would interview acclaimed historians in the gilded setting of the Library of Congress.
He said his purpose was to educate public servants, “to provide the members with more information about the great leaders and events in our country’s past, with the hope that, in exercising their various responsibilities, our senators and representatives would be more knowledgeable about history and what it can teach us about future challenges.”
He also hoped that bringing the members together in a nonpartisan setting might reduce the rancor in Washington. Six years later, he admits the jury is out on the former and that absolutely no traction has been gained on the latter.
Rubenstein, who made his fortune ($3.6 billion) in private equity as co-founder of the Carlyle Group, styles himself as a “patriotic philanthropist,” having purchased the last privately owned original Magna Carta for $21.3 million and then loaning it to the National Archives.
In addition, he has given $7.5 million to repair the Washington Monument; $13.5 million to the National Archives for a new gallery; $20 million to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation; and $10 million to Montpelier to renovate James Madison’s home. So, when the “patriotic philanthropist” asked to host his own interviews at the Library of Congress, the answer was, quite sensibly, yes.
Yet Rubenstein brings more than his b-for-boy-billions to this book. He has delved deeply into American history, having read at least one biography of each president and “every single biography” about John F. Kennedy, the commander-in-chief with whom he feels the greatest connection.
He has donated millions to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, where he serves as chairman of the board of trustees. He recently contributed $50 million for the Kennedy Center’s REACH expansion, upon which his name is chiseled in marble.
As much as Rubenstein admires our 35th president, however, his interview with biographer Richard Reeves (President Kennedy: Profile of Power) shows some of the dark side of JFK’s reign, including the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, and the attempted assassination of Fidel Castro.
Some readers will be startled to learn that JFK knew in advance about the Berlin Wall (“for which he was practically a co-contractor,” says Reeves) and had, in effect, consented to building it to protect the small U.S. force of 15,000 soldiers in West Germany from the hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers on the eastern side.
The American Story shows almost every president to have had a flaw that scarred his legacy: FDR turned away Jewish refugees, sending them back to sure death under Hitler; JFK misfired on the Bay of Pigs; Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate; Vietnam doomed Lyndon Johnson; and, with the exception of John Adams, all the Founding Fathers owned slaves. Yet, as Walter Isaacson put it so well, “The Founders were the best team ever fielded.”
In mining nuggets of history, Jean Edward Smith (Eisenhower in War and Peace) reveals that D-Day might have failed had Hitler not been sleeping. His best Panzer tank troops were available to repel the invading Allies, but only he could give the order to use them, and no one dared wake the Führer during the initial hours of the landing. By the time he woke up, the Normandy beachheads had been secured.
Did the Allies know Hitler had orders not to be disturbed while sleeping? Or was it a matter of the great good luck that Smith said accompanied Eisenhower throughout his life?
Early in his career, Ike was almost court-martialed for claiming his son on his housing allowance for $250 (valued at $3,000 in 2017) even though his son was not living with him. Gen. John J. Pershing got the charge reduced to a letter of reprimand, and Eisenhower soared to a glorious career as a five-star general.
The Q&A format of this book is ingenious. Rubenstein, who’s mastered his subject matter, asks informed questions that stimulate impressive responses, and the “patriotic philanthropist” is not above probing into the personal and provocative:
About Benjamin Franklin: “He seemed to have a lot of girl friends.”
About Alexander Hamilton: “He had a bit of an amorous reputation. In fact, what did Martha Washington call her tomcat?”
About Dwight Eisenhower: “He was the only [WWII] general who may have had [an affair with] his ‘driver.’ Is that right?”
About Ronald Reagan: “Did he dye his hair?”
Rubenstein’s most engaging interview, with U.S. Supreme Court chief justice John G. Roberts Jr., comes at the end of the book. Roberts studied history as an undergrad at Harvard with hopes to make it his career, but then changed his mind.
“I was driving back to school from Logan Airport in Boston one day and I talked to the cabdriver. I said, ‘I’m a history major at Harvard.’ And he said, ‘I was a history major at Harvard…’ [After that] I thought I would move to law.”
Rubenstein, also a lawyer, responds: “In the first year of law school — really in the first month or two — you realize certain people have the ability to quickly do legal reasoning. They have the knack of it, and some people don’t. You must have realized that it wasn’t as hard as you had thought it would be.”
Smart as Rubenstein is, you have to love Roberts, who graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School: “It was as hard as I thought it would be. It was pretty hard throughout.”
The American Story is a creative concept that delivers delicious bite-size bits of American history to those who haven’t had the time or inclination to read widely. I devoured every page with immense pleasure.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey landed with its red title blazing like lipstick smeared on the cracked mirror of a truck stop. Yet, as much as I respect the two New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters who bolstered and tracked the #MeToo movement, I hesitated opening their book.
Having watched the bruising Brett Kavanagh hearings, plus nonstop coverage of the sexual plunders of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, I didn’t think I could stomach one more word about their depravities.
In addition, I’d read Ronan Farrow’s three-part series in the New Yorker about Black Cube, the private Israeli investigation firm hired by Weinstein’s lawyer, David Boies, to dig up dirt on Weinstein’s accusers, itself serialized in Farrow’s book Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators. This came on the heels of James B. Stewart’s excellent reportage in Deep State: Trump, the FBI, and the Rule of Law.
What more did I need to know about the fetid pathology of men hell-bent on sexually abusing women?
The answer lies in Kantor and Twohey’s spectacular book, which takes its title from the futile disputes of “he said, she said,” where there’s no corroborating evidence for either side and, consequently, no bona-fide winner. In point of fact, the winner is usually “he,” and the loser “she,” because “she” has no leverage in the powerful world of “he.”
That finally may be changing, thanks in large part to these investigative journalists, who devoted two years to giving abused women — 80 to date — a voice, helping them crawl out of the emotional cages where most had been cowering, terrified of their powerful predator.
The book provides a platinum primer on investigative reporting as Kantor and Twohey take readers inside their responsible march to publication: It’s a tale of lawyers who vet, editors who edit, and researchers who check and re-check facts while the reporters write and rewrite and rewrite again.
They spend days, weeks, and months searching for contact information — finding relatives, friends, neighbors, and work associates to lead to sources who, initially, balk at being contacted. A few agree to talk off the record but refuse to be quoted by name for fear of retaliation.
After years of terrified silence, most of the women who had lost or left jobs with career hopes dashed — especially those who had signed non-disclosure agreements — saw nothing to be gained by speaking out:
“Actresses, prominent and unknown, had told reporters Weinstein stories and sworn them to secrecy. The pattern that had protected Weinstein for decades — no actress wanted to be the one to speak up and name him — still held.”
Just like cowboys in old TV Westerns: Everyone wanted cover.
Perhaps being women themselves, the two journalists understood why so many victims felt they were somehow at fault for being assaulted by Weinstein. With sensitivity, Kantor and Twohey did not push; they listened quietly, responded gently. “I can’t change what happened to you in the past,” each said, “but together we may be able to use your experience to help protect other people.” Finally, they earned the trust they needed to pursue the story.
That’s when the saga becomes frightening, with dark, back-alley skulks.
Black Cube begins a campaign to intimidate the reporters, trying to push them off their story. The reporters start receiving strange emails and texts from an actor-agent identifying herself as being from an organization in London who wants to talk about gender equality in the corporate sphere. Their executive editor at the Times, Dean Baquet, warns them to assume their communications are being monitored, their tracks followed.
In a sweet aside, the reporters mention a detail about their editor, who insisted their investigation be irreproachable. He had told them that, at the start of his newspaper career, he’d written about a small-time actor who posed as a talent scout to lure aspiring actresses as young as 14 into private meetings and then raped them. Baquet felt his “sensationalized and melodramatic” stories convicted the man in print without a fair defense. “I always felt like everyone in the courtroom lost a little respect for me, including the prosecution.”
Including that story reflects well on the reporters, and more so on their boss, who gives new meaning to Shakespeare’s observation: “They say best men are molded out of faults, and, for the most, become much more better for being a little bad.”
Following Baquet’s lead, Kantor and Twohey low-key everything, even the most lurid details of their investigation. They write with restraint about Weinstein’s young female assistant tasked with procuring and organizing his “personal supply of an erectile dysfunction drug called Caverject, administered through injection into the penis…[She] had to keep a supply of those shots at her desk, hand them off to him in brown paper bags, and sometimes run the drugs to hotels and elsewhere, just before his meetings with women.”
Threads of the Weinstein story had appeared in the New York Times since 2017, but not with the full wallop of this book, which reads like a John le Carré thriller, detailing egregious crimes, a tangled web of clues, frightened witnesses, cover-ups, bribes, threats, double-dealing lawyers, and cash payments in exchange for non-disclosure agreements. She Said makes All the President’s Men look like “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
When David Boies, who charges $2,000 an hour to be David Boies, tells the reporters he was “unaware” of the Black Cube tactics used against them, you may roll your eyes; when he adds his regret for not paying closer attention, you’ll want to throw up.
But there’s a comeuppance: Because the law firm of Boies Schiller Flexner also represented the Times on certain matters, when the newspaper learned of Boies’ actions, which they deemed “reprehensible,” they fired the firm for “grave betrayal.”
Boies then threw Weinstein, his Hollywood red carpet friend and client of many years, under the bus. Maybe Dick the Butcher was right. “The first thing we do,” he said in Henry VI, “let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Weinstein shrewdly surrounded himself with a highly credentialed crew of female attorneys to protect him, including Linda Fairstein, once renowned in the field of sex-crimes prosecution, and Lisa Bloom, who, upon publication of this book, should’ve packed a go bag and headed for the Azores, where they might not have read the damning memos she wrote to Weinstein, all reprinted in She Said, all showing her avarice, her appalling lack of scruples and basic legal ethics.
Bloom is the daughter of Gloria Allred, supposed defender of abused women, who hovers at their side on cable television and then takes 40 percent of every settlement she negotiates. Kantor and Twohey report that they “didn’t realize, and would never have suspected, that Allred’s firm was sitting on separate records about Weinstein’s [financial settlements], ones that had never come to the attention of the government or the public.” Bloom better pack a bag for Mom, too.
Then there’s Lanny Davis, Weinstein’s crisis manager, who starts his spin by bragging to the reporters about his close friendship with Hillary Clinton, his classmate from Yale Law School. Kantor and Twohey ask him about the sexual assault allegations against Weinstein, which he paid millions to conceal:
“Do you think that’s normal for men to make so many payoffs?”
“I do,” said Davis very matter-of-factly.
Memo to Bloom: Make that three go bags.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
Originally published in Washingtonian October 2019
I’ve been in DC since, let’s see . . . since Abraham Lincoln was President! I came to help with Senator Eugene McCarthy’s Foreign Relations Committee mail for a six-week stint, but I ended up in his Senate office and stayed four years. I remember that his personal secretary, who looked like she had been on the job 102 years, took one look at me and said, ‘Can she type or take shorthand?’ McCarthy replied, ‘We don’t ask the impossible of anyone around here.’ I thought, This guy has got a great sense of humor.
When I left the Hill in 1968, I became the researcher for the Washington Post editorial page. After two fabulous years at the paper, I got a book contract to investigate the beauty-spa industry. Since I weighed three pounds less than a horse, I signed fast and saddled up to visit every fat farm in the country. I got myself down to pony size, and the book probably sold 14 copies—all to my mother.
Then I backed into writing biographies, beginning with Jackie Oh! I love the genre, but writing an unauthorized biography brings its challenges. The subjects I’ve chosen are extremely powerful public figures who’ve had a vast impact on our lives and are fully invested in their images. Consequently, the blowback can be considerable.
I remember when my Nancy Reagan book came out in 1991, my late husband, John, who was courting me at the time, took me to Bice, then a real hot spot in DC. As we walked in, a man stood up and started yelling, ‘Booooo! Get that bitch out of here! Boo! Boo!’ John turned around to see who the guy was yelling at. I knew and looked straight ahead, praying not to cry. The man kept yelling, everyone turned to look, and then a woman on the other side of the restaurant started yelling, ‘No, no—she’s brave!’ The two of them went at each other, and the restaurant suddenly looked like tennis at Wimbledon, turning from one side to the other. The maître d’ brought us to a table, and John buried himself in the wine list. Then a guy from the middle of the room threw his napkin on the floor and headed for our table. I thought for sure we were goners. He spread out his arms and embraced me: ‘Kitty, you don’t know me, but I’m going to stand here until this stops.’ It was Tony Coehlo, the majority whip in the House of Representatives. I introduced him to John, who said, ‘Congressman, you go in the will.’ John told me later he was going to propose over dinner but was so flummoxed by what happened, he put it off for 24 hours.
My Bush-family book drew fire from the White House, the Republican National Committee, and the GOP leader in the House of Representatives. I framed all the cartoons and hung them where they belong—in the loo. My favorite is the bubble-headed blonde in Chanel shoes parachuting into Saddam Hussein’s bunker, scattering the armed guards, who yell, ‘Run for your lives! It’s Kitty Kelley!’
I don’t write about just anybody. I only choose huge figures who have manufactured a public image. I’m fascinated to find out what they’re really like. I’m not doing another great big bio simply because, at this moment in time, I don’t want to know what anyone out there is really like. Certainly not Trump. Melania? Oh, definitely not.
I’ve already done seven New York Times bestsellers. I can’t say that I loved doing them, but I sure loved finishing them.
by Kitty Kelley
If you’re reading Terry Tempest Williams for the first time, you are meeting an impassioned conservationist who can take her place in the environmental pantheon alongside Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Rebecca Solnit.
Erosion: Essays of Undoing is her 16th book and, in it, Williams writes of how the world is splintering and crumbling because of those who plunder public lands for oil, gas, and other fossil fuels.
Williams is particularly inflamed about what has happened to two national monuments in her home state of Utah: Bears Ears (1.3 million acres) and Grand Staircase-Escalante (1 million acres). Both had been designated as national monuments by President Obama and thus permanently protected, but months after Donald J. Trump took office, he ordered an 85-percent reduction in federal protections, which opened both areas to private development. She writes:
“The fury to strategically undo decades of environmental regulations and laws passed on behalf of ecological integrity and human health has been unleashed inside the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Believing the life of the planet is now at stake, Williams marshals dazzling prose to summon activists to resist and revolt. She believes “to belong to a place and a group of people saves our lives,” and that each of us must fight for salvation, which means waging war against all disrupters of public lands.
From 1987-1992, she engaged in acts of civil disobedience to protest against nuclear testing in the Nevada desert. More recently, she and her husband formed a legal entity to purchase a gas-and-oil lease from the Bureau of Land Management for 1,120 acres near their home in order to keep the resources in the ground forever:
“Our purchase was more or less spontaneous, done with a coyote’s grin, to shine a light on the auctioning away of America’s public lands to extract the very fossil fuels that are warming our planet and pushing us toward climate disaster.”
Their clever ruse made front-page news in the Salt Lake Tribune, and, two weeks later, Williams lost her job at the University of Utah as the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in the environmental humanities graduate program.
Professionally crushed by the fossil-fuel interests in her state, she excoriates fellow Utahan Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving Republican U.S. Senator in history and one who, for 42 years, championed drilling in his state’s public lands. After reading her case against the 85-year-old politician, one may be relieved to know that he’s now retired.
Williams’ zealotry is understandable considering that atomic testing in Nevada between 1951 and 1962 exposed her and her family to radiation, which, she believes, is the reason so many of them have developed cancer. Nine family members have had to have mastectomies, which prompted her to write an essay in 1991 entitled “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.”
Erosion is not a book you drink in one gulp; you take a few sips and savor the skill of a talented writer who fuses soul to scholarship. For some, the essays will be a conservationist’s creed with too much information about red-winged blackbirds and sand bill cranes, while others will be impressed by the depth and detail of the author’s avian expertise.
I confess a raised eyebrow when I read that “the sage grouse is the most powerful individual in the American west right now,” but after reading page after page about this bird with a spikey fan and golf-ball-size eyes, I found myself rooting for a feathered creature I’d never heard of before.
Williams extols the natural beauty of the Colorado Plateau and the red-rock wilderness of the Four Corners Monument, the quadripoint that connects Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. She pays homage to the Endangered Species Act and schools you in all its dimensions — geological, geographical, and geopolitical. Then she swerves into her personal life and the effects of “erosion” on her evolution into a fierce feminist.
Raised a Mormon in Salt Lake City, Williams rails against that church and its beliefs that proclaim African Americans are not worthy to become priests and indigenous people are Lamanites, cursed and cut off from the Lord. She states that the greatest trauma of living in Utah is “the religiosity of the Mormon patriarchy that says you have no authority to speak — women, Indians, black people, brown people. Gay people, trans people.”
The heart-stopping moment of the book comes toward the end in a searing chapter she entitles “The Erosion of the Body,” which Williams means literally as she recalls her brother’s inability to conquer his addictions and his subsequent suicide.
Sparing no details, she gives us the tick-tock of how he hanged himself, and how she and her surviving brother identified his body, placed sunflower petals on the raw sores of his neck, and then slipped a red-tail hawk feather in one dead hand and an owl feather in the other. She leads us to the crematorium, where she and her younger brother sit for six hours in front of the furnace that burns their brother’s remains.
They never flinch, even when the coroner comes to turn the corpse as one might turn a quesadilla. Waiting for his ashes, which will be released into the wilderness, Williams recalls how, shortly before he took his life, he had told her, “I am eroding.”
At that point, the title of this book, dedicated to her dead brother, takes on its deepest dimension.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
With Kai Bird, at CUNY Graduate Center
by Kitty Kelley
One of life’s toughest journeys is accompanying a loved one into old age or disability, for it is a trip that will inevitably lead to the grave, and that final farewell can bring crushing grief and an awful aloneness.
In Patrimony: A True Story, published in 1991, Philip Roth made that journey with his 86-year-old father, who had been struck by a virulent brain tumor, leaving him “utterly isolated within a body that had become a terrifying escape-proof enclosure, the holding pen in a slaughterhouse.”
With unsparing prose, Roth chronicles the last two years of his father’s life, which became a horrifying excursion into modern medicine — different doctors with various diagnoses and misdiagnoses, some which required crippling surgeries by men the author “wouldn’t trust to carve my Thanksgiving turkey.”
The questionable results and protracted recovery left father and son bewildered and frustrated as they tried to make wracking decisions about prolonging life and postponing death. In the end, they decide against all surgeries and try to deal with the effects of the growing tumor, which leave Herman Roth disfigured with facial paralysis, deaf in one ear, and blind in one eye.
Through the son, we come to know the father as “obsessively stubborn and stubbornly obsessive,” a “pitiless realist” who tossed out his wife’s clothes hours after she died. Philip Roth’s mother had been “a good-natured, even tempered, untroublesome partner whose faults and failings [his father] could correct unceasingly.”
We see “the poignant abyss” between the pair — the father, two generations removed from Galicia in Northern Spain with only an eighth-grade education, whose hard work as an insurance salesman for Metropolitan Life in Newark made it possible for the son to be educated, the elixir that would elevate him realms beyond his parents — socially, intellectually, and professionally.
“I had prematurely entered high school at the age of twelve, just about the age when [my father] had left for good to support his immigrant parents,” Roth writes.
Obviously gifted, Roth graduated college magna cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Throughout, he felt guilty about outdistancing his father, and reflects that “every course I took and paper I wrote was expanding the mental divide that had been growing wider and wider.”
He earned his M.A. in literature from the University of Chicago, became a Distinguished Professor at Princeton, wrote 32 books of fiction and nonfiction, and won almost every literary prize imaginable.
For many years, Roth distanced himself from his hectoring father, who, he writes, “had no idea just how unproductive, how maddening, even, at times, cruel his admonishing could be.” Yet he pays him loving tribute for being a survivor: for surviving financial setbacks, for surviving an immigrant’s humiliations, for surviving a Jew’s discrimination in the claws of anti-Semitism.
Father and son finally bond over their shared passion for baseball, a bit reminiscent of Field of Dreams. One of the most affecting scenes in the book is Roth’s recollection of game five of the playoffs between the Mets and the Astros on October 14, 1986, when he was in London, six hours away from the game his father is watching in New Jersey.
Their transcontinental conversation sounds like a play-by-play between two exuberant boys until the father remembers his son is calling from England. “Hey…This is going to cost you a fortune.” Ecstatic that his father’s tumor has given him enough remission to enjoy the game, Roth urges him to continue. “Go ahead, Herm. I’m a rich man. Pitch by pitch. Who’s up?”
Roth found his father in advanced age to have become “annoyingly tight” about spending money on himself for a cleaning lady or for a subscription to his beloved New York Times. One wonders why the “rich” son did not step forward to provide those small luxuries, indicating perhaps that the leaf does not fall far from the tree.
Yet, as a good son, Roth stepped up to usher his father through his last 24 months of life, taking care of him as one might a newborn child. He drew his Epsom salt baths, tested the water, helped him in and out of the tub, and observed — only as the author of Portnoy’s Complaint would — that his father’s member “looked pretty serviceable. Stouter around, I noticed, than my own.”
Roth’s writing here is extraordinary but hardly elevating. As the New York Times proclaimed, Patrimony is “American storytelling at its least lyrical.” One of the “least lyrical” parts of this memoir, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is the breath-stopping scene of the father’s incontinence in his son’s home, where the old man dissolves into tears and shamefully admits, “I beshat myself.”
The son goes down on his hands and knees, stifling disgust and nausea, to clean a bathroom floor full of his father’s excrement, which, he relates with mordant humor, is true patrimony. “And not because cleaning it up was symbolic of something else, but because it wasn’t, because it was nothing less or more than lived reality.”
Roth saw his patrimony not in inherited wealth or the accumulated treasures of a lifetime from his father, but in cleaning up his father’s befoulment.
On his last day of life, Herman Roth was rushed to the hospital, unable to breathe. The attending physician was prepared to take “extraordinary measures” to keep him alive when Philip Roth arrived and had to decide whether to follow his father’s living will, which stipulated no life support. He writes that he had to sit with his father a very long time before he could say, “Dad, I’m going to have to let you go.”
Only at the end of the book do we learn that “in keeping with the unseemliness of my profession,” Philip Roth had been writing this memoir all the time his father was ill and dying.
Many will be grateful that he did.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
People who know art will recognize the name of David Hockney, and those who like the artist will enjoy this romp of a book, which purports to be “a novel and a biography,” a hybrid of sorts that cross-fertilizes fact with fiction. Brief and breezy at under 200 pages, the Life of David Hockney by Catherine Cusset reads like a fanzine about the man considered to be England’s most famous living artist.
At the age of 35, Hockney made auction history in 2018 when his “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” painted in 1972, sold for $90 million. He held that record for six months until Jeff Koons’ “Rabbit” sold for $91 million.
Cusset wrote this book as a love letter and said as much during an interview on NPR: “I hope he will consider it an homage.” She admitted she “was very scared” about his reaction. “The man…is very rich and he’s super well known. And he cares about his image. And he can hire very good lawyers.”
She needn’t have worried. Hockney has flicked off major art critics like Hilton Kramer and Clement Greenberg for disparaging his work as “superficial” and too pleasant to be taken seriously; then he’s laughed all the way to the bank. Upon publication of Cusset’s book, Hockney was gracious: “[It] caught a lot of me. I could recognize myself.”
The author had not known anything about the artist until she looked at his work on the Internet. Then, “I really liked him…I loved his incredible freedom at every level…always following his desire, his impulse, being true to himself.”
Having written 13 novels about “things that are connected to my life — my mother, my mother-in-law [and] sex,” Cusset also holds two Ph.D.s — one from Paris Diderot University, where she wrote a dissertation on Marquis de Sade, and one from Yale, where she wrote on the 18th-century libertine novel. So, she’s well-schooled on the subject of sex and the pain and pleasures of the flesh.
As a gay man, Hockney celebrates homosexuality in much of his art (“We Two Boys Together Climbing,” “Doll Boy,” “Adhesiveness”); with staccato sentences, Cusset dives into his personal life like a devotee of True Romance pot-boilers. She reports on his nude revels — filled with poppers, cocaine, and Quaaludes — the fraught years of AIDS, and the sad deaths of many friends.
She tracks his torrid five-year affair with Peter, who becomes his model and muse. (Most of the men mentioned in the book, including friends and lovers and assistants, are identified by first names only.)
Then — cue the drums — comes the traumatic break-up with Peter, when he leaves the artist for a younger man. In sob-sister style, Cusset writes how Hockney “was stricken with depression” and kept asking himself, “How could he get Peter out of his blood?”
Even three years later, “He would still cry when he thought of Peter.” This leads to second-guessing their relationship:
“Had Peter ever had any real feelings for him?”
“Where was the boy whom he had loved so passionately?”
“Would the pain ever go away?”
“Weren’t three years enough?”
Cue the violins.
For those unfamiliar with Hockney’s art, this book will disappoint, as it contains no reproductions or illustrations. Cusset cites several works by name but describes few, probably figuring that fans will have read at least one of the artist’s 27 books and be able to recall images such as “A Bigger Grand Canyon,” “My House Montacalm Avenue Los Angeles,” and “Model with Unfinished Self Portrait.”
Still, to write about David Hockney without showing his paintings is like writing about Winston Churchill without quoting his speeches.
In discussing Hockney’s art, Cusset notes that the color blue suffuses many of his paintings, from the aqua swimming pools that first made him famous to his “Self Portrait with Blue Guitar,” inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”
This poem spoke to Hockney, who saw himself as a man who can’t play things as they are, but through his talent — his blue guitar — he summons the power to recreate the world from his imagination. The guitar is the artist’s talisman and can only be strummed by the gifted.
Life of David Hockney begins with a young, happy-go-lucky man who moves from the north of England to Los Angeles to pursue his passion for painting and music and beautiful boys. He bleaches his hair blonde, wears red polka dots with purple stripes, and, with a flair for friendship, surrounds himself with an adoring coterie that accompanies his rocket to success.
He achieves great wealth and global recognition. He travels the world, collecting all its tributes, and seems surely headed for happily-ever-after. But age and disability intrude, leaving the last image of David Hockney as a deaf 82-year-old man, sitting alone on his porch, smoking a joint that he buys with a medical marijuana license “to calm his anxiety.”
Fugit irreparabile tempus.
[Correction: This posting originally gave an incorrect date for the record-breaking sale of “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” ]
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Mélisande Short-Colomb knows her begats. Three years ago, she received a Facebook message from a genealogist, asking if she was related to the Mahoney family of Baton Rouge. Like a Biblical scholar ticking off Old Testament lineage, she typed out a list of her forebears—enslaved and free—going back seven generations. The genealogist had struck gold. For months, she’d been searching for descendants of the roughly three hundred slaves who had been sold by the Maryland Jesuits who owned Georgetown College, in 1838, for a hundred and fifteen thousand dollars, to save the school from bankruptcy. With the help of Short-Colomb and her begats, more than eight thousand descendants of these slaves were located. Now Georgetown University is trying to make it up to them. Last month, the student body voted to pay reparations to the heirs.
Short-Colomb, who is sixty-five, with gray hair, is a rising junior at Georgetown. “I’m not just one of the oldest students here and one of the few African-Americans,” she said the other day. “I’m also part of the reconciliation program.” In 2016, the university began offering legacy status—a preference for admission, not a scholarship—to descendants of slaves owned by the Maryland Jesuits. One descendant has graduated, two are in graduate school, and three—including Short-Colomb—are undergraduates. “I’m here to help the Jesuits atone for their sins,” she said, smiling.
Short-Colomb was hanging out in her dorm, Copley Hall. Her room, which she calls her “tiny condo,” has a single bed, a large bathroom with grab rails, and a desk piled with papers, books, and a few crystals. She’s comfortable now, after what she calls the “trauma” of her first semester. “I was overwhelmed by everything that the young white students seemed to take in stride, if not for granted,” she said. “The kids all had the same look—leggings, puffy jackets, athletic shoes, and ponytails.” Short-Colomb, who had worked as a chef for twenty-two years, was used to wearing a uniform. “I didn’t know how to dress for college,” she said. “I looked strange walking around in my blue suède pumps.” That day, she had on a sweatshirt, sandals, and ripped, wide-legged jeans.
Last year, her window looked out on the school’s Jesuit cemetery. She would sometimes end her day watching the sun set over it. “I took a perverse pleasure in having survived the struggle of my ancestors,” she said. “I looked out at those Jesuit tombstones and was unapologetically grateful that they are dead and I am alive.” She admitted feeling bitter when she sees the African-American groundskeepers, knowing that the university had built over the former burial sites of slaves. “No brothers weeding and mowing their grounds,” she said.
The university isn’t bound by the student referendum to pay reparations, but the board of directors is expected to consider the recommendation in June. If it votes in favor, a reconciliation fee of twenty-seven dollars and twenty cents will be added to each undergraduate’s tuition bill. Short-Colomb helped rally the votes. Standing in a grassy quad, she’d announced, into a megaphone, “The dollar amount, symbolic of the two hundred and seventy-two Jesuit slaves sold, is only one-tenth of one per cent of the average tuition per semester.”
The result of the student vote is controversial on campus. Some students say that the university should pay its own reparations rather than make students fund them. International students have objected to paying for a crime that they didn’t commit. To the skeptics, Short-Colomb responds, “You came here voluntarily, and you’ll leave with the prestige of a degree from an esteemed university that would not exist but for the enslaved people who built it.”
Later that day, Short-Colomb cooked a gumbo dinner for her friend Richard Cellini, the founder of the Georgetown Memory Project. Cellini’s venture, which receives no financial support from Georgetown, has identified eight thousand four hundred and twenty-five descendants, more than four thousand of whom are alive. He hopes to locate even more and reunite fifteen hundred families who were separated by the 1838 sale.
Cellini, who describes himself as a “mustard-seed Catholic,” said that he knew very little about slavery or African-American history until a couple of years ago, when students began protesting after a story about the Georgetown slave auction ran in the student paper. “I could not stop thinking about the families ripped apart by that sale whose names had been in the university archives for years,” he said. Ironically, written records exist only because the Jesuits insisted that their slaves be baptized.
“We’ll save your soul while we sell your ass,” Short-Colomb joked.
Originally published in “Talk of the Town” in New Yorker print edition May 20, 2019
10/29/2019 Update on reparations at Georgetown University here.