Taking Things Hard

by Kitty Kelley

Success is said to be a bitch goddess who sprays splendor like a shooting star in the night sky. Many writers spend their lives chasing her, most to no avail. John Keats, Franz Kafka, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe — all died without ever experiencing her starshine.

Not so F. Scott Fitzgerald. The goddess wrapped him in riches, recognition, and renown at the age of 24 with his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Two years later, in 1922, he published The Beautiful and the Damned, and she showered him with international fame and prestige. Fitzgerald became the trumpeter of the Roaring Twenties, an era of champagne wealth and flapper frivolity that lasted as long as a bubble before it burst and plunged the country into years of depression. The bitch goddess took flight just as the trumpeter was embarking on the novel that would eventually become his legacy. He would not live long enough to savor its rewards.

Fitzgerald’s life has been chronicled in numerous biographies, letters, essays, scrapbooks, memoirs, notebooks, documentaries, and films, a challenging cornucopia facing any modern-day author who aspires to examine the life that produced what many claim is the United States’ greatest novel. “If you want to know what America’s like, you read The Great Gatsby,” said Professor John Kuehl of New York University. “Fitzgerald is the quintessential American writer.”

Most scholars sniff at Fitzgerald’s short stories, but Robert R. Garnett, professor emeritus of English at Gettysburg College, has chosen to limn the writer’s life through some of those 180 tales in Taking Things Hard: The Trials of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The title springs from Fitzgerald’s assessment of himself as a scribe. In a letter to Ernest Hemingway, he wrote, “Taking things hard…That’s [the] stamp that goes into my books so that people can read it blind like brail.”

Hemingway agreed. “We are all bitched from the start, and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously.”

Garnett concurs. “For Fitzgerald, the emotions of love and loss were far more compelling than any idea,” he writes. “[He] was not an intellectual.”

Starting with one of “the worst things F. Scott Fitzgerald ever wrote for publication,” Garnett pulls out a “deservedly unknown” 1935 short story published in Redbook, which he describes as “wooden, simplistic, puerile, awash in cliché and banality, with ninth-century colloquial rendered in a hodgepodge of cowboy-movie, hillbilly, and detective novel.” (Here, one is tempted to steer the professor to The Elements of Style, in which Strunk and White advise using nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs.)

The year 1935 is crucial to Garnett’s book — and to Fitzgerald’s life — because it marks “the crack-up,” when the magic had drained from the writer’s golden world and everything turned to dross. He was institutionalized for alcoholism, and his descent was chronicled in a 150-page, single-spaced journal that Garnett feels “is the most valuable single source for any period of his life.” The journal was written by Laura Guthrie, who met Fitzgerald when both were recuperating in Ashville, North Carolina. During that time, she became his confidant, advisor, and crying towel.

Fitzgerald later wrote three Esquire articles about his “crack-up,” which one biographer described as “sheer brilliance.” Garnett dismisses this as sheer nonsense. “Far from brilliantly written, the articles are littered with the cliches and tired metaphors of slipshod writing — ‘the dead hand of the past,’ ‘up to the hilt,’ ‘a place in the sun,’ ‘not a pretty picture,’ ‘burning the candle at both ends,’ ‘sleight of hand,” and ‘beady-eyed men.’” Garnett further fillets Fitzgerald’s series as “filled with vagueness, obscurity, facile generalizing, non sequiturs, and padding (a random diatribe against Hollywood, for example).”

Tinseltown was hell for Fitzgerald, who’d moved there in 1937, hoping to resuscitate his career and recapture vanished glory. Still married to Zelda, at the time institutionalized with schizophrenia, he moved in with Sheilah Graham, the nationally syndicated Hollywood gossip columnist, and lived with her until he died of a heart attack in 1940.

On the subject of Graham, Garnett sounds a bit puritanical, alluding to her “amorous past” and dismissing her as “ambitious, enterprising, attractive, hardworking, shrewd, and not over-scrupulous, she had climbed from…poverty to become a chorus girl, then journalist.” The professor judges her as “too conventional, vin ordinaire, to generate much emotion [from Fitzgerald] beyond comfort and gratitude.”

How interesting it might’ve been for an accomplished scholar such as Garnett to have examined Graham and her ascent in the world in comparison to that of Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. Both working-class characters of questionable backgrounds and no education came to represent the American Dream. An analysis of such by an English professor could’ve added insight and scholarship to the corpus of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Alas, a missed opportunity.

Chances are, the bitch goddess will not be spraying splendor on Garnett’s treatise, but the professor can take comfort in the legion of Fitzgerald aficionados who will find some nuggets within Taking Things Hard to be worthy of gold.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

BIO Award Winner Kitty Kelley’s Speech

Kitty Kelley won the 2023 Biographers International Organization Award. On Saturday, May 20, at the 2023 BIO Conference, it was also announced that Kelley will make a gift of $1 million to BIO, to be given over the course of five years. You can read more about that here

The following is Kitty’s keynote address:

 

 

If I get run over tonight, please make sure that this BIO award leads my obit, because it’ll be the only time that my name shares the same space with Ron Chernow and Robert Caro and Stacy Schiff. But I don’t want to think about obituaries right now. I want to share with you a little bit about the writing life that brings me here today.

I love books and as much as I enjoy fiction, I bend my knee to nonfiction, particularly biography—the art of telling a life story. All kinds of life stories—memoir, authorized and unauthorized biography, historical narrative, or contemporary profiles.

In the last few decades, I’ve written biographies about living icons, a genre that is sometimes dismissed as “unauthorized biography” and, unfortunately, the term is sometimes said as if you’re emptying a bedpan or cleaning up the dog’s mess. Unauthorized biographies are not approved by everyone and rarely appreciated by their subjects. One exception, of course, is the New Testament, which was written by disciples who never knew their subject.

About 40 years ago, I thought I’d died and gone to biography heaven when Bantam Books offered me a grand advance to write the unauthorized biography of Frank Sinatra. I’d written two previous biographies and been robbed on both. On the first one, I didn’t have an agent—which is like driving a car without a steering wheel. On the second, I had an agent straight out of Oliver Twist. You may remember the woman who advised Linda Tripp to advise Monica Lewinsky to save her blue dress. Well, that same woman was once a literary agent who caused about $70,000 in foreign sales to go missing on my Elizabeth Taylor biography. My lawyer was incensed and insisted I sue. I told him to write the agent, say I’d misplaced records, and ask for another accounting. I figured that way she could correct herself and repay the missing monies.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I let this go on for over a year because I just couldn’t believe a literary agent would steal from a client. My lawyer said, “Try to get it into your fat head: She’s not Max Perkins. She’s Ma Barker.”

After 17 months, I finally filed suit. Depositions were taken and the case went to federal court in Washington, D.C. I fully expected her to settle because the evidence was so overwhelming.  Instead, the case went to trial and the jury found Ma Barker guilty on all six counts, including fraud. They demanded she make payment on the courthouse steps and even asked for punitive damages.

I suppose the lawsuit was a great victory, because I unloaded a bad agent and got a good one, but I was in no hurry to do another biography. I’d just learned the hard way that there’s no education in the second kick of a mule. I’d undertaken the Elizabeth Taylor biography, hoping to write about the Hollywood studio system that had shaped our fantasies for most of the 20th century. I envisioned weaving that theme into the life story of Elizabeth Taylor, who grew up as a little girl at MGM, and went to school at MGM and . . . married many MGM men. But my plan for this historical narrative soon got buried in Ms. Taylor’s Technicolor life of husbands and hospitals and jewelry stores.

My agent asked, if I were to consider writing another life story, who would be of interest? I said, “Well, the gold ring on the merry-go-round would be Frank Sinatra, because no one’s really done it, and he epitomizes the American dream.” She agreed and that was the end of the subject until a couple weeks later when she called and said she had a generous offer from Bantam Books.

Soon I was back in the biography business, thinking I’d paid my hard luck dues. I’d had a bandit publisher on my first book and a thieving agent on my second. Now was third time lucky. And for a few weeks it was . . . until I was served a subpoena from Frank Sinatra, announcing that he was suing me for $2 million dollars for usurping the rights to his life story. He claimed that he and he alone (or someone he authorized) was entitled to write his life story, and I certainly had not been authorized.

I immediately called my publisher, and Bantam’s legal counsel informed me that I was on my own. “Mr. Sinatra has not sued us,” she said. “He’s sued you, and since you’ve not given us a manuscript, we’re not involved. So, I’d advise you to get legal counsel in California, which is where you’ve been sued and do keep us informed.”

“But I haven’t written a word. I’ve only just begun. My manuscript is years away.”

“We’ll talk then,” she said, before hanging up.

Now, getting sued by a billionaire with Mafia ties concentrates the mind, especially after your publisher leaves the scene. I called my friend, the president of Washington Independent Writers, to commiserate. “I wish we could help you, Kitty, but we’re almost broke,” she said. I assured her that I wasn’t looking for money—just moral support. “Well, in that case, let me get on the horn.” She contacted several writers’ groups, including the Authors Guild and PEN and the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and Sigma Delta Chi, and the National Writers Union. Days later, they held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to denounce Sinatra for using his power and influence to intimidate a writer before she’d written a word. They denounced his lawsuit and his assault on the First Amendment. As journalists, they understood what was at stake if Sinatra prevailed.

I retained the law firm of O’Melveny and Myers in Los Angeles and tried to keep working on the book, but was interrupted a few weeks later when I was in New York doing interviews and my lawyer called to tell me to get back to D.C. because the LA lawyers were coming to Washington for a meeting that would also be attended by my publisher. The LA lawyers said they’d received a tape recording from Sinatra’s lawyers of me supposedly misrepresenting myself as Sinatra’s authorized biographer, and this tape recording was the proof that they were going to present in court.

Now I was scared, even though I knew I hadn’t made such a telephone call. But I began to second-guess myself, wondering if maybe under the pressure I’d snapped my cap. By the time the lawyers arrived that Monday morning I was ready for handcuffs.

Three teams of lawyers sat down in my living room and put the tape in the recorder. No one said a word for the first two minutes because what we heard sounded like Porky Pig flying high on helium. In a squeaky voice, Porky said he was me and Frank Sinatra told me to call for an interview. The lawyers played that tape three times and we all listened to Porky Pig again and again before anyone said a word. Then all the lawyers laughed, clearly relieved, knowing the tape was a phony. I didn’t laugh.

“This lawsuit has gone on for almost a year and now someone is willing to lie under oath to say that I misrepresented myself to get an interview.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll send this to the tape labs at U.S.C., they’ll send the report to Sinatra’s team, and we’ll file for a dismissal. Meantime, just tape all your interviews.”

I tried to explain to the lawyers that you couldn’t always tape interviews, especially in the early 1980’s, when the technology wasn’t sophisticated. Taping in restaurants was difficult over the clinking of glasses, and taping phone interviews wasn’t legal in every state, even with two-party permission.

I finally decided that the best way to protect myself was to write a thank-you note to everyone I interviewed. That turned out to be 800 notes. They were polite and also protective. I’d thank them for the time they gave me in their home or their office or their favorite bar—wherever we’d done the interview; I’d compliment them on the polka dot bow tie they wore or the pretty pink blouse or their red tennis shoes; I’d mention the fabulous décor, or a particular piece of art, or our great salad in such-and-such a restaurant—any detail that set the time or place. Then I’d send it off and keep a copy in my files, because three or four years later when the book was finally published, they might very well have forgotten that interview or, more likely, wish they had.

That happened with Frank Sinatra Jr. He’d agreed to be interviewed when he was performing in Washington, D.C. His representative asked if I’d be bringing a camera crew, and I said no crew, just a still photographer. Then I quickly called my friend Stanley Tretick, one of President Kennedy’s favorite photographers who had worked for UPI and then LOOK magazine.

Stanley and I arrived at the Capitol Hill Hilton in the afternoon and went to Sinatra’s suite. His publicist met us and then disappeared when Frank Jr. entered the room. Sinatra’s only son sat down and asked me to sit close to him because he didn’t want to strain his voice. He was performing that night. So, I moved over, notebook in hand. The first 30 minutes of the interview went well as Sinatra Jr. talked about accompanying his father on tour and hanging out in Vegas with his father’s friends. Then he leaned over and said, “Hon, I know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.”

I didn’t move. Because no one knew what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. They knew he was dead, but they didn’t know how or by whom. And now the son of a mob-connected man was going to tell me.

For a split second I wondered what I should wear when I got the Pulitzer Prize.

Just as Frank Sinatra Jr. leaned over to whisper in my ear, Stanley dropped his camera bags on the floor, and said, “Well out with it, man. What the hell happened to Hoffa?”

Frank Sinatra Jr. reared back as if he’d been clubbed. He looked at me, then he bolted from his chair and ran into the bedroom, slamming the door. His publicist came running out and said we had to leave. I begged for more time, saying the interview wasn’t finished, but the publicist was physically pushing us out the door.

Up to that point, Stanley Tretick had been one of my closest friends. Now I looked at him as if he’d just been possessed by the Tasmanian devil.

“Aw, hell. He doesn’t know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.”

“Really?” I said. “And since when are photographers clairvoyant? And what kind of a lunkhead photographer throws a hissy in the middle of a reporter’s interview? Did it ever occur to you that what the son of a mob-connected man has to say about the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa might be of interest?”

By now I was down the steps and storming the street to hail a cab. I refused to ride in the same car with a crazy person when I was homicidal. I didn’t speak to Stanley for some time, but he became my best pal again when the Sinatra biography was published. By then Frank Sinatra had dropped his lawsuit but his son now decided to sue, denying he’d ever given me an interview.  His lawyers contacted my publisher and everyone braced for another lawsuit. But Stanley produced one of the photos he’d taken during our interview that showed me sitting next to Frank Sinatra Jr. with a notebook in [my] hand and a tape recorder on the table.

That photograph certainly trumped all of my little thank-you notes. Yet I can’t tell you how many times those notes saved me. When I wrote the Nancy Reagan biography, letters rained down on Simon & Schuster from corporate tycoons and all manner of political operatives, who took offense with the words attributed to them or to their wives or secretaries or associates, and at the bottom of every letter was a “cc” to President Ronald Reagan. Each time the publisher’s lawyer would call me to go over my notes and my tapes, and then he’d send a courteous reply, saying the publisher stands by the book and its accuracy.

At first, I wanted the publisher to “cc: President Reagan” just like all the letter writers had done, but the lawyer said no reason to stir the beast. “Those are weasel letters. They’re sent simply to show the flag.” He was right, and there were no retractions and no lawsuits.

That controversial biography became the cover of Time, Newsweek, People, Entertainment Weekly, and The Columbia Journalism Review, and [was] presented on the front pages of The New York Times, The New York Post, and the New York Daily News.

On the day of publication, President and Mrs. Reagan held a press conference to denounce the book, saying that I had—quote—“clearly exceeded the bounds of decency.” And three days later, President Richard Nixon agreed. President Nixon wrote a letter to President Reagan to commiserate. President Reagan responded, saying that everyone he knew had denied talking to the author. Reagan even named the minister of his church, who’d been cited as a source, and the minister had written a denial to all his parishioners in the Bel Air Presbyterian Church bulletin.

Now, I really tried not to respond to every accusation, but this one from a man of the cloth got to me, and I wrote to remind him of the 45 minute interview he’d given in his office. I enclosed a transcript of his taped remarks and asked him to please send around another church bulletin—with a correction. Of course, he didn’t, which proves the wisdom of Winston Churchill, who said that a lie flies halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on.

Having rankled President Reagan and President Nixon, I later rattled President George Herbert Walker Bush. I’d written to him as a matter of courtesy, when I was under contract to Doubleday to write a historical retrospective of the Bush family, and said I’d appreciate an interview sometime at his convenience.

President Bush never responded to me but he directed his aide to write my publisher, saying:

“President Bush has asked me to say that he and his family are not going to cooperate with this book because the author wrote a book about Nancy Reagan that made Mrs. Reagan unhappy.” First Lady Barbara Bush had been so incensed when she saw my books displayed in the First Ladies Exhibit at the Smithsonian that she directed the curator to remove the display, which he did the next day. In fact, I might not have known about it had I not taken my niece to the Smithsonian a few weeks before and we’d seen the display and took a picture of it.

That photograph now hangs in my guest bathroom next to autographed cartoons from Jules Feiffer and Garry Trudeau. Over the years, that loo has become crowded with cartoons from all of my various books. My sister was very impressed when she saw them. She said to my husband, “I think it’s great that Kitty has put up all the bad ones.” My husband said, “There were no good ones.”

My biography on the Bush family dynasty was published in 2004, in the midst of a contentious presidential campaign. Bush Jr. was running for a second term, and I was lambasted by his White House press secretary, the White House deputy press secretary, the White House communications director, the Republican National Committee, and the house majority leader, Tom DeLay. Mr. DeLay even wrote a colorful letter to my publisher, saying that I was—quote—“in the advanced stage of a pathological career” and the publisher was in—quote—“moral collapse for publishing such a scandalous enterprise.”

When the Bush book became number one on the New York Times bestseller list, I was dropped from the masthead of The Washingtonian Magazine, where I’d been a contributing editor for 30 years. The new owner of the magazine was a Bush presidential appointee. The editor told me, “Your book was too personal. Too revealing.”

“But that’s what a biography is,” I said. “It’s an intimate examination of a person in his times, and in this case a powerful person in the public arena. The President of the United States influences our society, with actions that affect our lives.”

I quoted the actor Melvyn Douglas from the movie Hud. He talked about the mesmerizing power of a public image: “Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire.” And Colum McCann, in his novel Let the Great World Spin, wrote: “Repeated lies become history, but they don’t necessarily become the truth.”

This is why biography is so vital to a healthy society. Whether authorized or unauthorized, biography presents a life story—sometimes it’s an x-ray of a manufactured image, sometimes it’s a gauzy bandage. The best biographers try to penetrate dross and drill for gold. As President Kennedy said, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

I do not relish living in a world where information is authorized, sanitized, and homogenized. I read banned books. I applaud whistleblowers and I reject any suppression by church or state. To me, the unauthorized biography, which requires a combination of scholarly research and investigative reporting, is best directed at those figures still alive and able to defend themselves, who exercise power over our lives. . . . I firmly believe that unauthorized biography can be a public service and a boon to history.

The most solid support I’ve received over the years has come from writers—journalists and historians and biographers—who believe in the First Amendment. Who champion the public’s right to know.

These are principles that feed my soul and fill my heart, which is why I’m so grateful to be honored by you today with this award.

Thank you.

King: A Life

by Kitty Kelley

They said one to another
Behold here cometh the Dreamer
Let us slay him
And we shall see what will become of his dreams.

                                                                    – Genesis 37:19-20

These words are carved into the cement plaque that rests outside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. They mark the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The dreamer’s death transformed his murder site into a shrine that now houses the National Civil Rights Museum, where King’s life continues to inspire, drawing thousands of visitors every year.

Scholars and historians have long explored the legacy of the Baptist minister from Georgia who preached a gospel of nonviolence. Deservedly, many King biographies have won prestigious prizes, among them Taylor Branch’s magisterial trilogy: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge. Additional tributes to King include I May Not Get There with You by Michael Eric Dyson; Bearing the Cross by David J. Garrow; Let the Trumpet Sound by Stephen B. Oates; Death of a King by Tavis Smiley; The Promise and the Dream by David Margolick; and The Sword and the Shield by Peniel E. Joseph.

Now comes Jonathan Eig with King: A Life, which promises “to recover the real man from the gray mist of hagiography.” Regrettably, says the author, “In the process of canonizing King, we’ve defanged him…[but] King was a man, not a saint, not a symbol.” In removing the mantle, Eig presents here an orator of soaring rhetoric who unapologetically plagiarized his speeches, saying his goal was to move audiences. Even King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech seems to have had its origins in Langston Hughes’ poems “I Dream a World” and “Dream Deferred.”

Misappropriating others’ work is a grievous sin for scholars, a “bad habit,” Eig writes, that King started in high school and continued as a graduate student at Crozier and later at Boston University, where he earned his Ph.D. with a dissertation that contained more than 50 sentences lifted from someone else’s work. By contrast, readers will note how generous Eig is to his own sources, giving previous biographers their due and quoting many by name in his text, not simply relegating them to chapter notes in the back of the book. Just as noteworthy is Eig’s appreciation for all who contributed to King: A Life; he lists each name under “Acknowledgements: Beloved Community.”

In this biography, his sixth book, Eig writes like an Olympic diver who jackknifes off the high board, slicing the water without a ripple. He performs with sheer artistry, like Picasso paints and Astaire dances. In unspooling the life of King, Eig presents a complicated man who attempted suicide twice; who was plagued by clinical depression so deep it required hospitalization; who chewed his nails; and who gave up the “true love” of his life, a white woman named Betty Moitz, because he realized, with her, he would never be accepted as a preacher in Black churches. The late Harry Belafonte, who himself married a white woman, told Eig that King never stopped talking about Moitz, and King’s mentor in graduate school described him after the break-up as “a man with a broken heart,” adding, “he never recovered.”

Although he married Coretta Scott and had four children with her, King pursued many women throughout his life. While Eig is unsparing about those extramarital affairs, he writes gently: “King’s busy schedule of travel also afforded him opportunities to spend time with women other than Coretta.”

The author also draws interesting similarities between King and John F. Kennedy, both of whom indelibly marked their era:

  • Both were influenced by powerful (and philandering) fathers.
  • Both enjoyed a privileged lifestyle above their contemporaries.
  • Both were accused of plagiarism.
  • Both experienced discrimination (JFK as an Irish Catholic; King as a Black man).
  • Both excelled as public speakers.
  • Both were assassinated.

King was particularly threatened by the never-made-public tape recordings FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ordered, turning federal agents into bloodhounds and instructing them to install bugs wherever King traveled. Hoover distributed copies of the recordings, which contained evidence of “unnatural sexual acts,” to President Lyndon Johnson, White House officials, and journalists in order to undermine King’s credibility. To further ensure his ruin, Hoover met with a group of woman journalists and declared King the country’s “most notorious liar.”

King reportedly wept over the slur to his life’s work but managed a masterful response to the press:

“I cannot conceive of Mr. Hoover making a statement like this without being under extreme pressure. He has apparently faltered under the awesome burden, complexities and responsibilities of his office. Therefore, I cannot engage in a public debate with him. I have nothing but sympathy for this man who has served his country well.”

By opposing the “immoral” war in Vietnam, King, who’d received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, drew the unremitting ire of Johnson. As Eig writes, King’s “conscience would not allow him to cooperate with an advocate and purveyor of war.” Infuriated, Johnson never forgave the man who’d given his presidency its three greatest legislative achievements: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

While Eig reveals the flawed man behind the myth, Martin Luther King Jr. still stands tall and strong enough to shoulder Shakespeare’s words from “Measure for Measure”:

They say best men are molded out of faults,
And, for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad

 

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

(Color photo of Martin Luther King Jr. by Stanley Tretick, 1966, from Let Freedom Ring.)

Kitty Kelley Wins 2023 BIO Award

Kitty Kelley has won the 14th BIO Award, bestowed annually by the Biographers International Organization to a distinguished colleague who has made major contributions to the advancement of the art and craft of biography.  

Widely regarded as the foremost expert and author of unauthorized biography, Kelley has displayed courage and deftness in writing unvarnished accounts of some of the most powerful figures in politics, media, and popular culture. Of her art and craft, Kelley said, in American Scholar, “I do not relish living in a world where information is authorized, sanitized, and homogenized. I read banned books, I applaud whistleblowers, and I reject any suppression by church or state. To me, the unauthorized biography, which requires a combination of scholarly research and investigative reporting, is best directed at those figures still alive and able to defend themselves, who exercise power over our lives. . . . I firmly believe that unauthorized biography can be a public service and a boon to history.” 

Among other awards, Kelley was the recipient of: the 2005 PEN Oakland/Gary Webb Anti-Censorship Award; the 2014 Founders’ Award for Career Achievement, given by the American Society of Journalists and Authors; and, in 2016, a Lifetime Achievement Award, given by The Washington Independent Review of Books. Her impressive list of lectures and presentations includes: leading a winning debate team in 1993, at the University of Oxford, under the premise “This House Believes That Men Are Still More Equal Than Women;” and, in 1998, a lecture at the Harvard Kennedy School for Government on the subject “Public Figures: Are Their Private Lives Fair Game for the Press?” In addition, Kelley was named by Vanity Fair to its Hall of Fame as part of the “Media Decade” and she has been a New York Times bestseller multiple times.  

For over 30 years, Kelley has been a full-time freelance writer. In addition to the American Scholar, her writing has appeared in The Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesNewsweekLadies’ Home JournalThe Chicago TribuneThe Washington TimesThe New Republic, and McCall’s. She is also a frequent contributor to The Washington Independent Review of Books.  

Heather Clark, chair of the BIO Awards Committee, said: “The Awards committee is thrilled to recognize Kitty Kelley for her outstanding contributions to biography over nearly six decades. We admire her courage in speaking truth to power, and her determination to forge ahead with the story in the face of opposition from the powerful figures she holds accountable. The committee would also like to recognize Kitty’s many years of service to BIO, especially her fundraising prowess and commitment to growing BIO’s membership ranks. Kitty is a force of nature and a deeply inspiring figure who deserves the highest recognition from BIO for her contributions to advancing the art and craft of biography.” 

Of her award, Kelley said, “I’m dazzled by the BIO honor and feel like Cinderella when the glass slipper fit. Please don’t wake me up from this dream.” 

Previous BIO Award winners are Megan Marshall, David Levering Lewis, Hermione Lee, James McGrath Morris, Richard Holmes, Candice Millard, Claire Tomalin, Taylor Branch, Stacy Schiff, Ron Chernow, Arnold Rampersad, Robert Caro, and Jean Strouse. 

Kelley will give the keynote address at the 2023 BIO Conference, on Saturday, May 20. 

Master Slave Husband Wife

by Kitty Kelley

The morning after Martin Luther King Day 2023 marked the release of Ilyon Woo’s extraordinary Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom. Reviewers received advance proofs from the publisher with a note from Bob Bender, executive editor of Simon & Schuster, extolling the book and wondering why the story of Ellen and William Craft was not yet a staple of American history.

Soon, Mr. Bender. Soon.

The Crafts’ story is no ordinary slave narrative, although “ordinary” hardly describes the harrowing attempts that desperate human beings made in 18th- and 19th-century America to flee slavery’s choke-hold. Hordes of bounty hunters laid in wait to capture fugitives and drag them back to their owners in chains. Few made it to freedom, which is why the Crafts are so extraordinary: They took white supremacy and turned it upside down and sideways in order to escape in plain sight, executing one of the boldest feats of self-emancipation in U.S. history.

Ellen Craft was born to a white father, James Smith, who also enslaved Ellen’s 18-year-old mother. Smith’s wife gave Ellen — a living, daily reminder of her husband’s infidelity — as a wedding present to their daughter, Eliza, when she married Robert Collins of Macon, Georgia. Being half-sisters, the girls had grown up together, and Ellen, looking as white as Eliza, was trusted as a “house slave” to sew and cook and take care of the children. While in Macon, Ellen fell in love with William Craft, an enslaved man who lived nearby. Together, they schemed to run away at the end of 1848, more than a decade before the Civil War.

They plot every detail of their escape with strategic precision. Ellen, an expert seamstress, begins sewing the costume she will wear to disguise herself as a white man in failing health traveling to Philadelphia for medical treatment, accompanied by “his” slave. She makes baggy plus-fours — the stylish men’s trousers of the day — a white silk shirt, a black cravat, and a custom-designed jacket that only a gentleman of means could afford. Traveling as “Mr. Johnson,” she wears dark green glasses and a “double-story” black silk hat “befitting how high it rises, and the fiction it covers.”

She applies poultices to her face and wraps her right hand in bandages and a sling to explain why she can’t sign travel documents at several stops. (Being enslaved, Ellen was not allowed to learn how to read or write.) The dark-skinned William, acting like an obsequious slave, helps Ellen on and off trains and buses and boats, attending to “his” every need during their journey. At each stop, William ushers his infirm “master” to “his” first-class cabin before retiring to the colored quarters, where he eats from a slop bowl and sleeps standing up.

From Macon, the train rolls into Savannah, “City of Shade and Silence,” and site of the largest slave market in America, known as “the Weeping Time.” With staggering audaciousness, master and slave continue by steamship to Charleston, South Carolina, where, Woo writes:

“All along the harbor were tall ships and steamers, weighing the waves with their cargo; golden crops of rice, bales of cotton, chinoiserie — and chained below decks, the enslaved, a major commodity in this international port. There were slave sales near the docks, in shops, closer inland, and by the Custom House, which hosted the city’s largest open-air slave market on its north side, as Ellen knew. The sight was so disturbing to foreigners (and therefore bad for business) that, in a few years, the city would pass laws to hustle the trade indoors.”

Days later, the Crafts arrive in Richmond, Virginia, a veritable police state since Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, still considered the most significant slave uprising in American history. “Mr. Johnson” and “his” slave rumble over Aquia Creek to Washington, DC, and through a dark channel to Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key, himself an enslaver, wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Three more stops, and the couple finally cross the Mason-Dixon Line and reach Philadelphia, the so-called City of Brotherly Love, where even the Quakers drew lines to separate the “colored” benches in their meetinghouses.

Master Slave Husband Wife hits all the marks of a masterpiece: unforgettable characters, stirring conflicts, breathtaking courage, and a pulsating plot wrapped around an unforgiveable sin. Author Woo is a rare breed of writer — a scholar with a Ph.D. who’s nevertheless mastered the art of narrative nonfiction. She tells this story with incomparable skill, following the Crafts from Philadelphia to Boston, where they become icons of the abolitionist movement, traveling the antislavery lecture circuit. But the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 forces them to keep on the run. By law, they’re still enslaved and deeply in danger, especially once Robert Collins, Ellen’s owner back in Georgia, hires bounty hunters to track them down.

No longer safe in the U.S., the Crafts move to England for several years, where they bring up six children and publish an account of their escape, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. When Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the Crafts feel safe enough to return home, first to South Carolina and then to Georgia, where they start a school and live out the remainder of their days.

Ellen and William Craft embody the human drive to relentlessly pursue freedom. Ilyon Woo, in Master Slave Husband Wife, honors their story with grace and humanity, and presents her publisher with a phenomenon.

Stand by, Mr. Bender. Stand by.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Shine

by Kitty Kelley

Tis the season, and January is the time for New Year’s resolutions. So, in that spirit, Larry Thompson, a Hollywood magnate, offers his book, SHINE: A Powerful 4-Step Plan for Becoming a Star in Anything You Do. Published in 2005, Thompson’s manual is an evergreen, he claims, and even more relevant for the new year of 2023. “If you’ll give me a few hours of your time,” he writes, “I will give you the knowledge to help you fulfill your dreams, and to rise and shine to meet your true destiny.” Snake oil sales pitch or road map to fulfilling dreams? You decide.

Thompson begins with his own story, growing up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, with a mother who urged him to leave home. “When you get educated,” Annie Thompson advised her son, “you’ve got to get out of this town ’cause [it’s] nothing but a graveyard with streetlights.” Like a stage mother (see the life stories of Gypsy Rose Lee, Shirley Temple, Elizabeth Taylor, Drew Barrymore, Brooke Shields, Dorothy Dandridge, Judy Garland, Groucho Marx), Larry Thompson’s mother pushed him. Pointing to the movie stars in Photoplay magazine, she said: “Now, they’re important. They have respect. I want you to go to Hollywood and be important like them.”

As further inspiration, Mama Thompson went to Memphis and bought a new dress, which she put in a box under her bed. “I’m saving that dress to wear when you invite me out to Hollywood to meet the Stars and to take me to the Academy Awards — on the night you win one.” Her dreams seeded his dreams. “I became driven,” he writes. “I developed the focus and the ambition and the high-level energy required to get there.”

Annie Thompson’s son left Mississippi at the age of 24 to live in California, where stars shine brightest. “Not only had I never been to California, but I had never met anyone who had ever been to California,” he recalls. Driving three days in a black Oldsmobile with maroon interior, Thompson arrived in Hollywood at 10 p.m. on a rainy night, exited the freeway onto Sunset Boulevard and reached the corner of Hollywood and Vine, where “I cried and cried and cried. I had arrived!”

Before beginning your ascent to stardom, Thompson recommends making a list of the great moments you’ve already had. He begins with his own, “The 150 Things I’ve done,” some of which are enviable, maddening and a couple gaspingly unbelievable:

No. 1: Sat on the deck of the Starship Enterprise with Captain Kirk.
No. 46: Made love in a royal balcony box at the La Scala Opera House in Milan.
No. 57: Witnessed the vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
No. 114: Helped President Gerald Ford become a mule. (Webster’s defines a mule as a cross between a donkey and a horse. The urban dictionary defines a mule as a carrier of things for someone else, usually illegal drugs. Thompson doesn’t explain.)
No. 140: Was ticketed on the way to Palm Springs doing 117 miles per hour in a Corniche.
No. 150: Became a multimillionaire along the way.

As you might expect of a Hollywood agent who’s managed the careers of “more than 200 stars,” there’s a heap of name-dropping: Elvis, Mama Cass, David Bowie, Peter Fonda, Tanya Tucker, Orson Welles, Drew Barrymore, Farrah Fawcett, Rene Russo, Mira Sorvino, Sylvester Stallone. You get the picture.

“Like wisdom and grace, Star quality is something you acquire,” Thompson writes. “A skill you can learn.” He defines and dissects the four elements of Stardom: Talent, Rage, Team, Luck, and provides a primer to each, complete with lists and exercises to do to become a Star. Using his own experience, he writes that Stardom is not an accident: “A drive will motivate you to move to L.A. or New York or Nashville. An Ambition will get you an agent. A passion will get you an acting job. A RAGE will make you a Star!”

Anyone who grows up feeling like an “outsider” or a “weirdo” has an edge. “There’s no one more likely to be a Star (Thompson always capitalizes Star) than someone who doesn’t fit in with the crowd.” Adversity helps. Growing up poor and impoverished in a broken family or learning to dodge bullets in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen ghetto, or being shuttled around foster homes with a begging bowl — each crippling experience bakes into the psyche the inspiration and resilience needed for Stardom.

Before beginning your ascent, the “Shine” meister advises: “Finding Your Team.” By this, he means deciding whether you’re a dog or a cat because you’re either one or the other. Cats, hard to get, are a bit mysterious with hidden agendas, and not totally forthcoming about anything and everything, and they let you get only so close. Dogs are uncomplicated. They adore you, they follow you. You tell them to sit, they sit. You tell them to heel, they heel.

Some in Thompson’s Star Kennel:

Star Dogs — Star Cats
George W. Bush — Bill Clinton
Jay Leno — David Letterman
Tom Hanks — Angelina Jolie
Billy Crystal — Warren Beatty

For some, Shine: A Powerful 4-Step Plan for Becoming a Star in Anything You Do might seem like a book of bromides — “Learn, Yearn, Burn, Discern.” “Dream Big” and “Don’t Give Up.” To others, it will become a bible that sits alongside Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, M.D., who proved you can program your mind to achieve success and happiness, and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.

Whether you’re a star dog or a star cat, the New Year of 2023 is yours to SHINE.

Originally published by The Georgetowner as an installment of “The Kitty Kelley Book Club”

Confessions

by Kitty Kelley

The writing life is full of potholes — long days and solitary nights followed by rewrites, rejections, and, for most, scant rewards. Upon publication of a work, critics descend from Mt. Olympus to dissect and dismember, which may explain why writers like A.N. Wilson wrap themselves in the protective carapace of grandiosity. In the first paragraph of his new memoir, Confessions, Wilson writes: “Fans and hostile critics alike have always spoken to, and of, me as one who was too fluent, who wrote with too much ease. Over fifty books published, and probably millions of words in the newspapers.”

Quite a record for a British writer not born in Stratford-upon-Avon. And not to puff up an already overstuffed ego, but Andrew Norman Wilson can write — fluidly, gracefully, and with immense literary flourish. So, one might wonder about his memoir’s subtitle, A Life of Failed Promises. The disconnect, according to Wilson, is found in his self-assessment of a man who has squandered his potential.

At 72, he’s looking back on his life as a husband, a parent, a son, and a friend; sadly, he finds himself wanting. And who’s to argue as he admits to being “trapped” in his first marriage to a woman 13 years his senior, whom he blames for stealing “my youth, my experience of student life, my chance of developing an emotional spectrum with several girlfriends, before settling on the Right Moment to marry”?

Like a petulant child, Wilson retaliates with vitriol, leaving one to wonder if he was some kind of naïf who’d been shanghaied into marriage at 19 by a 32-year-old virago who bound and blindfolded him. They had two children together, and despite his many affairs (and a few of hers), remained married for 19 years, supposedly because of their religious vows.

Wilson maintains he was desolate in his first marriage and writes of how he tortured himself, becoming anorexic, not to mention enduring “two bouts of pneumonia, one of pleurisy and weight loss down to seven stone [98 pounds].” If not for hypnotherapy, he contends, “I think my eating disorder would probably have killed me.”

But then he fell in love with the woman who would become his second wife, until that marriage also ended in divorce. Before either of those wives came along, Wilson admits to having had “one fully fledged love affair” at his all-boys boarding school “that lasted nearly three years.”

Of his first marriage, Wilson writes: “I broke every vow and promise I ever made to that woman, including of course, the one about staying with her in sickness and in health.” He blames their split on “certain aspects of life with my difficult mother.” Years later, when his first wife tumbles into “alcohol numbed dementia,” Wilson visits her in “the care home,” adding less than chivalrously that her “uncertain control of bodily functions” made “taxi rides or visits to restaurants and cinemas anti-social.”

In keeping with the book’s title, Wilson confesses to the addiction of fame and seeing his name in print. “Cheap publicity,” he calls it, claiming it infected him as much as it did his “cherished friends,” the poet Stephen Spender and the philanthropist Lord Longford. He compares the “heady buzz” of seeing themselves in print to “the sadness of lonely mackintoshed men reaching greedily for magazines on the top shelf, in days before internet porn.”

Wilson further pleads guilty to being a full-throated snob who loves the monarchy, adores Diana, the late Princess of Wales, and reveres Margaret Thatcher as “the best Prime Minister of our lifetime.” He berates Oxford’s refusal to grant Thatcher an honorary degree as “shameful.” He claims not to be “a natural courtier,” yet devotes several pages to his dinners with Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and the near national scandal he caused by reporting her table talk about T.S. Eliot and his “dreary” recitations of The Waste Land, which convulsed the royal family into fits of giggles.

Page after page charts Wilson’s back-and-forth religious forays from the Church of England to the Church of Rome. He once entered an Anglican seminary intent on becoming an Episcopal priest, but he left after a year. He then converted to Catholicism, but that, too, was temporary. He now rages against Catholicism’s “preposterous claim” of papal infallibility and the “authoritarian clericalism [that] has so obviously helped to cover up, perhaps even to encourage, the abuse of children by priests.”

Admitting that his life has been a tangle of spiritual confusion, he recounts how, in 1989, he descended from the heights of piety to meander in the nether region of agnosticism. “I think that all churches have faults but all also have members whose lives shine with the life of Christ, and that this has been true in the C of E as it has in the other churches.” He then adds, “I still read the New Testament in Greek each year.”

The surprise of this book comes from its lackluster ending, which is not a bang but a whimper. After confessing his thundering ambitions, he writes remorsefully of the “young A.N. Wilson, so full of himself, so unfaithful, not only to his wife [make that two wives] but to his own better nature.” Unable to find peace in religion or happiness in marriage late in life, he seeks redemption in his talent. After all, he concludes, “[E]ven the feeblest of writers [know] why writing and reading play such a vital part in our lives.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Shirley Hazzard

by Kitty Kelley

Shirley Hazzard’s first short-story submission was plucked from a slush pile of 30,000 unsolicited manuscripts at the New Yorker by fiction editor William Maxwell. And then, just like an unknown Lana Turner being discovered while sipping a soda at Schwab’s drugstore, a star was born. The Hollywood star married eight times, and the writer only once, but Hazzard wrote about love the way Turner pursued it — as something perishable that, in the reshaping of our minds, becomes permanent: “the only state” in which “all one’s capacities are engaged.”

(So ends the stretched connection between the MGM star from Idaho and the Australian writer who moved to New York in her 20s and eventually traveled in the city’s intellectual circles with Lionel Trilling, Muriel Spark, Alfred Kazin, and Dwight MacDonald.)

Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016) died at 85, sadly of dementia, but left behind six books of nonfiction, four novels (The Transit of Venus being her masterpiece), and two story collections. In two of her nonfiction books, she blasted the United Nations, where she had worked in the “dungeons” for several years. She emerged from that experience disillusioned and dyspeptic, and lambasted its supporters, including Margaret Mead and U.N. Under-Secretary-General Brian Urquhart. He, in turn, dismissed Hazzard as a no-nothing, unpaid secretary.

In 1980, she wrote an article for the New Republic exposing the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, which had allowed him to rise to become U.N. secretary-general from 1972-1981 and president of Austria from 1986-1992. Hazzard’s exposé failed to galvanize public attention, but things changed five years later when writer Jane Kramer expanded on Hazzard’s Waldheim revelations.

At first, Hazzard was offended at having been overlooked in bringing the story to light but was “slightly mollified” when Kramer wrote to her: “You deserve enormous credit for being…as I now know the only person to have persisted in publishing the truth about that odious man over all these years when it was convenient to pretend he was decent.”

Hazzard’s fiction garnered impressive prizes, including the O. Henry Award, National Book Award, William Dean Howells Medal, Miles Franklin Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award. Yet for all her literary achievements, she was not as celebrated as some think she deserves to be, and that includes her biographer, Brigitta Olubas.

A literary scholar at the University of South Wales, Olubas has been researching her subject for three decades. Among other works, Olubas wrote “Cosmopolitanism in the Work of Shirley Hazzard” (2010); “Shirley Hazzard’s Capri” (2014); “The Short Fiction of Shirley Hazzard” (2018); and “Shirley Hazzard’s Post-War World” (2020). Now comes Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, Olubas’ full-throated chronicle of the writer advertised as “the first biography of…a writer of ‘shocking wisdom’ and ‘intellectual thrill.’” Those last two quotes come from a 2020 New Yorker profile of Hazzard and are heartily underscored in this work.

Olubas seems determined to prove that Hazzard is to Australia what Joan Didion is to America: a literary icon. Growing up in Sydney with a bipolar mother and an alcoholic father, Hazzard was devastated when her family had to move to New Zealand because her sister, her only sibling, was ill with tuberculosis. As a youngster, Hazzard was surrounded by wounded WWI veterans, and she saw the devastation of Hiroshima at 16, which infused her novels with inevitable loss.

Her later years with husband Francis Steegmuller, a quarter-century her senior, were her happiest and most creative. Steegmuller, a Flaubert scholar, and Hazzard divided their lives between Capri and Manhattan, becoming significant figures in their rarified circle of academics, poets, and writers. During this time, they befriended Graham Greene, a relationship Hazzard later memorialized in Greene on Capri. Yet Greene’s widow later dismissed Hazzard as a know-it-all harpy and claimed her husband felt Hazzard “intruded herself too much” and “had a tendency to talk a great deal.”

Olubas describes Hazzard, with her limited formal education, as “an exquisite stylist, skilled linguist, and fiercely intellectual autodidact.” She acknowledges Hazzard’s dominant (at times domineering) personality and insistence on commandeering conversations and reciting endless reams of poetry. Hazzard spoke in long paragraphs, as if being filmed; she disliked television and read Herodotus over lunch. She commanded attention in her starched shirts, Chanel tweeds, and a beret that covered her teased bouffant. She bemoaned growing old, especially during her last years as a widow, ailing and alone.

Given complete access to Hazzard’s diaries and journals, Olubas was able to climb into her subject’s mind and heart and find the answers to how Hazzard felt at various times and why she said what she said and did what she did — the kinds of questions that perplex many biographers, forcing them to guess and surmise. Brigitta Olubas has made glorious use of her years as a Shirley Hazzard scholar, too, and in this biography, she eloquently presents all that was won and lost in Hazzard’s writing life.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Listen, World!

by Kitty Kelley

Remember that iconic scene in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”? Mary’s editor, Lou Grant, played by Ed Asner, says, “You know, Mary. You’ve got spunk.”

She beams. “Why, thank you, Mr. Grant.”

He growls. “I hate spunk.”

Lou Grant would’ve been brought to his knees by Elsinore Justinia Robinson, who was spring-loaded with spunk — hell-bent, fire-popping spunk. As the highest paid female columnist for Hearst newspapers, she was syndicated to 20 million readers and wrote like a rocket, filing over 9,000 stories in 40 years. A passionate autodidact, she also wrote poetry, short fiction, and essays, and published many children’s books that she illustrated herself. In 1934, she wrote her memoir, I Wanted Out.

Yet for being one of the most famous people in America, Elsie Robinson was virtually forgotten after her death in 1956. Now, decades later, we have the first biography of this female phenom, described by her biographers as an “all-around badass!” Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert spent more than 11 years researching and reporting to write Listen, World! How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman, the life story of this life force.

Born in 1883, Elsie grew up in Benicia, California, a small town which “permitted uncorked hedonism,” and where F Street divided the community. Downtown was “saloons…and sporting women.” Uptown was churches and knee-bending nuns. Elsie lived uptown — the “good” side of town — near the high stone walls of St. Catherine’s Convent, but she prized downtown.

“Goodness, though it promised halos in heaven, certainly didn’t offer a lively gal many breaks on earth,” she wrote in her memoir. “Bad Women, on the contrary, had practically unlimited freedom and fun.”

Elsie was a “lively gal” times 10, a free spirit from the West as unsinkable as Molly Brown, and as uncorseted by social strictures as Annie Oakley. When Christie Crowell, a widower from the East who’d traveled to California after the death of his young wife, first met Elsie, he was captivated by her enthusiasm. Soon, he proposed, and she accepted.

He happily wrote to his parents with the news, but they responded with grave reservations. They felt their already-shaky social status in Brattleboro, Vermont, would not be enhanced by a young woman from a working-class family in the town that spawned the California Gold Rush, hardly a citadel of moral rectitude. So, they did all they could to dissuade their son from pursuing the marriage.

“After months of epistolary discourse, the Crowells set down their terms,” write Scheeres and Gilbert. “Christie could marry Elsie on one condition: she must attend a seminary school to learn household management, elocution and the Bible…to become a fitting bride for their son.”

You might think that, at this point, the high-spirited Elsie would tell Christie and his parents to stuff their seminary school, but in the early 1900s, a young woman’s options were severely limited — either marry or mildew — so Elsie agreed to their terms. As she would later learn, however, even a married woman’s status was no higher than the family dog’s. She stayed with her husband for nine years, until Christie demanded a divorce on the only grounds available — adultery. Reflected Elsie:

“So solemn was marriage, so shameful divorce that the thought of separation had never as yet crossed my mind. Someday it will seem incredible that any woman should have faced such shame, such deliberate torture as I was about to face.”

On almost every page of this engaging biography, the authors weave in bits of Elsie’s writings, putting her opinions and insights into italics so the reader knows exactly what was on her mind. They don’t have to speculate about how Elsie felt living in the same house with her snooty in-laws; they have her diaries, interviews, letters, and newspaper columns to tell them. Yet even with such a cornucopia of information, the authors still insert “might have felt,” “surely thought,” and “was likely oblivious” here and there, sprinkling “perhaps” and “presumably” throughout their presentation of this fascinating woman who survived every obstacle she ever met.

The highlight of Elsie’s life was the birth of her only child, George, who suffered from severe asthma attacks, forcing him to miss weeks of school. In 1926, the young man found a small lump in his foot that was surgically removed. But after being released from the hospital, he was wracked by fever, chills, and severe chest pain. Elsie wrote a column filled with her anguish:

“I’m afraid…Fear runs through all my life. I cannot mark its course with a definite line, but its grim shadow tinges my brightest moments and noblest dreams…I have only found one way to manage fear…Go on! No matter how terrible your inward agony, go on! Don’t wait until the darkness lifts. Grab each small task, whether it appeals or not! Keep doing something! Go through the gestures of normal life! Eat, talk and smile as though all things were well. Then gradually your inner body will conform to your firm fighting front. Your thoughts will cease their maddened hammering at your skull. You will not banish fear, but you’ll have conquered it and made it run to heel.”

Hear, hear, Elsie!

George Alexander Crowell took his last rasping breath at age 21 with his mother by his side. Elsie tried to outpace her unmanageable grief with round-the-clock work. “There are no details when the thing you have loved best goes on. Only a wailing, witless darkness…the sense of utter bankruptcy.” In 1928, the 48-year-old Elsie finally buckled to the unmitigated pain and suffered a nervous breakdown.

Throughout her life, Elsie Robinson used her national platform to express her increasingly progressive views. She supported labor unions; she ridiculed Prohibition; she denounced the death penalty. During the 1930s, she railed against the Nazis and rallied Americans to support Jewish refugees. She condemned racism and excoriated the Daughters of the American Revolution for refusing to let Paul Robeson perform in their concert hall.

“And on what, may I ask, do you base your supremacy?” she wrote in her syndicated column. “You didn’t choose your ancestors…You happened to be born white…you could have put aside ignorance and prejudice and contemptible snootiness…and given your lives for unity. But you weren’t big enough. You weren’t brave enough.”

God bless you, Elsie!

Listen, World! is a glorious biography for all the women who deserve to see themselves on life’s pedestal — and for all the heroic men who help lift them up.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

David Bruce Smith’s Grateful American Book Award Honors Michelle Coles

by Kitty Kelley

No one hosts a more spectacular dinner party for a better cause than David Bruce Smith. His heavy parchment invitations of exquisite calligraphy arrive each fall to announce his Grateful American Foundation’s Book Award for the best children’s book of the year. The 2022 recipient was Michelle Coles for her first novel, Black Was the Ink. Coles joined previous winners, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer for her 2021 children’s book, The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayer, and Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963 by Sharon Robinson, daughter of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball.

The Grateful American Book Award comes with a check for $13,000, “a patriotic nod to the 13 original colonies,” says Smith — plus a lifetime pass to the New York Historical Society because, he says, “It’s hallowed objective is to celebrate knowledge,” and a medal, “designed by my mother, Clarice,” a noted artist who died a few months ago. Smith’s late father, Robert H. Smith, donated hundreds of millions to educational and cultural organizations throughout the Washington area, and his son and heir now continues his family’s philanthropy. David said his father, an immigrant’s son, “described himself as a ‘grateful American,’ which seemed a perfect name for my dream.”

“I started the Grateful American Foundation in 2014 because I heard an NPR report which indicated that Americans had a low level of historic literacy,” Smith said. “My friend, Bruce Cole, then Chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, suggested I create a book prize. So, with help and advice, I did just that. I selected 7th to 9th graders as my target because that age is probably one of the most difficult times for adolescents…. It’s my feeling that if a kid doesn’t want therapy, a book can — at least — be a paper psychiatrist.”

Smith, who’s dedicated to building youthful enthusiasm for American history, and co-authors a lively blog entitled “History Matters,” has written and published 13 books, many about his family, including his grandfather, Charles E. Smith, whose legacy remains the life communities he built during the 1960s in Washington and Maryland.

For this year’s celebration, Smith chose the Perry Belmont House, a magnificent Beaux Arts mansion, near Dupont Circle on New Hampshire Avenue NW, built in 1909. Guests were agog as they arrived. “Sublime, isn’t it,” said John Danielson, walking up the baroque marble steps and gesturing to the sculptured décor and channeled stonework. “A stunning home from a bygone era to celebrate David’s triumph in creating the Grateful American Book Prize.”

A man of immense charm, Danielson is chairman of the Education Advisory Council for the financial services firm of Alvarez and Marsal. He lives in Georgetown and seems to know everyone in the city, as he graciously introduces Douglas Bradburn, CEO of Mount Vernon and his wife, Nadene; Matthew Hiktzik, producer of the 2004 Holocaust documentary film, Paper Clips; Mindy Berry, Senior Executive at the National Endowment for the  Humanities; Teddi Marshall, C-suite business executive; Doreen Cole,  whose late husband was the longest serving chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities; writer Michael Bishop; Neme Alperstein, teacher with the NYC Dept. of Education; Courtney Chapin, Executive Director of Ken Burns’s Better Angels Society; Scott Stephenson, director of the Museum of the  American Revolution in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Robelen, long-time editor for the Washington Independent Review of Books and her husband,  Carter Reardon, instructor with the Dog Tag Fellowship Program for veterans at Georgetown University.

“Helping those who bring history to young people is an important purpose of this evening,” said David O. Stewart, who’s written several prize-winning books, including George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father.

Knight A. Kiplinger opened the award presentation by introducing himself as a history nerd. “I come from a long line of history nerds,” said the publishing mogul. “My late father, Austin Kiplinger, and I (both of us journalists, too) have been passionate supporters of local history.” The results of that family passion — the Kiplinger Collection and the Kiplinger Research Library — now reside in the renovated Carnegie Library on Mt. Vernon Square, which has morphed into the D.C. History Center.

All history nerds and grateful Americans gave the evening rounds of rousing applause.

Originally published in The Georgetowner, November 9, 2022