An Interview with Pam Fessler

by Kitty Kelley

Pam Fessler, an award-winning journalist with National Public Radio, covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues. Prior to her 27 years at NPR, Fessler was a senior writer at Congressional Quarterly. She holds a master’s degree in public administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. Carville’s Cure: Leprosy, Stigma, and the Fight for Justice is her first book.

We’re experiencing a national pandemic with covid-19. Do you see any similarities between this and what occurred with leprosy 100 years ago?

Definitely. I wrote the book before the pandemic, but I’ve been struck by all of the parallels. As with the current coronavirus outbreak, the threat of leprosy was used to demonize certain groups of people, especially Asian immigrants. Now, we have talk of the “China virus” and “Kung flu.” Then, there was “Oriental leprosy” and “leprous hordes of Asia” threatening the nation’s health, even though most patients at the turn of the century were native born. Disease has often been used as a weapon against those we consider “others,” and that doesn’t seem to have changed.

The other thing that hasn’t changed is how ignorance about a disease can open the way for misinformation, allowing people to respond to their fears rather than the science. People didn’t know at the turn of the century how leprosy — also called Hansen’s disease — was spread and that it was only mildly contagious.

They reacted instead to common myths about leprosy as depicted in the Bible and elsewhere. The disease was seen as a sign of sin and moral inferiority, so victims became social outcasts rather than people to be treated and cured. Without good information and leadership, people let their biases guide their response — even if it’s ultimately harmful — as many are doing today with covid-19.

Until 1999, the U.S. ran a leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, where people with leprosy were confined against their will and deprived of such basic rights as voting, marrying, and keeping custody of their children. They were even strongly encouraged to change their names. Please explain why people with a bacterial disease that affected only five percent of the population were so shunned.

I think it was for the reasons mentioned above, that the misperception of leprosy as a moral disease was so ingrained. People with serious cases of the disease could also be repulsive to look at, so others preferred that they be hidden away. Added to that was a general fear that immigrants were bringing exotic diseases into the country, and the public wanted the government to do something about it. No one knew at the time that 95 percent of humans were naturally immune to leprosy. Some doctors suspected that was the case, but their voices were drowned out by public (and media) hysteria.

The solution was to send the patients far away and isolate them from the rest of society, in the hope that the disease would disappear with them. But the strategy backfired. The possibility of being confined for life scared anyone who thought they might have the disease from seeking treatment. Instead, they hid their ailment and continued to live in their communities until the disease got so bad, they suffered permanent damage to their limbs and organs. If they were going to infect anyone else, they had probably done so long before they were diagnosed and sent away.

Why do you think leprosy carried a greater stigma than syphilis, tuberculosis, and other far more contagious and dangerous diseases? And still does to this day?

It wasn’t only the Bible that shaped attitudes toward leprosy (and, ironically, scholars now believe that what’s called “leprosy” in the Bible was actually some other skin ailment). One of the most popular books in the late 1800s was Ben-Hur, which described in great detail the horrible fate of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister, who both had leprosy. Also, around this time, the famous Catholic priest Father Damien died of leprosy after working with patients at a colony in Hawaii, feeding widespread fear that the disease was highly contagious. In fact, he was one of the few healthcare workers to ever die of the disease. In its 100-year history, not one worker at Carville contracted leprosy.

Even though syphilis, tuberculosis, and other diseases were far more contagious and dangerous, the families of those sent to Carville often told friends that they had gone away because they had TB or mental breakdowns, or even had died — because anything was preferable to admitting someone had leprosy! Even today, about half the patients admitted to the National Hansen’s Disease Program say they contemplated suicide when they learned they had leprosy, even though it’s easily cured. Patients still suffer more from the stigma than from the germ.

Why did the federal government assume the expense of maintaining a national leprosarium? The 350-acre facility in Carville has since been turned over to the state of Louisiana, but has there ever been another such facility in America?

There was growing pressure on the federal government to open a leprosarium in the early 1900s so patients would have somewhere to go — and could also be locked away. States at the time didn’t know what to do with people who had leprosy, which led to bizarre and tragic results. A young Syrian immigrant in West Virginia, who was diagnosed with the disease in 1906, headed to New York so he could return home. He was apprehended by authorities on the way and locked in a boxcar of a train, but no state would allow him to either get off or cross their borders. He ended up being shuttled from one state to another and finally dumped off in West Virginia, where he soon died.

Not long after, a man named John Early was diagnosed with leprosy in Washington, DC, and confined in a tent on the banks of the Potomac because authorities didn’t know what to do with him. Hundreds of people came to catch sight of the man who would become known as the nation’s “most famous leper.” Early ended up imprisoned on and off for years.

He finally forced the government to act by escaping and emerging at a fancy Washington hotel to announce that a “leper” had been mingling with important people, including the vice president of the United States, who lived at the hotel. That very same day, members of Congress introduced legislation to create a national leprosarium. Early’s story — covered by newspapers across the country — is one of my favorites in the book.

You write that, at the age of 78, your father-in-law called your husband to reveal a “family secret.” Please elaborate on that secret and how the phone call affected you.

My father-in-law called one night to tell us something he’d kept a secret for more than 60 years. When he was a teenager in New York, he came home from school one day to find that public-health officials had come and taken his father away because he had leprosy. My father-in-law never saw or talked to his father again and wasn’t sure where he had been taken, other than to “some hospital” down South. His mother had also told him never to tell anyone that his father had leprosy because the stigma was so great it could ruin the family.

As an elderly man, my father-in-law decided he needed to unburden himself of this secret. His revelation led us to discover that the federal government ran a leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, where his father and other Americans had been confined — often against their wills and until they died — simply because they were ill.

When we took my father-in-law down to visit Carville, I realized his story was one of many. Thousands of families had been torn apart and lives destroyed because of this much-misunderstood disease. I also realized that what happened at Carville was not only tragic, but amazing because of the way the patients ultimately fought to regain their freedom and rights. That’s when I decided to write this book.

Why were Catholics, more than any other religious denomination, so involved in caring for those with leprosy?

In the case of Carville, it was because the government couldn’t find anyone else willing to do the job. When it was initially the Louisiana Leper Home, the state brought patients to this remote site and basically left them to fend for themselves. Eventually, the Daughters of Charity sisters were recruited to go there and provide nursing care. When the federal government took over in 1921, the U.S. Public Health Service decided to keep the sisters on to care for the patients, noting that it would be difficult to get public-health nurses to work with leprosy patients because it might destroy their chances of getting jobs elsewhere. That’s how pervasive the stigma and ignorance about the disease were at the time.

I think there is a religious aspect, too. Some of the sisters saw it as their mission to care for both the patients’ bodies and their souls. There were complaints from some of the Protestant patients — especially John Early — that the sisters (who he called “nun-nurses”) were trying to convert everyone to Catholicism. An investigation uncovered some proselytizing, but the federal government decided to keep the sisters on because, again, they had little choice. The Daughters of Charity turned out to be incredible caregivers, as well as strong patient allies.

In the book, you reprint a photo of “Patient No. 746,” Stanley Stein, kissing the actress Tallulah Bankhead. Please explain the importance of Stein, born Sidney Levyson, and his relationship to the actress.

To me, Stanley Stein is the key character, and heart, of Carville’s Cure. He arrived at the hospital in 1931 as a young, ambitious man whose life was unexpectedly derailed by this disease. He was appalled by what he found at Carville: listless and apathetic patients resigned to their fate. Stein was determined to change that.

Among other things, he got permission to start a patient newspaper, the Star, which grew over time from a few mimeographed pages of patient gossip to an internationally known publication that led the fight for the rights of leprosy patients around the world. Articles written by patients questioned government policy and chronicled the latest scientific and medical developments. It pushed to eliminate use of the words “leper” and “leprosy” — in favor of Hansen’s disease — to counter the stigma of the disease.

Stein was not only hardworking and smart, but extremely astute at using people to advance the patients’ cause. He recruited celebrities, including Broadway star Tallulah Bankhead, to broadcast the patients’ message to the world. Stein even had Bankhead getting all of her show-business friends to subscribe to the Starwhich grew to have more than 80,000 subscribers in 150 countries.

Stein had other allies, too, including one of the Daughters of Charity, Sister Catherine Sullivan, who encouraged his advocacy and was frequently heard to say, “Mercy is no substitute for justice.” If for no other reason, people should read this book to learn about Stanley Stein.

How is Carville, Louisiana, connected to James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager? Why was that particular place selected for a national leprosarium?

Carville is a tiny hamlet in a remote area of southern Louisiana along the Mississippi River, 20 miles southeast of Baton Rouge. The town was named after James Carville’s grandfather, who was the postmaster and ran the general store. Over time, the hospital — which had many names, including U.S. Public Hospital No. 66 — became known simply as Carville.

The federal facility dominated the small community, and James Carville says it provided employment for many residents and a source of pride. He thinks its presence helped shape the person he is today by exposing him to doctors and researchers who came there from around the world. James Carville says residents used to brag that the town had more doctors per capita than Rochester, Minnesota, home of the famous Mayo Clinic.

The site was selected for the national leprosarium because the federal government couldn’t find any other community willing to accept it. The remote, mosquito-infested property was not well suited for caring for sick people, but it was removed from populated areas — which is what a fearful public demanded. Still, Louisiana officials told neighbors at first that the old plantation was going to be turned into an ostrich farm so they wouldn’t resist creation of the state’s new “leper home.” James Carville’s grandfather was a 10-year-old boy who watched the first patients arrive by river barge in 1894 and realized that no ostriches were coming.

How does your book differ from others on the subject, such as The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molakai by John Tayman, and Stanley Stein’s Alone No Longer: The Story of a Man Who Refused to Be One of the Living Dead?

Tayman’s book tells the story of a leprosy colony established in Hawaii in the mid-1800s. There are many similarities in how the patients were treated there and at Carville and the injustices they faced. The difference is that the Carville leprosarium was run by the federal government, and patients came from around the country throughout the 20th century. Carville’s Cure tells the story of the tragedy of how people with leprosy were treated in the United States, but also how they fought back to regain their rights, freedom, and respect.

Carville became a major medical-research facility where the cure for leprosy was discovered, another integral part of the story. Stanley Stein’s memoir provides many wonderful details about the patient crusade he helped to launch, but Carville’s Cure tells much more about what led up to that campaign and what happened after. My family’s personal story is also woven throughout the book.

What’s your next book?

Ha! I told anyone who asked that the one thing I learned writing this book is that you have to be extremely passionate about the topic or you’re not going to finish the job. I promised my father-in-law before he died that I would write this book because I felt so strongly about the need to tell this story. I saw how the Carville experience had shaped and destroyed so many lives. I’m not sure I’ll ever find another topic quite so compelling, but who knows?

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books


BIO Podcast

Kitty Kelley spoke with BIO member John A. Farrell in February 2020 in Washington, D.C.


Part I (26:53):


Part II (26:26):


John A. Farrell’s website:

Biographers International Organization:

BIO Podcasts:

Part I URL:

Part II URL:

BIO Board of Directors

  • Linda Leavell, President  (2019-2021)
  • Sarah S. Kilborne, Vice President  (2020-2022)
  • Marc Leepson, Treasurer  (2019-2021)
  • Billy Tooma, Secretary  (2020-2022)
  • Kai Bird  (2019-2021)
  • Deirdre David  (2019-2021)
  • Natalie Dykstra (2020-2022)
  • Carla Kaplan  (2020-2022)
  • Kitty Kelley  (2019-2021)
  • Heath Lee  (2019-2021)
  • Steve Paul (2020-2022)
  • Anne Boyd Rioux  (2019-2021)
  • Marlene Trestman  (2019-2021)
  • Eric K. Washington (2020-2022)
  • Sonja Williams  (2019-2021)

The Answer Is…

by Kitty Kelley

The category is: Farewell Books.

The answer is: “This memoir lists a philosophy of life, rather than the usual puff quotes from impressive names, on its back cover.”

The question is: “What is Alex Trebek’s The Answer Is…?

The tone of Trebek’s new book is conversational and follows the “Jeopardy!” format. But while the front cover shows a photo of the silver-haired host, the back takes your breath away. Superimposed on sunny yellow are four simple sentences:

I believe in the will to live.
believe in the power of positivity.
I believe in optimism.
I believe in hope.

These declarations, powerful and poignant, command attention because the quiz-show host is battling stage-four pancreatic cancer, although he objects to the word “battling”: “It suggests there are only two outcomes: winning or losing,” he writes. “If you don’t get well, you are a ‘loser.’ If you have decided to stop treatment, you have ‘given up.’ That’s nonsense.”

Here, Trebek, who has hosted “Jeopardy!” for 36 years, discloses his decision to discontinue chemotherapy beyond his current regimen. No surprise, then, to learn his strategy for wagering in Final Jeopardy mirrors one of General George Patton’s favorite quotes: “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace.”

Audacity, audacity, always audacity.

Trebek doesn’t shy away from the cost his cancer has exacted on his mind and body since he was diagnosed in 2019.

“[Y]ou get hit with shock waves — whether pain or unpredicted surges of depression or just debilitating moments of agony, weakness. I don’t have much stamina anymore…Just pain and fatigue and, well, different kinds of agony. Each day brings a new set of challenges.

“The chemo has caused sores inside my mouth that make it difficult for me to enunciate. One treatment turned my skin dark brown, and caused my hair to fall out.” He admits to wearing a hairpiece since 2017 and says he likes the look.

A consummate showman, Trebek manages to continue hosting with brio, despite chemotherapy, and that fact amazes even him:

“It’s the strangest thing…there are days when I’m just a basket case before we tape. I can barely walk to the production meeting. But when…I get on stage, it all changes suddenly. I’m myself again. I feel good.”

His book is an aperçu of short takes on his life, which he acknowledges has been “all good stuff.” No adolescent traumas. No adult catastrophes. Even his divorce was amicable. Born in Sudbury, Ontario, he emigrated from Canada to California in 1973 to begin his climb in American television, which included hosting a variety of game shows that rarely lasted more than 13 weeks.

Then came “Jeopardy!,” followed by syndication, national recognition, and an annual salary of $10 million. During this career rise, Trebek met his second wife, Jean, “my soul mate.” They have two children together.

Readers also learn that Trebek loves luxury cars. He bought his first Bentley (a 1956 Mulliner Park Ward Convertible) for $34,000 — and sold it for $54,000 to finance his divorce. He claims to have since shaken his car addiction: “I am past the age where I need a car to impress people.”

Still, he includes a jazzy photo of himself in his first Jaguar (a 1956 XK140 roadster) and with a red 1971 Italia Spyder, which he sold — and which was later auctioned by Sotheby’s for $179,200. He now drives a Dodge Ram 1500.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he writes of the truck. “I’m no redneck. I don’t have a gun rack in it. I have a wine rack.”

As you’d expect from someone in the entertainment industry, Trebek drops a few names — Rudolf Nureyev, Merv Griffin, Ed Sullivan, Queen Elizabeth, and Prince Philip — but no startling anecdotes. He writes that, whenever he is asked which famous people he’d most like to see on the show, he responds: “Ava Gardner, because she was so beautiful. Mark Twain, because he was so bright. And Ava Gardner again, just because she’s Ava Gardner.”

A bit of fanboy peeks through his polish, too, on the subject of Ava’s third husband, Frank Sinatra, who sent Trebek a typewritten thank-you note in 1987 when “Jeopardy!” created a category devoted entirely to the singer. Trebek framed the note and hung it in his office, saying it was one of “the highlights of my life.”

He pays tribute to several “Jeopardy!” contestants in his memoir, including the biggest all-time winner, who appeared for 16 weeks, won 74 straight games, and walked away with more than $2.52 million.

The answer is: “This player failed to respond ‘H&R Block’ when asked to name the firm whose 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year.”

The question is: “Who is Ken Jennings?” (He’d incorrectly responded, “What is FedEx?”)

Toward the end of Trebek’s book, the categories get more serious:

“What is…Toughness?”
“What is…The will to survive?”
“What is…Getting your affairs in order?”
“The answer is…Life.”

Trebek assures us that he wants to continue living but, when the time comes, he’ll depart with dignity. “I’m not afraid of dying…I’ve lived a good, full life and I’m nearing the end of it. I know that.”

Godspeed, Alex.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Kitty Kelley

Any roll call of saints must include the name of Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897), who escaped from slavery in North Carolina and documented its pernicious evils in her extraordinary book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. First published in 1861, the memoir smashed the Southern euphemism of slavery as a “peculiar institution” and pulverized the myth of the so-called Free North, which, she writes, also “aped the customs of slavery.”

Like most abolitionists, Jacobs dedicated her freedom years to helping others flee bondage. She wrote her book “to arouse the women of the North” to realize “the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage.” She wanted to convince people in the Free States that slavery was a foul pit of abomination.

American slavery began in 1619 when a Dutch man-o-war docked in Jamestown, Virginia, and sold the 20 Black men onboard to white colonists. By 1860, one-sixth of the population of the United States consisted of slaves. To read Incidents in 2020, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, when the president of the U.S. cheers the Confederate flag, is to experience a time warp forcing reflection on the decades since Jacobs published her searing narrative.

Did she ever imagine that it would take four years of Civil War, three “slavery” amendments to the Constitution (the 13th, 14th, and 15th), plus the 24th Amendment in 1964 (outlawing poll taxes) and the Civil Rights legislation of 1960, 1964, and 1968, to give African Americans a path to equality?

Jacobs also established the Jacobs Free School, knowing that literacy led to liberty. The fact that an enslaved woman could read and write is in itself phenomenal because the Anti-Literacy Laws in most slave states made the educating of slaves a criminal offense punishable by fines, floggings, and imprisonment. These laws arose out of the fear that, once slaves became literate, they could forge the documents required to escape to freedom.

Jacobs writes with amazing style and grace, saying she was taught by “a kind mistress” with whom she lived until she was 12. Jacobs then went on to secretly teach others, including “an old black man” (age 53) named “Uncle Fred,” who begged her for “learnin.” Within six months, he had read through the New Testament, and she marveled at his progress. Here she adopts a dialect of the unlettered, which jars modern sensibility, but it was her way of differentiating between the literate and illiterate:

“Lord bress you, chile,” said Uncle Fred. “You nebber gibs me a lesson dat I don’t pray to God to help me to understan’ what I spells and what I reads. And he does help me. Bress his holy name.”

Jacobs tells readers there are thousands like Uncle Fred, who “are thirsting for the water of life, but the law forbids it, and the churches withhold it.” She beseeches missionaries who go abroad to instead stay home and preach to America’s slaveholders that “it’s wrong to traffic in men, to sell their own children, to violate their daughters…And to shut their brethren [from] the light of knowledge.”

She centers her story on the villainy of her master, a white doctor who tries to bed her as a young child while his wife, although jealous, looks the other way:

“Southern women often marry a man knowing that he is the father of many little slaves. They do not trouble themselves about it. They regard such children as property, as marketable as the pigs on the plantation.”

The physician’s wife was “totally deficient in energy [to work] but she had the strength to sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped ‘til the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash. She was a member of the church.”

Young and pretty, Jacobs frequently “passed” because “in complexion my parents were a light shade of brownish yellow, and were termed mulattoes.” But being attractive was a heavy burden for a slave:

“If God has bestowed beauty on a slave, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave…Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women…[T]hey have wrongs and suffering and mortifications peculiarly their own.”

Writing with 19th-century decorum, Jacobs shrouds the grisly rapes and violent sexual assaults endured by female slaves as “the guilty practices of the Master,” “his unspeakable acts,” and “wrongs which even the grave does not bury.”

She enraged her master by taking a white lawyer as her lover and having his two children. The lawyer, who became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, purchased the children from the doctor and let them live with Jacobs’ grandmother, a freed slave.

The lawyer did not free the children, however, because, as she writes, a white man “may have a shoal of colored children without any disgrace, but if he is known to purchase them with the view of setting them free, the example is thought to be dangerous to their ‘peculiar institution,’ and he becomes unpopular.”

At the age of 27, Jacobs engineered her escape, which so enraged her master that he hired bounty hunters to chase her down. She managed to evade capture, though, even when she secretly returned to North Carolina.

With sly cunning, Jacobs wrote a letter to the doctor indicating she was walking free on the streets of New York. She got it smuggled to a fleeing slave, who, in turn, had it posted in the North and delivered back to North Carolina, where Jacobs was hiding — splayed in the crawlspace of her grandmother’s attic — a few hundred yards from the doctor’s home. Her ruse insured her safety as she waited for the opportunity to free her children.

Jacobs hid in her grandmother’s attic for seven years — and could barely stand up straight when she finally emerged — before abolitionists purchased freedom for her and her children. But while she was grateful, she writes, “I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his.”

Her grandmother, who protected the family, lived to rejoice in Jacobs’ freedom, but soon Jacobs received a somber letter with a black seal. She writes that her beloved grandmother had gone “where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.” She concludes her narrative by cherishing what she had fought for in bondage:

“Readers, my story ends with freedom, not in the usual way, with marriage…or a hearth or home…which is still my dream…[but] I and my children are now free.”

(Note: A collection of slave narratives, part of the WPA Federal Writers’ Project of the Great Depression, is housed at the Library of Congress. Click here to view it.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Mary Todd Lincoln

by Kitty Kelley

“Mary Todd Lincoln remains America’s most provocative First Lady,” writes Jean H. Baker in the first sentence of her preface to the 2008 edition of her 1987 work, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography. Some might dispute her premise of “most provocative” by pointing to Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Reagan, or Hillary Clinton, who all managed to set the country’s teeth on edge during their husbands’ presidencies.

Yet, as provocative as they were, none was ever institutionalized for insanity like Mary Todd Lincoln, who was committed to an asylum at the instigation of her only surviving son, years after her husband was assassinated while sitting next to her at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d.”

By then, the Lincolns had buried two of their four sons, and she would bury a third a few years after Abraham’s death. Her dressmaker, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, wrote of the former first lady’s inconsolable grief: “[Her] wails of a broken heart, the unearthly shrieks, the terrible convulsions.” To show such raw emotion was considered unseemly behavior for a 19th-century woman, another blight on a battered public image.

Streaked with tragedy, Mrs. Lincoln, like Queen Victoria, wore widow’s weeds for the rest of her life. With few friends and scant resources, she turned to shamans and seers and spiritualists for emotional support, and to health spas for relief from physical ailments.

As a young woman, Mary Todd was smart and assertive, with a flair for drama. Highly educated, she spoke French fluently and wrote with grace. Born in Kentucky, a slaveholding state, she left her wealthy Confederate family to move to Springfield, Illinois, where she met Abraham Lincoln, whom she shrewdly predicted would become president of the United States.
Unlike other women of her era, Mary was politically astute and relished being her husband’s helpmate in pursuing his career. She continued as his political advisor in the White House, which prompted the men around the president and the male historians who revered him to brand her as “unwomanly.” She was certainly not a woman of her time, which is why Baker describes her as “among the most detested public women in American history.”

Mary Todd Lincoln did not know her place. She was expected to present herself as a demure wife, concerned only with hearth and home. Later, as a presidential widow, she was expected to fade from public view, but she refused. She needed to be acknowledged for herself and applauded as the wife of a great man.

Always in financial straits, she haggled with merchants to get lower prices, frequently refusing to pay. She battled Congress over her pension, fought with her son over her inheritance, and drew national scorn when she offered her extravagant White House wardrobe at public auction to pay off her debts.

In 1996, the establishment of the National First Ladies Library and Museum in Canton, Ohio, convinced Baker that the study of presidential wives had been elevated from its “former status as a frivolous female diversion [to a] legitimate historical endeavor of social, political and cultural importance.” A professor emerita at Goucher College with three published works on the Civil War era, Baker was well equipped, with the reissuing of her biography, to present Mrs. Lincoln with a new feminist sensibility.

Previously, first ladies had been relegated to small dress-and-dish displays in their husbands’ libraries, but now, with their own museum, presidential wives could be considered seriously. So Baker sought to position Mary Todd Lincoln as a victim of unsympathetic patriarchal portrayals, rather than “a one-dimensional human being, a stereotype of the best-hated faults of all women.”
On that, she succeeded. Her well-written biography — with its 2008 updated preface — presents Lincoln in all her messy complexities and confounding contradictions.

Yet reviews were mixed. The New York Times praised Baker’s study as “rich in new research” and “wider in scope than any published to date,” but faulted her for not determining decisively whether Mary was insane and deserved to be incarcerated or merely temperamental and difficult. The Christian Science Monitor applauded Baker for writing an “excellent, enticing book” and turning “biography into social history at its best,” but made no mention of Mrs. Lincoln’s incarceration.

Surprisingly, no reviews of the biography noted the treachery of Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who was humiliated by his mother’s public displays and engineered a trial to have her committed. Mary Lincoln managed to prove herself mentally competent and left the asylum, saying she could never forgive her “monster of mankind son,” and would end her days “childless.” Mother and son never spoke again.

Sadly, Mary Todd Lincoln, like King Lear, learned “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Swing Kings

by Kitty Kelley

From the title, Swing Kings, readers might think Jared Diamond is writing about Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. But while there’s music to be found in his subject, he’s actually addressing the basso profundo revolution in baseball: the batter’s swing.
Swinging a bat that actually connects to the ball is considered to be the toughest skill in all of sports, and Swing Kings tells the story of renegades who’ve rolled over conventional coaching to hit home runs, and in the process, have revolutionized Major League Baseball.

The sport has continually changed from the dead-ball era (1899-1920) to the live-ball era (1920‑2020), and one of the more dramatic changes was illustrated in 2003 by Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. In the years since that book was published, followed by the 2011 movie “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt, the front offices of MLB have been filled with executives who’ve adopted the statistical-analytics approach to baseball (“sabermetrics”) to evaluate players and have become known as the Moneyball Generation.

Now comes a new generation of “swing kings,” who’re homering into history by throwing away the old traditions of staying back on the ball and hitting to the ground. Instead, serious hitters are switching up their stance, redirecting the bat path, and aiming for the sky, all anathema to old-school teaching. Diamond documents this revolution in detail (punishing detail for non-obsessives), and his book arrives at a most propitious time: in the midst of a global pandemic.

Normally, being published during a national lockdown would be an author’s worst nightmare — no book tour, no signings, no buzz — and, for a Wall Street Journal sportswriter like Diamond, no baseball. But there might be a silver lining because his audience is avid. They are fans who’ve been forced into their bunkers and won’t see opening day until possibly Fourth of July weekend, and then only on television.

Gallup’s most recent poll shows that more than 60 percent of Americans are sports fans, so Diamond’s publisher is banking on their need to read something beyond,,,, and

Since 2017, home runs have dominated the sport, and that’s because some players finally stopped listening to hidebound batting coaches who continue, as Diamond writes, to teach batters to “stay back, swing down, bring your knob on a straight line to the ball, be short and quick, and ‘squish the bug’ — the oft-cited cue to a hitter to rotate his back foot upon swinging, as if he were smooshing an ant.”

Diamond acknowledges the rapture of home runs, an attraction in baseball from its beginning. “The ability to drive the ball far, to send it soaring high into the sky, was sexy. It was exciting. It was a sign of immense strength and power, of great masculinity and virility.” Then, just as he was rounding the bases with home-run prose, he stubs his sexist toe: “Even back then, chicks dug the long ball.”

In the 2000s, desperate players who needed to up or resurrect their game started making secret pilgrimages to the California batting cage of Craig Wallenbrock, “the Oracle of Santa Clarita.” Wallenbrock preached a radical gospel of “lag position” in swinging, which Diamond chronicles pitch by pitch and player by player.

As one example, after two years with “the Oracle,” the Houston Astros’ J.D. Martinez learned to swing in a way that defied all conventional wisdom and raised him from baseball’s reject bin to the Boston Red Sox for a five-year contract worth $110 million, guaranteed.

Wallenbrock worked with Doug Latta in the Ball Yard, a training facility that Latta owned in Chatsworth, California, which became a mecca for serious hitters eager to explore new ideas. Together, Wallenbrock and Latta became to baseball what Jobs and Wozniak were to technology.

They were game-changers who busted the baseball brotherhood to produce unorthodox home-run hitters, but like all who challenge the establishment, they were treated like porcupines at a picnic. Now, 20 years later, they’re finally being celebrated as geniuses. The takeaway here for anyone: Follow your passion, challenge convention, be counterintuitive, welcome diversity, and embrace innovation.

Diamond had a dual goal in writing Swing Kings, his first book: to report the home-run revolution within Major League Baseball, and to apply the new swinging principles to his own game. He wanted to wow his colleagues in 2019 when playing in the equivalent of journalism’s World Series, an annual two-game showdown for New York and Boston sportswriters, who play one game at Yankee Stadium and the other at Fenway Park.

As a result, he inserts himself off and on in the narrative, cutting from first person to third, which, unfortunately, makes for a herky-jerky read. But he lays out his report in serviceable style with no prose thrills, leaving the poetry of baseball to Roger Angell. And, by his own admission, Jared Diamond is a sportswriter who covers baseball better than he plays it.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Story I Am

by Kitty Kelley

If the definition of wunderkind is to teach writing at Harvard at the age of 25, meet Roger Rosenblatt. He decided when he was “almost three years old” that he wanted to be a writer, and he promptly ascended into the literary stratosphere, earning a Ph.D. in literature and writing short stories, essays, articles, speeches, plays, books, and poetry.

He was a columnist for the Washington Post, editor of U.S. News, literary editor of the New Republic, and director of education for the National Endowment for the Humanities. For three decades, he wrote essays for TIME, including a cover essay, “A Letter to the Year 2086,” chosen for the time capsule placed inside the Statue of Liberty at its centennial. His essays for the PBS NewsHour won two George Polk Awards, one Peabody, and an Emmy.

Now, at 80, Rosenblatt has written his 20th book from his lofty perch as distinguished professor of English and writing at Stony Brook University.

As you can see from the cover, the title confuses. Big red letters blare “THE STORY I AM,” while smaller black ones murmur, “Mad About the Writing Life.” Be assured that both are appropriate. Rosenblatt has culled from his previously published oeuvre to write this book, proving that he’s indeed “mad about the writing life,” particularly his own, which more than validates the big red “I” — because the story is all about him and his passion.

Rosenblatt is not a man stooped by modesty. He writes of his trip to Dublin to study with Frank O’Connor, the great Irish short-story writer who idolized William Butler Yeats. O’Connor, also unencumbered by insecurity, spoke often of his relationship with Yeats, always putting himself on the same high rung. Rosenblatt writes: “I shall never forget the day he told me, ‘Roger, you are the best writer since me and Yeats.’ Such a wise man, O’Connor.”

In addition to O’Connor, Rosenblatt name-drops E.L. Doctorow, Alex Haley, and James Salter, all once blessed to be in his circle, while he archly dismisses William Strunk and E.B. White, saying their Elements of Style is a “mere grammar guide” hardly worth reading.

Just when you’re tempted to throw Rosenblatt’s book into the bin marked Egoistic Excess, you land on words that expand your heart: “Until my daughter, Amy, died, I had always believed that good things would simply befall me…I’d led a charmed life but then…”

Ten years ago, the wunderkind and his wife were walloped by the worst that can befall parents, forced to bury their 38-year-old daughter, a pediatrician, whose sudden death left behind a husband and three young children. Without hesitation, the 70-year-old grandparents moved in to help their surviving family.

Rosenblatt does not believe in God, so he could not derive comfort from religious faith. In fact, he states, “My anger at God remains unabated.” Instead, he writes to keep his daughter alive, to keep death at bay, to make life endurable:

“As a young writer, I was the dandiest cleverest wit and wise guy — a cinch if one possesses the meager gifts. But…after witnessing enough pain and plain courage in the world, I simply reversed course and started writing about the life before my eyes.”

He’s borrowed well from a lifetime of learning and sprinkles his prose with the poetry of Roethke and Stevens and Wordsworth. Occasionally, he waves his own wand to hyphenate words most effectively: “The Spaldeen-moon hangs low”; “turrets that look like witch-hat tops”; “day hook-slides into night.”

He believes that all writing is essay writing, “an endless attempt at finding beauty in horror, nobility in want — an effort to punish, reward and love all things human that naturally resist punishments, rewards and love.”

As a writer, Rosenblatt feels he’s improved because of his daughter’s death:

“My work is sharper now, and more careful. Happily would I trade all the books I’ve written…for one moment with my daughter Amy alive, but since that bargain is impossible, I write to fill the void her death created.”

Rosenblatt shares his creativity with his graduate students, once giving each a flower and instructing them to write a one-page essay about what it smelled like. “Follow your nose,” he told them. “You will plunder the past to explain the present and make the present more intense.”

This book of writing fragments — some chapters are a page, others a paragraph — is not to be read for instruction. Rather, it’s a hymn of praise for the craft of weaving words in order to survive, which Roger Rosenblatt sings to himself with style and grace.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books


by Kitty Kelley

The cover of Pelosi by Molly Ball shows its subject in high heels, big sunglasses, and a bright, burnt umber coat, looking movie-star glamorous. The picture captures her leaving a White House meeting with President Trump, where she’s once again left him flatfooted and flabbergasted. It wasn’t the first or last time Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would bring the president to heel.

On their first introduction, she’d made herself known as No Nonsense Nancy. Three days after his inauguration, Trump invited her and other congressional leaders to the White House for a reception. The newly elected president, who’d lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million votes, confounded his guests by saying, “You know I won the popular vote.”

He’d cobbled together some dubious anecdotes and tried to impress his guests, who knew better. Embarrassed for him, they shifted uncomfortably, and no one said a word. Then the speaker broke the awkward silence.

“That’s not true,” she told the president. “There’s no evidence to support that.”

Under the crystal chandeliers of the White House, Pelosi had spoken up like the child in the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale who shocked the kingdom by telling the naked emperor he wasn’t wearing any clothes.

Nor was this her first presidential tangle. She’d cut her teeth years before on George H.W. Bush shortly after coming to Congress as a representative from California. When the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989, crushing Chinese demonstrators demanding reform, Pelosi, who represents one of the largest concentrations of Asian Americans in the U.S., denounced the “butchers of Beijing.”

She proposed legislation to waive student visa requirements to allow pro-democracy students to stay in San Francisco rather than return home to be persecuted. President Bush, once envoy to China, threatened to veto any legislation that might affect international relations.

Pelosi’s bill passed the House and the Senate, but Bush vetoed it. The House overrode his veto, but Bush lobbied the Senate by writing personal notes to Republican wives, telling them to tell their husbands that he promised to issue an executive order that would have the same effect as Pelosi’s legislation but not tie his hands. Bush prevailed by five votes in the Senate.

Months later, with still no executive order, writes author Molly Ball, Pelosi “was furious” that the president thought he could flick off “the little bleeding heart liberal from San Francisco.” Somehow — Ball does not explain how — the Washington Post came into possession of one of Bush’s notes promising the order. The story embarrassed him into acting, and he quickly issued it.

The reader is left to wonder if “the little bleeding heart liberal” had had something to do with how the Post got its story, or if the story was simply serendipitous for Pelosi and her legislative initiative. Such a missing detail is a rounding error for a journalist of Ball’s stature, especially since she had access to Pelosi to write this book, following the two cover stories she’d written on the House speaker for TIME.

Ball reports that she conducted more than 100 interviews for the book, most of which she folded into the narrative without attribution. Such is the dilemma of writing about a powerful person still alive and able to exercise immense influence.

The book is expertly crafted and thoroughly researched, but readers are kept at a remove, being deprived of on-the-record quotes from Pelosi’s family — including her husband, five children, and in-laws — as well as friends, political adversaries, staff, supporters, donors, and colleagues past and present. Did Ball consider asking former Speakers Newt Gingrich or John Boehner to hold forth, or inquire of Tom DeLay, the former Majority Leader, about his political negotiations with Pelosi?

Ball tells us that Madam Speaker doesn’t drink or smoke or say bad words — and, a devout Catholic, she never gossips. She walks the marble floors of the U.S. Capitol in four-inch heels, gets her hair done every morning, and dresses like a woman worth $60 million, a figure that doesn’t include her Georgetown penthouse overlooking the Potomac, the mansion she shares with her husband in San Francisco, or their 16.5-acre vineyard in Napa Valley.

As the most powerful elected woman in the country, Pelosi has become a target for Republicans, and she wears her bull’s eye with pride. Still, it is startling to read that, in 2010, the GOP spent $70 million to air 161,203 ads attacking her — and, in 2018, they spent $100 million more.

Pelosi’s proudest legislative achievement is getting the Affordable Care Act passed for President Obama. When the legislation was floundering, she bolstered him: “You go through the gate. If the gate’s closed, you go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we’ll pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we’ll parachute in. But we’re going to get health care reform passed for the American people.”

Obama devotees may be dismayed to read that, while he was focused on his own reelection in 2012, he refused to contribute anything to congressional campaign committees, including Speaker Pelosi’s. At the time, she was celebrating 25 years in Congress with a weeklong festival, including lavish fundraisers and concerts with Bono and the Grateful Dead.

All she wanted was a personal appearance from Barack Obama. She pleaded with his campaign strategists, reminding them of all she’d done for the president. They refused, saying her toxic image might hurt him. Finally, she called Obama herself, but he didn’t take her call, and he never called her back.

Makes you understand the wisdom of Harry Truman, who said: “You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.”

In that instance, Obama barreled down a one-way street marked “me, me, me,” while Pelosi maneuvered multiple lanes marked “you,” “me,” and “us.” Following his re-election, the president came to value the speaker as the best ally he could have to push his legislative agenda. With her, he achieved healthcare, cap-and-trade, and Wall Street reform, plus a massive stimulus package. She was, in her own words, “Mother Loyal.”

Pelosi is less a life story than a legislative treatise and a detailed testament to the laws No Nonsense Nancy has proposed and gotten passed in her more than three decades in Congress. To this day, Obama praises Pelosi as “one of the most effective legislative leaders in history.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Lost in Ghost Town

by Kitty Kelley

Addiction memoirs are a particular genre. They present unequal parts of noir autobiography, gothic fiction, sci-fi and dystopian horror, along with bits of black humor. They are books about recovery, which can only be written by those who have jumped off the train headed for oblivion. Their stories of survival plunge readers into realms of degradation that kill all but the lucky and the brave.

A few such memoirs, like David Carr’s The Night of the Gun and Mary Karr’s Lit, ascend as literary revelations. But, whatever the prose, each addiction memoir validates hope and proves that demons can be conquered. The victory usually comes at the cost of steel bracelets, nights behind bars, sleeping in alleys, suicide attempts, several stints in rehab and then a solid 12-step program, all of which Carder Stout illustrates in Lost in Ghost Town: A Memoir of Addiction, Redemption, and Hope in Unlikely Places.
Stout’s name will resonate with Georgetowners who remember his family from when they lived, as he writes, in the “7,000-square-foot mansion … that was a hundred years old” at 31st and P Streets. His parents partied with Washington’s nouveau riche society from the ’70s to the ’90s, regularly chronicled in the glossy magazines Dossier and Washington Life, celebrants of charity balls and embassy galas.

If money is life’s report card, the Stouts got straight As — for a while. “My dad said, ‘You must always act rich,’” Stout writes.
His father, Anthony Carder Stout, known as Tony, founded National Journal, then established a foundation to build a memorial in France honoring Americans who served in World War II. The $4 million he raised from veterans for the memorial mysteriously disappeared, and Stout was forced off his own board. “He conned the vets,” writes his son. Following a report of mismanagement by the General Accounting Office, the Internal Revenue Service began investigating, which led to an expose by 60 Minutes. Then the FBI moved in, and Tony Stout fled town.

His mother, Julie Jeppson Stout Park, known as Muffy, was an heiress of Norton Company of Worcester, Massachusetts. Stout writes he had “mad love” for his mother, but “she live[d] inside a bottle of vodka.” For a while “[s]he was the Grande Dame of Georgetown society, throwing lavish parties in her palatial mansion. After my father left her, she had a string of drug-addled boyfriends who robbed her of her dignity before they left her.” Weak from years of alcoholism, Muffy Stout fell down a flight of stairs to her death in 2008. Tony Stout, having run through millions, died broke nine years later.

Stout paints a lacerating portrait of his parents, particularly his father, who was never around while he was growing up. “I didn’t know where my dad was most of the time. There were always bags in the hallway, and I didn’t know if he was coming or going. When he was there, he got mad a lot and when he yelled, it felt like the whole house shook.” He recalls his father as “a small man with a big opinion of himself … [he’d] find a lady and run off somewhere and leave his kids behind.”

While Stout is unsparing when he writes about his parents, he’s equally unflinching about himself, first as an adolescent: “the stealing, the eating disorder, the cheating on girlfriends, the lies, the betrayals, the evil wishes and the time I wore girls’ underpants to school in the second grade.” Then, as an adult, a crippling addiction to crack cocaine took him “to the other side … I was dead.” He describes “one botched suicide attempt” when he “ingested an entire bottle of Advil PM with a fifth of bourbon and a heroin chaser. I ended up sleeping for thirty hours.”

You can’t get more of a cliché than a trust-fund baby neglected by rich parents, loved only by the family’s black maid, who tumbles into drug addiction, stealing and selling family heirlooms to support his habit as he careens towards self-destruction. But Stout elevates the cliché to a colorful saga of chapters that alternate between the sunny streets of Georgetown and the bloody back alleys of Ghost Town in Los Angeles.

The spirited narrative is a tribute to his college degree in creative writing. Stout puts his Ph.D. credential on the cover of the book. This might seem a bit of braggadocio, until you read his press release and realize the degree took him 10 years of study to achieve. His perseverance deserves as much applause as his scholarship and sobriety.

Carder Stout now lives his happily-ever-after life in Southern California with a wife and two young children. As he relates at the end of his book, he is a practicing psychologist, treating “a clientele that includes Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy winners.” He opens his memoir with a ringing endorsement from Gwyneth Paltrow, followed by praise from actors Will Arnett and Billy Crudup. You then understand why Stout’s main drug dealer called him “Hollywood.”

Originally published in The Georgetowner

The Moment of Tenderness

by Kitty Kelley

Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007) was a storyteller known for her childhood fables, religious tracts, and fanciful science fiction. Although she wrote 50 books, her masterpiece was A Wrinkle in Time, which won the Newbery Medal in 1963. The book, still in print, inspired two Disney film adaptations, plus a TV movie and a 2018 theatrical film directed by Ava DuVernay, starring Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey.

Now, to further burnish L’Engle’s legacy, Charlotte Jones Voiklis has compiled a book of her grandmother’s earliest short stories entitled The Moment of Tenderness. Most of the 18 stories in the collection were written in the 1940s and 1950s and re-imagined and revised to reappear in other forms in L’Engle’s later works. As short stories, they were never published at the time, and probably for good reason.

While fascinating to a loving grandchild, the average reader might be less than dazzled by “the scraps and stories and studies” Voiklis found in boxes yellowed with age in her grandmother’s study. Voiklis maintains that the stories show the writer’s growth, which may be enough to satisfy only her most devoted fans.

L’Engle, who majored in theater at Smith College, moved to New York City and tried to succeed as an actress in the 1940s, writing short stories on the side that she could not get published. On tour for “The Cherry Orchard,” she fell in love with a fellow actor, Hugh Franklin. They married in 1946 and, having given up on succeeding on stage and short on money, they moved to Goshen, New York, where they opened a general store.

Such biographical details help to more fully understand L’Engle’s fiction, in which she poured out the truths of her life as a child abandoned by her father and a wife betrayed by a philandering husband who took mistresses throughout their marriage.

Deeply religious and drawn to make-believe, L’Engle wrote several revisionist memoirs that read as fantasies. In one, she wrote that she was sent to boarding school because her father was gassed in the war. In reality, her parents wanted to live their own lives — and her father lived a long, carousing one before dying suddenly of a heart attack.

In another memoir, L’Engle presented her marriage as content and happy: “There in the chapel of the church, Hugh and I made promises, promises which for forty years we have, by some grace, been able to keep.” Her family, aware of Franklin’s many affairs, dismissed L’Engle’s 2004 memoir in the New Yorker as “pure fiction.”

The keystone of this collection, which gives the book its title, tells the story of two couples living in Mt. George, Vermont, a setting much like Goshen, where the village is divided into natives and nouveau riche newcomers. The couples meet and socialize. One husband, a doctor of “quiet earnestness” born in Mt. George, listens intently to the other wife, a newcomer, while their spouses whirl gaily at the country club dances on Saturday nights.

The man’s attentiveness is in itself a moment of tenderness for the wife, who is pregnant, and she decides she wants this general practitioner to deliver her child, rather than the wealthy obstetrician her husband prefers.

She is besotted with the gentle doctor’s hands, his brief touch of care and concern. He becomes the family’s doctor, making house calls to tend to her and her children. “[I]t is not love I want from him,” she relates, “just those little moments of tenderness.” This culminates later in an unexpected kiss from the doctor, followed by an abject apology. “This is something I’ve never done before,” he said. “Please believe me.”

Shushing him, the wife says:

“Why…we aren’t going to let it make any difference. We aren’t going to have an affair…so why shouldn’t we say it just this once? There’s so little real love in the world, isn’t it wrong not to acknowledge it when it happens. What you’ve just said is going to make all the difference in the world to me, just to know that somebody sees me as a human being…as me. And it can’t hurt anybody, can it, if you know that I’m thinking about you and caring when you’re up all night and tired and maybe discouraged sometimes? We’re not going to say it again or let it make any difference in the way we live our lives, so how can it be anything but good to have said it just this once and to know it for always.”

The doctor looks at her with a steady, serious gaze. “What a wise little star you are. Yes, we’ll always know, and the knowledge will be good.

Ah, the magic of a such a moment of tenderness — an elegiac title for an affectionate, if ill-advised, tribute.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books