L.E.L.

by Kitty Kelley

L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron” is the titillating title of Lucasta Miller’s biography of a 19th-century poet few people remember, if they’d ever heard of her. The title teases, as does the scarlet banner on the cover once used for X-rated magazines sold under the counter.

The cover features a gauzy sketch of a sweet-faced young woman with old eyes and rosebud lips that barely smile. Her long, brown hair is swept up into an intricate arrangement of silken folds and a braid that, if unloosened, promises to tumble to her waist.

The impression is soft but suggestive. In fact, if the book did not carry the august imprint of Knopf, you might expect a Harlequin romance novel. The book cover introduces the life story of an unfortunate woman with talent born in an unfortunate time when, as she wrote:

 

“None among us dares to say
What none will choose to hear.”

Women of her era dared not put themselves forward on an equal footing with men and appear unladylike. So, to circumvent the strictures of society, many female writers used male pseudonyms to get published: George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), and Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (the Brontë sisters — Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, respectively, who preserved their initials). Even Louisa May Alcott wrote her dark love stories under the name of A.M. Barnard.

Letitia Elizabeth Landon became L.E.L. and, as such, she published novels, criticism, and reams of poetry, becoming the toast of literary London.

To ensure her success, she hitched her bright star to a male mentor, the married editor of the Literary Gazette, who published her poetry and paid her a pittance. He promoted her career, reveled in her celebrity, and became her lover, at one point moving her into his home with his wife and children.

Letitia bore him three children, all of whom had to be given up for adoption, such were the mores of the time for an unmarried woman. L.E.L.’s affair with the libertine editor remained secret until 1826, when the Sunday Times published a story headlined “Sapphics and Erotics,” and quoted the editor’s charwoman, who recounted in explicit detail seeing the adulterous couple “in flagrante.”

Author Miller, a British literary critic, contends the reason most people have never heard of L.E.L. is because she was ahead of her time and, not to put too fine a point, was “a fallen woman” whose life was considered so scandalous that her friends tried to shield her from her own infamy.

L.E.L. poured her life into her poems and, after the Times’ exposé, the public read them as confessionals of lust, love, and shame. Her flowery verses dwelled on gothic death, breathless passion, and unrequited love, all a part of her sad existence.

Others suggest that L.E.L.’s talents were more limited than those of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, her male contemporaries, and, thus, didn’t deserve their posterity. Some scholars maintain that L.E.L. got lost in “the strange pause” between the Romantic Age of Byron and the pre-Victorian era of Dickens, who ridiculed L.E.L.’s literary salons and her “rickety sentimental poetry” in The Pickwick Papers.

In her acknowledgements, Miller states that she spent nine years “entangled on and off” in researching and writing this book. The extensive research shows, but so does the entanglement in writing that is dense and academic.

Throughout, she sprinkles her prose with droplets of French: au fait, raison d’etre, cri de couer, de rigueur, cordon sanitaire, femme libre, succes de scandale. After plowing through 320 pages of small type, plus 54 pages of notes and bibliography, one wonders if the author was trying to refashion her Ph.D. thesis for the commercial market.

Like a student bewitched by her research, Miller provides every exhaustive detail about L.E.L. and her lovers, friends, neighbors, and, in one section, a farflung Irish relative, whose “most significant love affair was with the French courtesan-actress Hyacinthe Varis, which produced an illegitimate daughter, Hyacinthe-Gabrielle Roland, who also appeared on the stage, before becoming the mistress of the Duke of Wellington’s brother, the Earl of Mornington.”

Whew.

Miller then bangs on about L.E.L.’s abandoned children, dependent clergyman brother, envious contemporaries (all men), cowardly first fiancé, who bailed on account of the Times story, and the Pygmalion editor who traded her in for a teenage Galatea.

No wonder poor L.E.L., having been exiled from London society and living her last few weeks with an abusive, slave-trading husband on the coast of West Africa, swallowed poison at the age of 36 to end her misery. And ours.

Merde!

 

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Conversations with Abner Mikva

by Kitty Kelley

The Land of Lincoln has produced giant oaks in the political forest, none more majestic than Abraham himself. But other impressive Illinois timbers have continued to flourish throughout the years: Governor and U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson; Senator Paul Douglas; Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, also secretary of labor and U.N. ambassador; President Barack Obama; Senator Dick Durbin; and the man fondly referred to in this book as “Ab.”

For those lucky enough to have known Abner Mikva during his long and productive life — Illinois State House (1959-1969), U.S. House of Representatives (1969-1973 and 1975-1979), U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (1979-1994), and White House counsel to President Bill Clinton (1994-1995) — Conversations with Abner Mikva: Final Reflections on Chicago Politics, Democracy’s Future, and a Life of Public Service by Sanford D. Horwitt will be a treasure.

And for those who never knew Mikva but welcome a dose of progressive grace and political grit, it will be a sterling reminder of what public service once looked like, when integrity was the coin of the realm.

During the last three years of his life, Mikva, who served in all three branches of the federal government, met monthly with Horwitt, his good friend and former speechwriter, to reflect on the life he had lived at the center of power. Horwitt’s smart questions and Mikva’s unvarnished answers provide an incisive primer on politics, particularly the chapter dealing with Mikva’s nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, when he was targeted by the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Having been an advocate for gun control all his life, and a sponsor of legislation calling for a ban on the manufacture, importation, and sale of handguns (except for police, military, and licensed pistol clubs), Ab was anathema to the gun lobby, which distributed sporting charts for rifle practice with a bull’s-eye in the middle of Mikva’s face.

The behind-the-scenes story of how he defeated the NRA to be confirmed by the Senate should be a master class in political science. Although he was confirmed 58-31, he never forgave the NRA Democrats, all afraid of the NRA, who voted against him.

Being from Chicago, Mikva was not naive about political corruption, which is why he took such a hard line on white-collar crime and felt it should be punished with time behind bars, not simply huge fines. “If we’re going to have jails it makes much more sense to use them for white collar crime. That’s where the punishment angle, the humbling angle” comes in.

He found the case of Virginia’s former Republican governor Robert F. McDonnell to be particularly egregious, and felt that McDonnell, who was found guilty by a federal jury of political corruption for accepting lavish gifts, including a $6,000 Rolex, “should get at least five years” in prison, “and as far as I’m concerned, ten would be a good number.” McDonnell was sentenced to two years but appealed his case to the Supreme Court, which unanimously vacated the conviction.

The subject of white-collar crime led to conversations about the subprime mortgage disaster of 2008, when no senior executive from Wall Street or any of the big banks was put on trial. Here, Mikva chides Obama’s Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder:

“[W]hen it came to civil justice, as far as [Holder] was concerned, you don’t send white-collar criminals to jail. That’s not nice…They don’t do things like that at Covington & Burling [Holder’s law firm], a white shoe firm where the notion of sending executives to jail was unheard of.”

Nor does he hold back on his old friend Barack Obama, with whom he campaigned in 2000 when Obama made his first run for political office and lost:

“He was…dreadful on the stump. I went with him to several places. One was a black church, and he was awful. He was a dull University of Chicago professor lecturing the unwashed, who couldn’t be less interested…But he realized out of that very disheartening loss that you’ve got to show them, you’ve got to be a showman. Boy, did he learn.”

Mikva gives the young man he mentored “a low A” as president and feels Obama will go down in history as one of the greats.

President Bill Clinton does not get the same high marks from his former White House counsel, who was disappointed when “Slick Willie” interrupted his presidential campaign to fly to Arkansas to sign execution orders for a mentally incapacitated man:

“Clinton did exactly the wrong thing. He should have kept that guy from being executed. He was for capital punishment, or so he said. The real Bill Clinton is not for capital punishment. He thought that was a political necessity in Arkansas.”

Mikva also faults Clinton’s support of habeas corpus, prayer in public schools, and the amendment to prohibit flag-burning. “His instincts were to stay with God…He had been educated on the separation of church and state at Yale and Oxford, but those weren’t his views. On these God and flag issues he was Arkansas through and through.”

In 2014, President Obama gave his mentor the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an honor Mikva shared that day with, among others, Meryl Streep, Tom Brokaw, and, posthumously, the three civil rights workers who were murdered in 1964 — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. “They got the most sustained applause,” said Mikva. “They deserved it.”

Abner Mikva, who died on the Fourth of July in 2016 at age 90, had a worthy Boswell in Sanford Horwitt, and both deserve a standing ovation for this book — a superbly written history of a man who believed in public service and practiced it, becoming a hero to many.

 

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Becoming

by Kitty Kelley

A few months ago, Michelle Obama zoomed to the top of the bestseller list with Becoming, and set the gold standard for writing a masterful memoir. As wife of the nation’s first African-American president, she has an extraordinary story to tell, and she tells it with sublime grace, substance, and style.

In reading it, you’ll understand why she is packing auditoriums around the world, selling out huge venues like the Royal Arena in Denmark, the Oslo Spektrum, Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome, and the AccorHotels Arena in Paris. In civic auditoriums around the U.S., people beg to pay upward of $1,000 a ticket to hear the most powerful African-American woman in the world tell her story.

In the book, Obama addresses her most controversial moment in the 2008 presidential campaign when she said that “for the first time in my adult life I’m really proud of my country.” At the time, she was criticized for the comment by those who felt she sounded like an angry black woman who was unpatriotic. She writes that she meant nothing racial by her words, merely that she was expressing gratitude for the many energetic campaign workers.

Days after the book’s publication, she got criticized again, this time in a New York Times op-ed by a black female professor from Antioch University who urged Obama to own the full weight of her words from 2008 and broaden the narrative to discuss black discontent.

Many will find Becoming to be a heartfelt dissertation on race, and the White House is a perfect setting for Michelle Robinson Obama’s story because she’s more closely tied to the site than any of her predecessors. She frequently introduces herself to young African-American audiences as the great-great-granddaughter of Jim Robinson, a slave from South Carolina. Enslaved people, like her own ancestors, built the mansion, which has housed 44 white presidents, several of whom owned slaves.

She knows she carries history with her, but it’s not the history of presidents and other first ladies:

“I’d never related to the story of John Quincy Adams the way I did to that of Sojourner Truth, or been moved by Woodrow Wilson the way I was by Harriet Tubman. The struggles of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King were more familiar to me than those of Eleanor Roosevelt or Mamie Eisenhower.”

Obama writes about growing up as an urban black child on the South Side of Chicago, always feeling “other.” She relates an incident when she and her brother were children that taught them “the color of our skin made us vulnerable [to attack]. It was a thing we’d always have to navigate.” Throughout the book, she underscores race and the constant vigilance people of color feel forced to bring to their encounters in white America.

She emphasizes her roots in a close-knit, working-class family, where her parents knew that education was the best way up and out. But while Michelle Robinson soared up — graduating from Princeton and Harvard Law School — she never flew out. She remained committed to her city and chides Maureen Dowd for calling her “a princess of South Chicago” in the New York Times.

As first lady, she tried to rally support for violence prevention there, meeting often with community leaders and social workers in the inner city. Yet she leveled with students from the ravaged area: “Honestly, I know you’re dealing with a lot here, but no one’s going to save you anytime soon.”

She told them the only way out of their mess was to “use school” as she had. She saw herself as a testament to what was possible. “I felt it all personally. Education had been the primary instrument of change in my own life, my lever upward in the world….”

Ever since Jacqueline Kennedy restored the public rooms of the White House, all first ladies have been expected to have a high-purpose project, preferably apolitical and certainly not controversial. Lady Bird Johnson beautified America with trees and flowers; Pat Nixon chose volunteerism; Betty Ford supported the Equal Rights Amendment; Rosalynn Carter promoted mental-health awareness; Nancy Reagan launched “Just Say No” to drugs; Barbara Bush concentrated on literacy; Hillary Clinton undertook healthcare reform; Laura Bush advocated for childhood education; and Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden.

Since African-American children are more likely to be overweight than their white counterparts, the former first lady, who works out regularly, launched “Let’s Move,” and, with an emphasis on eating more nutritiously, was determined to end childhood obesity within a generation.

Yet even this worthy objective drew partisan criticism. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) complained to his constituents about Obama lecturing about obesity with “her big butt.” The congressman, who looks to be the size of a food truck, later wrote a note apologizing to the first lady for commenting on her “large posterior.” Still, she felt mocked.

“I was cut down for being black, female and vocal. I’d felt the derision directed at my body, the literal space I occupied in the world.”

She wallops Donald Trump for his “yammering, inexpert critiques of Barack’s foreign policy decisions and openly questioning whether he was an American citizen…with his loud and reckless innuendos he was putting my family’s safety at risk. And for this, I’d never forgive him.”

Having been advised by Hillary Clinton never to get in front of the president, Obama went to great lengths not to insert herself into West Wing business — to such an absurd extent that her staff felt it was necessary to consult with the president’s staff when she “decided to get bangs cut into my hair…just to make sure there wouldn’t be a problem.”

Seriously?

She captures the essence of her husband’s sterling idealism when she quotes him as saying, “You may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be.” She was understandably angry when Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared a year before the 2011 election: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

She writes that her husband took the high road, reminding her of “an old copper pot — seasoned by fire, dinged up but still shiny.”

Michelle Obama shines, too, in a most becoming way.

 

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Doing Justice

by Kitty Kelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

 

Bad Blood

by Kitty Kelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Real Wallis Simpson

by Kitty Kelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Food on the Move

by Kitty Kelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaaallllll aboard!

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Friend

by Kitty Kelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigrid Nunez has such a gift.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Rising Out of Hatred

by Kitty Kelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Who Is Michael Ovitz?

by Kitty Kelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books