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

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas

by Kitty Kelley

Clarence Thomas, the longest-sitting justice on the current Supreme Court, is referred to as the silent one because he hardly speaks during oral arguments. Instead, he sits quietly in his black robe and listens to his colleagues joust with the lawyers presenting their cases to the high court.

Rarely, if ever, asking a question, he dismisses those who criticize his silence. “Let them read my opinions,” he says. “I say what I have to say in my opinions.”

In those opinions, Thomas shouts at the top of his lungs.

He advocates for crushing Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to abortion. He links birth control and Planned Parenthood to the eugenics movement of a century ago. He opposes race mixing, sees integration as harmful to African Americans, and thinks the state should support separation of the races.

He attacks every effort to bring African Americans into mainstream white America and rails against voting rights, property rights, gender equality, affirmative action, and legally mandated segregation, except in prisons. In effect, the second African American to sit on the Supreme Court presents as a racist with misogynistic views that are foreboding, leaving little room for progress and none for hope.

In 1985, Thomas addressed the graduating class of Savannah State College on what he calls the unholy triumvirate: “I am here to say that discrimination, racism and bigotry have gone no place and probably never will.” That dystopian view enunciated more than three decades ago has hardened over the years as it continues to inform his jurisprudence.

Corey Robin, who teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, rejects “virtually all of Thomas’s views” as “disturbing, brutal, even ugly,” but he wrote The Enigma of Clarence Thomas to “make us sit with that discomfort rather than swat it away. This is not so that we adopt Thomas’s views, but so we see the world through his eyes — and realize, perhaps, to our surprise that his vision is in some ways similar to our own. Which should unsettle us even more.”

There have been numerous books written about Thomas, but Robin’s is unique in that it takes the justice’s written opinions and examines them against the backdrop of Thomas’ own life: Growing up in Pin Point, Georgia, he experienced the prejudice of Jim Crow, but came to feel its lash “much worse” when he moved north to go to Yale Law School. There, as one of only 12 black students, Thomas says he felt the object of the most intense snobbery and suspicion:

“You had to prove yourself every day because the presumption was that you were dumb and didn’t deserve to be there on merit.”

At that time, Thomas, a black nationalist devoted to Malcolm X, identified as “a radical” who voted for George McGovern (D-SD) for president in 1972, although he said he thought the liberal Democrat was “too conservative.” Decades later, Thomas has become the darling of conservative Republicans, and President Donald Trump’s favorite justice.    

Most civil rights activists support affirmative action as a needed step to try to rectify the sins of slavery, but Thomas sees it as an insulting sop to African Americans. To him, it’s a white program for white people because it elevates whites to the status of benefactors who dole out privileges to the few blacks they decide are worthy.

Here, it’s interesting to recall that Thomas’ 1991 nomination to the Supreme Court was orchestrated by two such white benefactors: President George Herbert Walker Bush and his White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray.

Robin writes that, as early as 1981, Thomas had decided he wanted to be appointed to the Supreme Court to replace the aging Thurgood Marshall, the court’s black liberal. The only problem, Robin writes, was that Thomas had no views on the Constitution. So, despite his “shoddy record” as chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), he undertook a crash course on the nation’s founding text and, through a twisted legal labyrinth, came to the conclusion that there’s a White Constitution and a Black Constitution. A unifying Constitution is a fairytale.

In Thomas’ America, blacks and whites will never live happily ever after. This stark interpretation of the Constitution informs most of his written opinions on race, to the disappointment of progressives. As Rosa Parks said of Thomas in 1996, “He had all the advantages of affirmative action and went against it.”  

On the last page of his book, the author admits that racism is a permanent stain on the soul of America, but he suggests that people of good conscience cannot stop waging the moral battle to try to right the insidious wrong. His message is to fight for our better angels and, in the words of our greatest president, to try for “a more perfect union.”

I agree with Corey Robin; Justice Clarence Thomas does not.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Faster

by Kitty Kelley

Racing in the European Grand Prix is like playing at Carnegie Hall, singing at the Met, or scaling Mt. Everest: it is the epitome of excellence, achieved by few, but thrilling thousands. Enzo Ferrari called it “this life of fearful joys.”

In 1938, the Grand Prix involved something more than two race-car drivers pitting themselves and their countries’ fastest automobiles against each other in a 100-lap race for superiority. In that particular year, the Grand Prix came down to:

Dreyfus vs. Caracciola
Delahaye vs. Mercedes
France vs. Germany
Good vs. Evil

In his newest book, Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best, Neal Bascomb documents every detail of the contest between René Dreyfus, an American-financed French Jew, driving a Delahaye 145, and Rudi Caracciola, representing Germany in a Silver Arrow Mercedes. It was a titanic struggle between two nations that would lead one to humiliating defeat and the other to resounding victory.

Bascomb begins the story in 1933, when Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany and, as leader of the Third Reich, makes a major speech promoting Germany’s automobile industry, which he pronounces his “beloved child.” Hitler’s Silver Arrow Mercedes and their blond, blue-eyed drivers stood for more than sporting prowess.

“They represented the master race conquering the rest of the world,” Bascomb writes, showing that Daimler-Benz wasted no time ingratiating itself with the Fuhrer by immediately increasing production of military trucks, armored vehicles, aircraft frames, and tanks. Soon, Nazi propaganda trumpeted, “A Mercedes-Benz victory is a German victory.”

Within five years, Germany had annexed Austria. In March 1938, a month before the Grand Prix, Caracciola, Germany’s premier race-car driver, issued a public proclamation endorsing Hitler’s policies and supporting the Anschluss:

“We racing drivers are fighters for the world-class German automobile industry. Our victories are at the same time triumphs of German engineering and workmanship. The Fuhrer has once again given our factories the opportunity to build racing cars…their unique successes over the past four years represent a glorious symbol of the efforts of our leader.”

The glamour attached to the 1938 Grand Prix drew worldwide attention, and victory seemed assured for Germany as Dreyfus, unlike Caracciola, did not have a world-rated record of wins. In addition, the Delahaye 145 seemed like a plodding mule next to Daimler-Benz’s sleek thoroughbred.

But Dreyfus had the financial backing of American Lucy O’Reilly Schell, a rally driver herself. The only child of wealthy parents and “decidedly nouveau riche and unapologetic about it,” she inherited millions from her father’s fortunes in construction, factories, and real estate, and married a man who didn’t work. So she financed their shared passion for racing.

The wealth of detail in this book will rivet automobile enthusiasts; others might want to take a pass. For example, “The prototype Mercedes engine, a supercharged 3.3 liter straight-eight…was…not a revolutionary design, [but] it benefited from ultraprecise construction and a host of improvements, allowing for horsepower measurements 50 percent greater than the Alfa P3.”

Those familiar with race routes will recognize the locales in which Bascomb chases every hairpin turn, every straight, and every rise and fall: La Turbie outside Nice; the Nürburgring in the Eifel Mountains; Montlhéry, south of Paris; Monaco through the streets of Monte Carlo; and Pau on the edge of the Pyrenees between Spain and France.

The author whirls readers around curves, bullets down hills, and twists ulcer-making bends with death beckoning at 250 mph. “Grand Prix racing was like all motor car racing,” Bascomb writes, “balanced on the very brink of death.”

Documenting the 100 laps of the 1938 Grand Prix demands much from a writer whose verbs must ricochet off the page like rocketing electrons: zoom, careen, brake, zigzag, swoop, streak, charge — faster and faster and faster — until victory is finally achieved.

Only then does the Frenchman step out of his Delahaye 145 in front of Hitler as the band strikes up “Le Marseillaise” to celebrate France’s triumph over Germany. René Dreyfus was to the French what Babe Ruth was to Americans: a bona-fide hero, which gives Neal Bascomb’s eighth book a Cinderella ending and a surefire film adaptation.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Politics, Journalism, and the Way Things Were

by Kitty Kelley

Journalists will enjoy this memoir, but anyone who’s suffered a setback or come face to face with failure will profit and take heart. By looking back on his life, Martin Tolchin (known to everyone as Marty) offers a way forward, and not just for those trying to succeed in journalism.

He shows that what it takes to survive and thrive in any profession is courage, which, Winston Churchill said, “is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities … because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

Tochin begins his book, Politics, Journalism, and the Way Things Were: My Life at the Times, the Hill, and Politico, at the beginning, growing up in the Bronx, the only child of progressive parents. Not quite a red-diaper baby, he was enough to the left that he joined a Marxist study group at the Bronx High School of Science.

This — plus attending a Pete Seeger concert and receiving a pamphlet from Katharine Hepburn that began, “I speak because I am an American” — was enough to mark him as a “subversive” during the McCarthy era.

With self-deprecating humor, he writes: “I graduated from Bronx Science by the skin of my teeth.” He had no chance to enroll at an elite East Coast university. “My college adviser said, ‘We’ll start in Colorado and work our way west.’ That’s how I ended up at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City after a short stint at Idaho State College in Pocatello.”

Following college and law school, he joined the Army, but as a “subversive” he could not practice law unless he named the names of those in his Marxist high school study group. He refused. “So three years of law school went down the drain,” he writes.

In addition, he was given only a general discharge, which marked him for years, until the Supreme Court struck down the Army’s policy of withholding honorable discharges for political activities prior to induction.

Yet there are no bitter recriminations in Tolchin’s narrative, which is suffused with gentle humor, including the time he was in the Army and crept into a darkened Carnegie Hall late one night with a date. Spotting the piano in the middle of the empty stage, he began playing, and the maintenance men, enchanted, began lighting the hall tier by tier.

“When I finished they applauded. I think my uniform prompted their kindness, but the fact is I’ve played Carnegie Hall,” he writes.

After his Army stint, unable to practice law, Tolchin took a two-day course offered by the Veterans Administration titled “How to Get a Job.” He shares the wisdom he learned: First, decide what you enjoy doing; if you do what you love, you’ll never regret working. Then, write no fewer than 100 CEOs of the companies that do the work you want, offering to work in any capacity as long as there’s room for advancement. Then, initiate — don’t respond — by saying: “May I call your office on (date) to ask for an appointment.”

Tolchin wrote 110 such letters. One of the four responses he received was from the New York Times, where he started as a 25-year-old copyboy. Looking for stories to write, he haunted laundries, churches, police stations and restaurants, always asking: “What’s everybody so upset about in the neighborhood?” Inevitably, he got a good story.

After chasing cops and cons, he landed on the women’s page writing features. Lured to the newsroom, he could not write under deadline, he admits. So the Times put him on “night rewrite” from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., and within 18 months he was writing 1,000 words an hour.

Tolchin worked for the paper for 40 years, covering the good and the great. After retiring as a White House correspondent, he started The Hill as a weekly newspaper; it now operates as a U.S. website. Then, at 76, he helped launch Politico, now a global website. Finally, at 92, he’s decided to retire … “for the time being.”

His is a thoroughly delightful book by a writer who puts the smile in likability. My only carp is with the publisher’s presentation — a skimpy paperback with tiny type, squeezed margins and no photo gallery. It’s like giving someone a cashmere sweater in a sack. The package is unworthy of the present.

Tolchin’s book deserves to take its place in the pantheon of journalistic memoirs with Growing Up by Russell Baker, My Life and the Times by Turner Catledge, Personal History by Katharine Graham, A Child of the Century by Ben Hecht, Letters to the Nation by Molly Ivins and  by Jeannette Walls.

Given the sorry statistics facing journalism today, one wonders about the future of that pantheon, considering the Gallup poll Tolchin cites that shows Americans’ trust in journalism has fallen since 1976, when it was at an all-time high of 76 percent, to an all-time low of 32 percent.

Tolchin doesn’t analyze what happened in those four decades to cause Americans to lose trust in the media, but he reports an eye-popping political cleavage: the level of trust in the press is 76 percent for Democrats, 42 percent for Independents and 21 percent for Republicans.

Despite these sorry statistics, Tolchin remains an optimist, and in the classes he teaches he encourages students to pursue journalism. “If you’re interested in people and ideas, enjoy constantly learning and want to have an impact on your community, nation and the world, you should seriously consider a career in journalism. It’s given me a great ride.”

The same can be said for his book.

Originally published in Georgetowner March 11, 2020

The Lost Diary of M

by Kitty Kelley

Many intriguing stories spring from the “what if” crevices of a writer’s imagination to conjoin fact and fiction, which is how Paul Wolfe came to write his second novel, The Lost Diary of M.

“M” refers to the ex-wife of CIA operative Cord Meyer, Mary Pinchot Meyer, the artist who had an affair with John F. Kennedy in the White House. Months after the president’s assassination, Mary was mysteriously murdered in broad daylight while walking along the C&O Canal in Georgetown. The accused assailant was found not guilty.

“The lost diary” refers to the journal Mary kept, which was found after her death by her sister, Tony Bradlee, then married to Ben Bradlee, later executive editor of the Washington Post. Tony turned her sister’s journal over to their friend James Jesus Angleton, CIA chief of counterintelligence. The diary was never seen again, nor its contents ever revealed.

Given those established facts and a cast of real characters, Wolfe takes off in the voice of Mary, who, according to public record, was an LSD disciple of Timothy Leary who shared drugs with JFK. Enter here the fictional fantasies of “what if.”

What if Mary’s diary was not destroyed? What if it reveals her life as an ex-CIA wife? “I learned the secrets of codes and agents and networks and interrogations.” What if her diary contains all that JFK confided about the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis? What if she discovers the CIA plot to assassinate Kennedy — she refers to the Warren Commission and its finding of one lone gunman as “Fictions from an Assassination.”

What if Mary storms a society ball in Washington and boldly confronts her former husband with evidence of his agency’s perfidy? What if that revelation eventually leads to her killing? What if her diary reveals her preposterous plan for world peace by having her circle of Georgetown wives give their powerful husbands LSD to lead them to “cellular evolution,” which moves them to see the folly of their power-seeking ways, and — voila! — they end the Cold War?

(I use the word “preposterous” for this fictional fantasy which Wolfe labels “Chantilly Lace,” but it’s probably no less harebrained than the actual CIA plan to assassinate Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar and, failing that, poison pills hidden in a cold cream jar.)

The challenge in writing a novel based on real people and events is making the nonfiction details so accurate that readers will accept the creative leaps. For the most part, Wolfe succeeds. One glaring exception, however, occurs when he has JFK saying to Mary that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That iconic phrase belonged to Martin Luther King Jr. Its placement in the novel is particularly jarring when Mary tells readers: “Then he asks me to bend toward justice and nudges the back of my neck.”

Wolfe weaves his facts and fictions so tightly, you might need Google to see if John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, and his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles, really did have “intimate business dealings with Hitler’s pals.” (They did.)

Did the British spy Kim Philby defect to the Soviet Union because he had a German mistress there, whom he later married? (He did.) Was there really an Operation Midnight Climax run by the CIA that financed bordellos and sent drug-addicted prostitutes to pick up men late at night, bring them back, and ply them with LSD-laced drinks so that agents watching behind a hidden screen could monitor the drug’s effects? (There was — and they did.)

Having hoovered the JFK oeuvre, which, according to Wikipedia, now numbers 1,000-2,000 books, Wolfe illuminates his characters with telling details: Kennedy’s “back brace,” Mary’s “unshaven arm pits.” He nails the columnist Joseph (“Joe”) Wright Alsop V as an effete snob who refuses to dine in a Paris restaurant if the wine cellar is too close to the Metro. Alsop maintains the vibrations of the train will disturb the sediment in the bottles.

Wolfe writes with grace, and many of his sentences sparkle: “The words of Ted Sorenson, the devout Unitarian, the megaphone of Jack’s mind, a poet of politics.”

So much of The Lost Diary of M will ring true to those who’ve followed the comet of Camelot, or who lived in Washington during the days when J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI and sent his agents to hire out as waiters and bartenders to listen for gossip. One hostess confides: “The best pastry chef I ever employed turned out to be an FBI agent.” Seems comical in the age of A.I., when Alexa outperforms Mata Hari, but that was the 60s.

Kennedy aficionados and conspiracy theorists will enjoy a thumping good read and appreciate Paul Wolfe’s prodigious research, while journalists may note with interest his mention of Ben Bradlee in the author’s note, and how he questions Bradlee’s “tortuous half-century of conflicting and contradictory narratives about his ex-sister-in-law, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and his denials of his own CIA affiliations.”

What if…this is a clue to Wolfe’s next novel?

What if…Wolfe writes about a revered newspaper editor with agency connections who is driven to…

What if?

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Club Savors “This Is Happiness”

by Kitty Kelley

“I loved reading This is Happiness by Niall Williams because, in our current political turmoil, I appreciated being taken back to the soft ringing of bells in Ireland and the escape to an eccentric little town as enchanting as Brigadoon,” said Sarah Gorman, the book club captain. Noting that the biggest problem the residents faced was the arrival of the electrical grid, she said she found the book a sheer delight — “despite all the rain.”

The group laughed recounting all of the book’s numerous raps and rhapsodies about rain. “It was either sleeting or sprinkling or pouring or pinging or soaking or misting,” said Carey Rivers, who mentioned that Williams’s previous novel, History of the Rain, had been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

“Well, you probably couldn’t have a novel about Ireland without a little rain,” said Stephanie deSiboar, who had chosen the title and hosted the club’s monthly dinner. “I admit the rain must’ve been oppressive, but I became so involved with the story I felt like I was living in Faha [the fictional town in County Clare].” She said she finished reading the book in two days.

Others said they took longer because the narrative pace was slow — “so very, very slow,” said Laura Rivers, a paintings conservator with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, who had flown in to spend the holiday weekend with her mother. “So slow I still haven’t finished it.”

“The language was just too luxurious to rush,” said Kit Krents, recently retired administrative director of law firm Cleary Gottlieb. “I savored every sentence and can’t remember a story that has moved me as much. But, be cautioned,” she added, “you can’t pick up this book if you’re in a hurry and want a fast read.”

Susan Burrows, a law library professional, agreed. “The writing is so lush that I began reading paragraphs out loud to my husband. Drove him crazy, but the words are so rich, the language so luscious, that I just had to share them.”

“The characters in this book are not looking for change, which disturbs things and upsets their routines. They’re happy as they are,” said Gorman. “Hence the title.” The verdict that evening was a unanimous rave for This Is Happiness, the story of an old man looking back on his youth as an orphan. Having left the priesthood and gone to live with his grandparents in an Irish town that time had almost forgotten (until the arrival of electricity), he’s writing out his memories “because at the end we all go back to the beginning.”

His look backwards forms the loose plot of the book, which all agreed is carried by strong writing and vivid characterization; this is a book club that prizes fine writing.

“In fiction, most of our choices are Man Booker prizewinners or runners-up,” said deSiboar. “We don’t read sci-fi or mysteries or fantasies.”

“In nonfiction, we’ve tended recently to World War II authors like Erik Larson and Lynne Olson,” said Rivers, “but …

Before she finishes her sentence, the group begins listing their favorite books over the years. They collectively attempt to come up with their top five, using A Gentleman in Moscow, a 2016 novel by Amor Towles, as their gold standard.

Everyone agrees the list should include Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch of 2013 and Christine Sutherland’s 1984 historical work The Princess of Siberia. “That’s got to be in the top 100 books of all time,” said the captain.

But then the group diverges, offering a literate inventory that includes the 2015 novel A Little Life  by Hanya Yanagihara, Viktor Frankl’s 1946 Man’s Search for Meaning, the 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety, from 1971 and 1987, respectively.

By 9 p.m., the captain announces the hardest part of the evening, which, she explains, is selecting the next book to read: “The choice usually goes to whoever shouts the loudest.”

Originally published in The Georgetowner February 26, 2020

In the Land of Men

by Kitty Kelley

Adrienne Miller does not mince words when she dictates the duty of book reviewers: “The reviewer’s job is to evaluate the book on its own terms and to determine how well the book succeeds — or doesn’t — within those terms.”

So informed, I cautiously offer what will become obvious while reading In the Land of Men — Miller, 47, writes with daunting authority and suffers no lack of self-confidence.

Growing up in Marysville, Ohio, as the only child of “permissive” parents, she writes that as a youngster she was extolled for “my quiet intelligence.” Academically gifted, she recalls her “Jamesian moment” (I presume that’s Henry, not Jesse) as seeing “Amadeus” eight times when she was 13. That Milos Forman film, plus an “enduring obsession” with Thomas Jefferson, formed the landscape of her adolescence: “I was an odd child.”

Her family moved to Akron when she was 9. There:

“The sunsets, at first, before I finally started paying attention, didn’t seem as striated or as luminous as they had back in the flatness of Marysville, and new categories of precipitation fell from the sullen, but possibly more interesting, northeast Ohio sky.”

Following college “at a Midwestern no-name university” and a couple of go-fer years at GQ, her “quiet intelligence” made noise. She put herself forward to become the literary editor of Esquire at the age of 25, and, she writes, she was fully entitled to the position. “It’s not as if one can earn a Ph.D. in ‘literary editor.’ Instinct, taste and judgment can’t be taught. And I knew I had instinct, taste and judgment. I was my own first choice, and that’s all that mattered.”

She held the job for eight years, beguiled by Esquire as “the chief platform for American short fiction from the forties through the seventies: Norman Mailer, Raymond Carver, Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Tim O’Brien, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas and Ernest Hemingway.” Not a woman in the bunch; hence, the title In the Land of Men.

Her publisher is positioning her memoir as a feminist wail from the male trenches. But, while Miller blasts some unnamed men for sexual assaults, her book is actually a knee-bending homage to one particular man who dominates every page: David Foster Wallace, the 46-year-old writer destroyed by his demons; he committed suicide in 2008.

“[H]is artistic triumph in the face of such tremendous psychological and emotional odds was a miracle for which we all must be forever grateful,” she writes. She reveres Wallace for writing Infinite Jest, which Time listed as one of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.

Miller sanctifies his thousand-plus-page book as “the novel that had changed the world,” and “changed our language.” She ranks it alongside the universe-bending genius of the pyramids, Beethoven’s Ninth, and Chartres Cathedral.

Besotted by Wallace, Miller edited four of his short stories for Esquire. “He was the fiction writer with whom I’d work the most frequently at the magazine.” She moved quickly from being his editor to his lover, noting “the relationship fast-trackiness” of their affair:

“There was a sense that David, more than any other living writer, was read compulsively, his sui-generis-ness unbearable to all…[It] is true that I regarded David not merely as a great writer but as one of the greatest and most uncompromising artists of all time.”

She rhapsodizes about “so radically name-y a name: David Foster Wallace.” She recalls every item he carried in his canvas bag, and all they discussed over their first lunch. She relates detail after detail of their decades-old telephone conversations — whether preserved in a diary, tape recordings, or fevered memory, she doesn’t say.

“I looked at David. David looked at me. His eyes were a rich chestnut flecked with gold.” Oh, dear. A bit too Barbara Cartland-y here, but it’s a rare lapse in an otherwise literary-soaked tribute to one man’s memory.

“David was Augustinian,” Miller writes, which may send you to Google to try to figure out the connection between the 5th-century bishop of Hippo, whose prolific writings influenced all of Western Christianity, and Wallace, who wrote two novels, three collections of short stories, two books of essays, and several magazine articles.

In the Land of Men proves that Miller has read widely and deeply. She cites Tate, celebrates Nabokov, quotes Pindar, genuflects to Mozart, and even begins a dialectic on the virtuosic talent of John Barth.

She commands an astonishing vocabulary, too: “the rhizomatic conversations”; “an anvilesque collection”; “a self-serving sockdolager of rage.” Throughout the book, she employs an eccentric style that would give Strunk and White the bends, adding “y” to words for no fathomable purpose: “workshop-y,” “science-y,” “kind of date-y,” “magazines were so interminably magazine-y,” “a self-help-y version,” “ugly and rape-y.”

For the most part, though, she makes magic on the page. She describes the 24/7 “Jackie deathwatch” outside Kennedy Onassis’ Fifth Avenue apartment as “a stream of people united in one brow of woe.” Some of Miller’s literary references sent me scrambling to the Internet, such as when she was once made to wait at a stage door for Wallace and “felt preposterously like the Person of Consequence in Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’: Do you know to whom you are speaking?”

Minutes later, she sees “some Fanilow-type people were waiting for him on the sidewalk.” (If you’re a child of the seventies, you’ll know she’s referring to the fans of Barry Manilow. If not, you’ll run to the Urban Dictionary.)

She dismisses a high-school classmate as “Charles Bukowski, but on paint thinner.” (Of course, you know that Bukowski, who died in 1994, was a German-born poet who celebrated prostitutes and drug addicts.)

If you’re a devotee of David Foster Wallace, you’ll devour this memoir with pleasure. If not, you may enjoy the cultural scavenger hunt and appreciate how much Adrienne Miller makes you stretch. After all, as Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books                

The Age of Entitlement

by Kitty Kelley

In the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment illuminated the world of ideas throughout Europe, stretching as far as America, where Thomas Jefferson adopted some of its ideals when writing the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps Christopher Caldwell aspired to achieve similar status by calling his book The Age of Entitlement.

In it, he explores the last five decades of a U.S. cultural upheaval spurred, he claims, by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation he sees as “a model for overthrowing every tradition of American life.”

Caldwell’s revolution starts with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the event that propelled JFK’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to initiate Civil Rights legislation. “[This] ideology, especially when it hardened into a body of legislation, became, most unexpectedly, the model for an entire new system of constantly churning political reform.”

With facile writing and impressive research, Caldwell examines his premise in detail, hitting the era’s hot-button issues: abortion, affirmative action, busing, Robert Bork, Gloria Steinem, women’s rights, and gay marriage. He divides his book into seven sections: race, sex, war, debt, diversity, winners (African Americans, women, and gays), and losers (white men).

Each of these sections contains bite-size subsections arguing aspects of Caldwell’s premise that “civil rights had been sold to the American public” under false pretenses, causing incalculable wreckage to society:

“The new system for overthrowing the traditions that hindered black people became the model for overthrowing every tradition in American life, starting with the roles of men and women.”

As a conservative, white, male graduate of Harvard, Caldwell writes to the right, occasionally to the left, and sometimes swerves center as he cites lawsuit after lawsuit to make his points, one of which actually suggests that maybe Southern segregationists were correct all along.

His book, which relies on much of the conservative journalism he’s published in the Financial Times, the National Review, and the Weekly Standard, reads like the lamentation of an anguished man who sees his world slowly crumbling beneath him.

Not all conservatives will applaud, particularly those who marched in the Reagan revolution. For Caldwell lambasts Ronald Reagan on the issue of “mass immigration,” which, he maintains, “stands perhaps as [the president’s] emblematic failure. Reagan threw open the floodgates to international immigration while stirringly proclaiming a determination to slam them shut. Almost all of Reaganism was like that.”

What Caldwell grieves, progressives might celebrate, even the messiness of change and the discomfort of adjustment. He rails against political correctness, considers it an affront to have to call black people African Americans, and resents the federal holiday dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.

He lambasts his alma mater for ruling in 2016 that professors presiding over Harvard’s undergraduate houses be called “faculty deans” rather than “house masters,” sarcastically wondering if “kids would be unable to distinguish their house master from a slave-driving antebellum overseer.” Strange that a skilled writer like Caldwell, who lives by the power of words, can’t acknowledge the degree of civility Harvard conferred with its small change.

The author becomes particularly overheated when he claims that, by embracing political correctness, Americans have “inadvertently voted themselves a second constitution,” and it’s this second constitution, with its P.C. laws, “nurtured by elites in all walks of life,” that currently prevails. He ridicules diversity as if it’s nothing more than a Mercedes Benz, “a marker of money, class, and power.”

He even chides CNN founder Ted Turner for ordering his company’s personnel to refer to things outside the U.S. as “international” rather than “foreign,” ignoring that “international” suggests a broader, more cosmopolitan embrace than “foreign,” which conjures all things strange, unfamiliar, and alien. (That last sentence probably consigns me to the P.C. circle of hell.)

While much of this provocative book — with its conservative critique of the last 55 years in America — is interesting, it never rises above the author’s anger or overcomes his fury with the people of color, women, and gays who’ve challenged the system and won the changes that have rattled Caldwell’s world. He vents his spleen at a society that is not standing still and remaining soldered to tradition, but, in his view, is descending into chaos and leaving white men grasping the shreds of what once was.

More polemic than panacea, The Age of Entitlement is one man’s screed against change. As such, it offers no soothing balm to the gloom it delivers.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Christmas at the White House

by Kitty Kelley

Christmas at the White House this year dazzles with gold ribbons and sparking lights, fir boughs, fir wreaths and the delicious scent of 33 fir trees. Crystal stars sparkle above the red-carpet colonnade in the East Wing to welcome the 7,000 lucky people who received invitations from the president and first lady.

Once guests present their credentials and pass through security — which entails three Secret Service stops, two police dog sniffs and one pat-down with a metal wand — they walk to the driveway to enter the people’s palace, where everything shines and glistens in the public rooms.

Topiary trees are festooned in big red velvet bows, mantels are banked in red roses and doorways lead into rooms of wonder. The gold Vermeil Room pays homage to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who established the White House as a museum. Her portrait by Aaron Shikler hangs on the wall, a lovely elusive image.

Over the fireplace is a smiling Lady Bird Johnson and across the hall is the White House library, containing 2,700 books. It appears to have been decorated by elves who know that Reading Is Fundamental. Tiny books are tasseled to trees and wrapped in ribbons around the mantel is a beguiling tribute to literacy. Miniature books, leather-bound with tiny gold titles, hang from the room’s Christmas tree.

Visitors gasp aloud as they wander into the East Room, pose in the Green Room, exclaim over the China Room, sigh in the Blue Room. The Red Room delights with its creative décor of children’s games — playing cards cascade from the trees with dice, jacks, tiddlywinks and Scrabble squares spelling the message of the season: “PEACE … LOVE … JOY.”

The State Dining Room pays tribute to America with a gigantic gingerbread White House (200 pounds of dough slathered with 25 pounds of frosting) surrounded by the country’s landmarks. The display showcases the genius of White House chefs, who have conjured confectionary creations of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Space Needle in Seattle, Mount Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota, the Alamo in San Antonio, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

The sumptuous tour culminates in the Grand Foyer, where carolers sing amid a crush of fir trees — 20 feet tall — all dusted with snow and gold bulbs and sparkling lights. Emblazoned high on the wall is the Great Seal of the United States with the words, “E Pluribus Unum,” Latin for “Out of many, one.”

As everyone leaves the White House, aides hand each guest a small red package filled with Hershey’s kisses and a lovely laminated pamphlet entitled “The Spirit of America Christmas at the White House 2019.”

Originally published in The Georgetowner December 18, 2019

A London Theater Tour

by Kitty Kelley

Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, led a troupe of D.C. theater hounds to London recently to see British theater — inside and out. “Since Arena is celebrating its 70th anniversary as the largest theater company in the U.S. dedicated to American plays and playwrights, this seemed like a good time to see what the Brits are doing,” she said.

Arena’s weeklong tour offered a full course of culture: six plays, two operas, three art galleries, a private tour of Tate Modern, coffee with an international art collector in his Cadogan Square flat, lunch in the House of Lords, fish and chips at a gastropub, a trip to Shakespeare’s birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon and many flutes of champagne. Throughout, there were nannies the equal of Mary Poppins and brainiac guides, who seemed to have earned six degrees apiece from Oxford.

We were chauffeured to and from Brown’s Hotel in the heart of Mayfair to see plays that baffled the imagination and gripped the heart. We walked the City of London on a magical tour to see the original Roman settlement that became the famous “Square Mile,” where residences “now cost a minimum of $8 million.”

From the Old Vic to the Young Vic, we explored behind the scenes, touching the props (see Martha Dippell kissing a stuffed rhino), pulling the curtains and walking the boards. We even discovered a “non-religious church” in Islington, not far from the Almeida Theatre,that “believes not in God, but in good.” (For proof, visit new-unity.org.)

A highlight of the tour was meeting Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, who many theatergoers will remember from his years at Center Stage in Baltimore, from 2011 to 2018.

“Now I’m back home in England and a bit of an anomaly — a black man in British theater,” he said. “In 2005, I became only the second black Brit to have a play staged in the West End, and until 18 months ago I was the only black artistic director in the western hemisphere … We have a long way to go.”

From his experience living in the U.S. and the U.K., Kwei-Armah said the British are obsessed with class distinctions and refuse to discuss racial issues, whereas Americans are decades ahead of the British on race but avoid the subject of class. “You are in denial, and out of fear of talking about the working class and the underclasses, you put all your college-educated into the middle class.”

Because British theater is partially subsidized by the government, ticket prices in the U.K. are lower than in the U.S. ($15 to $50 in the U.K. compared to $100 and above in the U.S.) and attract younger audiences. “But in both the U.S. and the U.K., 70 percent of all theatergoers are women,” said Kwei-Armah. “Because of our government subsidy, we can take plays to prisons and refugee centers where they’d never have access to high-quality theater or any theater at all. We go to them.”

Kwei-Armah turned deadly serious on the subject of Brexit. “We are in the midst of a rather profound nervous breakdown here, and Brexit will nearly collapse theater in London and eviscerate all our touring companies,” he said. “We are living in suspense and don’t know what’s going to happen, but we do know it’s going to be nasty, very nasty.”

The Arena Stage troupe returned to Washington, D.C., thoroughly energized by their London theater adventure, which all pronounced “ab fab” (Brit-speak for “absolutely fabulous”).

Originally published in The Georgetowner December 4, 2019