Book Review

The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt

by Kitty Kelley

The huge granite sculpture startles tourists. Looming like a ferocious behemoth — intimidating, almost frightening — the 17-foot giant dominates the National Park Service space on the western bank of the Potomac River. If not for the “Welcome to Theodore Roosevelt Island” sign, one might assume the black stone colossus — his right hand raised as if to acknowledge the homage of marauding troops — towering above the cement-slab plaza was some sort of warring commissar. Yet spiraling out from the fearsome statue are 88 forested acres of majestic trees and woodland paths, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., paying tribute to the conservationist and naturalist who was the 26th president of the United States.

“T.R.,” or “Colonel Roosevelt,” as he preferred, could not abide being called “Teddy.” He believed that “physical bravery was the highest virtue and war the ultimate test of bravery,” according to one of his biographers, and all historians emphasize Roosevelt’s “warrior persona” and his “speak softly and carry a big stick” ideology. As president, he destroyed the portrait of himself by Théobald Chartran because he felt it made him look weak, like a “meek kitten.”

Mother Martha “Mittie” Roosevelt; Wife Alice Roosevelt

Declaring himself “as fit as a bull moose,” T.R. gloried in fighting wars and shooting and killing wildlife. He donated several specimens bagged on hunting trips, including a snowy white owl, to the American Museum of Natural History, which his father helped establish in 1869. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more testosterone-charged president than Theodore Roosevelt, the “Rough Rider” who championed the “bully pulpit,” launched construction of the Panama Canal, and brokered the end of the Russo-Japanese War, for which he won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize, the first American to be so honored.

There are more than three-dozen biographies in print about Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), including his own memoir — one of the 47 books he wrote, including The Rough Riders, The Strenuous Life, African Game Trails, and Theodore Roosevelt’s Letter to His Children. Now comes another biography, The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt: The Women Who Created a President by Edward F. O’Keefe, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, the group spearheading the building of T.R.’s library, currently under construction in the Badlands of North Dakota.

O’Keefe’s first book, The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt presents an astonishing thesis about the man whose rugged visage is carved on Mount Rushmore and who may be regarded as the exemplar of the XY chromosome. This biography proffers that “the most masculine president in the American memory was, in fact, the product of largely unsung and certainly extraordinary women.”

Sister Anna “Bamie” Roosevelt Cowles

The author argues that five women provided the ballast of Roosevelt’s life and were the source of his greatest

Sister Corinne Roosevelt Robinson

accomplishments: his mother, Mittie; his sisters Bamie and Conie; and his two wives, Alice, who died after giving birth to their first child, and Edith, his second wife, with whom he had five more children. These women were “the team who would guide his future for the next several decades and craft his legacy.” Indeed, O’Keefe writes, the two greatest mistakes T.R. made were when he acted on his own without the counsel of his female consortium.

“The biggest blunder of his political life was a pledge he would not seek what he called a ‘third’ term” as president. As vice president to William McKinley, T.R. assumed the presidency in 1901 when McKinley was assassinated and, in 1904, won election on his own. Then, without consulting his closest confidantes — his wife and his sisters — the newly elected president announced that he would not seek re-election at the end of his first term, a decision he sorely regretted.

Roosevelt’s second blunder, again made without consulting his wife and sisters, was to announce William Howard Taft as his successor. Later, T.R. became so distressed by his lack of judgment that he founded the Progressive Party, popularly known as the Bull Moose Party, and ran, unsuccessfully, on a third-party ticket against Taft.

Wife Edith Roosevelt

In researching Roosevelt’s life at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site in Oyster Bay, New York, O’Keefe discovered something that had eluded previous biographers: a small, blue velvet box, circa 1880, with a silk-covered divider that contained a secret keepsake — a photograph of Alice Hathaway Lee, T.R.’s first wife, and 14 inches of her wavy, dark, golden blond hair. On top of it was a note in Roosevelt’s own hand, reading: “The hair of my sweet wife, Alice, cut after death.”

Roosevelt has been described as an opportunist, exhibitionist, and imperialist. But O’Keefe presents a perceptive and persuasive argument that adds a sensitive dimension to the masculine persona of Theodore Roosevelt as a man indebted to the women in his life, proving, as 19th-century poet William Ross Wallace wrote, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”

 

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

An Unfinished Love Story

by Kitty Kelley

The Bible’s “Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30) instructs on how to live a worthwhile life. In that story, a master leaves his mansion to take a long trip and entrusts his silver to his servants in accord with their talents. To one, he gives five bags, to another, two bags, and to the last servant, one bag.

Many months later, the master returns and asks for an accounting. The servant given five bags has invested wisely and doubled his silver, as has the second servant. The master is pleased and praises each fulsomely. The third servant says he was afraid of losing his bag, so he buried it in the ground. The master becomes irate and chastises him as wicked and lazy: “To those who use well what they are given they will have abundance in life. For those who do not, the little they have will be taken away, and they will be thrown into darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Such a master would embrace Doris Kearns Goodwin, for she has used well what she’s been given. Gathering her late husband’s manifold talents, she’s added her own, and burnished both, to write a glorious new memoir, An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960s.

Richard Goodwin (1931-2018) and Doris Kearns married in 1975 in a wedding the New York Times described as blessed with “New Yorkian style, Washington power and Boston brains.” Each had established strong political allegiances beforehand, which, she admits, frequently caused marital combustion, particularly when they began working on this book, which started out being Richard’s life story. He’d decided, at the age of 80, that he was ready to tackle the 350 boxes of speeches, articles, journals, letters, and diaries he’d saved and start writing.

He asked his wife for help — “jog my memory, ask me questions” — so they hired a researcher and began what Goodwin calls their last great adventure together, which lasted until Richard, suffering from cancer, clasped her hand, declared her “a wonder,” and passed into a new frontier. After his death, she spent many years conjoining his story with her own to produce this rich and riveting chronicle of the turbulent 1960s.

Long before they wed, Richard was a wunderkind — a prodigy who coined memorable phrases that included the legendary title of Lyndon Johnson’s legislative agenda, “The Great Society.” However, before he accepted the job in the LBJ White House, Richard sought permission from Robert F. Kennedy, and then wrote a “Dear Jackie” letter, assuring JFK’s widow, “We will all always be Kennedy men.” He remained totally committed to the Kennedys, having crafted speeches for the president and both of his politician brothers, weaving words of poetry into policy.

Goodwin, on the other hand, was fiercely loyal to President Johnson, having worked closely with him in the White House and, later, on his memoir. She admits being troubled by many passages in her husband’s diaries, particularly those dealing with Bobby Kennedy’s animosity toward Johnson and his insensitivity to “the mammoth problems that beset the new president and the country at large.” She became irate when she found a memo her husband had written quoting RFK about the choice of a running mate on LBJ’s 1964 presidential ticket: “When the time comes we’ll tell him who we want for vice-president.”

“Who does he think he is?” she asked her husband, who explained Kennedy was simply venting grief over his brother’s assassination. “It’s the arrogance of ‘we’ll tell him who we want’ that sticks in my craw.”

The couple’s clash of political loyalties continued “provoking tension,” as Goodwin insisted that civil rights, medical care for the aged, federal aid for education, and an overhaul of immigration only became law under President Johnson, while Richard countered that President Kennedy’s leadership set the tone and spirit of the decade. “Both of us looked back upon these years with a decided bias,” she writes. “And our biases were not in harmony.”

Ironically, it was the subject of the Kennedys that would lead to Goodwin’s first and worst scandal. Eight years prior to winning the Pulitzer Prize for History for No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, she published The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga. In 2002, the Weekly Standard determined that she had plagiarized from several other Kennedy books to write her own, and she publicly admitted she’d “failed to provide quotation marks for phrases that I had taken verbatim.”

Goodwin subsequently paid a “substantial” sum in damages, was forced to resign from the Pulitzer Prize Board, and stepped down as a regular guest on “PBS NewsHour.” She was also dropped from the advisory board of Biographers International Organization and “disinvited” from giving a commencement speech at the University of Delaware.

Most historians could never have survived such public humiliation but, as Goodwin writes in this winning memoir, “I’ve been born with an irrepressible and optimistic temperament.” She charms when she talks about the books she’s written on “my guys” — Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Johnson — and delights as she holds forth on “my Brooklyn Dodgers.” This memoir presents Goodwin’s deepest love as she writes about her husband and the commitment they shared to an era that has yet to fulfill its promise.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Washington Book

by Kitty Kelley

It takes journalistic bravado to republish old columns and present them as timely or even worth rereading. The feat works for humorists like Dave Barry and Calvin Trillin, but for most columnists, it’s like driving on flat tires: “New money for old rope.” Yet Carlos Lozada meets the challenge with style and substance in The Washington Book: How to Read Politics and Politicians, a compilation of his book reviews, opinions, and essays for the Washington Post from 2004 to 2023.

The Pulitzer Prize winner, now at the New York Times, leads with his longest but not his strongest. Instead, he deals from the bottom of his deck, expending the first 124 pages on a section called “Leading” (rhymes with “bleating”). He recycles columns on the campaign books of presidents, vice presidents, has-beens, and wannabes. Lozada begins by presenting three chapters on Barack Obama in which he thumps the former commander-in-chief for presenting America with its “most self-referential presidency.” Next come three chapters on Hillary Clinton that challenge her “to reveal the humanity behind the capability, the person inside the politician.”

Then, in single chapters, Lozada dusts off “dedicated enabler” Mike Pence, “calcified” Dick Cheney, “lucky” Joe Biden, “feel-your-pain Democrat and policy wonk” Kamala Harris, and Ron DeSantis, who “wants the elite validation of his Ivy League credentials [Yale and Harvard Law] and the populist cred for trash-talking.” Finally, Lozada lowers the boom on Donald Trump in five devastating chapters.

Those who’ve read the critic’s first book, 2020’s What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era, will not be jolted by his searing take-down of the former president, which he delivered after reading eight ghost-written books by Trump, plus 150 books about Trump, for a staggering 2,212 pages on Trump. After this pulverizing research, Lozada concludes:

“I encountered a world where bragging is breathing and insulting is talking, where repetition and contradiction come standard, where vengefulness and insecurity erupt at random.”

After his opening section, Lozada offers five more: “Fighting,” “Belonging,” “Enduring,” “Posing,” and “Imagining.” The motherlode of the book is the 26 pages he devotes to the chapter entitled “9/11 Was a Test, and We Failed.” Here, the author soars above political musings to address the ultimate subject of civilization’s existence. To write it, he read at least 20 books and several government reports, all cited, in order to present a brilliant summary of what prompted the attack on the U.S. in 2001, how we responded, and the price America paid and continues to pay.

This chapter displays scholarship at its finest, bolstered by inspired writing and thorough research worthy of a dissertation. It should be required reading for White House staff, members of Congress, and all government agencies handling national security, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the Departments of State, Defense, and Treasury. For this chapter alone, Lozada deserves a second Pulitzer — for public service.

Transitioning from consequential to comedic, he advises readers of political books not to ignore the acknowledgements. “This is where politicians disclose their debts, scratch backs, suck up and snub,” he explains. The best snub goes to Mike Pence, who does not mention Donald Trump by name in his autobiography, So Help Me God.

Lozada alerts readers to the former Texas governor Rick Perry, “often accused of being intellectually unencumbered,” who wrote in Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington that thanking his wife was a “no-brainer,” a term that Lozada suggests Perry “avoid in any sentence describing his decision-making.” And exercised by Josh Hawley’s Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs, the critic asks:

“Which is it, senator? Do American men need to man up like their forefathers or hunker down in ideological silos like their political leaders? If you are promoting manhood, why wallow in victimhood? This is a book that raises its fists, then runs for cover.”

Lozada also slams Sen. Ted Cruz for possible plagiarism in writing this about his immigrant father in A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Promise of America: “Only in a land like America is his story — is our story — even possible.” It sounds a lot like Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech — “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible” — notes Lozada, adding, “Criticize a guy’s rhetoric long enough and you’re bound to start sounding like him.”

The master critic seems rocked by Marco Rubio’s acknowledgements in American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone, in which Florida’s senior senator writes, “I thank my Lord, Jesus Christ, whose willingness to suffer and die for my sins will allow me to enjoy eternal life.” In the very next sentence, Rubio thanks “My very wise lawyer, Bob Barnett.” Lozada notes the one-two punch of God and Mammon is “kind of a big deal.”

Most delightful are the parenthetical asides, frequently witty and often withering. In writing about Obama’s political ambition, Lozada observes, “The sense of destiny is not unusual among those who become president. (See Clinton, Bill.)” He compliments Obama as a writer but cuffs the former president’s lengthy 751-page memoir — “(It’s the audacity of trope).”

On Trump’s attempt to quash the book by his niece, Mary, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, Lozada notes that “the suit was over money — what else.” When Hillary Clinton announced for president, she called for “an inclusive society…what I once called ‘a village’ that has a place for everyone.” Lozada’s aside: “(As if we didn’t remember).”

In the end, not every seat at Lozada’s table is prized, but he serves a bountiful feast of literary dish. You’ll walk away nourished and well-fed. (Maybe even overstuffed.)

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Strong Passions

by Kitty Kelley

The title of this book is a clever double entendre. Strong Passions refers to the scandalous divorce of a 19th-century couple named Strong, whose ruptured marriage scars their families and sears their social standing. The first few pages offer a who’s who of high society à la Edith Wharton. In fact, Barbara Weisberg introduces her narrative by quoting from Wharton’s short story “A Cup of Cold Water,” tantalizing readers with the promise of prose from the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (in 1921, for The Age of Innocence).

Caveat emptor: Wharton’s only connection to the story told in this book is that she is 2 years old and living in New York City at the time the marital travesty unfolds between Peter Remsen Strong and Mary Emeline Stevens Strong.

The first part of this melodrama reads like a social history of the mid-1800s, when travel by ship from New York to Le Havre took three weeks, and “gentlemen” of a certain class enjoyed gambling houses, cafes, and bordellos while a few — very few — “ladies” traveled abroad. (And when they did, they were always chaperoned and shopped in Paris for “fabulous wardrobes.”)

Such details anchor the story in its era, but without much access to diaries, journals, or letters, Weisberg tells her tale in unsatisfying hypotheticals: “[Mary] would have imagined herself in the roles of wife and mother”; “She might have been eager to hear”; “Her wedding night surely was revelatory”; “Her activities…in an affluent household most likely included”; “She most likely feared.”

Weisberg, whose first book was Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, informs readers in this work that breastfeeding reduced the chance of pregnancy and was considered in the 19th century a form of birth control, which, the author “supposes,” is why Mary refused to wean her third daughter a few months after she was born. That baby, Edith, dies of influenza at 14 months old. On the day of the baby’s funeral, Mary, in a distraught state, admits to her husband that she’d been having an affair with his widowed brother, Edward, who conveniently enlists to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Oh, and P.S.: Mary is five months pregnant, but neither she nor Peter knows by whom.

Determined to salvage his marriage, Peter insists that his wife terminate the pregnancy. To do so, he visits his “alleged” mistress, who happens to be a “mid-wife” renting one of his properties on Waverly Place, where she advertises herself as a “woman doctor.” The author explains this is “a euphemism for a woman who did abortions.” Readers are then treated to several pages on abortion in the 1800s, as well as on adultery, the only basis for divorce in New York until 1922.

Pages later, Peter moves back to his mother’s estate in Newtown, Queens, with his elder daughter, Mamie, and sues his wife for divorce on grounds of adultery. Mary counter-sues, claiming her husband forced her to have an abortion at the hands of an abortionist with whom he was having an affair. Mary then runs away with their younger daughter, Allie. The scoundrel brother of the humiliated husband remains at war, safe from the drama.

Weisberg has presented a legitimate scandal by 19th-century standards: adultery, abortion, and abduction. “Because of the social relations and the position of the parties, and the singular charges and counter charges,” reported the New York Times, “no case before our courts for many years has attracted greater attention.”

Unfortunately, the story becomes more tabloid pottage than Wharton-esque prose. An appropriate comparison might be Mark Twain’s definition of “the difference between the almost right word and the right word” as the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.

Without conclusive evidence of what happened, the author, like the 19th-century journalists covering the case, had more questions than answers: “Where was Mary? Had she kept her little one safe? Had she indeed committed the dreadful offenses of which she was accused? Was she a victim? A seductress?” And where was the errant brother, Edward, in this “near-biblical tale of fraternal betrayal”?

After a six-week trial — the author devotes a dense, detail-laden chapter to each week — the reader is exhausted. The jury does not reach a unanimous verdict, and so Mary, who never appears in court, remains Peter’s lawfully wedded wife. At this point, patience expires, along with sympathy for either party — the wronged husband seeking revenge and the adulterous wife who escapes with her younger child.

Months later, Mary’s attorneys sue for lawyers’ fees and alimony, and the court rules in her favor. Then, in a magnanimous change of heart, Peter, “desirous of…avoiding the scandal of a second public trial,” petitions the court to provide tuition and other money to care for Allie until her 18th birthday. After six years, the divorce is finalized. Peter resumes his life as a gentleman of society, while Mary, ostracized by that society, remains in France with her daughter.

Weisberg insists in her afterword that Strong v. Strong is relevant social history, and on that point, she may be correct. But her attempt to weave the Civil War, the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, and the 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson into her protracted narrative proves to be “more lightning bug than lightning.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Counterfeit Countess

by Kitty Kelley

I approach Holocaust memoirs with knee-bending respect: for the survivors who recall the atrocities they suffered during World War II so that we will never forget, and for the historians who document man’s inhumanity to man. In The Counterfeit Countess, Elizabeth B. White and Joanna Sliwa tell the story of a Polish mathematics professor who hid her identity as Janina Mehlberg (nee Pepi Spinner) when she fled the Jewish ghetto of Lwów, Poland, and reinvented herself as Countess Janina Suchodolska hundreds of miles away in Lublin, where she saved thousands of fellow Jews from annihilation.

Lublin was headquarters of Aktion Reinhard, the largest SS mass-murder operation of the Holocaust, during which 1.7 million Jews in Poland were slaughtered. German-occupied Poland was effectively ground zero for Hitler’s “final solution”; the place where the majority of the war’s Jewish victims perished; and home to some of the Third Reich’s most notorious concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Majdanek. The latter, with its seven gas chambers, two wooden gallows, crematorium, and 227 outbuildings, was among the largest of Poland’s extermination factories — holding 250,000 prisoners — and is the focus of this book.

The authors are unsparing in describing the unrelenting and unrelieved miseries inflicted by the Nazis in decimating the Jewish population of Poland, which had the largest concentration of Jews in Europe in 1939 — 3.5 million then, fewer than 20,000 today. It becomes almost numbing to read of the killing of so many Jews, Roma (gypsies), and others at the hands of the Germans and their minions.

Nor do the authors spare the survivors, including the countess and her husband, also a professor, who abandoned their Jewish family and friends and assumed new identities as Polish Christian aristocrats in order to escape the Nazis’ brutal plans. The countess understood the animal-like desperation of humans to survive, but it’s only at the end of the book that the authors share excerpts from her unpublished memoir, in which she writes:

“What would a mother do in the face of the impossible choices put to her? There was one who, with her daughter, hid in the wardrobes of her apartment during a raid. They found her daughter, but not her. The child sobbed and screamed for her mother to save her. The mother kept silent, and survived. I know this from the mother herself who, sobbing out her story, wished herself dead instead of condemned to live with this memory.

“Another mother hid with her son in a bunker…Her son ventured out at the wrong time; he was seized and shot right there. The mother heard and remained silent.”

The countess withholds judgment on these impulses to survive, “however grim and unbearable the knowledge may be…Because while physical and psychic tortures broke many, some reacted with what one can only call moral grandeur. I know some…who helped their fellow sufferers at the cost of their own lives, who confessed to others’ ‘crimes,’ who willingly chose death over a degrading life. So, the murder of goodness was not thorough, and this fact, too, must be reported.”

The voice of the countess is so powerful that one wishes the academic co-authors, accomplished as they may be in assembling statistics and geographical details, had allowed her to tell the story in her own words, and then, perhaps, buttressed her account with their prodigious research from Holocaust museums and libraries in the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, Germany, and Poland. Although the countess’ memoir concentrates only on what she saw and learned about human nature within the terrible crucible of occupied Poland, her words, her thoughts, and her recollections are enough to lead her story.

A small, cropped photo on the cover of the book shows the countess as a young woman with dark, shiny hair parted in the middle and pulled tightly back behind her ears in the era’s fashionable buns. Yet her biographers barely mention her appearance until 200 pages in, when they quote someone describing her as “small, dark and bright-eyed with massive braids of black hair wound round her head.”

Only in the epilogue do we get her husband’s description of her as “more than ordinarily pretty, very feminine in her style.” Aha. Now we understand how the countess — with her imposing title and good looks — was able to entice so many Nazi guards into waving her through concentration-camp gates without always examining the truckloads of food and collapsible milk urns stuffed with contraband medicine she was delivering to prisoners.

After the war, she returned to her roots as mathematician Josephine Janina Bednarski Spinner Mehlberg and immigrated to Canada with her husband. In 1961, they moved to the U.S. and became American citizens. Before “the counterfeit countess” died in 1969, she returned to Majdanek, writing in her memoir:

“I had achieved less than I had hoped, but I tried, and my efforts had made a difference, so my life had made some difference…Then I thought of those who had been broken, physically and morally, who had betrayed other lives in the hope of saving their own. Of them I spoke…None of us has the right to sit in judgment on them…There is nothing left to do for them but to remember. And in the way of my ancestors intone ‘Yisgadal, v’yiskadash,’ the Kaddish for the dead, and like the real Countess Suchodolska, ‘Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison.’ We will remember.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

After Elizabeth

by Kitty Kelley

After Elizabeth purports to be the first life-saving buoy tossed to a drowning monarchy. “We’ve been conning ourselves,” writes author Ed Owens, a Brit now living in France. “Just as historians of the (royal-backed) Commonwealth have revealed it to be a hollow organization…the monarchy exists as a kind of screen on to which the UK public has been encouraged to project ideas of perpetual national greatness that simply don’t bear the weight of scrutiny.”

No knighthood for this young man, who announces he’s “under 40” and part of the generation most opposed to “a pampered royal elite.” In reassessing royalty, Owens writes:

“Given its loss of real-world economic and geopolitical power, Britain has comforted itself by focusing on a rear-view mirror that offers a romantic rose-tinted vision of past glories.”

Claiming that “opinion poll after opinion poll” revealed more than half of the country was uninterested in the coronation of King Charles III on May 6, 2023, Owens writes that peak viewership was “just 20 million, roughly two-thirds the size of the audience that tuned in for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. This was less than one third of the entire UK population.” The author recognizes, as do the royals, that the greatest threat to the crown is not its loudest critics but rather its slow slide into irrelevance.

Despite the 2,300 guests invited to Westminster Abbey to witness Charles’ coronation, the ceremony may have disappointed the son who does not attract his mother’s masses. Swathed in an ermine-trimmed red velvet robe, satin sash, and diamond-encrusted crown, the 75-year-old king looked like he was playing dress-up in the queen’s closet. On that particular day, the St. Edward’s crown itself became a problem. “We practiced putting it on and securing it down twice a week over four months,” the archbishop of Canterbury told the New York Times recently. “It’s a wobbly old thing.”

While the Most Rev. Justin Welby addressed the literal problem of securing the crown on the king’s head, Owens addresses the figurative problem of getting rid of the “wobbly old thing.” But his arguments in this book are themselves too wobbly to be of much concern to the House of Windsor. Royalists will be relieved to learn that for all the author’s talk of “a new kind of democratic kingship,” Owens still intends to crack a knee to the king, whereas Republicans in the U.K., still a minority, seek to replace the monarchy with an elected head of state. No crowns, no curtsies.

For U.K. Republicans, this means a clean sweep of the British class system with its dukes, marquesses, earls (counts), viscounts, and barons. Sitting atop this stratification of British society today is Charles Philip Arthur George — king of the United Kingdom and 14 other commonwealth realms — whose net worth is conservatively estimated to be $747 million, with a real estate portfolio valued at $21 billion, most of which is tax-exempt and hidden from the public.

Trying to straddle the royalist-Republican divide, Owens proposes a “Monarchy Act” that would put in writing the role of the crown in constitutional politics. This is how he attempts to explain his convoluted proposition:

“Although the Monarchy Act could be introduced as part of a much wider codification of the constitution if there was support for it, it could just as easily exist as part of the hybrid constitution (partly written, partly unwritten) that currently exists in Britain, where some parts of government have their function articulated clearly in writing.”

Whew!

Presently, Britain has no fully written constitution, and getting one in the aftermath of Brexit seems as likely as blue birds flying over the white cliffs of Dover. Yet the author suggests that King Charles III, who’s waited decades to wear the crown, might voluntarily initiate a public discussion on the future of the monarchy and seek to diminish his own imperial role.

This challenges credulity — somewhat like expecting a death-row prisoner to willingly oil the coils of the electric chair — yet Owens insists that if the monarchy doesn’t radically reinvent itself, which “will require root-and-branch reform,” Britain will devolve into a republic. The author leaves no doubt about how distasteful that would be.

Readers of this dense book full of rambling run-on sentences might be well advised to catch the final six episodes of The Crown and dwell in the bubble of fashion and money and gossip and intrigue that defines the same House of Windsor young Ed Owens seeks to reform and rehabilitate.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Postcard

by Kitty Kelley

An “un-put-down-able” book is like a double rainbow — rare and oh so magical. Titles like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, The Godfather by Mario Puzo, The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith, and The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton are just a few such double rainbows that stir the soul much like the spine-tingling stories of Stephen King, John le Carré’s Cold War spy thrillers, and the works of Walt Whitman, America’s poet emeritus.

Now comes another un-put-down-able book, The Postcard, by French writer Anne Berest, who defines her Holocaust work as an “auto-hybrid,” an “autobiography of sorts,” and “a true novel” that she’s wrapped in bits of fiction to protect the grandchildren, still alive, who had nothing to do with the unconscionable crimes committed by their relatives during World War II.

Berest begins her story with a mysterious postcard featuring Paris’ Palais Garnier opera house sent to her mother. On the back are the names of her mother’s grandfather, grandmother, aunt, and uncle — all annihilated in Auschwitz in 1942. No note. No signature. No return address. Most disturbing to Berest was the image of the Opéra Garnier — the central locale of the Nazis during their occupation of France.

“We were terrified [when we received that postcard],” Berest told the New York Post. “For us French people that’s a very strong symbol.” The surge in antisemitism and xenophobia throughout Europe added layers of menace to the card. “All the signs on the postcard were signs of a threat.”

First published in France in 2021 as La carte postale, Berest’s book tells the story of her grandmother, Myriam (nee Rabinovitch) Picabia, who escaped the round-up of Jews in Paris by hiding in the woods. She was later rescued, hidden in the trunk of a car, and driven 50 miles north of Marseilles, where she and her fiancé — and her lover — joined the Resistance, ran messages, and translated illicit BBC broadcasts.

“This [ménage à trois] is actually the part of the book that my mother didn’t really want me to write,” Berest says. “But this sort of love triangle, this three-person romantic arrangement, was one of the most striking things to me…After writing so many difficult pages about dark, dark times [this romance] was a kind of light in the book.”

The Postcard takes readers on the author’s painful journey toward her roots. Having been raised in a secular household, Berest was unfamiliar with Jewish rituals. Yet she was surprised by the frisson of familiarity she felt attending a Passover Seder at the home of her boyfriend. During the evening, he mentioned to guests that Berest’s daughter had recently been wounded by an antisemitic remark at school. When asked what she did about it, Berest admitted that she hadn’t addressed the matter. One of the guests snapped, “The truth, as far as I can tell, is that you’re only Jewish when it suits you.”

The remark stung but eventually pushed Berest into “the dark, dark times” of excavating her roots and claiming her heritage. At the end of her search, she writes:

“All I can tell you is that I’m the child of a survivor. That is, someone who may not be familiar with the Seder rituals, but whose family died in the gas chambers. Someone who has the same nightmares as her mother and is trying to find her place among the living.”

The book, translated flawlessly into English by Tina Kover, became an international bestseller and was longlisted for the Prix Goncourt, France’s most distinguished literary prize. But one of the judges, Camille Laurens, pilloried Berest’s book in Le Monde as “the Holocaust for Dummies.” Laurens slammed the author, young and pretty, as “an expert on Parisian chic” who entered a gas chamber with “her big red sole [Christian Louboutin] clogs.” France’s public radio station rebuked the reviewer for “unheard-of brutality,” and the Left Bank started buzzing.

It turned out that Laurens’ romantic partner, too, was being considered for the Prix Goncourt, also for a book about the Holocaust. He had dedicated his work to a certain “C.L.” who, when criticized for her cruelty, claimed she’d sledgehammered Berest’s book “before” she knew it was longlisted for the prestigious prize. Putride. Vireux. Nauseabond.

The Goncourt immediately dropped both works from consideration and revised its rules, now stating that no lover, relative, spouse, or partner of a member of the jury can be considered for the prize once awarded to Marcel Proust, André Malraux, Simone de Beauvoir, Romain Gary, and Marguerite Dumas.

After that literary storm, The Postcard was blessed with its own double rainbow — widespread critical praise and commercial sales. Both richly deserved.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons

by Kitty Kelley

During the pandemic, Charlotte Gray scored a win for women. The Canadian author spent her lockdown days examining the lives of two American mothers previously disregarded by male historians as mere accessories to their world-conquering sons. The result is a feminist take on the women, who’ve been derided and diminished for decades: Jennie Jerome Churchill, once depicted as a fashion-crazed flibbertigibbet, and Sara Delano Roosevelt, dismissed as a wealthy harridan.

“They’ve been shoehorned into harmful stereotypes,” writes Gray, “and rarely been portrayed in a sympathetic light since their deaths. In fact, their sons’ biographers often disparage them — it is as though the Great Men of History must spring like Athena, fully formed from the head of Zeus, without tiresome interventions from their mothers.”

Most of those who’ve examined these so-called “great men” are themselves men, including respected biographers William Manchester, author of the three-volume The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill; Andrew Roberts (Churchill: Walking with Destiny); Alan Brinkley (Franklin Delano Roosevelt); and H.W. Brands (Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt).

Now comes a reassessment of both in Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons: The Lives of Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt. Gray, who’s written 12 literary nonfiction books, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Relegated to mining secondary sources of previously published material, she nonetheless manages to bring a compelling view to the life stories of two mothers who influenced the world through their sons.

Both women were unicorns, each one of a kind but complete opposites of each other. Jennie Jerome, who wed Lord Randolph Churchill, was the most famous American heiress to cross the Atlantic and marry a title during the Gilded Age of 1870-1914. As Lady Churchill, she kept her status through three marriages while enjoying numerous dalliances with paramours said to include a Serbian prince, a German nobleman, several British aristocrats, and the prince of Wales, who admired American women because “they are livelier, better-educated, and less hampered by etiquette…not as squeamish as their English sisters.” Jennie became a favorite of the latter, the future King Edward VII, and used her golden contacts to enhance her son’s prospects. As Winston said, “She left no wire unpulled, no stone unturned, no cutlet uncooked.”

Once Winston married, his mother lost her premier place in his life. But whereas Jennie loathed the role of grandmother, Sara Delano Roosevelt reveled in it. On one occasion, when FDR’s two youngest sons were disciplined by having their pony taken away, Sara bought each little boy a horse. Naturally, all the Roosevelt grandchildren adored their grandmother, leaving their mother embittered. As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote years later, “As it turned out, Franklin’s children were more my mother-in-law’s children than they were mine.”

Also unlike Jennie Churchill, Sara Roosevelt enjoyed lifetime access to elite society and did not color outside the lines of proper protocol. Following her husband’s death, the dowager aristocrat donned widow’s weeds and never considered remarriage. Living like a vestal virgin, Sara dedicated herself to her only child, the future American president, following him to Harvard and living near campus so she could see him for dinner once a week. When Franklin married, his mother enlarged her homes at Campobello, in Manhattan, and at Hyde Park to accommodate his growing family, providing them with nannies, maids, laundresses, cooks, and drivers. She even advised her son professionally, counseling him after he won his first political appointment: “Try not to write your signature too small…so many public men have such awful signatures, and so unreadable.”

Spoiled and indulged by adoring mothers, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt possessed galloping self-confidence that bordered on arrogance and made each insufferable to colleagues. As Churchill said when he returned from the Boer Wars a national hero, “We are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow-worm.”

Not surprisingly, each of these two egoists had little regard for the other. As FDR told Joseph Kennedy after appointing him U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James, “I have always disliked [Churchill] since I went to England in 1918 [as assistant secretary of the Navy]. He acted like a stinker then, lording it over all of us.”

Fortunately, their relationship changed when Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain, Roosevelt was commander-in-chief of the United States, and the world was at war. But their closeness — and, indeed, FDR’s prominent place in history — might never have evolved had it not been for the fierce intervention of Sara Delano Roosevelt.

Returning home from London in 1918, Franklin had come down with Spanish flu exacerbated by double pneumonia. His mother and his wife met his ship in New York and had him carried on a stretcher to Sara’s home on East 65th. Street. As the orderlies struggled to make Roosevelt comfortable, Eleanor began unpacking his suitcases and there found love letters from Lucy Mercer. Devastated, she marked that moment as life-changing: “The bottom dropped out of my world.”

Tearfully confronting her husband — as did his mother — Eleanor offered to grant him a divorce. Sara roared back in horror. Furious at her son’s moral lapse, yet fearing the shame a divorce might bring to the family, she declared that if he left his wife, he’d be leaving her as well — and that included Sara’s vast fortune, which supported him, his five children, and his future political prospects. Franklin made the pragmatic decision to remain in the marriage; Eleanor permanently moved out of their bedroom.

Back in London, after years of being chased by unscrupulous money-lenders and litigious creditors, Jennie Jerome Churchill died a grotesque death in 1921. At age 67, she fell down a staircase while wearing a new pair of high heels. “Life didn’t begin for her on a basis of less than forty pairs of shoes,” said Winston’s secretary about Jennie’s unchecked extravagances and staggering debts. Within days of breaking her ankle, gangrene set in, necessitating amputation of her leg above the knee. Lady Churchill soon slipped into a coma and expired, leaving Winston inconsolable. For the rest of his days, he kept a bronze cast of his mother’s hand on his desk.

Sara Roosevelt, however, lived a long and enviable life. She saw a beloved son crippled by polio rise to become president of the United States three times. At his third inauguration, she proudly proclaimed herself “a mother of history,” saying that few mothers ever lived to see their sons elected once. “Why, when you read history it seems as if most of the Presidents didn’t have mothers, the way they fail to appear in the accounts.” At the age of 86, Sara wrote to her son:

“Perhaps I have lived too long, but when I think of you and hear your voice I do not ever want to leave you.”

Alas, Roosevelt’s adoring mother took her final leave on September 7, 1941, and within four years, as he was starting an unprecedented fourth term as chief executive, her “precious son” would follow her at the age of 62 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia.

In this provocative biography, Charlotte Gray bestows revisionist interest on two “passionate mothers” whose “powerful sons” proved themselves worthy of the maternal love and devotion showered on each.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Letters for the Ages

by Kitty Kelley

Nazi troops began studying English phrasebooks to prepare for their invasion of Great Britain. France had fallen under Germany’s Blitzkrieg in June 1940, following the capitulation of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Swastikas papered Paris to welcome Hitler.

Across the Channel, Great Britain’s prime minister addressed his country on the radio and summoned them to what he pronounced would be their finest hour: “Hitler knows he will have to break us in these islands or lose the war. If we can stand up to him all Europe may be freed, and life for the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”

Over the airwaves, Winston Churchill spoke eloquently as he inspired his nation. Behind the scenes, he churned with rage, lashing out at everyone. In desperation, his privy council begged his wife to intercede.

Clementine Churchill knew that her husband would pay attention to a letter, and so she labored over one, rewriting her pages twice before she found the right words. “My Darling Winston,” she began, “I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something I feel you ought to know.” Then, with care and consideration, Mrs. Churchill, self-described as “loving devoted & watchful,” told her ferocious husband that he’d been “rough, sarcastic and over-bearing” to his colleagues and subordinates.

Prim as a schoolmarm disciplining an unruly student, Clementine instructed urbanity, kindness, “and if possible Olympic calm.” She further recommended that the prime minister, who had the power to “sack anyone & everyone,” except for the king, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the speaker of the House of Commons, curb his “irascibility & rudeness. They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality — (Rebellion in War time being out of the question!).”

Unfortunately, Letters for the Ages, a treasure trove of Churchill’s correspondence, doesn’t contain the lion’s response to the lioness, but its editors claim to “be fairly certain that he listened to his ‘devoted & watchful’ cat.” Clementine kept her letter as part of the historical record, as an insight into their relationship, and as an important glimpse into the pressures of wartime leadership.

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) wrote 40 books in 60 volumes and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Trumpeted by YouTube as “Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister,” he served in that office from 1940-1945 and again from 1951-1955. His speeches, especially his wartime broadcasts, inspired a nation under German bombardment and are considered among the most powerful ever delivered in the English language.

So, a compilation of his correspondence promises to be a cornucopia of insights into the man who once introduced himself by saying, “We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow worm.” The letters he wrote as a child to his mother, his nanny, and his stern father reveal young Winston to be stubborn, willful, and rebellious but utterly persuasive in getting his way — characteristics that would define him as a world leader.

At the age of 13, the adolescent wanted nothing more than to be sprung from boarding school in Brighton to return to London for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Young Winston wrote home that he particularly longed to see “Buffalow [sic] Bill,” the Wild West show of William F. Cody. His teacher denied his request to be excused, so he drafted a letter for his mother, Lady Randolph (Jennie Spencer Churchill), to sign in order to release him from school.

“My dear Mamma,” he wrote without punctuation, “I shall be very disappointed, disappointed is not the word I shall be miserable, after you have promised me, and all, I shall never trust your promises again. But I know that Mummy loves her Winny much too much for that. Write to Mrs. [sic] Thomson and say that you have promised me and you want to have me home…I am quite well but in a ferment about coming home it would upset me entirely if you were to stop me.” He closed by signing: “Love & kisses I remain yours as ever Loving Son (Remember) Winny.”

The next day, “Winny” wrote another letter, again entreating his mother: “Please, as you love me, do as I have begged you.” Not surprisingly, “dear Mamma” agreed.

As fascinating as the letters in this book are the photographs, particularly the one showing 7-year-old Winston in a sailor suit, plucky and cocksure, with one hand on his hip and the other resting on an ornate chair. He looks directly at the camera as if to say, My presence is your privilege.

Interestingly, one of the most iconic Churchill photographs is not included here, although the photographer, Yousef Karsh, was Canadian and considered a British subject in 1941 when he took his famous photo during the prime minister’s wartime visit to Ottawa. Karsh was allowed only two minutes, and as he rushed to set up, his subject lit up. He asked Churchill to put down his cigar because the smoke interfered with the film, but Churchill refused. So, moments before Karsh snapped his lens, he grabbed the cigar out of the great man’s mouth.

“By the time I got back to the camera,” he recalled, “he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me.” Yet when Churchill later saw the forceful image, he complimented the photographer, “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”

This book of letters will find its audience within the International Churchill Society (which offers annual memberships for $100), as well as at the National Churchill Library and Center at George Washington University in Washington, DC, at Churchill College in Cambridge, at Churchill’s War Rooms in London, and at Churchill’s Chartwell estate in Kent. There and elsewhere, the lion still roars.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

August Wilson

by Kitty Kelley

The celebrated playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) was born Frederick August Kittel Jr. to a Black mother and a white father who abandoned his wife and six children. The fourth child and namesake son was called Freddie, but when his father deserted the family, Freddie took his mother’s surname and became August Wilson. The fatherless child never discussed the scars of being abandoned, but the loss permeated his life’s work.

Wilson adored his mother, Daisy, and desperately sought her approval, but she wanted him to be a lawyer and remained unimpressed by his poetry or even his award-winning plays. “You be a writer when you get something on television,” she told him. The day his play “The Piano Player” aired on CBS’ Hallmark Hall of Fame, February 2, 1995, Wilson gazed up to heaven and thought, “Look, Ma. I did it.” Reflecting on his mother’s passing, the heartbroken son explained:

“It is only when you encounter a world that does not contain your mother that you begin to fully comprehend the idea of loss and the huge irrevocable absence that death occasions.”

Although biracial, Wilson identified as Black and resented any attempt to be defined otherwise. He became irate when Henry Louis Gates Jr. questioned his Blackness in the New Yorker by writing, “He neither looks nor sounds typically Black — had he the desire he could easily pass — and that makes him Black first and foremost by self-identification.” As a playwright, however, Wilson subscribed to the creed of W.E.B. Du Bois, who promoted the four fundamental principles of “real Negro theater”: 1) About us 2) By us 3) For us 4) Near us.

In each of the 10 plays that comprise the Pittsburgh Cycle, Wilson — hailed as “theater’s poet of Black America” — portrays the African-American experience in a different decade of the 20th century. They all opened on Broadway, two of them posthumously:

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”         1984
“Fences”                                             1987
“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”     1988
“The Piano Lesson”                          1990
“Two Trains Running”                     1992
“Seven Guitars”                                 1996
“King Headley II”                             2001
“Gem of the Ocean”                         2004
“Radio Golf”                                      2007
“Jitney”                                              2017

Wilson insisted his plays be produced and performed only by Black artists and denounced “color-blind casting,” asserting that “Blacks have always, historically, been the custodians for America’s hope.” Yet as Patti Hartigan writes — gloriously — in August Wilson: A Life, the first major biography of the man, Wilson’s genius was singular and his work universal, winning him two Pulitzer Prizes and 29 Tony Awards.

While Hartigan, a former theater critic for the Boston Globe, genuflects to Wilson’s monumental talent, she does not spare him his faults. Hypersensitive to slights and given to explosive rages unleashed on waitresses or workmen below him in status, Wilson was an errant husband who married three times and took countless lovers. His first priority in life — above family and friends — was his work. “For him,” Hartigan states, “writing was a force necessary for survival.”

As a high-school dropout with an IQ of 143, young Wilson haunted the aisles of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library, where he was relegated to the “Negro section.” He spent hours reading Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. He described the neighborhood in which he grew up as “an amalgam of the unwanted,” filled with a mishmash of Greeks, Jews, Syrians, Italians, Irish, and Blacks, “each ethnic group seeking to cast off the vestiges of the old country, changing names, changing manners…bludgeoning the malleable parts of themselves. Melting into the pot. Becoming and defining what it means to be an American.”

While Wilson described himself as a “race man,” and all his characters are Black, their stories of pain and sorrow and joy and resentment resonate as shared human verities. “There are always and only two trains running,” he once said. “There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both.”

Wilson believed that African Americans needed to keep their history alive and cherish their heritage — complete with all its ancestors and all its ghosts. Maintaining that Black culture is unique and worthy of celebration, he sought out Black directors and dramaturges who understood his mission: to celebrate the lives of ordinary Black people.

This was lost on Bill Moyers when he interviewed Wilson in 1988 for the PBS series A World of Ideas. Moyers claimed that Blacks in America needed to embrace the mores of the dominant white culture in order to succeed and suggested that Blacks ought to aspire to the kind of bland middle-class life depicted on The Cosby Show. Those familiar with Wilson’s hair-trigger temper expected him to lay into the obtuse host, but knowing he was on national television, Wilson remained calm and simply remarked that Cosby’s show “does not reflect Black America to my mind.”

Moyers further humiliated himself by asking, “Don’t you grow weary of thinking Black, writing Black, being asked questions about Blacks?” Again, Wilson responded with restraint:

“How could one grow weary of that? Whites don’t get tired of thinking white or being who they are. I’m just who I am. You never transcend who you are. Black is not limiting. There’s no idea in the world that is not contained by Black life. I could write forever about the black experience in America.”

When Cosby gave a speech castigating Black youth for “stealing Coca-Cola” and “getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake,” Wilson blasted him. “A billionaire attacking poor people for being poor,” he told Time Magazine. “Bill Cosby is a clown. What do you expect? I thought it was unfair of him.”

Hartigan mentions in her author’s note that she had to paraphrase many of Wilson’s intimate letters, early plays, and poems because his estate declined to authorize their use in this book. Still, thanks to prodigious research and significant interviews, including notes from the days she spent with Wilson in 2005 for a Boston Globe Magazine profile, she has crafted a spectacular biography of “a truth teller” whom she eloquently describes as “a griot who accurately depicted the ordinary lives of honorable people whose stories were ignored by the mainstream culture.”

As William Styron once wrote, “A great book should leave you with many experiences and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” Patti Hartigan has written just such a book about an illustrious playwright.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books