Book Review

Pride of Family

by Kitty Kelley

Carole Ione grew up in a world of beautiful Black women of various shades, where marriages crumbled, fathers fell by the wayside, and mothers forged ahead with careers and the “occasional” man. As a 10-year-old sitting at the piano listening to her mother sing Calypso songs, Ione, as she now calls herself, “learned early on from those lyrics that soldiers and sailors could be trouble — you might never see them again.”

Ione’s only paladins were women: her great-aunt, Sistonie, a physician and member of Washington’s Black aristocracy; her grandmother, Be-Be, a former Broadway chorus dancer who ran the best restaurant in Saratoga Springs, drawing celebrities like Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, and Ethel Waters; and her mother, Leighla, who carved a career writing mysteries. Ironically, the biggest mystery hid behind the stone wall of secrets that kept the women estranged and incapable of bonding as a family.

At the age of 19, against fierce objections, Ione married a white Frenchman. In 1956, they moved to his home in Alsace, where everyone in the textile-manufacturing town was white and spoke a German dialect called Elsässerditsch. That part of France, the Haut-Rhin, was scorned by Parisians as the exterieur, so its denizens tried to be “more French than the French,” Ione writes. As a Black American woman, she became a freakish curiosity, stared at in the streets:

“I realize now that it was exactly that depressing feeling of being thought inferior to the society I lived in that I had hoped to escape by marrying…[I longed] to assuage the painful and confusing aspects of blackness.”

Soon, she and her husband moved back to New York, where they occupied separate bedrooms and led separate lives as he encouraged a philosophy of free love. Ione began an affair with a married alcoholic man many years her junior, followed by an even more unconventional relationship with a woman painter who lived in a loft on Canal Street:

“I had begun to understand that I was — like most people, I thought — not simply heterosexual but sexual, and from then on I would resist any labels on my sexuality.”

After her divorce, she married “a gay man living as a heterosexual” with whom she had three children. But after 13 years “of no love for me,” she again divorced. Ione received no succor from her mother or grandmother, only a “frosty politeness.” Both blamed her for leaving her husband and becoming like them: a single mother.

Feeling betrayed and desperate for a sense of belonging, Ione sought to explore the lives of her family, a word she italicizes as if it’s exotic and foreign. The result, published in 1991 when she was 54, was Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color, a rich reverie of superb writing — half memoir, half biography — nine years in the making that probes the tortured bonds of mothers and daughters and the journey of one girl through a gnarled thicket of secrets.

With bracing honesty and eloquence, Ione documents in Pride of Family the alienation she felt within her own community, where a pernicious line of color had segregated her since childhood:

If you’re white, you’re all right.
If you’re brown, stick around.
If you’re black, get back.

When she found her maternal grandfather late in life, she asked him about his mother, and he said that she, Ione’s great-grandmother, was good-looking. “She was fair. Very light skin — and she had good hair.” That one word — hair — is freighted for Black women, and Ione was particularly sensitive about it as her mother and grandmother were light-skinned beauties with straight, silky hair:

“Mine was fuzzy, woolly, nappy…everything I didn’t want it to be…my hair was bad…not in the worst degrees of ‘bad’ — for there are degrees — but ‘bad’ nonetheless. Did this make my mother and grandmother love me less, did it create a subtle distance between us?”

That distance narrowed when Ione discovered the diary of her great-grandmother, Frances “Frank” Anne Rollin (1845-1902), and unearthed many family secrets. Rollin also gave Ione, a writer, a feeling of pride for her foremother, a 19th-century activist who was the first known African American biographer. In 1868, Rollin wrote The Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany under the name Frank A. Rollin.

That biography is little known today, but the biographer lives on, having been recently embraced by Biographers International Organization (BIO), which established the Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship for African American Biography, providing a $2,000 fellowship for a writer working on a life story of an African American figure or someone whose story provides a significant contribution to the Black experience.

Ione, now 83 and living in Kingston, New York, is thrilled by the fellowship. “It’s a dream coming true through the centuries,” she told BIO. “There was a line in [Frank’s] diary in which she said she wanted to ‘make her mark in literature,’ and now [I feel] it’s finally happened.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

How to Lead

by Kitty Kelley

The Irish were the first to master the art of television conversation with The Late, Late Show, moderated by Gabe Byrne in Dublin from 1962-1990, and still running today with various hosts. Then came the British with David Frost, who hosted several U.K. “chat shows” before coming to America with The David Frost Show, and rising to international prominence in 1977 with his five 90-minute interviews with Richard Nixon, which forced the former president to acknowledge and apologize for Watergate. One of Frost’s many successors in London is Clive James, who currently hosts Talking in the Library.

In the U.S., Larry King held sway on CNN every weeknight with Larry King Live! where he reigned for 25 years in colorful suspenders. He was followed by Charlie Rose, who invited guests to join him at his table on PBS from 1991 to 2017. When Rose was summarily fired for sexual harassment, he and his table were banished and replaced by two sturdy chairs for David M. Rubenstein to interview the great and the good on The David Rubenstein Show.

A co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a DC-based, multinational, private-equity investment firm, Rubenstein is a spectacular businessman worth $3.4 billion, and he’s capitalizing on his television show by publishing some of his interviews. His first book, The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians, published in 2019, was very good. His second, How to Lead: Wisdom from the World’s Greatest CEOs, Founders, and Game Changers, published last month, is okay.

The book’s cover features sketches of Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Gates, Christine Lagarde, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Indra Nooyi, Richard Branson, and Yo-Yo Ma. The contents present 30 individuals — 15 men and 15 women — Rubenstein deems as exemplifying leadership, whom he divides into different categories: visionaries, builders, transformers, commanders, decision-makers, and masters.

Half of Rubenstein’s leaders, mostly white males, hold degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, with a couple from Stanford. Not so the women, few of whom possess those prized credentials, with the exception of the late Justice Ginsburg.

In his introduction, Rubenstein presents his formula for becoming a world-class leader. Moses had 10 Commandments; Rubenstein has 12:

I. Luck.
II. Desire to succeed.
III. Pursue something new and unique.
IV. Hard work and long hours. (“Workaholism is a plus.”)
V. Focus everything on mastering one skill.
VI. Fail. (“My having been part of a failed White House certainly fueled my ambition to succeed,” he writes as former deputy domestic-policy assistant to President Carter.)
VII. Persistence.
VIII. Persuasion.
IX. Humble demeanor.
X. Credit-sharing. (Here, he quotes his hero, John F. Kennedy: “Victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.” So, spread the glory.)
XI. Ability to keep learning. (Rubenstein writes that he reads six newspapers a day, at least a dozen weekly periodicals, and a minimum of one book a week, although, he adds, he often juggles three to four books simultaneously. You wonder how the man finds time to tie his shoes.)
XII. Integrity, which he defines as not cutting ethical corners.

Rubenstein comes to all his interviews well prepared, if a bit short on charm. He’s developed a style much like Jack Webb on Dragnet: “Just the facts, Ma’am.” He’s respectful to his guests, even as his questions probe.

Interviewing Melinda Gates, he asks if it was difficult for her as a committed Catholic to promote birth control in third-world countries as part of her work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She admits she’d wrestled with her faith on the issue but finally resolved her conscience in favor of contraception.

How to Lead begins with the best interview in the book: Jeff Bezos, who happens to be the richest man in the world ($173.5 billion), founder and CEO of Amazon, and owner of the Washington Post. A high school valedictorian who graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton, Bezos changed his major from theoretical physics to electrical engineering and computer science when he realized he was not going to be one of the top 50 theoretical physicists in the world — an indication, perhaps, of why he prizes failure as a pathway to success.

(Here, Rubenstein admits his own financial failure, the biggest business mistake he made, selling his firm’s equity in Amazon for $80 million in 1996, which, today, would be worth “about $4 billion.”)

In his interview, Bezos reveals a man devoted to his parents. “One of the great gifts I got is my mom and dad,” he says. “I was always loved. My parents loved me unconditionally.” He adds that he’s committed to eight hours of sleep every night, and reserves “high IQ meetings” for mid-morning, when he has his best energy. He says the most important work he’s doing at present is investing in the future by putting $1 billion a year of his own money into Blue Origin, his aspirational program to make expanded human space travel a reality.

The only one of Rubenstein’s leaders without a college degree, let alone the advanced degrees that most of the others hold, is Richard Branson, a dyslexic who dropped out of school at 15. “Do you think you could have been more successful in life if you had a university degree?” Rubenstein asks. “No,” says Branson, who founded Virgin Group, an umbrella for hundreds of Virgin enterprises, including Virgin Airlines, Virgin Megastores, and Virgin Galactic. Branson is worth $4.2 billion.

Many of Rubenstein’s leaders are billionaires like himself, and with or without Ivy League credentials, all are accomplished and deserve their position at the top of the heap. For this book, Rubenstein includes his double interview with two former two-term presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

But he has not interviewed his former boss, Jimmy Carter, a one-term president who many consider a leader in humanitarian outreach. Rubenstein characterizes Carter’s term in office as a “failed White House.” Yet Carter established the Department of Energy in 1977 and the Department of Education in 1979.

He cut the deficit, ended rampant inflation, and managed to get more of his legislation passed than any president since WWII, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson. And Carter, a Nobel laureate, is the only president since Thomas Jefferson under whom the U.S. military never fired a shot.

With all due respect to the billionaire Rubenstein, Carter’s presidency, while only four years, can hardly be dismissed as a failure.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books


by Kitty Kelley

Even in the digital age, there are some hardbacks that demand prominence on the bookshelf. Among them are the Bible; Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (second edition, unabridged); Winston Churchill’s six-volume The Second World War; The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972 by William Manchester; and Winnie-the-Pooh.

Now, add Rick Perlstein’s four volumes documenting the rise of Conservatism in America. First, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus; second, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America; and third, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. Now comes the fourth and final installment, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn: 1976-1980, which covers the presidency of Jimmy Carter and his defeat by Ronald Reagan, and the New Right.

Perlstein has received critical acclaim for each volume, and rightly so. His latest tome, at more than 1,000 pages, deserves special praise because it capstones the political changes in 20th-century America that led to Ronald Reagan’s eight-year reign in the White House, plus the four years of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, which many Republicans refer to as “Reagan’s third term.”

Reaganland begins in July 1976, when the presidential landscape was Jimmy Carter vs. Jerry Ford, with Ronald Reagan, the sore loser, sitting on his hands, refusing to support Ford but claiming he did. The Gipper seemed too old to run again in 1980 at the age of 69, but Perlstein shows how he managed to become the Cinderella at the Conservative ball, aided by a beleaguered Carter, who never took him seriously, even when it was too late.

Not a news-making investigative foray into the Conservative movement, Reaganland is, instead, a phenomenal collection of data and detail masterfully woven into a compelling narrative about how the country turned right, steered brilliantly and cynically by think-tank founder Paul Weyrich and direct-mail mastermind Richard Viguerie.

Perlstein poured extraordinary research into this book, and those who lived through the era may be stunned to learn all they missed at the time — or wished they had. Some will remember such colorful characters as Marabel Morgan, the blonde with the bubble hairdo and pink lipstick, who wrote The Total Woman and, in concert with Phyllis Schlafly, helped to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, along with the singer Anita Bryant, who campaigned ferociously against gays and gay rights. Others may recall “Battling Bella” Abzug and Betty Friedan, the latter of whom wrote The Feminine Mystique and spoke publicly about her aversion to lesbians, whom she called the “lavender menace.”

The year 1976 was called “the Year of the Evangelical” when Americans were introduced to the Christian Broadcasting Network; heard Debby Boone praise Jesus by singing “You Light Up My Life”; and met Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Howard Phillips (known to evangelicals as a “completed Jew”), and Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

The crucial issues of the era included the Panama Canal treaties and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and SALT II; the Laffer Curve and “supply-side” economics; the fall of the shah, rise of the ayatollah, and taking of 52 American hostages in Iran (along with the eight lives lost trying to rescue them); Three Mile Island; the Camp David Accords; kidvid; and abortion, which Bill Moyers presented on television in 1978 as “the Issue that Will Not Go Away,” which, Perlstein writes, “was a pretty good bet.”

Pages later, the author describes a GOP fundraiser featuring “speakers from across the fruited plain” supping on “filet mignon and Jimmy Carter.” And quite a feast it was.

With editorial asides that are informed, trenchant, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, Perlstein pillories Democrats as much as he punches Republicans, and in the process becomes a trustworthy narrator. He makes a provocative case that the 1976 U.S. Senate election of Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) changed the legislative terrain and crushed labor-law reform, prompting one columnist to write: “Now is the time to put Big Labor up there with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.”

Writing with a light touch, Perlstein describes the dog whistles in Sen. Strom Thurmond’s newsletter to his constituents. The ardent segregationist from South Carolina praised “independent non-governmental schools” that support “prayers to God in school” and “regional ideals and values.” As Perlstein observes: “[H]e needn’t specify that the regional values he had in mind weren’t the consumption of fried green tomatoes.”

It’s stunning to read this book and realize the millions of dollars that have been spent trying to preserve white supremacy in the United States. Reagan’s racist strategy, after all, was to target “voters who felt victimized by government actions that cost them the privileges their whiteness once afforded them.”

Equally surprising is Perlstein’s declaration that Arthur Laffer, Robert A. Mundell, Robert Bartley, and Jude Wanniski were “arguably…the most influential economic thinkers in the history of the United States, even though their theories turned out to be substantially wrong.”

Unquestionably, Jimmy Carter’s presidency was hit with “crisis after crisis after crisis,” from Billygate to Bert Lance to a bitter challenge by Senator Ted Kennedy. But Carter seemed to create his own black cloud by preaching an austere gospel of gloom and doom, whereas Ronald Reagan blew bubbles about the economic boom he’d bring. “We live in the future in America, always have,” Reagan said. “And the better days are yet to come.”

Carter told hard truths; Reagan told soft lies. And, on November 4, 1980, the country voted for bubbles and better days.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books


Begin Again

By Kitty Kelley

Gird yourselves, white America: Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is putting you on notice, and he brought the receipts. The James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton prefaces his eighth book with praise quotes from several platinum authors who laud his brilliance and the genius of his subject on display in Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.

To begin again on the subject of racism, Glaude proposes passing H.R. 40, a bill that would establish the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans. It’s a suggestion that comes at the end of what the author himself describes in his introduction as “a strange book. It isn’t biography…it is not literary criticism…it is not straightforward history. Instead, Begin Again is some combination of all three in an effort to say something meaningful about our current times.”

Glaude starts gently but then lowers the boom. His book is a damning indictment of Donald Trump and white America, particularly white male America — or at least that part of it which believes in its superiority simply because it’s white.

Additionally, this book, provocative and lyrical in so many places, is Glaude’s personal journey through a tunnel of rage first explored by James Baldwin (1925-1987), whose writing — “close to seven thousand pages of work” — the professor has absorbed and studied and taught.

In Begin Again, Glaude challenges “the lie” that America is fundamentally good, that all men are created equal, and that the country is a beacon of light and a moral force in the world. “The stories we often tell ourselves of the civil rights movement and racial progress…[are] all too often lies,” he writes.

Instead, says the author, America is a racist nation that continues to tell the lie that it is a democracy while refusing to face the enduring legacy of slavery and ongoing systemic discrimination against African Americans.

With Baldwin as his guide, Glaude moves from the nonviolence practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. to the militancy of Huey P. Newton, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther Party, the latter a “justifiable, even inevitable, response to white America’s betrayal of the civil rights movement.” Along the way, he lashes Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” Reagan Democrats, and Trump voters for propagating “the lie.” Finally, Glaude concludes “that America is an identity that white people will protect at any cost.”

By 2016, he had become so disgusted by the Democratic Party for refusing to remedy Black suffering that he urged Black voters, many whose ancestors had paid with their lives for the right to vote, to abstain from voting for Hillary Clinton for president. His reasons seemed petty in the extreme:

“Much more was required than the Clinton name, or the endorsement of her bid for the presidency by President Obama, or by some celebrity, or the brandishing of hot sauce in [her] handbag.”

Choked by rage, he used his considerable influence to urge Black voters to leave the presidential ballot blank. Then the Republicans nominated Donald Trump. Still, Glaude refused to believe white America would elect “the carnival barker” to the highest office in the land.

Trimming his sails a bit, he co-authored an anemic essay in Time magazine with Fredrick Harris, a political scientist at Columbia, saying that if you were a Democrat in a battleground state like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, you should vote for Hillary. But if you lived in a decidedly red state or an overwhelmingly blue one, you could blank out or vote your conscience.

Startlingly, the professor, who has studied Baldwin for 30 years, seems not to have learned from his mentor, especially on the value of presidential voting. In “Notes on the House of Bondage,” Baldwin ponders the 1980 presidential race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan:

“My vote will probably not get me a job or a home or help me through school or prevent another Vietnam or a third world war, but it may keep me here long enough for me to see, and use, the turning of the tide — for the tide has got to turn. And…if Carter is reelected, it will be by means of the black vote, and it will not be a vote for Carter. It will be a coldly calculated risk, a means of buying time.”

Surely, President Hillary Clinton would’ve bought Glaude more time than President Trump.

To his credit, Glaude admits his error. “I was wrong,” he writes, “and given my lifelong reading of Baldwin, it was an egregious mistake.”

Far less egregious, but still a mistake, was to publish this book without providing any photographs, especially since Glaude frequently refers to instances that demand illustration. For example, he writes about Sedat Pakay, a Turkish photographer who “offers a beautiful black-and-white portrait of Baldwin in the most intimate of settings.” No picture.

In another instance, Glaude refers to the opening of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a documentary of Baldwin’s time in the South during the Civil Rights movement, in which he sits “at a desk in his brother David’s apartment at 209 West Ninety-seventh Street, looking pensively at a book of photographs.” No picture. (Glaude writes pages about his own tour of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, yet provides no pictures.)

He ends his book, appropriately, with a visit to Baldwin’s gravesite at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Was it a simple marble stone, a granite slab, a large headstone marked with a quote? Or a family mausoleum to enfold Baldwin and his seven siblings? Sadly, there is again no picture. Glaude writes only that he knelt down, touched the earth, and quietly said, “Thank you.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

An Interview with Pam Fessler

by Kitty Kelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your next book?

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

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books


The Answer Is…

by Kitty Kelley

The category is: Farewell Books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audacity, audacity, always audacity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Godspeed, Alex.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Kitty Kelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Mary Todd Lincoln

by Kitty Kelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Swing Kings

by Kitty Kelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Story I Am

by Kitty Kelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books