Book Review

Saving Freud

by Kitty Kelley

Lights! Camera! Action!

Andrew Nagorski’s Saving Freud ought to be coming to a theater near you. This nonfiction work crackles like a novel and sparks with the razzle-dazzle of a big-screen extravaganza: an unforgettable cast of characters (think The Dirty Dozen), spine-tingling suspense (The Day of the Jackal), a death-defying savior (maybe Mephisto), and Nazis — the epitome of evil.

“This book is definitely not The Sound of Music, but it’s part biography and part thriller,” Nagorski told an audience recently gathered at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, to discuss the publication of his eighth book. Having written Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, The Nazi Hunters, and 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War, the former Newsweek bureau chief has mastered the Nazi terrain.

The plot of Saving Freud centers on how a group of six loving friends of the world-famous psychoanalyst finally convinced him to leave Austria in 1938 on the jack-boot heels of Hitler’s storm troopers as they invaded Vienna.

Even as the Nazis banged down the doors of his office and home at Berggasse 19, Sigmund Freud, then 81, still believed he’d be spared the catastrophe that had befallen other Viennese Jews. Without saying a word, he glared at the intruders looting his apartment. Hitler’s minions seemed visibly intimidated. They addressed him as “Herr Professor” and backed out of the apartment, loot in hand, stating they would return at another time.

When the Nazis then burned his confiscated books in the public square, Freud seemed unperturbed. “What progress we are making,” he told a patient. “In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.”

Freud could’ve escaped years before, but he refused to join the hordes of Jews fleeing Vienna in the early 1930s. Referring to himself as a “Godless Jew” and an atheist, he maintained he was immune from persecution because he was not religious. His sole allegiance to Judaism, he said, was to not deny being born a Jew. He also considered himself apolitical and therefore safe from the upheaval thrashing around him.

Interestingly, while revolutionary in his thinking, Freud led a conventional life centered around hearth and home. “I’m all for sexual freedom,” he once remarked, “but not for myself.”

Nagorski admits that when it came to the Nazis, Herr Doktor Freud, a world-shaking intellect known for his revolutionary theories, was “naive…astonishingly naïve.” Others might say dumbfoundingly reckless given that he was determined to live out his days in Vienna even after the Anschluss in March 1938, when Germany annexed Austria.

At that point, Freud’s adoring circle whirled into action, determined to seek asylum for him and his family in London so he could realize his life’s wish “to die in freedom.” The group included Maria Bonaparte, princess of Greece and Denmark, who lived in Paris as a practicing psychoanalyst after seeking Freud’s help to achieve orgasm. She provided Freud with the protection money he needed to bribe his way to safety.

Another member was William Bullitt, U.S. ambassador to Russia and France, who’d sought Freud’s counsel when his marriage was falling apart. During their sessions, they discovered they both despised Woodrow Wilson and later collaborated on a biography of the former president that was published in 1966 to “overwhelmingly negative” reviews.

Also part of the group was Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham, granddaughter of the renowned jeweler who founded Tiffany & Co., who became the lifelong partner of Freud’s beloved daughter Anna. Next was Ernest Jones, a onetime patient and close friend of Freud’s, and president of the International Psychoanalytical Association. Jones flew to Vienna in 1938 to insist that Freud leave the country. “This is my home,” the psychoanalyst said. “Your home is the Titanic,” retorted Jones.

Max Schur, who became Freud’s physician and treated him for the throat cancer he suffered as a result of refusing to give up cigars, played a role, too. When Schur’s family emigrated to the U.S. to escape the Nazis, the doctor remained in Vienna until Freud’s departure for England. Only then, after arranging for Freud’s medical care in London, did Schur join his own family in America.

Dr. Anton Sauerwald, a Nazi bureaucrat, is the shocking thunderbolt in this rescue saga and the team’s unlikeliest member. He was assigned by Nazi high command to rifle through Freud’s financial documents and destroy his historic library, but as an admirer of the pioneer of psychoanalysis, he did neither. Instead, Sauerwald removed evidence of Freud’s foreign bank accounts and arranged for his massive collection of books, papers, and journals to be secretly stored in the Austrian National Library, where they remained hidden until after the war.

Each figure was crucial to the rescue because it took all six working in concert to get Freud to leave his home and office for England, where he spent the remaining 15 months of his life at 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, in North London. There, his rescuers had recreated his consulting room in faithful detail.

The British press heralded his arrival with effusive coverage, and Freud’s new life of freedom gave him great pleasure. As he wrote to his brother in Switzerland: “Our reception was cordial beyond word. We were wafted up on wings of mass psychosis.” He was welcomed into the Royal Society of Medicine and visited by prominent guests like H.G. Wells and Salvador Dali.

Still, Freud missed Vienna. “The feeling of triumph on being liberated is too strongly mixed with sorrow,” he confided to a friend, “for in spite of everything I still greatly loved the prison from which I have been released.”

Freud’s life of freedom ended for good on September 23, 1939, when his pain became excruciating and, as he told his physician, “the torture makes no sense anymore.” Remembering his promise, Dr. Schur gave his patient an injection of morphine which led to Freud’s “peaceful sleep.” As his adored Anna later told a friend:

“I believe there is nothing worse than to see the people nearest to one lose the very qualities for which one loves them. I was spared that with my father, who was himself to the last minute.”

Saving Freud seems to have been written for the silver screen, and one can only hope that someone like Steven Spielberg finds his way to this book.

(Collage of press clippings from Freud Museum.)

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

My Place in the Sun

by Kitty Kelley

Sometimes, the sons of famous fathers are cursed. “They’re born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple,“ according to the adage. Seldom do they hit a home run. Not so the namesake of director, producer, screenwriter, and cinematographer George Stevens (1904-1975), who elevated films from entertainment to enlightenment with A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Greatest Story Ever Told.

His son — “Young George,” “Georgie,” or “George, Jr.” — was born on third base, but now he’s nearly 90 years old and is proudly waving his scorecard in My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington.

George Stevens Jr. is Tinsel Town royalty. He springs from five generations of stage actors, silent screen stars, and drama critics, including his father. Stevens père, a two-time Academy Award winner, was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during WWII and headed a film unit that documented the D-Day landings at Normandy, the liberation of Paris, and the Allied discoveries of the Duben labor camp and the concentration camp at Dachau.

Stevens fils found these treasures and more in his late father’s storage bin and put them to good use in this work, a phenomenal history of Hollywood that’s as much a paean to a beloved father as it is an accomplished record of the adoring son, who propelled the family legacy forward into television (at 27, George Jr. was directing Alfred Hitchcock Presents for CBS) and prize-winning documentaries. In addition, he founded the American Film Institute (AFI) in 1966 and, for 38 years, produced The Kennedy Center Honors.

There are more names dropped in this memoir than in the Book of Jehovah. “Bobby and Ethel”; “My good friend, Tom Brokaw”; “Teddy”; “My rabbi, Vernon Jordan”; and “My buddy Art Buchwald.” One wonders if Stevens has ever known a no-name plumber or lowly key grip. Here’s just a sample of his life on the celebrity circuit:

“My calendar shows days filled with organizing a new [film] school and stimulating evenings during which I spread word about AFI to the Hollywood community; ‘Dinner at the [Gregory] Pecks — Mr. and Mrs. Jean Renoir, Omar Sharif and Barbra Streisand; dinner at home — John Huston and Shirley MacLaine; dinner at Danny Kaye’s with Pecks and Isaac Stern; dinner at George Englund’s w/Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, Robert Towne.’”

Despite the marquee names (and there are pages of them), there is no braggadocio. In fact, there’s a bit of the fanboy in this man who once asked President Clinton to sign their scorecard after playing golf together. George Stevens Jr. displays the self-deprecating style of someone enthralled by his work, engaged by his politics, and enriched by his friends. His memoir, gracefully written, shows a man who knows that blessings accrue to those who take the high road.

Accustomed to flying smooth skies, Stevens was not prepared for the turbulence he encountered when David M. Rubenstein, chair of the Kennedy Center, forced him out as producer of The Kennedy Center Honors. Stevens writes that Rubenstein came to his office on a Good Friday in what “proved to be a disturbing and somewhat bizarre meeting…[Rubenstein] seemed to apologize, saying this was his most difficult meeting since the time he fired George H.W. Bush and James A. Baker from his Carlyle enterprise.” He continues:

“Again, insufficient paranoia had let me down. David’s riches, after all, had come from hostile takeovers of corporations — ousting existing management, cutting costs and reaping windfalls. On reflection, my response was less tempered than I would have liked. ‘I think you’ll have to look around for a long time to find producers who will give you five consecutive Emmys.’”

Since parting ways with the Stevens Company in 2014, The Kennedy Center Honors has won a few Emmys but not yet “five consecutive” ones. For his part, Stevens writes, “It’s too bad it ended the way it did, but the passage of time now allows me to look back on the somewhat indecorous circumstances of my departure with what Wordsworth called ‘emotion recollected in tranquility.’”

Just when the reader is floating on the sweet vapors of a golden life among the good and the great, Stevens brings you to your knees with the worst that can befall a parent. In 2015, he and his wife, Elizabeth, lost their 49-year-old son, Michael, to stomach cancer. This chapter, entitled “Courage,” is a chapter no parent ever wants to write. Stevens keeps it short:

“Not a day goes by that I do not think of Michael Stevens.”

He ends his book as he began it — by extolling the work that has defined his life for decades. He quotes Bertrand Russell, who wrote about the same subject at the same age in “The Pros and Cons of Reaching Ninety”: “A long habit of work with some purpose that one believes is important is a hard habit to break.”

Last seen, Stevens was heading for his office “to ponder stories that might become films, though an awareness that each new film is a commitment of years makes me a little less keen to toss my cap over the wall. However, now that the storytelling juices that have been devoted to this book are freed up, who knows what lies ahead.”

We can only hope.collection

(Photos: George Stevens Sr. with George Stevens Jr., Michael Stevens from Stevens Family Collection, Margaret Herrick Library and the Academy Film Archive https://www.oscars.org/collection-highlights/stevens-family-collection/?)

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Undelivered

by Kitty Kelley

     “For all sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’”

These woeful words from Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier might apply to politicians and lovers and horses who’ve never made the winner’s circle. Those losses are particularly painful for politicians who are expected to concede gracefully and congratulate the fiend who just walloped them. As Rep. Morris Udall said after losing the 1976 Democratic nomination for president, “It’d be less painful to get mowed down by an 18-wheeler.”

Hillary Clinton felt the same way in 2016 after winning the popular vote for president by over 4 million votes but losing the Electoral College by 306-232, and thus the presidency. The former secretary of state/U.S. senator/first lady was poised to claim victory with prepared remarks thanking “my fellow Americans” for “reaching for unity, decency and what President Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature.’”

But those better angels flew away as Clinton acknowledged her loss to Donald J. Trump with civility and just a couple of tears. After thanking her family, staff, volunteers, and contributors, she apologized to them, becoming the first presidential candidate in history to say “I’m sorry” in a concession speech.

Now we’re finding out what Clinton would’ve said as president-elect had she won the campaign that cost over $581 million. Her six-page victory speech, never given, is reported in full by Jeff Nussbaum in his creative new book, Undelivered: The Never-Heard Speeches that Would Have Rewritten History.

Some of the unspoken speeches unearthed by Nussbaum’s dogged research and informative text spark jump-up-and-down joy, particularly those in the section entitled “The Fog of War, The Path to Peace.” Each of its three segments is noteworthy, beginning with the words of apology General Dwight D. Eisenhower would’ve delivered if the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, had failed.

“The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do,” he wrote in a brief, four-sentence statement. “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” Nussbaum, a speechwriter for Democrats, recognizes Eisenhower’s words as “an object lesson in the language of leadership and responsibility.”

Knowing that “victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan,” President John F. Kennedy prepared a never-delivered speech to the nation in 1962 to announce airstrikes on Cuba “to remove a major nuclear weapons build up.” The president had gathered his top cabinet officers — hawks and doves alike — to debate the issue and discuss what to do.

“Each one of us was being asked to make a recommendation which would affect the future of all mankind,” wrote Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “a recommendation which, if wrong and if accepted, could mean the destruction of the human race.” For 13 days, the U.S. teetered on the edge of war with the Soviet Union, until Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev blinked and removed his missiles.

The third example of an undelivered speech that might’ve changed history is Emperor Hirohito’s apology for Japan’s role in World War II, which he wrote in 1948, lamenting the “countless corpses…[left]…on the battlefield [and] the countless people [who] lost their lives…Our heart is seared with grief. We are deeply ashamed…for our lack of virtue.”

Now to the bits that don’t stir jump-up-and-down joy. Much of Nussbaum’s book reads like a garrulous guy on a binge while his editor is A.W.O.L. The author meanders back and forth from a third-person narrative to first-person asides, political anecdotes, pesky footnotes, and lame jokes (see the one about St. Peter and speechwriters). He jams his book to the brim with historical information, proving that he’s read widely, and is hellbent on sharing every bit of his findings, which he piles into 374 pages of main text, 38 pages of notes, a 30-page bibliography, and a 28-page appendix. (Dear Santa: Please put a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in Nussbaum’s Christmas stocking.)

An example of what might be described as logorrhea begins in the first chapter and deals with late congressman John Lewis’ proposed speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Lewis’ original remarks were deemed too fiery for Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, who refused to make the morning’s invocation if Lewis didn’t tone down his rhetoric. March organizers pressured Lewis, saying that without the Irish Catholic prelate, they might lose support from the Irish Catholic president, which would influence Congress and doom Civil Rights legislation. So, Lewis compromised.

At this point, the author-in-need-of-an-editor interrupts his story of Lewis’ speech to relate his own stories of being a speechwriter at the Democratic National Convention from 2000 through 2020. He rambles on about Melania Trump, who lifted from Michelle Obama’s speech, Al Sharpton’s refusal to use a teleprompter, and Barney Frank’s speech impediment, and includes brief mentions of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, his wife, Anne, and the GOP convention’s keynote speaker, New Jersey governor Chris Christie. (P.S. to Santa: Please add Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style to that stocking.)

Eventually, Nussbaum circles back to the dilemma facing Lewis, but only for a few pages before he interrupts the narrative again with more reflections on his own speechwriting. Then, and only then (thank you, Jesus), does he return to finish the story of Lewis and his 1963 speech.

Note to readers: Lewis’ undelivered speech is just the book’s first chapter. You’ve got 14 more to go. (P.P.S. to Santa: Forget your sleigh. Use FedEx.)

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

(Photos: John Lewis at the Lincoln Memorial, 1963 © Estate of Stanley Tretick; Hillary Clinton conceding, 2016, PBS/YouTube)

The Summer Friend

by Kitty Kelley

The spectacular cover of Charles McGrath’s The Summer Friend deserves its own trophy. It shows a photograph of an apricot sun setting on gentle waves that lap a sandy beach. Sea grasses sway in a breeze that has blown away footprints, never meant to last too long. The sand-dune fencing beyond the shore also bends to the wind, a force of nature that will not be denied. The elegiac scene could just as easily be an early morning sunrise, but since it wraps around a book of memories, a setting sun seems more appropriate.

The Summer Friend celebrates a seasonal bond between two men, both nicknamed “Chip,” who favor khaki pants and meet every summer to share their passion for fishing and sailing and golf. Still, the title puzzles. Why “the” instead of “my” friend? Is it because “the” imposes a certain emotional distance, as if the author is referring to a casual acquaintance, whereas “my” speaks to a closer relationship promising something more intimate?

In this case, “the” seems to represent the surface level of many male friendships compared to the deeper bonds that women establish. The Summer Friend peeks inside the psyche of one such male friendship between not-quite bros forever but seasonal pals. As such, this memoir is pitch-perfect for outdoorsy dads, sons, brothers, uncles, nephews, and the like.

McGrath, a scholarship student at Yale (class of ’68), made his way as a man of letters, having been deputy editor of the New Yorker and a former editor of the New York Times Book Review. Currently, he’s editor of Golf Stories and an occasional contributor to Golf Digest.

Despite his literary credentials, there’s a bit of whoopee cushion in the writer, who recalls with glee the cigarette load, a practical-joke device he and his brother inserted into the tip of one of their mother’s Old Gold cigarettes. When she lit up, it exploded.

“Childish, I know,” writes McGrath, now 76, “but the memory of my mother standing there, wide-eyed, with an exploded cigarette in her mouth still makes me tear up with laughter.”

Not surprisingly, the prankster grew up to love fireworks; even today, as a grandfather, he spends hundreds of dollars on July Fourth celebrations, where he shoots off poppers, rockets, salutes, and crackers by the brick and half-brick. In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to “Blowing Stuff Up.”

The chapter that most defines McGrath, however, is “The Camp,” and his memories of the month-long vacations his family took to the type of log-built lodge familiar to many households across the country back then. For the McGraths, it was “a temporary sun-dappled idyll, a glimpse of another kind of life,” where kids bought penny candy, red hots and little wax bottles filled with sweet, syrupy liquid:

“Part of what made the Camp important to all of us — even to my mother — was that it was a toehold on specialness, a perch on the middle class, where we really had no business belonging. People like us didn’t have summer places. None of our neighbors at home did.”

Growing up in the 1950s with miniature golf, drive-in movies, and souped-up cars, McGrath learned about sex from eavesdropping on “hot rodders” tinkering under their rides. “I concluded that sex, like auto mechanics, must be largely a matter of know-how. You had to understand what went on under the hood.”

By now, you’ve deduced that this memoir is more about the author than his subject, and parts are achingly sad, particularly when McGrath writes about his parents. His mother, who married beneath her social status, appears to have been overly fond of Manhattanites and frequently berated his father for his failings:

“Social class and [his] insufficiency as a provider were ongoing themes in my parents’ marriage.”

It was a sentiment shared by McGrath himself. Looking back, he regrets that his father died “before we could get over being disappointed in each other.” He fantasizes about grabbing his dad’s arm and going for a sail, which is reminiscent of “Field of Dreams,” the film about a son who builds a baseball diamond and bleachers to reconnect with his father: “Build it and they will come.”

Here enters the other Chip, the cheerful summer friend who never disappoints. Together, the two men while away their days golfing and fishing and sailing. They make regular trips to the dump to scavenge discarded clubs; in the evenings, they barbecue and drink “brewskis” with their wives. In 30 years, there’s never a cross word between them.

McGrath goes long and deep on sailing and devotes pages to his beloved Beetle, the last mass-produced wooden boat still being sold in America. “The joy of this never gets old for me,” he writes, “the flutter of the sail, the slap of the bow wave, the burbling of the wake, the tug of the tiller, the lift of the stern quarter as it catches a swell.”

The details of sailing are numerous, sensual even, though he also waxes poetic about birds:

“Gulls everywhere; the cormorants loitering, shrug-shouldered, on rocks and pilings; and the egrets, which perch motionless in trees when they’re not mincing through the shallows.”

McGrath vividly recollects, too, the days he and Chip would meet at the crack of dawn, dragging their used clubs, and drive to five different courses to play 90 holes of golf by 9 p.m., when it was too dark to continue. They did this in tennis shoes because they considered cleats an affectation. The author reflects on these excursions with the pride of Hannibal crossing the Alps with 37 elephants. But personal details of his friendship? Not so much. “It was as if [Chip] had inside him a vast cellar where he could shove away all sorts of worries and bothers,” McGrath writes. “I’m not much better.”

Even when Chip is dying of cancer, in and out of hospitals, unable to walk, relegated to using a cane, then a walker, and finally incontinent and strapped to a bed — even then — the two men talk about the weather and the prospects for the Red Sox.

Shortly before Chip dies, McGrath reaches inside himself and writes a letter, saying for the first time how much their bond has meant:

“I said he was what Romantics used to call a genius loci — the spirit of a place, its embodiment in a person…I wrote down things I had been wanting to say for years…it was too late. And possibly I said too little. This book is what I should have given him.”

Yes, it’s too late for the summer friend, but certainly not for readers.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Ma and Me

by Kitty Kelley

In accepting the 1950 Nobel Prize for Literature, William Faulkner (1897-1962) mourned the state of young writers, who’d “forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about.”

If only Faulkner, a white man from Mississippi who never renounced his own racism, could meet Putsata Reang, a gay American woman born in Cambodia whose memoir, Ma and Me, contains all that Faulkner championed in writing — “the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.”

Faulkner created a fictional universe (Yoknapatawpha County) to find the truths of “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice”; Reang finds those truths in the nonfiction she writes about coming to America as a refugee.

“Put,” as her family calls her, was bundled in her mother’s arms at the age of 1 as her parents and six older siblings escaped from Phnom Penh in 1975 before Cambodia fell to the Communist Khmer Rouge. Making the trip to America aboard a ship, Put’s mother carried her malnourished, half-dead baby on deck, frantic to find a doctor who might speak Khmer. Instead, she ran into the ship’s captain, who crisply informed her that, if her child died during the voyage, she’d have to throw the dead body overboard because “we are so over-crowded here…[and] the corpse will spread disease to everyone else.”

Such a burial was abhorrent to a Buddhist mother, so Ma re-consecrated herself to keeping her baby alive, telling Put years later how many times she had come so close to dying. “Out of all my kids, you were the weakest. You were the smallest of all. You were the hardest to take care of.”

Sponsored by two local churches, the Reangs found their way to Corvallis, Oregon, where they arrived with an extended family of 15 — two parents, seven children, one grandparent, and various cousins, aunts, and uncles:

“We were the talk of the town — the first Cambodians to settle amid the city’s corn and fruit fields and its thirty-five thousand mostly white residents.”

Life in America became a series of painful accommodations for the family: to a new language, to new people, to poor-paying migrant jobs picking berries every season. For the children, there was the obligation “to show gratitude to our parents for their quiet sacrifice.”

Reang felt an even greater debt than her siblings because her mother had saved her life. She writes starkly that “I hate my father” because of his cruelty, which may be why she poured so much love into her mother. “[M]y need for Ma was vast…I felt…as if my mother and I were one. Her dreams were my dreams. Her fears were my fears…I refused to go anywhere far from Ma.”

Growing up as a tomboy wearing her brothers’ clothes, Reang was in her 40s before she could publicly acknowledge her sexual identity, once described by Lord Alfred Douglas in a letter to Oscar Wilde as “the love that dare not speak its name.” Ma was horrified when her daughter confessed to being queer, and Reang was heartsick, knowing she “had become the thing I was most afraid of: a disappointment in my mother’s eyes.”

When Reang decided to marry April, the woman she loved, she had the full support of her siblings, but her parents, deeply shamed by what they viewed as an abomination, refused to attend the wedding. The family’s honor within their Cambodian community had been sullied, their reputation ruined.

In this memoir, Reang writes like a flower blooms — beautifully. She describes “sun-plumped blueberries” and “mud-caked knees” and someone who “limp walks” to see “seaplanes splash-land.” Flying into Cambodia on her first return to her country of birth, she’s mesmerized by what she sees:

“Endless acres of rice paddies spread out like squares of carpet patched with seams of irrigation ditches, and the golden spires of pagodas jutted up from between palm trees with fronds dancing in the breeze, lighting and rising like helicopter blades — a land cut through with the purest light.”

While Reang remains psychologically divided as a Cambodian living in America, a homosexual living in a heterosexual world, and a daughter disowned by her beloved mother, she finds peace. “I had believed that Ma and I were so close that we were fused together,” she writes. “I did not know I could exist separate from her, that I could have dreams of my own rather than live out the dreams she had for me.”

William Faulkner would tip his hat to such a writer. He hoped that his Nobel acceptance “might be listened to by the young men and young women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will someday stand where I am standing.” Putsata Reang, born decades after Faulkner’s speech, might just be a contender.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Clementine

by Kitty Kelley

Most people agree that faith, hope, and charity are the cardinal virtues, but not Winston Churchill. He pronounced courage to be paramount “because it is the one human virtue that guarantees all the others.” Without his courage during WWII, Britain might’ve succumbed to oppression and tyranny, but by summoning his “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” the 65-year-old prime minister inspired his country — and ours, eventually — to fight to defeat the Nazi onslaught of terror.

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal,” he said. “It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Standing behind that monumental man was his courageous wife, Clementine, who sacrificed herself, her children, and, at times, her mental stability to be all that her husband required of a spouse, as well as a parallel partner in his success.

Sonia Purnell’s fulsome 2015 biography, Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, does justice to the great woman behind the great man. In it, Clementine Hozier Churchill (1885-1977) emerges as “a terrible mother” but a devoted wife to her remarkable husband as the couple triumphantly surfed turbulent waves, politically and personally. So tempestuous was their marriage at times that Clementine, who suffered bouts of depression, once considered divorce. Another time, she attempted suicide, and in 1963, she was hospitalized and given electroconvulsive therapy.

Living with Winston Churchill, who seemed to thrive on commotion and chaos, took fortitude that Clementine could not always muster, which occasioned her numerous trips to spas and her many cruises and safaris and vacations without her husband. “[S]he may have spent up to 80 percent of their marriage without him,” said her daughter-in-law.

Nor was motherhood a loving refuge for Clementine. “Father always came first, second and third,” said Mary Churchill Soames, the youngest of their five children. Neither Clementine nor Winston spent much time parenting, and they sent their children to boarding school at an early age.

Their firstborn, Diana (1909-1963), married and divorced twice, suffered several nervous breakdowns, and took her own life a year after she started work for Samaritans, an organization devoted to preventing suicide. Their only son, Randolph (1911-1968), was “dangerously spoiled” by his father and, to his mother’s consternation, was drinking double brandies by the age of 19. Randolph gambled with abandon and lost frequently, but his father always paid his debts. Noel Coward observed that Churchill’s only son was “utterly unspoiled by failure.”

In 1921, the Churchills suffered parents’ worst nightmare when their 2-year-old daughter, Marigold, died of septicemia. Within months of the little girl’s death, Clementine became pregnant with her last child, Mary (1922-2014), who, according to Mary’s son, Nicholas Soames, “led a very distinguished life.”

Sarah (1914-1982), who became an actress, appeared in several movies, and was married three times. Following the death of her last husband, the only one of whom her parents approved, she began an affair with Lobo Nocho, an African American jazz singer, and was later arrested and jailed for drunk driving. During WWII, Sarah’s parents had encouraged her affair with Gil Winant, the married U.S. ambassador to Britain, as part of what Purnell calls “Operation Seduction U.S.A.” The prime minister and Clementine did anything and everything they could to endear their country to America and persuade the U.S. to join an allied effort against the Axis.

To that end, the Churchills also facilitated the love affairs of their daughter-in-law, Pamela Digby Churchill, who lived with them during the war while Randolph was fighting abroad with the Fourth Hussars. With their approval, Pamela ardently pursued the CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, whom “Winston had long since identified…as the conduit to the hearts and minds of US popular opinion.”

The prime minister also turned Pamela loose on American envoy W. Averell Harriman, who would become her third husband decades later. Clementine could not abide the humorless Harriman, “who flaunted his wealth and connections, oiling his way from one grand cocktail party to another,” but tolerated him because he was vital to the war effort.

Churchill himself spent immense time and energy befriending Franklin Delano Roosevelt, despite the fact that, according to Purnell, the U.S. “had been miserly in its support for the last democracy in Europe to hold out against fascism.” One of the saddest passages in the book is FDR’s cold dismissal of Churchill’s affection and admiration, which never dimmed — even after Tehran in 1943, when the U.S. president “clearly chose Stalin over Winston, finding it ‘amusing’ when the Russian leader bullied his British ally.”

“My father was awfully wounded,” recalled daughter Mary. “For reasons of state, it seems to me, President Roosevelt was out to charm Stalin, and my father was the odd man out.”

Clementine’s life was wrapped in the vibrant colors of her 56-year marriage to Winston, who died at the age of 90 in 1965. “His towering reputation across the globe was secure,” writes Purnell, in no small part because of his wife. When she placed her funeral bouquet at Bladon, the parish church near Blenheim Palace, the Churchill ancestral seat, she whispered: “I will soon be with you again.”

Four months later, Prime Minister Harold Wilson made Clementine a life peer in her own right as Baroness Spencer-Churchill of Chartwell. She proudly took her seat in the House of Lords and voted in favor of a bill abolishing capital punishment.

Although she outlived three of her children and had to sell a few of her husband’s paintings to support herself, she no longer suffered from depression or needed electroshock therapy. She lived well in London, going to the theater, attending galleries, and seeing friends. Clementine died at home at the age of 92, secure in her place alongside her husband’s monumental legacy.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

George Soros: A Life in Full

by Kitty Kelley

George Soros, now 91, cites 1944 as the best year of his life. He was 14 years old, living as a non-practicing Jew under the Nazis in Hungary, and hiding in various places throughout Budapest. His adored father had changed the family name from Schwartz to Soros, and moving from house to house, young George learned to cope with danger and live with risk.

These early life lessons, plus an education at the London School of Economics, catapulted Soros into immense personal wealth as a financial analyst. Fluency in French, German, Hungarian, and English helped him master the international markets in which he accrued that wealth. His Quantum Fund — which made $5.5 billion in 2013 — became the most successful hedge fund in history. Yet, at the age of 49, Soros decided to stop making money and start giving it away instead. In 1979, he founded his Open Society Foundation and began rewriting the definition of global philanthropy. In doing so, he changed the world.

Ascending into the philanthropic strata of billionaires, Soros soon surpassed the largesse of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, and even Bill and Melinda Gates, giving an estimated $35 billion to open up previously closed communist societies across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

It’s fascinating to read Peter L.W. Osnos’ George Soros: A Life in Full in 2022, as Vladimir Putin plunders Ukraine, and to realize how prescient Soros was in 1989 to foster openness in those former autocracies. Along with education for all, “We…need a market economy that protects minorities and we need the rule of law,” Soros has said. His foundation — which began by bankrolling a $100 million project to revive preschool education over five years — seeks to help our imperfect world achieve those very things.

Of course, closed societies don’t often enjoy being pried open, and Soros’ efforts were detested in nations where despots ruled and corruption festered, such as Angola, Suharto’s Indonesia, Peru, Zimbabwe, Malaysia, and Russia. In the past, Soros has also challenged Israel’s “racist and anti-democratic policies” and questioned whether that country is “really a democracy.” His support for progressive and liberal causes continues to make him a target of the political right, which demonizes him via anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

In 1997, after endowing Central European University in Hungary with $880 million, Soros decided to bring his Open Society Foundation to the U.S. He began in Baltimore, where he instituted fellowship programs, community development initiatives, work development programs, and job markets. Today, his foundation funds more than $250 million a year in programs and grants across the country, but Baltimore remains the flagship of his American success.

To capture Soros’ life, editor Osnos employs an interesting subgenre of biography by assigning eight writers who’ve known the man at various stages in his life to present their impressions of this survivor, philanthropist, activist, global citizen, and all-around scourge of the far right. Osnos, who founded the publishing house PublicAffairs, explored the technique in 2000 when he assigned three journalists to write a book on Putin’s ascendance to the presidency of Russia.

Now, presumably, Osnos’ goal is to make the George Soros diamond sparkle in all its facets. Unfortunately, the editor fails to edit. Perhaps he’s reluctant because he’s self-publishing this book with his wife and states that the project “has been funded by a private equity that is backed by Soros’ wealth…That money will be repaid from revenues the book accrues.” Osnos arranged to distribute the book through Harvard Business Review Press “to assure the broadest possible reach for the book in the world marketplace.”

Caveat emptor.

Some chapters overlap, duplicate information, meander off subject, and layer the reader with lengthy opinions. Sebastian Mallaby’s chapter, “The Financier,” is best read by those holding a degree in economics, while Orville Schell’s “A Network of Networks” presents a mouth-watering account of “some of the most brilliant, accomplished and engaged people on the planet” invited for luxurious weekends at Chateau Soros, described as akin to “being summoned to the court of Louis XIV.”

The book’s best chapter by far is “Philanthropy with a Vision” by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, whom Osnos introduces as “a black man and proudly gay.” Consequently, readers might expect to find something in Walker’s essay pertaining to his race and/or sexual identity. Here, the editor really ought to have edited himself because nothing in Walker’s cogent and erudite chapter reflects anything about either, only his shining admiration for a philanthropist dedicated to leaving the world a better place than he found it so many decades ago.

Thank you, Darren Walker, and God bless you, George Soros.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Nickel Boys

by Kitty Kelley

Colson Whitehead is to American literature what the Rolls-Royce is to automobiles: revered and unrivaled. Having published eight novels, two books of nonfiction, and numerous essays and short stories, the 52-year-old writer has won a MacArthur “genius” grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Booker Prize, the National Book Award, two Pulitzers, and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence, as well as a Whiting Writers Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. In addition, he made the cover of TIME in 2019 as “America’s Storyteller.”

The only accolade remaining seems to be a royal summons to Sweden for the Nobel.

In 2016, Whitehead’s eighth novel, The Underground Railroad, an allegorical tour de force about enslaved people trying to escape to freedom, thundered him to commercial success and sold over 1 million copies. He’d already started writing his next novel when he spotted a story in the Tampa Bay Times about the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in the Florida Panhandle. The segregated reform school, which opened in 1900, had finally closed in 2011.

Whitehead had never heard of the facility and was stunned to read that forensic archaeologists from the University of South Florida had discovered the unmarked graves of more than 50 African American boys on the property.

He realized then that if there was one adolescent abattoir like Dozier, “There were hundreds of others scattered across the land like pain factories,” he told the New York Times. “The survivors are never heard from and the guilty are never punished…They live to a ripe old age while their victims are damaged for life.”

The injustice rankled the author, and the subject became more urgent to Whitehead after the 2016 presidential election. Setting aside his novel-in-progress, he began investigating like the journalist he’d been at the Village Voice following his graduation from Harvard. He absorbed all the blood-stained facts surrounding the Dozier atrocity; he read reports, records, and forensic studies of the gravesites, plus accounts of solitary confinement during which Black and white boys were shackled by leg irons soldered to the floor and forced to live in their own excrement.

Many of these boys were also whipped by a three-foot-long strap called Black Beauty. Those who did not survive were dumped into dirt holes; those who did were forever haunted. They became men “with wives and ex-wives and children they did and didn’t talk to…dead in prison or decomposing in rooms they rented by the week.”

After mastering the grisly facts, the spectacular novelist within Whitehead took flight with The Nickel Boys. In this spare book — it’s just 224 pages — he bestows humanity on the unnamed victims who’d once been sodomized and beaten witless. He humanizes them in the character Elwood Curtis, an orphan who lives with his grandmother, Harriet. She toils as a cleaning lady and sleeps with a “sugarcane machete under her pillow for intruders.”

One Christmas, Harriet gives Elwood his greatest treasure: the 1962 LP “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill,” the only record he’s allowed to play. Elwood listens to the album every day and long into the night. He embraces Dr. King’s words as his guidepost for living. He believes that the long arc of the moral universe is bending towards him and will soon change his life.

That, it does — tragically.

Through no fault of his own, Elwood ends up in the hellscape of Nickel Academy, where he meets his polar opposite, a street-smart tough named Turner who thinks Elwood is hopelessly naïve. The story turns on their relationship, their joint attempt at escape, and the final honor one pays to the other.

Nickel is not Father Flanagan’s Boys Town, where “He ain’t heavy, Father. He’s my brother” was the motto. Instead, among Nickel survivors, there’s a bond of grievous horror and lives never lived:

“[They] could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place…not all of them were geniuses…but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”

For them, the long arc of the moral universe was forever out of reach.

The Nickel Boys is a novel that elevates Colson Whitehead to the pantheon alongside Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston, all of whom, too, bore witness to America’s pernicious legacy of racism and white supremacy.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Home/Land

by Kitty Kelley

Upon his death in 1938, Thomas Wolfe bequeathed to America’s literary canon a 1,100-page manuscript which, published posthumously, trumpeted a universal truth: “You can’t go home again.” Rebecca Mead now challenges the bard of Asheville, North Carolina, with her third book, Home/Land: A Memoir of Departure and Return.

A British subject who graduated from Oxford, Mead emigrated to the U.S. in 1988 on a student visa to do graduate work at New York University and stayed for 30 years. She lived in Manhattan, endured numerous cycles of “falling in love, being in love and falling out of love.” Then she met her husband, also a writer, moved to Brooklyn, had a child, and, in 2011, became an American citizen. But she did not live happily ever after.

Mead grew increasingly dismayed over Brooklyn’s urban development of rising towers that encroached on her sylvan view: “Birnam Wood was coming to Dunsinane, I thought.” Worse was the right-wing clamor of the Tea Party that arose in the wake of Barack Obama’s election. Then came a nationalistic rhetoric that spread like gangrene. Finally, roiled by dystopian fears of Donald Trump, Mead and her husband decided to flee Dunsinane with their young son. They packed 170 boxes of books and flew first class to the U.K. on one-way tickets.

Months later, in 2018, Mead, a correspondent for the New Yorker, wrote an article about her repatriation, “A New Citizen Decides to Leave the Tumult of Trump’s America.” She seemed to be road-testing the idea of a future book on “the wrenching choice to return to Britain.” In her essay, she admitted that going home was not ideal:

“London is not a utopia; housing, in particular, is debilitatingly expensive…I am under no illusions that the U.K. is a beacon of progressivism. This is a move from the fire into the frying pan at best.”

Four years later, Home/Land reflects on that frying pan and its cost in terms of adjustment and accommodation. In his British elementary school, her Brooklyn-born son observes, “Everyone is so white.”

Much of what besets the U.S. — political turbulence, gun and gang violence, and immigration issues exacerbated by the pandemic — bedevils the U.K., too, but on a much smaller scale, which provides Mead with a sense of security.

Her regrets? Her reliefs? These questions, and more, are asked and answered in penetrating detail by a writer who pans for gold and presents it many times, albeit in sentences that are long and somewhat convoluted. For example, when Mead discovers that her father, as a child, lived in London’s Camden Square, where she now lives, she writes:

“And so, as I’d stepped onto the roof deck from the bedroom of the new house the realtor took me to — fantasizing a life in which I’d emerge in the morning with a cup of coffee in my hand and survey the landscape of narrow gardens and the backs of houses before descending to spend the day at my desk — I’d unwittingly been looking directly across at windows from which my father had surely looked out as a young boy in the arms of his mother.”

She continues, “To me this collision of the past and the present of Camden Square — the invisible tracery in which the threads of my father’s life and mine have against all odds, crossed and interwoven — is charged, if not exactly with meaning, then with wonder.”

Mead enumerates the benefits of trading a noisy, jangled democracy in the U.S. for a quieter life in an island nation about to experience the upset of Brexit, which she predicts will be “dark and chaotic.” For her, Britain’s advantages appear to be free healthcare, remarkably efficient public transportation, and college tuition capped at $12,000 a year (in the U.S., it can run more than $60,000 annually).

She feels the move across the pond gives her son a larger periscope on the world, and better positions her to cover international stories for the New Yorker, as was evidenced by her recent trip to Pompeii to profile the excavation of the 79 A.D. ruins from Mount Vesuvius. “I can get on a train…in the morning and be in Amsterdam by early afternoon, having traveled through four countries before lunchtime.”

Home/Land reads like a polyglot of personal diary and literary travelogue in which a writer meanders back and forth between her youth in America, including “years of psychotherapy,” and her present life in Britain as a woman of 56, an age at which, she bemoans, she feels invisible. Mead delves into the personal by discussing menopause and her humiliation over having hot flashes and experiencing changes in her brain chemistry.

Like an archeologist, she leads readers on a literary dig across London, over the open fields of Hampstead Heath, and into Fort Greene Park to discover a mound known as Boadicea’s Grave, named for an ancient British queen. The scholar in Mead instructs readers about the monarch now known as Boudicea and her bloody uprising in 60 A.D., adding parenthetically that “the root of ‘Boudica’ is the Celtic word for victory.” For those itching to return to the present, Mead first insists on more information about the victorious Queen Boadicea as celebrated in a 19th-century poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

She then segues into Iron Age forts like Maiden Castle, where she informs readers that “ancient Britons built concentric rings of ditches and rises upon the slopes of a high saddle-backed hill, with labyrinth entry points so that when it is seen in aerial photographs the site resembles the maze toy my son once had, a wooden disk cut with circular grooves through which he tipped and twisted a steel ball bearing.” (See the warning above about lengthy sentences.)

Like any British memoirist born “lower middle class,” she also examines her country’s punishing class system and rightly applauds the state-subsidized education inaugurated in the 1980s as “the most important engine of social mobility.”

Rebecca Mead then ends her book like a pilgrim, still seeking to find her place in her new homeland.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Just Pursuit

by Kitty Kelly

With the publication of Just Pursuit, Laura Coates takes her place in a pantheon with Frank Serpico, who blew the whistle on police corruption in the 1970s. A former detective with the New York Police Department, Serpico’s public testimony led to the Knapp Commission and massive police reforms. But, as Coates writes in her second book, the corruption continues, poisoning every part of the justice system.

Serpico’s exposé led to a bestselling book and a film starring Al Pacino, as well as a TV series and a documentary. Five decades later, Coates’ Just Pursuit carries that same commercial potential as it exposes lazy lawyers, preening prosecutors, cynical cops, and judges who preside over their courtrooms like tin-horn dictators, leaving in their wake an outsized number of poor, Black people forced to stand before them.

Citing one particularly egregious example, Coates writes about a white female judge who used her time on the bench to shop a website for boots rather than listen to the young Black adolescent before her testifying about the sexual abuse she suffered for years at the hands of her mother’s live-in boyfriend.

“Skipping down the center aisle, [the youngster approached] the witness stand in an above-the-knee skirt, breasts bouncing unrestrained,” writes Coates. “She giggled as she raised her right hand…She tugged at her skirt…the skirt buckled along her hips, slightly twisting her zipper…she slouched and tugged again at her skirt on one side…She rubbed her glossed lips together.”

Immediately, Coates knows the case is lost. “The judge’s focused glare on the child’s appearance said everything,” she writes. Still, Coates hopes she’s wrong, staying in the courtroom to find out. Sadly, the judge meets Coates’ expectations and lacerates the victim: “No one who has been raped, even a young teenager, would have skipped down the aisle of the courtroom dressed like that…her clothes were ill-fitting and she was not even wearing the appropriate undergarments, not even tights.”

Coates hung her head in sorrow, “unable to watch this child try to understand what about herself had warranted such contempt.”

Not every one of the 15 chapters in this book is equally weighted but each carries the heavy load of racism that Coates saw during her seven years as an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Writing with verve and style, she relates her experience as a poll watcher in “a small town somewhere in Mississippi” during Obama’s second presidential campaign.

“The Deep South made me nervous,” Coates admits, as she walked into the same territory where the KKK once bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young Black girls attending Sunday school; where Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated; and where 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. A Black female poll watcher in Mississippi, even in the 21st century, must feel like a Bengal tiger walking into a gun store.

It’s unnerving to read about the precautions Coates felt she had to take to be safe on that trip. Pulling into a sit-down restaurant, she scans the menu “to find whatever food would easily show if someone tampered with it. Nothing with gravy or sauce or anything else that covers someone’s spit under a bun. Something fried, served so hot it would kill the bacteria, was always the best option.” At the hotel, she elects to take the elevator a few floors. “I didn’t want to risk getting trapped in the stairs.”

In some chapters, Just Pursuit reads like a personal diary, such as when mother-to-be Coates experiences her first pregnancy. Walking into a courtroom to try a case, she stops to take a call from her OB-GYN, who tells her that tests show the fetus has an elevated alpha‑fetoprotein level, indicating spina bifida.

Coates tries to steady herself. “Don’t worry,” says the physician. “You’re still within the range to terminate your pregnancy. You want to call me after your trial? We can talk more then.” Raw and vulnerable, Coates lashes out. “Do you have any idea how heartless that just was? Why would you tell me that news in that way?”

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” the physician apologizes. “I just knew you didn’t have much time and you always seem so matter-of-fact.” Up to this point in the book, the doctor is correct: Coates has presented herself as she now appears on CNN — head-of-the-class smart and tensile tough, with a bit of suffer-no-fools impatience. At that time, though, you could almost hear her echo Sojourner Truth’s lament: “Ain’t I a woman?”

Coates does not reveal how she resolved that first pregnancy, but in later chapters, she discusses giving birth to her son and being pregnant again with a daughter. Nursing mothers who work (and their husbands) will relate to her various mentions of “pumping” and “keeping at least five full bottles [of milk] during my workday” and “drinking water incessantly to keep up with my milk supply.”

Having children seems to have changed the hard-charging prosecutor. “When I first became a prosecutor, I had thought each case could represent a dot on the arc that Dr. King hoped would bend toward justice,” she writes. “Now, I wondered if I was bending the arc of justice or breaking it, and I was afraid the justice system might just break me.”

Nor does she look back on her years of public service with pride:

“[T]he collective memories of trauma are so overwhelming that I fear I might lose myself if I don’t fill my time. The violence didn’t happen to me. But it…eviscerated me…and I still grapple with the scars of secondary trauma.”

Laura Coates once believed that justice was binary, achievable, and universally understood. No longer. Her experience has shown her a grotesque, twisted system corrupted by racism that needs to be reformed. She offers no solutions, but she supports her premise in horrific detail: “[T]he pursuit of justice creates injustice.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books