by Kitty Kelley
Shakespeare set the gold standard for honoring a beloved comedian no longer alive. In Act 5 of Hamlet, when the Prince of Denmark sees the skull of his father’s court jester, he nearly weeps: “Alas poor Yorick…A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…”
And now, in Robin, we come to another man of merriment — a comedic genius who has, unfortunately, been buried in a turgid biography. Melancholy suffuses this book like a shroud, but perhaps that’s because the 2014 suicide of Robin Williams still saddens those of us once dazzled by his ricocheting brilliance, his hilarious humor, his raucous one-man shows, and many of his movies, particularly Good Morning, Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society, and Good Will Hunting, which earned him the Oscar for best supporting actor.
As his friend Billy Crystal said the first time he saw Robin Williams perform: “Oh, my god. What is this? It was like trying to catch a comet with a baseball glove.”
Alas, poor Robin. While your star shines, your biographer shambles.
Granted, the challenge of writing about someone of sparkling talent is daunting, but there’s no excuse for plodding prose from “a culture reporter for The New York Times,” which is how the author, Dave Itzkoff, identifies himself on the back of the book.
On page eight, Itzkoff describes a photograph of Williams’ mother: “Even in this black-and-white image, the soft sparkle of her blue eyes is unmistakable.” Later he writes: “Still, there were lessons that Juilliard could not teach Robin…itches it could not scratch.”
Itzkoff continues scratching in another chapter: “After all the extravagant ambitions he had chased in show business and all the self-indulgent itches he had been able to scratch, none of which had led to his finding fulfillment, maybe this was what he truly wanted in life — maybe becoming a father is what would finally make him happy.”
The first few times Itzkoff mentions Williams wearing “rainbow suspenders,” I noted the colorful detail and remembered he had made them a fashion trend in 1978 with his breakout performance in the sitcom Mork and Mindy on network television.
By the fifth and sixth mention of “rainbow suspenders,” I wondered what I was missing. Was Itzkoff perseverating? His editor dozing? Were “rainbow suspenders” supposed to be Robin’s Rosebud? Did he wear them for good luck? To support the LGBTQ movement? I still don’t know.
By the age of 35, Dave Itzkoff had written two memoirs about himself, recalling his father’s cocaine addiction, his own drug use, and his attempted suicide, which presumably sensitized him to the addictions that plagued Williams, who was open about his struggles with drugs and alcohol, and frequently used them to fuel his comedy. He told audiences:
“I believe that cocaine is God’s way of saying you’re making too much money.”
“The only difference between me and a leprechaun is I snorted my pot of gold.”
“An alcoholic is someone who violates their standards faster than they can lower them.”
By contrast, discussing his decision to finally get sober, which he was for the last eight years of his life, Williams said: “I had to stop drinking alcohol because I used to wake up nude on the hood of my car with my keys in my ass. Not a good thing.”
When his second wife divorced him because of his extra-marital affairs, Williams said, “I’ve learned this: There’s (sic) penalties for early withdrawal and depositing in another account.”
Itzkoff covers all the biographical bases: Williams’ lonely childhood, his family’s many moves, his imaginary playmates, aloof parents, different schools, bullying, and the fear of disapproval and rejection, plus a bottomless need to please and perform, to be noticed and applauded.
No surprise that the best lines in the book belong to Williams, who psychoanalyzed himself better than anyone could: “I don’t think I’ll ever be the type that goes, ‘I am now at one with myself’…therapy helps…it makes you reexamine your life, how you related to people. How far you can push the ‘like me’ desire before there’s nothing left of you to like.”
Williams joked that he had to work nonstop because divorce was expensive, but the book makes clear that he worked for the same reason a dervish whirls — he had to. As one friend said, “He operated on working. That was the true love of his life. Above his children, above everything. If he wasn’t working he was a shell of himself. When he worked, it was like a lightbulb was turned on.”
Robin Williams turned the lightbulb off on August 11, 2014, when he hung himself by a leather belt. Months before, he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, leading many to assume that depression prompted his suicide. But three months later, the Marin County Sheriff’s office released the autopsy report, showing that Williams suffered from “diffuse Lewy body dementia,” a toxic, devastating brain disorder for which there is no cure or control.
“Robin was aware that he was losing his mind and there was nothing he could do about it,” said one of his doctors. Billy Crystal said: “My heart breaks that he suffered and only saw one way out.”
Williams left behind one widow, two ex-wives, three children, and an estate worth $20-$50 million, which was litigated by some of the above. He left the rest of us a legacy of laughter but feeling as desolate as Hamlet over Yorick: “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table in a roar?”
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Nothing sells like sex, diets, and the Kennedys. A book entitled How JFK Made Love to Marilyn Monroe on 150 Calories a Day would zoom to instant success. Just ask J. Randy Taraborrelli, who’s been mining two of those veins for the last 20 years and claims “many New York Times best sellers” to his credit.
In 2000, he wrote Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot, which became a two-part TV series on NBC in 2001. He wrote After Camelot in 2012, and he now offers Jackie, Janet & Lee: The Secret Lives of Janet Auchincloss and Her Daughters Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill.
Spoiler alert: He adores Jackie and abhors Lee. The big reveal, according to his publisher’s press release, is that (supposedly) their mother performed do-it-yourself artificial insemination to get pregnant twice after she divorced their father and married her second husband, Hugh D. Auchincloss.
Janet was 37; Hugh was 58, and he had had three children by two previous wives. Yet we’re told to believe that Mr. Auchincloss was incapable of impregnating Mrs. Auchincloss in 1945 and again in 1947. And — hang on — we’re told why: “Even though Hugh was not able to sustain an erection, he was able to produce sperm…[and Janet] used a kitchen utensil along the lines of a turkey baster — though it would be incorrect to say that this was the specific instrument she used; no one can quite remember…”
With eyes popping, I turned to the chapter notes for documentation on this “never before revealed secret.” Under source notes for “Janet’s Unconventional Pregnancy,” Taraborrelli writes: “Because of the sensitive nature of this chapter, my interviewed sources asked to remain anonymous.”
With Mr. and Mrs. Auchincloss deceased for many years, I wondered what possible “sources” could’ve been interviewed about the intimacies of their bedroom. No documentation is provided, other than the author’s note that he recycles sources from his previous books. Then, like a bird feathering its nest, he snatches twigs and wisps from newspapers, magazines, and tabloids while plucking from the vast trove of other published lore, which Jill Abramson, in the New York Times, once estimated to be 40,000 Kennedy books.
In this book, some readers might be troubled by the lack of attribution for “she felt,” “he thought,” “said an intimate,” “revealed an associate,” “confided an employee,” and “reported someone with knowledge of the situation.”
Others might be puzzled by the personal quotes Taraborrelli does attribute, particularly a story about Janet giving Lee a check for $650,000, saying: “For any time I ever let you down, I’m very sorry. Maybe this small gift will make your life a little easier. I love you, Lee.”
Taraborrelli follows with: “We don’t know Lee’s reaction; she’s never discussed it and only she and Janet were in the room at the time the gift was presented.” So how is it that Taraborrelli, who was not in the room, can gives us Janet’s exact words?
Perhaps the quotes come secondhand from Taraborrelli’s main source for this book: James “Jamie” Auchincloss, the 71-year-old son of the aforementioned parents and the half-brother of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill, although Taraborrelli tells us: “[H]e never refers to Jackie and Lee as ‘halfs.’”
Full disclosure: I interviewed Jamie Auchincloss several times in 1975 when I was writing a biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. That book, Jackie Oh!, received attention because my interview with former Florida senator George Smathers was the first time a Kennedy intimate had gone on the record to discuss the president’s extra-marital affairs.
During our three-hour interview in his law office, Smathers also confirmed that Jacqueline Kennedy had received electroshock therapy for depression after losing her first child, Arabella, in 1956. Published 20 years later, my book also revealed for the first time the prefrontal lobotomy performed on the Kennedys’ eldest daughter, Rosemary, who was severely diminished by the surgery, and, as a result, spent the rest of her life in the care of the nuns at St. Coletta’s in Wisconsin.
While Jamie Auchincloss was not the source for those revelations, he did speak openly about his famous relatives and, unfortunately, he paid a price. Appearing on Charlie Rose’s local DC talk show a few years later, he said that Jackie stopped speaking to him after my book was published, much as she had with others whom she felt had shared too much personal information about the late president, including Ben Bradlee, who wrote Conversations with Kennedy, and Paul “Red” Fay, JFK’s Navy buddy, author of The Pleasure of His Company. When Fay sent his royalty check to the Kennedy Library, Jackie sent it back.
A few years ago, Jamie Auchincloss plunged from the height of being the 6-year-old page boy who carried the wedding train of his sister’s gown when she married John F. Kennedy to the scandal of being jailed at age 67 for the possession of child pornography. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to distributing what prosecutors called lewd and lascivious images, and was charged with two felony counts for encouraging child sexual abuse.
He spent Christmas 2010 in jail. Failing to cooperate with his court-ordered sex offender treatment program, he was sentenced to eight months in jail, serving just over half the time behind bars and the rest in home detention. He was put on probation for three years and ordered to stay away from children for the rest of his life and to register as a sex offender.
Taraborrelli writes that “this unfortunate turn in Jamie’s life in no way impacts his standing in history or his memories of growing up with his parents…and siblings…Or his brothers-in-law, Jack, Bobby, and Ted Kennedy. The times I spent with Jamie were memorable; I appreciate him so much. He also provided many photographs for this book.”
If you’re a reader who requires corroborated information and credible sourcing in your nonfiction, this book may give you pause. Then again, if your requirements are less stringent, you might enjoy the photographs.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
If you’re into pop culture, you’ll inhale Avedon: Something Personal by Norma Stevens and Steven M.L. Aronson, which drops more names in 700 pages than a prison rollcall.
If you recognize Kate and Naomi and Veruschka and Christy as first-name fashion models, you might pay $40 for the book, but you won’t see any of Richard Avedon’s acclaimed work for Bazaar or Vogue in it. You’ll read about “his iconic image of Dovima and the elephants,” but you won’t see why the image is iconic.
You’ll learn that Calvin Klein paid Avedon “three million in 1980 dollars” ($9.6 million in 2018 dollars) for the famous ad campaign showing a young Brooke Shields in an unbuttoned blouse and blue jeans saying, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.”
But, again, no photo.
Astonishingly, this biography of a world-renowned photographer contains none of his photographs.
Avedon was as celebrated for his black-and-white portraits as his fashion photography, but unless you know his work, you won’t understand why these portraits raised the ire of some of his subjects, like Truman Capote, whose “puffy-faced” image is described but not shown.
And neither are Avedon’s “vaunted picture of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor,” described as “two people without a country and without a soul,” and the photographer’s “highly controversial” and “fraught” portraits taken “relentlessly” of his terminally ill father during the months he was dying.
There are snapshots by others throughout the book, but none by Avedon himself. Apparently, this omission is because his images are controlled by the Avedon Foundation, which did not bless the book. In fact, the foundation issued a statement blasting the biography as filled with factual errors (some 200) and fantastical stories, which it claimed could damage Avedon’s legacy.
His son, John, called the book “a collection of half-truths or outright falsehoods,” particularly the last scene in which he prepared a meal and mistakenly sprinkled his deceased father’s ashes, rather than oregano, on the food.
A high school dropout who gravitated to intellectuals, Avedon was the beloved only son of an adoring Jewish mother. He loved theater and film and appeared to have read widely, as was evidenced by the nameplate on his building, which identified him as Dr. Aziz, the emotional character in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, whose quicksilver moods lifted him to heights of exuberance and cast him into the depths of despair.
“Avedon chafed at being defined a ‘fashion photographer,’ and longed to reign in the pantheon of artistes. To this end he published heavy books of his portraiture, staged gallery exhibitions and mounted museum openings, his proudest being twice honored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet by the age of 75, he felt burned out creatively. He agonized over losing his focus, drive and energy, despite daily infusions of amphetamines and sleeping pills. Still, he never lost sight of his financial worth, saying: ‘Money is the only power in the world, and that’s my belief.’
“He once billed the New Yorker for over $1 million in expenses and sent his collected receipts in a large Tiffany box. He considered Qatar’s Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed bin Ali al-Thani to be his own ‘ATM on legs,’ and charged him ‘many millions’ for personal photography.”
The book’s most startling revelation is the 10-year love affair between Avedon and the director Mike Nichols. Despite their marriages to women (two wives for Avedon; four for Nichols, including his widow, Diane Sawyer), the men once considered leaving their spouses and running away together.
Avedon later confided to author Stevens that he could not publicly declare himself as gay because his self-proclaimed stature as “the world’s greatest photographer” would be diminished, and there was nothing he cared more about than his star in the stratosphere. “You do it, after I’m gone,” he told her. Stevens obliged — and then some. She retold his stories about “innocent kissing” with James Baldwin and youthful sexual encounters with his sister and his cousin.
This intimate biography draws on the recollections of Stevens and her 30 years with Avedon as his studio director and confidante, as well as oral histories from friends, associates, and a few disgruntled employees, all of whom acknowledge his creative genius as well as his relentless drive for national recognition.
Despite the bad blood between the foundation and the authors, which comes across clearly in the former’s public statement, nothing contested by the foundation rises to the level of libel, even allowing for no chapter notes indicating where the facts in the narration come from — no diaries, journals, or correspondence are cited as documentation.
Consumed by his legacy, Avedon counted the words in the death notices of his rivals and wondered if he’d get more or fewer. Particularly sad was his obsession over how the New York Times would cover his final exit. “Will I make the front page…Will I be above the fold?” To this end, he sent the newspaper annual but unbidden obituary updates listing his latest shows and exhibits.
Richard Avedon, 81, died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on assignment in San Antonio, Texas. The Times reported his death on the front page — below the fold.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
If Linda Greenhouse is “just a journalist,” then Secretariat is just a horse. With a Phi Beta Kappa key from Radcliffe (1968) and a Pulitzer Prize (1998) “for her consistently illuminating coverage of the United States Supreme Court” for the New York Times, Greenhouse is the gold standard of journalism.
(Full disclosure: Greenhouse is a friend, and I admire her — personally and professionally. She’s the woman so many would like to be: smart, accomplished, and principled.)
Her book, Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between, not so much memoir as treatise, took root from a set of lectures she delivered in 2015 at her alma mater about the role of a journalist as a public person and a private citizen. She used herself as an example to pose provocative questions about the shifting boundaries in journalism and whether the old shibboleths remain effective in the 21st century, especially prescient now that we’re in the era of Donald J. Trump and his “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
Sparking her reflections on the subject was her personal experience following a speech she gave after receiving her college’s highest honor, the Radcliffe Medal. It was 2006, during the second term of George W. Bush, when, she told her audience, “Our government had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib…and let’s not forget the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.”
She also talked about how the world had in some important ways gotten better, especially in the workplace for women and through the Supreme Court’s recognition of gay men and lesbians’ rights to “dignity” and “respect.”
Greenhouse took heat for expressing herself on these matters of verifiable fact, all part of the public record and covered in depth by the media. She did not reveal state secrets or endanger national security. She simply offered her opinion on the world at that time. Still, her peers pounced.
National Public Radio’s website ran a story headlined “Critics Question Reporter’s Airing of Personal Views.” Among the critics was the Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, who was shocked — shocked! (Like Claude Raines in “Casablanca.”) The dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland pronounced her remarks “ill-advised.”
The former chair of the Pulitzer Prize board executive committee said, “The reputation of Greenhouse’s newspaper is at stake when the reporter expresses her strong beliefs publicly.”
The coup de grace was delivered by her own newspaper, whose public editor recommended she not cover the Supreme Court on topics she addressed in her speech. “Ms. Greenhouse has an over-riding obligation to avoid publicly expressing these kinds of personal opinions…[and] giving the paper’s critics fresh opportunities to snipe at its public policy coverage.”
They all sounded like Chicken Little, convinced the sky was going to fall on the New York Times because one of its reporters had expressed herself on public policy. Actually, the sky had fallen two years before, when Jayson Blair was forced to resign from the newspaper for fabricating or plagiarizing half of the 72 stories he had written.
The newsroom was still reeling from that debacle, which may have been why no one stepped forward to defend Greenhouse for telling the truth. She was like the child in the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale who called out the emperor for not wearing clothes. (To the Times’ credit, she continued covering the court until she retired in 2008, when she accepted an offer to teach at the Yale Law School.)
Greenhouse blows holes through the current theory of objectivity that journalists are expected to maintain — to have no private opinions or support any private causes. According to these old rules, journalists should not contribute to their community because it might reflect negatively on their employer or tempt others to see bias in their work. Leonard Downie took this to pious extremes when he was executive editor of the Washington Post and announced that he would not vote and would stop having “private opinions about politicians or issues.”
He felt that would give him a completely open mind in supervising the newspaper’s coverage, and I suppose it would in Brigadoon. But what about the real world, where journalists might want to participate in parent-teacher associations, volunteer for community organizations, contribute to nonprofits, and — God help us — register to vote?
Greenhouse asks how journalists can be objective in their coverage by adhering to “he said, she said” reporting, as if there are only two sides to every story, when, in fact, there are usually several. Under deadline, reporters, trying to be neutral, frequently run to official sources to get their quotes for “on the one hand, on the other hand” presentations. The advocates’ words could be lies or, to use the newspaper euphemism, “factual untruths,” or benign lobbying for their particular causes.
If their words come to the reader without context or correction, they gain credibility for simply being quoted in the news. Hardly neutral reporting. In fact, just the opposite, as these journalists, striving to be fair and balanced, are, according to Greenhouse, doing what they most dread —deferring to power.
Normally, a journalist writing about journalism is like a golfer writing about golf; interesting only to those who play the game. In this case, though, we’ve got a Babe Didrikson Zaharias holding forth on a subject for which she holds the field, and her subject is not “just” journalism, as if journalism is a mere incidental that can be shrugged off with indifference.
In arguing for more context in reporting, Greenhouse echoes the wisdom of Felix Frankfurter, who said: “The responsibility of those in power is not to reflect inflamed public feeling but to help form its understanding.”
While her questions are provocative and meant to be pondered, her style is cool, analytical, and without hyperbole. She writes with restraint and offers no harsh criticism of her former employer. To the contrary, she recognizes the premier position the New York Times holds and wants nothing more than for the paper of record to excel in its mission to inform.
Journalism affects all of us — locally, nationally, internationally. For it’s through journalists that we learn what’s happening in our world and how to traverse its shoals. Journalists are our eyes and ears, and without seeing and hearing, we’d be blind and deaf, unable to function. Linda Greenhouse’s little 192-page book is a big contribution and deserves our attention.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Hotels can intrigue, even captivate. In the pantheon of places, nothing tantalizes so much as a good story situated in a hotel, particularly a luxury hotel with hot- and cold-running bellhops, genuflecting valets, and chandeliers that drip with crystal. (Think the Metropol in A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.)
Built on superstition, few hotels have a 13th floor — most elevators go from 12 to 14 — but each floor can hold secrets, whether dreadful or delightful. As such, hotels have been the subject of movies (“Grand Hotel” with Greta Garbo; “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” with Judi Dench); novels (Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner); children’s books (Eloise at the Plaza by Kay Thompson); a rollicking BBC television series (“The Duchess of Duke Street,” the story of the king’s mistress, who owned the Cavendish Hotel in London); and even an Elvis Presley classic (“Heartbreak Hotel”).
Hotel sites beguile, possibly because they provide escapes from the real world and adventures for the escapees, which translates into vicarious pleasure for the rest of us.
Whether fact or fiction, the standard recipe for a good hotel story contains basic ingredients:
1 lb. Scandal
1 c. Sex
2 c. Eccentric guests
1 dash Crime
1 pinch Skullduggery
For added spice, mix in two cups of chopped celebrity and bake for 350 pages. Voila. You’ve got the perfect hotel-story soufflé.
Joseph Rodota followed this recipe to write his first book, The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address. For scandal, crime, and skullduggery, he provides the 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, which, in turn, spawned a great film, “All the President’s Men.”
For eccentricity, Rodota showcases Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixon’s attorney general, and her midnight phone calls. Freshly sprung from a psychiatric ward in New York to move to Washington with her husband after Nixon’s inauguration, Martha soon gave hilarious definition to drinking and dialing. Belting back bourbon late at night, she frequently called Helen Thomas, UPI’s White House correspondent, to unload on “Mr. President.”
For eccentric good measure and a smidge of sex, Rodota also tosses in the Chinese hostess (cue Anna Chennault) who served “concubine chicken” at her Watergate dinner parties.
From John F. Kennedy to John Mitchell to the johns who paid for prostitutes, this book drops more names than a prison roll call. With the exception of Monica Lewinsky, who lived in her mother’s Watergate apartment in the 1990s, where she hung the blue dress that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, most of the dropped names are Nixon-era Republicans (Senators Elizabeth and Bob Dole), Rosemary Woods, and cabinet members like Maurice Stans, John Volpe, and Emil “Bus” Mosbacher.
With skillful research from old newspapers and magazines, oral histories from presidential libraries, and a few interviews, Rodota has fashioned an interesting story about the white concrete edifice that looks like a giant clamshell. With three buildings of wrap-around co-op apartments terraced with egg-carton balustrades, the Watergate, facing the Potomac River, sits adjacent to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
To tell his story from the beginning, Rodota burrows into the complicated bureaucracy that surrounds any major construction in the nation’s capital. He whacks through the weeds of proposals and counter-proposals from the financiers, architects, and developers to the National Capital Planning Commission, the DC Zoning Commission, the National Park Service, the Commission on Fine Arts, the committee overseeing the National Cultural Center (later to be named the Kennedy Center), the U.S. Congress, and, finally, the White House. All had to reach agreement before a shovel broke ground.
Beginning in 1962, numerous hearings were held to discuss plans for Watergate Towne, a complex that would include a gourmet restaurant, spa, beauty salon, grocery store, liquor store, cleaners, florist, bakery, and a boutique of designer clothes for women. Still, there was concern, especially over the project’s financing and what the Kennedy White House called “the Catholic problem.”
As the first Catholic to be elected president — and only by 100,000 votes — John F. Kennedy knew his religion was problematic to many. As president, he genuinely wanted to make Washington “a more beautiful and functional city,” which the Watergate project promised to do. But he would not sign off on the $50 million proposal because it was largely underwritten by the Vatican, then the principal shareholder in the developing company Società Generale Immobiliare.
The formidable columnist Drew Pearson stoked controversy over “popism” with a syndicated column headlined: “Vatican Seeks Imposing Edifice on Potomac.” A group called Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State mobilized its members.
Within weeks, the White House received more than 3,000 letters opposing construction of the Watergate and, according to one, “having Miami Beach come to Washington.” Most voiced outrage that Kennedy would be under clerical pressure to do the bidding of “the world’s richest church.” The Vatican soon divested its interest in the project, and, by November 22, 1963, most objections were muted.
Probably because there is no breaking news in Rodota’s book, his publisher sent a letter to editors and producers trying to burnish the fact that “The Vatican, the coal miners of Britain, and Ronald Reagan have something in common: They each owned a piece of the Watergate. Ronald Reagan held a financial stake in the Watergate complex shortly before becoming president, a fact that has never been made public before this book.”
Wowza! Stop the presses!
Yet the author does a good job of mixing historical facts with personal anecdotes to tell the story of what was both the most famous and most infamous hotel in Washington, DC, until the presidential election of 2016. Perhaps Rodota will follow this book with another hotel story entitled Tales from the Trump International, which might indeed provide some needed wowza.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
The British excel as diarists, the most famous being Samuel Pepys, followed by James Boswell (the biographer of Dr. Johnson), and Virginia Woolf, the beacon of the Bloomsbury Group. Currently, Alan Bennett, 83, reigns supreme.
Now comes Tina Brown pawing at that pedestal with The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992, which chronicles her glory days as the English editor who came to America to revive the magazine, and later to resuscitate the New Yorker. For this she deserves heaps of Yankee praise.
Once I got my mitts on her book, I did what everyone will do: I turned to the index. Back in 1989, I was lucky enough to be selected along with Ted Turner, Diane Sawyer, Steven Spielberg, and others (plus the tombstone of Andy Warhol) as part of “the Media Decade” in Vanity Fair’s Hall of Fame. Each of us was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, who signed and sent originals of the shots as Christmas presents. I was curious to see if the diaries mentioned that 40-page spread in the magazine.
Flipping to the back of the book, I see one entry on page 347 about “the biggest media influencers” of the era. Wowza. There I am. Whoops. “Trashy Biographer Kitty Kelley.” But I’m not alone. Similar smackdowns await others.
Brown zings Jerry Zipkin, “always in high malice mode” as “Nancy Reagan’s viperish portly walker.” She cuffs Charlotte Curtis, the New York Times editor, as “unbearable,” adding, “What a bogus grandee she is, a coiffed asparagus, exuding second-rate intellectualism.”
She bashes Oscar de la Renta as a “conniving bastard,” but after a kiss-and-make-up lunch, she sees “a nicer side of Oscar at last.” Arnold Scaasi is “the dreaded frock miester,” and Richard Holbrooke “an egregious social climber.”
After inviting Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to a dinner party in honor of Clark Clifford, Brown dings the former First Lady (“Jackie Yo!”) as “crazed,” writing: “I felt if you left her alone, she’d be in front of a mirror, screaming.” Then she zaps Onassis for “understated malice” in not “writing me a thank you note.”
Midway through these diaries, you might think that most of Brown’s roadkill has been gathered up and gone to the angels. Given the passage of time, some attrition among the grandees of Gecko greed is understandable, but one wonders if Brown would’ve disparaged Si Newhouse, her billionaire benefactor at Conde Nast, as “a hamster,” an insecure “gerbil” frequently in “chipmunk mode,” if he were still alive. Safely dead, he gets blasted for having “no balls at all” because he caved to Nancy Reagan’s request to see Vanity Fair’s profile of her and the president before publication.
Read on, though, and you’ll see that Brown’s slingshot takes equal aim at those not yet consigned to the cemetery. Kurt Vonnegut’s photographer wife, Jill Krementz, is zapped for “extreme pushiness”; Henry Kissinger “is a rumbling old Machiavelli”; Peter Duchin “name drop[s] at deafening volume”; Robert Gottlieb, Brown’s predecessor at the New Yorker, is “a preposterous snob”; and Clint Eastwood is an excruciating bore.
“How could one be bored after one course with the world’s biggest heartthrob?” she asks. “I was.”
She cuffs her former friend Sally Quinn for disinviting her to Ben Bradlee’s birthday party because of Vanity Fair’s book review by Christopher Buckley, who characterized Quinn’s first novel as “cliterature.” Sally was “wild with fury,” Brown writes, a bit puzzled that “the sharpshooter journalist,” who had once libeled Zbigniew Brzezinski, would be so sensitive.
(In a profile for the Washington Post, Quinn wrote that Brzezinski, then national security advisor to President Carter, had unzipped his fly during an interview with a female reporter from People, which Quinn claimed had been captured by a photographer. The next day, the Washington Post retracted her false story: “Brzezinski did not commit such an act, and there is no picture of him doing so.”)
Brown does not chop with a cleaver. She wields her scalpel with surgical precision, blood-letting with small, incisive cuts. She doesn’t linger over the corpse, either. In fact, in these diaries, she jumps from mourning the death of a friend one day to tra-la-la-ing the next as she sits with Vogue’s Anna Wintour, drawing up guest lists for yet another dinner party.
Brown makes intriguing entries about New York’s new-money barons, particularly Donald Trump, who keeps a collection of Hitler’s speeches in his office. On February 23, 1990, she writes that Trump, in between wife number one and two, is “having a fling with a well-known New York socialite. If true, this could give Trump what money can’t buy — the silver edge of class.”
Alas, she doesn’t reveal the name of the silver belle, but she does relate that Trump, enraged by Marie Brenner’s 1988 takedown of him in Vanity Fair, sneaks behind her at a black-tie gala and pours a glass of wine down her back.
One marvels at Brown’s indefatigable energy as she sprints from breakfast with Barry Diller to lunch with Norman Mailer to dinner with the Kissingers. Every day, every night: the parties, the premieres, the galas, the spas, the stylists, the hairdressers, the designers, the limousines. Even she admits exhaustion at her frantic drive to see and be seen — all in service to her role as editor, of course.
These diaries are a celebrity drive-by of the great and the good and, sprinkled with high and low culture, are written with style but little humor, save for the night the newly arrived London editor attended her first Manhattan cocktail party and met Shirley MacLaine.
“What do you do?” Brown asked the movie star. This is laugh-out-loud funny, except to someone who’s laughed in many previous lives. MacLaine was not amused. Upon meeting Lana Turner when the MGM siren was 62, Brown, then 29, decides to “get a piece done that uses her [Turner] as a prism for all the glamorous stars who age without pity.”
The British writer Graham Boynton, who applauds Brown’s high-octane journalism, wrote affectionately in the Telegraph about her early days editing Vanity Fair. Reading a submitted draft for the Christmas issue, she scribbled, “Beef it up, Singer.” Boynton recalled, “It had to be tactfully explained to her that Isaac Bashevis Singer was a Nobel Prize winner for literature.”
I’m knocked out by these diaries, marveling that they were written at the time in such perfect prose. Do all her sentences fall to the page like rose petals in a summer breeze? No editing? No rewriting? No tweaking? If so, this “trashy biographer” genuflects. (My own diaries read like the daily romps of an unhinged mind scrambling for cruise control.)
Diaries provide a psychological X-ray of the diarist, an unintentional autobiography of sorts, and these entries show a woman of immense talent consumed with her dazzling career. And as tough as she is (and must be) in a man’s world, her feminist self resents being dismissed.
When Ad Age demeans her as a “starlet wanting to play Juliet,” she punches back. It’s “fucking sexist crap,” she writes. “Women get stuck with being trivialized and just have to smile.”
Flicking off such criticism like a fuzzball from cashmere, Tina Brown smiles all the way to the bank and then rockets upward, leaving the rest of us in her high-heeled wake
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
Vanity Fair December 1989
The 1989 Hall of Fame – The Media Decade
Star Sleuth Kitty Kelley
“Catty Kitty stalked the four great beasts of the celebrity jungle—Jackie, Nancy, Liz and Frank. Doing it her way, she clawed past hostile flacks and stonewalling cronies….”
by Kitty Kelley
This slim novel by Gaute Heivoll, translated by Nadia Christensen, presents the life of a couple we know only as Papa and Mama, who built a home in southern Norway for themselves, their two children, and several “boobies,” the term used by the children’s mentally deficient uncle, Josef, to describe the five deranged siblings who come to live with them at the end of World War II.
The siblings — two sisters and three brothers — barely able to function, are taken from an apartment heaped with garbage, mouse-eaten mattresses, and piles of human waste after their parents are declared unfit.
They are saved from being institutionalized when Papa and Mama sign a contract to provide for their care in exchange for a small stipend from the state. The children arrive on a cold snowy evening in February 1945. Watching them get out of the car, Uncle Josef says, “So these are the new crazies.”
Telling the family’s story 50 years later, after Papa and Mama have died, is the surviving son, who knows that working with the mentally disabled was what gave meaning to his parents’ lives, particularly to his father, who had worked for 11 years at a psychiatric hospital.
“That was when I felt alive,” Papa said about the time he spent caring for youngsters, who howled like wolves, and adults could not sit up or feed themselves. It was also where he met Mama, a nurse working in the women’s unit. After they married, they dedicated their lives, according to their son, to caring for the mentally incapacitated “in a Christlike spirit of love.”
At that time, Norway was considered a Christian country, even though statistics show that regular church attendance was, and still is, as low as five percent. Although no longer formally designated as Christian, the Viking kingdom is progressive on issues of morality, and this novel, translated from Norwegian, is a powerful testament to humanity — a tribute to those unique individuals who care for the most fragile among us.
That noble grace of charity is rarely found, even among princes of the church, as the novel underscores when a new minister visits Papa and Mama at home. The pastor is so shaken by “the madhouse” he sees that when he stands at the pulpit the following Sunday, he tells his congregation, which includes Papa and Uncle Josef, about his visit, and suggests that the drooling, incoherent people he met were sub-human-like animals:
“The incident made Papa furious…After that he often spoke about [it]. Still indignant, yet lenient, as if the whole thing had been a misunderstanding. Of course, they were human. They were happy children. God wanted them to be happy children.”
Stipend or no stipend, how many people of modest means living in a harsh climate with no amenities would open their homes to the deranged and fold them into their family? Answering that question for yourself will draw you into the heart of this story, with its small joys and immense tragedy.
Soon, you begin to care about the characters, including the man-child who sits in the yard under an ash tree in the same spot on the same stool staring into space every day for more than 20 years. “No one took his spot, and no one knew what he had seen. The shimmering light from imprisoned souls. Or only clouds and sky, wind and nothing.”
At times, I caught my breath in sadness over the mentally impaired in this story who grow old but never grow up, especially a young girl named Ingrid, one of the five siblings, who cannot speak but listens intently and seems to comprehend on a visceral level.
She howls when she feels psychic pain like she does when told her older brother and sister are being taken to be sterilized. “We understood that an important event was going to occur, but once the word was mentioned, it wasn’t explained or discussed further.” Neither to the children nor to the reader.
For those unfamiliar with Norway, the places mentioned — Tordenskjoldsgata, Brandsvoll, Naerlandsheimen, etc. — might require a map, but the atmospheric descriptions of majestic glaciers, deep fjords, and dense, snow-laden forests suggest a country of wondrous nature which author Heivoll obviously loves. He tells his story with unadorned prose that sometimes shimmers. When Uncle Josef sees snow falling from the sky, he says, “The angels are dancing until their feathers fly.”
The title of the book comes from a crate filled with oranges that came across the China Sea and ended up in the attic of Norway’s psychiatric hospital, where Papa finds it and decides to use it as a bed for the children he has with Mama. Perhaps that sturdy crate is a metaphor for the patchwork family that manages to endure one of life’s greatest tragedies and find a patch of blue sky.
When I came to the poignant end of the novel, I thought of William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize address in which he spoke of “a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something that did not exist before.”
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books.
by Kitty Kelley
I picked up The President Will See You Now, a memoir by Peggy Grande of her 10 years with Ronald Reagan after he left the White House in 1989, with misgivings. Since that time, more than 500 biographies and staff memoirs of Reagan have been published, in addition to his own autobiography and 15 volumes of his Presidential Papers.
There is also the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which works to place a monument or memorial to the former president in every state, and, to date, has established Reagan landmarks in 38 of them. The next stated goal is to place a public building named after Reagan in the 3,140 counties in the U.S., proving, if nothing else, a continuing commitment to the Gipper.
At one time, I, too, was fascinated by all things Reagan and researched the subject thoroughly to write Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, a 1991 book featured on the covers of Time and Newsweek. Some people, particularly the Reagans, who held a press conference to denounce the book, felt it was too critical of the former first lady, although I gave her full marks for making possible all of her husband’s stunning success.
So,I did not come to Grande’s memoir without interest. Truth to tell, I was seduced by her rationale for writing the book. She said she couldn’t shake a passing comment from a colleague: “If there was a woman who sat outside Abraham Lincoln’s office every day for ten years, don’t you think we would want to know what she saw? And wouldn’t she owe that to history?”
I was all in and wanted to know about the last decade of Reagan’s life, when Alzheimer’s began robbing him of his golden ability to communicate.
The most poignant recollection in the book comes when the author, who writes worshipfully of her boss, recounts the first time she knew something was wrong. She had escorted a group of visitors in to see the former president in his Los Angeles office, and he began telling his pony story but could not remember the punchline.
Anyone familiar with Reagan lore knows about the pony. It was an old chestnut the president had polished to perfection and told so often that staffers knew every word by heart: A father had two sons — one exceedingly pessimistic, the other eternally optimistic. The father locks the pessimist in a room full of toys, convinced the youngster will jump for joy. Instead, the little boy cries because he says the toys will eventually break. The optimist is locked in a room piled high with horse manure, which the father feels sure will elicit yowls of complaint. But the youngster laughs with glee and starts digging. “With all this manure, there has to be a pony in here somewhere.”
Five years into his retirement, the former president could no longer find his pony. After he visited the Mayo Clinic and received his dreadful diagnosis, the buoyant man who always saw “Morning in America” announced that he was entering the dark shadows of the Alzheimer’s disease that would finally claim him in 2004.
Grande writes with knee-bending reverence for Reagan, but she circles Nancy with the kind of arms-length respect one reserves for a tiger. This is the point in her story where the author could have heaped praise on the former first lady as she began her campaign to expand stem-cell research into the disease that was taking her husband.
In 2004, Nancy Reagan put herself at odds with her own political party to publicly oppose President George W. Bush’s policies, which limited federal funding to stem-cell colonies created before August 2001. She joined Michael J. Fox and helped raise $2 million for stem-cell research into Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. She lobbied members of Congress to revive legislation to expand federal funding.
At the age of 86, looking frail but sounding firm, she continued speaking out. “There are so many diseases that can be cured or at least helped,” she said. In 2009, she praised President Obama for overturning the restrictive Bush policy. “We owe it to ourselves and our children to do everything in our power to find cures for these diseases.”
It’s puzzling not to applaud Mrs. Reagan’s efforts to find a cure for the disease that killed her husband, whom the author describes with all the genuflecting adjectives of an adoring acolyte. In another glaring omission, she writes that “the Reagans loved children,” and, trying to prove her point, she includes many photographs of her own children visiting the president and first lady at their home in Bel Air, where she tells us the president frequently wore a “striped matching pajama set and white monogrammed RWR robe with leather slippers.”
Yet her book, which purports to chronicle the president’s last years, makes no mention of the Reagans’ own children or grandchildren. She cites no visits, no phone calls, no letters, no emails. She does not even acknowledge the death of the president’s eldest child (with first wife Jane Wyman), Maureen Reagan, 60, in 2001, three years before the president died.
That the Reagans put their marriage before their children will come as no surprise, but that they substituted staff for family, as Grande writes, seems such a sad ending to a book that proposed to pay a debt to history.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books.
by Kitty Kelley
Political junkies will cartwheel into line to grab copies of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple. They might not be as mesmerized as they were with The Making of the President by Theodore H. White or What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, but they’ll have in hand a bible on presidential sons-of-bitches. (That’s how H.R. Haldeman defined the position before he had to resign and go to prison as one of 48 people who served time for serving Richard M. Nixon, the Watergate president.)
The White House chief of staff is considered the most powerful unelected person in Washington, DC, because he — there’s never been a she — controls access to the leader of the free world. As the president’s main adviser and closest confidante, the chief of staff determines the administration’s legislative agenda and communicates with Congress and the Cabinet. He is the spear-catcher who protects the president from all incoming flak.
“The White House chief of staff has more power than the Vice President,” said Dick Cheney, who should know. At 34, he served as chief of staff to Gerald Ford (1975-1977). By the time he turned 70, Cheney was vice president to George W. Bush and knew how to mow down both chiefs of staff Andrew Card (2001-2006) and Joshua Bolten (2006-2009). In fact, Cheney, known by some as “Darth Vader,” controlled foreign policy in the Bush years and seemed to assume as much power as “the decider” himself.
“Every president reveals himself by the presidential portraits he hangs in the Roosevelt Room,” said the historian Richard Norton Smith, “and by the person he picks as his chief of staff” (pp. 10-11).
By that definition, Whipple could’ve produced an intriguing analysis of Ronald Reagan, who chose the smooth-talking Texan James Baker III as his first chief of staff (1981-1985), followed by the bull-headed Donald Regan, who compared his job to the man in the circus, sweeping up elephant droppings.
Unmentioned by Whipple was John Roy Steelman, the first and longest-serving chief of staff (1946-1953), described in his New York Times obituary as a “onetime hobo from Arkansas.” Truman’s chief of staff was as basic as the man he served. Eschewing his powerful title, Steelman preferred to be called “the president’s chief chore boy.” His biggest chore was his role in ending a 52-day strike by steelworkers, one of the most damaging stoppages in U.S. history.
The Gatekeepers promises to offer “shrewd analysis and never-before-reported details,” but there appears to be little of either in the book. Perhaps Whipple was too grateful for his access to cast a critical eye and dig beneath the glossy surface.
All those interviewed protected their presidents from incriminating revelations, but each agreed being White House chief of staff was the toughest job he ever tackled. (The pressure is so great that few last beyond 18-24 months.) Yet despite the brutal demands, Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff (2009-2010), said: “I guarantee you every one of the chiefs would say, ‘I’d do it again,’ if asked.”
The major take-away from Whipple’s book is not unlike Cardinal Cushing’s advice to John F. Kennedy when he first ran for office in Massachusetts: “A little more Irish…a little less Harvard.”
The most successful sons-of-bitches are a little more staff…a little less chief. In fact, certain chiefs — Gov. Sherman Adams (Dwight Eisenhower, 1953-1958), Gov. John Sununu (George Herbert Walker Bush, 1985-1987), and the aforementioned Merrill Lynch CEO Don Regan (1985-1987) — harmed their presidents by their inability to shed their arrogant prerogatives of self-entitlement. All had previously held chief-executive positions, but each was fired from his role as White House chief of staff.
Usually an author writes a book and hopes to sell television rights after publication, but Whipple, an award-winning producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Prime Time, did it the other way around. He provided the interviews for the four-hour documentary The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, which aired on the Discovery Channel in 2013. The New York Times judged the production a “tepid film…awe-struck and dull.” Whipple made the interviews he did with the 17 chiefs of staff alive at the time as the basis of The Gatekeepers, his first book.
For a writer, Whipple’s text hardly inspires, but his chapter notes pique interest. Many of those cited (again, mostly men) hiss and spit at each other like cats being hosed. Ed Meese III dumps on Jim Baker III for leaking to the press. Donald Rumsfeld, chief of staff to President Ford, disses the White House speechwriter Robert Hartmann as an alcoholic, and says Ford’s vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, “wasn’t qualified to be vice president of anything.”
Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994-1997, confides the president wanted to fire George Stephanopoulos, which was seconded by Erskine Bowles, Clinton’s chief of staff from 1997-1998: “Of course, George was cut out by the President.” Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft slam Dick Cheney, who, in turn, stomps on the claim of CIA director George Tenet about bringing the danger of al Qaeda to White House attention. “I do not recall George coming in with his hair on fire…”
The most intriguing chapter note cites an interview with Stuart Spencer, the Republican political consultant closest to Ronald Reagan, who speculates about how the president might have unwittingly approved the Iran-Contra operation to secretly sell arms to Iran and funnel the money to support the Contras in Nicaragua:
I can see those three guys [Robert MacFarlane, National Security Advisor; Oliver North, Deputy Director of the National Security Council; and William J. Casey, CIA director, who was called “Mumbles” because, according to Spencer, “you couldn’t understand him, he couldn’t talk”]. They knew that Reagan was in favor of the contras; he was really upset about the American hostages; and they said, ‘We’ll take advantage of that.’ And they sent Mumbles over to tell him about it. And Reagan didn’t have his hearing aid on! I believe all this could have happened. (p. 319)
Stuart Spencer was extraordinarily close to the Reagans for years. He ran Reagan’s successful campaigns for governor of California in 1966 and 1970, as well as his campaigns for president in 1980 and 1984. He counseled both Ronald and Nancy Reagan throughout their eight years in Washington, and was one of the few people invited to accompany them on their return flight to California upon leaving the White House in 1985. So, his speculation about Iran-Contra deserves more scrutiny, especially because the first lady was terrified the matter would lead to her husband’s impeachment.
Did Whipple ask Spencer whether he discussed Iran-Contra with either Reagan? If he didn’t, why not? How did the subject of Iran-Contra come up in his interviews with Spencer? Did Spencer advise the Reagans about Iran-Contra? What was his recollection of how they coped with the matter personally? Did Spencer share his theory with the first lady or anyone else?
Note to Whipple: a little more time with Stu Spencer…a little less time with the chiefs.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
After reading His Father’s Son: The Life of General Ted Roosevelt Jr. by Tim Brady, you understand why military service fired the passions of the 26th president of the U.S. and dominated the lives of his four sons.
Brady’s biography of Ted Jr., the first son of Theodore Roosevelt, offers only a few sentences about the cloud that hung over the patrician family. Theodore’s mother, Mittie, to whom he referred as “an unreconstructed Southerner,” had insisted his father not enlist in the Union army and oppose her three brothers, fighting for the Confederacy. So, to placate his wife, known to lock herself in a dark room for days, Theodore, Sr. paid a substitute to serve for him during the Civil War.
Brady provides no further information about this decision, which was not uncommon at the time but potentially subjected the Roosevelts to ridicule. As historians put it, those able to purchase a substitute exercised “the right of the rich to hire the poor to do [their] fighting and dying,” a practice that became a factor in the New York Draft Riots of 1863.
Even without a biographer’s knowledgeable insight, you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see why Mittie’s sickly, asthmatic son, Theodore, transformed his weak body into a muscular machine and charged into history, banging the drum for war in 1898. He created his own special forces — the Rough Riders — and stampeded with them into Cuba, storming up San Juan Hill and seizing everlasting glory.
Glamorized by press coverage at the time (and by his own well-written recollections of the Spanish-American War), Theodore Roosevelt sailed into politics as a national hero and was elected governor of New York. He ran as William McKinley’s vice president in 1900 and, months later, following the president’s assassination, TR, as he was fondly known, moved into the White House with his wife and six children. He was elected president in his own right in a 1904 landslide victory.
Always a big-game hunter, he endeared himself to the country when he refused to shoot a sick bear on a hunting trip, demanding instead that the poor animal be put to sleep. A cartoon of the normally bellicose Rough Rider protecting a frightened cub enthralled the public imagination, and soon, stuffed “Teddy” bears became a favored toy of children around the world. By 1927, the visage of Roosevelt was being chiseled on Mt. Rushmore alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.
But none of this is contained in Brady’s biography of Ted Jr., perhaps because the writer assumes readers will come to his book already grounded in Roosevelt history and simply intuit the immense expectations attendant upon being the firstborn son of such a remarkable man.
Brady tells us that Ted Jr., an anxious child with crushing headaches, a wayward right eye and few pleasing features, grew up emulating his adored father, as did his three brothers — Kermit, Archibald, and Quentin. Their sister, Ethel, is barely mentioned, and there’s not much on Archie, a right-wing Republican who lived to be 85, railing against Communists.
Their colorful half-sister, Alice, is remembered for writing that their father always wanted to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” The girls married well, and the boys pleased their father by going to war — WWI and WWII — with all receiving medals for bravery and ribbons for valor.
Ted Jr., an Army brigadier general, was heralded for exceptional rapport with his troops. Having served in the First World War, he begged to serve in the second and, despite war wounds and age (56), he was allowed to lead a division on D-Day, becoming the oldest man to land on Utah Beach, the westernmost of the five landing spots in Normandy.
Decades later, General Omar Bradley wrote: “I have never known a braver man, nor a more devoted soldier.” The night before the invasion, a private named Amos Buck wrote to his commanding officer about “General Teddy”: “[T]he men all know he is a front line general and respect and love him…you have no idea how much good a man of that type does with a bunch of scared inexperienced G.I.s.”
Weeks later, General Teddy was struck by coronary thrombosis and died in his headquarters a few weeks short of his 57th birthday. He was buried in the cemetery at Ste. Mère-Église, but in 1955, he and his late brother Quentin were moved to the American Cemetery at Normandy.
In retrospect, the strangest death for the Oyster Bay Roosevelts was the 1943 suicide of Kermit, which Brady barely mentions. He writes that Kermit, while serving with the British Army in WWI, was unable to maintain sobriety, so had to be discharged.
Returning to the U.S., Kermit dried out and, during WWII, he re-enlisted as a major in the Army. He took a mistress, started drinking again, and was hospitalized with what was gently reported as “recurrent illnesses.” Brady writes that while stationed in Alaska, “exhausted by the…failures of his life miserably sick and tired, Kermit put the barrel of his service revolver beneath his chin and pulled the trigger.”
Brady does not tell us that the War Department told Kermit’s mother he died of a heart attack, and that the New York Times reported his death of “natural causes.” In fact, his suicide was not revealed until the 1980 publication of Sylvia Jukes Morris’ biography, Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Portrait of a First Lady. Ted Jr., who did not know the real cause of his brother’s death but had witnessed his dissolution over time, wrote: “He really died five years ago.”
Surprisingly, Brady also does not chronicle the genetic predisposition of the Roosevelts to the alcoholic depression which ran in the family, affecting Kermit’s paternal grandmother, who exhibited signs of bipolar disorder; and his paternal uncle, Elliott Roosevelt, who suffered chronic bouts of depression and died of alcoholism, as did his maternal grandfather, Charles Carow.
Ten years after Kermit took his life, his son, Dirck, committed suicide at the age of 28. His death in 1953 was reported as a “household accident.” In 1957, Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s only child, Paulina Strum, depressed and drug addicted, committed suicide with sleeping pills.
Suicide seems to permeate a threnody in the family, beginning with the former president’s stated resolve to take his own life after contracting malaria and nearly dying during a 1913 expedition to the Amazon Basin. He said he could not fathom becoming a burden to others on the expedition. Kermit, along on the journey to South America to explore the River of Doubt (later named Rio Roosevelt), is reported to have helped save his father.
Four years later, when his brother Quentin was killed, Kermit edited an anthology of his life, including a short story Quentin had written about suicide. The first line of his morbid tale: “A service revolver is a terrible thing.”
Another eerie detail not included in Brady’s biography — and possibly another missed opportunity to assist in untangling the skeins of a life story — was the Roosevelt friendship with the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, who wrote Children of the Night. Kermit discovered the book as a teenager and gave it to his father, who shared it with his Cabinet. The book contains the haunting poem of “Richard Cory, who glittered when he walked,” but then, “one calm summer night went home and put a bullet in his head.”
Like his father and his brothers, Ted Jr. loved poetry and even recited verses to reporters who traveled with him during the war. In fact, the best parts of Brady’s book are the quotes from Ted Jr.’s letters. He published several books and wrote well, placing an insurmountable burden on his biographer. Yet, at times, slogging through this book was as onerous as the Roosevelt treks through the Himalayas and New Guinea.
The namesake son of a great man, Ted Jr. showed a definite sense of entitlement, believing he, too, deserved to be governor of New York and then president of the United States, both of which eluded him. As A.J. Liebling wrote, “Old Teddy was a dilettante soldier and a first-class politician; his son was a dilettante politician and a first-class soldier.”
In the end, Tim Brady best sums up his biography of a well-born man with a world-famous name: “As time passed, his story became a footnote in the family saga.”
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books