Book Review

There Is Nothing for You Here

by Kitty Kelley

England is strangled by its pernicious class system. Even in 2021, the country’s rigid social structure dominates, and its snobbish acronyms still apply: N.O.C.D., usually whispered, means “Not our class, dear.” British aristocrats prefer associating with P.L.U. (“People like us”). If you’re born working class in Britain, you’ll die working class — unless, like Fiona Hill, you manage to cross the pond and move to the U.S.

The title of her memoir says it all: There Is Nothing for You Here, which is what her father told her — nothing for a coal miner’s daughter born in the North East of England with an accent that marks her fathoms below those who speak the “Queen’s English.” That cut-glass British enunciation, defined as RP (received pronunciation), determines one’s standing from cradle to grave.

“Aspirational Brits, mockingly dubbed ‘social climbers,’ would take elocution lessons to change the tone and the pitch of their voice as well as their diction,” Hill writes, citing Margaret Thatcher, who famously took voice lessons to rise above her roots as the daughter of a small-town grocer. But at least Thatcher, being middle class, was allowed into Oxford. Not so Fiona Hill.

Despite her outstanding scholastic record, Hill was steered from Oxbridge to attend St. Andrews University in Scotland, still impressive, but not of the peerage. “This was a case of guilt by linguistic association with a region once completely dominated by heavy industry and thus by ‘workers,’” she writes of her background. “I wanted to leave the UK’s place- and class-based discrimination behind and move on.”

She immigrated to America and received a partial scholarship to study at Harvard, where she earned her Ph.D. in Soviet studies. Hill traveled to what was then the USSR, where she lived for a year, and later wrote a book about Vladimir Putin.

In Russia, Hill was respected as the standard bearer of the working class; in the U.S., her Harvard credentials gave her social mobility. As a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, she worked in the White House for three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump — and was invited to be a presenter at the prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival in 2014. There, she was introduced to Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair as someone who once lived close to his former constituency.

“Blair was taken aback when I gave my quick potted history,” she writes. Then came his “determinative question”: “How did you get here?”

Hill played dumb and said she’d flown from DC to Denver.

“No…really…come on,” said Blair. “I obviously mean from County Durham to the U.S. That’s quite a journey, isn’t it?” Hill said she was a product of his own “Labour Party at work.” But, she continues:

“Tony Blair looked more pained than pleased…He seemed most perplexed by the fact that I had attended a County Durham comprehensive school and retained my northern accent. The two of those together were confounding.”

Blair, who graduated from Cambridge and no longer spoke with his regional pronunciation, seemed to have trouble digesting Hill’s presence (and her unrefined accent) in the elite setting of the Aspen Institute. Their encounter sounds like the song lyric: “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this.”

The subtitle of Hill’s book is “Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century,” which she does when she falls in love and marries a man she met at Harvard. She later becomes an American citizen. Her experiences working in the White House, particularly for Trump’s National Security Council, make her book timely.

Hill describes Trump’s awe of Putin as “autocrat envy” and disdains his attempts to transform the presidency into an “elected monarchy.” Worse, she sees the U.S. headed for economic collapse and unrelieved suffering because of its structural racism. She blames Ronald Reagan and Thatcher for driving “the nail into the coffin of 20th century industry while ensuring that those trapped inside the casket would find it practically impossible to pry the lid off.”

There Is Nothing for You Here is not a book for the faint of heart.

Crossposted with Washingt0n Independent Review of Books

Grant and Twain

by Kitty Kelley

Readers who appreciate Civil War memoirs and enjoy biographies will treasure Mark Perry’s 2004 double-barreled book, Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship that Changed America. With a respectful nod to Pulitzer Prize winners Ron Chernow (Grant) and Justin Kaplan (Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain), one salutes Perry for creating a hybrid work focused on 18 months in the lives of two American giants at a time that produced their greatest triumphs.

By abandoning the cradle-to-grave story in favor of constructing a small keystone in the lives of these greats, Perry, who succumbed to cancer in August 2021, crafts a new kind of biography that blends the relationship between two 19th-century individuals who represented their culture and tradition yet still speak to us generations later.

From May 1884 to July 1885, Ulysses S. Grant, wracked with terminal throat cancer, wrote his memoirs, which Mark Twain helped publish to acclaim and profit while finishing his own masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel seven years in the making.

“This is the story of a friendship,” Perry writes in his introduction about Grant, “America’s greatest general,” and Twain, the country’s “most esteemed writer.” The relationship between these two men at the end of Grant’s life brought out the best in both, enhancing their history and enriching literature forever.

Grant, from Ohio, became an abolitionist years before Twain, from Missouri, saw the light. “In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery,” Twain recalled after he published Huck Finn. He started the book in 1876 and had written 400 pages but could go no further. Seven years later, he returned to the manuscript, “when,” as Perry writes, “in the midst of his friendship with Ulysses S. Grant he finally realized what Huck Finn was really all about…It is unlikely that he could have finished it at all were it not for Grant.”

What a godforsaken world it would have been without Twain’s fictional raft trip down the Mississippi with a poor scamp and a runaway slave, and how bereft history would be without The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, the general who won the Civil War and saved the U.S. from slavery.

Geniuses in their own right, neither man excelled at business, but both, according to Perry, “felt the irresistible pull of wealth,” living in the era known as the Gilded Age. They aspired to be men of means and hold their own with the financial barons of their time, but both became too familiar with debt and fell into the abyss of bankruptcy.

Grant’s financial debacle dogged him with scandal at the end of his life. As he was dying, he was desperate to redeem his good name while providing for his wife and children. Twain, who revered Grant “as the greatest American since Washington,” was determined to help him by publishing Grant’s memoirs.

In June 1884, the two men joined forces and within a year and a half realized their greatest financial successes while transforming the world of American literature. Fighting through piercing pain with dollops of cocaine, Grant summoned the courage that had led to his victories at Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg, and later to two terms in the White House. Days before he died, he finished his memoirs, which were later published to profit and acclaim.

At the same time, Twain published his own masterpiece on the evils of slavery, which Ernest Hemingway praised for its excellence: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Hemingway wrote in 1935. “All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain represent the heart and soul of America, which Perry captures in his enchanting book. He applauds their friendship, a kind of relationship he, too, had mastered, as was evident at his recent memorial service. Mark Perry died too soon at the age of 70, but he left us with a book that will live forever.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books


by Kitty Kelley

Despite their mutual animosity, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill will be forever linked as a result of the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. At that time, she accused him, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, of sexual harassment.

The televised hearings, chaired by Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, riveted more than 20 million Americans and many others around the world watching on CNN as the unknown law professor testified under oath that President George H.W. Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court had harassed her by talking suggestively “about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts, involved in various sex acts,” which included animals, group sex, and rape scenes. After three days of testimony, Thomas was confirmed 52-48. Hill was pilloried as a liar, a fantasist, and an erotomaniac.

It’s worth noting, three decades later, that now President Biden sits in the White House and Justice Thomas sits on the highest court in the land, whereas Professor Hill struggled for years to survive her notoriety as a whistleblower. Although it cost her a tenured position at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, she does not regret her decision to testify.

For years, Hill shrank from the divisive reactions to her Senate testimony (a CNN/Gallup poll showed 52 percent of the country believed Thomas), but now she’s unafraid to step forward and take on her critics. “As a victim and a teacher, I had a unique perspective to speak from,” she writes in her third book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence. Reflecting on the 1991 hearings, she chastises late Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) for “his tittering tone” and “his smirk” and for claiming there couldn’t have been sexual harassment because Thomas never physically touched Hill.

She further faults Specter for his flawed thinking “that sexual assault was the only behavior that called for judicial disqualification.” She blames the entire committee for being slow to recognize the right to work in a workplace free from abuse.

Hill also upbraids the late Justice Anthony Kennedy for his 1999 dissent in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, in which he wrote that “boys will be boys” and condoned groping by grade schoolers as “routine behavior.” Kennedy dismissed such conduct as a prank, mere hijinks. Hill denounced his dissent for normalizing harmful misogynist behavior “that [holds] the country back from making progress toward equality.” Lest anyone suggest her criticism to be a carp, she writes:

“Any student of the law knows that language that starts in dissent can someday become the majority opinion.”

Twenty-seven years after her debacle before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hill watched in dismay as history repeated itself when Christine Blasey Ford testified about her alleged sexual assault by Brett Kavanagh. In those contentious hearings, Hill recognized the same “victim blaming, flat-out denials, mansplaining and gas-lighting” that she’d endured. Kavanaugh was confirmed 50-48, the second-closest Supreme Court confirmation vote in history.

Now a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis, Hill has put herself in charge of shining a light in a very dark place. She’s become the poster child for ending gender violence and intends to change the violent psyche of America with Believing, which springs from decades of personal recovery and professional research into humanity’s bestial behavior. “For thirty years, this has been my journey and I expect it to continue in some fashion for the rest of my life,” she writes.

Hill has schooled herself in the miasma of gender violence and how it imperils our country’s health, safety, economic security, housing, transportation and educational opportunities. As might be expected of an academic, her tone is a bit pedantic as she makes her grim case with studies and citations and statistics. She admits up front that she’s “neither charismatic nor a gifted speaker.”

Unfortunately, she’s right.

At various points, this disquisition cries out for a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, but Anita Hill is not Mary Poppins. Her treatise is on man’s inhumanity to man, and while her catalog of ills is short on solutions, she spotlights behavior that will make some readers cringe at the extent of sexual violence in our society.

Hill focuses like a laser on gender-based attacks in homes, schools, courts, companies, and corporations. She outlines how difficult it is for victims, especially rape victims, to file suit, even if they can afford the lawyer fees. “[T]he hurdles to prevailing in assault and rape suits are still extremely high,” she writes, citing rape as the least-reported criminal offense, with “less than one percent of rapes…likely to result in conviction.”

Midway through her manifesto of misery is a short chapter entitled “Believing that Change is Possible,” which reports the progress made by activists who formed the Hollywood Commission to seek justice for victims of gender violence in the entertainment industry. As a result, men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Les Moonves lost their positions, which gave Hill hope and made her a believer, justifying the title of her book.

“The task of a writer is not to solve the problem, but to state the problem,” Anton Chekhov wrote, and for that, Anita Hill gets high marks. So, caveat emptor: Do not look to Believing for inspiring prose or literary flourish. But perhaps that’s appropriate since there’s no poetry in gender violence.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Graceland At Last

by Kitty Kelley

The essays in Margaret Renkl’s Graceland, at Last began in grief as the author mourned the deaths of her mother and mother-in-law and wrote to exorcise her misery. Eventually, she found her way to gratitude for the gift of life, which she celebrates in a weekly column for the New York Times about living in the South.

Born in Andalusia, Alabama, and now living in Nashville, Renkl honors the natural beauty of her lush roots while acknowledging the ravages of slavery still embedded in the terrain, which, she suggests, might be why the region “keeps giving birth to more than its fair share of writers.”

As a white Southerner, she’s a bit defensive (but graciously so) about the sin of the South, writing that slavery was not restricted to the Confederacy, but must also be owned by states such as Ohio, New Mexico, Illinois, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, all of which exacted torture and death on those they enslaved:

“The fact that the rest of the country shares in the South’s greatest moral failing doesn’t excuse our brutal history or the way its vestiges linger. But the South has always been more than its most appalling truths.”

So Renkl sets out to illustrate the assets and attributes of her region’s blood-stained soil, as well as its widely varied culture. Graceland, at Last begins with the South’s beauty. In these essays, Renkl rhapsodizes about Cooper’s hawks and blesses Broadhead skinks while delighting in the New Guinea Highland wild dog. From fauna she segues into flora, praising the purple Tennessee coneflower, “the star of the cedar glades of Middle Tennessee.”

In another offering, she travels to the delta to find the American lotus, not as intoxicating as the sumptuous lotuses that ensnared sailors in The Odyssey, but even Homer might bow to Renkl’s description of “the thousands of pale-yellow flowers rising on foot-high stalks, the petals of each bloom curling gently in the sun.”

Renkl introduces readers to some of her region’s progressive publications, too, such as Facing South, an online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, North Carolina; Scalawag, a nonprofit print and digital publication focused on Southern politics and culture, also based in Durham; and Southern Exposure, a journal with special emphasis on investigative journalism and oral history.

So far, this lovely little book is bright, courteous, and informative, even lady-like, but then Renkl ventures into territory that more timid Southerners would avoid: sex, religion, and politics. Here, she shows her soul as she lambasts the Tennessee legislature for its misbegotten attempts to amend the state constitution to prevent same-sex marriage, for denying birth certificates to babies born to undocumented parents, and for outlawing abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is, Renkl writes, frequently before a woman even knows she’s pregnant.

In sharply crafted essays, she also upbraids the state she loves for its immoral array of tactics to undermine voting rights. She pillories Tennessee’s Republican legislators for refusing to expand Medicaid, which she condemns as an “act of cruelty.” She then lacerates them for their lax gun legislation:

“It’s easier to purchase an AR-15 in Tennessee than it is to become a licensed exotic dancer, as two employees of Déjà vu Showgirls, a Nashville strip club, demonstrated in a recent YouTube video.”

Renkl doesn’t seek to repeal the Second Amendment — she just wants guns out of the hands of psychopaths who shouldn’t have them. While she identifies as a Democrat in the red state, she praises Tennessee’s Republican governor, who commuted a prisoner’s life sentence and chose mercy and understanding over the strict letter of the law. “We may never agree on what real justice looks like,” she writes of that case, “but we will always know mercy when we see it. And mercy will do.”

As a “cradle Catholic” who became a “cafeteria Catholic” — picking and choosing which tenets of the religion to practice — Renkl supports a woman’s right to choose abortion. “No matter how you define it, protecting human life should never stop at the zygote.” She also writes essays supporting voting rights, immigration, affordable healthcare, and same-sex marriage. She abhors capital punishment and challenges “pro life Christians” who condemn “pro choice” advocates while still championing the electric chair.

Seeking reassurance in the unsure world of 2018, Renkl drove to Plains, Georgia, to attend Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class at the Maranatha Baptist Church. “[He] still has faith in this country, and I hoped his Sunday school lesson might restore my faith, too.”

The former president, then 94, addressed more than 350 parishioners as he read from the Acts of the Apostles and discussed how the apostles worshiped together and took care of each other’s needs, an example for all of us to follow. Then Carter acknowledged: “We have lost faith in a lot of things that have always nurtured us.” Still, he continued, “I believe…that God’s love will prevail.”

His faith cheered Renkl, who left that morning feeling as if she’d attended “a master class in responsibility and goodness, and above all, love.”

As for the title of this book? Perhaps it’s a metaphor for a little girl who grew up in Tennessee yet, having lived there for decades and made numerous trips from Nashville to Memphis, had never made the pilgrimage to Graceland, home of Elvis Presley, and its walls and walls and walls of gold-encrusted mirrors. There, as an adult, in the midst of all those mirrors, Renkl saw herself as a woman — a wife to a beloved husband and the mother of three sons schooled and embarked on their own lives.

“Walking past all those mirrors, I kept catching glimpses of myself,” she writes. “Mirror after mirror, there I was, right in the heart of Graceland, smiling and smiling and smiling.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

First Friends

by Kitty Kelley

Imagine you are a contestant on “Jeopardy!” and you select “Presidents and Their Female Friends” for $200. The host says: “This 20th-century president was known for his close relationships with women.” You hit the buzzer and choose either John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton, both of whom had well-documented extra-marital affairs.

Unfortunately, you don’t make it to Final Jeopardy because the correct answer, according to Gary Ginsberg’s First Friends, is, “Who is Franklin Delano Roosevelt?”

In Ginsberg’s enchanting hybrid work of history and biography, he describes FDR’s enduring relationship with Margaret “Daisy” Suckley in delightful detail as the person FDR held “closer to his heart than anyone.” Although Ginsberg doubts an affair between the distant cousins, he cites Roosevelt as the only president to have had a woman as his best friend.

Previously, readers have been treated to books on first families, first ladies, first butlers, first chefs, first photographers, first dogs, and first cats. For his first book, Ginsberg, who served in the Clinton Administration, ingeniously presents bite-size biographies of U.S. presidents and their best friends — and how those friendships influenced presidential legacies and affected the country.

The author wraps history and humanity in a sparkling package, concentrating on nine U.S. chief executives and their closest friends, from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison through Bill Clinton and Vernon Jordan. It’s an inspired idea that will thrill anyone who loves life stories woven into presidential history.

Given the current age of tweets and texts, plus the nation’s diminished attention span, Ginsberg has devised a unique way to engage readers, fashioning 18 lives within 359 pages of narrative and perhaps sweeping into the dustbin the turgid 1,000-plus-page tomes of such as Robert Caro, who’s written four volumes to date on Lyndon Baines Johnson, with one more hulking in the wings.

If Mies van der Rohe was right, then less is more, and brevity is to be celebrated, as is exemplified by:

The 23rd Psalm (118 words)
The Magna Carta (650 words)
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (272 words)

The Great Emancipator’s friendship with Joshua Speed, who became a slave owner years after meeting Lincoln, is included in Ginsberg’s book and illustrates the bond between two men whose differing principles put a decade’s worth of distance between them before they mended their breach.

Probably the most bizarre first friendship in the book is the one shared by Richard Nixon and Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, a Cuban exile who got branded as Nixon’s bagman during the Watergate scandal. Pat Nixon called Rebozo “Dick’s sponge.” In 42 years, the two men never talked politics but shared long silences together, drinking copious amounts of alcohol.

By far the strongest chapter in Ginsberg’s book — and the chronicle of a relationship that changed history — was Harry Truman’s friendship with Eddie Jacobson, the son of a Jewish shoemaker and Truman’s former business partner in Missouri. It was Jacobson who prevailed on the president in 1948 to go against revered Secretary of State George Marshall and recognize the new state of Israel as the Jewish homeland.

Since, according to the Bard, “Brevity is the soul of wit and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,” I will be brief in my conclusion: Gary Ginsberg has written in First Friends a romp of a read. Enjoy!

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Blind Man’s Bluff

by Kitty Kelley

Some memoirs flicker like fireflies on a summer night. Others pierce your psyche with their subjects’ tortured experiences, consequent miseries, and — finally — their oh-so-glorious survival. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou are among the memoirs that leave you breathless; they’re books you keep and don’t pawn off on your neighbor’s yard sale.

Now comes another keeper: Blind Man’s Bluff by James Tate Hill. With his pluperfect title, Hill winningly recounts his life after he was declared legally blind. “I was ready for a change, ready to be changed, but the loss of my sight that month before turning sixteen wasn’t what I had in mind,” he writes.

After being diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a genetic condition that causes gradual blindness mostly in men, Hill burrows into denial and bluffs his way through blindness until his mid-30s. Armed with a basketful of euphemisms for his affliction — “sightlessness,” “print disabled,” “limited seeing,” “bad eyes,” “blurred vision” — he forges ahead, psychologically unable to accept a world of white canes and seeing-eye dogs.

He refuses to admit to himself, his teachers, his friends, and even his first wife that he is blind. “Not speaking of it, not reminding others of it, not letting it hang like a banner above my head let me almost forget, and to almost forget was to make it almost untrue.”

Some days in school, he lets himself be docked for absence rather than risk signing his name over another student’s on the attendance sheet. In classes, he pretends to take notes, scrawling pages of gibberish that he later throws away. Poignantly, he lines the shelves in his apartment with books he can’t read while hiding his Talking Books under the bed:

“I was aware of the stigma associated with books on tape. Jokes on sitcoms implied audiobooks were to physical books what flag football is to the NFL.”

Reading this memoir makes you realize how much you take sight for granted. Just being passed a plate of food can be fraught for a blind person. “So many things can go wrong,” Hill explains, “not limited to my thumb and forefinger landing in the wrong section of the plate; touching, defacing or possibly knocking onto the floor a brownie or precariously arranged cheese on a cracker, or, the Grand Guignol of canapes, a chip that must be sent on a recon mission into a dip of unknown depth or viscosity.”

Crossing the street becomes a potential dance with death:

“In daylight, you can’t rely on headlights and traffic lights to know when it’s safe…Sometimes other pedestrians are waiting on the curb, and you can cross behind them…At night when there are no pedestrians to whom you can pin your safety and no traffic lights or stop signs to part traffic, you can listen for cars.”

One day, Hill nearly loses his life when he changes his route and crosses on what he thinks is a green light, and then “a car horn punches a hole in the morning,” as he stumbles to a concrete island, escaping “almost death.”

Hill’s story is funny and sad at the same time, and raw in its honesty as he recounts the rejection by his first wife, who initiates divorce proceedings after six years of marriage. Both had cultivated facades: His was having vision; hers was having an outgoing personality. Alone with him, she clams up and resents his dependence as much as he hates being dependent. Despite having earned three master’s degrees, he cannot earn a living as a writer, and only barely as a teacher, forcing her to become the primary breadwinner.

“I wished I were a man capable of leaving a bad relationship,” he recalls, “but I barely found the courage to leave the apartment.”

After his second novel is rejected, Hill identifies with Paul Giamatti’s character — a divorced, unpublished novelist — in the film “Sideways.” But then Hill rallies, reactivates his online-dating account, and somersaults into a relationship that finally makes him feel secure enough to stop bluffing. Once he drops his pretense and admits his disability, he finds happily-ever-after endings as a person, a teacher, and a husband.

In the book’s last chapter, entitled “Basketball,” Hill and his new wife are in a gym playing hoops. They chase down rebounds and launch wild jumpers and crooked free throws, laughing as they miss nearly every shot.

“Every once in a while a three-pointer rattles in, and we scream our heads off,” Hill writes, “champions after a last-second shot.”

Champions, indeed.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books


An Interview with Susan Page

by Kitty Kelley

Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, has covered 11 presidential elections and interviewed 10 presidents. She appears regularly with Brian Williams on MSNBC and moderated the 2020 vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris. Page has won several awards for her journalism, including the Merriman Smith Award and the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the President. Her first book was The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty, and now she’s just written her second, Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power.

Nancy Pelosi has been speaker of the House two times: 2007-2011 and again 2019 to the present. She’s indicated she’ll give up her gavel in 2022. Difficult to see her stepping down from the pinnacle of power to simply represent the 12th District of San Francisco, although she’s dean of the California delegation, having served in Congress since 1987. Do you see President Biden appointing her to be U.S. ambassador to Italy or the Holy See?

I do think this is likely to be Nancy Pelosi’s valedictory term in Congress. She indicated this would be her last term in the leadership when there was a challenge to her re-election as speaker after the 2018 elections.

You quote many Democratic reps and senators on the record saying positive things about the speaker. Considering we’re all God’s children, with a mixture of mischief and mayhem, do you feel you got to the essence of Pelosi, personally and professionally?

She’s a tough interview. She’s disciplined and guarded, when what an interviewer craves is someone who is exactly the opposite. But she became more candid and more open as I did more interviews with her (10 in all).

The speaker’s deep Catholic faith resonates throughout your book, but there’s not much evidence of humor. Is Pelosi all politics and no play?

Nancy Pelosi is close to her nine grandchildren, with whom she has relationships that can be whimsical. In the family chat, she’ll text heart emojis that can make them roll their eyes. When she was 76 years old, she took two grandsons to a Metallica concert. Pelosi and heavy metal: That’s a side to her that folks in Washington haven’t seen.

From your book, we see Pelosi demanding deference from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez following tweeted insults at the speaker from AOC’s administrative assistant. Soon after AOC met with the speaker, that assistant left AOC’s staff. Describe the current dynamic between the 80-year-old speaker and her 31-year-old colleague from the Bronx. Do you see any similarities between the two?

Pelosi told me that she sees similarities, especially with the younger Nancy Pelosi, who was demonstrating for single-payer healthcare and complaining about the compromises elected officials made to get half a loaf. Both women are smart and strategic, tough, and comfortable being disruptive. But there are big differences between them: Pelosi [today] is one of those elected officials who argues that getting half a loaf is better than none.

Do you think Pelosi’s corrosive relationship with President Trump disadvantaged Democrats and/or any legislation during the four years of Trump’s term?

One big example: A covid relief bill that was endlessly negotiated in 2020 and never enacted. It then passed soon after President Biden was inaugurated. She says she was holding out on principle. Even some Democrats complained that a deal could have been struck [earlier], and Republicans said she just didn’t want to give President Trump the political benefits of passage during [the campaign].

How did you get Newt Gingrich to endorse your book with the “advance praise” cited on the back cover? He praises Pelosi as “a professional…and a pirate.”

My secret strategy: I sent him the galleys.

Another Pelosi biography (Pelosi by Molly Ball) published last year described how President Obama refused to entertain Pelosi’s request to appear at her 25th-anniversary celebration. Did you interview Obama for this book about the woman who gave him his biggest legislative accomplishment by getting the Affordable Care Act passed?

I did have the opportunity to interview President Obama…[He and Pelosi] are bound in history. The Affordable Care Act, the biggest expansion of healthcare since Medicare and Medicaid, wouldn’t have passed without both Obama in the Oval Office and Pelosi in the speaker’s chair. He acknowledged that, even though the two sometimes clashed.

You mention the feud between Pelosi and former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Ca.), who, you write, felt that Pelosi was settling a personal score by denying Harman chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee in 2011. What was the “personal score” that caused the rift between the two women, both Democrats from California?

That’s the subject of a lot of speculation. Some think it was policy; Harman was more hawkish on national security issues than Pelosi was. Some think it was personal, that they just didn’t get along. Whatever the truth, it delivered an unmistakable message to other House Democrats about the potential perils of being at odds with Nancy Pelosi.

From the public record, readers know about the strained relations between Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Have they ironed out their push-pull differences?

I detail the long and sometimes bitter campaign between [them] for Democratic whip — an insider campaign that lasted three years, involved millions of dollars in campaign contributions, and put Pelosi on the path to becoming speaker. This was a legislative battle waged largely behind the scenes that political scientists described as “titanic” and “unprecedented.”

Please relate your own experience with the speaker, which you describe in your book as “the full Pelosi” — that sent you home to recover over a glass or two of wine.

The Pelosi treatment! In my ninth interview…I was asking about an episode that she didn’t think warranted being in the book. I explained why I thought it did. She explained why she thought it didn’t. She never raised her voice, and she didn’t threaten me. But she somehow seemed to get taller than her five-five height, and her questions were so probing and pressing that I could feel the sweat popping on my forehead. In the end, I didn’t relent, and neither did she. But it gave me a better understanding of what it must be like to be a member of Congress she’s lobbying to vote for or against a bill.

Pelosi seems to have it all — a fabulous marriage, great children, loving grandkids, and good health, all while holding a world-shaking gavel. What’s her secret?

Success in the two worlds — personal and professional — may not be so different. Pelosi says that running a household of five children was the best possible training for running a House of disparate pols. You have to impose order amid chaos. Convince people to do what you want them to do, ideally by persuading them it was their idea. Deal with grievances, real and imagined. Forge alliances that are constantly shifting.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Age of Acrimony

by Kitty Kelley

The Age of Acrimony is an apt title for the combustible years of 1865-1915 when, according to the book’s subtitle, “Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy.” That 50-year battle during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age bruised the country and left wounds we feel to this day. Jon Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, creatively tells the story by wrapping the incendiary era around the lives of a Philadelphia congressman and his activist daughter.

The congressman, Rep. William Darrah Kelley (1814-1899), a lifelong abolitionist, abhorred slavery. In fact, Kelley’s opposition to slavery forced him to leave the 19th-century Democratic Party and travel to Ripon, Wisconsin, where he and other Northern congressmen formed the Republican Party.

His enemies called him “Pig Iron Kelley” because he represented the iron and steel districts of Pennsylvania as a fierce protectionist who always voted in favor of tariffs to shield the industry from foreign competition. His enemies called his daughter, Florence Kelley (1859-1932), a labor activist of stern demeanor, “that fire-eater in the black dress.”

Rep. Kelley arrived in Washington, DC, at the same time Abraham Lincoln moved into the White House. The new president enjoyed meeting the new congressman because he could look him in the eye. The men, both long, lean, and lanky, became friends. Both were part of a new breed of “low-born but driven politicos,” replacing “the elite antebellum statesmen who had been born to be senators.”

Both also belonged to an era when most Americans could get on a train “and tell, at a glance, how their fellow passengers would vote. Race, class, region, religion, occupation, ethnicity, even a style of hat or preference for [alcohol] all indicated Republican or Democrat.”

In those years, rural evangelical Yankees, Protestants, and upwardly mobile professionals who sipped whiskey in bars and wore snap-brim hats were Republicans, while Democrats were immigrant Catholics from the South who wore newsboy caps and drank ale in beer joints. They were the “stupider” party, “half Ku-Kluxer, half Irish-rioter.” Republicans were “moralistic crooks.”

Congressman Kelley, the abolitionist, represented Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Blacks enjoyed the same nonexistent voting rights as their counterparts in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He also supported industrial laborers and women’s rights, but became famous for “speechifying,” the ticket to his national recognition.

He didn’t simply make speeches; he played bass, trumpet and trombone in his own orchestra of oration, riveting audiences with his “graveyard eloquence” and “cemetery roar.” Having been born into poverty, “He shouted his way to wealth” and built a mansion for his family called the Elms. Ironically, the man whose mesmerizing voice had roused thousands died from cancer of the jaw, tongue, and throat.

Kelley grew up with little formal education, having had to work all of his young life for wealth and position. His daughter grew up with all those privileges but, while she embraced her father’s progressive politics, she lacked his charisma.

When Florence was accepted for advanced study at Cornell, she bragged that she’d been “relieved of the burden of the stupids.” An intense young woman, she intimidated guests when she accompanied her father to Washington parties. One journalist wrote, “The young girls in society were just a little afraid of her; the young men were not entirely at ease in her presence, and old legislators were very careful about statistics when talking to her.”

In April of 1865, President Lincoln asked Rep. Kelley to join the delegation to Fort Sumter to mark the end of the Civil War. “All was bright and beautiful and cheerful,” the congressman recalled of the trip. Then, en route to Washington, his ship passed a small boat whose captain shouted: “Why is not your flag at half-mast? Have you not heard of the President’s death?”

Grinspan describes the nation’s capital during those years as “a town of neighborhoods named Swampoodle and Murder Bay, centered on a National Mall fringed by a filthy canal, which stank like ‘the ghosts of twenty thousand drowned cats.’” Despite its stench, Washington, DC, held an allure no other city could match:

“New York had finer food, Boston had wittier writers and San Francisco had superior saloons, but Washington had power. And that power attracted, if not the wealthiest or the wisest, those most burning for place.”

Among those with aching ambition was William Jennings Bryan, renowned for his “Cross of Gold” speech; Lincoln Steffens, who revolutionized journalism; and Theodore Roosevelt, the first activist president, who most changed America in the years 1913-1920.

Not all historians write with the verve and dash of Grinspan, whose titles snap, crackle, and pop: “Where do all those cranks come from?” and “Reformers who Eat Roast Beef” and “Investigate, Agitate, Legislate.” For the most part, the chapters flow with narrative flair. For example, “Streetcar Number 126 wobbles its way up Lancaster Avenue into West Philadelphia” starts his foray into the central issue of the Gilded Age, which was not class, race, industrialization, or immigration, but rather the political paralysis that made addressing those issues impossible.

Sound a bit familiar?

It’s disheartening to read that the endemic voter suppression of 1892 lives on into 2021. (See current news coverage of the white, male legislators in Georgia who signed a bill behind closed doors to restrict Black voters.) The social and economic upheavals of more than 100 years ago, plus the searing political partisanship that undermined faith in democracy at that time, are all too recognizable today.

Yet Grinspan’s history of the era does not despair for democracy. In fact, he pummels Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), the English writer born in India who visited America and left with disdain, saying democracy was rotten and the U.S. was doomed by bars full of “strong, coarse, lustful men.” Grinspan, marshaling arguments to the contrary, proves Kipling’s facts unfounded and concludes: “America digested the famous writer and expelled him out its other end.”

Grinspan contends that 20th-century democracy has grown more reasonable, more enlightened, and more transparent. “The tribal, nearly biological view of partisanship, and demonization of the rival party as ‘enemies of the human race’ has weakened.”

Hmm. Reading that in 2021 while still feeling the whiplash of Donald Trump’s presidency, one might wonder but still take hope in the author’s conclusion that our democracy is elastic, “with plenty of room for ugliness without apocalypse, and for reform without utopia.”

Crossposted with Washngton Indedependent Review of Books


The Barbizon

By Kitty Kelley

Back in the day (circa 1930-1960), small-town girls with big-city dreams headed for New York and checked into the Barbizon Hotel for Women at 63rd and Lexington. Upon arrival, they were greeted by doorman Oscar Beck, welcomed by Connor, the hotel manager, and scrutinized by the front desk matron, Mrs. Sibley, who allotted the best of the sliver-sized rooms to “the Daisy Chain,” those who attended one of the Seven Sisters: Barnard, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and Radcliffe. Everyone else had to provide social references and three letters of recommendation.

As Paulina Bren writes in The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free: “In the national imagination it was understood that the East Coast was the country’s intellectual hub while the rest of the country remained its backwater.”

During the era of white gloves, pillbox hats, and hose and high heels, the Barbizon (rhymes with bygone) offered 22 floors of “gracious living” in “utmost security” (no men allowed above the lobby), plus a rooftop garden terrace, a swimming pool, artists’ studios, a coffeeshop, formal dining room, solarium, library, and the Corot Room for Thursday teas, complete with a pianist.

From 1927 to 2005, the Barbizon was the ne plus ultra for young women seeking careers as artists, writers, dancers, singers, and actresses. For those without such talents, there was the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School, which reserved several floors at the hotel with imposed curfews, house mothers, and skirt police, who barred wearing slacks in public.

Mademoiselle magazine also reserved Barbizon rooms for their “Millies,” as guest editors were called. These competitively selected coeds (15-20) from colleges around the country arrived every June for glamorous month-long internships to produce the magazine’s August back-to-school issue. The modeling agencies of John Powers and Eileen Ford booked several floors of the hotel for their aspirants, as did the Parsons School of Design, the Tobe-Coburn School of Fashion Careers, and the Junior League.

Over the years, the Barbizon burnished its image as a dormitory for debutantes. During World War II, when General “Wild Bill” Donovan put out a call for women to come to work for the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA, he said his ideal would be “a cross between a Smith College graduate, a Powers model, and a Katie Gibbs secretary.”

The list of Barbizon alumnae includes Grace Kelly, Gene Tierney, Lauren Bacall, Joan Didion, Ali MacGraw, Tippi Hedren, Joan Crawford, Jaclyn Smith, Gael Greene, Nora Ephron, Ann Beattie, Betsey Johnson, Candice Bergen, Liza Minelli, Cybill Shepherd, Elaine Stritch, Cloris Leachman, and Molly Brown, the Titanic’s most famous survivor. Even Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier, star of the documentary “Grey Gardens” and the cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, lived at the hotel from 1947-52, until she was called home by her mother, Big Edie, to take care of her and the cats.

The Barbizon has been featured in novels like Mary McCarthy’s The Group, The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, Searching for Grace Kelly by Michael Callahan, and, most famously, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, a 1953 “Millie” who used the experience to write her only novel. Authors Jacqueline Susann, Jackie Collins, and Judith Krantz followed suit by placing characters in women-only residences like the Barbizon — now a condominium listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated a city landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Given its history and colorful residents, the Barbizon deserves bookshelf space alongside other high-profile-building biographies: Life at the Dakota: New York’s Most Unusual Address by Stephen Birmingham; 1185 Park Avenue by Anne Roiphe; House of Outrageous Fortune: Fifteen Central Park West, The World’s Most Powerful Address by Michael Gross; and The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel by Julie Satow.

As a Vassar College professor of gender and media studies, Bren brings impressive academic credentials to her history of the Barbizon. Unfortunately, her book’s subject, at least in her telling, does not live up to its billing as “the hotel that set women free.”

Rather, the Barbizon that Bren presents seems to have been primarily a secure waystation for young women who wanted to experience living in Manhattan before they got married. According to (and reiterated endlessly by) the author, marriage was always the end goal: the brass ring on life’s merry-go-round. Anyone residing at the Barbizon past her sell-by date of four years without a marriage proposal was headed for a lifetime of misery (i.e., spinsterhood).

“As bold as one might be, however big one might dream, as a young woman you knew that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was marriage,” Bren writes. “[It] had to be marriage. Even if part of you longed to be actress, writer, a model or artist…[A]ll the women at the Barbizon shared the ultimate goal — marriage.”

Bren bangs that drum throughout, writing of the young women staying at the hotel: “Their time at the Barbizon [was] a short window of opportunity that would usher them toward the ultimate goal of marriage.” To the regrettable exclusion of the hotel’s dozens of other notable residents, the author seems transfixed by the morbid memory of Plath, who committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30, while separated from her husband.

“It was her final, successful suicide attempt, with the first right after June 1953, and others most probably in between,” writes Bren. Readers might wonder if her editor was AWOL, searching for “others most probably in between,” because the author provides no documentation in her text or chapter notes.

The threnody of Plath’s suicide haunts many of the chapters of this book, as The Bell Jar was an homage to the Barbizon, which Plath the novelist renamed the Amazon. As one of the “Millies” wrote after a 2003 reunion at the hotel: “Do you find it as unpleasant as I that the reunion would not have taken place had Sylvia not stuck her head in the oven?”

One could say the same about this book.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books