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.
by Kitty Kelley
Before Maggie O’Farrell wrote Hamnet, her award-winning 2020 novel that reimagines the life and death of Shakespeare’s only son, she examined her own life and death in a memoir entitled I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death.
While most people fear what W.C. Fields called “the man in the bright nightgown,” O’Farrell claims to be sanguine about death, and she makes her case as someone who has outwitted the scythe 17 times in 49 years. Still, if not for her luminous writing, the book might not beckon.
O’Farrell takes her title from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a fictional descent into madness in which the protagonist survives suicide and lives to feel her brave heart beat evenly: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.” That regular rhythm signals life, and O’Farrell’s book offers an affirming message about escaping death.
In 17 short chapters about the 17 body parts affected by her own near-fatal experiences, O’Farrell hopscotches across time to recount her gambols with the Grim Reaper, including “Neck (1990),” “Body and Bloodstream (2005),” and “Cerebellum (1980).” Each essay is introduced with a sketch of the part — neck or body and bloodstream or brain — to be discussed.
She thinks there is nothing unique about a near-death experience and claims they’re not rare:
“[E]veryone, I would venture, has had them…perhaps without even realizing it. The brush of a van too close to your bicycle, the tired medic who realizes that a dosage ought to be checked one final time, the driver who has drunk too much…the aeroplane not caught, the virus never inhaled.”
As a child, she writes, she was an escapologist. “I ran, scarpered, dashed off, legged it whenever I had the chance…I wanted to know, wanted to see, what was around the next corner, beyond the bend.”
At the age of 8, the super-charged little girl’s life changed forever: She woke up with a headache and could not walk. She had contracted encephalitis. She was close to death and hospitalized for weeks with fever, pain, and immobility. Suddenly, she was a child who could barely hold a pen, who had lost the ability to run, ride a bike, catch a ball, feed herself, swim, climb stairs, and skip. She was a child who traveled everywhere in a humiliating, outsized buggy.
From the hospital, O’Farrell was blanketed like a baby and carried home to spend many more months in bed, and then a wheelchair, followed by hydrotherapy and physiotherapy, and finally recovery. She recalls that searing experience as “the hinge on which my childhood swung”:
“Until that morning I woke up with a headache, I was one person, and after it, I was quite another. No more bolting along pavements for me, no more running away from home, no more running at all. I could never go back to the self I was before.”
Without self-pity, she recites the illness’ devastating aftereffects: As an adult, she loses her balance and can’t walk a straight line or stand on one foot. She frequently falls over, drops silverware, and cannot cycle long distances.
The self she became — her after-self — was dogged by disappointment, dashed dreams, and near death. She loses her track to a Ph.D. and an academic career at the age of 21 because of inadequate grades; she nearly drowns in a riptide; she is held up at knife point; and she bolts from a live-in boyfriend after finding a flesh-colored bra under the bed that is not hers.
After the latter incident, she waits “the requisite time” for a virus to appear, grabs her gay friend, and insists they go to a clinic to get tested. The receptionist gives each a page to fill in about previous sexual encounters. Her friend looks at the form and delivers the only risible line in this book: “Do you think you’re allowed to ask for extra paper?” he asks “a little too aloud.” (Needing comic relief from O’Farrell’s unremitting woes, I, too, laughed a little too aloud.)
O’Farrell writes luscious sentences about grim subjects, particularly her attempts to conceive, only to have to cope with a wretched miscarriage:
“Something is moving within me, deep in the coiled channels of my stomach, something with claws, with fangs, and evil intent…It is as though I have swallowed a demon, a restive one that turns and fidgets, scraping its scales against my innards.”
She suffers so many miscarriages that she and her husband refer to the doctor’s office as “the bad-news room.” Later, when she finally carries a pregnancy to term, she spends three agonizing days in labor — an excruciating experience considering the average labor for a first-time mother is six to 15 hours.
She faults “the highly politicized arena of elective Caesareans in the U.K.” and excoriates as a butcher the British doctor who kept denying her a C-section. She describes the surgery in such visceral detail that you cringe, almost feeling the surgeon slice across her stomach and the nurses wrestling and grappling and clutching and heaving, until finally her body ruptures, spraying blood everywhere. Another near-death experience, but one that produces her first child.
All the literary reading that O’Farrell poured into her doctoral studies is on fine display in these pages. Among others, she references Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Seamus Heaney, Arthur Miller, Hilary Mantel, Robert Frost, Mark Twain, and Andrew Marvell’s “winged chariot,” which carries her into elegant riffs with a scholar’s vocabulary:
“The wave turns me over…like St. Catherine in her wheel”; “like Brueghel’s Icarus falling into the waves”; “the stifling anhydrous scent of sawdust”; “with a tiny rhomboid of garden”; “watched from the ceiling by a leucistic gecko…”
In I Am, I Am, I Am, Maggie O’Farrell rings all the bells for impressive prose, albeit on a subject of little poetry.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Death never knocks gently except for those lucky few who’ve lived long, full lives and go to bed one night to wake up with the angels. For everyone else, the knock on the door is fraught, and particularly devastating for those who are young and in the happy throes of living.
Death began stalking Joel Gould shortly after he arrived at the emergency room with flu-like symptoms. He and his wife, Melissa, had been dealing with his multiple sclerosis for a few years, as the autoimmune disease gradually affected his balance and muscular control, leaving him unable to play basketball, ride his bike, or even walk to work.
They’d told their young daughter he had MS — withholding the frightening specifics — but kept the diagnosis secret from the rest of their family and friends in order to avoid questions with morose answers.
Three days after Joel entered that hospital, he was put in the intensive care unit and placed on life support while doctors told Melissa that he was “gravely ill.” She screamed at them. “We’re in a hospital. You’re all doctors. If Joel is sick, make him better…We have a thirteen year old daughter.”
Upon the recommendation of their family doctor, Melissa moved her husband to a teaching hospital where specialists tried to determine his worsening condition. “He had another MRI. A brain angiogram. A spinal tap. Several EEGs to monitor brain activity. More blood work. More cultures.” Finally, they diagnosed West Nile virus, which had decimated Joel’s compromised immune system, leaving him paralyzed and brain dead.
One of the doctors asked Melissa what she’d meant when she’d said quality of life was important to her husband. “Having just turned fifty years old, he did not want to end up in diapers,” she writes.
The doctor then asked if that meant Joel wanted to be someone capable of living independently.
“Yes, absolutely,” she said.
“Well…it looks that as of now, the kind of recovery we can hope for is that he may be able to hold a comb one day. But he wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
Death had just rammed open the door of Melissa Gould’s life, leaving her bereft and crazed with grief. Knowing her husband would never recover, she allowed him to be taken off life support, but, at the age of 46, refused to be defined as a widow. The word revolted her:
“Widow once described a much older woman. Old, wrinkled, tragic. Wearing black. Maybe even a veil…[I was] a mom with blonde highlights going to yoga, picking up her daughter from school, buying groceries at Trader Joe’s…I didn’t look like a widow.”
To her, “widow” was an ugly word hanging from the mottled neck of a woman with grey hair and yellow teeth. Even now, years after her husband’s death, she called fellow widows and widowers “wisters” — widow sisters and widow misters. Hence, she titled her memoir Widowish, as if a little suffix can soften the whiplash.
Perhaps this is understandable for a pop-culture princess from Southern California like Melissa, who writes about regular hikes on a hill she calls “the Clooney,” because it’s near an L.A. house owned by George Clooney. Sometimes she makes the climb with her “bestie,” who’s “the Gayle to my Oprah.”
She defines herself as “simply Jew-ish,” writing: “Outside of my liberal and cultural connection to Judaism, I just didn’t connect.” Her Jewish husband connected completely, however, which is why she’d called a rabbi to his bedside. “I knew Joel would have welcomed a visit without hesitation.”
Her devotion to her spouse is undeniable as she weaves the story of their marriage into surviving without it. She writes that when they met, she felt like she’d hit the trifecta. “He was cool. He was funny. He was Jewish.”
He was also in a committed relationship, but they bonded over their shared passion for music. When she told him she was leaving for Seattle to write for a television show, he summoned his best impersonation of Daniel Day-Lewis in “The Last of the Mohicans”: “Stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you!”
She became enthralled with Seattle as “the epicenter of the biggest shift the music business had seen in decades — grunge — Kurt Cobain was still alive…I was in heaven.” A few months later, Joel, also in the music business and recently separated, showed up. “We didn’t stop kissing the entire few days he was in Seattle.”
They married, moved back to California, and had one child, although they’d hoped to have many. Melissa writes seamlessly about caring for their daughter after Joel’s death, keeping to the youngster’s schedule, getting her to school on time, making her meals, helping with homework, and curling up in bed with her every night “to talk about Daddy.”
Few people forge through the miasma of grief without help, which is why believers light candles and liquor stores open early. Melissa found her way by watching “Real Housewives” religiously, listening to TV evangelist Joel Osteen preach his “attitude of gratitude” gospel, and embracing New Thought guru Iyanla Vanzant as her life coach.
“Grief is personal and private,” Melissa writes, but hers never was. She shared it with her friends, her family, a man at the car wash, her hairdresser, and all the cashiers at the supermarket. “I was in midlife, barefoot in shiva clothes and a blowout. I felt compelled to tell people I was a widow because I didn’t look like one.” She wrote about her grief in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, which led finally to this book.
Searching for guidance, she went to a “highly recommended” psychic named Candy. Melissa presented Joel’s watch and photograph because “it helps channel or receive information.” Within minutes, Candy claimed she was connecting with Melissa’s dead husband. She said there would be a new man in her life soon with a son, and that Joel approved of the relationship.
“That’s what he wants me to tell you,” said Candy.
Melissa writes that she laughed off the prediction until she met Marcos — and then his son — a few weeks later. Six months after kissing her husband goodbye, Melissa begins “to live again” by dating Marcos. At this point, some “wisters” might be envious, while others may tsk-tsk, but Melissa Gould is a Hollywood writer who has read Cinderella. She knows the value of a happily-ever-after ending.
She and Marcos and their children now live together near Simi Valley, where Melissa runs a writing workshop at Camp Widow, part of a nonprofit called Soaring Spirits International, where she guides people in healing by exploring the unexpected realities of being a widow. Yes, she can finally face that word without the “ish.”
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Early in the Civil War, the Union Army seized “Arlington” — Robert E. Lee’s 1,100-acre estate across the Potomac from Washington, DC — and used it to headquarter federal troops. Lee never returned to his home, but he sued his country for damages after the war and collected more than $4 million.
When debate about the property seizure reached the U.S. Senate, Charles Sumner, who led that body’s anti-slavery forces, railed against the slaveholding Confederate general, saying: “I hand him over to the avenging pen of history.” That pen has now been wielded to dazzling effect by Ty Seidule in Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause.
Few others could write this book with such sterling credibility. Only a man of the South, a Virginian, and a soldier with a Ph.D. in history could so persuasively mount the case against a national hero, and label him a traitor. For even today, the image of Lee, who fought against his country to preserve slavery, is revered with monuments, parks, military bases, counties, roads, schools, ships, and universities named in his honor. Yet, armed with years of documented research, Seidule demonstrates that Lee, like Judas, was guilty of base betrayal.
“It’s an easy call,” he writes at the end of his stunning book, “because Lee resigned his commission, fought against his country, killed U.S. Army soldiers, and violated Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution. Lee committed treason.”
It wasn’t always an easy call for Seidule, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general who taught at West Point for 16 years and spent many of those years trying to understand why America’s premier service academy had so many monuments honoring Lee. “I went to the archives and spent years studying…that process changed me. The history changed me. The archives changed me. The facts changed me.”
As a boy, Seidule read Meet Robert E. Lee, “my childhood bible.” And “growing up in Virginia I worshipped Lee, the Confederate general.” Seidule attended Washington and Lee University in Lexington City, Virginia, where Lee Chapel features a statue of the general lying on the altar, but nothing else: no hymnals, no Book of Common Prayer, and no Ten Commandments (as the first one is: “I Am the Lord Thy God and Thou Shalt Not Have False Gods Before Me”).
“My school worshipped Robert E. Lee, literally,” Seidule writes. “[He] was God, and his Confederate cause was the one true religion.” He admits, somewhat shamefully, that he, too, once believed “all the lies and tropes.”
Lee’s body lies in a white marble sarcophagus under Lee Chapel alongside the remains of his faithful steed, Traveller. Visitors place carrots and apples on the horse’s grave, along with pennies — “Always heads down. No one wanted to have the hated Lincoln’s face visible to Lee’s grave.”
While slavery was abolished in 1863, Seidule learned that slaveholders continue to be honored to this day. He reports that Confederate monuments at 34 cemeteries in the U.S. are kept up by the government at taxpayer expense. “Over the last ten years federal and state governments have paid more than $40 million to maintain memorials to Confederate treason and racism with only a pittance going to African American cemeteries from the slave era.” As an Army officer, he’s particularly irate about the monument at Arlington National Cemetery:
“That angers me the most because every year the President of the U.S. sends a wreath ensuring the Confederate monument there receives all the prestige of the U.S. government…among the 400,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines buried on those hallowed grounds are my friends, colleagues and family.”
Most Confederate monuments, including those honoring Lee, were erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the early 20th century to preserve the glorious myth of the Lost Cause — a Southern euphemism for inglorious defeat:
“[Those monuments have] the same purpose as lynching: to enforce white supremacy. It is no coincidence that most Confederate monuments went up between 1890-1920, the same period that lynching peaked in the South. Lynching and Confederate monuments served to tell African Americans they were second-class citizens.”
The United Daughters of the Confederacy sprayed perfume on the stench of slavery and fluttered swan’s-down fans as they fashioned the Civil War as “the war of Northern aggression.” Seidule rightly calls it the war over slavery, and most responsible historians agree. But the author admits that while the South lost the war, they won the battle for the narrative.
No one did more to promote that narrative — moonbeams and magnolias, happy slaves and beloved masters — than Margaret Mitchell, who wrote Gone with the Wind, which has sold over 30 million copies to become the second most-popular book in America, next to the Bible. As the poet Melvin Tolson (1895-1966) wrote, “[That book] is such a subtle lie that it will be swallowed as the truth by millions of whites and blacks alike.”
The most damning indictment against Robert E. Lee is found in his own letters, which refer to the Emancipation Proclamation as “a savage and brutal policy,” words that aptly describe Lee’s treatment of his slaves, as verified in testimony given by one enslaved worker who had tried to escape from “Arlington” with his sisters. They were captured and punished:
“[Lee] ordered his constable to lay [the whip] on well with fifty lashes for [the man] and twenty for his sisters. After the whippings on their bare backs, Lee ordered salt water poured over their lacerated flesh.”
Ty Seidule writes with the passion of a convert who’s seen the light and needs to shine it for other to save them from “the lies and tropes” that blinded him for so many years. Robert E. Lee and Me is a cri de coeur, one man’s journey to humanity and his salvation from the pernicious lies of white supremacy.
Crosssposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
If an academic book is one that can be taught in college, then Henry Adams in Washington: Linking the Personal and Public Lives of America’s Man of Letters succeeds. In fact, this book by Ormond Seavey, an English professor at George Washington University, reads like a semester’s course on why Henry Adams ought to be elevated to the pantheon of 19th-century writers alongside Mark Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.
Seavey maintains that Adams (1838-1918) has been deprived of his rightful place in the literary stratosphere and proposes restoration. He starts by stating that the writer’s nine volumes entitled History of the United States of America (1801-1817) “belong alongside the greatest works of American creative writers.”
Further, he asserts the books comprise “the greatest work of history composed by an American…yet…unacknowledged in its own country,” and he intends to bring Adams the recognition he feels he deserves in the U.S. The professor concedes some literary critics might disagree with him, but he presents his case with pedagogical fervor and a few too many convoluted sentences:
“[Adams’] Washington turns out to be an essentially imaginative construct whose dimensions and appearances correspond to what others experience except that he has converted those details into a complex notion somehow independent of the seemingly solid realities experienced, for example, by James Madison, John Randolph, Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Cabot Lodge, or Theodore Roosevelt.”
Seavey scores high on presenting Adams as a man of letters but falls short on illuminating the personal side of the man. Publicly, Adams was known as a Boston Brahmin with a prestigious lineage: President John Adams (1735-1826) was his great-grandfather, and President John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), his grandfather. He made his own mark as a noted historian and novelist.
Yet even 100 years after his death, the personal man remains elusive because, for reasons Seavey doesn’t explain or explore, Adams resisted transparency. Other than his multi-volume history, he refused to publish under his own name and sometimes went to great lengths to camouflage his authorship. Why remains unknown.
When Adams worked for his father, Charles Francis Adams Sr., in the House of Representatives, he wrote anonymously as the Washington correspondent for Charles Hale’s Boston Daily Advertiser. Later, when his father became Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to the Court of St. James, Adams worked as his father’s private secretary and wrote anonymously as the London correspondent for the New York Times.
Was he anonymous because of conflicts of interest between working in politics while working as a journalist? Seavey doesn’t say; he simply describes Adams as “that master of conspiracies and disguises.”
After Adams married and moved to Washington, he wrote two novels, each one blanketed in secrecy: Democracy, which Seavey describes as “a novel disguised as autobiography,” was published anonymously, and Esther, which was published under the female pseudonym Frances Snow Compton.
Why the camouflage? Seavey suggests that Adams hid behind a skirt because he was unwilling to have his DC neighbors know he was the one exposing the city’s deficiencies. If his novels, based on real people, were published under his name, he may have jeopardized his social status in Washington, where he and his wife, Clover, John Hay and his wife, Clara, and Clarence King, a pioneering geologist and entrepreneur, formed an elite little club they called “The Five of Hearts,” the title of Patricia O’Toole’s spectacular 1990 biography, which was subtitled “An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918.”
That loving quintet splintered on December 6, 1885, when Clover Adams, 42, committed suicide by swallowing potassium cyanide. The evening newspaper reported she had dropped dead from paralysis of the heart, which may have been strangely accurate, because the writings of others indicate she knew her husband had fallen in love with another woman, Elizabeth Sherman Cameron.
That Christmas, days after his wife’s death, Adams sent Cameron a piece of Clover’s favorite jewelry, requesting she “sometimes wear it, to remind you of her.” He had been writing Cameron passionate letters since 1883, two years before his wife took her life, and continued for the next 35 years of his life, although, according to Eugenia Kaledin’s The Education of Mrs. Henry Adams, their relationship was never consummated.
These personal details are ignored by Seavey, although available in the biography of Adams written by Ernest Samuels (1903-1996), who received the Parkman Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for his three-volume study. Yet Samuels is not listed in Seavey’s bibliography and is only cited once in passing, a strange omission in a book purporting to link “the personal and public lives of America’s man of letters.”
The most intriguing monument to the mystery of Adams is the bronze sculpture he commissioned in memory of his wife, frequently called “Grief.” “Henry Adams left it to August St. Gaudens to preserve forever the experience of [his] loss. Visitors to Rock Creek Cemetery [in Washington, DC] can see it for themselves. And that is all I am going to say about that,” Seavey writes.
The professor ends his book a few pages later, having shown in full the public life of Henry Adams but leaving his personal side in shadows, still detached and disparate.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, has just published her 13th book, and first memoir, Finding My Father: His Century-long Journey from World War I Warsaw and My Quest to Follow. We recently discussed the new work.
You’ve written many books (including You Just Don’t Understand, You’re Wearing THAT?, You Were Always Mom’s Favorite!, and You’re the Only One I Can Tell) about how people express/hide themselves through language. How did the commercial success of those books enhance or detract from your position in academia?
My colleagues at Georgetown and in my discipline have been uniformly supportive of me and my academic, as well as my general-audience, writing. I feel I should add “kunnahurra,” which is how my mother pronounced the Yiddish expression one says to avoid jinxing good fortune.
How did writing this book about the father you adored affect you?
My father was the parent I felt an affinity for, the one I thought understood me. But when I was a child, he was rarely home. The strongest presence I felt in the house was his absence. The hours upon hours I spent talking to him about his life after he retired — I have 200 cassette tapes! — began to make up for that deep sense of longing. He also gave me mountains of written words: journals he kept before he married; letters he saved and copies of letters he wrote; and memories he wrote down for me, especially about his childhood in Warsaw (where he was born into a Hasidic family in 1908), but also about his life after he came to the U.S. in 1920. These all helped me see how his life was affected by and reflected the cataclysmic events of the 20th century: how WWI affected Warsaw’s Jews, immigration, the Depression, and anti-Semitism in both Poland and the U.S. between the wars.
My father’s father died of tuberculosis when he was very young — he never knew his father — so [my father] quit high school at 14 to support his mother and sister. Yet he became a lawyer, established the largest workers’ compensation firm in New York City, and ran for congress. Until I was in junior high, my father worked as a cutter in a coat factory. After that, my father was a partner in his own law firm. I always knew these outlines but had no idea how or why it happened that way, what it all meant, day to day, how he felt about it, or why it took him 30 years from passing the bar until he could support his family through law. Figuring it out gave me a clearer sense of how I was shaped by history, too.
Why do you think your father chose you to write his memoir rather than one of your two sisters? And has publication of this book affected your relationships within your family?
It was a no-brainer. I was already a published writer, having gotten a love of language and of writing from him. And my adoration was obvious. My sister Mimi once said, “I love Daddy, too, but I don’t think he’s God!” She and my sister Naomi have always been part of this project. I checked memories with them, and whenever I found something surprising, I’d share it with them. Our memories differ, of course. Naomi is six years older than Mimi and eight years older than me, so she had our father to herself when she was small. Naomi, like me, tended to idealize him and be critical of our mother. Mimi has been an invaluable reality check. She’ll point out when I’m judging our mother too harshly and letting our father off the hook.
As an immigrant from WWI Warsaw, your father did not have an easy life. His father died young; his mother sounds like a harridan; and he worked at over 60 jobs to support her and himself and his family. Yet he lived to be 98. To what besides good genes do you attribute his longevity?
Good luck. His and mine.
You discovered a secret relationship of your father’s and entitled one chapter “The Hidden Letters” after finding correspondence that he had secreted away for decades. Please describe.
Ah, yes, the woman I call Helen. She wasn’t a secret, but the fact that he’d saved her letters was. Both my parents spoke openly and casually about my mother’s “rival.” My father once said, “Your mother wasn’t my girlfriend. Helen was my girlfriend.” So why did he marry my mother and not his girlfriend? When he told me he’d saved Helen’s letters but didn’t know where they were, I longed to find them, to figure that out. I eventually did find them — along with copies of many letters he wrote to her! Reading their correspondence, I fell in love with Helen myself. I saw that my father’s relationship with her was romantic in a way his relationship with my mother wasn’t. And I was able to piece together the dramatic events that led to his marrying my mother. I felt I’d solved a mystery and learned a lot about relationships between women and men at the time, especially the fraught role played by virginity!
Your father was a communist, an atheist, and a Zionist. Can you say a bit about each and explain how each weaves into the other?
My father already identified as all three when he came to the U.S. at 12. He was influenced by the Bolshevik revolution through his mother’s youngest sister. Only six years older than my father, Magda was like a big sister he looked up to. Like many young people in every generation, she and her friends saw poverty and injustice and wanted to build a better world. Communism promised that would come when workers of the world unite and saw religion as a barrier to that solidarity. So atheism and communism went together. My father became disillusioned with communism but became an ever-more passionate supporter of Israel as he saw what happened to the members of his family who were still in Poland at the start of WWII. He remained a devout atheist with a deep and proud Jewish identity. When he was old, I asked, “Do you feel more Polish or American?” He replied, “I feel like a Jew.”
What advice would you give to your students about writing a memoir, particularly those who, unlike you, don’t have the advantage of hours and hours of taped interviews?
Talk to anyone you can find who knew your family or lived through similar times. Follow every trail wherever it takes you — to other people you can talk to, any documents you can find, and the infinite pathways now available on the internet. And write your own memories down for the next generation!
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Eric Burns writes books with long titles. His first, Broadcast Blues: Dispatches from the Twenty-Year War between a Television Reporter and His Medium, written in 1993, was a memoir of sorts. As an Emmy-winning correspondent for NBC News who later spent 10 years at Fox News before being fired, Burns knows the highs and lows of broadcasting. He’s since indicated that Fox is not a crucible of credibility, but rather “a cult.”
In 2006, he wrote his fourth book, Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, and his eighth, Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television’s Conquest of America in the Fifties, in 2010. Now, he’s publishing his 15th book, having tempered his tendency for unwieldly titles: 1957: The Year that Launched the American Future. Its bright red cover features the front of the Edsel, the Ford Motor Company’s catastrophe that Burns describes as “the car with the vagina in the grille.”
No question that 1957 was a big year. Russia won the space race with Sputnik, and President Eisenhower expanded the U.S. with the Interstate Highway Act, an idea he adopted from Germany after experiencing the ease and efficiency of the Autobahn. Highways give rise to suburbs, big cars, and a new way of life.
In 1957, Americans were introduced to the Mafia by watching the McClellan Rackets Committee hearings on television. TV also introduced Elvis the Pelvis, Little Richard, and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, as well as Joe McCarthy, Fidel Castro, Jimmy Hoffa, Floyd Patterson, Billy Graham, and Ayn Rand. The hero of the 50s — hands down — was Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine and refused to file a patent to profit from his discovery.
Burns divides his book into five parts, the most important being on race, the cutting issue of our times then and now. In 1957, the country was rocked by the Supreme Court decision known as Brown v. Board of Education, which stated that racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment. “What happened next resulted in some of the most bitterly poignant tales to emerge…from the tenth circle of hell known as Southern racism.”
Burns recounts the trauma of nine African American students trying to enroll at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. Even decades later, it’s painful to read about white adults spitting race-laden epithets in the faces of the young Black students. Within a week of their enrollment, Congress voted on the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first such piece of legislation to be approved since 1875, during the Southern revolts against Reconstruction.
But before the vote could be taken, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond began filibustering on the floor of the U.S. Senate, raging against the legislation. He held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes, earning himself an ignoble place in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest filibuster in American history. Burns reports the incident in detail but fails to mention that the feral racist had a Black daughter, having impregnated his family’s 16-year-old maid when he was 22.
For those who have not discovered The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972 by William Manchester and just want a cursory gulp of 1957, Burns’ book will suffice; it offers more narrative than an almanac. But be prepared for sentences in need of a stop sign. In a chapter excoriating Ayn Rand, Burns writes:
“The kind of philosopher who so despises Rand, on the other hand, is usually an esoteric sort, like the fellow about whom I recently read who was watching a football game on television when it struck him that, in order to score, Team A has to cross Football Team B’s half of the field, thus sanctifying ‘the property-seizing principle’ of imperialism.”
And, when extolling the 1957 horror film “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” he writes:
“Fowler goes on to say that the critics who condescended to review the film, invariably snickering at its simple-minded dialogue and plot devices, not to mention its almost comical special effects, had no idea what the movie was really about and rejected the concept of teenage angst as being just a laughable rite of passage, totally ignorant that the sort of angst that was swelling around them would birth a generation of intensely political angry and aware kids whose minds and hearts would affect the world.”
Burns goes on to say that the film became “the Edsel of motion pictures.” The same might be said of his book, minus the vagina.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Carole Ione grew up in a world of beautiful Black women of various shades, where marriages crumbled, fathers fell by the wayside, and mothers forged ahead with careers and the “occasional” man. As a 10-year-old sitting at the piano listening to her mother sing Calypso songs, Ione, as she now calls herself, “learned early on from those lyrics that soldiers and sailors could be trouble — you might never see them again.”
Ione’s only paladins were women: her great-aunt, Sistonie, a physician and member of Washington’s Black aristocracy; her grandmother, Be-Be, a former Broadway chorus dancer who ran the best restaurant in Saratoga Springs, drawing celebrities like Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, and Ethel Waters; and her mother, Leighla, who carved a career writing mysteries. Ironically, the biggest mystery hid behind the stone wall of secrets that kept the women estranged and incapable of bonding as a family.
At the age of 19, against fierce objections, Ione married a white Frenchman. In 1956, they moved to his home in Alsace, where everyone in the textile-manufacturing town was white and spoke a German dialect called Elsässerditsch. That part of France, the Haut-Rhin, was scorned by Parisians as the exterieur, so its denizens tried to be “more French than the French,” Ione writes. As a Black American woman, she became a freakish curiosity, stared at in the streets:
“I realize now that it was exactly that depressing feeling of being thought inferior to the society I lived in that I had hoped to escape by marrying…[I longed] to assuage the painful and confusing aspects of blackness.”
Soon, she and her husband moved back to New York, where they occupied separate bedrooms and led separate lives as he encouraged a philosophy of free love. Ione began an affair with a married alcoholic man many years her junior, followed by an even more unconventional relationship with a woman painter who lived in a loft on Canal Street:
“I had begun to understand that I was — like most people, I thought — not simply heterosexual but sexual, and from then on I would resist any labels on my sexuality.”
After her divorce, she married “a gay man living as a heterosexual” with whom she had three children. But after 13 years “of no love for me,” she again divorced. Ione received no succor from her mother or grandmother, only a “frosty politeness.” Both blamed her for leaving her husband and becoming like them: a single mother.
Feeling betrayed and desperate for a sense of belonging, Ione sought to explore the lives of her family, a word she italicizes as if it’s exotic and foreign. The result, published in 1991 when she was 54, was Pride of Family: Four Generations of American Women of Color, a rich reverie of superb writing — half memoir, half biography — nine years in the making that probes the tortured bonds of mothers and daughters and the journey of one girl through a gnarled thicket of secrets.
With bracing honesty and eloquence, Ione documents in Pride of Family the alienation she felt within her own community, where a pernicious line of color had segregated her since childhood:
If you’re white, you’re all right.
If you’re brown, stick around.
If you’re black, get back.
When she found her maternal grandfather late in life, she asked him about his mother, and he said that she, Ione’s great-grandmother, was good-looking. “She was fair. Very light skin — and she had good hair.” That one word — hair — is freighted for Black women, and Ione was particularly sensitive about it as her mother and grandmother were light-skinned beauties with straight, silky hair:
“Mine was fuzzy, woolly, nappy…everything I didn’t want it to be…my hair was bad…not in the worst degrees of ‘bad’ — for there are degrees — but ‘bad’ nonetheless. Did this make my mother and grandmother love me less, did it create a subtle distance between us?”
That distance narrowed when Ione discovered the diary of her great-grandmother, Frances “Frank” Anne Rollin (1845-1902), and unearthed many family secrets. Rollin also gave Ione, a writer, a feeling of pride for her foremother, a 19th-century activist who was the first known African American biographer. In 1868, Rollin wrote The Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany under the name Frank A. Rollin.
That biography is little known today, but the biographer lives on, having been recently embraced by Biographers International Organization (BIO), which established the Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship for African American Biography, providing a $2,000 fellowship for a writer working on a life story of an African American figure or someone whose story provides a significant contribution to the Black experience.
Ione, now 83 and living in Kingston, New York, is thrilled by the fellowship. “It’s a dream coming true through the centuries,” she told BIO. “There was a line in [Frank’s] diary in which she said she wanted to ‘make her mark in literature,’ and now [I feel] it’s finally happened.”
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
“Never offend an enemy in a small way,” Gore Vidal once wrote. The prickly writer, who thrived on making enemies, may soon be spewing venom from six feet under. Eight years after his death, he is scheduled to cast shade on his nemesis, William F. Buckley, Jr., in a new play by Alexandra Petri, called Inherit the Windbag. The play is in virtual rehearsals right now, at Washington, D.C.’s Mosaic Theatre Company, but when a stage version opens, likely next spring, the groundskeeper at Rock Creek Cemetery would be well advised to keep an eye on Section E, Lot 293 ½, where Vidal’s ashes are buried. Vidal outlived Buckley by four years, but never forgave the man who called him a “queer” in a 1968 televised debate. When Buckley died, Vidal cheered, “RIP WFB—in hell.”
The odyssey that Vidal’s remains took before their interment was no less dramatic. The writer spent many hours negotiating the details of his grave. From his villa in Ravello, Italy, he stipulated that his ashes be placed near an Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpture commissioned by the historian Henry Adams, in memory of his wife, who committed suicide. This monument is the most visited site in the eighty-acre park, just across the street from the former Old Soldiers’ Home, where President Lincoln summered during the Civil War. Vidal, who made millions in real estate, understood its first three commandments: location, location, location.
Vidal also instructed that he and Howard Austen, his partner of fifty-three years, be buried near the grave of Jimmie Trimble, a blond athlete whom Vidal met when both were students at St. Albans School. Trimble was killed at Iwo Jima, but he lived for the rest of Vidal’s life in fevered fantasies. By placing his own remains between those of Trimble and Adams—a descendant of two American Presidents, who was buried next to his wife—Vidal was, as he wrote, “midway between heart and mind, to put it grandly.”
Like a pharaoh gilding his tomb, Vidal continued making legacy preparations: he commissioned his biography to be written in his lifetime by Fred Kaplan, who accompanied Vidal and Austen to the cemetery in 1994, to complete their final interment papers. Kaplan signed as their witness and later published a well-received book (Gore Vidal: A Biography), but, when the Times dismissed Vidal as a “minor” writer in its review, Vidal fired off a letter to the editor, blaming Kaplan. He claimed, preposterously, that he thought he’d commissioned the biographer Justin Kaplan, not Fred Kaplan. (Kaplan was not the only writer to be pulverized by Vidal. The three saddest words in the English language, Vidal once said, were “Joyce Carol Oates.”)
Not long after Kaplan finished the book, Vidal moved his papers (almost four hundred boxes’ worth) from the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Film and Theater Research to Harvard University. Months before he died, at the age of eighty-six, he added a codicil to his will, leaving his entire thirty-seven-million-dollar estate to Harvard, which triggered a blizzard of lawsuits after his death and delayed his burial for years. “At the end, Gore was drinking bottles of Macallan Scotch around the clock, having hallucinations, in and out of hospitals and well into dementia,” his half sister Nina Straight said. She was the first to sue the Vidal estate, to recover a million dollars that she said she had loaned her brother to fund his lawsuit against Buckley.
“The end was awful, just awful,” her son Burr Steers said. “He was no longer Gore—just a deranged old man, killing himself with booze.” Steers, who had taken possession of his uncle’s ashes, filed suit, too, claiming ownership of Vidal’s house in Los Angeles, which had been left to him in a previous will. Later, Steers sued to have the estate trustee, Andrew Auchincloss, his third cousin, removed for “reckless misconduct,” claiming that Auchincloss had tried to defraud him.
Vidal, who liked to say that, after fifty, litigation replaces sex, probably would have enjoyed the flurry of lawsuits. After numerous depositions and document dumps, Straight dropped her suit, Steers lost the L.A. house, and Auchincloss remained trustee of the estate. How the ashes made it from Los Angeles to Rock Creek Cemetery, where they were interred in 2016, in a small private ceremony, is a mystery. Steers’s attorney, Eric M. George, had no comment, citing “a strict confidentiality clause.” For someone who thrived on publicity to be buried with no fanfare seems pathetic, but a public Facebook page, GoreVidalNow.com, indicates that there is at least one keeper of the literary banshee’s flame. The site is managed by Michelle Gore, who is married to a third cousin of Vidal’s and who visited Vidal in Italy. “Gore, I miss you each day,” she writes. A sweet coda for a curmudgeon. ♦
Gore Vidal was interred in Rock Creek Cemetery on June 24, 2016 in a small private ceremony.
Published in the print edition of the New Yorker, August 31, 2020 issue, with the headline “Dust to Dust.” Online “Can Gore Vidal Find Rest in His Final Resting Place?“
(See also “Gore Vidal’s Final Feud” by Kitty Kelley, Washingtoninan November 2015.)
Photo of Gore Vidal with nephew Burr Steers in Rock Creek Cemetery courtesy of Burr Steers
by Kitty Kelley
The Irish were the first to master the art of television conversation with The Late, Late Show, moderated by Gabe Byrne in Dublin from 1962-1990, and still running today with various hosts. Then came the British with David Frost, who hosted several U.K. “chat shows” before coming to America with The David Frost Show, and rising to international prominence in 1977 with his five 90-minute interviews with Richard Nixon, which forced the former president to acknowledge and apologize for Watergate. One of Frost’s many successors in London is Clive James, who currently hosts Talking in the Library.
In the U.S., Larry King held sway on CNN every weeknight with Larry King Live! where he reigned for 25 years in colorful suspenders. He was followed by Charlie Rose, who invited guests to join him at his table on PBS from 1991 to 2017. When Rose was summarily fired for sexual harassment, he and his table were banished and replaced by two sturdy chairs for David M. Rubenstein to interview the great and the good on The David Rubenstein Show.
A co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a DC-based, multinational, private-equity investment firm, Rubenstein is a spectacular businessman worth $3.4 billion, and he’s capitalizing on his television show by publishing some of his interviews. His first book, The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians, published in 2019, was very good. His second, How to Lead: Wisdom from the World’s Greatest CEOs, Founders, and Game Changers, published last month, is okay.
The book’s cover features sketches of Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Gates, Christine Lagarde, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Indra Nooyi, Richard Branson, and Yo-Yo Ma. The contents present 30 individuals — 15 men and 15 women — Rubenstein deems as exemplifying leadership, whom he divides into different categories: visionaries, builders, transformers, commanders, decision-makers, and masters.
Half of Rubenstein’s leaders, mostly white males, hold degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, with a couple from Stanford. Not so the women, few of whom possess those prized credentials, with the exception of the late Justice Ginsburg.
In his introduction, Rubenstein presents his formula for becoming a world-class leader. Moses had 10 Commandments; Rubenstein has 12:
II. Desire to succeed.
III. Pursue something new and unique.
IV. Hard work and long hours. (“Workaholism is a plus.”)
V. Focus everything on mastering one skill.
VI. Fail. (“My having been part of a failed White House certainly fueled my ambition to succeed,” he writes as former deputy domestic-policy assistant to President Carter.)
IX. Humble demeanor.
X. Credit-sharing. (Here, he quotes his hero, John F. Kennedy: “Victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.” So, spread the glory.)
XI. Ability to keep learning. (Rubenstein writes that he reads six newspapers a day, at least a dozen weekly periodicals, and a minimum of one book a week, although, he adds, he often juggles three to four books simultaneously. You wonder how the man finds time to tie his shoes.)
XII. Integrity, which he defines as not cutting ethical corners.
Rubenstein comes to all his interviews well prepared, if a bit short on charm. He’s developed a style much like Jack Webb on Dragnet: “Just the facts, Ma’am.” He’s respectful to his guests, even as his questions probe.
Interviewing Melinda Gates, he asks if it was difficult for her as a committed Catholic to promote birth control in third-world countries as part of her work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She admits she’d wrestled with her faith on the issue but finally resolved her conscience in favor of contraception.
How to Lead begins with the best interview in the book: Jeff Bezos, who happens to be the richest man in the world ($173.5 billion), founder and CEO of Amazon, and owner of the Washington Post. A high school valedictorian who graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton, Bezos changed his major from theoretical physics to electrical engineering and computer science when he realized he was not going to be one of the top 50 theoretical physicists in the world — an indication, perhaps, of why he prizes failure as a pathway to success.
(Here, Rubenstein admits his own financial failure, the biggest business mistake he made, selling his firm’s equity in Amazon for $80 million in 1996, which, today, would be worth “about $4 billion.”)
In his interview, Bezos reveals a man devoted to his parents. “One of the great gifts I got is my mom and dad,” he says. “I was always loved. My parents loved me unconditionally.” He adds that he’s committed to eight hours of sleep every night, and reserves “high IQ meetings” for mid-morning, when he has his best energy. He says the most important work he’s doing at present is investing in the future by putting $1 billion a year of his own money into Blue Origin, his aspirational program to make expanded human space travel a reality.
The only one of Rubenstein’s leaders without a college degree, let alone the advanced degrees that most of the others hold, is Richard Branson, a dyslexic who dropped out of school at 15. “Do you think you could have been more successful in life if you had a university degree?” Rubenstein asks. “No,” says Branson, who founded Virgin Group, an umbrella for hundreds of Virgin enterprises, including Virgin Airlines, Virgin Megastores, and Virgin Galactic. Branson is worth $4.2 billion.
Many of Rubenstein’s leaders are billionaires like himself, and with or without Ivy League credentials, all are accomplished and deserve their position at the top of the heap. For this book, Rubenstein includes his double interview with two former two-term presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
But he has not interviewed his former boss, Jimmy Carter, a one-term president who many consider a leader in humanitarian outreach. Rubenstein characterizes Carter’s term in office as a “failed White House.” Yet Carter established the Department of Energy in 1977 and the Department of Education in 1979.
He cut the deficit, ended rampant inflation, and managed to get more of his legislation passed than any president since WWII, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson. And Carter, a Nobel laureate, is the only president since Thomas Jefferson under whom the U.S. military never fired a shot.
With all due respect to the billionaire Rubenstein, Carter’s presidency, while only four years, can hardly be dismissed as a failure.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books