If I had to pick out my half dozen favorite possessions, one would be a 60-year-old, permanently blackened device known as the Toas-Tite. My mother bought it around 1950, she gave it to me when I got married and moved out, and I still use it — as recently as today.

The Toas-Tite consists of two cast-aluminum “clam shells” joined with a hinge and opened and closed with two long handles. In the most basic use of this gadget, one puts a slice of bread on one of the shells – with a little butter on the down side to prevent sticking. Lay on some cheese, maybe a slice of tomato, and then put on the second slice of bread  — again with a little butter on the outside. Close the handles and cut away the excess bread. Then grill the contents over whatever heat source is handy, turning the Toas-Tite frequently to avoid burning the bread while the cheese melts. When the Toas-Tite is opened, the result is a sealed round hot sandwich.

Of course there is no limit to the type  of bread or the nature of the filling one can use  in a Toas-Tite. I stick to the traditional melted cheese, sometimes adding ham and bacon and — just this afternoon — olive loaf. But I saw a recipe today that involved bleu cheese, figs, and prosciutto, and another that called for bananas and peanut butter. I also saw a variation in which already–prepared crepes were used instead of bread.

Recently, we introduced another generation to the Toas-Tite — namely, our ten-year-old granddaughter Alexa. She’s hooked.

The patent for the original Toas-Tite was issued in 1949. A later version, which used sheet instead of cast aluminum, was inferior because it was too easy to burn the bread before the filling was melted or thoroughly toasted. Although the Toas-Tite hasn’t been manufactured for many years, it is possible to buy the original model on the Internet.

Except for being blackened by repeated heating, the Toas-Tite I have is just as it was when Mom bought it and probably will last long enough for Alexa to spring it on her own kids. I don’t think it’s simplistic to say that it’s a testament to the manufacturing standards of the past. I like that about it, but what I like most is that it’s a tangible, useable link to my mother, and one that she would have appreciated.

You can find a lot of information about the Toas-Tite, including recipes, at THIS LINK.

BARACK OBAMA

President Barack Obama’s foray into New Jersey and New York yesterday certainly was inspired at least in part by the Congressional elections coming up in November. The president obviously was trying to bolster his own party — which clearly is in political trouble along with Obama himself —  and he was trying to undermine the Republican Party by accusing it of obstructionism with respect to such things as unemployment benefits. This kind of politicking is routine for modern presidents, although one has to wonder what effect it has in the 21st century, when the public is supersaturated with political messages.

Obama probably wasn’t conscious of it, but when he set off from Washington yesterday, he was emulating what, for him, was an unlikely model — namely, Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of these United States.

ANDREW JOHNSON

Johnson, who was Obama’s philosophical opposite in many ways, was the first president to conduct a campaign trip of that kind, but he did it to a fare-thee-well and with disastrous results that affected governance in the United States for decades. The short version of the story is that Johnson — a Democrat who had been elected vice president on a fusion ticket with the Republican Abraham Lincoln — abruptly succeeded to the presidency just as the Civil War was ending. He and the Republican majority in Congress were at odds over management of the defeated Confederate states and the former slaves and their disagreements degraded into an ugly struggle. There is no telling how Lincoln, with all of his political acumen, would have fared if he had survived to work things out with Congress on his own, but his death elevated the blunt and stubborn Johnson to the presidency under circumstances that he did not have the temperament to handle.

ANDREW JOHNSON

In an effort to uphold Democratic candidates for Congress and attract support from moderate Republicans, Johnson embarked in the summer of 1866 on an unprecedented 18-day grand tour — a “swing around the circle,” as he called it — that took him to 22 cities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky, with brief stops in other spots. He traveled with a large and glittering entourage that included such Cabinet members as Secretary of State William Seward, and military officers including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, and Admiral David Farragut.

Adm. DAVID FARRAGUT

The trip went well as long as Johnson was in the friendly East, but things deteriorated when he reached Cleveland and started to encounter hostile audiences and exchanged insults with them as though he were still stumping for a legislative seat back in Tennessee. He opened himself to criticism and ridicule and did more damage than good for his objectives. The Republicans swept the Congressional elections, gaining a majority large enough to take control of the process of Reconstruction with no fear of presidential interference. In addition, as relations between Johnson and Congress became even worse, the House of Representatives impeached the president and included in the charges against him the intemperate speeches he made during the campaign tour. The legislative momentum was so great that the presidency was reduced in power and importance until the end of the 19th century.

Johnson was an admirable American in many respects, but at the end of the Civil War he was the Wrong Man at the Wrong Time, if ever there was one. He was acquitted of the impeachment charges, which were absurd on the face of it, and he eventually was reelected to the Senate — the same one that had  tried him — where he was greeted with flowers and applause. We Americans are nothing if not forgiving. And although his campaign trip was a failure, it is a testament to his grit and self-confidence that he attempted it at all.

Extraordinary photograph shows Andrew Johnson at a banquet honoring him during the "swing around the circle." This event may have been held at Delmonico's in New York City. Johnson is in the center of the photo, between Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles (in the white beard) and Gen. Grant.


BOB NEWHART

It’s always a pleasure when we watch a television program from several decades ago and find that it was as good as we remember. For us, that’s true of “The Bob Newhart Show,” which ran on CBS from 1972 to 1978. We rented from Netflix the first episodes in the series, and we were not disappointed. The later series, “Newhart,” was weak by comparison.

The tone of the series is set by Newhart’s mannerisms played out in psychologist Bob Hartley’s droll world view. Newhart is one of those  rare actors who gets laughs by being a straight man. The show succeeds because the writing, casting, and direction is all in harmony with Newhart’s low-key (below-key, if there is such a thing) personality. Even the more traditionally comic performances – Marcia Wallace as receptionist Carol Kester, Peter Bonerz as dentist Jerry Robinson, and Bill Dailey as neighbor/airline navigator Howard Borden, are relatively subdued so as to create a comfortable context for Newhart’s flat wave.

SUZANNE PLESHETTE

Although the series is built around Bob Newhart’s personality, an important part of its success  is Suzanne Pleshette’s performance as Bob Hartley’s seductive, wise-cracking wife, Emily. She was cast in the role in the first place after producers noticed the natural chemistry between her and Newhart on a 1971 broadcast of “The Tonight Show.” The producers weren’t imagining things. Pleshette and Newhart were a high point in television matchmaking.

We first became aware of Newhart when he was a stand-up comic; we still have his “Buttondown Mind” LP. His signature routine was the one-sided telephone conversation, a device that he took with him to the TV series. A lot of actors find themselves faking telephone calls, but Newhart perfected it. He was especially smooth in repeating the unheard half of the conversation — doing it so skillfully that it didn’t seem contrived.

Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette

I don’t know how decisions are made about what shows get re-run on television, but I do know that there seem to be endless recyclings of series that weren’t very good to begin with, but no sign of “Taxi,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” or the first Newhart series.

Thank heaven for Netflix.

JOHN McCORMACK

National Public Radio is running a series on “50 Great Voices,” and I was pleased to hear the other day that one of my favorite voices has been included — that of the Irish tenor John McCormack. You can follow the unfolding of “the list” by clicking HERE. I would have expected Enrico Caruso to be on the list – and he is – but Caruso has endured as an icon ala Babe Ruth. The name Caruso is known far outside of the circle of opera buffs; his name is a synonym for “singer.” McCormack, on the other hand, is known these days mostly by the musty crowd that lives with one foot in the distant musical past. People like me, for instance.

I developed an interest in McCormack when I was in my early teens. This came as a blow to my mother, because she was already getting auditory indigestion from the olio that poured out of my hi-fi: one minute Bill Haley & His Comets, the next minute Bach’s Mass in B minor, the next minute Florian Zabach’s violin, and the next minute Hank Williams. Mom preferred Zabach.

Stamp honoring John McCormack

I stumbled across McCormack after I bought four LPs by the Italian tenor Mario Del Monaco. Listening to those discs launched me into a lifelong fascination with tenors, and I accumulated recordings by dozens of them, ancient and modern. It was inevitable that McCormack would be included, because he was a prolific performer, including many recordings. Connecting with McCormack also opened my ears to Irish music, because, besides his operatic career, he was a mainstay on the concert stage and his repertoire included the songs of his native Ireland. I found these irresistible because the melodies and lyrics are laced with both humor and melancholy. I acquired recordings by other Irish tenors, too, but no one seemed to approach McCormack.

When I became better informed about music, I learned that my instincts hadn’t failed me for a change. McCormack is highly regarded as a singer — unparalleled, in the opinions of some authorities — because of the extraordinary control he had over his breath and his voice. That is well displayed in his recording of his signature song, “I Hear You Calling Me.”

JOHN McCORMACK

Very early in his career, McCormack sang under the name Giovanni Foli, deriving it from the name of his lifelong sweetheart and longtime spouse, Lily Foley. He was wildly popular at the height of his career and he earned, and spent, enormous amounts of money. He was also the soul of charity and was particularly generous with his time and his own funds in supporting the American effort in both world wars. He became an American citizen in 1917, a decision that wasn’t well received back home, and he took his citizenship seriously. He also supported many other causes, including the Catholic Church, and the Church bestowed many honors on him, including the hereditary title of count.

According to an often-repeated story, at a chance meeting between Caruso and McCormack, McCormack asked, “And how is the greatest tenor in the world?” To which Caruso replied, “And when did you become a baritone?”

Some of McCormack’s songs are available at the NPR site and at the web site of the John McCormack Society, which is at THIS LINK.

MARILYN MONROE

We stumbled across an old TV interview with Tony Curtis recently, and that prompted us to watch “Some Like it Hot,” the 1959 Billy Wilder film, which neither of us had seen. The premise of this movie is that dance band musicians Jerry and Joe, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, inadvertently witness the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” in a Chicago garage in 1929 and have to leave town to avoid being killed themselves. They do that by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl band that is on its way to an engagement in Florida. (The Florida scenes, curiously, were filmed at the instantly recognizable Hotel Del Coronado in California.) Both of the fugitives are immediately attracted to the zaftig singing ukulele player, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, played by Marilyn Monroe. Joe (aka Josephine) seizes the advantage with Sugar Kane by posing as the millionaire scion of an oil magnate, and that leads to a steamy encounter aboard a yacht. In that role, Curtis does a hilarious imitation of Cary Grant’s voice. Meanwhile, Jerry (aka Daphne) gets drawn into a relationship with an older sugar daddy, played by Joe E. Brown, in which the gender issue gets a little hazy.

JOE E. BROWN and JACK LEMMON

This film combines violence and overt sexuality with implausible farce. It wouldn’t stir up the pond today, but it was controversial in its own time. Marilyn Monroe’s make-out scene with Tony Curtis – and a couple of very revealing dresses she wore – contributed to the negative reactions the film got in what was clearly a different era than our own. The cast, which also included George Raft and Pat O’Brien deliberately type-cast as fictional mob boss “Spats” Colombo and Chicago police Detective Mulligan, was a talented aggregation and made the odd mix of dark and light themes work very well. The film was shot in black-and-white, which somehow seems appropriate to the ’20s setting, but I read that the decision was driven by the fact that the makeup Lemmon and Curtis wore did not reproduce well in color.

As much as I liked this movie, I was surprised to learn that it has been described in laudatory terms ranging from one of the best comedies ever made to the best comedy ever made, to one of the best pictures ever made. I always look askance at statements like that because of the volume of work – done by a wide variety of artists in a wide variety of times and circumstances – that has to be dismissed to make such an evaluation true. It’s enough to say that “Some Like it Hot” was a very good movie. It won an Oscar and was nominated for seven others, and it won Golden Globe awards for Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon and as best picture of the year.

JOE E. BROWN

A lot has been written about the making of this movie, including accounts of how much trouble Marilyn Monroe caused during the production — which must have particularly irked Wilder, who originally planned to use Mitzi Gaynor in that part. Monroe was chronically late and often couldn’t remember her lines and had to read them from cues concealed on the set. She was also pregnant, and appears overweight – even for her – in several scenes.

On the other hand, it was a rare pleasure to watch a performance by Joe E. Brown, who is largely forgotten now but had a keen sense of comedy and was one of the gentlemen of the film industry.

JOE E. BROWN

Although Bob Hope got a lot of attention for the amount of time he devoted to American servicemen and women, Joe E. Brown did his share, too, particularly during World War II. He was a regular figure at the Hollywood Canteen, where he personally interacted with the visiting troops, and he paid his own way to travel more than 200,000 miles into war zones to entertain, often under difficult conditions. He was often known to repeat his whole show for hospitalized soldiers who had been unable to attend the regular performance. He also carried sacks of mail from servicemen and women back to the United States so that it would be delivered through the regular postal service and reach their families more quickly. Brown and Ernie Pyle were the only two civilians awarded the Bronze Star during World War II.

Joe E. Brown was also one of the few public figures who spoke out in favor of admitting refugee Jewish children into the United States while Adolf Hitler was consolidating his power in Europe. In 1939 – flying in the face of both anti-Semitism and isolationism – Brown appealed to a Congressional committee to pass a bill that would have allowed 20,000 German Jewish children into the U.S. “We shouldn’t be smug about this,” Brown told the committee, “and say that we are getting along all right so let the rest of the world take care of itself.”

Joe E. Brown testifies before the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee, 1939

An executive at my former company once told me that his wife kept a list posted in their kitchen entitled “People Mark is going to call some day.” This subject came up because I had written a column about my dissatisfaction about the way Nabisco packages graham crackers. I called the 800 number on the box, and talked to a sympathetic woman who — it seemed clear — wouldn’t do anything about my complaint. If Mark ever called anyone on that list, I hope he got better results than I did.

As for the list itself, I guess it represents an almost universal tendency in us humans to intend to do more things than we actually do. That certainly is a tendency of mine, but last night I did scratch one off the list — which in our household is figurative.

Specifically, I made stuffed zucchini for dinner – or, as we of Lebanese ancestry call it – stuffed koosa — koosa being an Arabic term for “squash.” I’ve been talking about making that dish since well before my mother died, which was more than 10 years ago. We even went so far as to buy the type of knife that is made specifically to hollow out the zucchini before stuffing it with a mixture of meat, rice, onions, and garlic. That knife lay in a drawer in our kitchen since at least 2002 — maybe longer. Whenever I’d reach for something else and impale my hand on that knife, I would repeat my intention: “One of these days . . . .”

This had become a joke between Pat and me, but for some reason — in the past week or ten days — procrastination morphed into a real plan. Pat brought home some zucchini, as she often does in the summer, and I said I should stuff them — not the hypothetical zucchini of the past decade, but those particular zucchini — and that I should do it on Thursday. Conflicts arose, Thursday became Friday, and then Friday became Saturday. Saturday, as it turned out, was not some day, but the day. I followed a simple recipe I found at THIS LINK, and I was a success — which in this case means that I turned out stuffed koosa the way I remember it from home.

Since it was my first attempt at this enterprise, I conceded a point to the author of the recipe and used allspice. Normally, when I cook Lebanese food, I use cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg, and I monkey around with the proportions as I go until I’m satisfied with the taste. Next time.

I have mentioned here before that I maintain my intimacy with departed family members through certain kinds of food that I associate with them. With respect to my paternal grandmother and my mother, this is especially effective because they both were excellent cooks and they both loved to cook and to feed other people. I’m not one to moon over the people I miss – and I do miss my mother. I’d rather get up to my wrists in onions, garlic and zucchini, knowing how she would laugh at the sight, how she would nudge me if my hand got too heavy with the salt, how she would call me a “crazy kid,” even at this age, and how she would tell me — even if it weren’t true — that I had done well.

BOB SHEPPARD

I spent a Yankee game in 1972 sitting next to Bob Sheppard in the booth from which he announced the players and sent other pertinent information rolling through the stadium like summer waves rippling along a shore. He was, as many have been saying in the wake of his death, a gentleman. He began his career at Yankee Stadium in 1951 – the same year that my father took me there for the first of many times. That means something to me, because Bob, with his courtly manners, his precise diction, and his John Barrymore tone, fit right into the atmosphere in the stadium at that time. As it turned out, he worked long enough to be the last vestige of the mood of those days, when many men came to the ballpark in suits and ties and many women in objects of finery from that now nearly extinct artisan — the milliner.

MARK BELANGER

Bob, who taught speech at the university level, had a great respect for words, including proper names, and he didn’t understand people who didn’t share that feeling. He told me that when Mark Belanger of the Baltimore Orioles made his first appearance at Yankee Stadium – probably in 1965 – Bob approached him and asked whether the name was pronounced Bel-ANN-zher, BEL-un-zher, or Bel-un-ZHAY. Belanger, who was to become one of the great defensive shortstops in American League history, said that some people pronounced the name one way, some another. Bob persisted, asking how Belanger wanted it pronounced, and was scandalized when the young man didn’t seem to care. Belanger himself pronounced it Bel-ANN-zher, so that’s the pronunciation  Bob used.

BOB SHEPPARD

Bob was known for several traits, including his religious devotion and his dependability. He told me, though, about an incident in which the Yankees had scheduled a 5 p.m. start for a twi-night double-header to make up for a rainout. Bob had forgotten to put the change in his date book. The phone rang at his Long Island home, and the caller — a member of the Yankee staff — asked what Bob was doing. “I’m just putting a steak on the grill for dinner,” Bob said. “That’s nice,” said the caller. “We’re in the second inning.”

There has been a lot published today about how various baseball personalities regarded Sheppard. My favorites were from Oscar Gamble, who used to refer to Bob as “the man upstairs” and from Reggie Jackson, who said that when Bob said “44,” he made it into a bigger number. You can read Bob’s obituary by clicking HERE.

KEN LYNCH

Somewhere, within the past few days, I saw the name “Ken Lynch.” It almost has to have been in the credits of a movie or TV show I was watching, but I can’t remember. Maybe I was dozing off at the time. It would not be unusual for me to have seen his name, because he appeared in about 175 television shows and movies — mostly TV. He frequently played a tough cop.

His name is not a household word, but I have been aware of him at least since I was 12 years old. I can recall that, because from 1949 to 1954 he had the title role in a detective series called “The Plainclothesman,” which was broadcast on the old Dumont network. I don’t remember when I started watching that show, but it could have been at the beginning, when I was 7, because Dad bought our first TV at Izzy Kaufman’s appliance store in ’49.

Ken Lynch, left, working in radio.

Television was new, and we had no context for it, so almost anything we saw was mesmerizing. I believe this cop show was especially so because of its unusual approach – namely, that the title character, known only as “the lieutenant,”  never appeared on camera. The viewer, in effect, saw the story through the eyes of the lieutenant. Parenthetically  — I suppose I could have just used parentheses — Dumont also had a detective series that ran from 1950 to 1954 in which one of the characters didn’t appear on camera. That series, which was broadcast live, was “Rocky King: Detective,” starring Roscoe Karns. At the end of each episode, Rocky King would talk on the telephone to his wife, Mabel, played by Grace Carney. Viewers would hear Mabel’s voice, but never see her face. Each show ended when Rocky hung up the phone and said, “Great girl, that Mabel!”

KEN LYNCH

Possibly because the only impression I had of Ken Lynch was his distinctive raspy voice, I recognized it when I was watching an episode of “The Honeymooners,” a show that was very stingy about giving credit to actors other than the four stars. This occurred only a year or two after “The Plainclothesman” went off the air, but as sure as I was that we had finally seen “the lieutenant,” I couldn’t confirm it until much more recently.

JACKIE GLEASON

In that episode, Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) witnesses an armed robbery while playing pool with his sidekick, Ed Norton, and is afraid to tell police what he saw, because the robbers might retaliate. A detective comes to the Kramden apartment to question Ralph, and that detective is played by Ken Lynch. His voice, when he tells Ralph, “If you’re not a witness, you’re not entitled to police protection. And thanks — for nothin’!” is Lynch’s unmistakable file-on-metal sound.

KEN LYNCH with LEONARD NIMOY on "Star Trek"

Having no better way to exercise my brain cells, I wondered about that for decades. It  was only the advent of the Internet and its seemingly inexhaustible resources that I was able to confirm that the invisible “lieutenant” was the visible cop in Bensonhurst.

Ken Lynch was born in Cleveland  in 1910, and he died in Burbank in 1990. Oddly, despite his prolific career, Wikipedia doesn’t have an English language article on him, although there is one in French, but with no real biographical information. There is a short and descriptive profile of him on the International Movie Database web site, at THIS LINK.

HERM DOSCHER

One of the wonderful things about baseball is that it provides players with so many ways to be remembered — and many of  those  ways have little or nothing to do with success on the field.

Herm Doscher was an example. So was his son, Jack. In fact, together they constitute one example, because they were the first father and son combination to play the major leagues. Herm played third base for five different teams in the National Association and the National League from 1872 to 1882 – a spotty career for which there don’t seem to be a lot of statistics – and he was later a major league umpire. He was reputed to be hard-nosed in that role. He once ejected Rochester Broncos outfielder Sandy Griffin for arguing a call and, when Griffin wouldn’t leave the field, Doschler forfeited the game to the St. Louis Browns — who were leading 10-3 in the eighth inning anyway.

Jack Doscher (actually John Henry Doscher Jr.) was a pitcher from 1903 to 1908 with three teams including the Brooklyn Superbas, appearing in only 27 games. Doscher died in 1971 at the age of 90 and was at one point recognized as the oldest surviving player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, successors to the Superbas.

NICK SWISHER

The Doschers come to mind today because Major League Baseball announced this evening that Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher had been elected to the All Star Team. Whatever one thinks of the wacky manner in which those players are chosen these days, Swisher last season and this has made a good case for himself on the field. This is the first time Nick Swisher has been named to the All Star team,  and it puts him in an exclusive baseball group — fathers and sons who have made the team. Swisher’s dad, Steve – a National League catcher for 10 years in the ’70s and ’80s – was on the 1976 team when he was with the Cubs, although he didn’t get to play. One of Steve Swisher’s colleagues on that ’76 team was Ken Griffey Sr., whose son also became an All Star — many times.

Altogether, 195 men who have played in the majors had sons who followed. A handful had two sons make it to the bigs. Three men — Sammy Hairston, Ray Boone, and Gus Bell — sent sons and grandsons to the majors. The Hairstons hold the record for multigenerational families with five major league players, although the Delahanty family had five of the same generation.

STEVE SWISHER

The Swishers are the tenth family to have a father and at least one son on the All Star team. (There have been three such families in the World Series.)

I was introduced to baseball by my father, who had managed a semi-pro team and knew a lot about the game. I would like to have been a better baseball player for his sake, but that gene went missing. Dad never expressed any disappointment about my weak performance; he wasn’t cut out that way. We made up for it with the many hours we spent together watching the Yankees in the Bronx and on TV or listening to them on the radio in our grocery store. We did other things together, but baseball provided the strongest bond. Dad’s been gone for more than 30 years, but I still watch baseball with him in mind. Meanwhile, it’s fun to speculate about the satisfaction Steve Swisher must be deriving from Nick’s success in general and from this benchmark in particular.

Steve Swisher cuts Nick Swisher's hair in 2007 on the field at the Oakland Coliseum. Nick Swisher had let his hair grow for 10 month so that he could donate it to a program that assists cancer patients.

ANGELINA GRIMKE

When we learn about history, we learn mostly about men. This is something on the question of time. The curriculum in grade school and high school – and even in college for those who aren’t history majors – skims the surface. With respect to many epochs, that means leaving women out of the story, precisely because women were precluded from participating in what went on on the surface. Oh, we got an occasional glimpse of the other half of the population: Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, Queen Victoria, Betsy Ross, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Madame Curie, but the story overall was badly skewed.

This phenomenon is addressed in “Civil War Wives” by Carol Berkin, a book published last year. I read this book because I got  it as a Father’s Day gift from one of my daughters — all of whom, by the way, are special women in their own rights, and that has a lot to do with their mother.

THEODORE WELD

Carol Berkin writes about three women who lived through the Civil War period and were directly affected by the war itself and the events and conditions surrounding it. These women were Angelina Grimke Weld, an abolitionist and feminist; Varina Howell Davis, who was married to Confederate President Jefferson Davis; and Julia Dent Grant, who was married to Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War general and postwar president.

I had some knowledge of Varina Davis and Julia Grant before I read this book, but I had not heard of Angelina Grimke Weld, who was an independent thinker from childhood. She was the daughter of a slave-holding plantation owner and judge in South Carolina, but she never accepted the precepts by which her parents lived — including human slavery, self-indulgence, and the notion that women should be happily subordinate to men.

SARAH GRIMKE

Berkin recounts the process through which Angelina and her sister Sarah moved north and engaged in a prolific campaign against slavery and for women’s rights. Angelina Grimke in the 1830s was arguing for full citizenship for women — up to and including election to the presidency of the United States. (How impatient it must make her, wherever she reposes, to know that the nation still hasn’t chosen a female president.) She was making that argument at a time in which her public appearances, usually with Sarah, were regarded by many people as inappropriate for a woman – particularly when the sisters spoke to audiences of mixed gender and even of mixed race. Angelina married the abolitionist Theodore Weld, and Berkin reports that abolitionist organizations leaned on the husband — who bent a little — to discourage his wife from distracting from the antislavery message by arguing  for women’s rights.

VARINA DAVIS

When Varina Davis first became engaged to Jefferson Davis, she was 17 years old and he was about twice her age. He had been married many years before, but his first wife died shortly after the wedding, and he may never have fully recovered from that loss. Varina Davis was loyal to her husband while they and their larger family were buffeted by illness, death, financial crises, infidelity, and the many shocks associated with the Civil War. However, theirs was hardly an ideal marriage. Varina was also the daughter of a southern slaveholder, but she was an independent thinker and her thoughts were not always in concert with those of her family or her husband. Jefferson Davis did not admire this trait in his wife, and he admonished her throughout their lives together about her penchant for expressing herself on public matters.

VARINA HOWELL DAVIS circa 1890

For Varina Davis, one of the most painful episodes of a life full of painful episodes must have been the imprisonment of her husband for two years  at Fort Monroe in Phoebus, Virginia. She tirelessly but fruitlessly campaigned to get President Andrew Johnson to intercede on Jefferson Davis’s behalf. She persisted, however, and eventually succeeded not only in getting improved conditions for the prisoner but in getting permission to move into an apartment at the prison herself so that she could visit him regularly.

After the death of Jefferson Davis, Varina shocked southern society by moving north and associating with folks who were anathema in the former Confederacy. One of them was Julia Dent Grant, whose husband had taken compassion on Varina and intervened for the imprisoned Jefferson Davis. Varina also took up a career as a newspaper journalist for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

JULIA GRANT

Julia Grant was like the other two subjects of this book in that she was also the daughter of a slave-holding planter, but she was quite a different personality. She was a homely girl – and had a crossed eye to boot, but she was never allowed to think of herself as anything but a princess, thanks to a doting father. She was raised in leisure, and she celebrated that fact for the rest of her life. She did exhibit independence with respect to one, critical, point in her life. She persisted in her determination to marry Ulysses S. Grant over the objections of parents who didn’t think the soldier could provide the kind of life Julia wanted and deserved. Ulysses did leave the military after the marriage, but he was not cut out to be a businessman, and he failed repeatedly. His return to arms, of course, led to his greatest successes in life — all of them on the battlefield — and also led to his election to two terms as president, terms that were ridden with scandal, thanks to Grant’s friends and even, in one instance, his brother-in-law.

ULYSSES S. GRANT

Julia Grant was spoiled, but she was not petulant, and she weathered the changes in her life brought on by marriage to both an unsuccessful businessman and to a soldier. She reveled in her role as First Lady, and got generally good reviews for her performance as the social leader of the capital. She was not well informed about public affairs, and her occasional attempts to remedy that were not encouraged by her husband, who liked to think of her more as a loving spouse than as a helpmate. One thing was certain, as Berkin emphasizes: Julia and her “Uly” were in love — as much so on the day he died of throat cancer as on the day they were engaged.

Julia Grant, as  a widow, was at West Point when she learned that Varina Davis was staying nearby. Julia went to Varina’s room and introduced herself, and the two became friends. It was a suitable gesture for Julia to make, both because Varina had never forgotten the general’s help for her imprisoned husband and because Grant — once the scourge of the South — had left instructions that his casket be carried to its tomb by equal numbers of Union and Confederate generals.