Books: “American Emperor”

November 29, 2011


I grew up with Alexander Hamilton. It’s not that I was his contemporary; it’s that I was born in Paterson, New Jersey, and grew up on its streets. I heard over and over again that Hamilton had founded the city. Like a lot of things children are taught, that wasn’t true. What was true was that Hamilton accurately envisioned an industrial city growing up  around the Great Falls of the Passaic River. Paterson became the silk-weaving center of the world and was also the source of steam locomotives and Colt revolvers.

Aside from the fact that he was born on Nevis – a rare distinction – the only other thing I associated Hamilton with was the duel in which Aaron Burr, who was then the vice president of the United States, shot Hamilton to death. That happened in Weehawkin in 1804.

I never thought much about Burr at all until I read David O. Stewart’s book, American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America. Come to find out that Burr was a rip-snorting renegade who wanted to invade Spanish territories in North America, merge them with states he hoped would secede from the Union, and set himself up as ruler of the new nation.


Burr, who was born in Newark, came from a distinguished family. He  himself had an impressive military and political career which reached its zenith, in a sense, when he was elected the third vice president in the old electoral system. After a contentious series of ballots, Thomas Jefferson and Burr were tied for the presidency. Although Burr was willing to serve as vice president – which was the consolation prize under that system – Jefferson, once he was in office, gave Burr the cold shoulder, marginalizing him to the point that the once influential man was a supernumerary.

Meanwhile, Stewart explains, although Burr and Hamilton had been on good social terms, Hamilton conducted a political campaign against Burr in the public press, ridiculing him in the acidic fashion that was common in those days. Burr – whatever other faults he may have had – wouldn’t wouldn’t play that game, and he did not answer Hamilton until he read a published account of remarks Hamilton had made at a dinner. Burr and Hamilton exchanged a series of letters over the incident, with Hamilton ultimately refusing Burr’s demand that he apologize for that and other slights. Burr challenged him to a duel, and Hamilton accepted. Dueling was illegal in New York and New Jersey; the two men and their parties crossed the Hudson from Manhattan to a spot on the bluff in Weehawkin that was inaccessible from above. Hamilton was mortally wounded.


Burr was indicted for murder in both states, which meant that he had to live on the road – an odd situation for the vice president of the United States. By this time, he was already concocting a vague plan to put together a realm for himself carved out of Spanish holdings – including parts of Mexico and Texas – and what were then western states that Burr imagined might be interested in leaving the union. He actually negotiated directly with Great Britain over this idea.

Meanwhile, Burr enlisted as one of his principal co-conspirators Gen. James Wilkinson who, on the one hand, was the highest ranking officer in the U.S. military and, on the other hand, was a paid spy for Spain. Burr enlisted numerous other people, including Andrew Jackson, although he seems to have given different information to different people, including in some cases the fantastic claim that the Jefferson administration was aware of and sympathetic to his plan.

Burr went so far as to assemble the crude makings of a private army, and set off by river transport to carry out a plot that still wasn’t clear to anyone except, perhaps, Aaron Burr. The numbers of supporters he had hoped for did not materialize, and some of those who did were arrested. Burr himself was taken into custody and sent to Richmond to be tried for treason.


He was not convicted of treason, however. Stewart, who is an attorney, explains the fascinating intricacies of the trial and the verdict. The short version is that treason consists of conducting an armed attack on the United States, and Burr hadn’t done that.

Burr facing further charges in Ohio and was still under both murder indictments. Although he was broke, he traveled to Europe  and stayed for four years. Even then, he tried to get first the British government and then Napoleon to support him in a campaign against Spain in the Americas.

When the indictments had been dropped, Burr returned to New York and in 1831 resumed the practice of law.

This account portrays the United States and its surroundings as tumultuous and unstable. Stewart points out, in fact, that even Jefferson accepted the idea that some of the states still might opt out of the republic and go off on their own.

Stewart also provides details of a contrasting and touching aspect of Burr’s life – his affectionate but ill-fated relationship with his daughter.  The portrait Stewart paints of Burr is that of a charismatic, adventurous, and impetuous rascal, a man of courtly manners and an incorrigible womanizer — in short, far more interesting a character than I had ever imagined.


Murder most foul

November 24, 2011


When I first heard the other day that Greg Halman had been stabbed to death I was, of course, shocked, but not just because of the murder itself. Murder usually takes us by surprise, whether the victim was someone we knew, someone we only knew about, or someone we never heard of. It’s in the nature of the crime that it seems to come, as it were, out of left field.

In this case, my shock was doubled because the victim was a major league baseball player. It’s a hangover from my growing-up years when I thought those guys were special. I came to learn, as we all do, that they’re subject to all the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of our kind. I know that intellectually, but emotionally I’m the type who still thinks Santa Claus will show himself some day and sit in judgment over the sheep and the goats.

The fact is, though, that baseball players may be more susceptible to homicide than the general population is. Something like 17,000 men have played in the major leagues and I know of ten who have been murdered. What’s that – one in about 1700? The murder rate in the United States last year – ostensibly an all-time low – was nearly one in 10,000.


The ones I know about are Frank Bell, Frank McManus, Ed Morris, Lymon Bostock, Tony Solaita, Gus Polidor, Ivan Calderon, Dernell Stenton, and Luke Easter.

The one that most sticks in my mind is Easter, because he was one of my first “favorite” players. He came into the major leagues in 1949 when I was seven years old. He was about six-foot-four and weighed 240 pounds. I got most of my baseball on the radio then, and for a while I thought his name was Lou Keester. I didn’t know it then, but because he was black he didn’t get to play in the bigs until he was 34 – although he was inconsistent when reporting his age and place of birth. He is a prime example of the damage that racism did to major league baseball. He appeared in only six seasons in the majors and played in more than 100 games in only four. He was a good first baseman and a slugger in semi-pro ball — which was a big deal in his day — and in the Negro Leagues. He hit a total of 86 home runs in 1950, ’51, and ’52; he played only 396 games in those three seasons, and he was 37 years old in 1952. He and Mickey Mantle were the only players to hit a ball over the right-field scoreboard in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Easter’s traveled 477 feet.

After his major league stint, Easter played in the minors until he was 48 and coached for a while. Wherever he went, he added to his reputation as a genuinely nice man who liked to help other players. When he and baseball were done with each other, he went to work for the Aircraft Workers Alliance and became the chief union steward at a company in Euclid, Ohio. In 1979, he was delivering payroll money to a bank when he was accosted by armed robbers who shot him to death when he wouldn’t turn over the money.

When a fan remarked that he had witnessed one of Easter’s longest home runs, Easter said: “If it came down, it wasn’t mine.”


A lot of ills come from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Helen Hunt provides an example in the 2007 film “And Then She Found Me,” based on Elinor Lipman’s 1990 novel.

The film was produced, directed, and written in part by Helen Hunt, who also plays the “me” in the title. Perhaps she was having trouble concentrating.

The premise of this dour property that is  passed off as a “romantic comedy” is that    39-year-old April Epner’s adoptive mother has died — shortly after denying April’s charge that mom had favored her biological son. This comes on the heels of the collapse of April’s marriage to Ben Green (Broderick), who abruptly gives her the “I just can’t do this anymore” routine. Ben hasn’t cooled off too much to have a last barnyard fling with April on the kitchen floor, and that provides the delicate nuance of an awkward pregnancy — hers, not his.

April doggedly goes on with her career as a Brooklyn schoolteacher, which puts her in contact with Frank (Firth), the conveniently divorced father of one of her pupils. Frank, a sandy-haired teddy bear, has the earthy charm of the British Isles about him, and the romantic sheen of an unemployed and, one presumes, unappreciated writer. He isn’t too charming or romantic to resent the fact that Ben, thanks in part to the pregnancy, still has one foot in his relationship with April.


As though April’s life weren’t interesting enough, a messenger comes to a school with a letter in which a woman who does not identify herself at first claims to be April’s biological mother. The woman turns out to be daytime television talk-show host Bernice Graves (Midler). April is skeptical about Bernice’s claim, infuriated by her badly contrived lies, and put off by her overbearing attempts to play mother.

 If the resolution of this tangled tale seems satisfactory, it may be only because the resolution means the film is over. It’s kind of like a cricket match in that regard.

Clearly we’re  supposed to find humor somewhere in this story, but there is none. There certainly is none coming from Hunt, who can be described only as grim.

Incidentally, in the scenes in which April and a shifting cast of companions visit the gynecologist, the doctor is portrayed by Salman Rushdie. I read somewhere that Hunt recruited him because she wanted to make sure all the major faiths were represented in a scene in which there is prayer. I’m not sure which faith he represents.

Hunt didn’t take the hint when she was turned down by the studios before making this film herself on a shoestring budget. Broderick, Firth, and Midler agreed to work for scale, which seems appropriate. If they had accepted their usual salaries for this film, their names should be on the placards in Zuccotti Park.


After we watched Lovely, Still, a 2008 film starring Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau, I poked around on the Web and found the widest possible range of opinons — from a contemptible piece of trash to a work of genius. Put me down as confused, which I guess is somewhere between the extremes. This movie, directed and written, in part, by Nicholas Facker, concerns elderly Robert Malone (Landau), who appears as a solitary man who lives alone and works at a nearby supermarket — near enough that he has been walking to work since he crashed his car into his garage door.


During his lunch breaks at the market, Robert passes the time making pencil drawings that reveal a high level of skill that seems out of place in a man whose life is so drab and pointless. While he is drawing one day, he is approached by Mary (we are not told her last name), played by Burstyn. She introduces her self and tells him that she admires his drawing. When Robert returns home that evening, he finds the front door of his house ajar. Unaware that he didn’t close the door when he left for work, he cautiously enters the house to search for an intruder, and he finds one — Mary, who lives across the street with her daughter, Alex, played by Elizabeth Banks. As Mary tries to explain that she had seen the open door and wanted to make sure he was all right, the startled Robert screams at her to get out of his house.


When Robert calms down, however, he apologizes and the interchanges that follow end up with Robert accepting Mary’s invitation to take her to dinner the following night. Although Alex is wary of this, for reasons she does not state, Mary pursues the relationship which evolves into a romance, the first romance, Robert  tells her, he has ever had. Meanwhile, Robert seeks and receives advice on courtship from his boss, Mike (Adam Scott), who seems to be more than reasonably solicitous of this confused old man, even going shopping with Robert to pick out Christmas presents for Mary. This movie is swathed in Christmas lights and sentimental music, and early on we became uneasy about the fairy tale. Eventually, Mary’s behavior and demeanor signal that something is seriously amiss — that there’s something she isn’t telling us. Sure enough, in the last few scenes, we learn that nothing in the film, including the relationships among the major characters, is what it seemed to be, and that the truth is  as harshly real as the setup for it was cozily unreal. To complicate matters, we didn’t fully understand what had really happened and we couldn’t make heads or tails of the conclusion. As I poked around on the Web, I found that we were not alone. We speculated about what the writers might have been trying to convey, but we could find reasons to dismiss every theory we concocted.


That’s too bad, because in our view this film has a lot to recommend it: the musical choices, the photography, and particularly the exemplary performances by all four major players. The story, in spite of its obscure ending, also effectively calls attention to the loneliness of people whom we encounter in everyday life and to the possible consequences of old age.

So we liked it as far as we could, but we’re confused. Perhaps someone else will watch Lovely, Still and open our eyes.

Richard Loeb (left) and Nathan Leopold

I was surprised to find in some recent conversations that acquaintances my age don’t remember the “Free Nathan Leopold” movement. I was in my teens when it reached its climax, and I remember reading about it in newspapers and hearing about it on broadcast news. I probably was more attuned to it, because I read a paperback book about Leopold and his friend Richard Loeb, who in 1924 had murdered a 14-year-old boy just to show that they could do it. It was characterized for many years as “The Crime of the Century.” Leopold and Loeb were very rich and very bright young men, not yet 20, and they had gotten caught up in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. They decided that they fit the mold of Nietzsche’s “superman” and that they were above the law — an idea that the State of Illinois didn’t share.

This is one of the cases John A. Farrell writes about to support the title of his excellent book, Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned. It was one of the two cases for which Darrow is best remembered — the other being the Scopes trial, which involved the teaching of evolution in a Tennessee school — but, as Farrell describes in detail, there was much more to Darrow himself and his tumultuous legal career.

Clarence Darrow

Darrow was a complicated man, a mass of contradictions. He was also one of the great celebrities of his era, attracting enormous crowds to courtrooms and to the streets outside with his eloquence and logic and with his theatrical, sometimes outrageous style of questioning witnesses and addressing juries.

Darrow defended John Thomas Scopes, who was tried in 1925 in the evolution case. That trial was a charade, because Scopes was a willing dupe who agreed to face the charge in order to get the subject before the courts.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan

The case set up an historic confrontation between the agnostic, libertarian Darrow and the three-time Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who won the case in the sense that Scopes was convicted but who squirmed as Darrow’s questions showed Bryan’s ignorance of both history and the Bible.

The subtitle of the book refers to Darrow’s penchant for taking on clients whose fate seemed sealed – and frequently bringing in an unexpected result.

Dr. Ossian Sweet

At times he stood for underdogs – such as Dr. Ossian Sweet, his brother Henry, and nine other black men charged with murder after a bystander was shot to death while the Sweets and their friends defended the doctor’s Detroit home from a violent white mob.
It was 1925 and the jury was white — hardly the circumstances a lawyer would hope for — but Darrow, who had been hired by the NAACP – got a hung jury in the first trial and acquittal when Henry Sweet was retried alone.

Clarence Darrow

As he often did, Darrow moved the focus of the proceedings off the immediate charge before the court and drew attention to a broader principle: “There is nothing but prejudice in this case,” he told the jury. “If it was reversed, and eleven white men had shot and killed a black while protecting their home and their lives against a mob of blacks, nobody would have dreamed of having them indicted . . . . .
“That’s all there is to this case,” he said. “Take the hatred away and you have nothing.’’

The same Darrow who stood up for that black family was just as willing to defend people of privilege, such as Leopold and Loeb, and just as skillful in doing it. Inasmuch as Leopold and Loeb admitted the murder, those following the case expected them to enter a plea of guilty by reason of insanity. But Darrow entered a plea of guilty and said he would rely on the mercy of the court. In a performance that no judge would allow today, he concluded the penalty trial with an eight-hour argument in which he presented “these boys” as “immature and diseased children . . . wandering around in the dark.’’ Speaking, as he always did, without notes, Darrow cited the lack of precedent in Chicago for hanging defendants under the age of 21, and for hanging defendants who had pleaded guilty.

Leopold and Loeb

Darrow dismissed the death penalty itself as “one long slaughter house,” and he brought tears to the eyes of onlookers, including the defendants, when he spoke of their mothers and the mother of the slain Bobby Franks: “The mother who looks into the blue eyes of her little babe cannot help wonder what will be the end of this child, whether it will be crowned with the greatest promises which her mind can imagine, or whether he may meet death from the gallows.’’
Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life in prison for the murder plus 99 years for kidnapping. Loeb was killed by another inmate, but Leopold led an exemplary and productive life in prison, which eventually inspired public pressure on his behalf. He was paroled in 1958 and moved to Puerto Rico, where he was a model citizen.
Farrell devotes a lot of attention to Darrow’s work on behalf of labor during an epoch in which workers were resorting to violence in order to free themselves from exploitation – whether in the mines of Pennsylvania or in the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times, which was liquidated by explosives in 1910.
Farrell also writes of the brooding, disheveled, boozy attorney’s insatiable thirst for women, his literary ambitions, and his wildly vacillating economic fortunes. As Farrell illustrates and explains, Darrow at times seemed to be an idealist who would take on a lost cause for no pay and at other times seemed to be an opportunist, interested only in money and his own aggrandizement.The jury, as it were, is still out on those questions, but Farrell does make one thing clear: Whatever else Darrow was, he is one of the most memorable characters of his time.

Clarence Darrow in the courtroom during the trial of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, seen to Darrow's right in this picture.

I don’t know if this is true, but I have read in several places that the government of France reports that Chanel No. 5 perfume sells at the rate of one vial every 30 seconds. By my calculation, that means 2,880 vials a day. Sephora gets $85 for 1.7 ounces and $115 for 3.4 ounces, so we’re talking about something like $100 million a year. Besides being such a hot commodity, this perfume is a monument to the woman who introduced it in 1921, the fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.

Chanel — the designer, not the perfume — is the subject of Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, written by Hal Vaughan, who portrays her as a virulent anti-Semite who not only accommodated herself to the Nazi invasion of France but actually became a Nazi undercover agent.

When Chanel was 12, her mother had died and her father had left. She spent six years in the custody of Cistercian nuns and then stepped out into the world where she quickly progressed from cabaret singer and courtesan to fashion powerhouse. Her impact on style was enormous; her trade marks were jersey sportswear and the “little black dress” that made a lasting statement about the realtionship between simplicity and elegance.

When Germany invaded France in 1940, Chanel moved to the Ritz and accepted the occupation as the new normal. In fact, she took an influential German officer as one of her many lovers – and she continued to make millions. But Vaughn maintains that documents from that period show that Chanel did more than accept the reality of the Nazi presence, that she actually became an agent of the Abwehr intelligence agency and undertook secret missions in Berlin and Madrid. The book includes a copy of a document that seems to show that Chanel was designated Agent F-7124.

Significantly, Chanel, who was comfortable living in opulence in Paris while her countrymen suffered under the Nazi regime moved to neutral Switzerland for a while after the Third Reich collapsed. Vaughan points out that that move may have saved her from the fate of French collaborators who were publicly shamed, imprisoned or executed. Chanel was briefly arrested by the Free French, but she emerged from the war largely unscathed.

She returned to Paris in 1955 and resumed her career, getting a better reception in the United States than in France.

Vaughn portrays Chanel as anti-Semitic and speculates, without demonstrating it, that her antipathy toward Jews might have been instilled by her contact with the Catholic Church. He also reports in detail that after the initial success of the iconic perfume, Chanel transferred control of it to a Jewish family, the Wertheimers, in a deal that guaranteed her an annual return. Although she later tried unsuccessfully to get the franchise away from the family, and did negotiate a more favorable arrangement for herself, the Wertheimers still are the purveyors of Chanel No. 5.

Chanel was apolitical, and she actually fled Paris for a while in the uncertain aftermath of the invasion. There is nothing in Vaughn’s account to suggest that she was interested in the Nazis’ ambitions. Instead, it’s clear that her top priority was to continue her lavish, drug-ridden life. She also had a personal interest in staying on speaking terms with the Germans, because her nephew was a prisoner of war. She did everything she could until she got him released; in fact, Vaughan maintains that she was enticed to work for the Abwher in the first place because she thought her contacts could help her nephew.

Chanel had many liaisons with rich and powerful men, some of whom helped finance her career, but she never married, explaining that she “never wanted to weigh more  heavily on a man than a bird.” An interesting aspect of the story as Vaughn tells it is that, despite her relationship with the Germans, she had many close friends in Great Britain, including Winston Churchill.