Missing Her.jpgMichio Kaku and the late Stephen Hawking, a couple of spoilsports in my estimation, both have maintained that time travel to the past is impossible. Their conclusions throw cold water on an idea that has stirred the imaginations of writers, film-makers, and ordinary people from, you should pardon the expression, time immemorial.

But J.L. Willow (it’s a nom de plume) isn’t deterred by theoretical physics, and so she has employed time travel to the past—her own original take on it—as the critical factor in her new novel, Missing Her.

This is the writer’s second novel, and she has just graduated from high school and is en route to the study of mechanical engineering. Her first novel was The Scavenger, a tale rooted in the New York City drug culture; I wrote about that book here last April, focusing on Willow’s talent as a story teller and her inventiveness in structuring the story she tells.

J.L. Willow

J.L. Willow

I’m impressed with the same things in Missing Her in which a teenaged girl, Eliza, vanishes after leaving a party alone, and her closest friend, Vanessa, is determined to find out what became of her. I don’t want to drop a spoiler here, so I’m going to rely on the description of the plot that appears in the promotional material:

“Months pass without a break in the case, until one day Vanessa wakes up . . . in Eliza’s mind. Even more disturbing, she discovers she’s woken up two days before Eliza goes missing. Vanessa has no choice but to relive her best friend’s memories leading up to the disappearance and discover the truth about what happened. . . . But is the past set in stone?”

That last question is a point on which Kaku and Hawking and others have based their conclusion that we can’t go back. If we visited the past, we might change the present, and, as Hawking pointed out in a PBS series, if you visited the past you would already be there!

The paradoxes involved in going back in time play a part in the story Willow weaves, a story in which the time traveler is not walking around in plain sight in her own persona, but rather is observing events from within the mind of another person, at times influencing the behavior of that person—acutely aware of the risks involved in altering events that have already occurred. If and when she does get to the point at which Eliza vanished, how will she be able to prevent it?

Willow creates a perplexing mystery, so much so that I was late for work one day, because I had to read one more chapter—and I still had to drive to my office wondering where this story was going.

Somewhere around here, I have two citations I received for stories I wrote in the first grade. I have no recollection of those stories, and, while I never mastered fiction writing, I have been a writer all my life.

In that respect, J.L Willow and I are two of a kind, and that’s why reading her first published works, and being captivated by them, is such an exciting experience for me.

You can view the book trailer by clicking HERE.

 

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Huguette 1When I was growing up, there were two men in our town, identical twins who, past middle age, lived together as lifelong bachelors, dressed alike, and even walked alike—turning and stopping and starting together as though one were a hologram projection of the other.

I used to think of these men as eccentric. But now that I’m a lot older than they were then, I have come to realize that eccentric is a useless word—that I once believed that the center was wherever I was, and anyone or anything that strayed too far in any direction was off kilter, eccentric.

If I had known about Huguette Marcelle Clark back then, I would have pinned the label on her. But now that, in my dotage, I’ve read Meryl Gordon’s biography (The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark), I figure the title character had as much business claiming the center as any of us have.

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Wm. A. Clark/The New York Times

Huguette, if I may be so familiar, was the the youngest daughter of William A. Clark, a one-time U.S. Senator who made a killing via copper mining in Montana. If his name doesn’t roll off the tongue along with Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, it isn’t because he didn’t have an enormous fortune.

Huguette Clark and her elder sister, Andrée, were raised in Paris in the most sumptuous possible surroundings. In spite of her potential position in Parisian society, Huguette, even then, did not like calling attention to herself. Her shyness, and the impact of Andrée’s death at the age of 17, deepened her solitude.

Estate of Huguette Clark from EmptyMansionsBook.comHuguette married William Gower in 1928, but—perhaps not surprisingly—the bond didn’t last. After that, she devoted herself to her passion for art, which has to have been inspired in at least some way by her father, who was both a robber baron and a major art collector. This pursuit included, for 20 years, painting lessons with Tadeusz Styka, who was a prominent artist.

Styka died in 1954, and by that time Huguette had begun to withdraw from public life. It was to be a total withdrawal in which she never ventured out of her massive New York apartment. It was typical of this part of her life that after Styka died, although she was close to his wife and daughter, and was the daughter’s godmother, she never saw them again. She wrote to them, as she wrote to others she would not see; she even spoke to them by telephone. And she left a substantial part of her estate to her goddaughter, Wanda, although that was cut down to about $3.5 million in the ugly squabbling that followed Huguette’s own death.

Huguette 3For a long while, Huguette lived with and was very attached to her mother, the former Anna Eugenia La Chappelle, with whom she shared, among other things, a certain paranoia. After Anna died in 1963, Huguette never left the apartment and refused to see almost anyone, carrying this to the extreme that she would speak only through closed doors to people who did work on her behalf.

In 1991, Huguette was admitted to Doctor’s Hospital in Manhattan for treatment of cancerous lesions on her face. She never went home again. She decided she liked it in the hospital, and she took up residence there—later moving to Beth Israel when the two institutions merged. At one point she was paying $829 a day to for her room. She grew close to a private-duty nurse, Hadassah Peri. She gave Hadassah and her family more than $30 million in cash, real estate, vehicles, and other considerations. She lavished similar gifts on others who came into her sphere.

Huguette died in 2011 when she was nearly 105 years old. The settlement of her estate was a donnybrook involving contradictory wills and a swarm of interested parties, including relatives who hadn’t seen her in decades and some who had never met her.

There’s much more to this story, and Meryl Gordon—who conducted detailed and difficult research to reconstruct these events—tells it in a way that grips the attention. I strongly recommend the book.

Eccentric? The bottom line seems to be that Huguette Clark lived the way she chose to live—collecting dolls and art, taking photographs either in her apartment or through the window, writing letters and talking on the phone, and watching The Flintstones. There is no objective evidence that she was anything but sane and grounded in reality. More power to her.

 

Louisa Adams - portrait

LOUISA JOHNSON ADAMS

A participant on Quora asked recently for “interesting facts” about John Quincy Adams—the sixth president of these United States and the son of the second president. When I last checked, none of the respondents had mentioned JQ’s wife, Louisa, who was at least as interesting as he was.

Louisa Adams’ story is raised from undeserved obscurity in a biography by namesake Louisa Thomas. Louisa Johnson was born in London in 1775, to an American father, a merchant, and a British mother to whom her father was not married. She was the first spouse-of-a-president who was not born either in the United States or in one of the original thirteen colonies. The next such spouse was Melania Trump.

Louisa Adams - JQ portrait

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS

Louisa’s father, Joshua, moved his family to Europe during the American Revolution, handling the affairs of his trade business from that end while a partner tended to matters in Maryland. While Louisa along with six sisters and a brother lived comfortably for a time, Joshua Johnson was eventually ruined and carted most of his brood back to the States, leaving Louisa behind, virtually penniless, in the care of Quincy Adams—at the time the American ambassador to the Netherlands. Thereafter, she would almost constantly feel the chill of an insufficiency of funds, even when she was hobnobbing in the glittering courts of Europe.

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$10 gold coin commemorating Louisa Adams

Louisa and Quincy Adams met when he became a frequent visitor at her family’s home, the visits prompted by the fact that Thomas Johnson was serving as U.S. consul-general. Although his wife was English, Johnson was determined that his daughters should marry Americans, who were in relatively short supply in London. This biography includes some entertaining accounts of the emotions and machinations this situation inspired among the Johnson daughters when the unattached Quincy Adams came to call. Ultimately, John Quincy and Louisa married in 1797, and her parents beat it back to America shortly thereafter. It’s worth nothing that Adams’ parents, John and Abigail, were reluctant to bless the match because Louisa, though an American, had been reared in England.

Louisa Adams - CFA

CHARLES FRANCIS ADAMS

Louisa’s life thereafter was disrupted by frequent and sometimes serious illnesses and, in addition, by several miscarriages. The couple would have four children, including the noted diplomat and writer Charles Francis Adams and a girl, Louisa Catherine, whose death in Russia when she was only a year old haunted the mother for the rest of her life.

When the elder Adams became president in 1797, he appointed Quincy ambassador to Prussia. President Adams lost the election of 1800, so Quincy and Louisa and their family relocated again, this time to Massachusetts. Quincy practiced law, which was not the love of his life, and in 1803 he was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served until he resigned in 1807. In 1809, President James Madison appointed him minister to Russia and that was a pivotal occasion in Louisa’s life. At her husband’s insistence, she had to leave their two older sons behind in Massachusetts, and she was never reconciled to that separation.

Louisa Adams - Tsar Alexander

TSAR ALEXANDER I

Although Louisa became a favorite of Tsar Alexander I, life in St. Petersburg was a trial, not only because of the death of her daughter, but also due to the weather, her own poor health, and her struggle to keep up with the glitter of the Russian court on the limited means she had.

In 1814, President Madison appointed Adams head of a delegation to negotiate a treaty to formally end the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. The British wouldn’t accept Russia as a mediator, so the negotiations moved first to Ghent in Belgium and then to London. This move set the stage for the most dramatic and daring episode on Louisa Adams’ life, as her husband told her to come west with their son, but left her on her own to manage the trip.

And she did manage the trip, arranging for a carriage, driver, guard, and supplies, and traveling for forty days over frozen ground, through forests, past vagrants and bandits, among the bodies on spent battlefields, arriving intact with her little boy.

The family remained in London for two years until President James Monroe appointed Quincy Adams secretary of state. The move to Washington was a mixed bag for Louisa. She was very successful as a hostess, and she liked to poke her nose into the nasty political discourse of that period, but she also suffered from depression and physical ailments.

The family returned to Massachusetts when Quincy was not reelected, but in 1831 he became the only former president ever elected to the House of Representatives, and he served there for 17 years until he died at the Capitol building. Louisa died in Washington in 1852, and her death marked the first time both houses of Congress adjourned to acknowledge the death of a woman.

In telling this story, Louisa Thomas vividly portrays the contradictory personalities of the Adams couple.

He was a social misfit; she was a charming hostess and a skilled gossip.

“He was tender with Louisa, and she felt it,” Thomas writes at one point. “Still, there were distances between Louisa and John Quincy that were difficult to bridge. She wanted to be needed; he wanted to be alone, She could be flighty, he could be intransigent or remote. She had once called herself ‘the spoilt child of indulgence.’ He had been schooled by his parents in stoicism—although his strong feelings sometimes opened a vent, with eruptions of anger and frustration.”

Quincy Adams let on to his wife in various ways that he wanted her to know her place. For her part, she wrote, “When my husband married me, he made a great mistake if he thought I only intended to play an echo.” There were plenty of contradictions: She claimed to have no part in her husband’s career, but she listened to his speeches and gave him advice about what to cut. She resented his obsession with his responsibilities and felt useless and neglected, but when he mused that he might give up public life, she urged him not to—knowing at last, perhaps, that it was what kept his heart beating.

Louisa was smart, witty, and well-read, and she often felt that her life was pointless; she titled an autobiography “The Adventures of a Nobody.”

 

 

 

 

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SALLY FIELD/In Pieces/Simon & Schuster

“Why is it easier for me to write about the times in my life that felt humiliating or shameful? Is it because those are the things that still haunt me?”

Sally Field asks those questions in her remarkable memoir, In Pieces, and they imply that the distinguished actress is, in her interior life, a work in progress at 72.

“Do I hold on to those dark times as a badge of honor,” she asks, “or are they my identity? The moments of triumph stay with me but speak so softly that they’re hard to hear—and even harder to talk about.”

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SALLY FIELD as Mary Todd Lincoln

We know all about the moments of triumph: Sally Field has won two Oscars, three Emmys, two Golden Globe Awards, and a Screen Actors Guild Award, and she has been nominated for a Tony Award. Not many can make that claim. She has starred in some of the finest properties available, including the television miniseries Sybil; the motion pictures Norma Rae, Places in the Heart, Absence of Malice, Steel Magnolias, Forrest Gump and Lincoln; the Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, and others.

But until Field published this memoir, we did not know about the punishing life she led away from the stage and the cameras—a lonely childhood; sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her stepfather; sexual exploitation at the hands of others; a fraught but enduring relationship with her mother—who did nothing to prevent the abuse of her child; troubled alliances with men—including Burt Reynolds, and a long struggle to be taken seriously as an actor. Field has discussed many of the details in print and broadcast interviews concerning this book.

For Field, the result of these experiences was a fractured sense of identity—hence the title—and it took her decades to even begin to assemble the fragments into a recognizable whole.

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MARGARET MORLAN FIELD

Field wrote this book herself—I think it took her three years; having spent the past fifty-three years as a writer, editor, and teacher of writing, I appreciate her literary skills, including her use of wry humor in a dark story and her offbeat imagery:

The most important figure in this book beside Field herself is her mother—a once stunning actress born Margaret Morlan. In one passage concerning their later life together, Field writes, “The combination of vodka and swallowed emotions had thickened her body and bloated her delicate face, making her look like a biscuit rising in the oven.”

Fields describes a complicated relationship with Reynolds, who, she writes, often tried to run her life. On one occasion, she was dressed to attend an awards ceremony, and he decided that she was too pale and insisted on slathering her with a Max Factor makeup known as Dark Egyptian.

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SALLY FIELD/npr.org

“(W)hen I think of that moment,” she writes, “standing nervously before a wall of mirrors as Burt carefully painted my exposed body, I realize that I’d take his Earl Scheib job over the finest hair and makeup artist anytime. True, I ended up looking like Sacagawea with very curly hair, but it was what he had to give. And it made me smile.”

This book will attract some voyeurs, but it is a serious and important work, not a Hollywood tell-all. Recent events, including the sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and the wave of abuse accusations against high-profile men have brought to public attention the lifelong suffering of victims and the folly of assuming that the face a person shows the world is an accurate reflection of her inner being.

It took extraordinary courage for Field to undertake this enterprise, which required her to revisit painful, shaming, and confusing episodes—an exercise in introspection that many of us might hesitate to pursue. The result is not a broadside against everyone who has ever harmed her, but rather a nuanced examination of the often conflicting emotions that have colored her life so far. And by having the strength of character to tell her story to us, she reminds us that how we treat others has consequences that can reverberate for a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

Mastercard Masters Of Music Festival - Hyde Park

BOB DYLAN/billboard.com

In an episode of the television series Taxi, Latka Gravas, an immigrant from an unnamed Eastern European country, is repairing a cab while his radio plays what sounds like polka music from his homeland. Cab driver Jim Ignatowski, who hasn’t gotten over the ‘sixties, stops momentarily to listen, cupping his ear and gently rocking to the beat. As he walks away, Iggy says, “You never know what Dylan is going to do next.” Ignatowski, though usually in a daze, knew a thing or two, including, it seems, the wide range of musical genres Dylan has explored—invariably making his own mark. That Taxi episode was recorded in 1979; Dylan has covered a lot of ground since then.

I have only a casual knowledge of Bob Dylan, but it was knowledge enough to draw my attention to the title of this book written by Richard F. Thomas, a professor of classics at Harvard. It struck me that Dylan’s influence has been such that, on the one hand, no one needs to explain why he matters and, on the other hand, no one can. Or perhaps I mean no one should, because I know Dylan has bristled at times at efforts to explain him and his work—and especially at efforts to fit him and his work into categories.

So because I was curious about that title—curiosity is one of my downfalls—I read the book. It was immediately apparent to me that I did not belong in Richard Thomas’s company, at least where Dylan is concerned. Thomas has vast and deep knowledge of Dylan’s career with its many phases—tableaux might be a better word; with his songs and how they have slipped in and out of the repertoire; with the shifting devotion of his fans; with his odyssey through musical genres and his spawning of new ones; with his live performances; with his other artistic expressions; with the fuzzy distinction between truth and fantasy in his recollections, and with his personal life. Dylan fans—real fans—might revel in Thomas’s exposition of Dylan and his songs, done in accessible language and in a relatively compact space.

What absorbed me most in this book was what Thomas presented as Dylan’s early and continuing interest in the culture of ancient Rome and his incorporation of classical Greek and Roman poetry into his lyrics. In his Nobel lecture, Dylan spoke of the influence that Homer’s Odyssey has had on him and on many other writers.

Thomas sees the connection between Dylan and the ancients as a great deal more than plagiarism or “creative use of existing texts.” With respect to Ovid, Virgil, Homer, and that whole crowd, Thomas writes, “For the past forty years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan’s songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets. He is part of that classical stream whose spring starts out in Greece and Rome and flows on down through the years, remaining relevant today and incapable of being contained by time and space.”

And Dylan’s take? He recalls reading Cicero, Plutarch, Tacitus, and Marcus Aurelius: “If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a school teacher—probably teach Roman history or theology.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The electric chair at the Holman Correctional Facility

When I was in high school, Mike Rinaldo, a history teacher and a hell of a nice guy, gave us some experience in debate. Not only did he assign the topics, but he also told us which side of the topics we were to argue. He assigned me to argue in favor of capital punishment. I was not in favor of capital punishment, but I made the best argument I could, and the faculty panel that judged the debates declared me the winner of that one. Since Mr. Rinaldo had compelled me to construct an argument against my own beliefs, I was amused when he told me privately, and with a twinkle in his eye, that he thought my argument was all wet and that it was shameless of me to include Torah references such as “an eye for an eye,” knowing that the rabbis had interpreted such references in much more nuanced ways than I had used them.

I understand support for the death penalty—I really do. I have read about murder cases that made me, for the moment, so angry that I would have pulled the switch or started the IV myself. But when I reflect calmly on it, I abhor capital punishment. To me, it represents the height of pessimism. Nathan Leopold would have been executed had it not been for Clarence Darrow; Leopold served his time and spent the rest of his life being peaceful and useful. Queen Victoria thought Edward Oxford should be hanged, but Oxford was shipped off to Australia where he became a prominent citizen of his community. Would death have served better purposes? I don’t think so. And my antipathy for the penalty wasn’t assuaged at all by The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton with a literary hand from Lara Love Hardin of Idea Architects.

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ANTHONY RAY HINTON/slate.com

Hinton, who is from Birmingham, spent nearly 30 years on death row in an Alabama state prison for a crime he had nothing to do with. In 1985, a witness identified him as the man who shot a restaurant owner in an incident that had occurred while Hinton was 15 miles away, working on a cleaning crew in a warehouse. The warehouse was surrounded by razor-wire fence, and anyone coming or going had to check in with a guard at the gate. In addition, the workers were supervised by a foreman who assigned them task by task. Hinton was not charged with that crime but with two murders that had followed the same pattern. He was convicted on the basis of what turned out to be inaccurate ballistics test results that connected the crimes to a revolver owned by Hinton’s mother. He was convicted also because, being black, he fit Alabama’s glib profile of a criminal, and being poor, he did not receive competent defense.

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HOLSOM STATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY

Because of this best-selling book and the media attention that has been afforded Hinton, it is well known by now that he was released from prison in 2015 after the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction and the State of Alabama declined to retry the case—not because the state finally acknowledged its mistakes but because, with the ballistics test debunked, it had no evidence against Hinton. The criminal justice system in Alabama had doggedly refused to acknowledge what was clear; its behavior leads only to the conclusion that its priority was not to establish the truth but to execute this man who, conveniently, was convicted and incarcerated.

This story is also about the unnecessary cruelty with which the State of Alabama treated the inmates on death row in the Holman Correctional Facility. Condemned men live every hour in putrid conditions with a combination of humiliation, fear, and hopelessness—there were eleven suicides on the unit while Hinton was there, and he writes that he considered that solution for himself.

And this story is about the strength of character that sustained Hinton during those decades in which 54 condemned prisoners were walked past his cell on their way to the electric chair or, in latter years, the gurney and lethal injection. In fact, the quality of the human being who emerges from this account makes the fact that he languished in prison for no reason all the greater tragedy: He was robbed of his life, and his community and friends and family, and the world at large, were denied the blessing of his presence.

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ANTHONY RAY HINTON and LESTER BAILEY/gridironnow.com

He was a blessing to his colleagues on death row, though, because while he wrestled with  the frustrations and horrors of his own situation—ingeniously creating a detailed fantasy life in which he could find relief from a suffocating reality—he related to the other condemned inmates, even the former Klansman who had lynched black men, as first of all fellow human beings. He went to the length of convincing the warden to let him form a book club with a group of prisoners, opening to some of them a part of their own intellects that they had never before experienced.

Hinton is a man of such integrity that when, after many unsuccessful attempts to get the state to confront the injustice done to him, he was offered the opportunity of life without parole, he turned it down. He would rather have died than imply that he had committed those crimes.

Anthony Ray Hinton is 62 years old; to a large extent, he has missed out on life. But with this book—a tough one to put down once you start reading it—he has made a powerful statement about injustice. And if Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative had not taken up the case, the State of Alabama would have gone on its giddy way to killing—murdering, really—this insightful and gentle man.

 

A hero in Hinton’s life is Lester Bailey, who has been his friend since they were young children. Bailey never missed a visiting day at Holman for the entire time Hinton was incarcerated, often bringing Hinton’s devoted mother until she passed away. You can see Hinton talking about Hinton’s friendship by clicking HERE.

 

 

 

Grant 1At my age, even opening the cover of a book of more than 900 pages is a sign of optimism. Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant is such a book, but far from wishing it were over, once I started reading I dreaded the day it would end. Grant, like the rest of us, was a complicated human being, and Chernow explores all the strengths and weaknesses of the man while simultaneously demonstrating why Grant was one of the most consequential and admirable public figures in American history.

Grant, whose ambition as a young man was to teach arithmetic, was a hard-luck guy in private life. He repeatedly failed at business and he was gullible and easily snookered. And he had a drinking problem that nearly wrecked his military career.

Grant 2On the other hand, he was a devoted father and husband, a military genius, and a fair and scrupulously honest man. He tried, as general and as president, to make Reconstruction work in the South—and for him that meant guaranteeing the rights of citizenship to black Americans. Although his policies regarding Native Americans weren’t perfect or particularly successful, he was more enlightened in that regard than most of his countrymen. He settled a seemingly intractable dispute with England over damages inflicted on federal properties by the Confederate cruiser Alabama—which had been purchased in England. He blazed a trail by being the first ex-president to exercise diplomacy overseas. And by the time he could see death approaching, he had become such an accomplished writer and chronicler that—in order to assure that his wife would have an income—he braved excruciating pain to write a massive two-volume memoir that is considered one of the best of its genre ever produced in this country.

One of the most ill-advised aspects of Grant’s presidency was his persistent attempts to get legislative approval of a treaty through which the United States would have annexed the Dominican Republic. 

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Julia Dent Grant

An aspect of Grant’s world view that Chernow develops thoroughly is particularly interesting at the present moment in our national life when controversies over memorials to Confederate leaders have exposed the bitterness between North and South that still exists in some quarters. The Grant that Chernow presents was devoted to the idea of reconciliation after the war. He demonstrated that early, at Appomattox, when he allowed Robert E. Lee’s troops, and Lee himself, some dignity in surrender. Grant traveled through the post-war South, and he warmly greeted former enemies when they called on him. Grant’s wife, Julia Dent, saw to it that there were Confederate veterans among Grant’s pallbearers.

Although Grant was uncompromising in battle, he never lost his compassion for other human beings. Witness this passage describing the aftermath of a successful Union campaign directed by Grant:

As was his wont, Grant proved generous in victory. When he and his officers trotted past a downtrodden contingent of enemy prisoners, he reacted with simple decency. “When General Grant reached the line of ragged, filthy, bloody, despairing prisoners … he lifted his hat and held it over his head until he passed the last man of that living funeral cortege,” recalled a prisoner. “He was the only officer in that whole train who recognized us as being on the face of the earth.”

Grant, as Chernow describes him, was fearless—almost reckless—in battle and thoughtful in repose. Almost no shock was great enough to break down his self control. He appeared to many of his contemporaries to be a man of silence, but in conversation he was an absorbing storyteller. And from the close of the Civil War until his death, he was wildly popular all over the country and abroad, as he and Julia discovered during the world tour that followed his second term as president. It is a melancholy thing to consider that the United States at that time did not provide a pension for former presidents, and Grant spent his retirement worrying about how he and his family were going to live.

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Julia Grant with her father, Colonel Frederick Dent, and two of her children, Nellie and Jessie

Grant isn’t the only fascinating character Chernow brings to life in this book. A host of men and women who played a part in Grant’s life, for better or for worse, provide the context for this story. They include Julia Dent Grant, the sweetheart of Grant’s life, a slaveholder’s daughter who gamely stood by her husband during the war and during his financial travails and who grew so attached to the gracious life of the White House that she was far more reluctant than Grant was to leave—and encouraged him in his unsuccessful attempt to win a third term. Also included are two gentlemen that Dickens would have loved—Grant’s father, Jesse, who was a constant embarrassment as he tried to capitalize on his son’s position, and Julia’s father, Colonel Frederick Dent, an unrepentant slaver whom Grant suffered to live in the White House even as the old man railed against the Union.

That’s a smattering of what Chernow has compiled in this biography. No matter how much time you have left, you won’t waste any of it if it’s spent reading this study of one of the finest Americans.

 

 

She Was Nice to Mice coverIn 1977, I reviewed a book about Queen Elizabeth I, who was the British monarch from 1558 to 1603. It wasn’t the dense tome the topic might suggest, nor was it written by an historian.

This was a little book called She Was Nice to Mice, written two years earlier by Ally Sheedy, later a very successful actress, when she was 12 years old, and illustrated by her friend Jessica Ann Levy, who was 13.

The book, published first by McGraw-Hill and then in paperback by the Dell Publishing Company, was a fanciful look at the public and private life of the queen, told in the form of a memoir written by a mouse that lived in the palace. The discussion of Elizabeth’s relationship with the Earl of Essex, including a peek into the boudoir, has prompted a lot of lively discussion among readers.

J.L. Willow

J. L. Willow

This book came to mind recently as I was reading The Scavenger, a novel published last year by a high school junior who writes under the pen name J. L. Willow.

Willow, by her own account, has been a writer since she was six years old. I identify with that; I was the same way. I filled many notebooks with fiction, essays, and poetry while my mother good-naturedly encouraged me to “go outside.” I eventually went outside and took the notebook and pen with me. When I was 11, one of my elementary school teachers told me, “When it’s time for you to think about a career, you should seriously consider being a writer.” I’ve been a professional writer and editor for 53 years.

Because of my own experience, I am drawn to books written by young writers. When Willow told me in a chance meeting that she had written The Scavenger, I was eager to read it. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Scavenger 3The novel is the story of four people whose lives intersect amid a crisis in a New York City community that has experience the drug-overdose deaths of several young people—a circumstance that has prompted an active police investigation focused on the school. The four principal characters in the book play various roles in this drama, which involves a drug dealer and a troubled boy whom he inveigles into drawing teenagers into addiction.

Willow uses a engaging device to tell this story, devoting each chapter to a first-person narrative by one of these characters. Her storytelling is enhanced by the fact that she has a keen ear for everyday speech and the ability to convey it in the written word.

I’d like to be in my teens again and finding my way as a writer. I’ll content myself with following the literary career of this young artist.

The Scavenger is available from Amazon and as a Kindle download.

 

 

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When someone—Donald Trump, for example—assumes the presidency of the United States, he knows from the first day that eventually he will be compared to all those who held the office before.

When the history professors and other analysts cast their periodical votes, the new president, in most cases, can hope to rank higher than, say, 34th of 45 places. That’s the place now occupied, in one prominent poll, by Chester Alan Arthur, subject of a biography by Zachary Karabell.

To rank below Arthur, one has to have had a name such as Tyler, Harding, Pierce, or Buchanan.

But Karabell’s biography, one of The American Presidents Series by Times Books, shows that even in his lowly niche, Arthur deserves credit from some unexpected effectiveness in office. Without intending to, Karabell’s book also portends—if the events of the past seven months are any indication—that Arthur stands to move up at least a notch.

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Arthur and Trump have this in common: They went to the White House from New York City where each, in his own way, took as much personal advantage as possible of the prevailing system—real estate for Trump, political cronyism for Arthur.

A native of Vermont, Arthur had a reputation for being, if not lazy, not energetic either. He arrived late and left early. When he could choose how he spent his time, his choice was usually an evening at the club with his cronies, whisky, and cigars. But he was efficient and even effective at what he did, and he was successful in the practice of law in New York City.

Arthur also signed on with the Republican machine which at the time was run by U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling. Arthur’s association with the party paid off, and in 1871 President Ulysses Grant appointed  him collector of the Port of New York.

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Roscoe Conkling

The post was both powerful and lucrative, although Karabell points out that Arthur never took money that he was not legally entitled to. He was consistent in this respect: during the Civil War, he had been appointed brigadier general and was put in charge of arranging housing and other accommodations for troops arriving in the city to serve in the New York militia. “Arthur did not take advantage of the numerous opportunities for skimming,” Karabell writes, “and his gains were not ill-gotten.”

In 1880, the Republican Party was unable to break a convention deadlock between Conkling’s “Stalwart” faction, which wanted to nominate Grant, and the “Half-Breed” faction that wanted to nominate U.S. Senator James G. Blaine of Maine.

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James A. Garfield

The convention finally compromised on U.S. Rep. James A. Garfield of Ohio. Garfield was a “westerner” and was not aligned with either faction; in order to guarantee the support of the New York Republicans, the party sought to balance the ticket by nominating Arthur, who by then was a widower, for vice president. Folks who were familiar with the amiable, efficient, but unexceptional Arthur reacted with emotions that ranged from shock to mirth.

In the event, Karabell reports, Arthur’s hail-fellow skills were instrumental in the election of Garfield:

“From his baronial suite in the Fifth Avenue Hotel, Arthur worked tirelessly on behalf of Garfield, levying assessments, raising money from donors, handling correspondence, wheedling and cajoling, wining and dining, getting speeches printed and distributed, organizing events and, of course, collecting and doling out campaign funds.”

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James G. Blaine

It was a dirty campaign but, although Arthur was clearly in the Stalwart camp, he was so downright nice that few held that or anything else against him.

“His ego,” Karabell writes, “unlike Conkling’s and Blaine’s, did not walk into a room before he did, and few people felt strongly enough about him to hate him. He was the Teflon candidate of his day. …”

The election of Arthur as vice president might not have mattered in the long run had it not been for Charles Guiteau—a man with a tentative grip on reality—who shot Garfield in July 1881. Garfield died two months later, and Chester was sworn in as president on September 20.

Few people, including Arthur, considered him a good fit for the presidency, but when

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Charles Guiteau

two months had passed between the shooting and Garfield’s death, the country was prepared to make the best of it. In some ways, the country got more than it expected.

For one thing, when Arthur took office there was already an investigation of a scandal in which federal officials had been grossly overpaying contractors for operating postal routes. Although he was the willing product of spoils-system politics, Arthur and his Justice Department played hardball with the offenders. Arthur forced some public officials to resign and fired others. Although those tried in the scandal were not convicted, Arthur’s administration had removed the cancer.

In another ironic move, considering Arthur’s background, he took the occasion of his first “state of the Union” message to call for civil service reform—namely, a system in which civil servants were employed based on merit, not on their political connections or on graft. In 1882, Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act, and Arthur, the one-time political hack, signed it and acted quickly to put it into practice, launching an historic sea change in the way public jobs were filled.

Chester A. Arthur 8Immigration was a hot topic in the 1880s, and one on which Congress and the President, for the most part, could work together. They butted heads, however, over a bill designed to cut off immigration from China for twenty years and deny citizenship to Chinese immigrants already in the country. The bill was unpopular in the East but not in the West where Chinese laborers, who had been allowed to enter the United States without restrictions, had long been a welcome source of hard labor. But in a development that should sound familiar in our own time, an economic downturn turned the tide opinion against the Chinese, who were accused of taking jobs that should have been available to Americans.

In response to this trend, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and Arthur shocked his own party by vetoing it. He didn’t like the ban on citizenship, and he believed that the 20-year moratorium on immigration would violate a treaty with China. But when Congress passed a new bill that reduced the moratorium to ten years, Arthur knew there would be enough votes to override another veto, so he signed the bill.

Chester A. Arthur 9An important aspect of Arthur’s life was his unwavering opposition to slavery—a point of view he no doubt inherited from his father, who was an abolitionist preacher. Arthur did not adopt the comfortable position of many other northerners who said they were opposed to slavery in principle, didn’t want slavery in their own states, but were content to let it endure in the South where the citizens felt otherwise. No, Arthur was dead against it anywhere, including in the West.

When Arthur was president, Reconstruction had pretty much collapsed and the government was not vigorously enforcing the rights of black Americans. When the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which claimed “to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights,” including the right to equal access to public accommodations and public transportation and the right to serve on juries, Arthur tried, though unsuccessfully, to prod Congress into adopting a new measure.

Arthur was not nominated to run for reelection in 1884. He returned to his law practice in New York but was not well enough to devote much energy to the firm. He died in 1886 at the age of 57 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.

Arthur is largely forgotten among the Washingtons, Lincolns, and Roosevelts, but he probably deserves at least a little better. His career was not without its achievements—civil service reform being a major one that benefitted generations of men and women. And he was a decent human being in an environment of cut-throat politics—a characteristic not to be lightly brushed aside. “In everything he did,” Karabell writes, “Chester Alan Arthur was a gentleman, and that is rare and precious.”

Isn’t it, though?

Mudd 2In the 1936 film Prisoner of Shark Island Samuel Mudd is portrayed (by Warner Baxter) as a well-meaning country doctor who unwittingly abetted the escape of John Wilkes Booth and wound up in a federal prison on an island in the Caribbean. He is pardoned after stemming a yellow fever epidemic that swept the prison.

It’s a good story, but it isn’t entirely true. The truth, some might think, is even more interesting, and it is laid out in detail in The Assassin’s Doctor  by Robert K. Summers.

Summers, a great-grandson of Dr. Mudd, has written several books on this and related subjects, but he is not an apologist for his forebear. He seems more interested—particularly in this book—in spreading the record before the reading public.

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Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas Islands, where Dr. Mudd was imprisoned for four years.

Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln just as the Civil War was ending, and the reaction of the federal government—particularly of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—was affected by the intense feelings rippling through the country, feelings that included fear, disillusionment, desperation, and paranoia.

After shooting Lincoln, Booth jumped from the presidential box to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, breaking a leg. He stumbled out of the theater, mounted a waiting horse, and galloped off to Maryland where, in the company of David Herold, one of his co-conspirators, he arrived around 4 in the morning at the home of Dr. Mudd.

Aroused from his sleep, Dr. Mudd took Booth in, put a splint on the broken leg, and provided Booth with a makeshift pair of crutches. Booth remained at Dr. Mudd’s home until the following day, and then left with Herold, heading for Virginia where Herold surrendered and Booth was shot to death by a Union soldier.

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Dr. SAMUEL MUDD

Dr. Mudd did not tell anyone about his visitors until several days later, and even then he didn’t do so directly but asked his cousin, Dr. George Mudd, to notify federal authorities in a nearby town. Military personnel visited Samuel Mudd’s home where the Mudds eventually turned over a boot that had been cut from Booth’s leg and that bore the inscription “J. Wilkes.”

Dr. Mudd was arrested, charged with conspiracy, tried by the same military commission that condemned to death three men (including Herold) and one woman (Mary Surratt); Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas islands south of Key West. He was pardoned in 1869 by President Andrew Johnson after working diligently to treat victims of yellow fever at the prison and contracting the disease himself.

There are no serious disagreements about these facts, but there is a lingering discourse about certain aspects of Dr. Mudd’s behavior. The most important question is whether Dr. Mudd recognized Booth when the assassin came calling with his broken leg. Dr. Mudd had met Booth before, when the actor was in the neighborhood ostensibly looking at real estate and seeking to buy a horse. But the doctor and his wife, Sarah, maintained that Booth was wearing false whiskers when he came seeking help with his injury and that Dr. Mudd did not recognize him and had no reason to suspect him. The Mudds’ account was that Booth left their house on Saturday, April 15, while Dr. Mudd was absent, and that Mrs. Mudd noticed the false whiskers at that time. According to this version of events, when Dr. Mudd resolved to notify authorities about these now-suspicious men, Mrs. Mudd prevailed on him to stay at home inasmuch as the men might still be in the area and might pose a danger to the family. So Booth used his cousin as a surrogate messenger.

mudd 5I think the consensus among historians now is that Dr. Mudd’s acquaintance with Booth was more than the incidental encounter Dr. Mudd described, and that Dr. Mudd participated in conversations with Booth and others concerning Booth’s earlier plan to kidnap Lincoln and take him to Richmond, hoping to enable the Confederate government to negotiate a release of military prisoners. Dr. Mudd was a slave holder and a Southern sympathizer living in a border state, although not an activist against the Union government. It is unlikely, however, that he knew anything about Booth’s decision to murder Lincoln, both because Booth seems to have made that decision only shortly before carrying out the murder and because Dr. Mudd’s character suggests that he would not have agreed to have any part in such a crime. If he did help facilitate Booth’s escape, his primary motive might have been to purge the Mudd household of a murderer.

All the questions about what Dr. Mudd knew and when he knew it are explored in this book. Summers also includes extensive documentation, including many letters that Dr. Mudd wrote to his wife and others while he was a prisoner at Fort Jefferson. These letters include a description of his one attempt to escape from the prison, the harsh conditions under which he and the other prisoners lived, his relationship with other men who were sentenced in connection with the conspiracies against Lincoln, and his heroic part in stemming the yellow-jack epidemic. The average reader might not want to read all of these documents—although a history wonk such as me might devour them—but they do present in a convenient collection an opportunity to hear history unfolding in the voices of those who were taking part in it.

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