Chester_A_Arthur-1

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.

U.S. Presidential Portraits

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.

Chester A. Arthur 4

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.

Chester A. Arthur 5

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.”

Chester A. Arthur 6

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

Chester A. Arthur 7

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?

Advertisements

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.

Mudd - 2

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.

Mudd - 4

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.

Mudd 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

HENRY RATHBONE

HENRY RATHBONE

Last summer, I wrote a post here about Scott Martelle’s book, “The Madman and the Assassin,” which was a biography of Thomas “Boston” Corbett, the eccentric soldier who shot John Wilkes Booth. What was interesting about that book, besides the fact that Martelle executed it so well, was the fact that in the 150 years that elapsed since Booth died, no one else had written a book-length account of Corbett’s life. Now, hard on Martelle’s heels, comes Caleb Jenner Stephens, with a rare and perhaps unique book-length account of the life of Henry Rathbone, one of only four people present when Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln. Rathbone, an army major at the time, and his fiancé, Clara Harris, joined Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 for a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin.

CLARA HARRIS RATHBONE

CLARA HARRIS RATHBONE

The only reason the couple accompanied the Lincolns that night was that everyone else who had been invited—notably including General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia—had declined. The advance chatter that the Grants and the Lincolns might attend together just days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia had caused some excitement in Washington, but Julia Grant was one of many people in the capital who could not abide Mary Lincoln, so the Grants avoided the appointment by repairing to New Jersey to visit their children. Rathbone, who was sitting in the rear of the presidential box when Booth entered, confronted the assassin after the murder had been committed and sustained a serious knife wound in his left arm.

The dagger with which John Wilkes Booth wounded Maj. Henry Rathbone

The dagger with which John Wilkes Booth wounded Maj. Henry Rathbone

Despite the injury, he tried unsuccessfully to prevent Booth from leaping from the box to the stage from whence he made his escape. Rathbone, who came from a wealthy Albany family, later married Clara Harris, who was also his stepsister, and the couple had three children, including U.S. Representative Henry Riggs Rathbone of Illinois. Rathbone recovered from the wound to his arm, but his mental health seems to have been permanently impaired by his experience at the theater and especially by the fact that he had been unable to either prevent Lincoln’s death or keep Booth from escaping. It was unreasonable for Rathbone to assume guilt for this, but the event was so sudden and shocking that reason didn’t play a part in his reaction to it. Stephens makes that argument, in some detail, that Rathbone suffered from what is now known as post traumatic stress syndrome. The author also explores an account of the murder—raised in a contemporary publication—which holds that Rathbone saw Booth enter the presidential box before the murder and rose to ask Booth what business he had there, but was brushed aside as Booth approached the president from behind and fired the fatal shot.

JOHN WILKES BOOTH

JOHN WILKES BOOTH

I am not aware that this version appears in any public record. Stephens attributes it to The Public Ledger, a daily newspaper then being published in Philadelphia. According to The Public Ledger, Clara Harris gave this alternative version during an interview with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Stephens gives weight to this account and repeatedly—and, I think, unfairly—refers to Rathbone’s “failure to protect the president.” In one instance, in fact—in a stunning exercise of hyperbole—the author accuses Rathbone of “failing the whole world.”

Rathbone remained in the army until 1879 and retired with the rank of brevet colonel. He and his family were living in Germany on December 23, 1883, when, after many years of psychic and emotional instability, he murdered Clara and tried to commit suicide. He was consigned to a reasonably comfortable asylum in Germany for the remaining twenty-seven years of his life. This book suffers from bad grammar and syntax to a degree that is very distracting. However, Stephens has made a contribution to the literature surrounding the murder of Abraham Lincoln by compiling a chronicle that has been neglected.

 

BILL MARX/pbs.org

BILL MARX/pbs.org

There is a double meaning to the title of this book, which was published in 2010. This is the memoir of Bill Marx, oldest of the four children of Harpo Marx, so the book is, in a sense, Harpo’s son speaking. The title also is an allusion to Harpo Speaks, the 1961 autobiography of the silent comedian, written “with Rowland Barber.”

Harpo Speaks may be the best of the many books about this family, due in part to the detailed memories of Harpo Marx and the writing skills of Rowland Barber, who also wrote The Night they Raided Minsky’s and co-wrote Somebody Up There Likes Me with boxer Rocky Graziano. Son of Harpo Speaks is not in the same class. It’s not that Bill Marx didn’t have a story to tell, or even that he didn’t tell it. It’s that he told it without focus or precision. The grammatical and spelling errors, while trivial as individual faux pas, are distracting in the aggregate. The absence of a professional co-author and a rigorous editor is evident on every page.

BILL and HARPO MARX on a movie set.

BILL and HARPO MARX on a movie set.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful that Bill Marx wrote this book, because it preserves facts and insights about his parents and the rest of the Marx family that might otherwise have been lost. That’s important to me, because I have been a student of the Marx clan since I was about 13 years old and someone gave me a copy of The Marx Brothers by Kyle Crichton, which was published in 1950. I use the word “student” rather than “fan” because I have always been less interested in the Marx Brothers as entertainers than in the Marx family as a phenomenon of the American experience in the twentieth century. I have read most of the other books about them and I have interviewed Miriam Marx, the eldest child of Groucho Marx; Maxine Marx, the daughter of Chico Marx; and Gregg Marx, the grandson of Gummo Marx.

Bill Marx was the first of four children adopted by Harpo and Susan Fleming Marx, and he made his career as a Julliard-trained pianist, composer, and arranger. His account of his relationship with his adoptive parents confirms what one reads in every account of their lives, namely that they were genuinely nice people. Bill Marx unabashedly admired both of them, and he revels in the fact that for many years he served as Harpo’s props manager: “I had to see that the coat he wore was properly prepared for all of his sight gags; the carrot goes into the upper right inside pocket, the telescope must be in the lower left inside pocket, the scissors for immediate availability in the small middle right inside pocket, the rubber chicken accessible in the large left inside pocket, and on and on.”

Once Bill Marx got his sea legs as a musician, he collaborated with his father on several projects, including two albums of Harpo’s performances on the complicated instrument he mastered without a lesson and without the ability to read music. He also wrote arrangements for Harpo’s live performances and TV guest spots.

HARPO and BILL MARX in collaboration

HARPO and BILL MARX in collaboration

Bill Marx also devotes considerable space in this meandering book to his personal emotional and psychic history, including his struggle to find and understand his own identity, and the personalities that influenced him, including such icons as Buddy Rich and Margaret Hamilton. He also includes a fascinating account of how he learned the names and sad histories of his birth parents through a chance acquaintance he made at Dino’s, a club in Los Angeles where he was playing piano.

I’m glad to have read this book; my only regret is that I wasn’t the editor.

(Bill Marx presides over an informative and entertaining web site, The Official Arthur Harpo Marx Family Online Collection.)

BOSTON CORBETT

BOSTON CORBETT

I don’t know how John Wilkes Booth thought his journey was going to end, but I’m sure Boston Corbett didn’t figure in his plans.

Booth made a sincere effort to get away with murdering Abraham Lincoln. With one of his accomplices, David Herold, he was heading south, hoping to get deep into the former Confederacy where folks might see what he did–sneaking up on a man and shooting him in the back of the head–as something more than an act of cowardice. Like many criminals, however, Booth left a trail, and federal detectives and troops tracked him down to a Virginia farm, cornered him and Herold in a barn, and set fire to the structure. Herold gave up and eventually hanged, but Booth, who was armed, stayed in the burning building. Corbett, an army sergeant, watched the assassin through an opening in the wall of the barn and–as he later said–thinking that Booth was about to fire on the soldiers outside, shot him in almost the same place that Booth’s bullet had struck Lincoln. Booth fell, paralyzed, and died after being removed to the farmhouse porch.

Corbett 3

Thomas “Boston” Corbett, the man who killed Booth, is the subject of this engrossing book by Scott Martelle. It’s an important contribution to the history of the epoch surrounding the end of the Civil War and the murder of Lincoln; relatively little has been written about Corbett and some of what has been written has been incorrect. By Martelle’s account, Corbett was a complicated and eccentric character. He frequently worked as a hatter — specifically as a finisher — and that meant that he was exposed to a great deal of mercury. That has led to speculation that mercury poisoning led to Corbett’s peculiarities as it led to the odd behavior of many others. His lifelong vocation, however, was not as a hatter but as a Christian preacher. He was deeply religious in his own way, so much so that Martelle reports that Corbett castrated himself while still a young man in order to spare himself the inclination to sexual sin. His overriding goal was to live as a Christian — as he understood that term — every hour of every day. Whatever his foibles, he performed many acts of kindness in his pursuit of that ideal.

He served four separate hitches in the Union Army during the Civil War, and a colleague later wrote of him, “He was a very religious man, faithful at his post of duty, a good speaker, and a skillful and helpful nurse to those who were ill or in distress, and [he] knew no fear.” Still, he was once court-martialed for walking off his post, and he threatened to kill a fellow soldier in order to dissuade him from picking blackberries on the Sabbath. Corbett thought the war was justified and reportedly had no qualms about killing enemy soldiers, although he prayed for them before pulling the trigger.

ANDERSONVILLE PRISON

ANDERSONVILLE PRISON

At one point, Corbett was an inmate at the notorious prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia. The conditions there were so heinous that they permanently damaged Corbett’s health. He did survive, however, and returned to service, and so was available when a cavalry detachment was sent to hunt down Booth and Herold.

In the wake of Booth’s death, some people regarded Corbett as a hero, and some condemned him. Although there were claims to that effect at the time, Martelle determined that there was no order to take Booth alive. Corbett was in demand as a speaker and, one imagines, as a curiosity, but in the long run he had a difficult time sustaining himself. In desperation, he moved to Kansas and tried his hand at raising livestock and selling the wool from his sheep.

Eventually, he became unglued, was confined to a asylum, escaped, and vanished from history.

If Corbett hadn’t shot Booth, Booth would have hanged anyway. Whether he would have revealed anything to assuage the doubts, which still linger, about the culpability of Mary Surratt and Dr. Samuel Mudd, we can only conjecture. As it is, Mrs. Surratt hanged and Dr. Mudd was sent to the federal prison in the Dry Tortugas Islands off Key West but pardoned after he helped stem a yellow-fever epidemic among the inmates.

But Corbett did shoot Booth, and, like Jack Ruby after him, became a key if shadowy player in a great drama. Martelle, a diligent reporter and a skillful writer, has done us a service by recreating the life of this strange man.

 

 

 

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

Justin S. Vaughn, a political science professor at Boise State University, writing recently in The Times, raised the question of which of Barack Obama’s predecessors have been the best and the worst former presidents. It’s an uncommon way to look at the presidency, and it adds a useful context. Those of us who are only casual observers of history tend to think of the presidents strictly in terms of their time in office and evaluate them accordingly. But, as Vaughn points out, “Our greatest ex-presidents have engaged in important work, sometimes at a level that rivaled their accomplishments in the White House. Our worst ex-presidents, on the other hand, have been noteworthy for taking strong positions against the national interest and consistently undermining their successors for personal and political reasons.”

Vaughn’s choices as the best former presidents included John Quincy Adams, Jimmy Carter, William Howard Taft, and Herbert Hoover. When the Washington Post, in 2014, asked 162 members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents & Executive Politics section to rank the presidents, Taft was 20th and Quincy Adams 22nd. Carter and Hoover did not place in the top 24. That implies, if one were to take these things literally, that the four best former presidents by Vaughn’s estimation were only middling or worse as presidents.

HERBERT HOOVER

HERBERT HOOVER

But Adams, one of only two presidents to be elected to public office after leaving the White House, was a leading member of the House of Representatives for almost 20 years; Carter has devoted himself to promoting human and political rights all over the world. Hoover headed the program to stave off starvation in Germany after World War II and he was appointed by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower to lead commissions that successfully recommended reforms in the operations of the federal government.

Vaughn’s nominees for the worst former presidents include John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Theodore Roosevelt. The first three did not distinguish themselves as president, but Roosevelt is regularly ranked among the best. He finished fourth in the 2014 survey, following Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT

I recently got a belated education regarding Taft and Theodore Roosevelt by reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit, which is sort of a double biography. The careers of these two men — their whole careers, not only their presidencies — occurred during a critical era in American history in which the nation grappled with the tension between free enterprise and the government’s attempts to prevent large business interests from unfairly controlling whole sectors of the economy. Goodwin paints impressive portraits that convey the personal and political integrity and the spirit of public service that characterized both Taft and Roosevelt. Both men were highly distinguished before they were elected to the presidency. Taft, as Goodwin relates, was mostly interested in the law and hoped to some day serve on the United States Supreme Court. He did not aspire to be president, but accepted the role under the heavy influence of his wife and of Roosevelt, who had promised after he was elected to his second term that he would not seek a third — a promise he lived to regret.

One of the reasons Roosevelt lands in Vaughn’s list of worst former presidents is that he disapproved of Taft’s administration and, forsaking his “two and through” pledge, challenged him for the 1912 Republican nomination and, failing at that, ran for president on a third-party ticket, guaranteeing the election of the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. Taft, on the other hand, realized his ambition when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice of the United States, a position in which he served with distinction for a decade.

Although Roosevelt was an egocentric and therefore sometimes childish character, his life and that of Taft, on the whole, were among the most exemplary among American public figures. Goodwin’s account of their careers, by bringing them to life, also brings to life an often neglected epoch in American history.

HARPER LEE/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty/Donald Uhrbrock

HARPER LEE/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty/Donald Uhrbrock

Today is the 89th birthday of Harper Lee and for a person who has shied away from public attention for the past 55 years, she has gotten plenty. The mail last week included a flyer from Barnes & Noble promoting the novel Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, which is due to be published in July and is already on track to be a best seller. This is an unexpected development inasmuch as part of Harper Lee’s mystique has been the unanswered question as to why she never published anything after her Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. Amid the instant and far-reaching success of that book and the film based on it, Nelle Harper Lee–her full name–played the role of the public person as demanded by the circumstances. But when she had had enough of that, she decided to become a private person again, avoiding attention and especially attention from the press.

HARPER LEE

HARPER LEE

Being only a casual observer of this phenomenon, I got the idea that she was a recluse. However, I recently was disabused of that idea by reading Marja Mills’ book, The Mockingbird Next Door, published last year. Marja Mills was assigned by the Chicago Tribune to travel to Monroeville, Alabama, which is Harper Lee’s hometown and the basis for the fictional Maycomb in which the novel is set. Mills was to write about the town in connection with the choice of To Kill a Mockingbird for the “One Book, One Chicago” program in which everyone in the city is encouraged to read and discuss the same book at the same time. Mills interviewed Monroeville residents, including some who knew Harper Lee and her sister, Alice; the writer also took in the character and rhythms of the town. Although she had written to the Lees to explain the purpose of her reporting, she despaired of speaking to Harper Lee and waited to the end of her stay in Monroeville to knock on the sisters’ door. She was greeted by Alice, a practicing attorney although then nearly 90, and was invited into the house. Mills inferred that the reason she wasn’t summarily turned away was that the Lee sisters approved of the book-reading program and the Tribune’s desire to give it context. Mills befriended the two sisters and some of their acquaintances and, partly because of health problems of her own, eventually rented a house next door to the Lees for a protracted period.

ALICE LEE

ALICE LEE/AL.com photo

I learned from Mills’ book that Harper Lee was not a recluse and that, although she dodged most forms of public attention, she was out and about both in New York City, where she maintained an apartment for many years, and in Monroeville and its environs. Mills dealt gingerly with Harper and Alice Lee, realizing that if she over reached with her questions she could be cut off. The result, as one might expect, is a rather superficial work that doesn’t support its idealization of Harper Lee and doesn’t answer the perennial question as to why she never published anything else — until now. In fact, if Harper Lee is the uninteresting woman Mills described–a woman whose idea of a good time was to drive down to the lake and count the ducks–the most salient question might be how she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in the first place. By the time Marja Mills’ book was published, Harper Lee had suffered a stroke and had moved to an assisted-living facility. There was a flurry of news stories to the effect that she claimed that Mills’ book was published without her permission, but it seems unlikely that Mills contrived the relationship she describes. More recently, there has been a lot written about a dispute over whether Harper Lee approved publication of Go Set a Watchman, something that was authorized by Tonja Carter, an attorney who now handles Harper Lee’s affairs. Alice Lee, who had looked after Harper Lee’s interests, died last year at the age of 103.

HARPER LEE with MARY BADHAM who played

HARPER LEE with MARY BADHAM who played “Scout” Finch in the 1962 film.

The “new” book, if it can be called that, is based on the idea that the adult Jean Marie “Scout” Finch, said to be modeled on Harper Lee herself, returns to Maycomb to visit her father, Atticus, said to be modeled on Lee’s own father, who practiced civil law in Monroeville. This novel was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but the publisher Harper Lee submitted it to suggested that she tell the story of racial prejudice, injustice, and small-town mores, through the eyes of the young Scout. There have been conflicting reports as to whether Harper Lee, who could have published this book any time in the past five or six decades, would knowingly approve of its publication now. There are contradictory reports as to whether the author is capable of giving willful consent. The State of Alabama went so far as to investigate Harper Lee’s circumstances to assure that she was not being abused or used in any way and concluded that there was no reason to intervene in her affairs.

HARPER LEE with President GEORGE W. BUSH when he presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

HARPER LEE with President GEORGE W. BUSH when he presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

If the atmosphere weren’t murky enough, the Monroe County Historical Museum, in the Lees’ home town, announced last week that it had lost the license to present a stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, as it has for the past 26 years on Fridays and Saturdays in April and May. Neither the company that handles the licensing nor the owner of the rights to the stage version would explain that decision, although there is a history of legal dispute between Harper Lee and the museum. The decision would have had a significant economic effect on the town of about 6300 people; the president of the museum estimates that by drawing visitors to the town the play contributes as much as a million dollars a year to the economy. But on Saturday, it was reported that Harper Lee herself–the one who may or may not be competent to make such decisions–had established a non-profit organization that will have permission to produce the play. As much as I would like to read what Harper Lee wrote before her iconic novel, I have an uncomfortable feeling about all this. And given the writer’s track record for privacy and the state of her health, I don’t expect her to say anything to ease my mind.

ALEXANDRA and NICHOLAS

ALEXANDRA and NICHOLAS

 

It’s a shame that William Shakespeare didn’t live long enough to know the Romanovs. They would have made a great subject for one of his tragedies. I think of that every time I read about them, and the idea was reinforced by Helen Rappaport’s recent book, The Romanov Sisters. The title refers to the daughters of Nicholas II and Alexandra, the last emperor and empress of Russia. The girls — Olga, Maria, Tatiana, and Alexandra — their brother Alexei, their parents, and several retainers, were murdered by Bolshevik thugs in Siberia in 1918. Rappaport has written about that, but in this absorbing book she focuses on the years from the births of the five children to their deaths. Although the sisters are supposed to be the principal subjects of this book, Rappaport really provides a portrait of the whole family. And her portrait gives the impression, which I have drawn from other books on this subject, that these Romanovs were nice people who were unsuited for their position in life. One example of the character of these people is that Nicholas and Alexandra, unlike most royal couples in that era, married for love and remained deeply in love for the rest of their lives.

NICHOLAS and his children, OLGA, TATIANA, MARIA, ANASTASIA, and ALEXEI.

NICHOLAS and his children, OLGA, TATIANA, MARIA, ANASTASIA, and ALEXEI in a photograph taken by the empress Alexandra.

One of their overriding obligations was to produce a male heir for Nicholas, but the first four children were girls. One after another, these births sent reverberations throughout Russia where the question of an heir became a preoccupation the moment Nicholas succeeded to the throne. Although they were aware of the implications, Nicholas and Alexandra reveled in the arrival of each of their daughters. When the heir, Alexei, finally did arrive, the euphoria within the family was muted when he was diagnosed with hemophilia — the royal disease. Helping her son became an obsession for Alexandra. In itself that was natural and maybe even commendable, but it exacerbated existing problems with Alexandra’s public image. Among the Russians, she was suspect from the start, because her background was not Russian but English and German. She was a favored granddaughter of Victoria. She frustrated both common and privileged Russians, too, by living an insular life, preferring to hunker down with her immediate family rather than appear in public, even at state occasions where her presence would have been expected.

NICHOLAS and his children aboard the royal yacht Standardt.

NICHOLAS and his children aboard the royal yacht Standardt.

The Russian gossip circuits, and diplomatic circles, buzzed over the plain, almost homespun manner in which the four grand duchesses dressed, their casual demeanor among the few outsiders they spent time with — notably the sailors and officers on the royal yacht — and the infrequency of the girls’  public appearances. Alexandra’s isolation was a result both of her choice of a lifestyle and of her multitude of real and imagined illnesses, and it was aggravated by her exhausting focus on Alexei’s condition. Her tendency to keep her children close by deprived them of a full social life to the extent that the ostensibly future emperor of all the Russias would frequently shrink from strangers who visited the family’s home. Alexandra’s standing among the Russians, including the royal family, wasn’t improved any by her association with Grigori Rasputin, the enigmatic, unkempt “holy man” who, it seemed to the empress, was the only person capable of easing her son’s suffering. Rappaport is not judgmental in writing about Rasputin, and she provides what for me was new context by including input from Rasputin’s daughter. I also learned from Rappaport that it was not only Alexandra but also her daughters who felt a strong emotional and spiritual attachment to the strange man.

GRIGORI RASPUTIN

GRIGORI RASPUTIN

Russians suspected Alexandra’s loyalty because of her apparent aloofness and her British and German origins. And yet one of the most dramatic aspects of her life occurred during World War I when she and her two older daughters took formal training as nurses and worked in hospitals, some of which they themselves established. By Rappaport’s account, this was no publicity stunt, but a serious undertaking, often in gruesome circumstances, including the many amputations performed on soldiers carried back from the front.

Nicholas and Alexandra were complicit in their own undoing because of their firm belief in a divinely sanctioned monarchy, their stubborn adherence to a lifestyle that did not meet the expectations of either their subjects or the international community, and their failure in general to read the signs of the times. Still, it’s difficult to come away from their story without a deep sense of sadness over the waste of what might have been beautiful lives.

ALEXANDRA and Lithuanian Princess VERA GEDROITZ, who was the first female surgeon in Russia and one of the first female professors of surgery in the world.

ALEXANDRA, left, and Lithuanian Princess VERA GEDROITZ, who was the first female surgeon in Russia and one of the first female professors of surgery in the world.

Books: “Color Blind”

March 27, 2014

Neil Churchill, at the center of the front row, with the 1935 Bismark team.

Neil Churchill, at the center of the front row, with the 1935 Bismark team.

One aspect of my father’s life that I don’t know nearly enough about is the time he spent managing a semi-pro baseball team. He mentioned it now and then, but the only detail I have retained is that his team played a couple of games against a team managed by Johnny Vander Meer. Vander Meer is the only pitcher in the history of major league baseball to pitch no-hitters in two consecutive games. That was in 1938. He also pitched a no-hitter in the Texas League 14 years later.
At the time that my father told me about opposing Vander Meer, I didn’t understand the importance of semi-pro baseball. In fact, I probably didn’t know what the expression meant. In broad terms, there have historically been three categories of baseball leagues: professional, semi-professional, and amateur.The professional leagues are what we know as the major and minor leagues, including the minor leagues whose teams are not affiliated with major league teams. Among the rest, a team is considered semi-pro if even one of its players is paid.

Local newspaper reports that the Bismark team had won the first national semi-pro championship.

Local newspaper reports that the Bismark team had won the first national semi-pro championship.

How many were paid and how they were paid varied a lot from time to time and place to place. There were teams sponsored by companies, by local businesses, by civic and social organizations, by towns, and by private individuals. On some teams, every player was paid. On some only a handful. And in circumstances in which the competition was intense, one or more of the players on a team who were paid were ringers recruited from the minor leagues or the Negro Leagues with offers of bigger salaries than the pros were paying.
There were semi-pro teams all over the United States and Canada, and many of them could draw crowds in those days when the big leagues were concentrated in the eastern part of the country where they were out of reach for most Americans. Semi-pro ball could provide an especially welcome diversion during the epoch in which the plains were beset by both economic depression and drought. One team in particular is the subject of Tom Dunkel’s book, “Color Blind.” The team Dunkel writes about was based in Bismark, North Dakota in the 1930s; it was not a member of a league, but played against teams in nearby and far-off towns and against barnstorming teams that wandered the landscape trying to make a buck. The Bismark team, so far as we know, didn’t have an official nickname although they are often referred to as the Churchills. That’s a nod to Neil Churchill, a partner in a Bismark auto dealership, an habitual if not addicted gambler, and the owner and frequently the manager of the local nine.

SATCHEL PAIGE

SATCHEL PAIGE

Churchill was devoted to the game and he was competitive. He was constantly striking deals with pro players to give the Bismarks an edge over their opponents. Winning was such a priority with him that he didn’t care what color the players were. In fact, because the pro leagues were more than a decade away from coming to their senses, Churchill was able to attract some talented black players, including Satchel Paige. Paige should have spent his career in the majors, but because of the color line and because of his wanderlust, he’d take the field wherever he got the best offer. In 1933 and in 1935, that offer — a $400 a month and a late-model car—came from Churchill , and Paige bolted from the Negro League team in Pittsburgh and made for Bismark. That was no small achievement for Churchill. Although there is no way to establish the widely held belief that Paige was the greatest pitcher of his time, and perhaps of any time, we know enough about him to know that he was extraordinary. In ’35 he started and won four games and relieved in another when Bismark took seven straight to win the inaugural National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita.

QUINCY TROUPPE

QUINCY TROUPPE

Among the other outstanding black players Churchill recruited were pitcher-catcher Ted “Double Duty” Radcliff, and catcher Quincy Thomas Trouppe (nee Troupe) who, by the way, was the father of prominent poet-journalist-academic Quincy Thomas Troupe Jr.

Churchill led the only integrated organized team in that rough-and-tumble era in baseball, and he got some pushback for his trouble. And Bismark’s black players, of course, had to endure the insults and isolation that the land of “all men are created equal” imposed on many of its citizens then and for more than 30 years after. In his book, Dunkel brings to light a fragment of American history in which the relationship between the people and their national game was much more intimate than it was to become, and by evoking the names of men like Paige and Radcliffe and Trouppe, he reminds us of the crime that was committed for more than six decades against many of its finest practitioners.

 

 

FLEETWOOD WALKER

FLEETWOOD WALKER

When Jackie Robinson’s place in baseball history is discussed, there often is a slight error in the way it is expressed. Robinson, who famously joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 to become the only black player in professional baseball, was not the first black player in the majors. That doesn’t diminish Robinson’s achievement in the least, but the fact is that the first black player in the major leagues, so far as we know, was Moses Fleetwood Walker,  a catcher, who appeared with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1889. The second black player in the majors, so far as we know, was his brother, Weldy Wilberforce Walker, a practitioner of several diamond positions, who also played a few games for Toledo that year.

It was in that same year that the baseball owners decided that they would no longer include black players on their rosters, and it would be 58 years before another black player — Robinson — would appear in the bigs. But it would be 72 years, in 1961, before Major League Baseball, which wasn’t fully integrated until the Red Sox capitulated in 1959, ordered the minor leagues to start signing black players.

LARRY COLTON

LARRY COLTON

That’s the background for Southern League, an absorbing book by former major leaguer Larry Colton that reports on the 1964 season of the Birmingham Barons, the first integrated pro sports team to play in Alabama. The team had been disbanded by its owner, millionaire businessman Albert Belcher, under pressure from segregationists, but Belcher was convinced that the team could be a financial success. His confidence was bolstered by the fact that Alabama native Charlie Finley, wackadoodle owner of the Kansas City Athletics, agreed to make his team the major-league parent of the Barons.

CHARLIE FINLEY

CHARLIE FINLEY

Neither Belcher nor Finley was a civil rights activist, but both were realists. They picked a tough environment in which to practice their pragmatism: Alabama, led by Gov. George Wallace, was digging in its heels against the federal government’s campaign to integrate schools and put an end to racial discrimination in general.

As Colton reports, Finley made a couple of commitments to the Barons. First, he said he would see to it that the Barons got the players it needed to win the Southern League pennant. That was an odd thing for an owner to promise, because the owner’s interest in a minor league franchises usually has to do only with developing players for the major-league team. Second, Finley and Belcher jointly promised the team that they would take all of the players and their significant others to Hawaii if the Barons won the title.

BLUE MOON ODOM

BLUE MOON ODOM

The Barons started their season with five minority players on the roster, including future major league standout pitcher Blue Moon Odom and future big league journeyman Bert Campaneris, a refugee from Cuba. The black players had to put up with vocal abuse from fans and discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants.

Still, while Belcher experienced a few tense moments, the season, although it fell just short of fulfilling everyone’s dreams, went off without a serious incident, so that the Barons, who didn’t see themselves as trailblazers, still demonstrated to Birmingham how an integrated enterprise could actually work in the city.

Colton tells this story largely by telling the stories of the ordinary men who made up the Barons roster and the ordinary circumstances of their lives: their often hardscrabble origins, their family lives, their loves, their ailments. Prominently included is the story of Heywood Sullivan, a former major league catcher and future Red Sox exec and owner, for whom the ’64 Barons were the first assignment as a manager, an assignment he handled with wisdom, skill, compassion, and common sense.