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.

 

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.

Huguette 4

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.

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.)

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.