April 1945: From his death in Warm Springs, Ga., to his burial in Hyde Park, New York, Franklin Roosevelt’s final journey.
News of FDR’s passing indelibly marked the Greatest Generation. Stunned by the loss of the only president many of them had known, huge crowds of mourners lined the tracks of his funeral train as it made its three-day journey through nine states. “The people did not wave,” Life reported. “They wept.” Klara takes us the entire route, furnishing information about the railways and their officials who shared logistical responsibilities, the locomotives and the lavish Pullman cars. However, the author focuses primarily on the train’s passengers: Roosevelt’s grieving widow Eleanor, twice-shocked to learn her husband’s long-ago mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, was present when FDR suffered his cerebral hemorrhage; bleary newsmen charged with generating copy at every stop; FDR’s cousins Daisy Suckley and Polly Delano; his secretary Grace Tully and his famous dog Fala; presidential aide Lauchlin Currie, exposed years later as a KGB spy; Harry Truman, who used the train ride to confer with advisors to quickly come up to speed on the nation’s business and to prepare an address to Congress that would introduce him as the nation’s leader; speech writers, advisors and aides both to the old and new president, including the former director of the Office of War Mobilization and soon to be Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes. On the trip’s penultimate leg, the slow train followed an announced route through densely populated areas, carrying the president, the cabinet, nine Supreme Court Justices, dozens of congressional leaders and the heads of major federal agencies, a security risk unthinkable in today’s climate. In the manner of Bob Greene’s Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen (2002) or Jody Rosen’s White Christmas: The Story of an American Song (2002), similar, bite-sized slices of World War II–era home-front history, Klara charms as he informs.
Most schoolchildren can tell you that Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Brands (History/Univ. of Texas; The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield, 2012, etc.) chronicles the story of the downward trajectory his fortunes endured thereafter.
Burr’s relationship and devotion to his only child, Theodosia, produced a wealth of correspondence that allows us to see his tortured, often-desperate persona. His break with Thomas Jefferson over political issues and the outrage after Hamilton’s death finished Burr’s political life. More importantly, the press of creditors suggested it was a good time to get out of town. He left New York and headed west to investigate the possibilities of land speculation. While traveling he became convinced of an impending war with Spain, either in Mexico or Florida. He raised a great deal of capital to buy a tract of land in the Louisiana Territory and to outfit an expeditionary force. Burr never actually stated the purpose for the 15 boats, 500 men, firearms and provisions, but his intentions made many nervous. It was to be his ultimate undoing. Jefferson didn’t trust him, and many others saw his moves as an attempt to split the United States in two. Despite charges of treason, no indictment could be reached after two hearings, but Jefferson rejected the findings and called for his arrest. Burr attempted to evade capture but was eventually taken and transported to Richmond to stand trial. The second in the author’s series entitled American Portraits, this is one of the increasingly popular “small stories” that give so much insight into the men, women and events of history.
A short but thrilling page-turner. Brands burrows into Burr’s psyche and exposes his failings as he details the outstanding talents that were so sadly wasted.
A winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award (Ernie Pyle’s War, 1997) returns with an account of Franklin Roosevelt’s struggles with polio and how they shaped his political career.
Tobin (Journalism/Miami Univ., Ohio; To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight, 2003, etc.) focuses on 1921–1932, the years that frame FDR’s contracting polio and his winning his first presidential election. Throughout, the author emphasizes his thesis: FDR did not win elections in spite of his polio but because of it. Tobin begins with some moments before FDR took his first presidential oath of office in 1933, then he takes us back to the summer of 1921, where he speculates about how FDR contracted the disease. Here—and throughout—Tobin instructs us about the polio virus: how it enters the system (“via specks of human waste”), what it does once it gets there, the varieties of damage it does and the treatments available in the decade of the book’s focus. Tobin does a fine job of showing us how the virus knocked FDR down, how one physician completely misdiagnosed his case, and how FDR dealt with the grievous pain, both physical and psychological. We also meet people who helped in various ways—from his wife, Eleanor, to his aide Louis Howe and several secretaries, physical therapists and physicians. The author also dispels the nonsense that FDR somehow hid his illness from the public (everyone knew: It was continually in the newspapers) and chronicles the long, slow struggle that eventually enabled him to sit, stand and walk (braced and otherwise aided). He used a wheelchair only for short periods and only at home. We see, as well, the evolution of his relationship with his wife and his complicated choreography with fellow New York politician Al Smith.
Medical history, physical and psychological stress, and human ambition are the prominent strands in this rich narrative carpet.
The shocking shooting and the painful, lingering death of the 20th president.
“Killed by a disappointed office seeker.” Thus most history texts backhand the self-made James Garfield (1831–1881), notwithstanding his distinguished career as a college professor, lawyer, Civil War general, exceptional orator, congressman and all too briefly president. Millard follows up her impressive debut (The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, 2005) by colorfully unpacking this summary dismissal, demonstrating the power of expert storytelling to wonderfully animate even the simplest facts. As she builds to the president’s fatal encounter with his assassin, she details the intra-party struggle among Republicans that led to Garfield’s surprise 1880 nomination. The Stalwarts, worshippers of Grant, defenders of the notorious spoils system, battled the Half-Breeds, reformers who took direction from Senators John Sherman and James G. Blaine. The scheming, delusional Charles J. Guiteau, failed author, lawyer and evangelist, listened to no one, except perhaps the voices in his head assuring him he was an important political player, instrumental in Garfield’s election and deserving of the consulship to Paris. After repeated rebuffs, he determined that only “removing the president” would allow a grateful Vice President Chester A. Arthur to reward him. During the nearly three excruciating months Garfield lay dying, Alexander Graham Bell desperately scrambled to perfect his induction balance (a metal detector) in time to locate the lead bullet lodged in the stricken president’s back. Meanwhile, Garfield’s medical team persistently failed to observe British surgeon Joseph Lister’s methods of antisepsis—the American medical establishment rejected the idea of invisible germs as ridiculous—a neglect that almost surely killed the president. Moving set pieces—the 1876 U.S. Centennial Exhibition which Garfield attended and where both Lister and Bell presented, the deadlocked Republican Convention, the steamship explosion that almost killed Guiteau, the White House death watch—and sharply etched sketches of Blaine, the overwhelmed Arthur and larger portraits of the truly impressive Garfield and the thoroughly insane Guiteau make for compulsive reading.
With campuses and the nation in an uproar over civil rights, two legendary coaches prepared their teams for a football classic.
When Texas Western’s all-black starting lineup defeated national powerhouse and all-white Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA title basketball game, everyone understood immediately the historic implications. The significance of the Grambling Tigers’ narrow victory over the Florida A&M Rattlers in the 1967 Orange Blossom Classic, the de facto championship of black college football, however, emerged only over time. Freedman (Journalism/Columbia Univ.; Letters to a Young Journalist, 2006, etc.) memorably revisits an era when, due to still-widespread segregation, black colleges were at their athletic apogee. Tigers’ coach Eddie Robinson and A&M’s Jake Gaither had already sent scores of players to the NFL, but, notwithstanding their distinguished tenures, campus militants harshly criticized both for their public silence on civil rights. Innovative coaches, father figures to countless young men, by 1967, they were marginalized, even ridiculed by a new, impatient generation that knew little of each man’s struggles and achievements. Neither responded directly to the turmoil of the times, but each harbored a private ambition: Robinson to groom a player sufficiently talented and self-possessed to become a quarterback in the NFL and Gaither to play one game against a predominantly white team, a potentially explosive event for the South. During the summer and fall, they laid the groundwork for breaking both barriers. As he takes us through the season for both teams and recreates their bowl matchup, Freedman mixes in revealing information about the cultures of the schools, their rivalries with other black colleges, sensitive portraits of the coaches and players, and an evocative description of a racial and political climate that Robinson and Gaither, each working quietly, did so much to alter.
In a chronological, episodic narrative that grows somewhat tedious yet chilling, Minutaglio (City on Fire: The Explosion That Devastated a Texas Town and Ignited a Historic Legal Battle, 2004, etc.) and Davis (J. Frank Dobie, 2009, etc.) unearth the various fringe elements rampant in Dallas in the three years (from January 1960 to November 1963) preceding John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
These anti-communist and racist groups were essentially sanctioned by officials and created a dangerous climate for the president and first lady during their visit on November 22, 1963. Indeed, Kennedy had been warned not to come, especially after the violent reception of U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson by Dallas crowds several weeks before. “Super-patriots” like Gen. Edwin A. Walker, formerly enlisted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in helping integrate Little Rock Central High School, had made an about-face and grown stridently pro-segregationist, distributing Wanted for Treason posters at the time of JFK’s visit; billionaire oilman H.L. Hunt was bankrolling right-wing groups; Frank McGehee was organizing a National Indignation Convention; and publisher Ted Dealey, whose paper the Dallas Morning News routinely attacked the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, ran an incendiary full-page advertisement from Bernard Weissman’s American Fact-Finding Mission on the day Kennedy arrived in Dallas. In this xenophobic, anti-liberal, anti–East Coast atmosphere, Lee Harvey Oswald purchased a mail-order rifle, which he tried out first by shooting at Gen. Walker through a window of his home. Minutaglio and Davis alternate their doomsday scenario with chronicles of the upbeat attempts at integrating and liberalizing Dallas—e.g., international marketing efforts by showman Stanley Marcus (of Neiman Marcus) and New Hope Baptist Church pastor H. Rhett James’ engineering of Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to the city.
Despite the calendar slog, the authors make a compelling, tacit parallel to today’s running threats by extremist groups.
Northern slavery, often overlooked by historians, is the subject of this detailed history of a well-preserved plantation at the far end of Long Island.
Landscape historian Griswold (Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon, 1999, etc.) stumbled upon Sylvester Manor during a boat trip in 1984. Intrigued by the gardens, she sought out the owners and discovered that the property had been in the same family since the 1650s—and that the owners had, in its colonial heyday, kept slaves. That set Griswold on a search for the manor’s history, carefully preserved over the generations. The first owner, Nathaniel Sylvester, was apparently the youngest son—birth records are missing—of an English Protestant family that had relocated to Amsterdam during the religious turmoil of the early 17th century. Like many of their fellow exiles, they became merchants, sailing from Africa to Barbados to New England, buying and selling. The family bought the manor from a Long Island Indian tribe, seeing it as a northern base for their trade operations. Griswold has conducted massive research, traveling to locales important in the history and, when possible, visiting the places her subjects lived or did business—including African slave ports and the family’s sugar plantation on Barbados, as well as sites in England, New England and the Netherlands. She has also read the original family documents, especially those preserved by the Sylvesters. The result is one of the most detailed examinations of the culture of slavery and slave-owning and its deep influence on the development of the American colonies. While Northern slavery died out well before the crisis of the 19th century, its role in the establishment of a solid economic base cannot be overlooked. Among the ironies of the narrative is the fact that Nathaniel Sylvester’s wife became a Quaker, one of the denominations that later did the most to advance the cause of abolition.
A deeply researched, painstakingly detailed story of a forgotten chapter of our nation’s history. Highly recommended.
English travel writer Wheeler (Access All Areas: Selected Writings 1990–2011, 2013, etc.) explores her personal struggle with age through the lens of American history as experienced by a group of 19th-century women.
In the introduction, the author reveals the impetus behind her choice of subject. With menopause on the horizon, she went looking for inspiration from women who traveled to America and found “second acts.” Fanny Trollope (mother of Anthony), Fanny Kemble, Harriet Martineau, Rebecca Burlend, Isabella Bird and Catherine Hubback (Jane Austen’s niece) all left Britain—some permanently and some for shorter trips—to find something in America. Some loved the United States, and some hated it, but all were changed by the experience. Those experiences make up the meat of the book, and they are worthy of chronicling. Kemble was a British actress who eventually contributed to the cause of the Union in the Civil War. Burlend conquered the harsh wilderness of Illinois with her family and left a legacy that can still be found today. The stories are at once varied and remarkably similar, and the resilience of the women is impressive. Though it is easy to see what attracted Wheeler to these women, the author occasionally veers off course into other subjects equally worthy but not entirely connected. The fate of the Native American tribes contemporary to the story is not to be ignored, but Wheeler references it in a manner that feels out of place. Sometimes, a particular invention or discovery leads Wheeler down a divergent path for a few pages; in those cases, the thread of the story is easily lost. While frequent asides about menopause and middle age personalize the author’s fascination for her subjects, they also break up the narrative.
Wheeler’s gift for biography is strong, and despite occasional wanderings from the trail, the author ably captures these women and their travels.
Glass (Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under the Nazi Occupation, 2011, etc.) takes on the nearly taboo subject of Allied soldiers who deserted or were said to have displayed cowardice during World War II.
Tracking in detail the wartime biographies of three privates in the infantry—Tennessee farm boy Alfred Whitehead, Brooklyner Steve Weiss and Britisher John Bain—the author constructs a frame for his much broader, and quite provocative, discussion of military personnel policy. Each of his subjects was court martialed and sentenced to long-term incarceration. But each had also fought bravely, and continuously, through a series of campaigns in Africa and Europe, including the Anzio landings, the D-Day invasion and its aftermath, and the assault on Nazi Germany itself. Weiss, for example, won medals for bravery and, when separated from his unit, served with paratroops and the French Resistance. Glass situates the men's individual pathways within the context of a personnel policy that failed to fully assimilate lessons from World War I, when it was first acknowledged that there were limits to what combat soldiers could endure, both mentally and physically. Nevertheless, WWII military leaders prioritized combat experience, keeping veteran fighters in the field since raw replacement troops were not as effective; this led to increased pressure on long-serving soldiers that sometimes became intolerable. By the summer of 1944, the Allies' combat units were suffering in excess of 10 percent casualties per month. The command level was divided between supporters of treating desertion as a discipline problem and those who advocated a medical response. Glass shows how deserters established criminal networks in liberated cities like Naples, Marseilles and Paris, diverting military supplies on a significant scale. Using memoirs, correspondence and military records, the author works outward from his three individual protagonists, through their networks of friends and comrades, to their units and larger questions about the war's conduct.
A well-written, fast-moving treatment of an issue still relevant today.
The editor of the American Scholar tracks the career of America’s pioneering photographer.
“Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president.” Harmless flattery, perhaps, but Abraham Lincoln’s remark testified to the influence of his 1860 speech in New York City and to the widely distributed photograph taken that day by Mathew Brady (circa 1822–1896). With studios in New York and Washington, D.C., and already famous as a portraitist, Brady’s galleries grew to contain a who’s who of 19th-century distinction: writers like Poe, Cooper, Twain and Whitman; presidents from Quincy Adams to McKinley; statesmen like Clay, Calhoun and Webster; military leaders like John C. Fremont and Winfield Scott; and distinguished visitors like the Prince of Wales. Brady lured the well-heeled and, increasingly, the middle class through his doors to be similarly immortalized by the new technology that he and his assistants mastered and advanced. When the Civil War arrived, Brady and his team of photographers went into the field, and their unprecedented, comprehensive images of camp life, battlegrounds and soldiers documented the national catastrophe for all time. Wilson (The Explorer King: Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax—Clarence in the Old West, 2006, etc.) concedes from the beginning that little is known about Brady’s personal life—not even the place or date of his birth—but the author compensates with a thorough tracking and assessment of the professional career, describing for general readers the origins and swift growth of the photographic science, the team of variously skilled workers required to make the earliest images, and the controversies over photo attribution that persist. Wilson paints Brady as the consummate ringmaster, with a Barnum-like talent for selling himself and his product and for gathering and distributing images that made the phrase “photo by Brady” seemingly ubiquitous.
A useful introduction to the man who established photographs as both works of art and important historical documents.