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The former N. Y. Times-man and prolific commentator offers 14 baggy essays about historical and cultural superstars and their fathers. Sulzberger takes on, among others: Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great; Henry VIII and Elizabeth I; Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi; Joseph and John Kennedy, Henri and Charles de Gaulle. But rather than illuminating the role of the father in shaping genius and ambition, these rambling essays read more like off-the-cuff discourses on flavorful figures. Sometimes the father/son relationship is superficially analyzed (as in young Winston Churchill's attempts to garner the love of his distant father); other times, the father is only briefly characterized (in the Stalin essay: ""His father was a ratty, nasty little man who could have been invented by a Russian Charles Dickens""). Sulzberger mixes sketchy historical vignettes and analysis with silly detail (Mozart's favorite meal: liver dumplings with sauerkraut) and anecdotal personal reminiscences. Particularly moving is a remembrance of an afternoon with the aging Churchill, who shakes--briefly--out of an intellectual and physical stupor, talks about his career, takes a walk, then fades: It was ""like watching a very strong light bulb during an electrical crisis: first a faint reddening of the filament, then a flickering, then a glow, then a brilliant blaze of light. . .again the flickering, a subsiding, and finally just a red filament; then nothing."" But what does this have to do with fathers and children? Precious little. There's some illumination in eavesdropping on Sulzberger, who's witnessed history firsthand, but most of the pieces meander without structure or analytic intent. Bright in bits, then, but, as a collection, hard to get through.

Pub Date: Nov. 18th, 1987
Publisher: Arbor House