PENDERGAST! by Lawrence H. Larsen


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 This biography does little to dissipate the sensationalism surrounding its subject. Set up in the business of politics in 1890 by his eldest brother, James, Thomas J. Pendergast rose slowly but steadily to the top of the Kansas City political machine that his brother had created, eventually becoming the city's de facto ruler and a very wealthy man. While widespread rumors of drug dealing, prostitution, election fraud, and violence plagued his career as a powerbroker--a career spent largely behind the scenes, and not in elective office--historian Larsen (Univ. of Missouri, Kansas City) and archivist Hulston (Univ. of Kansas Medical Center) do little more than repeat these rumors, seemingly unable to either substantiate or eliminate them. Indeed, the only wrongdoing on Pendergast's part of which the authors seem positive is the income-tax evasion for which he was convicted and sent to Leavenworth in 1939. Frequently compared to Al Capone (also at Leavenworth for tax evasion), Pendergast did not linger in jail; he spent only 12 months of a 15-month sentence behind bars. This sentence was blasted as too lenient by a press that had turned against ``the Boss'' of ``Tom's Town,'' as Kansas City had come to be called. He died in 1945 alone and nearly broke; his wife had finally left him, and his money had gone to pay government fines and his endless gambling debts. His greatest legacy is, supposedly, to have fixed the election that put haberdasher (and loyal Pendergast supporter) Harry Truman in his first public office and on a trajectory to the White House. Those unfamiliar with Pendergast will likely find parallels with Richard Daley's Chicago and Boss Tweed's Tammany Hall. Unfortunately, while the subject is an interesting and important one, Larsen and Hulston seem to have little to offer but recycled rumor and innuendo. (30 b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-8262-1145-3
Page count: 264pp
Publisher: Univ. of Missouri
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1997