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THE FLY SWATTER by Nicholas Dawidoff


How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World

by Nicholas Dawidoff

Pub Date: May 17th, 2002
ISBN: 0-375-40027-3
Publisher: Pantheon

When writing about family, it pays to have at least one fascinating relative, and Dawidoff hits the jackpot.

Alexander Gerschenkron (1904–78) was surely the most unforgettable character Dawidoff (ed., Baseball, p. 156, etc.) ever met. He was also the author’s grandfather, born in Odessa, escaped to Vienna when the Russian Revolution struck, and emigrated to the US when the Austrians greeted the Nazis. Gerschenkron—“Shura” to his friends—was a true Russian, an echt Viennese, and then, by natural evolution, a genuine American. His story is characteristic of many histories of successful adaptation by those who once arrived in “places where the languages and the bread were strange.” Continental in manner, Shura was the ultimate exemplar of self-assurance, a cool autodidact who, it seems, became adept in several academic disciplines and a score of languages. He was a cheater at lawn croquet, a Red Sox fan, and a voracious reader. Trained as an economist, Shura worked in a WWII shipyard and thence to the Fed. Finally, he landed at his beloved home base, Harvard, where he bared the secrets of bloated Soviet economic claims and where he trained the nation’s best economic historians. Shura’s impressive mind was, by turns, capable of fierce loyalty and dogged antipathy. Dawidoff details his grandfather’s relations with such worthies as John Kenneth Galbraith, Henry Rosovsky, and the late Sir Isaiah Berlin. Among people who knew everything, Shura, the rumpled charmer who never completed a magnum opus, was the ultimate know-it-all. He was certainly a wonderful figure to his grandson, who pays truly affectionate tribute. Readers may forgive minor lapses, like the passing reference to the noted wartime broadcaster as “Edmund R. Morrow” or acceptance of Shura’s dubious etymology for the word “robot.” The tale of Gerschenkron, his friends and family, his style and his disputes, amply exhibits the art of biography.

A fulsome portrait of a distinctive Harvard savant, nicely painted in full color.