March 7, 2018

The great female detective who captivated WWI America

The great female detective: Mrs. Sherlock Holmes by Brad RiccaMrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case that Captivated a Nation by Brad Ricca (2017) 452 pages

@@@ (3 out of 5)

As a child, she was known as Mary Grace Winterton, one of three daughters of a wealthy New York family. After gaining a law degree from NYU and being admitted to the bar in 1904, she set up the People’s Law Firm to offer affordable legal services to low-income New Yorkers, especially immigrants. The firm soon had several branches throughout New York City. She was known then as Mrs. Mary Grace Quackenbos, although she and her husband had separated when she entered law school. A decade later, when she intervened in the high-profile investigation of a missing 18-year-old girl, she was known as Mrs. Grace Humiston, having remarried in 1911. Under that name, she achieved nationwide fame as a detective, only to meet disgrace a short while later.

Grace Humiston’s fame arose from her work with the Hungarian-born detective Julius J. Kron in solving the disappearance of Ruth Kruger in 1915. The case had gained worldwide attention because young Ruth photographed well and her well-connected father raised hell over the failure of the police to find his daughter. Humiston and Kron’s success despite the efforts of the police to undermine them led to a series of indictments of men in the NYPD for incompetence, dereliction of duty, and corruption. But the issue that had drawn Humiston into the case was never addressed to her satisfaction. It was called “white slavery” then. We refer to it as human trafficking today. Humiston, however, was obsessed with a single aspect of the issue: the seduction of high-school girls by prostitution rings. She became so consumed with concern over this issue that she closed her law practice to launch a public education campaign and set up a home for girls rescued from their captors.

Despite the fame that the great female detective gained for her work on the Ruth Cruger case, her most significant contribution by far had come much earlier in her career. Not long after establishing the People’s Law Firm, she spent seven weeks traveling through the South to investigate the disappearance of Italian immigrants from their families in New York. They had been lured southward on the promise of well-paying jobs. Instead, the men (sometimes with their whole families) were put to work at exhausting jobs on turpentine camps as virtual slaves, housed in run-down shacks, and forced to buy food and other necessities from company stores. The issue then was called peonage. The practice was widespread in the American South, and not just at turpentine camps. It was a national disgrace.

Using a variety of disguises to enter the camps and interview workers, Humiston succeeded in revealing an extensive network of exploitation that involved recruiters in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere who had brought thousands of immigrants to the United States on false pretenses. Her work gained the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who called her to the White House to report her findings.

Unfortunately, the president called off government intervention in the issue after an old friend of his wrote him a letter discrediting Humiston and denying all the charges. The man had been Humiston’s chief target in her investigation—and he had just been elected to the United States Senate. However, the issue had been exposed through the press, and gradually the practice of peonage declined. In the process, Humiston’s skill and tenacity gained her an appointment as Special Assistant United States District Attorney, the first woman to gain such a high-ranking position in the Department of Justice.

This is a fascinating story, and an important one. The accounts of Humiston’s work at the People’s Law Firm, the Ruth Cruger case, and the peonage investigation occupy about the first half of Brad Ricca’s Mrs. Sherlock Holmes. (Humiston was called by that name in the press for a time following the Cruger investigation.) Regrettably, the book weakens markedly after that point. The story wanders back and forth through time, relating the progress of the prosecution of the police officers whose incompetence was revealed by Humiston and Kron and briefly describing a number of additional cases in which Humiston became involved as either a detective or an attorney. (Only one of those police officers was ultimately convicted, and after his release from prison he was rehired by the NYPD!)

Ricca’s account of the events that led to the disgrace and fall of the great female detective from public favor is choppy and difficult to understand. Apparently, she departed from her customary caution and reliance on facts to publicly announce as proven fact a number of salacious rumors. Unwisely, she spoke publicly and bragged to the press that she had proof about the mistreatment and even murder of young women at an army base on Long Island where troops were being mustered before shipment to France in the closing year of World War I. Humiston repeatedly insisted she had affidavits and other proof in hand, and at one point that she had even delivered this information to the authorities. But never did any such information surface. Obviously, she had chosen the wrong target—an army base in the midst of a popular foreign war. Although Humiston continued to speak out on white slavery for many years afterward, and she did meet success from time to time in defending accused murderers, her role as “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes” was clearly over.

Brad Ricca has written two nonfiction books and a volume of poetry. He teaches creative writing at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, where he was born, raised, and still lives. Mrs. Sherlock Holmes is a nominee for a 2018 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.

For my review of a more accomplished nonfiction book about another headline-grabbing case that garnered nationwide attention in the same era, see The case that helped put the FBI on the map. It’s about David Grann’s excellent book, Killers of the Flower Moon. However, if you prefer to read about crime in fictional form, go to 53 excellent mystery and thriller series and 18 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers.

February 21, 2018

Another superior example of Dave Eggers nonfiction

Dave Eggers nonfiction: The Monk of Mokha by Dave EggersThe Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers (2018) 353 pages

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Dave Eggers has struck gold once again with the extraordinary story of the Yemeni-American entrepreneur Mokhtar Alkhanshali, “a poor kid from [San Francisco’s] Tenderloin who now has found some significant success as a coffee importer.” But that description barely scratches the surface. Mokhtar is the man who introduced now-highly-praised coffee from Yemen to the American market. And he did so after surviving an odyssey through war-torn territory worthy of Ulysses himself.

A civil war few outsiders can understand

Few Americans can locate Yemen on a map, even though the country is frequently in the news. (It’s located at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula across a narrow strait from the tiny African nation of Djibouti. Yemen lies just south of the much larger and richer nation of Saudi Arabia.) A brutal civil war has been underway in the country since 2014. The war pits an ethnic group called the Houthis, who back the ousted former president, against those who opposed him, backed by Saudi Arabia. Saudi warplanes (purchased from the USA) have been dropping bombs (also purchased from the USA) on Houthis and anyone in their vicinity for nearly four years. This has resulted in a massive famine and other deprivations affecting three-quarters of the nation’s 28 million people, not to mention thousands of deaths. The already desperately poor country is a shambles. And as if civil war and famine aren’t enough, Yemen is host to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most powerful remnant of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, and ISIS. Despite all this, Mokhtar Alkhanshali has managed to grow, process, and export many tons of high-quality coffee from Yemen to the United States.

The history of coffee began in Yemen

Ethiopia, the huge country across the Red Sea from Yemen, lays claim to having originated coffee production in the 9th century based on a flimsy legend of a goatherd who chewed on the beans and got high. But the historical evidence is stronger for Yemen’s contention that the industry was launched five hundred years ago by “the Monk of Mokha.” Mokha (or Mocha) is a port on the Red Sea coast of Yemen. There, according to legend, a Sufi holy man named Ali Ibn Omar al-Shadhili “first brewed the bean into a semblance of what we now recognize as coffee.” Over the centuries, cultivation of the coffee plant moved (mostly by outright theft) from Yemen to many other countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Meanwhile, coffee production steadily declined in Yemen both in quantity and quality. When Mokhtar became animated by the obsession to import “specialty” (high-quality) coffee from Yemen, the country’s output had gained a reputation for highly uneven quality and often simply bad taste. Coffee farmers there had been abandoning the crop in droves.

“I will resurrect the art of Yemeni coffee and restore it to prominence throughout the world,” Mokhtar had confided to a friend. Astonishingly, that is exactly what he achieved. Fleeing Yemen with a colleague, he personally carried “the first coffee to leave the port of Mokha in eighty years. . . . By July 2017, Port of Mokha coffee was available . . . all over North America, Japan, Paris and Brazil . . . [and] the Coffee Review awarded” one variety of Yemeni coffee “the highest score issued in the publication’s twenty-year history.”

Another superior example of Dave Eggers nonfiction

Eggers’ account of Mokhtar’s experience reads like an adventure story. His description of the history of coffee and of its cultivation and processing is equally fascinating. This book is, in truth, another outstanding example of Dave Eggers nonfiction.

I’ve previously reviewed three other books by Dave Eggers. Among them were two novels, A Hologram for the King (“Dave Eggers goes to Saudi Arabia and finds a desert“) and Heroes of the Frontier (“No heroes on this frontier“). As you might gather from the titles of my reviews, I didn’t enjoy either one of them all that much. However, I loved Zeitoun (“Life in the maelstrom of Hurricane Katrina“). There appears to be a pattern here. Not only are both the books I liked nonfiction, but also they’re both about Islamic immigrants to the US. However, I did enjoy reading Eggers’ What Is the What, a fictionalized account of the life of a Sudanese child soldier named Valentino Achak Deng—which, perhaps not incidentally, is also a story about an immigrant from a faraway land.

November 29, 2017

The woman codebreaker who caught gangsters and Nazi spies

woman codebreaker: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason FagoneThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When Richard Nixon asked Chou En-Lai in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese Premier famously said, “It’s too early to tell.” That terse response is generally understood to illustrate the Chinese ability to take the long view of history. But it might be more accurate to regard it as reflecting the constraints on those who write history. Historians can only work with available records: there is no history without documentary evidence. And sometimes decades, even centuries pass before the most crucial evidence comes to light.

In fact, ironically, the exchange between Nixon and Chou reflects a misunderstanding that drives the point home even more strongly: they were both referring to the events of 1968, not 1789. Only now, much later, once a diplomat present at the scene clarified the exchange, can historians accurately interpret what the two men meant.

There are few areas in which the unavailability of documentary evidence has been more telling than in the history of espionage in the 20th century. Only in recent years have the archives of the CIA, the KGB, MI6, the NSA, and other leading intelligence agencies opened widely enough for us to understand what really took place in the world of espionage in World War II and the Cold War. (Doubtless, some explosive documents are still locked away and won’t surface until later in this century, if ever.) And there is no more dramatic example of how what has passed for history has misled us than what we have been taught about the FBI’s role in counterespionage in the 1920s and 30s (combating rumrunners and smugglers) and in the 1940s (catching Nazi spies).

Working with recently declassified files from the World War II era as well as long-ignored archival records and contemporary press reports and interviews, journalist Jason Fagone has brought to light at last the astonishing story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband, William Friedman. (Yes, her first name is spelled with three e’s.) As Fagone shows in his beautifully written story of this surpassingly brilliant couple, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, the Friedmans may well have been the most important 20th-century American codebreakers, and quite possibly the best and most successful in the world.

William Friedman is celebrated in cryptology circles as the man who broke the Japanese military code called Purple. “MAGIC became the top-secret moniker for these Japanese decryptions . . . MAGIC led directly to bombs falling on imperial ships at Midway,” the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Fagone notes, “Today historians of cryptology believe that in terms of sheer, sweaty brilliance, the breaking of Purple is a feat on par with Alan Turing’s epiphanies about how to organize successful attacks on German Enigma codes.” However, independently, before the US and Britain’s Bletchley Park were collaborating on the effort, Elizebeth Friedman broke not one but three different types of Enigma machines. Fagone makes abundantly clear that the two were at least equal in ability. In fact Elizebeth may have been just a bit smarter. (William always insisted she was.)

“William Friedman is . . . widely considered to be the father of the National Security Agency,” Fagone writes. But both he and Elizebeth came to loathe the practices of the agency not long after its formation in 1952. It’s very likely they would be scandalized by the indiscriminate collection of information about civilians by today’s NSA.

As Fagone notes, “Elizebeth and William Friedman unscrambled thousands of messages spanning two world wars, prying loose secrets about smuggling networks, gangsters, organized crime, foreign armies, and fascism. They also invented new techniques that transformed the science of secret writing, known as cryptology.” Although today Elizebeth isn’t nearly as famous as her husband, that was by no means always the case. During the 1930s, she become a celebrity for her work against rumrunners and other smugglers and gangsters during the Depression. The public attention halted when she was enlisted by the Coast Guard for a top-secret effort to identify the extensive Nazi spy network in South America—work at which she and her team were extraordinarily successful. Their efforts led to the dismantling of the Nazi network well before the end of the war. However, J. Edgar Hoover claimed the success for the FBI, ignoring their efforts, and he was able to get away with it because he had become so powerful. “It’s not quite true that history is written by the winners,” Fagone writes. “It’s written by the best publicists on the winning team.”

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is an astonishing story that simply has to be read to be believed. His principal subject, Elizebeth Friedman, was an extraordinary woman he refers to more than once as a genius. (The evidence is there.) And Fagone writes the tale with often-elegant, metaphorical prose. He calls the book a love story, but it is of course far more than that

The same declassification of secret files that allowed Jason Fagone to write The Woman Who Smashed Codes has led to the publication of several other recent books about women in espionage. The most prominent of these was Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy.

Check out my post, 17 good nonfiction books about espionage, for other books that illuminate the business of spying. You might also be interested in My 10 favorite espionage novels, or in 19 good nonfiction books about World War II (plus 10 novels).

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

June 2, 2017

The astonishing story of Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood star and inventor

Hedy LamarrOn “Science Friday” (June 2, 2017), which I heard on my local NPR station, KQED, host Ira Flatow interviewed author Richard Rhodes and Diane Kruger about Hedy Lamarr. Rhodes wrote the book reviewed here. Kruger will star in a film and TV mini-series based on Lamarr’s life. Because of the increased interest in that amazing woman, I’m re-posting my review of the book.  

Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by Richard Rhodes

@@@ (3 out of 5)

A quarter-century ago Richard Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction for a masterful history, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and he has received numerous plaudits in the years since, both for nonfiction and fiction. But I don’t see any prizes in his future for this half-hearted little effort.

There’s nothing lacking in the material. It’s relatively well-known that Hedy Lamarr, a stunning film superstar of MGM’s Golden Age in the 1930s and 1940s, invented a secret weapon for the United States during World War II. However, the story—her extraordinary background, her flamboyant collaborator, and the the U.S. Navy’s ham-fisted response to their invention—was largely lost in obscurity and official secrecy until Richard Rhodes took it upon himself to write it up. I turned to the book with great anticipation—and was hugely disappointed.

The story is astonishing even in outline.

A famously beautiful young Austrian woman named Hedwig Kiesler, daughter of a successful Viennese banker, found her incipient stage and film career interrupted when she married one of the richest men in Austria, a munitions manufacturer who happily participated in rearming Nazi Germany and supporting the most extreme of his country’s anti-Semitic Right-Wing politicians. (Hedy—she used the short form of her first name even then—was Jewish, though she hid that fact throughout her life, and her children learned about it only once she died.)

Before she escaped from her first marriage, Hedy silently sat in on dinners and informal gatherings organized by her husband and attended by high-ranking Nazi generals and admirals. With an amazingly retentive memory, she fled with detailed knowledge of the Nazis’ most advanced weaponry—without her husband suspecting a thing, because to him she herself was just an object.

Soon after fleeing Vienna disguised as one of her maids in 1937, the year of the Anschluss with Germany, Hedy was recruited to MGM by Louis B. Mayer. Once in Hollywood, renamed Hedy Lamarr and dubbed “the most beautiful girl in the world” by Mayer (though others had previously tagged her with the phrase), she quickly became a major star. Although none of her films were especially memorable, they were successes at the box office and kept her in the limelight for many years.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to nearly everyone who knew her in Hollywood, Hedy continued her life-long passion for inventing in her spare time. Once war had broken out in Europe, she devised a concept for a naval super-weapon—a torpedo guided by wireless radio, unlike the wired torpedoes then in widespread use. Together with her collaborator, George Antheil, an avante-garde composer whose concerts had sometimes caused riots in Paris and New York, Hedy offered the weapon to the U.S. government late in 1940.

Hedy had dropped out of high school to play a part on the Vienna stage, and she was neither a reader nor an intellectual of any stripe. However, she was clearly brilliant. The profound innovation she devised (with practical help from Antheil) was a system to make it impossible for enemies to jam the radio transmissions from the ship to the torpedo. This innovation, first called frequency hopping and much later spread spectrum, “enabled the development of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, the majority of cordless phones now sold in the US, and myriad other lesser-known niche products. The Global Positioning System (GPS) uses spread spectrum. So does the U.S. military’s $41 billion MILSATCOM satellite communications network. Wireless local area networks (wLANS) use spread spectrum, as do wireless cash registers, bar-code readers, restaurant menu pads, and home control systems.” Rhodes goes on for line after line, citing a plethora of additional applications of this seminal technology. In short, Hedy’s was one of those rarest of inventions that opened up vast new landscapes of possibility for engineers for many decades to come.

So, given the obvious appeal of the weapon she and Antheil had devised, one might think that the U.S. Navy, offered the patent in 1944 after seemingly endless vetting by a series of government scientists and engineers, would immediately put it into production. But no—the Navy classified the file top secret and stuck it in a filing cabinet. It was only discovered nearly 20 years later when an engineer working on a military contract chased down a rumor about Hedy’s invention, turned up the file, and began putting it to practical use.

A more nimble writer than Rhodes might have turned this story into a blockbuster. But sadly Rhodes devoted more space to the ups and downs of George Antheil’s career than to Hedy’s, and he goes on for page after tedious page about the mechanics of the wireless system, making the invention itself the principal character. Years ago, Tracy Kidder managed that beautifully in Soul of a New Machine. Perhaps as yet more information comes to light about this remarkable tale, Kidder or someone of comparable talent will do justice to one of the most remarkable women of the 20th Century.

If you enjoy reading biography, consider checking out my post 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed. My post 17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era may also interest you.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

October 18, 2016

Software success, philanthropy, and bipolar disorder

bipolar disorderA Truck Full of Money: One Man’s Quest to Recover from Great Success by Tracy Kidder

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Most business biographies are about heroes. Though their stories may be leavened by references to the negative side of their character, the overall effect is overwhelmingly positive. Not so with Tracy Kidder’s even-handed new account of a successful software entrepreneur, A Truck Full of Money. Kidder doesn’t skimp on the man’s business successes. There were several. But he devotes nearly as much time to the many failures — and to his psychiatric problems. It’s a remarkable tale.

A software entrepreneur who isn’t a billionaire

Kidder’s subject is Paul English. Unlike the best-known people in his field, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, English has never made billions. Not even one billion. But by everyday standards — mine, and presumably yours, too — he became fabulously rich. At one point his fortune totaled about $120 million. That’s not even enough to buy and maintain a mid-sized LearJet. Poor guy, right? And unlike creative geniuses such as Steve Jobs, English didn’t make his money from brilliant inventions of his own. (You do know that Gates and Zuckerberg didn’t either, don’t you?)

A rare combination of talents

It turns out, in Kidder’s telling, that Paul English possessed that rare combination of extraordinary talent as a programmer and the ability to inspire and manage teams of equally brilliant people. His big success story was Kayak, a travel site unlike Expedia and Travelocity in that its purpose is not to sell users anything. A few years before 2004, when English cofounded Kayak, he had made a much smaller fortune when he sold an earlier company on the cusp of the dot-com crash.

A brutally honest account of bipolar disorder

If you’re involved in the high-tech business, you might find most rewarding the story of English’s progression from one job to another — until he finally got really lucky. For the general reader, though, Kidder’s no-holds-barred account of his subject’s experience with bipolar disorder stands out. There’s no sense summing up that story here. If the subject interests you, read this book. Kidder does a terrific job of conveying the pain English has suffered — and the problems his disorder caused for him in business. By the way, English insisted that Kidder tell the whole story with complete honesty.

One egregious error

Kidder committed one egregious error in A Truck Full of Money. In a passage about the history of the software industry, he writes: “In the 1960s, IBM created a complex operating system called DOS and all but gave it away — to Microsoft, then a small company.” There are several problems with this assertion. First, IBM did not create DOS. It was the product of a small software firm in Seattle that was one of Microsoft’s rivals. Second, DOS was written for personal computers, which weren’t developed until the 1970s. Third, Microsoft wasn’t around in the 1960s, either. The company was founded in 1975. Fourth, nobody gave DOS away. Bill Gates bought it for a pittance, and negotiated an extraordinarily one-sided royalty contract with IBM that became the cornerstone of his immense wealth. This is the sort of bonehead error I would never expect from Tracy Kidder. I’m genuinely surprised he didn’t hire a fact-checker.

About the author

The list of published American nonfiction authors is staggeringly long, but only a handful of outstanding writers among them are actively working today. Tracy Kidder is unquestionably one of them. In 1982 he won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Soul of a New Machine, an intimate look at the engineering of what was then one of the most ingenious and bestselling computers in the industry. A Truck Full of Money, his twelfth book, returns him to the high-tech industry after more than three decades of revolutionary changes.

If you enjoy reading biography, consider checking out my post 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed.

October 11, 2016

A balanced new biography of Bobby Kennedy

bobby kennedyBobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

During his years in the public eye in the 1950s and 60s, Bobby Kennedy was as controversial a figure as anyone else in American history. Millions despised him because he worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy. Millions more loathed him for his role in supporting the civil rights movement. Yet other Americans lionized him as the uncompromising liberal he was viewed as in the final years of his life. Little wonder that most biographers have veered either sharply left or sharply right in painting a portrait of this endlessly complex man. In Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, journalist Larry Tye steers a careful middle course. The result is a balanced and insightful biography of one of the most significant figures on the American stage in the mid-twentieth century.

The man known as RFK

Today, the man known as RFK is closely identified with his brother, President John F. Kennedy, who has cast a much longer shadow over American history. As Tye makes abundantly clear, the two were different in a great many ways: in age, stature, temperament, and political perspective. JFK was eight years older and three inches taller — Bobby was considered the runt of the large Kennedy litter — and the younger man bore grudges for decades. His older brother was far more pragmatic and much less prone to anger.

As an adult, managing Jack’s first race for the U.S. Senate in 1952, Bobby gained a reputation as “ruthless” that stayed with him for the remainder of his life. Tye insists that the label was misplaced. “Bobby was as intelligent as Jack, although less of an intellectual; Jack had Bobby’s toughness, although he was better at disguising it.” And Tye reveals Bobby to have been an inspiring boss at the Justice Department, a caring father and wife whom he loved passionately, and genuinely compassionate with the disadvantaged people he met along the campaign trail. Still, Bobby was notorious for the abiding hatred he possessed for a long list of enemies, including J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy’s pit bull Roy Cohn, Jimmy Hoffa, and Lyndon Johnson. However, much of his reputation for ruthlessness stemmed from his willingness to follow evidence of wrongdoing even among his friends. “During his three years as attorney general, his office prosecuted two congressmen, three state supreme court justices, five mayors, two chiefs of police, and three sheriffs — all Democrats.”

Bobby Kennedy’s evolution from Right to Left

Now, nearly half a century after Kennedy’s death, many of the passions have cooled, and long-secret archives have been opened. It’s now possible to view the man’s life in greater perspective. Biographer and journalist Larry Tye has accomplished just that, steering a steady course between the extremes in Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon. As the title suggests, Tye’s theme is Kennedy’s evolution under fire as his brother’s campaign manager, anti-Communist zealot, no-holds-barred Senate investigator, Attorney General, U.S. Senator, and, finally, presidential candidate. Beginning public life identified with the Right, he came to its end less than two decades later as the bright new hope of the Left.

Bobby Kennedy is not easy to pigeonhole

Notwithstanding Kennedy’s popularity with the Left in 1968, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as a liberal. True, he was fiercely committed to ending poverty in America, and he had emerged as a champion of civil rights for African-Americans, albeit slowly and reluctantly. However, like his brother, RFK would have been horrified if asked to support the sort of policies advanced in 2016 by Senator Bernie Sanders. He was, if anything, pro-business, fiercely anti-Communist, a fervent supporter of the Cold War, and committed to economic policies that today might well be considered conservative.

Skip this if you know the history

In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was poised for election to the White House when an assassin’s bullet cut him down at the age of 42. His victory was by no means assured, but he had just won the California primary and seemed on track to a showdown with Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic Convention. Given the intense popular hatred for the Vietnam War and Humphrey’s continuing support for Lyndon Johnson’s policies, it’s clear that the contest would have gone down to the wire, at the very least. Instead, as history shows, Humphrey emerged with the nomination bloodied by the tumultuous events that surrounded the 1968 convention. Had Kennedy won the nomination instead, or had Humphrey won in a fair fight, it seems highly likely that Richard Nixon would have gone down to defeat. Even heavily handicapped as he was, Humphrey came exceedingly close to winning.

You may also be interested in 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed.

About the author

Boston journalist Larry Tye is the author of seven nonfiction books, three of which are biographies. His previous subjects were Edward L. Bernays, the father of public relations, and the legendary Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige.


April 21, 2016

The man who trained Cesar Chavez in community organizing

community organizingAmerica’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century by Gabriel Thompson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

When the topic of community organizing comes up, a single name comes quickly to mind: Saul Alinsky. Alinsky is often cited as the founder of the field, having made his name through a hugely successful campaign on the South Side of Chicago in the 1940s. Two books he wrote, Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971), cemented his reputation nationwide. During my own brief experience as a community organizer in the late 1970s, Alinsky’s methodology dominated the field, largely through his writings. Yet another man, working in the fields of California, much closer to me in Berkeley, was compiling a record to rival and perhaps surpass Alinsky’s. He is the subject of an excellent new biography, America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century.

Community organizing in rural California

After brief periods as a teacher and social worker, Fred Ross found his way into community organizing through a series of posts with the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration. As the manager of relief programs in a series of migrant camps set up to house the “Okies” made famous in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Ross became familiar with poverty at its worst. During World War II, Ross worked for the War Relocation Authority, which managed the relocation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps throughout the West. “In Cleveland,” as the Los Angeles Times pointed out in its obituary, “he was credited with persuading defense plant owners to hire [thousands of] Japanese-Americans, who were then freed from the camps to work.”

Following the war, Ross played a leading role in establishing the Community Service Organization (CSO) in South Los Angeles. Under his direction, the CSO registered the thousands of Latino voters who were instrumental in electing Edward Roybal as the first Hispanic to serve on the powerful L. A. City Council. With a vision much larger than local politics in L.A., Ross then set out to take the CSO statewide — and, he hoped, ultimately nationwide. However, that effort foundered once Ross and the organizers working with him left for other towns. Local CSO chapters, typically led by working class Mexican-Americans such as farmworkers, quickly fell under the sway of Latino professionals and business owners. These more affluent officials were unwilling to support the radical policies that the organization had been founded to pursue.

Enter Cesar Chavez

Though organizing CSO chapters brought Ross to the towns and cities of California, his passion centered on the plight of the Mexican and Mexican-American farmworkers who made California agriculture the envy of the world. When he met a twenty-five-year-old named Cesar Chavez in San Jose in 1952, Ross’ career began to shift away from urban California to the fields where thousands of poverty-stricken men, women, and children picked the fruits and vegetables that made the state’s powerful growers and packers wealthy. Chavez and Ross began a decades-long collaboration that led in 1958 to the establishment of what became the United Farm Workers union (founded by Chavez and Dolores Huerta). As Thompson writes, “When they met, Chavez would later say, Ross had been ‘about the last person I wanted to see. Then he started talking — and changed my life.'” Ross, the consummate organizer, remained steadfastly in the background through the many years of their work together.

Today, the United Farm Workers (UFW) is a faint shadow of the powerful union it was from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Much of the blame for the union’s decline must be laid at Chavez’ feet: he was a brilliant leader but a disastrous manager. “At one point,” Thompson points out, “when asked to name the people who reported directly to him, Chavez stopped counting at fifty-eight.” This number is an order of magnitude greater than what business experts call the “span of control.” Then, in 1976, against almost universal opposition from everyone around him, Chavez insisted on forcing a measure to be placed on the California statewide ballot to permit organizers to enter the fields so they could talk to farmworkers. When the measure failed by a vote of two-to-one, Chavez began the first of several purges of union staff, demonstrating a pattern of behavior that can only be called paranoid. (Thompson didn’t use the term; that’s my interpretation.) Chavez also brought a destructive cult called Synanon into the union, with predictably disastrous results. One of Chavez’ colleagues explained to all who would listen: “Cesar’s gone nuts.'” The union’s power quickly deteriorated, and eventually the UFW retreated from the fields and became essentially a lobbying organization. Today it relies on direct mail rather than farmworkers’ dues.

A balanced portrait of a man

America’s Social Arsonist paints a picture of a supremely talented and driven man with a litany of personal faults. He was intolerant of those he trained who lacked his passionate commitment to organizing, and many disliked him as a result. (As Thompson notes, “As an on organizer, Ross was endlessly patient. As a trainer of organizers, however, he could be merciless . . .”) Twice married and the father of three children, Ross was rarely at home. Though he was indifferent to the discomfort of poverty, that was not always the case with the members of his family. Only his younger son, Fred Ross Jr., came to know him, and only because he began working with his father in organizing at the age of sixteen. (Fred Jr. has himself become a world-class organizer. As Executive Director of Neighbor to Neighbor in the 1980s, he led a campaign around the country that helped persuade Congress to cut off U.S. aid to right-wing forces in Central America.)

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed, of which this book is one.

About the author

Gabriel Thompson is an Oakland journalist who writes about labor and immigration. America’s Social Arsonist is his fourth book.

April 8, 2016

Jonas Salk: the doctor who cured polio and saved millions

jonas salkJonas Salk: A Life by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

No one born after about 1950 is likely to have any living memory of the abject fear that seized hold of the American psyche under the annual threat of polio. But I remember.

Early in the 1950s, as polio steadily grew more prevalent with every succeeding summer, I grew from childhood into adolescence, prime years for susceptibility to what was more properly (though misleadingly) called infantile paralysis. Most of my friends chafed under the near-hysteria of their parents, but my father was a doctor: there was no hysteria in our household. Instead, I was quickly spirited out of town to rural summer camps where polio was rare.

Then, with hope rising as a result of increasingly more optimistic field tests beginning in 1953, headlines around the world finally blared in the spring of 1955, “Polio is Defeated!” A young doctor, barely more than forty years old, had developed a safe and effective vaccine with financial support exclusively from what was popularly known as the March of Dimes. (That organization was very different from its successor today, which focuses on premature birth and birth defects.) Salk become an instant global star. In many communities, the celebrations that ensued rivaled those that capped the victories in World War II. The doctor’s now well-known name was Jonas Salk. Now, Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, both a physician and a biographer, has written what may be the definitive story of the man’s life. It’s an outstanding piece of work, and an eye-opener.

The polio wars: Jonas Salk vs. Albert Sabin

Salk’s vaccine, technically a “killed virus vaccine” administered by injection, came into existence only because Salk used an unconventional approach and doggedly persevered in his research despite the loud protestations of other virologists. Most prominent among the chorus of naysayers was Albert Sabin, a rival researcher whose oral “live virus vaccine” against polio came into wide use only in the 1960s. Even after an enormous field test proved Salk’s vaccine to be both safe and effective, Sabin and others continued to insist loudly that a killed virus vaccine was dangerous and should not be administered. This led the FDA to call a temporary halt to the administration of the vaccine. Later, it also came to be reflected in the adoption by the U.S. government of the oral vaccine as the sole option offered in the United States. For a number of years, the Salk variant was no longer even manufactured in the U.S.

Nonetheless, from 1955 until 1961, Salk’s vaccine reduced the incidence of polio in the United States by ninety-seven percent. In Sweden and Finland, where it was fully adopted, the vaccine totally eliminated polio. Despite this near-flawless record Sabin and others continued to object to the use of Salk’s formulation. When Sabin’s rival vaccine was put into wide use, dozens of Americans eventually contracted paralytic polio as a result, exactly as Salk had predicted. Only years later, once Salk had perfected a more advanced formulation of the killed virus vaccine, was it offered as an option in the United States.

Sabin never acknowledged in any way the damage his vaccine had done, and for the rest of his life continued to undermine Salk in scientific circles, as did a number of other prominent researchers. Though idolized in the press and among the public, Salk was virtually a pariah in the scientific community, at least in part because the press had made him a celebrity. (Clearly, his unpopularity within the scientific establishment was also a result of his insistence on working in his own way, without regard for others’ views.) He was essentially blackballed in the Nobel committee and was never admitted to membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

Influenza, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS

Polio was only one of several diseases Jonas Salk investigated. Barely out of medical school, he and his mentor produced the first influenza vaccine in 1938. His search for a cure for MS showed great promise in the eyes of neurologists, who found his contributions significant, but was denigrated by many of the same virologists who seemed to disapprove of everything he did. Unfortunately, that research ended prematurely when his patron at the National MS Society suddenly died. Salk had many talents, but fundraising wasn’t one of them.

Then, in the 1980s, Salk played a major role in research on AIDS. Early on, he took upon himself to negotiate a compromise between the French and American doctors who both claimed to have first identified HIV. It took two years but finally he succeeded, making possible collaborations that might well otherwise have been out of the question. Then he turned his attention to the development of a vaccine against HIV. Once again, his work was bitterly criticized — because he insisted on taking an unconventional approach. The prevailing wisdom was that a vaccine could only be developed on the basis of one portion of the HIV molecule; Salk insisted on using the whole molecule, which subjected him to ridicule for having ignored recent advances in medical research. However, he was proven right again. Initial trials of his vaccine showed promise and those developed by his critics utterly failed, but the criticism didn’t stop. It never stopped. (No successful AIDS vaccine has ever been developed, despite many promising starts. Research has focused largely on treatment to slow or prevent the progression of the disease.) Sabin continued to bad-mouth Salk at every opportunity — at scientific conferences, in science journals, and in Congressional testimony — until the end of his life. Salk’s forbearance, and his refusal to answer Sabin in kind, was legendary.

Founding the Salk Institute

He didn’t want to name it after himself. The scientific research center he founded in La Jolla, California, in 1960, came to be named the Salk Institute only because the principal  fundraiser insisted that he could only raise the necessary money if Salk’s name were attached. In fact, throughout his life, Salk was generally soft-spoken, self-effacing, and unpretentious. He was horrified that the polio vaccine he developed came to be known popularly as the “Salk vaccine.” Whenever possible, he shunned publicity; unfortunately, that was rarely possible.

Salk was, in a word, a nice guy. Expecting him to be cold and uncaring, his teachers in medical school and, later, in his residency discovered that he was solicitous and sensitive in his dealings with patients. And he almost never replied in kind to any of the criticism directed toward him in the scientific community. However, his personal life was marred in several ways: his single-minded devotion to his work caused him to neglect his wife and three sons, and, later in life, before and during his second marriage, he appears to have had numerous affairs.

If you enjoy reading biography, please take a look at 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed.

About the author

Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, M.D., is an Emerita Professor of Medicine at Stanford. There, she engaged in cancer research and served as Director of the Clinical Cancer Center.  Jonas Salk is her second medical biography, following Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease. An award-winner both for her work in medicine as well as her writing, Jacobs has also been honored for her acting and singing.

March 29, 2016

The remarkable life of David Brower

David BrowerDavid Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement by Tom Turner

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

At the corner of Allston Way and Oxford Street in downtown Berkeley, directly across from the campus of the University of California, sits the David Brower Center. Opened in 2009, the Brower Center bills itself as “A center for the environmental movement.” The four-story, Platinum LEED-certified building houses an art gallery, a small auditorium, and some thirty nonprofit organizations, most of them engaged in addressing environmental issues. But who was this man, David Brower? It seems unlikely that more than a fraction of Berkeley residents today could identify him.

Who was David Brower?

If there is a Berkeley native other than David Brower who has achieved more and had a greater impact on the world, I can’t imagine who that might be, and I’ve lived here for nearly fifty years. Brower died at the age of eighty-eight on the cusp of the twenty-first century. During the decades when he was a prominent figure in the news, he was frequently cited as the voice of the environmental movement, at once its most impassioned and articulate spokesperson and the architect of several influential environmental organizations, chiefly the Sierra Club.

Anyone who knew Dave Brower, as I did (slightly), will quickly concede that the man had his faults. Even his long-suffering wife, Anne Hus Brower, was outspoken in acknowledging them. Tom Turner’s new biography, David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement, freely describes those faults, even though the author was a long-time associate and friend of his subject. There are some who might claim that the faults outweigh his accomplishments — I’ve met a few such people — but most environmental activists who know of Brower’s career would argue strenuously that that is not the case. David Brower was a genius. He was a seminal figure in the history of humankind’s effort to right our balance with nature. Turner’s biography artfully gives the man his due without sugar-coating the story.

A life filled with controversy

In the course of his eighty-eight years, David Brower was a pioneering mountaineer with more than seventy first ascents, a decorated officer in the Tenth Mountain Division of the U.S. Army in World War II, the first executive director of the Sierra Club, the editor and publisher of numerous large-format books extolling nature, founder of Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and Earth Island Institute, and the principal subject of an influential book, Encounters With the Archdruid, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction author John McPhee. He is perhaps best known for spearheading the successful, high-profile campaign to save the Grand Canyon — and for having been publicly fired by the Sierra Club board of directors. Turner describes every one of these events in Brower’s life with sensitivity, acknowledging the complaints of Brower’s critics along the way when they were germane.

Brower was famously impatient with process. Turner quotes him as saying, “‘Process is that which gets between where you are and where to want to be.'” He was a rule-breaker and resisted authority. At a time when books played a much larger role in forming public opinion than they do today, he devoted much of his time and budget to publishing what he termed “exhibit-format” (large) books that matched world-class photography with elegant prose. Brower’s plans for most of those books met strong resistance from within the Club.

As Turner notes, “The Sierra Club had clearly become the publishing arm of the conservation movement; that role would continue and expand as long as Brower was running the show.” Turner credits the books with attracting tens of thousands of new members to the Club. Many thousands of others signed up in response to the full-page ads Brower had placed in the nation’s leading newspapers to publicize the environmental campaigns of the day. He was a pioneer in this practice, working with a San Francisco advertising firm and chiefly with the company’s gifted writer, Jerry Mander. One headline famously asked during the campaign to save the Grand Canyon from two dams proposed to be built there: “SHOULD WE ALSO FLOOD THE SISTINE CHAPEL SO TOURISTS CAN GET NEARER THE CEILING?” The words are probably Mander’s, but the sentiment is entirely consistent with Brower’s devilish sense of humor. In the final analysis, Turner suggests, “Brower’s main role in the Sierra Club and afterward was as nature’s publicist.”

About the author

After holding a job on his staff at the Sierra Club, Tom Turner worked with David Brower at Friends of the Earth for seventeen years (1969-86), editing its widely read newsletter, Not Man Apart. Since that time he has served as a staff writer and editor for Oakland-based Earthjustice, for which he writes a popular blog. Turner lives in Berkeley.

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed, of which this book is one.

For more good books on the history of the US, see Understanding American history: a reading list. And if you enjoy reading history, check out New perspectives on world history.

March 15, 2016

A superb biography of George Armstrong Custer

custerCuster’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T. J. Stiles

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When we learned American history in school, a few easily identifiable names stuck in our memory. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, of course. Thomas Jefferson, FDR, and John F. Kennedy, probably (though Kennedy was after I’d left for college). But high on the list is one man who was never president, and in fact never rose above the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army: George Armstrong Custer. What became almost universally known as Custer’s Last Stand has taken the place among the iconic events in our country’s history. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned to expect, the history we were spoon-fed in our public schools about both the event and the man was oversimplified, at best. As the brilliant biographer T. J. Stiles demonstrates in Custer’s Trials, the life led by Custer before the massacre at Little Big Horn in 1876 was, if anything, far more significant than his death.

Custer at war

Custer was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army cavalry not long out of West Point when the Civil War broke out in 1861. After an uncomfortable stint in the Balloon Corps, conducting reconnaissance missions over enemy lines, Custer managed to ingratiate himself with General George McClellan, Commander of the Army of the Potomac. He was quickly given a position on the general ‘s staff and promoted to captain.

Soon afterward, Custer went into battle as a cavalry officer. It was not long before he proved himself to be an outstanding leader in battle, charging forward toward the enemy, often far ahead of his men, and wielding his saber with lethal effect. He distinguished himself so brilliantly in combat that he was promoted to the temporary rank of brigadier general and given command of a brigade consisting of some 2,000 soldiers. He was twenty-three years old. The press came to call him the “Boy General of the Golden Locks.”

As leadership of the army shifted from the hopelessly cautious McClellan to one general, then another, Custer continued to shine on the battlefield. “There he was at ease.” Eventually, when Ulysses S. Grant took command of the Army, Custer became a favorite of Grant’s own favored subordinate, Philip Sheridan. Working under Sheridan’s tutelage, Custer played a major role in turning back the Confederate advance in the Shenandoah Valley, closing off the Confederate Army’s path to the north and thus hastening the end of the war.

Throughout this time, Custer continued to endanger himself to an extreme degree leading from the front. Bullets (spent from having been fired from a great distance) literally bounced off him, and the horses he rode died while he survived battle. One one occasion, he “had three horses shot from underneath him in a single day,” on another “losing two horses killed beneath him within fifteen minutes of each other.” An attack led by Custer killed General J.E.B. Stuart, one of the stars of the Confederate Army and a cherished friend of Robert E. Lee. It was for exploits like these that Custer was promoted to the rank of major general (though the rank was a temporary, “brevet” promotion.) He became one of the most recognized heroes of the Civil War, celebrated in newspapers and magazines across the North. The fame he gained made it possible for him to become a professional magazine writer in later years, to supplement his meager salary from the Army.

A man of his time

Stiles writes, “Custer became an icon because he embodied the times in a heightened, dramatic way.” A graduate of West Point, he experienced the country’s first professional education. As an officer in the Army, which “pioneered the organizational society in America,” he became proficient in bureaucratic infighting. Custer was an eminently political general (though he blundered dramatically on more than one occasion). In the years following the war, he gravitated toward New York in a futile search for a fortune, where he cozied up to the gamblers and charlatans who dominated Wall Street. Assigned to a series of frontier forts, Custer became emblematic of the genocidal wars against Native Americans. And he “epitomized the transitional nature of this moment, as America transformed into an organizational society.”

The trials

Stiles bookends his biography with accounts of the two courts-martial Custer faced in his short career (the “Trials” of the title). At West Point, he was prosecuted for cheating and dismissed from the army in 1861, shortly before the outbreak of war. “Then he was reinstated. Out of dozens who were dismissed, he was the only one to be saved. He had no idea why.” (He graduated last in his class.) Stiles attributes this to Custer’s extraordinary good luck, which saved his career — and his life — on many later occasions.

In 1867, following his heroic performance in the Civil War, he faced prosecution again for a long list of charges, including absence without leave (AWOL), marching his troops to exhaustion and his horses to their deaths, and commandeering “two ambulances and four mules for his own use.” Following his conviction that year, the appeals process commenced, eventually ending up on the desk of General Grant, who was still in command of the Army. Custer had served Grant with great distinction in the war, but the president nonetheless announced that what others thought was a harsh sentence he thought was too light. Presumably because Grant was distracted by the turbulent politics that led to his nomination for president, Custer’s sentence was never carried out.

The man, not the legend

Like his father, Custer was a conservative Democrat who “embraced Southern extremism” despite his upbringing in Michigan. He was an outspoken racist. During the height of the war, when a lull in the fighting allowed, he frequently fraternized with Confederate officers whom he had known at West Point. After the Civil War, when he was assigned to police the South for violations of Reconstruction, he routinely turned a blind eye toward the continued exploitation and brutalization of former slaves. He actively played politics, opposing the Radical Republican forces in Congress that backed Reconstruction and campaigning for his hero, George McClellan, in the 1868 presidential election against Ulysses Grant.

The hero-general who captivated the public imagination during the Civil War became a tyrant when shifted to command troops on the frontier. He may have been responsible for an atrocity. In the war, the soldiers serving under him had idolized Custer; on the frontier, his poor treatment of subordinates led to “plots against Custer’s life. . .  Families took up the crusade against him.” In fact, as Stiles seems to suggest, Custer’s catastrophic defeat at the Little Big Horn may have come about because the subordinate officers commanding several companies of his troops deliberately failed to come to his rescue. However, as Stiles points out, the most obvious reason for the massacre that ended Custer’s life was that “the army lost largely because the Indians won.”

Custer was also addicted to gambling at cards and horse races. Stiles writes, “As an army officer, he always felt short of money. He breathed it in and out without ever accumulating any.” The gambling made this worse, of course. Custer’s long-suffering wife was the primary victim.

Stiles also emphasizes Custer’s duplicity with women. For an extended time, he romanced one young woman while more seriously pursuing the woman he eventually married. During their marriage, especially once he had been assigned to the frontier, he slept with other women. Stiles extensively quotes letters and diary entries by his wife, Libbie Bacon Custer, illustrating the strain in their marriage.

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed, of which this book is one.

About the author

T. J. Stiles‘ masterful biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon, won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. Custer’s Trials is the third of the biographies he has written about some of the leading figures of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. His first was Jesse James: The Last Rebel of the Civil War. Stiles lives in Berkeley, California. Fittingly, Custer’s Trials has been nominated for a 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.

This book is included in my list of The 10 best books of 2016.

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