August 3, 2012
A man of about my grandfather’s vintage was telling me that he once owned a house in Brooklyn and the candy store on the first floor. When I asked what had become of the property, he brought his hands together in a loud clap and said, “Mr. Hoover.” The implication was that he had lost the house and store as a result of the Great Depression and that the Great Depression was Mr. Hoover’s fault.
The history of the economic calamity of the 1930s is complex, and while Herbert Hoover’s approach to it is open to criticism, it is simplistic to argue that he was responsible for the losses suffered by millions of people. Unfortunately for Hoover, most Americans who can identify him at all are likely to describe him as the president who failed to solve the Depression. And that means that most Americans have forgotten — or more likely have never known — that Hoover was a great public servant and, in several instances, an American hero. As Casey Stengel said, you could look it up: Hoover organized the evacuation of Americans from Europe at the outbreak of World War I; he organized the delivery of millions of tons of food to Belgium after it had been invaded by Germany; he ran the commission that made sure American food supplies were conserved so that there would be enough to supply U.S troops in Europe during the war; he ran the administration that fed millions of people in Central Europe after the war; he oversaw the government response to the Great Mississippi Flood in six states in 1927; he organized a program that fed school children in impoverished occupied Germany after World War II; and under presidents Truman and Eisenhower he headed two commissions that successfully recommended reorganization and efficiencies in the federal government.
Hoover had his failings and even his dark side, but the country’s ignorance of his accomplishments — to say nothing of his long career as an engineer and businessman — is out of whack.
Hoover is not alone in this. John Quincy Adams’ legacy has suffered a similar fate, as Harlow Giles Unger explains in a biography of the sixth president that will be published in September. Adams’ presidency was a dud, but he otherwise led one of the most outstanding public lives in the history of the country. He was the son of brilliant parents — Abigail and John Adams — and they expected big things of him. Unger reports, in fact, that John Adams, the second president, expected his son to eventually follow him into that office, after getting a classical education and learning and practicing law. John Q. grew up in the midst of the American Revolution; in fact, he and his mother were eye witnesses to the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Defining events in his life, though, were successive trips to Europe with his father, who was engaged in diplomacy. Those trips led to a career in diplomacy for the younger Adams who was not excelled by anyone serving in that capacity before or since. He later served as secretary of state in the administration of James Monroe and again did outstanding work, including his authorship of what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. He was, Unger argues, one of the most important experts on foreign affairs in American history.
John Quincy Adams was elected to the presidency without campaigning for the office, and in a certain sense he wasn’t elected at all. The wildly popular war hero Andrew Jackson won more popular votes in the election of 1824 but not enough electoral votes to carry the day. Henry Clay threw the election into Adams’ lap by instructing the Kentucky delegation to vote for Adams, who had not won an electoral vote in that state. When John Q took office, he named Clay secretary of state, which was a much more powerful office then than it is now. Although it would have been out of character for Adams to have conspired with Clay in order to gain the presidency, that’s how many Americans read it, Unger writes, and it got Adams’ administration off to a poor start.
Adams had an ideal that would sound odd to Americans today: he believed that principle was more important than party. Tell that to John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi. Adams carried this idea to extremes, going to the mat first with his own Federalist party and then with the opposition Republicans on one issue or another. As a result, he really had no party, while Andrew Jackson was building the new Democratic party into a meaningful force. He also gave no thought to even conventional patronage when he appointed his cabinet, and so he was, as Jimmy Durante used to say, “surrounded by assassins.”
The short version is that Adams’ presidency didn’t amount to much, and he left office in a significant funk after losing the election to Jackson. But he was invited to run for Congress from a district in his native Massachusetts, and so he became one of three presidents to hold public office after leaving the White House. (The others were Andrew Johnson, who was elected to the U.S. Senate and William Howard Taft, who was appointed chief justice of the United States.)
Adams spent 17 years in the House of Representatives and it was, as Unger recounts in dramatic fashion, a wild scene. Adams hated slavery, which he had first seen up close when he traveled to Poland as a teenager. The House leadership didn’t want the subject broached in the chamber and passed rules to prevent the word “slavery” from being uttered or petitions against slavery from being presented. Adams fought furiously against this procedure, violating the rules repeatedly, and demanding over and over to know, “Am I gagged? Am I gagged?” He eventually became a highly respected figure in the House, even by those who disagreed with him, and reputedly was one of a handful of the best who ever served there.
During this period, Adams also got involved in the legal case of a group of more than fifty African men and women who were being transported as slaves from one port in Cuba to another when they seized control of the ship, the Amistad. The ship was taken into custody in American waters, and the Africans on board sued to keep from being returned to bondage.
Adams gave a seven-hour argument before the U.S. Supreme Court which, although most of the justices were hard-nosed southern slave holders, ruled unanimously that the Africans should be set free.
In recounting Adams’ career, Unger provides a close look into the life of the distinguished and patriotic Massachusetts family: the relationship between John Q. Adams and his redoubtable parents, and between John Q. and his wife, Louisa, who at times lost patience with the demands her husband’s public service made on family life.
Unger’s book brings this good and great man back to life at least on the printed page. It was a life that deserves much more attention than it gets.
January 7, 2011
“I hate it,” Charlie Brown once said, “when there are two sides to a story.” Actually, Charlie, there are at least two sides to every story, and none more certainly than the story of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, probably the most complicated First Couple in American history. The sorting out of their relationship still goes on 65 years after FDR’s death, most recently in Hazel Rowley’s book “Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage.”
This is not the story of how the insatiable FDR cheated on his wife, leaving the pair in a marriage maintained only for the sake of appearances and finances. It’s a lot more complicated and — in Rowley’s view — a lot more important than that. It is well established by now that in 1918 Eleanor discovered love letters written by her secretary, Lucy Mercer, to FDR, and that the incident had a permanent impact on the marriage. It is also known that FDR promised never to see Lucy Mercer again and that he broke that promise — in fact, that Lucy was among those who were with him in Warm Springs, Ga., in 1945, when he suffered the cerebral stroke that resulted in his death. It is also known that Franklin Roosevelt was an incurable flirt, and that he highly valued his relationships with women who were both charming in their own right and — this was essential — who were charmed by him. Rowley explains that this tendency often irritated Eleanor, but that she came to understand and accept the importance of certain women in her husband’s life.
But the author explains that there was much more to the story than that. Physical intimacy disappeared from the Roosevelts’ marriage, but Rowley writes that Eleanor, who had six children in relatively rapid succession, thought of her sexual relations as a necessary but unwelcome burden. But Eleanor, like most human beings, had needs of her own with respect to affection and intimacy. She fulfilled these needs in more than one way, with both women and men, though how intimate these relationships were is largely a matter of conjecture. Rowley recounts that Franklin encouraged his wife’s friendship with a lesbian couple to the point of helping the three of them build a house and a workshop on property he owned near his mother’s home in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Eleanor also had an intense tie to Lorena Hickok, a pioneering Associated Press reporter who became so close to the Roosevelts that she herself decided she could no longer report on them objectively. By the time FDR was elected president for the first time, in 1932, Rowley writes, “Everyone in the political press corps knew that Lorena Hickok was a lesbian. By now most of the reporters had figured out that she was passionately in love with Eleanor and that her feelings appeared to be reciprocated.”
Whatever relationships Franklin and Eleanor forged outside their marriage, Rowley maintains, the two of them continued to love and support each other, and they formed a partnership whose vigor helped carry the nation through the Great Depression and the Second World War. At times they seemed to constitute a single person, as Eleanor traveled to places at home and abroad that were beyond her paralyzed husband’s capacity. Although Eleanor’s activism occasionally embarrassed the politically sensitive Franklin, they shared many of the same ideals of social justice.
In the process of describing the marriage of these two gigantic historical figures, Rowley draws portraits of many of the interesting characters in the Roosevelt clan and entourage — a crowd that FDR liked to think of as a big, happy family. Not the least of the players was Louis Howe, a disheveled ex-journalist who was one of FDR’s closest advisers for most of his political career, the tireless battery behind the campaigns that made Roosevelt governor of New York and president of the United States. Some of the people around Roosevelt — including his patrician mother, Sara — disapproved of this little man with cigarette ashes on his rumpled clothing, but Eleanor wasn’t one of them, and Rowley describes how it was Howe who repeatedly encouraged Eleanor to make herself heard on the issues that were important to her — a visionary attitude in that male-dominated era.
November 6, 2010
The popular song “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” was written in 1931, and its lyricists, Ted Koehler and Billy Moll, provided a hopeful message that sounded all the more melancholy because of the reality of the times – economic depression. My favorite recording of that song was made by Kate Smith. I like the way she sings two lines — both of them in this verse:
Your castles may tumble / that’s fate, after all / Life’s really funny that way / No use to grumble / Smile as they fall / Weren’t you king for a day?
Kate Smith had a wonderful, musical laugh, which I loved to hear on her radio and television shows. And she laughs that laugh on the word “funny” in that verse without breaking the tempo of the line. I can’t hear her sing that line too often, and I’ve had the recording for about 40 years. Then, at the end of the verse, she does a little glide on the word “day,” starting on the note and then smoothly sliding down the scale. Again, I’m obsessed with that line. I play the song just to hear her treatment of that one word – “day.”
In a similar vein, for many years, whenever I learned that a TV station was going to broadcast the movie “High Society,” I would watch it so that I could hear Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra perform the duet “Well, Did You Evah,” sometimes referred to as “What a Swell Party This Is.” I even figured out about how far into the movie that song occurs, because I didn’t want to watch the whole film, which is a flawed remake of “The Philadelphia Story.”
The movie has a book by John Patrick and songs by Cole Porter. In “Well, Did You Evah” Crosby and Sinatra simultaneously sing Porter’s lyrics and exchange spoken barbs. At one point, Crosby sings, “Have you heard / about dear Blanche? / Got run down by an avalanche.” Sinatra says, “Nooooo,” and Crosby answers “Don’t you worry. She’s a game girl, you know. Got up and finished fourth.” Sinatra: “This kid’s got guts.” Crosby: “Havin’ a nice time? Grab a line.” At which point, Sinatra resumes singing. Crosby was Mister Smooth, and the way he delivers the line, “Don’t you worry. She’s a game girl, you know . . . ” has captivated me since the first time I heard it about 50 years ago. Fortunately, I now have bookmarked that song from YouTube and I can listen to Crosby say that line as often as I like, which is often, because I’m obsessed.
I don’t experience this kind of fixation only with music. It also occurs with the spoken word — for example, with Al Pacino’s speech in the climax of the movie “Scent of a Woman.” I read a review of that movie in which the critic remarked that Pacino’s dramatic choices were confined to whether to speak loud or louder. It’s fair to say that Pacino often gobbles the scenery, but the most effective line in that speech is one for which he lowers his voice and uses the words like sharp instruments. It is the last sentence of this passage: “As I came in here, I heard those words, ‘cradle of leadership.’ Well, when the bow breaks, the cradle will fall. And it has fallen here; it has fallen. Makers of men; creators of leaders; be careful what kind of leaders you’re producin’ here.” When Pacino says those last words – “Be careful what kind of leaders you’re producin’ here” – he makes them prophetic, ominous. I bookmarked the video of that scene, too – it’s at THIS LINK — and I never tire of hearing him say it. I’m obsessed.
I recently learned that this behavior doesn’t constitute a private disorder of mine – and that there is a name for it: deconstruction. The dawn broke when I was at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick talking to Seth Rudetsky, who is so versatile that he defies definition. It’s something like comedian-actor-radio host-raconteur-musician-composer. I was talking to him because he is going to appear in the George Street production of the musical play “[title of show].”
Rudetsky hosts a web site which includes a series of videos he calls “Deconstruction.” In these, he plays clips from Broadway musicals — a subject he knows inside-out — and analyzes, in his supercharged manner, the techniques with which a singer such as Florence Henderson, Laurie Beechman, or Kristin Chenoweth handles a song – or a line, or a word, or a syllable. “I’m obsessed!” he often says when he has played a phrase over and over again, mouthing the words along with the singer.
I’m glad to finally know that I’m in good company. Rudetsky’s site is at THIS LINK.