By his death in 2012, at age 86, the novelist and essayist Gore Vidal was celebrated for his “exceptional imagination, wit, and intelligence,” as his long-time friend Michael Mewshaw says in this gossipy, highly readable, no-holds-barred memoir. A splendid essayist, best-selling author of historical novels, and frequent talk-show guest, he lived the carefree life of a millionaire, with homes in California and Italy. Mewshaw, a British writer, wrote many magazine pieces on Vidal and draws on juicy parts never published to bring us this rounded view of a complex figure. Above all, he wants us to know Vidal was not an uncaring misanthrope (as portrayed in the press) but “funny, generous, and hospitable.”
Alas, he was also a falling-down drunk, writes Mewshaw, who on more than one occasion helped lift his friend up out of the street in Rome. There, and in Ravello, Vidal spent his mature years with Howard Austen, his long-time partner, who managed his lavish homes and finances. Forever garbed in a blue blazer and gray slacks and playing “the yoga of world weariness,” he maintained a dodgy tax status in Italy (his “luxury hotel”) and kept secret bank accounts, which presumably helped make up the $37 million he left Harvard University. He often complained that he was tired of living; Howard would reply: “Go ahead and drop dead.”
Always outrageous in his speech, Vidal excelled at quotable insults and put downs. “What are the three saddest words in the English language?” he asked, waited a beat, and answered, “Joyce Carol Oates.” What did he like best about Rome–the light? the people? “What I like is you could go up to Pincio at night and buy any boy you wanted for five hundred lire,” he said. His many acquaintances amused or interested him, but he seldom showed them warmth and affection. His professed early love for an adolescent boy named Jimmie Trimble was probably made up–”a rationalization for his lifelong failure to express love,” writes Mewshaw.
-Joseph Barbato, editor of Red Weather Review, is an author and journalist who has written on literary topics for many publications. He is a former columnist at Publishers Weekly and a regular contributor at Kirkus Reviews.
The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame by Peter Dreier. Nation Books (500 pp.)
This splendid book so violates the American notion of what constitutes greatness that it will probably be reviewed in few publications. So what? Dreier, a politics professor at Occidental College, has produced a labor of love that will dazzle lefty readers and offer others insights into the lives of men and women who have dedicated themselves to fostering social change in the United States. They range from the widely celebrated Jackie Robinson and Ted Kennedy to less seemly, in-your face figures like Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the Yale chaplain and antiwar activist, and Rose Schneiderman, the young Jewish immigrant, sweatshop worker, and union organizer. Shortly after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that killed 146 women workers, Schneiderman told a Metropolitan Opera House gathering of wealthy New York reformers: “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting.”
In one way or another, all who appear in these pages spoke truth to power: Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, Big Bill Haywood, A.J. Muste, Myles Horton, Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Arthur Miller, Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk, Bob Moses. “Most Americans know little about the fascinating activists, thinkers, and politicians and the exciting movements and struggles that are responsible for most of the best aspects of American society,” writes Dreier [emphasis added]. None of these 100 invented the assembly line or the iPhone; rather, each succeeded in making the nation more humane and inclusive. Many were outsiders: “Bayard Rustin was black, gay, a pacifist, and a radical, and thus had four strikes against him in terms of influencing mainstream America,” Dreier begins his portrait of the man behind the 1963 March on Washington.
He notes, “Vito Marcantonio lived his entire life within a densely populated four-block area of New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood.” This carpenter’s son nonetheless served seven terms (1934-50) in Congress, representing Italian American and Puerto Rican constituents, and earning a national reputation as an orator and defender of the disadvantaged. In his final term, he voted against both the Korean War and the House Un-American Activities Committee. He stands here amid a pantheon of progressives from Henry Wallace to Bill Moyers, reminding us of the courage and accomplishments of radicals and idealists who chose to fight for women’s suffrage, an end to lynching, a progressive income tax, a federal minimum wage, and many other causes that have shaped a more just society.
Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World by Evan Thomas. Little, Brown (496 pp.)
In 1957, when Ike was in the White House and I had just become a pimply-faced thirteen-year-old, I saw little to admire in President Dwight Eisenhower. I found him boring. Many people did. My good pal Howie Fraser had given me a copy of Jack Kerouac’s just-published novel On the Road, and golf, bridge games, and hero worship held little appeal. Now comes Evan Thomas, a fine writer who teaches at Princeton, to tell us that Ike—whom Richard Rovere, himself no slouch as a writer, pronounced “a bland ‘standard American’ incapable of nuance or subtlety”—was actually quite a guy. For all his qualities as an uninteresting man, the President was saving all of us from nuclear destruction by deftly dealing with America’s foes and keeping the lid on.
Ike wasn’t a “simple country boy,” as he described himself. In fact, he was a “well-read humanist” who became entranced by Greek and Roman history as a boy, says Thomas. The “perceptive” Murray Kempton got it right when he wrote an article on “The Underestimation of Dwight D. Eisenhower.” In fact, most of the media were so enthralled by the young challenger John F. Kennedy that they did “one of the most effective and lasting” hatchet jobs in political history on Ike.” As presidential archives opened over time, scholars would discover Ike’s hidden hand,” writes Thomas. “Still, the impression of Ike as a genial dope has been remarkably enduring.”
By hidden hand, Thomas refers to the crux of his book: that Ike, a master of deception, kept up a genial exterior while weighing his options and determining a course of action. An expert at bluffing, he used his skills to keep the peace in a dangerous age. Thomas offers plenty of examples to buttress this revisionist view of Eisenhower as the quietly effective man in charge of the world situation. Unfortunately, he also finds it necessary to defend Ike on other counts, such as his failure to take the lead on civil rights. “But he did not believe in segregation, and he actively opposed it,” writes the author. In the end, one feels put off by the major effort at rehabilitation under way in these pages. Thomas, a convincing writer, comes close to pulling it off. Without doubt, Ike held his cards close; maybe he saved the world more than we know. He’s still a bore.
For 1,400 years they towered over a remote valley in Afghanistan, fascinating people of many faiths. The two colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan stood 180 and 121 feet high respectively, carved into a cliff of reddish conglomerate stone in the Hindu Kush mountains of Bamiyan Province, about 150 miles from the capital of Kabul. The brightly decorated statues attracted “throngs of people: pilgrims and merchants in an unimaginable array of costumes alongside the yellow-robed monks, the smell of incense, the noise of prayer and chanting, the drums and cymbals of worshippers bringing their own colorful, precious or pungent offerings to the sacred places, and the conches and gongs which marked the passage of the monastic day,” writes Oxford lecturer Morgan in this fine history. Nearby were two seated Buddhas and a 62-foot reclining Buddha, as well as a Great Stupa, a sepulchral mound, which for Buddhists represented transcendence of this illusory world.
Much degraded and neglected over time, the two Buddhas remained impressive monuments until early 2001, when, the world learned, they were demolished on the orders of Mullah Muhammad Omar, leader of the Taliban. There were no Western witnesses. A demolition team spent weeks on their task, using dynamite, artillery, and anti-aircraft weapons. Still the statues stood. Finally, expert Pakistani and Arab engineers, who knew where to drill holes and insert explosives, were brought in to finish the job. “These statues have been and remain shrines of unbelievers…,” said Mullah Omar. “God Almighty is the only real shrine and all fake idols must be destroyed.” A team of senior Islamic scholars had told Mullah Omar that his action was contrary to Islamic law, but to no avail.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Afghanistan “came to exert a powerful mystique for Westerners, and that was as true for East India Company officers in the early 1800s as it became for hippies 150 years later,” writes the author. By the 1960s and 70s, that mystique drew increasing numbers of tourists to the peaceful valley. Today, efforts are being made to bring tourists back, says Morgan. For many, the empty niches have seemed monuments in their own right, but there is also considerable support for reconstructing the giant Buddhas. The artist and Hiroshima survivor Ikou Hirayama has urged that any funds raised for reconstruction be spent on humanitarian relief of refugees. “I suggest that the Bamiyan caves be preserved as a symbolic reminder of the barbaric destruction of culture by human beings,” he said.
-Joseph Barbato edits Red Weather Review. An author and journalist, he has written on literary topics for many publications. He is a former columnist and contributing editor at Publishers Weekly.
What a wonderfully crafted book! Based on the author’s 2005 Rolling Stone article about the massive hunt for the killer of a California deputy sheriff, Desert Reckoning is an evocative, richly textured narrative that places the reader squarely amid the ranchers, outlaw bikers, and dropouts who eke out an existence in the unforgiving heat and isolation of the Mojave Desert, outside Los Angeles. The wild animals, honest folks, and human riff-raff of this hellacious place–all with their own stories–are central to Stillman’s account of the bright, drugged-out, dissipated hermit-killer Donald Kueck and the lawmen who give chase.
This “shadow side of Los Angeles”—the 2,200-square-mile Antelope Valley, in the high Mojave Desert—is “a terrain of savage dignity, a vast amphitheater of startling wonders that puts on a show as the megalopolis burrows through the San Gabriel Mountains in its northward march,” writes the author. Here live both Donald Kueck, trailer-dwelling friend of birds and animals, lover of rockets, hater of civilization, explorer of the desert’s nooks and crannies, and the much-liked cop Stephen Sorensen, gunned down as he approached Kueck’s ramshackle nest. Weaving in stories of earlier desert crimes; of hawks, bobcats, and coyotes hunting for food in the night; of desperate and lonely people, including Kueck’s doomed son, Jello, dead of an overdose in a downtown LA warehouse, Stillman conjures the madness of the killer’s life and details the weeklong manhunt, which involved lawmen from many jurisdictions and ended with Kueck’s death amid fire and bullets.
Unlike most true-crime books, Desert Reckoning is written in lovely lyrical prose. It renders beautifully the lives of the lost and marginalized souls who take refuge in the desert. Stillman’s serial abuse of the semicolon annoys. But her superb orchestration of her material, and her ability to keep us deeply engaged in this wild tale set in a terrible landscape, more than make up for that. Her earlier books are Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West and Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave. This time out, she has written something quite special–the kind of book you know you will read again. They give awards for that, don’t they?
Joseph Barbato edits Red Weather Review. His reviews and articles on books have appeared in The Washington Post, Smithsonian, The Chicago Tribune, and other publications. He is a former contributing editor at Publishers Weekly.
Australian psychologist Dufty has written a surprisingly engaging account of a team of roboticists, programmers, and artists who succeeded in creating a fully functioning head for the android replica of science fiction novelist Philip K. Dick (1928-1982). Long an impoverished paperback writer, Dick produced more than 40 novels, including The Man in the High Castle and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, and has in recent years soared in popularity as his work became the basis for major films (Blade Runner, Total Recall) and graced the Library of America series. What better subject for a life-sized, lifelike, humanoid robot than this celebrated creator of alternative universes, who was obsessed with the question of “What is human?” and led a bizarre life of drug abuse, paranoia, and transcendental experiences?
Led by sculptor David Hanson (a big Dick fan) and computer programmer Andrew Olney, the team worked with plastic, wire, and a synthetic skin-like material (“Frubber”). They gave Dick a camera for eyes, a speaker for a mouth, and artificial intelligence simulation that drew on the author’s life and fiction. Dufty’s brightly written book covers the low-budget process of creation in a lab at the University of Memphis Institute for Intelligent Systems and the delighted reactions of attendees at both NextFest 2005 and a convention of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence who were able to interact with the unnervingly life-like Dick. (“What is your opinion of time travel?” “Sometimes I think time is a giant screw.”) Writing with good humor, the author describes the science behind it all and weaves in plenty of lore about the countercultural Dick and his fictions.
The Dick head was on its way to a presentation at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, CA, when it went missing on a flight between Dallas and Las Vegas. Hanson had mistakenly left the bearded body part in an overhead compartment. It was never recovered. Just about everyone was crestfallen except Dick’s two daughters. They had reluctantly given permission for the android (and for use of Dick’s copyrighted works), and confessed relief at the loss of Dad’s head. Had he been alive, the entire android caper would undoubtedly have amused the SF author as much as it will entertain most readers.
Salon founder David Talbot gives us an insightful account of San Francisco in the years 1967 through 1982, which is to say a time of cultural revolution, riots, murder sprees, and a sexual epidemic which, each in its own way, helped shaped the present liberal values of the metropolis. If you grew up elsewhere and did not get around to visiting San Francisco until years later, when Banana Republic dominated the corner of Haight and Ashbury, this is your book. Many of the people encountered here are familiar—from Janis Joplin and Bill Graham to Herbert Caen and Harvey Milk—but Talbot, with a sharp eye for anecdotes and details, helps us see them in new ways.
Jim Jones (of People’s Temple fame) was a favorite of local politicians. The gifted Janis Joplin slept with anyone. The political provocateurs known as the Diggers were dead serious in their devotion to the act of giving away food and clothes. Concert promoter Bill Graham saved the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. Black music promoter Charles Sullivan created the Fillmore of 1960 (“the Harlem of the West”). Executive editor Scott Newhall turned the Chronicle into a mainstream underground newspaper. R. Crumb got his start in San Francisco (“LSD knocked me on my ass.”). So did drag queens shows and gay liberation, the SLA, anti-Vietnam War protests, and more. Talbot weaves the glories, the sadness, and the madness of the period into a wonderfully informative and entertaining narrative.
Talbot argues that the period produced San Francisco values, such as gay marriage, medical marijuana, immigration sanctuary, renewable energy, and insistence on a living wage. Having lived there since the 1970s, he knows the city’s people and terrain, and probes the lives of mayors and murderers to reveal threads that tie and underlie the public face of a remarkable American place. The free spirit and spontaneity that made San Francisco a mecca for questing Midwestern youth; the seemingly endless gay street party of the 1970s; the Haight’s heart-breaking shift from free love and music to hard drugs, crime, and decay—all are chronicled here in fresh and thoughtful ways.
-Joseph Barbato edits Red Weather Review. He is an author, journalist, and former columnist and contributing editor at Publishers Weekly.
“I don’t think of myself as a hero or civil rights activist for integrating the show,” said the late American Bandstand host Dick Clark, “it was simply the right thing to do.” In this revealing account, Scripps College historian Delmont demonstrates that the historical record contradicts Clark’s memory of integration. While insisting that the popular dance show’s admissions policy was color-blind, the program’s producer’s “repeatedly denied admission to black teenagers” during its Philadelphia years, writes the author. The show’s wide success depended on “both the creative energies of black performers and the erasure of black teenagers.”
Published before Clark’s recent death, the book points up the “vexed relationship” between history and memory. From the late 1970s, Clark claimed that he integrated the show’s studio audience when he became the host in 1957. In fact, black teenagers protested the show’s discriminatory policies, which reflected anti-black racism in Philadelphia and across the country. During the period, families living near American Bandstand’s Philadelphia studio fought to maintain all-white neighborhoods, and local school officials maintained a system of segregation. To be sure, Clark showcased a wide range of the latest music, including the work of black artists from the Coasters, the Drifters, and the Impressions, to James Brown and Aretha Franklin. But African American teens never appeared on the dance floor until the show left Philadelphia for Hollywood in 1964.
Long after American Bandstand’s commercial peak, its alleged role as a player in the civil rights struggle continues to dominate popular thinking. Says a Life Books tribute to Clark published after his death in April 2012: “It has been said that Bandstand presented to many Baby Boomers on a daily basis the first look at what a racially integrated, hopeful, energetic United States of American could be.” Delmont’s book explores the complexities and realities of American Bandstand in the early Clark years and properly credits the smiling white-bread disk jockey with making the then-threatening driving beat of rock’n’roll music and its black performers palatable to mainstream America.
University of Connecticut historian Baldwin offers a lively, anecdote-filled account of how improved lighting affected nighttime street behavior in American cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. First oil, then gas, then electric lighting gradually provided a greater sense of security at night, which by Western tradition was a time of crime, immorality, and sickness. Before illumination, streets in early American cities were “downright perilous on cloudy, moonless nights,” says the author. Often, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Muggers lurked. Rapists assaulted women servants on late errands. Ruffians attacked and beat pedestrians for amusement.
Then, as now, many people enjoyed the experience of the night streets—“the odd mix of characters, the occasional serendipitous encounter, the cool air on one’s face, the hint of danger.” Some enjoyed the concealment of the night; others felt a sense of freedom. “The evening is all our own,” wrote a former mill worker. Baldwin draws on diaries, letters, and other documents to chronicle the ways of city people at night. Under the watchful eyes of night watchmen and later policemen, urban streets proved a source of entertainment for young men who looked forward to “quitting time” after long workdays. Things grew rowdy as the hour grew later. “The people who haunted urban spaces after midnight were said to be those who scoffed at the decency of the sunlit world: the decadent rich, the irresponsible poor, the criminal underworld, and—most troubling of all—the corrupted sons and daughters of the middle class.”
By the 1870s, along Broadway between Houston and Bleecker Streets, New York City had given rise to a busy hub of concert saloons, gambling halls, and a large restaurant that remained open until 2 a.m. Many young men with money began their evenings at the theater, went to an oyster bar, and then wound up at a brothel or gambling hall. The author describes the boisterous scenes in taverns, oyster saloons and other venues as well as the comings and goings of night workers—bakers, scavengers, newspaper employees, railroad workers, and others. By the 1920s, electric streetlamps filled most city blocks with enough light that you could see faces and avoid obstacles. Over the decades, new technologies and societal mores changed much in American life. Yet the urban night long remained “an incompletely civilized realm within the modern city,” writes Baldwin.
A quiet and thoughtful legal examination of the Bush Administration’s behaviors after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Former U.S. representative Holtzman and lawyer-writer Cooper contend Bush and Cheney broke many laws in the name of national security and must be brought to justice for their crimes—not simply as a matter of serious accountability but to avoid setting a dangerous precedent for future presidents. “The argument that conducting investigations would tear the country apart is not true, but in any case is no reason to desist from accountability,” they write. “America is certainly strong enough to weather a fair and professional investigation of presidential criminality. During the Watergate inquiry, the same argument that the country would somehow suffer harm turned out to be untrue.”
The authors tell how the Bush administration first contemplated attacking Iraq two years earlier, lobbied for war on Capitol Hill, and in innumerable interviews, speeches, and appearances in 2002 made “false references” to weapons of mass destruction, nuclear materials procurements, alliances between the al Qaeda perpetrators of 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, and more. They note the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity documented 935 false statements by the Bush administration in the two years following 9/11 about the supposed security threat posed by Iraq. As a matter of law, they explain, such public lies, however offensive, are not criminal acts. But there are laws against making false statements to Congress—and Bush did so twice, say the authors.
Bush may have violated the U.S. Criminal Code in two direct, personal communications to Congress: the president’s 2003 State of the Union address and his March 18, 2003, letter of determination to use military force in Iraq. If those statements about the threat posed by Iraq were deliberately deceptive, they “may add up to a case for conspiracy to defraud Congress.” The authors add that Bush and Cheney also have no defense for their violation of anti-torture laws. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Cheating Justice is its description of the ways in which the Bush administration deliberately changed many laws to escape prosecution. The authors describe how this was done and trace scenarios that might play out if Bush and Cheney were prosecuted under various laws. They urge an investigation by a special prosecutor. “The country needs to know how powerful individuals took advantage of their offices, manipulated the laws, brought disgrace upon the nation, endangered our troops with an illegal war, caused thousands of deaths, and, at the same time, protected themselves from accountability at every turn.”