Anne Perry. Blood on the Water. © 2014 This is the author’s 20th book featuring William Monk. If the others are all as good as this one, I may read them all. It’s the 1860s, the French are digging the Suez Canal and the British are trying to stop it. Monk is chief of the Thames river police and happens to be on the water when the Princess Mary, a large pleasure craft passes. He sees a man jump overboard and a few seconds later there is an explosion which blows off the whole bow and the ship sinks in about 4 minutes with a loss of life later calculated at 179. After rescuing as many survivors as he could, Monk immediately begins his investigation, including an exploration of the wreck in a diving suit. The case is taken away from him and given to the city police, who know nothing about the river. A case is made against an Egyptian man; he is tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. Monk is not satisfied and continues to investigate until his boat is rammed and sinks and he nearly drowns. He got a glimpse of the seahorse painted on the ramming boat’s stern and then recalls seeing that same seahorse on a boat which picked up a survivor from the Princess Mary and then disappeared. The case is given back to Monk and the river police and they soon find the boat and its Egyptian owner. There’s another trial and we readers get to experience combat between two barristers, those peculiar English advocates who may argue a case for a defendant one day and prosecute a different case the next. The problem is to prove motive. Was this Egyptian revenge against the British or a monstrous way to conceal the murder of one person by making him or her one of many victims? Monk’s wife Hester, formerly a nurse in the Crimea with Florence Nightingale, investigates and finds the answer and then comes the surprise ending. August 2015
David McCullough. The Johnstown Flood. © 1968 This was McCullough’s first book. According to Wiki, “The flood occurred on May 31, 1889, after the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River 14 miles upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The dam broke after several days of extremely heavy rainfall, unleashing 20 million tons of water (18 million cubic meters) from the reservoir known as Lake Conemaugh. With a flow rate that temporarily equaled that of the Mississippi River, the flood killed 2,209 people and caused US$17 million of damage (about $425 million in 2012 dollars).” According to local residents, the rain that preceded the break in the dam was the heaviest ever experienced in the valley. The first time I started this book I thought it was too detailed and could have moved along faster. I’m glad I went back to it, because one of the main points of interest is exactly that detail which McCullough was able to compile from the reports of literally hundreds of journalists, public officials and the reminiscences of the survivors. This may have been the best documented event in US history up to that time. Clara Barton showed up with lots of nurses and stayed five months. This really established the Red Cross as the major player in disaster relief in this country. The story that only dribbled out was that of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club which owned the dam. Club members were rich people from Pittsburg, including Andrew Carnegie, and they did not mix with the locals. When they bought the dam from the Pennsylvania RR, it was in poor shape and the club’s restoration was a haphazard affair which any engineer could have told them was unsound and some did – in writing. Just about everyone thought the dam would eventually break and then it did. The rich guys from Pittsburg took no responsibility for the tragedy, although Carnegie did rebuild his library. If this had happened today, the guys from Pittsburg would be paying for the damage and paying compensation to the survivors. August 2015
Donald L. Miller. Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America. © 2014 It’s been a long time since I enjoyed a book as much as I enjoyed this one, so much that I may read it again in a year or so. In college I majored in history, and I have been reading history off and on for the last 60 years. Most of what I have read stressed political and military events with a sprinkling of economic activity as a sort of seasoning. I did read some economic history while I was in graduate school, and I have a shelf of things I meant to read. This book is different. I’m not sure if I should call it meta history or micro history. It is a collection of short biographies of movers and shakers in Manhattan in the 1920s woven together to create a comprehensive history of the city and how it affected almost every aspect of our lives. Almost all of the names were familiar to me, but I confess I knew little about them. My impression of the 1920s was that it was an era when people drank too much, partied too much and invested recklessly, but that it was insignificant when compared with the progressive era, the New Deal, the two world wars and the civil rights era. I was misinformed. What follows are some notes of things I don’t want to forget.
Mayor Jimmy Walker wanted a career writing musical comedies but ended up in politics. He was incredibly popular with the public, a gifted speaker, a master of ceremony, a bon vivant and a good mayor who started a number of projects and pushed through some significant reforms until he was brought down by corruption and forced to resign.
I knew the name Frank Costello, but I didn’t know he had a partner named Bill Dwyer. Their chapter takes the reader through some of their ingenious bootlegging operations and names a few other bad guys like Owen Madden and wannabe bad guy George Raft and everyone’s friend Mae West. Madden was the model for Damon Runyon’s Dave the Dude. From his early teen years Madden was involved in organized crime and had become an important figure by 1912 when he survived an attack by another gangster in which he received 11 bullet wounds. In 1923 Madden bought the Club Delux from boxer Jack Johnson and turned it into the Cotton Club, which later became a vehicle for Duke Ellington. Madden avoided publicity and once gave Walter Winchell a Stutz Bearcat to keep his name out of the papers. Madden had to leave New York in 1935 and became the sage of Hot Springs and advisor to gangsters still in the business, including Meyer Lansky. Another famous entertainment venue was the 300 Club on 54th Street created by singer and former chorus girl Texas Guinan. She served up 40 burlesque dancers, lots of booze and her own singing for the likes of Clara bow, Rudolph Valentino, Irving Berlin, Gloria Swanson along with some Chryslers, Vanderbilts, Whitneys and the like. George Gershwin sometimes played her piano.
There were entrepreneurs too. Miller tells the parallel stories of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, both of whom came for nowhere and built cosmetic empires that changed the female face of America. From there he moves on to Fred F. French, who was the first to sell stock in real estate to ordinary people. He was not listed on Wall Street, but he had 150 well trained salesmen that enabled him to amass the capital to build Tudor Village and a whole forest of setback high rises in Manhattan. For construction he needed steel workers. Many of the first workers were men who had worked aloft on square rigged sailing ships. Then builders discovered the Mohawks from Canada who had gotten their start working on new bridges over the St. Lawrence. There’s a complete description of the teams that heated the rivets, threw them to a catcher with a bucket -- sometimes 60 feet up and away – and the coordination it took to fit the rivet in place and flatten the end. In 1925 film producer Herbert Lubin conceived the idea of building the world’s largest and finest motion picture theater. To get the job done right, he hired Samuel L. Rothafel, aka Roxy, at a high salary and promised him naming rights. Roxy named the 5290 seat theater the Roxy and made it a smashing success with programs that combined stage shows and movies. It was hurt badly by the stock market crash and its aftermath. In 1932, after developing several other theaters, Roxy moved on to open and manage Radio City Music Hall. His previous employer objected to his frequent, costly phone calls to race tracks.
Why were there so many Jews in the movie industry? Because it was new and there were few ethnic barriers.
In 1922 broadcast on radio of variety shows at the Capitol Theater converted radio from communication to entertainment. In 1915 David Sarnoff, who had started with the Marconi Company and then moved to RCA, already conceived of broadcast radio as a medium for entertainment and for mass marketing of “radio music boxes.” Westinghouse had the first regular broadcast entertainment on KDCA in Pittsburg with a program from Frank Conrad’s garage. The commercials were to sell Westinghouse radios, the same business plan conceived by Sarnoff for RCA in 1915. It was Sarnoff who invented network broadcasting. Initially he used AT&T telephone wires. Sarnoff overemphasized classical music in his broadcast schedules on NBC until William Paley came along and livened things up with entertainment programs on a new rival network which became CBS. The comedians that I remember from the 1940s and 1950s were the catalyst that created radio’s popularity in the 1920s and 1930s: Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Fanny Bryce, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Charlie Chaplin, Will Rogers, Abbot and Costello, the Marx Brothers and many others.
Joseph Patterson, scion of The Chicago Tribune, came to NY and founded the first tabloid, The Daily News. The emphasis was on sensation and the medium was as much pictures as it was words. The Daily News brought in a Tribune photographer named Tom Howard, who managed to get a picture of Ruth Snyder’s execution in the electric chair at Sing Sing with a camera strapped to his ankle. The Daily News was a leader in another technique for building circulation. Its sports writers developed close and mutually profitable relationships with premier athletes like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jack Dempsey. This gives the author an opening to give us some shortsport biographies. For Ruth, it was a combination of his incredible eyesight, his innovative full swing at the ball and a new manufacturing process for baseballs that tightened their winding and made them livelier. He doesn’t pass over Ruth’s eating, drinking and infidelities. Gehrig was a really nice guy who became a great hitter by imitating the Babe’s swing. There’s a full treatment of Jack Dempsey’s career and his relationship with manager Jack Kearns. The best story is Dempsey’s last two knockouts in the 1960s. He was in a cab in NY when two guys opened his door and tried to rob him. He took one out with his right and the other with his left.
There’s a lot about architecture and engineering. The best three stories are about the construction of the Holland Tunnel, the Chrysler Building and the George Washington Bridge. There’s a section on the clothing industry and how it moved uptown along 7th avenue as it evolved from manufacturing to high couture. There’s also a lot on the development of the publishing industry in NYC. I was intrigued by the passage on Horace Liveright, publisher and producer of Broadway plays. He founded the Modern Library and published the works of Theodore Dreiser, T.S.Eliot, Hemingway, Pound and Faulkner.
Ponder this: ‘NYC is the capital of lunch.” August 2015
Richard Powers. Orfeo. © 2014 Peter Els is 70 and retired from teaching music composition. He was originally trained as a microbiologist and is now experimenting in retirement with bacteria to see if he can use them to encode music. The local police get a look at his home laboratory and call Homeland Security on the presumption that he’s a terrorist. They seize all his gear and tell him not to leave town. He takes off, of course. Then we get his life story in flashbacks. He spent most of his life trying to make it as an avant garde composer. His music, if it was music at all, was way way out there. Some of it was heard in New York, but it never caught on. His adjunct professorship late in life was the alternative to continuing his life in a cabin in the woods. Els saw music in everything, and perhaps I understood some of what was said in his conversations with colleagues and students and in his internal dialogs. Then there is the chase which ends in a nursing home in Arizona where he has a last meeting with the producer and director with whom he had worked off and on since college. Apparently all of Power’s novels are laced with scientific and scholarly themes, like artificial intelligence in Galatea 2.2, game theory in Prisoner’s Dilemma and musicology cum genetic recombination in The Gold Bug Variations. The review in the NYT by Jim Holt on January 10, 2014 is one of the best I have ever read. He notes: “(Powers) has every gift, it is sometimes implied, but the gift of literature.” He goes on to talk about how music is worked into the structure of the novel. It’s worth a look. The link is below. August 2015
Ray Suarez. Latino Americans, The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation. © 2013 Suarez draws together the various strands of Hispanic American history and leaves the reader somewhat awestruck at the effects Latin Americans have had on our history and the much greater role they are likely to play in the future, partly by sheer force of numbers. There are the Cubans, the Puerto Ricans, the Hispanics who occupied the southwest and California long before Anglos got there, and the waves of immigrant workers, who have come since we owned those territories. (He could have mentioned that Santa Fe, founded in 1608, is the second oldest permanent settlement in the US). The most impressive immigrant story is that of Guy Galbadon, who moved in with a Japanese American family when he was 12 and learned the language and Japanese customs. On Saipan and Tinian, he single-handedly captured 1500 Japanese soldiers, 10 times more than Medal of Honor winner Sgt. York in WW I. His captain recommended him for the Medal of Honor. He was awarded the Silver Star. Suarez doesn’t say where Galbdon’s Japanese family was during the war, but I think we can presume they were in an internment camp in the desert. The saddest story is that of the Hispanic American soldier who did win a Medal of Honor. While in uniform he was refused service at a soda fountain in Texas. August 2015