For royalty buffs and people who like to view history through personalities and relationships, Deborah Cadbury’s Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking — The Royal Marriages that Shaped Europe is highly entertaining and informative. There is a soap opera quality to Victoria’s avid, prying interest into the marital prospects of her numerous royal grandchildren. Much as Victoria tries to identify potential highly suitable mates and head off dangerous ones, sometimes her grandchildren just didn’t listen. These are great stories, wrapped up in 19th century Euro politics. There is the drama of the highly unsuitable Kaiser Wilhelm’s nasty development and then there is the awful foreboding of the Nicholas and Alexandra courtship. Victoria desperately tried to head off what she saw as a horrifically dangerous match in a Russia headed for catastrophe, but love prevailed over Victoria’s clear-headed analysis. That is just one of the these highly personal stories — again, a bit of a soap opera on a global scale, and well worth reading. You will be informed and entertained — the perfect combination.
Linda Porter’s Royal Renegades — The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars tells the saga of Charles I, his wife Henrietta Maria, and their many children, including future kings Charles II and James II. Nearly 400 years later, it is difficult to fathom how this close family functioned at all once the Revolution hit. Family members were spread across Britain and the Continent. Communication was difficult, both because of distance and military restrictions. The parents and their children were often compelled to act on their own initiative and frequently under straightened financial circumstances. The children were young — the two eldest sons were in their early teens — when the king’s conflicts started, and the battling lasted for years. Two of the younger children were held captive in England for years, and of course the Charles I also was ultimately captured and executed. Looking back it seems bizarre that the King seemed never to have fully assessed his peril or what the consequences might be if he failed on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. Yet he was cursed with his own implacable sense of his own prerogative and seemingly had no one to provide him with realistic political advice. The Queen had managed to escape to France, her homeland, and spent her time trying to find allies and funding for the her husband. Together, she and the King might have been able to reach a less gruesome conclusion, but then again her Catholicism was one of the major reasons for the family’s unpopularity.
What happened was a tragedy for this family that somehow remained close in an era when royal parents and their children had little ordinary contact or apparent affection for one another. On the eve of his execution the King was allowed time with two of his youngest children, and the tenderness of those meetings is heartbreaking, all these years later. Those two children died, but four of their siblings lived to adulthood, with much of their time spent in France and the Netherlands before the two older brother returned to England after the Restoration. It was an oddly international family, searching for allies and coming together and then separating because of circumstances time and again. For the most part, their strategically arranged marriages afforded the children little happiness, although Charles I and Henrietta Maria, ultimately seemed to have loved each other.
This book’s strength is its portrayals of Charles I and his family, coupled with a useful history of the English Revolution and a healthy injection of the power politics of that era
Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes — A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikey Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies is a significant contribution to women’s history and to the history of code-breaking. Elizebeth Friedman (1892-1980) carved out an amazing career for herself. She was raised in a small town in the Midwest. She only went to college because she insisted upon it. Ironically, Swarthmore rejected here. Upon graduation from a relatively obscure college, Friedman insisted upon looking for a job befitting her talents and interests. She had studied poetry and philosophy in college, so non-teaching jobs did not readily present themselves. Undeterred, Friedman kept looking. Code breaking wasn’t exactly on her radar screen, but through luck and perseverance she started working for a rich eccentric with an interest in code breaking as it related to Shakespeare. Ultimately she broke from the eccentric’s private colony and moved on to crack bootlegging codes and then to breaking Nazi codes during the Second World War. Very few people came close to being able to do what she and her similarly talented husband William Friedman were able to do, but their story — particularly her story is little known. Happily J Edgar Hoover and his FBI come out looking vainglorious and feeble, as the the Coast Guard and Elizebeth Friedman shine.
The book is well written and extensively researched and provides a fascinating story about a woman most people have never encountered and whose tracks were pretty well covered by confidentiality agreements and the likes of J Edgar Hoover. Friedman herself contributed to her undervalued obscurity by generally avoiding attention and insisting that her husband was more worthy of notice. Coming on the recent movie about Alan Turing, this is yet another important contribution to understanding how World War II espionage worked, on both sides. This important biography also shines some light on what it was like to live and work in Washington during and the 1930’s and the war period.
Every time I run across a biography of a highly consequential women who worked in obscurity, I wonder how many more are out there. Thank you, Mr. Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman the attention she deserves.
You really need to get this book, for the children you know and for yourself. You will learn something, and you will be inspired!
Biographies are my favorite kind of history — always more fun and memorable than lists of battles and elections. As a child, I read probably hundreds of biographies published in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. Those highly entertaining books gave me my first understanding of American history from all sorts of perspectives. I particularly focused on the books about women who were famous for what they themselves had done, as opposed to those whose fame derived from their husbands, inspired me to think about what was possible. Their stories were really important to me.
Vashti Harrison’s wonderful Little Leaders — Bold Women in Black History is similarly important and inspiring. Little Leaders is written for children, but everyone should read it. Really. I guarantee you will learn something and you will be impressed. I wish this book had been around when my daughters were young because it is designed to spawn countless conversations about the struggles these women faced, the difficulties they surmounted, the sources of their inspirations and then their amazing contributions. Harrison offers up capsule biographies and appealing illustrations of 40 remarkable black women. The title Little Leaders, together with the simple illustrations of these women as girls, make the point that all the featured women started out as girls, and that their childhood interests often led directly to their later achievements. These stories also provide lots of good background information about what life what like for these women and others of their time. The happy result is that the reader ends up knowing a lot more than just what happened to a particular individual. This is such a good way to inform children about their history and to provide context for their own times and their own opportunities and responsibilities.
Harrison includes famous women, as well as women who may not be so famous but clearly deserve to be. It is no criticism of the book that I kept thinking of other black women who might have been included. In fact the books just made me think of a whole host of people that deserve to be better known and celebrated.
This book belongs in every child’s library.
Shelley DeWees’s Not Just Jane — Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature provides a fascinating look into seven successful, yet relatively unknown, British women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Born of her love of Austen and Bronte, in this book DeWees sets out to discover other women writers who were pioneers of their times. I had never heard of any of the writers featured in this book. Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craig and Mary Elizabeth Braddon all enjoyed some success in their day. Their stories tell us a lot about what was going on in England during their life times. Many of them faced poverty and had few honorable options for earning a living. They might become a governess or they might become prostitutes. Faced with these options, one way or another these women became writers, and some of them became expert networkers as well. Sara Coleridge’s story is a bit different. She was well educated and didn’t suffer poverty, but her father, the famous poet Samuel Coleridge basically ignored her existence. Under those circumstances it seems a shame that so much of her work was devoted to organizing her father’s work posthumously.
I have yet to read one of their books, but I certainly enjoyed reading about their lives and their environments.
Before it was a successful Disney movie (which I have yet to see), The Queen of Katwe was a book by Tim Crothers. Crothers initially came to Uganda to do a story on Phiona Mutesi, an impoverished teenager from the slums of Katwe who had become a chess champion through an improable series of events. Crothers correctly recognized that Phiona’s story deserved a book, and he has written a fine one. The Queen of Katwe does an excellent job of filling in the back story of Phiona’s family, as well as the story of Robert Katende, her coach and mentor.
Crothers does the research and asks the fundamental questions — how and why does a barely literate young girl from one of the worst slums in the entire world creep into the world of chess and use it to launch a different life? There is no satisfactory answer. Despite Crothers’ diligent interviews of Phiona and the people around her, Phiona remains an inigma. What is clear, however, is that many different people contributed one way or another along the way. There is Katende, who couldn’t get a job as an engineer after he managed to graduate from university but then somehow lucked into a job with a Christian philanthropic community because of his soccer skills and then got the idea to teach a unlikely group of slum kids chess. (Phiona wasn’t the only impoverished, hungry child to benefit from Katende’s inspired decision to teach kids who could barely read the fundamentals of chess.). Phiona’s impoverished family helped, too. Her mother calculated that it was better for her children to attend chess classes and get something to eat there than to earn a pittance in the marketplace. It was also no small thing that Phiona’s brother let her tag along. Fundamentally, at important times, there were people who looked out for Phiona as she learned chess and as her success with chess led to her engagement with the world outside Katwe. The list of helpers and mentors goes on, but ultimately Phiona was the one who decided to follow her brother to Katende’s class and to dig in and learn the game. Other Katwa kids may have been equally diligent, but Phiona had a gift.
This is an inspiring book. Even if Phiona remains an unknowable figure, her story and her unprecedented accomplishments are completely fascinating. I was left wanting to know what happens next in her life. (Wikipedia was moderately helpful here, so we will keep contributing!)
Finally, I really appreciated the author’s ability to take a back seat in his interviews, as well as his diligent efforts to talk to so many people and to keep trying to find out more about Phiona. Also, as Crothers notes, the book could never have happened if Robert Katende hadn’t attended the bulk of the interviews to provide translations skills. So kudos to Katende as well!
Ida B. Wells’s life is well-told in To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay. Ida B. Wells is one of those African American leaders whose name is familiar, but I didn’t know enough about her. Mia Bay’s excellent biography solves the that problem. Much of it is based on Wells’ own unfinished autobiography. This is a clear, focused book that fills a gap in civil rights history.
Wells was born a slave during the Civil War. Her parents were sort of middle class by reconstruction standards, and they made sure Wells received an education. Although she never received a college degree, Wells taught school for much of her early life. Her relatively secure life was shattered when her parents both died and left her an orphan at 14 with a bunch of younger siblings. Wells succeeded in keeping her family together and supported them by teaching school. All that is remarkable enough, but then her life gets amazing.
From he beginning, Wells had a firm sense of who she was and her own personal liberties, so she didn’t hesitate to sue a railroad that refused to allow her to seat in the ladies section despite the first class ticket she had purchased. The litigation was protracted and, although Wells prevailed at the trial court level, ultimately she lost on appeal. It is really hard to imagine an African American woman having the nerve to sue a railroad for not treating her as she deserved in the late 1870’s. Wells was tough and she was determined.
Wells was a writer and ultimately ran an African American newspaper in Memphis. At the same time she found her lifelong cause – anti-lynching. She called out lynching for what it was and never let go of the subject. It wasn’t a particularly popular topic, but she pushed it relentlessly and actually helped save some potential victims. Thanks to her anti-lynching activities she was run out of Memphis and her newspaper was burned out. Along the way she became friends with Frederick Douglass and knew many of the other civil rights leaders of her day. She and Booker T. Washington never got along — he was a sell-out in her view. As the NAACP and other civil rights organizations were formed, Wells was frequently left behind. She was female and she was not of the college educated African American elite of her day. When others saw promise in enlisting white allies, Wells blazed on with her pamphlets and her lectures. She never got the memo that she was supposed to sit down and shut up and let the men take the lead. In that light, she was a precursor of Diane Nash, the amazing civil rights activist of the 1960’s who never got her due as the likes of Martin Luther King, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson took center stage. Unlike Nash, Wells refused to fade into the background.
Wells lectured all over the country and in Britain. She ultimately settled in Chicago where she married in her 30’s and had four children. Supported by her family, she kept up her political activities in Chicago and nationally, even as she had to take time out to make a living. As a last point, she also engaged in direct social services activity for her community in Chicago and stymied lynching in Illinois — she was no “mere” journalist and lecturer.
There is obviously much more to her story. I recommend this book about a strong, focused woman who was insufficiently appreciated in her day or in the years since.
Lewis Steel is a veteran civil rights lawyer, who has written a very thoughtful memoir, The Butler’s Childs – An Autobiography. Steel’s background as a trust fund kid, educated at Culver Military Academy and Harvard, is oddly juxtaposed with his career as a civil rights attorney, who has spent a lot of time losing cases. The premise for the book is Steel’s acute awareness that as a child and a young man he was served by an African American butler and his wife. Steel felt close to this couple, but realizes that he spent most of his time telling them about his life while learning precious little about theirs. Now he’s aware of his previous lack of awareness.
Clearly Steel likes to feel like a renegade, and yet he knows that his family’s wealth (largely thanks to a grandmother who married on of the Warner Brothers) has made it possible for him to live in some very nice real estate, educate his children at private schools and not really need to earn a living. Steel acknowledges this and occasionally blames some decisions like private schools and an even fancier apartment on his wife, but all in all his choices are made with a reasonable amount of awareness, and there seems to be a certain amount of guilt behind it.
Steel has had a long legal career, mostly as a civil rights attorney with significant criminal defense experience, and he has been kicked in the teeth by judges and prosecutors across the country. Famously, he was one of Rubin “Hurricane Carter’s” attorneys and stuck with Carter and his co-defendant through an unbelievable saga of prosecutorial malfeasance and willful judicial blindness. As an attorney, I enjoyed Steel’s legal war stories, even as the numbing sameness of courts and communities’ willingness to overlook and perpetuate discrimination continued with few checks for decades. Another whole book would be required to assess how much progress has actually been made, and Steel doesn’t really go there. This isn’t a criticism – his legal career has evolved and he is looking back. Referencing the recent police homicides that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, Steel is far from sanguine about any progress that may have been made.
Steel’s heart and advocacy were in the right place, but to hear him tell it he didn’t rein in his emotions and openly challenged judges. Steel was a character, and his war stories are highly entertaining. Nonetheless, it will always be debatable whether clients are best served in particular cases by aggressive, confrontational attorneys. The fact remains that Steel was in the trenches and he had to make on-the-spot decisions about how to try his cases and create the record he would surely need for an appeal. Of course it is also true that calling out judges for their biases must have been emotionally satisfying and cathartic for Steel. As an NAACP attorney, he was involved in many generally unsuccessful, school desegregation cases, often in the North. One has to admire his stubborn determination to see these cases through, even as he is initially terrified by the neighborhoods he frequents and his met by judicial indifference at best.
This book is well worth reading for many reasons, including the history of civil rights litigation and the circumstances that led to a privileged young man to join the civil rights movement and work for little or nothing as a civil rights attorney. Why he chose that path doesn’t seem entirely clear even to Steel, but he obviously likes his life. One theme that does come through is that Steel, who is Jewish, has faced discrimination in his own life and is one of those fortunate people who doesn’t feel the need to conform. He is remarkably confident in his beliefs and comfortable doing what he feels he needs to do. For the most part, he doesn’t seem to be looking for approval from anyone other than perhaps his wife and his colleagues in the trenches. Steel’s willingness to own up to certain occasions when his behavior was lacking gives this book some badly needed balance. It is so reassuring to have someone say, “I failed to act; I hurt someone I love; there is no excuse for it; I should have behaved differently.”
Steel doesn’t shy away from issues of privilege and race and his own failures. He is very aware that he is an economically secure white man who will cannot understand what it means to be African American. He acknowledges that it is absurd for him to live such a comfortable and secure existence, just because he was born wealthy and white. He knows that he isn’t always living the courage of his convictions — he works to integrate public schools across the country even as his children attend the best private schools and he lives in a large apartment in a predominately white neighborhood. While Steel chooses to live and raise his family as he does, his efforts to understand and examine the irony of his circumstances is intriguing. Fortunately his self-examination and arguably hypocritical lifestyle do not result in inertia. It’s almost like yoga: Steel observes his circumstances and how he is feeling at the moment, and then moves on to do what he needs to do. In Lewis Steel’s case, that means a lifetime in the legal trenches as he tries to protect and enforce the rights of clients who have borne the brunt of all manner of discrimination and injustice. In truth, someone probably had to lose all those early cases to pave the way for future progress, and Steel took on that task. His was an historic crusade.
In 1954, Mary McGrory was a single woman who had been writing spirited book reviews for a number of years. After her boss at the Washington Evening Start ascertained that she wasn’t planning to get married any time soon, McGrory was suddenly transferred to the news desk at and sent off to cover the McCarthy Hearings. What an amazing way to jump start a nearly fifty year career as one of the country’s most successful political columnists. Somebody really needs to make a movie of about McGrory. She was an epic character in an epic time.
In the meantime, John Norris has written an excellent biography of McGrory – Mary McGrory – The First Queen of Journalism. While Nellie Bly enthusiasts may quibble about the “First Queen” designation, McGrory undoubtedly reigned as queen of the Washington political reporting scene for half a century. She could be imperious, selfish and demanding, but she wrote a heck of a column. As a long-time columnist, she knew everyone and covered presidential campaigns from Adlai Stevenson through the George W Bush years. The campaign stories alone are worth reading this book, particularly since McGrory started out at a time when reporters knew a lot of dirt about politicians, but didn’t necessarily spill it. The stories of politicians trying to charm her or squirm out of answering deceptively mild yet go-for-the-jugular questions are priceless.
Although McGrory was an unabashed liberal and wrote highly opinionated columns, she did give politicians on both sides of the aisle a difficult time. Bill Clinton was said to get apoplectic about her critical columns. At the end of the day, McGrory was a very strong personality who was hard to pigeonhole. She could be nice or she could be horrible to competitors. The stories are hilarious, but they carry a serious bite.
I can’t help but wonder how McGrory would have reacted to the present school of journalism, where Fox is consistently conservative and constantly accused of skewing its news reporting accordingly and MSNBC often faces similar accusations from the other side. In her day, unfazed by political neutrality niceties, McGrory didn’t just express her political view point in her columns. She took it a significant step further. She could be a political activist and push people like Bobby Kennedy to run for office. Despite the highly opinionated tone of her columns, McGrory’s column almost always appeared on news pages, rather than editorial pages, and she waged ferocious battles to keep it that way. Issues of journalistic ethics crop up throughout the book, but it seems that McGrory’s powerful personality held sway for her columns.
John Norris has done a skillful job of showing us McGrory, with all her fine points and her not-so-fine points. Above all, I am just grateful that he has given us a highly readable record of a unique and powerful life. I wasn’t familiar with McGrory’s story and am really grateful that now I know about her. I strongly recommend this book.
I can’t quite kick the habit of reading royal biographies, but at least I’m coming to terms with the fact that English princess led boring lives, largely devoid of intellectual challenge. The bored looks on the cover photos of Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, and Queen Elizabeth II as a girl pretty much make the case that there lives were neither interesting nor fun. As depicted in their respective biographies, Queen Victoria’s Mysterious Daughter – a Biography of Princess Louise, by Lucinda Hawksley, and Young Elizabeth, the Making of the Queen, by Kate Williams, both Princesses Louise and Elizabeth had some intelligence and potential, but their parents pretty much squeezed it out of them.
Queen Victoria couldn’t see beyond her own excessively demanding personal needs and generally regarded her children as her slaves throughout their lives. Princess Louise apparently had some artistic talent and was provided with some opportunities to sculpt, but her personal life and interests were consistently disregarded by her mother. Queen Victoria never got over thinking that her daughter Louise was difficult and needed to be watched. Lucinda Hawksley, the author of Louise’s biography, takes some imaginative leaps and provides Louise with a scandalous love story. If true, it makes her story all the sadder, given her subsequent marriage.
Queen Victoria at least had the excuse of being a widow and having nine children, although it’s card to imagine her being a loving and caring mother under any circumstances. Queen Elizabeth’s parents, George VI and his Consort Queen Elizabeth, should have had it a bit easier. They were a loving couple, and they only had two children. There seems to have been a decent amount of love and affection to go around. It is true they were traumatized by George’s sudden ascent to the throne after his brother Edward VIII abdicated to “marry the woman he loved.” Still, Elizabeth’s parents spent time with her. Unfortunately they completely short-changed her when it came to education. They were so determined that their daughters have a carefree life, that they didn’t bother to give them an education. They seemed to think that education was a loathsome thing to be avoided. Trivial pursuits and playtime pretty much ruled the day. One will never know if Elizabeth could have become an intellectual, but it certainly seems possible that she might have expanded her interests between horses and dogs had she been given a broader education. The one lesson Elizabeth seems to have learned very well was to fulfill her responsibilities as a monarch. That she has done. She has also picked up a certain amount of political acumen and appreciation for other cultures along the way. Her life hasn’t been a tragedy, but so much of it has seemed boring and useless waste.
Both of these women suffered from being born into impossible and ridiculous lives of privilege, but their parents certainly made things worse. Victoria crushed and disdained her Louise, as she did her other children. Elizabeth’s parents just abdicated their responsibility to educate her. In a way, that seems the saddest deficit of all. If nothing else, these books made me think quite a lot about what it means to be a good parent and what we really owe our children.