Tag Archives: autobiography

Book Review: Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 30 June 2017.

Make no mistake: Ironic title and intentionally supercilious cover photo aside, this book is the opening salvo in Al Franken’s run for the presidency in 2020. At least that’s what any marginally astute reader would take away from this funny, insightful walk through Franken’s life to this point.

On the other hand, perhaps he really means it when he tells People magazine and other media outlets (fake or otherwise) that the answer to such a concept is, emphatically, “no.” Still, there’s that book-jacket bio that reads, in part, “Senator Franken graduated from Harvard College and received his doctorate in right-wing megalomania studies from Trump University.”

That’s practically enough to get him drafted right there.

If Franken’s isn’t one of the first names Democrats have blurted out in considering who can possibly carry the banner forward in these troubled times, perhaps it’s because he’s been keeping his head down and working for the good folks of Minnesota rather than making speeches for the cameras. (Most of his time in the senatorial spotlight so far has been an outcome of his seat on the Judiciary Committee.)

Along the way, he’s racked up an impressive scorecard of legislative wins, or, if not wins, then valiant attempts to hold the Democratic line.

As most people know, Franken came into the American consciousness through 15 years of writing for, and eventually performing on, Saturday Night Live. He reminds us that he was with the show from its debut episode, meaning that he and longtime writing partner Tom Davis are responsible for some of the most iconic moments of comedy that Americans of a certain age still cherish.

Franken and Davis formed their writing partnership while students at a private boys’ prep school near Franken’s home in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. From high school on, virtually every job they held involved writing and performing comedy. Franken met his future wife, Franni, the first week of their freshman year in college, and they’ve been together ever since.

But readers of this book are probably most interested in a pretty basic set of questions: “SNL to the Senate? Really? How does that happen?”

There were many mileposts along that road, but Franken really got his political blood up in 1994, when Newt Gingrich swept in with a brand of take-no-prisoners partisanship that, from Franken’s perspective, led Congress to its current, fully Balkanized state.

(It was Gingrich who insisted Republicans stop bringing their families with them to DC, which is why members now fly in on Monday and out on Thursday. Staying in town and socializing among congressional families used to be how members got to know each other outside of politics and allowed them to form actual friendships. That’s a faint memory now.)

With Gingrich came the rest of the right-wing echo chamber, led by Rush Limbaugh. When Franken’s editor suggested he write a book about politics, the result was Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations, and its companion, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.

What finally put him on the path to candidacy, though, was the tragic death of his friend Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, and a boast from the Republican who won that seat, Norm Coleman, that he was a “99 percent improvement” over Wellstone.

Franken’s experiences on the campaign trail were brutal and personally painful — there’s nothing quite like having every joke a comedian has ever written be purposely taken out of context by the Republican DeHumorizer™ and used against him — and resulted in a microscopic winning margin of 313 votes (after which he had to survive eight months of recounts and court battles before finally being allowed to take the oath of office).

And while it’s perhaps understandable that Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee leaders Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer weren’t initially thrilled at his candidacy (even asking him to suggest other people to run), it’s bewildering that then-rock-star candidate and later president Barack Obama — who certainly understood how much he needed another Democratic senator and could’ve used his star power to dazzling effect — treated Franken as though he didn’t exist.

After his historically slender and drawn-out victory, Franken then had to prove to his colleagues that he wasn’t just The Funny Guy. For that, he adopted “the Hillary model…Be a workhorse, not a showhorse.”

Now a two-term senator, Franken talks with relative candor about his experiences, though he remains mindful of the decorum demanded by the Senate, to the point of using euphemisms anytime he’d prefer good ol’ Anglo-Saxon vulgarity.

It’s refreshing to hear how he and other senators look for common ground from which to build something like consensus, and just plain interesting to understand how he stays on the polite side of folks like Mitch McConnell.

For Democrats, Franken hits all the high notes: the healthcare fight, campaign finance reform, climate change, education, minority protections, fierce support for the troops and veterans accompanied by a healthy concern over military engagement, the post-November 8th Twilight Zone, even net neutrality.

Plus, this guy is whip smart, does all the homework, and makes it his raison d’etre to skewer ill-prepared, uninformed, or lying witnesses who come before him in committee. Exhibit A: Betsy DeVos.

Among many plum anecdotes, my favorite moment is when Franken suggests to Chuck Grassley that he smile more. If only he’d said it on the floor of the Senate.

But nothing beats the flat-out fun of the Ted Cruz chapter, entitled “Sophistry.” Bully for Franken for making it clear that, however disastrous things may seem right now, Cruz will never be a more acceptable answer.

Franken is at his most affecting when he focuses on stories about the people he knows, cares about, and represents. Certainly, he seems sincere in wanting the best for the people he represents. Come 2020, America, that could be you.

Book Review: The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 9 November 2016.


The title of this book could have been The Most Famous Writer You’ve Never Heard Of, but irony is probably the more effective strategy. Like me, there will be others who will pick it up thinking, “Okay, I’ll bite. Who is the most famous writer who ever lived?” followed immediately by, “Who [the heck] is MacKinlay Kantor?”

Herman Wouk, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner: these are the Pulitzer Prize-winning authors immediately preceding Kantor’s award in 1956 for his seminal Civil War novel, Andersonville, about the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp.

Here was a writer with a 30+ year career, more than 40 books, and innumerable stories to his credit; a Medal of Freedom recipient who, as a war correspondent, documented the liberation of Buchenwald; and the toast of the literary world for years. What caused Kantor to fall so completely off the literary map?

His grandson Tom Shroder sets out to answer that question in this new biography/memoir. Shroder is best known to Washingtonians as the longtime editor of the Washington Post Magazine, where his behind-the-scenes stewardship left an indelible mark. (As one example, he encouraged the late, great Richard Thompson to create a comic strip; the result was the sublime “Cul de Sac.”)

The author of several nonfiction books and editor of many others, Shroder has been a writer his entire career. Yet his own grandfather’s writing career was of no particular interest to him until he started this book project. By his own admission, Shroder had previously read none of the Kantor oeuvre — despite owning signed first editions — and paid scant attention to his own family history until many of its original witnesses had died.

“If only I could ask my mother,” he notes wistfully more than once, and kicks himself over his tardy interest.

Thus, despite having spent significant time with his grandfather, Shroder needed to answer the question, “Who was MacKinlay Kantor?” as much for himself as for us. The book is something of a detective story, with the author sleuthing out the details of his once-famous relative’s public and private life, in many cases drawing parallels to his own.

Benjamin McKinlay Kantor was born in Webster City, Iowa, in 1904. That first name never stuck, and he later changed the spelling of his middle name to make it seem more Scottish. He was known to all as Mack.

His mother, a strong, intelligent woman named Effie McKinlay Kantor, was unaccountably drawn once and forever to a charming, handsome, self-absorbed con artist, John Kantor, who bilked many people out of their life savings, forced Effie’s father to cover his early bad debts, and apparently enjoyed toying with his children’s emotions.

Amazingly, it was Kantor who divorced Effie, leaving her as a single mother to Mack and his older sister, Virginia. The three lived through many painfully lean years. Mack got his start as a writer when Effie was offered a job as editor of the Webster City Daily News, and she brought her 17-year-old son on board with her. Together, they wrote the entire paper every day.

As a young married man, Mack suffered more years of grinding poverty along with his wife, Irene Layne, and their kids, Layne (Shroder’s mother) and Tim, even after Mack became a published novelist.

His first big-ticket novel was the Civil War story Long Remember, and it finally pulled the family out of the poorhouse. In addition to his biggest artistic and commercial success, Andersonville, which came when he was 50, his novel Glory for Me — improbably written in blank verse — was the basis for the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives,” considered one of the finest films ever made.

It’s hard to point to where Kantor began his slide into becoming a bombastic, overbearing alcoholic who spent money like it was water. Shroder describes his own early fascination with the limos and fawning waiters that surrounded any New York outing with Mack, but which were leavened by the embarrassment of the loud, ugly public scenes that inevitably resulted after his grandfather consumed too many cocktails.

Shroder weaves together a fascinating portrait through the use of family lore, boots-on-the-ground investigative journalism, dusty research, and a solid dose of flesh-and-blood familial feeling for his subject and those closest to him.

Some of what he found would have been available to any biographer who had undertaken the effort — most notably, 158 boxes of artifacts in the Library of Congress, which Kantor had painstakingly annotated as part of donating them, at the library’s request. Other details, like so many families’ historical records, had been stored for years in various basements, unexplored and always one move or sewer backup away from the dumpster.

After years of being somewhat dismissive of his grandfather, Shroder was genuinely surprised to grasp just how famous Mack really was. Yes, he truly was buddies with Ernest Hemingway. He held the interest of the cultured and successful writer Peggy Pulitzer — nee Margaret Leech, author of Reveille in Washington — with whom he conducted a long-running affair. He was a bona-fide celebrity.

Sadly, MacKinlay Kantor outlived his success. His writing, always a bit ornate and old-fashioned, fell out of favor, and the paychecks stopped rolling in. He became a walking object lesson in how ephemeral and poisonous fame can be, and in the dangers of believing one’s own press.

It’s still unclear, though, why he seems to have been so thoroughly forgotten. If part of Shroder’s aim in writing this memoir is to resurrect his grandfather’s literary legacy, I’ll gladly report that it worked for me. I’ve now read Andersonville, and plan to go back for more. Thanks to Tom Shroder for re-introducing the world to MacKinlay Kantor.

Book Review: Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 3 November 2016.


Edward Sorel fell in love with Mary Astor while peeling up linoleum in his New York City apartment. The year was 1965, and under the layers he found a trove of newspapers from 1936. He never does say how the new kitchen turned out, but once he started reading those screaming headlines — ASTOR DIARY “ECSTASY,” ASTOR’S BABY TO BE JUDGE — he was hooked on the starlet.

It took the much-lauded cartoonist/caricaturist/illustrator another 50 years to get around to capturing that story in words and his inimitable illustrations. When he finally did, the project expanded beyond the diary scandal to become a more complete biography, Mary Astor’s Purple Diary. (Sorel notes that, oddly, for a pretty big star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, one had not been written on Astor before.) What’s even better is that he peppers Astor’s story with snippets from his own life, which gives the book its relatable center and the reader a two-for-one memoir.

Sorel leads us on a rollicking tour through scads of cads and scandal in Old Hollywood, of which Mary Astor was a packaged, commoditized product. Beginning her career in the silent movies of the 1920s, she had the face of an angel, the diction of a queen, and, apparently, the language of a longshoreman. Born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke in Illinois to a rapacious set of parents who used her as a meal ticket, she got her first movie contract and her new name when she was 14.

By 17, still very much under her parents’ thumb, Mary nonetheless was able to undertake an affair with dashing alcoholic superstar John Barrymore. According to her autobiography, My Story, he was the great love of her life, but her unwillingness to cut ties with her tyrannical parents led him to find a replacement. His memorable break-up line to her: “Dear Goopher, I’m just a son of a bitch.”

Generally, the rest of her men, especially husbands, were no better to her or for her, and often seemed chosen at random. Her lifelong habit of keeping a diary got her into trouble with her second husband, Franklyn Thorpe, a black-hearted gynecologist who thoroughly enjoyed the lifestyle that Mary’s salary purchased, but who treated her with contempt.

When, after their divorce, Mary tried to change the custody terms for their daughter, Marylyn, Thorpe made good on his pre-divorce threat to use her explicit diary as proof she was an unfit mother.

Thus, what should have been a quiet custody hearing turned into a protracted, salacious, media-frenzy of a trial that took place in the evenings to allow Mary to continue to work on the film “Dodsworth.” Thorpe kept leaking purported sections of the diary to the press, many of them fabricated, to feed the frenzy.

Stakes were high for Mary, since Samuel Goldwyn could easily fire her on a morals clause and kill her career. Stakes were equally high for those discussed in the “purple” diary, most notably playwright George S. Kaufman, whose sexual prowess and stamina gave her much to write about. But because of a faulty chain of custody and clear evidence that it had been tampered with, not to mention overwhelming pressure on the judge to bury it, the diary was rendered inadmissible.

The details of the behind-the-scenes machinations of studio bosses and other power-wielding folks like morals boss William Hays are fascinating, while Mary’s continual poor choices in men and career are both maddening and saddening.

But the reason to read this book — in hardcopy form, please — is to enjoy what may be 87-year-old Sorel’s last collection of original artwork. The two-page reclining nude of Mary that graces the book’s end-paper, surrounded as she is by the defining elements of her celebrity, is by itself worth the purchase price.