Tag Archives: biography

Book Review: Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama

This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 9 May 2017.

On March 28, 1980, Wisconsin Steel of South Chicago, with zero prior notice, sent its workforce home and locked its gates. In many cases, the people who had labored at the mill their entire working lives — having built a comfortable middle-class life without benefit of a college or even high school degree — never found another job.

Recounting this economic catastrophe is the gripping first chapter in Rising Star, David J. Garrow’s practically day-by-day accounting of the pre-presidential life of Barack Obama.

That opening sets the stage to explain how the Columbia University graduate ended up in Chicago as a community organizer. Before we get there, though, Garrow pulls back into the fascinating pre-history of Obama’s parentage, and then moves forward through his upbringing, education, and gradual migration into politics.

Perhaps there is little here that is entirely new or revelatory; after all, there truly are no skeletons in the Obama closet. Certainly, the voting public heard and read endless reporting on Obama’s background and life story — some of which was even true — during his candidacy and two terms as president, but Garrow goes much deeper, provides far more detail, and connects all the disparate pieces in the detailed step-by-step of what went into, as his subtitle says, The Making of Barack Obama.

At 1,076 pages of narrative and 270 more of notes, this firehose of primary research will be foundational to future Obama biographers, but it is hardly the book for casual readers. Like many painstakingly thorough biographers, Garrow appears to have included any fact he uncovered, however tangential it might be. Nonetheless, it is a surprisingly compelling read and should appeal to political junkies and insiders.

Oddly, though, after the meticulous detail that carries the reader through a thousand-plus pages to the moment that Obama announces his candidacy for president, the next nine years are summarily dispatched with in just under 50 pages of an epilogue. The contrast in tone, pacing, and detail is jarring, and the book would have ended more coherently had the author, editor, or publisher decided to lop off the rushed afterthought.

Garrow, after spending nearly a decade on this effort, cannot be accused of harboring undue affection for his subject. The author telegraphs his disdain in ways both large and small, and nowhere more so than in that breakneck epilogue, which offers not only a scathing survey of Obama’s failings in office, but also an assessment of “the tragedy of Barack Obama.”

There is much to parse through, but it does sometimes seem that Garrow’s analysis strains in a molehill-to-mountain attempt to illustrate what he sees as Obama’s central lack of character or moral compass.

And yet: Here is a dark-skinned man who was essentially abandoned by his white mother to be raised by his white grandparents in thoroughly multicultural Hawaii, who, as a 10-year-old, met his African father exactly once, and who did not have a single adult black role model, but who entered adulthood in the mainland U.S., where skin color is white society’s sole arbiter of cultural identity.

Given that, how surprising can it be that Obama needed to forge his own identify and essentially will himself into being? Or that, once on a political path, he would carefully curate the image he wished to project and select the pieces of himself to share or to conceal?

More particularly, Obama’s political career was established and honed in what is certainly in the top handful of notoriously corrupt political systems in the U.S., and still he came out on the other side pretty clean.

To be sure, the portrait that emerges of Obama may be disappointing for his staunch supporters, if only in that it shows that he is not a paragon — though it’s hard to imagine what adult could withstand this level of scrutiny and remain admirable. Obama demonstrates himself to be thin-skinned and prickly, distant and aloof, superior and dismissive. He showed a disheartening penchant for leaving behind without a backward glance people who often worked harder than he did to get himself elected to statewide and national office.

The primary issue, though, seems to be his inability to keep to the right side of the point at which political pragmatism shifts from being a refreshingly balanced, bipartisan give-and-take to becoming a spineless or expedient sacrifice of principles.

There are many examples showing Obama’s willingness to thoroughly explore and listen to all sides of any issue, and to cogently argue positions that he was personally against. When the Democrats finally won the Illinois congressional majority while Obama was a state senator, and while he was preparing for his U.S. Senate run, he worked closely with Illinois law enforcement to address their concerns over his bill to videotape all police interrogations in possible capital cases. He didn’t need to, but doing so won the bill universal and enthusiastic support from all its constituencies, and burnished his reputation as a uniting figure.

As he moved up in political visibility, though, he became far more concerned about optics. Again during his run for U.S. Senate, he voted “present” (basically a “no” vote) on a bill he had co-sponsored, because he was attempting to garner an endorsement from the labor union on the losing end of that bill. Both winning and losing unions were furious at him — though eventually he got both endorsements.

More problematically, in that same timeframe, he let go of one of his longtime loyal staffers because she was a headscarf-wearing member of the Nation of Islam and he felt he couldn’t afford that association — and this was long before the Obama-as-Muslim firestorm.

The “tragedy” of Obama, if there is one, perhaps lies in his premature rise to national celebrity when he could have benefited from a longer period of political seasoning. From his days as a community organizer and with each race he ran, Obama said that he was searching for the spot from which he could truly make good, lasting things happen for regular folks.

And now here he is: a young, charismatic former president who never needs to run for office again. Perhaps with that freedom and national platform, he can prove his sincerity by returning to his roots as a community organizer and rallying a newly energized national community to make good, lasting things happen.

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 MOST FAMOUS WRITER WHO EVER LIVED: A TRUE STORY OF MY FAMILY, Tom Shroder,  Blue Rider Press, 416 pp.

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.

MARY ASTOR’S PURPLE DIARY: THE GREAT AMERICAN SEX SCANDAL OF 1936, Edward Sorel, Liveright, 176 pp.

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.