Wednesday, November 22, 2017

I was thirteen years old when John Kennedy was assassinated.  Like so many others from that time, the images of that Friday afternoon are riveted in my mind.  I was in my eighth-grade social studies class when the news was announced by a stunned teacher.  School ended shortly after.  I recall that long weekend being characterized by grief and watching, virtually nonstop, the black-and-white television coverage. 

Of course, it was shocking to see Lee Harvey Oswald shot live on television.  Then there was the return of Air Force One to Andrews Air Force Base and the continual updates on funeral arrangements.  The funeral on Monday was probably as dramatic and heartbreaking as possible.  I remember visiting my friend next door and I’ve never forgotten seeing his mother sobbing uncontrollably.

The Kennedy presidency was critical to me for several reasons.  Obviously, it was tied to a carefree time when my great joys were playing, watching and talking baseball while doing all the other fun things children did of that age.  But I also felt personally wounded because I had met Senator Kennedy when he was campaigning in 1960, and he inspired me; my interest in politics, government and history—all lifelong passions—were formed then.  And, finally, I had been deeply affected by the Cuban Missile Crisis, scared and worried as millions of other Americans were; that memory of the previous year was still fresh and associated with the president.

For successive generations the key dates, the ones where you always remember what you were doing when you learned of the tragic event were December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963 and September 11, 2001.  I may forget some family member’s birthdays, but I never forget that day fifty-four years ago.

While some people are obsessed with details of the assassination, it is valuable to consider the many accomplishments of the 1,036 days of the Kennedy administration and legacy of that era.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The front cover of my book, Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House, is finished and available everywhere for preorder.  The book is being published by the Fore Edge imprint of the University Press of New England on April 3, 2018.

Dinner in Camelot focuses on the dinner that President and Mrs. Kennedy hosted for Nobel Prize winners and other American intellectuals in April 1962.  The dinner reflected a “who’s who” of American scientists, writers and scholars at mid-century.  Their interaction had important historical implications.  And it has a message for today.

Among those present were John and Jackie Kennedy, Robert and Ethel Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Linus Pauling, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Robert Frost, Pearl Buck, James Baldwin, Rose and William Styron, John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, John Glenn, Diana and Lionel Trilling, Mary Welsh Hemingway, Frederic March, future Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson, and many more.

It was the dinner where President Kennedy said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Writer, poet and activist Rose Styron has written the foreword.  She and her husband attended the dinner and are highlighted in the book.  William Styron wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice.

More, including early blurbs, at:

Saturday, November 11, 2017

I was delighted to join the crowd in viewing the outstanding Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., today.  The exhibition includes almost seventy works by the seventeenth-century master and several of his contemporaries.

The various rooms of the exhibition included grouping of oils related to such topics as lacemaking, musicians, pendants, courtship and love, and prominent men.  But the focus is on women.  My favorite paintings were Vermeer’s “The Astronomer” (1668) and “The Geographer” (1669). Both of these works show the vibrancy of exploration in the Dutch Republic of that time.

I came to Vermeer and other Dutch painters of the period through my interest in the political and naval power of the Dutch Republic.  I was enthralled by the might of this tiny country which I grew to appreciate through the magnificent work of the American historian John Lothrop Motley,  “The Rise of the Dutch Republic,” a three-volume set published in 1856.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Researching my book Dinner in Camelot, focusing on the dinner President and Mrs. Kennedy hosted for Nobel Prize winners and other American intellectuals in 1962, gave me a rare opportunity to delve into the lives of dozens of fascinating scientists and writers.  An important part of the dinner was conflicting relationships, including  those between Linus Pauling and Robert Oppenheimer, Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, even John Kennedy and Mary Welsh Hemingway.

One especially interesting relationship was between the late Ernest Hemingway, who was honored that night, and John Dos Passos, who was present.  Their friendship, which turned sour in the 1930s, is fairly well documented, and Jamie Morris provides a superb treatment in his book “The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War.”

I tried to look at some unusual connections between the people associated with the dinner.  For example, Oppenheimer and Baldwin, two very different people, had back-to-back articles in the October 1958 issue of Harper’s. 

Hemingway and Dos Passos also had prominent back-to-back articles in the very first issue of Esquire, which appeared in October 1933.  Hem’s article was a brilliant one on fishing, “Marlin off the Morro,” and Dos’s article was “Back Home in 1919.”  This week I finally purchased a good copy of this landmark publication.

The magazine also has articles by Dashiell Hammett, Erskine Caldwell, Ring Lardner, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., mystery writer Vincent Starrett, boxer Gene Tunney, golfer Bobby Jones, and others.  James T. Farrell, another guest at the Nobel Dinner twenty-nine years later, had commentaries on books.  The 118-publication also includes thirty-six color prints and, of course, the period advertisements.  

Friday, October 27, 2017

Theodore Roosevelt was born on his day in 1858.  The larger-than-life twenty-seventh president was an important figure in the early twentieth century.  He inspired great affection as well as enmity as he expanded the power of his office and enhanced the role of the United States in world affairs. 

The countless biographies written about TR show a man in a hurry as he accomplished a great deal in politics and other arenas before he assumed the presidency at the age of forty-two.  Of all the presidents, he was by far the most prolific writer. 

But he became restless when he left public life at an early age.  His efforts to regain a prominent role in American life began with his failed attempt at recapturing the presidency through a quixotic third-party effort in 1912.  By the time he died seven years later he had become increasingly petty and worn, especially after the death of his youngest son in combat. 

Theodore Roosevelt crowded a lot of living and accomplishment in sixty years.  As most strong leaders are, he was a complex figure.  But he left an important legacy, including an aggressive Progressive Party agenda which essentially was consummated by his relative Franklin D. Roosevelt.