Thursday, May 31, 2018

the last book I ever read (A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey, excerpt three)

from A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey:

It took me a while to realize that Giuliani’s confidence was not leavened with a whole lot of humility. The cost of that imbalance was that there was very little oxygen left for others. An early clue was my first press conference. I had worked with the FBI to bust a criminal ring that was stealing SUVs from Manhattan parking garages and loading them on shipping containers in the Bronx. The containers were the hustled onto ships bound for Africa or the Caribbean, where the cars were resold. The investigation, led by Special Agent Mary Ellen Beekman, who had been a Roman Catholic nun before joining the Bureau, had penetrated the operation was secretly photographing the loading. Mary Ellen’s specialty was car-theft rings and convincing hardened criminals to become government informants. And although she didn’t apprive of the foul language so common in law enforcement, she was an extraordinary interrogator; she had retained from her prior career the ability to use guilt in powerful ways to make thugs melt. The thieves in this case were so efficient that cars were on their way out of the country before being reported stolen. It was a cool case, and the FBI and Giuliani decided to do a press conference.

My supervisor told me I was to stand behind the podium while Giuliani, the NYPD commissioner, and the head of the FBI’s New York office spoke to the press. I was not, under any circumstances, to speak or move. He then repeated a line I had heard before: “The most dangerous place in New York is between Rudy and a microphone.” I stood frozen in the back, looking like an extra from a basketball movie who had wandered onto the wrong set.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

the last book I ever read (A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey, excerpt two)

from A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey:

The Ramsey Rapist didn’t drive me to law enforcement in any conscious way, at least not immediately. I still thought I wanted to be a doctor, and became a premed student with a chemistry major at the College of William & Mary. But one day I was headed to a chem lab and noticed the word DEATH on a bulletin board. I stopped. It was an advertisement for a class in the religion department, which shared the building with the chemistry department. I took the course, and everything changed. The class allowed me to explore a subject of intense interest to me and see how religions of the world dealth with death. I added religion as a new second major.

The religion department introduced me to the philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose work resonated with me deeply. Niebuhr saw the evil in the world, understood that human limitations make it impossible for any of us to really love another as ourselves, but still painted a compelling picture of our obligation to try to see justice in a flawed world. He never heard country music artist Billy Currington sing, “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy,” but he would have appreciated the lyric and, although it wouldn’t make the song a hit, he probably would have added, “And you still must try to achieve a measure of justice in our imperfect world.” And justice, Niebuhr believed, could be best sought through the instruments of government power. Slowly it dawned on me that I wasn’t going to be a doctor after all. Lawyers participate much more directly in the search for justice. That route, I thought, might be the best way to make a difference.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

the last book I ever read (A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey, excerpt one)

from A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey:

October 28, 1977, the day that changed my life, was a Friday. For most of the New York area, the prior few months were known as the Summer of Sam, when the city and its suburbs were gripped by a serial killer preying on couples sitting in cars. But for northern New Jersey, it was the summer—and fall—of the Ramsey Rapist. The attacker was named for the dozen attacks that had begun in a town called Ramsey; our town, sleepy Allendale, was just to the south.

Hearing heavy steps on the creaking basement stairs and a low growl from our dog, Pete jumped up and moved out of view. But the gunman knew he was there. He pointed a handgun and ordered my brother to come out from his hiding place. He asked if anyone else was home. Pete lied and said no.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt eighteen)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

Americans today know little about the terrorism that engulfed the South during Grant’s presidency. It has been suppressed by a strange national amnesia. The Klan’s ruthless reign is a dark, buried chapter in American history. The Civil War is far better known than its brutal aftermath. Without knowing that history, it is easy to find fault with Grant’s tough, courageous actions. For Grant, Reconstruction amounted to a tremendous missed opportunity: “There has never been a moment since Lee surrendered that I would not have gone more than halfway to meet the Southern people in a spirit of conciliation. But they have never responded to it.” To protect blacks, Grant had been forced to send in federal troops whose presence provoked a virulent reaction among southern whites who believed their home states had been invaded by hated Yankees a second time. Despite Grant’s best efforts at Appomattox, the breach of the Civil War never healed but became deeply embedded in American political culture.

By the end of Grant’s second term, white Democrats, through the “redeemer” movement, had reclaimed control of every southern state, winning in peacetime much of the power lost in combat. They promulgated a view of the Civil War as a righteous cause that had nothing to do with slavery but only states’ right—to which an incredulous James Longstreet once replied, “I never heard of any other cause of the quarrel than slavery.” In this view, Reconstruction imposed “an oppressive peace on honorable men who had laid down their arms.” But the South never laid down its arms. When it came to African Americans, southern Democrats managed to re-create the status quo ante, albeit minus slavery.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt seventeen)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

The Sioux had acquired the reputation, Sherman said, of being “the most brave and warlike Savages of this Continent.” By late May, Phil Sheridan confessed that his two department commanders, Generals Crook and Terry, hadn’t the foggiest idea where Sitting Bull and his Sioux warriors had fled. Sheridan took refuge in the illusion that a large body of hostile Indians couldn’t remain cohesive for long and even imagined that the approach of three columns would herd them back onto the reservation. Shattering such na├»ve expectations on June 17, Crazy Horse led a band of warriors against the thousand-man column under General Crook, dealing them a bloody setback and driving them rearward to their base camp. As Custer drifted westward toward his doom, he knew nothing of this stunning defeat.

As the nation got ready to solemnize its centennial on July 4, reports filtered back that Custer and 263 of his men in the Seventh Cavalry had been annihilated by Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors along the Little Bighorn River in southern Montana, their mutilated bodies strewn among the hills. Custer was found naked, a bullet hole in his head, a gash in his thigh, an arrow piercing his penis. Supposed to be marching toward a rendezvous with Generals Terry and John Gibbon, he had arrived too soon, failed to wait for other troops, and confronted alone an enormous Indian force favored with overpowering numbers. “I deeply deplore the loss of Custer and his men,” Sheridan wrote. “I feel it was an unnecessary sacrifice, due to a misapprehension and a superabundance of courage—the latter extraordinarily developed in Custer.”

Friday, May 25, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt sixteen)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

Following a grand fireworks display, the elaborate inaugural ball that evening was a dismal affair that did not bode well for Grant’s second term. A cavernous wooden building, lit with gas chandeliers, had been especially constructed for the occasion, with an enormous eagle, streaming the national colors from its claws, suspended from the ceiling. To camouflage the rough wood structure, the walls were draped with so much white muslin it was nicknamed “the Muslin Palace.” Hundreds of canaries were imported to warble their greetings to three thousand guests. In a courageous move, Grant invited black guests, leading some members of the Washington beau monde to boycott the event in protest at this racial mixing.

The whole ostentatious affair was undone by a simple design flaw: the big barnlike room lacked heat. As guests arrived, they were shocked by the frosty temperature and attempted to dance in their fur wraps, hats, and overcoats to keep warm. Champagne, food, and ice cream froze in the arctic air. By the time Ulysses, Julia, and Nellie Grant arrive at 1:30 p.m., canaries had started to keel over and die in droves on their perches, the first martyrs to Grant’s second term. The presidential family decided not to tarry long and the dwindling crowd, seeing their chance to escape the deep freeze, had piled out of the hall by the stroke of midnight.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt fifteen)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

Grant was the first president to confront the feminist movement as a viable political force. The same fervor for equality that generated abolitionism had spurred on feminists, who created the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. While Grant showed sympathy for women’s rights, he didn’t cover himself with glory on the issue. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other feminist leaders had opposed the Fifteenth Amendment unless the sequel was a Sixteenth granting women the right to vote. They wanted black and women’s suffrage to advance hand in hand. In spring 1972, a New York conference composed predominantly of women, under the banner of the Equal Rights Party, nominated thirty-four-year-old Victoria Woodhull as its first female candidate for president—she was legally too young to be president—on a platform dedicated to female voting rights. Two years earlier, Woodhull, a prophetess of free love, and her sister Tennessee Claflin had opened the first female brokerage house on Wall Street, secretly aided, it was said, by Cornelius Vanderbilt. On Election Day 1872, Woodhull would up in jail, imprisoned for sending obscene materials through the mail, her paper having broadcast salacious details of Henry Ward Beecher’s alleged philandering.

When the Republican Party met in Philadelphia that June, Susan B. Anthony implored the platform committee to take a stand for women’s suffrage. She got a rhetorical nod in that direction, what she termed a “splinter” in the platform, urging “respectful consideration to the rights of women.” Anthony, a temperance advocate, associated Grant with drink. When a reporter asked if he was her favorite candidate, she replied, “So far, yes. Personally, I do not admire Grant, and do not care to see a ‘fast man’ at the head of the nation; but . . . principles to me are more than individual character.” When the reporter asked whether Grant was friendly to the women’s movement, she answered, “Yes, and his wife, who is said to influence him greatly, is with us heart and soul. Grant’s letter of acceptance pleases me, inasmuch as the last paragraph recommends ‘equal rights to all citizens,’ which is evidently a sop thrown to us women.” When Democrats met in Baltimore to nominate Greeley, an opponent of female suffrage, Anthony came out foursquare for Grant: “The mountain has brought forth its mole, and we are left to comfort ourselves with the Philadelphia splinter as best we may.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt fourteen)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

Handsome, Harvard-educated, a cosmopolitan traveler, Sumner had long been adored by abolitionists. Right before the Civil War, his antislavery crusade led the South Carolina representative Preston Brooks to thrash him severely with a cane on the Senate floor, transforming him into a secular saint. As he droned on in endless, windy speeches, the sanctimonious Sumner was easier to admire than love. A cold, humorless bachelor, he sashayed around Washington with his walking stick, glorying in his self-importance. As Grant’s son Jesse recalled, he “was a tall man of commanding appearance, rendered doubly conspicuous by the garments he wore . . . He always wore the most glaring clothes I have ever seen on a civilized man: heavy plaids in vividly contrasting colors, looming above a foundation of white spats.” Sumner’s mandarin hauteur stood opposed to Grant’s modesty and his baroque language was a world apart from Grant’s spare eloquence.

Grant had admitted Sumner’s statesmanship and ardent abolitionism. Sumner, for his part, had high praise for Grant as a soldier, but reluctantly endorsed him for president and only belatedly threw his weight behind him during the 1868 race. Dismissing Grant as an intellectual lightweight, he fancied he would function as Grant’s tutor on foreign policy and expected to be named secretary of state as a reward for his support. His hopes were dashed when his friend Fish beat him out for the post, and he bristled further as Grant toed an independent line in foreign policy. With a sense of senatorial privilege, Sumner expected to dominate American foreign policy and suggested appointments. “Mr. Sumner . . . who is the idol of the reformers, was among the first senators to ask for offices for his friends,” Grant noted. “He expected offices as a right.” Chairing the Foreign Relations Committee, he also expected his views to prevail. Sumner typified a Senate that had grown arrogant and imperious, demanding patronage as the price of its cooperation with the president. The press and reformers expected Grant to tame the headstrong Senate, a clash that would come to a head in his conflict with Sumner.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt thirteen)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

After his testimony, Grant felt badly in need of a breather from the poisonous atmosphere of Washington. For the first time, he and Julia took a seaside cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey, a hideaway where Grant could revert to a life suited him more. The town had recently become a fashionable watering hole for millionaires. The waterfront house on Ocean Avenue was three stories high with a shingled roof and two glassed-in observatories. Twice a day Grant rode in a carriage to breathe in tangy salt air before returning to the house and poring over mail and newspapers on the verandah. Staying in Long Branch struck him as a guilty pleasure. “Every day that I am absent from Washington,” he informed Stanton, “I see something in the papers or hear something, that makes me feel that I should be there.” At the same time, he admitted wistfully that “I have got so tired of being tired down that I am nearly ready to desert.”

Monday, May 21, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt twelve)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

In early March, Grant applied to Johnson to have his fifteen-year-old son Fred admitted to West Point and he was promptly accepted. Grant and longtime aide Theodore Bowers shepherded Fred to the academy for his entrance exams a few days later. Bowers was a thirty-three-year-old bachelor and former newspaperman from Illinois, a handsome, bearded young man with dark, wavy hair and expressive eyes. The Grant family had delighted in his self-deprecating humor. On the way home, Grant boarded the train at Garrison Station, across the Hudson River from the academy, but Bowers, running late, tried to leap onto the train as it left the station. Unable to find a solid footing, he got trapped between the train and the platform and was dragged along, then fell to the tracks and was run over by one wheel, which mangled his face, severed his arms, and killed him on the spot. When Grant got off the train to see what had happened, the rails were streaked with blood, his friend’s body twisted beyond recognition. Those with Grant admired his stoic calm as he drafted orders to dispose of the body. Crushed by the calamity, he told Sherman, “The loss of poor Bowers is one that I feel more keenly than it is usually possible for anyone to feel for another not an immediate member of their own family.” It was typical of Grant to respond profoundly to death with inner grief but no outward show of emotion.

After attending Bowers’s funeral at West Point, Grant returned to a capital preoccupied with the civil rights bill introduced by Radical Republicans to mollify Black Codes in the South that prevented freedmen from owning property, making contracts, and filing lawsuits. Though silent on voting rights, the bill sought to bring the full blessings of citizenship to anyone born in the United States, including blacks, protecting them by the “full and equal benefit of all laws.” (Native Americans were excluded.) This landmark legislation defined citizenship rights in a new manner that made the federal government, not the states, the guarantor of basic liberties.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt eleven)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

On February 7, President Johnson met at the White House with five black leaders, including Frederick Douglass, who came to lobby for a civil rights bill. The black leaders were treated in a tasteless, abusive manner. After they shook hands with the president, their spokesman, George T. Downing, said they hoped he would support voting rights for blacks, which elicited a bizarre, rambling monologue from Johnson. He admitted to having owned slaves, but boasted of never having sold one, as if that would somehow ingratiate him with his visitors. He presented himself as a kindly master who had been “their slave instead of their being mine.” To promote civil rights, Johnson went on, would “result in the extermination of one [race] or the other.” If given the vote, “the colored man and his master, combined,” would conspire to keep poor whites “in slavery,” denying them a portion “of the rich land of the country.” After the bewildered delegation filed out, Johnson boasted to his secretary, “Those damned sons of bitches thought they had me in a trap.”

Saturday, May 19, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt ten)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

With the war’s end in sight, questions emerged as to whether the Confederate leaders should be treated leniently or harshly. While Lincoln seemed inclined toward leniency, Vice President Andrew Johnson, in a speech celebrating Richmond’s fall, previewed a more vindictive spirit. When his allusion to Jefferson Davis elicited shouts of “Hang him! Hang him!” Johnson appeased the bloodthirsty crowd. “Yes, I say hang him twenty times.” He then extended his retributive wrath to include other ringleaders of the rebellion. “When you ask me what I would do, my reply is—I would arrest them, I would try them, I would convict them, and I would hang them . . . Treason must be made odious.”

Friday, May 18, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt nine)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

On his way back to City Point, Grant stayed at the Willard Hotel to confer with Lincoln. Stanton felt poorly from overwork and, in the election’s aftermath, some enemies schemed to oust him. Lincoln promised Grant that, if any change occurred, he would be consulted about his successor. Gruff though Stanton was, Grant transcended petty politics and judged the war secretary on his true merits. “I doubt very much whether you could select as efficient a Secretary of War as the present incumbent,” Grant assured Lincoln. “He is not only a man of untiring energy and devotion to duty, but even his worst enemies never for a moment doubt his personal integrity and the purity of his motives.” With election-year politics over, Grant submitted a list of eight major generals and thirty-three brigadiers whom he wanted drummed out of the service. Some were political generals, including Franz Sigel, John McClernand, and Carl Schurz, whose military ability Grant had long questioned, and he would pay dearly after the war for their enmity. Some names on the list frankly surprised Lincoln. “Why, I find that lots of the officers on this list are very close friends of yours; do you want them all dropped?” Grant’s response was patriotic: “That’s very true, Mr. President; but my personal friends are not always good generals.”

Thursday, May 17, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt eight)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

While Grant and Butler conferred, they took time out to review a black brigade camped nearby. The subject of black soldiers still occupied Grant’s mind. On April 15, he learned of a horrifying cavalry raid conducted by Nathan Bedford Forrest against Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River in Tennessee. Forrest had slaughtered dozens of black soldiers after they surrendered, slashing and bludgeoning the wounded till they succumbed. “The Fort Pillow Massacre is one of the most brutal and horrible acts of fiendishness on record,” Rawlins reported to his wife. Grant reacted with outrage. “If men have been murdered after capture,” he warned Sherman, “retaliation must be resorted to promptly.” As proof of his foe’s inhumanity, Grant liked to quote the boastful dispatch Forrest filed after the episode: “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards . . . It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”

Further proof of Grant’s continuing concern for black soldiers was his uncompromising stand on prisoner exchanges. The previous year, Jefferson Davis had announced his intention of either executing captured black soldiers of returning them to slavery. This double standard for black and white Union soldiers was intolerable to Grant. In negotiating prisoner exchanges, he told Butler no distinction should be made between “white and colored prisoners; the only question being, were they, at the time of their capture, in the military service of the United States.” To back up his point, Grant suspended prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy until black and white equality was established. Even though he didn’t believe they had attained the same proficiency as the most experienced white troops, Grant continued to insist that black soldiers should be employed as widely as possible. In laying out instructions for Banks’s expedition up the Red River, he had expressed hope that “a large number of [black] recruits of this class” would be used. Having conferred with Butler, Grant was ready, at last, to take on Lee.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt seven)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

In many ways, George Gordon Meade was the antithesis of Grant. A patrician figure from Philadelphia, fluent in French, he had graduated from West Point and was well versed in military literature. With a gaunt, sallow face, bald pate, and graying beard, he had bags drooping below eyes that bulged behind oversize spectacles. Meade was forever jealous of his reputation. Thin-skinned and cantankerous, he seldom enjoyed calm moments and grew easily upset, spluttering with ungovernable rage whenever his pride was uninjured. This led to his nickname, the Old Goggle-Eyes Snapping Turtle, and it wasn’t meant affectionately. His battlefield style was frenetic: he would explode with colossal energy, curse a blue streak, then pace with fury behind the lines. “No man, no matter what his business of his service, approached him without being insulted in one way or another,” Charles Dana wrote, “and his own staff officers did not dare to speak to him unless first spoken to, for fear of either sneers or curses.” Meade later became notorious among the press corps when he seized a reporter who had criticized him, hung a scurrilous sign around his neck that said “Libeler of the Press,” placed him backward on a mule, and ran him out of camp. For all his flaws, Meade was a competent commander and an experienced professional and was recognized as such by his peers. When apprised the year before that Meade had taken command of the Army of the Potomac, Robert E. Lee reacted respectfully, saying Meade “would commit no blunders on my front, and if I make one he will make haste to take advantage of it.” Still, his failure to pursue Lee after Gettysburg revealed that Meade was not a bold, enterprising leader in the mold of either Grant or Lee.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt six)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

The first order of business, Grant concluded, was to restore health and troop morale by prying open a new water and land route to bring in food from the key rail juncture at Bridgeport, Alabama. The Union army controlled the railroad all the way from Nashville to that spot. The new route would be nicknamed the “cracker line,” a tribute to the hard biscuits munched by the men. Smith and others had devised a plan to seize control of the serpentine Tennessee River at a point north of Lookout Mountain. Supplies would be taken by a direct wagon road to a spot known as Brown’s Ferry, shifted across the Tennessee by pontoon bridge, then moved across a spit of land known as Moccasin Bend. However tortuous this route seemed, it promised a much shorter road to Bridgeport than the forbidding, rocky mountain road now inadequately serving that purpose. Grant, Thomas, and Smith inspected Brown’s Ferry and confirmed that it stood well beyond the range of powerful Confederate guns staring down from Lookout Mountain.

Monday, May 14, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt five)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

Among the generals who did not cover themselves with glory was Lew Wallace, a short, pale man with a dark beard, flowing mustache, and smouldering gaze that betokened a latent romanticism. He had worked as a lawyer in Indiana and served in the state legislature; in after years he would distinguish himself as the author of Ben-Hur. As the battle unfolded at Shiloh, Grant sent word to Wallace at around 11 a.m. to bring his veteran division from Crump’s Landing to Pittsburg Landing along a road by the Tennessee River. Since the distance to be covered was no more than six miles, Grant expected these critical reinforcements to arrive by noon or 1 p.m., shoring up forces on his right who had withstood blistering fire. After an agonizing wait, Wallace never arrived. He marched his men on a long, circuitous route away from Pittsburg Landing and failed to join the main army until nightfall, when the day’s fighting had ended.

A furious Grant thought him insubordinate and believed that by circling around with his army, Wallace had hoped to land on the enemy’s rear and emerge with heroic splendor. Like Grant, Rawlins was indignant, arguing that there was no excuse for a division commander to “march and countermarch all day within sound of a furious battle, less than five miles away, without getting into it.” Enraged at such accusations, Wallace spent the rest of his life reliving that day and trying to wipe away the Shiloh stigma from his name. He claimed he had been told by Captain Algernon Baxter to “effect a junction with the right of the army” and had strictly followed orders. For years, Wallace would ply Grant with argumentative letters, hoping to persuade him he had acted honorably. Grant thought Lew Wallace typical of politically well-connected generals who had risen to excessively high positions. This problem bedeviled the North, where there were deep divisions in the electorate, forcing Lincoln to curry favor with opposition politicians by plucking generals from their ranks. Whatever the truth of what happened, there is little doubt that the timely arrival of Wallace’s division might have allowed Grant to reverse the tide of battle and even switch into an offensive mode on Shiloh’s first day.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt four)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

Both Grant and Sherman were damaged souls who would redeem tarnished reputations in the brutal crucible of war. They were both haunted men, tough and manly on the outside, but hypersensitive to criticism, and they sustained each other at troubled moments. Even though Sherman was more prolix and irascible than Grant, their letters display generosity, trust, and mutual admiration. As one of Grant’s officers wrote, “In all the annals of history no correspondence between men in high station furnishes a nobler example of genuine, disinterested personal friendship and exalted loyalty to a great cause.

Sherman spent decades pondering the mystery of Grant’s personality. “He is a strange character,” he wrote. “Nothing like it is portrayed by Plutarch or the many who have striven to portray the great men of ancient or modern times.” While never as talkative as Sherman, Grant opened up to him and even confided in him about his drinking problem. “We all knew at the time that Genl. Grant would occasionally drink too much,” said Sherman. “He always encouraged me to talk to him frankly of this and other things and I always noticed that he could with an hour’s sleep wake up perfectly sober and bright, and when anything was pending he was invariably abstinent of drink.” With facetious overstatement, Sherman once remarked, “He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now, sir, we stand by each other always.”

Saturday, May 12, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt three)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president in a vote full of troubling omens. Besides winning less than 40 percent of the popular vote, he did not win a single vote in the Deep South, where his name failed to appear on the ballot; he carried every northern state, except for New Jersey, where he managed a split with Douglas. Almost universally underrated, Lincoln was deemed a mediocrity at best, a coarse bumpkin from the backwoods. Grant’s fortuitous move to Illinois on the eve of the election had monumental consequences, conveniently situating him in the president’s home state and overtly pro-Union northern Illinois. It also placed him in the district of Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, an emphatic Lincoln supporter. Had Grant remained in Missouri, riven by internal strife, he would never have enjoyed the same chance for rapid advancement in the coming war.

Friday, May 11, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt two)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

Nothing bothered Julia more than insinuations that her husband was an illiterate yahoo. To save her eyes, he read aloud to her for hours each evening, and they plowed through hundreds of books. Mary Robinson confirmed that Grant was unusually bookish. “Most of his leisure time he spent in reading. He was one of the greatest readers I ever saw.” Grant retained special affection for Dickens, especially The Pickwick Papers, Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Oliver Twist. “He rarely laughed aloud,” said his son Fred, “but his eyes would twinkle over a good bit of wit, and occasionally, when very much pleased, he would utter a gentle laugh, which held the essence of mirth.”

Thursday, May 10, 2018

the last book I ever read (Grant by Ron Chernow, excerpt one)

from Grant by Ron Chernow:

The extended stay in Corpus Christi, a hotbed of smuggling, generated worries that idle soldiers would be corrupted by the lax atmosphere. The town’s civilian population had burgeoned to one thousand and was not of the most savory sort, the place reviled by one officer as “the most murderous, thieving, gambling, cut-throat, God-forsaken hole” in Texas. Commanding officers thought performing plays might stave off debauchery among the soldiers. By January, Corpus Christi boasted two new theaters, including one holding eight hundred people and playing to packed houses nightly, with officers usually handling both male and female roles. After suitable costumes were obtained from New Orleans, the decision was made to stage Othello. The first choice for Desdemona was James Longstreet, who stood six feet tall and would have towered over Othello, so the prudish Grant was drafted instead. This seems an unlikely choice until we recall that Emma Dent thought him “pretty as a doll,” while Longstreet alluded to his “girlish modesty.” As it turned out, Theodoric Porter, playing Othello, couldn’t work up enough body heat around Grant. “Porter said it was bad enough to play the part with a woman in the cast,” said Longstreet, “and he could not pump up any sentiment with Grant dressed up as Desdemona.” To put Porter out of his misery, Grant was cashiered and a professional actress imported from New Orleans.

Monday, May 7, 2018

the last book I ever read (The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, excerpt twelve)

from The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois:

MICHAEL KRASS (costume designer of national tour, 1994-95): Prior needed a coat. They were outside at the fountain, he needed a coat to do the benediction in. I had a brother, who died of AIDS, we think, it was very early on, and I had his coat. So Prior wore his coat for the benediction, for the year of touring. I wore it the other day and thought about it.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

the last book I ever read (The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, excerpt eleven)

from The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois:

STEPHEN SPINELLA (Prior in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, 1988-94): Every time I played him he got more confident. I think Tony constructed the perfect guy to go through all that. He became more tenacious the sicker he got. And he just got stronger and more confident the sicker he got. He begins the play terrified. The terror never really goes away—it’s the way he deals with the terror.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

the last book I ever read (The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, excerpt ten)

from The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois:

ELLEN McLAUGHLIN (the Angel in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, 1990-94): John Deary, who made the wings for Broadway, had AIDS. He was quite sick while he was making those wings. They were gorgeous, an incredible accomplishment, because they were enormous, but they were light enough for me to wear—something like twenty-five pounds of aluminum and feathers—and I could close and open them with the movements of my back muscles. They were the last thing he created. He made it to opening night, he got to see them, and he died soon thereafter. I felt like I carried him on my back after he died and I was always grateful for the extraordinary care he expended on them. They were something to behold.

Friday, May 4, 2018

the last book I ever read (The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, excerpt nine)

from The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois:

ELLEN McLAUGHLIN (the Angel in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, 1990-94): A few months into the run, the woman who gave me my massage on Fridays before the show said, “It’s the weirdest thing. You seem to be developing wing muscles.” Because there were these ridges of muscle I’d developed alongside my spine where I flexed the wings, opening and closing them. She said she’d never seen anything like it. It was as if there were some residual muscles that humans didn’t have anymore that I had reawakened.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

the last book I ever read (The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, excerpt eight)

from The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois:

ROCCO LANDESMAN (producer, head of Jujamcyn): Personally, I think the show is a bit long, particularly in Perestroika. I was lobbying for cuts and got none of them. Tony was very gracious. He would hear me out politely and do what he wanted to do, which was not cut. It was like a conversation with August Wilson but worse.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

the last book I ever read (The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, excerpt seven)

from The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois:

TONY KUSHNER: It’s also, you know, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album, or London Calling and Sandinista!—you know. You discipline yourself to write something that’s tight. And then you just let your brain splatter all over the page.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

the last book I ever read (The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, excerpt six)

from The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois:

CYNTHIA MACE (Harper in Los Angeles, 1992): (Long pause.) Write down “long pause.”

I said to Tony, I want to go home—meaning New York—and I trust you’ll do the right thing.

No one was sleeping. We were getting ulcers. We all heard that George C. Wolfe said—and he was right—that he couldn’t take the whole production if he was going to make it his own. It was like baseball: “I’ll trade you the two Mormons and the black guy.”