Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Watching the world go by

6:20 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, July 31, 2012. A really nice summer day, yesterday in New York. Temperature in the mid-70s, sometimes overcast but mostly sunny. I even turned off the fans in my apartment and let a soft breeze in through the window.

I’ve been reading “Citizens of London” by Lynne Olson. The book was published by Random House two years ago. A friend gave it to me as a birthday present then but I hadn’t yet got around to reading it until a couple of weeks ago when my neighbor Joan Hardy Clark told me she’d just finished it and that it was really good.

Click to order.
The cover features the blurb: The Americans Who Stood With Britain In Its Darkest, Finest Hour, along with a photograph of five men on a launch leaving Westminster Pier: Prime Minister Winston Churchill, FDR presidential adviser Harry Hopkins, American Ambassador John Gilbert Winant, American envoy William Bullitt and Lord of the Admiralty A. V. Alexander.

After running into Joan, I pulled the book out from under the pile waiting for me, just to see if I could get a glimpse of “why” she thought it was so good.

I’ve got another sixty pages to go and it is one of those books that as you get deeper into it, you try to read it faster because it’s so interesting/exciting/emotionally-wrought, as well as revelatory about these characters who are now historical on both sides of the Atlantic. The title is misleading (and unfortunately doesn’t reflect the richly, informative, almost novelistic qualities of the historical content) because it’s not just about the Americans but about the British, especially Mr. Churchill. And Mr. Roosevelt. And that time and that place.

I am not a reader of military history so there are probably many out there who have already had the intense pleasure (often accompanied by anxiety) of learning about What Went On and What Happened and Why.

I was surprised to learn that Mr. Roosevelt was capable of making (not always infrequent) unwise, even pedantic decisions. He made some humdingers about a number of things and a number of people when entering and then conducting his war policies.  I was surprised to learn of other men of distinction (in terms of historical reputation) who were just as dopey, not to mention craven, arrogant and egocentric.

Tommy Hitchcock.
Edward R. Murrow.
But then War seems to promote all the armchair generals and ringside seated fightin’ men, be they readers or Presidents. The same with Mr. Churchill. Joe Stalin comes into play too. (Hitler, except for the horror he unleashed on so many millions of innocent people, does not have an up-close-and-personal role in this book, although his presence is the motivation behind everything.) Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt liked General De Gaulle. Franklin Roosevelt, particularly, was not only slow but astoundingly dense in recognizing De Gaulle’s importance to the French people.

But that’s only one small observational nugget in this all-involving story of those five years in London  – from 1940 to 1945 – when the Second World War came to the forefront of the human race, and wreaked its hideous destruction.

There are heroes, which are also somewhat surprising, in the form of John Gilbert (Gil) Winant, the ambassador who succeeded Joe Kennedy who was an arrogant and rich know-it-all, impressed by Hitler’s “success.” There was world famous polo player and ace fighter pilot Tommy Hitchcock; Edward R. Murrow, a budding newsman/broadcaster working for CBS radio, whose on site reporting  as the bombs were falling over London, changed not only the American dialogue about the War in Europe but also the President’s policies. Then there is Dwight D. Eisenhower, a farmer’s son from Abilene, Kansas who ultimately was the man of the hour, and, as history has demonstrated, a great man. 

In retrospect, the victory of the Allies now looks like it was always a foregone conclusion, but “Citizens of London” shows you just how those people involved were never so sure and often didn’t quite know what they were doing in their march to defend themselves against the Nazis.

This is a document to confirm the foibles, the ignorance and the foolhardiness that stalks us all when it comes to decisions in leadership at the highest and brightest, as well as the lowest and pedestrian levels of political power. It is also a document about the power of the most honorable principles when exercised either by design or even by default. It is a book full of lessons for all of us, and most of all for those who are inclined to lead. It is one of those books that each time I must put it down, I find myself saying: “I love this book.”
Today’s NYSD editorial line-up also contain elements of American history of the last century and a half. John Foreman’sBig Old Houses” visits Alder Manor, a mansion in Yonkers designed by Carrere and Hastings (who designed the Frick as well as The New York Public Library) for William Boyce Thompson, a now forgotten but once prominent mining engineer, financier, philanthropist and early supporter of Alexander Kerensky before the Bolsheviks took over the government of Russia.
Mr. Thompson who was born in 1869 in Virginia City, Montana during the great mining era of the West that produced a multitude of major American fortunes including Hearst and Guggenheim.

The rough and tumble of the settling and mining of that part of the country were very much a part of the boy’s childhood but when he was a teenager, his parents sent him to Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire. That decision marked the making of a sophisticated and worldly tycoon who founded Newmont Mining, one of the three biggest mining companies in the world besides Cecil Rhodes’ DeBeers and Ernest Oppenheimer’s Anglo-American Mining. Known for his shrewdness, he was also a man of great intellectual curiosity, especially in the areas of science.

Thompson’s interest in helping the Russians after the fall of the Tsar, led him to prophesy that political stability in the future would depend on the availability of adequate food for the people. With that in mind, in 1920 he founded the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, endowing it with $10 million grant (comparable to $300 million in today’s currency).
The main staircase at Alder Manor.
Coincidences in the editorial backstory. In today’s NYSD we are also running another segment of the Ellen Glendinning Fraser Ordway’ collection of photographs of her life and society that in total run through a half century (1920 – 1970). This chapter is being presented out of chronological order mainly because it is about summertime – in 1962 – in Newport, Rhode Island.

Among the photos is a very rare one of President John F. Kennedy, the year he was inaugurated, It is rare simply because he was wearing only a bathing suit. Presidents photographed in bathing suits are rare. There was one famous one of JFK, taken as he was emerging from a dip in the Pacific in Santa Monica at the time of the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles in 1960. It was widely published at the time and very effective in his campaign public relations. Youth and vigor personified (plus a little movie star quality).  After the nomination was captured, pictures of him without a shirt, were off-limits for public perusal.
Bailey's Beach. Lou Ordway and The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. From the Collection of Gayle Abrams©.
Back then I met a woman, Peggy Downey, who was quite a good amateur photographer (and, coincidentally, the granddaughter of William Boyce Thompson, whose house is featured on today’s Big Old Houses).

Through her husband Morton Downey, the famous radio tenor of the 1930s and 1940s, Peggy Downey was also a Kennedy family friend. She photographed the newly elected President at HyannisPort in the Downeys’ summer residence (which was near the Kennedy compound), seated on a sofa, bare-chested in a bathing suit. The portrait, which was obviously casual yet artful in its capturing the light on the man, was never publicly published. It was also thought to be the only shot of its kind.

Now we learn that Mrs. Downey’s photograph wasn’t the only one of the handsome President in elegant deshabille. Both were taken around about the same time. Ellen Frazer captured her sportif President at Bailey’s Beach Club in Newport, chatting with her husband, who was an old friend, Lou Ordway.

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