REVIEW: Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine

Strauss Cover Ten CaesarsSir Ronald Syme, one of the scholarly giants of 20th century Roman history, frowned on biography, he thought it led to a distortion of analysis.

One doesn’t like to argue with him, but on the other hand, most of us are not scholarly giants and find the lives of real people more interesting than  abstracted historical trends. Excluding biography treats time like distance, and scales down the people of the past, miniaturizing achievement and eccentricity alike.  Whether you accept or reject the Great Man theory of history,  you have to admit, life stories make for entertaining reading.  More to the point, they spark curiosity in students and the general public, who otherwise, may back away from history entirely.

Taken as a job lot, the Roman emperors good and bad provide a  panorama of arresting characters, and in more recent years (the shadow of Syme notwithstanding) classicists have been tip toeing back to the old biographical form.  Old in that one of the pioneering  biographical gossipers, Suetonius, writing in the second century AD gave us the initial juicy joint biography of the first twelve Caesars.  Long form essays, in fact, full of amusing stories some of which must be true, though nailing him down on specifics is a perennial headache for classical scholars, and not finished yet.

Strauss, a professor at Cornell and author of several classical works for a general audiences,  enters the field with Ten Caesars.  He repeats four of Suetonius’s twelve (Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian), and includes Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Diocletian and Constantine.   The inclusions are more or less arbitrary, chosen he says for their strength and success (Nero who was neither strong nor successful, he admits, is stretching this selection policy a bit, but who can resist Nero?).     Another writer might choose other Caesars, but these will do nicely. Continue reading

Review: The Darkest Year: The American Home Front 1941 -1942 by William K. Klingaman

Darkest YearThe cover of Life magazine on December 8, 1941 featured a portrait of a grim faced General Douglas MacArthur.

Fast work, under the circumstances.  In 1940, the magazine had featured an almost even split of attractive women and general interest, with a few foreign military figures.  By 1942 the figures are reversed.  Virtually all military all the time and the government and a cooperative media worked to get people accustomed and even eager to the new reality that would in time see over 400,000 Americans dead on foreign fields.

The covers of Life magazine in 1940 show a more or less even split between attractive women and general interest, a few foreign military subjects.   In 1941, we begin to see stories on the American military – ski troopers, navy bombers,  cavalry men , West Point – George Patton makes the cover in July, fittingly, in color).   By 1942, it’s close to all war all the time. Continue reading

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

the-sixThe Mitford sisters have become an industry.  There are over twenty nine titles concerning them and that does not count their own books- three of them were writers. Only one of them was truly a success, the instigator of the Mitford mythology: Nancy Mitford.

Laura Thompson is contributing her second book to this already crowded section of the biography shelf. The Six, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters is not a straightforward biography.  She has already written about Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate and this is her second attempt at mapping the complicated lives of these siblings only this time by psychological surveillance. Continue reading

Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre (1895 – 1972): Master of All Couturiers

The Master of Us All, Balenciaga His Workrooms, His World
by Mary Blume,
Farrar, Straus, Giroux 2013

Cristobal Balenciaga

The news of Oscar de la Renta’s death this past Monday (Oct.20th 2014) snapped one of the last remaining threads stretched between Balenciaga’s era and our own. As a young man, Mr. de la Renta had worked briefly at Balenciaga and the imprint of the great Spanish designer is on his work. You see it in de la Renta’s architectural designs and his love of deep ruffles. Continue reading

Charles Dickens 1812 -1870: An Actor Turned Writer on a Writer Turned Actor

Charles Dickens and The Great Theatre of the World by  Simon Callow, Vintage Books.

Moliere did it, by all accounts so did Shakespeare, and when you consider that the actor’s greatest tool is observation, and their greatest use of it, characterization, you wonder why writers, who also have to create characters, don’t cross this line more often than they do.  But writers are introverted people – aren’t they? They are alienated, self absorbed, at odds with the cosmos they inhabit, unconcerned by such quotidian niceties as the physical world around them – aren’t they?

Maybe not.  Charles Dickens certainly was not.  If anyone was ever forced into this world like a needle into an epidermis, then surely it was Dickens.  He was the most tirelessly observant person anyone could remember ever meeting. Without looking at anything in particular, Dickens wrote of himself as a young man, he had missed nothing.  How many of us can say the same? Continue reading

Richard Burton 1925-1984: Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams, Yale University Press.

One of the great pleasures of Melvyn Bragg’s biography of Richard Burton is the liberal sprinkling from the man’s diaries.  Bragg’s book passed between my wife and me for some weeks when it came out, the funnier selections read aloud, and we regretted mightily that the rest of Burton’s own prose was out of reach.

Good news came last year when it was announced that the whole of it would be given to the Swansea University with a view to eventual publication.

Better news now that about a quarter of the whole has been published.  This was the stuff we’d been waiting for.*

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Wallis Warfield Simpson 1896 -1986; Love, Actually, After A Fashion

That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, Anne Sebba, St. Martin’s Press

Wallis Warfield Simpson is a figure of fascination to generations of women and young girls.  Her story is so romantic-on its face- that most of us cannot resist yet another biography. However, there is another view of Wallis that inverts the whole fairy tale and turns it into a tale of grotesques, hobbling along a doomed path tethered together for a lifetime, something designed to torment the damned in one of Dante’s lower circles of hell.  Biographers see the same picture, some one way up, and some topsy turvy, and in Ms. Sebba’s case it is the upside down version that fills her book with intimations of deformities, neurosis, and disease. Continue reading

Count Sergei Witte, 1849-1915: Another Man of Steel

Tales of Imperial Russia: The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849-1915, Francis Wcislo, Oxford University Press.

A minor Russian aristocrat of German-Baltic roots, hence the surname, and a cousin of Madame Blavatsky.  His own mysterious powers were  a little more earthbound  than hers.

Witte was one of those provincial top-of-the-class boys who was smarter than you and he knew it.  He shamed his parents by opting to study mathematics rather than law at U of Odessa, with the aim of teaching at the college level.  That was apparently too low an ambition for the family, and therefore scotched.

Instead he went into the high tech hot subject of the day – railroads. Continue reading

Thomas Becket, 1115-1170: Separation of Church and State, Act One

Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel by John Guy,  Random House.

The Jean Anouilh play Becket pretty much confirms the power of art on an unsuspecting public.   Think Henry II and the reasonably educated person will get an image of King Peter O’Toole and his one time drinking buddy Richard Burton.  While Peter is always an engaging sort of rogue, Richard does really have the power of right on his side.  He being a saint and all.

So basically the fix has been in since 1959. Probably time enough for another look-see.  To that end, Mr. Guy’s book gives us a more historically accurate but just as entertaining a rendering of reality.

Continue reading

Theodore Roosevelt, 1858-1919; Bully for Him

 Theodore Roosevelt by Lewis L. Gould, Oxford University Press.

In an age of the kitchen-sink-and-all cinderblock biography,  the art of the short potted life story was for some years neglected.  Then Penguin began to put out the Brief Lives series and rekindled the format.  A good thing, really.  Life is short.

At 78 pages of text, Gould’s Theodore Roosevelt  runs the risk of being a little too brief, not quite Wikipedia fodder, but still, pushing the limits.  Bit of a tour de force, considering all that the author has to include-  Roosevelt forebears, childhood, schooling, stints as New York State Assemblyman, Governor of New York, Vice President, deputy sheriff in the Dakota Territory, Police Commissioner of New York  City, U.S. Civil Service Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Lieutenant Colonel United States Army, Vice President, president, and post-president.  Each one is enough for a book, and in some cases have gotten them. Continue reading