What I’ve Been Reading (20 cents)

I have been rightfully accused of ignoring this blog for a few weeks, and I admit it. But is that a crime? (In fact, what is a crime? Did Gov. Blagojevich commit crimes, when only 11 of 12 jurors wanted to convict him on all counts? Did Roger Clemens commit a crime beyond the one he pleads guilty to, namely “being too nice to people”? Etc. Etc.)

I can also be accused of wasting too much time watching Nationals games (that’s a baseball team, or it tries to be), of spending too much time at the office, of going to sleep too early, and of subscribing to too many newspapers.

But you don’t want excuses. So, the least I can do is tell you that I’ve read some interesting books over the last couple of weeks that you might want to consider. In brief, here goes:

1. I’ve long been interested in the origins of World War I, that horrible breakdown of European society that led to millions of deaths for no apparent reason, and started off all of the horrors of the 20th century, continuing to the present time. I’d read over the years some general histories of the period, and in college read A.J.P. Taylor’s famous book about the origins of the war. And of course, I had focused on German armament (especially naval), the murder of the Archduke in Sarajevo, and the apparent inevitable falling of national dominoes. I’ve often wondered if there was a right or a wrong side here – and would it have made a difference in Germany and Austria-Hungary had won.

This time, I picked up David Fromkin’s 2004 book, Europe’s Last Summer, concentrating on what started out to be the beautiful summer of 1914. Fromkin’s basic thesis (which is convincingly presented) is that this war was in fact a German war, and that considering that German military interests wanted to fight, there was no way to stop it. And the murder of the Archduke was an excuse, not the ultimate cause of the conflict.

Feelings of German arrogance and superiority, feelings that the 1870 war with France was not really concluded, and that recently united Germany was the natural leader of Europe. Belief in Germany that it had made a mistake not getting involved in colonial enterprises, and that it needed to make its mark outside of Europe as well. Germany believing that England and Russia were potential enemies whose natural size and economic strength would make them invincible and its determination that now was the time to deliver them a knock out blow. The desire to bring in Austria (not then a warlike country) into its fold, manipulating Austria to declare war on Serbia, and manipulating Russia to come to Serbia’s defense, making plans to support Austria, and developing ultimate plans to attack Russia’s ally France by invading neutral Holland and Belgium, and at the same time challenging England on the oceans. All these plans in place well before the first shot was fired.

Fromkin tells the story very well. The book is highly recommended.

2. But my reading of Fromkin was not enough to satisfy me, and I stumbled upon Barbara Tuchman’s 1959 book, The Zimmerman Telegram. Another highly recommended book (this was Tuchman’s first). The Zimmerman telegraph, as you may recall, was an encrypted telegram in 1917 from the German foreign minister to Mexican governmental officials proposing that Mexico (and Japan) declare war on the US, with German help, and that after the end of the successful war, the former Mexican territory now part of the United States would be returned to Mexico (this would include TX NM and AZ). It was this telegram that finally convinced Woodrow Wilson, the man who just won reelection by keeping us out of war, that we would have to go to war.

The Tuchman book meshes well with Fromkin’s book written 45 years later. The war in 1917 was going nowhere, except that millions of people were being killed and the destruction of European civilization was accelerating. The Germans were still certain they would win, based on their mastery of the sea. This mastery would come when they agreed to permit their u-boats to attack neutral vessels, thus strangling England, the only strong power against them. But they knew that they had to keep America out of the war. They didn’t think this was to be difficult – Wilson was an idealistically anti-war president, and American was filled with native born Germans and citizens with German ancestry who Germany felt would rally to their cause and blunt any American attempt to enter the conflict on the side of England. On the other hand, they knew that targeting and attacking American ships would cause a strong reaction and they had to prepared if the United States did decide to declare war – and this meant that they wanted Mexico and Japan to attack the United States, thus diverting the country from the European theater.

I am simplifying all the machinations, and spy activity, and code breaking, and politics (American and Mexican) that went on. But if you read The Zimmerman Telegram, you will learn about an aspect of American history that might surprise you, to say the least.

3. The third book was Anita Leslie’s Clare Sheridan, the biography of the author’s great-aunt, and the first cousin of Winston Churchill, daughter of one of three Jerome sisters (her mother and Winston’s mother were sisters), whose mother married and Englishman whose schemes lost much more money than they made, and whose husband was killed in World War I, when Clare was a young woman, with two small children. Bright and flamboyant, she was also a talented sculptor and writer, and decided to use her connections to meet, interview, write about, and sculpt the famous people of the world. That would include the Soviets – Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, and others, as well as Mussolini, various European royalty, Ataturk and others. Her trip to the USSR (something English women in the early 1920s just did not do) was harrowing and eye opening, and backfired, as her anti-Bolshevik cousin Churchill was aghast, as were most English political and societal leaders, who had before been her friends. Eventually deciding to leave England and move to a villa in Turkey on the Bosporus, the Turkish political situation forced her from there, and she ended up for a good deal of her life in Algeria. In the meantime, her journalistic exploits were first class, her adventures unending, her life filled with happiness and tragedy, all at an extreme level. She did sculpt most of the people she had desired – although Ataturk refused (perhaps because of the jealousy of his wife) and the attempt to create a bust of Mussolini went bust, because he physically attacked her sexually, and she barely got away.

A fascinating book (not the best prose, but that’s OK) about a fascinating woman who was high on talent, very well placed socially and who knew just about everybody. And, oh, yes, she did spent quite a bit of time in the United States (mainly Los Angeles and New York) and for a while had a fling with a boy friend here – a young man named Charlie Chaplin.

What more could you want.

4. The last book is more of a throw-away, I guess. I enjoyed reading it, but why I read it, I am not sure. It is Susan Strasberg’s Marilyn and Me. Susan Strasberg was the daughter of Actor Studio head Lee Strasberg, method acting instructor of the famous. She was Broadway’s original Anne Frank. And Marilyn was Marilyn Monroe, Lee’s student and virtual daughter, making her Strasberg’s virtual sister.

The relationship between the Strasberg parents, Susan and Marilyn was very complicated, and the best part of the book, I think, is its extensive writing about Marilyn Monroe as she grew as an actress, and her relationships with Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller as well with the Strassberg’s and I would recommend the book for this alone.

Susan Strasberg herself is a very sad figure. Growing up in a vibrant, but non-functional, family, finding stardom at such a young age, she destroyed herself. First, by having a loud, raucus, devil-may-care affair with an older Richard Burton (OK, Burton was in his early 30s, so he seems like a younger Richard Burton, but Strasberg was only 19), which reverberated throughout the dressing rooms of Stage Struck, a Broadway play in which both were performing with Helen Hayes. Then, her career went downhill, she had a bad and short marriage, her only daughter was ill, she got into drugs, and then she died at a relatively early age from breast cancer. All very sad. She was a very unappealing person. Yet for some reason, she or her story attracts me.

OK – I did it. I wrote another blog post. And pledge to do so regularly from now until the end of time.

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