“Photograph 51”, and “Tommy the Cork”(13 cents)

1. “Photograph 51” is the current offering at Theater J, and it is a play you should try to see. Written by Anna Ziegler, and with an all-star cast, “Photograph 51” is the story of the decoding of DNA, and the role played by Rosalind Franklin, a member of a team of scientists working at Oxford University. Competition to be the first to succeed this important task was widespread – Linus Pauling in California, and James D. Watson and Francis Crick in Cambridge. Franklin, a young Jewish woman in an all-male, all-gentile environment suffered from discrimination in many respects, and made her own situation worse by her abrasive, paranoid, and defensive personality. But she was hot on the trail, and an indefatigable worker. Crick, and especially Watson, appear to be much less sharp, but intent on creating the first model of the structure of DNA. Franklin was afraid to model anything before she was one hundred percent certain she was correct. Her co-worker, Maurice Wilkins, for reasons not particularly clear, provided Watson with a copy of one of the photographs taken by Franklin (photograph 51), which gave evidence of the structure of DNA, and Watson and Crick were able to create their model. Franklin’s reaction was that Oxford was defeated by Cambridge. Dead of ovarian cancer before her 40th birthday, she never of Wilkins’ deception.

Of course, the discovery of the famous double helix was a world class scientific event, and resulted in the Nobel Prize being given jointly to Crick, Watson and Wilkins. Franklin was, until recently, forgotten.

Going into the theater, I did not expect any surprises, because I generally knew the story of Rosalind Franklin. But surprised, I was. As I watched the play, everything was familiar. My knowledge of the Franklin affair seemed to have come from the play I was watching. The only thing I could think of was that there was reading of the play at Theater J some years ago, when they were first thinking of staging it. Checking, though, I see I am wrong – it was read last September at the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage festival – that is where I saw it.

2. “Tommy the Cork” is a very interesting biography of Tom Corcoran, FDR adviser and Washington lobbyist, written by David McKean and published in 2004. (McKean is now director of the JFK Library in Boston.) It’s a fascinating story – Corcoran, an ambitious Irish American from Boston, a law school graduate, working for a Boston law firm, whose senior partner recommended him as someone to move to Washington and join the administration of the newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt. Proving himself to be an expert legislative drafter, he joined a small group of young lawyers and was responsible for putting together much of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation.

Washington was a much smaller town in those days, and the government was smaller still. Corcoran, although a young man, came to attention of the president, who began to communicate with him directly, and welcomed him into an inner circle of advisers and confidants. So much did Roosevelt respect the young man, that he turned him into not only an administration legislative scribe, but also a presidential voice, sending him to meet with members of Congress and others to help persuade them to support FDR’s position on various matters.

Corcoran was not only very bright, he was charming and charismatic. He was one of those people who met everyone, and knew everyone. He was also very good to his professional friends, suggesting them for one position or another in the government, and before long the executive branch was filled with friends of Tommy Corcoran.

Success led to failure and then to more success. After being so successful in lobbying the FDR policies throughout the government as an emissary of Roosevelt, he began to make enemies – he was too successful, he was everywhere, he was relentless pushing the president’s policies. Because of this resentment, his effectiveness diminished, and so did his relationship with Roosevelt. Eventually, he decided to leave the government and practice law in Washington. Well, maybe not practice law per se. He became a lobbyist.

As a lobbyist, and as an investor in many of his client’s activities, he again was both successful, and resented. He had a wide variety of highly visible clients, from pharmaceutical companies, to fruit companies (this is how he got involved in the CIA’s activities in Guatemala), to Chiang Kai-Shek and Madame Chennault. His support of New Deal like policies ended; his politics became much more conservative. He was accused (properly accused, I believe) of conflict of interest several times, meeting his good friends, Supreme Court justices, about cases which were before the Court. When the justices refused to speak with him, his reaction was “Why not? Remember, I got you your job!” This was true.

Corcoran was married and had six children – his wife passed away at a young age, his oldest daughter (and perhaps favorite) took an overdose of pills and died, and an early relationship with a woman in Central America produced a child he supported without his Washington children knowing about it.

A fascinating individual and story. You may want to read this book, although my guess is that it is not that easy to find.

It’s an interesting story.

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