Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936 by Edward Sorel

Mary Astor played Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. She’s the pretty woman to whom Sam Spade says “You’re good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice” and “I hope they don’t hang you, precious” and “You’re taking the fall”. She began her film career early in the silent era, easily transitioned to sound, won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, played the mother in Meet Me in St. Louis and Little Women, and was still appearing on TV and in movies in the early 60s.

She might have been a bigger star but, having a fear of failure, she chose to take smaller roles. She also mismanaged her money, drank too much and had sex with a lot of men, including her four husbands. She discussed all this in two well-received autobiographies. She also kept a diary. Reporters said it had a purple cover, but it was actually brown.

Edward Sorel is an accomplished illustrator and cartoonist who is best-known for his political satire. The story he tells in this short book is that he was tearing up the linoleum in his New York apartment one night in 1965 and found some 30-year old newspapers. They were filled with accounts of a Los Angeles child custody trial involving Mary Astor and her first husband. What made the trial such a big deal was that Astor had kept a diary that supposedly described her private life, including her many affairs, in lurid detail. Although the diary was never shared with the public, the nation’s imagination ran wild.

For reasons he can’t explain, Sorel quickly became fascinated with the trial, the diary, and Mary Astor. But it took him 50 years to finally get around to writing this book.

He isn’t a great writer, but he tells the story reasonably well. Unfortunately, he inserts his own life story here and there, which isn’t very interesting. It also wasn’t clear to me where exactly the diary was during the trial. Apparently, the lawyers for Astor’s husband claimed to have lost it, possibly so they could make the diary sound more incriminating than it actually was. After the trial, the diary and some photostatic copies (possibly altered by the husband’s lawyers) were placed in a safe deposit box. Years later, the court ordered the contents of the safe deposit box to be destroyed.

The story Sorel tells is entertaining but isn’t as racy as it sounds. His illustrations, however, are excellent, especially the one with Mary Astor, mostly naked, holding her diary while lying on a fainting couch, with the big Hollywood studios in the background.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time, published in 1962, is a brief book. It begins with a short “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and concludes with a longer “Letter from a Region in My Mind”.  It relates some of Baldwin’s experiences, but it’s real subject is racism in America:

This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt the he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible – this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and conform a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and, indeed, no church – can teach. He achieves his own authority…. The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school [pp. 98-99].

It’s easy to say that Baldwin exaggerates sometimes, but nobody who hasn’t been part of an oppressed minority can say what it’s like to be told over and over again, in violent and non-violent ways, that you’re not as good as other people. Baldwin points out that his ancestors were brought to America decades before millions of immigrants whose descendants think of themselves as the “real” Americans. Racism truly is one of the fundamental factors in American history (just look at how people voted seven months ago).

The Fire Next Time concludes:

If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

If Baldwin were alive today, maybe he wouldn’t fear America’s end in hellfire and damnation. Then again, given the current crisis, maybe he would.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

I’ve been meaning to read a book about ancient Rome for years. Mary Beard is a respected Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, so her recent best-seller finally got me to do it. It was generally interesting but even with over 500 pages of text, it left me wanting more.

The book covers 1,000 years of Roman history, beginning with Rome’s founding, thought to be in the 8th century B.C.E., and continuing until 212 C.E.. That’s when the emperor Caracalla extended Roman citizenship to everyone in the empire who wasn’t a slave. The 1,000 years is broken into three parts. During the Regal Period, roughly 753 B.C.E. to 509 B.C.E., Rome was ruled by “kings” or chieftains. Details are sketchy at best.

The second period lasted from roughly 509 B.C.E. to 44 B.C.E. This was the era of the Roman Republic. Rome was relatively democratic, with various officials being elected either by their peers or by average citizens. Rome was ruled by combinations of “tribunes” and “consuls”, and the Senate was at the peak of its power. 

The era of the Republic came to an end when Julius Caesar and his troops crossed the Rubicon River in 49 B.C.E. and precipitated a civil war. Caesar’s eventual victory led to him being named Rome’s dictator in 44 B.C.E., the position he held for less than three months before being assassinated on the Ides of March. More conflict ensued, finally leading to Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus, becoming Rome’s first Emperor. 

Augustus set the pattern for his successors. He reigned for 17 years, with the Senate playing a very secondary role. Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero and others followed in dynastic succession, some dying of natural causes, others being assassinated. Eventually, Rome lost control of its empire as power shifted away from the capital city.

It was disappointing to see that Beard has little to say about the individual emperors. There is hardly anything about their personalities, for example. What we mainly learn is that the bad ones probably weren’t as bad and the good ones weren’t as good as they’re usually made out to be. 

Throughout the book, Beard is more interested in bigger themes. Why did Rome become so successful? What was it like to live in Rome? How did Rome’s political institutions evolve? What was the relationship between Rome and its provinces? We learn, for example, that Rome benefited greatly from its diverse population, which included hundreds of thousands of immigrants (and slaves) from all parts of the empire, many of whom became Roman citizens (every slave who was freed automatically became a citizen).

So this is an interesting book, but it hardly made a dent in my curiosity about people like Julius Caesar, Caligula and Claudius. I did, however, learn that Julius Caesar hardly spent any time in Rome after he crossed the Rubicon. He was usually off fighting a war somewhere during the five years he was Rome’s dictator. I also learned that “Caligula” was a childhood nickname. His real name was Gaius and he did not make his horse a Senator. 

Here Is New York by E. B. White

E. B. White was a longtime writer for The New Yorker, although he is probably better known as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. He was also a co-author of that little book we were told to buy in school, The Elements of Style, often referred to as “Strunk and White”. In 1948, White wrote a long essay about New York City for Holiday magazine. Even with an introduction by White’s son-in-law, the writer Roger Angell, it makes for a very short book. Today, a more accurate title for Here Is New York would be That Was Manhattan.

As White points out, Manhattan never stands still, so particular places White describes are no longer there. I didn’t think the writing was as astonishingly good as some have said, but White gets the feeling of Manhattan, even today, exactly right. I won’t offer a summary. I’ll just quote one line: “It is a miracle that New York works at all”.

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty

This short book from 1998 by the philosopher Richard Rorty gained attention recently because of this passage:

… members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet [89-90].

Given our recent election, that sounds right in some respects. I’d make a few points, however. Democratic politicians have tried to increase wages for the working class and keep more jobs at home but have run into strong Republican opposition; it’s unlikely that 40 years of gains for various minorities (and for women) are unlikely to be wiped out any time soon; and the “strong man” we currently have isn’t actually strong, was rejected by most voters and is already highly unpopular. 

But the real focus of Rorty’s book is leftist thought in the 20th century. He draws a distinction between the “reformist” left and the “cultural” left. America’s left wing was dedicated to reform from the 19th century up until the 1960s.  Left-wing politicians, labor leaders, activists and intellectuals saw the United States as a land of promise. Rorty cites Walt Whitman and John Dewey as two proponents of this basically pro-American point of view. They were aware of many problems but believed those problems could be addressed through incremental reforms, eventually resulting in a country that lived up to its ideals. In Rorty’s words, they were dedicated to “achieving our country”. 

Rorty argues that the left lost its faith in America’s promise in reaction to the Vietnam War. Incremental reform was no longer enough. It was wasted effort, because America was too far gone. American culture needed to be remade. “The people” needed to take control in revolutionary fashion. Rorty says left-wing intellectuals began to focus on “the system” instead of fighting for specific reforms. In addition, too much emphasis was put on what’s now called “identity” politics:

To take pride in being black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But insofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable of reform, or from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist initiatives, it is a political disaster. 

Rorty concludes that we should admit America’s faults but see ourselves as agents rather than spectators:

Our national character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have predicted the Progressive Movement, the forty-hour work week, Women’s Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement…. Nobody in 1997 can know that America will not, in the course of the next century, witness even greater moral progress.

Whitman and Dewey … wanted to put shared utopian dreams – dreams of an ideally decent and civilized society – in the place of knowledge of God’s Will, Moral Law, the Laws of History, or the Facts of Science. Their party, the party of hope, made twentieth-century America more than just an economic and military giant. Without the American Left, we might still be strong and brave, but nobody would have suggested that we were good. As long as we have a functioning political left, we still have a chance to achieve our country, to make it the country of Whitman’s and Dewey’s dreams.

I think that Rorty, spending his days in academia, over-emphasized the intellectual left-wing at the expense of the politicians and activists who continued to fight for reform in the late 20th century and continue fighting today. But the book was still worth reading for its analysis of Whitman’s and Dewey’s political ideals and the distinction Rorty draws between the reformist and the cultural left.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

This is the English novel that begins: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. It tells the story of a boy named Leo who spends the summer of 1900 at the home of a wealthy friend. Without understanding the significance of his role, Leo begins delivering messages between his friend’s unmarried sister and a local farmer. He is told that the messages are secret and pertain to “business”, but of course there’s more to it than that.

The novel, published in 1953, was the basis for an excellent movie of the same name that starred Julie Christie and Alan Bates. It’s beautifully written, if a little verbose at times. The only odd thing about it is that it’s in the form of a memoir, as if the grownup Leo is describing events of 50 years ago. Since no normal person could possibly remember what happened that long ago in such detail, we have to assume that the narrator is unreliable or it’s a case of extreme artistic license.

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson

Before he became famous as the “gonzo” journalist who wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and before he became the model for the drug-addled, gun-crazy Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, Hunter S. Thompson spent a year hanging out with the Hell’s Angels, the infamous California motorcycle gang. The resulting book was published in 1966. 

Much of it is devoted to downplaying the media coverage of the group as bloodthirsty savages who left a trail of destruction everywhere they went. On the other hand, Thompson depicts them as violent losers, not very bright, mostly interested in their motorcycles, being part of the gang and getting high. He got to know some of them fairly well, but that didn’t stop one of them from abruptly punching him one day, after which several more joined in, sending Thompson to the emergency room. That experience probably colored the last paragraph of the book:

It had been a bad trip … fast and wild in some moments, slow and dirty in others, but on balance it looked like a bummer….I tried to compose a fitting epitaph. I wanted something original, but there was no escaping the echo of Mistah Kurtz’ final words from the heart of darkness: “The horror! The horror! … Exterminate all the brutes!”

I read Hell’s Angels after reading an article in The Nation that said Thompson had predicted the rise of Trumpism, i.e. a movement of “left-behind people motivated only by ‘an ethic of total retaliation'”. There are, in fact, a few places in the book where Thompson takes a step back and provides that kind of sociological overview. Thus:

… nobody who has ever spent time with the inbred Anglo-Saxon tribes of Appalachia would need more than a few hours with the Hell’s Angels to work up a very strong sense of déjà vu. There is the same sulking hostility toward “outsiders”, the same extremes of temper and action… [159]

The attack [on a 1965 anti-war demonstration] was an awful shock to those who had seen the Hell’s Angels as pioneers of the human spirit, but to anyone who knew them it was entirely logical. The Angels’ collective viewpoint has always been fascistic. [248]

To see the Hell’s Angels as caretakers of the old “individualist” tradition “that made this country great” is only a painless way to get around seeing them for what they really are – not some romantic leftover, but the first wave of a future that nothing in our history has prepared us to cope with. The Angels are prototypes. Their lack of education has not only rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy, but it has also given them the leisure to cultivate a powerful resentment … and to translate it into a destructive cult which the mass media insists on portraying as a soft of isolated oddity, a temporary phenomenon… [258]

A toad who believes he got a raw deal before he even knew who was dealing will usually be sympathetic to the mean, vindictive ignorance that colors the Hell’s Angels’ view of humanity. There is not much mental distance between a feeling of having been screwed and the ethic of total retaliation, or at least the kind of random revenge that comes with outraging the public decency….[258-59]

Sociologists call it “alienation” or “anomie”. It is a sens of being cut off, or left out of whatever society one was presumably meant to be a part of…. In the terms of our Great Society the Hell’s Angeles and their ilk are losers – dropouts, failures and malcontents. They are rejects looking for a way to get even with a world in which they are only a problem… The difference between the student radicals and the Hell’s Angels is that the students are rebelling against the past, while the Angels are fighting the future. [260]

Certainly, many Trump supporters are indeed fighting the future. Although the average Trump voter had a higher income than the average Clinton voter, many of Trump’s supporters are struggling and feeling left behind (as are many of Clinton’s). But just as many of his supporters are trying to hold on to what they have (e.g. nice lives in the suburbs) or what they think they deserve as white, “Christian” Americans (i.e. better lives than everyone else).

So the book was usually interesting, if a bit repetitious, and Thompson could certainly write, but as a guide to modern America, it doesn’t deliver much.