Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Review: Dead Wake: The Last Voyage of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson (2015)

Book cover of Dead Wake: The Last Voyage of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson, 2015.

The grand ocean liner RMS Lusitania.

Author Erik Larson.
Erik Larson’s latest book, Dead Wake: The Last Voyage of the Lusitania shows once again that he is a master of narrative non-fiction. Even though we know the tragic fate of the Lusitania before the book begins, it’s still a page-turner. Larson has worked a similar spell in several other books, including the huge best-sellers The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts. (I reviewed In the Garden of Beasts last year here.) The passenger liner RMS Lusitania was one of the most advanced ships of the early 20th century, allowing passengers to cross the Atlantic in sumptuous luxury and at very fast speeds. The Lusitania was launched in 1906, and it provided excellent service until it was torpedoed by German submarine U-20 off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes, and nearly 1,200 people lost their lives. World opinion was outraged at Germany for targeting a civilian ship during wartime. 

Larson takes us inside the Lusitania on its final voyage across the Atlantic, as it headed from New York City to its appointment with destiny. Larson also uses the captain’s log from U-20 to reconstruct its mission to destroy as much Allied shipping as possible. We get a vivid sense of what life was like on these two very different ships. Larson combines the storytelling ability of a novelist with the historian’s ability to craft a readable tale from many different sources. 

Like many great disasters, luck and chance played significant roles in the fateful meeting between the Lusitania and U-20. The morning of May 7th had been very foggy, and if the fog would have held for another hour, the Lusitania and U-20 would have passed each other totally unaware of the other’s presence. The Cunard Line, who owned the Lusitania, was trying to conserve coal, so the Lusitania was only using three of its four boiler rooms. This decreased the top speed the ship could reach, and added a day to the voyage. Had the Lusitania been traveling at top speed the entire voyage, she would have reached Liverpool before U-20 reached the southern coast of Ireland. The captain of U-20, Walther Schwieger, had already sunk several ships on his mission, and by the afternoon of May 7th he had turned the submarine around and was heading home. But he happened to see the Lusitania through his periscope and the big ship suddenly turned to give him a perfect angle to fire at it. Schwieger had miscalculated the speed of the Lusitania, as he thought it was traveling at 22 knots, but it was really moving at 18 knots. But Schwieger’s miscalculation meant that the torpedo struck the Lusitania at the perfect spot to produce maximum damage. That the torpedo found its target at all was remarkable, as 60% of German torpedoes failed for one reason or another. The Lusitania quickly listed 15 degrees to starboard, making it impossible to launch any of the lifeboats on the port side. Just 6 of the Lusitania’s 22 lifeboats were launched successfully. Just 18 minutes after the torpedo struck the ship, the Lusitania had slid beneath the ocean’s surface. Even under the most ideal conditions, there was no way nearly 2,000 people could have evacuated the ship that quickly. The poor souls on the Titanic at least had 2 ½ hours. 

Dead Wake is a fascinating look at one of the most tragic disasters of the 20th century, and if you’re a fan of Erik Larson’s terrific writing, you need to read it.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Book Review: James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest, by Michael P. Malone (1996)

Book cover of James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest, by Michael P. Malone, 1996.

James J. Hill, with pen in hand, ready to go back to work as soon as the photographer is done. When asked what the secret of his success was, Hill said, "Work, hard work, intelligent work, and then more work."
James J. Hill, “the Empire Builder,” was one of the leading businessmen of America’s Gilded Age. Hill gained wealth and fame from building the Great Northern Railway into an extremely successful transcontinental railroad. By the time he died in 1916 he had amassed a fortune worth $63 million. Yet for all of Hill’s renown, there are very few biographies of him. An official biography by Joseph G. Pyle appeared in two volumes in 1916 and 1917, but it wasn’t until 1976, sixty years after Hill’s death, that Albro Martin wrote what’s considered the definitive biography of Hill, James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest. Michael P. Malone’s excellent 1996 biography of Hill, James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest, fills a needed gap as a concise look at Hill’s life and career. Part of the University of Oklahoma’s Western Biographies series, Malone’s book is an excellent biography, it’s well-written, engaging, and it gives the reader a good sense of Hill’s personality.

James J. Hill was born in Canada in 1838. The child of Irish immigrants, Hill had only an 8th grade education, but an unstoppable work ethic. Hill came to Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1856, and he quickly became a successful shipping entrepreneur. Hill didn’t enter the world of railroads until 1878, but his background in transportation helped him immeasurably. He understood transportation systems in a way that few other railroad tycoons did. As Malone writes, “…his knowledge of the railroad, in even the most minute detail, quickly became a matter of legend. For example, while standing on a Dakota rail siding one day, he spotted an engine numbered 94. From that recognition, Hill astounded the engineer by walking up and addressing him by name-Roberts-and noting that the engine had just been in for repairs.” (Malone, p.80) Malone shows readers why Hill was so successful, as he writes, “His genius lay precisely in his ability to master detail while fashioning broad vision and strategy.” (Malone, p.80)  

Malone does a very good job of discussing the many different parts of Hill’s railroad empire. Even if you’re not a business scholar, Malone makes it easy to follow the various investments and business interests of James J. Hill. Hill was certainly not perfect, but there’s much to admire about him. He was a very smart man who worked extremely hard in making the Great Northern Railway the best railroad it could possibly be. Hill was a difficult person to get along with, but I think most people who are truly driven to greatness are difficult people. 

If you’re looking to learn more about Minnesota’s “Empire Builder,” or if you’re interested in railroads during the late 19th and early 20th century, Michael P. Malone’s James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest is an excellent read.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Book Review: The Dutiful Son: Louis W. Hill-Life in the Shadow of the Empire Builder James J. Hill by Biloine W. Young and Eileen R. McCormack (2010)

Book cover of The Dutiful Son: Louis W. Hill, by Biloine Young and Eileen McCormack, 2010. The cover shows Louis with his father, James J. Hill. The photo was taken in 1905 and was James's favorite photo of the two of them.

Being the son of famed Minnesota railroad builder James J. Hill must have been something of a burden for Louis W. Hill. It was Louis’ fate to follow in the footsteps of the man nicknamed “the Empire Builder,” as his father chose Louis to succeed him when he retired as the head of the Great Northern Railway. Louis had large shoes to fill, but he was a talented businessman in his own right who successfully expanded the reach of the Great Northern Railway. Louis W. Hill gets his due in a 2010 biography, The Dutiful Son: Life in the Shadow of the Empire Builder, written by Biloine (Billie) W. Young and Eileen R. McCormack. Young wrote the book, while McCormack handled the research. McCormack spent many years working with the Hill Family papers at the James J. Hill Reference Library in Saint Paul, and her expertise shows throughout the book.

The Dutiful Son is an excellent look at Louis Hill’s life and career. Young presents us with an overview of his business career, and she also sheds light on his personal life. Hill was one of the main forces behind the creation of Glacier National Park in Montana, and The Dutiful Son highlights his behind the scenes role. The book also focuses on Louis Hill’s leading role in reviving the Saint Paul Winter Carnival in 1916 and 1917.

The Dutiful Son also gives the reader lots of detail on the bitter disputes between Louis and his 8 siblings after their parents both died without wills. From the evidence presented in The Dutiful Son, it seems clear that both James J. and Mary Hill were more than comfortable giving Louis much more than a 1/9th share of their considerable estates. According to Louis, he had a conversation with his father shortly before his death about his wishes for his vast fortune. James J. made it clear that he intended to leave a great deal of it to Louis, saying, “You helped me make it; you helped me take care of it. {The others} had nothing to do with putting it together and they won’t have anything to do with keeping it together.” (The Dutiful Son, p.203) This made for some awkward feelings, and Louis’s siblings ended up suing him, disputing that their mother had really intended to give Louis the 5,000 acre farm at North Oaks. Incredibly, the siblings who sued Louis also wanted to rescind charitable donations that their mother had made in 1919, two years before her death, by claiming that she was of unsound mind when she donated the money. Those gifts were made to many Catholic institutions of higher learning, as well as Catholic charities like the Christian Brothers, and the Little Sisters of the Poor. (The Dutiful Son, p.257) Personally, I think that asking charities for money back is about the greediest thing I’ve ever heard of, especially when those asking for the money back were already set for life thanks to their father. 

Despite all the family squabbling, Louis Hill comes off very well in the book. Like his father, he combined pragmatism and idealism to skillfully work on projects that were important to him. Both James J. Hill and Louis Hill were excellent with detail work, but also had the big picture vision to imagine projects like Glacier National Park and the Great Northern Railway.

Like his father, Louis Hill was very engaged with many different Saint Paul charities. Louis did a lot for the city, and the book highlights his charitable giving, which was often done without people knowing who the benefactor was. Louis named his charitable foundation the Lexington Foundation so people wouldn’t know that one of Saint Paul’s leading citizens was behind it. Louis Hill led a very interesting life, and The Dutiful Son is an excellent read.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Movie Review: Frank Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, directed by Alex Gibney (2015)

Poster for Frank Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, directed by Alex Gibney, 2015. I love that photo of Frank.

Frank Sinatra, circa 1961. Frank wore hats better than anyone.

An intense Frank Sinatra in the studio.

Frank Sinatra, 1970's. Note his trademark orange pocket square-orange was his favorite color.
Frank Sinatra is one of the major figures in 20th century American entertainment. Few figures before or since have held the public’s imagination for as long as Sinatra did. Sinatra was a cultural touchstone for multiple generations, from the time he emerged as a singer with the Tommy Dorsey band in the early 1940’s until his death in 1998. 2015 is the centennial of Sinatra’s birth, and nearly twenty years after his death Sinatra remains firmly entrenched in American pop culture. 

The 2015 HBO documentary Frank Sinatra: All or Nothing at All offers a four-hour glimpse into Sinatra’s life. The documentary takes its structure from the set list of Sinatra’s 1971 retirement concert. (Sinatra came out of retirement in 1973.) The film’s premise is that the songs Sinatra chose for his retirement concert reflected an overview of his career. I agree with that premise, and the idea behind that premise makes the documentary more than just a “and then he did this” film. 

I’ve written about Frank Sinatra before, covering his years on the Columbia Records label from 1943-1952, my 10 favorite Sinatra albums, and a piece covering the best Sinatra compilation albums. I’m a huge admirer of Sinatra’s amazing talent. 

All or Nothing at All is directed by Alex Gibney, who also directed the superb documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief for HBO. All or Nothing at All is wonderfully made; it’s a great example of documentary making at its finest. The research into Sinatra’s life is deep, and Gibney and his team have unearthed superb video and audio recordings of Sinatra talking candidly about his life and career. There’s a lot of wonderful material on Sinatra’s early life in Hoboken, and his rise to fame signing with the Tommy Dorsey band. Early film clips show how revolutionary Sinatra’s singing style was. Sinatra’s voice was extremely intimate, as he seduces the listener through his ballad singing. It’s easy to see why women went nuts for him. 

The first two hours of All or Nothing at All take us through Sinatra’s rise in the 1940’s to his decline in the early 1950’s, when he was battling vocal problems, more competition from singers like Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Vic Damone, Johnnie Ray, and Eddie Fisher, and a relationship with Ava Gardner best described as tempestuous and doomed. By the end of 1952 Sinatra had been dumped by his record label and MGM had dropped his movie contract. It seemed as though he was headed for the has-been pile. 

The second part of the documentary covers Sinatra’s career from his remarkable comeback in 1953 to his retirement concert in 1971. 1953 was a pivotal year for Sinatra, as he signed a contract with Capitol Records, where he met the arranger Nelson Riddle and created the classic songs and albums that have made him a legend. 1953 was also the year that Sinatra played the role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity, one of his finest acting performances, which deservedly won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. I wish that All or Nothing at All focused a little more on Sinatra’s films. Sinatra was a truly talented actor who delivered a number of excellent performances in films like From Here to Eternity, Suddenly, The Man with the Golden Arm, Guys and Dolls, Pal Joey, Some Came Running, and The Manchurian Candidate. But that’s a small quibble.

All or Nothing at All focuses on many of Sinatra’s personal relationships, and there are excellent interviews with Frank’s first wife Nancy, the mother of his three children. The treatment of Sinatra’s other wives was a little more problematic for me. I found Gina Gershon’s voiceover narration of Ava Gardner’s writings to be terribly overdone, and there was just way too much about Mia Farrow, which got boring for me pretty quickly. There’s also just one cursory mention of Sinatra’s fourth wife, Barbara Marx, whose marriage to Frank lasted longer than his other three marriages combined. 

The documentary doesn’t shy away from controversy, covering Sinatra’s famous feud with gossip columnist Lee Mortimer, whom Sinatra knocked out in 1947, after Mortimer had called Sinatra a Communist in his column. Sinatra’s dislike of columnist Dorothy Kilgallen isn’t mentioned, but you can hear him express his feelings towards her in live recordings in the 1950’s and 1960’s. (He was fond of calling her “The Chinless Wonder.”) The film also covers Sinatra’s associations with the Mafia, and his acquaintance with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana. Sinatra’s children say point blank that Giancana and the Mob tipped the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy by making sure that Illinois ended up in the Kennedy column. What no one ever mentions about the 1960 election is that Kennedy had enough electoral votes to win the election even if he had lost Illinois. Sinatra was very close to JFK, and organized his official Inaugural gala. Eventually Sinatra fell out with JFK after Bobby Kennedy warned his brother to steer clear of Sinatra due to his Mob connections. JFK then canceled a planned trip to stay with Sinatra in Palm Springs, and stayed with Bing Crosby (a Republican!) instead. 

All or Nothing at All does a superb job of focusing on Sinatra’s politics, and his personal beliefs. Sinatra was a staunch Democrat in the 1940’s, who campaigned tirelessly for FDR’s fourth term in 1944, and was an unstinting champion of civil rights for African-Americans long before it was fashionable. The FBI investigated Sinatra for decades, not only because of his Mafia connections, but also because he was regarded as a liberal who might be a Communist. Sinatra gradually grew more conservative, eventually supporting Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. The movie makes a little too much of Sinatra’s political switch, hinting that his support of Republican candidates was linked to his rejection by the Kennedys. I disagree with that. Sinatra worked very hard for Hubert Humphrey in 1968, appearing at a rally at the Houston Astrodome with Humphrey just two days before the election, and filming a TV ad in support of Humphrey. Sinatra endorsed his friend Ronald Reagan in 1970 when Reagan was running for re-election as Governor of California. In the documentary, Sinatra says that he has been friends with Reagan since 1943. Sinatra was no fan of the hippie culture, and that combined with his personal friendship with Reagan likely started his drift rightward. Sinatra endorsed Richard Nixon’s re-election bid in 1972, but due to Democratic nominee George McGovern’s unpopularity, there was a very large “Democrats for Nixon” group that year, so Sinatra’s support of Nixon wasn’t that unusual. I think Sinatra did get more conservative as he got older, but I also think his shift to the right was greatly influenced by his friendship with Ronald Reagan. 

What amazes me about the richness of Frank Sinatra’s life is that All or Nothing at All is a four hour documentary, and yet there’s still so much more of his life that could be covered. Granted, I’m a huge Sinatraphile, and I understand that four hours might be plenty for most people. But there are gaps, as All or Nothing at All offers only a cursory glance at Sinatra’s career post-1971. That isn’t the biggest loss, since Sinatra’s cultural impact was greatest during the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s, but still, Sinatra lived for another 27 years. 

I think that the people interviewed for All or Nothing at All did an excellent job of articulating Sinatra’s importance, but there were three Sinatra experts I wish had been a part of the project. I’m a huge fan of Michael Feinstein’s singing and his tireless advocacy for the music of the Great American Songbook. There’s no one who knows more about the songs of that era that Michael Feinstein, and he was a terrific commentator on this year’s American Masters documentary on Bing Crosby. I think Feinstein would have been a great addition to All or Nothing at All. I was also annoyed that two of the best authors about Sinatra’s music weren’t interviewed. Will Friedwald, who wrote the excellent book Sinatra! The Song is You: A Singer’s Art, and Charles Granata, who wrote the superb Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording, were nowhere to be found in the documentary. Who knows, maybe Granata and Friedwald didn’t want to be part of All or Nothing at All, but I would have enjoyed a little bit more content about Sinatra’s singing style and his phrasing. 

Something that struck me while watching film clips of Sinatra sing is how much charisma the man had. You simply cannot take your eyes off of him. It’s only in film clips that you can really see how strikingly blue his eyes were, photos don’t seem to quite capture the color. Even as he aged, Sinatra remained an extremely handsome man, always dapper, with his usual orange pocket square. (Orange was Sinatra’s favorite color.)

Quibbles aside, All or Nothing at All is a fascinating look at one of the most interesting artists of the 20th century, and a man whose contribution to singing will be deeply felt in centuries to come.