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The Boston Phoenix Past Presents

Historical tomes to build mental muscle

By Michael Bronski

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  One thing we'll be able to say for sure about the 20th century on the morning of January 1 -- it's history! Yet even with the future looming so large before us, some of us remain obsessed with the past. What better gift for such a person than a big, meaty, detailed-filled historical biography? These are the sorts of books that can make the past come alive. Better yet, they can give you a century's worth of obscure facts and anecdotes to spout at dinner parties.

There's no more fitting way to begin the new century than with the aptly titled Memoirs: Laughing and Dancing Our Way to the Precipice, by Madame de la Tour du Pin, as translated by Felice Harcourt (Harvill). This weighty and beautifully written chronicle of life before, during, and after the French Revolution is filled with fascinating details; its author, an aristocrat who was not unsympathetic to revolutionary ideals, displays wit, bravery, and a sardonic sense of humor in the face of social and class apocalypse.

On our side of the big pond, of course, the aftermath of revolution was less catastrophic, but it did claim its casualties. Roger Kennedy's Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character (Oxford University Press) re-examines with vigor and intelligence what really happened in the Burr-Hamilton duel. Drawing on the journals and letters of Burr's observant daughter, Theodosia, Kennedy re-creates both the time and the national mood that ultimately engulfed all three men in tragedy. To make matters even juicier, Kennedy has uncovered the sexual details of Burr's Parisian exile.

The sex scandals of the 19th century didn't always have to wait for historians to uncover them. One of the most famous is chronicled in Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal, by Richard Wightman Fox (University of Chicago Press), a masterful retelling of an 1870s drama that makes the Clinton-Lewinsky affair seem tame by comparison. The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the country's most prominent religious spokesperson, went to court to clear his name after being accused of committing adultery with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of his best friend, Theodore. Fox discovers new material in tabloid papers and diaries, but best of all is the way he shows that the trial was really adjudicated and argued in the popular novels of the periods.

Hardly anyone remembers the Beecher-Tilton scandal now, but almost everyone knows who Molly Brown was, thanks to Titanic and to the musical based on her life. What people don't know, however, is that Margaret Tobin Brown, the "real" Molly, is far more interesting than her counterpart in popular culture. Kristen Iversen's detailed, breezily written Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth (Johnson Books) deflates the legends surrounding this astonishing woman, who was not just an "unsinkable" passenger but a philanthropist, an art collector, a union organizer, a Catholic intellectual, a suffragist, and one of the first women to make a bid for Congress.

Eleanor Roosevelt was born a little later than Molly Brown, but she made a far greater impact on the world. Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 2, 1933-1938 (Viking), the magnificent second installment in Blanche Wiesen Cook's projected five-volume biography, covers Roosevelt's ever-evolving relationship with her husband, her affair with Lorena Hickok, and the onset of World War II. Cook proves a stunning storyteller as well as an expert historian as she weaves together the personal and political strands of these complicated lives and relationships.

British historian John Cornwell has taken on a really complicated relationship in Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (Viking). Using new information unearthed in the Vatican's own archives -- damn those overly conscientious ecclesiastical librarians! -- Cornwell makes a compelling case that Pius's international wheeling and dealing to promote Vatican power, as well as his own anti-Semitism, prevented the Roman Catholic Church from taking a public stand against the Holocaust -- thereby allowing Hitler's "final solution" to claim many more lives. Provocative and highly persuasive, Hitler's Pope presents the sort of scholarship that rewrites history.

The moral failings of Pius look even more shocking in comparison to the bravery of Gad Beck, a gay Jew who joined the resistance and fought the Nazis in Berlin. An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin (University of Wisconsin) is by turns horrific, thrilling, and funny. Beck, who now lives in Jerusalem, did everything from finding hiding places for refugees to dressing up as a Nazi officer and rescuing his lover from a detention camp. And through it all, he had a lot of sex with many men. Beck's conviction that his sexuality was important and valuable, he now says, gave him the courage to act with humility and heroism. That is the most profound message to be gained from this inspiring memoir.

Stanislao G. Pugliese's biography Carlo Rosselli: Socialist Heretic and Antifascist Exile (Harvard University Press) also tells of heroism in the face of Fascism. Rosselli, revered in Italy but little known here, was a political radical and public intellectual who helped organize troops against Franco, rejected several major tenets of Marxist socialism, and was one of the first Europeans to take the rise of Fascism seriously. By the time of his assassination in 1937, Rosselli had already set the foundations for new ways of imagining modern liberal democracies.

The complications of constructing a workable democracy are at the heart of both Jan Jarboe Russell's Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson (Scribner) and Chana Kai Lee's For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (University of Illinois Press). These two American women -- one from a privileged Texas background, the other the daughter of slaves -- helped shape the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s. Russell details the instrumental role that Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson played in her husband's political ideas and career, particularly with regard to questions of race. As a genteel white Southern woman, Russell points out, Johnson gained access to audiences that would otherwise have resisted a civil-rights message. Hamer, who became famous for leading the unauthorized black delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, hid behind no man. Lee's new research into Hamer's life has turned up shocking, heartbreaking material, particularly about her debilitating illnesses and her sexual abuse at the hands of white Southern police. The book re-creates the life and times of an extraordinary woman who, with courage and determination, changed her world and ours.

So, as the lights of the last century flicker out and a brave new world approaches, it might make sense to take some solace in history. For no matter what its horrors and terrors, we know they are in the past.

Happy New Year!

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