Tag Archive | biography

Book Review: Mary Todd Lincoln, A Biography

I picked up Mary Todd Lincoln, A Biography, by Jean H. Baker, at the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington, Kentucky, when I visited there in August 2018.  I have read a lot about Abraham Lincoln, and have learned much about Mary in the process, but I have never read anything that explores her life as her own person, separate from her relationship with our nation’s 16th President.

Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography

The book covers the entirety of Mary Todd Lincoln’s life, from her birth and upbringing in Lexington, Kentucky.  Her mother died when Mary was six, and her father remarried shortly after to Mary’s step-mother, a woman that Mary had a tumultuous relationship with.  She went to boarding school across town, and received far more education than a girl typically received at the time.  She was versed in politics and could speak eloquently on a variety of topics, in both English and French.

She was, by all accounts, a formidable force, who had strong opinions and a pushy nature.  However, it is likely that Lincoln’s rise to the Presidency was heavily influenced by his wife, her encouragement and her assistance behind the scenes.  She believed she would be the First Lady, and Mary Todd Lincoln often got what she wanted.

Her life was also overshadowed by tragedy.  She lost her mother as a child, and three of her four sons died before they reached adulthood.  And of course, you know what happened to her husband…  She grieved.  Yet she grieved in a way that the nation thought inappropriate, not becoming of a lady of her time.  She was too much to take.

Mary’s polarizing personality bought her many enemies, and those enemies have tainted the historical record.  She certainly was far from perfect, but this biography will help the reader to understand what is true and what is myth surrounding Mary Todd Lincoln.

4 stars. 

Book Review: The Dutch Girl

The Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, by Robert Matzen

Ever since the first time I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I was fascinated by Audrey Hepburn. So alive yet so reserved, so slender and beautiful, and so demure. In learning more, I was even more impressed. This hugely famous starlet who never liked being in the public eye, and who never got over her past, growing up in Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II

She saw things that never left her; the trains deporting Jews to concentration camps, her beloved uncle arrested, held hostage and murdered in retailiation for the activities of the Dutch Resistance, her close-call near-kidnapping as the Nazis were rounding up young women to serve as domestics in Germany. Her demeanor was hugely shaped by this experience, and affected her greatly for the rest of her life.

Matzen does a superb job of detailing Hepburn’s life, from her early childhood, through her death of a rare intestinal cancer in January 1993, at the age of 63. His biography talks about the important pieces of her life, from the abandonment by her father, to her strained yet co-dependent relationship with her mother, who followed the German fascist movement in the 1930s, to her love of ballet and dance.  Her tenacious will to live and thrive meant Audrey never gave up, even when things seemed hopeless.

The book reads as one part biography, and one part action-adventure story, as he describes her experience growing up under Nazi occupation and participating in Dutch Resistance activities. Never one to toot her own horn or even talk much about her personal life, Matzen reveals a part of Audrey Hepburn that has been little known to her admirers.

4 stars.

Book Review: Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

I first found out about this book through our local library, which was sponsoring a book talk by the author, Timothy Egan. Jon wasn’t super excited about going – but after I explained what the book was about, he agreed to go with me. Note to self: At some point, someday, I’ll start reading the books before going to the book talk – but maybe it doesn’t matter.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is a biography of Edward S. Curtis, the famed Seattle portrait photographer and creator of the turn of the last century masterpiece, The North American Indian. If you haven’t heard of it, you aren’t alone, but I can all but guarantee you have seen at least one of Curtis’ photographs. He is the Ansel Adams of the portrait world.

Kickisomlo, also known as Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth, for whom Seattle is named. Curtis photographed Angeline in 1896.

Kickisomlo, also known as Princess Angeline.  She was the daughter of Chief Sealth, for whom Seattle is named. Curtis photographed Angeline in 1896.

The North American Indian was Curtis’ crowning achievement; his life’s work. It was a 20 volume set of books, documenting in words and photographs the way of life of over 80 Native American tribes. The books were originally supposed to be published within five years, but the wealth of information he collected and his meticulous documentation of songs, spiritual ceremonies, foods, and biographies on tribal leaders stretched the project out over 20 years.

He was not without his critics, some of whom thought that Curtis’ desire to capture a historical view of Native American life was simplistic and ignored the real issues. However, Curtis wanted to capture what life was like before their culture and traditions were destroyed by the encroachment of the white man. Therefore, he wasn’t above doing a little bit of manipulation to the settings, or the final photos.

Surprisingly, Curtis did not receive a salary for the project, and became ever more deeply in debt as a result of the costs incurred during his travels documenting the tribes. In the end, between 220 and 280 full sets of The North American Indian were created, and Curtis sold his rights to his work to the son of J.P. Morgan, who had originally agreed to finance the project. He lost many of his original glass plate negatives in his divorce from his wife, choosing to shatter them instead of turn them over to her.

After the publication of all 20 volumes, Curtis grew old and died in relative obscurity. It was a sad end for a man who had so much passion for such a monumental project. Like many artists, his work was rediscovered in the 1970s, and has enjoyed an increasing popularity since that time. A complete set of The North American Indian sold for $1.44 million in 2012. Not too shabby…

Egan does a wonderful job with this book. He captures Curtis’ obsession with the project, and candidly discusses his shortcomings. He makes Curtis into a multi-dimensional man, explaining his love for his children and the difficulty he had with being separated from them during his long absences for fieldwork.
I knew barely anything of Curtis when I began the book, but I feel like Egan painted a picture of the man: stubborn, charismatic, driven, and at times possessed by a deep melancholy.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, by Timothy Egan

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, by Timothy Egan

Egan’s words make you feel like you are there, watching, experiencing the things Curtis experienced. I felt protective when hearing about the divorce proceedings, and how they played out, although I know Curtis was not without fault in the matter. I got a glimpse of the lifelong friendships that he made, and the true grief he experienced when his friends passed away one by one, leaving him ever more alone.

Edward S. Curtis lived a truly unique life, and created a masterpiece that will be a treasure for generations to come. Egan captured it in a way few writers can. Brilliant.

For those of you who now are curious about Curtis’ life’s work – The North American Indian has been digitized and is available for viewing.

Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee

The last time I read a book about Robert E. Lee, I was in middle school. I don’t remember the book, but I wrote a book report on it and didn’t get a very good grade. I’ve always suspected it didn’t have anything to do with my report, but rather it was because I choose to read about a Confederate General, all the way up here in the North.

Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, by Michael Korda

Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, by Michael Korda

Lee is an integral part of any book on the Civil War; but Clouds of Glory, by Michael Korda is a true biography of Lee. It begins with his birth in 1807, progressing through his childhood, his early days as an Army Engineer and more.

It goes into significant detail on his service during the Mexican War, outlining major successes with placing troops and artillery at specific, strategic points before and during various battles. Lee distinguished himself as a brilliant strategist, frequently risking his own safety to ensure that troops and artillery were placed to best advantage, scouting terrain in enemy territory, engaging in night missions to find artillery placements and routes, and occasionally supervising troops during battle.

Most folks know that Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. But did you know that he was quietly offered the United States Army’s top post before his resignation? Lee was torn on many levels about the war because he did not want to take up arms against the United States, but felt his first loyalty was to his home state of Virginia. He did not believe that secession was the right decision. He urged his family to hoard U.S. money, as he knew the Confederate scrip would be worthless.

He also freed his father-in-law’s slaves in 1862, in accordance with his will, and set up an illegal school to teach them to read and write, so they would be able to survive as free people. However, at the same time that he considered slavery a “moral and political evil”, he considered abolitionists troublemakers and did nothing to promote the end of slavery in the south.

He was an honorable man, refusing to accept privileges he could not grant to his men. He slept in tents even when citizens offered their homes, and gave away replacement socks and underwear and fancy foods that were delivered to him. He did not take leave to visit his family when they were only 10 miles away. He was polite to a fault, with one of his biggest weakness his inability to be directive and firm with orders to his senior commanders.

He had some colossal battle failures during the war, to be sure, like his assault on the third day of Gettysburg and the Battle of Malvern Hill. But he also made some brilliant decisions that led to an under-provisioned, out-manned Army of Northern Virginia being able to survive and fight for four long years, against all odds.

Lee lost his home and his citizenship during the war; neither were restored in his lifetime. Several of his senior officers openly criticized him after the war, publishing scathing critiques of his command in their memoirs. Yet he steadfastly refused to defend his own record of achievement, instead choosing to work on defending his father’s tarnished reputation.

He died only 5 years after the end of the war, a massive stroke causing the pneumonia that took his life. He was still working at the time of his death, having built a successful second career as the President of Washington College. They renamed it Washington and Lee College (now University) in his honor.

Lee wasn’t perfect, and for the most part, Korda’s book candidly discusses the mistakes he made in battle and in life. He is not made out to be a saint; simply a flawed man like the rest of us, who had to work through some significant conflicts during the war in order to reconcile what he felt was his duty and what he felt was best for his state and the nation.

It is hard to reconcile the inconsistencies of his life, but we also must consider how many of us have expressed our disagreement or outrage on a topic to our friends and family, while doing nothing of substance to right the wrong. Is it fair to judge Lee by a different standard?

There is no doubt that Lee will continue to be debated for years to come, but this was a generally well written, balanced account of his life. There are some irritating factual/editing errors, mostly incorrect dates and statistics, but it is still a worthwhile read for anyone who wants to explore the life of this complex man. Of course, I’m sure my middle school teacher would disagree.