Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential
Mistress Mary Meyer
On the surface, the life of Mary Meyer, the ex-wife of a high-ranking
CIA official and one of the secret mistresses of John F. Kennedy,
merits a biographer's attention for two good if somewhat sensationalistic
reasons: her murder in 1964 sparked a frantic search of her apartment
and studio, and the diary they recovered was ultimately burned
by the CIA--or at least it is believed to have been. Clearly,
Meyer would seem to have been doing something that needed
covering up. That the search party included James Jesus Angleton,
the CIA's top mole hunter (and a close friend of Meyer's husband;
he later claimed that he had wiretapped her phone and bugged
her bedroom) and Ben Bradlee, Meyer's brother-in-law and the
editor who would later oversee the Washington Post's Watergate
coverage with Woodward and Bernstein, only makes the story more
alluring for true-crime buffs with a penchant for high-level
But Nina Burleigh doesn't sensationalize her subject in A
Very Private Woman. Indeed, where readers might expect a
tabloid-style thriller, Burleigh instead offers an intelligent,
sustained biography that gives more attention to Meyer's life
than to her grisly death. It was, on the surface at least, an
enviable life. Meyer was born into the wealthy Pinchot family
and came into casual contact with a number of famous people as
a child. Her marriage to the charismatic One-Worlder-turned-CIA-official
Cord Meyer brought her to Washington, D.C., where she eventually
began painting abstract works as a member of the Washington Color
School. In the process of describing Meyer's passage from CIA
wife to a divorced artist who was so interested in experiencing
intense moments that she experimented with LSD before it was
a cultural phenomenon, Burleigh offers her readers a well-drawn
portrait of the Washington elite's secret lifestyle in the 1950s
and early 1960s: all serious business on the outside, and heavy-drinking
swingers on the inside.
This is not to say, of course, that Burleigh ignores the particulars
of Meyer's death by gunshot on a canal towpath near her Georgetown
studio. Her description of the murder scene and her retelling
of Meyer's last few moments are well-documented and appropriately
grim. And her examination of the evidence against the black day
laborer who was charged with Meyer's murder is thorough. As Burleigh
shows at length, the man was found not guilty at least partly
because his defense attorney, a charismatic black woman, presented
his case forcefully as a racial issue before a largely black
jury. (No one else was ever charged, and the case remains unsolved
to this day.)
But Burleigh is interested in something far different from
what the true-crime genre can offer. She wants to tell a life
story, set in an historically rich context. And in that, she's
achieved her goal wonderfully. A Very Private Woman is
a strong, sustained effort, and readers looking for a cultural
history of the Washington elite's social life in the Cold War
will enjoy it immensely.
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Is a World Elsewhere: Autobiographical Pages
"From birth to death, the spectacle of our lives is far
from tranquilizing," remarks F. González-Crussi dryly
at the end of his engaging memoir There is a World Elsewhere,
and the two hundred pages that precede this conclusion more than
prove his point.
Now a professor of pathology at Northwestern University Medical
School, González-Crussi grew up in Mexico City's teeming
barrios, the son of a determined and strong-willed mother and
a father who surrendered his family's limited fortunes to disastrous
business schemes and soon thereafter his life to alcohol. Rather
more by chance than determination, González-Crussi went
on to become a medical student (in a medical school then housed
in the former headquarters of the Spanish colonial branch of
the Inquisition), then an intern in a US hospital and thus an
immigrant to the nation of manicured lawns and determined industry
to the north of his birthplace.
There is much in González-Crussi's own history, that
is, to make a fascinating story in its own right. Yet the author
chooses instead the more unusual approach of limning the details
of his own story along the margins of meditations upon family,
neighbors, classmates, friends, upon passion and memory, death
and devotion, and an immigrant's perspective on the distinctions
that define a culture. The result is a book that exemplifies
the greatest strength of personal narrative--to reassemble the
familiar pieces of one's own life in ways that illuminate, in
new and unexpected ways, the broad panorama of our collective
In one paragraph, for example, González-Crussi writes
succinctly and wryly of his father's final flight from creditors
and prosecution for a fraudulent and disastrous investment scheme:
To escape this sad lot my father fled...to his family home
in an out-of-the-way provincial village. Once there, he fortified
himself behind the bulwark of alcoholism, with green bottles
for all muniment. His body protested, announcing by severe symptoms
that alcoholic fumes are but feeble rampart against the aggressions
of the world. His reply was to seek a deeper and more secure
entrenchment: that of the grave, six feet underground. Safeguard
without peer, this defense screened him effectively from all
present and future threats.
González-Crussi writes in the language and cadences
of a previous century, yet what might in a less gifted writer's
hands seem mannered reads instead with an effortless elegance.
He is given as well to a sly, Dickensian wit, as in this description
of the factory owner under whom his grandmother once worked:
"Meanwhile, my grandmother endured the unsolicited attentions
of a satyric employer, who could scarcely conceal his cloven
hooves under shiny Parisian shoes with gaiters that buttoned
on the sides."
Among the avalanche of memoirs filling the superstores these
days, González-Crussi's is one of the very few that will
remain just as illuminating, inviting, and lucid in twenty years
as it is today.
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Scotland Yard Superintendent Richard Jury is riding home alone
on a double-decker bus one lonely Saturday night when an alluring,
blond-haired woman wearing "a sumptuously sleek fur coat"
steps from a pub called the Stargazey and catches his eye. Although
she takes a bus seat close enough to him to allow her perfume
to waft past him, he can't see her face clearly. On a whim, he
follows her when she gets off the bus. Surprisingly, she walks
to Fulham Palace, formerly a bishop's house and now a rather
neglected public garden. Although the gates are still open, Jury
draws back and doesn't follow her inside. Three days later, he
is surprised to read that a woman matching the mystery woman's
description (fur coat and all) has been found murdered in Fulham
He volunteers what little information he has about the woman
and accompanies the investigating officer to the morgue to identify
her. At first glance, Jury believes the victim on the table is
his mystery woman. But then, just as the attendent is covering
the face back up, Jury stops him.
For a lengthy period...Jury looked down at her: the long neck,
blond hair escaping the clip that held it, the now strangely
complexioned face, the very emptiness of which could of course
be playing tricks. But he didn't think so. Perhaps it was the
Jury shook his head. "It's not her."
This isn't the only surprise in the murder case. A little
girl--the great-grandniece of a once-famous movie star--claims
to have seen the body lying in the garden before anyone else,
but she swears it was then lying in a bed of lads'-love and not
the bed of lavender in which it was officially found hours later.
And it gets stranger: the fur coat found on the dead woman actually
belonged to the faded movie star's stepdaughter.
Switched fur coats, dead bodies that move among the plant
beds: the makings of a good mystery, eh? Throw in Jury's mystery
woman showing up and denying she was anywhere near the Fulham
Palace and you've got something to keep you reading late into
The Stargazey is Martha Grimes's fifteenth Richard
Jury mystery, and it's among her best. Readers looking for a
good, hefty mystery with a gratifyingly complicated plot and
an array of intriguing suspects will be satisfied, of course,
but something else altogether makes this a great read: Grimes
is a wonderful writer, sentence by sentence, and she manages
to make Jury's rather bleak worldview seem appealing--and even,
at times, intoxicating. (Of course, Jury's comically decadent
friend, Melrose Plant, is a splendid foil.)
This is, without question, one of the best mysteries to appear
in paperback this year.
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Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole
Antarctica is no place for amateurs. Its unforgiving climate
of sub-zero temperatures, shrieking blizzards and months-long
Polar night deals swiftly and mercilessly with the ill-prepared.
And yet it is one of history's great incompetents whose name
has become enshrined in Antarctic history, or so Roland Huntford
argues in The Last Place on Earth, his painstaking yet
absorbing dismantling of the Robert Falcon Scott myth.
First published in 1979 and now revised, updated, and reissued
under the Modern Library Exploration series, Huntford's work
is an effort not only to debunk the Scott legend but also to
restore to his rightful place in history the largely forgotten
Roald Amundsen, whose success in being first at the South Pole
has long taken an historical back seat to Scott's epic failure.
Amundsen's extensively researched account traces the parallel
yet vastly differing pathways that led Scott and Amundsen, at
last, to an unintended race across the world's most unwelcoming
continent. Amundsen, according to Huntford's book, was a phlegmatic
Norwegian, a relentless and meticulous planner who spent years
honing the skills and the expertise necessary for Polar travel,
a natural leader who inspired confidence in his men, but--unfortunately
for his legacy--a poor self-promoter with a wooden literary style
and no gift for dramatic presentation. Scott, says Huntford,
was morose and indecisive, a career Naval officer with an indifferent
career and no talent for leadership, who eschewed planning and
preparation in favor of a romantic, ill-placed, and ultimately
fatal faith in the spirit of determined amateurism.
Scott, however, knew the value of a good story, and his Polar
diary was a riveting (if not, according to Huntford, wholly truthful)
account of endless travail against impossible circumstances.
Whereas Amundsen's sin, Huntford argues, was to make the trip
to the geographic South Pole and back look too easy, a
rollicking good romp on skis.
In part, this difference was due to actual circumstances.
Amundsen was scrupulous in every detail and built wide margins
for safety into his Polar assault. As a result, his expedition
was well-fed, warmly clothed, and amply equipped, and he built
their success upon the proven combination of sled dogs and skis.
Thus, though Amundsen pioneered an entirely unknown route to
the Pole and back, his party returned in abundant good spirits
with the words, "We haven't got much to tell in the way
of privation or great struggle. The whole thing went like a dream."
Amundsen even found he had gained weight along the way.
Scott's expedition, on the other hand, was a nightmare of
privation and struggle. Scott insisted upon ponies--of all choices
possibly the most ill-suited to the Polar environment--and ultimately
the grotesquely arduous man-hauling of heavily laden sledges.
His supplies he spread desperately thin. His plans were confused,
contradictory, and badly communicated. He left too much to chance
and in the end he and the four other members of his Polar party--starved,
scurvy-ridden, frostbitten, and driven to exhaustion--paid the
ultimate price for his folly. Two of their party died along the
return journey; the three remaining members expired in a tent
just eleven miles short of the supply depot that might have saved
Huntford stops just short of suggesting that Scott deliberately
chose death. He argues that Scott knew that to have returned
with the Pole lost and two of his men dead would have meant an
ignominious end to a lackluster career. Tragically dead however,
with his diary left behind as a carefully crafted exculpation
of its author, he was a hero fit for an Empire in decline. And
indeed, over the years the Scott legend has held fast, while
Amundsen's accomplishment has been relegated to little more than
an historical footnote. Huntford's book is a fascinating argument
in favor of redressing that wrong.
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Parrot's Lament and Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence,
Eugene Linden's The Parrot's Lament does not attempt
to prove, as one of its jacket blurbs proclaim, that animals
are better people than humans. It does offer tales of
animal courage and heroism (such as the pig that saved a boy
from drowning). But it also recounts tales of deceit and treachery
(such as the orangutan that hid a wire in his mouth until he
could use it to pick a lock and escape). Good natures are not
Linden's primary focus. Instead, he's interested in understanding
the degree to which consciousness exists in animals, and what
their intellectual experience might be like.
Humans, Linden argues, expect that, for it to be considered
true intelligence, an animal's intelligence should be like intelligence
in humans. Unlikely as it seems, it turns out to be a reasonable
expectation. Many mammals, and even some birds, do seem to share
some intellectual abilities with humans. As it turns out, it's
not just brain size that determines whether an animal is intelligent
or not. Human-like intelligence is linked to the amount of free
time an animal has for play or socializing. And, as it so happens,
animals in captivity tend to have a lot of free time and are
easy to study. So many of Linden's examples are stories told
by zoo keepers about their charges.
The great apes, elephants, dolphins, pigs, the large cats,
and parrots are on Linden's short list of "smart" animals.
He provides plenty of examples to back up his claims. Let's just
take one here. Harriet, a leopard brought up by a conservationist
and released into the wild, returned across a river to her former
home with her two cubs just before a flood made the river impassable.
After the flood had subsided, she swam back with difficulty with
one cub in her mouth. Upon her return for the second cub, she
suggested, by sitting in a boat with her cub, that her human
friend ferry them across the river. (The book jacket shows an
actual photo of the event.) Linden uses this story as an example
of not just the leopard's intelligence, but also of her trust--a
complicated emotion even for some humans.
From the tireless escape attempts of orangutans to elephants
playing games of their own invention, the animals in Linden's
stories provide enough circumstantial evidence of animal awareness
to convince all but the most stubborn human.
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1863: Campaign of Endless Echoes
Richard Wheeler is an historian and not a psychologist, and
Gettysburg 1863: Campaign of Endless Echoes spares the
reader the sort of in-depth agonizing over what was going on
in his subjects' minds that has become the fashion. When Gen.
Robert E. Lee decided to gamble the Confederacy's most powerful
instrument, the Army of Northern Virginia, on a thrust into the
North, it's enough for Wheeler to explain that Lee did it because
he thought he could win. Like a good poker player, Lee did not
betray his inner thoughts--not to his friends, not to posterity.
What Wheeler does is explain Lee's situation clearly. Wheeler
notes that while the spectacular victories at Fredericksburg
and Chancellorsville bought time for the Confederacy, Lee knew
that they were not accomplishing enough. They brought the South
no closer to independence and did nothing to weaken Northern
resolve. Bringing the war into the North would relieve pressure
on Richmond and Vicksburg, he reasoned, and perhaps if he could
catch the Union Army at a bad moment, he could shatter it, as
he almost had at Chancellorsville. A risky venture, but you don't
have to be a psychologist to understand why Lee acted.
Still, it's hard to fathom what was going on in Lee's mind
when he sent Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett's division against entrenched
Union forces on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. Wheeler is at
a loss to explain this; maybe no one can. Lee must have thought
his men were invincible to stand up to that hurricane of fire
and metal. But, as Shelby Foote once observed, "Gettysburg
is the price the South paid for Robert E. Lee." The South
wanted a bold hero who took desperate chances. It got one.
Wheeler draws on journals and other sources to draw a fuller
picture of the battle than other accounts focusing only on the
military maneuvers. The battle was fought in and around the town,
and residents gave food and water to soldiers on both sides as
the armies maneuvered for position; those who did not flee huddled
in their basements when the shooting started.
Others watched the fighting from front-row seats. Among them
were Amelia Harmon and her aunt, occupants of the Old McLean
Place, whose house was between the lines. "As the tumult
increased," Wheeler writes, "Amelia and her aunt locked
all their doors and ran to an upstairs window....A field of timothy
in front of the woods was laced with Confederates crouching low
and they advanced, with one and another of them rising erect
from time to time to loose a quick shot at the Yankees."
The pair rush up to the mansion's cupola for a better look. Here
Wheeler quotes from Amanda's account: "It seemed as though
the fields and woods had been sown with dragon's teeth, for everywhere
had sprung up armed men where about an hour ago only grass and
In place of speculation about inner motives, Wheeler lets
the players in the battle speak for themselves. Gettysburg
1863 focuses on people rather than strategy, and it makes
--Arthur Alexander Parker
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