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 Archived Short Takes

December Short Takes

A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer
Nina Burleigh
Bantam Books
358 pp.


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 cover-ups.

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.

--Daphne Frostchild

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There Is a World Elsewhere: Autobiographical Pages
F. González-Crussi
Riverhead Books
224 pp.


"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 experience.

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 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.

--Caroline Kettlewell

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The Stargazey
Martha Grimes
419 pp.


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 Palace.

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 nose.

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 night.

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.

--Daphne Frostchild

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The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole
Roland Huntford
Modern Library
576 pp.


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 their lives.

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.

--Caroline Kettlewell

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The Parrot's Lament and Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity
Eugene Linden

204 pp.


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.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Gettysburg 1863: Campaign of Endless Echoes
Richard Wheeler
320 pages


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 flowers grew."

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 satisfying reading.

--Arthur Alexander Parker

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