Spy Review: Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon by David Bruce Smith

SpyReview-mrsnixon_notextSomehow, in the swirl of history—and the re-telling of it—the presence of Pat Nixon has been diluted to an absence. This is because she preferred anonymity; of all the First Ladies in the past four decades, only she declined to write an autobiography.

Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, is biographical—in theory—but her essence is not fully permeated. Instead, the book is a pastiche of episodes of questionable veracity, dialogue that may—or may not be authentic, and frequent allusions to James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, Joan Didion and Raymond Carver–all of which are more relevant to the author’s professorial life than Mrs. Nixon’s.

Some of the facts the reader knows are: Mrs. Nixon did not begin her life as “Patricia.” She was born “Thelma Catherine Ryan.” She had 11 nicknames, including “Starlight” from the White House years. She was raised, poor, on a California farm with two brothers. Her mother died of lung cancer—at the doctor’s house, a common occurrence—when Thelma was 13, followed—quickly–by her father, who contracted tuberculosis in the mines. She worked as a saleswoman in a department store—once modeling clothes to a successful sale for actor Walter Pidgeon and his teenage daughter; she enrolled at Fullerton College at 19, acted the Bette Davis role of Elaine Bumpsted in the play, “Broken Dishes,” and appeared in the movie, “Becky Sharp,” but her scene was excised from the film. After Nixon was defeated by JFK in the 1960 Presidential election, she wanted him to retire from politics.

When Thelma—by now choosing to be called “Pat”–was 26 in 1938, she “…auditioned for The Dark Tower, to be performed by the Whittier Community Players. Mr. Nixon also auditioned. Like any good young American, he knew about romance and knew the moment he saw her that he would marry Thelma Ryan…She was prescient only in sensing—as he sensed about his bride-to-be—that important things awaited them, but wasn’t sure about getting with him…”

Beattie, normally a sumptuous writer—particularly in the short story genre—has authored a myriad of collections since the 1970s, such as Distortions, Secrets and Surprises, The Burning House, and What Was Mine. But the In medias res quality of this biography/novel, and the author’s digressions, make it appear that her real interest is not Pat Nixon; the First Lady seems to be a test case against Beattie’s concept of a fiction writer.

An admirer of Mrs. Nixon, by contrast, might—at the end, feel that her Silence Of A Lifetime has a Marilynesque mystique; in that sense, the “edges” of her alleged psyche are successfully explored, but only superficially; in the end, she is still not “knowable”—a consummation that would have pleased the real Mrs. Nixon, but–disappoints the reader.

Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life
By Ann Beattie
282pp. Scribner $26.00


Spy Review: Christopher Tilghman’s The Right-Hand Shore by David Bruce Smith

Sixteen years ago, Christopher Tilghman’s debut novel, Mason’s Retreat, appeared to a plethora of praise. It depicted the story of Edward Mason, a pre-World War II businessman, who moved his wife and children from England to re-claim his family’s nearly ruined ancestral home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Now, the author has written a prequel, The Right-Hand Shore. It continues the Mason lore, retroactively, from their slave owning days of the 1850s, to 1920–the year of Mary Bayly’s cancer. She is Mistress of the Retreat–as the Estate is known–a Mason granddaughter, and Dairy entrepreneur of the region.

As her death edges up, Mary’s wish is to locate a direct descendant to manage—and hold–her beloved 1,000-acre property. When Edward shows, he surmises their visit will be perfunctory—brief enough to bewitch Mary, return to Baltimore for lunch with a new inheritance–possibly–and sail for Europe.

Tilghman’s prose is so beautiful that it enraptures the reader in much the same way the employees’ recollections captivate Edward. In a nine-hour interval, the Retreat accrues mental momentum for him, and by the end, it is a place he—appreciates.

Edward learns of Mary’s grandfather, “Duke”, who squeezed out a bargain to sell all his field slaves at “…what might have seemed thirty cents on the dollar…the weasel-faced man from Virginia just couldn’t stop himself from panting with pleasure, cackling as he counted out the money…”

For “Duke” Mason, the deadpan deal was only “…a windfall…pure profit…” without contemplating the consequences to the persons-to-be-sold: splitting up families—for keeps. Mary’s mother, Ophelia, who witnessed it “…was fifteen years old…and she was crying. She knew these people…” and because of it, carried a permanent shame. Home is transformed into place to escape.

When Mary wed the Lincolnesque Wyatt Bayly, he intended to rub out those memories, by re-tilling the soil into a huge peach orchard. But, after Mary and Thomas were born—during which the arc of his success was at its highest–Ophelia bolted to Paris, and enrolled Mary in a fancy Catholic school, while she hop scotched among the Society Soirees between Paris and Baltimore.

Their son, Thomas, was left behind, with little company except for a distracted father, a coterie of ex-house slaves, Randall, the son of the Head Orchardist, and his beautiful, lonely, sister, Beal, who Thomas revered.

It was an unsupervised life for Thomas, but through Tilghman’s magnifying glass, this protracted circumstance enlarged the possibilities for the Thomas-Beal relationship—from a tantalizing taboo, to a forbidden marriage.

Tilghman writes about racial tension, powerfully. And, while Ophelia thought she could dodge it, her chronic absences from the Retreat fired an emotionally vacuous profile that bifurcated her progeny; among Randall Terrell’s relations, the after effects came—irrevocably—with Randall’s murder, the Thomas-Beal union, and their Mason déjà vu “return” to France—as exiles.

The Right-Hand Shore
By Christopher Tilghman

358pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux $27.00


“The Wild Duck Chase” Reviewed by David Bruce Smith

There is one juried art show per year–administered by the United States Government–that is almost completely unknown, even though it is in its 79th year.

Martin J. Smith’s, The Wild Duck Chase: Inside the Strange and Wonderful World of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, provides a panoramic—and generational–perspective of the 2010 Federal Duck Contest. And, according to some, it is the most effective and efficient wildlife conservation program in history:

“When Roosevelt signed the Duck Stamp Act on March 16, 1934, U.S. waterfowl populations were at or near an all-time low…” Because of that, he funded it with six million dollars, and purchased 400,000 acres of vulnerable habitat in Florida, Georgia, Oregon, California and Wyoming, to safeguard more than four hundred species.

The $1 Stamp was devised to perpetuate a cycle of income, and certify the licenses of all hunters 16 years and older; now, the price is $15.

With time, the Program has widened its arc to encompass “700 species of birds, 220 mammal species, 250 reptile and amphibian species and more than 200 species of fish…”

And, each year the organizers of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest select five varieties of waterfowl as its focus.

Hundreds of artists enter, and “fence” vigorously to win the prestigious competition. A first-place victory spins off into instant fame and financial success. The triumphant duck painting can be sold at a high price; guest appearances at art and conservation events flow; lucrative license agreements occur, and sometimes, commissions shake-out.

Formerly, this turned into a million dollars or more of artisan comfort, but “…Since record-high sales of nearly two and a half million duck stamps in 1971-1972, the number of stamps sold has been in almost steady decline. About a million fewer…were sold in 2010 than during the program’s heyday. And the U.S. Congress continues to move inexorably toward passing legislation that would expand an eight-state pilot program making electronic duck stamps available nationwide.”

With that, there are fewer hunters, less collectors, smaller amounts spent on habitat, and a new generation that has been oriented away from nature. Because of the downturn in enthusiasm, a Junior Duck Stamp Contest was formulated in 1993 with a motto meant to engage: “Let’s Go Outside!” along with a five thousand dollar scholarship to the first-place winner.

The Program’s predicament has also been exasperated by animosity between the hunters who are required to buy stamps, and the birders, who aren’t. According to Smith, “…one of the keys to the survival of the Federal Duck Stamp Program may be the seemingly impossible mission of uniting…behind a common cause. Together they can provide enough revenue to keep this…conservation effort going…”

If the discord within the groups is neutralized, the Armageddon-in-the-Distance, will be diluted.

The Wild Duck Chase:
Inside the Strange and Wonderful
World of the Federal Duck Stamp

By Martin J. Smith
262 pp. Walker & Company $25.00



Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice by David Bruce Smith

When James Cain’s, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934, it was well-received—critically and publically, but the novel was embargoed in Boston for vulgarity. Its appearance gave way to a new genre of crime/detective fiction—the roman noir, which pumped up the dark and stale—not the sizzling and dazzling–aspects of sex and violence.

Cain presented these issues dispassionately and efficiently—in this—and in Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. Dialogue was parsed, and plots unraveled with precision.

When the movie premiered in 1946, it was outlawed in Indonesia, Switzerland and Spain.

Frank Chambers is a muscular 24-year-old hobo-wanderer who shows up at an out-of-the-way California diner after “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” By the time he finishes his meal and bewitches Nick, the owner, Frank has obtained a job.

The establishment is managed by Nick’s wife, Cora, who is unhappy, frustrated, and repulsed by her husband:

The hell he’s all right. He stinks, I tell you. He’s greasy and he

stinks. And do you think I’m going to let you wear a smock, with

Service Auto Parts printed on the back, Thank-U Call Again, while he has four suits and a dozen silk shirts? Isn’t that business half mine? Don’t I cook? Don’t I cook good?

For her: Frank is sexual “relief”: no good, but good.

For him: she is sultry, beautiful and irresistible:

I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers…Bite me! Bite me!

I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

She is reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’s Blanche du Bois and Maggie the Cat; like them, Cora recruits love—any kind—even if it’s scandalous.

In the midst of their mutual fervor, the pair wangles a way to massacre Nick; smash his head while he bathes, hold him underwater to ensure drowning and then:

… We would break the door down…call the doctor…I got the idea from a piece in the paper…

Frank and Cora imagine a flawless execution, a pastoral-like return to the diner and a sudden customer surge into profitability. But, the scheme is foiled; because of his temporary amnesia Nick never suspects either to be his killer.

Frank leaves; Frank returns.

The second time they fill Nick with alcohol, and–in the midst of a Malibu drive–Frank slaughters him. In an intricate series of episodes, Cora and Frank are accused of the crime, remanded to jail, briefly, represented—hurriedly–by a smarmy lawyer, and acquitted.

Cain, a Chestertonian, fashioned Postman 78 years ago. Respected by a gaggle of writers such as Tom Wolfe, it now has a long-term position of distinction in American letters. The Modern Library includes it on its “100 Best Novels List.”

The Postman Always Rings Twice
By James Cain
116pp. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (paper) $13.00


Watergate the Novel: Book Review by David Bruce Smith

In June of 1972, President Richard Nixon’s White House cronies burglarized the Washington, DC office of the Democratic National Committee. Since then, the Watergate complex has become inextricably associated with the scandal, slid into the lexicon, and been placed permanently in history.

Thomas Mallon’s novel, Watergate, re-examines the botched caper that caused the downfall of Vice President Spiro Agnew; the resignation of President Richard Nixon; the elevation of an unelected Vice President–Gerald Ford–to the presidency, and the incarceration of forty-three. Ford’s subsequent pardon of Nixon exasperated the country into bouncing him from office in 1976.

A plethora of Watergate literature has since appeared without completely explaining all the details of the breach. The task seems to have been “assigned” without coordination between upper and lower ranking officials. Attorney General John Mitchell and Deputy Director of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP), Fred LaRue, were caught unaware:

“I can tell he [E. Howard Hunt] wants me to take the blame,” said Mitchell. “Colson wants me to do it, too, and so does Haldeman. Just step up to some microphone and say I ordered the break-in. The Democrats will think they’ve solved that mystery where even the trial couldn’t. And they’ll lose interest in our little cover-up, because it would have failed.”

“There’s only one problem with that,” said LaRue.
Mitchell nodded. “The small fact that I never ordered the break-in.”
“I know you didn’t,” said LaRue.
“Who did?” asked Mitchell.
“I don’t know.”
“Neither do I…”

Nor, did E. Howard Hunt, a Nixon consultant, who was jailed:

“…How had it all begun? Why had Liddy [finance counsel, CRP] asked them to go into the DNC? The radio had this morning mentioned that Brezhnev would be visiting Cuba this week. Detente of no détente, the fundamentals still applied. Maybe there had been Cuban money going to the DNC. For the first time, standing here by a curb, Hunt asked himself: Had Manuel Artime—wasn’t he a friend of Rebozo’s? — somehow been connected to the burglary? Perhaps even been its prime mover?”

But, trouble did commence almost immediately, and it surged into public awareness partially because Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post took an interest in the story, as did her investigative reporting duo, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Nixon’s “plumbers”—the coterie who tried to “plug” the leaks– were arrested, and the FBI looped cash the trespassers had on hand with a slush fund that was manipulated to re-elect the President. The Republicans claimed there was evidence that indicated the Democrats were receiving a financial buttress from the Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro, but nothing was proven.

The conspirators tried to protect themselves with lies that arguably overshadowed the offense. And, a year later, during the investigation put on by the Senate Watergate Committee, former White House staffers divulged their knowledge of Nixon’s elaborate tape recording system in the Oval Office—which had secretly documented conversations. Because of its existence, Nixon entangled himself—accidentally–by withholding the information. Ironically, the election was less than five months away, with an already predicted landslide for him.

Eventually, the Committee requested the tapes; the President balked; the Committee demanded the materials; Nixon stalled:

“…What had been the point of making the tapes in the first place? Whatever they contained about his grand policy designs, Kissinger [Secretary of State] would still get all the credit…”

Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to release the cache of information to the U.S. Government; he relented—and quit.

As he has so capably discharged in his earlier historical novels, Dewey Defeats Truman, Henry and Clara, Fellow Travelers, and Aurora 7, Mallon rejuvenates a significant piece of history. With Watergate, for example, many of the 112 names on the character roster may no longer be well-known—Joe Alsop, Jeb Stuart Magruder, Bebe Rebozo, Samuel Ervin, James O. Eastland, and Leon Jaworski–but they embodied a larger National-Emergency-In-The-Making that seesawed the nation between a catastrophic Nixon/Agnew ouster, and one resignation—Nixon’s–that would be cushioned by the appointment of a new vice-president/soon-to-be-president. These events are worthy of study, particularly because they are unlikely to occur again.

Within the framework of this depicted urgency, Mallon brushes in goodness, charity, and dimension through other points of view. Fred LaRue, for example, who was obscure to the public, is written in as an operative who would fix things up with the Committee—and couldn’t–especially for his beloved friend, John Mitchell, while Nixon’s secretary- confidante, Rose Mary Woods, catapulted to renown and infamy for erasing 18½ minutes of secret testimony. She was so protective of her boss that she cornered herself into loneliness and after-the-job social isolation.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, was a Nixon ally of many years, despite her ascending criticism of his unwise and irrational decisions. Then, there was Pat Nixon. She was not precisely the “long-suffering” spouse, as often reported. If Mallon is accurate, she was a perceptive, loyal partner/counselor, who often maneuvered two versions of herself: the school teacher, Miss Ryan, from the long ago years of innocence in Whittier, California—before Richard Nixon– and the political wife who continued to swallow the repeated public humiliations disseminated by her husband–within an occupation–where advancing the country was often subordinate to getting even.

Jewish Stories from the Revolutionary War by David Bruce Smith

When the Revolutionary War began in April of 1775, the population of Jews in America was barely countable. They were two thousand out of two million, but they sprang into upholding the Patriot position:

“The freedoms that the evolution (sic) sought to secure for New World people were essential for the Jews, if they were to exist and prosper here—or anywhere… the Jews of America had no sense of belonging to any other nation… For… those reasons, most… eagerly supported the Revolution. In whatever capacity they served, they contributed…out of proportion to their paucity.” [1]

Even before the War began, many Jews were already unsympathetic to the British. They “were a commercial people whose livelihood depended upon the free flow of goods,” [2] but the English had tried to regulate their skein of commerce, and inflict a 1763 Proclamation “which… banned Americans from engaging in trade beyond the crest of the Appalachian Mountains…” [3]

That decree simmered up animosity because “Jewish merchants had their eyes on the fur, timber, and other resources that lay beyond the line of demarcation.” [4] When combat was inaugurated by the Battles of Lexington and Concord, a variety of posses pounced from New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston and Savannah.

Some were military-oriented, composed of heroes-to-be like Mordecai Sheftall, Jacob Pinto, and Isaac De Costa; Solomon Bush, the Bordeaux-born Benjamin Rones, David Cardozo, and the much-celebrated Francis Salvador, who blockaded, bulleted and barricaded the British, while another cadre of businessmen and merchants utilized their resources, ships, materiel and brain power to impede the progression of the enemy, achieve freedom for the country, and win the war.

Michael and Bernard Gratz of Philadelphia signed pledges to cease trading with the British, and supplied gunpowder and firearms to George Washington’s troops. Along with Solomon Bush, they underwrote the soldiers’ rations at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania.

Isaac Moses and Samuel Myers loaded their vessels with cannon to overturn British ships. They were “blockade runners” who purchased goods in Amsterdam, moved them to St. Eustatius Island, for surreptitious transport back to America.

Moses was also the wealthiest Jew in Philadelphia. In 1781, he offered 3,000 pounds sterling to replenish the Continental Army with necessities, and bought bills of credit alongside Mordecai Sheftall and Michael Gratz to sustain the Treasury.

Aaron Lopez, once known as “The Merchant Prince of Newport,” because of his armada of 100 ships, was dead by 1782 from a fluke accident, and eulogized by the future President of Yale, Reverend Ezra Stiles.

The equally loyal Solomon Simson donated cannon and lead to make bullets. He was also a business associate of David Franks, who furnished food to the British prisoners—a lucrative business until it ran out of money. Franks was fired in 1778, accused of having British sympathies, tried, acquitted, but never quite forgiven by society.

Samuel De Lucena dispatched potassium carbonate to fashion soap and glass as Joseph Simon reheated his forge to manufacture Henry rifles. Jacob Isaacs sent munitions.

Meanwhile, nephew David Salisbury Franks became a lieutenant colonel with George Washington, then an aide-de-camp to Benedict Arnold. After Arnold was convicted for treason, Franks’s credibility was besmirched despite an investigation that absolved him, and a return to the Washington command with a promotion.

Dr. Phillip Moses Russell was Washington’s surgeon general at Valley Forge, while Dr. David de Isaac Cohen Nassy tended to Philadelphians, affectionately, during a yellow fever epidemic. He had a better cure rate than the revered Dr. Benjamin Rush, a former signatory to the Declaration of Independence, who opted for a treatment of more bleeding and less heart.

Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas, of New York’s Shearith Israel Congregation, removed Torahs for safekeeping—the British had burned one— and relocated them to Philadelphia, while the silversmith, Myer Myers, artisan to Paul Revere and others, “…organized a campaign to have… communities remove the[ir] lead sashes…and replace them with wood. He then helped melt the lead… into cannon balls and bullets… to use against the British.” [5]

Perhaps the most important Jew of the era was Haym Salomon. Of Polish birth, he immigrated to America, and “adopted” Liberty. He was ordered by Washington to level British warehouses; he was caught, arrested, and condemned to execution. When the British learned of his facility with languages—Salomon spoke ten—they decided to use him as a translator. In a twist, Salomon transmitted phony messages, which facilitated his escape.

Afterwards, he re-invigorated his broker business, and was engaged by the Dutch and French as a securities agent. Salomon floated loans to the Government without charging fees, equipped military units, servicemen, and intermittently paid the salaries of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe when the Treasury was nearly broke.

Meanwhile, in Savannah, Abigail Minis, and her nine children were also toiling. A prosperous innkeeper, she stocked Washington’s troops with homegrown agricultural products until the British became suspicious. Minis relocated to Charleston and resumed her pro-Revolutionary works.

Her son, Philip, contributed $11,000 to cover the salaries of the North Carolina and Virginia Regiments. In 1776, he was appointed acting paymaster of Georgia’s regimental forces; by the end of the War, George Washington acknowledged him as a hero.

According to Jerry Klinger, President of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, the War was at a stalemate until the British realized the Jewish merchants had a formidable presence in St. Eustatius. Admiral Sir George Rodney was summoned to shut down the island. In his wrath, he burnt Jewish homes, and the 1739 synagogue, Honen Dalim.

While Rodney ransacked, Lord Cornwallis and his men were wobbling in the Carolinas; they retreated to Yorktown, Virginia. He hoped for reinforcements, but the French Admiral, Francois-Joseph de Grasse, appeared with 3,000 troops and trounced the British ships sent to his rescue at the Battle of the Chesapeake in September, 1781.

“…Washington… besieged Cornwallis… [who] surrendered… the war was over…” [6]

Ironically, if it had not been for Rodney’s anti-Semitic tempest, he would not have “forgotten” about the rest of the War, and the British strategy might not have veered off course.


This article was originally published by The American Revolution Center in Philadelphia, PA



[1] Robert St. John, Jews, Justice and Judaism: A Narrative of the Role Played by the Jews in Shaping American History. (New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1969).

[2] Hasia Diner, Jewish Americans: The Immigrant Experience. (Publishers Group West, 2002).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jacob R. Marcus, “The Jew and the American Revolution,” American Jewish Archives (1974).

[6] Jerry Klinger, “How the Jews Saved the American Revolution,” Jewish Magazine(June 2004).




Diner, Hasia. Jewish Americans: The Immigrant Experience. Fairfield, CT: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 2002.
Feldberg, Michael, PhD. Blessings of Freedom: Chapters in AmericanJewish History. New Jersey: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 2002.
Reiss, Oscar. The Jew in Colonial America. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Publishers, 2004.
Schwartz, Laurens R. Jews and the American Revolution: Haym Salomon and Others. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1987.
St. John, Robert. Jews, Justice and Judaism: A Narrative of the Role Played by the Jews in Shaping American History. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1969.


Klinger, Jerry. “How the Jews Saved the American Revolution.” Jewish Magazine (2004).
Marcus. Jacob R. “The Jew and the American Revolution.” American Jewish Archives (1974).


Kaplan, Earl, “Jews in the British Colonies During the Revolutionary Period, 1775-1783, As Reflected in Marcus’s American Jewry, Documents, Eighteenth Century,” January 14, 1973.
Rosencrantz, Dale, “A Study of the Military, Economic, and Financial Contributions of the Jews in the American Revolutionary Period, 1776-1783”; Spring 1977
Sarna, Jonathan D., “The impact of the American Revolution on the American Jews,” Modern Judaism 1 (1981).
Wolf, Rick, “Major Contributions by Jews to the Revolution,” (not dated).



Book Review: Chestertown’s James M. Cain’s Epic Double Indemnity by David Bruce Smith

James Cain’s Double Indemnity is a “hard-boiled,” rapidly paced crime/detective story reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s, that frames murder and sex with little sentiment or passion.

Walter Huff is a 34-year-old, well-regarded loner-insurance salesman in Los Angeles. When he calls at the home of the wealthy H.S. Nirdlinger to secure a renewal of his automobile policy, Huff is almost immediately overwhelmed by the curvaceous beauty of the executive’s second wife, Phyllis.

Initially simulating ignorance about the matter, Mrs. Nirdlinger eventually manipulates Huff into writing up a motor car policy in her husband’s name, but without his knowledge—a practice that is forbidden.

“I couldn’t be mistaken about what she meant, not after fifteen years in
the…business. I mashed out my cigarette, so I could get up and go. I was
going to get out of there, and drop those renewals and everything else about her like a red hot poker. But I didn’t do it…”

The two construct a scheme to murder Nirdlinger, dispose of the body, and then stage his death along the railroad tracks. Because train accidents were statistically insignificant, insurance companies of the era paid a double indemnity of $50,000–a 2012 currency equivalent of approximately $820,000.

The overly-confident Huff believes he can design a nearly perfect caper, but agrees to participate only because he will collect half of the proceeds.

The conspiracy, however, does not unravel exactly as Huff envisions, because his boss balks at the cause of Nirdlinger’s death as reported in the newspapers—a fall from a train car:

When a man takes out an insurance policy…worth $50,000 if he’s killed in a railroad accident, and then three months later, he is killed, it’s not on the up-and-up. It can’t be. If the train got wrecked it might be, but even then it would be a mighty suspicious coincidence…No, it’s not on the up-and–up. But it’s not suicide.

After the annihilation, Huff and Phyllis avoid each other to deflect possible suspicion; during the interlude he becomes infatuated with Nirdlinger’s daughter, Lola—stepdaughter to Phyllis. She reveals that Phyllis, a former nurse, was responsible for the deaths of the first Mrs. Nirdlinger, and three patients under her care.

Slowly, Huff recognizes that his relationship with Phyllis is riskier—and more dangerous–than he calculated; in his build to alarm-regret, he imagines her betrayal; turning him in. The only antidote, he decides, is: rub her out; Huff will drive her off a scenic overlook, jump to safety before the car tumbles into the escarpment, confess to Lola, hope for her forgiveness, and achieve a residual of happiness.

He does not know Phyllis is a nimble assassin, but the very capable Cain—a citizen from Chestertown–configures it into their double-destiny denouement.

Double Indemnity By James M. Cain

115pp. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (paper) $13.00



Spy Review: ‘Wye Island’ 35 Years Later by David Bruce Smith

In an earlier time–when conservation was barely regarded–there was a hamlet in Maryland called Wye Island, where the subject was often disputed–without much resolution. Few inhabitants were in favor of tampering with Time, but by the 1970s occasional developers had already appeared, edged out pieces of land, and constructed homes. Their successes were usually modest; “progress” was relatively non-threatening.

Boyd Gibbons’s “Wye Island”—now observing its 35th anniversary of publication, is the story of the builder who envisioned a much more ambitious future.

James Rouse was known as the “father” of the Columbia, Maryland community: a large enclave of residential, retail, parks, and harmonious economic diversity, with “almost 35,000 residents, over 400 businesses, [and] 90 industries…” His intent was superimpose a similar—but smaller model–on Wye, respectful to the environment, the wildlife, and the hot-tempered, multi-generational dreams of the people.

At stake–in 1973—was a one-year option on approximately 2500 virtually undisturbed acres in Queen Anne’s County, which according to the Rouse Company “[would only] be allowed for… 184 parcels of fields, woods, and shoreline, ranging in size from five acres to over twenty…” And, purchasers would not be permitted to subdivide their property—ever.

But, with three hundred years of history on land that had been touched and tilled from the Titled to the Tyrannized—Frederick Douglass had been a slave there—many were steadfastly resistant to an alternation to their lives. Already, the 1952 Chesapeake Bay Bridge had caused infinite and inconvenient traffic jams; unnecessary beach crowds, and twenty-five years of bitterness towards the “Outsiders” from Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Despite occasional disrespect from some, the easy-going Rouse—who was raised on the Shore–was confident the county and its commissioners would eventually endorse his plan of 706 units among consciously kept pristine preservation. In a letter to the public he wrote:

“It is our firm belief that a quiet, beautiful county like Queen Anne’s can grow in a manner that is consistent with its heritage…We believe that the Wye River can be protected against pollution; that the oyster beds, the crabs and the fish can flourish; that the shoreline can be preserved to provide feeding founds for ducks, geese and swan; that the farmland that marks the island’s use can be significantly maintained and that, at the same time, the island can become a place that supports a new waterfront village built to high standards of taste and quality unique in America.”

Rouse allocated a year to explain it to the citizenry of 18,422, but they remained unswayed, and the project was never begun. He surrendered the option to landowner Frank Hardy, whose 1974 auction failed to bring in the necessary proceeds. The bids were rescinded, and the acreage was sold to the state of Maryland—at a discount.

Wye Island:The True Story of an American Community’s Struggle to Preserve its way of Life
By Boyd Gibbons
227 pp. Penguin Books (paperback) $4.95

Editor’s Note: The Queen Anne’s Spy will be co-sponsoring a forum on Wye Island in the Fall of 2012 .  Details to be announced 

Spy Review: The Edge of Politics By Stan Salett

In a way, Stan Salett is an American hero. He personifies a myriad of ideal qualities: the conscientious work ethic, talent, tenacity, and intuitiveness about the various communities of social action. His memoir, The Edge of Politics: Stories from the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty and the Challenges of School Reform, tells the story with resonance and zip.

Born in the midst of the Depression, Salett was raised by a family with modest financial resources, and an impressive dedication to its neighborhood/district. His parents were a part of various political causes and campaigns, and an uncle was the assistant U.S. attorney for Boston.

During Salett’s graduate school years at Columbia he joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a Civil Rights organization, exposed the discriminatory housing policies at the University, and later, helped fashion the strategy for Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington—of 250,000 participants. That and the post-election “buzz” from John F. Kennedy’s presidency lured him to Washington.

Initially, he obtained a position with the Department of Labor that routed into the Administration and its Persons of Influence.

Heady contact with Ted Sorenson, Sargent Shriver, Robert F. Kennedy, and members of Congress pumped the twentyish Salett—and the country—with endless optimism and hope.

“The first bellwether for my generation was the election of President Kennedy. Kennedy’s characterization of his prime audience as a “new generation of Americans” seemed to speak to us directly that it was our time to assume the country’s leadership.”

Educational and social projects simmered, as did the not-quite-publicly-confronted issue of Civil Rights, and few knew—yet—about Viet Nam.

After the Assassination, the country was deflated, but Johnson picked up Kennedy’s important initiatives and swept most of them through Congress within his self-imposed benchmark of a thousand days. Salett’s beloved Head Start and Upward Bound programs emerged from the Johnson era; nearly fifty years later, they persist, capitalizing thousands of college tuitions for underprivileged students.

Later, Salett and then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, would inaugurate the Economic Recovery Act to underwrite before, after, and summer school programs, and shape legislation to curb juvenile delinquency.

In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, he—alongside others–would restore the New Jersey public schools to a system of excellence, become an advocate for more efficient federal governance, a deputy finance director with the 1980 Presidential Campaign of Ted Kennedy; relocate to Maryland, reconstitute himself into an educational consultant for pupils and parents, campaign successfully for a position on the school board, and proceed to advise American and Soviet businesses for strategic guidance.

Still, with all of his tentacles of importance in corporate, scholastic, and political orbits, Salett has not received out-loud, public recognition. That may be his choice. Either way, he is worthy of it.

Spy Review: John Barth’s “A Novel in Five Seasons”

Among believers in numerology, “7” is equated with harmony, but for Professor George Irving Newett of Maryland’s Stratford College, that digit is aligned to bad luck and uncomfortable visions.

John Barth’s hero, previously introduced in 2008’s “The Development”, now reappears in Every Third Thought: a Novel in Five Seasons.

On the 77th anniversary of the 1929 Stock Market Crash, Newett’s lush-with-career-academics-community of Heron Bay Estates, is partially pummeled by a tornado. Because of it, he and his wife, poet and fellow faculty member, Amanda Todd, are forced to relocate to a rented condominium.

Despite the devastation, the couple proceeds with their plan to cruise Europe. Then, on Newett’s 77th birthday in September of 2007, the professor takes a fall–in the Fall–at the Shakespeare-imbued home in Stratford-upon-Avon. This is followed by five consecutive visions; each occurs on the first day of the season, and corresponds to a previous Newettian Rite-of-Passage: a cycle of seven “events.”

The narrator, for example, recalls his 1952 travels along the East Coast with his beloved childhood friend, Ned Prospero, and their girlfriends. The young Marsha Green becomes his first wife, but Newett’s relationship with Prospero holds more potency, intricate love, and lifelong interest:

…God damn you anyhow, Ned Prosper,” lost asshole buddy that George Irving Newett loved almost to the point of bifuckingsexuality! There, he’s goddamn said it—or rather, you’ve said it, in this goddamn Third Thought…Why’d you up and die on me old buddy, and who gives a shit half a century later except, well, obviously, still-desperately-scribbling G. I. Newett…”

The “loss” of Prospero is compensated for by a high arc of acclaim and adoration among the students at “StratColl”, and a near-perfect marriage. Amanda Todd, twelve years his junior, is Newett’s absolute lover, confidante and editor. Their partnership neutralizes his fifty year disappointment of not having composed The Great American Novel. Life also swipes at his Ambition in the guises of writers’ block, lack of inspiration, and rejection; only sporadically published articles in obscure journals somewhat satiate his lust for literary lionization.
Every Third Thought nudges a spectrum of reminiscences, framed around the uncomfortable “7” metaphor. Besides family, marriage, politics, and career, it also reaches into a couple’s grief. The Newett/Todd’s are childless because George is sterile; each is also an only child of deceased mothers and fathers. Death, thus, for them, is more extraordinary. With no relatives and few friends living or nearby, the destiny of the surviving spouse becomes an unknown, and when neither is alive, a legacy of any kind will be in doubt.

Barth applies language humorously, descriptively, imaginatively, and articulately, but not even artfully selected words can feather up a restless emotional history.