February 24, 2011


And the Rest Is History: The Famous (and Infamous) First Meetings of the World’s Most Passionate Couples. By Marlene Wagman-Geller. Perigee. $18.95.

How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old. By Marc Agronin, M.D. Da Capo. $25.

Bloody Times: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Manhunt for Jefferson Davis. By James L. Swanson. Collins. $16.99.

     A delightful idea marred by sloppy, imperfect execution, And the Rest Is History attempts to do for love what They Went That-a-Way by Malcolm Forbes and (mainly) Jeff Bloch did for death more than 20 years ago: provide entertaining encapsulations of famous people’s lives by focusing on one major event – in the case of Marlene Wagman-Geller’s book, each person’s first meeting with his or her “destiny” (as the author invariably and very repetitiously puts it). This could be a cute gift-book idea, but it is a rather thin premise for a more-than-240-page work with some pretensions to seriousness. And Wagman-Geller never really delivers on her title’s promise: she mentions most of the first meetings only in passing, instead using each short chapter to tell the tale of the marriages or affairs of a variety of notables from ancient to modern times (with a strong emphasis on the modern). Among the 34 couples here are Napoleon and Josephine, Leonard Woolf and Virginia Stephen, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Elvis and Priscilla Presley, and Prince Charles and Camilla Shand. Some of these unions were long, some short; some were marriages, some affairs; some ended only at death, others in divorce – there is little in common among the tales, and Wagman-Geller makes no attempt to teach readers anything through them or demonstrate any great truths about human love and happiness. She is satisfied with simply recounting warmed-over celebrity gossip – but really, in doing so, she or her editors ought to have at least made sure to get their celebrity names, dates and authorial clichés right. Wagman-Geller calls Hollywood director Howard Hawks “Hawk,” not once but twice; and in discussing George Burns’ life after the death of Gracie Allen, she writes about Burns needing to “shoulder on” (rather than the correct “soldier on”) – again, twice. And then there are the numerous stylistic howlers, such as “a seventeen-room mansion, replete with tennis court,” “the price of prevarication” (rather than the correct word, “procrastination”), and “fire is a two-edged sword.” And there are ridiculous inaccuracies, such as the statement that Céline Dion signed a contract with Caesar’s Palace in 2003 and then “bid a farewell to the spotlight” there in 1999. The fact that Wagman-Geller is a high-school English teacher in California tells readers more than they may want to know about the educational system in the most populous state in the U.S. and makes these pervasive lapses even more distressing, if not exactly poignant. Nor is there much poignancy in most of these once-over-lightly stories; most of the book’s genuinely interesting material comes from tales that are likely to be less familiar than the others to the majority of readers – Charles Parnell and Katherine O’Shea’s story, for example, or that of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. And the Rest Is History does have a certain number of purely enjoyable moments, but much of it is pure dross.

     There is a tendency, in our youth-obsessed culture, to think that all life becomes dross as we age. Aging means inevitable loss, illness, decline of mental and physical faculties, and death. It means life in an assisted-living center or a nursing home, a slow fall into eventual oblivion. Who would want to experience it – were it not that the alternative is an early death? Geriatric psychiatrist Marc Agronin’s How We Age, which gets a (+++) rating, attempts to present a different perspective on growing old – not a “positive spin” on what is essentially negative, but a more balanced view of aging than is usually put forth. All the negative elements are present, but Agronin says he has found that again and again, they have counterweights in the form of wisdom, vitality and forms of creativity that are quite different from those experienced in youth. The book is based on Agronin’s experiences with the Miami Jewish Heath Systems in Florida, in particular with the residents of a nursing home there. “Someone living with the daily infirmities of aging and approaching death [can] still enjoy most of the same human experiences we find so precious in younger years,” observes Agronin – although this is a rather backhanded “positive” element of aging. Agronin slowly builds his case for a more balanced view of old age through descriptions of specific patients’ concerns and worries, through consideration of earlier psychological and psychoanalytic writings on aging (such as those of Erik Erikson, who proposed an eight-stage model of human life – one more than Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man”), and through references to literature (Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, for example). Agronin’s most optimistic assessment of the potentials of old age comes in “A Million Sparks,” the final section of his book, in which he comments on “how sparks of humanity persist until the final moments” even while acknowledging the “profound challenges” of being old. Agronin seems a little too ambivalent about his own optimism to be truly convincing in his arguments. So committed is he to trying to balance the negatives of old age with positives that he does the same thing in reverse – finding negative elements to set against whatever positive ones he discovers. For example, after recounting the survival of a man who lived because of surgery that was done only after Agronin properly diagnosed his condition, the author adds, “Not all older individuals will have such happy endings. Many times there will be little that can be done, and the results will seem tragic.” In the book’s epilogue, recounting the deaths of several patients introduced earlier, Agronin writes of “hope” and “the preciousness of memory,” but one gets the feeling he is trying to convince himself as much as his readers. There is surely some level of balance between the cares and joys of the last years of a long life, but How We Age communicates the positives only fitfully and imperfectly.

     What is communicated in Bloody Times, which also gets a (+++) rating, is in part love, in part the end of life, and in part all the passions that shorten or lengthen life, make it as a whole happy or tragic. This is a Civil War book, an adaptation for younger readers of James L. Swanson’s Bloody Crimes. It includes pages on the love between President Lincoln and Mary Todd – and the terrifying nightmare she had, foretelling his death. It includes his assassination and the planning that, while hasty, nevertheless led to an immensely impressive funeral that took his body from Washington, D.C., home to Illinois. And it includes the determination of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to keep the Southern cause alive through the month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender – a story pervaded with Davis’ love for his family and the South, and with missteps and errors aplenty (including the untrue accusation by President Andrew Johnson, among others, that Davis was involved in planning Lincoln’s assassination). Bloody Crimes gives short shrift to Southern attitudes and emotions, making it hard to understand why, even after Lee’s surrender, some Confederates were quite willing to continue the fight – and told Davis so. But the book will appeal to teenage and even preteen readers through its fast pace, its interwoven stories, and its large number of photos: Lincoln’s Springfield tomb, the funeral arch built in his honor in Chicago, the cartoon falsely claiming that Davis was captured while wearing women’s clothing (an idea that persists even today), Davis’ own funeral procession in New Orleans after his death in 1889, and many more. And readers may be surprised at a highly contemporary element of Swanson’s story: Davis’ library and museum in Mississippi, packed with artifacts and mementoes of the Civil War – and used for decades as a retirement home for aged Confederate veterans – was destroyed as recently as 2005. Hurricane Katrina wiped out the carefully preserved memories of a long-ago time whose events continue to resonate even today, in North and South alike.

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