I am sure it was the pride I took in the slender aquiline figure of Governor Woodrow Wilson, my pride in watching him review the National Guard at their summer encampment at Sea Girt, New Jersey, and of being able to shake his hand and have a glass of iced lemonade at the reception afterward, that turned me from a Republican by inheritance to a sentimental Democrat long before I was old enough to vote. As a member of the AEF, I shared in the soaring hope for President Wilson when he went to Paris, and I was still a believer in the League of Nations when the time came to register my first vote in the election of 1920. To me Harding, with his talk of “a return to normalcy,” was a sad comedown.
The Shadow of Blooming Grove by Francis Russell is a knowledgeable, candid, sympathetic, but not uncritical biography of Warren G. Harding, the least respected of our Presidents. One learns from the preface that the publication has been delayed for four years because of a restraining order issued by an Ohio judge on a motion by Harding’s nephew forbidding “temporarily” the publication of Harding’s letters to Carrie Phillips, the love of his life. Though the blank spaces peppered with dots show where the letters were to have been quoted, it is a pity not to have them, for their pathos might have revealed a tenderness in Harding’s mind which is nowhere apparent in his relations with the “Duchess,” as he called his virago of a wife, and his long affair with Carrie, begun in the euphoria of his first political success, is a very human offset to his servile compliance with the political bosses of Ohio.
To familiarize us with this naïve and handsome man the biographer literally steeps the reader in the home economics and political chicanery of small-town Ohio, and in the process one learns much that is surprising. His father was a borrower and a blunderer; the boy had to pull himself up by his own bootstraps and cover the elder’s debts thereafter. All his life Warren was to be haunted by the legend that the Hardings had Negro blood: “You Hardings are part nigger” was the taunt flung at him in the schoolyard and repeated just as meanly by his father-in-law years later. It left Warren with a permanent scar of insecurity and the need to demonstrate his right to belong; it helps to explain his innate conservatism.
Books meant little to the boy, but he had a gift for oratory; Napoleon and Alexander Hamilton were his heroes, and from Gertrude Atherton’s novel about Hamilton, The Conqueror, he distilled a set speech which he was to deliver on the Chautauqua circuit summer after summer. As a young man he showed his competence in journalism and at the poker table, rising from a printer’s devil to be the editor and owner of the Marion Star, from which he was to net a dependable $20,000 annually. “Over the years,” says his biographer, “harmonizing became his favorite expression — as verb, adjective, or noun.” As Harding threaded his way up from the murky depths of Ohio politics, he became known as a compromiser, loyal to his Republican bosses, Hanna, Foraker, and Cox, conciliatory toward his Democratic rivals, everyone’s second choice when bitterness made a better man unavailable.
The politics in this book are sometimes tawdry and often laborious, and they go deep; I think Mr. Russell interprets them fairly, and certainly they make a telling disclosure of Harding’s timidity and lack of concern. Thus in his first term in the Senate he was absent on roll calls 43 percent of the time, particularly on any bill that might antagonize voters; women’s suffrage and Prohibition were the two issues that plagued him most, and on both he straddled. His ignorance about foreign affairs was appalling. Wheeling and dealing, this Roman head, with its purple rhetoric, continued to gain prestige within the party; and behind that poised, affable exterior were the blood taunt, the fear of debts, the rejection by the Masonic Lodge, the sterility at home, the love life with Carrie and later with the adoring Nan Britton, the nervous breakdowns that took him five times to the Battle Creek Sanatorium, and the sense of his own inadequacy which constantly overwhelmed him. President Taft and TR when old praised him for his loyalty; Alice Longworth called him “a slob.” The final question which this unblinking, comprehensive book poses is: Can the political bosses in our democracy be trusted if this is the kind of man they choose?
With the national election behind us and Vietnam cooling down, it is very diverting to take up a novel as charming, as quietly perceptive, and as free from violence as Honey by Miss Elizabeth Jenkins. Honey Harper, who gives her name to the title, is a ravishing English siren, full-breasted and broadhipped, with a slender waist and graceful legs. “Honey,” writes Miss Jenkins, “had always been a beautiful child, but from the time she was fifteen it was clear that she had not only beauty, but the kind of beauty that makes men ready to put down hard cash.” She had been completely amoral, taking new lovers and other women’s husbands as they caught her fancy, building up “a basic wardrobe, jewellery, fitted suitcases,” and moving from honey pot to honey pot without a trace of regret.
The Shadow at Blooming Grove
Warren G. Harding in His Times by Francis Russell (McGraw-Hill, $12.50)
by Elizabeth Jenkins (Coward-McCann, $4.95)
A Small Town in Germany
by John le Carré (Coward-McCann, $6.95)
1913: An End anti a Beginning
by Virginia Cowles (Harper & Row, $10.95)
She never succeeds in marrying the millionaire plus, whose alimony when she had tired of him would give her the security her greedy mother yearns for, but her first husband is comfortably well off, and after she ditches him, she finds in Roland Ismay, aged thirty-six, a good-natured, sensual, successful writer of television scripts, a husband who will permit her any number of brief infidelities so long as she is obligingly available for his unquenchable adoration. Roly, who has had his ups and downs and who is as casual in money matters as Honey is in sex, has had a son by his first marriage, Brian Ismay, who is tall, handsome, and an unspoiled schoolboy at sixteen. When Brian’s mother dies of cancer his trustees think it natural to foist him on his father, with a fat allowance to sweeten the deal. And here the story begins.
Honey has been aware for some time that her charms are no longer attracting young men as they once did, and the thought of having an unawakened Brian under her own roof is a delicious temptation. But Brian, reserved, absorbed in his books, half in love with a girl of his own age, and hating at first sight every vestige of his stepmother’s menage, is no pushover. The duel between them is fascinating to watch, and it is given credence by the very human portraits of Brian’s schoolteachers, who have high hopes for the talented boy, and by the Cresswell family, whose son Budge is Brian’s closest friend and whose home is Brian’s sanctuary when he becomes desperate. Miss Jenkins writes with poise and style; she knows human nature, and she realizes that even an untrustworthy character like Roly can be moved by momentary generosity. The supporting characters, Charles and Pamela Cresswell; Magda Frostwick, the magazine writer; Brian’s two teachers, Mr. Harvey and Mr. Watkins; and Budge, who shares so loyally Brian’s sense of outrage — the reaction of all these people to the central duel builds up the reader’s interest. This is good reading and believable.
John le Carré, who made his auspicious debut with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, is a Britisher who, like Geoffrey Household, is a specialist in manhunts and detection. “About five hundred years ago,” he writes in the preface, “I served in the British Embassy in Bonn. In those days it had no Glory Hole and its standards of security were impeccable.” Mr. le Carré’s new novel, A Small Town in Germany, is laid in the Bonn which he remembers so vividly, and his concern is with the embassy when the mission from top to bottom was distraught and its security anything but vigilant. At the time of which he writes Europe was in flux and Germany an uproar over the demonstrations led by a neo-Fascist named Karfeld. For reasons of economy the Rhine Army had been recalled; Britain’s entry into the Common Market was trembling in the balance, and its stable relations with West Germany were of utmost importance. Tense and preoccupied as they were, the British mission at Bonn dropped their guard, permitting Leo Harting, a utility man with a shady past, to insinuate himself into the archives to clean up the jobs which no one else had time for.
When Harting disappears, taking with him a clean sweep of high security papers, it is more than a disgrace; the file would be much to the liking of the Russians and devastating if it fell into the hands of the German government. Alan Turner, the bloodhound sent out by the Foreign Office in London, is implacable. The diplomats, for a variety of reasons, dread his presence, and the lower ranks, some of them, were fond of the missing man and try to cover up for him. Turner is the kingpin of the story; he had been in Europe before on such quests as this; he is a member of the new classless society, and his shrewd, ruthless questioning makes no allowance for rank or sensitivity; the more exhausted members of the staff resent his pressure even as they respond to it, and those who have things to cover up are led to commit themselves in devious ways. It is Mr. le Carré’s familiarity with the working of a foreign embassy, its curious mixture of intimacy and protocol, and of course in this case its essential Britishness, that gives such flavor to this book and to his portraits of the many types involved.
Virginia Cowles’s 1913: An End and a Beginning is a lively chronicle of that lustrous year when Western man was striding so confidently toward the brink of a crevasse he did not see. In prose which is a pleasant blend of reminiscence, description, and evaluation, she gives us a picture of each of the seven capitals of the world beginning with London, the “gaiest, richest, and largest” — and, I might add, the most selfassured, since its empire controlled a quarter of the earth’s people, and it was at once the banking and literary center. Each chapter is illustrated with contemporary photographs, and those on London quite naturally accentuate the supremacy of its aristocracy, its statesmen, and its theater. There are many surprising pieces in Miss Cowles’s mosaic, as for instance her description of the New Year’s celebration at the London Waldorf: “Father Time wheeled in a submarine marked 1913 which began to bombard an old ship marked 1912. The ship sank as the clock struck twelve” — as British ships would be sinking in the near future.
With her spotlight Miss Cowles illuminates the behavior of the politicians, the power of the rich, the antics of society, and the glory of the theater and ballet; she has more to say about painting than about literature, and moderately little about the forces for reform which were gathering strength below the surface, and not only in St. Petersburg. By her measurement then, Vienna was archaic, stratified, corrupt, and dull; Berlin, aggressive, militaristic, thirsting for the hunt and perhaps bigger game; Paris, defiant, artistic, overemotional; Rome, “the Cinderella of Europe,” to be courted and patronized by wealthy foreigners; St. Petersburg, isolated, blindly selfish, and unaware; and New York, ostentatious, jazzy, and money-minded. The vulgarity and snobbishness of those two leaders of the New York-Newport society, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, are hard to believe.