The Peripatetic Reviewer
by Colin Simpson Little, Brown, $8.95
The Lusitania, of 45,000 tons, the largest and finest ship of her time, was torpedoed without warning on May 7, 1915, by the U-20 off the southwest coast of Ireland, with a loss of 1201 lives. Many of the dead were Americans, and the feeling of outrage that the passengers had not been given time to debark aroused in us a belligerency such as the British privately were hoping for. This book, with its cool indictment, has had to wait until the archives of the British Admiralty, the State Department, and the Cunard Company were open for scrutiny and until Colin Simpson, of the London Sunday Times, could fit together the action and the documents and draw the inferences which emerge from this provocative disaster.
The British Admiralty was as efficient as Nelson in pinching off the German food supply, but much less capable in combating the U-boats. It was a shock to Winston Churchill, the First Sea Lord, as it was to Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher, to discover that British cruisers with their longitudinal compartments were so vulnerable to torpedoes. They were characterized in the Fleet as “Live Bait,” words that were to haunt Churchill after the sinking of the Lusitania. About the submarines Lord Fisher in particular seemed obtuse. Through the capture of the German code, the Admiralty knew of the departure of the U-boats, but not how they arrived so quickly in the danger zone ofF the Old Head of Kinsale. There were rarely more than two subs at that stage at any one time and only twenty-one in the entire fleet.
The declassified documents show that at the outbreak of war the Admiralty took over the direction of the Cunard Line, some of whose ships became armed transports; its queen, the Lusitania, however, continued to operate ostensibly as a passenger liner with a false registry of what was carried below decks. J. P. Morgan, strongly pro-British, financed the purchase of munitions for the British; Dudley Field Malone, Collector of Customs for the Port of New York, provided the false manifests, and Robert M. Lansing, the devious young counselor to the State Department, pulled the wool over the eyes of his superiors, Secretary Bryan and President Wilson.
The issue was forced when the Lusitania docked in New York on April 24 and when the German Committee of New York, aware that the ship would return loaded with arms, published a warning to travelers intending to cross the Atlantic that vessels ‟flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction. . . .” Only one newspaper, the Des Moines Register, of the fifty approached, carried this advertisement, but the contents were known to the wire services and immediately telephoned to the State Department. President Wilson and Bryan were pacifists at heart and while they hesitated, the big ship was on her way.
Captain Turner, the master of the Lusitania, was plainly worried. The signals from the Admiralty kept warning him of U-boat activity, and his hope was that the cruiser Juno would meet and escort him through the danger zone. Instead she was recalled to Queenstown, Winston Churchill took off to France for a weekend at Sir John French’s headquarters, and the aging Lord Fisher, as was his habit, went to bed early. Captain Turner was left to find his way through a thick fog with reduced speed, and when his ship was hit, only six of the forty-eight lifeboats were safely lowered in the eighteen minutes before the Lusitania sank.
The question the reader must decide is whether such shocking lack of protection was deliberate. I believe it was the result of Lord Fisher’s incompetence and of Churchill’s distraction. The Gallipoli campaign, for which he was so responsible, was in deep trouble, and his mission to France was to check on the appalling shortage of shells which, when “leaked” to the Times, brought in Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions. That Churchill was heedless of the Lusitania seems clear, and the cover-up of irresponsibility was a disgrace; as Lord Mersey, head of the British Inquiry, remarked later, “It was a damned dirty business.”
MARK TWAIN: God’s Fool
by Hamlin Hill Harper & Row, $10.00
Too much has happened before this book begins for us to appreciate with instant sympathy why Mark Twain and his family were so overwrought as he entered the last decade of his career. Following the bankruptcy of his publishing company, he succeeded in paying off his debts to the dollar by an exertion of writing and lecturing that drained him dry. His concern for his financial future made him more than usually quarrelsome with Harper & Brothers, who at last mollified him with a minimum annual guarantee of $25,000, but age and worry about his womenfolk reduced his new projects to tirades. And the trouble which resided at home he compounded with his tyranny.
Mr. Hill has built his case on the two sets of notebooks kept by Isabel Lyon, Mark’s secretary and a member of the household from November, 1902, to March, 1909. This black-haired, black-eyed little woman of thirty-eight “wrote Clemens’ letters, managed his house, kept his books, took his dictation, and was, as Clemens himself said, the person, with the exception of his wife, Olivia, he knew most intimately in all the world.” Over the years she disbursed $279,536 without ever being questioned for an accounting. and with diplomacy she kept the peace in what Hill rightly terms “that strangely loving and competitive marriage.” Her description of “the King,” as she called Mark Twain, demolishes the illusion of family happiness so carefully confected by Albert Bigelow Paine, the official biographer, and Mary Lawton, the actress.
The King’s debilitation was unquestionably hastened by the grief at home. The death of Susy, the oldest daughter, from meningitis occurred in 1896 when the family were abroad; Twain regarded her as doting and precocious and both parents reproached themselves for having left her in Hartford, although it seems evident that she preferred to stay there rather than endure her father’s bossiness. When Jean, the youngest daughter and the one closest to her father, developed epilepsy, they traveled endlessly in search of a cure, and her seizures, added to Mark’s outbursts, were so emotionally exhausting that they aggravated Mrs. Clemens’ neurasthenia. It was a vicious circle of doctors, health resorts, extravagant journeying, and large, lonely domiciles. Olivia had been enjoying poor health for so long that Mark seems to have been prepared for her death. But not for Jean’s; when she drowned from an epileptic seizure in her bathtub there was no consolation possible. “Jean’s death,” writes the biographer, “was to destroy forever Mark Twain’s creative voice.”
As we move through the contentions, the self-vaunting, the tantrums, and the tragedy of this great man in his famous white suit, we too rarely hear the laughter and the relish of human nature that he bequeathed in his books. When Clara, his second, most aggressive daughter, turns vindictively against Miss Lyon. Mark speaks out honestly in defense of his loyal secretary (although later he would accuse her of robbing him, as he did everyone else): when Jean, nearing thirty, has a happy, brief respite at her farm at Stormfield, his appreciation of her is touching, as is his self-accusation after she is gone. But such moments are rare in this joyless account of a man “whose rage at the world in which he lived grew and grew to mammoth proportions.”
THE FATAL GIFT
by Alec Waugh Farrar. Straus & Giroux. $6.95
Alec Waugh, novelist and travel writer much at home in the West Indies, has told in the autobiographical form this story about the Honorable Raymond Peronne, who had the fatal gift of beauty but never quite lived up to the expectation of his friends. The novel begins with their meeting in Oxford in 1922 when Alec, then a London publisher, comes down to attend a“binge” put on by his younger brother, Evelyn. It is a noisy affair, inevitably broken up by the Proctor but not before the older man’s attention has been attracted by Judy, a girl from the city who, on Evelyn’s dare, had come to the party in male attire, and by the tall, elegant Peronne. As the second son of Lord Peronne he has all the money he needs, and already the legend of being a great lover. Rare among the young literati of that time, he is interested only in the opposite sex. I do not know the identity of this character, but he must have had charm.
When Peronne is rusticated, he submits to his new friend the halfcompleted manuscript of a novel, which is tentatively accepted—but never finished; when his affair with Judy cools off, it is Waugh who encourages the final break, the first of several such releases. Raymond drifts from job to job: a short stint in radio and as a gossip writer for the Sketch, selling cars in London and stocks in New York. He never commits himself to the work or the girls, biding his time, privately hoping for the day when the title will descend to him and he can take his place in the House of Lords. He is jolted out of this illusion when named as co-respondent in a prominent divorce case, but recovers honorably and, on Waugh’s advice, takes his lady to the isle of Dominica and there, as the scandal is forgotten, he comes under a spell that will hold him for life.
All this is made agreeable and plausible by the supporting theme, the experience of Alec Waugh as a writer. The friendship of the two men is refreshed at each meeting: they enjoy the best restaurants, the rare wines, and they move with attractive people. But mixed with such sophistication is the snobbish reverence for the title, dialogue without enough edge, and the tedium of watching Peronne marking time. Dominica in a rainy spell when everything ceases to work; Dominica in Carnival; Peronne at fourteen, in the act of being seduced by his aunt, Peronne making such a hash of his maiden speech in the Lords— these are the parts worth waiting for and all occur in the last quarter of the book.