The Peripatetic Reviewer

by Edward Weeks
WILL ROGERS; His Life and Times
by Richard M. Ketchum
McGraw-Hill, $15.00
Buffalo Bill, whom I saw at the age of nine, was a showman echo of the Old West; Will Rogers, twirling his rope, looking up at you under his shock of hair with that big grin as he made those casual, funny remarks in his Oklahoma drawl, was the real thing. He had the qualities we always need in our public prints and so seldom find; he put our love of exaggeration and ridicule into American lingo that constantly took us by surprise—“There’s no other country with as much air, and not knowing where it’s going as this country.” He poked fun at the muddleheads in Washington—“Lord, the money we do spend on government and it’s not one bit better than the government we got for one-third the money twenty years ago.”
Hoover was a favorite target, but Will saw both sides of the President’s dilemma in this comparison he drew in 1930: “Nobody ever asked Coolidge to fix a thing. We just let everything go, and everybody grabbed off what he could. . . . Now Mr. Hoover is elected and we want him to fix everything. Farm relief—we want him to fix the farmer. Now, the farmer never had relief. . . . He never had it even under Lincoln. . . . Prosperity-millions of people never had it under nobody and never will have it under anybody, but they all want it under Mr. Hoover. Women — women in this country, they think that Mr. Hoover ought to come in and wash the dishes . . . and help take care of the baby or something. If the weather is wrong, we blame it on Hoover.” He spoke with instinctive fellow feeling, as in this reference to FDR in the worst of the Depression: “Even if what he does is wrong they are with him, just so he does something. If he burned down the capitol we would cheer and say, ‘Well, we at least got a fire started, anyhow.’ ” And as a sideline on himself he once admitted, “You have to have a serious streak in you or you can’t see the funny side of the other fellow.”
Will’s origin, as Mr. Ketchum tells us in this quotable, vigorous, copiously illustrated book, was more native than that of any other American philosopher, his father being one-eighth Cherokee and his mother a quarter-blood. Clem Rogers was a big man and a successful rancher; his range included about sixty thousand acres in the Indian Territory, and the ranch house in which Will was born in 1879, a structure of hewn logs, two stories high, with seven large rooms, open fireplaces, and the only piano in the entire district, was a focal point. Here in his boyhood Will must have heard the brutal story of the Trail of Tears, of how the Cherokees had been driven out of their rich holdings in Georgia in 1830, and it may have opened his mind to the injustice which is so prevalent in our country. The unbroken grasslands of his youth and the chance to trail four thousand head to the market in St. Louis developed his passion for roping. Schooling he resisted. “I spent two years at Kemper [military academy],” he said, “one in the guardhouse and one in the fourth grade.”
As Will grew older, his father gave him a herd of his own, hoping to keep his son on the ranch, but Will had wanderlust, and after sharp words he got a job in a Wild West show where he was billed as a champion lassoer, “The Cherokee Kid.” He toured Argentina and South Africa, and his big break came in the spring of 1905, when he made his debut in Madison Square Garden. He was the featured roper—at twenty dollars a week—and he made the headlines when an eight-hundred-pound steer with horns that spread five feet leaped out of the ring and looped up the stairs to the balcony, disappearing behind the box seats. Hot after it went “the Indian Will Rogers,” who got his rope around the horns and swerved it down the steps and back into the ring. Will called it “the biggest hit here I ever dreamed of,” and his skill and the publicity were to lead him into vaudeville where for a time he performed his incredible tricks with the rope (he had fifty-three of them) gracefully, chewing gum, and saying not a word.
At Hammerstein’s he performed with his favorite pony, who was shod with felt hooves; he stopped the orchestra and announced to the house, “I am going to throw about two of these ropes at once, catching the horse with one and the rider with the other”; then he grinned and added, “I don’t have any idea I’ll get it, but here goes.” To his amazement the crowd laughed and they roared later when he improvised, “Swinging a rope is all right, when your neck ain’t in it. Then it’s hell.” He was such a hit at Hammerstein’s that he had to put on two different shows, one in the theater, one in the Roof Garden, and in the interval he studied the newspapers, which of course led to his famous opening: “All I know is just what I read in the papers.”
When at last he was earning $250 a week, Clem Rogers came east to see him, and would count the house. Will’s marriage to Betty Blake, whom he had courted for eight years, his triumph in the Ziegfeld Follies, where his originality shone in the midst of the pulchritude, his friendship with W. C. Fields, his success in Hollywood, his promotion to the front page of the New York Times, his happy family life, and his death at fifty-six in an airplane crash in Alaska—the story is all here, authentic, and graphic, and American as the man himself.
THE ROTHSCHILDS
by Virginia Cowles
Knopf, $15.00
Virginia Cowles’s biography of the Rothschilds is a chronicle, by turns individual and panoramic, of the richest and oldest financial dynasty in the Western world. The founding father, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, by his initiative and persistence worked his way out of the Frankfurt ghetto in the last half of the eighteenth century. Financial transactions of that period were carried on in gold and it was Amschel’s skill in collecting loans and establishing credit abroad for his master, William IX of Hesse-Cassel, which was to make that prince the wealthiest in the Holy Roman Empire. During the French Revolution the Jew had complete command of his patron’s confidence. As Miss Cowles says, the two men watching the march of events “nursed a deep concern; the Prince had a fortune to keep and the Jew a fortune to make.”
In his rise Mayer Amschel depended on the versatility of his five ambitious sons. He trained them in the “new” finance. He gave them latitude, yet saw that they adhered to three principles: marriage within the faith, preferably within the clan; unity of operation, dictated by the ablest; and the theory resulting from their opposition to Napoleon, that wars were ruinous.
At the turn of the nineteenth century the sons were established in five capitals: Nathan in London, James in Paris, Salomon in Vienna, Carl in southern Italy, Amschel the younger in Frankfurt. Nathan in London’s rich pasture was the genius: he supplied the gold that Wellington needed for his army in Spain, and he became expert in “bulling” or “bearing” the market. Perceiving the effect of political news on the stock exchange, he established a messenger service by carrier pigeons, postillions, and the bold sea captains, so that the Rothschilds were banking on the victory at Waterloo forty hours before Wellington’s dispatches reached London. Salomon in Vienna was the agent for Metternich and he procured the title of Baron for all five. The growth of the Rothschild fortune was astronomical, and if one brother, for instance James in Paris, were being pressed, the others came to his rescue. Their primary loyalty was to the family, not to the country in which they dwelt.
Miss Cowles tells the story appreciatively and with a clear grasp of finance. Her most brilliant characterization is of Nathan, that stolid figure always dressed in black and a high silk hat, standing before his favorite pillar in the stock exchange. She does not try to whitewash his finaglings, as when he used Prince William’s English investment for his private profit but at no loss to the Prince. She tells with glee the Rothschilds’ resistance to the ancient ostracism of the Jews: in Vienna, where no Jew was permitted to buy a house, Salomon booked every room in the most luxurious hotel, used it for his own, and excluded the former patrons until the law was rescinded. In England, the Rothschilds found a champion in Disraeli and when they raised the money for him to purchase the Suez Canal shares, Queen Victoria relented and at last a Rothschild entered the House of Lords.
In our time the family energy was diversified—to Zionism, to the two famous vineyards, at Château Lafite and Château Mouton, to the building of monstrous houses overstuffed with costly objects, to philanthropies, and to collections of art totaling 20 percent of the treasures confiscated by Hitler’s curators (and eventually recovered). The Rothschild monopoly vanished (the banks which survived the World Wars operate as independent entities) but the Rothschilds are still capable of enormous enterprise, as in the new developments in Newfoundland and Labrador. It is a remarkable record, the buccaneering, of course, much more fun to read about than the refinement; and rather too much blandishment in the closing pages.
THEOPHILUS NORTH
by Thornton Wilder
Harper & Row, $7.95
The key to this mischievous and amusing novel about Newport, Rhode Island, is that Theophilus North, the hero-author, in his youth aspired to be a missionary among primitive peoples. He graduated from Yale in 1920, and after studying archaeology for a year in Rome, he settled down to the more prosaic task of teaching at a boys’ school in New Jersey (with a slight change in the time sequence, this was Mr. Wilder’s beginning). After four and a half years of academic confinement and three summers of tutoring, Theophilus at twenty-nine felt “innerly exhausted,” cynical, and badly in need of a change.
An epidemic at the school releases him in April and with his two thousand dollars’ savings he heads north in his jalopy, light-headed in his freedom and ready for adventure. The car breaks down in Newport, which he had observed from a distance during his military service at Fort Adams, and on the advice of the superintendent of the Casino, he decides to advertise his availability as a tennis coach for youngsters and as a reader for adults.
In Rome Theophilus had been enthralled by Schliemann’s discovery of ancient Troy, the nine cities superimposed on one site. Now from his room in the YMCA he sets out to befriend those who dwell within “the nine cities” of Newport. The first comprises the vestiges of the earliest settlement, and the second is the beautiful eighteenth-century town which played so important a part in the Revolution. The third is the remnant of a once prosperous seaport, the fourth belongs to the Army and Navy, and the fifth city was the intellectual sanctuary of Henry James and his brilliant sons, of Julia Ward Howe, and J. L. R. Agassiz. The sixth is the summer resort of the very rich who in 1926 were still building their colossal “cottages,” and the seventh is composed of their servants. The eighth is the camp followers and the parasites journalists (“smearers”), detectives, gigolos, and fortune hunters—and the ninth is the marketplace, “buying and selling, raising its children and burying its dead.”
As his reputation for reading aloud spreads, Theophilus is booked for as many engagements as he can cope with, and to orient himself in these fashionable circles he confides in Bill Wentworth of the Casino, in Henry Simmons, the superior English butler, and in Mrs. Cranston, who remembers the skeleton in every closet. In his comings and goings on his bicycle, in his refusal to accept any social engagements, he becomes the most welcomed, most hated newcomer in the place—hated because, with his missionary zeal, he cannot resist helping those who are being victimized. He helps the Honorable James McHenry Bosworth, living in “Nine Gables” while his daughters, the “Death Watchers,” anxiously await his huge fortune (“Newport’s the only place in the country where rich old men live longer than rich old women”). He helps Diana Bell take an honest look at the athletic director she was ready to elope with, Miss Wyckoff exorcize the ghost in her famous old house, and Charles, the fear-ridden adolescent, gain confidence. The story is a sequence of extraordinary characterizations told with more poise, perception, and intellect than I believe a young Yale graduate—or even one from Harvard—would be likely to possess. But it is stylishly told by Mr. Wilder, who has long been fascinated by the impact of one social group upon another, and the most beguiling characterization of all is, of course, of Newport itself.
A THOUSAND SUMMERS
by Garson Kanin
Doubleday, $6.95
This is a love story, told in reverie, by Freeman Osborn, a solitary Yankee, owner of the Edgartown Pharmacy on Martha’s Vineyard, which he bought from his father when the old man stubbornly refused to install a soda fountain. After an unhappy marriage to a French girl, Colette, in 1918, Freeman’s horizon was bounded by the Vineyard until that day in 1927 when an attractive woman entered his shop to have a cinder removed from her eye. He performed the operation deftly and with fateful consequence to them both.
Sheila is the wife of Thomas Van Anda, a stuffed shirt high up in the Foreign Service. She and Freeman discover a mutual attraction for Japan, where she had been stationed for three years and whose history and art he has absorbed at long range. While the diplomat is in Washington, Freeman takes her for a picnic, an ensoku, to Squibnocket Pond, his hidden jewel, near Gay Head, on the shore of which he hopes to build a Japanese house. The day is ripe for swimming, for love, and promises, and they agree to be discreet, not only on the Vineyard where everybody knows your car, but in the meetings that they plan for the future. Their talk is bland, their snatched-at happiness undetected, and, to me, rather implausible.
When Freeman patents a successful insect repellent he can afford to leave the Vineyard on his pursuit of a future with Sheila. But by now his wife is fighting a divorce and Van Anda, who also stands in his way, is successful in his bid for the Senate. With the skill of a dramatist Mr. Kanin plots his urbane story to its sudden climax and poignant aftermath.