Sunday, December 11, 2016

Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York

What do you think of when someone mentions Theodore Roosevelt?  The Bully Pulpit?  The charge up San Juan Hill? Trust-busting?  His cowboy years in the Dakotas?  That's the myth, and the reality, but it's incomplete.  Roosevelt was an upper-crust socialite and, when you get right down to it, a bit of a snob and a prude.  Island of Vice covers the two years Roosevelt spent as New York's Police Commissioner, during which he fought to protect New Yorkers from sin and booze.  Spoiler alert - sin and booze won.  Roosevelt's anti-alcohol crusade (understandable when you realize that his brother Elliot died from alcoholism shortly before Teddy became Commissioner) fell hardest on the working class whose day of leisure - Sunday - was now the day when the bars were closed.  As for vice, well, New York passed a law allowing alcohol sales in "hotels" so bars slapped together a few tiny rooms upstairs, ushering in a new era of hot-sheet hotels which rented by the hour.  Eventually human nature and squabbling on the Board of Commissioners did Teddy in…until the campaign experience he gained made him McKinley's Vice President and, after McKinley's assassination, the youngest President in US history.  Island of Vice is a fascinating look at two turbulent years in Roosevelt's and New York City's history, and adds another layer to TR's public persona.

The Great Silence

The Bright Young People of 1920s England partied away the memories of the Great War.  Juliet Nicholson used a combination of contemporaneous news reports, personal diaries, and personal interviews to chronicle the confusing years that led to the decade-plus party.  Dividing the time between the Armistice and its second anniversary like the stages of grief, Nicholson shows how the war affected everyone - civilian and soldier, working class and titled landowner, children and adults.  Most of the stories are personal and not particularly significant, but two themes stand out.  Women who had been drafted into important civilian jobs weren't willing to just disappear into their homes and started laying the groundwork for the mores and laws that nearly a century later allowed me to become a scientist and then a lawyer. I already knew that (although not, obviously, the personal stories Nicholson tells), so the second major theme interested me more.  Harold Gillies, a New Zealand born surgeon, invented plastic and reconstructive surgery while treating injured soldiers.  All of The Great Silence fascinated me, but Gillies's work stayed with me.