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September 2014

Reading about Jefferson Davis earlier reminded me of his alter ego in the Confederate cabinet, Judah Benjamin, and then a correspondent told me that one of Benjamin's textbooks from his post war career in the 1880s is still on law school curricula, a fact that I verified easily.  In an idle moment - half-time in a Niners game - I looked for a biography and this is the one I found. Published by Free Press, I took that as a mark of quality and acquired it. It is an excellent study with some surprises in it.


What made Benjamin notable in the lackluster Richmond government was first and foremost that he lasted the course of the war and no else did, apart from President Davis himself.  As I discovered from reading Allan Tate's biography of the irascible Davis, Benjamin was one of the very few who somehow got along with that moody, dyspeptic, volatile, and intemperate man. Evans suggests that Benjamin tried all his life to fit in without assimilating or converting to Christianity, though his Judaism was nominal.

Here then was a man who made a lasting contribution to legal knowledge, held very important national executive positions in cabinet for four years, and alone managed to work closely with his president. All in all a singular set of credentials.  

Note, the only other person who managed to get along smoothly with Davis was Robert E. Lee, but they seldom met face-to-face, whereas Benjamin saw Davis virtually every day, and of course Lee had his military achievements as a buffer.  

First, Benjamin's background.  His family were Sephardic Jews who originated in Portugal and then fled the Inquisition to England. His parents migrated to Charleston in South Carolina (which I visited last year) where Judah was born and grew up.  Charleston was a major seaport then and had a sizable Jewish community.  His parents were not devout and neither was he, but no one ever let him forget that he was Jewish. It was often thrown in his face, and, if not, then muttered behind his back throughout his life.  

Like so many others, when he was of age, he went west, to New Orleans (NOLA) in the 1820s.


Louisiana had only just become a state.  He apprenticed in law and made ends met by tutoring in English while himself learning Creole French.  Then as always he had a prodigious appetite for work, and brought to it an organized and systematic mind.  He made a tidy sum in NOLA by compiling a guide to the Code Napoléon that formed the basis of the Louisiana law.


It is a complex framework that he distilled, valuable to any law office, but the more so for other English speakers moving to Louisiana and encountering the Code for the first time. In this he demonstrated his eye for the niche where he could do well by doing good à la Ben Franklin.

He married a Creole woman who led him a merry chase for years before and during their marriage. Vexed as that was, it was thanks to her that he travelled to England and France, as well as Spain and Italy.  For most of their marriage, she lived in Paris which he visited one month a year. To finance these trips he undertook commercial work in England and France that gave him knowledge and contacts that were an asset later.  

In the 1840s the American political party system was fracturing as the old compromises wore thin and the great compromisers (Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John Calhoun, who preferred compromise to war) passed from the scene and firebrand intractables who preferred war to compromise came to the fore in the North and the South. His legal accomplishments recommended him to NOLA Whigs who got him elected to the state assembly. His appetite for work (and lack of the distractions of a home life) made him their candidate for a Senate seat in Washington D.C. which he won.  He lived for a while in Decatur House which stands today. As the Whigs dissolved he changed allegiance to the Democrats.

To step back, just before he ran for the Senate, in the last days of the Millard Fillmore Administration, President Fillmore had to appoint a Southern to the Supreme Court (regional balance then as now was honored) and he offered it to Benjamin.  He declined.  It was almost hundred more years before a Jew was appointed to the Supreme Court. Class, can you say who that was? Yes, that is right Woodrow Wilson had his beau geste and appointed Louis Brandeis of the Brandeis Brief who was not only a Jew but an innovator!

In the United States Senate Benjamin defended states’ rights but not directly slavery.  He became a slave holder when he married and set up house in Louisiana with his errant wife, but had not grown up in a slave holding family.  His legal mind, command of precedents, great memory for the dumb things others said, these combined with an assured posture and deep voice earned him a reputation as an orator in the well of the Senate. The important point is that he was a moderate, not a Fire Eater who proclaimed slavery or death like Henry Foote or Thomas Yancey.  

When secession started and Davis composed his first cabinet he wanted a geographic spread and he knew Benjamin from the Senate.  He offered Benjamin the post of Attorney-General, which he took. At the time it was supposed there was hardly any need for an Attorney-General so his appointment was accepted though his Judaism was drew comment in the newspaper.

images-6.jpeg Benjamin on the Confederate $2 note as Attorney-General.

In the first cabinet meeting in February 1961 he made the only strategic suggestion that comatose body ever conceived. He proposed that the Confederate States government acquire (by purchase or requisition) a million bales of cotton and immediately transport them to England and warehouse them there as surety against future purchases of arms and ships. The proposition died on this lips. What did this short, rotund, Jew who had never served in the army know of war. It would be over the three months. Davis dismissed the proposal in very few words and patted Benjamin on the arm in a typically patronizing way.

That incident aside, Benjamin who had long studied those around him in court to assess the best tactics to use studied Davis, and found ways to make himself indispensable to the cantankerous and thin-skinned Davis.

Whereas the others members of cabinet put as much distance between themselves and Davis as possible, Benjamin took an office next door and socially paid court to Mrs. Varina Davis. He sent her theatre tickets, offered to do things for her children and so on. She soon offered him another point of access to Davis. In the office Benjamin became something like a chief-of-staff who handled the routine, acted as a gatekeeper for those who wanted to see the President, and drafted everything that needed to be written. In a few weeks Davis could not do without him.

When the victory at Manassas was not exploited the incumbent Secretary of War in the Confederate cabinet resigned in a huff and retired to Florida. Since Davis fancied himself a master strategist what he wanted in the War Department, such as it was, was an instrument who would do his bidding. Who better than Benjamin for whom no job was too small or too big. In June 1861 he was appointed Secretary of War, he of no military experience whatever, who had never fired a gun. He did not hunt, duel or any of those like manly arts so common among Southern gentlemen. However, he was a hard working administrator with an eye for detail and a willingness to work with others, qualities rare in Richmond.

By the way, Evans argues that Richmond would have been the primary target of the war with or without the Confederate government in residence because it possessed the only ironworks sufficient to forge heavy weapons, cannons and shells, in the Tredegar Iron Works.

tredegar-iron-works.jpg The Tredegar Works today.

In fact, he argues the decision to move the government there had the effect, and perhaps that was the intention, of shielding these iron works with a great army. A point I had never before heard.

The Union anaconda strategy worked and NOLA fell early in the war cutting Benjamin off from his sisters there and his considerable property was confiscated by the Union army. He now was completely isolated in that sense, and Evans suggests that drove him to work even harder for Davis. If Benjamin lost office he could not retire to his home as others who left cabinet had done. His future, if future he had, was now in Richmond.

The winds of war blew more defeats and Benjamin was blamed for them. Evans produces a fascinating correspondence in one instance. Benjamin tells Davis he did not re-supply the Army of Northern Virginia after Antietam because there were no supplies left, no shot, no shell, no horses, no mules, no cannons, no rockets, no men in reserve, no corn, no feed, no salt pork, no nothing and not a gold dollar to buy it. But rather than admit that and (1) undermine civilian and military morale and (2) discourage potential European allies and investors that he would take the blame. Davis agreed to let him be the scapegoat in the newspapers and gossip, which went ballistic in the blame game. Watch the ABC news tonight for an example.

Yet Davis quickly moved to promote him to Secretary of State in late 1862, a post he held to the end in May 1865. Of course the pundits were outraged, Benjamin the Jewish fiend who had no doubt profited from stealing army supplies was rewarded for his perfidy with promotion! That from the Richmond press. But the Confederate Senate approved the appointment because its members knew how indispensable Benjamin was to Davis, even if they did not know about the lack of supplies.

Now Benjamin had a job for his talents. He spoke French and had done commercial law work in England and in France in his travels to his wife who was a favorite at the court of Louis Napoléon. He had many legal and social contacts in both countries. Davis and many others Southerns hoped that England and France would intervene in the war in some way. There is no doubt that it was a tempting proposition. To England it offered the chance to emasculate a commercial rival in New England and perhaps reclaim territory lost in the Revolutionary War. To France it offered the prospect of a Confederate ally to realise Louis Napoléon ambition of colonizing Mexico.

What Benjamin quickly realized that rather than risk a confrontation with the United States, what suited both England and France was to see the Americans in a deadlock. That would serve the purposes of both. England could trade and France could enter Mexico with no reaction from El Norte.

Benjamin went on the offensive. He arranged for Confederate sympathisers to go on public relations tours in both England and France. He paid unscrupulous journalists in those countries to write favorable articles and so on. He directed Confederate ambassadors in each country to offer inducement (bribes) to officials to draw their countries into the conflict.

Given the Union’s naval blockade, making these arrangement was difficult but he found paths through Mexico and Canada, though a letter might take three months to get from Richmond to Paris or London. And many letters did not make it. As a precaution against interception many of his official dispatches were coded and disguised as personal letters from a woman in Canada to a cousin in France, or a businessman in Mexico to a bank in England. In addition, he funded agents in Canada to foment trouble on the border with the United States. He also tried to organize support, financial and recruits, for the Peace and anti-conscription movements in the North, the Copperheads. One example in Vermont features in Howard Mosher's delightful novel 'On Kingdom Mountain' (2008).

In short, he tried everything.

These confections, however ingenious, could not outweigh the realities of blood and iron. The Europeans would let the battlefield decide the matter.

As the military situation produced shortages. the scapegoating of all Jews, but particularly the most visible one, increased in the South. Jews were accused of hoarding commodities, when in reality they had nothing either, he least of all. When a French banker made his way through Mexico to Richmond to negotiate for cotton, he and Benjamin spoke French. Though the resulting contract was very favorable to the Southern cotton interests, it was not enough! The press, the Congress, the know-it-alls, society ladies, men in the ranks all denounced Benjamin for selling out the Confederacy in some invisible way. Why else would a Jew speak French to a monolingual Frenchman but to conspire?

This reasoning is not more stupid than we hear today from many quarters. Nothing is ever enough. The only explanation of a shortfall is personal malfeasance. Sounds like Fox News! Simple minded and loud. Or is that the ABC these days?

The more Benjamin was pilloried, the more he took the only refuge he had, namely Richmond’s small Jewish community. But seen in the company of other Jews only intensified the hostility that good Christians directed at him.

None of this carping influenced President Davis, who was nothing if not stubborn. That stubbornness together with his poor health, he was often bedridden for days and weeks at a time, meant he relied ever more Benjamin who together with Varina tried to conceal Davis’ weakness, least the Confederate Congress start thinking about a new president. Poor health or not Davis made it to 83.

Yes, Class, there was a Vice-President, that tubercular Georgia pygmy Alexander Stephens, who fell out with Davis in Montgomery in 1861 and retired to his home in Atlanta where he stayed until General Sherman came calling. Few people could cope with Davis.

When Davis was laid low by one of his many complaints or was travelling, which he did a couple of times, Benjamin was Acting President in all but name. He called cabinet meetings, he issued directives, replied to letters addressed to Davis and so on. He reported all this to Davis after the fact, and Davis seems to have accepted it. Benjamin often did this work in concert with Varina whose advice he sought and heeded, unlike her husband.

After Gettysburg in July 1863 Benjamin began thinking about a Confederate emancipation of slaves in return for military service (shades of Robert Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’), but he dared not broach the subject with anyone but Varina. Others also realized the dire need for manpower in the army and in 1864 some generals also said the unmentionable, notably Patrick Cleburne, whose reputation as a stalwart soldier was unimpeachable.

Benjamin maneuvered for months to allow Davis to make this bold move and Benjamin enlisted Varina to help persuade Davis, step-by-step, but to no avail. The details are many and best read in book. The larger point is that Benjamin was willing to give up slavery and tried to bring that about, but failed.

A recurrent theme in any book about the Civil War is the Southern dream that somehow it would prevail despite the material odds that favoured the North three or four to one. I tried to pick apart some of reasoning in this list, which is a rough chronology of the progress of the War.

Before the shooting started:
1. Their cause was just and God would see to it, i.e., states' rights and the white man's burden of slavery.
2. After the Southern victory at Manassas: They would outfight the Northern city slickers.
3. This dream endured for most of the war: King Cotton was essential to Europe and England would intervene to get it.
4. This, too, surfaced periodically: the English desire to trim commercial rival in New England.
5. In 1863 when Louis Napoléon began interfering in Mexican affairs: French ambitions in Mexico would bring it into the war.
6. Benjamin tried this angle from later 1863: Entice French and English investments which they would then protect.
7. A widely held hope from February 1864: War weariness in the North, Peace Party, anti-conscription riots would change policy and the president.
8. Bruited in 1864 after Lincoln’s re-election. The South would emancipate the slaves and level the moral playing field which would influence European and Northern opinion, the former to intervene and the latter to stop fighting.
9. In March 1865: The Confederacy would recruit soldiers from the slaves with the promise of freedom.

Each of these straws was grasped at one time or another and none bore the weight. England turned to Egypt and India for cotton. Foolish as Louis Napoléon was, he would not act without England.

MTE5NDg0MDU1MDgzMjU1MzEx.jpg Louis Napoléon, looking as drug-addled as a celebrity today.

He would interfere in Mexico but nothing more. Lincoln won re-election on the Federal army votes. No Southern official would publicly support emancipation, except Benjamin himself. Yes, the Confederate army did accept blacks volunteered to it by their owners to be soldiers in March 1865 but there were only two hundred who were never armed.

The end came in April 1865 and Benjamin fled. The assassination of Lincoln made him a Christ-figure and did not the Jews kill Christ. What was Benjamin but a Jew. Worse, some of the agents he had employed were related to one of those implicated in the assassination. That thread would have sufficed to see Benjamin hanged. The yellow press in the North made this connection within days of Lincoln’s death. Lincoln was murdered by a plot hatched by the scheming Jew Benjamin! If it needs to be said, neither Benjamin nor any other Confederate official had any part in the murder of Lincoln.

Benjamin escaped it to England and started a third, or is it a fourth career: Code Napoléon lawyer in New Orleans, United States Senator in Washington D.C., and then Secretary of State of the Confederate States. In England he became a barrister and then a Queen’s counsel. As in Louisiana he found a niche for himself by compiling and publishing in1868 'A Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property, With Reference to the American Decisions, to the French Code, and Civil Law', which had its most recent edition in 2010 and is still be found in the curriculum of commercial law.

Benjamin's sale of goods.JPG The 2010 edition.

He spent the last years of his life in Liverpool in commercial law, travelling regularly to Paris to see his wife.

The portraits of Benjamin, as those above, invariably show a faint smile on his lips. Even when the Confederate cabinet was in flight, made all the more desperate by the assassination of President Lincoln, Benjamin had that smile. He had frequently been asked why he smiled all the time over the years. His repeated answer was ‘que sera, que sera’ and meanwhile enjoy the moment.

The book is partly a parallel biography of Jefferson Davis in the opening chapters. I had not expected that from the title and even in retrospect I am not sure it was necessary, though it did reveal to me more of Davis than the Allan Tate biography reviewed earlier. The justification for this emphasis is the close association between the two men for the four years of the Confederate States government. But that is only four years of Benjamin’s seventy-three (73) years. Of course it was these years that led me to read about him.

It is the work of a professional historian, well written and thoroughly researched. It does emphasize the Jewish heritage as indicated in the title. While the Judaism does not seem central to Benjamin’s life it was the inescapable first perception of all he met.

That remarkable woman Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 – 1962) lived in the White House for more than twelve (12) years, and she made full use of the opportunities it offered her, unlike most of the others. Eleanor was content with neither rose gardens nor chiding the victims as other First Ladies have been. Indeed, she might be the only one who deserves that title - First Lady. I class this as Presidential reading.

Eleanor book.jpg

Privately, Franklin called her ‘Public Energy Number One,’ for her readiness to take up any good cause. The press frequently referred to her as ‘Eleanor Everywhere,’ for the whirlwind of activity she was. Not only did she take up causes but she went where they were to see for herself. Of course, it would have been a different story without Franklin, but as we shall see, she contributed a great deal to his achievements, too.

This is a biography, though to this reader somewhat uneven in its execution. On that more later. For now the main game: Eleanor was the daughter of Elliot Roosevelt, a brother of Teddy Roosevelt and Anna Hall Livingston, whose great great grandfather administered the oath of office to the first President of the United States, George Washington. Both sides of the family were well off but not among the astronomically rich Astors, Morgans, Hills, Gettys, and Rockefellers. She was a fifth cousin once removed of Franklin, though I do not quite know what that means. That name Roosevelt is from the Dutch who settled along the Hudson River Valley before the English pushed the Netherlands out.

She grew up comfortable in the small world of the Gilded Age, think of the novels of those superlative chroniclers of that time, place, and class, Edith Wharton and Henry James.

1898-ERphoto.gif Eleanor in her late teens.

Her mother was very religious and her father an alcoholic wastrel. Because he was mostly absent the young Eleanor idealized her father while receiving little affection from her mother who was too busy praying. She had two brothers, one who died in infancy and another who followed in his father’s footsteps. Her mother died of diphtheria when Eleanor was but six years old and her father drank himself to death three years later. Eleanor was placed with grandparents along with her surviving brother in a large household where she was the last and least. Note that when she married Franklin, the sitting President, Teddy Roosevelt acted as the father of the bride.

In both her paternal home and in the grandparents’ home, the servants all spoke French. That was evidently was the done thing at the time. The servants looked after the children and so Eleanor grew up bilingual and from that derived a lifelong interest in languages. In her teens the family sent her to a finishing school in England for four years. This school emphasized art and culture, and was conducted completely in French. Eleanor excelled there. She travelled to France, Italy, Spain, and Germany on school field trips. When she and Franklin travelled Europe on a long honeymoon she showed him around and he relished her knowledge and appreciation of fine art and history.

eleanorroosevelt.jpg Eleanor the Washington hostess.

Franklin advocated female sufferage in his first campaign for the state senate. This surprised Eleanor and she accepted the idea out of loyalty and duty as a wife. She also, in those early days, practiced the snobberey, anti-semtism, and racism of her social origins, whereas Franklin did not. Again she followed him out of duty. Of course, later she surpassed him on these counts but he led the way at the start. One of the very affecting features of this book is the unfolding of Eleanor's moral growth.

During World War I and after it was Franklin who insisted they visited wounded, injured, and dying sailors in hospital, he being Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but once there, it was Eleanor who stole the show. Even in those days of her callow youth, one observer said that she somehow transmitted good will to the men she touched and spoke to. Franklin had the wit to step back and let the small miracles happen. The observer by the way is that man whose name is forever linked with FDR, Louie Howe. Though she first despised Louie for many wrong reasons, he was working class and its showed and for a time she thought him Jewish, but in time they established a lasting rapport.

Franklin was inspired by Teddy Roosevelt and the state senate was a start. Two years later he ran for governor touting female suffrage, war on Tammany Hall, and urban renewal. To remind readers of the time and place, Franklin drove a motor car in the campaign, and he was the first to do that in New York state. He won and off they went to Albany.

The burdens on Eleanor were both the usual ones for a wife at the time and unusual ones, too. She five children in rapid succession and in this account was not a particularly loving mother. Moreover, there were the duties of a political wife. Staying awake through the speeches, attending every function, entertaining guests at home four or five nights a week, and Franklin brought home all sorts, from factory foremen, to Supreme Court judges, Jews, socialists, bankers, journalists, and all. He is only a supporting player in this book, but he seems entirely free of the prejudices of his background, all the more surprising since his mother was an exemplar of every prejudice going, and he and she were inextricable.

Eleanor learned to manage the demands, and indeed, did it so well that in time other political wives asked her advice on how to cope with children, absent husband, unexpected guests, numbing after dinner speeches, handshaking and handshaking and handshaking. When Franklin went to the Navy Department in Washington her linguistic and cultural assets came into their own. Here Franklin was more likely to bring home an Italian diplomat or a French banker, than a Jewish garment worker or an Irish radical, and the multilingual Eleanor (French, Italian, and some German) was always a hit.

In addition to all the above, Franklin more or less pushed her out the door to create a public profile, starting with the Junior League to teach reading in New York City slums and then the League of Women Voters to educate women to vote as they saw fit not as their husbands did. Ouch! But once she got a toe in those waters she found them to her liking.

The-Roosevelts.jpg The two of them in 1936

Then, at 39, that active sportsman Franklin Roosevelt lost the use of his legs, literally overnight. There were long bouts of painful therapy. Ever more responsibilities fell to Eleanor, first in caring for Franklin, and most importantly keeping his spirits up, which she did by challenging him, e.g., walk down the drive way - that took him three years of trying to achieve it, wearing twenty pounds of braces, swinging his dead legs from the hips. She is credited with driving him to run for Governor. He did, and thanks largely to the support of Al Smith, he won.

Eleanor became, in addition to everything else, Franklin's eyes and ears. She did the usual meet-and-greets, but also inspections of workhouses, asyla, prisons, school, hospitals. She took the inspecting seriously and found many deficiencies, all reported to Franklin. These reports led to changes and that emboldened her to work even harder. She continued doing this when Franklin was elected president. Indeed she clocked up 25,000 miles in the Pacific during World War II visiting the troops. One admiral said a visit from Eleanor was worth ten USO shows to lift morale. She made in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane on this tour, as well as Pacific Islands being bombed by the Japanese. The descriptions of Eleanor in hospital wards, evacuation camps, and ship infirmaries full of wounded and dying men is powerful. Those experiences made her an early and loud advocate of the United Nations. By the way, all of the Roosevelt sons were in the armed forces at the time and came under fire. (Sidebar: Teddy Roosevelt's son, Theodore Roosevelt III, a general, died on Omaha Beach on 6 June 1944. Not the cosseted presidential offspring we have seen of later.)

All the while she published a newspaper column every day, never missing a deadline, typing all the copy herself on a battered Smith-Corona. The pay she donated to a children's home founded by her grandfather.

Needless to say all this good work infuriated the Tea Parodists of the day who were sure she was a Jew, a Negro, a Communist, an alien, and, worst of all, a woman ...! The vitriol poured on her exceeds even that today poured onto Barry O'Bama. But some of the earliest Gallup Polls show her approval ratings consistently above 66%, sometimes ahead of Franklin on that crude index.

At the beginning Franklin led her political development, but later she led his on civil rights and the rights of dispossessed, and women.

When he died, she retired, too, briefly but soon enough she was invited to speak at fundraising events for charities, war bonds, civil rights, and then there was the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which she alone made happen in two year - yes, two years - of committee meetings with the most intractable committee one can imagine (far beyond the Unbelievables of my experience). That is an impressive achievement. President Truman appointed her and the leader of US delegation gave her, what he thought was a pointless, trivial, and impossible job - the Declaration. No one remembers that leader any more, but everywhere today people speak of human rights, tracing back to Eleanor Roosevelt. Take that!

In 1961 President Kennedy made her chair of the first Commission on the Status of Women, an assignment she attacked as she always did: full tilt. Age wearied her and she died in 1962, an event I can remember.

There is much more to the story to be read in this or in one of the many other biographies, or in her own writings.

15097v.jpg She alone of First Ladies has a statue in Washington, D.C. Take that Nancy Reagan.

I said above that the book was 'uneven' because it lavishes page after page on the marriage ceremony of Eleanor's parents and passes virtually in silence the births of her children. It invokes the Dolomites during her honeymoon with Franklin in lyrical passages and skips lightly over crucibles like the death of her brother in 1941. Yes, it does deal with the sexual relations with a laudable reticence and decency.

In a series of novels between 1997 and 2001 that prolific Scots novelist Paul Johnston described an independent Scotland.

paul_johnston.jpg Paul Johnston

It is a grim picture he painted. The government in Edinburgh Castle has little influence over the hinterland. The highlands have become a wild and woolly place where few others dare to venture. The Hebrides have not been heard from in years. Whatever oil income there might be there is staying there. The European Union stopped admitting dole-seeking micro-states.

The result is a Scotland that lives off sex tourism for Arabs, Japanese, and Nigerians. Prostitution in a nationalized industry. And on it goes.

Edinburgh Castle is run by intellectuals who follow Plato’s concept of philosopher-kings.


They argue among themselves about the Divided Line and the metaphor of the Sun, leaving the nationalized industry to auxiliaries.

I have taken a few liberties in the summary above to apply it to current circumstances. The books are narrated by an auxiliary who got demoted. The first was:
‘The Body Politic’ (1997)


The others are:

‘The Bone Yard’ (1998)
'The Water of Death' (1999)
‘The Blood Tree’ (2000)
‘The House of Dust’ (2001)

I found them very amusing and they are recommended as krimies and as dystopias.

On a fine Saturday in a Sydney mid-winter I went to a public lecture at the University of Sydney in General Lecture Theatre One at 2 pm. This room is as steep as a ski jump and the grey audience, like me, took the steps slow and careful. Knowing the lecturer, I had something I wanted to give him, at the end of the talk, for another project. Accordingly I slowly made my way down to the front. All went well; there were no ominous portents.

Openday6a.jpg GLT

I have been to that room many times, and I knew that there was a back exit that avoided ascending all those steep steps. That was my advantage: local knowledge. As the talk drew to a close, I thought I would indeed take the back exit and miss those stairs with my arthritic knee. After a brief word with the lecturer, handing over the poster I had for him, and seeing the slow moving audience taking the stairs, I boldly pushed though the door marked exit at the back and then through a second door into the Vice-Chancellor’s garden, and just for a micro-second I hesitated, should I prop open the door just in case or push on. But if I propped it open, it would stay that way, and I did not want to be responsible for that. I may even have thought, without fully crystalizing it, that it was Saturday and not all doors might be open, but then there was a wedding party in the quadrangle when the lecture started, and the Nicholson Museum was open - I stopped in there to find the location of the lecture on the way there. In other words, everything is open for business. As I said, ‘boldly’ I proceeded, and the exit door slammed shut behind me.

The day was mild and I was in shirt sleeves, but it was July and when the sun goes down the temperature drops quickly from, say, 18C to 10C or less. The Vice-Chancellor’s garden is fully enclosed and gets little sun, as I entered it was already chilly. I hastened to the exit nearest to the mens toilet in the Quandranlge to relieve that need .... only to find it shut and locked. Ooops! Not too worry, I said to myself. I tried the other two doors. Same story. I went back to the door I had exited from the lecture room: Locked, and since it is well away from the lecture hall there was no point in knocking to gain attention. Stuck.


If the doors were locked today, they would stay locked on Sunday, and Monday was a public holiday and so the lockdown would most likely continue. At some point, my wife Kate would miss me and wonder just how long that lecture was. Even so she would not immediately conclude I had trapped myself in the Vice-Chancellor’s Garden, and conjure a key to release me. She was more likely to think in terms of hospitals or alien abductions.

I could break a window, and that might set off an alarm; the windows are all too high to give access to any but a determined thief more agile than I am.


Moreover, I had not brought my window-breaking tyre iron. If I waited for nature to take its course, it would be Tuesday morning when the doors open, about 72 hours to shiver and hunger, perhaps a fitting end, some would say, for me: hypothermia. After all those thoughts, it was time to act.

First things first. There are plenty of bushes in that garden, so I relieved the water pressure and took stock. Only one thing for it, really. I pulled the iPhone from my utility belt, well, just a plain pants’ pocket, and noticed the battery was only 30%, but surely enough for a call. First I used the web to find the University Security Service telephone number, and then I called it, and explained to a seasoned operator my predicament. (I inferred from his quick comprehension of the situation that it has happened before.)

The security operator said someone would be along as soon as possible. Hallelujah, I thought. The battery shrank after the internet use and the telephone call, but it was still only 45 minutes since the end of the lecture; Katie would not yet be wondering where I was. Security called me back twice to tell me someone was coming. My spirits soared. About one hour after the lecture ended, I heard the rattle of many keys and the shaking of a door. It drew me like magnet, and after some more rattling and shaking the door opened and there stood the angel of mercy, Doris, with a mighty big key ring, which she had fetched from the office.

I was effusive in my thanks. She concentrated on documenting the event for the records, putting my shame on file some where in Security.

Considerations of dignity made me hesitate to post this essay, but I decided to do so to thank the Security Service for getting me out.

I took no pictures during the confinement to save the iPhone battery. Web searching did not lead to any pictures portraying the Security Service of the University.

This is the first Maigret story published in book-form as ‘Monsieur Gallet, décédé,’ or 'Monsieur Gallet, deceased.' It has been published in an English translation as ‘Maigret Stonewalled,’ no doubt a marketing decision to make clear it is a Maigret title, and there is a stonewall of importance in the story.


Simenon published eleven (11), yes eleven Maigret titles in 1931! Quite extraordinary was his prolific output. He had been publishing Maigret stories for some time and some of these novels had already been published as serials in magazines and newspapers, which came together into this first tranche of Maigret novels. It did not stop there. In all there were seventy (70) plus novels and still other short stories, and there were also some Maigret novels that he published anonymously or under other names, which, by the way, have never been translated into English. Point made. He was fecund.

2-simenon.jpg Georges Simenon in 1931 without a pipe!

In this story Maigret wears a bowler hat and is overweight and generally so unfit that a short run leaves him breathless and sweating for the rest of the day. His age is 45, and half of his life has been in policing. In the later novels very little is said about Maigret himself. It takes a lot of reading to find his first name. Madame Maigret appears in this title only at the end to welcome him home. It takes even more reading to unearth her first name.

He travels to Nevers and elsewhere, making several train trips back and forth, because he is a member of the Flying Squad, based in Paris, which deals with serious crimes throughout the provinces of France. It is high summer with oppressive heat. The setting is contemporary and in this 1931 France there is casual anti-Semitism, when someone is characterized as a Jew by racial qualities. The reference is casual and transitory but nonetheless there.

The novel shows Maigret’s compassion in his stubborn determination to understand Gallet. When Maigret meets Gallet he is already dead hence the title 'Monsieur Gallet, Décédé' as one might introduce a person,’ Mr. Smith, plumber’ or ‘Ms. Jones, judge.’ The title I thought was a play on that convention of introductions that seems to have escaped most publishers.

Maigret then sets out to find out about Gallet. What kind of man was he? What did he do? Why did he do it? How did that lead to his death? Maigret plods along, first interviewing the widow and son. If the heat is oppressive, the atmosphere created by Madame Gallet and the son is even more suffocating. They represent, in their own minds, a bygone nobility that ought not to have to speak to the likes of Maigret, and only do so to be rid of him. This is an attitude, Maigret suspects, that they extended to the deceased husband and father, who was, after all, a lowly door-to-door salesman, ... or was he? That is the mystery that is slowing unwound.

Who was Émile Gallet? That proves to be the decisive question. There is a great irony in the answer that, to my mind, Simenon does not quite nail.

The provincial hotels that Maigret visits while retracing Gallet’s last days are well drawn, with their staff, attendants, and the inevitable bar and tabac, and the blinding sunshine and stifling weather of high summer. If these are the agreeable features of the novel, there are some that are less agreeable.

I found the plot contrived and unbelievable. The explanation of Monsieur Gallet’s death is so complicated and incredible as to be irrelevant to the story. Equally, boring is the convoluted explanation in the last chapters of the swap of identities. At the end the blackmail angle was left hanging, yet it had driven much of the earlier action. I was never sure if I had it right about who was doing it and why. It, too, it is not nailed. Then there is that whiff of anti-semitism.


At the outset I referred, carefully, to this as the first published book length Maigret. In the order of publication by Fayard that is clear. But other Maigret titles were written earlier, and were published in serials earlier, notably ‘Pietr-le-Letton’ or ‘Peter the Lett,’ as in from Lithuania. It all gets confusing and rests of definitions of ‘first.’

Penguin has commissioned new translation of the Maigret stories, as a means to reinvigorate the brand for a new generation of readers. So be it.

The man with no name owns a failing bookstore called 'No Alibis' in contemporary Belfast of Northern Ireland.


He happily buries himself in 1940 film noir, lines from which pepper the little conversation he has, and the murder mystery books that line the shelves. He is introverted, self-obsessed, hypochondriac who has every kind of phobia. He lives at home with his mother. He has no friends, never been kissed, completely inept, and frightening intense. Altogether a total loser who is going no where, very slowly. In other words, it is easy to identify with him.


Then Alison starts working in the jewellery store across the street. Using a large pair of binoculars he perves at her from this shop with what he thinks is great subtlety. In this surveillance he identifies with all those detectives on the shelves around him. 

The inquiry agent next door disappears, leaving many clients who come to the bookstore looking for him. The man with no name is drawn into some of their cases. He is a whiz at finding things through the internet and rather persuasive on the telephone where he almost seems normal.  Moreover, he has a network of subscribers to his 'No Alibis' e-newsletter with an array of talents, resources, and access that they can contribute to his quests. He picks some low-hanging fruit, and is quite proud of himself. Alison comes into the store, and they get acquainted. He brags to her of his detection.

It starts out as harmless fun, that is, until the first murder, then the second....  The bodies keep falling. The plot thickens. He goes into hysterical overdrive, flying off in many wrong directions at once. Alison wants to be his sidekick but he wants to quit! Murder, no way! 

A great setup and wonderful execution.  It is high octane once the action starts. The energy and irreverence rattles along with great pace.  I hope the others in the series keep it up.

This title looks self-published and it proves that such books can be very good indeed.

Colin_Bateman.jpg Colin Bateman

Bateman seems to write a book a week. He has several other serieses and stand-alone titles. I shall read on.

All the reading about presidents brought me to Garry Wills’s book on leadership. It is so much more insightful, intelligible, digestible, and accessible than James McGregor Burns’s ‘Leadership’ (1979), often cited as the book that created leadership studies. Burns tries to bring everything--and I mean everything--under the heading of leadership, the result is like those banquets when all the courses from the soup to the dessert appear at once. Too much.


Wills’s book presents sixteen chapters profiling a leader matched with an anti-leader. His approach is informed by Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen, and Burns, but not with the straight-jacket such frameworks often produce. There is an opening discussion that separates leadership from management and from influence and a concluding chapter that emphasis context accompanied by thirty pages of notes. Though it reflects a great deal of study and research the book reads easily; I read it in one sitting.

Some of the usual leaders are rehearsed like Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln along with Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Mary Baker Eddy, Martha Graham, selecting leaders from sports, business, diplomacy, military, and more. The point is that political leadership differs from sports leadership differs from business leadership, and so on.

There is not a single thing Leadership that fits all cases. It is a simple point but it is hotly contested in both the popular leadership books and the academic literature on leadership. By the same token, to set leadership apart from management and influence is contested. Though both separations seem dead obvious to me but when I said so at conferences I walked into a firefight.

I learned more about Napoleon from Wills’s twenty page chapter than from the three biographies I have read, the shortest having 550 pages. They all had much more detail but less meaning than this chapter. The anti-leader set against Napoleon is George McClellan. Say no more. Though it is tempting to nominate Braxton Bragg who combined McClellan's incompetence with spite.

Wills's passing remarks contrasting Nancy Reagan to Eleanor Roosevelt won my applause. Now I know why I found the former so distasteful.

Eleanor Roosevelt 2.jpg Eleanor Roosevelt

Cesare Borgia is his example of an opportunistic leader and Wills’s main source on Borgia is one Niccolò Machiavelli. This is one chapter I read closely; yes, there were some I flipped through, admiring Wills’s breadth but not engaging with the substance. Borgia recognized that conditions change and success means both responding to those changes, and where possible anticipating them. Failure lies in ignoring or resisting these externalities.

100221726.JPG Garry Wills in 1994.

For every leader he included there are others omitted. Winston Churchill and Huey Long are absent. For every leader included there are qualifications. With age Napoleon lost the audacity that made him. For every leader included, there were mistakes. Franklin Roosevelt picked fights he could never win early in his career but he learned not to do that.

Years ago I read T. Harry Williams’s authoritative and massive biography, ‘Huey Long’ (1969) of close to 1000 pages, long before my current presidential biography program.


Long aimed at the 1940 Democratic nomination, and to get it, he planned to put up a figurehead third party candidate like Father Charles Coughlin in 1936 for whom he would campaign vigorously.

Coughlin-1940.jpg Father Coughlin

That figurehead would split the Democratic vote insuring that Franklin Roosevelt would lose to the Republican nominee, one Alf Landon, governor of Kansas. With Roosevelt discredited, Long would offer himself as the savior of the Democratic party and run in 1940, being confident he could beat any Republican. Historical precedent meant nothing to Huey Long but there was one in the way Teddy Roosevelt split the Republican vote in 1912 leading to Woodrow Wilson’s election.

films-huey-long-details.jpg Huey Long

It is a plan devious enough for a Vice-Chancellor to appreciate.

Rather than re-read Williams’s tome I opted for a new look with William Ivy Hair’s ‘The Kingsfish and his Realm: The Life and times of Huey P. Long‘ (1991), an excellent book. It lives up to its title in a way a surprising number of alleged biographies do not. It is a fine piece of work, opening with two scene-setting chapters about Louisiana in the generation that reared Long. It is a shameful account of lynchings, mob violence, corruption, crushing poverty, rapacious corporations, murderous racism, rape, calculated impoverishment as a means of social control, murderous racism, all covered with a veneer of holier-than-thou Christian piety. The hypocrisy was as fetid as the bayou air in July. But this is the world the baby boy Huey was born to, and it turned out he could play its game better than anyone else.

He did not graduate from high school or college, yet gained entry to the Louisiana bar by combing buckets of smarm with pestilential persistence. In his early life he was a travelling salesman who sold anything to anyone, ice to eskimos, humidity to an asthmatic, books to the illiterate, Bibles to muslims, water to alcoholics, you name it. He was in fact a snake oil salesman for a time. From age sixteen for about ten years he travelled the backroads and byways of Louisiana, knocking at farm house doors, lintels at lean-tos, and talked to sharecroppers at the plow, and destitute woodsman on stumps. He had a prodigious memory and when he met someone a second time he asked by name about the wife, the mother, the brother. He also had an unnatural energy, sleeping three to four hours a night. If it was daylight, he was working. As fast as he made money, he spent it on cars, alcohol, and women. Note, most travelling salesmen of the era concentrated on small towns, not individual, isolated households. Years later when he campaigned for votes in these backwoods, he remembered enough names to astound, impress, and win over audiences. While he treated members of his entourage with contempt, he was always polite and respectful to voters. To be clear, it is memory. He did not keep a diary or write things down. He was in no way bookish.

From this early start his eye turned to political office when he was old enough, and the author suggests Huey had realized that was the metier where he could achieve not only material success but also power and social standing. He never tried physical labor, and the law, though a fine credential, was boring, yet he put on quite a show in court. But politics, well that was salesmanship writ large, and Huey was large, and he himself would be the product. He had no ideology.

Despite Long’s repeated claims to an early life of poverty, he was born to a middle class family and had a comfortable and stable home life. He was the second youngest of nine children. Like many sons he rebelled against his father, and the author sees in this a lifelong antagonism to authority (exercised by others over him). Ergo he always saw himself as a rebel even when acting the autocrat and conniving with the oligarchs who owned Louisiana.

When he was twenty-five, he met the age requirement for the Louisiana State Railway Commission, which in the wave of Progressivism at the turn of the Century-- successful in parts of Louisiana--had been made an elected office. This commission regulated railroads which were certainly important, but also waterways, electricity, telegraph, pipelines, roads, and telephone. Where others saw a sinecure to pension off retainers or buy off enemies, Long saw a stepping stone and went for it with all the energy and audacity that made him the Kingfish. He outlied his opponent five-to-one. Facts were no barrier to Huey. No doubt Karl Rove learned from Long’s example.

He out stumped him one hundred-to-one. No one had ever campaigned for this office before and no one since has campaigned with the intensity he did, taking the state by storm. His energy was remarkable for that semi-tropical state. He talked, shook hands, remembered names, told lies, and made ludicrous promises twenty hours a day from the doorway of shacks to villages of twenty lumberjack families, to the streets of small towns, from the back of wagons, anywhere he could find one person or more. He always got by three or four hours of sleep, though later in life once a week, every ten days, or a fortnight, he would collapse for a day or more and sleep eighteen or twenty-four hours.

At the outset he steered clear of the old money planation strip along the river and the cities of Shreveport, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans where the Ring dominated, it being the bayou equivalent of Tammany Hall in New York without the efficiency. He besieged these forts from without, though those secure inside hardly noticed it at the time. More fool them.

Louisiana had even more racial, ethnic, social and economic cleavages than most states. The most exotic were the Cajuns who lived mainly in the Florida parishes east of the Big Muddy and along its eastern shores. These French-speaking people were mainly Catholic, but there were Huguenot descendants among them. Remember ‘Evangeline’? I sure do. See the note at the end.

The post-Reconstruction state constitution gave the governor more power than in the other forty-even states. For example, the governor had the authority to dismiss local town councils. These power were included to provide a bulwark against the black population, least it win some local control. The example of Haiti remained a spectre for many. These autocratic powers had not been used until Huey Long came along. He lost his first bid for governor and learned some lessons from that experience.

While waiting for the next gubenatorial election he volunteered to campaign for an incumbent United States Senator who faced a difficult challenge. He was a whirlwind who galvinized audiences in person. He also made full use of the radio, which at the time many regarded as a passing novelty. That success brought him further opportunites to campaign for others. Pause. He did this work, and he really worked at it, not out of alruism or ideology, but because he was builidng up his contacts and proving to one and all he was a vote getter. When the time came, he pushed aside those he had earlier campaigned for and usurped their organizations.

The second time around he was elected governor, and the whirlwind became a tornado. He doubled the number of state employees, and required each to pay a Long dividend to his political organization of 15% of their wage, a practice that continued for years. Those who won state building contracts were required to purchase supplies from sources owned by those friendly to Long, and their number grew to get those contracts. He divided his opponents in the legislature by intimidation, bribery, and his preternatural perception of an opponent's weaknesses. He increased the power of the governor to the extent that every state employee served at his pleasure, and he hired and fired to get what he wanted, which was first subservience.

On he went. He won a Senate seat and put a stooge in the governor’s chair, and Long ran Louisiana from Washington, D.C. by telephone. He campaigned hard for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, the two detested each other, and it was rare for anyone to get under FDR’s skin, but Huey did, and proved he could win voters over even in Republican strongholds like the Dakotas and Nebraska.

While he corrupted state government, bastardized the Senate election, and more, he was not personally corrupt in the popular sense. The money he raked in all went to pay his staff and fund his political campaigns against local opponents and for elections. He did not enrich himself. When he set his sights on the Presidency, which he certainly did, he stopped drinking, smoking, and swearing with a self-discipline no one thought he had. Yes, there were lapses. He married Rose young and she did not like the political life and as a result they lived largely apart. He had a long term mistress who worked in his private office, and that was that. He lived and breathed politics as a game to dominate opponents.

Then in September 1935 at forty-two years of age he was murdered in the foyer -- I saw the bullt holes in the wall in 2004 -- of the state capitol he had built. Why Dr. Weiss killed him is unknown and in that ignorance novelists and screen writers have poured in the usual human weaknesses, because they just do understand that Huey had no interest in women or money, but only in power.


There is much evidence of Long’s presidential ambitious, starting with his efforts to campaign for others across the nation. This is a standard exercise for future candidates to this day. He took to the radio, buying national time with the funds he extorted from Standard Oil, to develop a national profile and following with his bizarre ‘Share our Wealth’ clubs which could offer the skeleton of a national campaign organization, and he produced a book he dictated to secretaries in 1935 called ’My First Days in the White House.’ Get it?

Even more important is that state capitol in Baton Rouge. It is a high-rise tower far beyond the needs of Louisiana.

Baton_Rouge,_LA_032210_016.jpg Louisiana State Capitol Building with a statue of Long between it and the Little White House.

It has forty-eight steps leading to the front door and each step is engraved with the name of a state of the union. It is a national building unlike any other state capitol. Across the mall from the capitol he built the Little White House with East and West wings. This White House is indeed white and its interior is decorated with motifs, murals, and memorabilia from all forty-eight states. There in Baton Rouge is an imposing capitol, a mall, and a white house. Get it?

The Kingfish was one of a kind. He was larger than life and achieved immortality from the hand of Robert Penn Warren, a poet with two Pulitzer Prizes for verse, and Poet Laureate of the United States twice. He wrote but one novel but what a novel, ‘All the King’s Men‘ (1947), and that too earned a Pulitzer. The opening chapter is hypnotic. A very young Warren had been a researcher for Senator Long. This book was the basis of the first of films portraying Huey Long in 1949 with Broderick Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge (before she went to the Devil in ‘The Exorcist’), and John Ireland. In 1995 John Goodman offered a creditable ‘Kingfish.’ In 2006 Sean Penn disinterred ‘All the King’s Men’ and made a hash of it. There have been many documentaries including Ken Burns’s with twanging banjo and the seasick camera moving over still photographs. The Paul Newman vehicle ‘Blaze’ in 1989, concerning Huey’s younger brother Earl, was a travesty. I boycotted his salad dressing for years afterward. Poor guy.

‘Evangeline’ was an 1847 poem by Henry Longfellow recounting the dislocation of 20,000 or so French settlers from a region called Arcadia in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the 1745-1755 period. To avoid British expulsion many moved voluntarily to Maine and further south. Those who transported went to Caribbean islands and to Louisiana. They joined the French settlers who had gone there from 1715. The original French were Huguenots escaping religious persecution in French, while the Arcadians were Catholic escaping religious persecution in Upper Canada. These latter became the Cajuns of the backwaters, hinterland, bayous, forests, swamps, and islands who developed a highly spiced cuisine to mask the tastes of water rats, snakes, bats, and such as was their diet. It is often red with pepper, chili, cayenne, and capsicum. Creole cuisine is much more refined in the French manner and its sauces are brown, thanks to the addition of butter. The rule of Louisiana cooking I learned is ‘If it is red, it is Cajun’ and ‘If it is brown, it is Creole.’

This is the story that inspired Longfellow’s 2000 line poem, which left an indelible mark on me. To a spotty eighth grader it was a INCOMPREHENSIBLE BORE THAT NEVER ENDED. We students wandered through the forest primeval of Longfellow’s dactylic hexameter for at least an eternity, and emerged older and none the wiser and just as spotty. In comparison Dante’s ‘Inferno’ was exciting.

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