Review: Morgenthau

Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty, Andrew Meier. New York: Random House, 2022.

Summary: An account of the 153 year history of four generations of the Morgenthau family and its impact on real estate, politics, diplomacy, and law enforcement.

Lazarus Morgenthau probably never should have migrated from Bavaria, where he invented a cigar box that made his fortune, for a time, before the business failed. He moved his family to America where other members of the Jewish elite had made fortunes after similar migrations. For Lazarus, all his schemes failed, from a wine import business to elixirs to cure various ailments to his Golden Book of Life. He spent the latter part of his life in and out of insane asylums. It might be that his principle purpose was to land his progeny in America, who would have a profound influence in many fields over the next hundred years.

Andrew Meier’s lengthy account of this family dynasty begins here. What follows are three full-length biographies of the leading family figure in each of the next three generations: Henry, Sr., Henry, Jr., and Robert Morgenthau, concluding at the end of the latter’s life in 2019.

Henry, Sr. built the family fortune in New York real estate. Meier takes us through the growth of his empire from his first acquisitions up through the relationship with Adolph Ochs and his acquisition of the properties that made up Times Square, and the headquarters of The New York Times. In 1912, his genius in fund-raising for Woodrow Wilson resulted in his being offered the ambassadorship to Turkey, the “Jewish seat.” It was not his first choice, but he distinguished himself in history in his efforts to advocate for and document the Armenian genocide.

Perhaps his greatest challenge was to help launch his son Henry, Jr. in life. Henry, Jr. seemed to lack a clear ambition other than becoming a farmer, which his father helped him to do in acquiring land in Duchess County. This put Henry, Jr. in touch with Franklin Roosevelt, a friendship that endured from Roosevelt’s rise as governor of New York through his presidency. He was a kind of “fixer” for Roosevelt–on farm matters in upstate New York, and later, at the Treasury. This seemed the saddest part of the book because the “friendship” seemed one of providing Roosevelt pleasant company at weekly lunches, but not asserting his own ideas or personality. Perhaps, like his father, his most significant work may have been advocacy for Jews in Europe as Hitler’s genocidal plans took shape. The US State Department and Roosevelt had been intransigent in opposing vigorous measures to help refugees, but Morgenthau probably managed to rescue 200,000 and help awaken the country to the Holocaust. The latter part of his life was the saddest in many ways as he lost his wife, was dumped by Truman, and spent the latter part of his life living lavishly with his second wife, considered “this thing he married” by his children.

I found the third part of the book the most interesting in many respects. Robert Morgenthau was an authentic war hero, offering exemplary leadership when his ship was attacked. He tried politics but failed in two runs for governor. Working with the Kennedy campaign, he won the appointment as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He took on organized crime when the FBI refused to acknowledge its existence. He also set his sights on Roy Cohn (an associate and mentor of Donald Trump), who became the “White Whale” he could never convict. When Nixon took office, he won office as the District Attorney for New York, a position he held until 2009. He was most known for the prosecutions of organized crime (the Gambino family) and the BCCI banking firm, which he believed was channeling money to Iran for development of nuclear weapons. The latter featured high powered American figures including Clark Clifford. It was a case that may have been pursued at the Federal level. For Morgenthau, if it came through New York, it was his jurisdiction.

He built a modestly-staffed department into a powerhouse, increasing the hiring of women and minorities, funding its operations in part with the fines he won. He often opted for plea bargains for fines in lieu of prison sentences–he had no appetite for sending people to prison–except for five youth accused of assault, rape, and murder of the Central Park Jogger. They were part of a “wilding” incident that night and, when apprehended, eventually confessed to the crime and were convicted and sent to prison. Except that DNA evidence, a relatively new technology at the time, linked none of the boys to evidence collected and was set aside. Several years later, new evidence matched with a man already in prison. Morgenthau admitted the mistake and reversed the convictions, albeit too late for the boys, who later recovered an award in court. It was the major stain on his record, lessened by his integrity when new evidence came forward.

This is a massive work, really three major biographies woven into a single account of a powerful family. One gains a sense of the distinctive character of the leading figure of each generation–Henry, Sr., the shrewd, incisive, and courageous businessman turned ambassador; Henry, Jr., the modest steady friend of Roosevelt who found his voice representing Jews caught in the Holocaust; and Robert, the resolute, ambitious prosecutor with a deep sense of integrity and justice that extended to the white collar criminals who often escaped prosecution. This book will carry you through the winter months, introducing you to a family who played a key role, often behind the scenes, over one hundred years in a variety of American institutions, centered around New York City,


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.

Review: Strength for the Fight

Strength for the Fight (Library of Religious Biography), Gary Scott Smith. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2022.

Summary: A biography on this pioneer Hall of Famer who desegregated Major League Baseball, devoted his post-playing years to civil rights activism, all sustained by his active faith.

As a lifelong baseball fan, this is not the first Jackie Robinson biography I’ve read. The one I read when I was a young fan focused on his exploits on the field, his courage and restraint in breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and how his play contributed to several pennants and a World Series victory. As this book makes clear, Robinson not only needed to be both courageous and self-controlled to face racist treatment, he needed to be good–and he was. He was fast and daring on the base paths, a great fielder, and could deliver hits and bunts in clutch situations. He was a great all-round ballplayer deserving of Hall of Fame status simply on those merits.

This book added to the portrait of Robinson in several ways. Most importantly, it reveals him as a man of deep faith, who like Augustine had a godly mother and his own Ambrose in the form of a Methodist pastor, Karl Downs, who rescued him from gang life in Pasadena. Later, as he faces intense pressure and vitriol, he testifies, “Many nights I get down on my knees and pray for the strength not to fight back.” This and the support of his wife Rachel made all the difference for a proud man whose natural instinct was to fight back. Yet Smith also shows how Rachel went beyond standing by Robinson to pursue her own career as a nurse-therapist and professor.

Gary Scott Smith also fleshes out the vital role Branch Rickey played in Robinson’s life. Smith goes into the Methodist faith the two men shared, a critical factor in Rickey deciding to sign Robinson. Rickey was both a deeply religious man in Smith’s account and a sharp (and parsimonious) baseball entrepreneur. It was Rickey’s counsel he followed in not fighting back against spiking, knockdown pitches, and crude racial insults. When Rickey died in 1965 he said of Rickey: “He talked with me and treated me like a son.” The treatment of Rickey is so interesting that I would love to see Smith follow up this book with a full length biography on Rickey, perhaps as part of this Library of Religious Biography series.

What also distinguishes this book is the account it gives of Robinson’s post-baseball career as a tireless activist for civil rights through newspaper columns that did not hesitate to criticize presidents of either party, through public addresses including messages in hundreds of churches, marching on the front lines in places like Selma. At the same time, Robinson was not a “movement activist.” While honored by the NAACP with its Spingarn award, he did not hesitate to differ with others like Paul Robeson over communism or Dr. King over Vietnam. Some accused him of being an “Uncle Tom” for his relationship with Nelson Rockefeller, motivated by both political and business considerations, and his support in 1960 for Richard Nixon.

Vietnam would contribute to tragedy in Robinson’s life. His son Jackie, Jr. returned with addiction problems but the book makes clear the strains on the father-son relationship between the two. Sadly, just as Jackie, Jr. started to get his life on track as well as his relationship with his father, he died in an auto accident, just a year before Jackson himself passed.

That leads to my one question about this book, that the author doesn’t discuss how such a fine athlete as Robinson died at age 53, just sixteen years after retirement, suffering from diabetes, heart disease, and nearly blind. Others have discussed the disparate impacts of racism on health and the effects of his repressed anger and racial traumas on his health. Pictures of Robinson show him with hair turning white in his last playing years. Robinson bore on his body in many ways, externally and internally, the trauma of racism, and perhaps this might have been further developed in this work.

Smith portrays Robinson’s faith as “muscular,” and apart from those bedside prayers concerned more about moral and social uplift of his people, expressed in his tireless work. Even in his last years, with failing health, he was grateful for God’s blessings. Yet, he was infrequent in church attendance, and Smith notes the evidence of extra-marital affairs. After his first two years, he was more aggressive in defending himself on the field, having fulfilled his agreement with Rickey. Yet there is a thread running through the course of his life, shown by Smith of a faith that sustained and strengthened Robinson. What resulted was some of the most significant civil rights leadership in the twentieth century delivered in the form of a stellar athlete (no one since has stolen home more than the 19 times he did this) and a courageous champion. His faith, courage, and perseverance are worth emulation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Alan Turing: The Enigma

Alan Turing: The Enigma, Andrew Hodges. London: Vintage Books, 1983, 2012 (publisher’s link is for an updated edition by Princeton University Press, 2015).

Summary: Perhaps the definitive account of the brilliant mathematician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist, Alan Turing, who was prosecuted for his homosexuality, not long before the end of his life due to cyanide poisoning.

The title of this work reflects both the important, and long secret work, Turing did to decrypt German transmissions encrypted by their Enigma machine, for which he was awarded an OBE, and that Turing, in life and death was something of an enigma, even to those closest to him. Andrew Hodges wrote this tour de force of a biography, dealing both with the singular scientific accomplishments of his life and the struggles he faced in his time as a gay man. As both a mathematician and a leader in the London Gay Liberation Front, Hodges was uniquely suited to write this work and it reflects these qualifications.

This is a complete biography, from his earliest years. We learn of the early roots of Turing’s interest in the function of the mind, and the shift to a materialist focus after the death of his close friend Christopher Morcom, who was his first love. This would be reflected in his efforts to create machine intelligence that worked like human intelligence. He was elected a fellow at King’s College for his proof in 1935. of the central limit theorem, which, unknown to him, had been previously proven, although his proof used a different and innovative approach. A year later, he published his most famous paper, On Computable Numbers, in which he proposed a hypothetical universal computing machine (often referred to as a Turing machine) that laid the theoretical basis for computers. Once again, another researcher, Alonzo Church, had addressed the same problem, again by a different approach. And so Turing went to study with Church at Princeton, building an electro-mechanical binary multiplier while he was there.

This reveals another theme in Turing’s life. He was not only interested in the theoretical but also in the engineering aspects of realizing the machines of which he theorized. This led to the next major involvement of Turing, during the war, in the decryption of German radio transmissions encrypted with their Enigma machines, thought to be unbreakable. Building on Polish efforts, he not only developed innovative statistical methods to break the code but developed the bombes, a type of computer, that would radically speed up the process. It was for this work, kept secret for many years, that he received the OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) from King George VI.

Hodges also covers his post-war work on computers and his further interest in artificial intelligence, resulting in his paper on “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” with his proposal of an experiment that later became known as the “Turing Test.” His ideas of universal machines, that could be used for various computational tasks, led him to write some of the earliest programs, including a primitive chess program.

The account of Turing’s scientific work is interwoven with his relationships with men, his brief engagement to Joan Clark, which he realized would not work out, and the relationship that led to Turing facing criminal charges for his homosexuality. There is extensive background offered as well as discussion of the legal and social conventions of the day. Perhaps the most troubling, and some have suggested it contributed to Turing’s death, was the agreement, in lieu of a prison term, that Turing would undergo estrogen treatments to suppress his homosexual inclinations. I also found it puzzling why Turing incriminated himself with the police investigating a burglary of his home by a friend of his lover.

It seemed to reflect an “out of touchness” that manifested itself in everything from his unawareness of similar research to his own, to his inability to manage others well. He seemed to expect people to act logically as he would, and was surprised when they did not. My sense is that he thought it should be no big deal to love the people he wanted to love, and I think was genuinely surprised that even though such behavior was illegal, the police would look the other way.

His death in June 1954 was another enigma covered by Hodges. It was ruled a suicide by cyanide poisoning through an apple dipped in a cyanide solution and then partially eaten, found by his bedside where he was found dead. He had cyanide on the premises, using it in a process to electroplate gold onto silver spoons. Oddly, the apple was never tested, there seemed no preparations for suicide, and it was speculated that this was an accident during his experiments, either from inhalation or grains on his fingers. Supporting suicide was the way the body was composed on his bed. An enigma.

The book goes into fine detail with his life, reflecting a huge amount of research, due to the limited material left by Turing. This is a strength and weakness. Included in the detail are extensive mathematical and engineering discussions that are heavy going for those unacquainted with these fields. I estimate that probably at least 100 pages of text might be cut out if these were summarized more succinctly.

Hodges work reveals not only the enigma but the genius of Turing. Subsequent to the initial publication of this work in 1983, Prime Minister of Great Britain Gordon Brown in 2009 issued a statement apologizing for the “appalling” way Turing was treated. In August 2014, Queen Elizabeth pronounced a royal pardon of Turing in August 2014 and a law exonerating all men charged with “indecency” was passed in 2017, informally known as “Alan Turing’s law.” These actions removed the cloud hanging over the genius whose theoretical and practical work laid the groundwork for the computer on which I write this review and the “behind-the-scenes” work so crucial in the fight against Germany in World War 2, especially in ending the depredations on Allied shipping. It would not surprise me that this biography played an important part in the recognition of the importance of his work, even as it served as the basis of the film The Imitation Game.

Review: Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival, Walter Stahr. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

Summary: A biography tracing the life of this public figure who was a contender along with Lincoln for the presidency and who played a vital role in his cabinet, and then as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

He was one of Lincoln’s rivals for the Republican nomination for president in 1860 and served in his cabinet, financing the Union war effort as the Secretary of the Treasury. But there was far more to the life of this public servant that makes him well worth the full length biography Walter Stahr has given us.

Born a New Englander and Dartmouth educated, after reading for the bar exam, he moved to Cincinnati and was strongly identified with Ohio’s politics thereafter. From Cincinnati’s leading attorney, he served twice in the U.S. Senate from Ohio and four years as Ohio’s governor. From defending fugitive slaves to becoming one of the leading anti-slavery advocates of the day, Chase sought to curb the spread of slavery and was far out in front of Lincoln and almost every white of his day in his advocacy for the equality of Blacks, not only arguing for their freedom but for their rights to vote and fully participate in society. It was one of the factors that cost him the presidential nomination

Setting aside his own ambitions, he campaigned vigorously for Lincoln in 1860, and then answered Lincoln’s call to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury. Not only did he find the resources through loans and taxes to finance the war effort, he reformed the country’s banking system and gave us a common currency rather than the myriad of banknotes issued by different banks. He employed women to work in the treasury. His advice to Lincoln went beyond the nation’s finances to counselling the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1864, he set aside presidential ambitions once again to accept Lincoln’s nomination to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice, a role that would be critical in post-war cases on the rights of Blacks, America’s financial system, and the relation of the states to the Union. He would preside over the first presidential impeachment in U.S. history, helping establish precedents followed in more recent impeachments after his efforts to save Johnson from himself failed.

At least three things stood out to me in Stahr’s biography. One is that Chase is worthy to be considered America’s William Wilberforce. His anti-slavery advocacy was early and never wavered, though often disregarded or thwarted. Second, he was deeply acquainted with tragedy, burying three wives and several children and the unhappy marriage of his daughter Katherine. Third, was that he was a man of deep religious faith, that undergirded his efforts and sustained him in loss.

All of this makes Chase one of the most noteworthy public servants of this period in American history, despite an odd first name that Chase counseled his daughter not to pass on. Stahr portrays Chase as a man of ambition and yet not an overweening ambition. He both recognized when the first place would go to others and also when the public good required setting aside his private ambitions. Although he had no role in its founding, Chase bank bears his name in recognition of the important role he played in the nation’s finances and banking system.

He died comparatively young at age 65. But it was a life well and fully lived, as Stahr’s biography attests. He was a workhorse in the nation’s service, whether in criss-crossing the country during campaigns, working tirelessly during the war, or writing more opinions than his fellow justices and covering a large circuit when this was part of a justice’s duties. Above all, he was a champion of liberty, for fully realizing the ideals of the nation articulated by Jefferson in the Declaration, for Blacks and for women.

Review: Saint Francis of Assisi

Saint Francis of Assisi (Paraclete Heritage Edition), G. K. Chesterton. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013 (Originally published in 1923).

Summary: Less a biography than a reflection on the meaning of the life of St. Francis.

l will begin with a caveat. If you are looking for a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, this is not your book. It is not that there is not biographical information about St. Francis to be found here. However, you can probably find all that is here biographically in a Wikipedia article. Chesterton himself describes his approach as neither that of a secular biographer or a devotional biographer, but as an admiring outsider trying to make sense of what may be baffling about St. Francis from what we understand of him. How do we understand the mixture of gaiety and austerity in his life, his love of all creation and the abuse of his own body. How do we make sense of his attempts to convert the Muslims? Or the climactic episode of his life on Alverno?

A theme that runs through it all for Chesterton is that what is senseless to the outside observer is not to the lover, and what we have in the story of Francis, God’s Troubadour, is the life of one passionately in love with God, with humanity, indeed all of creation. Indeed, Chesterton suggests that his very name foresees his love of the French troubadours and the gaity of the jongleur de dieu may be seen in his fun loving youth and eager response to the call to war. His dream that leads him to enlist in the Crusades is one more example of not only his zestfulness but longing for glory, until turned back by illness, accompanied by another vision that pointed him to a different quest that began with a downward ascent, culminating in the embrace of the leper.

This leads to Damiano and the call to restore the ruined church, a concrete expression of a larger church in ruins. He gets in trouble for selling his father’s goods to do this, and when confronted renounces it all, and his heritage, going into the woods with a hairshirt and a song, begging stones. Chesterton observes that the way to build a church is to build it. And as he does so, and Portiuncula to follow, others are drawn to his song, Bernard, the rich burgher and Peter the church Canon, who are the beginnings of a new society, living in a hut next to the leper hospital.

Chesterton then stops to consider the Jongleur de dieu image further–not only as jester, or joculator, or juggler, but also as tumbler. He reflects on Francis’ journey to this point, from the son of an affluent merchant to his dark night of imprisonment and illness, his stripping himself all, and the tumble from there into the praise of God, having been shorn of all else. He explores Francis discovery of the richness of and love for every creature, and in turn, every person as an individual, a royal personage in the courts of God, whether beggar or Pope. He traces out the attempt to regularize this growing movement of friars, itinerant rather than secluded monastics, holy among the world.

Later chapters reflect on his attempt to pass through the lines to convert the Muslim Sultan as the “mirror of Christ” the accounts of the miracles surrounding Francis and the encounter with Christ at Alverno and the reports of the sigmata. Chesterton neither dismisses nor argues for any of this but takes the course of simply telling the story. He argues that beyond supposedly supernatural events was the supernatural life of Francis himself, up until his final moments, removed from his bed to lie on the ground.

Whether one likes this, it seems has to do with what one is looking for in reading about Francis. At times, this felt to me as if Francis was a foil for Chesterton, and his ways of drawing out paradox and turning ideas on their head. No doubt there is that in the life of St. Francis, whose downward way began the rebuilding of a church in ruins. I appreciate the approach Chesterton takes of neither debunking nor devotionalizing (is that a word?) Saint Francis. Yet I felt I was reading about St. Francis through a very Chestertonian lens, and while I like Chesterton, I think I would have liked more of Francis, even at the expense of making sense of conflicting data. Perhaps that is a fourth approach, that leaves the more baffling aspects of Francis unresolved, allowing each of us to wrestle with what to make of this most unusual saint.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Splendid and the Vile

The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson. New York: Crown, 2020.

Summary: A day to day narrative of the first year as prime minister of Winston Churchill, focusing on the circle around him as well as how he inspired a nation fighting alone under the Blitz.

There are a number of biographies of Winston Churchill and studies of his leadership as prime minister during World War 2. What distinguishes this one is that Larson takes us into the intimate circle around Churchill, bringing the great man to life out of the pages of history. We become observers on the edge of an intimate circle rather than removed readers of history from eighty years ago during Churchill’s first year as prime minister.

We are with Churchill as he speaks in parliament or over radio broadcasts, not so much giving the people courage as helping them summon the courage and resolve that was in them. They would need it. Almost at once the bombings began, taking a frightful toll. We walk with Churchill among the ruins as people try to recover and go about their lives.

We get to know Churchill with his closest leadership, particularly the asthmatic but effective Max Beaverbrook who takes over aircraft production and doubles it. Beaverbrook had a genius for cutting through red tape and making enemies, but he got things done–between his resignations, which Churchill refused. The wisdom of Churchill was having someone so close who never told Churchill what he wanted to hear, but only the unvarnished truth, with no reverence for any institutions.

Larson takes us into the family circle: the reserved and opinionated Clementine, the dissolute Randolph, constantly mired in debt and affairs, to the distress of young Pamela, wife and mother, and Mary, the spirited youngest daughter discovering the world, love, and living with courage amid the restraints of her parents. She ends up heading up an anti-aircraft battery and recognizing her parents wisdom in rejecting her first love. John Colville rounds out the circle as Churchill’s secretary. His “intended” doesn’t return his affection, he wants to enter the air corps, but apart from a few sorties, serves with Churchill, in the process keeping a diary that is a treasure trove for historians like Larson.

We are acquainted with the ever-present dangers of the bombing, almost always at night, rendering the RAF ineffective, except in its own nighttime bombing of Germany. We learn of underground shelters for 10 Downing Street, the special hideaway of Churchill at Ditchley, rather than Checquers on the nights around the full moon. We glimpse the tragedy of the bombing of a nightclub that would have been Mary’s next stop on a night out. And we walk with and observe with Churchill, oblivious to dangers to his own person.

Another theme is Churchill’s clear perception of the vital importance the United States would play, and his vital role in maintaining the spirits and fight of the nation until it became politically possible for the U.S. to fully join the fight. As a career politician, he grasped Roosevelt’s challenges, working incrementally through the exchange of bases for materials and the passage of Lend-Lease. Of great fortune was the recall of Joseph Kennedy and the presence of Harry Hopkins and later Averill Harriman, both of whom Churchill welcomed into his inner circle and who became Churchill’s advocates with Roosevelt in consequence. It would cost Randolph’s marriage, already on the rocks, when Harriman and Pamela take up an affair.

Through it all is Churchill himself. I don’t think it is possible to write a bad book about Churchill because he is so interesting, even if sometimes exasperating! Larson gives us the man in full, from his demand to bathe twice daily wherever he went, dictating letters in bath and bed, to his prodigious alcohol consumption, the cigar which made him incomprehensible to his inspiring speeches and presence that made it clear to both his own country and Germany, that unlike the countries of the European mainland, there would be no surrender. This, too, was critical to the hoped for alliance with America.

What Larson has done is not just given us another biography or war history. He has helped us imagine being with Churchill during this first year from May 1940 to May 1941. Perhaps this is a good book for our time, when we are fighting a different, but it appears, no less protracted, combat. When life cannot be normal, we see what it is to live with day to day courage, resolve, and determination without losing heart.

Review: The Planter of Modern Life

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution, Stephen Heyman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2020.

Summary: A biography of novelist, screenwriter, and sustainable farming pioneer Louis Bromfield.

This happened to be a serendipitous find as I was shopping at an online book site. I was unaware of this recently released biography of Louis Bromfield. I will forgive you if you are wondering Louis who? Stephen Heyman, his biographer, acknowledges that this is not an uncommon reaction:

If Bromfield ever appears in a book today, he is shoved into parentheses or buried without ceremony in a footnote. If we remember him at all, it is only as a character in somebody else’s story. As Humphrey Bogart’s best man, say, or Doris Duke’s lover. As Gertrude Stein’s protege or Edith Wharton’s gardening guru. As Ernest Hemingway’s enemy or Eleanor Roosevelt’s pain in the ass. What is surprising is not that he has his own story to tell, but that, six decades after his death, that story suddenly feels important (pp. 2-3).

Louis Bromfield’s life began and ended in the Mansfield, Ohio area, and so he is well-familiar to this lover of all things Ohio. I’ve toured Malabar Farm and the Big House where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married. I’ve learned about his farming ideas and even camped at the farm with my son’s Boy Scout troop (a story in itself!). I’ve read some of his farm writings, Pleasant Valley and Malabar Farm. Much of what Heyman mentions in the quote above had nothing or little to do with this part of Bromfield’s life.

It turns out that this part of the story of Bromfield is what Heyman believes to be important in our day. He does not rush to make this point but sets what he thinks Bromfield’s most significant contribution in the context of his whole life. He renders the story in two parts. The first centered around Paris, his very successful novels, the Lost Generation set of which he was part, and his gardens at Senlis. The second focused around his childhood home of Mansfield, and Malabar Farm in Pleasant Valley, where his work and revolutionary thinking about the soil and farming practices began a movement that continues to this day.

The first part picks up with his ambulance corps work during World War I where his love of France was born. After a few years back in New York working in the publishing trade, he published his own first works, to immediate success. Both The Green Bay Tree and Possession featured strong, modern, American women. And he married Mary, the antithesis of these women. Heyman traces his longing to return to France, realized in 1925. He fell in with the literary set, befriended by Gertrude Stein while Hemingway resented his success, including his Pulitzer Prize. Even amid the success, the glitter, and the parties, Bromfield loved the soil, creating a beautiful garden home along a stream in Senlis, which became a gathering place for his friends, including Edith Wharton, a fellow gardener. We also learn about the beginnings of his association with George Hawkins, his personal secretary, discretely gay, and responsible for at least some of his success in Hollywood.

With the rise of Nazism, the response of appeasement, and increasing longings for home, Bromfield organized a rescue and repatriation effort for the American Lincoln Brigade, fighting in Spain. Through his connections, he mobilized the means to get over one thousand sent home, winning the French Legion of Honor. But Munich closed the door on Europe, and in 1938, he moved back to the States.

The second half of the book describes his purchase of a worn out farm in the Pleasant Valley area outside Mansfield, and his work with agricultural efforts to restore the farm through green crops, contour plowing, and limited use of fertilizers and chemical interventions, crop rotation, and shunning the monocultural farming of so much of Ohio. I learned that he was one of the first to sound the alarm as to the dangers of DDT. Heyman captures the sheer joy Bromfield derived from this work in his chapter “Four Seasons at Malabar.” He offers a nuanced treatment of these years, highlighting the reality that Bromfield’s Hollywood earnings sustained the farm–and really didn’t do that, especially after Hawkins death. He was controlling and didn’t let his two daughters, who loved farming, take a share in the work. They and their husbands went elsewhere, Ellen to Brazil, where she and her husband far more successfully realized Bromfield’s vision.

While Bromfield’s own careless business practices, mistaken ideas, and endless experiments led to mounting debts, his books and lecturing inspired future generations of agricultural writers, and the organic food movement, all of which have challenged America’s business-agricultural complex. Heyman traces the lineage of writers and activists influenced by him including Wendell Berry and Robert Rodale, founder of Organic Gardening magazine and the organic food movement.

Heyman captures Bromfield’s essential message, that ‘{m}ost of our citizens do not realize what is going on under their very feet.’ Bromfield recognized the danger of not caring for the top soil, one of America’s great assets and that chemical fertilizers could never substitute for good soil management. Perhaps the time in France and seeing farms that had been owned for generations had something to do with it.

I welcome this work. Perhaps it is just Ohio pride, but I do believe Bromfield deserves to be better known as an important influence on our contemporary movement for sustainable agriculture and healthy food. His other writing work is another matter and I suspect the author’s inferences to its lack of enduring value are on the mark, though I still want to read more Bromfield. Bromfield was one of the first to practice and preach good soil management, testify before Congress on the dangers of pesticides, and attempt to return to sustainable practices. He also left a tangible monument to his work in Malabar Farm, a working farm where people can learn about his ideas and tour the Big House. The farm doesn’t fully realize his dream of a research center nor display all his farming practices, given its tourism focus as a state park, but one can learn about his life, and see the land he saw, and perhaps something of his vision, which Heyman captures in his biography.

Review: A Burning in My Bones

A Burning in My Bones, Winn Collier. New York: WaterBrook, 2021.

Summary: The authorized biography of pastor-theologian and Bible translator Eugene Peterson.

He pastored a congregation for nearly thirty years. He preached thousands of sermons, wrote dozens of books, translated the Bible into vernacular English, welcomed hundreds, if not thousands into his and Jan’s home, including Bono. He never sought popularity or engaged in the polemics that roiled American evangelicalism. In the end, what mattered most was contemplating the wonders of God in the words of scripture and the beauty outside his Montana home, loving Jan and his children. That was Eugene Peterson.

I have roughly two feet of his books on my shelves. I cull many books. These remain. Why? Because, unlike many others, these seem to speak from a place beyond my generation. How did he come to write such works? Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson begins to give me some clues. Collier enjoyed access not only to Peterson during the last years of his life, but also to his papers. He is now the director of the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination at Western Theological Seminary. He offers a rendering of Peterson’s life that probes the formative influences of his life, the decisions he came to about pastoral integrity in his own ministry, the continued quest for congruence in his life, and the beautiful soul he became, amid both his flaws and longings.

We begin with his Montana upbringing, his boyhood in the beautiful country, his Pentecostal preacher mother and distant butcher father. We learn of his running career at Seattle Pacific that eventually culminated in a Boston Marathon and the beginnings of his writing career. After an aborted effort to plant a Pentecostal church, he headed off to seminary at Biblical Seminary in New York, and really discovered scripture as a narrative in which we encounter the living God, not a sourcebook for talking points. Then on to Maryland, studies with William Albright, where he would not only encounter biblical languages and archaeology, but Jan Stubbs, who would become his wife.

It appeared Peterson was headed toward an academic career when he turned down the chance to study at Yale with Brevard Childs to begin a church in Bel Air, a suburb outside Baltimore. The next choices of pastoral integrity came as he dealt with the conflict between his biblically informed intuitions of the work of a pastor and how he was being taught to “run the damn church” as he expressed it in his frustrations that came to a head when he uttered these words in a session meeting. In the end, the elders agreed to run the church, while he prayed, studied scripture, and cared for souls–and finally began to take the time he needed to with Jan and his children.

Collier doesn’t engage in hagiography. He discusses the trouble Eric, Peterson’s eldest had with knowing his father’s love, a consequence of Peterson’s absence in his early childhood. Peterson saw glimpses of his own struggles with his father but struggled to heal this wound. Then we learn of an incident in Peterson’s late fifties when a relationship with a spiritual directee in his church became emotionally if not physically intimate. Jan recognized this with some of the hardest conversations in their marriage to follow. Peterson broke off the relationship. Even the best of marriages are flawed and tested, as this one was.

He had the wisdom to recognize when the good thing of his pastoral ministry was coming to an end, even as his passion for writing was growing. His growing restlessness led to his resignation in 1991 and the beginnings of what became The Message. Collier goes into Peterson’s growing conviction that a translation in vernacular English that captured the unvarnished unsanitized language of scripture. As he did so, he moved on to teach at Regent College. Collier describes his unconventional teaching style, the raspy voice, the long silences, and his growing notoriety.

Once more, congruence called, and the retreat to the family cabin they named Selah House that became a kind of monastery. As Peterson’s fame grew with the completion of The Message (along with controversy about the translation), Peterson felt and inward and upward call. It was a call to cherish Jan and family, while still welcoming many, including Bono who made their way to his door. More and more he felt he was getting ready to die.

There is beauty and pathos in this story. Contemplation of the lake and the mountains, a final camping trip, reflections on the Psalms, writing that slowly came to a trickle after his five books of spiritual theology. He suffered a fall and head injury from which he was never quite the same. His valedictory book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire was marred by the controversial end to his interview with Jonathan Merritt where he confessed some of his personal struggles with the issue of homosexuality and if approached as a pastor, that he would perform a same sex marriage, only to subsequently retract this statement. At this point, Peterson’s vascular dementia was already advancing and Collier’s assessment was that “Eugene should never have been doing interviews at all.”

His end came a few years later. It was a good end that I won’t spoil because Collier’s telling is so rich and poignant. At one point in the book, the observation came up that Peterson only had one sermon. I only heard Peterson speak once, and what he said was indeed congruent with his books. He spoke to InterVarsity’s national staff after one of our largest Urbana conventions. He warned of the danger of success and the temptations that come with it and the quiet path of integrity, the “long obedience in the same direction” for which he was known. Collier captures all of this and a life lived with that deep congruity of love for God that loved both words fitly spoken or written and the silence that allowed others to let down and become themselves. Even as was the case with the things Peterson said and wrote, I will carry this biography in my mind and my heart for a long time as a precious gift.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Mother of Modern Evangelicalism

Mother of Modern Evangelicalism: The Life and Legacy of Henrietta Mears, Arlin C. Migliazzo, Foreword by Kristen Kobes Du Mez. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Summary: The first comprehensive biography on Henrietta Mears that focuses on her early life, her Christian Education ministry at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, and her national impact on a nascent evangelical network of leaders, on Christian publishing and retreat ministry.

She had been dead for almost a decade when I received a copy of What the Bible is All About. I was a young Christian, still in high school, trying to read the Bible. The book started me on a lifelong habit of reading scripture through its clear explanations of the layout of the Bible, the world of the Bible, and the central figure of scripture, the Lord Jesus. In a small way at least, I was one more person in whose life Henrietta Mears had an impact. I had no notion of the breadth of impact the grandmotherly woman on the back cover had during her life on American evangelicalism.

The edition of What the Bible is All About that helped me begin reading the Bible.

Mears established the largest Sunday School in the country and headed up the National Sunday School Association, raising the standards of Christian education throughout the country. She hosted a ministry to some of the leading men and women in Hollywood during the 1950’s. She was a catalyst in the ministries of Bill Bright, Dawson Trotman, and Billy Graham as well as many others. The need for Christ-centered and biblically sound Sunday School materials led to establish Gospel Light Publishing, which she headed up for many years. She purchased a Christian conference center, Forest Home. Her college class turned out a generation of leaders who became pastors, missionaries, and leaders in a number of professions across the country, creating a network that served for the expansion of a theologically conservative but culturally engaging evangelicalism.

All this in spite of a very obvious fact. Mears was a woman in an era where gender roles were very well defined and men preached and led. She never challenged this gender framework. She simply led with excellence and expected that of those around her. She sought out men especially for her college ministry who would be leaders, mentored them, sometimes in demanding terms. She poured herself into others with a kind of tough and yet utterly supportive love that led to their blossoming.

Working at the intersection of the entertainment industry and a center of education, she both hued to theological orthodoxy and adopted an open and generous stance to the intellectual and entertainment world of her day, establishing a model for a culturally winsome evangelicalism that contrasted with the fortress mentality of some fundamentalists (though not all, as Migliazzo notes).

While the work of Mears between 1928 and her death in 1963 was fairly well known, Arlin Migliazzo draws on various archival materials and interviews to show the depth and breadth of that work. He also introduces us to the young Henrietta Mears, growing up in the upper Midwest. She grew up in a devout Baptist family. Her father traveled extensively for his business and so her mother Margaret played a significant role in her upbringing, imparting her faith, as well as a keen work ethic, and high standards of responsibility.

He also traces her college training in education and early teaching experience, where almost immediately, she was made principal of a small rural Minnesota high school. Returning to Minneapolis, she took up leadership of the Sunday School under leading fundamentalist pastor William Bell Riley. She built a girls ministry called Fidelis that reached over 500 in number. She turned her back on marriage. After almost ten years came the call to Hollywood Presbyterian Church.

She had a husky voice, weak eyes, and was described as “built like a fireplug.” She could be demanding. When she felt betrayed, she could be unforgiving. She liked the finer things, including fur collars. Migliazzo notes her weak record on issues of race. Yet when she began to speak in a class or convention, she commanded attention for the clarity of her teaching and passion for Christ. How else to account for her influence on the likes of Graham, Bright, and others?

Migliazzo’s outstanding biography not only helps us to take the measure of her life in full but also sets her in the larger framework of the emergence of evangelicalism from its fundamentalist roots. She played a vital role in that emergence, and “showed” the capabilities of women given over to Christ in a time when “telling” wasn’t possible.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Unstoppable

Unstoppable, Joshua M. Greene. San Rafael, CA: Insight Editions, 2021.

Summary: The biography of Siggi Wilzig, an Auschwitz Holocaust survivor who arrived in the U.S. with $240 and built a fortune in both the oil and banking industries while speaking out against the Holocaust.

His mother immediately went to the gas chamber. His father was beaten to death. In all, he lost 57 extended family members in the Holocaust. He survived by his wits, and he believes, the hand of God. This biography tells the story of Siggi Wilzig, who was not stopped by the brutalities of Auschwitz and a forced march to Mauthausen. Starvation did not stop him. He was not stopped by having only a couple of hundred dollars to his name and sweatshop labor. Nor was he stopped by the anti-Semitic character of both the oil and banking industries through which he made his fortune. He did not let the Fed stop him.

He made three vows. This biography describes how he fulfilled them. He vowed never again to starve. He vowed to raise healthy, productive Jewish children and help his people. And he vowed to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.

When he arrived, his first job was to shovel snow in front of a Jewish store front. In the late 40’s and 1950’s he worked in sweatshops and various traveling sales jobs. He figured out how to sell anything. He started investing in stocks, including Wilshire Oil. At a party, he met Sol Diamond, another Wilshire investor, and together they hatched a plan to take over the company with Siggi as president. They eventually acquired a significant enough share to influence the board, which accepted Siggi’s proposals to turn around the company. This began the company’s meteoric rise and a subsequent purchase of an East coast electronics firm. The challenge was to find adequate cash without exorbitant loans to fund the continued growth of the oil company.

The solution that presented itself was to acquire a bank and “upstream” the profits. His chosen target was the Trust Company of New Jersey (TCNJ). It was a small but profitable bank in which Wilshire eventually acquired an 87 percent interest. Some of the most fascinating aspects of this book are the accounts of how Wilzig ran the bank. He personally courted customers alternately wooing and cudgeling them to bring all their business to him. Much was highly unconventional, and woe to the person, even a family member, who crossed him! A portrait develops of a highly driven man relentlessly pursuing success, unwilling to take no for an answer. He eventually built a bank with $100 million in assets to one with $4 billion. When the Fed tells him that Wilshire must divest of the bank, he takes them to court. Forced to divest, he develops a scheme where his daughter runs the oil company with his “advice” and he runs the bank.

This brings us to family, and particularly his three children. Sherry is most like him in business savvy, and at 23 runs the oil company. Ivan, who Siggi wants to become a lawyer for the bank, and heir apparent, wants nothing of it, but submerges his desire for a music career for twenty years in the bank. Eventually he achieves his dream with a Billboard hit and second career on Broadway, finally making his peace with his father. Third son Alan eventually takes over the bank. Naomi never breaks with Siggi, although she is distant from a man married first to his work. What all understand and struggle with is the survivor who is never truly free of Auschwitz, plagued with nightmares and traumatic memories.

Finally, Wilzig was devoted to perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust. He was the first survivor to speak to West Point Cadets. He was named to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Council during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and helped the Council work through a thicket of issues before the Museum was finally opened in 1993. He spoke forcefully against Reagan’s visit to the SS cemetery at Bitburg and Reagan’s unintended equating of the German soldiers there with the Jews who died in the Holocaust. Dying of multiple myeloma, through the special efforts of Ivan, he records testimony of his Holocaust experience.

Nothing stopped him from keeping his vows. Joshua Greene renders a complex, multi-faceted person. His genuine interest in customers, his ability to crack one liners one minute, only to launch into a tirade the next, his shrewd ability to assess a balance sheet, his love of his children and grandchildren, his loyalty to friends and employees like partner in survival Larry Martel, and his effort to utterly control their destinies, and his undying commitment to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust all combine in this man who was small of stature, with thick, coiffed hair. This is a fascinating biography of a man I’d never heard of who carried the trauma of the Holocaust but was never stopped by it. Greene’s biography also succeeds in doing what Siggi himself sought to do, keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust as the survivors pass into blessed memory.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.