Clementine by Sonia Purnell – A Book Review

Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston ChurchillClementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell is a well-written comprehensive biography of a woman who probably hasn’t gotten enough credit for her contribution to the war effort. I’m speaking from the perspective of an outsider, an American, as opposed to a citizen of Great Britain. Perhaps Clementine’s work is better known and appreciated within her own country. It seems as though it was at the time, although the extent of her involvement in and knowledge of high level meetings probably wasn’t known.

I’m left wondering if Winston Churchill would have made it through WWII if it weren’t for Clementine. (She would probably be appalled at my use of her first name here.) She certainly made her own contributions in organizing the work of women and concerning herself with the people, such a equipping air raid shelters, but managing Winston and taking care of him was probably her greatest contribution. He was not an easy man to work for or with and she often acted as a buffer as well as being the only person who could approach him about certain things. She also was much more aware of how his actions were perceived among his staff and the public. I was surprised at how much more politically astute she was than Winston.

I went into this book without much knowledge of the Churchills, but it did help to have a basic knowledge of the world events that happened during their lives, especially WWII. I probably enjoyed the early part of the book more than the latter. Near the end of the war, it often seemed like a recitation of events with their reactions to them. However, the Epilogue was moving. It gave you a sense of how much less stress was in Clementine’s life after Winston died, yet at the same time how much she loved him.

It was not a perfect marriage, nor was Clementine a perfect woman. Purnell shows us the woman and the couple with both their good qualities and bad. But that’s what a good biography should do. And this was an excellent biography. I recommend it.

Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist – A Book Review

Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, FeministUntil recently, my knowledge of Nellie Bly was limited to her 10 days in a mental institution and her race around the world, both stunts she performed for the sake of newspaper articles. Then I read a blurb which listed some of her other accomplishments. Of course in typical fashion, I can’t remember where that was, but it prompted me to read a biography to learn more about her.

Brooke Kroeger’s book, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, is well-written, very well-researched, and full of details, in some cases more than I wanted. Bly seems full of contradictions, especially when it comes to calling her a feminist, but her articles are full of information about her and her feelings about the person or topic she is writing about. Kroeger makes good use of quotes to give us a feel for these contradictions.

Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran and called “Pinky” by her family and friends. (The “e” was added to the last name later.) Her father, an immigrant from Ireland, worked his way up from mill worker to owner and left the family reasonably well-off when he died. But a disastrous second marriage by her mother, Mary Jane, and mismanagement of the children’s trust funds left Elizabeth with a distrust of some men, and a need to make her own way.

She didn’t, however, set out to become a reporter. In response to a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Elizabeth wrote a letter to the editor signed “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The editor then wrote an ad asking the author to identify herself; she did and her career began. He chose the name Nellie Bly as a pseudonym, commonly used by women at the time, and judiciously edited her early articles. Throughout her twenties, Nellie Bly wrote for women’s pages (although she hated it) and did “stunt” journalism, such as the “around the world” articles (which she loved).

Journalism was something that Nellie always returned to. By the time she was 30, she had such name recognition that she could always find work. But her life took a different turn when at the age of 31, she married 73 year old millionaire Robert Seaman. The relationship is intriguing and Kroeger does a good job describing the interaction between the two. Through Seaman, Bly became a businesswoman, eventually becoming the President of his business, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. She also became an inventor and was issued a number of patents related to the business.

There were three major elements which consumed the rest of Bly’s life after Robert’s death: litigation regarding the company, her coverage of World War I from Austria, and her final years writing a column which led into a type of social work. All of this was unknown to me and I found it very interesting, with the exception of the extensive litigation. This did, however, give a lot of insight into Bly’s relationships with her family, her return to journalism, and her attitudes toward women and women’s issues at the end of her life.

The parts I enjoyed most were about Bly’s childhood and her time in Austria during the war and its aftermath. I found it astounding how uninformed she was about the war overall and specifically the stance of the United States. Never one to let what other people think affect her opinion of herself, she was convinced that she had information that President Woodrow Wilson desperately needed. With a decidedly pro-German outlook, she was definitely of interest to Military Intelligence.

Overall, the book is well worth the read. Nellie Bly was certainly much more than a “girl” reporter.

Brooke Kroeger is a journalist, a professor of journalism at New York University, and has four published books.

Capital Dames by Cokie Roberts – A Book Review

Big book cover Capital DamesCapital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868 by Cokie Roberts tells the story of the Civil War through the eyes of the women living in Washington. Many of the names are familiar such as Mary Lincoln, Varina Davis, and Clara Barton, but many I was unfamiliar with, such as Sara Pryor, Lois Adams, and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lee Blair. There were rivalries between women in Washington prior to the war, but also many friends who would be torn apart because of opposing views.

The social scene in Washington before the war was flourishing. Harriet Lane, niece of President James Buchanan, was stylish, cultured, well-liked, and an excellent White House hostess. Buchanan, however, was unable to prevent the move of the country toward disunion. Between the time Lincoln was elected in November of 1860 and the time he took office in March of 1861, the southern states had seceded and formed the Confederacy.

In describing the years between 1848 and 1860, Roberts lays the groundwork for understanding the changes that occurred in the city during the Civil War.

I found the rivalry between Kate Chase Sprague, daughter of Salmon P. Chase, and Mary Lincoln particularly interesting. Kate was very ambitious for her father. He had run against Lincoln in 1860, but took a position as Lincoln’s Secretary of Treasury. Kate was considered one of the most beautiful and intelligent women in Washington and had plenty of things to say about politics and about Mary Lincoln. Initially, much of the social life continued in the capital until resources became scarce, but Kate did her part for the men in the army camps as well.

But Kate wasn’t the only woman campaigning; Jessie Frémont was just as ambitious for her husband John C. Frémont. Jessie was an outspoken opponent of slavery and Lincoln was never radical enough for her. Of course, John had been the Republican candidate in 1856 and lost, was passed over for Lincoln in 1860 by the Republican party, and was dismissed from his position in the army for insubordination. None of these events endeared the Lincolns to Jessie.

Kate Chase Sprague c. 1860 by Matthew Brady (source)

Kate Chase Sprague c. 1860 by Matthew Brady (source)

The relationships weren’t all rivalries, however, many friends were separated because of opposing politics. Some of them kept in touch when they were able to get mail through the lines, or at least receive news of friends when people passed through the city. Life changed drastically, especially for southern women. Sara Agnes Pryor was the wife of Confederate General Roger A. Pryor. Roberts follows her as she leaves Washington and is forced to move from place to place because of fighting. She is forced to leave 2 of her 5 children with relatives, and with 3 little boys to care for gives birth in a “primitive house” abandoned by one of her brother-in-law’s workers.

While Richmond was still the capital there was a form of society with engagements, so Sara cut up her good clothes to make articles that she could sell to those who still had money. She made hats and lace collars, and gloves out of her husband’s good coat. All this to raise $1300 to buy a barrel of flour. Roger was taken captive and like many other women, she worked to have him released. After the war, Roger went to New York to try to earn a living, leaving Sara to care for the children. It was two long years before they were reunited. In the mean time, the Washington Evening Star reported that “Mrs. Roger A. Pryor comes up regularly to our commissary at Petersburg to draw rations designated for the poor of the city.”

Sara Agnes Pryor (source)

Sara Agnes Pryor (source)

Using newspaper articles, government records, letters and diaries, Roberts chronicles the changes that occur in the city itself. At the start of the war, the population was only about 40,000 people. This grew by over 60,000 as the town became a Union army camp with wounded soldiers and eventually newly freed slaves. The women were largely responsible for taking care of these people. They organized relief efforts, nursing, care of orphans, and “contraband camps” for freedmen. Some of the women who came to prominence in these efforts were Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix, and Elizabeth Keckley. She draws on Keckley’s autobiography for details of her story as well as for information about Mary Lincoln.

Above all, this is a book about the Civil War, the time leading up to it, and its aftermath. Focusing on one city and the individual women from there makes the war at once more complex and yet easier to understand. In her support of Memorial Day after the war, Sara Pryor said, “They died because their country could devise, in its wisdom, no better means of settling a family quarrel than by slaying her sons with the sword.”

Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph P Nash – A Book Review

Eleanor and Franklin book coverEleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship Based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Private Papers by Joseph P. Nash chronicles the evolution of Eleanor Roosevelt from an insecure girl and young woman into a woman who would impact the lives of many, many people. When visiting US installations during WWII, more than once she heard soldiers cry out “Hey, there’s Eleanor!” She radiated warmth and compassion with a down-to-earth style that made people feel like she belonged to them in some way. In many ways she did belong to them. She lived her life in service of others because she truly cared about the condition of human beings and wanted to make their lives better.

Very few people if any will argue that Eleanor Roosevelt was a remarkable person. However, it is easy to think that remarkable people are born that way. That plucked down in history at any time, they would have lived a similar life of accomplishment. This might be true, but I think often the difficulties in life are what bring out the best qualities in people. Mr. Lash takes the time to show us the circumstances in Eleanor’s life that shaped and formed her into the remarkable woman she was.

Lash takes considerable time explaining the dynamics of Eleanor’s childhood. Her father Elliot was the brother of president Theodore Roosevelt. Her mother Anne Hall was decended from the prestigious Ludlow and Livingston families. They were the darlings of society when Society was small and intimate. Anne along with her sisters were celebrated beauties and Elliot had a vibrant and out-going personality. Eleanor, a serious child, was not a beauty and was made aware of this by her mother and her aunts. She worshipped her father who was fun-loving and the light of her life. But her childhood was short-lived. Her father was an alcoholic and unstable emotionally. It eventually became necessary for Anne to leave him and take Eleanor and her brother Hall. As difficult as this was, it was compounded when both of her parents died leaving Eleanor and Hall in the custody of Anne’s mother. Here she grew up in the shadow of aunts and uncles who had their own problems.

When Eleanor married Franklin, she was an insecure young woman eager to please. Although Franklin loved Eleanor, she always longed for a depth of intimacy that he was unable to meet. Her mother-in-law Sara Delano Roosevelt was very domineering, and although she was always very nice to Eleanor, she was determined to have her way and direct the course of her only son’s life if at all possible. She would be a constant presence in their lives, always in the background criticizing and trying to direct until the day she died. Eleanor gradually broke free of this, but it wasn’t until they were in the White House that she really started blossoming.

Eleanor and FDR with Anna and James c. 1908 (source)

Eleanor and FDR with Anna and James c. 1908 (source)

Eleanor and Franklin covers Eleanor’s childhood, her life as a young wife and mother, her role as Franklin emerged as a leader in politics, and their life together at the White House. Lash uses Eleanor’s correspondence and published writings to show how she dealt with becoming a public personality, raising her children with her mother-in-law constantly in the background, Franklin’s infidelity, and finally the difficult years in the White House where she made the “office” of First Lady something it had never been before.

She was criticized as much as she was loved. She often felt that it was her duty to tell Franklin things that others around him would not say, in a way to be his conscience. Many thought she was butting in where she didn’t belong. By the time Franklin was president, they no longer had the traditional marriage. She said to intimate friends that she was no longer in love with him, but she served him in love. It was a role that many women couldn’t have tolerated. There were other women in his life that gave him space to relax and laugh. Eleanor couldn’t give him that, but she gave what she could, a view to the world that he didn’t have. She was an advocate for women, African-Americans, youth, soldiers, anyone who asked. There were times when she was taken advantage of. She knew this, but had to help if she could.

The book is dense. It is filled with details but is very readable. Expect to give it some time. It is a must read if you want to understand Eleanor Roosevelt, but also gives you a different perspective of FDR’s presidency. Eleanor and Franklin ends with Franklin’s death in the spring of 1945. Mr. Lash has written a sequel Eleanor: The Years Alone. I haven’t read it yet, but you can be sure I will.

(Originally published on SSS News & Notes.)