No Man Is an Island…

Big news out of Britain today.  But as I think you all know by now, I am generally misanthropic about current events. So in today’s post, I will tell you that big news came out of Britain (well, Geneva, really) on this day in 1872, as well.

Admittedly, the events of 1872  had less immediate impact, but as you’ll come to find out if you keep reading, they had pretty intense long-term ramifications.  In June 1872, international arbitration endorsed the U.S. position on the Alabama Claims, Britain paid the United States $15.5 million, a perpetual U.S.-British alliance was cemented, and a precedent was set for international arbitration of disputes between nations.

“Wait. The Alabama what?” I hear you cry.

The Alabama Claims were a series of demands for damages that the U.S. government sought from the UK for Confederate Navy raider attacks on Union merchant ships during the  Civil War. The most famous of the five ships cited in the claims was the CSS Alabama, which Wikipedia tells me never docked in a Southern port and took more than 60 prizes before being sunk by the USS Kearsage off the French coast in 1864.

What did Britain have to do with Confederate Navy attacks?  Well, the boats were built in British shipyards in 1862, in contracts with Confederate agents (or middle men for Confederate agents). And the British government did not stop the Alabama from putting to sea to wreak its havoc, even though the American Minister to Britain, Charles Francis Adams (who would lose the Liberal Republican presidential nomination to Horace Greeley in the same year the claims would be settled), told them the ship was bound for the Confederacy and was clearly intended for use against the United States. There were some shady dealings involved —  Britain had a neutrality law, and while the shipbuilders more or less hewed to the letter of that law they certainly thumbed their noses at its spirit.  The law said Britons could build warships; they just weren’t allowed to arm them. (That had to happen after vessels reached international waters.) Public opinion, however, was rather against the idea of building boats intended for attack on the United States. The Alabama was spirited out of British waters in secret and created a political embarrassment for those in power who favored the Confederacy and let it happen.

After the war ended and the United States got its affairs somewhat sorted, the winning side went after Britain for aiding and abetting the enemy. Charles Sumner (famous for his 1856 “Crime Against Kansas” speech and subsequent thrashing in the Senate chamber by Preston Brooks) lobbied for Britain to cough up $2 billion—or he was willing to settle for them handing over all of Canada.  This idea had some support for a while, but that petered out over time: More U.S. groups were anxious for some fast cash, nationalist sentiment in British Columbia favored fealty to the British Empire, Congress got sucked up into Reconstruction efforts, and few Americans seemed very interested in expansion while having to deal with the fallout and expense of the war.

In 1871, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish cut a deal with British representative Sir John Rose. A commission was formed to deal with a number of financial and territorial issues, including the Alabama Claims. The resulting Treaty of Washington got U.S. approval in May of that year. A year later, an international arbitration tribunal met in Geneva and endorsed the whole thing, including cash for the Alabama Claims, settlement of Atlantic fisheries and language on the Oregon boundary line. Britain  expressed regret over the Alabama damages, but claimed no responsibility.

So, who cares? Why was this big news? Why does it matter today? Well, it mattered at the time in terms of international policy and allegiances. It put to rest a long-simmering snit between the U.S. and the U.K.  On a bigger stage, it triggered a movement to codify public international law, basically making this relatively little settlement dispute a first step (for better or worse) toward bigger international agencies like the Hague conventions, the World Court, and the United Nations.

So, there you have it. Brexit might or might not mark the kickoff of several momentous European events. But in 1872, the same could have been (in fact, actually was) said about consideration of the Treaty of Washington in Geneva.

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Horace Greeley and His Weird Ways

You guys!  Over the weekend, Roll Call ran my article about Horace Greeley and how Donald Trump might not be the weirdest and worst candidate ever.

You can read it here.

I think that counts as this week’s blog post, no?


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Something a Little Different

While I’ve been blogging the bejeebers out of history over here, I’ve also had a lot of fun spreading my Twitter wings, especially with the #TCMParty crew when Turner was running Roger Corman Thursdays.  That appears to have run its course; channel programming seems to have switched to Musical Thursdays, which are a different kind of fun.

I’ve also been working on the book launch. I went through the file again and found some things to fix/add/change, ginned up some related articles to shop around, working on getting included in a couple book festivals over the next year.

But the absolute best part was that I asked some folks whose writing and work I really like and respect if they’d take a look and give me blurbs for the back cover, and  all of them were terribly kind and gracious in agreeing to do so—and then blew me away by expressing the nicest opinions I could ever hope for in regard to my work. I still go into over the moon, happy dance, giddy mode thinking about it.

Current anticipated release date is the end of this month. Need my day job to slow down so I can work harder on the fun stuff!

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Congress, The Klan, and Confederate Amnesty

In May of 1872, Congress and the federal government were already well along in their pursuit of knocking down the Ku Klux Klan, but work was still ongoing. They were also in the (perhaps counterproductive, yet necessary) process of granting amnesty to former Confederates.

It’s odd. I had some trepidation about how to approach this issue. I think it is a little unhealthy that we live in a culture where the very idea of my writing on this topic somehow allows people to assume I’m complicit in the agenda — or even that I have cause to worry that people might do so. But let me say up front: The Klan is bad, y’all. It was/is a virulent offshoot of an angry backlash reaction to a horrible situation wherein there really weren’t any immediate winners, but the long-term benefits surely outweighed the costs. The Klan is what happens when disgruntled and disenfranchised groups decide the system won’t work for them, so they will work outside the system, to ill effect. The thing is, in some ways, the Klan was successful. And we have a LOT to learn from that, lest we be doomed to repeat it. But don’t misunderstand: The Klan is bad. OK? OK.

The first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan emerged in 1866. Created by former Confederate soldiers, it developed into an decentralized organization of autonomously administered local units seeking the end of Northern influence presenting itself through Reconstruction. It sought to limit black education, economic advancement, voting rights, political and social status, and the right of African-Americans to bear arms. The Ku Klux Klan’s effort involved intimidating the Southern African-American population,  Northerners working in the South after the Civil War, Southern Republicans, and schoolteachers brought south by the Freedmen’s Bureau. The methods of the Klan grew more violent, and it was most successful at taking the vote away black southerners.

In 1869, a federal grand jury declared the Ku Klux Klan to be a terrorist organization. In January 1871, Pennsylvania Republican senator John Scott convened a committee that took testimony from witnesses about Klan atrocities; this material was published in a 13-volume report in 1872. In February 1871, former Union general, Congressman Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts wrote and introduced federal legislation, the 1871 Klan Act. The bill gained favor after the governor of South Carolina appealed for federal troops to maintain order in the State. Reports of a riot and massacre in a Meridian, Mississippi courthouse, in which a black state representative narrowly escaped death, also added support for the bill. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed Butler’s legislation, which was used along with the 1870 Force Act, to enforce the civil rights provisions of the constitution.

Under the Klan Act, federal troops were used rather than state militias, and Klansmen were prosecuted in federal court, where juries often included blacks. Prosecutions were led by Attorney General Amos Tappan Ackerman. Federal government actions under the Klan Act from 1871 to 1874 severely crippled the original Klan. Still, the bloodiest single instance of racial violence in the Reconstruction era happened on Easter Suday of 1873: the Colfax Massacre in Louisiana. A group of white men, including members of the White League and the Ku Klux Klan, clashed with members of Louisiana’s almost all-black state militia at the local courthouse. The cause of the battle was ostensibly a contested local election, though racism and partisan politics were significant factors as well.

At the same time, Congress was struggling over what to do with the Southern states it had to return to the federal fold. Reconstruction was a bumpy, painful, and in some ways disastrous process. You can’t let enemies of the state just come waltzing back, but on the other hand, how much punishment can they bear? The 14th amendment to the Constitution, ratified in July 1868, provided that no person could hold any civil or military office under State or Federal Government who had previously taken an oath to support the Constitution while holding such a position and hen had engaged in rebellion against the United States. The amendment provided that the Congress, by a two-thirds vote in both Houses, could remove this disability, and between 1868 and 1872 a number of ex-Confederates, were granted congressional amnesty.

Even by the election of 1872, this was still an issue, with candidate Horace Greeley musing on allowing “peaceful secession” — an absurd idea given the war that had just been fought to prevent it. But by this time, most Northerners were also losing interest in Reconstruction. Proof of this is that Congress passed the Amnesty Act.  The new bll removed all political disabilities except those upon lawmakers, military and naval officers, heads of departments and foreign ministers who had switched allegiance during the course of their service to the federal government. The effects of the Amnesty Acts were almost immediate. By 1876, Democrats had regained control of all but three states in the South. Republicans clung to power in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, but only with the help of federal troops. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Klan was largely in decline by the 1880s.

In 1882, the Supreme Court ruled in United States vs. Harris that the Klan Act was partially unconstitutional, saying that Congress’s power under the Fourteenth Amendment did not extend to private conspiracies. However, the Force Act and the Klan Act were invoked in later civil rights conflicts. The Klan would surge in popularity again in the early 20th century, and again in the 1950s and ‘60s in response to the Civil Rights movement.

What’s really notable about all this to me, however, is that pretty much since this hate group’s inception, a majority of the population has deemed it wrong.  We as a nation and society have come SO FAR from where we were 150 years ago. We have been free to debate, discuss, and I believe this is at least part of the reason that Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to say the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.  We have so many arguments over the Confederate flag, over monuments to “the losers” and “the traitors.” I don’t mind the arguments, but I hate the straw man that the only options are “complete embrace” or “complete suppression.”  Europe has banned the swastika; anti-Semitism is alive and well there.  Eradication of the symbol has not eradicated the sentiment.

We don’t need to wipe out our history; we need to learn from it. We need to use it as a tool against those who don’t know or understand where they come from. We need the precedent of slavery as a tool to shame racists; we need the precedent of the Civil War as a (perhaps imperfect, but certainly successful) reflection of the moral universe bending at least a little toward justice. We need to see Brock Turner and shame him. We need to see Peter Jonsson and Carl-Fredrik Arnt and celebrate them.  Shame is a powerful tool, and one we are falling out of  practice with. We need to stop making excuses and start enforcing our standards. And to do that, we need more discourse, not less. We need more thoughtful discussion, less knee-jerk reaction of hiding bad stuff or pretending it doesn’t happen. We need more accountability and fewer blind eyes.  And for all of that, we need history. We need to be able to point to our past and say “this, and this.” We need to be able to point to our mistakes and say “Never again.”

And we need to be able to recognize that no human—currently alive or in the pages of history—is purely one or the other. The ancient Egyptians had a concept called ma’at. Ma’at was a goddess representing concepts like truth, balance, morality, and justice. Souls were weighed against Ma’at’s feather, and if lighter, the departed were welcomed to the paradise of afterlife. In studying history and judging our contemporaries, we need to be able to weigh souls in the same way. We should forgive shortcomings, but we must be able to weigh their heroism and villainy and decide which way the balance tips in each instance. Thomas Jefferson did a lot of really amazing things for this nation. We know he also held some pretty despicable views on race and was somewhat hypocritical in his calling for the abolition of slavery while owning 600 slaves himself. Should we blast his face off Mount Rushmore?   I would argue not: the good outweighs the bad. Hitler brought about some fantastic economic reforms and did some great things for Germany. His policies also killed six million Jews.  Should he get a monument?  I’m saying no.

So when people talk about the Klan, or the Confederate flag, or the windows in the National Cathedral, or a statue of Robert E. Lee, we need to listen to what is really being said. What are we really honoring? Are we endorsing racism? Are we acknowledging an icky part of our history that we need to make sure doesn’t repeat itself? Are we celebrating a man who fought valiantly on the wrong side based on what we might even today consider the right (or at least justifiable) reasons?  These are conversations that should not be muffled.

Hark back to the NBC PSA jingle. As my son likes to sing, “The More You Know…”

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Bread and Circuses

Well, actually just the latter. In early May of 1872, the circus came to Washington, D.C.—and not just the usual political circus. This one was P.T. Barnum’s, and it featured the “famous horse-riding goat ‘Alexis,’ the wonderful snake-charmer,” and “four wild Fiji cannibals.” (One newspaper waggishly wondered what the cannibals were fed.)


(Barnum with General Tom Thumb, circa 1850.)

Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, to Irena Taylor Barnum and Philo F. Barnum, a storekeeper and farmer. He was a capitalist from an early age, selling cookies and candy to schoolmates. When his father died, Barnum got a job clerking a store, saving up until he could open his own store three yeas later. But there was more to the man than simple finance. In 1831, he began publishing an abolitionist and nondenominational Christian newspaper, the Herald of Freedom. At one point he was jailed for libel; when he was set free, he was said to have been driven through town in an open coach accompanied by cannon blasts and a chorus singing “Yankee Doodle.”

After some economic reversals, he moved in 1834 to New York City, where he embarked on his first entertainment venture—scraping and borrowing $1,000 to purchase elderly slave Joice Heth. Claiming Heth was the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington, Barnum set her free and installed her at a popular entertainment venue to tell stories about the father of the nation. His investment was sound: She brought in $750 weekly. But she was probably no more than 80 when she died two years later.

In 1836, Barnum bought his first circus and toured the South. This, along with other Barnum ventures, had its boom and busts. In 1841, Barnum finagled his way into taking over Scudder’s New York Museum (featuring a stuffed bison, wax figures, and a guillotine). He renamed it Barnum’s American Museum and it was considered to be the country’s first public museum of real importance. His financial strategy was to spend great sums of money on exhibits, then charge small entry fees and entice people to return for multiple visits. One famous humbug was the Fiji mermaid (a mishmash of a corpse with the top of a monkey sewn to the tail of a fish). Another was the Woolly Horse, purportedly from explorer John C. Frémont’s trek through the Rocky Mountains and billed as having “his head where his tail should be.” (The horse had probably never been west of New York, and was simply housed backward in his stall.) For all his faith in Americans’ appetite for the bizarre and freakish (and his willingness to exploit that appetite with fake spectacles), there is no definitive proof he ever actually said a sucker is born every minute. (He might wish he had, though.)

Barnum also brought fame to Charles Stratton, a boy only two feet in height. Barnum re-christened him “General Tom Thumb” and paid him three dollars a week to entertain the public by singing, dancing, and chatting. The pair toured Europe to great acclaim. On the heels of that success, Barnum mortgaged everything he owned to bring soprano Jenny Lind to America; he is credited as singlehandedly doing more to increase U.S. appreciation for opera than just about anyone else.


(A popular portrait of Jenny Lind. My own maternal great-grandmother had a copy over her fireplace—for years I thought it was a relative. It now hangs in my uncle’s house. Imagine my surprise when years later I saw old photos of my paternal grandmother’s house with the same portrait over the sofa—and even later, when the images popped up gracing the set of the 90’s TV show Charmed.)

But for all his exploitive actions, Barnum had an abiding respect for humanity and freedom. As slavery became a more prominent political issue, Barnum, who had been a Jacksonian Democrat since youth, took up Republicanism in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. He had evolved from a man of common stereotypes of the 1840s to a leader for emancipation by the Civil War. During the Civil War, Barnum’s museum drew large audiences seeking diversion from the conflict. He added pro-Unionist exhibits, including an actress who had served as a spy for the Union and who lectured about her “thrilling adventures” behind Confederate lines. Barnum’s Unionist sympathies incited a Confederate arsonist to start a fire in 1864. On July 13, 1865, Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground from a fire of unknown origin. Barnum re-established the Museum at another location in New York City, but this too was destroyed by fire in March 1868. This time the loss was too great, and Barnum retired from the museum business.

In 1865, he won a seat in the Connecticut legislature. At ratification of the 13th Amendment, Barnum spoke before the legislature and said, “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.”

Aside from his one early foray, the man most associated with the circus didn’t really get involved in that business until he was 60 years old. In 1870, he established “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” a traveling circus, menagerie and museum of “freaks.” It soon became the first two-ring, then three-ring, circus, transported by up to seventy railroad freight cars (Barnum was one of the first circus owners to move his circus by train and probably the very first to buy his own train), and was renamed “P. T. Barnum’s New and Greatest Show on Earth.”

But he didn’t give up on politics and community involvement. Having reverted to the Democratic Party, Barnum supported Horace Greeley for president in 1872. Three years later he was himself elected mayor of Bridgeport as a Democrat, focusing on temperance issues as well as bringing gas lighting to streets. Barnum was again serving in the Connecticut state house in 1878, and was notably the legislative sponsor of a law enacted in 1879 that prohibited the use of “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception” that remained in effect in Connecticut until being overturned in 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Barnum also made significant contributions to Tufts University, which features Jumbo the elephant as its mascot and refers to its students as “Jumbos.”

In 1891, realizing he was near death, Barnum reportedly had his own obituary written and printed in the newspaper so that he could read it. He died in Bridgeport at the ripe old age of 80.


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Hot Lava

Everyone  has heard of Pompeii, I think. (At least, you should have.)  Wiped out by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, it’s one of the more famous natural-disaster tourist attractions. But did you know that Mount Vesuvius wasn’t content with that bit of ash-spewing? Over the years, it continued to wreak havoc in the region, and is today a national park, plus one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world (because 3 million people live nearby and it’s a pretty volatile formation).

Why am I writing about this? Well, volcanoes are cool.  And because it erupted on this day in 1872, right around the time the wheels were being set in motion for the action in my book, Justice and Vengeance.  (You can preorder from the link over there on the right.)

The volcano had belched a bunch of times between when it buried Pompeii and 1872, but that year’s eruption was  doozy. The lava blocked an escape route and killed some spectators. The flow forked at one point — one path destroyed a couple villages, the other surrounded an observatory and stranded workers there for days. (Luigi Palmieri, the director of the volcano observatory wrote a memoir about it the next year.) On the 28th, when the lava flow stopped, there were massive eruptions at the summit, which at that point was about 4,400 feet in elevation.

The next really exciting eruption was in 1944, in the midst of  World War II. The 340th Bombardment Group was stationed there and lost upward of 70 of planes when they “were covered with hot ash that burned the fabric control surfaces, glazed, melted, or cracked the Plexiglass, and even tipped some B-25s onto their tails from the weight of the ash.” That was also the last time Vesuvius erupted, to date.

It’s been 70 years since then, but that doesn’t mean lava won’t flow again. I don’t really understand why you’d want to live in the shadow of a volatile and unpredictable volcano. It kind of reminds me of those people who build and rebuild their houses in flood zones thinking things will be different THIS TIME.  Would you take that risk?


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It’s Official!

It only took a year or so, but I can officially say that my book will see the light of day!

I am now the proud signer of a contract with Open Books, which produces a whole swath of interesting material.  Give them a look!

And in June, you’ll be able to get a copy of this:

justice and vengeance with coin final

It’s the story of James Clark, a married Commonwealth’s Attorney in Prince William County, who ran off with an eager-to-elope 16-year-old Fannie Fewell, the daughter of one of Manassas’s leading citizens. After being arrested for abduction, Clark was shot in his jail cell by Fannie’s older brother, Lucien, a hellraiser with a passion for drink and for abusing Yankees and scalawags.

The trial the followed was a celebrity affair. The prosecutors were former Virginia Governor and Confederate General Henry A. Wise, who assisted Charles E. Sinclair, a judge during the Mormon War in Utah in the 1850s who had replaced Clark as Commonwealth’s Attorney. Fewell’s defense was handled by two other Civil War generals: Eppa Hunton, a participant in Pickett’s Charge who was elected to Congress during the trial, and William Henry Fitzhugh Payne, who rode with the infamous Black Horse Regiment.

The outcome of the trial is a surprise, as is what happened to Fannie and Lucien in later life.

Tell all your friends!

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Today in 1872: Dry Milk Day

If you love Doritos, Kraft Mac and Cheese, or powdered cheese popcorn, you can thank Samuel Percy.

On this date in 1872, Dr. Percy patented the process to create dried (or powdered) milk, which eventually gave rise to all that delightful stuff we consume today.

And while, yeah, the stuff isn’t as good for you as diet of roots and leaves, the conditions that gave rise to Percy’s patent came from a pretty Upton Sinclair–like situation that was much more disgusting. (And hey, we aren’t bunnies, either! A little powdered cheese ought to spice things up every so often!)

It all came to pass, as so many things do, in New York.  As the city expanded, dairies got farther and farther away, and in pre-refrigeration days, that created problems for getting the product to the consumers.  Some enterprising swindlers figured out a way to keep cows in the city and stuff them with subpar grain leading to so-called swill milk, which was then doctored with all kinds of crap to make it look whiter and thicker. (Dianne Durante has a great piece on this at the link—and offers a pretty good warning on the raw milk issue, while she’s at it.) Percy and others set out improve the quality of milk, and thus such innovations as spray drying and pasteurization were developed and embraced.

(Incidentally, Percy also gets credit for suggesting cocaine as an analgesic. The man had a thing for powdery white substances, I guess.)

I can’t find much on Percy himself, other than he died in 1890. But obviously, the effects of his work lived on, for good and bad.

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A Murder of Crows, a Desire of Suitors…

What do you call a gathering of writers? A neurosis? A penury? An ego?

This weekend, for me, it was called the Virginia Festival of the Book. We went last year when my husband talked about his book, and we had such a good time that we went again this year. Our kid was happy because he finally got to meet a childhood hero: Jon Scieszka. We stood in line after the lecture, and the man was absolutely lovely—so warm and friendly and engaging, even with the line snaking around the building.

I spent the time talking to authors about various approaches to publishing and promotion. Hope springs eternal, and all that. I did conclude that I definitely do not want to self-publish—partly out of ego, but more out of laziness. I have no desire to do all my own formatting, but at the same time I don’t want to pay a printer to do something I’m completely capable of doing myself. And maybe it’s my profession getting the better of me, but I don’t trust a process that doesn’t require the involvement of one single editor.

I did learn a lot about Things I Should Not Do when it’s my turn. Don’t pre-record your lecture and sit and watch it with the audience. Know what slide is showing and make sure your chatter relates to it. If you don’t know the answer to an audience question, don’t stall or deflect; admit it and offer to find the answer and email the person who asked—then redirect to something you DO know. Try not to say “uhhh” more often than any other word.  Try to look like you are honored to be there, not like it’s an imposition.

I also learned that most audiences show up ready to laugh—I mean, unless you’re there to talk about the Holocaust or something. In most cases, if you give them the tiniest bit of help, they will respond with enthusiasm—even more if you keep it energetic and help the time go by quickly. Twenty minutes of funny and informative anecdotes goes by quickly. Twenty minutes of “uhh” is excruciating.

Beyond the festival, we also spent a lot of money at assorted bookstores, ate ice cream, and had an amazing dinner. Charlottesville is a lovely spot. I highly recommend it.

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New Ideas

It is funny how things fall into my path and I think they’d be great ideas for books. (After so many completed projects turning out to be apparent nonstarters, I’m starting to question my judgment, but we’ll set that aside.)  Now,  along with thinking about the Willard Hotel, I have two more.

One is something my husband found while looking up stuff for his job. It revolves around the first murder trial in California where television coverage competed with newspapers (and pretty much blew them out of the water).   It’s a horrible story; a little girl went to the movies with her littler brothers and wound up kidnapped, raped, dead, and dumped in a gulch. They caught the guy and he was sent to the gas chamber. It sounds like a good idea, right?  But maybe it’s too grisly.

Then, I was listening to Karen Abbott’s American Rose and was intrigued by a  throwaway reference to the first wife of Otto Preminger.  Her origins are sketchy but she got out of Europe one step ahead of the jackboots, lived a life of lavish extravagance in Hollywood while her director-husband catted around on her before eventually getting divorced, then moved on to wrapping up her identity in the polar opposite of Preminger: Albert Schweitzer. If you squint, she was the prototype Angelina Jolie. And there’s no book about her… yet. But maybe nobody even knows who Albert Schweitzer is anymore.

So now I have three ideas and a crisis of confidence.  I figure I’ll do some research (but not write the whole book this time) before I have to decide. That’s the fun part anyway, right?

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