Sunday, 18 September 2011

Grover Cleveland: A Secret Life?

The posts heretofore on this blog have been almost exclusively about British history, this being the primary research area of the Idle Historian. Recently, however, I came across a book about the scandalous life of American President Grover Cleveland: A Secret Life: The Sex, Lies, and Scandals of President of Grover Cleveland by Charles Lachman, which has been published by Skyhorse Publishing.

I had been rather unaware of the colourful past of Cleveland, who was President from 1885 to1889 and 1893 to 1897 (the only President to serve non-consecutive terms in office). What has been widely known since Cleveland's campaign (discovered and fostered by his political opponents) was that he had, as a young man, fathered an illegitimate son with a woman in Buffalo named Maria Halpin. Opponents shouted the derisive slogan at the candidate: "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" Cleveland has also famously been cited as advising his associates to "tell the truth"  -- something that many politicians have perhaps wished they had done in hindsight. Sometimes the attempted cover-up really is "worse than the crime." And, indeed, the scandal obviously did little to hinder Cleveland's political success.

  A famous period cartoon, 27 September 1884, cover of "Judge" Magazine
("I Want my Pa"), referencing the Halpin scandal

Lachman's book A Secret Life, however, alleges that there is far more to the story than ever appeared at the time, mustering historical evidence for rape (as Maria Halpin accused Cleveland of at the time -- filed in a 1884 affidavit), his attempt to have her committed to an asylum after the birth, and the underhanded means by which the child was removed from his mother and placed in an orphanage. The boy was eventually placed with surrogate parents (who had a hand in the supposed abduction and persecution of Maria Halpin), and the mother was paid what in effect amounted to hush money. Lachman establishes the identity and fate of Cleveland's son for the first time in this book, an outcome different from what historians had previously maintained. His name throughout most of his life differed from the curious one he was given at birth.(*) It is a captivating narrative history, containing a rather startling turn of events -- detailed more than a century after they occurred.

While I cannot speak to the historical veracity of all the claims, the book does a great deal to tell the story from a perspective which is sympathetic to Maria Halpin, who at the time she fell pregnant was a widow who already had a young son. One of the pictures in the book which labels her "a woman defamed," signalling the revisionist treatment which the author follows. Indeed, Lachman summons a great deal of evidence that Halpin was not a "loose woman" -- as her opponents and Cleveland's supporters depicted her at the time. It seems right that such a marginalized woman, without important friends or power, should be able to add her voice to history retrospectively. This book persuasively argues for her ultimate "respectability" -- as nineteenth-century society would have termed it. As such, and for its absorbing readability, it is a fine entree into American history of the late 1800s.

Interest in the colourful character and presidency of Grover Cleveland seems to be on the upswing in general. Recently another book has been published: The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth, by Matthew Algeo. It explores another secretive and mysterious chapter in Cleveland's life: his secret surgery at sea (as the title implies) to remove a cancerous tumor from the President's mouth and the astonishing means by which this event was kept from the American public.

(*) Oscar Folsom Cleveland, the illegitimate son, named after Oscar Folsom, friend and law partner of Grover Cleveland. This led some to conclude that Oscar Folsom was the father of the child (playing into the narrative of Maria Halpin as a woman of loose morals), and that Cleveland somehow "took responsibility" for the child for reasons unknown.

Grover Cleveland later married Folsom's daughter, Frances Folsom -- she was much younger and he had been one of her guardian since childhood. Cleveland remains the only President to marry in the White House itself. 

Sunday, 11 September 2011

9/11 -- The Public and the Personal

Today, as we all know, marks the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the pivotal -- in some ways defining -- event of our time (to date). It is difficult to know exactly what should be said, except that it might involve in parts: some reflection, some sadness, some remembrance of lives lost and lives changed, some humility when we consider the fleeting nature of our existence, some thankfulness for our freedom (which I believe we can do without resorting to cliché). No doubt there are more parts yet that should be added to the whole. 9/11 changed our terms of reference in profound ways that we cannot even fully realize. It was, in the words of some, the "end of the end of history" -- the phrase "The End of History" having been popularized in the 1990s by Francis Fukuyama.

The Idle Historian researches and writes about war, terror and fear in a different time -- the 1930s and the impending war with Fascism. The threat these individuals faced was of another nature, but our human reactions to the fear of attack remain quite constant. We debate strategy and politics. We doubt to what extent our liberty should be constrained in order that it should be preserved. We are tempted towards division, even as the fear makes us long for unity. 

Even though many of us were in no way directly involved in the events of that dreadful day, 9/11 stories are always intensely personalized. One example is the omnipresent question: Where were you when you first heard the news? Most of us remember the events of that day in great detail -- the shock, the disbelief, the feeling of not knowing if this was the end of the horror or just the beginning. The years since have seen events played out in arenas global and local -- from distant wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an airport near you: the removal of shoes, the enhanced security, the confiscated tube of toothpaste or shampoo, the certainty that things were not as they were.

For the Idle Historian the immediate days after 9/11 involved, rather coincidentally, joining the Canadian Army Reserve. The paperwork had been processed months before, and the timing was simply random. I had been accepted as an officer cadet but not sworn in. When some friends learned of the impending event, a general reaction went along the lines of whether a reconsideration should be made -- even at such a late stage. It is easy to forget now that no one could really be certain at the time how far Canada's involvement in wars and counteractions might extend. Predictions of immediate, multi-continental conflict proliferated. But, as I see it, you cannot volunteer to join the army only to change your mind when there was an actual possibility of being sent to war.(*) What is the point of being here if you were to duck out just when you were actually needed? In the aftermath of 9/11 people asked themselves this question in ways great and small, considering how to proceed as communities and societies. We struggle with the meanings of citizenship, inclusiveness, and fear. We are uncertain of what the narrative of 9/11 is now and will be in the future, but ultimately it forms the backdrop of the new world bequeathed to us.

(*) In actual fact, I knew at the time that there was only the most remote possibility of ever being called up to distant battlefields (although such an eventuality cannot entirely be ruled out). The Canadian Army Reserve is not like the National Guard in the US in that Reservists have not been ordered to overseas conflict since the Second World War. Reservists can, and do, volunteer for overseas tours. You MAY, however, be called up for any type of service based on the turn of world events and possible emergencies, and as a Reservist you understand this on signing up.

Monday, 5 September 2011

On Failure: A Few Words, via the Inimitable A.A. Gill

This is not a historical post. Well, not an overtly historical post in any case. But it is about failure, a subject that underlies much of history. While the victor and the conqueror are celebrated (and write the history books), the vanquished are of equal import. The pretender who failed to retake the throne plays as much a part in the history of the nation as the claimant who keeps it. Recently I came across some old restaurant reviews by A.A. Gill, perhaps one of the most wide-ranging, provocative (and controversial) writers today. From The Sunday Times of 29 August 2010, it prefaces a review of a restaurant in York. The restaurant is, apparently, forgettable, the prelude less so:

"I am compiling a list of the most agreeable attributes of failure. If you get knocked out in the first round, at least you don’t have to go on playing the stupid game. Indeed, being a habitual failure means that you can play all games altruistically. Just for the fun. Without the stress and suspense of being a winner. Not getting a promotion means that you don’t have to face that first-day-in-a-new-job panic, where everybody hates you and is just waiting for you to fail. You’ve already done the hard bit. You’ve already failed. And being a failure means that people like you for who you are, and not for your money or your status.

Your children want to be with you because you’re fun. You have all the time in the world, and they can beat you at Scrabble.

Your failure makes other people feel better about themselves. They look at you and know that their lives aren’t that bad after all. Failure is character-building. Any fool can cope with plaudits, and the joy of being number one. It’s failure that hones you, with humility, stoicism and polite applause. Failure relieves you of ambition. It may be the great engine of the collective, the propulsion of humanity and civilisations, but ambition is the bane and the curse of the singular. Human ambition is hell, with its unnatural demands, its sleepless nagging, its constant doubt and consuming insecurity. It is the cancer of the soul, and the poisoning of the convivial hearth... To fail is to be ahead of the curve...

But [death is] what failures have been training for all their lives. They breach the final tape with a noble equanimity. Failure is meeting destiny halfway."
From the famous "demotivational" posters from

Interesting and poignant thoughts indeed. For we all fail, at least some of the time. And what is courage but the ability to stand vanquished on the field of battle and yet somehow manage to take it all rather lightly.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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