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“Nothing Is Too Much Trouble”: A Chronology of Ian Fleming’s James Bond (Part 3)

md6733474402_thumb.jpgOctober 1962 – March 1963

Bond is rescued by a girl from a Japanese fishing village, but the bullet that grazed his skull damaged his prefrontal lobe, and he has lost all memory of his identity. For several months he lives as a fisherman on a small island off the coast of Japan. He takes the name Taro Todoroki. (YOLT)

Early 1963

The Secret Service pronounces Bond missing and presumed killed. His official obituary appears in the London Times. It is written by M, and gives a somewhat accurate overview of Bond’s life (though some dates are off by three or four years, see Appendix C.) (YOLT)

Spring 1963

Bond begins having fragmentary flashbacks to his previous life. He is certain he had something to do with a place called “Russia.” He travels on a mail-boat to the Russian island of Sakhalin. (TMWGG)

Between April and November 1963

Bond is picked up by Soviet police on the waterfront at Valdivostok. In a scuffle, he receives another blow on the head, and begins to vaguely recall who he is.

After discovering Bond’s true identity, the KGB interrogates him for weeks (learning nothing due to his partial amnesia), then sends him for brainwashing at “The Institute” in Leningrad. (TMWGG)

November 1963

Due to a mind and psychological will left weak by the after-effects of amnesia, the KGB brainwashing is successful. Bond is sent by the KGB back to London to assassinate M. The assassination attempt fails, and Bond is put under the care of Sir James Molony, for what M calls “un-brainwashing.” Bond’s rehab includes neurosurgery. (TMWGG)

December 1963 – January 1964

Bond undergoes six weeks of intensive psychiatric rehabilitation at “The Park,” a discreet convalescent home in Kent. (TMWGG)

Late Winter – Early Spring 1964

Bond’s mental rehabilitation is judged successful. Physical rehabilitation and a massive amount of target practice at the police range in Maidstone follows. (TMWGG)

March 1964md3995449602

Bond receives first post-illness assignment, a seemingly impossible mission to test if his abilities have been fully restored: track down and eliminate Francisco “Pistols” Scaramanga, also known as the Man With the Golden Gun, the most dangerous hired assassin in the world. Scaramanga is currently employed by the Communist government of Cuba. If Bond successfully completes this mission, he will be reinstated to his previous status within Secret Service. (TMWGG)

May 1964

Working undercover as “Mark Hazard,” a courier/security guard for Transworld Consortium, Bond tracks Scaramanga for six weeks through Mexico and the Caribbean, finally cornering him in Jamaica. He succeeds in eliminating Scaramanga, but receives serious gunshot wounds in the shoulder and stomach.

Felix Leiter and the CIA lend their assistance. (TMWGG)

June 1964

Bond recuperates from gunshot wounds at the hospital in Kingston, Jamaica. Shortly thereafter, he declines a knighthood. (TMWGG)

Late July 1964

Bond returns to regular service duties as a Double-0 in the Secret Service.

Early 1965

On an unspecified assignment in the U.S. (Bond only refers to it as a “discourtesy visit.”) (CS)

June 1965

Bond is in Hong Kong to assisst with inserting another agent into China, but the mission goes awry. (CS)

colonel-sunSeptember 1965

M is kidnapped by terrorists in the employ of Colonel Sun Liang-Tan, of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, who is planning an attack on a Middle East peace negotiation being held in Greece. (M is to be used in a bit of misdirection to make people think Britain is behind the attack.) Bond travels to Athens to prevent the attack, and succeeds, but not before being subjected to his most brutal torture session since the Casino Royale mission. (CS)

1965

Bond reaches the age of mandatory retirement from the Double-0 section. It would appear this policy has been waived in his case, or perhaps the overall policy has been changed since it was first mentioned.

May – June 1967

On a three-month sabbatical from the Service, Bond must decide whether or not to continue as a Double-0. He spends a month in Barbados (where he finally takes up tennis, after disdaining it his whole life), then travels along the Cote d’Azure in the south of France, before ending up in Rome. (DMC)

June 1967200px-devilmaycare

The sabbatical is cut short when he is summoned by M to investigate Dr. Julius Gorner, a pharmaceutical magnate suspected of illegal narcotics trafficking. Bond discovers that not only is Gorner a drug lord, he is also a terrorist planning an attack on the Soviet Union using a hijacked British airliner (to goad the Soviets into retaliating against Britain.) Bond’s mission to thwart Gorner’s plans takes him through Iran and into Russia. (DMC)

1969

Bond celebrates his “45th” birthday alone at the Dorchester Hotel in London. (He’s really 49 — but the fiction that was concocted to shave four years off his age seems to have taken hold. See Appendix C.) Continue reading

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“Nothing Is Too Much Trouble”: A Chronology of Ian Fleming’s James Bond (Part 2)

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[NOTE: The events through 1945 are based primarily on John Pearson’s James Bond: The Authorized Biography of 007 unless otherwise noted, and may be altered or eliminated as more current canonical material on Bond is published.]

December 1935

Over the course of several adventures, Bond has matured into an independent and solitary figure, and could no longer abide by the petty rules and restrictiveness typical of boarding school life. He leaves Fettes after the 1935 fall term.

His Swiss relations, the Delacroixs, arrange to move him to the University of Geneva, where he could live off-campus (supposedly “supervised” by a landlady, who Bond found quite easy to charm and manipulate) and set his own schedule.

Winter 1935-1936

During his winter break, Bond pays another visit to Hannes Oberhauser, this time at the Hannes Schneider School at St. Anton in the Arlberg range, Austria, to continue his skiing instruction. (OHMSS)

Early 1936

Bond attends lectures on psychology and law, and reads widely, but mostly does as he pleases, at times recklessly. He refers to the forthcoming year of his life as his era of les sensations fortes (“strong feelings.”)

After completing the intensely dangerous Aiguilli de Midi ski run, Bond gains a reputation as the “wildest skier in the university.” He also participates in bobsledding and mountain climbing, taking particular delight in climbing under hazardous conditions — and climbing in the same area of the Aiguilles Rouges that claimed his parents. (OHMSS, FRWL, supported by AB)

It is probably also around this time that he begins doing some auto racing, in pursuit of the life-threatening thrill to which he is now addicted. (After he begins his Double-0 work in the post-war years, motoring in his rare and vintage Bentley racer is described as his “only personal hobby.” Although he still makes time for cards and golf, it’s clear that his car is his true passion.) (CR)

classic-magazin-grandprix-rennen_titel_1180x686_1

A typical 1930s Grand Prix auto race

April 1936

Bond travels to Paris for his Easter break, where he visits a brothel on his very first night — he is summarily de-flowered and has his wallet stolen at almost the same time. The brothel madam, Marthe de Brandt, recovers his wallet. De Brandt is nearing thirty years old, notorious, wealthy — and something of a freelance spy, mostly in the employ of Eastern European powers. (AB; supported by FYEO.)

April 1936 – c.January 1937

Bond and de Brandt engage in a tempestuous affair, despite (or because of) their thirteen-year age difference. The head of the British Secret Service in Paris, a man named Maddox, confronts Bond regarding de Brandt, explaining that she is the most likely the source that recently leaked information damaging to the English-French alliance…and has also been frequently and flagrantly unfaithful to him (he has the photos to prove it.) Driven by a cold, furious mix of patriotism and romantic hurt, Bond drives himself and de Brandt off an embankment into the Seine. She is killed instantly, he suffers a few broken bones and a concussion. (The crumpled Bentley remains in storage for the next thirteen years — and sometimes Bond recalls this as the incident that gave him his distinctive scar.) (AB; fate of the Bentley from FAAD.)

Maddox covers up Bond’s involvement, and establishes a mentoring relationship with him as he recuperates. Bond later discovers that de Brandt was probably not the source of the leaked information, and the pictures Maddox had shown Bond were from before her time with him.

Early 1937

Maddox convinces Bond to work in an as-yet-undetermined capacity for the Ministry of Defence. (Maddox was surely aware that his Secret Service had been keeping tabs on Bond since 1934.)

June 1937

Bond returns to London and is vetted by various medical, linguistic, and firearms experts at the Ministry of Defence. His probationary period for top secret intelligence work has begun. Continue reading

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“Nothing Is Too Much Trouble”: A Chronology of Ian Fleming’s James Bond (Part 1)

A guy named John Griswold passed away at the end of May this year at the age of 65. He may not be a household name, but he is viewed with a great deal of reverence by fans of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

Although a huge fan of the 007 film series, to me the “true” James Bond is the literary one, the one who spies, seduces, and kills in the pages of Fleming’s series of Cold War thrillers published between 1953 and 1966. The one who is a much more complicated and multi-faceted character than he is often given credit for.

A non-stop activity among literary Bond-philes is trying to tie 007’s book adventures to a real-world chronology. When was he born? When did he become a naval commander? When did he become a Double-0? What year(s) did he save the world from SPECTRE? There have been several (now mostly 41 OG076r1L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_defunct) websites dedicated to it, and in 2006, John Griswold published an entire book on the topic.

Griswold’s work was and remains invaluable, but there are a few theories and interpretations I disagree with, and a few things that Griswold doesn’t cover (mostly minor asides in the novels making brief mention of something that happened earlier.) Plus, the recent publication of a new series of officially-sanctioned “Young Bond” books — that Griswold, becoming lost in the cruel fog that is early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, never got a chance to read — sheds lots of light on the character’s formative years, and throws off Griswold’s findings by a couple of years. So I couldn’t resist taking a stab at it myself.

Or rather, returning to it.

The last time I read all of Fleming’s novels, one after the other, was eighteen years ago. Those were the last few weeks before my son was born, and it is also at that time I began taking notes on the chronology.  I clearly remember at the time thinking it was the final opportunity to do something that stupidly self-indulgent, before the responsibilities of parenthood curtailed my ability to sit and read an entire book series in one go. Now that the kid is going off to college, it’s a good time to dig out my old chronology notes and finish the project off properly.

Ian Fleming, 1908-1964. A lot of himself went into James Bond.

Ian Fleming, 1908-1964. A lot of himself went into James Bond.

Fleming died in 1964, and his final two 007 books were published posthumously. With the blessing of the official gatekeeper of Bond’s literary existence, Gildrose Publications (later Ian Fleming Publications), other authors have continued Fleming’s work. Kingsley Amis, John Pearson, Sebastian Faulks, William Boyd, and Anthony Horowitz all have contributed Bond tales set firmly in, and just after, Fleming’s timeline.

The Bond novel series of John Gardner (1981-96) and Raymond Benson (1997-2002), and a one-off by Jeffrey Deaver (2011), are quasi-reboots and place Bond in a modern timeline, so they won’t be part of this chronology. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #15: “Andy & Don” by Daniel de Vise

r960-e3e07f80eaa2dd7cdb9cc4355d2faeb4I had seen this book, published last November, kicking around the shelves for a few months before I gave it a chance. I had never been much of an Andy Griffith Show fan. Syndicated reruns of it ran through my childhood, usually packaged with what I considered the superior show, The Dick Van Dyke Show. I much preferred the snappy pace and rapid-fire witticisms of Van Dyke over the pokey, measured plodding of Griffith. I remember the reruns always airing at noon, so it was a summer vacation show for me. My older sister liked it, so I had to get through it in order to get to Dick Van Dyke at 12:30. But from a more adult perspective, I realize that what I saw as the show’s weaknesses were actually its virtues.

The dual biography Andy & Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show by Daniel de Vise recounts the history of the long-time friendship between two slightly damaged men from rural Appalachian backgrounds. De Vise writes in a relaxed, informal voice, and makes lots of references and comparisons to things in modern pop culture, intending to strike a chord with Gen X readers or younger, few of whom were born during the show’s original run.

Andy Griffith and Don Knotts met in 1955 during the 796-performance Broadway run of the service comedy No Time For Sergeants, which starred Griffith and featured Knotts in a small supporting role. They hit it off right away. At the core of their relationship is the bond of having been two bumpkins from nowhere, scaling the ladder on raw talent, and proving to the big-city sophisticates that show business was not their exclusive domain.

“When we talked about our relatives, they all seemed to be the same. Our sense of humor clicked,” said Don.

“One thing we’ve talked about a lot is the way a comedian is born,” Andy recalled. “Don says a comedian is born out of either unhappiness or embarrassment…and you start to learn to protect yourself. When you’re laughed at, you turn it to your advantage.”

“Men very rarely are as intimate as they were together,” observed Don’s first wife, Kay Knotts. Don called Andy “Ange,” and Andy called Don “Jess” (a poke at his never-used real first name.)

8e5f2ee2f36dc9c4a22b55e2bfd5d144They both had embarrassment and unhappiness to spare in their formative years. Andy Griffith was born in 1926 and grew up in Mount Airy, North Carolina. He was not well-off and posh enough to be accepted as a peer by Mount Airy’s wealthier society on the north side of town, and not poor enough to be accepted by the hardscrabble, working class families (who often had ten or more children) on the south side. Andy, an only child, was stuck in the middle and friendless. It didn’t help that he was too gawky and uncoordinated for sports, and even when he discovered he had a talent for singing, his big ears and oversized pompadour hairstyle tended to provoke laughter whenever he performed as a youngster.

He got out of Mount Airy as soon as he could, and achieved success in the drama and music departments of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Before, during, and after college, he was intermittently part of the cast of the “longest-running symphonic outdoor drama” in stage history, The Lost Colony, a regional NorthWhat_It_Was,_Was_Football_cover Carolina phenomenon still running to this day. He met his wife, Barbara, among the The Lost Colony’s rep company, and the pair became professional party entertainers, hirable for your neighborhood barbeque or Shriners’ banquet. She sang (beautifully, it was said), and he told folksy, Southern monologues. When one of these monologues, What It Was, Was Football was released as a 45-rpm single in late 1953, it was a monster seller, and Broadway came calling…

Although he used the internalized memories of his hometown when creating the The Andy Griffith Show, Andy never really forgave Mount Airy for all of its snubs. When the town began capitalizing on it reputation as “the real Mayberry” by selling merchandise, hosting cast reunions and “Andy Griffith Days” festivals, Andy himself always kept his distance.

Jesse Donald Knotts, Jr. was born in 1924, deep in West Virginia coal-mining country in the town of Montgomery. The Knottses were dirt-poor (little Don slept on the kitchen floor next to the stove, the warmest part of the house), and their troubles were compounded by the presence of Don’s father, who was not only a raging alcoholic, but also an increasingly paranoid schizophrenic, who frequently threatened family members’ lives. (Don remembered him holding a knife to his throat.) No wonder Don’s early comic character was known as “Nervous Man.”

images12Underfed and undersized, Don knew his tense expressions and flailing mannerisms gave him a comical appearance, and gravitated toward performing as a protective barrier. He taught himself ventriloquism, and made a few dollars with his dummy, “Danny,” here and there. After high school, he attempted to break into show business by traveling to New York. He spent most of his time loitering in talent agencies’ waiting rooms. Broke and chagrined, he returned to West Virginia and enlisted in the Army, where he (and Danny the Dummy) were assigned to “Detachment X,” an entertainment corps that served right on the front lines of World War II (it was sometimes referred to as “the USO with helmets.”) After a few months, Don began to view ventriloquism as limiting and small-time. Danny the Dummy was pitched overboard from a troop transport into the South Pacific, and Don joined the ranks of the comedians.

The first chapter of Andy & Don is quite rightfully called “Don’s Demons.” Memories of his monstrous father, dead since Don was 13 and bedridden long before that, still haunted him constantly. He always felt like a bad Christian because he never felt the passion he saw in the fire-and-brimstone services at the Pentecostal church of his youth. He developed intense hypochondria and insomnia, and frequently had panic attacks and psychosomatic sickness before  performances.

Intense psychotherapy finally allowed him to let go of his religious hang-ups and become agnostic. Andy was always religious — he seriously considered entering the ministry at one point (the Football recording was credited to “Deacon Andy Griffith”) — and became even more so in his last years, when he privately fretted about Don’s soul.

But for all of their deep talks over a half-century, they never really discussed religion.

The downside of psychoanalysis was that Don’s therapist was pretty free and easy with the sleeping pill prescriptions, and Don was hooked for much of his adult life.

After the Army and a bachelor’s degree on the G.I. Bill from the University of West Virginia, Don began to make inroads into radio and the earliest era of television, appearing in small but memorable parts on everything from soap operas to children’s shows. On a whim, he auditioned for an upcoming Broadway play called No Time For Sergeants, starring the overnight sensation Andy Griffith, who had done that funny football record… Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #14: “Sinatra: The Chairman” (and to a lesser extent, “Frank: The Voice”) by James Kaplan

“Frank Sinatra saved my life once. I was jumped by a bunch of guys in a parking lot. They were beating me with blackjacks. Sinatra said, ‘Okay, boys, that’s enough…'”                                                                                  –Shecky Greene

I have never been a huge fan of Frank Sinatra, but I certainly can’t deny he was one of the foremost musical artists of the 20th century. (I’m not a fan of ballet or musical theater either, but would never deny the skill and talent required to do them well.) I’ve tried to get into Sinatra, but for all the praise heaped on him for his “phenomenal phrasing” and his way of “living the emotion of a lyric,” my rock-raised ears can’t get around the fact that everything he’s done now sounds dated and hokey. It’s grandfather music. Or nowadays, great-grandfather music. It’s polite. Which makes it all the more wonder that it comes from perhaps one of the most impolite human beings that ever existed. Sinatra may have hated rock — and he did, with all the passion his passionate nature could muster — but in personality and demeanor, he was first rock star, maybe even the first punk (although to someone of Sinatra’s generation, “punk” was a grievous insult.)

The post-1954 Frank Sinatra as depicted by James Kaplan (and many others) is, more often than not, a generally unpleasant person. Thoughtless, hyper-sensitive, and supremely self-centered at the best of times, he often melted down into rages that were literally toddler-like: screaming, throwing things, breaking things, hitting people — because he didn’t get his way on some minor matter. When asked why those close to him tolerated it, they usually said something about his formidable charm and bottomless generosity when his mood was lighter…and of course that talent, and “that voice.” But for a reader like myself who isn’t a particular fan of “that voice,” his behavior is inexcusable. His story, however, is fascinating…

Sinatra: The Chairman is the just-published second of a two-volume biography by Kaplan, but the first, Frank: The Voice (2010), feels like nothing more than an extended prologue, chronicling the singer’s early years in Hoboken (as an indulged only child of a lower-middle class family, not the tough street gangster he claimed to be), his rise to fame as a skinny, bow-tied “crooner” singing with the big bands in the 1940s, and finally his temporary plunge into semi-obscurity. (Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis Presley biography has the opposite issue; the first volume, Last Train To Memphis, is riveting, and the second, Careless Love, feels like a perfunctory denouement.)

Kaplan’s first volume lingers for its entire final third on those wilderness years of 1950-53 — dumped by Columbia Records and MGM, Sinatra limped through hosting a short-lived, low-rated variety show on CBS, sang to half-filled halls, and clung to fame primarily through his rocky marriage to rising star Ava Gardner. Frank: The Voice ends in early 1954 on a note of triumph — it’s Oscar night and Sinatra has just won Best Supporting Actor for From Here To Eternity (he had begged for the role when no one wanted to hire him.) The ink has just dried on his contract with Capitol Records, where his newly-matured voice and partnership with a number of gifted arrangers (Nelson Riddle foremost among them) put him at the forefront of American popular music.

This is where Sinatra: The Chairman begins, and rewards the reader for making the slog through Frank: The Voice. This is where we get the Sinatra we want to hear about — the Mafia ties, the brawls, the womanizing, the Rat Pack, the iconic Capitol albums, the dabbling in Kennedy-era politics…Kaplan does not disappoint. When I call the first volume a slog, that’s not a knock on Kaplan’s writing. In both books it’s wonderful, almost novelistic prose. What I mean is Sinatra’s early years, personally and professionally, are his least interesting. 1954 and beyond is where the real meat is.

Kaplan weaves Sinatra’s story in and out of a larger cultural picture. Like the first volume, a generous portion of Sinatra: The Chairman focuses on a few key years, in this case, 1960 to 1963, when Sinatra parked himself at an exciting and somewhat dangerous intersection of entertainment, organized crime (he was friends with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana), and politics (he lobbied hard for JFK in the 1960 presidential campaign, and even partied with the Massachusetts senator several times early on, before Kennedy wisely began distancing himself.) Kaplan explains and intercuts all of these meticulously-researched threads without ever losing momentum, with a keen eye for the details he knows we want, and never becoming salacious or losing his academic tone. As we move through the 1960s, Kaplan also begins intercutting Sinatra’s story with the rise of the Beatles (by implication declaring them the other great musical phenomenon of the 20th century), and the rapidly-changing face of popular music in that decade. The sands once again shift beneath Sinatra’s feet as he ages out of any real relevance everywhere but Vegas showrooms and the cocktail parties of old Palm Springs millionaires. (Admittedly, it’s pretty cool that the marquees in Vegas would simply say “HE’S HERE” with no further information needed.)

Biographies sometimes find it difficult to strike a balance between telling the story of a life, and examining the work that life produced. They often either dwell on their subject’s psyche, or read like a chronological resume of projects. Kaplan does an excellent job interspersing Sinatra’s films and recordings into the overall picture, giving a good impression of what clicked and what didn’t, both with the artist himself (Sinatra did not care much for “Strangers In The Night,” and absolutely hated “My Way”), and with the public that paid for the results. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #12: Tom Doyle’s “Man On The Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s”

It is said that no journalist gets close to Paul McCartney. His naturalman on the run guardedness and evasiveness have been compounded by fifty years of constantly dealing with prying, insensitive, and often clueless “reporters” trying to get a story out of one of the most well-known, wealthiest, and at times, oddest, musicians in the world.

He still gives tons of interviews. But, as Rolling Stone reporter Chet Flippo wrote in an old McCartney bio, when the reporter leaves the glow of being in the presence of a Beatle and actually reviews their tapes or notes, there is a cold realization that they have come away with nothing of any substance.

Does Tom Doyle break through that wall? For the most part, as even he admits, no. But he feels he has been lucky enough to get glimpses of the unguarded McCartney, mostly by virtue of being Scottish (a quality that McCartney seems to love), and the fact he is a long-time writer and editor for the classic rock-worshipping music mag Q, and not some Fleet Street hack looking for an angle on his messy divorce or re-hashing the same Beatles questions for the 10,000th time.

Perhaps to avoid over-familiar territory, Doyle has chosen to focus on the wings19721970s. Under the multi-platinum surface of Wings was a schizophrenic and frenetic decade for McCartney. Less resonant than the cultural upheaval that was the Beatles and the ballyhooed 1960s, but perhaps more interesting to someone who has had their fill of Beatles/60s mythologizing.

Doyle bookends his text with a Prologue and Epilogue from his numerous McCartney interviews of the 2010s. He notes that McCartney’s hair now seems professionally colored, rather than what he suspects were appalling home dye-jobs in the 1990s. (It’s this type of detail written in a clear, informal prose style that makes this book a particular pleasure.) Another reason I really like Doyle: He actually asks about Paul’s goofy, cheery, thumbs-up “Macca” persona of the last quarter century that has led to countless bad Dana Carvey-style impressions and a degradation of his standing among those who fancy themselves “serious” rock fans.

McCartney sighs, and says, “Have you seen me do it [the thumbs-up] in the last ten years?”

Doyle admits he hasn’t.

“I have been chastised by world opinion on that.”

The unguarded McCartney’s speaking voice, according to Doyle, is earthier and more “lovingly profane” than the cartoon Liverpudlian he puts on for most of the public. (Is this a thing? I’ve also heard from many sources that Michael Jackson’s spacey, high whisper was a total put-on, and he had a perfectly normal speaking voice in private.) The world’s third most-famous pot smoker (after Bob Marley and Willie Nelson) also admits he quit the stuff several years ago, citing age as a factor. He noted that friends told him recently “‘Wow, your choice of words has really gone up.’ Before, I’d go ‘It’s like…y’know…it’s like…y’know…good.” Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #11: Michael Korda’s “Clouds of Glory”

“I felt like anything other than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought…” — General Ulysses S. Grant, on Robert E. Lee’s surrender

coverI am a Grant man. I have always been suspicious of the aloof, aristocratic Robert E. Lee. Not only because he fought on the side that was attempting to preserve one of the most odious institutions devised by mankind, but because Grant was decidedly non-aristocratic. Down-to-earth. “Blue collar,” though that term did not exist in the 1860s. He was a store clerk in Galena, Illinois when the Civil War started, having dropped out of the army as a captain a few years before. He had been a lowly quartermaster during the Mexican War, the brief conflict of the 1840s which introduced many of the young junior officers who would go on to be generals in the Civil War. He left the army in disgrace when loneliness for his family drove him to the whiskey bottle. He was reduced to selling firewood in the streets before his father took pity on him, and gave him a job in his store.

Four years later, he was a three-star general that had beaten the Confederacy’s best troops into bloody tatters, and accepted the surrender of the marble god of the Southern battlefield, the great Robert E. Lee, the man believed by many in the North and South to be invincible.

Grant’s story, to me, is the interesting one. Yet I have heard again and again about Lee’s divine prowess as a general, and I was always a little skeptical. He seemed more lucky than good. He took his much-renowned audacious risks out of necessity (the South was always outnumbered and outsupplied), and they paid off because the Union generals he was up against prior to Grant were timid and irresolute.

Michael Korda’s new biography, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, reveals that Lee was just as interesting as Grant, and certainly makes the case for Lee as a great commanding general: A man equally adept at offense and defense, which was a very rare thing indeed. Lee had a bold and courageous personality which led to decisive offense, stunning flanking attacks, and perfectly timed withdrawals.  He also had an engineer’s training, which led to impenetrable defenses when the need arose.

Lee was a loyal officer in the U.S. Army for thirty years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. And most of that thirty years was drudgery — he was an engineer, specializing in fortification and drainage. His career highlight had been the two-year Mexican War. When Lt. Grant was “in the rear with the gear,” the dashing Colonel Lee was making a name for himself as a bold reconnoiter and mapmaker, and a valuable right hand to the commanding generals. Once the Mexican War was over, he served a term as Superintendent of West Point (where had graduated second in his class, already with a reputation for pristine perfection) before going back to engineering duties, which is where he was when the first shots of the Civil War were fired in April 1861. Continue reading

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