Who was the most celebrated and condemned madam of the Jazz Age? Debby Applegate will join us to talk about her new biography of Polly Adler, “Madam.” What happened when Daniel Boone’s daughter was kidnapped in 1776? Matthew Pearl will be here to discuss his new book, “The Taking of Jemima Boone.” Liz Harris will be here to talk about what’s going on in the publishing world. Plus, our critics will be here to talk about the books they’ve been reading and reviewing. This is The Book Review Podcast from The New York Times. It’s December 17. I’m Pamela Paul.
Debby Applegate joins us now from New Haven, Connecticut. Her new book is called “Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age.” Debby, thanks so much for being here.
Oh, thank you for having me.
So this is your second book. And your first book, “The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher,” came out and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. So that just brings me to two questions. Really obviously, I guess first of all, what have you been doing? Have you been working on it for these 14 years? And then secondly — and we could just take them one by one, in whatever order — how did you land on two such very different subjects for biography?
Well you’re asking a question many of my close friends and family have asked — what have you been doing for almost 14 years? I am intellectually a fox who wants to be a hedgehog, or maybe the feral bastard child of the two of them. I think a lot of biographers are like that, even if they’re not as slow as I am. Which means I like to go deep, but I like to go deep while racing across a big landscape.
And I also don’t really enjoy writing as much as I enjoy researching. So I think what happened is, I was flattered into writing a second book after that first one — it was so successful, why not? — even though I was worn out after Henry Ward Beecher and thought, I should never do that again. But then it went so well, I thought, well, I’ll just see. I’ll dip my toe in.
But I made the mistake of switching to an entirely different century — from ministers to madams, from saints to sinners. And that was a much bigger mental leap than I had anticipated, I think. So I gave myself a little too much leeway, perhaps, and spent the next 13 years in the library researching a whole new century and a whole new milieu, and let myself perhaps go a little too long, I would say.
Oh, no, no, no, no, well worth the wait. But I don’t feel like that second question is entirely answered — or that first question. I mean, why Henry Ward Beecher? And then how did you get from that to Polly Adler, such a different person and environment?
Well, they certainly are different characters, different life trajectories. But they have some core values that I really like. I really like broad-minded people. I like people with a sense of humor, especially about themselves, who perhaps share my own view about people, which is, I think human nature is poorly designed, poorly executed.
I don’t really think much of human nature. However, I really like people. And I think that is the attitude that they took towards people — that they were wonderful, welcoming, broad-minded, un-snobbish people who were big thinkers, even if not as well-educated as they would have liked to have been, but at the same time had a realism about themselves and about the world that I thought opens up a lot of possibilities in approaching the wider world.
The other thing is, I like a character who is able to open up the bigger, wider culture of their time. In both cases, both Henry and Polly — like all biographers, you start calling them by their first names very quickly, you become intimate very early on — they both are kind of “Forrest Gump” characters who allowed me to touch on all sorts of big happenings in the wider American landscape. And that was also partly why it took so long.
One common thread, perhaps, between the two seems to be fame, although of a very different sort. How famous was Polly Adler in her day, and what brought her such attention?
Well, it’s a very different thing, of course, being a somebody in the underworld. You have to depend on your reputation. You can’t advertise. You can’t sell your product in a normal market square, so you have to cultivate your own word of mouth and your own notoriety.
And unlike Henry Ward Beecher, who was a preacher who ran the first megachurch in Brooklyn Heights, Polly worked out of small but luxurious apartments that were hidden away and constantly moving so she could stay one step ahead of the cops or other crooks. But what Polly did was use that small town but big city of Manhattan, which was really thriving in those years between World War I and World War II. And she became a critical player, a big shot, as the gossip columnists called her, in this world that was small but thriving with all kinds of ideas, and all kinds of people doing all kinds of experiments in modern capitalism and modern culture.
And what she became was a central hangout spot. It was not always the nicest hangout spot — good food, good liquor, great sheets and bedding filled with many sordid stories — but at the same time, it was a place where all these people from the advertising industry, from entertainment, from banking, from Wall Street, from the underworld, from politics could come together and mix out of the public eye. And that made her — it gave her a kind of underworld chic that became very important by word of mouth. And then in the ‘30s, when many of these scandals broke open that came out of the Jazz Age, she became a national figure in the newspapers.
All right, who was she before she became Polly? Who was Pearl Adler? Where and when was she born, and what was her childhood like?
She would call herself a classic American immigrant story. And in many ways, she is, actually. She was born around 1900, more or less — she was never entirely sure — in what is now Belarus, but was Russia, the Pale of Russia at the time.
She was Jewish, and decided to leave with her family in 1914 — 1913, when she was herself just about 13. She was the first of her family to come over because they could not afford to send a very large family to America all at one time. The problem is, she becomes stranded in the United States alone because six months after she arrives in December of 1913, World War I breaks out.
And that really is the turning point. Before that, she was an ambitious, educated, smart Jewish girl who really had wanted to make something of herself, become a mensch, a somebody. After this, she is essentially a teenage girl running almost alone in this big, wide world. So she makes some decisions that make some sense if you have to figure out how to take care of yourself alone in the world, but also led her down the primrose path.
By 1919, she is living in New York, and has decided that the best way to make money, after years of working in sweatshops making five dollars a week, that the best way to make money in New York City for a woman on her own is by selling sex. And there is no doubt about that, financially, that she could make five, 10, 20 times what she was making in one day. So she makes that decision.
She opens her first brothel in 1920 across from Columbia University, which I imagine had its conveniences, and very quickly decides she’s not going to just be in the sex trade, she’s going to be the best damn madam in America. And from there on, she slowly — maybe not so slowly, in fact, quite quickly builds her reputation. And by 1927, she is running full-tilt, making almost a million dollars a year, and has become central to the wonderful Gatsby-like culture of the Jazz Age in Manhattan.
A million a year in today’s money, or in —
In today’s money, yes —
— I should say.
All right. I was gonna say —
Although she was — she was always a little shady about money. One thing that she had that made her successful were some of those very square, bourgeois traits that she had learned at home. She was great with money. She saved money, which is very rare in the underworld.
And she could do math. She could manage people. She could run a house. She was what in Yiddish they would call a balabusta, who could do it all.
Did she personally go into prostitution herself before becoming a madam?
Well, she— again, very cagey about that. And that is not uncommon among many madams. If you look at madam memoirs or talk to them, you will often see — that it sounds like they just skipped over from being a young adolescent —
Yeah, exactly. Because in fact, there’s good reason for that. One thing is, there is, for many women, an element of choice. Not every woman — there are certainly people who are trafficked or coerced into the sex trades.
But for women like Polly, there was an element of genuinely, “I’m going to do this because in this nasty world that is not set up for my benefit, I’m going to try to make something of myself.” It feels almost like a badge of honor, certainly a badge of taking care of yourself, a sense of power. But they are well aware, she was well aware that people would look down on her.
She was highly sensitive to the stigma and hypocrisy that surrounded the sex trades. So if you asked Polly, or many madams, it looks like she just skipped right into management. But almost certainly, she turned tricks for at least a little while. But as she herself said, she wasn’t pretty enough to be a hustler. She had to go into management.
Do you get the sense, at any point, that she felt either emotionally or morally compromised by this, or if she went in and she just was 100 percent doing her job, wanting to succeed?
[CHUCKLES] That was one of the things that took a long time. I had spent so long immersing myself in the world of the last Puritan preachers, and congregationalism and abolitionism. They were maybe not saints, but they wanted to be saints. So they wanted to be good.
And it took me a while to change my mindset and understand what it’s like to be an unrepentant sinner, to really not care whether or not you’re doing good because the world doesn’t care about you. And that [INAUDIBLE] also, to shake a little of the Harriet Beecher Stowe out of my voice and pick up a little more Damon Runyon and Walter Winchell. So I think that it’s a step by step process.
You sort of little by little get into an underworld mentality, where you start to look at the square world, the legitimate world, as full of falsities, full of lies, full of its own sort of crooks and schemes that just don’t get caught because they have the veneer of respectability. And she herself, like many people in the demimonde, had experienced a lot of trauma, a lot of harm by the respectable world. She was raped by her boss at the garment factory. She was forced to have an illegal abortion when he wouldn’t marry her.
I think there’s a corrosive cynicism that starts to grow. And then there is the welcome that the netherworld offers you, which is, we’re not going to judge you. We’re going to treat you like a colleague and a comrade, and we will have our own topsy-turvy moral world.
I don’t think that means she had no regrets. But certainly, when she was asked about it, she mostly spoke without regrets, saying, where else would I have been able to — how else would I have been able to become the person that I am, someone that everyone can recognize, and someone who can live quite well and support her whole family and have such illustrious friends?
Well, you mentioned the backdrop and hypocrisy. This is obviously Prohibition, it’s Tammany Hall, big city machine, vice squad, lots of corruption. How did Polly’s brothels fit in, into the business and social life of speakeasies and nightclubs at that time?
Well, that is one of the great unintended consequences of Prohibition, that by banning liquor, you have not made people all of a sudden decide they don’t want to drink. You have just made it that they have to consort with criminals if they want to have a glass of beer. And the topsy-turvy response to that is to give the world of vice a kind of chic cachet that it had never had. Slumming is the word that people often used. And that becomes very fashionable.
So Polly ends up attracting people who are not just the big bootleggers and gamblers of the day, like Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, who are her core customers and some of her most important colleagues. But she also attracts people like Jimmy Walker, the jazz mayor of New York. And if you look at her record, she doesn’t name a lot of names, but she seems to have entertained much of Tammany Hall, certainly much of the judiciary and many of the magistrates in New York at the time.
There was a point at which, near the end of her life, she told a young friend — when she was ill with cancer and feeling very brooding about the way the world had treated her — that she confided that she had procured women for Franklin Delano Roosevelt around the time that he became governor, perhaps a little bit earlier. She did not specify.
Did you try to prove that? I mean, is there a way?
Oh my god, yes, I did. So she says that — she said not just that she had procured women for him, but that in return for her silence, she was getting regular payoffs to the end of her life. And that’s partially how she was able to retire so well.
Now, so when I heard this from the now elderly man whom she had told it to, I of course was shocked. I knew that she had been involved with many politicians, many industrialists, big, powerful men. But this one, I really — I mean, I am an admirer of F.D.R., like so many people.
However, that became one of my big quests. I don’t think I took a whole year, but I swear if I counted up all the days I spent and all the hours, that alone would count for a big portion of my delay. I was never able to fully confirm it. It’s just too difficult, and too many players are gone, and too many players, even if they were still around, would be too discreet.
However, there’s a lot of good circumstantial evidence. He was someone who liked a good stag party. He would throw himself a big stag party every birthday, including when he was in the White House.
We now know he did have affairs. I spent time on things like, where did he stay when he was in New York City, and what did his medical records say? And I’m afraid that is one of the things about being a biographer — you become a real Peeping Tom, a real nosy body.
And it turns out, no, he could have sex. He just had to have it in what the doctor called the French manner, which of course would be fellatio.
All right, let’s see how we can move on from there. I know what we’ll do — we’ll go to “Some Like It Hot,” and the kind of pop culture image of Prohibition, which makes it seem like just a lot of fun, super easy, partying all the time. But my guess is it probably wasn’t all fun and games. I mean, was it dangerous to run a brothel at that time? Polly did get targeted, right, by the vice squad and by Tammany Hall, and was sent to prison. I mean, what was that life like for her?
Oh, it was a constant stress. To make that kind of money, she had to work 24 hours a day. She had to keep her house open all the time. And she also had to pay off cops. And she had to keep an eye out for stickup men, and coked-up customers, and drunks and you name it.
That is the problem with working in the underworld — you can never turn to the law to help you. So you are always dependent upon your wits and your ability to bring your own power to bear. She paid out thousands of dollars every month, as many as $10,000 a year or more to cops.
That is one of the shocking parts I found, was how corrupt so many vice squads are. The history of policing in New York City is not a pretty one; but not just to cops, I mean, to all kinds of people.
And then, of course, many of her best customers were sociopathic gangsters. Whenever they got a little too worked up, they were as inclined to punch her in the face as they were to hand her a $100 tip.
And she was constantly having to move. She was constantly having to change her aliases. It was, as she said, nerve-racking to the nth degree. And when she does retire, she says herself that she could probably never really be happy, even though she had a very comfortable retirement, because she had just seen too much of human life, and had taken it on the chin — without squawking, but taken it on the chin too many times to really think well of life itself.
What was her own personal life like? Did she marry? Did she have children? Was she eager to retire? Did she have any free time? You said she was working essentially 24/7.
She would say her career was her life. And I think that’s basically true. She did have a few love affairs. And she wrote a memoir, a very big, best-selling memoir called “A House Is Not a Home,” published in 1953.
And she had a ghostwriter. And I was able to find the ghostwriter’s papers, her writing notebooks and her correspondence with Polly. And you can see her ghostwriter, Virginia Faulkner, is pushing her, pushing her. You’ve got to say something more about your family. You’ve got to say something more about your love life.
That was one of the things, was she would have men who would have an affair with her, would be essentially a boyfriend. But in the end, that feeling of shame and stigma always intervened. And in the end, she never married.
She was very important to the semi-closeted, closeted gay community that was growing by leaps and bounds in the Jazz Age in New York. Her house became a very comfortable place for lesbian and gay men to hang out and be themselves. And many of the women who worked for her were lesbians as well. And so there was always some rumor, later in her life, even among her family members, that perhaps she was a lesbian. But again, same thing — I think really, she was somebody who was very self-contained, and had decided that perhaps in this life, romance was not going to be in her cards.
Who’s next for you? After Henry Ward Beecher and Polly Adler — I mean, I have no prediction here.
Oh, nor do I. I’m getting older, for heaven’s sakes. If I take another 14 years, who knows if I will even last?
You know, it takes so much to do one of these books. And being a biographer is no way to make a living. It combines all the penury of Bohemia with the punctiliousness of the petty bourgeoisie, which is not my favorite combination. Although, as my editor at Doubleday always hastens to add, you get all the pleasures of the Peeping Tom as well.
What I like is the hunt. I love the following of the hunches. I love a library and an archive. But I would also like to rejoin the world.
So right now, I have absolutely no plans to write another book. This is plenty. And it’s a heavy book, for heaven’s sakes.
It is heavy. It’s physically heavy. [LAUGHS]
I obviously had a lot to prove, because I have 100 pages of footnotes and bibliography in there, which, I should add, is not typical for a gangster book. So I’m actually pleased by that.
It’s a very well-researched, well-documented gangster book.
That can be the blurb.
Well, you know, that’s not necessarily a winning blurb. But there’s a lot of — there’s a lot of celebrities. You got everyone from Desi Arnaz to Tallulah Bankhead and Joe DiMaggio.
There is no sex scene, though, in it. That is the one thing — I have no single scene like a romance novel because — well, because I am historian. And nobody provided one for me to put in. And I think we’ll just all have to use our imagination.
Well, I’m not going to end with that it’s a sex-free —
Oh, it’s not a sex-free book.
—biography about selling sex. It’s a sex scene-free book.
There you are.
All right, we’ll leave listeners to discover exactly how much sex is in this book on their own. How’s that?
Well, anyone who wants to pick up the book, I am sure you will find plenty to shock you.
There we go. Debby, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me.
Debby Applegate’s new book is called “Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age.”
Matthew Pearl joins us now from Southern Florida. His new book is called “The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap That Shaped America.” Matthew, thanks for being here.
Thanks so much for having me, Pamela.
So you have written a lot of fiction, including the best seller “The Dante Club” and many other novels, many historical novels. This is your first nonfiction book. Why did you make that leap? Did you originally research this for a novel and then change your mind?
That has happened to me before, where I look at material that I’m trying to decide what the best format would be. For me, it was actually a longer path that brought me to writing a nonfiction book. Honestly, it’s kind of funny because for me, as I write fiction, I have trouble reading fiction, right? I’m not a chef, but I assume if you’re a chef, it’s probably difficult to go to a restaurant and enjoy someone else’s cooking without sitting there analyzing it, right? And that’s always how I felt about fiction.
So for me as a reader, I would always turn to reading nonfiction, and particularly narrative nonfiction, while I was writing fiction. And it kind of backfired because I became increasingly excited about the way narrative nonfiction can deliver stories, particularly I think over the last decade or so, and what the many, many great writers of narrative nonfiction were doing with it. So what was a kind of sanctuary for me became a journey into writing more and more narrative nonfiction, first in long form, as articles, and then starting to look around for what might expand out into a book. And that’s around the time I came upon this material.
So you did this on purpose?
[LAUGHS] Well, I always feel like most of my projects happen slightly accidentally. This subject came to me when I was looking into James Fenimore Cooper. I have taught here and there over the years, and I was teaching a seminar that included him.
And one thing I’m always curious about is, where do our iconic stories come from? Our novels, our fiction, do they have analogs in real life? And this has made a great subject for many, many books.
I know. I want to hear your list, actually.
[LAUGHS] Well, one of my close friends is Kevin Birmingham, who just came out with a terrific book called “The Sinner and the Saint,” about “Crime and Punishment,” and where that came from. And that was an influence on me, too. The truth about writers is that things don’t fall out of the sky. We’re all human beings with our environment influencing us.
And I think that was especially true for me, with friends of mine who were writing terrific narrative nonfiction, with even my wife, who wrote her first book that came out last year, that was also narrative nonfiction, called “Terror to the Wicked.” And the more I got into these stories, when I discovered that “The Last of the Mohicans” was influenced by a real event or events, which was the kidnapping of Daniel Boone’s daughter, Jemima Boone, I just needed to know more.
All right, I want to know more, too. So let’s start actually with Daniel Boone. Daniel Boone, obviously a very familiar name to many Americans, but also kind of fuzzy on exactly who he was. So let’s just start there.
Daniel Boone was one of the most prominent and influential frontier leaders and settlers. He was a politician sometimes, but he was not a politician by makeup. He was really an explorer.
I think of him as a settler in the truest sense of that word. Once he was living somewhere, he became restless, and he wanted to keep pushing. Now, at this time, in the 1700s, we as a burgeoning nation, we’re expanding, right? We’re expanding westward.
And that was the compulsion that Daniel Boone had. And he was in Virginia. He was in North Carolina. He actually thought about and explored the idea, and actually traveled to Florida.
But he really had his heart set on Kentucky. Kentucky was kind of the Holy Grail of expansion, this new frontier. Now, it actually wasn’t new because there were American Indian tribes who had been using the Kentucky wilderness as an essential part of their resources for thousands of years. But in the eyes of settlers, this was kind of untrammeled territory. And even though there were many signs of the dangers that would come by pushing in that direction, Daniel Boone was someone who, on the one hand, wanted a peaceful co-existence with tribes, on the other hand, couldn’t resist that pull of finding a new place to live, of putting your stamp, of planting your flag. And this culminated with a very concrete plan, finally, after many partial attempts, in 1775 to actually settle Kentucky.
But you’re right, Boone has become very fuzzy. In fact, one of the questions I get a lot is, what’s the difference between Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett?
Yes, yes, yes, and which one was the hat? It’s interesting. It must be challenging telling these stories right now because for so long in this country, certainly for American schoolchildren, for example, the story of westward expansion was one of frontierspeople, and settlers, and pioneers, and a kind of heroic figure as the center of the story.
And of course, if you turn it around and look at it another way, which many are doing now, increasingly, it’s: no, these were invaders, thieves, murderers, people who stole land from the Native Americans who were there. So how do you navigate that now, writing this story?
It’s a great question, and it was one of the exciting parts of how to tell this story, was to try to occupy all of those different perspectives of people who were involved, which you’re absolutely right, are very often either minimized, marginalized or pushed to the side. And what really attracted me to this story, I’ll be very honest, I have a very unsophisticated metal detector for stories, which is I want it to be exciting. I want to have to know what happens next, and where this person fit in, and what happened when these two groups clashed. And I found that in this story, and this chain of events that starts with the kidnapping of Boone’s daughter.
But it also was really fascinating to jump into all of the sides. And by the way, we have a very monolithic — many of us grow up with a very monolithic idea of tribes versus frontierspeople. And it’s much more complicated than that.
These were neighbors. These were people who shared land. Sometimes, they were sworn enemies. Sometimes, they intermarried. Sometimes, they lived in each other’s communities but retained their separate cultural identity.
Sometimes, they assimilated. One of Boone’s right-hand men was actually part Indian and was very proud of this. So part of the joy of working on this story and sharing this story was to see how complex and kind of surprising all of those interconnections were.
In terms of doing the research, obviously, there’s, I imagine, a lot of material on Boone. Is there material written by Native Americans about that period, about this incident in particular? Or are we getting it mostly from the perspective of the European settlers and colonists?
Right, that’s a really important question, which is, how do we gather our raw materials for telling stories like this? And the tribes certainly tell their stories and pass on their stories in a different way than those settlers and those colonists would do. You’re right to sort of pinpoint that because it’s not so much a documented history, it’s more of a tradition of storytelling, of oral storytelling.
And sometimes, you have to kind of go from a different angle. So one thing that happened very often, for instance, was that missionaries would visit tribes. And they would document stories, right? They would write down and transcribe stories.
And you have to, of course, always have your antenna up as you research of what feels reliable, what doesn’t. We’ll never be able to travel, of course, back into time and confirm so much of this, wherever the source is. But it’s an incredibly rewarding challenge to explore in every possible way you can, including testimony, for instance, to committees — that tribes people would come, they would testify, especially as the Revolutionary War was heating up, they would meet with committees. And those words would be recorded.
So we have some windows, some direct windows into language, into storytelling. We have some more indirect. But I do feel it’s a really important and enjoyable part of the process, is to challenge yourself in how to gather as much material as possible.
OK, one more question before we get to the exciting part, the what happens next part of the kidnapping of Jemima Boone and two other teenage girls. And that is, this isn’t the first time that something terrible and tragic happened to Daniel Boone’s children. I mean, just the year before, what happened to his son, James, in 1775?
That’s right, they were actually on an expedition into Kentucky. Now, this was not at the time where Kentucky was being settled, although they were thinking about it. This ended up being a kind of mission of exploration.
And Boone and some other individuals were in one party, and one of his children, James Boone, was in another party. They got separated, or rather, they intentionally separated.
And James Boone was ambushed by a tribe that was seeking to prevent this excursion into Kentucky. And he was killed. And so we already have this groundwork for tragedy. In fact, one of the difficult things to reconcile is the fact that Boone, Daniel Boone, continued to push forward after that. Many of us might think, well, that would feel so portentous, so tragic that you would kind of reflect, and you would pivot from your goals. But that’s not what happened. Boone was someone who was very difficult to shake from his plans. And he continued, even after this horrible tragedy, to plot how he was going to settle Kentucky.
All right, and so to Jemima. Who was she, and how was she taken?
Jemima is such a strong and incredible character to work with in this story. So she’s one of the Boones’ children.
How many kids did they have?
Well, they had 10, but not all of them survived into childhood or adulthood. And Jemima was one who was very close with her father in particular. And she had, really, her father’s spirit of kind of persistence and independence.
And at this time, we’re now in 1776. And we have settled, in this part of the story, Boonesborough, which is obviously named after Daniel Boone and his family. And it’s the first serious settlement in Kentucky. And as such, it is an incredibly serious threat to the lifestyle and resources of the tribes.
So as we begin, we’re about two weeks removed from the Declaration of Independence. So on the larger scale, there is a breakaway from British rule. And Jemima and, as you mentioned, two of her friends, Betsey and Fanny Callaway, are taking a walk and then a canoe ride along the Kentucky River, near where the settlement is, when they are captured by a tribal party that represents both the Shawnee tribe and the Cherokee tribe.
Interestingly, one of the moments that happens right before the capture is Jemima’s two friends teasing her because she’s worried about going too close to the other shore. “Are you afraid of disobeying your father?” So even in that moment, we have this kind of challenge to Jemima and this call for courage right before their lives are turned upside down.
How risky was this outing? And how — it sounds like they were aware that there was some danger involved. Is this sort of like taking your parents’ car out at midnight after drinking, without a driver’s license? Or was this typical of frontiers teenagers at the time?
Everything was pretty dangerous in the frontier because you never knew what was around the corner. In this case, the girls had been warned. Now, we’re talking about 13-, 14-, 15-year-old young women. So I think you’re right. I think there’s some sense in which, whether we’re in 1776 or 2021, that there is a kind of rebellious spirit that we associate with those years. And we definitely see that in these friends.
What’s interesting is that the — and what they could not know is that the tribal party was probably scouting them out.
So it was much more dangerous. Well, we’re in a critical moment here. Because Boonesborough has kind of made itself known, there is a faction of the tribes that have decided, correctly, by the way, that there is a ticking clock before Kentucky is really given over to the settlers. And the reason this is so dangerous is that this is, as I mentioned, crucial to the resources for the tribes.
And one thing that’s really shocking, by the way, to encounter as you read and research this material is that after only a few months of being in Kentucky, the population of American buffalo or bison are just being wiped out. Even visitors from Europe who pass through cannot believe the amount of hunting that the settlers are doing. And this is essentially a message to the tribes that they are going to be starved.
So this tribal party is looking for a way to push the settlement back, to push them out, to create leverage. And the leader of that tribal party knows who he’s seeing. He knows Jemima Boone because he has met her before and knows how important Daniel Boone is to the settlement.
All right, so who is he?
So Hanging Maw is the name that was kind of translated from his tribal name. And he is a conflicted but established leader in the Cherokee tribe. He has sought peace. He has followed some of the elders in the tribe in looking for ways, any way to find peace with the settlers.
But he is also very tempted by the anger of the younger generation of the tribe, that is growing as the tribe makes concessions to the settlers, under duress for the most part. So this is Hanging Maw’s attempt to kind of stray from a more establishment or mainstream position that the tribe, that the Cherokee have taken, and to align himself with a breakaway faction led by another tribal member named Dragging Canoe to actually wage a kind of shadow war on the Kentucky settlements.
And he’s someone who has negotiated with Boone before, Daniel Boone. That’s where he met Jemima, at a treaty negotiation. And so he’s very plugged in to the — for lack of a better word that they wouldn’t have used at the time — the geopolitics that are unfolding.
I don’t want to give away the whole story because I want to leave listeners and potential readers with that urge to keep turning the pages to find out what happened. But let me ask one last question, going back to “The Last of the Mohicans.” I assume that the story is not 100 percent accurately reflected in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel. But is there something in particular that you were surprised was different when you did the actual research?
You’re absolutely right, it’s not a kind of recreation of the kidnapping. It uses the kidnapping and some of the events that followed as inspiration for “The Last of the Mohicans.” Actually, the thing that surprised me most in revisiting “The Last of the Mohicans” was not in the story itself, but in a prologue to the story where Cooper tells us, listen, if you’re a woman, you probably shouldn’t read this. It’s too disturbing.
It’s too much. So not only is Jemima’s story kind of taken from her — and she’s still alive, by the way, when that novel comes out in 1826, and we should mention it becomes one of the most read novels in the English language — not only is her story sort of replaced in the culture by “The Last of the Mohicans,” but she, the strong young woman who lived through this, is being told, along with all other women, that she can’t enter here. And by the way, most frontierwomen, including Jemima, were not taught to read. So she also would have been shut out in that way.
Does that novel hold up, do you think? I mean, it’s not assigned, really, anymore. It’s not really even read for fun much anymore, or certainly, I’m sure, not as often as it was, say, 50 years ago.
Fenimore Cooper is a difficult author to read or assign or discuss these days. And it’s so interesting, always, to see how that works, how some of our writers that are so popular become more difficult to access. Or the opposite, right — how “Moby-Dick” was something that readers were unable to access, for the most part, at the time it was published, and then becomes so popular.
And by the way, that’s part of my excitement in doing a book like this, is to say, OK, that book might be frozen in time a bit, or it might be harder to find our entry points. But the real story that helped inspire it is anything but. It’s something that could draw us in, I hope, and keep us reading, keep us excited, and give us a new vision of what that world was like.
All right, well, for the real story, read “The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations and the Kidnap That Shaped America,” by Matthew Pearl. Matthew, thank you again for being here.
Thank you so much, Pamela.
Liz Harris joins us now with some news from the publishing world. Hey, Liz.
Hi, Pamela. So as we’ve discussed, Penguin Random House, which is the biggest publisher in the country by far, is trying to buy Simon & Schuster, which is one of its rival publishers, which is a lot smaller than Penguin Random House but still one of the five biggest publishers in the country. It’s a group that’s often called the Big Five. The Justice Department has sued to stop this merger, saying that it would be bad for competition.
And what’s interesting about this case is that instead of saying it would raise prices for consumers, so like, books at bookstores will cost more, which is usually how these things are argued, the government is saying it will be bad for authors, particularly authors that sell the most books and get the biggest advances. And the argument is that those books tend to be published by the biggest publishing houses because they’re expensive, so that market would go from five publishers to four, which could mean lower advances for big authors. And so some industry groups have also opposed the merger. The American Booksellers Association, which represents independent bookstores, and the Authors Guild, which represents authors, both have expressed support for what the Justice Department is doing.
And this week, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster filed a response in federal court to the government’s lawsuit saying, predictably, that the government is wrong. They are arguing that basically, the Justice Department fundamentally misunderstands how publishing works. They say that it’s not just five big publishers, it’s this big, vibrant ecosystem, which includes other major companies that publish books, like Disney and Scholastic and Amazon, and hundreds of small and mid-sized publishers as well. And they say that on any given deal, at least one smaller publisher will often compete, and that some of the biggest authors in the country are not published by the big five. Like, someone like Jeff Kinney, for example, who writes “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, is published by Abrams.
Penguin Random House also argued that the deal will be good for many authors, specifically those that are published by Simon & Schuster, because their books would be brought into the Penguin Random House distribution network, how books get moved around the country, which is widely considered to be the best in the business. And they’re saying that this would make those books more visible and more available.
So Penguin Random House is planning to fight this really hard, not only because they want Simon & Schuster, but also because this deal comes with something called a termination fee, which basically means the prospective buyer, in this case, Penguin Random House, has to pay the prospective seller, which is ViacomCBS — the company that owns Simon & Schuster — they have to pay Viacom for their trouble, essentially, if the deal doesn’t happen, if it doesn’t go through. And the termination fee for this deal is $200 million.
A not small sum.
Not small at all.
You know, it’s going to go to trial, which is expected to be this summer. So it’s just sort of making its way through the court’s scheduling hearings and things like that. And we’ll see.
I expect we will talk about this again in 2022, Liz.
All right, until then.
Thanks very much. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Our critics Dwight Garner and Jennifer Szalai join us now to talk about what they’ve been reading and reviewing. Hey, guys.
All right, Dwight, let’s start with you. What have you read and reviewed recently?
You know, I read and reviewed this monster-sized book. It’s called “The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails.” And it’s edited by David Wondrich, who’s sort of one of the key figures in the cocktail renaissance, or so-called cocktail renaissance — of the last 25 years or so. You know, it’s run concurrently with the whole reinterest in everything food, which was kicked off by Anthony Bourdain.
The cocktail renaissance, its gains have been sort of consolidated in this book. It’s a book that a lot of the stuff in it, for me, was a little bit dry — 10 pages on maceration, you know, and really getting into the weeds a little bit. But for any entry like that, there’s some just great profile of an old bartender or of a bar no one’s heard of and it’s important for some reason. And also, it’s got about 150 cocktail recipes in it. And I just really liked it.
OK, here’s the thing — part of me wants to believe, right? I want to be like, yes, I like a good cocktail. And I want to know all this, and I want to know all the lore and the history. And then part of me is just like, isn’t it just a few ingredients poured into a glass? And like, what does it matter about the maceration?
Oh, you just killed — you just killed many people’s hearts.
I’m sorry, I destroyed your soul. Tell me.
No, no —
What have I done wrong? How have I gone wrong?
[LAUGHS] I have a very complicated relationship with the whole cocktail movement. Because I have this friend, Jonathan Miles, who was The New York Times’s cocktail critic right when this whole thing was starting, in the early aughts. And so I went out with him every week on the — I got to drink for free on the Sulzberger family’s nickel while he went out and reported all of these new bars and new things.
And I realized, after a time, that I didn’t want the new crazy drink with the whatever in it. I kind of want my martini, you know? So I feel sort of like an outcast to this whole movement.
Because it’s about fresh juices and about better kinds of spirits. And I compare Wondrich, the editor, in my review, to sort of a great diving disk jockey, you know? He’s wading through all of this cocktail lore and history, and pulp novels, and old menus, and he’s trying to find the best ways of doing things.
And my feeling basically about cooking is how I feel about cocktails, which is that if you take a little bit of trouble every night just to do it right, you know — and the same is true with cocktails as well as food — it adds something to your day, a small ceremony, a small good thing that can sort of bolster you a little bit. So I’m in favor of taking a little bit of time with a good cocktail.
All right. Look, I admit that I need help. But I — like, for example, I’ve always wondered why does it matter if the martini is shaken, not stirred? Does this book explain it?
That’s a huge debate in the drinks world. And the current guru, the current bar guru is this woman, Audrey Sanders — or Saunders, I think, who ran a bar called The Pegu Club in New York. She was a central figure in this whole renaissance. And her bar was a big deal. It closed recently.
And Audrey writes one of the chapters about the martini in this book. And she says, you shouldn’t probably shake a martini. People say it bruises the gin. She says that it makes it too bubbly, over-aerated, and you lose silkiness if you shake. And of course, James Bond liked his martini shaken. And so do I, because they’re colder that way. But if you’re a true cocktail martini geek, you should never shake a cocktail. And that’s why I’ll never be a true cocktail geek.
So who is this book for?
No, as I write in my piece, Wondrich is a former academic. And he really takes this stuff seriously. And there are spirits and things you use all the time that you had no idea how they were made, where they were made, what the cultural history was.
Most of the entries have a certain arc to them. Like, the arc of your average spirit — let’s say Fernet-Branca, or Galliano, or Campari, or something like that is that — invented by some enterprising person, their family became rich slowly because of this new spirit, and then slowly it was sold to some conglomerate, you know? And now, it’s owned by some massive conglomerate. Ditto with most of the great cocktails — they were usually invented in a bar somewhere. And they were — kind of like the daiquiri, OK? It’s a perfect example — invented, I believe, in Cuba, perhaps in Key West. I don’t know. I don’t remember the exact —
But it’s a very simple drink made with fresh things. And it was Hemingway’s favorite drink, of course. And it became, over the decades, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, this sort of blender thing that people just threw together. And it was crap.
It’s been reclaimed now by the cocktail world. And now, it’s returned to its origins. And it is a lovely drink if you take care to make it correctly, and don’t just throw some premix into a blender.
I feel like this book, since you said the author is a former academic, is like the night owl to the morning lark book by a former academic, “Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House,” by Cheryl Mendelson, which is a book that I love, for those of us who wake up early and are into things like folding laundry.
Oh, we could talk about that book all day. I’m obsessed with that book because —
Well, it terrifies me. It’s such a big book about cleaning. And there’s so many things you could be doing.
And I realized — I clean a lot. And I realized when I’m cleaning, normally, it’s because I’m avoiding writing something for you, Pamela, because I owe you a — I have a deadline, and I’m somehow trying to procrastinate. And it’s just such a deep subject. Marriages — I mean, the biggest things people fight about, in my experience, at least my wife and I, are like, food and cleaning.
Right, so you could fight all day about home comforts, and then drink it away at night with this Oxford companion.
Yes, exactly. Let’s put them together on your shelf.
All right. Jen, what about you? What have you been reading and reviewing?
So I reviewed something recently that’s a very different kind of book. It’s called “Accidental Gods,” and it’s by Anna Della Subin. And as the title suggests, it’s about men — and she really does focus on men because this is a phenomenon that mostly occurred around men — who became gods not through their own volition in any way. These are not men who wanted to be worshipped, but who were worshipped essentially against their own will.
So she talks about people like Gandhi. She talks about Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, who was born Ras Tafari and became the god of Rastafarians. And she talks about also the explorers who came to the New World, who wrote back home saying that they were worshipped as gods.
And so this is a book — I feel like it can be read in a couple of ways. On the one hand, it’s just this amazing collection of stories. And she’s really a terrific storyteller. And even though some of the stories she tells are really strange — like, for example, Prince Philip is worshipped on the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu.
And — yeah, he’s been worshipped for the last four decades, I guess, five decades? So ever since the archipelago was dealing with modernization and industrialization and decolonization as well, he became somebody who was considered this god.
What was it about him? What was it about him personally? Or was it just the title?
You know, she’s pretty circumspect in terms of the motivations. Because I think to a certain extent, it’s not necessarily always clear. I think that she thinks that it’s often a combination of things.
I mean, first of all, he was often in the news. Secondly, he was somebody who seemed to come from nowhere. I mean, obviously, he’s a royal figurehead, or he was a royal figurehead because he passed away since then.
But he was also — his own family background, there was the Greek part of the family. There were other lineages. And I think that she thinks that that presented him as somebody who was beyond a particular place. So she tells these stories, and even though some of them are totally unexpected, she’s never really prurient or voyeuristic about it. She’s really trying to show how something like this actually happened, and maybe seem plausible at the time, but also retains something of its mystifyingness, I guess is one way to put it.
And so she herself studied at Harvard. She graduated from the Divinity School, I believe. And she does have ideas about religion, and the history of religion, and the study of religion, and so that comes into play. But when I look at this book, this is more sort of a book that looks at the different ways that this phenomenon has happened through time.
And she points out that obviously, a lot of these messianic movements arose at times of upheaval or disruption. But at the same time, one of the other things that she shows is that the way that it plays out isn’t necessarily predetermined. And so you have these people like, for example, General Douglas MacArthur, who was worshipped in four different ways in four different countries — for example, in Japan versus in Panama.
And these were people who really tried to disavow, I guess, this worship of them, but they were worshiped against their own will, in a way. And so she’s fascinated about that, by these figures who presented themselves as supremely powerful. MacArthur, arguably, you could say was authoritarian in terms of how he actually managed some of these places. But he was worshiped against his own will. So she sees it as its own democratic movement. So it’s a fascinating book.
Does she write about Caodaism? It’s, I think, one of the weirdest and most interesting religions. And they have really terrific-looking churches or temples, I don’t know what they’re actually called. Are you familiar with — either of you?
Tell me how it’s spelled?
It’s C-A-O, and then D-A-I, and then ism.
But when it’s alone, it’s two separate words. It’s the third largest religion in Vietnam. And they worship, among others, Jesus and the Buddha. But they also worship Caesar, Joan of Arc, and Sun Yat-sen, but most intriguingly, Victor Hugo. And so when you go into the church in Vietnam, they’ve got these murals. And there’s Victor Hugo. I don’t know if it was “Les Misérables,” or “Notre” — I don’t know what it was that elevated him. But I’ve always been really curious to read more about it.
I’d have to look at it again to see if she mentions it in passing. But that is not one of the ones that she focuses on. But it sounds fascinating.
Jen, what form did — I mean, you know, I grew up worshiping Iggy Pop. I mean, what — what form does say, worshipping Douglas MacArthur — I mean, really? What form would that take? Was it organized? I don’t know, was it just a poster on the wall with a candle under it?
Well, for example, in Japan with Douglas MacArthur, I mean, there was before the war, the worship of the emperor. Hirohito was essentially told to undeify himself at the end of the war. And so he did. And so she suggests that a lot of the feeling that went toward that got transferred because this was a society in enormous upheaval.
In terms of organization, I don’t think she sees it in that context as like, organized religion. It’s also interesting because she also talks a lot about our understanding of religion and organized religion, and the idea of belief even being conditioned by scholarship that itself was projecting its own assumptions, often Christian assumptions, onto the peoples around the world that it was studying. It’s organized in some places, in the sense that people are actually getting together and doing stuff.
For example, Rastafarianism is organized. I mean, at this point, it is its own movement. And it has its own tropes, it has its own rituals.
That was one of the really interesting things in the book, when she talks about Rastafarianism. Because how did it happen that an Ethiopian emperor sparks a religion on the other side of the world, and that that religion actually, at a certain point over time — at the same time while this emperor is ruling his country with an iron fist and luxuriating while Ethiopians starve, at the same time in Jamaica, there were social democratic politicians who used Rastafarian tropes in order to get elected, and then use that in order to implement social reforms that really help the people there. So she’s roving about, and just picking up different strands, and seeing how they actually play out in their different contexts.
Did you like it?
I did. I mean, I thought it was fascinating. It just ranges so far and wide that there were certain connections she draws that I wasn’t entirely sure, necessarily, always, where she was going, which isn’t — it doesn’t have to be a problem. But there were some times where I was thinking, OK, I can sort of see how these things connect. But how solid is this ground that we’re on?
But at the same time, she’s more presenting possibilities. I saw it as that kind of book where it was almost like a thought experiment, in a way, combined with history.
Well, we can all drink to that. But before we go, let’s run down the titles of the books again.
I reviewed “The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails,” edited by David Wondrich with Noah Rothbaum.
And I reviewed “Accidental Gods,” by Anna Della Subin.
Remember, there’s more at nytimes.com/books. And you can always write to us at email@example.com. I write back — not right away, but I do.
The Book Review Podcast is produced by the great Pedro Rosado from HeadStepper Media, with a major assist from my colleague John Williams. Thanks for listening. For The New York Times, I’m Pamela Paul.
Born Pearl Adler in Yanow, a White Russian village near the Polish border, on April 16, 1899; died on June 10, 1962; eldest of nine children of Isidore (a Jewish tailor) and Sarah Adler; became a naturalized citizen, May 20, 1929; never married; no children.
Pearl "Polly" Adler (April 16, 1900 – July 11, 1962) was a Russian-born madam (owner-manager of a brothel) of Jewish descent. Adler was born in Ivanava (nowadays Belarus).
POLLY ADLER DIES OF CANCER AT 62; Madame of '20's and '30's Later Wrote Best Seller - The New York Times.