Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thumbs up for The Uncrowned King

First, a caveat. Kenneth Whyte's The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst suffers from the same troubles as most other biographies. It's slow, overly dense, and too worried with using footnotes and quotes and persuading Hearst scholars that it's depiction of the man is accurate. Hey, I just want to be entertained and learn a little along the way. So reading the book was a little too much work for my taste.

That being said, the book is packed with fascinating information and vivid depictions of life in America at the end of the 19th Century.

For example I learned that the newly attainable bicycle was considered a "freedom machine" by women finally able to move about with relative ease, and was considered a doorway to sin by those concerned about the new freedom. Their popularity also killed the sale of pianos.

But the most interesting individual to make an appearance is Stephen Crane, who I only knew as the guy who wrote the classic Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. (It's one of those books they inflict on students in school in the effort to make students never want to read again.)

Turns out, Crane was far more interesting than his books. Aside from writing novels, he also worked as a reporter. He was an adventurer/reporter/novelist before Hemmingway, and was assigned the task of writing about slum life in New York for Hearst's newspaper. The task would put him in contact with a future president, a seemingly corrupt police officer, and a lady of ill repute, and end with his reputation ruined.

To conduct research, Crane spent a night carousing in company of a couple of "chorus girls" in what was then know as the Tenderloin District of Manhattan. As the night ended, and only moments after separating from the women, he noticed one of them (Dora Clark) being arrested by a police officer named Charles Becker. The officer suspected Clark of prostitution.

On the following day, Crane went to the courthouse and watched as Officer Becker explained to a judge that he had arrested Clark for solicitation. The evidence against Clark was essentially the officer's opinion and the fact that Clark was a woman out late at night in a suspicious area. Although fearful he would damage his own reputation, Crane spoke out, denied the charges, and convinced the judge to release Clark. Hearst's newspaper ran a story about Crane's actions called "The Red Badge of Courage in a New York Police Court." The article went as far as suggesting that Officer Becker should be charged with perjury.

Unfortunately for Crane, Clark indeed sued Becker for "harassment." That in turn caused the New York police department to become very interested in Crane's activities. Crane contacted Teddy Roosevelt, who was then a police commissioner in New York, and asked him for help. Roosevelt, was a fan of The Red Badge of Courage, but was also extremely passionate about eliminating prostitution. He advised Crane to drop the matter and keep it out of the news.

The ensuing trial against Becker degenerated into a focus on Crane's apparent fondness for spending time in opium dens with chorus girls. The charges against Becker went nowhere, Clark was arrested within a week for solicitation, and Hearst's rivals delighted in publishing stories attacking Crane's character. Crane left New York, disgraced.

Officer Becker rose through the police department, specialized in extorting money from casinos and brothels, and was eventually convicted of arranging the murder of a bookie. He was given the electric chair in 1915.

The Uncrowned King is absolutely full of fascinating stories like that one. It's not easy reading, but I give it a thumb's up. It's on sale at Amazon.

*Previously: Big thumbs up for Graham Rawle's Woman's World.

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