By Julia Blackburn. Pantheon Books. 354 pages. $25.
A young woman named Linda Kuehl jumped out of a hotel window in Washington on a snowy night in January 1979. Among the things she left behind were taped interviews with about 150 people who knew, or claimed to know, Billie Holiday, along with a jumble of police records, shopping lists, royalty statements and similar ephemera from the life of the nonpareil jazz singer. Kuehl could never form her raw research into the biography she hoped to write of Holiday, who grew up in Baltimore and first began to sing here.
Julia Blackburn, a British author (Old Man Goya, The Book of Color), bought the rights to use Kuehl's material from the collector who owns it. She tried to write a biography in her turn, but she, too, found the material intractable. So she has opted for a documentary form, "in which people are free to tell their own stories."
Their stories are mostly compelling tales of Holiday's hard life and hard times, from her vagabond existence on the streets of Fells Point -- interrupted by two sentences to the House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls -- to her unhappy death at 44 in a Harlem hospital under police guard on a narcotics charge. But not all the storytellers seem equally credible. And there's precious little about the extraordinary musicianship, the incomparable diction, phrasing, sense of timing and dramatic delivery that made her singing unique.
There's not much editing or fact-checking either. Baltimoreans may be put off early on when the House of Good Shepherd at Franklin Street and Calverton Road is located in East Baltimore, the Royal Theatre is consistently spelled "Royale" and Joe Gans' Goldfield hotel is owned by "the prizefighter Juan Ganz."
Ogden Nash: The Life and Works of America's Laureate of Light Verse
By Douglas M. Parker. Ivan R. Dee, Publisher. 316 pages. $27.50.
Ogden Nash certainly remains our most-read purveyor of light verse. Who doesn't know Candy is Dandy / But liquor is quicker?
But he was also a literary gentleman of the old school, a species that, if not extinct, is as rarely seen as the ivory-billed woodpecker. Douglas Parker, a lawyer writing with the "encouragement" of the family, depicts Nash as man of polished civility -- witty, sophisticated, and perhaps above all, kind and gentle. He could trace his ancestry to Welsh nobility, wore extremely well-tailored suits and lunched at the Algonquin with ancient literary types such as Christopher Morley (Parnassus on Wheels,, et al), Franklin P. Adams (The Conning Tower) and Dorothy Parker, although she was no gentleman.
He wooed Frances Leonard with adoring love letters, which he continued to write until the end of his life. (His dying words, after 40 years of marriage, were "I love you, Frances.") After they married, he continued to call his in-laws "Mr. and Mrs. Leonard." The Nash family lived with the Leonards for years in their rambling manse on Rugby Road in Guilford, where everyone seemed to dress for dinner.
Endlessly inventive in English, he could make puns in Latin and French as well, although he had completed only one year at Harvard when his father's business collapsed and he ran out of money. He had had three years at St. George's School, in Newport, R.I., which may have been the equivalent of today's diluted college eduction.
The New Yorker published 353 of his poems: the first in 1930, the last ten days after his death in May 1971. He seemed to embody the smart, insouciant, urbane style of the magazine in the 1930s and 1940s.
And he rarely expressed anger or even irritation, except when The New Yorker rejected a poem, or his publishers mishandled his publicity. He did, after all, basically support his family with his poetry. He tried Hollywood unsuccessfully. He hoped for triumph on Broadway and had one splendid success, One Touch of Venus, a musical for which he wrote the lyrics, including one great song, Speak Low, a standard for cabaret singers to this day.
Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can't Lick Militarism
By Joel Andreas. AK Press. 77 pages. $10.
We used to read Classic Comics. We've absorbed illustrated novels by such literary stars as Paul Auster. We admired graphic novels and Japanese Manga. Sin City, a graphic classic has been made into a graphic movie.
Here, Joel Andreas, an assistant professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, gives us what he calls the "graphic expose." Graphic polemic might be more accurate; there's not much new here.
Andreas' book is more like a study guide for pacifist parents. A boy and his Mom ask the questions. Andreas tracks American militarism in everything from Manifest Destiny through wars against Native Americans, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq I and II.
He's a gifted caricaturist and many of his fat cats, squared-headed generals and slippery-eyed politicians are amusing. But Andreas is neither fair nor balanced in his single-minded effort to get us to "Kick Out the War Junkies!"
So the Story Goes: Twenty-five Years of the Johns Hopkins Short Fiction Series
Edited by John T. Irwin and Jean McGarry. 303 pages. $18.95 paperback. $30 hardcover.
Twenty stories by twenty authors from twenty collections published in the Short Fiction Series are offered here. The stories are all written with a high literary competence, some are virtuoso performances. No particular style seems detectable: Thirty-six Miracles of Lyndon Johnson, by Jennifer Finney Boylan, elides the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and John Lennon in 36 numbered paragraphs. Many of the stories deal with domestic situations, even The Last Time, by Jean McGarry, the editor, which occurs within the menage of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Guy Davenport's A Field of Snow on a Slope is a baroque, or even rococo, tour de force expedition inside the mind of a gent in an asylum. The last sentence is: "But let us desist, lest quite by accident we be so unlucky as to put things in order."
And there's no reason to object when John Barth, the Maryland novelist who helped create the Hopkins Writing Seminars, says these stories satisfy "that primal and distinctive human pleasure: sharing jim-dandy stories."
This is Carl Schoettler's first column reviewing books of Maryland interest in The Sun. A reporter for The Evening Sun and The Sun for more than 40 years, including tours of duty in the Vietnam War and Europe, he will write the column every other month, rotating with James H. Bready, who himself has written about books for The Sun for half a century.