Rothman At-Large

‘Gatsby: My Story’: A Book Review

April 9, 2015

Nick Carraway and your English lit professor got it all wrong. A madman’s gunshots did not kill the hero of The Great Gatsby, published 90 years ago on April 10, 1925.

The corpse inside the coffin was someone else, a clever ruse. With a “heavyweight team” of FBI men about to nab him, the real Jay Gatsby fled to Havana to grow still richer off illicit booze—closer to the source in the distribution chain. Gatsby got in on the casino action, too. If alive today, he would be thrilled by the bonanzas that the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations might eventually send his way.

So—with the exception of the 21st-century diplomatic update—goes Gatsby: My Story. Michael Spindler’s unauthorized sequel appeared in 2013. Shame on the American literary establishment for overlooking it even if some unpleasant legal questions may arise. Meanwhile don’t worry about my spoiler. Plenty else will keep you reading.

Michael Spindler (Photo by: Michael Spindler

Did you know, for example, that Jay’s memories of Daisy were not as platonic as Carraway led us to believe? Daisy’s father the judge had given her a white Stutz roadster for her 18th birthday. In it she and Jay ventured to “out-of-the way dark places” and “rutted like alley cats and howled nearly as much.” Speaking of judges, Gatsby sees them as more buyable than admirable. In marrying Daisy—a judge‘s daughter from Alabama—Tom Buchanan was slumming it. But then again, in the wake of all the gossip following his “shamelessly public affair” with an Armour heiress, Tom’s choices in Chicago were limited.

Faring no better in Spindler’s sequel is Daisy, “a complete ninny mentally; it was only the brilliance of her smile and the smoothness of her thighs that distracted you from the idiocy of whatever she said.”

By contrast, as a revisionist, Spindler offers encomia for Arnold Rothstein, the real gangster after whom Fitzgerald modeled his Meyer Wolfsheim character. Oh, yes, Rothstein "The Brain" fixed the 1919 World Series—he was hardly crime-free. But Carraway just was not aware of the true origins of the "finest specimens of human molars" that the Wolfsheim character turned into cuff buttons. How could the specimens not be first-rate? They were from the gangster’s own mouth, courtesy his dentist. Spindler’s Wolfsheim/Rothstein just had a good sense of humor and this thing about keeping his body parts away from strangers.

I know. Even more than half a century after Fitzgerald’s death, certain people may hate Spindler’s book, including perhaps some in the Washington area, where Fitzgerald's daughter, Frances “Scottie” Lanahan Smith was a writer in Georgetown. I can understand. No, it isn’t just a matter of respect for a literary giant. Consider the more sympathetic and engaging of the characters he created. Even if Carraway is naive and far from the most reliable of narrators, he comes across as likable, almost a member of the family. My late mother was from the Midwest, not Carraway and Fitzgerald’s Minnesota, but a place close enough in mindset in some ways. For me, at least, The Great Gatsby remains a Great American Novel, easily able to weather Spindler’s revisionism.

That said, let’s not write off Spindler as a literacy parasite. More at—including some legal angles, which are as fascinating as the literary ones. Gatsby: My Story is not on sale at the U.S. site of Amazon, and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act just might be a reason.

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Rashad Young: The Right Civic Values for D.C.?

December 10, 2014

Rashad Young, hired at $245K and now paid $266,508 a year, is leaving as Alexandria’s city manager to become city administrator for D.C. In my hometown of 150,000, Mr. Young has been pulling down a bigger salary than that of Vice President Joe Biden, paid $230,700. Across the Potomac, Mr. Young’s compensation almost surely will be higher in the new job. Washington’s current administrator, Allen Y. Lew, was making $295K as of 2011.

I wish Mr. Young the best of luck helping Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser run the D.C. government, but I can’t resist raising the salary issue, and I fervently hope that the Washington media will follow up with questions for her.

The story in this case is about civic values. Annualized, the Alexandria city government’s total payments to Mr. Young with benefits and full car allowance included are around $350,000---just a little shy of the pitiful amount that Alexandria spends on books and other library content, far below the national average per capita. This issue extends beyond Alexandria. If the Washington Post or New York Times can do a national story on the inflated salaries of so many top city administrators in the context of municipal needs, such as those of K-12 kids and other library patrons, then so much the better. Based on Mr. Young’s priorities in Alexandria, I do not think his hiring in Washington is a very auspicious sign for D.C.

Across the country, while ordinary taxpayers scramble to pay everyday bill and localities cut back on even essential services, mayors and city councils have splurged on managers as if they were recruiting NBA players. Just in California, as of 2010, 16 managers were raking in more than $300,000 each. Their salaries, like Mr. Young’s, didn’t just surpass Mr. Biden’s. They also dwarfed those of U.S. senators and of even the best-paid members of the Senior Executive Service at the federal level. Alas, too many ‘crats in America’s local governments are 5’11” also-dribbles with Kobe Bryant-sized financial aspirations.

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Zelig and The Art of Winning a Pulitzer

November 18, 2014

Imagine you’re with the Secret Service. A young Ohioan calls up and says he’ll be joining the Nazi Party. “I wanted you to know.” Wait—the story gets even better. The Ohio man already has been within shooting range of presidential candidates.

J. Ross Baughman isn’t a real Nazi, however. Instead he is a photojournalist for my old newspaper, and he is about to infiltrate the National Socialist movement. My friend is merely trying to keep his name off the Secret Service’s watch list so he can continue his campaign coverage. A letter co-signed by his editor does the trick.

The Nazis think Baughman is just your garden-variety defender of the master race, an obscure wedding photographer helping them honor the teaching of the Fuehrer. Meanwhile Baughman, a gentile of Swiss ancestry, is busy snapping Nazi-gothic photographs for a Jewish-owned daily in Lorain, Ohio, west of Cleveland on Lake Erie. No Zionist conspiracies. As a professional photojournalist, Baughman simply sees the darkness around him as a must-report story.

'Zelig' in his various guises (Photo by: J. Ross Baughman) 'Zelig' in his various guises

A fake “wife” even tags along to a “White Power” meeting to show what a respectable, family-oriented soul Baughman is. His attention to the details pays off. Baughman learns that certain Nazis are talking about killing ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger “and eleven other prominent Jewish-American business leaders, most notably two Chicago real estate financiers, Arthur Reubloff and Philip Klutznick, along with Robert Sarnoff, former president of RCA, Jack Greenberg, a New York attorney for the NAACP, Paul Warburg, a banker and part of the Rothschild empire, and Howard Squadron, a leader in the American Jewish Congress.”

Nazis left over from Hitler’s Reich are part of the movement that Baughman ran across when highway construction led him to detour through an unfamiliar neighborhood on Cleveland’s west side. In some ways this might as well be a page from The Boys from Brazil. Not all the facts come out at the time, the late 1970s. But the story still makes the international news wires.

Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham are among those pushing the Lorain Journal’s Nazi series for the Pulitzer Prize. No luck. But within months Baughman will win the Pulitzer anyway, for his Associated Press photographs depicting torture in Rhodesia. Not bad for someone still in his 20s at the time. In fact, he’s the youngest pro to snare the prize. He’ll eventually go on to the Middle East and also to El Salvador, where he almost loses a leg to a land mine. Baughman will work, too, for Life and other big names in the magazine world. He will also teach at the New School for Social Research and become a photo-and-new-media-related editor at the Washington Times.

Oh, the memories and hard-won lessons Baughman can share in the classroom! While in Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe, he did not even have to infiltrate the infamous Grey’s Scouts. His subjects’ vanity could take him a long way. That is no small reason why he was able to fit in and to chronicle the torture scene on the cover of his just-published memoirs, Angle: Fighting Censorship, Death Threats, Ethical Traps and a Land Mine, While Winning a Pulitzer Along the Way.  Baughman even wore the Scouts’ uniform, all the better to distinguish himself from the Scouts’ enemies. He rode a horse and packed a gun.

Notice a pattern here? Like Leonard Zelig, the chameleon-like character in Woody Allen's comic movie of the same name, the slightly built Baughman can be anywhere and anyone in a life accurately described as “cinematic.”

Nazi-gothic scene from the American midwest. (Photo by: J. Ross Baughman) Nazi-gothic scene from the American midwest.

“He mingles with Hitler and becomes a Nazi,” Baughman writes of his sort-of doppelgänger. ”He goes to Africa, and even becomes an African American…” Baughman knew the late Mel Bourne, Allen’s art director for years before Allen filmed his 1983 movie. In Angle, Baughman wonders if Bourne perhaps mentioned “to his boss the many stories about me that used Chameleon for the headline.” Woody Allen can be rather shy about his creative process, and his PR woman never answered my query. Who knows if Allen knew? Still, in this world of "six degrees of separation," where Baughman is so often several degrees ahead in the game, anything is possible.

Baughman and I first met while he was a high school journalist fired up about the Vietnam War, student unrest and other issues and I was writing up the confrontations. Sorry for my botched cutline accompanying a story, Ross—the one where your name appeared with a photo of an even more uppity student. The Lorain Journal regrets the error.

In my own days at the Journal I might type into the dawn on my manual Underwood (“work-life balance” isn’t always the highest of priorities at a tightly budgeted factory-town daily), but Baughman outdid me after he signed on as a photographer. Then-Editor Irving Leibowitz recalled Baughman in a column headlined “When a Pulitzer Prize Is Not a ‘Fluke”: “I get to the paper most mornings at about 6 a.m. Frequently I’d see Ross Baughman wiping his eyes coming out of the darkroom. He had slept all night in the photo lab, which was okay with me until I discovered exactly where he slept. Each night, Ross curled up in a two-foot-square cabinet that photographers used to dry negatives. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have any place to go. He did. He had his own apartment. And if he needed any cash, he knew where to turn. His dad was plant manager of Lorain Ford.” The Baughman family lived on the dividing line between Lorain and near-by Amherst, Ohio.

Born in Dearborn, Michigan, Ross Baughman studied journalism and psychology at Kent State University, the site of the 1970 massacre where National Guardsmen killed four students, an event that undoubtedly helped shape his worldview and certainly influenced mine, especially after I talked to survivors. Baughman is now in his 60s, with a son, Henry, to whom he dedicated the book.

Via email, I Q&A-ed Baughman on a number of topics—from photojournalistic ethics to whether young war correspondents should get married—and you can read his replies at Solomon Scandals.

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