“Incendiary”: Michael Cannell’s Mad Bomber Bungle

June 19, 2017 § 1 Comment

The building in Manhattan where Metesky lived while employed by the United Electric Light and Power Company.

George Peter Mestesky was arrested as “The Mad Bomber” at his home in the working-class Brooklyn section of Waterbury, CT, on January 21, 1957. He had secreted small pipe bombs throughout New York City, in phone booths, train stations, movie theaters, and many Manhattan landmarks, on and off for sixteen years, baffling police with his untraceable homemade components and his angry, cryptic, anonymous notes.

Hell Gate Generating Station 1926

Fantasies of revenge helped fuel his private war against the Consolidated Edison Company, but his goal was to expose his former employer for cheating him out of Workmen’s Compensation benefits after he had suffered a serious lung injury while working in the Bronx at the Hell Gate Generating Station in 1931. Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling by Michael Cannell is the second book devoted entirely to this oddly enduring shard of history, the first was The Mad Bomber of New York by Michael Greenburg.

Declaring a war of his own, Cannell attacks the New York City Police, claiming they opposed the scientific evaluation of evidence, preferring instead to rough suspects up, and this attitude prevented them from capturing the bomber:  “…The NYPD’s corrupt precinct captains and stubborn commanders resisted new methods promoted by college-educated criminologists—until the serial bomber forced them to adapt…”

Police Laboratory Commander Howard E. Finney, was “a new breed of cop, a science-minded criminologist with three graduate degrees…Forensic science was still struggling to assert itself when Captain Finney assumed control of the NYPD crime lab in 1950… he struggled to win over the hidebound police culture of the nightstick and arm twisting. The police brass on Centre Street, had, to a man, come up through the ranks as patrolmen on a beat…”

Edward F. Fagan in Spring 3100 photo, March 1953

We are offered no documentation to back up this notion that police en masse resisted scientific methods. The author appears unaware that the lab, founded in 1934, was well established long before 1950, and that it became part of The Bureau of Technical Services in 1954, headed by (then) Deputy Inspector Edward F. Fagan. The BTS also included the Ballistics Squad, the Bureau of Criminal Identification, the Missing Persons Bureau and the Photographic Bureau among others (Fagan had been trained as an architectural draftsman and designed the lab’s quarters as well as the mobile crime lab).

The Cannell argument is contradicted by Police commissioner William F. O’Brien, (New York Times 03.02.50) who proudly cited near the top of his list of accomplishments that “the department had bought $40,000 worth of new equipment to be used in the Technical Research Laboratory when it is moved from the Police Headquarters Annex at 400 Broome Street to the Poplar Street station in Brooklyn.”

The author persists: “The rank and file resisted the authority of … the crime lab manned by cops with college degrees—and in some cases graduate degrees…Who had ever heard of a crime cracked with a microscope? What did chemists know about battery and burglary?”

Because of a burgeoning drug problem in New York City, the laboratory, in 1951, hired additional personnel to do chemical analysis. This was in response to demand from the “the rank and file,” who often confiscated suspected illegal drugs. Articles in the monthly New York City Police Department magazine Spring 3100, and books like Fighting Crime, the New York City Police Department in Action by Captain Burr W. Leyson or Headquarters by Quentin Reynolds and interviews with detectives who worked in the 1950’s, make it plain that investigators routinely relied on the forensic expertise they required whether from the lab, or the other technical bureaus and squads.

Scientific evidence was, then as now, crucial to obtaining a conviction in court. So, why would rank-and-file policemen and detectives jeopardize their own jobs through willful blindness?

Incendiary contains other assertions that require correction. I’ll cite only a few  examples:

-Metesky was hurt “in a boiler explosion.”

Boiler explosions are catastrophic events, and the two new boilers installed at Hell Gate Station in December 1930 were mammoth, capable of producing 800,000 pounds of steam per hour at a temperature of 725 degrees Fahrenheit. An explosion of one or both would likely have killed many people.

-The bomb Metesky put in a toilet of the Penn Station men’s room, was placed to kill people by creating porcelain shrapnel.

In his frank and detailed answers to questions during the 4:40 AM, January 22nd interrogation at Waterbury Police Headquarters, Metesky explained he had expected the bomb to go down the toilet, and severely disrupt the plumbing system. The bomb did not go down and Lloyd B. Hill, a bathroom attendant, sustained serious foot and ankle injuries.

An entertaining passage about police reporter Patrick Doyle of the New York Daily News tells us that he had “sly way of gathering information by impersonating a detective.” I am sure that is true, but this was a method commonly used by police reporters of that era, or so I was told by Doug Hearle who had worked for the New York Journal-Amercan. And, as far as I can tell, Doyle had little to do with the Mad Bomber case, although perhaps he worked on it. Tony Marino of the Daily News went to Waterbury to cover the arrest and Eddie Kirkman, also of the News, had chased down a lot of leads. The periodical, Editor & Publisher, gave Kirkman credit for first using the phrase “Mad Bomber,” although Jess Stearn had the byline on the article that first used it.

The “psychiatrist” of the book’s subtitle, James A. Brussel, was an assistant commissioner of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, who lived in New York City and also practiced privately. His outsize reputation as a pioneer of criminal profiling was engendered by the publicity surrounding his partially accurate prediction of some of Metesky’s characteristics. Brussel’s self-aggrandizing memoir, Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist, provides the beating heart of Incendiary.

In the prologue, and again, with greater detail a hundred pages later, Cannell describes the first meeting between Brussel and Howard Finney :

It was a tense Mid-December afternoon in 1956, with the public mood clouded by fear of the bomber and “cold war anxiety,” less than two weeks after one of Metesky’s bombs exploded in the Brooklyn Paramount Theater during a showing of War and Peace. The police were more desperate than ever to find the mysterious bomber.

Enter “the shy and brilliant” John J. Cronin, commander of the Missing Person’s Bureau, a man whose job “had driven him to accept the unconventional” and who “advocated the use of extrasensory perception in investigative work and petitioned police brass to staff a psychic in every precinct.” (No doubt the science-hating hooligans turned down him down.) Cronin called Dr. Brussel to ask if he would help Captain Finney solve the case. Brussel, at first, demurred.

“Captain Finney accompanied by two bomb squad detectives, arrived at Dr. Brussel’s office…with a satchel full of photos documenting the bomb wreckage, copies of the bomber’s letters and other evidence…” Brussel could tell that Finney, “a deep-thinking type, was prepared to listen.” But the bomb squad detectives were skeptical. “They looked like caricatures of hardened cops—square shouldered and thick chested with hard-set jaws clouded by five o’clock shadow. They rolled their eyes and smirked sideways at each other like ill-behaved boys dragged to evening prayer…”

“…Captain Finney took a seat facing Dr. Brussel’s desk. ‘We’d appreciate any ideas you might have on this case, Doctor….We’re stumped. Here’s a bundle of letters and photographs. Solve it.’ ”

Finney and his men spend four hours with Brussel during which he slips into a trance of contemplation. The psychiatrist eventually concludes…drum roll…the bomber suffers from an Oedipus Complex! And this has caused him to “become a full-blown Paranoid.”

“Might the W’s resemble breasts?” Dr. Brussel wonders about the Bomber’s handwriting, “Or maybe a scrotum? If so, had F.P. [the bomber] also unconsciously fashioned bombs shaped like Penises?” Brussel decides not to explain this to police, who do not share his scientific background, so he gives them “a short-hand version,” saying the Bomber was in love with his mother.

The first page of Cronin’s two-page memo

Unfortunately for Cannell’s readers, the meeting in December 1956, as described above, never took place.

A police department memo from Acting Captain John J. Cronin to Inspector Edward Fagan, commander of the Bureau of Technical Services, shows that Cronin first visited Brussel in his office at 270 Broadway on Feb. 24th, 1955, and gave him “Photostatic copies of letters, cards and notes sent by an anonymous person responsible for bombings…Resume of facts were also imparted.” Cronin, “again called on Dr. Brussel this date [Feb. 25] at his request and he [Brussel] volunteered the following information orally. He did not desire to submit written opinion. Dr. Brussel’s findings might be divided into three categories: positive findings, probable opinions, and possible opinions…”

Brussel did not want to be held accountable for his own words, but he was able to “orally” describe various possibilities under a variety of category headings. He refined these predictions over a period of nearly two years, but wrote in Casebook that he produced them in December, 1956, a month or so before the bomber’s arrest.

Now, back to the Incendiary narrative. After pregnant pauses, Brussel produces the key points of his Mad Bomber profile : “a fastidious middle-aged loner of Slavic descent with a history of run-ins with neighbors and colleagues. He lived in a Northern suburb, probably in Connecticut with an elderly female relative and secretly nurtured a grudge against Con Edison and other powerful institutions.”

But neither in Brussel’s profiles as described in police memos, nor in any of the newspaper accounts—including a front-page piece in the New York Herald-Tribune, December 27, 1956—is Connecticut mentioned, nor an elderly female relative, nor Slavic heritage. Brussel changed his profile retroactively to fit the facts.

More than once Cannell repeats Brussel’s description of Metesky as “a slav,” despite the fact Metesky was born in the United States, and that the country of his parents’ birth—Lithuania—is not a Slavic country.

Don Foster’s book, Author Unknown, shows that Brussel laid quite a few eggs, predicting the bomber would be of German background, have a “facial Scar” and live in White Plains, NY. In fact, the four detectives dispatched to Waterbury, CT when word came down on January 21, of a likely suspect—Eddie Lehane, Mike Lynch, Richard Rowan, and Jimmy Martin—drove from White Plains where they had been searching motor vehicle and other records.

Brussel envisioned an “expert in civil or military ordnance,” but Metesky had no such training. During his China stint in the U.S. Marine Corps he worked in a power plant. The bomber was between “40 and 50” years old, or between “50 and 60,” was “interested in women,” or “not interested in women,” he was “religious,” having a pact with God or thought of himself as God, thus allowing enough wiggle room for him to claim credit for any prediction that hit the mark.

In Casebook, Brussel tells the breathtaking lie that he had encouraged the New York City Police Department to reverse its longstanding policy of imposing a news blackout on the Mad Bomber investigation, when in fact he advised the police to maintain it.

Michael Cannell swallows Brussel’s concoction: “I think” his Brussel character tells police, “you ought to publicize the description I’ve given you. Spread it in the newspapers, on radio and television.”

Brussel writes in Casebook of a Crime Psychiatrist, ““I think you ought to publicize the description I’ve given you. Publicize the whole bomber investigation, in fact. Spread it in the newspapers, on radio and television.”

But, in a memo dated Feb 27, 1956, Captain Finney wrote to the Chief of Detectives:

“Dr. Brussell (sic)…who has been consulted on a prior occasion regarding this case, was again consulted on October 18, 1955 at his office, 270 Broadway, New York, N.Y., as to the relative merits of:

  1. Releasing to the press all available data regarding this case; or
  2. Appealing to the perpetrator through the media of “personal or display ads” in New York City newspapers. Dr. Brussel stated that in his opinion, if this department were to adopt any of these measures, it would encourage the perpetrator to make and place a bomb, larger than any we have yet experienced. (italics mine)….”

What ultimately caught Metesky was an “Open Letter to the Mad Bomber” that ran in the New York Journal-American and began a chain of correspondence that led Metesky to reveal details about his life. (Cannell covers this in a chapter about Seymour Berkson, the Journal-American’s publisher).

Walter Arm, a former newspaper reporter and the Deputy Commissioner of Police for Community Relations, was the person who persuaded Chief of Detectives Leggett to publicize the investigation according to the New York Herald Tribune (“Police Now Put Blame on Con Ed,” Dec 25, 1957):

“Arm, according to Chief Leggett, insisted that the time had come to reverse department policy and put the brilliant spotlight of publicity on he hunt for the ‘Mad Bomber.’… ”

“ ‘The psychiatrists—and they were among the best in the city said that if we give publicity to the ‘Mad Bomber,’ it will feed his ego and cause him to make bigger and better bombs.’ Chief Leggett recounted yesterday. ‘They advised against it. They reasoned that if the bomber got no recognition perhaps he would fold up and just go away.’ ”

Clearly, Leggett was referring to Dr. Brussel. The New York Journal-American on the same date (“Hunt for all Data on Bomber Case”), also quoted Leggett crediting Walter Arm. And, in his unpublished memoir, A Reporter’s Life for You and Me, Arm confirms that he was the person responsible for the change in policy.

Why does this matter? It matters because Dr. Brussel’s Big Lie destroys the central premise of Incendiary:The Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling, that Brussel, “had decisively changed the course of the investigation by convincing the police to publicize his profile.”

Cannell also claims that the Brussel “profile”—actually a series of profile possibilities– “allowed detectives to narrow their search frame ad concentrate their efforts on a specific type…His profile helped lead detectives to F.P.’s door…” There is no evidence for either of these assertions.

The white with a black background was an innovation of the Handwriting Section of the Lab.

The investigation centered largely on the anonymous notes and letters, and the unique construction of the bombs. Joe McNally and Hugh Sang of the Handwriting Section of the lab, and many other investigators came to the conclusion (without any help from Dr. Brussel) that the bomber was a man possessed of technical skill, a current or former employee of Con Edison who most likely lived outside of New York City. These are also points Brussel listed often in his profiles.

I should also mention that it was Deputy Chief Inspector Edward Byrnes of Manhattan West Detectives who ran the overall hunt for the bomber, not Edward Fagan or Howard Finney.

The bomber was not caught sooner, because of the unwillingness of Consolidated Edison’s Manager of Property Protection, John J. Holland, to share records with investigators. A glad-handing man with a booming voice and an impressively large office, Holland held many meetings that included Finney, Pete Dale of the Bomb Squad, and others. He consistently suggested the bomber was likely targeting companies (or government entities) other than Con Ed.

Holland made sure detectives examining employee records never received files dated earlier than 1938. Whether he acted on his own or on orders from higher authority within the company is a mystery.

Metesky’s massive employee file was transferred from Con Ed’s Hester Street warehouse—the normal place for such files—to a secure place within Con Ed’s headquarters on December 1, 1955, after a significant increase in the bomber’s activity that year over the previous three years.

In January 1957 some detectives of the Bomb Investigation Unit, were working in the Hester Street Warehouse. The exact sequence of events is unclear, but just as the police were very close to discovering the bomber’s identity, Alice Kelly of Consolidated Edison suddenly came up with Metesky’s employee file.

Bill Schmitt, photo courtesy of Bill Schmitt

“It was a simple case at the end,” Bomb Squad Detective Bill Schmitt told me, “if you would have gotten the notes that he sent to Con Edison, if they were in the position or in the place that they should have been we would have licked that case in fifteen minutes.”

There is a subtle form of class condescension that pervades Incendiary’s narrative, as it tends to follow those of higher rank or position, and this path sometimes leads to stereotypes. Policemen are thugs, journalists are drunks, people in New York City creep about filled with fear of crime and cold war angst, and Metesky’s house in a working class section of Waterbury “was like a vagrant trying to look presentable.” Metesky himself is a shadow.

This attitude might help explain Cannell’s willingness to echo some of Brussel’s dubious stories about George Metesky, his “poorest” of neighborhoods, and the two sisters with whom he lived. Thus neighborhood children called Metesky “Mr. Think,” and tried to peer into the windows “hoping to glimpse satanic masses and other sinister doings.” The Metesky house was widely known as ‘the crazy house.”

But, none of this is true.

Brussel claims in Casebook that the neighbors sat on creaky porches on Sunday afternoons pondering various theories: Metesky was a polygamist married to “both women,” or that Metesky was the “illegitimate son of one of them,” or that they were “witches.” Some of these neighbors were “first-generation Middle Europeans steeped in Gypsy lore…”

Cannell chooses to overlook this sort of rubbish (none of which was discovered by reporters, former tenants in the Metesky house, or police), using a few of Brussel’s fictional details about the neighborhood children to add color to his narrative.

That the Metesky’s were odd and very private comes through in newspaper stories made use of by Brussel without attribution. Fact and fiction merge in Brussel’s account as they do in this new book.

The most amusing passage offered by Incendiary is its profile of Dr. Brussel. His stepson said the psychiatrist “was not happy unless he was the center of attention. He dominated the room. He dominated conversation.”

“Dr. Brussel’s was always the most assured voice in the room” Cannell elaborates, “and possibly the craziest. A new acquaintance might be forgiven for confusing him with a mental patient…While seated with guests at the dining table he fed a pair of squawking parakeets by clenching food scraps between his teeth for them to pluck with thrusting beaks….He dictated his wife’s hairstyle, her taste in clothing, and her choice of friends.” He was also addicted to Demerol “which he injected in his thigh with a startling disregard for privacy.” And he carried “a loaded snub-nosed revolver at all times.”

Now, who wouldn’t trust the word of a man like that?








February 26, 2015 § 2 Comments

  1. Hitmen and kidnappers monitor your street. Mistakes can happen.

    Photo by Bruce Joshua Miller

    Lord of the Manor

  1. Patrolling Dobermans (woops, one went off-leash!), postal carriers and babies beware.
  1. Parked Limousines blocking traffic while thieves reconnoiter the hood.
  1. Twice-a-day delivery of luxury items to the B—your online purchases—diapers, toilet paper, soap—get lost in the shuffle.
  1. The presence of noisy demonstrators and accompanying law enforcement personnel armed with heavy weapons, not to mention body guards with itchy trigger fingers.
  1. Misguided process servers convinced they’ve found the B’s secret redoubt—your house or apartment.
  1. Skyrocketing property values raising property taxes beyond your ability to pay.
  1. During extended absence, or when the B leaves for good, his/her house falls into disrepair, beginning the neighborhood’s downward spiral; Rampant graffiti, crime comes next.
  1. Foreign diplomats, politicians, financial advisers, venture capitalists, inventors, supplicants coming and going in the wee hours via limo, armored car, UberX, taxi, motorcycle, bicycle, you name it.
  1. Tour companies add your illustrious neighbor’s address to their bus routes as a must-see destination.

Is This a Clerihew Which I See Before Me?

August 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

“Paul Ingram’s lost clerihews are devilishly clever; Julia Anderson-Miller’s illustrations are a wicked delight. The sum is much greater than its parts. Like BBQ and beer, a perfect pairing.”–Linda Bubon, Women & Children First Chicago, Illinois

“The quick and the dead, the famous and the infamous, the saintly and the sinful, all are grist for this superlatively witty writer’s mill.  The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram, beautifully illustrated by Julia Anderson-Miller, will rescue even the dullest dinner party.” — Margot Livesey

“Paul Ingram’s delightful collection of clerihews is so much fun that after you read it, you will need to put aside whatever important work you are doing and write several of your own.”—Roz Chast, author & illustrator

pauls book

The ability to make us laugh is a talent the gods do not give out with abandon. Hidden in plain sight today is a book destined to become a classic, a unique contribution to the canon of humorous verse in English: “The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram,” by Paul Ingram, illustrated by Julia Anderson-Miller, with a foreword by Elizabeth McCracken.

The clerihew, a four-line poem consisting of two rhyming couplets, becomes by turns a dagger or a candid camera in Ingram’s hands, exposing the peccadilloes, obsessions, and intentions—good and bad—that animate famous historical and cultural figures– and playing them for laughs. “The Lost Clerihews” is the fruit of a successful collaboration between an irreverent  writer  and a versatile visual artist.

Paul and Julia PL IA-2

I know it sounds funny to use the word “canon” in connection with this book for a couple of reasons. First because Ingram takes on “canonical” writers, past and present, unafraid of ruffling feathers. And he has fun with various religious figures, Jesus Christ, Thomas a Kempis, Ignatius Loyola, and St. Francis Xavier among them:

Thomas a Kempis

Drove down to Memphis,

A monastic spaceman

In the world of Graceland.

Compressed language in poetic form begs you to slow down to one mile per hour, reading the text, enjoying the accompanying drawing, entering the spirit of the clerihew, and allowing it to make you laugh:

Thomas  Kempis

The comedy of every clerihew in this collection is augmented, boosted, magnified by “a very pointed, exceptionally relevant line drawing.”  “They are as whimsical as they are recognizable, each drawing a fun depiction of the poem’s subject.

Johnthan Franzen-1

Jonathan Franzen

Threw a tantrum.

When asked to go

On the Oprah show.

We see in Ingram’s book a mix of Edward Lear-like fiction based on comic contrast, the unlikely pairing of disparate cultural figures, and poems that wryly profile subjects based on their actual biographies.

A great deal of ink has been spilled, or should I say pixels placed, about the fact that Paul Ingram is a much beloved and longtime bookseller at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City. In fact, Brucejquiller sang his praises in an earlier blog post, From Iowa with Love: “… I spotted Paul Ingram, compulsive reader, able buyer, enthusiastic reviewer and the keeper of ‘Paul’s Corner.’ Paul’s videotaped book reviews ought to be on the websites of a hundred stores at least. NPR producers take note, ‘60 minutes’ set your clock, here’s your man, someone whose infectious love of books might please millions.”

But his talent as a bookseller, and his self-effacing manner, can obscure the fact that Ingram’s humor is married to considerable technical skill. His caesuras are sure-footed, his rhymes sometimes surprise. His poems can be shocking, silly, Rabelaisian, informative, profoundly clever, and fun. In addition to making you laugh, The Lost Clerihews might well introduce you (as they did me) to musicians, writers or philosophers you have never heard of. In fact, his book would provide an effective means of introducing students to poetry, despite or maybe because of the fact that some of the poems “are, ahem, a wee bit off color.”

In his (1981) introduction to “The Complete Clerihews of E. Clerihew Bentley,” the poet Gavin Ewart says, “No one besides Bentley has ever written really good clerihews.” Well, now someone has.

arms in air

Paul Ingram and Elizabeth McCracken





“Love of Winter” by George Bellows: Violence on Ice

February 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Love of Winter

Love of Winter

“…Bellows’ early death dissociated him from his peers, many of whom were also born around 1882. As artists such as Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and Charles Sheeler lived into the 1960’s, Bellows was miscast as part of an older generation of more prototypical Ashcan School figures such as William Glackens, George Luks and John Sloan. Overlooked were the ways Bellows, as in his excavation series, had dug deep into the bedrock of late 19th century modernism and opened up a vast new contemporary space for his colleagues and successors in which to construct their creative lives. Equally significant was the sustained meditation on human violence that ran through his oeuvre, from the boxing pictures to the later war scenes…Bellows…can be seen to occupy a uniquely dynamic, open-ended place in American art history, one that defies consensus and marks the transition in American culture from the Victorian to the modern era…”
–From George Bellows: An Unfinished Life by George Brock, p.8 in the retrospective catalog.

My effort to write about the Bellows retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art sent me thesaurus hunting, because all the usual adjectives of praise found in reviews of books, art, or theater seemed bloodless, like the perfunctory words of a greeting card. I found my books, but my brief search for the right words was not rewarded. Bellows has a language all his own, a language I cannot describe but through the effects on me of his dramatic rendering of life’s startling, somber music.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington organized this retrospective exhibition in association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and London’s Royal Academy of Arts, where the exhibit will open on March 16th.

February 18th is the last day of this landmark exhibition at the Met.

Malcolm Cowley said “[John] Cheever’s prose is alive. If you put your hand on it, it squirms like a snake.”

The best of Bellows’ work can make the viewer jump, as it deceives, comments, records, satirizes, defeats expectations, and confounds critics, but, above all, his best paintings, drawings, and lithographs tell a story (Bellows himself had nothing positive to draw about the critics of his day, fellow artists participating in the jury system. Jurors are singled out for ridicule in the lithographs The Jury and Artists Judging Works of Art, both from 1916).

In the words of my perceptive friend Susan Schott, the university press publisher with whom I viewed the Bellows show, “He creates characters that invite you to speculate about them.”

More than any American artist I can think of, his work impels the viewer to puzzle out the dramatic action of his subjects.

This narrative quality is the point of departure for Sean Willentz’s probing essay (published in George Bellows, the retrospective’s beautiful and informative catalog, edited by Charles Brock), Spectacle, Politics and the Young George Bellows about the 1906 drawing, Election Night, Times Square:


“…The glare from the canopy and the street light dispel enough of the darkness to make it possible actually to see, and a lot of what is exposed is violent…For Bellows, other things he saw in the square were far more compelling than politics. After a hard-fought, high profile election campaign, the altercations—at least in Election Night—arise from primal human desires and urges, depicted as vital and course. Perhaps Bellows intended to evoke the violence that lay just beneath the surface of politics, especially in the recently concluded campaign. But, whatever he may have meant to imply, the real contest in Election Night is the fighting in the street…”

Bellows is an artist of La Comedie humain, or to borrow (anachronistically again) a film title, of High and Low, and nothing human is alien to him.


To enter these rooms filled with Bellows’ best paintings is to receive a forceful reminder of the inestimable value of public museums and to feel grateful to them, as well as to the foundations, donors, and curators who have restored a clear and present vision of his oeuvre. Outside of museums, and sometimes even despite them, it is rarely possible for the great unwashed to breach the vault of private ownership.

When I first visited the Columbus Museum of Art in the early 1980’s and happened on the permanent Bellows collection, I was struck dumb by the variety, meticulous execution and apparent authenticity of the world this Columbus native had depicted.

Seeing Polo at Lakewood (1910), I stopped and stared: What was happening here, who were these people? I saw an agony of horses and men, two teams of warriors. Of the left-side team of four, one of the horses is barely visible, while one, maybe two of the players are in danger of falling. There is a hint that something’s gone awry, the result perhaps of an underhanded maneuver by a member of the opposing team?


The genteel spectators dressed in white and black watch only the man on a black horse who is about to murder the wooden ball. The black horse’s difficult dance leaves a small cloud of dust. On the right hand periphery we see the back of the coachman, a funereal figure clad in formal black attire, with his top hat and the tip of his horsewhip clearly visible. The whip, like the one owned by Bellows’ father in the lithograph, Sunday Going to Church, is a symbol of power. Bellows powerfully paints his keen awareness of where power resides and where it does not. What the critics often overlook is that Bellows exposes not overt violence only, but the cruelty implicit in human relationships as well as the American caste system.


The action of Polo at Lakewood is riveting, a painting that captures motion so well, it can make you dizzy if you stare at it too long. There is also a sly kind of humor in the contrast between spectators and players. And, to quote a passage from the Met Museum’s excellent audio guide (in discussion of the painting, New York, 1911):

“It is no surprise that a painting like this coincided with the emergence of movies in America. The scene echoes some of the era’s earliest films, which for the first time captured people and vehicles in motion. It’s as though Bellows has tried to compress an entire moving picture into a single frame.”

I would apply the latter sentence to Polo at Lakewood, Stag at Sharkey’s, Both Members of this Club, and other works.

Bellows has a fine sense of humor and irony, and both were in evidence when, as David Park Curry informs us in his catalog essay, Life of Leisure: Polo, Parks and Tennis, 1010-1920, Bellows made a lithograph of Love of Winter “for his family’s Christmas greeting in 1917.” I say this because Love of Winter is not the pleasant winter scene it has been made out to be by Curry and many others, as I will show.


(An aside: Crowd at the Polo Game (1910 above), Polo Field (1920 Wash on Paper) and Polo sketchimages-3 (1921 below) present starker images that highlight more clearly the barely suppressed violence of the Polo game. Just look at the horse’s posture and expression in Crowd, and the horseman’s attitude of aggression, wielding his mallet like a deadly weapon.)

Snow Dumpers (1911) with its centurion-like figure on a horse; Blue Snow the Battery (1910);  and other paintings and lithographs I encountered in Columbus, grabbed me by the throat.

Snow Dumpers

Snow Dumpers

The museum had an exhibit catalog on sale, published in 1979, George Wesley Bellows, Paintings, Drawings Prints. The exhibit had traveled from Columbus to the Virginia Museum in Richmond, the Des Moines Art Center, and the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, MA. I looked at this book over and over. I still have it, but the glue has dried up, and the pages have come apart from the binding.

Blue Snow the Battery

Blue Snow the Battery

After my discovery of Bellows at the Columbus Museum of Art, I took every opportunity to see his work. I sought out Central Park, 1905 at the Faculty Club at Ohio State University. I saw Stag at Sharkeys at the Cleveland Museum and spent a long time staring at Love of Winter at the Art Institute of Chicago (The museum refused my heart-felt request to view My Mother, saying it was in storage and that was that). It was at a library at the University of Indiana, or it may have been Michigan State, where I sat for an hour or two reading through the 1928 Knopf edition of Bellows’ lithographs.

My Mother, 1921

My Mother, 1921

Sitting in the Skylight Inn in Columbus, Ohio on the evening of August 23rd, 1985, I wrote in my journal:

“I spoke with or at Everett Reese on the telephone the other day…I asked him if I could see River Rats, a Bellows painting he owns, and he said, ‘yeah, but I’m in and out so much, call me sometime. Interesting painting isn’t it?’

‘Yes’ I said, ‘I’d like to see it.’…”

I’ve left out an unkind word I scribbled then, because as an older and wiser man I understand that a wealthy collector might not want to open his house to an unknown person who has called him on the telephone. For all he knew I might have been scheming to blow a hole in his safe. But, I was impatient, and I wanted to see River Rats without having to wait six or seven months (or to observe a lot of formalities), which was when I planned to return to Columbus. River Rats was included in the 1979 exhibit catalog and identified Mr. Reese as its owner. It is also on loan to the Met Museum’s retrospective.

In those days my friend Alex Holzman, now the accomplished director of Temple University Press, was an innovative editor at Ohio State University Press, and my guide to the interesting places of Columbus, such as Thurber House, German Village, and others. No trip to Columbus was complete without a visit to his office that was, as I remember it, near a university cornfield and a gas station, or his house on Kelso Road in Clintonville.


If it weren’t for Roberta Smith’s lengthy and well-illustrated review of the Bellows’ retrospective in the New York Times, I would probably not have known about it, and since I am still smarting from having missed an evening with Jean Bellows Booth, the artist’s daughter, at the Columbus Museum of Art many years ago, I am happy to have caught the news in time.

And, while I give thumbs up to Smith for favorably singling out the “three dark, enigmatic paintings of the excavation for Penn Station from 1907—9” (and for citing Carol Troyan’s catalog essay, Life by the River, 1908—1912), I find her condemnation of the exhibit as “unnecessarily disappointing” baffling and arbitrary.

“The Bellows conjured in the Met show” she continues, “comes across as a talented and ambitious yet complacent artist, earnest and hard-working but often remote, an artist who frequently failed to work from that crucial point where criticality and desperation forge ambition and skill into something indelibly personal and expandable.”

“…there is a good chance” she asserts, “you will emerge from it [the exhibit] starving for truly alive art. I sure did…”

She finds the show lacking because it did not include more of the “…increasingly visionary plein air oil panels of rocky coasts, landscapes and ramshackle farms that Bellows painted from 1911 on, first in Maine and hen in Woodstock, N.Y….There are also numerous larger works that might have improved the show…”

It is always sad beyond measure to read of starvation in a land of plenty. To say the show is a failure because it includes few landscapes is like reading a volume of Shakespeare’s plays and faulting the publisher for leaving out the sonnets. But to be fair, she believes that “…too many of the canvases fall short of being convincing…” In other words, Smith has seen his best work and baldly states she thinks he is no good. My point is the “visionary plein air oil panel” lament is really just an afterthought, thrown in so she can slightly modify the expression of her visceral dislike of this particular artist.

I agree with her that Bellows WW I paintings are “propagandistic,” and that his later efforts are no match for his earlier work, but I heartily disagree with her offhand opinion that “summery images of white-clad figures at leisure in Central Park or watching a polo match resemble illustrations for Vanity Fair…”

This latter remark strikes me as a snap judgment, an unkind reference to Bellows’ early artistic life as an illustrator, and taken together with her “failed…criticality and desperation…” conceit, I am guessing she dislikes the fact that Bellows was never regarded as an outsider, and perhaps was not sufficiently bohemian to suit her taste. I believe the “criticality and desperation” comment ought to join “soapsuds and whitewash” in the curious file of critical judgments that famously miss the point.

Smith’s opinion of Bellows echoes the views of his harshest critics, judgments gently refuted by George Brock in the exhibit catalog.

But these matters mean nothing to me, because I am strictly interested in the work.


So, the retrospective catalog, together with the audio guide, open a wide window on Bellows’ work. Following are a few choice quotes from the audio guide, the text of which the museum was kind enough to send me:

1. “Bellows established a reputation for unflinching honesty. As a reviewer for the New York Daily Tribune put it in 1911: ‘He paints the city in undress.’ The reviewer went on to praise Bellows’s strong color and brushwork, “that in its swift force denotes the gesture of the athlete, not the athlete of the university gymnasium but the brawny roustabout of a New York wharf.”

2. “In 1908, a jury awarded Forty-Two Kids the prestigious Lippincott Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. But at the last minute they reversed their decision. A reporter asked Bellows if he thought the jury was uncomfortable with his depiction of naked boys. Bellows responded, ‘No, it was the naked painting they feared.’”

3. “I am not interested in the morality of prize fighting,” Bellows remarked. “But let me say that the atmosphere around the fighters is a lot more immoral than the fighters themselves.”

4. “Like other Ashcan artists, Bellows captured aspects of New York’s emerging modernity. But he was especially fascinated by its dualities: the tension between old and new, nature and industry, upper and lower classes. No other artist chose the kinds of subjects Bellows did—construction sites, dirty snow, dockworkers. He succeeded in finding remarkable scenes that revealed the dynamic physical, social, and economic change the city was undergoing. And he combined this startling realism with innovative compositions and sensuous paint handling.”

5. “In 1904, two city blocks—8 acres—were demolished to make way for the new Pennsylvania Station, a magnificent Beaux-Arts building designed by the architects, McKim, Mead, and White. Bellows produced five paintings of the project, focusing on the excavation, not the elegant architectural result. The vast, empty pit must have been an awe-inspiring spectacle—it upstages everything in the surrounding city. The laborers and their machines, indicated by quick daubs of black paint, barely register. They could be mistaken for the rocks and mud that surround them.

“The massive project was promoted as a symbol of technological advancement and human triumph over nature. In paintings like this one, however, Bellows emphasizes the raw, empty earth itself. His slashing brushwork conveys its primal energy. One critic wrote that Bellows had made ‘a stark, harsh, ugly, and powerfully felt portrayal of the . . . great gaping wound in the dirty earth. It is a picture to make rosewater idealism shiver and evaporate. But it is real. It is truthfully painted.’ Once the majestic building was completed, this massive hole in the ground should have been forgotten. But Bellows’s paintings are tributes to the creation of the modern city.”

I am not sure I would describe them as “tributes,” but that’s my only quibble.


Men of the Docks

Men of the Docks

Men of the Docks (1912), Carol Troyen tells us, “…is set on the far side of the East River, looking back at the tall buildings of lower Manhattan. The dark warehouses at left and the colossal ocean liner at right form forceful diagonals that converge on the city’s skyline, which appears luminous in the sun and mist. The image proclaims the city’s energy and achievement. But the group of longshoreman milling around in the immediate foreground presents a disconcerting counterpoint to the luxurious ocean liner they are waiting to unload…”

She also informs us that Longshoreman “were among the city’s least desired citizens” and, she says, “Bellows chose a relatively low vantage point, and the side of the ship is a massive wall, propelling the line of sight inexorably into the distance. The buildings across the water appear like a vision. Yet by showing one worker at far left about to walk off stage, and another with his back turned at the very bottom edge of the painting, Bellows brings the viewer into the group of longshoreman. The device creates an ironic distraction from the city of ambition in the distance, as if a photograph by Lewis Hine had been superimposed on one by Alfred Stieglitz.”

While the photographic analogy is strained, the mention of photography (and of “the stage”) is apt. Troyen’s eye is sharp, her outline of the painting’s elements superb. The painter does indeed bring us, perhaps not quite “into the group of longshoreman,” but alongside it, just as the steaming barge sits beside the ocean liner. The painting is animated by the human figures and the drama playing out among the men of the docks. The solitary figure in shadow at the canvas’s leftward edge holds a posture of shame. Most of the other men (and even the horses) appear to look beyond him at something surprising, perhaps appalling. Was he fired? Is he ill? The mystery presented by Bellows’ mise-en-scene in this and other works is riveting and, for me at least, when placed within the social and political context of his era, the source of his enduring power.

For me the question is always “what’s the matter?” What is playing out before our eyes?

And speaking of eyes, Robert Henri, Bellows’ mentor, says in his book The Art Spirit, “…In life one eye always dominates the observer. In painting this domination must persist.” On occasion Bellows took this one step further than Henri (if you look at Henri’s paintings and compare them with Bellows’ you will see what I mean), showing only one eye of his subject (the subject in profile) to express surprise or shock or as part of a caricature. You can see this clearly in The Men of the Docks.

You can also see the flesh-colored bollard about the size of a human head that separates the humiliated loner from the group suggesting (ironically of course) that these workmen are part of the very infrastructure that defines their work. The harnessed horses stand common ground alongside their human fellows. The horse with head held high bends his left leg slightly, just as the tallest man slightly bends his right. And in the midst of such a serious work Bellows’ sense of humor is evident in the anthropomorphic facial expression of that same horse.

“…In pictures” Henri says, “eyes should fascinate, arrest, haunt, question, be inscrutable, they should invite into depths. They should be remarkable…”


Nearly every writer who has ever written about Bellows calls him “restless.” I would call him inspired and energetic, and if he was restless it was because he was anxious to put down all he saw and knew and felt about the human condition, the humor, the pathos, and the horror.

Art critics have been playing hide-and-seek around the human drama of these paintings, but they are getting warmer.

“…As he so often does” says David Park Curry, writing about Easter Snow (1915), “Bellows sets up interplaying glances among characters in the picture.” Critics of Bellows’ work would do well to note this observation.


Curry describes the scene: “Despite the chilly weather, three rotund ladies clad in Easter-egg-colored silks toil up an icy path…The trio’s flimsy confections contrast with cold weather gear worn by other strollers…Lifting her skirts to avoid a puddle, the lead figure hunches forward on the path, glowering at two slim New Yorkers in long fur-trimmed coats who are walking a golden retriever. Positioned as witness figures that echo our own gaze, they wear no-nonsense fedoras instead of frivolous Easter bonnets, inviting viewers to share their amusement at the folly of Easter finery, just as Seurat mocked the pretensions of the well-dressed couple at the lower right of Grande Jatte.”

Missing from this cozy analysis is any mention of the three figures just below and to the right of the “rotund ladies.” Dressed in black, except for his ragged white collar, a young man stands against the black background of the park. Behind and below him, but clearly associated with him, is a woman and child. The woman appears to have no hat, the child is dressed in bright red, the color of alarm, a color that screams from the canvas so strongly does it contrast with the dominant blues and browns and white.

Thus, these three figures, suggesting want, provide an ironic contrast to the women who got caught outside without the proper clothing. To repeat Susan Schott’s words, these characters invite us to speculate. Is the young man asking for money? Are the “witness figures” offended by this request, or are they drawn by the clash in appearance between the ladies and the impoverished family?

The tall man in the black top hat, with his back turned towards the viewer and the poor, appears to be in company with the ladies, This is a complex picture indeed, and another painting in which the artist apparently included a likeness of himself. Bellows wears a brown coat (the same shade as the dog) and wears a hat similar in shape to that of the needy young man. As Bellows and his wife walk away from the scene, Emma looks back, another “witness figure.”

“In contrast” Curry says, “Love of Winter is filled with the sense of bonhomie that made Bellows a favorite among his fellow artists.”

Love of Winter

Love of Winter

But Curry is not the only critic blind to the content of what I regard as one of Bellows’ most dynamic, fascinating and successful works, an American masterpiece, if I am permitted to use such a hackneyed word. The retrospective’s audio tour describes Love of Winter (1914) as a “cheery scene of leisure…more typical of American Impressionism than of Bellows’s usual, grittier subjects. With rapid brushwork, he captures the skaters gliding across the pond and other charming vignettes: a mother takes her daughter’s hand, a man laces his skates, boys race across the ice…”

And here is how Love of Winter is described on the web page of the museum that owns it, the Art Institute of Chicago:

“In Love of Winter, Bellows captured the rapid movement of a crowd of skaters across a pond—like the Impressionists, he loved the pictorial challenges of painting snow in sunlight and shade. Although the foreground scene bears some resemblance to his contemporaneous views of Central Park, the mountainous background derives from another setting entirely, indicating that Bellows likely synthesized different views to produce the composition.”

So, this painting has often been described as a pleasant seasonal evocation, but let us go then you and I and turn a speculative eye on this mysterious scene enacted on a frozen pond in Central Park.

Three pairs of girls with their mothers or nannies dominate the fireground, people likely to be on an ice rink in Central Park. Above them towers a picturesque landscape of hills. Are these people having a wonderful time? The woman on the far left has her hand on the girl’s shoulder, and you can see from the girl’s attitude that something is wrong.

To the right of that pair is another little girl, dressed in red, and although we cannot see her face, she is looking at something, while her mother, who has turned her back to the pond, clasps the girl’s hand, trying to steer her away. But the girl’s body language says “look, mommy, look!”

What’s the matter? Does she behold a cheery scene of leisure and bonhomie?

No, she sees a violent skirmish and panic on the ice.

The figure in dark blue or black (a policeman perhaps), directly in line with the girl’s hat, is engaged in hand to hand combat with a man in white. The latter holds a weapon of some kind, a piece of iron, maybe a club. Just in front of the girl, and to her left, another man, at the edge of the ice and dressed in white with his back to us, is poised to enter the fray or flee.

Visible beneath the clasped hands of mother and daughter is a wide-eyed man, face and hat tinged with red. Whether he is warning the girl away, or looking past her for the arrival of help, makes no difference. His face expresses the urgency of the moment. He is part of a group of men, one of whom sits on the snow as he apparently laces up to join the fight.

Out on the ice, to the right of the mother whose back is turned towards the pond, a policeman with a nightstick painted white, is practicing crowd control. The figures of the women and children provide points of focus against the helter-skelter motions of the disheveled random figures on the ice, and the feel of a riot or crime scene is unmistakable.

The small girl in white on the right side of the canvas is clearly in distress and she seems to be accompanied by two women, one of whom is tending her. Behind the second woman, whose head is turned away from the pond, and almost at the very rightward edge of the painting, is the outline of another man wearing a glove and holding a stick, possibly another policeman.

As I imagined art historians and critics taking another look at Love of Winter, I thought of this passage about Louis Pasteur from The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, a book I read as a boy:

“…He watched them peevishly, he had an instinct they had no business there. There were processions of them hooked together like barges on the River Seine, strings of clumsy barges that snaked along. Then there were lonely ones that would perform a stately twirl now and again; sometimes they would make a pirouette and balance—the next moment they would shiver at one end in a curious kind of shimmy. It was all very interesting, these various pretty cavortings of these new beasts. But they had no business there!”

Charles Morgan, in his biography, George Bellows, Painter of America, quotes the music and art critic James Heneker, and here I have excerpted that quote: “For one thing he [Bellows]  is to be praised—he never sings the song of the oppressed. No pitying socialistic note spoils his virile art…labor is not precisely sacred, nor is it precisely a curse. It just happens, for mankind must eat, and in the sweat of his brow. Bellows shows the working man as he is.”

While Bellows’ art is not overtly political in any simplistic sense, to view his art as Heneker did is to miss the trenchant social and political dimension that makes his work astonishing, powerful and enduring. The enlightening and historic retrospective now about to close at the Met has gone way beyond Heneker’s view to give us a better appreciation of Bellows, but I believe the critics still have some miles to go. And it may be that George Brock and I disagree on this point, despite my epigraph quoting him, for to divorce Bellows from his kinship with William Glackens, George Luks and John Sloan, may serve to obscure the dimension I describe.

Perhaps in this time of violence, poverty, and a narrowing political sphere, universal blindness to the dramatic action of Bellows’ Love of Winter might serve as a metaphor for the paucity of contemporary American culture. In order to improve the state of our country, we must first recognize the violence and deprivation at its heart.


December 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

STRONG ADVOCATE, The Life of a Trial Lawyer by Thomas Strong, University of Missouri Press, Cloth, $29.95 294 pages*


It has been several months since I first read an advance copy of Tom Strong’s new book, “Strong Advocate, the Life of a Trial Lawyer,” but it has stayed with me, shaping my perception of daily life.

Walking down Clark Street, a few of blocks north of Foster Avenue, I saw a flatbed truck carrying two pieces of heavy machinery. The machines appeared to be improperly secured. I imagined them flying off their precarious perch and injuring or killing someone.  A young woman walking past me smoking a cigarette, or an SUV driver turning erratically around a corner while reading his cell phone, these and other common sights call to mind the kind of legal cases taken on by Strong.

In the book’s penultimate chapter, “The Great Tobacco Case,” the author tells the story of the more than five years he spent working for the state of Missouri to obtain a just outcome in litigation against “the wicked cancer-stick manufacturers.” While (then Missouri Attorney General) Jay Nixon chose to settle the case before trial, Strong had outlined his courtroom strategy:

“We were going to hit the destructive syndicate at its soft underbelly,” Strong explains, “its targeting of African-Americans, and we would do it before the most receptive audience possible, an African-American jury. I wanted to try the case and do away with the vile industry that was killing tens of thousands of my countrymen each year…”

Strong took this case despite the fact that few other lawyers wanted the job, as there was no guarantee of fair compensation.

Tom Strong wasn’t fooling around. As a life-long advocate for “people grievously wronged, in desperate need of justice” he has repeatedly put his time, ingenuity and money where his mouth is.

“This my calling” he says, “to drag manufacturers who feel no guilt, no compassion into court and expose their degenerate souls…automobile fan blades, tires, seat belts, seat backs, gas tanks, farm augers, railroad equipment, fishing boats, air rifles, earth bores, brush hogs, corn pickers, hay bailers, insulated extension life buckets (cherry pickers) and fork lifts were among the many products we exposed as unsafe. I, as well as other attorneys, brought changes in the way products were made…”

“Strong Advocate” is a coming of age story, a frank autobiography, and an informative tour of our legal system over the last fifty years. One need not be a lawyer, or a Missourian for that matter, to become utterly absorbed in this book.

Strong is an American original who believes in self-reliance, hard work, and the power of the individual to overcome adversity, but he is entertainingly unpredictable, and cannot be pigeonholed. The book avoids the sententiousness and self-aggrandizement sometimes evinced by successful people who have written books about their lives. The style is straightforward, and the occasional quotes from poems and historical figures lend this story of an “everyman” who succeeds a certain folksy authenticity.

Born to well-educated parents, his mother a teacher and his father an engineer at the beginning of what appeared to be a promising career, Strong and family were forced into poverty by the sudden, debilitating (and undiagnosed) illness of his father. They lived on the small income his mother earned teaching in a rural Missouri grade school. The author was in high school before his family could afford the luxuries of indoor plumbing, including hot running water, and a house without a leaky roof. Nonetheless, he recounts happy childhood memories of playing indoors and out, including the riding of an adult-sized bicycle that required the skill of a gymnast to mount and dismount.

High school offered him a chance to excel, and he was immediately attracted to debate and school politics. The joys of his accomplishments were overshadowed by the death of his mother from cancer just three days before graduation. A few days after the funeral, when he enrolled for the summer term at Southwest Missouri State College, his adviser asked him what major he intended to declare. He wasn’t sure. But when she asked him what he wanted to be when he graduated he had a ready answer: lawyer. The answer seemed to bubble up from a deep-seated source of ambition, and he surprised himself as well as his family, because up until that time he had always said he wanted to be a “preacher.”

He finished college in three years, all the while working odd jobs, selling the milk of cows he had bought and limiting his social activities in order to save money. In 1952 he entered the University of Missouri School of Law. In those days, he tells us, anyone could enroll in the “state-supported” law school and there were no tests or “undergraduate grade requirements.” But during his first law school course he hit a wall:

“All through grade school, high school, and college, with the exception of debate, I essentially did no homework” Strong admits, “I made good grades without ever learning to study…I had been physically active all my life, and reading unexciting cases or treatises put me to sleep…”

Over the next two years he taught himself to study, and by the time he reached his final year of law school he not only made good grades, he taught undergraduate courses and wrote two Law Review articles. He received a coveted student award and was interviewed by a prestigious New York City law firm.

I’d like to know more about how he overcame his inability to study, because he not only overcame it, but also came to be known as a lawyer who could out-study, out-prepare and out-perform any adversary. He learned the rule of “primacy and recency,” meaning  “you are inclined to be most impressed with what you hear first (the rule of primacy) and remember best what you hear last (the rule of recency),” adapting it to flout the expectations of opposing lawyers.

Strong practiced when the rule of “contributory negligence” governed Missouri law, meaning that the “slightest degree of fault” on the part of a plaintiff ensured his or her case would be dismissed.

Another impediment to a plaintiff attorney’s victory was what Strong calls “trial by ambush,” that is, for many years under Missouri law “there was almost no pretrial discovery…Lawyers marched into the courtroom not knowing what arguments would be advanced, what exhibits would be offered, what witnesses would be presented, or what expert testimony would be elicited by their adversaries.”

Despite all these difficulties Strong managed to win money judgments over and over again. He explains how he often went against the grain of conventional wisdom by ignoring the question of who was at fault in his opening arguments during an accident case. He would allow the defense to drone on, and then demolish his adversaries with his dramatic closing arguments, a tactic that worked in his favor every time. He would typically start with a narrative about his clients that emphasized their suffering and common humanity in order to win the sympathy of the jury.

In “The Malicious Tow Bar” we learn about how far this particular trial lawyer would go to prove his case about an unsafe product. Working in behalf of a young man who was paralyzed as the result of an auto accident involving a tow bar, Strong recruited a mechanical engineer (who happened to be his friend), hired a stunt man named “Crazy Max” and two cameramen, and set about recreating the accident. This also required finding a truck of the same make, model and year as the one destroyed in the accident.  Using this film he was able to make monkeys out of the lawyer and his witnesses who were defending Pilot, the manufacturer of the tow bar. The jury never saw the film because once the defendant’s counsel saw it the company begged (my word not his) for settlement.

Other chapters about fascinating cases include, “Love, Marriage and Fraud” which tells of a man who tricked his wife into signing divorce papers so he could keep his substantial fortune and buy a new life.  This one required Strong to be part lawyer, part Sherlock Holmes. “Growing Pains” includes the case of a faulty traffic light controller that caused a serious auto accident.  Strong bought the controller from the city of Harrison, AK,  recriuting a professor of electrical engineering to test the controller for 24 hours a day until the malfunction declared itself.

If there were legal hurdles to overcome, Strong also had his personal problems. He slept very little and was plagued by a recurring nightmare that he arrived late for a court date and was unprepared as the legal action unfolded around him.

Some of the most remarkable passages in this book come in the first and last chapters.

For much of the book, the reader is kept guessing about the philosophy behind the author’s political affiliations. For example, in discussing the murder of a truck driver, a “scab” named John Gault who was murdered by striking workers, Strong appears to express admiration for Ayn Rand. The driver had taken the name of Rand’s protagonist in Atlas Shrugged.

At another point in the book he refers to himself as “a yellow dog Republican,” and he makes it clear he had made contributions to a Republican senator with whom he became friends.

The last chapter, “Retirement and Beyond,”  describes in detail what had appealed to him about the Grand Old Party, and why he became disenchanted with it. Republicans like Ronald Regan and George W. Bush talked about “fiscal responsibility,” but when they gained office they “did not practice what they preached.” Like Strong’s passionate closing argument in a court of law, his final chapter is a damning commentary on the hypocrisy of the Republican political project. His analysis of the how “insurance companies and manufacturers” increasingly donated to Republican candidates who embraced their campaign for “tort reform” will make your hair stand on end. He outlines how pro-“reform” propaganda was used to persuade average people to vote against their own interests.

“When the argument of the ‘reformers’ was pierced to its nub,” Strong says, “it was clear it wasn’t the frivolous lawsuits they feared. It was the legitimate suit with the potential to reduce the dividends they could pay their stockholders.”

I’d like to end by quoting the first chapter, “What is a Trial Lawyer.” The Republican Party has spent vast amounts of money promoting the idea that “trial lawyers” are nothing but money-grubbing filers of frivolous lawsuits that impede progress and business and hurt us all. What a tonic it is to read Tom Strong’s words:

“In addition to the right not to be mistreated by our government, Americans have the right not to be injured or killed by the wrongful act of another. Trial lawyers seek redress for such wrongs. We are the voice of the sick and injured, who otherwise would have no voice. Because we speak for the injured our highways, skies, workplaces, and products are safer now than ever before. Because our clients are unorganized and have no lobby, we are their advocates in our state and national capitals. We fight for the week and the wronged in legislative halls and courthouses across our land. We have courage, ethics, character and integrity. Our wits, tenacity, talent and sweat our are weapons…”

He also points out that when Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare’s “Henry the VI” says, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” he says  this because he is “…an anarchist seeking to overthrow the government and knew that the first thing a potential tyrant must do eliminate freedom is to ‘kill all the lawyers.’ ”

I believe this highly readable book will help set the record straight about the value of trial lawyers to society. And I hope “Strong Advocate” inspires younger readers to emulate its author, and that the author in due course gives us a second book.

*This review was published in the December issue of The Missouri Trial Attorney, the magazine of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys.


November 28, 2012 § 4 Comments

Chicago is a city of many Big Shoulders, and my neighbor, Al Matanky, is a Big Guy. He wrecked the 100-year-old two-flat next door and built his dream house Big.

Al’s is the only house on this block with its very own driveway. Everyone else with a car and a parking space steers warily into the alley, watching out for vehicles, dogs, or hard-up people digging through trash. But, most of us either park on the street or don’t own a car.

Aside from a car, a garage, and a giant home, Al has two other things I don’t have: lots of moolah (he calls it “moo”) and a full head of hair.

Al spends his time in hospitals counting money, a great gig, he says, for an accountant like him.

“Not-for-profit hospitals?” he asks, raising his bushy eyebrows towards the sky, “Yeah right. You should see the piles of moo they bank in those foundations! I’ve never seen numbers with so many zeros.”

Al thinks the entire hospital biz is a scam. He spent ten years as a Chicago cop before he changed careers. You can see it in the way he stands, resting a hand on his belt as if it held a gun, in the way he stares you down when he talks, and in his powder blue shirts.

I’m 5’ 8”, bald, and live in the basement level of a three-flat. My wife sells second-hand books online and I write for a chain of neighborhood newspapers. We can see out our front window, but we can’t see too much: dogs moving past, delivery trucks, the blackness of Al’s Mercedes turning into his drive.

Al voted for Romney, but he knows that we voted for the O-man. Al might be right about hospitals, but when he says Obama won because bald guys like me put him over the top he’s dead wrong.

“Every guy I know who voted for Obama is bald, I can name names,” he says, running his hands through his ample, graying locks. “If I could get complete demographics of the bald population along with post-election voting data, I could prove it. Data plus the right software package, that’s all I need.”

Matanky claims men without hair are more sensitive to climate change, because they are vulnerable to extremes of temperature. Therefore, despite the fact that global warming is a hoax, bald folk were more apt to vote for Barack.

“Firing up your shiny-headed comrades was a brilliant strategy. You know the Romney team was no match for that kind of move!”

Matanky talked like that during the entire election season, as if I were David Axelrod without hair or mustache, running the Obama campaign out of my “garden apartment.” So that was bad enough, but the President’s win pushed him over the edge.

Yesterday, I was just out the door on my way to interview my alderman about animal control, when he spotted me and grabbed my arm so hard it hurt:

“Global warming, right? The hot sun on your hairless dome fueling your brain! Remember that scam with Solyndra? They got the government moo, went broke?  Guess what, we found out what was really going on. There’s a guy in Arizona on internet radio, he’s got the smoking gun. A large chunk of Solyndra cash went to a top secret baldness research program right there in Fremont! Even the military got involved. You’ll be hearing about that soon, believe me.

“Fremont’s got lots of Asians, and Asians don’t go bald, so they were paying them, testing them and doing research, hoping to please the baldness lobby right before voting time. Just like Romney said, everyone got their gifts, and they planned an early Christmas for the chrome-domed. Only problem was, they didn’t find the cure.”

His face was red and his eyes were on fire. He let go of my arm like he was throwing it away and started wagging his finger in my face:

“But you had to know all that. Why don’t you come clean and tell us exactly how it worked? Come on!”

I thanked Al for the information and told him I’d look into it, but that I didn’t mind being bald and would never let that influence my vote in any way. He took a deep breath and became a little calmer.

“It’s about time someone blew the whistle on these guys.” He backed away from me as he spoke. “And now, it’s all coming out. The bald, the lame, the gay, Hispanics, Blacks and radical feminists, they’re keeping that guy in office for another term when he should have lost and spent the next four years in the slammer! That secret research better find the baldness cure way before 2016 rolls around so there won’t be any bald folks left to vote bribe.”

He ran up the stairs to his multistory house, went inside and slammed the door behind him.

John Kass, The Chicago Tribune’s Man For All Seasons

November 13, 2012 § 5 Comments

John Kass

When newspaper columnists act like bartenders pouring out the talking points of their political party, they have failed to do their job. That’s one of the reasons I admire Paul Krugman of the New York Times—he thinks for himself. Steve Chapman, of the Chicago Tribune, also comes to his own conclusions and happens to believe in logic and the factual record, so, even though I often disagree with him, I find him worth reading.

There are other columnists at the Tribune I keep my eye on, including the venerable Clarence Page, Mary Schmich (who recently won a Pulitzer), Rick Kogan, and Eric Zorn.

John Kass, on the other hand, enjoys serving those party-sponsored sours to his readers. It’s true he mixes the hard stuff with his plain-spoken, Chicago tough guy persona, but the aroma of his breath is proof positive that he’s drinking and serving from the same nasty mash.

In the print edition of November 7, the day the front-page headline proclaimed “RE-ELECTED, Swing States Give Obama 2nd Term,” the former Columbia College film major offered up his trademark prose: “…He’s gone gray before our eyes. There are lines in that once-youthful face. He still flashes the smile, but it’s a hard smile and his eyes don’t smile much.”

Old steely-eyed Obama, flashing that hard smile!

By the way, how do you flash a hard smile? Sounds like the directions for one of those tortuous throat-strengthening exercises doctors recommend for people with sleep apnea.

Could it be that Kass’s elliptical style—the Kass code—is really a clever way of signaling his fans, a kind of wink that lets them know he is actually writing about something other than what he appears to be writing about? This could be a known unknown, or even one of the unknown unknowns that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned us about a decade ago.

Smiley Eyes w/ a Once-Youthful Face

Of course I, too, am disappointed Obama didn’t show the genuine warmth of a candidate like Mitt Romney, otherwise known as “smiley eyes with a once-youthful face,” whose compassion, to use a phrase worthy of Kass, “touched the hearts of millions.”

“He flashed the smile, but it’s a hard smile and his eyes don’t smile much.” Is this a subtle reference to the song, “When Irish eyes are smiling?” Is Kass telling us he wishes “Obama” were “O’Bama”?

“Irish Eyes” was written in 1912, a time Kass prefers to our own judging from his screed against public education in which he praises the ideal school, a charter school  “where 100 percent of the students graduate, and 100 percent are accepted to college. A Roman Catholic all-boys school that draws from poor and working-class neighborhoods, a school where there are no cops or metal detectors, no gang recruitment, no fear (italics mine).” And no girls right?

So, 1912 sounds good. The 19th amendment to the U.S. constitution that granted women the right to vote wasn’t passed until 1920. There was no real need to educate women then, and no need now. But maybe I’m being unfair.  Maybe John Kass, through his code, was trying unsuccessfully, like a telegrapher during a noisy thunderstorm, to communicate something that didn’t quite come through.

“Like me” Kass continues, “you may disagree with him and his yearning for all that hideous federal muscle. But, to be fair, you have to credit the man. He risked it all to do what he though should be done. And he won. Now, though, it gets worse not better. He’s going to have a difficult time governing after the kind of campaign he’s run. Obama’s re-election proved one thing true about American politics: Negative campaigning really works when you don’t have a record to run on.”

Phew, I take it back. I think Kass ought to stick to the GOP talking points, so that we might at least understand what he is saying. He might consider cutting and pasting from the RNC website.

“All that hideous federal muscle”? I have no idea what he is referring to, and neither does he, but he figures this empty phrase will please his Republican audience and bolster his ratings.

I use the word “ratings” because Kass recently started doing time as a talk radio host. This makes a lot of sense, because he shares ideology and a predilection for personal attack with people like Rush Limbaugh. He doesn’t write, he jeers, and he’s fond of name-calling, recently mounting, via his column, a gratuitous (and unexplained) personal attack against Governor Pat Quinn to whom he refers as “Gov Jell-O.”

Although Kass writes like a high school student struggling through an English class, he has the highest profile of any columnist at a major daily newspaper and no one can figure out why. Is there civil war among the Trib execs? Maybe those who wanted to endorse the Republican presidential candidate in the last two elections lost out, and the consolation prize was the use of Kass as a conspicuous editorial surrogate? Well, that explanation doesn’t wash given the fact that his special status as a Tribune columnist is nothing new.

The Kass column is usually listed under “news” as one of the major stories of the day, rather than under “opinion and columnists,” and his pieces appear four times a week on page two of the print edition. Apparently, he is considered a “news columnist” as opposed to a columnist columnist.

The Kass penchant for personal attack and his caricature of Democrats reminds one of the days when only Republicans subscribed to the Tribune, which was known for its primitive red-baiting under the ownership of Col. McCormick. If the Tribune wants to thrive in the Chicago market, this probably isn’t the way to go.

I am not suggesting that the Tribune brass pull him from the line-up, I am simply saying that his columns ought to appear with the others, and that the era of Kass-worship should come to an end.

But back to the November. 7th column: “He risked it all”? What did Obama risk? I honestly don’t know what Kass means.

And “negative campaigning really works when you don’t have a record to run on.”? The truism that negative campaigning works is hard to refute, but its effectiveness does not depend on a candidate’s record, but on how the negative advertisements and statements released by a particular campaign are received by the public. In Romney’s case, since he had no plans for the future that he cared to clue us in on, his negative campaign against Obama did not work.

So, Obama has no record to run on, but at the same time he’s a champion of  “hideous federal muscle.”? The fact is Obama has a record as a state senator, a senator, and four years as president while his opponent served one term as governor of Massachusetts.

Next we learn the Kassian definition of “negative campaigning”:

“Gone was the optimistic young fellow of 2008, soothing a nation with soaring messianic rhetoric, talking of great ideas. This time it was all about class warfare and race and gender cards and anger.”

“Race and gender cards…” Can I get those from Hallmark?

“Class warfare and race and gender cards and anger.” Say that ten times real fast!

Apparently, it doesn’t qualify as negative campaigning to call your centrist opponent a Marxist or a socialist, that’s just telling it like it is. And, according to Kass, it isn’t negative campaigning to deliberately hack a few words off a sentence and broadcast those words as if they expressed the candidate’s views as Romney’s campaign did with “you didn’t build that.”  In fact, “you didn’t build that” became the rallying cry and the theme for Romney’s entire campaign.

What was to prevent the Obama campaign from taking the following sentence, uttered by Romney about Paul Ryan during his RNC acceptance speech, to show that Romney wants to encourage cigarette smoking?

I love the way he lights up around his kids.”

“After all we have learned about the health hazards of smoking as well as the dangers of secondhand smoke,” The Obama campaign could have said,  “Governor Romney has shown either a shocking ignorance or an outright contempt for the well-being of the American public. His shameless embrace of the interests of tobacco companies over the health of our children cries out for rebuke at the polls in November.”

Allow me once again to treat Mr. Kass to an inconvenient fact: The Obama campaign never did anything even approaching the dirty trick that Romney pulled in taking that sentence about the building of the national highway system out of context and offering it as evidence that Obama is a Marxist, an extreme leftist out to destroy and/or take over the American free enterprise system. The latter has been a central theme in the anti-Obama propaganda war since he started running for president.

And “anger”? Where has Kass been for the last twelve years? A political party replete with Christianist  and anti-government fanatics is not angry? A political candidate who asserts that 47% of the electorate is made up of a bunch of weak-minded, free-loaders has no anger, and his heart is full of the milk of human kindness?

In the unlikely event you missed it, this is what Romney said: “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

And who might a white audience think of immediately when it hears about “victims” who are “dependent on government” and who are “entitled to….you name it” ? Does this evoke images of smiling Irish eyes? Or does it conjure up Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen”?

David Koch

As for class warfare, Kass has it backwards. It is his political party and their allies like Charles and David Koch who have been waging war against working-class employees, both public and private, not only in Wisconsin and Ohio, but all over the country.

No one bothers to refute Kass because he has been the Tribune’s darling for so long, and his columns are so fatuous that most liberals and progressives simply shrug or sigh at his inanities. Others have turned away from the Tribune entirely.

Now, let’s look at his assertion that Obama waged a “negative campaign.” Here are three examples (and no doubt there are many others) of things that our current president could have mentioned but didn’t go near, because, unlike his opponent, he chose to run a decent campaign. In fact, so polite was Obama during the first debate, that everyone agrees he was the loser in that contest:

1. Bainport. At the time of the debates a company in Freeport, Illinois called Sensata Technologies which had been purchased by Bain Capital, a company originally founded by Romney, was in the process of moving its operations to China, firing all its American workers, and forcing those workers to train their Chinese replacements. While Obama mentioned Romney’s investments in China during the final debate, he stopped short of emphasizing the human cost of outsourcing, nor did he mention what was going on in Freeport. He could legitimately have mentioned it, because Bain Capital was created by Romney to carry out just this kind of thing.

2.  Romney’s IRA. Obama could have raised the question of how Romney managed to stuff millions of dollars into his IRA given the legal restrictions on the amount of annual contributions.

3. Mormonism. He could have made an issue of Romney’s religion, or worked behind the scenes to raise doubt about it, because most people know very little about the Mormon faith.  But, he chose not to.

Next, Kass picks up the GOP talking point about Obama’s use of the word “revenge,” an innocuous public comment seized on by the Once Grand Old Party desperate to score points with the public.

At a rally in Ohio where workers booed a mention of Romney because of the false claim in a Romney campaign advertisement that Jeep was shipping jobs to China, Obama said, “No, no, no, Don’t boo. Vote. Voting is the best revenge.”

So, Kass and many others took the lead of the GOP and tried to blow this up to make Obama look mean-spirited or evil. Kass may write like an oaf, but he is a savvy fellow and knows how to get ahead. He also knows perfectly well what the president was saying and that “living well is the best revenge,” is a common expression dating back to 17th century England. The president said this in an effort to direct the negative emotions of the moment into something more positive. “Don’t waste your time yelling” he was saying, “do something that matters and go vote.”

But, because the word “revenge” had been seized on by the political party for whom he works, Kass made it the center piece of the November 7th column I have been discussing.

Kass describes congressional Republicans as “Obama’s whipping boys,” an absurdity that even Eric Cantor would probably dispute, since Obama’s preference for compromise (agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts for example) cost him support within his own party.

Obama’s “surrogates” says Kass, “accused Romney of all but infecting that steelworker’s wife with cancer and things got even more negative after that.” I guess a steelworker and his wife are so inconsequential that Kass doesn’t even bother to include their names in his column.

The fact that Kass refers to this incident without preface or explanation shows that he is writing for his fellow Fox news viewers, his base, not the broader Chicago public.

The Fox News website provides the background:

“The Priorities USA ad focuses on the story of Joe Soptic, a former worker at GST Steel. He was among those affected when the firm declared bankruptcy in 2001, following the takeover by Romney’s Bain Capital firm and other companies.”

Soptic and his wife lost their health insurance and his wife died of cancer in 2006.  I’ve watched the ad, and I see nothing wrong with it. What Soptic says about Romney having no idea of the devastating effects his profit taking has had on working people does not seem controversial to me. This is the kind of thing that results from leveraged buy-outs, when investors purchase a company, squeeze it like a lemon and go on their merry way.

“So” declares Kass, summing up his view of how Obama won, “it was revenge politics. Class war. Race politics, by proxy. A ginned-up ‘war against women’ all of it so he could rip up the American quilt he sewed in 2008 into pieces, and stitch it back together to win on Tuesday.” He forgot to add Karl Rove’s idea that Obama won by “suppressing the vote.”

It isn’t surprising that Kass, who thinks an all boys’ school presents a model of what American education ought to be about, is unable to imagine a Republican war on women.  He must also think that women are extremely stupid, falling for a political party that rallied them against a nonexistent problem.

Cecile Richards

Democrats did very well with women voters because the GOP does not support equal pay for equal work, nor a woman’s right to control her own body.

Let’s get back to the question of “that steelworker’s wife.” Kass may promote a “man of the people” image, that of a crusader battling the corrupt politicians (read Democrats) of Illinois in behalf of average folks, but this is faux populism of the sort evinced by Bill O’Reilly in his 2003 book, Whose looking out for you?

Kass pretends he is a friend of the little guy, but he is not. And he is very good at practicing what I describe as the Talk Radio Feint. This is when extremists at the microphone strike a vaguely conciliatory tone after a particularly nasty remark or string of offensive on-air comments. Part of the feint is to say, as Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have said, “I’m an entertainer,” so don’t take me so seriously. In the same way, Kass manages to serve up his reactionary drivel and then cover his tracks, and say “see, I’m Mr. Nice guy!”

Here is a quote from a Kass column entitled, “Thanks, Voters, for Caring Enough to Argue” which I found online with a date of November 7th, but which I was unable to find in the print edition:

“Thank you for opening those mouths and putting your lungs behind your words and ideas. Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Socialist, Tea Party conservative, Green Party liberal or a member of Occupy Whatever, your political leanings aren’t the issue here.

What matters is that you stood up and spoke your mind. Some called you racist or stupid. Some tried to embarrass you into silence by comparing you to a sex act. Others were portrayed as Stalinist sleeper agents hoping to force us into singing the Soviet anthem.

Still you kept hammering away, talking to your neighbors, going to town meetings and writing angry, insulting letters to columnists like me with whom you disagreed. Thank you. Yes, thank you.

Somewhere we got the idea that messy and angry politics is something to be avoided. Why, because it’s messy and angry?

That’s the sound of freedom. Our founders understood this. Unfortunately, some Americans forgot. They’re bothered by loud talk and arguments. And many of these people want low voices and no rough edges. They’ve been coerced to think that quiet is best…”

So, meet John Kass, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the good cop, and the bad cop rolled into a single package.

In his November 11th column, “No Tears of Joy when it comes Down to One Vote,” [print and online headlines differ] he says, “anyone who knows me knows that I’m a big crybaby. Especially at the movies. If the dog dies, well, just forget it I’m a plate of quivering Jell-O. [he must own stock in the company he mentions it so often] When the man asks the ghost of his father for a game of catch, I’m a blubbering fool. When the warrior makes the big speech before facing the legions of darkness, pass me the tissues…”

But when a steelworker’s wife dies of cancer after losing her health insurance because of a leveraged buy-out by greedy entrepreneurs, she is unworthy of his tears.

One of the best books ever written about the Republican political project, “The Great Limbaugh Con and Other Right-Wing Assaults on Common Sense” by Charles M. Kelly, was published in 1994, but Kelly’s words ring true today:

“Remember this about demagogues: they always support the values and moral ideals of the people they wish to seduce. They can’t be successful unless they come across as the victim’s friend. Therefore, Limbaugh never says that low or middle-income workers should pay higher taxes; he says that higher taxes on the rich will eventually hurt the middle-income worker. Instead of saying the powerful businesses should be able to pollute the environment, he says we shouldn’t allow government to strangle small  businesses with environmental regulations.

The most important thing that Limbaugh lies about, however, is that he claims to value those who work hard for a living. Actually, everything he talks about ends up benefiting those who work least for a living—those whose activities are focused on milking democratic capitalism for everything it is worth.”

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