the Insiders


October 20, 2011 1:31 PM

The Passionate Reader: October 20, 2011

As Charles Baudelaire put it, "A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors." And some of them also contain cautionary tales....

As Charles Baudelaire put it, "A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors." And some of them also contain cautionary tales.

rintintin.jpgSusan Orlean's "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend" (Simon & Schuster), of course, memorializes the great animal star. Rin Tin Tin was one of a litter of German Shepherd puppies which serviceman Lee Duncan discovered in a bombed-out kennel on a World War I battlefield in France's Meuse Valley. Rinty's first role was as a wolf in the 1922 film "Where the North Begins." Next came "Find Your Man," "Lighthouse by the Sea," "The Night Cry," "Tracked by the Police" and others. One of the dog's big hits was 1925's "Clash of the Wolves," in which he played an alpha wolf who is injured but nevertheless retains his status. In the Twenties, Orlean writes, Warner Brothers was paying Rinty almost eight times what the human actors he worked with were making. Meanwhile, Duncan had married his first wife, Charlotte Anderson, but the union faltered because of his obsession with the dog. She named the Shepherd as a correspondent in their divorce, as Orlean writes, "a role usually reserved for mistresses."

model.jpgVery different sorts of creatures turn up on film in "Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women" (Icon/It Books/HarperCollins) by Michael Gross. Hundreds of books have been written about models, but this is one of the very few good ones. And it's a reissue. The original tome was published in 1995; the new one includes an afterword. Gross skillfully fleshes out the history of the profession here. His descriptions of the early days of modeling and its first stars, Jinx Falkenburg, Anita Colby, Dorian Leigh and Suzy Parker, are particularly compelling. Gross describes the agencies, from John Robert Powers to Ford, Elite, Next and beyond. There are tragic tales, like that of the doomed Gia Carangi, a cover girl who became a drug addict and died of AIDS (providing Angelina Jolie, however, with a great vehicle in the TV film "Gia"). But there are plenty of triumphant stories, too.

brightyoungpeople.jpgD.J. Taylor's book, "Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) also mixes glamour with its opposite, bringing to life the world of the pretty young things of the Twenties and their endless fetes, as Evelyn Waugh famously described them in "Vile Bodies": "Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Russian parties, circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John's Wood..." Waugh, in fact, belonged to that set. Some of its members -- like Waugh, Cyril Connolly and Robert Byron -- transcended the frenetic socializing to become accomplished writers. Others, like Brian Howard, never wrote the books they were always talking about, or succumbed, like Brenda Dean Paul, a famous party girl of the age, to their excesses.

deathinthecitoflight.jpg"Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris" (Crown) by David King takes us to a much more sinister world. It's difficult to understand why this remarkable episode of life during the Occupation has never been written about, but King does a creditable job of filling the void. The killer of the title was Marcel Petiot, a doctor who was handsome and charming, but who had also spent periods in asylums. In March 1944, foul black smoke began belching from a house he owned in Paris, and investigators on the scene found something completely unexpected, an abattoir with what appeared to be pieces from a number of corpses. Body parts had also been showing up recently in the Seine. It turned out that Petiot had been telling people that he could help them leave the country for destinations such as Argentina; he had them come over with his fee (which was relatively low) and all their valuables, and said he would take care of everything. But they never left.

In "The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington" (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks), Jennet Conant writes about a considerably more upbeat topic, a group of attractive young men who had been sent to Washington by the British to serve as intelligence agents after the outbreak of the Second World War. The idea was that they would befriend prominent people, then find out and convey information as well as possibly influence public opinion. Dahl, who at the time was a very handsome and dashing 6-foot, 7-inch fellow whose career as an RAF pilot had ended with a plane crash, was initially not very keen on his new assignment, but soon got into the spirit of things. Mentored by Texas newspaper tycoon Charles Marsh, he attended parties given by the likes of Evalyn Walsh McLean, spent time at the Roosevelt compound and dated Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers, French actress Annabella, who was married to Tyrone Power at the time, and Clare Boothe Luce. Dahl also started his writing career with a series of short stories.

myqueerwar.jpgAmerican writer James Lord had a very different World War II experience, which he writes about in "My Queer War" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Lord, who became the biographer of sculptor Alberto Giacometti and also wrote "Picasso and Dora" and other books, enlisted in the Army at 21 in 1942. Expecting to go into combat, he found himself assigned to military intelligence. In Europe, he became an interrogator at prisoner-of-war camps. At the same time, he began to explore his own sexuality, and he gives a remarkable picture of gay life long before don't ask-don't tell. A bar at Boston's Hotel Statler, for instance, was full of servicemen looking for other men, and he had some pleasant, brief encounters. Later, in Dijon, France, when he turned down a handsome captain who took him out to dinner, then made a pass, Lord found himself reassigned to more dangerous duty in Mannheim, Germany. As an aspiring writer, he could be notably audacious, writing about his philosophical musings to Thomas Mann (who responded); in Paris, showing a manuscript of his highly melodramatic novel to Gertrude Stein, and calling on Pablo Picasso, then asking the artist to do a pencil sketch of him, for which he had thoughtfully provided the pencil and the paper. These were encounters that would shape the rest of his life.

Mitchell Zuckoff, for his part, discovered a little-known episode of the war in the Pacific, and he wrote about it in "Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II" (Harper/HarperCollins). Although the subtitle is rank hyperbole (I thought that Dunkirk was the most incredible rescue mission of the war), it's nevertheless an interesting book. On May 13, 1945, 24 American servicemen and WACs went on a sightseeing flight over a remote, inaccessible valley in New Guinea, a trip which ended very badly. The plane crashed, killing all but John McCollom, Kenneth Decker and Margaret Hastings. Only McCollom was uninjured. Planes were searching for them; within a few days, they were able to signal one. Soon a pair of paramedics parachuted in, along with a group of nine soldiers. Meanwhile, the survivors had made contact with the local natives. Rescue involved gliders towed by a plane.

thehare.jpgIn "The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance" (Picador), Edmund de Waal, a celebrated ceramicist, tries to learn how the 264 pieces of netsuke he inherited from his great-uncle Iggie, a member of the Ephrussi banking dynasty, had survived World War II and the Holocaust. But this lyrical, utterly engaging book isn't really about small carvings. Instead, De Waal uses their history as a way to reconstruct the 19th and early 20th-century worlds of his clan, whose wealth rivaled that of the Rothschilds with branches of their businesses in grain, shipping and banking in Odessa, Saint Petersburg, Vienna, Paris and London, and whose members were patrons of the arts. The netsuke were originally collected by Baron Charles Ephrussi, who owned 40 Impressionist works, and may have been Marcel Proust's model for the titular character of "Swann's Way." The vast Ephrussi house on the Ringstrasse in Vienna -- a treasure trove of Louis XV furniture, Gobelin tapestries, Renaissance cabinets and Old Master paintings -- was ransacked by the Nazis after the Anschluss. De Waal's great-grandmother Emmy, who'd been a society beauty, committed suicide, and it was only because of the skill and daring of his grandmother Elisabeth de Waal -- a lawyer -- that his great-grandfather Viktor, who'd been forced to sign over his business for a pittance, was able to escape to London. As for the netsuke, they were rescued from their cabinet by a family servant, Anna, who stayed on in the Ringstrasse house. She had to help the Nazis pack its contents, but each day, she took a few of the carvings from their cabinet and hid them in her mattress, and she returned them to Elisabeth after the war. Edmund, however, never learned Anna's last name.
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