John D. MacArthur ---
Empire Builder, Reluctant
Relentless Adversary

Nancy Kriplen
John D. MacArthur made a zillion dollars in the time-honored American fashion: filling mailboxes with the usual hype, advertising loudly (and, sometimes, misleadingly), and, since he was selling insurance, dumping the claims for injuries and death in the trash while depositing the premiums immediately. He also bought up the competition mercilessly, driving many of them into his arms by virulent price-cutting, and, most typically, screwing his workers to the wall.

Like Goodwill, he hired the handicapped long before it was popular, but for a simple and practical reason: "employers often received government salary reimbursement." Later --- like many political conservatives --- he took advantage of a federal program, CETA, which paid the salaries of those who were considered too marginal to employ. In MacArthur's Bankers Life and Casualty building, "basement ceilings were unusually low, only four and a half to five feet tall. Bankers was still able to make this usable space, however, by hiring dwarfs as custodians."

    It was an amazing sight, said employees, to see them marching through the building at night, gunnysacks of trash slung over their shoulders.

America being America, we think of people like MacArthur as being quaint, interesting, or funny. We praise them for their operating systems, quote their cynical remarks, even marvel at their selfishness. Eccentric Billionaire is supposed to be a tell-all of John D. MacArthur, but it ends up more a monument to a little man with bad taste and a penchant for suing the pants off anyone who stood in his way.

MacArthur loved sneaking around any government rules designed to protect customers, and --- even at the time of his death --- was involved in bitterly contested cases with the Federal Trade Commission (misrepresentation of "waterless land" for sale in Colorado), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (hanky-panky over a development in Florida called "Holley by the Sea.") In keeping with our national tradition of honoring rich scalawags, he received several awards from federal and state governments. One of his last public appearances was at the White House, guest of President Gerald Ford, to meet Queen Elizabeth II. Her thoughts of him have not been recorded.

Evidently, what has won the hearts of America to this scoundrel was the fact that he operated his various businesses out of the coffee-shop in the Colonnades Beach Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. Despite MacArthur's supposed pepper, this is a lackadaisical account of the man and his fortune and his suits --- legal and plaid (he liked tartans). The author worked long enough at Time Magazine to discover how to boil things down, making them into your standard oatmeal. But the most fascinating story is not how MacArthur bullied his way to the top, but how the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation --- now worth some $5,000,000,000 --- came into being, and came to do what it does.

It was incorporated in 1963 not to better the world, but to play to his mania: the avoidance of taxes. The irony is that the Foundation came to fund some operations that are not exactly what would be on John's Love-List (one of their first grants went to Amnesty International). This turn-around is not detailed sufficiently in Eccentric Billionaire. The early board of the foundation included the crank radio commentator Paul Harvey. How in heaven's name it came to be the funder of professional screwballs and fruit-bats is not explored.

In addition, the author refers to John's salty tongue, but gives only a few examples of his tartness. We certainly could have used some more salt and pepper in the text.

--- Leonard Good

Bill Mauldin
A Life Up Front
Todd DePastino
Meanwhile, for a real biography of a real person with a real mission, you might look into Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front. He was the WWII cartoonist.

We learn from DePastino's biography that Mauldin's fame and wide circulation came about from several improbable but happy circumstances. The first was born of disaster: the U. S. military's mismanagement of "the Italian Front" in WWII, which cost 500,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of cases of injury, alcoholism, and madness.

For the first time, the Pentagon decided to issue pictures and stories that would show the ugliness of war. Before the winter of 1943, war was "dashing sailors, 'gung-ho' marines, glamorous fliers, and members of elite units, such as the Rangers and the Airborne." So, despite a few initial setbacks --- such trifling matters as the fall of Europe, the destruction of the base at Pearl Harbor, and the loss of the entire Pacific Theatre --- the American public had a feeling of unending success.

But after the victories in North Africa came a string of disasters in Italy. Chief of Staff George C. Marshall told his publicists to show materials that would "vividly portray the dangers, horrors, and grimness of War."

    Plenty remained to be done. It would not do for the public to grow impatient with wartime rationing, bond drives, housing shortages, family dislocations, and wage and price controls.

Mauldin's rise to fame "coincided with this liberalized censorship policy." By age twenty-two, he had wormed himself onto the staff of the army newspaper Stars and Stripes. Because of public policy --- let's make war real for the people back home --- his style, not to say his career, turned him into a hero for the soldiers who were fighting at the front. It also put him beyond censorship.

The irony of the bitter banter of soldiers mired in muck, always at risk, appealed not only to the lowest soldiers but others here in what they called the "homefront." What I most remember from his cartoons were the cigarette-smoking, worn-out, resigned, sullen soldiers. "I'm beginnin' to feel like a fugitive from th' law of averages," says Willie --- unshaved, bleak-eyed, obviously filthy. Both he and his equally battered buddy Joe are resting in a fox-hole, surrounded by debris of war, collapsed houses, shells.

Mauldin never showed bodies, nor did he ever show characters actually shooting guns. His "cartoons" --- somehow, the word feels wrong --- were at the entr'act. It was always the back and forth between those caught in a bitter, hopeless, violent world. We might see Mauldin's soldiers, perhaps, as Samuel Beckett heroes. Willie and Joe, unloved, in the foxhole of life, under fire, always under fire, somehow keeping on, despite the futility of it all.

I picked up Bill Mauldin expecting just another hagiography. It might be such. But in the process of telling us about his life, DePastino gives us a double bonus. First, there is a sense of the tremendous accomplishment of a man who started with nothing and survived, survived bravely, in a world of immense suffering. He was always in and out of the front lines, never held back, was once wounded (which guaranteed his fame as a certified observer of the fire-zone).

Second, DePastino gives a picture of WWII that is rare. Those of us who lived through it from afar ended up idolizing the generals who, we were convinced, won it so nicely. Yet we find out here about the massive screw-ups by a massive military bureaucracy. It is an eye-opener to those of us who were too young to be involved but not too young to be awed.

It is estimated that for every five soldiers in the field, in battle, at the front, the U. S. army carried ninety-five "support personnel." And many of these at their desks in Washington or back --- 'way back --- from the trenches, were universally scorned by those who were taking the fire. Mauldin and a few others (like Ernie Pyle) were the sole representatives of the powerless 5%.

The cover photograph shows what appears to be a sixteen-year-old boy in a Government Issue uniform, a youth "in need of three haircuts," according to one friend. That's Mauldin, in 1944 ... a mere kid who handily fended off censorship: General George Patton --- among others --- tried to silence him. One reporter inquired about "the beards, vacant stares, and ragged look of his characters." Mauldin said,

    I was 18 when I joined the Army. I knew a lot of these kids then. Now, after they've been through a couple of campaigns, after being in the line for weeks, they're old men. The poor guys have changed so that I hardly recognize them.

One who is unfamiliar with Mauldin should start on page 157 with the ten cartoons presented there. He knew how to put bold figures on a page. He was also an impressive journalist. Mauldin's telling of his meeting with General Patton is a jewel. The General was intent that the characters in the cartoons be spiffed up. No more hands in pockets, cigarettes dangling from lips, unshaved countenances. This is what, years later, Mauldin wrote about that téte-à-téte; one can feel the cartoonist's gears meshing and turning as he took in the scene:

    His hair was silver, his face was pink, his collar and shoulders glittered with more stars than I could count, his fingers sparkled with rings, and an incredible mass of ribbons started around desk-top level and spread upward in a flood over his chest to the very top of his shoulder, as if preparing to march down his back, too. His face was rugged, with an odd, strangely shapeless outline; his compressed mouth was sharply downturned at the corners, with a lower lip which suggested a pouting child as much as a no-nonsense martinet. It was a welcome, rather human touch. Beside him, lying in a big chair, was Willie, the bull terrier. If ever a dog was suited to master this one was. Willie had his beloved boss's expression and lacked only the ribbons and stars. I stood in that door staring into the four meanest eyes I had ever seen.

--- Leonard Good

A View of
The Ocean

Jon de Hartog
De Hartog's Dutch mother survived imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp, in Java, from 1942 - 1945. She was but one of hundreds of thousands of colonialists caught up in the hostilities in the Pacific, and ended up being one of the victims the brutal Japanese war machine.

De Hartog himself lived underground in Germany, Holland, France in a world turned upended, a place run by hooligans. "Maybe only the inhabitants of countries that have known enemy occupation are able to recapture the apocalyptic feeling of the end of civilization that was prevalent in those days."

    Those of us who witnessed it happening experienced the incredulous feeling of unreality that the citizens of Rome must have had when their city was destroyed by the barbarians, that the members of the French aristocracy must have experienced when the revolution massacred them, that the inhabitants of Hiroshima must have experienced when their city was turned from a bastion of invulnerability into a funeral pyre.

"This experience of having witnessed the end of a world was the questionable privilege of the Western Europeans who survived World War II and, until very recently, the reason why it would have been hard to convey to the American reader."

This experience, of losing the whole world of his youth is the source of his suspicious nature; he is suspicious of all leaders, all political parties, even of words. And now, with the experience of his dying mother, the medical profession.

She and thousands of others were repatriated to Holland at the end of the war, returning "toothless, haggard, and lame, with only a patched dress, a head scarf, and a haversack to call her own." The reader is led quickly from this reunion into her last days, when she began to deteriorate from abdominal cancer.

§     §     §

I try to think back on the literature of dying, once so rare, now so common: those books of pain that now flood the marketplace, purporting to tell the truth of dying, lingering death, the exquisitely awful deaths of children, mothers, fathers, grand parents. I've laboring through many of these (I am now old; is this what my own dying is going to be like? Is there anything I can do to prevent such a going?) After all these, I have yet to run across one that has touched me as much as A View of the Ocean.

For it is not only a story of the agony of watching a life --- a good life --- leak away, but the a tale of a body trying to abolish itself, a body caught up in the ultimate war. "Anyone who doubts that there is a power of evil afoot in this universe need only be present at the lingering death of a patient afflicted with my mother's disease, if treated the way she was treated."

    Even the Gestapo in its heyday could not have thought of variations of torture with more diabolical inventiveness.

This is not a judgment of someone locked in grief over a dying mother; this is a man who lived through the worst of Nazism ... and he is here comparing her suffering to the millions who suffered so under a vicious political system.

There is much great writing here, writing that cannot and should not be paraphrased by a mere reviewer. It is impossible for one to write of the torture of a good woman being torn from her life without turning maudlin, sentimental. Inevitably, we are faced with the ultimate existential question: Why should a saintly person, one who had never done anybody any harm, who had --- in Java --- by sheer will, saved many a life, suddenly be forced "to die like that, like a dog driven over by a mowing machine?"

De Hartog is seeing, after a lifetime of pain, the senselessness of pain. We have here a brave woman, one who has been unflinching, even during the four years of the basest treatment at the hands of the Japanese, now being driven mad ... not by the enemy, but by her helpers. "My first thought was that a psychiatric patient had broken loose and found his way into her room; when I threw open the door and stood on the threshold, I found her standing up in her bed,"

    shaking, growling, with bloodshot eyes, her sweat-soaked hair matted on her forehead, her soiled nightgown torn to shreds. "Oh God, dear God, help me, help me, I cannot wander about this town any longer."

There is a wise man who appears towards the end to save this woman (and the author) from further torture. It comes from a doctor --- a doctor mostly scorned by his profession --- who had himself lived through the German occupation; a friend who had developed a simple, direct (and startling) view of the duties of the family of the dying.

De Hartog has been nursing his mother for weeks. Doctor Hans says, "You have no business being there ... give that marvelous, wonderful woman a chance to die in peace!"

    "I've seen it happen too often in the country. Only when the family has the good grace to turn away, at long last, will the patient die in peace and privacy, the way she's supposed to."

§     §     §

There are three stalwarts here. De Hartog's saintly mother, Doctor Hans, and George Fox. The title of the book is taken from Fox's diaries. In 1647, he wrote,

    I saw that there was an ocean of
    darkness and death,
    but an infinite ocean of light and
    love flowed over the ocean of darkness.

--- Leonard Good
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH