The Life
Of John D
Rockefeller, Sr

Ron Chernow
(Random House)
Well, we made it to page 291 out of a possible 769 on this one (and it lay on our bed table for many days between our onslaughts). As we marched through this jungle of ho-hum facts, we were wondering about what could possibly be the fascination with Abderites like Rockefeller, and their miserable place in American history. Outside of some hapless graduate student, or a reviewer (the perseverance of a saint, the patience of an angel) --- why would anyone be required to read these tedious, even-handed descriptions of such a tedious personage? Sure, he was rich in ways that you and I can scarcely imagine; sure he trampled on thousands of small-time entrepreneurs (not to say millions of commoners) to get rich. He said that he made his fortune because god wanted him to be rich; further, he said that he was just doing it "The American Way."

He made his first fortune on kerosene (before cars, home lighting was the great user of petroleum products). He quickly threatened or bought out the competition --- not so much in production: anyone could dig a hole for oil --- but in transportation and refining.

He was a fervent church-goer (Northern Baptist), which meant he had a powerful interest in the anti-slavery movement, and did, generously, support schools in the south for poor black women. Damn near his sole good act (at least by page 291).

There were endless prayers in the morning, before supper, and, presumably, just before going to the office to jerk around his competitors. As with modern oligopolists, he rarely committed controversial business decisions to paper, making historian's jobs a bit dicey at best --- and pretended to be an innocent bystander in the threats and competition-destroying acts carried out by Standard Oil.

His style was similar to that of Josef Stalin --- take care of details, always look over your shoulder, and keep endless 3X5 cards --- listing friends and loyalists, and traitors and enemies --- especially detailing what your enemies are about. Further, always leave a handful of enemies in business, so no one can accuse you of completely destroying the opposition.

Physically, as he aged, his looks began to resemble the truth of his soul: pinched, cruel, and vulturine [see Figs 1 - 3].

His first few jobs were as accountant, and to the end of his life, he wanted to see, on paper, where the $$$ were coming from, and where they were going. But in truth, and certainly more than Stalin, Rockefeller was a serious nit-picking bore. He read the bible noisily, sang loudly in the church he built, and then went out, immediately afterwards, to impale his customers and his competitors in that dark place where most of us are so very sensitive.

Those who think they want to make a billion might study Titan and probably learn that to make it in America, you have to

  1. Be a tedious bookkeeper-detail man,
  2. Stick it to your competition without mercy, and
  3. Prepare to look like a ghoul as you approach the grave.

Patrice Debré
Translated by
Elborg Forster

(Johns Hopkins)
When we were tads, the name of Pasteur was always given to us as the doctor who made it so we wouldn't die when Fido decided to foam at the mouth and chow down on us. And those of us who had to go through the shots to protect us from rabies (twenty-one --- directly in the tum: OW!) Pasteur was the man who, bravely, fighting his ignorant peers, created the miracle of the anti-rabies drug.

Well, now we find out from Louis Pasteur that he wasn't a doctor at all --- but rather, a chemist. That his great contributions weren't necessarily for rabies (it was then, and remains now, a fairly rare disease). His first fame was, if you will believe it, for his work on diseases of silkworms and (as his grandson said), his most important discovery was "the asymmetry of chemical crystals."

Yes, many of his peers were pig-headed, but we have to remember that in the mid-19th century, there were a million quacks out there pretending to cure everything from phlebitus to piles. And like other testy people --- hell, like the rest of us --- Pasteur managed to create his enemies. He was a non-stop, vociferous defender of his works, and would drop everything to answer some obscure criticism of his work not only in France --- but in the rest of the world as well.

He was careful. All experiments were carefully controlled --- and Pasteur would sit just behind his workers to be sure everything was done carefully, and to write down the results. In fact, the "scientific" experiment --- premise, trial, result, and careful records --- was probably brought to it's earliest high art by Pasteur. There were constant battles not only with his enemies in the medical establishment (who were quick to point out that he was nothing but a lowly chemist) but among his own peers as well.

As Debré points out, the discovery of the anti-rabies injections was barely announced when his laboratory at Rue d'Ulm was besieged with anguished parents whose children had been bitten by rabid dogs or wolves. And the question was --- one that has haunted medicine before, that still haunts it --- should a relatively untested but hopeful drug be used, even though it may not be effective or, worse, may induce other effects as bad as the disease it was designed to counter. This was an especially cruel paradox for Pasteur, for, as Debré points out:

    Rabies has always filled the popular imagination with obscure and excessive dread. The savagery of this unknown evil, hidden by the tall trees of the forests, lurking under hedges and around the bend of a sunken path, has left indelible marks in popular culture. Who has never heard of these enraged animals, howling of death with bloodshot eyes, foaming at the mouth, and ready to pounce on the hand that comes close? Rabid beasts --- dogs, foxes, or wolves, wild or domestic --- roaming the countryside truly became objects of terror and malediction. For their disease could be transmitted to man. Their bite was deadly and the disease terrible. It brought days and weeks of anguish, and an agony preceded by atrocious suffering, for the incubation period was very long. Moreover, and this was perhaps even more disquieting, in addition to the rabies of panting and trembling animals shaken by spasms and as furious as they were aggressive, there was also the silent or "mute" rabies, in which the anxious and withdrawn animal licked the friendly hand that came to comfort it and installed in it the poison of its infected slaver.

The style of Louis Pasteur can be a bit off-putting, as if the translator were stuck with the problem of getting French translated as written without overwhelming the reader with the conflicts of the language --- but anyone with an interest in back-stabbing in general, and the history of medicine (and especially, the technology of medicine) --- would do well to give this one a gander.

New Orleans

The Siege of a City,

Garry Boulard

Because we came to know Huey Long through All the King's Men, we were always sort of fond of the old bastard. We thought him a little harsh, but, basically one, like FDR, who cared for the Little Folk.

Boulard has given us a chance to rethink this romantic view of a man who (it turns out) was a true up-and-coming tyrant, riding the crest of the extreme poverty of the depression, and the foolish backwardness of the existing establishment to build a quasi-dictatorship.

Huey was the hero to the poor country folk of not only Louisiana --- but of the nation (his "Share The Wealth Clubs" had 8,000,000 members nationally in the mid-thirties, and he received more than 30,000 letters a day). The more sophisticated folk of New Orleans knew that he was dangerous, and were determined not to let him take them over.

Now as with all of the United States, the rights of the cities are granted by the states --- and Huey used this fact to pass a series of laws between 1934 and 1936 (over 200 in number) which vitiated the civic power of Mayor T. Semmes Walmsley --- what a handle, eh? --- and which, further, destroyed the effectiveness of the city, and virtually brought it to a standstill. Because of this internecine warfare, the federal government had to hold up its contributions to the welfare of the city. Not satisfied with that, Huey brought in the Louisiana National Guard to train their armaments on city hall, and --- in effect --- lay siege to the duly elected civil government.

Long was funny and never lost an opportunity to show his comic side --- he once greeted reporters in his suite at the Mayflower in Washington, DC, in a purple dressing gown --- but he was unscrupulous and probably megamoniacal as well. If he hadn't been assassinated, he would have been a fearful power to deal with in the late 30's --- a fact that was not lost on Roosevelt (who was preparing his own armaments to bring down Huey).

For those of us who love the comedy of Democracy gone awry (thus, the history of Democracy) this is a fascinating work, and for those of us who grew up on the machine politicians of the south --- Pendergast, Talmadge, Bilbo, and what was called "The Long Machine" --- Huey Long Invades New Orleans is non-stop reading.

--- Carlos Amantea
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