Author Archives: Keith Muchowski

The papers of Chester A. Arthur

I was back at the Library of Congress today. I was looking for some information about Chester Arthur and so began my search in the Presidential Papers indexes. Arthur, like all of the Gilded Age presidents, has been forgotten by history. This is unfortunate because the chief executives sandwiched in between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt have more to tell us than we realize. Arthur lived less than ten block from the Roosevelts and knew them well. All were members of the Union League Club for one thing. They were also political friends and foes over the years as circumstances varied.

A portion of what remained of Chester Arthur's papers were stored in his Manhattan home at 123 Lexington Avenue in the 1880s and 1890s before disappearing.

After Arthur’s death a portion of what remained of his papers were stored in his Manhattan home at 123 Lexington Avenue before disappearing for good.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of the Chester Arthur story is that the former president had the bulk of his papers destroyed while he lay on his deathbed. Apparently three trash cans full of material were destroyed the very day before he died in 1886. The family kept a few things while the small remainder was sent from Washington to the basement of his New York City house.

There have been some first rate biographies of Arthur over the years but the full story will never be told. I had known the story of the Arthur Papers for many years, but it was struck home this morning when I saw his index in juxtaposition to Theodore Roosevelt’s.

I took the photo below this morning for comparison. On the left is the full record of Arthur’s papers in the Library of Congress and on the right is Roosevelt’s.





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Filed under Chester A. Arthur, Libraries

Uncle Bob

Theodore's uncle and neighbor, Robert B. Roosevelt

Theodore’s uncle and childhood neighbor, Robert B. Roosevelt

I was in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress earlier today looking at the Theodore Roosevelt Papers when I came across something fun. It was a letter that Theodore had written to his father’s brother, Robert Roosevelt. What was so neat about it was that the letter was of the “catch up” variety. Theodore, though now president, was sending off a quick missive the way one does with family. Today it would have been an email.

Theodore Roosevelt wrote well over 100,000 letters in his lifetime to people of all walks of life. Some of the letters Roosevelt wrote to his children over the years were written with the idea that they would be published some day. And indeed some of them were. The diaries of political figures are often written in this same way.

Roosevelt quick note, which he sent off in 1902 less than a year after becoming president if I remember correctly, was not in that spirit. It was just a note to “Uncle Bob” saying they would all have to get together and catch up when they all had the time. Coming across the letter 112 years was a brief break in the day.

(image/Library of Congress)



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Filed under Theodore Roosevelt Jr (President)

A check in the mail

Whitney_Bank_New_Orleans_Check_1905When I got home this rainy evening I found a check in the mail. It was payment from a publisher for an encyclopedia article I had written 1 1/2 years ago. It totaled $12.50. I have written about a dozen such articles over the past 2-3 years to build my resume and improve my writing chops.  Usually these projects are 1,000 words. My great friend Charles Hirsch always told me that these were great projects because they teach you how to write to spec. As usual he was correct.

If it is for a non-profit publication, which a few of them have been, I usually forgo the symbolic payment. Still I figure for the ones published by a publishing house I might as well take the cash. I have already told the Hayfoot that the burgers and fries will be on me this weekend.

(image/Whitney Bank)

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Four degrees of the Tonight Show

Johnny Carson in 1970 publicity still

Johnny Carson in a 1970 publicity still

The other day I was doing a bibliographic instruction session with an English literature class when we digressed into a brief discussion about late night talk shows. I mentioned that when Jimmy Fallon became host of The Tonight Show he changed the subtitle to Starring Jimmy Fallon. The preposition is important. When Leno took over in 1992 he called it The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Conan O’Brien kept the “with” as well.

Without drawing much attention to it Leno and O’Brien were paying tribute to their predecessor. For three decades it was always The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The class, most of whom were not born when Carson went off the air in May 1992, grasped my point. I am sure Jimmy Fallon will do a good job hosting Tonight and I don’t care what he calls his show. I just found the title change curious and was wondering how and why the decision was made to go back to the show name as it was from 1962-1992.

Carson was on my mind because I had just finished Henry Bushkin’s memoir of his years as the talk show host’s attorney, tennis partner, and all-around fixer. Bushkin’s story, good as it is, does not change the basic outline of the Carson story. Everyone knew he was a mean drunk, cold with his three sons & four wives, and increasingly demanding and petty as the years went by. When Carson died after a few months illness he was virtually alone. There was no funeral.

Still the details make for startling reading. It is all the more jarring because the Bombastic Bushkin–whom Carson fired after nearly twenty years service–seems to have no ax to grind.  All memoirs, especially tell all memoirs, are self-servicing but Bushkin’s story seemed for the most part a credible read.

What was so amazing was the way he could turn it off and on when the studio light went on and curtain parted. My theory about people like Carson is that they have only a finite amount of energy with which to use their talents. Sinatra was much the same way. On stage with a microphone he was fine as long as he stuck to the songs and spared the audience his cringe inducing monologues. Both men could also be charming and generous, albeit on their own terms. Always though, one never knew when the hammer might fall. And when it did . . .

Forced to choose between family and career many of the most talented individuals choose the latter. It is part of their greatness. We think it is easy because they make it look so.

The reason Carson will always be my favorite of the late night hosts was the way he conducted the show irony free. One of the wort trends in our culture today is the unrelenting irony and the arch “knowingness” that many seem to employ. Sincerity and genuine curiosity seem to have gotten lost. It is one of the worst aspects of our contemporary culture.


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Filed under Media and Web 2.0

Opening Day

I posted this last year and thought I would reprise it again. Enjoy.

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Rainy Sunday Morning Coffee

It was a big week for John Coltrane. His son Ravi donated one of his father’s saxophones to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History on Wednesday. At the same ceremony photographer Chuck Stewart donated twenty-five previously unseen Coltrane photographs to the Institution. The ceremony kicked off Jazz Appreciation Month. Stewart’s photographs are from the A Love Supreme sessions. Supreme was recorded fifty years ago this December.  The saxophone and original score will soon be on display in the “American Stories” exhibition.

A preservation group has been working for a few years now to save the musician’s Huntington, Long Island home. When we think of jazz musicians living in New York City we think Harlem, but really many of them lived in Queens or farther out on the island. Coltrane died in 1967 and is buried in Pinelawn Memorial Park. Pinelawn is one of several cemeteries along a stretch of Long Island. When a friend of mine visits this summer we may go out there to see her grandparents interred there. If/when we do, I am going to try to visit the Coltrane site as well.

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Filed under Jazz, Museums

Julia Grant Dietz

Julia Grant Dietz at Grant' Tomb in 2000

Julia Grant Dietz at Grant’s Tomb in 2000

I noted with interest the passing this week of Julia Grant Dietz, the last remaining great grandchild of Ulysses S. Grant. Ms. Dietz was the daughter of Ulysses S. Grant III and Edith Root. Grant III was a military aide in the Theodore Roosevelt Administration. Among many other things, he later ran the Civil War Centennial Commission before stepping down midway through the commemoration. Edith Root was the daughter of powerbroker Elihu Root.

I often wonder what life is like for these descendants of historical figures. It must be a balancing act between protecting the family legacy and being honest and faithful to the historical record. This past Saturday a Roosevelt descendant dropped into the TRB. He was a man in his late 20s who lives now in Colorado. He told us he was in New York CIty on business, happened to be walking past the site, and so came in. A few months back he attended the Roosevelt reunion in Warm Springs, Georgia.

Ms. Dietz seemed to be active in preserving the Grant family memory. For one thing she was a trustee of the Grant Monument Association. Her son is Ulysses Grant Dietz, the eminent curator at the Newark Museum of Art. I noticed that she was long active in Planned Parenthood. One wonders how that must have gone down in the extended family. Her parents and grandparents were quite conservative after all.

(image/Grant Memorial Association)

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Filed under Those we remember, Ulysses S. Grant

The demotion of General Wood

General Leonard Wood and New York City mayor John Purroy Mitchel inspecting troops in 1915

General Leonard Wood (right) and New York City’s preparationist mayor John Purroy Mitchel (top hat) inspecting troops outside New York City Hall in 1915.

Today marks one of the more dramatic, if lesser-noted, moments in the lead-up to American involvement in the Great War. It was on 25 March 1917 that General Leonard Wood sent acknowledgement of his relief of command of the Department of the East at Governors Island. Though not as well known as Truman’s sacking of MacArthur, Wood’s demotion was equally dramatic. It is probably lesser known because the United States joined the European fray just a month later and the carnage of the Western Front eclipsed the Wood imbroglio. How the war effort would have gone with Wood and not Pershing in command of the AEF is one of the great counterfactuals of World War One.

Wood had been Chief of the General Staff of the Army when President Wilson was inaugurated in March 1913. Some tried to get rid of the outspoken Wood then, but he managed to finish out his term. Afterward, he transferred to New York City where he commanded the powerful Department of the East from Governors Island.

Some of the Wood-Wilson tension came from Wood’s relationship with Theodore Roosevelt. After the Great War began in summer 1914 these two former commanders of the Rough Riders advocated for American preparedness. This ran counter to Wilson’s attempts at neutrality. Wood’s demotion was in part his fault. A former president could criticize the Administration; a current general cannot. Nonetheless, over the next few years Wood’s public statements became more strident and, well, public.

He was also part of the Plattsburg Camp Movement, the semi-official military preparedness experiment in which civilians were trained for military service. Roosevelt’s sons Ted and Archie both attended the 1915 Plattsburg camp. Wood was not easy to get along with. In a letter to his younger brother Archie, Ted Roosevelt later wrote that “Confidentially he give me a pain.”

When Theodore Roosevelt irked Wilson with a rousing Plattsburg speech Wood’s hand in the event was obvious. There were many other incidents over the years but the final straw for Wilson seems to have been a talk that Wood gave at New York City’s DeWitt Clinton High School on 14 March. After consulting with the Secretary of War the following week Wilson decided to make the move. It is revealing to note that his decision to demote Wood came after he decided to ask Congress for a declaration of war, which came in early April.

Wood’s demotion came in the form a division of the Eastern Department into three entities. Wood was given his choice and decided to take the command of the smaller Southeastern Department. Wood put on a brave face stating that “I am a good soldier, and go where I am sent.” The outcry was nonetheless immediate. Roosevelt was outraged, as was New York City mayor John P. Mitchel. Angry letters from Wood allies poured into the New York Times. In a show of support Wood was elected president of the Lincoln Memorial University Endowment Association the day after his demotion.

What would have happened if Leonard Wood had commanded in Europe instead of John Pershing is something we will never know.

(image/Library of Congress)

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Filed under Governors Island, Theodore Roosevelt Jr (President), WW1

The Centennial is coming

Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, June 1914

Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, June 1914

The Centennial of the Great War begins this summer and the United States World War I Centennial Commission is sponsoring a “Centennial Convention and Trade Fair” in Washington DC in mid-June. I may try to go to this. Here are the details. I am happy they are thinking creatively with this. I think the next five years are going to change many of our assumption about the events of 1914-1919.

(image/Imperial War Museum)

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Filed under WW1

From Gettysburg to Plattsburg

Over the weekend I finished Edward J. Renehan’s The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War. It details the Roosevlt family’s role in the First World War. All four of his sons were in uniform and the youngest, Quentin, was killed. Even daughter Ethel served in France, as a nurse.

A Spanish-American War headstone tilts on a hillside in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery

A Spanish-American War headstone tilts on a hillside in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

One of my big  things for the upcoming season at Governors Island is to tie the Civil War Generation together with the individuals who came afterward and fought in the Spanish-American and Great Wars. There are all kinds of nationalist, reconciliationist, and other themes to explore. In just one “for instance,” General Joseph Wheeler fought in Cuba with Roosevelt and later served at Governors Island.

Last night I stared The Citizen Soldier: The Plattsburg Camp Movement, 1913-1920. The Plattsburg Camp did not open until 1915, but there were precursors at Gettybsurg and Monterey dating back to 1913. I do not know if the Gettysburg preparationist camp, not to be confused with Camp Colt that came along later, was on the battlefield or not.

In one of those serendipitious moments that is too good to be true, an article came through my in-box this afternoon announcing the publication tomorrow of Teddy Roosevelt and Leonard Wood: Partners in Command. Wood was the original colonel of the Rough Riders, prior to his own promotion and Roosevelt’s ascension to his former position. Wood was on Governors Island during the Taft and Wilson Administrations. Roosevelt and Wood is the posthumous, final book of John S.D. Eisenhower. I am really excited about the possibilities of tying things together.


Filed under Gettysburg, WW1