Of all the weird twists in the 40-year drama of building the Washington Monument, perhaps the oddest was in 1855, when a band of rebels staged a coup and seized the project, largely because the board overseeing the construction had accepted a commemorative stone from Pope Pius IX. The Know-Nothing Party faction didn’t give back the monument until 1858.
The stupendously wealthy 5th Duke of Portland had a very weird obsession: building underground. At his order, tunnels, a ballroom, a church and a vast network of chambers were constructed underneath his estate at Welbeck Abbey in England. It might also be said he lived an underground life, avoiding human contact whenever possible. He communicated with his servants by written message and traveled mostly at night, with a lantern attached to his belt.
Like so many Americans, writer Rita Gabis has mixed ancestry. Her late father was Jewish and her mother is a Lithuanian Catholic, whose family emigrated to the U.S. after World War II. Gabis knew her maternal grandfather—“Senelis” in Lithuanian—as a fond elderly man who bought her treats and took her fishing. But she had one disturbing memory: the time he told her, “No be like your father . . . Jews no good.”
Hard as it might be to imagine, readers of Ben Mezrich’s Once Upon a Time in Russia could find themselves feeling a certain sympathy for Vladimir Putin. Sure, the new Russian president was trying to seize control of the news media in 2000 when he forced television magnate Boris Berezovsky to sell his business. But Berezovsky was, to put it mildly, a handful.
If you’re an author with a family ghost, it would seem almost obligatory to write about it. Hannah Nordhaus’ “paternal grandfather’s maternal grandmother,” Julia -Staab, haunts La Posada hotel in Santa Fe (or so lots of people believe). In American Ghost, Nordhaus offers a fascinating and nuanced account of her ancestral ghost story and her complicated clan.
“I could’ve been a judge, but I never ’ad the Latin. . . . And so I become a miner instead.” So starts the bitterly funny “Miner’s Sketch” from the 1960s revue Beyond the Fringe, which gave Americans a sense of the long, brutal class war in Britain between coal miners and the ruling class. Neither emerged intact.
You can get away with quite a lot if no one takes you very seriously. Like carrying military intelligence about the Union army through enemy lines to deliver it to the Confederates. Or hiding Union POW escapees in your attic while Confederate officers are boarding downstairs at your home.
Leonardo da Vinci was an outlier in so many ways: a peripatetic polymath, handsome, unmarried, an innovator, unquestionably an artistic genius. He doesn’t typify his era any more than geniuses ever do. Leonardo was a party of one.
Historian Catherine Bailey was all set to write a book about the impact of World War I on the people who lived on the Duke of Rutland’s huge estate in the Midlands of England. As part of her research, she delved into the family archives at the duke’s stately home, Belvoir Castle—and found another story that makes the fictional shenanigans at Downton Abbey look like a tea...
Joe Rantz ended up in one of the finest eight-man crews ever to make it to the Olympics largely because he needed a janitor’s job to pay for college. After a poverty-stricken, affection-deprived boyhood, he was trying desperately to earn enough money to get through the University of Washington. Earning a spot on the rowing team guaranteed a part-time campus job. So in 1933, he tried out...