Alexander Gerschenkron may not be a household name, but this brilliant Harvard economist left an indelible mark on 20th century intellectual thought with a theory he called Economic Backwardness. You don't need to know anything about economics, though, to be captivated by this eccentric genius' eventful life story, beautifully reconstructed by his grandson, Nicholas Dawidoff, in The Fly Swatter. Dawidoff, best-known for The Catcher Was a Spy, a widely acclaimed book about baseball player/OSS operative Moe Berg, clearly has a gift for biography. And in this case, it doesn't hurt that he actually knew and loved his subject. Still, researching and writing this book couldn't have been easy, since Gerschenkron, who died in 1978, was deliberately elusive about much of his early life. He rarely spoke of those years, during which he made not one but two dramatic escapes. The first was from revolution-torn Russia, when he and his father fled to Romania under darkness of night. Then, in 1938, he fled Vienna the day after the Anschluss by masquerading as a Swiss day laborer.
Dawidoff's accounts of both of these escapes are gripping. And if the second half of the book, with Gerschenkron comfortably ensconced in American academia, can't quite match that level of intensity, it is nonetheless fascinating stuff. Here was a man who played chess with Marcel Duchamp, sparred in print with Vladimir Nabokov, was close friends with John Kenneth Galbraith and Isaiah Berlin. Before landing at Harvard he worked in wartime Washington under FDR. Yet for all his accomplishments, Gerschenkron was also an enigma. He was inclined to tell people, for example, that he lunched regularly with Red Sox great Ted Williams (the two never met), and though he inspired a couple of generations of the nation's top economic historians, he never produced a major, career-crowning book. The book's unusual title comes from Dawidoff's own memory of his grandfather, who would sit on his porch in New Hampshire doing battle with winged insects using an arsenal of seemingly indistinguishable fly swatters, each of which he insisted had its own capabilities. It's a whimsical moment that captures the elusive charm of this true original. Robert Weibezahl writes from Los Angeles.