Few authors or journalists probe with more specificity and irony the dynamic of race and class than Lawrence Otis Graham (Member of the Club), who has devoted the bulk of his 13 books to this subject. His newest volume, The Senator and the Socialite, explores the issue in a different time and place, profiling the emergence of the Bruce family, whom Graham correctly touts as the nation's first black dynasty. Indeed, it's hard not to imagine a forthcoming Hollywood treatment for this 19th-century family whose social gatherings, international trips and even family births appeared in the society columns of such prominent newspapers as The New York Times and Washington Post during an era when these publications usually didn't even have black janitorial staff, let alone writers and editors.
Graham crafts an entertaining, intriguing and sometimes amazing story of personal mobility and ambition as he traces Blanche Kelso Bruce's rise from former Mississippi slave to a career serving under four Republican presidents. Bruce not only married well (his bride was the daughter of a wealthy black doctor), but also befriended the right people, from President Grant and Frederick Douglass to John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Booker T. Washington. The impressive rise of the couple leads to enormous wealth and status, with Bruce even having his name printed on U.S. currency through his appointment to a top Treasury Department post.
In the book's later sections Graham documents a fall that is as staggering and unprecedented as the family's initial climb to power and fame. The Bruces eventually not only lose material clout, but their reputation as well. Bruce's grandson gets imprisoned for embezzlement in a trial whose proceedings make the O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson and Robert Blake cases seem fair and orderly by comparison. His granddaughter makes a horrible, embarrassing personal decision, marrying an untalented black actor trying to pass as white.
Though he doesn't ignore or tone down his descriptions of the devastating changes that affected the Bruce family during the 20th century, Graham takes care to fully evaluate their impact as social movers and shakers for decades. The author clearly views the Bruce family as an inspiration despite their later failings.
Unlike some other Graham books that occasionally veer into tabloid waters, The Senator and the Socialite provides thorough and solid historical detail, political analysis and cultural discussion. Without diluting the prose, downplaying the negatives or weakening the story, Graham presents a vital, previously underreported tale of glory, achievement and eventual disappointment. Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and other publications.