Monday, October 27, 2008

The Enigma Woman by Kathleen A. Cairns

On Friday, June 22, 1934, at the age of 39, Nellie May Madison was convicted of “murder in the first degree” in the shooting death of her husband of less than one year, Eric Madison. On Tuesday, June 26, 1934 she was sentenced to hang at the gallows of San Quentin. That year of marriage, that crime of murder, the ensuing trial and her incarceration at the Women’s Institution at Tehachapi would come to define her life.

In reality Nellie Madison was a bit of a tomboy who grew up with a large family on a ranch in Montana. She was a crack shot with a rifle and had an independent spirit that gave her the courage to travel to the big city of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, as often happens with human beings, who she was on her own and who she was in a relationship were a bit at odds. Starting with her choice of partners. Eric Madison, by far, being her worst choice.

It took another independent spirit, Herald and Express reporter Agness Underwood to bring the public the true story behind Nellie’s crime. Hers was a story that would stir friends, strangers, activists and even every member of the jury that sentenced her to death, to implore not one but three California governors to not only spare her life, but reduce her time in prison.

With a reporter’s style, Kathleen A. Cairns takes us through Nellie Madison’s depression era trial and the Los Angeles media coverage which dubbed her “The Enigma Woman” due to her apparent lack of emotion in the courtroom and throughout her appearances in front of the news cameras.

This is a clearly well researched, straight-forward account of The People of California v. Nellie May Madison and Ms. Madison’s consequent time in prison. Unfortunately, no doubt due to the passage of time, The Enigma Woman is sorely lacking in much personal detail of it’s subject beyond this short period. The book does, however, include a section of Bibliographic Essays that help in establishing more over all background for each chapter. I would suggest reading each of these essays both before and after their respective chapters.

Title: The Enigma Woman
Author: Kathleen A. Cairns
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
ISBN: 978-0-8032-1141-4

Friday, October 17, 2008

Funny Boys by Warren Adler

In the 1930's and '40's "Murder Inc." was running New York city and the "Borscht Belt" of the Catskills area where it's members spent their weekends in the summer seasons enjoying the accommodations of the resorts and the comedians who doubled as hotel entertainment directors there.

In Funny Boys, Warren Adler imagines one of those seasons in the life of known gangster Harry "Pittsburgh Phil" "Pep" Strauss as seen through the eyes of his fictional girlfriend, Miriam "Mutzie" Feder and tumler Mickey Fine.

Mickey has wanted nothing more in his young life than to make people laugh. When he accepts a tumler position with Gorlick's Greenhouse he discovers that a very important, regular guest of the hotel is "Pep" Strauss, a man who years earlier had beaten his father for a being late in repaying a debt.

Mutzie wanted nothing more from life than to look like Jean Harlow and live in a movie. So, after ending things with the boy she was supposed to marry, she bleached her hair, bought new clothes and began her new life. She had her first dream realized and with the help of her brother, who introduced her to the dapper gentleman who hung out at the corner candy store, she was about to realize the second.

Warren Adler shows us a side of organized crime that is usually only depicted as a side story, the Jewish gangsters who worked side by side with the Italians whose names we all know so well.

This book does not glamorize the gangster life. It's the story of how easily someone can be taken in by veneers and what lies beneath. It's the story of a young man who finds shame in people of his own background who live lives of destruction with no regard for any other lives. Not even the lives of their "friends".

Mostly, this book is fun escapism. With the speech patterns of thugs and wannabe thugs, and jokes from a rather inexperienced hero at inappropriate moments, Funny Boys actually reads a bit like a 1930's gangster movie.

Title: Funny Boys

Author: Warren Adler

Publisher: The Overlook Press

ISBN: 978-1-59020-034-6

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock

"Dr Brinkley is the foremost money-making surgeon in the world, because he had sense enough to know the weaknesses of human nature and gall enough to make a million dollars a year out of it." This quote is a summation from the last attorney to try Dr. J.R. Brinkley in a court of law.

In Charlatan, Pope Brock takes us through the, frankly, amazing career of Dr. Brinkley who had a successful 20 year career spanning the 1920's and 1930's which started with the transplantation of goat testicles into humans. He started, of course, with men but then discovered that women, too, would pay handsomely for the promise of "rejuvenation". All of this without a medical degree and after loosing medical licenses that he had purchased. How did he do it?


That's right. In the early 1900's Brinkley built an AM radio station just inside of Mexico (call letters XERA), to avoid US broadcasting standards, and reached through much of the country hyping his cure-alls from morning to night. But, he was no fool. He also broadcast "hillbilly" music, giving The Carter Family, among others, national exposure.

He also eventually stopped performing surgeries. Was it the loss of lives, the threat of lawsuits, the constant pursuit of Morris Fishbein of the AMA that caused him to stop? No. It was the discovery that if he answered listeners letters through his program Medical Question Box. All the good doctor had to do was sit back, answer the letters on air and send everyone to their local pharmacists to buy drugs that had no names, only numbers. Of course, these were his own brews and mostly alcohol.

Never one to sit on his laurels, Brinkley also twice ran for governor of Kansas and added evangelism to his radio programming, with himself as orator.

Pope Brock has uncovered a fascinating story. And, although I sometimes found his writing style to be slightly confusing, he has told the story in a very compelling fashion with many characters and "cameos" of the days writers, politicians and musicians.

This is a nonfiction book with a story that reads like fiction. And it would be quite easy to sit back and scoff at the gullibility of the, mostly, small town folk of the time until you look at current events and the number of people who make a living selling books with bogus diets or randomly calling people and actually getting money from them with threats of law suits for debts they don't even owe. When was the last time someone knocked on your door claiming to be from the cable or power company?

To quote an "anonymous geezer" from the book, "I knowed he was bilking me, but...I liked him anyway."

Title: Charlatan
Author: Pope Brock
Publisher: Crown
ISBN: 9780307339881