Céline Goes to Hollywood: Part I

Céline Goes to Hollywood: Part I

The novel-memoirs of Louis-Ferdinand Céline have a peculiarly cinematic texture, like that of rough drafts for projected screenplays. He flashes sense-impressions and side-thoughts at the reader. For the neophyte, this can make for some hard going.

On the other hand, these impressionistic prose-sketches can provide a series of clear visuals for anyone attempting to hammer a Céline tale into a script. This is particularly true of his Exile Trilogy (aka «Triloge Allemande»), the three novel-memoirs written in the 1950s about Céline’s time in France, Germany, and Denmark in 1944-45, when he was on the run as a collaborateur, anti-semite, anti-communist, and worse things.[1]

Alfred Hitchcock is said to have storyboarded his own films well before shooting anything, so that when he got around to key scenes he’d know exactly what the angles and lighting would be. Thus the peculiar Hitchcock “style,” which is nothing more than forward-planning in place of directorial improvisation. Céline’s prose-storyboarding provides something similar.

It’s not surprising to discover that Céline drafted outlines and treatments for screenplays throughout his career, or that he spent a long time trying to get his first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night), put on screen. He networked with agents, negotiated, traveled to Prague and Hollywood. For a little while Abel Gance (Napoleon), had a rights option, then a Hollywood screenwriter/agent did.

But in the end Céline gave the whole thing up in a huge bout of despair. This was partly because the strict new movie code of the Hays Office (1934) made a faithful adaptation unlikely, and partly because his longtime American girlfriend, Elizabeth Craig, had abandoned him.

Ironically Voyage/Journey was the most conventionally structured and “sellable” thing he ever wrote. After his Hollywood misadventure, Céline’s writing became progressively more idiosyncratic and impressionistic: scenes upon scenes for films that would never be shot.

No films, alas, but we now do have a 2015 “graphic novel,” La cavale du Dr. Destouches (approximately: Dr. Destouches on the Lam) [2] that makes brilliant use of that cinematic imagination. Cavale is a kind of director’s cut of the Exile Trilogy. Just much shorter and more intelligible, although not necessarily simpler. It’s an extraordinarily lush black-and-white production, in graphite/pencil drawings and ink lettering by Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi, brothers and sometime Disney animators. And yet it’s Céline, through and through.

Christophe Malavoy’s script for Cavale achieves what is seldom done well in film adaptations, and would be particularly difficult with these three books because of their jumble of flashbacks and flash-forwards: it gives an order to narrative, without amputating half the tale. Bits of dialogue, generally sardonic, are added throughout, but do not deface or upend the story; much as backgrounds and interiors are filled in with much more precision than the original text provides. The artists are particularly good with train stations and hotels, which is good because we spend a lot of time in them.

Céline, Lucette, and Bébert take a trip. (From La cavale du Dr. Destouches.)

It’s a French publication, and unsurprisingly mostly in French—often of a highly idiomatic sort, or sometimes comically broken French, as when spoken by a German. And occasionally in English, as when our protagonist needs to talk to a Danish hotel clerk. But primarily and inevitably it’s visual. Whole pages go by with scarcely a word spoken. We follow Céline and his wife Lucette and their cat Bébert on their adventures through France, Germany, and Denmark, 1944-45.

We begin with the last weeks before “Liberation,” when the skies are darkening. Somebody keeps mailing Dr. Destouches (Céline) poison-pen letters containing nothing but a drawing of a coffin. Céline and family obtain passports and entrain for Baden-Baden. A few weeks later, due to security measures after the Hitler assassination plot, they are bundled off to Sigmaringen, where the remnants of the Vichy government are housed. Céline is told he can now be Marshall Pétain’s physician, since the regular one just got arrested. Pétain looks up balefully from his dinner. “I’d much rather die right now.”

Meanwhile—cutting back in Paris—we see the cast and crew of Les Enfants du Paradis squabbling among themselves about what’s going to happen to them when the Germans leave. They are mostly collaborateurs, of either the horizontale kind (Arletty, the actress who stars in this three-hour epic of 1830s theatrical Paris) or openly political.

Céline’s old buddy, the fascist actor Robert Le Vigan, sneers at Arletty: “At least I didn’t sleep with Germans!” And she answers: “No, you just turned everyone in to the Gestapo!”

Panicking just a bit too late, Le Vigan decides it’s time to flee. He phones Celine, and the concierge says the doctor has left town, who knows where? Le Vigan will keep coming back to the story like a bad penny. Just as he does in the Trilogy. Just as he did in Celine’s postwar life. [3]

Panic on the set. (From La cavale du Dr. Destouches.)

Not the least of this book’s charms is that it captures the essential Punch-and-Judy nature of the war in Europe. In this and most other respects the book is thereby true to the original. Céline is usually said to be controversial because of his treatment of the Jewish Question, or because he consorted with collaborationists and Nazis. But I think his transgressions are deeper and more elusive. He did not think that war in Europe a great crusade for anyone. He rejected all its pieties, ridiculing Hitlerites, Bolsheviks, Jews, whatever. Even today it’s hard to find anyone who can discuss that time and place without putting it inside some Great Moral Lesson.

That this anti-moralizing aspect of Céline has been faithfully reproduced in a graphic-novel format shows that the scriptwriter is not only extremely skillful. He actually gets Céline.

Notes

1. In order of publication 1957-69, the novels are Castle to Castle (D’un château l’autre), North (Nord), and Rigadoon (Rigodon), although the time-scheme skips back and forth among the narratives.

2. La Cavale du Dr. Destouches. Paris: Editions Futuropolis, 2015.

3. Le Vigan was essentially a non-person after Liberation. His scenes in this film were reshot with Pierre Renoir, brother of the film director, in his role. Le Vigan was sentenced to ten years in prison, was released after three.

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Céline Goes to Hollywood: Part I

Céline Goes to Hollywood: Part II

Céline Goes to Hollywood: Part II

celine-craig-alps-1931
Céline and Elizabeth Craig in the Alps, 1931.

One of the saddest episodes in the life of Dr. Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, alias Louis-Ferdinand Céline, came right after he published his first novel in 1933.

Voyage a la bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) was a succés d’estime from the start and before long a bestseller too. Surely it would be soon made into a major motion picture.

Céline expected that, anyway. He had many friends in the movie business, and he thought he wrote with a screenwriter’s eye.

Almost immediately Voyage caught the attention of Abel Gance, then a leading French director, who bought a short-term option. When Gance didn’t move ahead, Celine looked elsewhere. The book had almost immediately been translated into German and Czech. He went to Prague, where German director Carl Junghans showed an interest.[1]

But Celine’s real hope, all along, was to visit Hollywood and make a Hollywood movie. Among Hollywood’s many attractions was the fact that his longtime mistress, Elizabeth Craig, had gone home to Los Angeles the previous year and never returned.

In the end he got neither movie nor girlfriend, and plunged into a despair that colored the rest of his life.

Let’s begin with some itinerary notes from Louis-Ferdinand Celine et le cinema (2011) by French critic Marc-Henri Cadier. [2]

On 12 June 1934 Céline embarks for the United States. From New York he goes to Los Angeles, then to Chicago. On 28 August he is to return to Paris. In the course of his crossings he meets actors Jean Gabin—whom he would have found sympathetic—and Danielle Darrieux.

Céline in Tovaritch

The purpose of the trip is not just the launch of the book in the United States, but also to make contact with Hollywood. It should also be noted: Céline had already established some footing there by sending a copy of Journey to Jacques Deval, the author of “Tovarich.” [Which shortly became the French movie Tovaritch (1935) in which Céline himself has a walk-on scene.]

Deval knows the film-industry milieu, has met the big players and intermediaries in the industry ; he goes back to Europe and brings actors and scenarios, and has now promised Céline that he’ll facilitate all negotiations. Later on, Deval says he wasn’t really interested in Celine’s book.[3]

Anyway, Celine’s main aim is to get to know Hollywood. On this subject, he writes [editor Xavier] Denoël on 12 July 1934 : “I have just signed a six-month option for Journey with Lester H. Yard [screenwriter and agent]. Of all the agents, he seems the most capable, the most rascally.”

But it was 1934. The dawn of a new, strict, Motion Picture Code from the Hays Office.[4] There were now real obstacles in bringing a book like Journey to the screen, with its violence and squalid settings. But perhaps, Céline hopes, this new Code just a passing fad? Hé bien!

As he says in his letter to Denoël: “The times are not very propitious to works of this genre. But maybe in six months the puritan rigors will be forgotten.” To Henri Mahé [5] he writes: “Here’s the nub of the film question. Only chastity and cheerfulness are to be tolerated. Figure it yourself.” He wonders: Does this famous modesty code of William H. Hays mean that virtue will rule forever in Hollywood? On the movie screens, at least?

24 July 1934: “It happens that my coming here has brought a lot of bad publicity, which I put up with to arouse the attention of the film people, the only ones who interest me.  No doubt we’ll see offers during the winter. $20,000.”

So film people were the only ones to interest Céline?

A month later, 30 August, he writes a lady friend: “Nothing’s happening in American cinema. It’s all a journalistic concoction—nothing more. I came to United States for another reason entirely, very personal, and that’s it. There’s no way Journey can make it to film, for a thousand reasons. I never worked for Hollywood. They don’t know me either.”

What to make of this? Where’s the truth?

In reality this trip to the United States was not only motivated by the book publication and its film adaptation. There’s another reason, well established: to find Elizabeth Craig in Los Angeles. She was an American dancer with whom Céline lived for some years in Paris, but who had left the previous year. Céline wants to convince her to return to France.

After Céline dedicated Journey to her (incidentally, she once confessed to never having read a line of the book!), Elizabeth Craig had gone home and become Mrs. Ben Tankel. The despairing Céline realized the reconciliation was a pipe dream. In consequence Céline he showed irritation with her and made up stories, such as saying that “Elizabeth has given herself to gangsters.”

 *   *   *

But just who was this Elizabeth Craig? Before Céline met her, Elizabeth Craig (1902-1989) had been a minor player in silent films in Hollywood. (Two Cecil B. DeMille films, Manslaughter, 1922, and The Ten Commandments, 1923; apparently in roles too minor to be included in cast lists at imdb.com, etc.) In New York she danced in the Ziegfeld Follies. With her parents in 1924 she went to Paris, where she studied dance.

She met Céline in Geneva in 1926 when he was a young physician working for the League of Nations. They would live together for seven years.

Of their relationship in Paris, an acquaintance remembered them as an “an idyllic couple, a bit conventional.” Elizabeth had red hair and green eyes, full lips. «Elle était charmante, brilliante et bonne» recalled the friend.[6] 

Elizabeth occasionally made trips back home to see her family, and in 1933 she said her mother was dying. Celine saw her off, accompanying her on the train from Gare St-Lazare to Le Havre. He saved his railway ticket, and stuck it to the wall of their flat in Clichy. Clearly Elizabeth was expected to return. But she didn’t. Thus Celine’s sad journey the following year to retrieve her, using the convenient pretext of selling his novel to Hollywood. “She lives in a cloud of alcohol, tobacco, police, and low gangsterism, with a certain Ben Tankle [sic],” Celine wrote a friend, after seeing Elizabeth in California. [7]

Interviewed shortly before her death in 1989 by Alphonse Juilland, Elizabeth said she couldn’t really see spending her life with Céline because his interest in her was mainly physical. He would not have liked her when she got old.[8] And he was too much of a depressive, she said in a video interview.[9] 

Elizabeth finally married Ben Tankel in 1936. The fact that he was a Jew continually piques the interest of commentators on Céline. “One of the reasons that pushed him to write Bagatelles pour un massacre,” writes Brami, in a typically pat observation.

Hunting down the source of Céline’s antisemitisme is a favorite game of critics. The subject has an eye-grabbing appeal. But it’s unlikely that Céline got that way because he lost his mistress to a fast-living quasi-mobster. In that video interview above (generously festooned with horrific cartoons), Elizabeth Craig says Céline was probably always that way.

 *   *   *

A new book by Céline biographer Jean Monnier offers a somewhat saucier spin on La Belle Craig than we have usually been given.[10] Sensual and amoral, Elizabeth leaves Céline for Benjamin Tankel because Ben offers more money and fun. She denies that her real-estate mogul is a gangster, although his biggest client was Mafioso Jack Dragna. 

Monnier’s Elizabeth Craig: une vie celinienne is frankly and unfortunately a work of imaginative fiction, inspired by the spindly threads on Céline correspondence and Elizabeth’s end-of-life interviews.

Life with Benjamin was a great pleasure party. . . His ambition was to make money in the fastest way possible, and spend it even faster. We went out almost every night. . . He demanded the best table and left huge tips. . . I was his trophy, and he showed me off with pride.

Not only is it a fictional memoir, but one in which verisimilitude is not its saving grace. We get scenes of Ben and Elizabeth guzzling champagne and caviar with Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel. Gangland convictions and assassinations are dropped in oddly, as though ripped from old headlines, as are political and social issues. 

In February 1942, three months after the Japanese attack, President Roosevelt signed a decree for the deportation of all the Americans of Japanese origin. Their goods were all to be confiscated by the War Time [sic] Civil Control Administration. However, the majority of this population was in agriculture, a field in which they excelled. On the eve of being deported, these farmers had no choice, finding a buyer was all they could do to save something.

What an extraordinary digression for an old chorus girl looking back on her life!

Actually this one is a plot device. Our fictional Elizabeth goes on to tell us that Benjamin and his mob friends were able to profit from the misery of the “deportees.” Even though it was paradoxical that Benjamin never saw the parallel between the “deportation” of the Japanese and the endless persecution of his own people, the Jews.

But anyway the episode has a happy outcome:

We worked hard and made a lot of money. Benjamin decided to treat me to a little luxury. He took an apartment in the Sunset Tower, Hollywood’s most chic address.

The depiction is comic and ludicrous, like Bertolt Brecht’s Chicago—but, I suspect, not intentionally so. The author is merely concocting a French-tourist version of America in which there is no real difference between fact and fiction. He gratuitously name-drops people and places, often with telling errors. (Siegel’s mistress Virginia Hill is “Virginia Hills”; McCarty Drive in Beverly Hills is “McCarthy Drive.”)

Monnier has obviously seen a lot of films about gangsters and Hollywood. No doubt he wrote this in expectation of inspiring yet another one. Céline may make it into the movies yet.

Notes

1. Carl Junghans, aka Karl Younghans, was a pro-Communist actor and director in Berlin the 1920s, then went to Prague, and back to Germany for a while where he worked with Leni Riefenstahl on Olympia (1936). Then, to France; to the USA after the start of the war; and finally back to Germany. He is said to have had an affair with Vladimir Nabokov’s sister-in-law and to be a possible inspiration for Nabokov’s character Humbert Humbert. See http://nabokovsecrethistory.com/news/meet-carl-junghans-propagandist-literary-inspiration-camera-obscura-lolita

2.  Marc-Henri Cadier, Louis-Ferdinand Céline et le cinema.  St-Etienne, France: Editions M.H.C. 2011.

3. A slightly different account appears as “Impossible Voyage” in La Rumeur Mag, 2014.

4. Although a Motion Picture Production Code from the “Hays Office” had been in existence since 1930, it did not have any real teeth until July 1934. At that point, studios were forbidden to release commercial films that did not have a Production Administration Code certificate of approval. Thus Céline was pushing his racy novel. just as the strict code came into effect. It was all over the pages of Variety during Céline’s visit. Hélas!

5. Henri Mahé, 1907-1975. Painter and film director, friend of Céline.

6. Éliane Tayar, quoted in Emile Brami’s Celine à Rebours. Paris: Archipoche. 2011.

7. Brami, Ibid.

8. Alphonse Juilland, Elizabeth and Louis. Paris: Editions Gallimard. 1994.

9. Elizabeth Craig parle de Céline, on YouTube.

10. Jean Monnier, Elizabeth Craig: une vie celinienne. Paris: Robert Laffont. 2018. 

 

Céline Goes to Hollywood: Part II

The Gospel According to Goldberg

Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy

By Jonah Goldberg
Crown Forum, April 2018
Hardcover list price $28.00

 

Anyone expecting Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West to be a new meditation on James Burnham’s 1964 classic [1] about the moral degeneracy of liberal democracy is in for a laugh. Having borrowed Burnham’s tasty title, Goldberg goes off in another direction entirely, often inverting Burnham’s argument.

James Burnham thought the ideology of materialism and moral permissiveness was destroying the West’s ability to defend itself and survive. (He was thinking in Cold War terms, but his basic thesis is still applicable today.) Jonah Goldberg thinks egalitarian ideas and amoral acquisitiveness are just swell, and we need to appreciate them more.

“Don’t put the miracle of liberal-democratic capitalism at risk,” Goldberg summarized his thesis in National Review.[2] For Burnham, the spurious, unworkable ideas of “liberal-democratic capitalism” were precisely the problem.

Goldberg also tempts the reader with an intriguing subtitle—”How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy”—but never really illustrates this point. The casual book-browser is invited to think Goldberg is going to say something about the New Right, the alt-right, or maybe white nationalism. But Goldberg’s theorizing about the origins of identitarianism is just so much tendentious fluff.

Here’s his explanation of the new “tribalism”: it’s all because social media, online porn, and videogames aren’t fulfilling enough.

The young Muslim men who left Europe and America to go fight for ISIS had every form of entertainment and distraction available to them, but they find it unsatisfying. The same goes for the alienated and numb cadres who swell the ranks of neo-Nazis, antifa, and countless other groups. They crave meaning that our leading institutions no longer feel compelled to provide, or are even capable of providing, at least for those who need it most.

Of course he begs the question of what these radicalized “young Muslim men” were doing in Europe and America in the first place, and how they came to be there, or why they react as they do. Surely, being transplanted to an alien culture must be disturbing enough. It is an actual, objective situation. There is no need to spin theories about why their lives might be “unsatisfying.” And as for Goldberg’s “neo-Nazis” and “antifa” (presumably he means Western identitarians and their opponents, most of whom do not wear those titles), surely they too have some real-life concerns beyond being bored with videogames.

On occasion he names the alt-right, without saying much about it other than that it formed part of Trump’s support in 2016. “Consider the emergence of the so-called alt-right,” he writes (implying that there is another, genuine one out there someplace):

The reason to fret about the growth and (relative) popularity of the alt-right is not that its adherents will somehow gain the power to implement their fantasies. No, the reason to be dismayed by them is that these intellectual weeds could find any purchase at all. They should have been buried beneath layers and layers of bedrock-like dogma with no hope of finding air or sunlight. But such is the plight we face. The bedrock is cracked. The soil of our civil society is exhausted, and the roots of our institutions strain to hold what remains in place.

Just as any civilization that was created by ideas can be destroyed by ideas, so can the conservative movement. That is why the cure for what ails us is dogma…
(pp. 343-344)

Yes, the cure is dogma.

But rather than dismissing this all as something like the babbling of a street-corner crazy, let’s take a little tour of Goldberg’s basic theses.

Basically, Goldberg’s Suicide of the West is a religious tract. He believes in miracles. Or rather, the Miracle. The Miracle is capitalism, which according to Goldberg is responsible for nearly all technological and social advancement in the past three hundred years.

Alas, Goldberg isn’t clear in his own head on what he means by capitalism. In political parlance it often gets confused with the idea of a “free-market economy.” And that free-market ideal is probably what Goldberg mainly intends. You are free to run your lemonade stand where and however you want. The trouble is that, quickly and inevitably, your free-market movement intersects with government power. If your zoning board (controlled by financial interests, perhaps Snapple) doesn’t want you to have a lemonade stand in front of your house, then you don’t have a lemonade stand anymore. You’ve been out-maneuvered. And this truly is capitalism at work. (Goldberg wouldn’t necessarily be fazed by this. He’d tell you it’s okay if you don’t make your $5 per day at your defunct lemonade stand, because you can buy a bottle of Snapple for a two bucks.)

Goldberg wants to equate free markets and free enterprise with capitalism, but they are distinctly different. Capitalism is a political system whereby private economic interests get to control not only their means of production and sales, but the government itself, by means of cartels, political funding and lobbying. This is how the term was understood a hundred and more years ago, and it is because of such abusive behavior that we had things like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. It is why Teddy Roosevelt prided himself on being a trust-buster. Theodore Roosevelt did not consider himself “pro-capitalist”; quite the contrary. Nor did most American politicians prior to the 1950s, when, in response to Communist propaganda, some conservatives embraced the term and deliberately confused finance capitalism with the ideal of an efficient, smooth-running market economy. “Conservatives” like Goldberg are now so married to their ideal of “free-market” capitalism that they’ve put old-style conservative values—e.g., social stability, traditional morality—in the wind.

In Goldberg’s world, capitalism, free enterprise, and globalism are all interchangeable concepts; different names for his Miracle, and responsible for the Improved Standard of Living he claims to see throughout the world in recent centuries. If you demur that technology and innovation were really responsible, Goldberg will tell you technology and innovation are merely by-products. They would not have come into being or spread around the world without the capitalist Miracle.

Goldberg presents his thesis in a glib, chirrupy style, like a college-freshman debater of several decades back, who came to campus armed with the more practical works of Ayn Rand (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal). He shows his intellectual prowess by sprinkling his talk with survey-course summaries of Great Thinkers. Two favorites are John Locke, with his Treatises on Government in support of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688; and Max Weber, of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Goldberg offers those works as seminal capitalistic texts. That point is arguable, but their relevance to Goldberg’s Miracle is hazy. Locke, to Goldberg, is a promoter of religious tolerance and economic freedom, as well as an opponent of royal absolutism in the person of King James II. In reality it was James who was the apostle of tolerance, specifically for Protestant Dissenters, Nonconformists and his fellow Catholics. Such liberality enraged the “tolerant” Locke. Furthermore, James’s “absolutism” was mainly his insistence that the Crown should have supreme authority in restraint of financial manipulators. As a political propagandist for those financial interests, Locke necessarily favored a weak, tractable monarch and a free rein for the money men. And so the Glorious Revolution was born, with weak, tractable William of Orange supplanting James Stuart and chartering the Bank of England. Even at its birth, capitalism was less a system of economics than a type of government.

As for Max Weber, Goldberg accepts unquestioningly the dubious theory that fatalistic Calvinism invested “Protestantism” (a broad category) with a recondite doctrine or ethos that enabled Protestant businessmen to outperform Catholics. Politics, geography, and quasi-secular organizations probably had at least as much to do with this phenomenon. But since Goldberg is taking us on a magical Miracle tour, an occult belief in a “Protestant Spirit” is as good an explanation as any other.

Overall, Goldberg’s historical vision is pure Whig School of History: We once dwelt in darkness, in poverty and ignorance, our lifespans short, our existences nasty and brutish; helplessly in thrall to absolute monarchs and the obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo of prelates who told us to suffer now and get pie in the sky later. But then we threw off royal pomps and wicked priestcraft, embraced the ballot box and the cash ledger, and moved into the broad sunlit uplands of progress, freedom, and liberal democracy for all.

Except, Goldberg warns—and this is ostensibly the point of his book—the sunlit uplands are darkening. The Miracle worked so well that we have forgotten it, or no longer believe in it. Or perhaps we see right through it. Anyway, we are moving backwards into tribalism, darkness and filth.

To give the book quantitative heft, Goldberg includes a long Appendix full of charts and statistics, to prove that we’ve never had it so good.  I’ll give just a couple of snippets here, since the examples are tiresomely repetitive:

World per capita GDP rose from $467 in A.D. 1 to a mere $666 in 1820. Deirdre McCloskey estimates that, prior to the Industrial Revolution, pretty much everybody lived on $3 a day. [My comment: But whatever did they buy that cost $3 a day, anyway—that they didn’t make or grow themselves?]

Global GDP has soared, from an estimated $150 billion in A.D. 1 to more than $50 trillion as of 2008. Observed macroscopically, we are closer to Eden than Eden ever was.

(p. 357)

A moment’s thought suggests all sorts of objections to this hallelujah-nonsense. What does a hundred-fifty billion dollars even mean for the time of Caesar Augustus, an age when nearly all wealth was in the form of real property (generally inherited) and livestock? This estimate is no more than an economist’s game, like measuring 18th century income in Big Macs. Let’s say John Q. Publius, goatherd, could buy only three new goats per year for his herd in 1 A.D.; but now, thanks to the Miracle of capitalism, his descendant can buy a thousand goats, thereby providing us with plenty of good cheap goat meat for our daily lunchbox. Except the descendant probably isn’t raising goats, we’re not slavering over goat meat, and these GDP numbers are essentially meaningless. You cannot translate monetary and intangible values from a long-ago age to the present day.

Inevitably Goldberg drags out the old saw about how we all live longer lives now. Another triumph of the Miracle! Except that life expectancy really hasn’t risen substantially in recent decades, once you factor-out reduced infant mortality, factor-in its modern substitute, abortion, and subtract artificial end-of-life support apparatus. Surely, if rising life expectancy were a real thing, we should be living to 140 years nowadays, instead of barely surpassing our great-great-grandparents’ three-score-and-ten.

The fact that most people don’t live into their second century probably has a lot to do with why people like Goldberg can push their Progress cult with little fear of contradiction. Offhand I can think of a dozen ways in which the America of a hundred years ago was a better place than what we have now. Look at school textbooks and graduation requirements, for one thing. (Could today’s average graduate student even pass a standard high school exam from 1918?) For another, look at basic transportation. The hollowed-out communities you see in Upstate New York and elsewhere—once thriving, now practically ghost towns—they were served by cheap, reliable, efficient networks of railroads and light-rail tramways that could take you from Saratoga Springs to Schenectady, or Hornell to Meadville, in a half-hour. (Privately owned transport too; not that it strictly matters.) People liked their trains and trolleys, but the Miracle of capitalism decreed that we must all buy motorcars instead, and make the automobile and gasoline and insurance companies rich. So the legislators and town fathers were paid off, tracks were ripped up, and nowadays you can’t get there from here.

Notes

1. James Burnham, Suicide of the West: an Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism. Originally published in 1964 by The John Day Company; later editions published by Regnery, and Encounter Books. A good online summary from the Claremont Institute is here: http://www.claremont.org/crb/basicpage/if-destruction-be-our-lot/

2. Jonah Goldberg, “Suicide of the West,” book excerpt. National Review, April 30, 2018. https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2018/04/30/jonah-goldberg-suicide-of-the-west-excerpt/

The Gospel According to Goldberg

‘Zine Master Adam

Remembering Adam Parfrey of Feral House Books, April 12, 1957 – May 10, 2018

Adam Parfrey in Hollywood, 1990

Adam Parfrey, the publisher of humor and esoterica who parlayed a 1980s “‘zine” sensibility into a durable niche publishing house, has died in his sleep at his home in Port Townsend, Washington. He was 61.

His main publishing imprint, Feral House, specialized in topics of pop culture, far-right politics and conspiracy theorizing. Adam built his career on a magpie interest in weird, outré subjects, and he brought a satirical and anarchic sensibility to most of them.

He first came to prominence thirty years ago with Apocalypse Culture (1987) an anthology of essays about cult beliefs and conspiracy theories, published by Amok Press, of which he was a co-founder with his friend Ken Swezey. It carried a cover-blurb endorsement from J. G. Ballard:

Apocalypse Culture is compulsory reading for all those concerned with the crisis of our times. This is an extraordinary collection unlike anything I have ever encountered— a remarkable compilation of powerfully disturbing statements. These are the terminal documents of the twentieth century.

Sample chapter headings: “The Unrepentant Necrophile,” “Schizophrenic Responses to a Mad World,” “The Case Against Art,” “Eugenics: The Orphaned Science,” “The Theology of Nuclear War.”

Adam soon left Amok and set up Feral House, originally based in Los Angeles, and put out such titles as Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski; Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence, and the Occult; Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.; Citizen Keane (about the painter of big-eyed children); Republican Party Animal, by David Cole; and Cad: A Handbook for Heels (a lavishly illustrated parody of 1950s “men’s magazines”).

Feral House’s latest offering is a memoir by the French yé-yé singer of the 1960s, Françoise Hardy (The Despair of Monkeys, and Other Trifles).  Adam arranged a May 3 book-launch party for it at New York’s SoHo Grand hotel. The party went on, but Adam wasn’t there.

Adam Parfrey was born in New York City, and grew up mainly in Los Angeles. His father, Woodrow Parfrey, was a successful character actor, first on Broadway and in television dramas of the Playhouse 90 sort. In Hollywood, Woodrow worked constantly till he died of a heart attack in 1984, also age 61. In films (Dirty Harry, Papillon, The Flim-Flam Man) he played a lot of shifty-eyed grifters and grocers. On some television programs he was almost a regular supporting player (five appearances on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,  four on Bonanza).

But the role people always asked Adam about was the one in which his father was totally unrecognizable, as he had been made up as an aristocratic orangutan in Planet of the Apes (the 1968 film and the 1974 TV show). Adam sometimes accompanied his father to the set.

“What was it like, having an orangutan judge as a father?” people always asked him, according to Adam. And he would reply,  “Oh, I just figured everyone’s father did this. Got up, went to work, played an orangutan in the movies.”

After high school, Adam attended University at California at Santa Cruz, but dropped out before graduation. In New York City he got a job in The Strand bookstore and with a co-worker created an elegant graphic-arts fanzine, Exit. Briefly he moved to Portland, Oregon, where he became friends with Keith Stimely, former editor of the Journal of Historical Review and aspiring biographer of Francis Parker Yockey. Keith was half-heartedly pursuing a masters in history at Portland State, which he soon gave up, along with the Yockey biography. (He wrote a book about desktop publishing instead.) Some years later Adam passed Keith’s Yockey information to one Kevin Coogan, who turned out a very different sort of biography from the one that Keith Stimely had planned (Dreamer of the Day, 1999).

Returning to L.A., Adam published Apocalypse Culture, founded Feral House, and did freelance writing, most of it imaginative and transgressive. He dashed off a piece for Larry Flynt’s Hustler about “Nazi skinheads,” and perpetrated an elaborate hoax in the pages of LA Weekly, about a secret gang of fag-bashers who called themselves the Blue Boys. He rented a rambling old frame house to live and work in, and decorated his office with art displayed for shock value. Most memorably there was a semi-pornographic poster of Shirley Temple in black SS regalia, posed against a huge and brilliant Hakenkreuz banner.

He became a feature writer and part-time editor for the San Diego Reader, where he interviewed old film directors and investigated a sex-therapy group for crippled people. He contributed a short weekly column called HelL.A., all about what was new and degenerate in the City of the Angels. No shortage of material there. The L.A. Riots happened (April-May 1991), famously triggered by a police beating of the drugged-out, unlicensed black “motorist Rodney King.”

Adam’s home, including the Feral House office, was then one mile east of Paramount Studios, in a borderline slum he called Baja Melrose. During the riots he seriously feared for his safety. In his Reader column Adam wrote that he was going to buy himself a pump-action shotgun, and move the hell out of HelL.A. as soon as he could afford to.

And move again he did, soon enough. Feral House published Nightmare of Ecstasy and sold the film rights. Tim Burton made it into Ed Wood, a black-and-white comedy with Johnny Depp as the weirdo director. Adam settled into a loft in Portland, Oregon.

Portland wasn’t lively or sociable enough, though. In L.A., Adam’s friends included such interesting characters as videographer/cartoonist Nick Bougas (aka A. Wyatt Mann of “le happy merchant” fame) and actor Crispin Glover. So back to L.A. Adam went, this time to an old house in Venice, big enough for the headquarters of Feral House, as well as Adam and his girlfriend, and her pet ferret.

When he made a major move again, in 2009, it was to a remote town he’d known about from his youth. For many years Port Townsend, WA was widely known as the home of libertarian-anarchist mail-order publisher Loompanics Books.

It is sometimes remarked that Adam trimmed his political sails as the years passed. This rebel publisher who once easily consorted with such rare and odd birds as Boyd Rice, Keith Stimely, and Tom Metzger, appeared to have turned into a fearful normie or even goo-goo leftist. In e-mail and on social media, he would sneer at “conspiracy theorists” and “black helicopter people.” In the last couple of years his Facebook postings were often routine denunciations of Donald Trump and his supporters.

I suspect that what really happened was the effect of the internet and social media in general. More than anything else, Adam Parfrey was a showman and exploiter of oddities. Cults and weirdnesses were his stock in trade. Indeed, they were the stock in trade of most of the ‘zine world in the 1980s. And that world is the ground wherein flowered Apocalypse Culture and Feral House.

But in the ‘zine world you wouldn’t get ten million followers, all ready to misinterpret you and instantly slot you as friend or foe. Adam balked at that. He was very much a print man. He never really acclimated himself to InterWebz Land.

In recent months, Adam decided to write a memoir. He talked with me about this a few weeks ago. He was trying to refresh his memory with lurid details about some mutual friends we’d known back in the 1980s and 90s. It was apparent that his memory had grown very foggy. He’d forgot some things, and made up others to plug the gaps. I didn’t find it particularly off-putting. He had been living in the boondocks, deeply engrossed in his publishing business. And he’d passed through so many circles of friends in his moves hither and yon. From the West Coast to New York and Hoboken; to Portland, OR and then to Los Angeles; back to Portland, back to L.A., and then finally Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula.

But he had also suffered a concussion in automobile accident some twenty years back, and believed he was suffering from fluid on the brain. This, along with a lifelong diabetic condition, possibly led to his recent stroke. On Monday, I am told, he suffered a fall. On Tuesday he was sleeping, and I gather he never woke up.

‘Zine Master Adam

Mosley Reconsidered

November 16, 1896 — December 3, 1980

November 16th is the 121st birthday of Sir Oswald (“Tom”) Mosley, English MP, baronet, political innovator, fascist and nationalist.

We’re at a strange new moment in history now, when figures such as Mosley can be honestly appraised without our falling into cant or parroting someone else’s hobby-horses. One indicator of this is the tsunami of books related to fascism and far-right nationalism. Some of these are concerned with present-day “alt-right” matters (George Hawley’s Making Sense of the Alt-Right; Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies.)

blackshirt-dorrilOthers are stuffy, scholarly, overpriced tomes, such as those in Routledge’s vast and pretentious current list on Studies in Fascism and the Far Right. (Check out these Routledge ones if you haven’t yet; their titles are hilarious. Tomorrow Belongs to Us—The British Far Right since 1967; Marketing the Third Reich; Understanding Racist Activism: Theory, Methods, and Research. And of course Fascist in the Family, a touching but screwy biography of leading Blackshirt and sometime Labour MP John Beckett, which I reviewed here back in May.)

And finally and oddly, we have books that just happened to have been written and published without any reference to current-day political movements. Books such as The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, by Jessica Thompson, or Searching for Lord Haw-Haw by Colin Holmes, both of which came out in 2016 but were years in the making.

And then, finally, there’s Stephen Dorril’s Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism, another 2016 issue, by the boutique publisher Thistle Publishing..

Strictly speaking,.the Dorril book on Mosley is a reissue, having been originally published in England by Penguin in 2006, at which time it garnered a lot of ink in the review columns. Dorril had accessed freshly released MI5 files, showing that Mosley’s organization had received about £50,000 from NS Germany in the late 1930s. (Supposedly the modern equivalent of £2 million. See Daily Telegraph story here.)

But that £50k is a paltry sum compared with the £235k (£8 million today, supposedly) that the British Union of Fascists got from the Italians during 1933-1937.

And therein hangs a murky tale.

Mussolini’s people cut off their subsidy to the BUF in 1937 because of the ineptitude or corruption they perceived in their British colleagues. For years, the Italians generously subsidized the Mosleyites, but the British Fascists failed to elect a single Member of Parliament. Which is odd on the face of it, given that both Sir Oswald and his first wife had been high-profile MPs during the 1920s. But by 1937, Mosley and his followers could not even make a decent showing in London council elections.

The Italians suspected their money was being squandered—or embezzled. And misappropriation within the BUF seems likely. (“MI5 files released last week at the National Archives in Kew . . . show that Mosley’s trusted lieutenants embezzled at least £100,000 at today’s values,” wrote the Telegraph in 2006.)

Sir Oswald himself seems to have been blameless. When the Italians cut him off in 1937, and the Germans hadn’t yet come through, Mosley mortgaged his family estate to meet payroll obligations.

The real takeaway in the Dorril book is its explanation of why Mosley’s top speechmakers and propagandists, William Joyce and John Beckett, left the BUF in 1937 to found their own minuscule National Socialist League. For many decades, going back to Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason (1946), the standard story was that Joyce left Mosley in a personal snit or temper tantrum.  But according to Dorril’s Blackshirt, finances were the key. When Mussolini stopped subsidizing the BUF in 1937, Sir Oswald axed most of the BUF’s 143 salaried employees, and that included senior officers Joyce and Beckett. By the time German funds came in to fill the gap

Biography by Chartered Accountant

Blackshirt is very good at following the money through BUF ledgers. Often it reads like a political biography as written by a chartered accountant:

The Charing Cross Westminster bank account was closed in May 1937. The total Italian subsidy, which includes money not banked in the Charing Cross account, was £234,730, worth around £8 million in today’s money. A.B. Findlay handled the final cash subsidy for 1937 of £7,630, not greatly different from the previous year for the same period. BU expenditure for the year dropped to about half the usual amount. Special Branch reported that Mosley was shocked by Mussolini’s decision, which plunged the movement into a series of internal crises from which it never recovered. [1][1. Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism. Thistle Publishing (new edition), 2015.]

What comes through loud and clear is that the Blackshirts were tracked and infiltrated from beginning to end. This was done so thoroughly that Mosley often appears to be little more than a decoy-duck, luring energetic nationalists into an organization that might have had nice uniforms and pretty rallies, but was utterly ineffectual.

This is not to say that Sir Oswald was consciously participating in the scam. But he was a vulnerable personality: vain and naïve, blind to danger, cocksure that he could outwit everyone. Similar to George Lincoln Rockwell, he honestly believed that policemen and government investigators were his natural allies, and that the people at large would always have his back. Like many an egotistical politician, Mosley was easily manipulated, all too ready to believe that he was using the people who were using him.

Principle was not his long suit. He did not scruple to modify his speeches and political platform, for the right price. The classic example here is the BUF’s treatment of Jewish Question. Initially the Blackshirts (following the Fascisti in Italy) took no stand on the JQ and in fact had prominent Jewish supporters. But then it looked as though fat subsidies might be coming in from National Socialist Germany, so Mosley adopted an anti-Jewish line.

Disappointingly, the publishers who reissued Blackshirt didn’t think to proofread the earlier version for errors that the original publisher, Penguin, let slip by. Nowadays authors are expected to do their own copyediting and fact-checking, even with major trade publishers, which means they can show their ignorance or libel dead people with abandon.

And some of Dorril’s misstatements are extraordinary. At one point he describes Churchill in early 1940 as “First Sea Lord,” which Dorril apparently imagined was a kind of nickname for First Lord of the Admiralty. Then there’s a scene with John F. Kennedy meeting Unity Mitford in Munich in early 1939. He writes his Ambassador father in London that Unity has “a certain fine Aryan look.”

I wondered why I’d never read this astounding encomium before, but after some digging around discovered it was really JFK’s brother Joe, Jr. who had tea with Unity. And what Joe wrote wasn’t nearly as nice: “She is not at all pretty, with very bad teeth, and terribly fat, however with a certain fine Aryan look.”[2]

Notes

1. Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism. Thistle Publishing (new edition), 2015.

2. Sunday Express, 8 Dec 2007.

Mosley Reconsidered

Special Pleading for Fascist Daddy

Fascist in the Family: The Tragedy of John Beckett MP
By Francis Beckett
London and New York: Routledge. 2017.
(Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right)

Here is a book of deep political scholarship and heartbreaking family history. It misses being great because the author lost the plot during the many years he worked on it, and he wound up hanging his father’s story on a lurid promotional “hook,” which I’ll get into below. I assume this sensationalism was to make the biography of his beloved father more agreeable to the editorial direction of the Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right, an ongoing series which is anything but pro-fascist.

The author’s initial plan was to write the tale of how his father John Beckett (1894-1964)—onetime Labour MP (he managed Clement Attlee’s first election) and sometime Mosleyite—was harassed till his death by government officials and the security men of MI5.

Some of this persecution may have been just petty revenge by old political rivals. Herbert Morrison carried a particularly massive grudge against John Beckett, for reasons going back to 1919, and too minuscule to relate. When Morrison got to be Home Secretary during the War, and John Beckett was interned under Regulation 18B, Morrison saw to it that Beckett stayed behind bars long after Mosley and other top Blackshirts were released. Morrison repeatedly denied Beckett parole, even refusing to give him medical leave for a long-standing heart ailment.

When Beckett was released toward War’s end, his restrictions were not over. For years he could not enter London, nor travel more than ten miles from home. As an ex-fascist, ex-jailbird, he was virtually unemployable. Anticipating internet activists of today, Beckett supported himself and family mainly through subscriptions to investment and political newsletters that he wrote himself. Fortunately he had a wealthy patron in the eccentric, nationalist Duke of Bedford, who lent the Beckett family a mansion to live in—at least for a few years, till after the Duke died. For a while there, John Beckett owned a boat and drove a Rolls, neither of which he really understood, being neither nautically nor mechanically inclined, his son tells us.

For the most part, though, his finances were unsteady. At one point, Beckett found himself obscure, respectable employment as a hospital administrator. But then Mr. Graham Mitchell of the Security Services, later MI5’s Deputy Director-General, put in a word or two. That scotched the hospital job. Mitchell also saw to it that all of Beckett’s mail was opened and read, even Christmas cards. He had the Beckett telephones tapped, and all conversations transcribed, including the ones where John was telling his wife he’d be late for dinner.

Why this seemingly pointless, gratuitous monitoring by MI5? Here and there, Francis Beckett tries to puzzle it out, and comes up with at least two possible answers. One is weak and weaselly: the author supposes that Graham Mitchell and his sort had got into the habit of prying into people’s business back during the War, and it was just too much fun to give up. The other answer, which the author keeps circling back to, is much more cogent and appealing. And that is this: Graham Mitchell, along with certain other brass in MI5 and MI6, was a Communist. He was the principal author of the evasive, dishonest 1955 White Paper (or “Whitewash paper” as it was called) on the Burgess-Maclean affair, in which the two British “missing diplomats” turned out to be Red spies, and slipped out of England in 1951 through either the negligence or the connivance of MI5. To put it another way, while Mitchell & company were busy preventing John Beckett from traveling ten miles from home, and were reading his mail and tapping his phone conversations, they allowed Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess to drive to Southampton and catch a midnight boat to France.[1] 

The notion that Mitchell and his boss Sir Roger Hollis were Soviet moles is an old theory, going back at least to Peter Wright’s 1989 Spycatcher, and still argued persuasively by such writers as Chapman Pincher and Nigel West.[2] Francis Beckett does not pursue or fully endorse this theory, but his investigation of his father’s treatment by Graham Mitchell and MI5 certainly points to a peculiar agenda on the part of these security men. Ex-fascists from the 1930s were to be hounded mercilessly, and their communications examined meticulously, in hopes of discovering links to right-wing networks; but when it came to Red spies and Soviet assets, MI5 tended to look the other way.

Beckett’s Lasting Legacy

As for Beckett’s actual career among the Blackshirts, it didn’t go on for long, but he was a major player while it lasted. After joining Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in 1934, Beckett quickly rose to become a prominent speaker and the BUF Director of Publications (he edited both Action and The Blackshirt). He devised the BUF’s popular posters and slogans of the mid-30s, e.g., “Mind Britain’s Business” and “Stand with the King” (that is, Edward VIII).

His greatest legacy is probably his redesign for the BUF’s corporate identity, which had initially been a Mussolini-style fasces symbol, but which Beckett replaced with the lightning-bolt device that British Union organizations continued to use for decades. (It has more recently been reincarnated in America in the logo for the inter-city coach service Bolt Bus.) When BUF money ran low and tempers flared in early 1937, Beckett and his friend William Joyce bade farewell to Mosley and founded the short-lived National Socialist League. A couple of years after that, of course, Joyce fled to Germany, where he made clever broadcasts for the Nazis and gained the English nickname Lord Haw-Haw.

By then Beckett was devoting his efforts to pacifist organizations and to his own new British Peoples Party (a quasi-mainstream, nationalist, anti-war movement). For months after the start of war in 1939 he engaged in efforts with Lord Halifax, Max Beaverbrook, and several Labour MPs to advance peace negotiations. This last initiative is somewhat startling to read about, if only because the peace efforts that continued in the first year of the War are so seldom written about. Far more than having ever worn a black shirt, Beckett’s attempt to shut down a needless war may well have been his real “crime,” the reason he was imprisoned in 1940 and then monitored by MI5 till the end of his days.  

Persecution by security services has long been a major concern of Beckett’s son and biographer. Francis Beckett was once Labour Party press officer, and has a keen eye for the ways that ruthless, vengeful politicians can punish their enemies. This was a theme of his three books about the Tony Blair administration (most recent: last year’s Blair Inc.: The Man Behind the Mask, by Francis Beckett, David Hencke, and Nick Kochan). On several occasions in the mid-2000s, he used the subject of the Blair government’s new Terrorism Acts to warn about the abuses of unrestrained security apparatus.

In 2005, for example, he wrote an essay in the Guardian about his father’s friendship with William Joyce (the MI5 files had only recently been opened), but his real subject is the security state:

Should we care about the secret power of the security services, when the victims were men like Beckett, Joyce and [A.K.] Chesterton, with their unpleasant political views, their racism, and their postwar belief that the Holocaust was a myth, probably invented by Jews? Yes: we cannot demand civil liberties only for people with views we consider acceptable. It’s a point worth remembering today, as the government plans the greatest clampdown since MI5 stopped transcribing my father’s telephone calls.’

Guardian, 10 Feb. 2005 [3] 

That Odious Sales-Hook

And now we come to that odious “hook” I mentioned, with which the book has been promoted in blurbs and early reviews. Namely, that John Beckett—1920s MP, 1930s fascist, 1940s internee, nationalist, and a political writer with a decided point-of-view on the Jewish Question—was himself part Jewish. The story goes that John Beckett’s mother, one Eva Dorothy Salmon at the time of her marriage, was actually born Solomon. The author and publisher present us with this revelation (or rumor) as news, a long-hidden family secret that Now At Last Can Be Told. But true or not, the rumor is neither particularly scandalous nor even news. Francis Beckett divulged it in a History Today article way back in 1994. Stephen Dorril repeated it as fact in his error-ridden 2005 biography of Mosley.[4] Colin Holmes’s 2016 biography of William Joyce[5] neatly skipped around it, no doubt because his publisher, Routledge was about to follow it up with the Beckett book, and didn’t want to spoil the promotional buzz.

Francis Beckett seems to have first heard the Jewish bit decades ago as a family rumor. Now he recycles it yet again, in a sort of special pleading for his fascist father. Alas and alack, after all these years he has nothing really factual to add. He shows us an extensive family tree on the Beckett side—Yeomen of Cheshire, John called his father’s people—but nothing for the “Solomons” prior to Eva’s parents. The mysterious lady herself doesn’t even get a photo in the book’s family gallery. And talk about old news: this allegation about John Beckett’s uncertain origin was already current during his Blackshirt years. Sir Oswald must have heard it, and likewise with Beckett’s good friend William Joyce. As recounted in Fascist in the Family, when he was interned during the War, a gang of East End Mosleyites came up to Beckett and taunted him about it.

Is it true? We’d have to see the evidence. What we do know is that such rumors will inevitably spread in certain circles, out of pure spite or misunderstanding. They even were circulated about Mosley and his first wife, Lady Cynthia.[6] In the end you have to wonder if the Beckett story is all fig-leaf and fluff, with scarcely more substance than the old saw about Hitler’s Jewish grandfather.

It must be admitted that the secret-Jew motif makes for good sales copy. So Francis Beckett and Routledge have framed their story with it, in a vulgar, ham-handed manner. The first chapter actually begins with a reference to Shylock and his runaway daughter, while the last chapter is called “Legacy of a Jewish Anti-Semite.” No surprise that reviewers latched onto this frothy sales-pitch and described the book accordingly. “Intimate View of Mosley’s Jew,” ran the kicker in the Jewish Chronicle

The good news is that this crass signaling does not disfigure most of the narrative. The second half is particularly touching and tragic, drawing heavily upon the author’s memories from the 1950s. As noted, for some years post-war John Beckett maintained his family in a state of precarious affluence, thanks to his ducal friend. But after the Duke of Bedford died in 1952, Beckett fortunes slid in straight-line depreciation. John Beckett’s political and stock-tip newsletters never brought in enough, so after selling off his boat and the Rolls and moving the family to a succession of every-more-poky houses and flats, the former MP wound up working as a uniformed security guard at a bank. This was much to the embarrassment of adolescent son Francis, by then a student at Beaumont College, a prestigious-but-failing Catholic public school whose fees the Becketts could not really afford. (William F. Buckley Jr. briefly attended this “Catholic Eton” in the late 1930s. It eventually closed and the grounds are now a conference center.) 

And it wasn’t until much later, long after John Beckett’s death of stomach cancer in 1964, that Francis came to understand the really dark secrets of his father’s career: internment, the Mosley years, the National Socialist League, the British People’s Party, the reason his father was unable to obtain regular employment.The real scandal to the story, as Francis found out years ago, is the unremitting, undeserved punishment meted out to his father and family by the secret, unnamed watchers of the security state. That was Francis Beckett’s initial theme, and he should have stuck by it.

Notes

1. As recounted in many books on the Philby-Burgess-Maclean matters (e.g., Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, 2014), in May 1951 Maclean had recently been identified as the Soviet mole “Homer,” and was about to be interrogated by MI5. Although he had been under constant surveillance, the MI5 men trailing him about were ordered off duty for the weekend, giving giving him and Burgess opportunity to slip away.

2. See Pincher Chapman, Their Trade Is Treachery, 2014; Peter Wright, Spycatcher, 1989; Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev (eds.), Triplex: Secrets from the Cambridge Spies, 2009.

3. Francis Beckett in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/feb/10/secondworldwar.world

4. Stephen Dorril, Blackshirt. 2005. Reissued 2015.

5. Colin Holmes, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw. 2016

6. It was often alleged in the London press that Lady Cynthia “Cimmie” Mosley, Lord Curzon’s daughter, had a Jewish grandfather who’d been a department-store tycoon in Chicago. Time magazine even repeated this as fact in its 1931 cover story on the Mosleys. Chicago department-store tycoon, yes; Jewish, no. Levi Ziegler Leiter, co-founder of Marshall Field & co., was from a Lutheran family of Swiss-German and Dutch extraction.

Special Pleading for Fascist Daddy

World’s Worst Reviewer

As everyone knows, I’m a big Kim Philby fan, and have read just about everything written on him, several times over. That Ben Macintyre book that came out a couple of years ago (A Spy Among Friends), about Philby and old buddy Nicholas Elliott, the MI6 officer whom he betrayed and then got mousetrapped by, is one of the most listened-to books I have on Audible. My husband and I have gone through it a dozen times.

So it was with something of a shock that I came across this—ugh, really terrible—review from the Toronto Star at the time of the book’s publication. This “Jennifer Quinn, Staff Reporter” writes in the journalistic equivalent of the chirrupy voice that many young females began to affect in the 1980s…you know the one I mean? The one affectedly nasal and high-pitched? And ending every phrase? With a question?

I mean, it’s really really awful, written like a pitch to 12-year-olds. You can read the whole damn thing here, but this opening snippet should be enough…

Being a spy might seem like a glamorous career, but the process of becoming one sounds truly tedious: To join MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, one must endure online applications, assessments for “geo-political” awareness, drug tests, and security checks. Lots of security checks.

But in the late 1930s, when Kim Philby decided he would like to become one of The Friends — the nudge-nudge wink-wink name those in the spy game bestow on each other — all it took was a chance meeting on a train, tea at a rather grand London hotel (which, by the way, is now part of the Marriott group) and a phone call from a muckety-muck in the secret service who knew his “people.” And he was in.

It now seems absurd that it was so easy for the man who would become the second-most famous double agent in history (Mata Hari being the first) to simply waltz into MI6 headquarters and steal secrets for his Soviet masters for decades. But that is pretty much what happened, and it is entertainingly and painstakingly chronicled in “A Spy Among Friends,” by Ben Macintyre.

World’s Worst Reviewer