I think I’ll file this under “six degrees of separation.” See what you think.
I’ve been a fan of Rachel Maddow since 2008. I’ve read her books (Drift, Blowout, Bag Man) and listened to her first two podcasts (Bag Man and Ultra) more than once. The first episode of her latest podcast—Deja News—was released last week, and I listened with interest and then read the transcript. I especially appreciate Rachel’s habit of pulling parallel events from history and using them as a template for thinking about our current challenges. I always find important and intriguing historical intersections in her work. But this first episode of Deja News, “Riot at the Gates (Again),” held a special interest for me.
Rachel and her producer Isaac Davey Aronson begin this episode with the Business Plot, a little-known failed coup attempt by a cabal of wealthy, powerful businessmen against President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the early 1930s. The attempt was foiled by Smedley Darlington Butler, a retired US Marine Corps brigadier general and much-decorated military hero whom the cabal tried to recruit to lead the coup, unseat FDR, and become the titular dictator.
But General Butler took his story to Congress and the coup failed. In The Plot to Seize the White House, Jules Archer remarks: “If we remember Major General Smedley Darlington Butler for nothing else, we owe him an eternal debt of gratitude for spurning the chance to become dictator of the United States—and for making damned sure no one else did either.”
Jonathan Katz, one of the contributors to the podcast, has written an interesting and timely biography of Butler, a complex, complicated, and often contradictory man. His blunt, take-no-prisoners style made him a hit as a speaker, and he attracted a growing audience everywhere he went. He used the lecture circuit to air his growing concerns about fascism and the situation in what was now Hitler’s Europe. In 1935, he published a highly critical book called War Is a Racket in which he argued that America’s foreign policy and its wars—wars in which he had served—were driven by imperialist and profit motives. The message was all the more powerful because it was delivered by a soldier who knew what he was talking about. It was popular, too: Reader’s Digest published a widely read condensed edition of it.
One of Butler’s early promoters was a radio broadcaster named Lowell Thomas, who made Lawrence of Arabia famous. Thomas had made a name for himself by capitalizing on his association with the heroic Lawrence, giving talks on radio and on the lecture circuit, illustrated by the newsreel-style films he brought back from the war. And using ghostwriters, he produced more than a dozen adventure books about other male action figures.
In 1930, Thomas—by that time a kind of impresario—developed a radio show featuring the real-life stories of adventure heroes. One of his heroic subjects was Smedley Darlington Butler, whose story appeared in Thomas’s highly popular book, Old Gimlet Eye: The Adventures of Smedley D. Butler. The book was published in the autumn of 1933, at the very same time that General Butler was blowing the whistle on the Business Plot. Old Gimlet Eye was a first-person account of Butler’s life, as told by its author to Lowell Thomas. Except that it wasn’t.
For that’s where Rose Wilder Lane comes into our story. Old Gimlet Eye wasn’t “told to” Lowell Thomas, it was “told to” Rose, the accomplished ghostwriter Thomas hired to do the job.
If you’ve read my biographical novel, A Wilder Rose, you will remember that Rose Wilder Lane was the unnamed co-author (as well as agent and manager) of her mother’s eight autobiographical Little House books, published (1932-1943) under the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Before she undertook her mother’s project, Rose had already gained a national reputation as a newspaper reporter, a freelance magazine writer, a novelist, and a journalist. Her work, published in such magazines as Country Gentleman, The Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s and Good Housekeeping, earned top dollar. She had recently (1928) returned to Laura and Alamzo’s Missouri farm to look after her elderly parents, built a house for them, and settled in to write and enjoy the writing life. And then came the Crash (October 1929) that upended the lives of every American. Rose lost every nickel she had invested in the market for herself and her parents. So she went looking for work.
Rose and Lowell Thomas likely met for the first time in New York on Nov. 6, 1931, through Rose’s friend Elsie Weil at Asia magazine, for whom Thomas had written some fifteen articles on T.E. Lawrence. At the time (November 1931) Rose was staying at the Westport, Connecticut, home of Sinclair Lewis and his wife Dorothy Thompson, a journalist and Rose’s longtime friend. Lewis had won the 1930 Nobel Prize for Literature; Dorothy wanted to go to Sweden with him and asked Rose to mind the household, which included the Sinclairs’ six-month-old baby. There, she worked for a month on Old Gimlet Eye: The Adventures of Smedley D. Butler, which was published in 1933.
According to her unpublished journal, Rose ghostwrote five more adventure-hero books for Thomas over the next 18 months. He was glad to get a writer he could count on to do the work well and do it fast. And she did, producing each book in four-six weeks and earning $1,000 a book—about $20,000 in today’s money. He usually paid on time, although in at least one instance, she had to accept a post-dated check. She admired bold adventurers. She likely admired Thomas. And she would have admired the General, who had the right stuff.
Rose disliked ghostwriting, but it was paying work that she did when she had to. Her first ghostwriting project had been White Shadows in the South Seas, which she co-authored with Frederick O’Brien in 1918-19. The book became an Academy Award–winning movie and earned O’Brien a small fortune. But he stiffed her and she had to sue for her share of the royalties. In the end, hard up for cash, she was forced to settle out of court for a fraction of what she was owed. She was astonishingly prolific throughout her nearly 60-year career. I’ve posted a bibliography of her work, as complete as I could make it at the time I was writing A Wilder Rose (2011-2012) It’s exhausting just to look at but even so, I’m sure it’s not exhaustive.
Rose’s politics were fairly far right and she was an outspoken advocate for her causes. Like many other farm families, she and her mother and father were fervid anti-New-Deal Republicans who opposed FDR on almost every policy issue—including Social Security, which both she and her mother considered a “Ponzi scheme” and refused to register for. She claimed to keep her earnings low in order to avoid paying taxes. She spoke out against the country’s foreign involvement , and, with Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand, she is thought of as one of the three “mothers of Libertarianism.” Her book, The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority (1943) is the strongest of her anti-fascist writings. In 1976, Rose’s “adopted grandson,” Roger Lea MacBride, became the Libertarian candidate for the presidency.
We have come quite a distance from Rachel’s podcast, which uses Smedley Butler to make the important connection between the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and a similar event in Paris on February 6, 1934. But I enjoyed thinking about the connections between General Butler, his promoter Lowell Thomas, and the ghostwriter whom Thomas hired to craft Butler’s war stories.
I’m looking forward to the next Deja News episode and the bridges it will build between the past and our present. And a few more “six degrees of separation.”
Reading Note: I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we’re so close.― John Guare
Your civil comments are welcome, as always. (Please, no trolling or trash talk.) And I’m happy to answer questions.