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The summer of 1927 isn’t a year that particularly stands out in U.S. history books, but it was, as writer Bill Bryson explains, a crucial one in America’s past. A previously unknown young man, Charles Lindbergh, crossed the Atlantic. Babe Ruth transfixed a nation with a home run record that endured for decades. And an epic flood of the Mississippi River prompted the first ever massive federal relief effort. In a new book, Bryson details these and other events of the summer of 1927 and their long lasting legacy.
- Bill Bryson Journalist and author.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson Copyright © 2013 by Bill Bryson. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. World War I was behind us. The Depression had not yet hit. In 1927 the U.S. was finding its place in the world, discovering its national identity and bursting with a sense of possibility. In a new book, writer Bill Bryson details the people and events making news in that year, and their legacy today. The book is titled "One Summer: America 1927." Bill Bryson joins me in the studio to talk about Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, and the queen's housewife, whose crime became a national fascination.
MS. DIANE REHMI invite you to be part of the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Bill Bryson, it's good to have you here.
MR. BILL BRYSONWell, thank you, Diane. It's a treat for me to be here.
REHMThank you. You know, you say you really wanted to write a book about baseball, so how did this happen?
BRYSONWell, this is kind of way of sneaking a baseball book past my British publishers...
BRYSON...because, of course, baseball, is, you know, something of a kiss of death for the British market. They're not interested in baseball at all. I grew up -- my dad was a sports writer in Des Moines, Iowa, and he was just from this generation. I mean, he was born in 1915, so he was a kid and very impressionable just at the time the Lindbergh and Babe Ruth and all of these other characters in my book came along. So this was stuff that I had been told about over the dinner table when I was growing up.
BRYSONBut I realized I didn't know all that much, and I was kind of mystified by things like, I knew that Lindbergh's flight was a big deal, obviously, but what I didn't realize was why it was such a big deal and why was he so famous? I mean, I knew they had named things after him, mountains, and high schools, and roads and all kinds of things, but I didn't realize quite why the world had gone that crazy. And the other -- my confusion was always that he was obviously a great athlete, and my dad told me he was fantastic.
BRYSONMy dad had seen him play. But you look at newsreel footage of him, and he looks like about the least athletic person...
REHMI know it. I know it.
BRYSONAnd it was just like, how is that possible?
BRYSONMy dad absolutely assured me that no, you know, Babe Ruth was, first of all, in his younger years he was actually a lot fitter and kind of more muscular looking. But even so, you know, if you have in 1927, he was built about like me, you know? He had a big pot belly, and stick legs, and he was 32 years old, which was pretty old for a ball player, and presumed to be at the end of his career if not actually, you know, kind of over the hill, and then he had the most magical summer that any baseball player has ever had.
REHMSo when you started looking at the events of 1927, you found a lot more than Babe Ruth.
BRYSONPrecisely. I mean, my starting point was, I had it in mind to do -- that I might try to do a kind of dual biography of Lindbergh and Ruth, these two characters that had fascinated by parents and were, you know, obviously iconic figures. And I had always been kind of drawn to the fact that they both had these career years at the same time, the summer of 1927. But what I found when I started doing -- looking into it, just at the very beginning I found that a whole lot more happened that summer.
BRYSONYou had the great Mississippi flood, still the biggest natural disaster in American history, you had the filming of "The Jazz Singer," the first talking picture which obviously transformed popular entertainment completely. You had -- they started carving Mount Rushmore. Sacco and Vanzetti, the notorious anarchists who write -- I fear I've slightly forgotten now, but were a huge cause celebre at the time. They were executed that summer, and which provoked riots all over the world. So lots and lots of stuff happening all at the same time.
REHMWhat was America like in 1927?
BRYSONWell, it's -- that's a really good question. It was a fantastic time, I think to be alive in many ways because there was this euphoria. What's interesting, if you just read the newspapers, is you realize looking at it that nobody had any idea what was just around the corner with the stock market crash and Great Depression.
BRYSONSo the euphoria was sort of overwhelming. I mean, we don't have to think too far back in our own times to remember what it was like in, you know, the early 2000s before the crash here. But there was same kind of thing, but really, times ten because it was -- it was such a good time, and America was so much on top of the world in terms of economic. You know, America had become really, really rich from the first world war.
REHMAnd what did the rest of the world think of us at that time?
BRYSONWell, it was interesting because they thought of Americans as pretty, you know, friendly and open and American culture had a certain importance because of silent movies and everything. But it wasn't anything like the dominant player in the world that we know now. And what's really interesting -- well, it's interesting to me anyway, was that we didn't -- as Americans, we didn't have the confidence that we've got now. It was -- Americans didn't expect to come first at anything, which is part of the reason why Lindbergh was so exciting.
REHMExactly. And you might just talk about who Charles Lindbergh was before he came bursting onto the national screen. And frankly, I personally had no idea he was actually involved in a race.
BRYSONYeah. Well, I didn't know that either. I think that's pretty well forgotten. But the situation is that in the summer of 1927, though technology had reached the point where the possibility of flying from New York to Paris, a flight of that distance was suddenly possible, and there were lots and lots of teams, eight or 10 all together, most of them well-funded and quite serious teams with big planes and big crews, were all poised to do it. And some were going to fly from Paris to New York, and others in the other direction.
BRYSONBut there were lots of teams, and Lindbergh was just one of them. And Lindbergh was just this kid of Minnesota, a 25-year-old air mail pilot who flew into New York and said that he was going to do it and everyone thought he was out of his mind and that it was suicidal.
REHMBecause of the plane itself.
BRYSONHe had simple plane that was -- the whole thing had only cost him 13-, $14,000 compared with Admiral -- Commander Byrd at the time whose plane had cost perhaps half a million dollars.
BRYSONSo Lindbergh's was a very, very, you know, it was a very modest program. He had no ground crew. It was a single-engine plane, which everybody thought was suicidal, and a single pilot. No co-pilot, no navigator, no radio operator. Didn't even have a radio. So nothing at all. And so he -- and nobody had heard of him. But because his plane was simple, he managed to take off ahead of everybody else.
BRYSONHe didn't have all the complexity and all the, you know, it didn't require all the tinkering and other things to go wrong. He takes off. The world got tremendously excited by the idea of this kid who was -- he was a nice-looking, you know, he looked like the boor next door. You'd be very happy for your daughter to go out with him, kind of guy. Just All-American hero guy, and he lands in Paris and he's so unknown and as he was flying into Paris, he really thought that when he landed, he was going to be in trouble for not having a Visa.
BRYSONAnd his thoughts as he was coming into Paris were that, you know, he would land the plane, he would park it, you know, get it settled for the night, and then he'd have to go into town and somehow find a hotel room somewhere. What he didn't realize was that the whole of Paris had turned out at 10:30 at night...
BRYSON...you know, at least 150,000 people, maybe more.
BRYSONJust they were -- and they were filled with such kind of euphoria and exultancy over this that they actually -- the crowd spontaneously just flattened an eight-foot high chain-link fence that surrounded the airfield to surge forward and embrace this kid.
REHMHow do you think that that achievement on his part changed, if not just France, but the world's opinion of the United States.
BRYSONWell, for the United States it was a big psychological moment, because it was, as I say, it was the first time we'd really come first at something. And you have to remember is that America was in an odd position with aviation in that period because, I mean, we'd invented airplanes. The Wright Brothers did it, but then it was the Europeans who...
REHMIsn't there some question about somebody else who may have gotten there first? I don't mean to challenge you...
BRYSONThere's -- yes. I mean, there's various challenges...
BRYSON...but they're pretty dubious.
REHMThe Wright Brothers. Okay.
BRYSONAnd, I mean, I think we can safely assume that as long as the Smithsonian is telling me that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, I'm happy to go along with that. And -- but then there's no question that Europe took over. All the manufacturers, all the great pilots because of the first World War and all the dog fights and everything, the great most famous pilots, and the most famous aircraft designers were all European in the 1920s. And all America had a kind of rudimentary air mail service and that was it.
BRYSONThere were no passenger planes in America or anything. So we were miles behind, and everybody thought that this great New York to Paris air race would be won -- probably be won by Europeans. So Lindbergh was critically important in terms of just the psychology of it. This was a really big deal for America. And, you know, and it kind of transferred, or extended to other areas, because in the summer of 1927, we still had not for instance won a single Nobel Prize for literature. Most of Nobel Prizes that we had in the sciences were won by foreign European expatriates who had settled here.
BRYSONSo we were still kind of -- in terms of, you know, scientific breakthroughs and intellectual thought and culture, we thought to be sort of adolescent, still falling behind. And this was a breakthrough moment for America.
REHMDid Charles Lindbergh come from a family of great wealth?
BRYSONNo. He came from -- I mean, he came from a very comfortable background. His father had been a Congressman, so Lindbergh grew up in quite privileged circumstances. He went to school here in Washington with the children of Teddy Roosevelt, for instance. And, you know, he got to play in the Capitol Building, and he got to go, you know, at Easter time he went for egg hunts on the White House lawn because his dad was a Congressman, so he had a lot of privilege.
REHMBut I'm just -- I'm wondering whether the great wealth he amassed after that flight came because of that flight.
BRYSONOf the flight, yes. Of the flight, and the things that he did with it. He was, I mean, I don't think Lindbergh was particularly obsessed with money, or that, you know, I mean, I think he was happy to have it. The flight -- it could have made himself -- I mean, to his credit, he could have made himself a whole lot richer. He was -- he was offered an opportunity to do a lot of things to make a lot of money. I mean, if they -- if he'd allowed them to make a movie, based on his life but which he played himself, they would have paid him a million dollars. And in 1927 money, that was a huge amount of money.
REHMI should. say.
BRYSONSo he -- and he declined those things. I mean, he could have been a whole lot richer than he was. As it turned out, he did end of up very well off.
REHMAnd of course I do remember Phillip Roth's fictional account of Charles Lindbergh becoming President which was really quite a novel. Bill Bryson. His new book is titled "One Summer: America, 1927." Do join us. 800-433-8850. Send your email to email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMWelcome back. And my guest in this hour, Bill Bryson. His new book is titled "One Summer: America, 1927." Bill Bryson thought he was going to write a book about baseball, but then -- and concentrate on Babe Ruth whom he admired tremendously, but realized there was a lot else going on in 1927, of course, the flight of Charles Lindbergh. Here's a website comment. "Charles Lindbergh was a Michigan native, who like Henry Ford, supported the Nazi movement in Germany for some time.
REHM"He thought that opposing Germany would open the doors to Soviet domination of Europe. Later though he flew several combat missions in the Pacific." And you write that the great irony was that by the time America was ready to take to the air properly, Charles Lindbergh would no longer be anybody's hero. Why?
BRYSONWell, Lindbergh's life became very, very complicated after the summer of 1927, and the most famous thing that I think almost everybody knows about is that his child was kidnapped and horribly murdered. And so he not only had to go through all the grieving that you would naturally associate with that, but he had to do it with flashbulbs going off in his face.
BRYSONAnd he and his wife really, I mean, what they went through is just terrible. So he fled to Europe just to get away from it all, you know? I mean, he was a very, very private person, and he was constantly hounded by the press anyway. But with, you know, with a dead child to factor into it all, it was just too much. So he and wife fled to Europe, and there he became quite sympathetic. It was coincidentally just the time of the rise of Nazis in Germany.
BRYSONHe became quite sympathetic. He was, you know, he was a very, very enigmatic figure. Lindbergh was almost certainly not really, really anti-Semitic although he did make a few kind of...
REHMHe sure did.
BRYSONHe did make a few anti-Semitic remarks.
BRYSONBut this was in an age when a lot of people were making anti-Semitic remarks. So you have to kind of factor...
BRYSONYeah. I mean, just, you know, think of H.L. Mencken for instance and people like that. And there was a lot more sort of racism and ill will in the period. I mean, people were just, you know, it was a lot more closer to the surface all the time. But what Lindbergh certainly did was he admired the Nazis and he may have been -- there may have some anti-Semitism attached to it. I'm not trying to defend or excuse him, but what he certainly did was he thought, you know, the Germans were great because they were orderly and the made the trains run on time, and they did all that kind thing.
BRYSONAnd he thought that Adolph Hitler was unquestionably a great man. And so that soured him, and he kept that belief really way too long. In 1941, just before the outbreak for us joining World War II, he made a famous speech -- Lindbergh made a famous speech in Des Moines, Iowa, my own hometown, and was really very critical of Jews, the British, and Franklin Roosevelt. Blamed all of them for dragging America into the war, and absolutely essentially excused the Germans from any blame for all of this.
BRYSONIt was a bad time to make that claim. It was a completely foolish claim, really, and it finished him as a hero.
REHMAnd of course your book covers so much more than simply Charles Lindbergh. Here's an email from John in St. Louis. He says, "Does your book cover the Bath School massacre? In these times of Columbine and Newtown, it would be an important piece of history for everyone to know."
BRYSONWell, I'm so glad that he mentioned that because yes, it does. I had never heard of it. I knew nothing about it, and I don't think I'm unusual in that. But in late May, I can't remember if it's the 18th of 19th of May, 1927, a madman went into the public school in Bath, Michigan, which is near Lansing, and planted a whole load of explosives in the basement in various caches throughout the basement.
REHMWhy? Who was he?
BRYSONHe was crazy for a start. I mean, obviously crazy, but, I mean, he was sort of clearly mentally disturbed, and he had a grievance against the school board. He thought -- or it was, you know, totally irrational. But he decided that he was going to show his displeasure by blowing up the school. He set off a bomb and it, mercifully if you can't say in these terms, it only blew up one wing. A lot of the explosives didn't go off, but it was still the biggest slaughter of children that there's even been. I mean, even worse than the terrible business in Connecticut a year or so ago.
BRYSONIt was -- but interestingly, I mean, he killed 43 people, 37 of them children. Terrible, terrible, terrible thing. But interestingly, it was almost immediately forgotten because the next day, or a day or so later, Charles Lindbergh made his flight and the world moved on.
REHMIsn't it remarkable.
BRYSONAnd it -- I searched the New York Times day after day for, you know, I read every single page very closely in the New York Times for a week or so after that, and there was never another word about it.
REHMIsn't that remarkable?
REHMThere was something that happened just before Charles Lindbergh burst onto the scene, and that was the Sash Weight murder case. Talk about that.
BRYSONWell, it's a kind of crazy case because it was -- I mean, it's very, very pedestrian in many ways, and yet it became -- they were calling it the crime of the century, and it really got blown up out of all proportion. And what it was, was this woman, not terribly attractive woman named Ruth Snyder who decided she didn't like her husband very much, and she took out a double indemnity life insurance policy on him so that if he died by violence they would get a double payback, and with her lover, a guy named Jud Gray, they killed him in his bed by striking him on the head with a sash weight, a window sash weight, which is where the crime's name comes from the Sash Weight murder case.
BRYSONAnd the press, nationally, everywhere, just really went to town. I mean, they completely seized it, and really inflated Ruth Snyder into a kind of vamp and described her as being, you know, extremely attractive. If you just read the words, you'd think she was, you know, just this great beauty, and in fact, she was a slightly dumpy (word?) .
REHMAnd you have a photograph of her in the book.
BRYSONYeah. And she's not a great beauty. I mean, she might have been attractive when she was younger, but by this time, she was, you know, not. And it was -- they were completely inept. They were caught within hours of doing it. Everything they did was -- they did wrong. It was just a very, very inept crime, and yet it was treated as if it was one of the biggest things ever. And James M. Cain, the novelist, was so inspired that he wrote two novels (unintelligible) double indemnity, and double indemnity became the inspiration for the Billy Wilder movie...
BRYSON...which started the whole genre of film noir. So it was quite an important murder case for one that was so trivial.
REHMDidn't it also sort of begin the tabloid kind of coverage, the sensationalist coverage of murders?
BRYSONWell, the tabloids had started up. They were definitely a 1920s phenomenon. They came just after World War I, and they became more and more important, and it was really interesting because you can see how the tabloid covers, I mean, it was really very sensationalist, and it also -- I mean, it really did two things. It covered trials and scandal very, very actively, but it also then promoted celebrity culture, and boosted people like Babe Ruth in particular.
BRYSONSo it did those two things, and that really changed people's relationship with newspapers, and you can actually see that by the late 1920s even serious solemn newspapers like the New York Times were clearly affected by it. Because, I mean, they covered the Sash Weight murder case with a lot more, I think, enthusiasm and kind of purpose prose than they would have earlier.
REHMYou know, you talked earlier about how Charles Lindbergh was received in Paris by at least a hundred thousand people, but isn't this also the era where huge numbers of people gather simply to watch something?
BRYSONThat's the most extraordinary thing. I mean, I start the book with a fire in the Cherry Netherland Hotel -- apartment house hotel in New York which was under construction at that time, and it was just -- it was a, you know, quite a lively fire in the skyscraper, but -- within a couple of hours, a hundred thousand people were gathered on the streets. I mean, think what you'd have to do now to get a hundred thousand people to turn up for something, and this was just spontaneous, and that kind of thing happened all the time.
BRYSONThe sort of great quintessence of this was flagpole sitting, which because a big cult in the 1920s, and this guy, Shipwreck Kelly, he became the champion flagpole sitter and what would happen was that a place like a hotel, for purposes of publicity, would pay him to come and sit on a flagpole on their roof.
BRYSONI mean, the building might be eight stories high and the flagpole might be another 20 or 30 feet.
BRYSONAnd he would sit there for eight or 10 or 12 days and they would pay him very well for that.
REHMAnd people would gather.
BRYSONThousands of people. I mean, there was -- at the time of Lindbergh's flight, there were, you know, he was doing it on the Union Hotel in Jersey City, New Jersey, and tens of thousands of people were in the street constantly blocking traffic, just to look up and see a guy sitting on a flagpole, doing nothing but sitting. And people would stand there for hours absolutely entranced by it.
REHMBut, I mean, on the other hand, think of these individuals who walk across canyons, who walk across on tight ropes on -- that gathers hundreds of thousands.
BRYSONWell, sometimes it does. Sometimes it does. But nowadays, of course, they arrange it so that you have to pay admission for it.
BRYSONIn those days, I mean, people would turn up for a lot of things. There was -- just spontaneously in large numbers, and clearly it had something to do with the fact that there weren't so many distractions. I mean, there was obviously no television but even radio was only just beginning to come into its own.
REHMBut now, Bill, in this same year, it would seem that the ground work is being laid for the crash of '29.
BRYSONYeah. At that time nobody saw it coming, and partly because of that, in the summer of 1927, the four most important central bank governors in the world from the Bank of England, Bank of France, the Reich bank in Germany, and the New York Federal Reserve Bank, which is essentially the Central Bank for the United States all met -- these four bank governors met secretly on Long island just under -- by coincidence, but just under the flight path that Lindbergh has just flown over only a short time before.
BRYSONAnd they met secretly because in those days they didn't really have to tell anybody anything. And as a way of helping Europe to recover, because Europe was still struggling in 1927 to get -- recover from the war, Benjamin Strong, who was head of the New York Federal Reserve, he agreed, quite foolishly in retrospect, but he agreed to cut interest rates further in the United States as a spur to European economic recovery.
BRYSONAnd it's interesting because I mentioned earlier about the United States lacking confidence at this time, and in those days we still sort of did what Europe expected us to do. I mean, we, you know, nowadays America tells the world what to do.
BRYSONIn those days the world still kind of told America what to do. And anyway, Benjamin Strong agreed to do this. They cut interest rates by only a small fraction at half a point, but it was just enough to light the fire that sent the market through the roof and so the market just keep going, and the numbers were great for awhile. But as always happens, there has to be a correction and in 1929 the correction came very suddenly and the market, of course, collapsed so severely that there was no recovery from that and the Great Depression followed.
REHMBill Bryson. His new book is titled "One Summer: America, 1927." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got lots of callers. Let's open the phones. 800-433-8850. First let's go to Kevin in Cincinnati, Ohio. You're on the air.
KEVINWell, thanks for taking my call, Diane...
KEVIN...and Bill. It's an honor to talk to you because I am a huge, huge fan of your writing.
REHMOh, thank you.
BRYSONWell, thank you. Thank you very much.
KEVINI have been. I mean, I've read most of your books more than once, and I think that "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is probably the best general science book that I've ever read.
BRYSONWell, thank you. Thank you.
KEVINWhat I was curious about was, in writing this recent book, probably what was the biggest surprise that you came across that you didn't really expect?
BRYSONOh, gosh. I mean, there's so many things. We've touched on a few of them. I mean, I was completely surprised to discover this, you know, terrible murder of school children in Bath, Michigan because I had never heard of it. I just thought, how could I never have heard of this. That was a huge surprise to me. And then there were lots of surprises about the events that I thought I knew something about, and realized, you know, just how much I didn't.
BRYSONI didn't know, for instance, and Diane eluded to this earlier in the interview about the fact that when Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, I'd always just assumed that he kind of did it off his own bat, that he'd just got it into his head that he'd fly the Atlantic and did it. I didn't realize that there was a whole kind of air race going on. They were calling it the Great Atlantic Air Derby, and there was lots and lots of other teams doing it, which has magnified his achievement, but also as a story, I think it makes it a lot more exciting than if he had just kind of arrived from Minnesota and spontaneously decided to fly the ocean for no particular reason.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Paul in Orange Park, Fl. You're on the air.
PAULPleasure to talk to you, Bill. I thoroughly enjoyed your book "Walk in the Woods."
BRYSONWell, thank you.
PAULI have your book "Short History of the World," but I'm a full-time student in college at age 63, so I don't have time for pleasure reading.
BRYSONGood for you. Good for you.
REHMI should say...
PAULI'm glad you brought up the 1927 flood and made that, you know, a dominant issue in your current piece of writing. It was bigger than any other flood that ever, you know, was recorded, at least since Europeans invaded North America. It was 50 miles wide and 99 miles long, and 30 feet deep, which basically means it obliterated everything. I was trying to find the name of a movie that was made about that about a couple of convicts in Mississippi who were sent out to rescue a pregnant who was up in a tree, but I...
BRYSONOh, I don't know that movie. I can tell you there's a wonderful book. I mean, if you're particularly interested in the flood, there's a wonderful book called "Rising Tide" by a man named Barry B-A-R-R-Y. I can't remember his first name offhand.
BRYSONBut it's a really, really good book. I mean, obviously in my book I could only go into these things in a certain depth, but his book is fascinating.
REHMThanks for calling, Paul. Talk more about that flood and how it came about.
BRYSONWell, yeah. It came about simply because it just rained and rained and rained. I mean, beginning in August of 1926, months and months earlier, it rained. I mean, it was just a winter of rain like nobody had ever seen before, and by the spring, the ground all over North America was just sodden. It couldn't absorb any more rain, and what happens in March of 1927 is that was suddenly got deluged with huge amounts of rain, and all of that water, instead of being absorbed and going to aquifers and so on, it just ran straight off the land, and so the whole of the Mississippi-Missouri river system, which is immense, I mean, it drains 40 percent of America, just flooded.
BRYSONI mean, it just took in all this water and it couldn't handle it, and it all obviously rushes south towards New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta, and eventually the levies wouldn't hold. There was just such a volume of water going through, much much worse than the flood of the late nineties which I did witness. So it was a magnificent flood, and at one point it was even more extensive than your called indicated. At one point we essentially had a new Great Lake in the middle of the country, it was that big.
REHMWow. Bill Bryson, and his new book "One Summer: America, 1927." Do join us. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd here is an email as I talk to Bill Bryson about his new book "One Summer: America, 1927." Tony says, "Hats off to Lindbergh but the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic was made June 15, 1919 by John Alcock and Arthur Brown in a Vickers Vimy airplane. Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight following 19 other successful flights by other teams. So given that, why is Lindbergh's flight so rejoiced?
BRYSONDiane, your correspondent is absolutely right and I'm pleased to tell you that all of that is covered in the prologue to the book. So I do talk -- because Alcock and Brown deserve to be a lot more famous so they're completely forgotten, even in Britain where they came from. And so I do talk about that as sort of (unintelligible) .
BRYSONBut what they did was they flew from Newfoundland to Ireland and they crash landed in Ireland. It's a much, much shorter flight. Lindbergh's flight from New York to Paris was almost twice as far.
BRYSONAnd that was the thing was that nobody had managed to fly from one capitol to another and actually land where they were supposed to. I mean, that was the thing that was so exciting about Lindbergh was that you could now fly long distances and land, you know, where you expected to. Still a lot of people couldn't do that but that's what Lindbergh did. And that was why it was so captivating.
REHMHere's a fascinating question. "What did Bill find the common childhood experience of that era?"
BRYSONWell, the one thing that's really striking and is relevant to certain passages in the book is that how easily you could still die in the 1920s, you know. In some ways it's such a -- it feels like, you know, just yesterday but it still feels very, very like our own age. If you listen to people speaking, if you read -- you know, you read the New York Times then you would -- if you didn't know you were reading a paper from almost 90 years ago, you wouldn't realize necessarily that it was that far back. It's very similar to our age.
BRYSONBut certain things like medicine have really come along. And you could die very easily from simple infections because we didn't have penicillin or the antibiotics. It's relevant to the story because Calvin Coolidge's son three years before 1927 got a simple -- really quite simple infection in his foot from -- well, it was rubbed by some sneakers he was wearing and died. And now he would go to a doctor and the doctor would give him antibiotics and he'd be fine within, you know, a couple of days.
REHMBut, you know, we think today of the so-called helicopter parents, we think about children being watched over very carefully. I had the feeling it was much different back then.
BRYSONWell, I mean, you don't -- I'm sure you're great -- you don't have to go back if you like that part. I grew up in the '50s and nobody -- we weren't supervised at all.
BRYSONWe just -- you know, school let out and parents really didn't see you except at bedtime for the next three months.
BRYSONNo. I think it was clearly a simpler, more trusting age.
REHMBecause you could go out on the street, you could play at the playground. Your parents didn't worry about you. A very, very different era.
REHMLet's talk about an interesting murder case that had real political implications, that was Sacco and Vanzetti.
BRYSONYeah, it was a case that I think is pretty largely forgotten by younger people now, but it was a huge cause celebre at the time. I would say that in terms of how polarizing it was and how much passion it generated, it was sort of like the Vietnam War. I mean, that's the event that I've lived through that, you know, caused a lot of rioting and protests and a lot of kind of bitter fury on both sides. And that's what Sacco and Vanzetti did in the 1920s.
BRYSONWhat it was was they were two Italian immigrants who were anarchists, there's no question about that. You know, they believed in the overthrow of the American government. So a lot of people saw them as very ungrateful that, you know, they'd been let into this country and given all these economic opportunities and had rejected all that and wanted to bring down the government.
BRYSONSo there was quite a lot of, you know, hostility and resentment to them. But they were arrested for a crime, a murder of -- a payroll robbery and murder of two people in Braintree, Mass., for which they almost certainly weren't guilty of that. The evidence against them was extremely dubious and they were sentenced to execution for it. So this generated a huge amount of powerful feeling on both sides. Some people said, well, you know, they should be executed. Anyway, a lot of people said, but they're innocent. All over the world people got really angry with America for proceeding with the executions.
BRYSONThe governor of Massachusetts, to give him full credit, he did everything he could to make sure that they -- if they were going to execute them that they really, you know, that they -- he did everything he could to try and find some reason for pardoning them and couldn't find any. You know, it had been a fair trial. The jury had convicted. There wasn't -- there were no flaws to the case against them except that a lot of the evidence against them was really quite dubious.
BRYSONBut if people testified, if they saw them there, you know, you can't -- the governor can't question that.
REHMYeah, and they proclaimed their innocence right to the end totally.
BRYSONOh, yeah, I mean, absolute passion, proclaimed their innocence. What's interesting is that there's now -- because this case has been so thoroughly investigated in all the years since -- there's now really strong grounds to think that they might have been guilty of something, that they're probably -- you know, they probably had done terrible things possibly from set off bombs that killed people. They were certainly involved with the kind of people who were setting off bombs.
BRYSONSo they may very well have been executed for something they didn't do but under the law deserved to be executed anyway. So it's a very complicated messy issue.
REHMAnd going back to our caller who asked about the movie, let's see, we have some word that the movie is an adaptation of William Faulkner's novelette "Old Man," a story of a convict who rescues a pregnant woman in the 1927 flood. It became part of Faulkner's book "The Wild Palms." And the film version was a TV adaptation.
REHMHow interesting that we can always get answers from our listeners.
REHMAll right. Let's go now to Bryan in Eldersburg, Md. Hi there, you're on the air.
BRYANHi. Bill Bryson, I'm a really huge fan of yours. It's an honor to talk to you.
BRYSONWell, thank you, Bryan.
BRYANThanks. And before I get into my question I just wanted to share, I thought you might be interested, over the weekend I spent some time In Shenandoah National Park and I was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. And was a little big concerned because I came across some black bears. And as you know, black bears don't normally attack people but here's the thing. Sometimes they do.
BRYSONHow far away were they?
BRYANPretty close, maybe 30' or so.
BRYANThey saw me and I saw them and I watched them for a while and then they kind of went about their way and I went about mine. And it was a (word?) experience.
BRYANBut anyway, my question was, I know that after writing a short history of nearly everything, you felt a little bit overwhelmed I guess by the amount of research that you had to do for that book. And that was one of the things that led you to write "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," which is my favorite story of all time.
BRYSONWell, thank you. Thank you.
BRYANYou're welcome. And I was just wondering, in your future do you see yourself writing anymore books that are more autobiographical in nature?
BRYSONWell, that's a really good question. I mean, I still like to do travel books. You know, and if you do a travel book then I as the author am obviously at the center of it all and, you know, it's first person. So yes, that's something I'd love to go back and do more of. I don't think -- you know, I don't think I can do my life story anymore because I've done it and there isn't really anything much left to tell. But I'm very pleased you brought that up because, you know, as much as I enjoy doing the books that involved a lot of library research and that kind of thing is slightly more earnest and solemn books. I do like to do the personal ones, too.
BRYSONYeah, I really enjoy doing both kinds. You know, I would hate to be living a life as a writer where I was locked into doing just one kind or the other. I like to move around a little bit.
REHMThanks for calling, Bryan. And let's go now to Laura. She's been holding on for a while. You're on the air.
LAURAHi, Mr. Bryson. I'm so excited to be able to ask you this in person. Can you tell me how you went about doing the research for this book?
BRYSONWell, thank you. Yes. I did as much sort of on the ground traveling around and seeing these things as I could. But that, I discovered quickly, was of somewhat limited use because so much has changed. I mean, you know, I went back to Lindbergh's boyhood home, I went to Herbert Hoover's boyhood home, Calvin Coolidge's and that kind of thing. So I went to most of the places that feature in the book and had a look at them just to familiarize myself with the geography of them.
BRYSONBut what I found is that so much has changed. I mean, the one that really shocks and, you know, I found really dispiriting was I went to Roosevelt Field in Long Island where not just Lindbergh's flight but lots and lots of other flights that I talk about took off that summer. It was a really historic -- the most historic airfield in America if not the world. And it's now a shopping mall. And it's completely -- everything that had anything to do with it being an airfield is completely obliterated.
BRYSONThere is a historical plaque there and it's under the escalator in the middle of the shopping mall.
BRYSONAnd you have to hunt and hunt to find it.
BRYSONAnd it's just outside the Disney stores. It's -- yeah, and it says, you know, on this spot on May 20, 1927 Charles Lindbergh took off. And it's really -- you stand there and try to imagine. And of course it's nothing like -- I mean, it's -- there's just -- so that was a little bit disappointing.
REHMLet's go back to Babe Ruth. He was so celebrated. How did he take it all in?
BRYSONWell -- and I'm so glad you mentioned Babe Ruth because there's a reason I'm especially excited about it today because today is the anniversary of the day he hit 60 homeruns. Eighty-six years ago today he hit his 60th.
BRYSONSo it was September 30, 1927 he did that. And it was a huge event. And the thing about Babe Ruth was that he was massively celebrated. He was in fact probably the first non-Hollywood star who became a celebrity, you know. Sort of the first athlete who was celebrated not just for his athleticism, what he did on a playing field, but also for his life and his lifestyle. And a big part of the reason he was able to do that was because sports writers were complicit in not giving away the fact that he, you know, all the bad things he did. Because Babe Ruth was...
BRYSONWell, Babe Ruth slept around and he did a lot of drinking and he...
BRYSON...was a big gambler and lost a lot of money. They didn't -- you know, the kind of downside of his character was -- it was treated as just this sort of big amiable guy with big appetites. Ate a lot of hot dogs and all of that, which is all true. But there was -- and there wasn't really a darker side to him but he was -- he was excessive and kind of out of control a lot of the time. He was a big kid who never really grew up. His upbringing was in very, very deprived and sort of emotionally deprived circumstances. He grew up in an orphanage in Baltimore, not because his parents were dead but just because they couldn't -- they didn't really want him.
BRYSONSo he'd been rejected as a kid and then suddenly -- but he's also immensely talented -- he's loosed into the world and he's making a lot of money and has this great talent. And everybody adores him. So, you know, it's easy to see that he would be sort of, you know, have great appetites.
REHMDid he marry?
BRYSONYeah, he married and his marriage was in haste and -- you know, done in haste and repented at leisure. And he actually started messing around right away. He was not a good husband.
REHMBut did he stay with his wife?
BRYSONNo. They eventually divorced and he remarried and was much happier with the second wife. But in terms of as a partner for life, Babe Ruth was not, you know, he was not a very solid person.
REHMBill Bryson and his new book is titled "One Summer: America, 1927." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go now to Jim in Raleigh, N.C. You're on the air.
JIMHello, Mr. Bryson. It's a pleasure.
JIMI've read some of your books, most recently the one that the previous caller had mentioned, "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid." And I guess I was aware that you had not lived your whole life in the U.S. but I'm having the hardest time reconciling the voice I'm hearing on the radio with the voice that I heard in my head as I read that book. So I guess my question is, how does that multi -- the fact that you've lived in multiple places, you know, help you or hurt you in terms of doing the research and the excellent writing about the U.S.?
BRYSONOh well, thank you. First of all, the voice you heard in your head in the book was the voice I would've had at the time of my upbringing. But what happened was that at the age of 20 I went off to Europe and totally unexpectedly, well, essentially met a girl, an English girl and married her. And totally out of the blue my life moved there. And I've essentially stayed there ever since. I -- you know, I'm still American, I still carry an American passport. I still get excited when it's World Series time and all of that, but I have lived out of the country for 40 years. And that clearly has an effect on your voice.
REHMIndeed. I've got to ask you about one more thing, and that's prohibition and the role the U.S. government played in, in fact, apparently poisoning some people.
BRYSONYeah, yeah, yeah. Well, if there was a single thing that just totally astonished me, it was the discovery that the American government was randomly but intensely poisoning its own citizens in prohibition -- during prohibition as a way of trying to make everybody behave.
BRYSONWell, it was -- they would put strychnine or mercury or some other serious toxic substance in industrial alcohol. Because what was happening was they hadn't really thought this through at the beginning but when they made prohibition, they forgot that you still need a lot of industrial alcohol for making things like paint thinners and nail varnish and all that stuff. So millions and millions of gallons of alcohol was still being legally produced and it wasn't very hard to divert that and kind of doctor it up and make into sort of bootleg gin or whatever.
BRYSONSo as a way of discouraging people from doing that, the government in its wisdom would pour in all of these things that would actually blind or maim or even kill people. And that was still -- some of it was still getting diverted.
REHMWho had charge of doing that? Who made that decision?
BRYSONWell, if there was one human being who was responsible for this it was a guy named Wayne B. Wheeler who was a mousy little man who ran the anti-saloon league. And he was so vehemently against drinking. I mean, he really believed that it was at the root of all evil, that he and his followers insisted that instead of just putting detergents or soap or something else that would make industrial alcohol unpalatable but wouldn't actually kill you, they insisted, no no. These people should be killed. It's against the law. It's the law of the land. And if they decide to drink alcohol and they don't know what the source of it is, they're committing suicide.
REHMHow many people died?
BRYSONWell, they don't know. The numbers are all over the place. It could be...
REHMThirteen thousand or thirty thousand, whatever.
BRYSONYeah, I mean, some sources will say, you know -- because it just wasn't always -- a lot of it was kept secret, you know, or the people -- it was caused -- some other cause. So -- but what is certain is that that the government was, you know, poisoning people. And what's really interesting is the people like Al Capone -- the reason -- part of the reason -- big part of the reason that they thrived was because their drink was safe. You know, you could count on stuff you were getting from Al Capone.
REHMAnd on that note we'll end our discussion sadly because there's lots more in this book. Bill Bryson, so good to see you.
BRYSONThank you for having me back, Diane. It's been my pleasure.
REHMAnd the book is titled "One Summer: America, 1927." And I am so thrilled to be, for the first time, in WAMU's new media center. Come by and see us. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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