Eric Ebinger

Author | Historian | The Presidents Gather

Category: Reading

Book Review: Reagan, The Hollywood Years, by Marc Eliot

I do not ‘vacation’ well. In fact, for the seven years of our marriage, my wife and I have not had a bona fide relaxing vacation since our honeymoon in Maine. This was the year that would change, as we looked forward to the first real vacation since those peaceful days riding bikes and kayaking around Bar Harbor.

We made plans to spend the middle of July in Annapolis, Maryland for two reasons. Number one, it wasn’t too far away from home that we would exhaust ourselves driving to and from. And number two, it was close enough to Washington D.C. that if I did become restless and need some ‘presidential exploration’ in excess, I was not too far away to partake.

The thermometer changed our plans at the last minute, as Annapolis promised temperatures in the mid-90’s. Mom suggested we head North. My wife decided on Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. I love the water and there was much of it. But to get to Wisconsin you have to travel through Illinois, the Land of Lincoln and the Mecca of The Lincoln Traveler. I am not sure if my wife rolled her eyes or not as I shifted Google Maps around on my phone looking for relevant towns to Lincoln in Northern Illinois.

And it didn’t take me long to find some. I was particularly excited about one town out in the middle of the upper part of the state. Dixon. I don’t like to throw around cliches but the fact was we could kill at least two birds with one stone. Dixon was the landing spot for Lincoln during his stints in the Black Hawk War, but it is also the Childhood home of Ronald Reagan.

Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home, Dixon Illinois. Photo by Eric Ebinger

Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home, Dixon Illinois. Photo by Eric Ebinger

Since this is quickly becoming a Lincoln Traveler piece and not a book review, I shall close in on the point.

Ronald Reagan died twelve years ago, fifteen years after his presidency ended. He is still familiar enough in our memories he is often invoked by both sides of the political aisle, either in jest or in praise depending on the seat. Scholarly work on Reagan is still hitting the book shelves, much of it from right-leaning former colleagues and associates fondly longing for a president, and a man who at the very least, stuck to his convictions.

When Reagan took office, I was just shy of four years old and almost twelve when he left. I grew up, much like Reagan, in a small town in the middle of the northern section of Ohio. I walked to school for two years, I romped in the woods and fields around my house. And I got to know the neighbors and members of our church. If there is any joy in learning about presidents, much of it stems from the fact that at one point they were just like us- regular folk. I looked forward to experiencing Dixon and a Ronald Reagan, the boy, who lived there.

The rest of the story of the visit I will save for another post. At the gift shop, I found titles on Reagan I had never seen before, including the topic for this review: Reagan, The Hollywood Years, by Marc Eliot. He is the same author who wrote books on Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Walt Disney, so I considered he knew his business and probably had details others did not. And if you, the reader, are anything like me, the reader, you like those details others do not.

The topic was intriguing. I am quite familiar with Reagan from the time he favored Nixon over Kennedy in 1960 (as a Democrat) and his rise through the Republican Party as spokesman, Governor, “Should have been,” and President. And of course, his long painful struggle with Alzheimers touched me as it did the entire nation until he passed away in 2004.

So the book was tucked under my arm. And despite the fact we had three Lincoln Traveler stops to make, I started reading immediately.

Ronald Reagan statue in Dixon, Illinois commemorating his return to Dixon as a Hollywood star in the 1950's.

Ronald Reagan statue in Dixon, Illinois commemorating his return to Dixon as a Hollywood star in the 1950’s.

Ronald Reagan lived a long time. But he also lived a long time before he was president. Considering John Kennedy served fourteen years in the Congress before becoming President- Rutherford Hayes served less than ten in the Governor’s office and Congress before he became President. Franklin Roosevelt was governor of New York for four years before his White House tenure started. But consider this: Ronald Reagan had a career in Hollywood that lasted from about 1937 until his last movie in 1964. That is almost thirty years and THEN he went on to be governor of California for eight years and THEN president for another eight.

His Hollywood years are generally reduced to a few simple facts, B-Movies, Jane Wyman, and the Screen Actors Guild. If presidents like Fillmore and Harding fail to raise the temperature of history buffs, Reagan’s Hollywood years can be added to the ice bucket.

But Marc Eliot has written a marvelous book. It is jam-packed with details, anecdotes and forgotten moments of Reagan’s life in movies. Sure, the movies Reagan starred in are not trending on Netflix, but Eliot serves tantalizing morsels like this one: Reagan was up for the role Humphrey Bogart eventually played in Casablanca. But Reagan was (technically) enlisted in the Army and could not perform in a movie meant for commercial profit.

Never mind the political landscape for a moment- but how would Hollywood have been different had Reagan told Sam to play it, play it again! rather than Humphrey Bogart?

After reading the book, one has the sense the Hollywood movie making machines bet their fortunes on the box office receipts of their stars previous movie. It’s almost like someone considering their net worth by the number of ‘likes’ on their last Facebook post. A career can rise and fall on the whims of the people paying attention, or not paying attention as in the case of Ronald Reagan.

Another captivating string in the life of Reagan during this period is his love life. There was… a lot of love. Since the private lives of our presidents are in such demand, it is fascinating that this period in Reagan’s life is not explored. His marriage to Jane Wyman is a fascinating tale. (All the while I kept thinking- she was the star of Falcon Crest on television the entire time he was president, a very strange ironic twist. I like to think of our presidents as regular folk, and I chuckle when I think of Mr. and Mrs. Reagan sitting down to watch television and they turn it on and Nancy says, “There’s that damn Jane Wyman again.”)

I should like these book reviews to encourage the reader to seek out and read the book, too, so I do not want to give away too much. But the book is worth the read alone for the description of the courtship of Nancy Reagan, or perhaps better phrased, the courtship of Ronald Reagan.

This book is a must-read for history enthusiasts whether Reagan, presidential, Hollywood or the blacklists. For the Reagan enthusiasts, this book will not raise or lower your admiration of our 40th president. It will, however, reinforce just how slippery the slope can be between stardom and us regular folk. The thing I happen to like most about Ronald Reagan is that he walked those slopes with grace, whether he was in Hollywood, Washington D.C., or Dixon Illinois, he was always just like ‘regular folk.’

Reagan, The Hollywood Years is copyrighted 2008 by Rebel Road, Inc. It is published by Three Rivers Press, New York.

For more information on the Ronald Reagan Boyhood home in Dixon, Illinois, visit here.

To read my post detailing our trip to the Reagan home in Dixon, visit here. [Coming September 4, 2016]

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Jefferson, Slavery and Perspective

It has been out almost ten years, but I am just now getting around to reading Alan Pell Crawford’s wonderful book, Twilight at Monticello, The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson is a complex subject, and has of late been the subject of critical scrutiny rather than compassionate research. I tend to stay away from biographies which seem to have an ax to grind with their subject. Crawford plainly, though passionately, embarks with the reader in tow, navigating through the rough waters that is Jefferson’s legacy.

For most modern readers the red flag waving above Monticello is the fact Jefferson penned the words, “All men are created equal,” but himself was a slave-master. The powder keg which continues to delicately perch on race relations in the United States, despite electing and re-electing the first African American president, sits too close for comfort to Thomas Jefferson. The same sentiment demanding the removal of Jefferson Davis’s statue at the University of Texas has questioned why we hold his namesake in such high regard.

On page 102 of Crawford’s book, he reveals an exchange between Jefferson and friend Edward Coles that is quite fascinating.

Coles himself is in his late 20’s, and has already managed to rekindle the friendship between Jefferson and John Adams, (also brightly described by Crawford earlier in the book). It is the summer of 1814 and Coles has inherited his Father’s slaves. Coles does not want to own slaves, and struggles with his options. Above all, he wanted to free his slaves and used the opportunity to ask Jefferson if he might come to the aid of abolitionists and lend his voice to the cause of emancipation.

Jefferson at Monticello, Photo by Eric Ebinger, 2014

Jefferson at Monticello, Photo by Eric Ebinger, 2014

In a word, Wow.

According to Crawford, Coles wrote to Jefferson: “I beseech you to exert your knowledge and influence in devising and getting into operation some plan for the great gradual emancipation of slavery.”

And, with boldness points out that a fight for emancipation coming from Jefferson himself would “advance even further” “those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration of which you were the immortal author. Imagine what influence… the opinions and writings of Thomas Jefferson [will] have in all questions connected with the rights of man.”

Well said, Edward Coles.

Jefferson responded on August 25, 1814:

“The love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people, and it is a moral reproach to us that they have pleaded it so long in vain, and should have produced not a single effort, nay I fear not much serious willingness, to relieve them and ourselves from our present condition of moral and political re-probation.”

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

Crawford reminds us Jefferson, as strange as this is, was against slavery as far back as his time in the House of Burgesses. And he wrote about it in his Notes on the State of Virginia, which is my next stop in Jefferson research. Here is where so many Jefferson-enthusiasts are so confused. He was against slavery but owned slaves? I am going to make an assumption not based on Crawford’s book but my own independent research that Jefferson kept his slaves because his masterpiece of Monticello and the surrounding plantation demanded the labor. Without the slaves, the house, the land, the legacy would have crumbled.

That is not an excuse nor a justification, it is just as assumption on why Jefferson kept his slaves.

To Coles, Jefferson was forthright:

“I had always hoped that the younger generation, receiving their early impressions after the flame of liberty had been rekindled in every breast, and had become as it were the vital spirit of every American; that the generous temperament of youth… would have sympathized with oppression wherever found, and proved their love of liberty beyond their own share of it.”

In other words, “I was hoping you would do it.”

Jefferson, in his eloquent prose, did not accept the challenge. “No, this enterprise is for the young, for those who can follow it up and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, and these are the only weapons of an old man.”

Crawford continues the story, but for the sake of brevity on the Internet it is here I will stop. But my goodness: Reading such words, in 1814 between Coles and Jefferson about Emancipation (when Abraham Lincoln was yet five years old), is one of those moments readers of history are thrilled to uncover.

I highly recommend this book, Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford. The study of Jefferson, the contradictions and the genius, is well worth your time. And my fervent hope is that thoughtful research staves off the PC Crowd, intent on correcting the mistakes of the past simply (and wrongly) erasing them from our present.



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