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Alexander Hamilton’s biographer looks at the face on the current ten-dollar bill
In his 1791 Report on the Mint, Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, proposed that to spur patriotism and to teach people reverence for the fledgling republic, the nation’s currency should be adorned with the images of leading politicians. And though it was considered by some to be a dangerous relic of royalty to have, say, George Washington on a coin, Hamilton’s idea prevailed.
Arguably the most important founding father never to have become president, Hamilton has been a fixture on the ten-dollar bill since 1928. The man who created the basic building blocks of the country—the tax, monetary, and budget systems, as well as the Coast Guard and the Customs Service—certainly deserves a place in the pantheon. But when the currency was changed several years ago in an effort to combat counterfeiting, the engravers at the Treasury Department went a little too far in their redesign efforts.
The picture on the earlier ten-dollar bill was based on an 1805 portrait by John Trumbull, Hamilton’s personal friend and the celebrated artist whose Revolutionary War paintings formed the core of the Yale Art Gallery when it was founded in 1832. Trumbull portrayed Hamilton with faithful idiosyncrasy—a broad forehead; a long, slightly irregular, pointed nose; and a sharp chin. There’s a fineness to the image and a far-sighted keenness to the gaze.
But on the redesigned bill, the engravers have given Hamilton plastic surgery. They widened his face and gave him the rugged, square-jawed look of an action-movie hero. As a result, he’s actually more handsome, but there’s something a little vacuous, sanitized, and air-brushed about the image. I’m not sure that Hamilton would recognize himself.
The fact that we would undertake a Hollywood makeover is a comment about the homogeneity of modern culture. The earlier images captured figures in American history with all their foibles and eccentricities and all of the oddities of face and expression. Hamilton was a strong and uncompromising personality—the ultimate individualist: when he was 49, he was killed in a duel with then-vice president Aaron Burr. There’s something particularly contradictory in trying to improve the image of somebody who was always so stubbornly and at times dangerously himself.
Friend of Mankind and Other Stories
Julian Mazor ’54LLB
Paul Dry Books, $19.95
In ten spare yet resonant stories, Mazor allows us to see the world through the eyes of five male characters. The stories are outwardly simple: a boy intends to act honorably but always finds himself in trouble; a teenager feels guiltily irritated by his girlfriend’s devotion; a married couple is ensnared by the habit of bickering; an elderly man gambles on love. The characters struggle to create bonds with others, or to sever them, while heeding their own ungovernable inner voices. The insights they achieve depend as much on serendipity as on their attempts to sort out their lives. In “On Experience,” a high school student grapples with Emerson’s essay: “He’d understand some or thought he did, then it all turned into smoke again.” For Mazor’s characters, understanding proves elusive; for his readers, the search is rewarding.
The Right Address
Carrie Karasyov and Jill Kargman ’95
Broadway Books, $21.95
Protagonist Melanie has left the trailer park behind, and she desperately seeks approval from the right East Side crowd now that she’s married money. Her nemeses, Joan and Wendy, shred Melanie behind her back, then make nice. It should be a fun summer read. But. Hello, Carrie Karasyov and Jill Kargman: what if your characters talked behind your backs? “Can you believe those stereotypes? The crass Jewish businessman? The meek Mexican cleaning woman who turns into a tigress in the boss’s bed?” “Ugh. And the gay decorator—the one who ‘sucked. Literally.’” “Actually it was the writing that. disappointed: ‘her dulcet tones,’ ‘the throes of passion.’” “And the literary allusions? Trash is trash even if you do mention Countess Olenska.” “Carrie! Jill! Loved your book.”
Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan
Paula Marantz Cohen ’75
St. Martin’s Press, $23.95
Paula Cohen’s humorous yarn about the weeks leading up to a suburban Jewish family’s bat mitzvah suffers at times from exhaustive attention to minutiae. (A subplot about the heroine’s mother believing she’s the reincarnation of Shakespeare’s girlfriend is all the author needs to launch into academic asides about the Bard’s sonnets.) But relief is provided by Cohen’s dead-on portrayal of family dynamics. The heroine, Carla Goodman, has a gastroenterologist husband suffering from ennui, a ten-year-old son careering toward a Ritalin prescription, and a pre-bat mitzvah daughter with a brisket-sized chip on her shoulder. Neurotic hilarities ensue, complete with a sitcom-efficient resolution at the book’s end.
It’s All True: A Novel of Hollywood
David Freeman ’68MFA
Simon and Schuster, $23
Either a novel masquerading as a memoir or vice versa, David Freeman’s witty tale about Henry Wearie, an aging screenwriter struggling through an existential denouement, starts well, struggles through its second act, then regains its footing just in time to watch the end credits roll. It’s an amusing and caustic take on the Hollywood industry, with a touching recounting of Henry’s failed marriage deftly slipped in. Henry bemoans the death of story in screenwriting, but his complaints—and subsequent acceptance—remain wistful without turning sycophantic or acerbic, which saves this roman a clef from collapsing under its author’s own bitterness. David Freeman, like Henry Wearie, seems to have accepted his own planned obsolescence in the screenwriting world, and as his novel makes clear, he has adapted.
Chang-rae Lee ’87
Riverhead Books, $24.95
“From up here, a half mile above the Earth, everything looks perfect to me,” muses Jerry Battle, the protagonist of Aloft, in the Cessna he flies for recreation and escape. “From up here, I can’t see the messy rest, none of the pedestrian, sea-level flotsam that surely blemishes our good scene.”
In flights of stylistic acrobatics, Chang-rae Lee brings us the blight of Long Island suburbia—as well as the claustrophobia and messiness of Battle’s family, from which Battle, the paterfamilias, keeps an emotional distance as steep as the lofty perspective he finds in his plane. “There’s no point in flying if you can’t fly alone,” the previous owner of the Cessna once told him. Battle draws back from his elderly father, who is losing his faculties; from his son, running the family landscaping business into the ground while he struggles to keep up the yuppie lifestyle his wife likes; from his daughter, who is concealing an illness; and from the departure of his long-time girlfriend. Battle’s past is also painful: his mentally ill wife drowned in their pool, and his brother, an athletic Marine, went MIA in Vietnam.
Lee maneuvers over this jagged emotional terrain with assurance, keeping the plot moving, never wallowing in tragedy. If the author’s hand shows at times, in word choices and perceptions that don’t sound like those of a retired landscaper and travel agent, Battle still makes an engaging narrator. And Lee’s beautiful prose more than makes up for the occasional tear in the fabric of believability.
Madame Bovary on the Playground
Tom Perrotta ’83
St. Martin’s Press, $24.95
One of the truisms about adulthood is that only after you become a parent do you finally have to grow up. I picked up this axiom from my own parents, and when I finally had a child recently, I couldn’t help but notice how two sets of newly minted grandparents suddenly acquired looks of relief and satisfaction. Now you’re one of us, their faces seemed to say. Now you know.
Tom Perrotta deftly skewers this wisdom in a tale of marriage, adultery, and domestic irresponsibility. Perrotta turns his satiric prowess to the inhabitants of Bellington, a fictitious Boston suburb, and the follies of the child-rearing set. But while Little Children provides a darkly comic and often biting portrayal of suburban culture, those who live in urban centers, as I do, may well recognize many of the situations in the novel: parents who obsess over who works and who raises the kids, who believe effective parenting consists in rigid timetables, who never have sex because they can’t bring themselves to kick their toddlers out of the family bed.
Little Children begins on a playground. Thirty-something Sarah, the distracted mother of three-year-old Lucy, feels vaguely disappointed with her life. Somehow her college awakening as a feminist and the years she spent in graduate school led to “one moment of weakness piled on top of another”: a dead-end job at Starbucks, marriage to a middle-aged brand consultant, and days filled with reading Berenstain Bears books and supervising trips to the playground. As she listens to the other mothers, Sarah stems feelings of desperation by pretending she is an anthropologist: "I’m a researcher studying the behavior of boring suburban women. I am not a boring suburban woman myself."
Sarah finds diversion from her stultifying routine when she meets Todd, a handsome stay-at-home father whose “generic” good looks, athletic build, and “surfer-style” blond hair have earned him a nickname among the playground moms: “the Prom King.” Todd is also dogged by inertia, though his own brand of paralysis manifests itself in his inability to pass the bar exam, which he has failed twice. His wife, a documentary filmmaker, wants him to start making money so they can buy a house and start saving for their son’s college tuition. But the truth is that Todd enjoys taking care of Aaron, their three-year-old son; and the more time he spends singing along to Raffi in Concert, the more the “adult world starts to drift away.” Each evening, when he’s supposed to be studying, he lingers in front of the library, watching the skateboarders; and when he joins the Tri-County Midnight Touch Football League, he starts reliving his past athletic glory.
Two stay-at-home parents, a magnetic encounter at the playground, and long lazy days at the swimming pool—it’s not hard to guess what happens next. “It was like suddenly being a teenager again,” Todd realizes, when sex “wasn’t a routine or predictable part of your life, but something mysterious and transforming that could pop up out of nowhere.” Their affair is underscored by references to Madame Bovary, which Sarah is reading for her book group. The difference is that Perrotta’s starry-eyed couple have to postpone their lust until afternoon naptime, when their small charges have dozed off.
Sarah and Todd aren’t the only grown-ups in Bellington who don’t act grown: Sarah’s husband Richard wastes hours on a porn site called slutty-kay.com; Todd’s football teammate, ex-cop Larry Moon, spends his evenings vandalizing the house of Ronald James McGorvey, a paroled sex offender; and McGorvey himself resists his mother’s efforts to find him a date. The presence of this maladjusted loner introduces a darker strain into the story, and while his odd behavior sets off alarms among the parents, it doesn’t entirely warrant the town’s ferociously insular response to his presence. Bellington’s willingness to ostracize McGorvey and condone the behavior of those who taunt him shows how quickly the worthy goal of protecting one’s children can deteriorate into immature cruelty.
Outcast, bully, athlete, geek: they’re all roles we remember well. Perrotta ridicules the failings of his characters but doesn’t condemn them; his blade is sharp, but he cuts with kindness. And while the plot moves forward with a fair amount of suspense, it’s the characters who carry the narrative. Perrotta resists the impulse to cave in to predictability or sentimentality. Nor are Bellington’s inhabitants doomed to Bovaresque tragedy. Instead, Perrotta’s modern-day tale unfolds towards a less disastrous, but eminently more adult, conclusion.
Symphony for One
As Yale undergrads drawn to the stage, Doug Wright ’85 and Jefferson Mays ’87 studied in the school of necessity. Creating convincing illusions in dining halls and squash courts gave their theatrical imaginations a workout. And though both men are plying their trade on Broadway now—Mays starring in Wright’s play, I Am My Own Wife—they’re still practicing the art of doing more with less.
I Am My Own Wife tells the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an East German transvestite who, in Wright’s words, “navigated a path between the two most repressive regimes the world has ever known—the Nazis and the Communists—in a pair of heels.” Mays plays each of the work’s 36 characters, and, with one exception, he plays them all in a simple black dress, a kerchief, and a strand of pearls. The performance won Mays the Tony for Best Actor in a Play, and Wright both the Tony for Best Play and the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Wright didn’t set out to pen a one-man play. But in the summer of 2000, when he was invited to the Sundance Theater Lab to shape a drama out of the hours of interviews he had taped with von Mahlsdorf beginning seven years before, he felt guilty asking for a full—and potentially enormous—cast. So, to start, he brought along a single actor: Mays. As Mays began to imitate, perfectly, the voice on the tapes, the need for a larger cast vanished. Indeed, having one person play all the parts reinforced the work’s themes—its exploration of identity and how we judge people by what they wear. If the actor were costumed as Charlotte, then every character, even the Nazi soldiers, would wear a dress. In the world of his play, Wright realized with a subversive thrill, “transvestism would be the norm.”
Wright’s decision to include himself as a character also began as a solution to a problem. Initially, he had intended the play as a paean to von Mahlsdorf’s heroism, “a boon to gay men and women everywhere.” He eventually learned, however, that his hero’s inspiring survival had come at a price: she was an informant for the East German secret police. That revelation crippled Wright’s imagination until a friend suggested that he center the play on his own tortured relationship with the cross-dressing protagonist. The result is a kind of detective story, in which Wright (portrayed, not entirely flatteringly, by Mays) struggles to get to the bottom of von Mahlsdorf’s secrets.
Wright presents Charlotte’s account of her life as he heard it, woven together by her curious, convincing charm. And when other characters start to tear holes in those stories, he reproduces his own crisis of doubt. Yet he leaves the case unsolved. Wright the author, it seems, can reveal von Mahlsdorf in all her ambiguity, because Wright the character is onstage to mouth his need “to believe these stories as much as she does—that [stories like hers] can happen in the world.”
Writing for Mays, Wright said in a recent phone conversation, was like composing arias for Pavarotti. The play developed as a game of theatrical one-upmanship. Could Mays sustain a three-way conversation? Interrupt himself? Denote characters by gesture alone? At times, the results are whimsical: when Wright’s character rewinds a tape, Mays tongues the sound. At other points, they’re operatic: during a press conference, Mays shuttles between Charlotte and a half-dozen international journalists with as many accents. Fugue for solo actor.
What’s most impressive about the performance, though, isn’t its dexterity or perfect pitch, but its subtlety. This magician doesn’t draw attention to his sleight of hand; this acrobat flips between characters without bending his knees.
For Wright’s next project, he’s collaborating with another Yale friend, composer Scott Frankel ’85. Meanwhile, a tour of I Am My Own Wife is being planned, but even Wright has trouble imagining any other actor in the part. “If Jefferson were to say that he’s going to do it for rest of his natural life, I’d be the happiest playwright on the planet.”
More Books by Yale Authors
Anne L. Alstott, Professor of Law
No Exit: What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents
Oxford University Press, $27.50
Roberta Baker 1979 and Debbie Tilley, Illustrator
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Willis Barnstone 1960PhD
We Jews and Blacks: Memoir with Poems
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Gregory Dicum 1975MF
Window Seat: Reading the Landscape from the Air
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Ken Ellingwood 1982
Hard Line: Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border
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Marshall Fishwick 1949PhD
Probing Popular Culture: On and Off the Internet
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Arthur W. Frank 1975PhD
The Renewal of Generosity: Illness, Medicine, and How to Live
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John D. French 1985PhD
Drowning in Laws: Labor Law and Brazilian Political Culture
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Sandy Ferguson Fuller 1973, Writer and Illustrator
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Gary Hart 1961BD, 1964LLB
The Fourth Power: A Grand Strategy for the United States in the Twenty-First Century
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Dolores Hayden, Professor of Architecture and American Studies
A Field Guide to Sprawl
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Richard Jolly 1966PhD, Louis Emmerij, Dharam Ghai, and Frederic Lapeyre
UN Contributions to Development Thinking and Practice
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Drew Leder 1979, 1986MD
Sparks of the Divine: Finding Inspiration in Our Everyday World
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Peter R. Limburg 1950
Deep-Sea Detective: Maritime Mysteries and Forensic Science
ECW Press $17.95
Michael Mandelbaum 1968
The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball, and What They See When They Do
Bryan McCann 1999PhD
Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil
Duke University Press, $22.95
John Portmann 1985
Bad for Us: The Lure of Self-Harm
Beacon Press, $25
Alan Rabinowitz 1948
Urban Economics and Land Use in America: The Transformation of Cities in the Twentieth Century
M.E. Sharpe, $72.95
Christopher Reed 1991PhD
Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture, and Domesticity
Yale University Press, $45
Jennifer L. Roberts 2000PhD
Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History
Yale University Press, $40
Neil Rolde 1953
Unsettled Past, Unsettled Future: The Story of Maine Indians
Tilbury House, $20
Jeffrey D. Roth 1978, 1978MD
Group Psychotherapy and Recovery from Addiction: Carrying the Message
Haworth Press, $34.95
Mark Singer 1972
Somewhere in America: Under the Radar with Chicken Warriors, Left-Wing Patriots, Angry Nudists, and Others
Houghton Mifflin, $24
Nikhil Pal Singh 1995PhD
Black Is A Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy
Harvard University Press, $29.95
Steven Smith, Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science
Spinoza’s Book of Life: Freedom and Redemption in the Ethics
Yale University Press, $35
John Stickler 1959
Land of Morning Calm: Korean Culture Then and Now
Shen’s Books, $16.95
Mark Wahlgren Summers 1973
Party Games: Getting, Keeping, and Using Power in Gilded Age Politics
University of North Carolina Press, $22.50
Calvin Trillin 1957
Obliviously On He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme
Random House, $12.95
Derek Vaillant 1987
Sounds of Reform: Progressivism and Music in Chicago, 1987-1935
University of North Carolina Press, $59.95
Matt “Johnnie” Walker 2003MA and Marissa “Mitzy” Walsh
Tipsy in Madras: A Complete Guide to ’80s Preppy Drinking
Perigee/Berkley Publishing Group, $14.95
John Fabian Witt 1994
The Accidental Republic: Crippled Workingmen, Destitute Widows, and the Remaking of American Law
Harvard University Press, $49.95
Ben Yagoda 1975
The Sound of the Page: Style and Voice in Writing