AMAZON UNBOUND: JEFF BEZOS AND THE INVENTION OF A GLOBAL EMPIRE by Brad Stone

Amazon headquarters located in Silicon Valley Jan 24, 2020 Sunnyvale / CA / USA - Amazon headquarters located in Silicon Valley, San Francisco bay area Amazon.com Stock Photo

Remember when Amazon first came online in 1995, they would discount books by 33-40%.  This pricing lasted for a good 10-15 years then the discounts were reduced under the theory that once they conditioned you as a customer, they could slowly increase their profit margins.  After a year of Covid-19 restrictions Amazon’s popularity and bottom line boomed as people were sequestered at home.  Today the discount on books is usually 10-15%, and sometimes less, reflecting Amazon’s commitment to the bottom line.  Only speaking of book pricing, but I have noticed similar trends with other products.  The question is how we arrived at the present juncture, who is responsible, what are the historic trends when it comes to Amazon, and lastly what role has Jeff Bezos played in the process.  These questions are answered in full along with a partial biographical portrait of Bezos and how he built Amazon into the most dominant consumer source in the world and a company worth $1.76 trillion today in Brad Stone’s new book, AMAZON UNBOUND: JEFF BEZOS AND THE INVENTION OF A GLOBAL EMPIRE.

Stone, the senior executive editor of global technology at Bloomberg News has written an in depth account of Amazon’s phenomenal growth from 2010 through 2021 focusing on the managerial style of Jeff Bezos and his incredible ability to support, develop, and implement projects that would be worth billions.  Stone also digs deeply into the culture at Amazon and its mantra of putting the customer first, however, that “bumper sticker” is disingenuous as its record of employee safety, philanthropy, and demanding a certain belief system from executives and others reflects.

WIRED25 Summit: WIRED Celebrates 25th Anniversary With Tech Icons Of The Past & Future
(Jeff Bezos)

Bezos’ genius and overbearing personality are on full display in Stone’s account.  According to the author the watershed year for Amazon’s overwhelming dominance in multiple markets with varied products is 2010.  From its inception through 2010 Amazon was not a very profitable company, but the infrastructure groundwork for what Bezos was able to achieve was in place.  Stone covers every facet of the Amazon experience and how it developed into the economic behemoth it is today.  Stone delves into the development of Alexa, Kindle, Amazon Go, Amazon Web Services, Amazon Prime, Amazon Prime Video, Amazon advertising, the creation of Fulfillment Centers, its success in India, development of third party sellers, and the purchase of Whole Foods and the Washington Post in detail.

Bezos was the driving force behind Amazon’s technology innovations harnessing artificial intelligence, robotics, and other ingenious developments.  However, his management style pushed his engineers to the breaking point in many instances and his nasty commentary when not happy at meetings are legend.  Bezos could be “remorseless with those that did not meet his exacting standards, but he seemed to have an unusual wellspring of patience for those who practiced the challenging act of invention.”  Bezos gets a great deal of the credit for the Amazon experience and success, but he had tremendous executive talent and engineers to work with.  Stone explores the work of people such as Dilip Kumar, Greg Hart, Andy Jassy, Dave Clark, Jeff Wilke, Stephanie Landry among many others.  Bezos and his deputies believed that algorithms could do the job better and faster than people.  In many ways it explains the insensitivity that exists at Amazon toward certain employees especially in Fulfillment centers. 

Amazon's Newest Robotics Fulfillment Center Holds Grand Opening In Orlando : News Photo
(Amazon Fulfillment Center)

According to Stone the ultimate goal was turning Amazon’s retail business into a self-service technology platform that could generate cash with a minimum amount of human intervention.  In accomplishing their mission, a number of negatives emerge.  Stone’s research uncovers a male dominated culture at Amazon reflected in the lack of women in upper echelon positions.  Women complained about the working environment and deals made with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Tomba, and Ray Price all for naught.  Female anger emerged at the same time the “Metoo” movement gathered momentum as sexual inuendo, jokes, touching etc. came to the fore.  Casting a net around Amazon working conditions and treatment of employees also does not enhance the company’s reputation.  The use of robotics at Fulfillment Centers created repetitive motion/health issues; pressure on workers to gather products quickly and package them; worker performance was monitored  by tyrannical invisible robots, poor benefits and low pay, periodically firing people at the lowest level of the employee chain, in addition to the constant threat of termination, all take the luster off of Amazon’s workplace propaganda.  Further, Bezos and company are very anti-union and went out of their way to expand in areas, i.e.; airplane procurement and location which were also anti-union.  During the pandemic when Amazon’s work force passed one million and its annual earnings exceeded $380 billion as sales rose by 37%, the company pursued a virulently anti-union policy.  A way to sum this up is that the monograph highlights genius, innovation, and greed.

Stone is not a stylist, but he has the ability to explain a great deal of technical jargon in a very easy manner.  Whether explaining the role of artificial intelligence in the creation of Alexa or Amazon Go the reader can easily comprehend the arguments presented at executive conferences and meetings, particularly those of engineers.  Stone explores numerous topics aside from the development of new products or strategies that in the end created billions in sales and profits.  A key part of his discussion is not to reinforce the role of retail in Amazon’s success but focus on “Cloud Computing” which generated the revenue to fuel Amazon’s supercharged expansion.  As Mark Levinson points out in his review in the Washington Post, “with cloud computing, an organization can rent computers, programmers and security experts from an external provider such as Amazon instead of maintaining its own data centers. Amazon pioneered cloud computing in the early 2000s, and by the 2010s it was easily the market leader.  Bezos divined that finding new uses for Amazon’s burgeoning cloud infrastructure was the key to the company’s future.”

Bloomberg's Best Photos 2014 : News Photo
(Amazon workers)

Stone’s discussion of the location process for a second headquarters when difficulties developed in Seattle with the city government and the ability to expand facilities is eye opening reflecting Amazon’s insensitivity toward local government.  In addition, the chapter on Amazon Web Services which became the most profitable component of the company is key as was the formation of their own advertising strategy and the creation of an airplane fleet and purchase of delivery vans to bring about next day delivery.

The Amazon story is one of amazement.  How could one company become so powerful economically and culturally as most people seem to consult Amazon on a daily basis, even before the onset of Covid-19 which would allow Amazon to expand exponentially as people had few alternatives to acquire products they needed while they quarantined.  By the end of 2020 “Amazon boasted a $1.6 trillion market cap and Jeff Bezos was worth more than $190 billion.  His wealth had increased more than 70% during the pandemic…a breathtaking achievement.”  Stone stresses that the key aspect of how this was achieved was Bezos’ management style as his underlings knew if the boss had an idea, it was their job to bring it to fruition which in most cases they did.  To his credit Stone has laid out the Amazon success story for the general public, but also its warts.  Though at times the narrative gets bogged down in details it is worth the read if you wonder when you “click” how did it come to that action by your finger for everything you need.

TRESPASSER by Paul Doiron

(ATV Riding in Maine)

After whiling away the hours reading Paul Doiron’s THE POACHER’S SON and enjoying it immensely, I decided to move on to the second iteration of Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch in TRESPASSER.  The book lived up to my expectations as Doiron develops a taut plot that carries through the three hundred plus pages that justified the time spent with Warden Bowditch.

Doiron continues to develop Bowditch’s life story and character after the events in THE POACHER’S SON.  In TRESPASSER, Bowditch continues to show up at murder investigations and when the higher ups warn him off and tell him to tend to his “warden” duties” he can’t control his curiosity which are based on his empathy and sensitivity to the cases that emerge.  In the current situation Bowditch finds himself chasing a demented family bent on using their ATVs in order to anger their neighbors as they destroy private property and deal drugs.  Further, there is another father and son partnership engaged in similar activities as Doiron’s commentary of the “interesting” types of people who live in certain parts of Maine seemed justified.  Apart from his Warden duties, Bowditch has a sixth sense when it comes to crime.  Bowditch follows up a call of an accident where automobile has struck a deer and the driver just walks away from the accident and disappears.  The State Trooper who showed up late to the accident scene is incompetent and full of himself leaving Bowditch holding the bag.  Later, Ashley Kim, a graduate assistant at the Harvard Business School is found dead after being sexually assaulted in her mentor’s house – of course discovered by Bowditch.

The problem that emerges is that the crime is reminiscent of a murder seven years previous where a young lady is raped and murdered, and controversy surrounds the conviction of one Erland Jefferts who receives a life sentence.  However, the prosecution withheld evidence and cut corners raising the question as to whether Jefferts was railroaded.  A group referred to as the J Team made up of Jefferts Aunt and Uncle and a series of lawyers are convinced he is innocent which creates a number of theories as to whether Jefferts was in fact guilty and what is the relationship to the death of Ashley Kim.  Of course, Bowditch pursues his own investigation and lo and behold he locates the individual who was the prime suspect, Professor Hans Westergaard dead in his car.

Doiron is master in plot development.  He slowly allows his story to unravel with numerous twists and turns that draws the reader in.  In my case after a few pages, I was hooked and I decided to get comfortable and read the novel through in one sitting absorbing the plot, the author’s commentary describing “Mainers,” the ecology of the region, and the intricacies of Bowditch’s life.  As Doiron develops his whodunnit the two murder cases come together as number of people begin to feel uncomfortable. Among them is one of Doiron’s new characters, Assistant Attorney General Danica Marshall, a tough and attractive prosecutor who does not care for Bowditch.  Other new characters include Calvin Barter, a sexual predator and drug dealer; Dave and Donnie Drisko, poachers who replicated the actions of the Barter family; Knox County Chief of Police, Dudley Baker, among others. 

Doiron reintroduces characters from his first novel. Sgt. Kathy Frost, Bowditch’s boss reappears as does Charley Steven, the retired Game Warden pilot, Sarah Harris, Bowditch’s girlfriend, and Detective Mike Menceri, who seems to be in a running argument with Bowditch throughout the novel.  For our protagonist he seems to have a career death wish as he continually angers higher ups by his actions.  But he is obsessed with finding justice for victims whether they are non-human or human.  For Bowditch, whose own life was recently shattered by violence turning away from these crimes is not an option.  His investigation has reopened old wounds among the locals and the rich summer “invaders” and because of his persistence he puts his life in danger as well as the women he loves as he has touched a nerve among certain people who refuse to allow him to solve the case.

Doiron’s first two novels can stand alone but I would recommend they be read one after the other and then move on to third the installment in the Mike Bowditch series, BAD LITTLE FALLS.

(ATV Riding in Maine)

THE POACHER’S SON by Paul Doiron

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were browsing in a wonderful bookstore in Camden, Maine and I asked the lady behind the counter for any recommendations by local authors that were of the “mystery” genre.  She immediately mentioned Paul Doiron, the editor and chief of Down east: The Magazine of Maine.  I purchased a copy of Doiron’s first iteration of his Mike Bowditch series; THE POACHER’S SON and it did not disappoint.

Doiron’s main character, Mike Bowditch is a game warden in northern Maine and through his eyes the author conveys what that avocation entails on a daily basis.  His descriptions are impeccable especially dealing with vacationers, particularly those who emanate from Massachusetts.  The usual approach that Bowditch takes during boating and fishing season is to check boat registrations, fishing licenses, and floatation devices and periodically he will come across people who resent his questions and only offer abuse until they comply with his requests.  The stories he relates are priceless as he discusses the traffic on Route 1 as Massachusetts residents clog the roads heading north and to his credit, he refrains from describing their regional nickname, “Mass holes.”

Doiron also relates Bowditch’s job description, expectations, and the public’s view of what he does.  Bowditch is perfect for the role based on his longing for privacy and his commitment to the animals he must police and prevent being abused by the public.

Aroostook County Foliage Scenic Drive

The novel itself revolves around the murder of a Somerset County police officer, Bill Brodeur, and Jonathan Shipman, a lawyer for Wendigo Timberland LLC, a company who purchased a great deal of land and forest in the northern timberland which would result in the eviction of numerous lease holders who have lived in the region for over thirty years.  One of the lease holders is Mike’s father Jack who he had been estranged from for years.  It seems the state police and local authorities are convinced that Jack Bowditch was the murderer, and for some reason Mike, who has a very low opinion of his father and describes him as a “saloon brawling logger with a rap sheet of misdemeanors and the public persona of a Tasmanian devil.”  Mike is fully aware what an SOB his father is, but he could not accept the fact that he was a murderer.  Despite his feelings concerning his upbringing and his father in general he decides to risk his career in order to prove his innocence as Jack believes that he is being framed.

The hazards of Mike’s career choice are on full display as he must confront people who have vendettas against animals, particularly bears who take the law into their own hands when their property is attacked.  In this current situation he is up against law enforcement, local individuals, and even his stepfather who believe that his father is a murderer.  Mike’s fear is that if his father does not turn himself in, he will be killed as he killed a police officer.  As Doiron develops his plots, he integrates Mike’s upbringing, and we learn a great deal about him as well as his dysfunctional parents who divorce when he is nine years old.

Doiron develops a series of interesting characters, the first of which is Charley Stevens, a retired game warden who still fly’s his pontoon plane throughout the region to assist the state police.  Stevens is a perceptive individual who served as Mike’s mentor when he decided to become a game warden.  Katherine Frost is a Sergeant and Mike’s boss who does her best to help salvage Mike’s career when he engages in a number of  self-destructive actions while trying to save his father.  Other important characters include Sarah Harris, Mike’s ex-girlfriend who he still loves; Brenda Dean, Jack’s girlfriend; Russell Pelletier who ran the Rum Pond Sporting Camp, Vernon Tripp, the owner of the Natanis Trading Post, and Truman Dellis, Brenda’s father, all of whom had reason to kill the Wendigo lawyer.  Lastly, Detectives Wayne Soctomah and Mike Menceri who are in charge of the murder investigation and believe Jack is guilty.

Doiron’s environmental views are front and center in each chapter as is his love for the ecology of the region.  He writes with wit and a certain amount of sarcasm and weaves a web of intrigue that enhances the story line and contributes to the reader’s experience.  Two key themes that dominate the novel are Maine’s changing landscape and unconditional love between a father and son despite their negative history.  The novel is about relationships and  outdoor adventure and is a sterling debut which became an Edgar Award finalist and easily absorbs the reader’s attention. Having completed THE POACHER’S SON, I will begin the next installment of Mike Bowditch’s path in life, TRESPASSER and other books in the series.

Thunder Hole, Acadia National Park
Thunder Hole, Acadia National Park

NIGHTMARE SCENARIO: INSIDE THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC THAT CHANGED HISTORY by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta

Plan your visit to the CDC Museum

For those of us who live in a world defined by facts and not an alternative universe it is clear that over thirty-three million people have contracted Covid-19 and over 600,000 have died from the disease in the United States.  From the time of the first case to our current drive to vaccinate all Americans there have been a number of predictions made by the Trump administration as to how to deal with the disease.  At one point President Trump said it would be gone once the weather warmed up, then it would be done by Easter, then all we needed to take was the drug hydroxychloroquine or inject ourselves with bleach.  These absurdities would be comical if not for the fact that people took Trump’s words seriously as how they should proceed, but what was even more ludicrous was the Trump administration’s overall strategy to cope with the disease.  In Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, both Washington Post reporters’ new book, NIGHTMARE SCENARIO: INSIDE THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC THAT CHANGED HISTORY the authors accurately convey the inner workings of the Trump presidency and how they produced a strategy that exacerbated the effect of the pandemic on American citizens and still impacts the government’s response under President Biden.

One could argue that it has all been said before.  The lies, misinformation, and the stupidity just to secure reelection.  We all lived through it and despite Fox News and other obscure outlets of right wing media, most news organizations have explained what has occurred as have a number of important books.  However, none have gone into the detail and sourcing that Abutaleb and Paletta have put together and therefore if we want to become upset once again because of the crassness of the Trump administration and its dear leader there is a formidable volume that is hard to question, though the likes of Tucker Carlson and his minions certainly will.

(Dr. Anthony Fauci)

WGL.05.Anthony-Fauci

The authors have taken a deep dive into the events, decisions, personalities and results of decision making that have led to the catastrophic response to Covid-19 by the United States.  They hold no punches, and they dig up information beyond what has been reported in the media for the last year and a half.  Trump did not act alone in this process as he was enabled by advisers, cabinet members, friends, and family who shared his view about the virus and in a number of cases exhibited even greater disdain for the government’s scientific and public health experts than the president himself.  Decisions revolved around unforced errors, petty rivalries, and a perverted attitude toward the virus that devastated the government – the key being the assault on science by Trump and his minions.

From the outset the United States was at a disadvantage in dealing with the virus as China, despite Trump’s praise of President Xi was not forthcoming with valuable information that might have assisted in containing the disease.  One of the key figures was Matt Pottinger, Deputy National Security Head who had witnessed the Chinese response in dealing with SARS in 2003 as a member of the Bush administration and as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who called for a travel ban with China and was ignored.  Trump had just made a trade deal with China and was up for reelection and did not want to rock the boat.  As the disease proliferated in January 2020, 1300 flights from China entered the United States carrying 381,000 passengers.  The situation was exacerbated by the lack of cursory coordination by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, other agencies, and the inability of the heads of those agencies to come to agreement and leave their egos at the door.

The authors present many examples of Trump’s modus operandi of pitting aides against each other and believed that the virus would magically disappear if he willed it so.  Aides and advisors were completely unprepared for what was coming and focused more on their own survival as opposed to what was best for the country.  Once the concept of asymptomatic spread emerged the dysfunction and disagreements mirrored what would later occur over the importance of masks, testing, ventilators, and the overall messages from the Trump administration cascaded throughout the media along with the negativity put forth by the likes of Fox News.

Deborah Birx
(Dr. Deborah Birx) 

The authors have written a carefully crafted narrative of the steps or lack of steps taken by the Trump administration from the outset of the crisis until January 2021.  It relies on numerous interviews of government officials, culling of emails and other internal documents, along with speaking with people off the record.  The result is that the authors follow the progression of the virus as each chapter heading contains the date, number of cases and deaths that resulted from the lack of the government’s response.  They followed up the figures by discussing the decision making process in confronting the virus for that period of time.  The chapters that deal with cruise ships which Trump wanted kept at sea or possibly sending people to Guantanamo to keep virus numbers down, the lack of PPE and other supplies to fight the virus, the misinformation put out by the Trump administration, the need by aides and health officials to assuage Trump’s ego as he did not want to deal with the virus as he focused on his reelection, and Trump’s personal comments concerning those who did not kow tow to his viewpoints all reflect the disaster that was the US response to the virus.

All the important personalities are present.  Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC was unprepared to deal with Trump’s “team of vipers.”  Jared Kushner, the second most powerful decision maker next to Trump would bring in inexperienced people to deal with the lack of PPE and ventilators then when he became bored would move on to the Middle East or other issues.  Deborah Birx, the White House Covid-19 Coordinator who did her best behind the scenes to move Trump in the right direction.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, served as the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, became a foil for Trump who resented his popularity.  Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist who mirrored Trump’s views concerning opening the country and its economic impact was brought into the West Wing. Stephen Hahn, FDA head tried to cope with the pressure in approving certain “cures” for the disease.  Scott Azar, the head of HHS whose main goal after warning about the virus was to keep his job.  Peter Navarro, the bombastic assistant to the president for trade and manufacturing whose commentary was always over the top.   Mark Meadows, Trump’s Chief of Staff whose views were a detriment to the health of the American people.  Vice President Pence who privately seemed to agree with public health officials, but publicly fawned over Trump throughout.  The authors integrate others into the narrative as the US fell deeper and deeper into the viral abyss.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield holds up his mask as he speaks at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on a
(Dr. Robert Redfield)

For Trump everything seemed to be about messaging.  Trump and his minions saw the pandemic more as a matter of public relations than of public health.  Reelection was his mantra and any information that was not helpful for that process was discarded.  As Trump lost interest in the virus by June 2020, he turned nastier toward those who disagreed with him, his rhetoric particularly after the death of George Floyd became more racist.  He would resort to threats of violence and prodded his supporters to go after Black Lives Matter protestors and used federal troops and police to create a photo op at Lafayette Square.  Further, Trump’s desire to open the country up economically and politically would lead to super spreader events like his rally in Tulsa, OK and other areas.  For Trump it was all about the economy and his reelection as his fear about appearing weak.  The end result is that the disease spiked from Memorial Day, 2020 throughout the summer, and the violence that Trump encouraged spread throughout the country.  Trump weaponized the virus as a tool that exacerbated existing divisions in our country as a means of retaining power for himself.

One of the most important discussions the authors raise was the link between the virus, the death of George Floyd, and the racial impact of what was occurring throughout the pandemic.  It is clear that the virus impacted brown and black citizens more than whites.  Due to the socio-economic makeup of the country, i.e., more minorities worked in jobs like meatpacking that spiked the disease, 33% of cases involved Hispanics, 22% of cases involved blacks resulting in half the victims were brown and black when they only made up 30% of the population.  In the end brown and black people were three times as likely as whites to contract the virus!

Scott W. Atlas

(Dr. Scott Atlas)

The authors cover every aspect of the Covid crisis.  Trump’s obsession with hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, the use of bleach, magical fantasy, pressure to approve vaccines as the election approached, and conspiracy theories are all present.  In addition, the authors weave the threats against public health officials, the bifurcation of the country over mask use as a political statement for and against Trump, the personal price paid by those who did their best to stem the disease, the errors made by public health officials and their attempts to overcome those mistakes, and many other aspects of the crisis are on full display.  The authors have written the most comprehensive study of what transpired from the outbreak of the disease through the beginning of 2021 and all Americans should consider what they have to say because another “nightmare scenario” is certainly something we will have to cope with in the future.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. An official said new guidance on coronavirus transmission had been posted “prematurely” and was still under review. 

(The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. An official said new guidance on coronavirus transmission had been posted “prematurely” and was still under review. Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times)

THE LOST BOYS OF MONTAUK: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WIND BLOWN, FOUR MEN WHO VANISHED AT SEA AND THE SURVIVORS THEY LEFT BEHIND by Amanda M. Fairbanks

Montauk Lighthouse and beach - Stock Photo - Images
(Montauk Light House, Montauk, Long Island)

Today Montauk, NY located on the eastern tip of Long Island finds itself in the middle of a major transition.  First, it is a vacation/tourist spot with million dollar homes and easy access to the Atlantic Ocean, Block Island Sound, and numerous freshwater ponds.  Second, are the locals who try to maintain the quaintness and hope to prevent the “Hamptonization” of their town.  It is a struggle as the commercial fishing boats still ply the waters that surround the area, but also it is exposed to more and more people who either settled in year round because of Covid-19 which allowed them to work virtually from anywhere, or others who used their second homes to escape the pandemic that overwhelmed New York City.

In her new book, THE LOST BOYS OF MONTAUK: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WIND BLOWN, FOUR MEN WHO VANISHED AT SEA, AND THE SURVIVORS THEY LEFT BEHIND, Amanda M. Fairbanks, a former reporter for the East Hampton Star and New York Times creates a history of the Montauk region as she presents the lives of Michael Stedman, David Connick, Michael Vigliant, and Scott Clarke who perished at sea on March 29, 1984, and the ramifications of those deaths for those left behind.  Fairbanks examines  the profound shift of Montauk from a working class village. “a drinking town, with a fishing problem,” to a playground for the wealthy.  In addition, the author explores why a fishing accident forty years ago still resonates so strongly in the minds of locals.

MONTAUK, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 13, 2013: Montauk Lost at Sea Memorial by the Montauk Point Lighthouse at the edge of Long Island, New York. 

MONTAUK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13, 2013: Montauk Lost at Sea Memorial by the Montauk Point Lighthouse at the edge of Stock Photo

The book is a heartwarming and judicious account of the accident, what led up to it, how the different personalities involved interacted, and the implications for the future for survivors.  The motivating force in the story is Mike Stedman, a young man who was married to the water.  Whether he was surfing, running a party boat, or becoming a commercial fisherman, Mike was an intense individual who seemed to know what he wanted and did not want anything to get in his way.  His goal in life was to own his own boat and stop working for others, and in 1982 he purchased the “Wind Blown,” a commercial boat out of Freeport, TX.  His wife Mary felt bad karma from the outset, and many believed that the boat which had three previous owners and suffered mechanical difficulties on the trip back from Texas, was not seaworthy enough to engage in commercial shipping in the North Atlantic.

The crew of the Wind Blown formed a brotherhood despite their varied backgrounds economically and socially.  Michael V. and Scott C. were young deckhands from a hardscrabble background while Michael S., and Dave C. came from a privileged background.  Mike and Dave bonded easily as they shared poor relationships with their straight laced fathers and just wanted to be part of the water which their parents could not accept.  The four men worked as a team, many times to exhaustion as bringing in tilefish was very lucrative in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Fairbanks does a marvelous job explaining the rigorous life of commercial fishermen and its impact on their families.

On March 28, 1984, the National Hurricane Service in New York posted a gale warning, later it issued a winter storm warning as the Montauk Light House reported wind gusts of over 100 mph.  The Wind Blown which had been out to sea for a few days headed back to Montauk and ran into a full blown nor’easter, the worst since 1962.  In describing how the crisis transpired, the author relied on extensive research that included interviews with family members, friends, and local townspeople.  What was clear is that the four young men were well liked and respected throughout the community.  This was highlighted by many contributions that helped pay for the search and rescue operations performed by private groups once the Coast Guard had pronounced that the ship and men had vanished.


(Mary and Mike Stedman and their first child, Chris, in about 1974)

Fairbanks integrates a study of the socio-cultural nature of the region, even providing a history of the tilefish’s migratory patterns and the money it brought to commercial fisherman.  She also focuses on the Maidstone Club and its history to highlight the economic dichotomy that existed as well as racism and anti-Semitism.  It was a club the Connick’s belonged to and it was the epitome of “old money.”  Fairbanks provides insights into many of the characters who spent most of their lives in Montauk and its environs.  Most were fisherman, bar owners, surf shop owners and the like who formed a special bond who resented many of the interlopers that began to pour into Montauk.  Throughout one must keep in mind that Montauk is the largest commercial harbor in New York State.  Its home to the greatest sports fishing on the east coast – species such as shark, tuna, and marlin proliferate at certain times of the year which attracted many outsiders.

The issue of closure for survivors is an important theme that Fairbanks develops.  It is a very complex situation emotionally when no bodies were located, though parts of the Wind Blown and its crews’ personal effects were found.  The Coast Guard did conduct a full five day search that included the Air National Guard and the US Navy. Twenty fishing boats, five planes, and three helicopters scoured the 25,000 square miles of ocean between Block Island and the Delaware coast to no avail. Once completed the privately funded search continued for another ten days, but is that enough for closure?  For many to this day the snuffing out of four promising young lives is still hard to accept.

To Fairbanks’ credit unlike other books on boating disasters she focuses more on the living than the dead.  She also is able to seamlessly integrate the cultural upheavals of the 60s and 70s and the impact on the crew and their families, in addition to the rift between townies and the weekend set from New York.  Fairbanks writes that she “wanted to understand how tragedies become imprinted in our memories, how trauma and grief wend their way through generations and become a kind of inheritance bequeathed to our descendants.”  If this was her goal, she has accomplished it with a well written and poignant book that exhibits a great deal of love, but tremendous sorrow and grief.

Historic American Lighthouses - Montauk New York
(Montauk Light House, Montauk, Long Island)

ZERO FAIL: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SECRET SERVICE by Carol Leonning

The significant role played by the United States Secret Service in American history cannot be denied.  Be it the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the failed attempts on the lives of Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, few doubted the commitment of its agents to their craft and maintaining the safety of those in their charge.  However, during the last decade or two questions have arisen over its job performance and as Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter, Carol Leonning points out in her new book, ZERO FAIL: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SECRET SERVICE the actions or inaction of the agency question their effectiveness and how lucky they have been with the numerous mistakes and coverups that have come to light that no major disaster can be laid at its doorstep. 

Leonning’s monograph examines the decline in the agency’s readiness and for some supervisors and agents a cavalier attitude toward their own behavior.  Relying on interviews with over 180 sources, including many current and former agency personnel that includes field agents, directors, cabinet officials and members of Congress it is clear that the agency’s overall readiness is poor.  Leonning’s purpose in writing the book was to uncover why the agency employed outdated equipment and engaged in “spotty training.”  Leonning learned that the organization was spread too thin, was drowning in new missions, and was wrought with security risks brought on by a fundamental mistrust  between the rank and file and leadership.  She asks the important question, how long will dumb luck pass for competence?

Her focus is how the agency went from an elite, hard working band of patriots that was committed to protecting future presidents in the wake of the Kennedy assassination , to a “frat boy culture of infighting, indulgence, and obsolescence.”  Further she questions how the Service went from a close-knit group that prided itself on nonpartisanship to one used by presidents for craven political means.  Lastly, why is it that it has such difficulty in hiring people fast enough to cover departures and is seen as the most hated place to work in the federal government? 

The attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan

(U.S. President Ronald Reagan winces and raises his left arm as he was shot by an assailant as he left a Washington hotel, Monday, March 30, 1981, after making a speech to a labor group. The President was shot in the upper left) 

Leonning traces the development of the Secret Service from its inception after the Civil War through the end of the Trump administration. She provides numerous vignettes that are both entertaining and troubling.  For example, Kennedy’s penchant to sneak away for dalliances, Lyndon Johnson’s paranoia after the assassination that agent’s loyalties to the deceased president would override their role as his protector, or Richard Nixon’s desire to use the assassination attempt on George Wallace as a tool to enhance himself politically by linking Arthur Bremer to the McGovern campaign and Senator Edward Kennedy.

If there is one conclusion the reader must come to grips with is that the Secret Service is broken.  Her carefully crafted narrative is informative as she delves into numerous examples of agent and supervisor malfeasance.  What emerges is a service that condoned breaches in the agency’s protocols for behavior by agents and supervisors dealing with drinking, sexual escapades, and downright stupidity for decades as higher ups rarely called offenders on the carpet and discipline for offenses was rare.

Leonning takes the reader inside the inner workings of presidential protection and what is clear is that the job is an arduous one where marriages and families of agents suffered due to the time commitment which is also a function of an underfunded and poorly run organization which put career goals and coverups ahead of conforming to regulations.  A major issue are the different factions that existed and continue to exist within the service.  It is clear that for women and people of color the career path is made much harder due to racial and misogynistic attitudes that have existed for decades.  A case in point is the plight of Julia Pierson who replaced Mark Sullivan as Director of the Secret Service after a major scandal stemming from advance team partying with prostitutes and excessive drinking in 2011 in Cartagena, Columbia.  It appears supporters of Sullivan actively worked to undermine Pierson, the first female head of the Service, after a mentally disturbed Iraq war veteran, Omar Gonzales managed to jump the White House fence and actually gain entrance into the White House itself.

Barack Obama runs over to greet supporters next to U.S. Secret Service agents after he steps off Air Force One. | Reuters Photo

(President Obama surrounded by Secret Service agents)

Constructive criticism of leadership or policy was usually seen as a threat by higher ups.  Examples include the Charles J. Baserap affair.  Baserap, a former agent prepared a forty-two page survey for his superiors in January 2007 entitled, “The Secret Service State of the Union” which after surveying numerous personnel concluded that the White House security net was vulnerable to attack.  Agents were not trained to deal wit simultaneous attacks on the White House complex, and they lacked weaponry to thwart a lethal attack on the president and his family.  Baserap also focused on routine staff shortages, burned-out officers, and the lack of respect by supervisors for their “brother agents.”  Another example reflects Loenning’s assiduous research centers on Greg Stokes, another former agent involved in the Cartagena imbroglio was threatened with termination for behavior that was condoned for decades.  In his defense Stokes began to release some very uncomfortable examples of Service hypocrisy and after Supervisor Rafael Prieto committed suicide leadership felt it was because of Stokes’ actions and he was fired.  The double standard by leadership permeates the narrative.

By 2012 Leonning points out that partisanship became much more intense in a Senate Committee headed by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson and his research assistant Rachel Weaver.  Their goal was to embarrass the Obama administration as much as possible.  There were a number of agency screw ups during the administration of the most endangered president in history.  On November 11, 2011, eight shots fired at the White House by Oscar Ortega-Hernandez, and Mark Sullivan and his top deputies denied it had occurred at the outset and later lied to a Congressional hearing.  In 2014 as Obama was visiting the CDC in Atlanta when a man with a gun was allowed on an elevator with the president without being properly vetted.  It is no wonder that privately Obama questioned whether the Secret Service could actually protect his family, but at the same time Senator Johnson wanted to link the White House to the Secret Service’s incompetence when Service leadership repeatedly met with Obama and assured the necessary changes needed were being implemented.

trump bible

(US President Donald Trump holds a Bible while visiting St. John’s Church across from the White House after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC.)

In her exploration of the Secret Service Leonning does not skimp in her coverage bringing out details dealing with Watergate, the shooting of Ronald Reagan, 9/11 and numerous other topics including the politicization of the Secret Service by the Trump administration who used it as a political arm as well as a means of making money for his organization as Trump’s persistent travels to Mar-a-Lago left the Secret Service operating on a shoestring.  Financially the Trump administration has been a disaster for the Secret Service.  First, Trump Tower must be taken care of as at the outset Trump declared it his primary residence even if he visits only three times a year and switched his residency to Florida.  The result is the Service paid the Trump Organization $63 million for rent and utilities so it could secure the Tower.  Second, each time Trump visits Mar-a-Lago with his entourage it costs $400,00 for protection.  In addition, Trump travels to all his other properties rarely spending the weekend at the White House so he can play golf costing the Secret Service millions.  In addition, the Trump extended family of eighteen people must be secured as they travel all over the world. Politically, the Secret Service became an arm of the Trump administration as it was used to clear Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters so Trump could take a walk and show how “tough” he was as he held a bible upside down in front of a church.  Also, the use of the Secret Service at rallies and what made it worse is that the Service was split between pro and anti-Trump supporters which was against department protocols.  Finally, once Joe Biden was elected President Trump refused to grant Secret Service protection for the President-elect for over a month.

It will be interesting to see how the Secret Service reforms itself in order to restore its reputation but the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection that one Secret Service agent called the armed protestors patriots seeking to undo an illegitimate election does not seem promising.  In the end I agree with Rosa Brooks’ review of ZERO FAIL in the May 14, 2021, edition of the Washington Post as she writes that the book is important, “one that will ruffle feathers in need of ruffling and that will be useful to legislators, policymakers and historians alike. Leonnig’s careful documentation of decades of neglect and malfeasance buttresses her observation that the Secret Service has become more and more of a paper tiger, weakened by arrogant, insular leadership, promotions based on loyalty rather than capability, years of slim budgets, and outdated technology.

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. Despite its Hollywood-enhanced reputation for squeaky-clean professionalism, the Secret Service is just like every other organization made up of humans, which is to say that it’s a bit of mess: It’s sloppy, hostile to newcomers and new ideas, and even its most dedicated and hard-working agents are constantly playing catch-up in the face of ceaselessly evolving threats.

But, Leonnig reminds us, ordinary human messiness isn’t quite good enough when it comes to something as vital as presidential security. Presidents, and the voters who elect them, have the right to expect more than an old boys club that sometimes seems to prioritize protecting its own over protecting the president.”

The South Lawn of the White House, where President Trump will make his speech accepting the Republican renomination on Thursday.

AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER by Stephanie Dray; Laura Kamoie

Mrs. Thomas M. RandolphMrs. Thomas M. Randolph, (Martha Jefferson.)

Thomas Jefferson is one of the most complex figures in American history.  Author of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Virginia, Minster to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and finally President Jefferson is synonymous with the founding of our nation.  His reputation has always been one shrouded in controversy.  Was he an ideologue who favored revolution or the pragmatist who engineered the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803?  During the last few years, his reputation has experienced a downturn in large part because of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton which formed the basis for the Broadway production of the musical “Hamilton” which highlighted the rift between Jefferson and our first Secretary of the Treasury.  As a result, Hamilton’s persona as perceived by the public has improved, and the sage of Monticello’s declined in the eyes of the public. 

According to Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie in their historical novel, AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s eldest daughter was responsible for a good part of what we know about her father as she was his constant companion at Monticello, Washington, or Paris in addition to assuming the role as his protector following the death of his spouse.  Writing a work of fiction based on the life of such a devoted daughter whose primary goal was to protect her fathers’ reputation at a time when it was open season on any hint of scandal is quite an undertaking.  To Dray and Kamoie’s credit they have done an efficient job telling the story of America’s founding and Jefferson’s presidential administration  through the eyes of his daughter.

(Thomas Jefferson)

Relying on over 18,000 letters written by Jefferson and numerous other sources the authors have constructed a historical novel that focuses on the relationship between Jefferson and his eldest daughter and the other figures, major and minor that dominated their lives.  The vehicle the authors employ in telling their story must be taken with a grain of salt as Patsy Jefferson had an agenda of protecting all aspects of her father’s life and legacy and therefore the concept of objectivity was missing from her repertoire.

Almost immediately the reader finds Patsy defending her father against charges of cowardness when the British attacked near Monticello.  None other than Patrick Henry called for an investigation of Jefferson and his role as Governor of Virginia as he ran off rather than confront the British during the American Revolution.  To the author’s credit they do not shy away from controversial aspects of Jefferson’s life including his relationship with Sally Hemings and the birth of their son, his views concerning slavery and promising to free Sally and her brother James only after his death, his role during the French Revolution, his disagreements with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, among many other instances.

William Short, by Louis LeMet. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.  Photograph by Edward Owen.(William Short)

The authors convey the bond between father and daughter which was forged by the death of Martha Jefferson, Thomas’ wife, and Patsy’s mother.  This relationship forms the backdrop for the entire novel as at first, she would protect him from committing suicide as his grief seemed to place him on the edge of madness.  This relationship is not a healthy one as Patsy in large part became her father’s surrogate spouse and mother as she over protected him and had difficulty criticizing him.  She would sacrifice her relationship with Jefferson’s secretary in Paris, William Short and return to Virginia to be with her father rather than marrying him.  This behavior is due in large part to her promise to her dying mother to care for her father and the result is a rather uncomfortable relationship as they were constantly in each other’s company playing duets together, her anger at a possible liaison between her father and Maria Cosway, a married woman as she saw it as a betrayal of her mother’s memory, and her reaction to catching her father in the embrace of Sally Heming.

Sally Hemings
(Sally Hemings)

The novel is built upon dialogue developed from thousands of letters consulted, but is disappointing as insights into Jefferson’s behavior, belief system, and policies are not dealt with in a meaningful manner.  The authors place little emphasis in these areas as the first 40% of the novel are taken up with Patsy’s relationship with William Short which focused on slavery, courtship, her father’s state of mind, and his needs and emotions.

Monticello Estate Tour, Gray Line
(Monticello)

The authors give Jefferson a great deal of credit for launching the French Revolution through  his friendship with the Marquis de Lafayette and his authorship of the Charter of rights which later would morph into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.  The key for both men was the marriage of pragmatism and principle to achieve their goals.

There are a number of memorable scenes portrayed in the novel.  First, James Heming’s declaration of freedom from slavery while serving as Jefferson’s cook while in Paris and demanding freedom for his sister Sally before the Jefferson’s returned to Virginia.  Second, Patsy’s humiliation and anger upon learning that Sally was pregnant with her father’s child.  This continued with Patsy’s anger as she felt she gave up her relationship with William Short to care for her father and felt she was in competition with Sally Heming for her father’s attention – not a healthy situation.  Third, scenes that convey Jefferson’s need to control and dominate others out of his fears of being abandoned as his wife did by dying, as did his daughter Lucy who also passed away, Patsy’s desire to take her vows and join a convent, James desire for freedom, the death of his son with Sally Heming, and Jefferson’s argument that Patsy should marry Thomas Randolph whose wealth would help pay off the debts that Jefferson had incurred in Paris and the needs for Monticello.  The novel presents a man who stood in the way of his daughter’s marriage and reflects a selfishness and self-centeredness, traits that dominated his private and public life.

The author’s diligence can be excessive as they recount scandals, the lives of so many Virginia cousins, and disinheritances.  At times, the prose is sappy and becomes tiresome as Patsy consistently recounts her emotions as they pertain to Short, her husband Thomas Randolph and her father.

The book is well researched but should not be relied upon as a historical tool to be relied upon as Patsy’s version of history as presented by the authors is biased and in too many cases too self-centered and mundane as Jefferson’s legacy and honor must be maintained no matter the cost.  The book entertains a number of themes that dominate the storyline.  First, the concept of honor and the expectations of how a Virginia gentleman should act.  Second, Thomas Jefferson could do no wrong as a father, grandfather, president etc.  Third, Patsy dominates the story controlling the flow of events and visitors to the White House and later to Monticello.  Fourth, the highs and mostly lows of Patsy’s marriage to the demented Thomas Randolph and its effect on their children appear on each page.  Fifth, the importance of Sally Hemings; concubine, mother of Jefferson’s children, and overseer of the aging sage of Monticello.*  Lastly, the novel seems to shift from one disaster after another with little that can be categorized as domestic peace.

Overall, the novel is interesting and interesting at times, but one should pursue further research before accepting many of the author’s themes.

*see THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO: AN AMERICAN FAMILY  by Annette Gordon-Reed.

(Martha Patsy Jefferson Randolph)

HITLER’S JEWISH SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF NAZI RACIAL LAWS AND MEN OF JEWISH DESCENT IN THE GERMAN MILITARY by Bryan Mark Rigg

r/Colorization - Werner Goldberg as 'Ideal German Soldier' (from Berliner Tageblatt, 1939) Mischling ancestry
(Werner Goldberg, a Mischlinge seen as the ideal Aryan soldier)

For years I taught Holocaust history and showed my students the film “Europa, Europa” based on the life of Slomo Perel, a story about a young Jewish boy who joins the Hitler Youth and winds up in the Wehrmacht as a means of avoiding persecution and death.  I often wondered how many other young Jews did the same and fought for the Nazi regime.  The answer to that question is clearly laid out in Bryan Mark Rigg’s study, HITLER’S JEWISH SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF NAZI RACIAL LAWS AND MEN OF JEWISH DESCENT IN THE GERMAN MILITARY.

Mischlinge is defined as “half caste, mongrel or hybrid,” the key term that permeates Rigg’s narrative and the vehicle used to categorize half and quarter Jews as designated by the Nazis after the Nuremberg Blood Laws of 1935.  According to Rigg perhaps 150,000 Mischlinge served in the German military  and Adolf Hitler played a central role in the process. 

As Rigg develops his narrative a number of things become clear.  The Nazi reaction to racial laws was not consistent and, in many cases, appeared hypocritical as many Nazis including Hermann Goring, Head of the Luftwaffe did not conform to racial laws.  Many military officials believed that half and quarter Jews were experienced and excellent soldiers who they would need in combat and found Hitler’s anti-Semitism to be irrelevant to the Wehrmacht.  The war was paramount and the use of Mischlinge at least up until the invasion of Russia in June 1941 was the primary concern of German generals.  Following the summer of 1941 more and more Mischlinge would be thrown out of the Wehrmacht and deported to die in Hitler’s ovens as Martin Bormann, a rabid anti-Semite who opposed the concept of the Mischlinge serving in the German military would become Hitler’s secretary and right hand man.

wehrmacht soldier with grenade
(Wehrmacht soldier)

Riggs is determined to explain that the lack of uniformity on the part of Nazis toward Mischlinge was very confusing for these half and quarter Jews and created an Eriksonian identity crisis as they suffered from extreme role confusion.  Many realized that the only way to survive was to enlist or be drafted into the Wehrmacht and prove themselves to be brave and outstanding soldiers.  They believed that this could save their families in addition to themselves.  Many tried to shed their Jewishness as soon as society allowed and others who fought for Austria and Germany in World War I  believed that the assimilation they achieved through their service would assist them.  In the end this approach did not save most from death, though a large number did survive some through luck, some through perseverance and playing the Nazi system ingeniously, and lastly, some received special exemptions from Hitler himself who was intimately involved in categorizing people reflecting his obsession over racial policy.

Riggs approach to his topic does not lead to a smoothly written monograph.  In fact, it reads like a well cited dissertation as he relates countless examples of individuals within the Wehrmacht, the Nazi hierarchy, and Jewish citizens who were greatly affected by Nazi racial policy and the categorization of the Mischlinge.  Riggs stresses the confusion felt by Nazi leadership as the Mischlinge were part German and could be a significant asset in the war.  But Hitler despised most of them as he saw them as invisible and with the ability to infect the Aryan with their inferior blood.

For the Mischlinge themselves they would be deprived of citizenship, the rights to sleep with Aryans, university education, etc.  The racial laws forced Mischlinge to dramatically alter their lifestyle “causing many to live without confidence.”  The result was numerous divorces as people tried to protect themselves, children disowned, and many grandparents rejecting their grandchildren.  In this instance Riggs needs to provide more than anecdotal evidence in discussing how families were destroyed and how individuals came to terms with their loss of identity.

For the Nazis it was very difficult to identify Mischlinge and further they did not have the necessary resources to accomplish the task.  Riggs does provide a historical breakdown of the number of Jews that had fought in the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and other conflicts to arrive at his 150,000 figure which seems accurate.  For the Mischlinge most were unaware they were even Jewish until after 1933.

Riggs effort is well researched.  He provided voluminous foot notes, a strong bibliography, in addition to interviewing over 400 Mischlinge and their relatives, and received access to many of their personal records, both in their possession and government archives. 

Dr. Bryan Mark Rigg
Dr. Bryan Mark Rigg

Despite the valuable information that Riggs provides the title of the book is misleading as historian Richard J. Evans argues that the monograph is not about Jews as is commonly understood, but about Mischlinge or people that were categorized as half or quarter Jews, many of which were unaware that they were Jews in the first place.  These people were neither Jewish by their own identity, religious law, or even Nazi law.  The book’s title is a teaser because it appears to the uninformed that the book is about Jews in the Wehrmacht which is not accurate and many of these Mischlinge were anti-Semites themselves.  Interestingly as historian Jeremy Noakes argues less than 10% of half Jews saw themselves as Jewish, and only 1.2% of quarter Jews considered themselves as Jewish.  Riggs had an opportunity to explore the nature of Jewish identity beyond Nazi definitions, but he chooses to forgo that opportunity.  Further, Riggs relates that with few exceptions, none of the men he interviewed had any idea of the abuse and massacres that occurred as the Nazis tried to exterminate German and European Jewry.  Riggs concludes that “like most other Germans, many Mischlinge knew about deportation, but did not equate them with systematic murder.”  Further, Mischling serving in the Wehrmacht did not understand  what was happening to their loved ones.  Most claimed they learned what happened to their relatives after the war.

Riggs is successful in digging up a great deal of fascinating detail, but he does not really add to the historiography of Nazi Germany except for Hitler’s obsession with minute points of racial doctrine and how that concern was translated and executed by Wehrmacht leadership and German soldiers in general.  I agree with  David J. Fine in his H-Net Review in the Humanities and Social Sciences of July 2004 that the book “will be of interest to students of the Wehrmacht and Nazi racial policy, [but] it falls short of exploring the bigger questions of the role of Jews in supporting the Nazi state or of German soldiers’ acknowledgement of their role as perpetrators in the Holocaust.”

(L-R: Werner Goldberg, Bernhard Rogge, and Erhard Milch, half-Jews in Hitler’s army)

EMPIRE OF PAIN: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE SACKLER DYNASTY by Patrick Radden Keefe

(Purdue Pharma headquarters in downtown Stamford, CT.)

Yesterday I decided to binge on the two part HBO series “The Crime of the Century.”  It detailed the horrors inflicted on the most vulnerable of the American people – individuals who suffer from chronic pain or are about to pass away and are in extreme pain.  The culprit for these horrors was and remains the Sackler family and its company Purdue Pharma which was created when its other pharmaceutical company Purdue Frederick was making a great deal of money manufacturing items like Benedine and Senekot, but for the family led by Richard Sackler this did not produce enough profit, so it branched out into the “pain market” and took one of its products MS Contin and reoriented its composition to create Oxycontin.  The process involved pressure on the FDA, a great deal of obfuscation concerning its components, bribery, and outright lies to cause the death of over 500,000 Americans since its release in 1996.  One of the narrators for the documentary was Patrick Radden Keefe, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of the New York Times bestseller, SAY NOTHING: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND the winner of the 2019 National Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.  Keefe’s newest book EMPIRE OF PAIN: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE SACKLER DYNASTY fills in some of the gaps of the HBO expose and reaffirms the despicable actions of numerous characters in the family, Purdue Pharma employees, and individuals outside the company and family who were coopted into the process because of greed and a convoluted sense of morality.

EMPIRE OF PAIN is a multi-faceted biography of a family dynamic that produced individuals who seemed to lack empathy for others and were obsessed with the accumulation of wealth which allowed them to satisfy their pocketbooks and egos.  Secondly, it is a study that delves into the drug empire created by the Sackler family and the lengths they would go to continue to engage in practices that would enhance and maintain their wealth while ignoring the negative and at times disastrous effects of their decisions on the American people.  Some family members would argue that this accumulation of wealth is partially offset by the philanthropic ventures that the Sackler’s pursued.  The name Arthur M. Sackler, the individual most responsible for beginning the creation of its “pain empire” appears on museum walls and buildings ranging from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Harvard, Tufts, Columbia Universities, the Sackler School of Medicine in Tel Aviv, among others in London, Paris, and Berlin.  These gifts and/or donations were made possible by the fortune earned from developing and marketing drugs like Librium and valium in the 1960s and 70s with its negative effects on those patients whose doctors over prescribed the medication.

OxyContin
Image Icon

Keefe’s narrative unfolds as he explores the origins of Sackler family wealth which is estimated at about $14 billion.  He delves into the role played by three brothers; Arthur, Raymond, and Mortimer Sackler, all three physicians who developed the edifice that resulted in the hundreds of thousands of drug overdoses that have been inflicted on American society in the last few decades.  The key figure is Arthur M. Sackler who after working at Creedmoor Mental Hospital in New York along with his brothers in the 1960s concluded that the care for the mentally ill was grisly and became convinced there was a better treatment solution.  Arthur Sackler, trained as a Freudian concluded that one’s life experience could not fully account for mental illness – that there was a chemical component, and he would unlock the mystery to help these people.  Sackler would conclude that the derangement of brain chemistry was the missing link.  The brothers conducted a series of experiments on rabbits which reinforced their views of chemical changes in the brain being responsible for mental illness.

Keefe lays out the early careers of the brothers, but Arthur was the key.  He was a complicated individual who enjoyed multiple careers; physician, mental illness researcher, and advertising executive.  His strategy was to market products/medicines directly to doctors and at first took “broad spectrum anti-biotics” and revolutionized medical marketing by convincing physicians to write prescriptions for his products.  The advertising techniques used for clothing, automobiles, food, perfume etc. were now applied to medicine.  Promotion and brand differentiation were key, and Arthur’s success was built upon his purchase of the William Douglas McAdams advertising agency whose major client was Pfizer. 

Letters spelling Sackler being removed from a sign.

As Keefe points out, Arthur was shrewd as he owned or had a partnership with McAdams and Bill Frohlich’s ad agency.  The brothers opened their medical practice in the 1950s in New York and purchased Purdue Frederick, a small company in the patent medicine business.  The expansion of their wealth was predicated on developing what they termed “a minor tranquilizer” to offset the use of Thorazine.  Roche, another major pharmaceutical company developed Librium to meet that market and Arthur was tasked to market the new drug.  In an age of Cold War anxiety, it was the perfect time to launch a new tranquilizer.  By 1963 Roche would build upon Librium and develop Valium and Arthur’s firm zeroed in on convincing doctors that it worked separately on anxiety, muscle tension and numerous other ailments.  It would become the first $100 million drug in history, further little was done to determine if the new drugs were addictive – creating a Sackler family pattern.  Valium would be used by 20 million Americans and was at that time the most widely consumed and abused drug in history.  Even the Rolling Stones wrote a song about Valium, “Mother’s Little Helper.”

Keefe encapsulates Arthur’s approach carefully correctly arguing that “he desired posterity, not publicity.  The last thing Arthur wanted to do was call attention to his own wealth and holdings, and to do so in a manner that might raise questions about his overlapping careers.”  It was quite clear that Arthur modus vivendi of helping develop drugs, fiercely marketing them to physicians, manipulating the FDA through the likes of Dr. Henry Welch, indirect gifts and bribery to the right individuals be they salespeople or doctors was unethical as well as illegal.

Cheryl Juaire, center, of Marlborough, Massachusetts, center, leads protesters near the Arthur M Sackler Museum at Harvard University, on 12 April.

(Cheryl Juaire, center, of Marlborough, Massachusetts, center, leads protesters near the Arthur M Sackler Museum at Harvard University)

As Keefe lays out his arguments it is clear the groundwork for our current drug problem was fostered by the Sackler brothers approach that drugs are not addictive, and it was the patient’s personality and needs that were responsible not the drug manufacturer or the physician.  It was clear as they marketed Valium they developed the advertising approach designed to create a vast market for Oxycontin.

The main culprit among the next generation of Sackler’s was Raymond’s son Richard, and Arthur’s daughter Elizabeth (Kathe).  The family created a new company, Purdue Pharma to engage in developing a “pain” product that would create a new market since their patent for MS Contin, a morphine based drug was running out.  The Contin process contained a time released component over a twelve hour period that they argued would prevent addiction.  Kathe’s goal was to apply the Contin system to Oxycodone and Richard would micromanage its development.  At first, they stressed that the new drug Oxycontin (time released Oxycodone/morphine) should be marketed just for cancer patients to gain FDA approval, but what was never mentioned was that Oxycodone was synthesized into heroine by Bayer in Germany.  Once on the market for a period of time the target market would be expanded.

Keefe does an excellent job recounting the mindset of Richard Sackler and his cohorts in undoing the perception that Oxycontin was addictive to enhance the profitability of the drug.  This approach was implemented with a vengeance.  Mitchell Freidman who had been Head of Marketing at the FDA joined Purdue Pharma a year after he left the government and he and Richard would spearhead the idea that Oxycontin could be used for a myriad of issues from back pain, arthritis, post-surgical pain etc.  Keene has culled the evidence and shows how Richard and Freidman deliberately chose a marketing strategy to deceive doctors and their patients of the low addictive quality of Oxycontin and the mistaken belief held by doctors that the drug was less powerful than morphine.  Curtis Wright, who oversaw pain medication at the FDA, was cultivated and he helped write the drug insert for the medication that stated, “Delayed absorption, as provided by Oxycontin tablets, is believed to reduce the abuse liability of the drug.”  On December 28, 1995 the FDA approved Oxycontin.  A year later Wright earned $400,000 at Purdue Pharma.

The sales approach described by Keefe to market the new drug rested on the company’s catechism, “the delivery system is believed to reduce the abuse liability of the drug.”  Keefe dissects the sales pitch and training of the hundreds of Pharma reps.  They would target certain geographical areas like southern West Virginia and eastern Virginia and the rust belt to maximize sales as people overdosed.

Keefe’s account is stunning and based on assiduous research, confidential and original documents, and interviews.  The author follows the legal battle to unearth what the Sackler’s had done and its vast implications for the wealth and health of the American people.  Their arrogance is clear in the words of Kathe Sackler who boasted  that Oxycontin was “very good medicine” and “a safe medicine.”  She also claims credit for coming up with the “idea.”  Years later in reference to the hundreds of thousands of addicted Americans she claimed not be aware of that.  In 2007 the Bush Justice Department only delivered a slap on the wrist after investigating Purdue Pharma.  It was no coincidence that the Sackler’s were major donors to the Republican Party and Rudy Giuliani was one of their lawyers!

The name Barry Meier, a New York Times reporter and author of the first major expose dealing with Purdue Pharma and the Sackler’s, PAIN KILLER: AN EMPIRE OF DECEIT AND THE ORIGIN OF AMERICA’S OPIOID EPIDEMIC became a thorn in the side of the opioid industry.  Keefe relies on Meier’s early work in his research and conveys the travails that the reporter had to deal with.  Purdue Pharma executives pressured the Times  to block Meier’s efforts.  They were successful for a period of time until the various trials against the corporation took place where he was “reinstated” on the topic and his incisive reporting reemerged.

Keefe and Meier argued that it is clear that Purdue Pharma had an inside man at the FDA and Paul McNulty, the deputy attorney general during the Bush administration handcuffed the prosecution and the efforts of John Brownlee, the federal prosecutor for the western district of Virginia who went after Purdue Pharma.  In 2007 Purdue would pay a $600 million fine for the $35 billion earned from Oxycontin.  Two years ago, when the Sackler’s faced their harshest legal challenge, they sold their stake in Purdue Pharma, moved their money overseas and had Purdue file for bankruptcy.  Once that strategy was implemented, no court could gain damages from the family’s personal funds.  By 2019-20 the Trump Justice Department under William Barr gave the family a reprieve and no family members or company executives would face criminal charges.

Patrick Radden Keefe
Photograph by Ilene Squires

Keefe effectively traces how finally after 2013 the Sackler family name became toxic as museums, universities, medical schools, and hospitals refused their donations and, in some cases, removed their names from their properties.  Keefe follows the family’s efforts to counter lawsuits brought by numerous state Attorneys General and their use of White Plains, NY Judge Robert D. Drain to protect the Sackler family wealth, in addition to the family realization that for the first time settlements might hit them personally.  As a result, they began to siphon off vast amounts of cash (family wealth is estimated to be $14 billion) from the company and planting it in offshore accounts.  The result is that this entitled group of “Sackler’s” had to face the fact they had become social pariahs.

Samanth Subramanian’s review of May 13, 2021, in The Guardian sums up the devastation and corruption, both government and non-government very clearly and its implications for the future: Keefe’s narrative is so lush with details that only in the chinks do we spot the story behind the story: the rotting structure of American healthcare that almost wills disasters into being. Some failures are born of lethargy or neglect. A federal government official once told me that if states had simply transitioned faster to reporting their health statistics electronically, someone might have caught a pattern: “all the drug overdose deaths, the suicides, the medical examiner events” that advertised the opioid crisis. But other failures are the results of a system maintained at a level of designed corruption.

Purdue Pharma’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn., on Thursday.
(Purdue Pharma’s headquarters in Stamford, CT)

CHINA: THE NOVEL by Edward Rutherfurd

(the Opium War 1839-1842)

For years I read the panoramic novels of James A. Michener.  His multi-generational plots, historical knowledge, all-encompassing detail, and character development were very satisfying, and I always looked forward to his latest release.  When he passed a void resulted in my reading agenda until I discovered Edward Rutherfurd.  In 1987 I read Rutherfurd’s first novel, SARUM which immediately sparked my interest because of his approach to writing, history, lineage of different generations, and an assortment of interesting and fascinating characters.  I dare say he was “Micheneresque!”  Other novels soon followed; RUSSKA, LONDON, THE FOREST, THE PRINCES OF IRELAND, THE REBELS OF IRELAND, NEW YORK, and PARIS – all very satisfying and engrossing living up to the bar he set with his first novel. 

I was looking forward to his next effort which was published last week, CHINA: THE NOVEL.  The novel does not present the scope and panorama of his earlier works, and there are a few questions about organization, but it still was a satisfying read.  The novel begins with events leading to the 1839 Opium War between England and the “Middle Kingdom” and carries the reader through Chinese history beginning with the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxer Rebellion, and finally the 1911 Revolution.  Through its characters Rutherfurd tries to present each event and different attempts at reform that sought to throw off the western imperialist yoke.  Over time these occurrences would lay the groundwork for the rise of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party which emerged after World War I, consolidated its support among the peasants in the 1930s and during World War II, and finally defeated the Guomintang (Nationalist Party) in 1949 and began the Maoist rule over China which dominated the former “Celestial Kingdom” until the early 1980s.

Opium War Imports into China, 1650-1880

The book seems to be organized in two parts, the first centers around the opium trade and a series of characters from British merchants, Chinese traders, government officials, and a number of ancillary families.  The second part focuses on the life of one individual in particular,  Lacquer Nail whose character is somewhat contrived and how the Chinese government tried to defeat the foreign imperialists, but to no avail.  Rutherdurd does a credible job integrating true historical figures with fictional characters.  At the outset, the key historical figure that is portrayed accurately is Lin Zexu, who was a Chinese head of states (Viceroy), Governor General, scholar-official, and High Commissioner who was charged by the emperor to rid the country of the opium trade that was bankrupting the kingdom because of the outflow of silver to pay for the opium.  The next important character is fictional, Jiang Shi-Rong who rose to become Commissioner Lin’s personal secretary.

From the outset of the novel, it is clear that Rutherfurd has done his homework as he exhibits a firm grasp of Chinese history and culture.  His explanation of the reasons for and the impact of foot binding on women is engrossing as is his description of the Forbidden City, the metropolitan exams to become a scholar-official, the language employed by Chinese officials, the differences between Han and Manchu Chinese, the dichotomy between northern and southern China, as is the presentation  of historical figures like James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, the weakness of the Xian Feng Emperor, Prince Gong, regent from 1861-1865, the Empress Cixi, Lin Zexu, Edmund Backhouse, a British oriental scholar and linguist among others. 

Map 3: China's Treaty Ports, 1860

(Map 3: China’s Treaty Ports, 1860.)

Fictional characters abound with the key figures including John Trader, a British merchant who engages in the Opium trade as a means of impressing Agnes Lomond in Calcutta; Cecil Whiteparish, Trader’s cousin and  missionary; Mei-Ling a Chinese woman who provides a window into the misogyny of Chinese culture; Nio, Mei-Ling’s “brother” who is a pirate and eventually joins the Taiping movement to overthrow the Emperor; Guanji, a Manchu officer; the Odstock brothers who lived off the opium trade; and Mr. Liu who is bent on destroying Lacquer Nail.

Rutherfurd navigates the different factions within the Chinese government and the disagreements and friction among the characters very nicely.  A case in point is the Eunuch system and what one went through to become one and how they achieved wealth and power in the Forbidden City in dealing with the Emperor. Rutherfurd is able to develop a number of stories within the larger story of the novel very carefully.  Chief among them revolves around the Taiping Rebellion, an uprising commanded by Hong Xiuquan, the self-proclaimed brother of Jesus Christ. Its goals were religious, nationalist, and political in nature; Hong sought the conversion of the Chinese people to the Taiping’s syncretic version of Christianity, to overthrow the ruling Qing Dynasty, and a state transformation.  At times it appeared that the British might ally with the Taiping’s in order to secure the opium trade and other commodities like tea.

The overall theme of the novel is the history of China between 1839 and 1911 that was dominated by British imperialism, later joined by other European powers and the United States.  As Rutherfurd develops the novel he integrates other important historical information germane to his topic, i.e., the recruitment of Chinese labor to work on the railroads in the United States, the politics of the British parliament, events in India, among others.  If one is conversant in Chinese history during this period, you will be able to relate to what is evolving.  If not Rutherfurd clearly presents the rhythms of the Chinese approach to life and how it conflicted with western expectations and why conflict was inevitable.

Forbidden City
(The Forbidden City, Beijing, China)

Cultural superiority is a dominant theme as the Chinese saw the west as barbarians who were inferior to the Confucian way of life, and western lack of respect for Chinese culture seeing the Chinese people as animals in many cases.  The causes and results of the two Opium Wars are reviewed and their effect on Chinese society and politics stand out.  Rutherfurd spends a great deal of time on the Taiping Rebellion which many historians see as laying the groundwork for Maoist thought with their agrarian reform ideas, however over 40 million Chinese would die during the conflict.  The author also takes a deep dive through his characters as the Chinese try to reform themselves after the Taiping Rebellion with the rise of the Empress Cixi but to no avail.  The Boxer Rebellion becomes front and center at the turn of the 2oth century as does the rise of Sun Yat-Sen and his ideas that resulted in the 1911 Revolution that followed the death of the Empress Cixi.

Empress Dowager Cixi, who died 109 years ago today.

(Empress Cixi)

The earlier sections of the novel are much more engaging because of its focus on the Chinese family apart from the opium trade.  The later sections of the novel are exhausting with its focus on court life and attempts to deal with the west.  From the title of the book, one would hope its focus would be more on the Chinese people themselves without providing such a prominent occidental slant.

The book at times can be unwieldly, but slowly it will captivate you and make you want to complete its 763 pages.  Rutherfurd will lay out the difference between eastern and western culture and one might question the goals and complexities of each.  Though I do not think the book flows as evenly as previous Rutherfurd novels, the book provides an education in of itself through its historical and myriad fictional characters and is worth the read.

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If you have found the events and personalities presented in the book interesting, I would recommend the following: THE BOXER REBELLION  by Diana Preston; AUTUMN IN THE HEAVENLY KINGDOM by Stephen R. Platt; IMPERIAL TWILIGHT: THE OPIUM WAR AND THE END OF CHINA’S LAST GOLDEN AGE by Stephen R. Platt; EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI  by Jung Chang; GOD’S CHINESE SON by Jonathan Spence or any other books on Chinese history written by Spence.

Image 1: A “stacking room” in an opium factory in Patna, India. On the shelves are balls of opium that were part of Britain’s trade with China.

(A “stacking room” in an opium factory in Patna, India. On the shelves are balls of opium that were part of Britain’s trade with China.)