Hollywood in the White House

LBJ - Harrelson

Woody Harrelson as LBJ (2017)

Most of the time, Hollywood moguls and the pols inside the Washington Beltway hold each other “in mutual contempt,” said film historian Max Alvarez in an entertaining talk this week at the Princeton library. Yet politicians need Hollywood’s money and clout, and filmmakers need the government for such things as copyright and First Amendment protections and favorable trade regulations. And occasionally, they look to Washington—and the White House—for juicy story lines.

Screenwriters don’t overlook our Presidents who’ve been tragic characters worthy of Shakespeare. Lincoln has been most often portrayed, with Nixon second-most. Alvarez showed three clips back-to-back from movies about our 37th President: Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, and Kevin Spacey in the comedy Elvis and Nixon. Hopkins was the smarmiest, Langella the most tightly wound, and Spacey (I know, I know)—hilarious.

At least until recently, films about presidents and the presidency mostly flopped at the box office, and early on, not many were made. There was a bit of a burst in World War II, in films that had a propaganda message. If a president did appear in these early films, he was an upstanding, respected figure. That’s sure changed.

Alvarez suggested that because Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were younger and “cooler,” the creative types in Hollywood were drawn to material that included a president or presidential candidate in the early 60s and again in the 90s. (Note that the industry insider—Ronald Reagan—did not spark such ideas.) Television contributed, too, with 156 episodes of The West Wing from 1999 to 2006. Now we have Veep.

The movies have stopped treating presidents as paragons, with Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, Absolute Power, and Clear and Present Danger examples Alvarez cited. Why the shift? A scene from the Netflix program The Crown suggests an answer. In an episode set in 1957, Lord Altrincham, a small-time newspaper publisher, editorializes against Queen Elizabeth for being priggish and out of touch. In a meeting with her, he explains that the root of the problem is that, since the war, everything has changed, but the monarchy hasn’t. “What’s changed?” she asks, and he replies, “Deference.”

House-of-Cards

Kevin Spacey’s bloody hands in House of Cards.

Does exposure to charismatic, but dysfunctional characters on, say, House of Cards (not to mention such shows as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men) normalize dysfunctional behavior? Alvarez thinks it may. Not that we have to go to the cinema or watch tv for that.

From the Department of Free Association . . .

. . . and so we have this recent Atlantic article about how continued exposure to the perfidies of the current administration is causing ‘outrage fatigue.’ Say it isn’t so.

 

****The Underground Railroad

Cotton

photo: Kimberly Vardeman, creative commons license

By Colson Whitehead – I was glad my book group chose this winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, which made the longlist for the Man Booker Prize AND was chosen by Oprah’s Book Club. I searched vainly for hours for the photo I’d seen of President Obama carrying it. Thinking he too had read it also gladdened my heart.

Now that I’ve actually read it, I am triply gladdened. Certainly it raises painful issues and reminders of our country’s difficult history (Make America Great Again?). Those issues are worth confronting repeatedly and anew, society-wide, and as individuals who read books. Their consequences are still with us and all around us. The Civil Rights era did not erase the past, confer respect or opportunity on all our fellow-citizens, or assure a conflict-free future, just as giving women the vote did not solve the problems of inequality and sexual harassment for women.

The experiences of Whitehead’s protagonist, the slave Cora (Cora was an alternative name for the goddess Persephone, queen of the underworld; or was Whitehead thinking “heart”?), property of a cotton plantation-owning family in Georgia, are not unfamiliar. Yet Whitehead gives his writing an immediacy that powers the story forward and makes it painfully fresh, as Cora encounters one difficulty after another. Her mother is the only slave to have successfully escaped the Randall Plantation, and Cora, alternately admiring her mother’s gumption and hating her for her abandonment, is determined, somehow, to follow her.

In a device best termed magical realism, Whitehead’s underground railroad is a real railroad. It runs in darkened tunnels and has rails and locomotives. Yet, this initially awkward metaphor brings the actual conditions of slave escape to light in a new way, when we learn it’s a railroad with no fixed schedule, uncertain destinations, and ambiguity about whether routes or stations are even open.

As it’s usually used, the term “underground railroad” conjures what we know about railroads and timetables and reliably running trains and certainties at the other end of the line. In Whitehead’s metaphor, those certainties are upended. If a stationmaster has been found out, a station may be closed. And he is gone. Whether he was black or white, helping a runaway slave was deadly business.

Whitehead’s writing is straightforward, yet evocative: “Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.”

Not unexpectedly, America comes in for some sharp criticism for the discrepancy between its high ideals and low practices—not only slavery, but also the massacre and theft of American Indian lands. To someone like Cora and her friend Caesar, core American notions of equality and justice were irrelevant to their lived reality. “All men are created equal,” the white man thinks, “unless we decide you are not a man.”

A year ago, Amazon announced plans for a mini-series based on this book. It may be true to the book, but who knows? The book pulls no punches, and reading it is a much more complicated experience than learning Cora’s story.

Murder in a Nutshell

Nutshell 1

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Frances Glessner Lee was a wealthy divorcee who used her money, her energy, her contacts, and her passion for crime investigation to jumpstart the field of forensic medicine in the United States some 80 years ago. One of this country’s first forensic pathologists, George Burgess Magrath, was a Boston friend, and his informal tutelage piqued her interest. Denied the chance to go to college and discouraged from pursuing her rather odd interest in murder, her career didn’t get going until she was in her 50s.

According to journalist Bruce Goldfarb, on staff at the prestigious Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Frances was the country’s only woman involved in the early development of forensic science. At a Renwick Gallery talk, he described how she gave funds to support lectures by leading European forensic medicine specialists at Harvard Medical School; donated her library of more than a thousand volumes on crime investigation; established training fellowships; endowed Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine (the first in the country); and promoted the training of police detectives in forensic methods.

Further, she lobbied her wealthy and powerful connections to replace the outdated system of coroners with one employing trained medical examiners, thus enabling, among other things, many entertaining seasons of CSI. Coroners, an office that still exists in many parts of the United States, are often elected officials and need have no particular forensic, medical, or legal knowledge. They were known to tromp through crime scenes, take a quick look at the body, and decide on the spot whether it was homicide, suicide, or death by misadventure. A list of “causes of death” extracted from coroners’ reports in New York included the enlightened conclusion “found dead.”

Nutshell 2

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Back in the days before virtual reality, one of her educational activities was constructing highly detailed, dollhouse-sized dioramas of crime scenes. These “nutshell studies” were used to train homicide investigators in what to look for in cases of unexplained death. Nineteen of them still exist, and this winter they were gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery for an immensely popular exhibit: “Murder Is Her Hobby,” which I saw in its last days.

You may recognize CSI’s slant homage to Lee in its “Miniature Killer” episodes (season 7; see trailer). Look for a copy of the film “Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story” (trailer) or “Of Dolls and Murder” (trailer), both directed by Susan Marks. Apparently there’s a new book coming out, too, and the 2004 book by Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, has been reprinted. “The Nutshells are essentially about teaching people how to see,” said Renwick curator Nora Atkinson.

The Post

The Post, Meryl StreepI really wanted to love this movie (trailer). It has everything I like—a story about important principles, two impeccable stars and a terrific supporting cast, a newsroom setting. Director Steven Spielberg had much so much good stuff to work with—including a decent script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer—why wasn’t it better?

One of the team’s great decisions is to present Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) not as a hard-nosed, successful businesswoman, but one growing into a not-always-comfortable role as publisher of the Washington Post (a position first held by her father, then her late husband). In 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) steals the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of documents that recount the government’s decades of deception about the Vietnam War, Graham faces a fateful choice of tremendous consequence: will the Post will publish stories based on these top secret documents?

On one hand, the paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and the newsroom staff are pushing to publish. For them, it’s a “freedom of the press” issue, a riveting story, and they’re racing the clock to get in the game.

On the other hand, her business advisors (notably, Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe and Bradley Whitford as Arthur Parsons) and the Nixon Administration oppose publication, which is risky on several counts. First is legal jeopardy: already the Justice Department has taken the rival New York Times to court on the matter. Barring the Times from publishing more, at least temporarily, opens the door for the Post. Then there’s financial jeopardy: the bankers who backed the Post’s recent stock offering are threatening to pull out if the paper goes ahead.

Graham’s personal relations further muddy the waters. She’s been friends for years with people who the Pentagon Papers show participated in the war deception, notably former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Is she respecting her family legacy by publishing or by holding back? In the end, of course, her decision sets the stage for the Post’s becoming one of the nation’s premier newspapers.

The newsroom Spielberg and the reporters create is an exciting place. As Bilge Ebiri said in the Village Voice, “I started crying the first time I saw Tom Hanks’s Ben Bradlee walk through a bustling, thriving newsroom . . . a whole world that’s been lost.” It’s also fun to see the newspaper produced the old-fashioned way: linotype machines and hot lead. Victory is in the air when the Post’s trucks roll out of the printing plant in the early morning mist.

So what’s the problem? Why isn’t this movie more satisfying? For me, it’s because the central question—will she or won’t she?—is one we already know the answer to. It’s the scenes where we don’t know the outcome, like the powerful one where Graham confronts her old friend McNamara, that are the most compelling. Given that, drawing out her dithering (despite how expertly Streep dithers) seems, finally, fake. For a contrast, consider the movie Spotlight. Again, we know the Globe reporters get the priest abuse story, but every interview had qualities of uncertainty about it. It was a puzzle painstakingly assembled in front of our eyes.

I also could have done without the tepid and too-stagy anti-war demonstrations and the bevy of eager young women waiting for Graham as she leaves the U.S. Supreme Court building. The point about her pioneering in a male world had been already made, much more effectively.

Nevertheless, in 2018, the story provides a vital reminder about the ongoing and urgent need for an unfettered news media to hold people in power to account.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 88%; audiences 74%.

LA — Outdoor Attractions

On a January day when the winter wind’s noise is nearly constant, new snow is sheeting around the corner of the house, and the temperature forecast for Saturday is minus 5, I happily return to memories of the 90-degree days we enjoyed in Los Angeles just six weeks ago. In addition to a tour of the landscape garden at the Getty (threatened by the wildfires soon afterward), we visited these three major outdoor attractions.

The Arboretum

Los Angeles, Queen Anne Cottage

The Queen Anne Cottage – photo: Vicki Weisfeld

We walked the 127-acre Los Angeles Arboretum & Botanic Garden on Thanksgiving Day, when not much else was open. Griffith Park (the largest urban municipal park in the United States), which has a zoo and an observatory just seemed too much to deal with. It probably would have been a better choice. There’s not much to the Arboretum, located west of the city. It contains large areas planted with species from Australia and Africa, small herb and rose gardens, a couple of greenhouses, and, on Thanksgiving Day, not much was going on. Gift shop was closed.

The most attractive feature was the Queen Anne Cottage and coach barn. The Victorian-era cottage is set on a lake and extensively restored. Charming, but closed that day. We finally found a place to get a cold drink and sat on a terrace surrounded by greenery and screaming peacocks. Kids seemed to enjoy running on the expansive lawns. Under other circumstances, this could be a gem, but wasn’t.

The Huntington

Los Angeles, Japanese garden

The Huntington – photo: Vicki Weisfeld

On another day—when, thank goodness, the marvelous gift shop and restaurants were open—we visited The Huntington. It’s near the Arboretum, but a world away in terms of interest. The Huntington combines a library, art collection, and botanical garden on the former ranch of early California railroad and real estate magnate Henry E. Huntington. Huntington began collecting rare books, art, and the specimens for botanical gardens during his lifetime.

The library is one of the world’s leading independent research libraries and has an extraordinary collection of some seven million manuscripts, 430,000 rare books, and more. Starting with The Gutenberg Bible, it has originals of The Canterbury Tales, folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays, letters from the hands of the Founding Fathers, and one of the world’s leading collections related to the history of science. The exhibits of these materials are interesting and well planned. (We did not tour the art museum, home to such world-famous works as Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” and Sir Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie.”)

The enticing grounds are laid out with many noteworthy features, including the Chinese Garden of Flowing Fragrance, and an elaborate, multi-level Japanese garden that displays an extensive bonsai collection. We enjoyed the rose and herb gardens, and the Shakespeare garden. The heat kept us out of several other areas (the desert garden, the Australian garden), but left us with a reason to return.

LaBrea Tar Pits

Sabre-toothed cat, Los Angeles, toy

Sabre-toothed cat–OK, not a real one–photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Unexpectedly (to me), the LaBrea Tar Pits are on Wilshire Boulevard, smack in the middle of the city. The Page Museum there includes some astonishing and hands-on displays about the animals whose bones have been found in the pools of bubbling black gunk. Kids love it, and the displays are intriguing for adults too. Take a docent-led tour of the outdoor tar pit area and active dig-sites in order to get the most out of your visit. You will have questions, and the guide we had was able to answer those of visitors ages seven to seventy.

Darkest Hour

Perhaps you feel about Churchilled out, what with Netflix’s The Crown and his memorable words floating over the disheartened British soldiers in Dunkirk, but director Joe Wright’s new film (trailer) is absolutely mesmerizing. I wish the film had gone on to present the whole rest of the war as vividly and thoughtfully, not just those desperate early days of the title.

Gary Oldman as Winston looks more the role than did John Lithgow, but the power of his performance comes from truly inhabiting the part and having a script by Anthony McCarten that shuns the clichés. Kristin Scott Thomas is brilliant as Churchill’s ever-supportive wife Clementine (resembling not a little Harriet Walter in The Crown). Lily James (Downton Abbey’s Rose, brunette this time) is sweet as his long-suffering secretary Elizabeth.

What this film provides that so many gloss over is scrupulous candor about the political facts facing Churchill. He was a compromise candidate for the role of Prime Minister, and people in his own party mistrusted him. They didn’t want him. The king didn’t want him. His predecessor, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), and a strong faction, led by Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), advocated a peace deal with Hitler, which Churchill adamantly opposed.

While today’s viewers may side with Churchill on the question of whether a good treaty could have been achieved with the dictator, Wright never over-eggs the pudding by weakening Halifax’s arguments. Both sides of this consequential debate are principled and passionate.

Churchill was new and shaky in his position, the entire British army was stranded at Dunkirk, the European countries were overrun, France was about to fall, and America could not help (yet). It was truly Britain’s Darkest Hour.  How the PM deals with it all reflected his genius. “If it’s a history lesson,” says reviewer Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com, “it’s one that plays like a tightly wound, pulse-pounding thriller.”

And Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography offers many nice touches, too. The slow-motion views of people in the street (which you realize is Churchill’s view as he passes in his car), the isolation of the elevators, the pockmarked French countryside from the air. Wonderful.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84% ; audiences: 83%.

LA Sidetrip: Nixon Library and Museum

richard-nixonNixon’s the One!

Certainly there was a period of years when I couldn’t have imagined visiting the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, much less enjoying it, but times change. Located in the town of Yorba Linda, where the 37th President was born, it’s about an hour southeast of downtown Los Angeles. (The better-known “western White House” in San Clemente is near the ocean.)

The National Archives runs the site and has done a fine job creating exhibits and audiovisuals. They don’t gloss over the problematic aspects of Nixon’s presidency—you can even listen to some of the infamous White House tapes—as well as remind visitors of the good parts.

And there were accomplishments that Americans can still be proud of and value. Among those described on the library’s website, he started the Environmental Protection Agency and supported a range of environmental issues, he launched the “War on Cancer,” which, though far from over, has led to significant advances in cancer care and fundamental biomedical research, he oversaw programs and laws protecting the civil rights of women, school-children, and American Indians, and, on the international front, he opened the door to China, used diplomatic means to limit the Soviet-American arms race, and affirmed U.S. treaty obligations. Nowadays, Nixon looks better than one might have predicted 43 years ago when he left the White House in disgrace.

Watergate

The library has an excellent timeline of events that led to Watergate and, ultimately, Nixon’s resignation. Some years later, I worked in the very suite of offices that the Democratic National Committee occupied in 1972—600 Virginia Avenue, third floor. One of the doors leading to the stairwell had a plaque on it commemorating the night that the tape was found on that door, which led to the discovery of the Watergate break-in, which led to the cover-up, which led to the Saturday night massacre, which led to the congressional hearings, which led to the Nixon family’s departure from the White House lawn in Marine One.

Pat Wanted an Acting Career

The museum surprises with its documenting of the quiet and steady contribution of Pat. As First Lady, she was active and participatory and carried a good will message from America around the world. In the Watergate era, when I was perhaps paying more attention, she seemed unruffled, on pause. Possibly this was a coping strategy or a bizarre fulfillment of her desire to be an actor.

On the Grounds

Nixon's boyhood home

Nixon’s boyhood home; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Also at the museum complex you can tour the “boyhood home” and see the bedroom where Nixon was born, as well as the plot where he and Pat are buried. The Marine One helicopter, used by numerous presidents is on display and tour-able unless the weather is too hot! Nixon was a lawyer, a commissioned Navy officer during World War II, and served his country as U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Vice President during the Eisenhower years, and President.

As a private citizen again, he wrote his memoirs and several other books. Despite his flaws, the Library notes that every president who succeeded him consulted him on foreign affairs (Henry Kissinger’s eulogy).

Going? Books to Throw in Your Suitcase

Weekend Movie Picks: LBJ & Battle of the Sexes

Spanning the short period 1960 to 1973, these two movies are based on real events—political, in the largest sense, and human, with their subjects’ vulnerabilities and strengths on view on a very public stage.

LBJ

LBJ - HarrelsonWoody Harrelson as LBJ? Actually, the Texas actor does a fine job in this eponymous movie written by Joey Hartstone and directed by Rob Reiner (trailer). When it comes to the history depicted, this film gets it more right than most, partly because Reiner took the time to read and absorb the Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin histories.

In 1960, LBJ is a genius in the Senate, though he’s profane, even vulgar, the opposite of the Kennedy clan. Johnson won’t say whether he plans to run for president in 1960 because, his aides suggest, “he’s afraid he’ll lose.” Lady Bird (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) overhears and corrects them: “He’s afraid people won’t love him.”

When Jack Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) surprisingly asks the Texan to become his vice president, Johnson accepts. You think it may be as much to tweak Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), who obviously loathes him, as anything else. One of the most uncomfortable scenes occurs when he corners Bobby in a door alcove and says, “Bobby, why don’t you like me?”

Johnson never expects this office will be a sure path to the presidency, especially not after a mere thousand days. Seeing how the public loves Jack, and the outpouring of grief after the assassination, he apparently decides the best way to make people love him is to pursue Kennedy’s policy relentlessly. And, thankfully, he did.

That decision brought us new Civil Rights laws, the War on Poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start—and, tragically, the full-on Vietnam War. (The War just received the full Ken Burns treatment and isn’t touched on much here.) He achieves those programs by continuing his masterful managing of the Senate, personalized here by Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman) and Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins).

Though the critics are cool to it, for the accurate history and some fine performances, it’s nevertheless worth seeing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 52%; audiences 64%.

Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the SexesThis film is much lighter fare, though it certainly has moments of intensity (trailer). Written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, it shows the lead-up to the famous 1973 tennis match between world number one women’s tennis player Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone) and former men’s champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). You even get a bit of Howard Cosell, though filmmaking magic.

In 1970, women tennis players received far less (about a tenth, I think) prize money than the men, because, as the head of the lawn tennis association explained (Bill Pullman again), women’s tennis is just less interesting. King led a walkout, and the women left the association to form a new league. With Virginia Slims cigarettes as a sponsor, they had their own competitive tour (ironically, none of them smoked), managed by highly entertaining Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) who does.

In that context, Riggs—a hustler and clown, playing tennis costumed as Little Bo Peep, complete with sheep, wearing swim fins, and the like—said he could easily beat the best woman player. “I love women,” he says, “in the kitchen and in the bedroom,” an attitude, unfortunately, newly topical. King takes up the challenge. While she trains, he cavorts.

Home life isn’t simple for either of them. Riggs’s wife has left him, tired of his gambling, and King, though married, has her first lesbian relationship. At the time, public knowledge of that might have destroyed her career.

Emma Stone does a fine job—likeable and focused—and Carell is a believably driven character, teetering on tragedy as comics convey so well.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 84%; audiences 76%.

*****His Bloody Project

Scottish Policeman - 1882

Original photo, c. 1882 by Peter Swanson, reproduced by Dave Conner, creative commons

By Graeme Macrae Burnet, narrated by Antony Ferguson. This remarkable faux “true-crime” thriller was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and an immersive, inventive fable it is. The conceit is that the author, in researching his family history, uncovers a 17-year-old relative named Roderick Macrae, who in 1869 stood trial in Inverness, Scotland, in a notorious triple murder case. In trying to get to the bottom of this episode, the author has assembled a variety of original documents. He presents this evidence, and the reader must weigh it along with the court.

After some prefatory remarks, the story picks up steam in the longest section of the book, a confession written by Roddy himself. Opinion at the time, the author notes, held it was entirely unlikely that a barely educated crofter, living in desperately reduced circumstances, could write such a literate account of himself and his life.

Roddy freely admits he committed the murders. The nub of the case is whether he was in his right mind when doing so and whether the then rather new insanity defense is appropriate. His victims were Lachlan Mackenzie, the autocratic and vindictive constable of the area, who seems, for various reasons and an inherent meanness, intent on breaking apart the Macrae family; Mackenzie’s 15-year-old daughter Flora, whom Roddy has gone walking with a few times and hopes to romance; and Mackenzie’s three-year-old son Danny.

In describing life in the tiny, poverty-struck village of Culduie, Roddy’s memoir recounts a great many petty tyrannies visited on the family by Mackenzie, which might (or might not) be sufficient motivation for murder. Since Roddy’s mother died in childbirth, the Macrae family has lurched through life, bathed in grief and laid low by privation. From Roddy’s confession as well as other testimony, readers gain a detailed picture of daily life and the knife-edge on which survival depends. Fans of strong courtroom dramas will relish the way the courtroom scenes in the book both reveal and conceal.

The audiobook was narrated by Antony Ferguson. He gives sufficient variety to the speech of the characters to make them both easily identifiable and compelling individuals, from the engaging Roddy to the condescending psychiatrist and prison doctor, whom author Burnet based on the real-life J Bruce Thomson, to the ostensibly straightforward journalistic accounts.

The format of this book makes it unusual in crime fiction. It is a more literary version of the dossier approach used by Dennis Wheatley, in such classics as Murder Off Miami and The Malinsay Massacre, which our family loved to read and solve.

Meadow Brook Hall: SE Michigan Gem

Meadow Brook Hall

photo: Mark Goebel, creative commons license

If you’ve visit Southeastern Michigan, you probably know about charming Greenfield Village and The Henry Ford Museum. You may have taken in  a Ford factory tour (conducted in the super-automated Ford F-150 plant, not the grimy industrial behemoth nearby. PS—if you are tempted to blame off-shoring for the loss of American manufacturing jobs, one look at the floor of this factory will give you second thoughts. The culprit isn’t just foreigners, it’s automation. Hardly an assembly-line worker in sight.)

You’ve enjoyed the fantastic murals cropping up in downtown Detroit. And the area’s stunning museums, the zoo, Belle Isle, Hitsville, USA. The trendy upscale restaurants. But if you sojourned in the Motor City without wheels of your own, you may have missed another compelling attraction, Meadow Brook Hall and gardens, 40 minutes north of downtown in a bucolic section of the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

Personal Tragedies & Great Wealth

The 180-room Tudor revival mansion was the home of Alfred and Matilda Dodge Wilson. Her first husband, John Dodge, died in 1920, a victim of the Spanish influenza epidemic, and his younger brother Horace died less than a year later. She became one of the wealthiest women in American when she and her sister-in-law sold the brothers’ automotive business for the equivalent of more than $1.3 billion in today’s dollars.

John left Matilda with three young children, and in 1925, she married wealthy lumber merchant Alfred Wilson. Tragedy continued to stalk her, however. John and Matilda’s young daughter Anna Margaret died the year before her remarriage. In 1938, her only son Daniel died on his honeymoon, when he drowned off Ontario’s Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron.

By then, the Wilsons had built Meadow Brook Hall, now a National Historic Landmark, completed in 1929. Everywhere you look, inside the house and on the grounds, there are details to intrigue and delight the eye and loads of great stories. Once Matilda was surprised by a party, when the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra struck up “Happy Birthday” for her, and a young Frank Sinatra sang.

Meadowbrook Hall

Meadow Brook Hall offers a house tour several times a day—our guide was knowledgeable and talked more about the history than the minutia of decoration which so often bog down tour guides. You also hear about Mrs. Wilson’s significant charitable enterprises, including providing land and funding for the establishment of Oakland University, and her brief stint as Lieutenant Governor of Michigan. The Hall offers a “behind-the-scenes tour,” which includes servant quarters and the attic (I wonder whether you can climb Alfred Wilson’s secret staircase!). Also a walking tour of the estate, woods, and playhouses. The garages hold classic Dodge vehicles from the early 1900s.

Top off your visit with an outdoor concert at the nearby Meadow Brook Amphitheatre.

Books to throw in Your Suitcase

  • Once in a Great City – by David Maraniss, highly readable history of the many facets of Detroit—cultural, racial, economic, political—in 1963
  • The Turner House – by Angela Flournoy, a novel about a large black family as the city of Detroit changes around them. My review.