Marra, the Movies, American History, and Irony

The history of the United States is filled with contradictions and ironies. I am reminded of them often. The latest reminder comes from a novel, Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra, also author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno.

Mercury Pictures, a minor Hollywood film studio, is struggling to survive in the summer 1941. Art Feldman, its head, is making a movie about the propaganda successes of fascism, but censors want to gut the work because the film, still in the days of America First isolationism, is encouraging the country to get involved in the European war. Riots ensue when it is shown on December 6, but, of course, the picture is a hit the next day. Not much subaudition is necessary to grasp the irony–seeing the need to thwart Hitler was deemed un-American before the Pearl Harbor bombs, and Marra reminds us that the epithet “a premature antifascist” would be uttered without apparent irony for decades after the war’s conclusion. (And, of course, the term antifascist has not disappeared as an epithet.)

          Mercury Pictures also presents a sample of the fraught world of Chinese Americans during that time. Henry Lu, a native Los Angeleno, is an actor who can only get movie work playing Japanese villains, and, even though Japan had brutally invaded China in the 1930s, Lu, like others of Chinese descent in America, was in constant danger from “real” Americans who might mistake him for a Japanese national once we entered the war. (I remember a newsreel I saw as a kid that was shot shortly after Pearl Harbor. An Asian man had pinned to his shirt a sign that said, “I am Chinese and a loyal American.” It made me feel sad and reminded me of a different newsreel from Germany where people stood being mocked and abused with placards hanging from their necks reading, “I am a dirty Jew.”)

          Marra does mention the irony of the United States rounding up citizens to put them in places that had more than a whiff of concentration camps, and that many other Americans benefited from the internments by taking the well-tended farms and other lands of the Japanese Americans. But long before the removals of the Japanese Americans, many American states made no distinction between the Chinese and Japanese in forbidding Asian non-citizens from owning land. While many may know that the Supreme Court upheld the internment of Japanese Americans, two decades before Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld Washington state’s Alien Land Law, which prohibited Asians from owning property. Only after World War II, perhaps as a result of fighting the Nazis but perhaps also because our Cold War enemy struck propaganda gold in pointing out our racial hypocrisies, did property restrictions start to fade, although I have read that the Washington Alien Land Law was in effect until 1966.

          Mercury Pictures Presents shows America getting into its own propaganda business after it entered the war, but at least at the beginning, the war mongers had their standards and proclaimed that only real combat footage would be used. They quickly learned that the results often seemed to lack verisimilitude and soon began to weave together combat films with reenactments to produce a result that seemed real for the audiences. And, of course, the flag raising at Iwo Jima came to mind.

          Through the character of Maria Lagana, Marra presents another irony of American history. Lagana was born in Rome where her father was a leftist lawyer opposing the emerging fascist government. He is convicted of subversive crimes and sentenced to confino. He is sent to a remote town where he is not imprisoned behind bars but is confined to a small geographic space. He can move around this limited area, but he cannot leave it, much like a dog in a yard with an invisible fence. While he is confined, Maria and her mother escape from Italy and settle in Los Angeles where Maria eventually becomes an important figure in Mercury Pictures. Although by the time America enters the war Maria has spent most of her life in California and is a loyal American, she is classified as an enemy alien. I had not known that one of the consequences of such a designation was that Maria could not travel beyond five miles from her residence. She, who had fled Mussolini, was confined just as her father was for opposing Mussolini.

          While Lagana may have been a fictional character, she represents a major irony of the Hollywood studios of the era. While the films they produced helped define America and Americanism to America and the world, many of the major studio figures were refugees from the tyrannies of Europe who would become “enemy aliens” when we entered the war. One of them in the novel was a Berlin-born woman who built miniatures for the movies. She is sent to the Utah desert to help with a project I had not heard of before but was real. [While often I do not know whether to trust the history depicted in a work of historical fiction, I trust Marra in Mercury Pictures Presents. Besides the usual acknowledgements, Marra also presents a bibliography of three or four dozen history books, as well as other material, he used to form his narrative.] On the Dugway Proving Grounds, the Army built a simulation of a Berlin neighborhood as accurately as it could in order to test out the best way to start a firestorm in the German city. According to us, we were fighting a moral war against evil, but we sometimes used morally questionable methods to fight the war, and that included firebombing civilians. The proposed bombing of Berlin had additional ironies; the plan was to decimate a working-class neighborhood because the buildings were closer together there than in middle- and upper-class sections of the city even though the targeted neighborhood had been one of leftists who had opposed the rise of Hitler. I don’t think we ever did firebomb the Prussian capital, but we did firebomb Dresden, as Kurt Vonnegut described in Slaughterhouse Five. And before the atomic bombs, we had firebombed Tokyo, with its highly flammable structures, killing an estimated 100,000 civilians. (Malcom Gladwell in The Bomber Mafia presents some of the World War II debates about the morality of different bombing strategies.)

(continued November 30)

First Sentences

“There was a time when the world’s largest airport sat in the middle of western Pacific, around 1,500 miles from the coast of Japan, on one of a cluster of small tropical islands known as the Marianas.” Malcolm Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia.

“In those days, I was the one who came down from Nazareth to be baptized by John in the River Jordan.” Norman Mailer, The Gospel According to the Son.

“In the U.S. elections of 1834, the balance of power in Congress was up for grabs, and the tide was turning against President Andrew Jackson.” Mark Clague, O Say Can You Hear? A Cultural Biography of The Star-Spangled Banner.

“Have you ever seen a town fall?” Fredrik Backman, Us Against You.

“To understand a civilization, consider its heroes.” David Gelles, The Man Who Broke Capitalism: How Jack Welch Gutted the Heartland and Crushed the Soul of Corporate America—and How to Undo His Legacy.

“Otto Burke, the Wizard of Schmoose, raised his game another level.” Harlan Coben, Deal Breaker.

“Of the many times John C.Frémont visited St. Louis, the most auspicious came in 1845.” Steve Inskeep, Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War.

“Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds.” Percival Everett, The Trees.

“Throughout the spring morning of April 14, 1876, a huge crowd, largely African American began to assemble in the vicinity of Seventh and K Streets in Washington, D.C.” David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

“Mike always teased me about my memory, about how I could go back years and years to what people were wearing on a given occasion, right down to their jewelry or shoes.” Ann Packer, The Dive From Clausen’s Pier.

“In the winter of 1921, Knud Rasmussen invited about one hundred of Copenhagen’s eminent citizens—politicians, artists, journalists and business leaders—to join him at the city’s prestigious Palace hotel for a special dinner.” Stephen R. Brown, White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen’s Fearless Journey into the Heart of Arctic.

“Like a beast, the net came steaming up the ramp and into the sodium lamps of the trawl deck.” Martin Cruz Smith, Polar Star.

“The first thing I need to do is convince you something has changed.” Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized.

“That winter was the warmest in a hundred years.” Robert Stone, Outerbridge Reach.

“Legend tells us that the gerrymander originated in early nineteenth-century Massachusetts.” Nick Seabrook, One Person, One Vote: A Surprising History of Gerrymandering in America.

First Sentences

“I sometimes think of the Supreme Court oral arguments in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt on March 2, 2016, as the last truly great day for women and the legal system in America.” Dahlia Lithwick, Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America.

“I hear the crack of his skull before the spattering of blood reaches me.” Colleen Hoover, Verity.

“No one knows where America’s Northern Border begins.” Porter Fox, Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border.

“The coastal steamer attends faithfully to its course, slipping down the middle of the fjord between the mountains, taking its bearings from the stars and peaks and arriving on schedule at Óseyri in Axlarfjörður, its horn blasting through the blowing snow. In the first-class smokers’ lounge, two smartly dressed travelers from Reykjavík are discussing the village’s faint gleams of light.” Halldór Laxness, Salka Valka.


“In this soundless film, it is winter in Arkansas.” Sridhar Pappu, The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age.

“Mrs Palfrey first came to the Claremont Hotel on a Sunday afternoon in January.” Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

“In the weeks following the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, a group of Chinese executives traveled to Los Angeles for a crash course in influence.” Erich Schwartzell, Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy.

“When Cal comes out of the house, the rooks have got hold of something.” Tana French, The Searcher.

“As a little boy, lying in his bed, my father would hear the planes overhead.” Malcolm Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia.

“It was an unmarked car, just some nondescript American sedan a few years old, but the blackwall tires and the three men inside gave it away for what it was.” Stephen King, The Outsider.

“The results of Wisconsin’s 2018 election had to be seen to be believed.” Nick Seabrook, One Person, One Vote: A Surprising History of Gerrymandering in America.

“Brown Dog drifted away thinking of the village in the forest where the red-haired girl lived.” Jim Harrison, Brown Dog Redux.

“The sun that rose for the rest of the world that morning was not the one that rose for Lanah Sawyer.” John Wood Sweet, The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America.

She Introduced Me to Tom Reiss

I told the literary agent how much I had enjoyed a recent book by one of the authors she represents. I should have added that at least four of my friends had also raved about The Bomber Mafia. This was not just cocktail chatter sucking up to an attractive woman. In the past I have also told her that I did not particularly like one of her author’s books. In that case, though, I had to concede that the rest of my history book group (reading yet another book about Lincoln) liked it very much.

The agent and I both have “cottages” in the same summer community. I first became aware of her a decade ago when she was instrumental in bringing Tom Reiss to the community to talk about his then-recent book, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. I have told the agent that I admire that biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who was the son of a French nobleman and a Haitian slave and who was the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of the Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Reiss not only presented a fascinating portrait of this biracial man who became a French general during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, he taught me a lot about the French and Haitian racial relationships. The Pulitzer Prize the book garnered was deserved.

After Reiss talked, I went to have my copy signed and mentioned something that was in the acknowledgements—I think it was a comment about his mother. He seemed genuinely surprised that anyone had read that section of the book. I felt a bit embarrassed to say that I was OCD enough to always at least skim the acknowledgements to see if I recognized any names. The author wrote a nice inscription, which included a comment about my thorough reading, and signed with a legible signature.

Sadly, I no longer have the book. A young woman who was pulling beers at my local Brooklyn biergarten was named Dumas, with the “s” pronounced. I gave her the book telling her she could learn about her ancestors. On the other hand, I was quite confident that the family of this Ivy League graduate from upper crust Charleston society was unlikely to have a biracial identity. Shortly afterwards, my barkeep Dumas moved on, and I never saw her or the book again. But I digress.

At this recent cocktail party, I asked the agent if she had book recommendations. She said that I might like an earlier book by Tom Reiss, The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life. I had never heard of this biography but set out to read it. Instead of having my local bookstore get it for me, I borrowed it as an e-book from the New York Public Library. (I felt a little guilty about that. I don’t know how these things work, but I assume there are no royalties for the author or his agent when I download a book from the library.)

The Orientalist is a biography of Lev Nussimbaum, but in the book Reiss also recounts his own search to discover the facts of his subject’s life. During his research, Reiss encountered a coterie of colorful characters, often of suspect veracity. Even after Reiss’s extensive research (its copiousness astounded me), much about Nussimbaum remains murky or disputed. However, it does seem clear that Lev was born in 1905 to a Jewish family and was raised in Baku, Azerbaijan, by an oil-rich father after his mother committed suicide when Lev was five. Father and son fled Baku permanently when the Soviet Union annexed Azerbaijan in 1920.

Nussimbaum, who died in Italy at age 36 during WWII, claims to have converted to Islam (the where, when, and even the if of that is disputed). Nevertheless, he is known to have adopted the persona of a Muslim prince and wrote a truly amazing number of books and articles about a wide range of topics under the name of Essad Bey. Many of the books were best sellers. (The accuracy of much of what he wrote is now disputed.) These books are mostly forgotten, but Nussimbaum still fascinates because, according to Reiss, he wrote (under the pseudonym Kurban Said) what is considered a classic of world literature, the novel Ali and Nino. The authorship of the novel is disputed in some circles, but I thought Reiss was convincing in concluding that Kurban Said was Essad Bey who was Lev Nussimbaum.

I learned much from Reiss’s book. I had known little about the world in and around Baku in the aftermath of World War I.  

The Orientalist also reminded me why I have not become the book writer I thought I wanted to be. I am the author or co-author of several books about the law.  A commonality in those books was that I was asked to do them—by a university press, by a co-author, or by an organization. There were other books that I thought I could write if only someone had asked me to write them. Alas, that is not how book publishing works. I did not care enough about any of the topics to drive me to do the months or years of work to put a book proposal together in hopes that a publisher would find it of interest. Such a proposal requires extensive research and a precis of the completed work. The agent told me that a good part of her job was helping the author to shape such a  proposal, which may be forty pages long. The agent also told me that a writer has to be obsessed to do this, and it was clear that Tom Reiss had been obsessed about finding every possible nugget of information about Lev Nussimbaum. I have never had a comparable obsession, and thus, while I have written many law review articles that I knew I could get published, the book portion of the CV is scanty. (However, one of my books still appears to be in print. You could buy it and swell my royalties, which sometimes break the three-figure level in a year.)

Reiss’s book, however, also gave me the pleasure of discovering Ali and Nino, which I again got as a New York Public Library e-book, this time without any guilt since I knew no one involved with it. It is a love story of a Moslem man of Persian ancestry and a Georgian Orthodox Christian young woman set in Baku in the waning days of World War I and its aftermath. There are good reasons for its being regarded as a classic. It was marvelous.

The agent also suggested that I might like a new book by an author she represents, Dahlia Lithwick’s Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America. I bought a copy from my local bookstore, but for now I don’t feel like writing about it. It left me depressed.