Where the Money Is

The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace, published by Three Rivers Press, © 2009. Originally published by Crown Publishers, © 1994.B Billionaire's Vinegar.jpg

On 5 December 1985 Kip Forbes, son of Malcolm Forbes, acting as his father’s agent, sat in Christie’s London auction room waiting to bid on a 1787 bottle of Chateau Lafite, supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the U.S. Forbes had intended to bid no more than £5000 for the bottle but when the bidding ended and the dust settled, he had set the price record for a single bottle of wine; tendering £105,000 or about $156,000 at the then current exchange rates.

Almost from the beginning the wine’s authenticity was questioned. The place it was discovered and how many bottles were found at the site has never been fully or satisfactorily revealed. Students of Jefferson could not find any conclusive proof that the former president ever possessed this wine; important because Jefferson catalogued and inventoried everything. Dating techniques were unable to assign a definitive date except give it a range of somewhere between 50 to 200 years old. The engraving on the bottle was certified old, and new by different experts.  The wine, when opened, actually a different bottle from the same Jeffersonian lot, was delicious; a very rare occurrence for a 200-year-old bottle of red wine.

The Billionaire’s Vinegar is the story of this suspect bottle of wine, and the exclusive club of people who are connected with it. Benjamin Wallace tells this tale of mystery and intrigue through the use of short vignettes and biographies of those involved, much as if he were writing a series of magazine articles; not surprising since that is what he does for a living: write magazine articles.  He presents the evidence that exists in excruciating detail, but it is not enough to truly settle the debate, although he convincingly posits that the whole affair was a con.

When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks he replied, supposedly, “because that’s where the money is”.  The rare and old wine market is an expensive hobby, open only to those whose pockets are deep and full.  Always an attraction for those dissatisfied with their shallow and empty pockets.

Paul Revere

Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer, published by Oxford University Press, © B Paul Revere1994.

American grade schoolers are taught, are told, that Paul Revere, in the cold, wee hours of 19 April 1775, galloped fiercely through the countryside west of Boston, taking the back roads connecting the small hamlets of Lexington and Concord, yelling at the top of his lungs, “The British are coming”; a story that has passed down through the generations since the Revolutionary War. Dramatic in the telling, yes, correct, not so much. The truth of what happened that night is no less dramatic, extraordinarily dramatic in fact, considering that the American rebels went up against the greatest army and navy on the planet during the latter half of the 18th century, and triumphed.

Warning the Boston countryside of the imminent arrival of British Regulars was not a spontaneous reaction, by the patriot Paul Revere, but a well planned counteraction, with the main details worked out well in advance of the Redcoats march towards Lexington and Concord. Alerted by a Boston stable boy, who revealed that the British officers, in the late afternoon of 18 April 1775, were preparing their horses for a march; the pre-arranged lamp signal, one if by land, two if by sea,  was lit in the tall steeple of Christ Church, tipping-off the rebels that the British were going to take the shorter water route to Concord. This set off a cascading series of events that put into motion upwards to sixty patriots charging through the Boston countryside, alerting and assembling the Minuteman army, warning John Hancock and John Adams of their imminent arrest and hiding rebel assets.

The years preceding the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776 saw a significant percentage of self-government seeking colonists locked in a high stakes match of wills with King George III and the British, specifically, the Massachusetts headquartered, Lieutenant-General Thomas Gage, chief of British forces in America and as such the most powerful man in the colonies: General Gage, likely understanding the game being played, resisted brandishing the sword to the very end, when events spiraled out of his control forever in the spring of 1775.

The independence minded colonists, the Whigs, mainly operating from the greater Boston area, resisting the British rule at every turn, prodding them to be the first to use excessive violence against the colonists, to draw enough blood and take sufficient lives that it would light the fuse of war.  The Boston Massacre of 5 March 1970 almost lit that fuse, but the Whigs were not ready for war, they lacked organization, men, materials and most important of all, a plurality of support from the population.  John Hancock, Sam Adams and Paul Revere tamped down the populace’s anger after this event, dampened the fuse of war to await a more felicitous time and place: Concord and Lexington, 19 April 1775.

David Hackett Fischer, currently University Professor and Earl Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University, has written a meticulously researched account of the days leading up to the battles of Concord and Lexington, and the subsequent battle for the hearts and minds of the colonists and British alike; delving into American and British military depositions, pension applications, claims of damages, Thomas Gage, Paul Revere, and other participants’ personal papers, American and British government documents, newspapers, terrain studies, Boston association members, local histories, histories of histories, family trees, weather, tides, phases of the moon; a seemingly inexhaustible list of sources that the author combines into an enjoyable, detailed narrative, in places a bit slow, but always interesting, of the early spring days of 1775 that laid the foundation for the United States of America.

On the Edge

The Winter Soldiers by Richard M. Ketchum, published by Doubleday, © B Winter Solder1973.

The short, bitterly cold, beginning days of December 1776 were precarious and demoralizing times for the American rebel army.  The heady days of victory over the British at Concord and Lexington by an improvised and ragtag American militia, were all but forgotten with the landing of 30,000 British and Hessian troops, 10,000 British sailors aboard 300 supply ships and 30 battleships, into the New York during the month of July 1776, necessitating General George Washington and his army to retreat to White Plains, quickly followed by successive calamities: defeats at Fort Washington and Fort Lee, the duplicity of General Lee, and further retreats towards Philadelphia; draining the spirit and potential from the nascent revolution; with the civilian militia counting down their days of enlistment, forewarning the ghosting of the army to a mere shadow of itself on New Years day 1777.

Ketchum’s The Winter Soldiers chronicles these early days of the American Revolution, revolving around maddening prospects of the rebel’s embryonic cause and fight, his narrative mirroring and illustrating the first two sentences in Thomas Paine’s, The American Crises (Number 1) pamphlet; read to George Washington’s troops on 23 December 1776, days before the Battles of Trenton and Princeton:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God…

Ketchum’s story is the history of early events in the American Revolutionary War, a history of its armies, a history of its actions and reactions, a history of its participants: George III, General Howe, Admiral Howe, General Washington, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, Charles Lee, winners, losers, ambitious men, gentlemen, moral men and scoundrels, above all, a story of grit, guts and gall.

Human Nature Yesterday

The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbrid51c32nyzebl-_sx330_bo1204203200_ge; published by HarperCollins Publishers copyright © 2010.

In 1095 AD, the high middle ages, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus of Constantinople asked the Latin Pope Urban II for assistance in recovering parts of Asia Minor lost to the Seljuk Turks. The Pope responded, with less than altruistic motives towards his eastern Christian cousins, by embroiling western Europe and the Levant in 200 years of war which eventually became known as the Crusades.

Thomas Asbridge presents a compelling history of Christian struggles to seize control of the holy land from the Muslims, thus reviving the Islamic concept of jihad, while attempting to answer the questions of how these battles of conquest and religion reverberate through western history into our modern times.  Interesting enough Asbridge suggests that the crusades “belong in  the past” and inferences to todays apparent sequels are “misguided”.

This is a excellent and thoroughly researched march through the 11th and 12th centuries of western Europe and the Levant, bringing alive names of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin and others that Sir Walter Scott so richly romanticized in his historical 19th century novels, Ivanhoe and The Talisman.  The Crusades is a fast paced read with sufficient twists and turns in the narrative that you may suspect that this is a movie screenplay rather than a history.  This is a great read. Well worth your time.

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