Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in Historyby George Howe Colt
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G E O R G E H OW E C O L T ’ S The Big House is, as the New Yorker said, “full of surprises and contains more than seems possible: a family memoir, a brief history of the Cape, an investigation of nostalgia, a study of class, and a meditation on the privileges and burdens of the past.” Colt’s new book, Brothers, is an equally idiosyncratic and masterful blend of memoir and history featuring both the author’s three brothers and iconic brothers in history—the Booths, the Van Goghs, the Kelloggs, the Marx Brothers, and the Thoreaus.
Colt believes he would be a different man had he not grown up in a family of four brothers. He movingly recounts the adoration, envy, affection, resentment, and compassion in their shifting relationships from childhood through middle age, also rendering a volatile decade in American life: the 1960s. Some of the Colt men now have children; all have found their own paths; all now consider their brothers to be their closest friends.
In alternate chapters, Colt parallels his quest to understand how his own brothers shaped his life with an examination of the rich and complex relationships between iconic brothers in history. He explores how Edwin Booth grew up to become the greatest actor on the nineteenth-century American stage while his younger brother John grew up to assassinate a president. How Will Kellogg worked for his overbearing older brother John Harvey as a subservient yes-man for two decades until he finally broke free and launched the cereal empire that outlasted all his brother’s enterprises. How Vincent van Gogh would never have survived without the financial and emotional support of his younger brother, Theo, in a claustrophobic relationship that both defined and confined them. How Henry David Thoreau’s life was shadowed by the early death of his older brother, John, who haunted and inspired his writing. And how the Marx Brothers collaborated on the screen but competed offstage for women, money, and fame.
Illuminating and affecting, this book will be revelatory for any parent of sons, any sibling, anyone curious about how a man’s life can be molded by his brothers. Colt’s magnificent book is a testament to the abiding power of fraternal love.
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Read an Excerpt
GOOD BROTHER, BAD BROTHER: EDWIN AND JOHN WILKES BOOTH
In the fall of 1864, with the Civil War well into its fourth year, the attention of most Americans was on Atlanta, where General Sherman, having captured the city, was resting his troops before their march to the sea. The attention of the New York theatrical community, however, was on the Winter Garden, where rehearsals were taking place for a special benefit performance whose proceeds would go toward erecting a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park, the vast public greensward that had opened seven years earlier. The benefit would mark the first time that the celebrated Booth brothers, sons of the late Junius Brutus Booth, would act on the same stage. As the playbill put it, in the overbaked public-relations prose of the time, “The evening will be made memorable by the appearance in the same piece of the three sons of the great Booth, JUNIUS BRUTUS, EDWIN, and JOHN WILKES, ‘filii patri digno digniores,’ Who have come forward with cheerful alacrity to do honor to the immortal bard, from whose works the genius of their father caught its inspiration, and of many of whose greatest creations he was the best and noblest illustrator the stage has ever seen.” In a twist that would pique lovers of irony in the years to come, the brothers had chosen to perform Julius Caesar.
The playbill listed the Booth brothers in descending order of age. Had they been listed in order of renown, as was usually the practice, Edwin would have come first. At thirty, he was widely acclaimed as the greatest American actor of his day, having eclipsed the legendary Edwin Forrest, for whom he had been named. His twenty-six-year-old brother John, however, was not far behind. John’s bombastic, athletic style--it was said that he often slept covered in raw oysters to soothe the bruises earned in overzealous stage fights--was the antithesis of Edwin’s subtle, measured approach. Yet there were theater critics, especially in the South, who believed that John had surpassed his famous brother. Junius, or June, as his family called him, at forty-two the eldest Booth brother by twelve years, was the least well known, a serviceable but uninspired actor who had made his reputation as a theatrical manager in the West. (A fourth brother, Joseph, had inherited neither the Booth talent nor the inclination for the stage; he worked as a messenger boy for Wells Fargo.) Although the brothers looked remarkably similar--variations on their father’s short stature, tousled black hair, and lustrous brown eyes--they were vastly different in temperament. June, who possessed the stolid, well-fed air of a middle-aged banker, was a cautious, practical businessman rumored never to take a chance on an untried actor. Cast against type, he would play Cassius, of the “lean and hungry look”--his father’s role. Edwin was a slender introvert said to suffer stage fright everywhere but on stage. He usually played Cassius, but this time, deferring to his elder brother, took the part of Brutus, the conflicted assassin. John was the darling of the family, a dashing, impetuous bon vivant fond of poetry, poolhalls, and brothels. Although his older brothers tut-tutted over John’s excesses, they couldn’t help being charmed by his boyish enthusiasm. Both June and Edwin considered him their favorite brother. John had shaved his trademark moustache to play the demagogue Mark Antony.
Given the nomadic nature of an actor’s life, there were rarely more than two Booth brothers in the same place at the same time. Yet the brothers were loyal and affectionate, if not intimate. June had helped Edwin get his theatrical start in San Francisco; several years later, Edwin had promoted John’s career in the East, and recently, after June had made some poor real estate investments, Edwin had paid off his brother’s debts and invited him to help manage the Winter Garden. (That this would bring “The Brothers Booth,” as Edwin called them, together for the first time in many years had given him the idea for the benefit.) As always when they came to New York, June and John stayed at Edwin’s house on East 19th street, where their mother, Mary Ann, and their spinster sister, Rosalie, also lived. Yet while the playbill noted the “cheerful alacrity” with which the Booth brothers had volunteered for the benefit, there was growing tension between Edwin and John. Like many families, the Booths were divided by the war. Edwin sided with the North; John was passionately, outspokenly, for the South. Although Edwin disliked conflict of any sort, he was fed up with what he called John’s “patriotic froth,” and tried to reason with his hotheaded younger brother. (June, who shared Edwin’s pro-Union sympathies, acted as peacemaker, observing that the war was like a family quarrel in which both sides would eventually reconcile.) The more desperate the Southern cause, however, the more vitriolic John’s pronouncements. That summer, the fraternal arguments grew so heated that Edwin forbade the discussion of politics in his home. John, for his part, wrote to their sister Asia, “If it were not for mother, I would not enter Edwin’s house.”
Edwin and, for that matter, June, would have been apoplectic had they known that John’s support of the Confederacy was far more than mere “froth.” Indeed, even as they rehearsed the assassination scene in Julius Caesar, John was in the midst of his own elaborate plot: to kidnap Abraham Lincoln, smuggle him south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and exchange him for Rebel prisoners of war. For several months, he had been pouring his earnings as an actor into horses, rifles, knives, field glasses, handcuffs, and other supplies. (It was a busy summer even for the peripatetic John. As he worked on his plans to kidnap Lincoln, he was also dashing back and forth to western Pennsylvania to oversee his oil field investments and staying up late at night to write love letters to a 16-year-old Boston girl, all the while preparing for Julius Caesar.) In any case, the fraternal arguments, as well as John’s plotting, were temporarily suspended in August when John contracted a severe case of erysipelas, a skin infection that in the nineteenth century could be fatal. When John fainted from the pain, June carried him upstairs to bed. It would be three weeks before John, cared for by his mother and his brothers, recovered.
On the night of November 25, 1864, some two thousand people, paying up to $5 a ticket--more than six times the usual price--packed the Winter Garden, the largest audience in its fourteen-year history. “The theatre was crowded to suffocation, people standing in every available place,” Asia recalled. When the brothers made their entrance, side by side in Caesar’s train, they were greeted with an ovation that seemed to shake the building. At the end of the first act they stood in front of the curtain, bowing to the audience, to one another, and, finally, to their 62-year-old mother, who beamed down from a private box as the applause swelled, handkerchiefs waved, and shouts of “Bravo” resounded. (Asia, listening to people around her compare the brothers, heard someone exclaim, “Our Wilkes looks like a young god,” and turned to see a Southerner watching the stage intently.) Even the finicky New York critics were impressed. “Brutus was individualized with great force and distinctness,” wrote a reviewer for the Herald. “Cassius was brought out equally well--and if there was less of real personality given to Marc Antony, the fault was rather in the part than in the actor. . . . He played with a phosphorescent passion and fire, which recalled to old theatregoers the characteristics of the elder Booth.” Indeed, some were of the opinion that the youngest Booth had outshone his brothers. Asia, who respected Edwin but adored John and thus may not have been the most objective witness, observed that “Edwin was nervous; he admired Wilkes and thought that he never beheld a being so perfectly handsome. I think he trembled a little for his own laurels.”
The evening was a critical, familial, and financial success--it would raise $3500 for the statue fund–aside from an unsettling incident at the beginning of Act Two. Soon after the curtain rose on Edwin Booth, as Brutus, pacing the orchard before dawn, the audience was startled by several firemen who rushed into the Winter Garden lobby shouting “Fire!” People stood in confusion; some scrambled toward the exits. Panic threatened until Edwin walked to the footlights and in a quiet but firm voice announced that there was nothing to fear; the fire, in the hotel next door, was under control. People returned to their seats, the hubbub subsided, and the play went on.
The following morning, over breakfast at Edwin’s, the brothers read in the Herald that the fire had been one of more than twenty set in Manhattan hotels the previous evening by Confederate saboteurs in “a vast and fiendish plot to burn the city.” June was outraged; a former member of the Committee of Vigilance, the notorious renegade group that employed kidnapping and lynching to bring frontier justice to San Francisco, he said that the arsonists should be hanged in a public square. John defended the fires as a reasonable response to the devastation General Sherman was exacting on his march through Georgia. Edwin took this moment to tell his brothers that he had cast his ballot for Lincoln in the recent election--the first time he had ever voted. John, increasingly agitated, told Edwin that he’d regret his vote when Lincoln made the United States a monarchy and had himself crowned king. Edwin told John that he was not welcome in his home if he was going to express such treasonous sentiments.
That afternoon, the brothers parted. Edwin and June headed to the Winter Garden, where Edwin would perform the first of what became the legendary hundred night-run as Hamlet that would establish him as the country’s greatest Shakespearean actor. John returned to Washington, where he took a room in the National Hotel and began to recruit more Rebel sympathizers for his plot to kidnap the president. Although the brothers had agreed on a second benefit performance of Julius Caesar, scheduled for April 22, 1865, circumstances would conspire to keep that event from taking place.
Like many children, I was fascinated by the War Between the States. For my ninth birthday, my parents gave me The Golden Book of the Civil War, which I spent much of the next year poring over, its maps of the major battles illustrated with platoons of tiny, meticulously-painted soldiers positioned with historical accuracy on olive-green fields. For Christmas I was given a plastic replica of a Civil War cannon whose tennis-ball-sized ordnance I fired at Ned’s legs. That spring, when we visited our grandparents in Virginia, I spent several weeks of saved allowance on a Union forage cap that I wore as Ned and I reenacted the Civil War in the fields behind our grandparents’ house, whose bricks were pocked with real bullet holes made by real Union rifles. Ned, of course, played Johnny Reb to my Billy Yank, for while I secretly admired the South’s audacity and was intoxicated by the romantic scent of defeat that even in the 1960s seemed to linger in the sultry air, I was too much the good boy to be anything other than a Union man.
I was fascinated by the Civil War for the same reasons boys are fascinated by any war--my interest in this case no doubt deepened by my interest in the Civil Rights struggle unfolding on our television set exactly one hundred years later--but I found something especially intriguing in a conflict so frequently described as pitting “brother against brother” at a time when my own life could have been summarized by the same words. That the phrase was meant not only figuratively but literally seemed incredible to me; despite my fraternal skirmishes, I found it shocking (and titillating) that brothers from the same family had fought on opposite sides of the war, in some cases in the same battle. The war’s association with brothers was reinforced when I read my parents’ coffee-table volume about Lincoln and learned that his assassin, the perpetrator of the most reviled act in American history, had an older brother who had become America’s most admired actor. How could two brothers grow up in the same family and end up so differently? Could something like that happen to my brothers and me?
History is full of brothers so different that it seems impossible they could have the same parents--beginning, of course, with Cain and Abel. A brief sampling through the ages might include the Arouets (Armand was a sanctimonious, evangelical Catholic, whereas younger brother François--better known by his penname, Voltaire--was a witty, irreverent satirist and a savage critic of the Catholic Church); the Robespierres (Maximilien became the rigid, merciless overlord of the Reign of Terror, known to supporters as “the Incorruptible,” whereas younger brother Augustin became a self-indulgent lover of luxury known to friends as “Bon Bon”); the Melvilles (Gansevoort became a dutiful, responsible lawyer, whereas younger brother Herman became a world traveler and iconoclastic writer known to his family as “the runaway brother”); the Carters (sober and pious Jimmy became president, whereas younger brother Billy played the court jester and drunken buffoon); the Newtons (Walter became a street hustler, Melvin a professor of sociology, and youngest brother Huey--torn between fraternal poles--a book-loving, poetry-quoting, street-fighting, home-burgling co-founder of the Black Panther Party.) Brothers can end up on opposite sides of a war, like James Campbell, a South Carolina clerk who joined the Confederate militia, and his younger brother Alexander, a New York City stonecutter who enlisted in the Union infantry. (Without knowing it at the time, the brothers, who corresponded affectionately throughout the war, fought against each other at the battle of Secessionville in 1862.) Brothers may end up on opposite sides of a moral issue, like John Brown, the cynical, hard-drinking Rhode Island profiteer who became one of the country’s wealthiest slave traders while his idealistic, abstemious younger brother Moses became a leading Quaker abolitionist. Brothers not infrequently end up on opposite sides of the law, like Whitey Bulger, the most powerful Massachusetts gangster of the late-twentieth century, and his younger brother Billy, the most powerful Massachusetts politician of that same era.
How can siblings, who share so much genetically and environmentally, be so different? Are they, underneath, so different after all? When I suggested that Whitey and Billy Bulger constituted a contemporary version of Cain and Abel, a biographer of theirs, pointing out that both men were megalomaniacs who ruthlessly abused their power, quickly corrected me: “Cain and Cain,” he said.
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Meet the Author
George Howe Colt is the bestselling author of The Big House, which was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times notable book of the year, and November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide. He lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, Anne Fadiman, and their two children.
- Whately, Massachusetts
- Place of Birth:
- El Paso, Texas
- B.A., Harvard University, 1976; M.A., Johns Hopkins University, 1978
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