One Summer: America, 1927

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Overview

A Chicago Tribune Noteworthy Book
A GoodReads Reader's Choice

The summer of 1927 began with Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Babe Ruth was closing in on the home run record. In Newark, New Jersey, Alvin ?Shipwreck? Kelly sat atop a flagpole for twelve days, and in Chicago, the gangster Al Capone was tightening his grip on bootlegging. The first true ?talking picture,? Al Jolson?s The Jazz ...

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Overview

A Chicago Tribune Noteworthy Book
A GoodReads Reader's Choice

The summer of 1927 began with Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Babe Ruth was closing in on the home run record. In Newark, New Jersey, Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sat atop a flagpole for twelve days, and in Chicago, the gangster Al Capone was tightening his grip on bootlegging. The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed, forever changing the motion picture industry.
        All this and much, much more transpired in the year Americans attempted and accomplished outsized things—and when the twentieth century truly became the American century. One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

By now, readers know that in the hands of Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods; At Home), subjects come alive. In his latest lively gambit, this former Midwesterner rejuvenates the American summer of 1927, a season we obviously should have never lost. He populates this bustling age with notables including Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, and Herbert Hoover, but also with walk-ons eccentrics, authors, and actors. To put it simply, One Summer is one festive read, a signature Bryson reminder that, rightly told, history brims with interest.

The New York Times Book Review - Kevin Baker
…Bryson writes in a style as effervescent as the time itself…a wonderful romp…Bryson is best at deflating our nostalgia for the era, even as he upholds its importance.
Publishers Weekly
“People in 1920s America were unusually drawn to spectacle,” states Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything) in his prologue—an unusual claim that his latest, a sprawling account of a brief period in a singular year in that decade, seems to want to substantiate. Whether or not the claim is objectively true, Bryson himself is captivated by the events of summer, 1927. And why not? They included Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight over the Atlantic, Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, Gutzon Borglum’s start on the sculpting of Mt. Rushmore, the Dempsey-Carpentier fight, and Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs—all of which Bryson covers in characteristically sparkling prose. These notable happenings are worth relating and recalling, but others have done so, and more authoritatively and fully. Here, there’s not much connection between them; a string of coincidents (and there are many of those each day) hardly justify a book. So this isn’t history, nor is it really a story with a start, finish, and thematic spine. No analysis, only narrative—it’s diverting but slight. (Oct.)
Library Journal
09/01/2013
The summer of 1927 offers the prolific Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything) a prepared canvas on which to paint a narrative of well-known, unknown, and little-known events and personalities of the Twenties. Loosely organized around three summer months that included, among many other things, major developments surrounding figures in aviation (Charles Lindbergh), baseball (Babe Ruth), boxing (Gene Tunney), criminal justice (Al Capone; Sacco and Vanzetti), and politics (Calvin Coolidge's "I do not choose to run" statement), Bryson's stories range back and forth into the rest of the decade and the era more broadly. The book's strength is in showing the overlap of significant events and the interaction of personalities. But the author's approach keeps the reader from gaining a real sense of the landscape; this is more a spatter painting. Scores of characters, both major and minor, come and go. Some return; others don't. The well-known story of Lindbergh's ambitious flight and its aftermath is one of the few consistent threads that can be followed in this free-for-all. Frederick Lewis Allen's 1931 narrative history of the decade, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, remains the classic that this volume can only aspire to match. VERDICT Most likely to appeal to Bryson fans and popular history buffs. [See Prepub Alert, 4/22/13.]—Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato
Kirkus Reviews
A popular chronicler of life and lore vividly charts a particularly pivotal season in American history. Bryson (At Home: A Short History of Private Life, 2010, etc.) reanimates the events and principal players across five key months in 1927. He establishes an early-20th-century, trial-and-error chronology of aviation evolution cresting with Charles Lindbergh, a lean man with a dream, natural-born skills and the unparalleled motivation to design an aircraft capable of traversing the Atlantic. Braided into Lindbergh's saga are profiles of cultural icons like ambitious "colossus" Herbert Hoover, famed gangster Al Capone, and baseball players Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, whose domination of America's "National Game" captured the country's attention. Recounted with brio and diligent detailing yet perhaps lacking the author's better-known witty dynamism, Bryson honorably captures the spirit of the era, a golden age of newspapers, skyscrapers, patriotism, Broadway plays and baseball. The author enthusiastically draws on the heroic lives of tight-lipped President Calvin Coolidge and boxing great Jack Dempsey and artfully interweaves into Lindbergh's meteoric rise the pitfalls of Prohibition, the splendor of Henry Ford's Model T (and the horrors of constructing "Fordlandia" in the Amazon rain forest), the demise of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, and a noteworthy comparison between popular long-standing authors Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Collectively, what Bryson offers is a creatively written regeneration of historical facts; the revelations, while few, appear in the form of eccentric personal factoids (i.e., Coolidge liked his head rubbed with Vaseline, Grey was excessively libidinous) demarcating that scrutinized summer of dreamers and innovators. While he may be an expatriate residing in England, Bryson's American pride saturates this rewarding book. A distinctively drawn time capsule from a definitive epoch.
From the Publisher
“Rollicking, immensely readable. . . . [Bryson’s] subject isn't really a year. It’s human nature in all its odd and amazing array.” —Chicago Tribune

“A wonderful romp . . . . Fascinating. . . . Written in a style as effervescent as the time itself.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Addictively readable.” —The Wall Street Journal
 
“Entertaining. . . . Splendid. . . . Sure to delight.” —Newsday
 
“Marvelous.” —The Huffington Post

“Bill Bryson recounts a remarkable period in America’s passage. . . . [One Summer] captures that fabulous summer—indeed, the entire era—in tone and timbre.” —The Boston Globe

“A lively account of 1927’s events and its cast of characters, both well known and long forgotten. . . . [Bryson] has a keen eye for amusing and arresting tidbits of information.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“The best kind of general-interest book: fun, interesting, and something to learn on every page.” —The Christian Science Monitor

 “Breezily written, conversational and humorous. . . . [Bryson is] a gifted raconteur.” —The Guardian (London)

“Bryson is a marvelous historian, not only exhaustively accurate, but highly entertaining. If you avoid textbook histories because they seem too dry, pick up One Summer, or any other of Mr. Bryson’s books. They are intelligent delights.” —The Huffington Post

“An entertaining tour through a year of Jazz Age scandal and baseball heroics. . . . Bryson will set you right in this canter through one summer of one year that—once you’ve turned the final page—will seem more critical to American history than you might have reckoned before.” —Financial Times

One Summer covers an enormous cast of characters that are deeply researched and rendered to entertain. . . . [Bryson] finds the strange trivia and surprising little coincidences that make history fun, and his breezy style and running commentary make for an enjoyable read.” —The Miami Herald

“Exuberant. . . . [Bryson] propels his story forward with enviable skill and inexhaustible verve.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)

“Per usual, Bryson writes prose as lucid as a pane of glass. . . . A fun walk through the summer of 1927, with all its zaniness.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Has history ever been so enjoyable? . . . Bill Bryson is a true master of popular narrative. . . . With this book, he proves once again that he is able to juggle any number of different balls . . . and create spellbinding patterns while never letting a single one drop. He is wonderfully adept at the nutshell portrait: indeed, he treats the nutshell like a ballroom, conveying a vast amount in a tiny number of words.” —Daily Mail

The Barnes & Noble Review

Bill Bryson's books — travel, memoir, historical and scientific compendiums — share three characteristics: They are witty; they show a connoisseur's pleasure in the audacious and the crackpot; and they tend to proceed through networks of free association and coincidence. They are also marked by a mood of joy and acerbity I find especially engaging. All of these are again on display in One Summer: America, 1927, a title, you will notice, that dispenses with the marketer's nostrum "That Changed the World," though the summer in question did in fact change it — as did, of course, every summer before and to come. Still, this particular summer is exceptionally good to write about, not only for its celebrated events but also because it comes in the last half of the 1920s, a decade that is, as Bryson declares, "in many ways the most strange and wondrous...in American history."

In the first place, that summer, like the decade as a whole, was stamped by the corrosive effects of Prohibition: "At one stroke it shut down the fifth-largest industry in America. It took some $2 billion a year out of the hands of legitimate interests and put it in the hands of murderous thugs. It made criminals of honest people and actually led to an increase in drinking in the country." As to specific events, the summer of 1927 witnessed what can be justly described as mass hysteria over Charles Lindbergh's solo flight from Long Island to Paris and to a lesser, though still fanatical extent, the Dempsey-Tunney fight, Babe Ruth's sixtieth home run, the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and, very weirdly, the so- called Sash Weight Murder Case, the bludgeoning and garroting to death of a man called Albert Snyder by his wife, Ruth, and her lover, Judd Gray. Only unstoppable press and radio momentum can explain the violent interest taken in this murder, for, as Bryson observes, there were "[p]lenty of other, better murders...available to excite attention that year."

It was also the summer (and spring) of the Great Mississippi Flood, a catastrophic deluge that submerged over 16.5 million acres across ten states. Though it had a devastating impact on hundreds of thousands of people and far-reaching historical consequences for the entire country, it just didn't provide the right sort of spectacle for mass consumption, not least because those most affected were poor and mostly black. "It is a shocking fact," writes Bryson, "that a closer count was kept of livestock losses than of human ones. It is perhaps only slightly less shocking to note that outside the affected areas the flood received less coverage on most days than the murder trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray."

Still, the limelight rarely strayed from one actor in this tragedy, and that was Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, a man whose talent for organization was surpassed only by his gift for self- promotion. His administration of flood relief, combined with his relentless touting of his achievements, real and asserted, made him — as he admitted himself — a shoo-in for the presidency. Happily, there would be an opening, for that was also the summer Calvin Coolidge, attended by some baffling hugger-mugger, released the gnomic statement "I do not choose to run." Bryson makes a most entertaining meal of both Hoover ("dazzlingly short on endearing qualities") and Coolidge, who could not stand the former, calling him Wonder Boy. Where Hoover never stopped, Coolidge, according to Bryson, worked no more than four and a half hours a day and was given to naps. ("When not napping, he often sat with his feet in an open desk drawer...and counted cars passing on Pennsylvania Avenue.") Unlike Hoover, Silent Cal did have a sense of humor, even if it was, in Bryson's words, "that of a slightly backward schoolboy — one of his favorite japes was to ring all the White House servant bells at once, then hide behind the drapes to savor the confusion that followed."

Bryson has enriched these pages with many other mischievous sketches of great and not-so-great historical figures and ornamented them with oddball facts. He begins one chapter with an especially pleasing one: "Of all the figures who rose to prominence in the 1920s in America, none had a more pugnacious manner, finer head of hair, or more memorable name than Kenesaw Mountain Landis." He goes on to note that John Reed described the adamantine judge "as having 'the face of Andrew Jackson three years dead" and explains that Landis got his curious name as a commemorative gesture on the part of his father, who had lost a leg in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain during the Civil War.

Many of the events of that spring and summer represented only the seeds of things to come: A crude version of television was first demonstrated to the press, the first image broadcast being none other than Herbert Hoover's self-satisfied mug. Later, Philo T. Farnsworth, "the greatest inventor of whom most people have never heard," filed his first patent for the television technology that eventually triumphed, though credit (and profit) was seized by an overweening RCA. This melancholy story strays into the years following, but Bryson delivers it briskly in all its perfidy. That summer, too, set the clock ticking for Al Capone's exit from public service when the Supreme Court ruled that those who profited through illegal activities could be prosecuted for tax evasion. Another, greater downfall was set into motion when the Federal Reserve reduced the discount rate from 4.0 to 3.5 percent, thus further inflating the stock market bubble whose collapse ushered in the Great Depression.

Other events, were, all unknown, swan songs: the silent movie Wings, a masterpiece of innovative cinematography was one such. It appeared in August, but two months later, the silent era was dealt its death blow with the release of The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length talking picture. The newspapers, which attracted more readers than ever before that year, began their long, winding exit from relevance, the number of readers declining from then on.

Further, and perhaps more important for the character of the nation, the number and diversity of newspapers themselves began to diminish. This is a point made by Frederick Lewis Allen in his brilliant Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (referred to by Bryson, though not to this end): Big cities began to lose competing papers, and local ones were increasingly gathered into centrally owned chains. Though it is not Bryson's stated intention to show it, his book demonstrates throughout that this is the decade during which mass media and public relations consultants gained a firm hold over public awareness, determining what was important, even what might be said to exist.

This colorful bouquet of popular history is lighthearted for the most part and serves as a seductive introduction to a pivotal decade. Most helpfully, Bryson has backed up each fast-paced chapter with snappy little bibliographic essays to lure the reader into greater and even more astonishing depth.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767919401
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/1/2013
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 26,746
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.48 (d)

Meet the Author

Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s bestselling books include A Walk in the WoodsI’m a Stranger Here MyselfIn a Sunburned CountryA Short History of Nearly Everything (which earned him the 2004 Aventis Prize), The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, and At Home. He lives in England with his wife.

Biography

A backpacking expedition in 1973 brought Des Moines native Bill Bryson to England, where he met his wife and decided to settle. He wrote travel articles for the English newspapers The Times and The Independent for many years before stumbling into bestsellerdom with 1989's The Lost Continent, a sidesplitting account of his rollicking road trip across small-town America. In 1995, he moved his family back to the States so his children could experience "being American." However, his deep-rooted Anglophilia won out and, in 2003, the Brysons returned to England.

One of those people who finds nearly everything interesting, Bryson has managed to turn his twin loves -- travel and language -- into a successful literary career. In a string of hilarious bestsellers, he has chronicled his misadventures across England, Europe, Australia, and the U.S., delighting readers with his wry observations and descriptions. Similarly, his books on the history of the English language, infused with the perfect combination of wit and erudition, have sold well. He has received several accolades and honors, including the coveted Aventis Prize for best general science book awarded for his blockbuster A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Beloved on both sides of the pond, Bryson makes few claims to write great literature. But he is a writer it is nearly impossible to dislike. We defy anyone to not smile at pithy, epigrammatic opening lines like these: "I come from Des Moines. Someone had to."

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    1. Hometown:
      Hanover, New Hampshire
    1. Date of Birth:
      1951
    2. Place of Birth:
      Des Moines, Iowa
    1. Education:
      B.A., Drake University, 1977

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition

1

Ten days before he became so famous that crowds would form around any building that contained him and waiters would fight over a corncob left on his dinner plate, no one had heard of Charles Lindbergh. The New York Times had mentioned him once, in the context of the coming Atlantic flights. It had misspelled his name.

The news that transfixed the nation as spring gave way to summer in 1927 was a gruesome murder in a modest family home on Long Island, coincidentally quite close to Roosevelt Field, where the Atlantic fliers were now gathering. The newspapers, much excited, called it the Sash Weight Murder Case.

The story was this: Late on the night of March 20, 1927, as Mr. and Mrs. Albert Snyder slept side by side in twin beds in their house on 222nd Street in a quiet, ­middle-­class neighborhood of Queens Village, Mrs. Snyder heard noises in the upstairs hallway. Going to investigate, she found a large ­man—­a “giant,” she told ­police—­just outside her bedroom door. He was speaking in a foreign accent to another man, whom she could not see. Before Mrs. Snyder could react, the giant seized her and beat her so roughly that she was left unconscious for six hours. Then he and his confederate went to Mr. Snyder’s bed, strangled the poor man with picture wire, and stove in his head with a sash weight. It was the sash weight that fired the public’s imagination and gave the case its name. The two villains then turned out drawers all over the house and fled with Mrs. Snyder’s jewels, but they left a clue to their identity in the form of an ­Italian-­language newspaper on a table downstairs.

The New York Times the next day was fascinated but confused. In a big page-one headline it reported:

Art Editor Is Slain in Bed;

  Wife Tied, Home Searched;

  Motive Mystifies Police

The story noted that a Dr. Vincent Juster from St. Mary Immaculate Hospital had examined Mrs. Snyder and ­couldn’t find any bump on her that would explain her six hours of unconsciousness. Indeed, he ­couldn’t find any injuries on her at all. Perhaps, he suggested tentatively, it was the trauma of the event rather than actual injury that accounted for her prolonged collapse.

Police detectives by this time, however, were more suspicious than confused. For one thing, the Snyder house showed no sign of forced entry, and in any case it was an oddly modest target for murderous jewel thieves. The detectives found it curious, too, that Albert Snyder had slept through a violent scuffle just outside his door. The Snyders’ ­nine-­year-­old daughter, Lorraine, in a room across the hall, had also heard nothing. It also seemed strange that burglars would break into a house and evidently pause to read an anarchist newspaper before placing it neatly on a table and proceeding upstairs. Oddest of all, Mrs. Snyder’s ­bed—­the one from which she had arisen to investigate the noise in the ­hallway—­was tidily made, as if it had not been slept in. She was unable to account for this, citing her concussion. As the detectives puzzled over these anomalies, one of them idly lifted a corner of mattress on Mrs. Snyder’s bed and there revealed the jewels that she had reported stolen.

All eyes turned to Ruth. She met the detectives’ gazes uncertainly, then broke down and confessed the ­crime—­but blamed it all on a brute named Judd Gray, her secret lover. Ruth Snyder was placed under arrest, a search was begun for Judd Gray, and the ­newspaper-­reading public of America was about to become uncommonly excited.

The 1920s was a great time for reading ­altogether—­very possibly the peak decade for reading in American life. Soon it would be overtaken by the passive distractions of radio, but for the moment reading remained most people’s principal method for filling idle time. Each year, American publishers produced 110 million books, more than 10,000 separate titles, double the number of ten years before. For those who felt daunted by such a welter of literary possibility, a helpful new phenomenon, the book club, had just made its debut. The ­Book-­of-­the-­Month Club was founded in 1926 and was followed the next year by the Literary Guild. Both were immediately successful. Authors were venerated in a way that seems scarcely possible now. When Sinclair Lewis returned home to Minnesota to work on his novel Elmer Gantry (published in the spring of 1927), people came from miles around just to look at him.

Magazines boomed, too. Advertising revenues leaped 500 percent in the decade, and many publications of lasting importance made their debut: Reader’s Digest in 1922, Time in 1923, the American Mercury and Smart Set in 1924, The New Yorker in 1925. Time was perhaps the most immediately influential. Founded by two former Yale classmates, Henry Luce and Briton Hadden, it was very popular but wildly inaccurate. It described Charles Nungesser, for instance, as having “lost an arm, a leg, a chin” during the war, which was not merely incorrect in all particulars but visibly so since Nungesser could be seen every day in newspaper photographs with a full set of limbs and an incontestably bechinned face. Time was noted for its repetitious devotion to certain ­words—­swart, nimble, ­gimlet-­eyed—­and to squashed neologisms like cinemaddict and cinemactress. It also had a fondness for odd, distorted phrases, so that “in the nick of time” became, without embarrassment, “in ­time’s nick.” Above all, it had a curious Germanic affection for inverting normal word order and packing as many nouns, adjectives, and adverbs as possible into a sentence before bringing in a ­verb—­or as Wolcott Gibbs put it in a famous New Yorker profile of Luce, “Backward ran the sentences until reeled the mind.” Despite their ­up-­to-­the-­minute swagger, Luce and Hadden were deeply conservative. They would not, for instance, employ women for any job above the level of secretary or office assistant.

Above all, the 1920s was a golden age for newspapers. Newspaper sales in the decade rose by about a fifth, to 36 million copies a ­day—­or 1.4 newspapers for every household. New York City alone had twelve daily papers, and almost all other cities worthy of the name had at least two or three. More than this, in many cities readers could get their news from a new, revolutionary type of publication that completely changed people’s expectations of what daily news should ­be—­the tabloid. Tabloids focused on crime, sports, and celebrity gossip, and in so doing gave all three an importance considerably beyond any they had enjoyed before. A study in 1927 showed that tabloids devoted between a quarter and a third of their space to crime reports, up to ten times more than the serious papers did. It was because of their influence that the quiet but messy murder of a man like Albert Snyder could become national news.

The tabloid, both as a format and as a way of distilling news down to its salacious essence, had been around for a quarter of a century in ­En­gland, but no one had thought to try it in the United States until two young members of the Chicago Tribune publishing family, Robert R. McCormick and his cousin Joseph Patterson, saw London’s Daily Mirror while serving in ­En­gland during World War I and decided to offer something similar at home when peace came. The result was the Illustrated Daily News, launched in New York in June 1919, price 2 cents. The concept was not an immediate ­hit—­circulation at one point was just eleven ­thousand—­but gradually the Daily News built a devoted following and by the ­mid-­1920s it was far and away the ­best-­selling newspaper in the country, with a circulation of one million, more than double that of the New York Times.

Such success inevitably inspired imitators. First came the New York Daily Mirror from William Randolph Hearst in June 1924, followed three months later by the wondrously dreadful Evening Graphic. The Graphic was the creation of an eccentric, ­bushy-­haired businessman named Bernarr Macfadden, who had started life rather more prosaically some fifty years earlier as a Missouri farmboy named Bernard MacFadden. Macfadden, as he now styled himself, was a man of strong and exotic beliefs. He ­didn’t like doctors, lawyers, or clothing. He was powerfully devoted to bodybuilding, vegetarianism, the rights of commuters to a decent railroad service, and getting naked. He and his wife frequently bemused their neighbors in Englewood, New ­Jersey—­among them Dwight Morrow, a figure of some centrality to this story, as will become ­apparent—­by exercising naked on the lawn. Macfadden’s commitment to healthfulness was so total that when one of his daughters died of a heart condition he remarked: “It’s better she’s gone. She’d only have disgraced me.” Well into his eighties he could be seen walking around Manhattan carrying a ­forty-­pound bag of sand on his back as a way of keeping fit. He lived to be ­eighty-­seven.

As a businessman, he seems to have dedicated his life to the proposition that where selling to the public is concerned no idea is too stupid. He built three separate fortunes. The first was as the inventor of a cult science he called Physcultopathy, which featured strict adherence to his principles of vegetarianism and strength through bodybuilding, with forays into nakedness for those who dared. The movement produced a chain of successful health farms and related publications. In 1919, as an outgrowth of the latter, Macfadden came up with an even more inspired invention: the confession magazine. True Story, the flagship of this side of his operations, soon had monthly sales of 2.2 million. All the stories in True Story were candid and juicy, with “a yeasty undercurrent of sexual excitation,” in the words of one satisfied observer. It was Macfadden’s proud boast that not a word in True Story was fabricated. This claim caused Macfadden a certain amount of financial discomfort when a piece in 1927 called “The Revealing Kiss,” set in Scranton, Pennsylvania, turned out, by unfortunate chance, to contain the names of eight respectable citizens of that fair city. They sued, and Macfadden was forced to admit that True Stories’ stories were not in fact true at all and never had been.

When tabloids became the rage, Macfadden launched the Evening Graphic. Its most distinguishing feature was that it had almost no attachment to truth or even, often, a recognizable reality. It conducted imaginary interviews with people it had not met and ran stories by figures who could not possibly have written them. When Rudolph Valentino died in 1926, it produced a series of articles by him from beyond the grave. The Graphic became famous for a form of illustration of its own invention called the composograph, in which the faces of newsworthy figures were superimposed on the bodies of models who had been posed on sets to create arresting tableaux. The most celebrated of these visual creations came during annulment proceedings, earlier in 1927, between Edward W. “Daddy” Browning and his young and dazzlingly erratic bride, affectionately known to all as Peaches, when the Graphic ran a photo showing (without any real attempt at plausibility) Peaches standing naked in the witness box. The Graphic sold an extra 250,000 copies that day. The New Yorker called the Graphic a “grotesque fungus,” but it was a phenomenally successful fungus. By 1927, its circulation was nearing six hundred thousand.

For conventional newspapers, these were serious and worrying numbers. Most responded by becoming conspicuously more like tabloids themselves, in spirit if not presentation. Even the New York Times, though still devotedly solemn and gray, found room for plenty of juicy stories throughout the decade and covered them with prose that was often nearly as feverish. So now when a murder like that of Albert Snyder came along, the result across all newspapers was something like a frenzy.

It hardly mattered that the perpetrators were spectacularly ­inept—­so much so that the writer Damon Runyon dubbed it the Dumbbell Murder ­Case—­or that they were not particularly attractive or imaginative. It was enough that the case involved lust, infidelity, a heartless woman, and a sash weight. These were the things that sold newspapers. The ­Snyder-­Gray case received more column inches of coverage than any other crime of the era, and was not exceeded for column inches until the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby in 1935. In terms of its effect on popular culture, even the Lindbergh kidnapping ­couldn’t touch it.

Trials in 1920s America were often amazingly speedy. Judd Gray and Ruth Snyder were arraigned, indicted by a grand jury, and in the dock barely a month after their arrest. A carnival atmosphere descended on the Queens County Courthouse, a building of classical grandeur in Long Island City. A hundred and thirty newspapers from across the nation and as far afield as Norway sent reporters. Western Union installed the biggest switchboard it had ever ­built—­bigger than any used for a presidential convention or World Series. Outside the courthouse, lunch wagons set up along the curb and souvenir sellers sold stickpins in the shape of sash weights for ten cents each. Throngs of people turned up daily hoping to get seats inside. Those who failed seemed content to stand outside and stare at the building knowing that important matters that they could not see or hear were being decided within. People of wealth and fashion turned up, too, among them the Marquess of Queensberry and the unidentified wife of a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Those fortunate enough to get seats inside were allowed to come forward at the conclusion of proceedings each day and inspect the venerated exhibits in the ­case—­the sash weight, picture wire, and bottle of chloroform that featured in the evil deed. The News and Mirror ran as many as eight articles a day on the trial. If any especially riveting disclosures emerged during the ­day—­that, for instance, Ruth Snyder on the night of the murder had received Judd Gray in a ­blood-­red ­kimono—­special editions were rushed into print, as if war had been declared. For those too eager or overcome to focus on the words, the Mirror provided 160 photographs, diagrams, and other illustrations during the three weeks of the trial, the Daily News nearer 200. For a short while, one of ­Gray’s lawyers was one Edward Reilly, who would later gain notoriety by defending Bruno Richard Hauptmann in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial, but Reilly, who was a hopeless drunk, was fired or resigned at an early stage.

Each day for three weeks, jurors, reporters, and audience listened in rapt silence as the tragic arc of Albert Snyder’s mortal fall was outlined. The story had begun ten years earlier when Snyder, the lonely, balding art editor of Motor Boating magazine, had developed an infatuation with an office secretary of high spirits and light intellect named Ruth Brown. She was thirteen years his junior and not notably attracted to him, but when, after their third or fourth date, he offered her a ­gumball-­sized engagement ring her modest defenses crumbled. “I just ­couldn’t give up that ring,” she explained helplessly to a friend.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 90 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2013

    The way he writes...come over here and look at this. And look,

    The way he writes...come over here and look at this. And look, just behind it, and over your shoulder...Look at this! It's like flying through history, occasionally settling for a study, then taking off again. Highly recommended.

    19 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2013

    An excellent book -- very well written -- hits the sweet spot of

    An excellent book -- very well written -- hits the sweet spot of history writing lying between highly scholarly works focusing on the minutia and high level works approaching bordering on the superficial.  A very enjoyable read and highly recommended.

    11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 15, 2013

    An amazing recount of an event packed summer.

    I'm 73, so I wasn't born in 1927, but I'd had a sense of some the things that had gone on that year from my parents, but certainly not all, and not nearly in the depth presented by Bryson. The history of early aviation and of the era when baseball was truly the national pastime were the portions that made the biggest impression on me. I guess I'd also have to add to that the devastation caused by the great Mississippi flood and the other severe weather events of that summer. I spent most of my life in the Midwest and had never heard of that awful time.

    I don't consider myself a history buff, and part of my motivation for reading this book was having read a number of other Bryson books. Was it my favorite? Well, not really, as I like something with a story line, but that's just personal taste. I like page-turners, and this one only gently brought me back to the book, rather than an eagerness to see what happens on the next page of a good mystery.

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2013

    READ THIS BOOK!!

    What a wonderful book! Bryson does an amazing job of making a tiny span of time come alive with such real people, places, and events that it will fill you up! He provides a wealth of backstory that is then masterfully woven into the theme of "just one summer", making a tapestry that is colorful, engrossing, and a memorable read.
    I believe this book would appeal to readers of all ages...the people who were living at that time, those of us who enjoy reading about an earlier time in our country, and anyone, of any age, who just wants an enjoyable read.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2013

    Just fair

    The title is misleading! It is all about Lindbergh. No matter what the subject--Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, school bombing, it is all in relation to Lindbergh.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2013

    Bill Bryson has to be the best writer alive! Every book he's wri

    Bill Bryson has to be the best writer alive! Every book he's written capitvates, entertains and educates. His wisdom and humor are so well blended, I am thankful he became a writer! This is one fantastic read!

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2013

    the book was a great read

    the book was a great read

    4 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2013

    Superbly written. Fast paced and interesting.

    Who would think so much history was jam packed in less than a year? Author Bryson makes the spring and summer of 1927 come alive with the history making events and bigger than life celebrities of that era. He provides enough background so that even a newcomer to history understands the issues and people involved, and he lets us know what became of these headline makers long after 1927 was gone. He tells us about historic figures who are not forgotten (Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Sacco & Venzetti) and those who are (The Pig Lady). A mirror into a long gone age, recommended reading for all ages.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2013

    A history buffs delight

    In spite of Brinkley's damning review, I found this book delightful! Kudos to Bill Bryson. I treasure every word Bryson has ever written. He could describe the process of paint drying and I would be totally cracked up! Good on you, Bryson!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2013

    Kids

    I wish bn would put a stop to these kids playing around on here. I come here for a book review a see a bunch of nonsense about cats and posts that make no sense at all. Bn these kids need to be banned.

    2 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2013

    very very interesting - highly recommend to history buffs

    I have always enjoyed Bill Bryson's books. This was particularly interesting because it covered a time in history that I had little knowleged about. So much lead up to the Great Depression and to WWII.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2013

    Once again, Bill Bryson writes a truly excellent book. I am pres

    Once again, Bill Bryson writes a truly excellent book. I am presently on my second 'go round' in order to help get the facts and stories imbedded into my memory bank. The History of the book is rich, extremely well written, and leaves me with an understanding of much, much more than one important summer from long ago. I feel that I have taken a trek through the first four decades of the 20th Century and it has been a personal and enriching experience. Simply put; "Very well done!"

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2013

    Bryson hits a home run

    Bill Bryson does it again, skillfully interwining people and events of 1927. Filled with trivia, fascinating descriptions and sharp analysis, this book will appeal to everyone from sports fans to political junkies.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 26, 2013

    not your high school history book

    Husband and I are fans of Bill Bryson books. This definitely shows lots of dark sides of American history. Learned a lot in an entertaining way.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2014

    An excellent read

    For a nonfiction book, this was hard to put down. The insight into the characters making the headlines in 1927 were very interesting.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 20, 2013

    Hard to put down!

    This is one of the best books I have read in years! Bryson knows how to bring history to life and put you there. I can't wait for "1928" to come out.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2013

    Good introduction to a fascinating era

    Bryson's title is a little deceptive. He claims to write about a single year, and he does include big moments from 1927, but it is simply an excuse to paint an entire historical era. Half of every chapter is background to a big "moment" like Ruth's homerun barrage, the great Mississippi flood, or Lindbergh's flight to Paris. Bryson's style is rather breathless, and he seems to take real pleasure in cynical attacks on Presidents Coolidge, Harding and Hoover (though they are admittedly easy targets.) He is not so much an historian as an entertainer.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 22, 2013

    Another Winner

    You can always count on Bill Bryson. People and events you've heard about and now you know all the fascinating details. Ruth, Lindbergh, Hoover. Sacco and Vanzetti. Especially those last ones. I've always heard the names. Now I know what the furor was about.
    I was surprised to learn about the violence. Bombings and the like. We it's never happened before but it has and we survived.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2013

    Gotta love Bill Bryson

    Outstanding look back at 1927. Bryson's attention to detail is remarkable.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2013

    Grand

    Another winner by my favorite author! Well done Bill!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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