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Rosie’s Favorite Books of March 2021

First ladies, a famous hotel, beauty pageants, and sadness at the border top her recommendations

March’s favorites were Separated, Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight, The Barbizon, Looking for Miss America, and Eleanor

For years I sat next to Rosie and nearly every day she came in to tell me about a book she had read the night before.

Sometimes it would take her two nights to read an especially long one, but usually she would knock one out a night. Fiction, non fiction, political, romantico, it didn’t matter.

She did prefer the ones about Presidents or history, but all of the current titles made it to her and it was fascinating to pick her brain over them.

Recently we had a text conversation that I hope to do once a month to check in on what made an impression on her.

NBC’s Jacob Soboroff at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, CA with his book Separated: Inside an American Tragedy

OK so MSNBC gave Jacob time off to write a book about the border. Did he write a good book?

Rosie: Yes. Family separations was very personal for him. As he was down there reporting he grew close to some of the people.

I’m nervous there will be a totally heartbreaking story in there.

Not one story in particular, but there are many instances of families being separated once in federal custody and then the parent gets deported but the child stays in the US, and there’s no way of reuniting them.

I think maybe the heartbreaking thing for me was the deliberate choice by Homeland Security to get rid of information that could have connected the families again. But they wanted to deter people from crossing the border.

Wasn’t the original intention of the rule was that once you reached a certain part of the border, it was safe there until the courts could decide what to do?

“Catch and release,” yes? I believe so.

The shocking thing to me was that the Trump administration were advised that the separations were illegal but they proceeded with it anyways, knowing how cruel it was.

As your boy Adam Serwer said, the cruelty is the point.

Who is more of the villain in this book? Jeff Sessions or Donald Trump?

More Trump than Sessions, but the real villains are the lower level directors of various departments within Homeland Security.

But aren’t they the Deep State? Aren’t everyone from the Obama administration flaming far left antifa loving commie liberals? Or is it different with the Homeland Security ppl?

Ha, they weeded all the libs out of course. Soboroff wrote about Katie Miller the former Homeland Security spokeswoman, the one who got married to Stephen Miller.

She would go to the border and take selfies with the wall and just generally be awful and cruel.

Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson doing the thing you do

Let’s move on to a more likable character, Lady Bird Johnson.

This is my favorite book i’ve read all YEAR so far.

You know more about POTUSes and FLOTUSes than anyone I know — what made this book so great?

Lady Bird Johnson, podcasting pioneer

Until now, Lady Bird by herself has not really been the subject of a serious work before. While in the White House, Lady Bird recorded a sort of audio diary, where she gave her thoughts and opinions on various things that happened during the Johnson presidency

Her first entry was shortly after the Kennedy assassination. These recordings have been housed at the LBJ library in Austin, TX.

Until this book, no scholar had really bothered to listen to them and write about their contents, which blows my mind because you have this contemporary account of some of the most monumental and important events of the last 50 years

I think she gets an undeserved reputation as a more traditional/hostess-y First Lady, a la Mamie Eisenhower, but she was really very ahead of her time, as far as First Ladies go.

She was LBJ’s most important political advisor.

Where did she stand on Vietnam?

It was complicated. I think she came late to popular opinion on the Vietnam War, but she did recognize that it would be the end of their presidency.

Did she have a position on Civil Rights?

Yes. I would say she was a quiet supporter of civil rights. Her whole thing was ‘soft power.’ She was a Southern lady and knew how to campaign and interact with Southerners, but she also recognized the importance of civil rights.

I was skipping through the dials and was listening to Fresh Air a little and they were talking about this book. Did I hear them right when they said she was a videographer?

She was! She recorded things on the campaign trail. If I remember correctly, the video stuff predates their time in the White House.

Jackie O and Lady Bird

I would imagine that, just like you had to succeed me at work, it must have been extremely difficult to succeed Jackie O as FLOTUS… is that discussed in this book?

Yes, at length. She had a complicated relationship with Jackie.

Lady Bird knew she could never compare to Jackie, at least in the eye of the public, so she wielded her power differently. Lady Bird was more of an ‘activist’ First Lady.

What was her main cause?

The environment, which they marketed as ‘beautification’ because they thought it would be more palatable that way. But in general, she wanted people to live in nice places.

Because I’m a basic bitch, when I think of LBJ, the first thing that comes to mind is that phone call of him trying to get some new pants altered.

… Now the pockets, when you sit down, everything falls out, your money, your knife, everything, so I need at least another inch in the pockets.

And another thing — the crotch, down where your nuts hang — is always a little too tight, so when you make them up, give me an inch that I can let out there, uh because they cut me, it’s just like riding a wire fence.

— Lyndon B. Johnson

An iconic quote. A personal favorite.

He seems like a country boy. A rube. Was he? And therefore was she his perfect match?

He was a bit of a country boy, yeah. He grew up in the Texas hill country, which is/was pretty rural.

I wouldn’t call Lady Bird a country girl on the same level as LBJ though, she’s more of a well-to-do Southern lady.

You say this was your favorite book so far. What’s your favorite part of this thing?

The book includes this political strategy memo that Lady Bird wrote for the 1964 campaign. I was very surprised by it

She lays out all the pros and cons of a presidential run for Lyndon, with surprising candor.

I was shocked by the fact that she was writing campaign strategy memos and that I, someone who has read all of the Robert Caro LBJ books, have never come across these things before.

Is it true that she was raised by Black folk?

Her caretaker was Black, yes. I don’t know what the term for her is… her nursemaid? Whatever the correct title, this woman gave her the nickname Lady Bird.

Let’s go to another book about the ladies… this one about a hotel full of women… The Barbizon.

Ha ha ha. Are you noticing a theme? All I read now are books about complicated, privileged women — with the exception of the Soboroff book.

What was the complicated part about women who lived in this hotel 75 years ago… that they were educated but still struggled to be taken seriously?

A bit, yeah. The Barbizon was at its peak during the ’40s and ’50s — predating betty friedan a bit. So you had these college-educated women who would come to New York to follow their dreams but who were still constrained by the times.

I hear that Sylvia Plath fictionalized living there in The Bell Jar.

She did! Joan Didion lived there too and Grace Kelly.

So it was aspirational in a way?

Well, Sylvia Plath doesn’t exactly have the most kind things to say about it.

She didn’t like the pretty curtains?

I think it was more so that she was incredibly unhappy and depressed during her time there.

For some reason I don’t see her as part of that crowd.

Exactly. I actually read a bio of Sylvia Plath last year that i haven’t been able to stop thinking about. It’s called Red Comet. It’s the size of a doorstop. Over 1,100 pages.

So you read it two days?

Haha something like that. It’s great though. I read The Bell Jar when I was a teenager and knew some of her poems, but until I read that book, I never really thought much about Sylvia Plath or her work.

OK, so in this hotel, the desk manager “rated every girl who crossed her threshold, and gave those tenants who stayed out for too many nights in a row or dressed slovenly a stern talking-to”?

Indeed. She was like the house manager. Or an RA in a dorm. She ruled with an iron fist.

No one ever called J.D. Salinger dumb.

I heard none other than J.D. Salinger was smart enough to chill at the coffee shop next door. Is that discussed in this book?

A little bit!

Just that he would hang around trying to meet the women

In a way wasn’t it like shooting fish in a barrel? A hotel of 700 smart, interesting women and models in an all-female hotel in NYC? Why not lurk on that block if you’re a single man and see what happens? Maybe Grace Kelly is looking to bum a smoke off someone.

Ha pretty much. I don’t know how interested the women were in him, though. Many of the Barbizon residents were of the mind that you work for a bit and then find a husband. You know, being the ‘50s and all

So they were all looking to land a Don Draper by working on Madison Avenue?

Exactly. I don’t know why, but i am fascinated by that time in women’s history.

Looking for Miss America by Margo Mifflin

So this book surprises me that is on your list: Looking for Miss America.

Why does it surprise you?

Fancy, educated woman like you. Why do you care about a dumb beauty pageant?

I don’t care about the pageant, per se. But I am interested in it from a social history perspective and how they have tried to keep with the times.

Donald Trump’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is now covered because it was continually defaced.

I was just talking to my mom today about Trump’s star on the Walk of Fame. Many people think it was because of “The Apprentice,” but it’s really because of what he did with beauty pageants on TV.

The book spends a great deal of time contrasting the Miss America pageant from Trump.

Miss America is a different pageant from Miss USA. Miss America sees itself as a classy “scholarship program,” whereas Miss USA/Miss Teen USA are… not as classy

Was there controversy having a swimsuit competition in the Miss America pageant back in the day?

Of course. That’s how they got men to buy tickets.

They were more concerned about the live audiences than the TV audiences?

Miss America predates TV! It began in the 1920s

!!!!! I had no idea!

It was originally held at a boardwalk, so maybe that’s where the swimsuit thing came in.

My mom said that there were floats and a huge parade back then to drum up excitement. My mom knows everything pretty much.

Your mom is a very cool lady.

Vanessa Williams in 1984, the first Black Miss America

She was VERY upset with how Vanessa Williams was treated. Is that included in this book?

Yes, there’s a whole chapter on her. I agree with your mom, what happened to Vanessa was bullshit.

A similar thing happened to Marilyn Monroe.

You know her Playboy cover was a photo of her at the Miss America parade when Marilyn was grand marshal.

I barely know what playboy is.

Oh, of course. But it’s kind of interesting how history repeats itself.

What was the controversy? People were upset that Marilyn was at the parade in a high honor?

Not a controversy about her appearing, exactly

Just the fact that Marilyn’s Playboy cover was literally her at a Miss America event.

I was kidding before, but I had no idea. I guess I had only seen the nude centerfold and never the cover of the magazine. But you’re right, that’s the same dress and pose.

Crazy huh?

So Hef was basically saying he had great respect for the pageant and thus, who better to show naked than this beautiful woman who was at this iconic event?

Ha I guess so! Respect for the scholarship program

LOL. The winners won how many years of free college?

They won a very small sum of money. But the sad thing is, they had to spend so much money to even make it to Miss America

Dresses and hair dos?

That and money on trainers, pageant coaches, traveling. The idea of competing in a pageant is so foreign to me but I think for a lot of women in small towns, pageants are seen as a way out.

OK final book… the story of the woman the Beatles sang a song about. I hear she was a very curious First Lady… she didn’t like Christmas. She wore foul jackets with not-so-hidden-messages? And she dug up the previous FLOTUS’s moonshine operation.

That is exactly right.

Had you read any bios about her before? I am betting you did.

I haven’t read any specifically about Eleanor before. This might shock you but Eleanor didn’t really interested me that much. Her story is so known.

She seems like a saint. Which is boring in a book. We want scandal!

This book is a little gossip-y at times, but yeah. I don’t really find this that compelling. Is that a sin to say?

I recognize that she was a great First Lady but she doesn’t personally interest me that much.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt return to the White House after FDR was inaugurated for a third term on January 20, 1941.

One thing Ken Burns is teaching us in the Hemingway doc, is he was no stranger to using the n-word. I hear FDR wasn’t either.

Eleanor would say ‘darkies’ (if i remember correctly).

Did she have a pet name for your people, Asians, who her hubby locked up?

Haha she did not. You know, I grew up close to a former internment holding station. One of my middle school teachers, his wife was held in an internment camp. He brought her papers and stuff to show us.

It was such a horrible part of our history. For what it’s worth, Eleanor opposed it and tried to stop it. Even though she didn’t publicly oppose it, she worked behind the scenes to try and stop it.

That’s nice.

This book did go into a great bit of detail about her relationship with Lorena Hickock though.

Wait. She had a secret lover?

Supposedly.

Suddenly I am interested.

This author is convinced that it was a real romantic relationship. I don’t know what to think, I’m not really convinced either way.

Hickok (far right) with Eleanor Roosevelt (2nd from left).

I think they… probably were in a relationship? But I’m not 100% sure

I hear Eleanor wrote this woman 10 page letters every day. How is that not love?

I mean, they probably were!

Your BFF, Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote of the letters: “Hick longed to kiss the soft spot at the corner of Eleanor’s mouth; Eleanor yearned to hold Hick close; Hick despaired at being away from Eleanor; Eleanor wished she could lie down beside Hick and take her in her arms. Day after day, month after month, the tone in the letters on both sides remains fervent and loving.”

Erotic! I shouldn’t have said I’m not convinced either way — I definitely err on the side of yes, they were in a romantic relationship.

I think newer books about the Roosevelts offer more evidence that they were romantically involved, whereas the older books don’t. So I could be mixing some of them up

You are a Presidential expert. Are we to assume that Eleanor had the first lesbian affair in the White House… even if it was an affair of the heart as President Carter would say?

Hahaha. Yes.

+ + +

Beautiful. We are 6 days through this month, which two books have you already read?

I’m reading a book now by Edith Wharton called The Custom of the Country.

And then I read a book about another first lady and her sister: Jackie Kennedy and her sister, Lee.

It’s called The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters.

Rosie, in her happy place: on vacation in front of a presidential library.

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