Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrumsof American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. With Assassination Vacation, she takes us on a road trip like no other -- a journey to the pit stops of American political murder and through the myriad ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage.
From Buffalo to Alaska, Washington to the Dry Tortugas, Vowell visits locations immortalized and influenced by the spilling of politically important blood, reporting as she goes with her trademark blend of wisecracking humor, remarkable honesty, and thought-provoking criticism. We learn about the jinx that was Robert Todd Lincoln (present at the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley) and witness the politicking that went into the making of the Lincoln Memorial. The resulting narrative is much more than an entertaining and informative travelogue -- it is the disturbing and fascinating story of how American death has been manipulated by popular culture, including literature, architecture, sculpture, and -- the author's favorite -- historical tourism. Though the themes of loss and violence are explored and we make detours to see how the Republican Party became the Republican Party, there are all kinds of lighter diversions along the way into the lives of the three presidents and their assassins, including mummies, show tunes, mean-spirited totem poles, and a nineteenth-century biblical sex cult.
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Sarah Vowell is a contributing editor for public radio's This American Life and has written for Time, Esquire, GQ, Spin, Salon, McSweeneys, The Village Voice, and the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of Radio On, Take the Cannoli, and The Partly Cloudy Patriot. She lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
One night last summer, all the killers in my head assembled on a stage in Massachusetts to sing show tunes. There they were -- John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz -- in tune and in the flesh. The men who murdered Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were elbow to elbow with Lee Harvey Oswald and the klutzy girls who botched their hits on klutzy Gerald Ford, harmonizing on a toe-tapper called "Everybody's Got the Right to Be Happy," a song I cheerfully hummed walking back to the bed-and-breakfast where I was staying.
Not that I came all the way from New York City just to enjoy a chorus line of presidential assassins. Mostly, I came to the Berkshires because of the man who brought one of those presidents back to life. I was there to visit Chesterwood, the house and studio once belonging to Daniel Chester French, the artist responsible for the Abraham Lincoln sculpture in the Lincoln Memorial. A nauseating four-hour bus ride from the Port Authority terminal just to see the room where some patriotic chiseler came up with a marble statue? For some reason, none of my friends wanted to come with.
Because I had to stay overnight and this being New England, the only place to stay was a bed-and-breakfast. It was a lovely old country mansion operated by amiable people. That said, I am not a bed-and-breakfast person.
I understand why other people would want to stay in B&Bs. They're pretty. They're personal. They're "quaint," a polite way of saying "no TV." They are "romantic," i.e., every object large enough for a flower to be printed on it is going to have a flower printed on it. They're "cozy," meaning that a guest has to keep her belongings on the floor because every conceivable flat surface is covered in knickknacks, except for the one knickknack she longs for, a remote control.
The real reason bed-and-breakfasts make me nervous is breakfast. As if it's not queasy enough to stay in a stranger's home and sleep in a bed bedecked with nineteen pillows.
In the morning, the usually cornflake-consuming, wheat-intolerant guest is served floury baked goods on plates so fancy any normal person would keep them locked in the china cabinet even if Queen Victoria herself rose from the dead and showed up for tea. The guest, normally a silent morning reader of newspapers, is expected to chat with the other strangers staying in the strangers' home.
At my Berkshires bed-and-breakfast, I am seated at a table with one middle-aged Englishman and an elderly couple from Greenwich, Connecticut. The three of them make small talk about golf, the weather, and the room's chandeliers, one of which, apparently, is Venetian. I cannot think of a thing to say to these people. Seated at the head of the table, I am the black hole of breakfast, a silent void of gloom sucking the sunshine out of their neighborly New England day. But that is not the kind of girl my mother raised me to be. I consider asking the Connecticut couple if they had ever run into Jack Paar, who I heard had retired near where they live, but I look like I was born after Paar quit hosting The Tonight Show (because I was) and so I'd have to explain how much I like watching tapes of old programs at the Museum of Television and Radio and I don't want to get too personal.
It seems that all three of them attended a Boston Pops concert at Tanglewood the previous evening, and they chat about the conductor. This, I think, is my in. I, too, enjoy being entertained.
Relieved to have something, anything, to say, I pipe up, "I went to the Berkshire Theatre Festival last night."
"Oh, did you see Peter Pan?" the woman asks.
"No," I say. "Assassins!"
"What's that?" wonders the Englishman.
To make up for the fact that I've been clammed up and moping I speak too fast, merrily chirping, "It's the Stephen Sondheim musical in which a bunch of presidential assassins and would-be assassins sing songs about how much better their lives would be if they could gun down a president."
"Oh," remarks Mr. Connecticut. "How was it?"
"Oh my god," I gush. "Even though the actors were mostly college kids, I thought it was great! The orange-haired guy who played the man who wanted to fly a plane into Nixon was hilarious. And I found myself strangely smitten with John Wilkes Booth; every time he looked in my direction I could feel myself blush." Apparently, talking about going to the Museum of Television and Radio is "too personal," but I seem to have no problem revealing my crush on the man who murdered Lincoln.
Now, a person with sharper social skills than I might have noticed that as these folks ate their freshly baked blueberry muffins and admired the bed-and-breakfast's teapot collection, they probably didn't want to think about presidential gunshot wounds. But when I'm around strangers, I turn into a conversational Mount St. Helens. I'm dormant, dormant, quiet, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the slopes of my silence and then, boom, it's 1980. Once I erupt, they'll be wiping my verbal ashes off their windshields as far away as North Dakota.
I continue. "But the main thing that surprised me was how romantic Assassins was."
"Romantic?" sneers a skeptic.
"Totally," I rebut. "There's a very tender love scene between Emma Goldman and Leon Czolgosz."
"You know. He was the anarchist who killed McKinley. Buffalo? 1901? Anyway, the authorities initially suspected Goldman had helped him, but all it was was that he had heard her speak a couple of times about sticking it to The Man. He'd met her, but she wasn't his co-conspirator. Anyway, the play dramatizes the moment they meet. He stops her on the street to tell her that he loves her. The guy who played Czolgosz was wonderful. He had this smoldering Eastern European accent. Actually, he sounded a lot like Dracula -- but in a good way, if you know what I mean." (They don't.)
"He told her, 'Miss Goldman, I am in love with you.' She answered that she didn't have time to be in love with him. Which was cute. But, this was my one misgiving about the performance, I thought that the woman playing Goldman was too ladylike, too much of a wallflower. Wasn't Emma Goldman loud and brash and all gung ho? Here was a woman whose words inspired a guy to kill a president. And come to think of it, one of her old boyfriends shot the industrialist Henry Frick. Maybe I'm too swayed by the way Maureen Stapleton played Goldman in the film Reds. She was so bossy! And remember Stapleton in that Woody Allen movie, Interiors? Geraldine Page is all beige this and bland that so her husband divorces her and hooks up with noisy, klutzy Maureen Stapleton, who laughs too loud and smashes pottery and wears a blood-red dress to symbolize that she is Alive, capital A. Wait. I lost my train of thought. Where was I?"
Englishman: "I believe Dracula was in love with Maureen Stapleton."
"Oh, right. I haven't even mentioned the most touching part. Squeaky Fromme and John Hinckley sing this duet, a love song to Charles Manson and Jodie Foster. Hinckley and Squeaky sang that they would do anything for Charlie Manson and Jodie Foster. And I really believed them! Squeaky's like, 'I would crawl belly-deep through hell,' and Hinckley's all, 'Baby, I'd die for you.' It was adorable."
Mr. Connecticut looks at his watch and I simultaneously realize that I've said way too much and that saying way too much means I might miss my bus back home. And I really want to go home. I yell, "Nice meeting you!" and nearly knock down the teapot collection in my rush to get away from them. Though before I can leave, I have to settle up my bill with the friendly B&B owner. His first name? Hinckley.
On the bus home, I flip through my Assassins program from the night before and read the director's note. Of course talking about the murders of previous presidents is going to open the door to discussing the current president. That's what I like to call him, "the current president." I find it difficult to say or type his name, George W. Bush. I like to call him "the current president" because it's a hopeful phrase, implying that his administration is only temporary. Timothy Douglas, the Assassins director, doesn't say the president's name either, but he doesn't have to. Clearly, Douglas is horrified and exasperated by the Iraqi war. He writes,
Proportionate to my own mounting frustrations at feeling increasingly excluded from the best interests of the current administration's control in these extraordinary times helps me toward a visceral understanding of the motivation of one who would perpetrate a violent act upon the leader of the free world. My capacity for this depth of empathy also gives me pause, for I have no idea how far away I am from the "invisible line" that separates me from a similar or identical purpose....Please allow me to state for the record that I am completely against violence of any kind as a way of resolving conflicts.
That crafty explanation slaps me in the forehead with all the force of "duh." Until that moment, I hadn't realized that I embarked on the project of touring historic sites and monuments having to do with the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley right around the time my country iffily went to war, which is to say right around the time my resentment of the current president cranked up into contempt. Not that I want the current president killed. Like that director, I will, for the record (and for the FBI agent assigned to read this and make sure I mean no harm -- hello there), clearly state that while I am obsessed with death, I am against it.
Like director Tim Douglas, my simmering rage against the current president scares me. I am a more or less peaceful happy person whose lone act of violence as an adult was shoving a guy who spilled beer on me at a Sleater-Kinney concert. So if I can summon this much bitterness toward a presidential human being, I can sort of, kind of see how this amount of bile or more, teaming up with disappointment, unemployment, delusions of grandeur and mental illness, could prompt a crazier narci...
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