One Summer America 1927 – Bill Bryson

Al Jolson, the American entertainer who put paid to the silent era on the silver screen, received his jollies by urinating on people. Didn’t know that, did you?

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It was in the summer of 1927 that Jolson’s ‘The Jazz Singer’ electrified audiences in cinemas all over the US, thus changing the movies forever – and costing thousands their jobs as collateral damage. All this, as well as many more yarns; plus facts both weird, fantastical and world-shaping, are to be found in Bill Bryson’s latest which, month by month, takes us through an American summer like no other.

The recent, excellent television series, ‘The Sixties’, shown on SBS, looked at the decade that shaped the baby-boomer generation – to which this scribbler belongs. Of course, the stand-out year of that was 1968 – for us BBers a twelve month period never to be forgotten. With the Vietnam War at its bloodiest Nixon enters the White House after an assassination denied another Kennedy. Martin Luther King was gunned down, US cities became war zones and the Summer of Love was pronounced dead. Only the first Kennedy’s loss and the destruction of the Twin Towers can rival the events of that year in the consciousness of most Americans of a certain age – and therefore, by default, the rest of the world.

Now imagine all those happenings of ’68 compacted into just the few months of one summer – that of 1927 – and you get the impact that brief time had on a previous generation of world citizenry. In that time lay the foundation of the Great Depression and the following global conflict, the shaping of the way we now transport ourselves, the nub of modern infatuation with celebrity and our ardour for sport.

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In ‘One Summer America 1927’, most of the seminal figures that did all this shaping are well known, but arguably the ones who had the greatest impact were not to me. Benjamin Strong, Sir Montague Norman, Hjalmar Schauht and Charles Rist got together on Long Island, meeting in secret in a tycoon’s hideaway. And what they decided changed our world forever. Those names do not resonate with us like Kennedy, Nixon or King, nor indeed the other icons of Bryson’s summer, but you see these guys were the heads of the largest world banks of the era. What this quartet set in stone at that get together caused the economic catastrophe that was to occur two years later. Of course it was all based on greed – and with the GFC, it shows we do not learn the lessons of history – never have, perhaps never will. This encounter, together with its its repercussions, are all dissected in layman’s terms by Mr Bryson, along with all else that was going on during those fateful months – May through to September. Had it all been fiction it would be impossible to believe. It wasn’t. It all took place.

This, as with most of BB’s oeuvre (with the possible exception of ‘A Walk in the Woods’), is a vastly entertaining opus. Recurring throughout are stories associated with the names that have, unlike the aforementioned four, survived, with an aura, down to our times. Here Billy B takes us into the worlds of Charles Lindberg, Babe Ruth, Presidents Coolidge and Hoover, Henry Ford, Clara Bow and Al Capone – all, in various ways, taking the globe with them on new paths that gobsmacked those who lived in those times. Back then the US of A was the world’s greatest economy, the farce that was Prohibition was in operation and the Dust Bowl was just around the turn of the decade. But that summer of ’27 must have been just the most remarkable time to have been alive to witness it all!

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Lindberg’s barnstorming around the country, after his trans-Atlantic heroics, opened up the possibilities of commercial aviation to land/sea-hugging travellers. Ruth, the Bradman of baseball, along with a boxer called Dempsey, took sport into a new stratosphere. The libidinous Clara Bow became the first Hollywood sex symbol and the execution of two terrorists, Bartholomeo Vinzet and Nicola Sacco, highlighted the fact that home grown terrorism is nothing new. Bombs that summer were going off all across the country, but now those atrocities are largely forgotten. The electrocution of these two migrant Italians caused street demonstrations as far away as in Sydney, Australia. To find out why, do read this wonderful book.

The biggest grossing star of the summer was Rin Tin Tin, a sporting groupie called Claire Merritt Hodgson was ticking off the number of baseball superstars she had bedded and train travel had reached a degree of luxuriousness it is difficult to contemplate now. Sadly, for many of us who enjoy the slower pace of rail, it was a coterie of young men in flimsy flying machines that changed all that. It is, though, edifying to read the facilities and tucker that the great trains, such as the Union Pacific and the Twentieth Century Limited, offered in BB’s tome. This always accessible writer is even able to make baseball, a somewhat alien sport to us here in Oz, remotely interesting through the deeds of the Babe and Lou Gehrig.

These, as well as so many other larger than life characters, populate the six hundred or so pages of this seamless read. As a bonus, the author at the end takes the history makers through to their demise with a short biographical piece on each. It is instructive to see how Lindberg, in the end, became quite a reviled figure. There were also his late in life affairs that have only just come to light – all with German women. The book is fascinating, simply fascinating.

Now my own father, I do seem to remember, was not much of a reader, but he loved Zane Grey. You may think Hemingway or Fitzgerald as being the literary icons of the age – but their sales were minuscule compared to Grey. The former dentist from Ohio, who gave us ‘The Riders of the Purple Sage’, had a deep secret. He was an ardent outdoorsman, with his passion extending to taking what Bryson describes as ‘…attractive, high-spirited young women…’ out into the wilderness, photographing them naked or engaging in sexual activity with him – after which he would write his erotic adventures up in journals using his own secret code. From his writings in 1927 ZG made around $325000 as opposed to FSF exactly $37,599 – and who do we remember?

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Bill Bryson’s website – http://www.billbryson.co.uk/

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