- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 30, 2001

In 1951, that barbaric yawp shocked movie audiences watching "A Streetcar Named Desire." Stanley Kowalski, played by Marlon Brando, is in a bad mood. In a drunken rage he hits his pregnant wife, who flees to a neighbor's apartment. He wants Stella to come back to him. He yells. But his sullen face shows not only a capacity for violence, which the scene demands, but a host of contradictory emotions despair, anger, repentance, and, most of all, confusion, not simply about the situation he is in right now but about the world as he finds it. Mr. Brando, as Kowalski, in the very moment of acting like a beast, shows us the humanity of the character by a slight tilt of his head, a sideways movement of his eyes, a frown, and an animalistic howl that is all-too-human.
Can anyone imagine Brad Pitt, Sean Penn or even Paul Newman, at 26, communicating all of these emotions with such an economy of artistic means? Can anyone imagine Frank Sinatra, who was the first choice to portray the punchy ex-fighter Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront," play the "I coulda been a contenda" scene and convey the sense of irrevocable loss and brotherly love that Mr. Brando achieved, again with an absolute minimum of gestures and expressions? I grew up a few miles from the Hoboken docks where the movie was filmed, and I knew men like Terry Malloy. They were tough, and could be brutal, but there was a special quality about many of them, a stoic, inarticulate, often deeply hidden decency that Mr. Brando got exactly right.
In Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth (Viking, $21.95, 228 pages, illus.) part of the Penguin Lives series, the author examines Mr. Brando's life, from his troubled childhood in Omaha (cold, distant father, alcoholic, loving mother) to his triumph on Broadway in "Streetcar" in 1947, and a series of great movie performances in the 1950s. Then, for more than a decade, he was written off as a has-been.
But in 1972 he made a comeback in "The Godfather." With hooded eyes and a tilt of the head and a few gestures and some make-up, he created Don Corleone, a three-dimensional, complex human being. Since then his salaries (along with his weight) have risen as his talent has faded. The author writes about Mr. Brando's deeply troubled private life with sympathy and about his acting career with knowledge. But the source of his unique artistic genius remains a mystery, which is as it should be.

In the introduction to The Man Who Made Wall Street: Anthony J. Drexel and the Rise of Modern Finance (University of Pennsylvania Press, $29.95, 262 pages, illus.) author Dan Rottenberg writes: "Anthony Drexel was an intensely private man who worked assiduously to avoid the limelight. He granted no interviews, kept no diaries, held no public office, and destroyed his personal papers… . Moreover, Drexel's straitlaced life was unsullied by financial or sexual scandal …"
The retiring, not to say obsessively private Mr. Drexel (1826-1893) would appear to be a decidedly difficult subject for a biography. But Mr. Rottenberg, believing the Philadelphia financier has been unjustly overshadowed by his more flamboyant partner, J. P. Morgan, decided to plunge ahead. I'm glad he did. His book is well written and well researched, and the author has the gift of making the mysteries of higher finance clear to the layman. The only problem is that we get almost 200 pages about Drexel the financier, but no clear picture of the man.
The son of an Austrian immigrant who created the family business, a currency brokerage, Drexel was near or at the center of American finance during the years before and during the Civil War, and through the industrial expansion of the Gilded Age. He knew everybody worth knowing, from President Grant to the prestigious Biddle family of Philadelphia, and served as a guiding, steady hand to the legendary hard-driving Morgan. Together they rode out depressions, financed railroads, fought off competitors, and made millions of dollars. Drexel donated large amounts to worthy causes, including the creation of the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia.
His niece, Katherine, shocked proper Philadelphians by becoming a Roman Catholic nun, (something which simply wasn't done), with a special mission to blacks and Indians (she was canonized in 2000). Drexel, who, on the death of his brother, had taken Katherine and her sister into his home and treated them like his own children, supported her, showing an admirable tolerance given the time in which he lived and his social position.
In my view, the scarcity of documentation about his life proved to be an insurmountable hurdle. We find out about his times, and what he did, in detail. But we do not find out who he was, except by inference or secondhand views. We are given some insights into the way he thought, but these are few, and don't tell us much. He is a ghost who haunts his biography, always there, but tantalizingly just out of sight

If the background music to Anthony Drexel's life was Mozart, played by a genteel chamber group, the music to the life of Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911) was raucous ragtime, played by a brass band. In Pulitzer: A Life (Wiley, $30, 438 pages, illus.), Denis Brian tells the exciting story of the Hungarian Jew who changed American journalism forever. Pulitzer was what used to be called a "go-getter", hard-working, determined to succeed, and indefatigable. Without speaking English, he came to the United States in 1864 to join the Union army. By 1878 he was the owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; five years later he purchased the New York World.
The World, one of the most successful and influential newspapers in American history, became an extension of his personality: idealistic, demagogic, crusading, combative, often irresponsible, controversial, given to wild enthusiasms, and, above all, bold and courageous. Municipal corruption, of which there was an abundant supply, and the lifestyles of New York's rich and richer were his pet targets. In the pages of the World, he gleefully participated in personal, savage, and near-libelous battles with other legendary New York publishers, including Charles Dana of the Sun and William Randolph Hearst of the Journal.
He sent reporter Nellie Bly (for whom the word "intrepid" might have been coined) around the world in "72 days, 6 hrs. 1 mins, 14 secs [sic]", carried out a successful campaign to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, was elected to Congress, sued for libel by Theodore Roosevelt (Pulitzer won), and matched Hearst, distortion by distortion, in helping to bring about the Spanish American War. At the peak of his triumphs, he went blind, but still ran the World, as he sailed on his yacht, seeking quiet and peace, two qualities his newspapers rarely recognized.
Mr. Brian tells his story the way Pulitzer, a master editor, would have liked it, with accuracy, anecdotes, forceful writing, and not much padding. The chapter titles (e.g., "Saves Statue of Liberty", "President McKinley Assassinated") are in the style of the World's headlines under Pulitzer. If you want to know what American newspapers were like before they became insufferably self-important and respectable, this book is for you.

William F. Gavin is a writer living in McLean, Va.

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