- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2002

In four years of reviewing well over 100 biographies for this column, I have never come across a book filled with so much bitter, snarling, contempt for its subject as Gabrielle Ashford Hodges' Franco: A Concise Biography (St. Martin's, $27.95, 304 pages, illus.).
Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (1892-1975) was neither lovable nor likable, even to many of his supporters, so I have no problem with the author's negative feelings as such. And I realize a writer doesn't have to like his subject in order to write a good biography Robert Caro, after all, has done very well with Lyndon Johnson. But the author's unrelenting hatred of her subject is so all-consuming that Franco the man is lost amidst the savage attacks on Franco the Monster.
The author has chosen the psycho-biographical approach as the delivery system for her assault. I am not competent to pass judgment on the therapeutic aspects of psychoanalysis, but the use of its methods and conceptual structures as weapons with which to destroy a biographical subject is at best a questionable undertaking. Any good biographer analyzes the motives and the psychological makeup of a subject, but the author resorts to the methods of psycho-biography, examining the mind of a man she never met, and then offering clinical analyses of his words and actions, thereby giving her criticism a false claim to scientific rigor and raising the question: What are the contrary facts that could prove the author's psychoanalytic interpretations to be untrue?
In this author's approach, there can be none, because any appearance of virtue (e.g., his undeniable bravery as a soldier) or even normal conduct on Franco's part is explained away as a manifestation of innate hypocrisy, repressed desires, or some other warped psychological mechanism. Nothing Franco ever accomplished, nothing he ever said or wrote (including, oddly enough, a film script), is analyzed on its own merits, but only in terms of alleged psychological childhood traumas.
The author tells us of Franco's "neurotic sub-agenda" and the "torturous workings of [his] psyche."He "projected" feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, fear, sadism, mother-fixation and virulent hatred of his father onto "the masses" during the Spanish Civil War. He wanted to be "physically fused" with his mother because he confused her with Spain itself. Did he hate communism? Yes, and this, "was, at some level, rooted in his faulty relationship with his mother." He enjoyed hunting, which really meant he was "forced to sublimate his sexual needs and aggressive impulses by killing animals."And or have you guessed? he was sexually inadequate, and also (the author brings up again and again) short, squeeky-voiced, paunchy, and ugly. A bad dude, indeed.
But in order for such an approach to be useful to readers, we first have to have some evidence that those traumas occurred, and that they had an effect on Franco along the lines the author suggests. No such evidence is produced because none can be produced. Then we must have an even greater faith that the author is equipped, by training and temperament, to identify and analyze the alleged psychic wounds. Gabrielle Ashford Hodges is described on the book jacket as a "writer and historian," so it is unclear why should she be taken seriously in dealing with esoteric psychoanalytic matters. (She is, above all, politically correct: In a sentence dealing with Christopher Columbus' discovery of America, she places the word discovery within quotation marks. Take that, you white, imperialist, hegemonic pig.)
Franco is the only one in the book who is, so to speak, forcibly strapped down on the psycho-biographer's couch and beaten with a one-volume edition of the collected works of Sigmund Freud. Are we to believe that Franco's leftist and communist enemies, who committed atrocities as bad as, or often worse than, those of the Nationalists, were all models of mental health, with happy childhoods spent singing Woody Guthrie songs in socialist summer camps? The author writes well, she has done her homework, and her old-lefty ferocity gives the book a kind of wacky integrity, but "Franco: A Concise Biography" has all of the subtlety of a blow torch and much of the informative content of a primal scream.
Note: On page 198, the author refers to Franco's "Jewish heritage." Another biographer of Franco, Paul Preston, in his massive, detailed study of the Spanish dictator, refers to the rumors of a Franco Jewish connection as "idle speculation."Mr. Preston is Gabrielle Ashford Hodges' husband. Can we talk, dear?

My copy of "The New York Public Library Science Desk Reference" (1995) does not mention Philo T. Farnsworth (1906-1971) in the paragraph on television in the "Highlights of Technology" section. In fact, he is mentioned only once in this standard reference book, and even then his name is erroneously spelled"Pharnsworth."How is it possible that a man whose precocious inventive genius was once universally recognized is now forgotten?
Daniel Stashower answers that question in his thoroughly entertaining and informative The Boy Genius and the Mogul (Broadway Books, $24.95, 277 pages, illus.). Farnsworth is forgotten today primarily because he lost the public relations battle to establish himself in the public mind as the man who invented television. While undoubtedly brilliant and creative in the laboratory, Farnsworth wasn't equipped, by temperament or education, to fight against the financial resources of corporate giants, especially when his adversaries included David Sarnoff (1891-1971), head of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
There were many other fascinating characters involved in the decades-long struggle to see who would be the first to make the invention commercially available, e.g., John Logie Baird, C. Francis Jenkins, Vladimir Kosma Zworykin almost all of whom have been forgotten by history. But the battle finally came down to the likable boy genius and the utterly ruthless communications mogul.
Mr. Stashower tells the complicated story of television's origins clearly and concisely, and although I can't say I understood all the details of the physics involved, I was able to grasp the essence of the problem with which the book deals: Is it possible to invent an apparatus, with no moving parts, capable of transmitting pictures electronically over long distances?
Philo Farnsworth, when still in high school in Utah, said yes while almost every other scientist and inventor was saying no. He spent the rest of his life in laboratories and in the offices of patent lawyers trying to make his idea become reality. Although he was able to convince a banking syndicate to support his efforts and at one time worked with the Philco radio corporation, he was essentially a lone wolf, never happier than when he was working with his small band of loyal assistants.
David Sarnoff, a Russian Jewish immigrant of ferocious ambition (the word "abrasive" was applied to him more than once), swiftly rose through the ranks of the American Marconi company and became chairman of RCA. Prescient, patient, and indomitable, he wanted RCA not only to lead the way but totally dominate the television industry, decades before anyone else thought there ever would be such an industry. Mr. Stashower does a fine job in showinghow big money, organizational efficiency and strong corporate leadership tracked down and ultimately destroyed the lone wolf.

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


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