- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

So there we were, former Congressman John S. Monagan and I, sitting in his den, the fire blazing, drinks in our hands, as he regaled me with stories of his political career, his love of music, and the many people he has met and befriended. He amazed me with his near-total recall of a rich and varied life. At the end of a few hours, this charming 90-year-old smiled and ushered me gently out the door. I knew I had met a civil and civilized man.
Well, it didn't happen quite that way. In fact, I have never had the honor of meetingMr. Monagan. But in reading his chatty, delightful memoir, A Pleasant Institution: Key C Major (University Press of America , $42, 410 pages, illus.), I felt as ifI were listening to the tales of a gifted storyteller rather than reading a book. The title offers a clue as to why his book is different from memoirs of most former Washington officials. The words, "a pleasant institution" come from W. S. Gilbert's lyrics for "The Gondoliers," and refer not to politics or to Congress, but to life itself.
(Quick list the number of congressmen you believe know that operetta well enough to quote from it. A very short list, indeed.) Any man who had a long friendship with the distinguished English novelist Anthony Powell, and who can say he was once "given the job of acting as assistant director for a … choir presentation of the Rossini Stabat Mater"isn't your ordinary pol.
From his childhood as a member of a well-to-do Waterbury, Conn., family (his father was a doctor) to his education at Dartmouth (most Catholic boys of his time and social class went to Fordham), and from his tenure as mayor of his hometown to his 14-year career in the House of Representatives, John Monagan has brought a cultivated and discerning mind to the problems his community and the nation have faced.
A loyal member of the Democratic Party, he has some shrewd and at times critical things to say about such party heroes as Franklin Roosevelt (Mr. Monagan voted for Wendell Willkie in 1940 ) and John F. Kennedy. Of Kennedy's Inaugural Address he notes "the excessive promises and the overblown phrases" of a speech that suffered from "stridency and episodic character." Any Democrat who can cast a cold and critical eye on that over-praised speech has my vote, any day.
Note: During World War II, Mr. Monagan dated the great singer Eileen Farrell. One night they went to a New York nightclub and heard a group sing "a new ersatz piece called 'Stalin Wasn't Stallin,' which paid tribute to the Russian success against the Germans … ." I have never heard this little ditty, but I imagine it contained lyrics like: "Ol' Uncle Joe was really jammin' / During the Ukrainian famine."

One of my favorite short stories is "The Eighty Yard Run" by Irwin Shaw, the classic tale of what one critic called "the early-climax boys," men who achieve fame at an early age and then spend the rest of their lives waiting in vain for lightning to strike again.In The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives (Vintage Books, $14, 309 pages, illus.) Sebastian Faulks, best known for "Birdsong," a novel of World War I, looks at the same phenomenon from a slightly different angle.
His biographical subjects Christopher Wood, a painter, Richard Hillary, an RAF pilot, and Jeremy Wolfden, "the brightest Englishman of his generation" had early successes, or at least showed early promise, but never lived long enough to discover whether greater things were in store. The three young, attractive, talented golden boys blazed brightly for a few years, dazzled many of their contemporaries, died young, and left their friends wondering what might have been.
Anyone who has read "Birdsong" knows how well Mr. Faulks can write, and he hasn't lost his touch in turning from fiction to biography. The "three short lives" of the title refers not only to the fact that the subjects all died young, but to the author's admirably concise, yet detailed, handing of the material. Each biographical sketch takes about 100 pages, but each life is shown against the social, political, and intellectual backgrounds of the times.
"Kit" Wood's paintingsimpressed many knowledgeable observers (including Pablo Picasso) during the 1920s, but he spent too much time smoking opium, going to parties, engaging in bisexual affairs, and moping about the fact that he never could quite make the breakthrough from precocious facility to the artistic mastery of which he (and others) believed he was capable. Richard Hillary went directly from Oxford to the RAF, flew a number of missions in the Battle of Britain, and was horribly mutilated by fire when his plane was shot down. He endured many agonizing operations, wrote a well received book about his RAF experiences and then, fatally, argued his way back to active service.
Jeremy Wolfden was one of those terrifyingly bright young Englishmen who seem to have learned everything by age 18 and thereafter are bored out of their minds. Was his death at age 31 the result of Cold War skullduggery?Or was he merely an alcoholic, homosexual journalist, all promise and not much performance, who had reached the end of the line? Mr. Faulks examines the questions and comes up with some intriguing answers. I recommend this book not only because of its author's writing skill, and the intrinsic interest of the lives involved, but because Mr. Faulks has demonstrated that a story of a life does not have to be long to be good.

In Beside Me Still: A Memoir of Love and Loss in World War II (Naval Institute Press, $34.95, 288 pages, illus.) Elizabeth R. P. Shaw, perfectly captures the romantic quality of one of those grand old movies in which a handsome, brave, young naval officer (Van Johnson?) meets a pretty, starry-eyed, "swell gal" (June Allyson?), and sweeps her off her feet. They get married, he goes to war, comes back a hero, and, at the end, embraces her, as the theme music swells into rhapsodic bliss.
But as Mrs. Shaw tells us, her brief, ecstatic marriage to Annapolis graduate VanOstrand Perkins did not have a happy ending. In October of 1944, he died, doing his duty, in an explosion at sea when his ship came to the aid of a stricken aircraft carrier. After a relatively carefree life of middle-class privilege and comfort, his wife's dreams were suddenly shattered by his death. But there was a happy ending after all, because she subsequently fell in love with and married Jim Shaw, a naval friend of her late husband, and they have evidently lived a full and rewarding life together.
The author has strong opinions, on every subject from Franklin D. Roosevelt (she didn't like him) to the failure of the Navy to award her late husband the Navy Cross, which she firmly believes he deserved. If there is anyone still believes the myth that strong, ambitious, determined American women did not exist until the 1960s, Mrs. Shaw's memoir will be a revelation. I found her story inspiring, at times funny, touching, and a pleasure to read.

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

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