Saturday, July 23, 2005

Lots of people write their memoirs “for the grandchildren” and most such informal reminiscences are of interest only to the family, if at all. The Button Box: A Daughter’s Loving Memoir of Mrs. George S. Patton (University of Missouri, $34.95, 401 pages, illus.) by the famous general’s second daughter, Ruth Ellen Patton Totten, hardly lacks interest. Mrs. Totten (1915-1993), who completed her manuscript in 1979, shaped her memoir around her mother, Beatrice Ayer Patton (“Ma”), and the style is wry and jaunty. If you can persevere past all the pet names (“Bamps,” “Bama,” “Tinta”), this charming child’s eye view of the Old Army and the (presumably) wealthiest family therein can be fascinating.

Beatrice Ayer’s father was a self-made millionaire in Boston who, after fruitlessly trying to persuade the future general to abandon his profession, agreed to his daughter’s marriage, telling her that the two men “would henceforth each do the thing they did best: he would earn the money, and Georgie would earn the glory.” The money meant that the handsome young couple could honeymoon in Europe; could afford multiple polo ponies and governesses at army posts from Kansas to Texas, Hawaii, and Panama; and could indulge their joint interest in racing boats and equestrian competitions.

While Georgie pursued military glory to the exclusion of virtually everything else, including his children and often his wife, Beatrice Patton was a woman of many talents and interests, including languages, music, and drama: She could converse in German, French and Spanish, and she picked up a little Italian and enough Hawaiian to collect stories for a book she subsequently had published. When, as a major’s wife, she dropped her calling card at the Army chief of staff’s quarters in Fort Myer, she ended up chatting in the parlor with General MacArthur’s mother about Patton’s Confederate ancestor who had fought at Cedar Creek. Again at Fort Myer in the late 1930s, Beatrice developed a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she met while both rode horseback around the base.

Quite a few of the stories in this book are familiar because the unpublished “Button Box” manuscript was a primary source for other authors’ insights into the Patton family. And some of the stories are bizarre. Here’s an account of the diminutive Beatrice’s response to an unnamed colonel’s disparaging remark about her Georgie at a Sulgrave Club party: “The next thing Ma remembered was that she was sitting astride the gentleman’s shoulders and had his head on the floor, banging it against the black and white marble tiles while Georgie and several others were trying to pull her off.” Carlo d’Este accepts the story at face value in his Introduction to this book, but could it be apocryphal? It’s hard to tell when Pattons are involved.

Another family legend the author probably didn’t personally remember concerns the time when the Pattons lived near the Eisenhowers at Fort Meade and their son “Icky” was “just my age,” the author says. (The boy died at age three and a half.) The two Patton girls found Mrs. Eisenhower “the most glamorous creature” they’d ever met, perhaps because she “wore filmy negligees most of the day.” One day “Icky” caught a fish in a ditch near their quarters and “brought it to our house and asked Ma to cook it for him, as Mamie didn’t know how to cook.” After a while, “Ma” came out with a small fish “on a piece of buttered toast, garnished with a spring of parsley and a lemon wedge. Icky ate it in ecstasy. Ma told us later that she had opened a can of sardines and dressed one of them up for the occasion.”

With tales like this, who cares that once the general is off to war, the book tends to peter out? It’s a shame, however, that the publisher didn’t bother with an index or a professional editor, who would have caught errors like “dea ex machina” and “Kay Somersby.” (The authors’s son, James Patton Totten, edited the book.) If you fancy a chirpy romp through the between-the-wars Army, this book is for you. For a more reliable assessment of the family, read the superb “The Pattons: A Personal History of an American Family” (1994), by the general’s grandson, Robert H. Patton. Better yet, read them both.

Because America’s cities today are famously difficult to administer, they have increasingly become the province of professional city managers. There was a time, however, when unelected members of the urban elite devoted time and resources to the welfare of their city and played a key role in their development.

Such a leader was Charles C. Burlingham of New York City, now the subject of an exhaustive biography by Pennsylvania biographer George Martin, CCB: The Life and Century of Charles C. Burlingham, New York’s First Citizen, 1858-1959 (Hill and Wang, $35, 690 pages). Born in 1858, Burlingham graduated from Columbia Law School in 1881 and began a career in maritime law. He led a defense of the White Star Line following the sinking of the Titanic, gaining a ruling that the White Star Line, although British, could apply to American courts for a limitation on its liability. In court, Mr. Martin relates, Burlingham “was confident, clear in presenting the facts and law, and succinct in summing up. For these reasons he usually stood well with judges and, if the case had a jury, equally well with it.”

Burlingham held public office only twice in his long career, both times on the New York City Board of Education. But throughout his career he worked to reform the city and state judiciary, and to assure the appointment of honest, competent judges. In 1909 he pressed for the appointment of Learned Hand to the federal bench, and later urged the appointment of Benjamin Cardozo to the state supreme court. Both went on to distinguished judicial careers.

A Democrat in politics, Burlingham supported many liberal causes. In the 1920s he opposed the proposed expulsion of five socialists from the New York State assembly, and endorsed a retrial for the controversial anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Democrat or not, Burlingham was a long-time foe of Tammany Hall. In 1930, as president of the New York bar association, he succeeded in bringing about an investigation of the municipal courts that revealed widespread corruption in the administration of Mayor Jimmy Walker.

This biography is a reminder of the day when wealth carried with it a sense of noblesse oblige, an obligation to serve one’s community. In the last century New York City had Charles Burlingham; today it has Donald Trump.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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