Here’s one that nearly got away. I’d read a couple of Bill Bryson’s books and decided to pass on “One Summer: America, 1927.” Then, thankfully, my book club picked it.
Bryson calls up all the stunning things that happened in 1927: a long and varied list that includes Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic Ocean, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, the 90-square-mile flooding of the Mississippi River, Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs, the emergence of Al Capone and on and on with the historic, the momentous and the curious happenings of that year.
Here are a few condensed samples:
Calvin Coolidge was Horace Harding’s vice president and, when Harding died, became our 30th president. Coolidge was an odd person — he spoke little, very little, taciturn almost to the point of silence. He answered interview questions with three- or four-word responses. I gathered that he wasn’t just passive-aggressive, he was passive-passive. (History has it that when Dorothy Parker was told that Coolidge had died she said, “How can they tell?”)
Charles Lindbergh, all 128 pounds of him, was 28 years old when he took off in his tiny, canvas-covered Spirit of Saint Louis from Curtiss Airfield on Long Island. He landed in Paris 33 1/2 hours later, met by a tumultuous crowd of screaming people. Lindbergh was suddenly the most well known man in the world; across America huge crowds gathered everywhere he went just to get a glimpse of him. Five-and-a-half million people lined the curbs for his parade up Broadway and 18 tons of ticker-tape filled the streets. Yes, he turned into an anti-Semitic creep, but he flew across an ocean first.
Babe Ruth was a force of nature: huge and loud and overbearing. 1927 was the year he hit the 60 home runs, when normal players were hitting 19 or 20. The record stood for 34 years, until Roger Maris, another Yankee, hit 61. Later in Ruth’s career, when his salary soared to $100,000, someone said to him, “That’s more than the president makes.” He replied, “I had a better year than him.”
The movie “Wings” — the first Academy Award-winner — debuted, with actors of the day but also with a short turn by Gary Cooper, not to mention Clara Bow, the “It Girl.” Her successful career was ended by the advent of sound, her Brooklyn accent jarring everyone who heard it.
The infamous Ponzi scheme is included; flagpole-sitting “Shipwreck” Kelly; Al Jolson; an almost moronic sounding Henry Ford; and much more.
Bryson, with a wry wit, tells us of many other events that occurred and numerous people who did something wonderful, or not so wonderful, in 1927. Reading the book is like opening the bottom drawer of an antique dresser you just bought at a yard sale and finding a big stack of newspapers from some way-back year. Hours later you’re still sitting on the floor flipping through them.
This is a feast of nostalgia, with gossipy tidbits you might not have known about. It was all before my time, but these were things my parents still talked about when I was a kid. A very entertaining book.
Jerry Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].