It is 21 years ago today that Millicent Fenwick passed away and 10 years since Millicent Fenwick: Her Way was first published. I cannot believe either milestone. The other thing that always surprises me is that despite the passing of time, Fenwick still makes headlines every election season, at least in New Jersey. We’ll see if the same holds true this year with the gubernatorial race and Frank Lautenberg’s open Senate seat. Ironically, it was Lautenberg’s death this past June that once again revived Millicent Fenwick in print as it was Fenwick that Lautenberg defeated to win his first Senate campaign 31 years ago. Today we remember the feisty pipe-smoking grandmother and can only imagine what she would do if she was in Congress today.
Not only is today the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, but it is also my son’s first birthday. I’m not sure how many expectant mother’s are focused on what day their baby is born, but I was. I was due on August 25th and from the onset was hoping my little one would arrive on August 28th. The little fellow cooperated (and he has been cooperating ever since, except at bed time). I went into labor in the wee hours of August 28th and he arrived late that afternoon. Not only was my little one born on the historic anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech, but I avoided having to share my baby’s birthday with the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina which was the next day, August 29th.
That said, our day will be spent watching live coverage of the commemoration of the March on Washington and smashing cake.
For those interested in reading more about the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and dedication, see the posts from August 2011 (August 28 and August 31) and October 2011.
I woke up this morning and eagerly flipped through the pages of The Washington Post (yes, the hard copy). I was looking for something commemorating this day, June 11, in history. I didn’t find what I was looking for in the print version so I went to The Washington Post online and found an interesting AP story about Peggy Wallace Kennedy who has spent her life living in the shadows of her father, segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace.
It was fifty years ago today that Wallace came face to face with Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach over the integration of the University of Alabama. The photograph capturing the stand in the school house door is one of the most iconic images of the civil rights movement (see my post from June 11, 2011) http://sixdegreesofmillicent.wordpress.com/2011/06/11/the-stand-in-the-schoolhouse-door/.
Tuesday, June 11, 1963 started off tense in Alabama. Later that day President Kennedy was forced to mobilize the National Guard to insure that two African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, were able to register peacefully at the University of Alabama. But as that day turned to night violence erupted shortly after midnight. Civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed in his own driveway in Jackson, Mississippi as his wife and children looked on in horror.
Their nightmare was just beginning shortly after President John F. Kennedy gave a watershed speech on civil rights in which he equated civil rights as a moral issue for the first time. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution,” said President Kennedy, “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” A year later the Civil Rights Act was passed to do just that, but President Kennedy never lived to see that day nor did Medgar Evers or many other foot soldiers in the civil rights movement. My fear this morning was that history was being forgotten. But by the end of the day I learned otherwise. To mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s civil rights speech the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library announced the launching of a new website that documents “the 1963 civil rights narrative … drawn principally from the Kennedy Library archives.” Thus history lives on.
As much as I hate to admit it, it’s been ten years since Millicent Fenwick: Her Way was published. On the book tour I met many fascinating people and spoke at all sorts of incredible venues. This past weekend that experience came full circle when the Burlington County Republican Women invited me to speak at their Second Annual Tea.
The invitation came at the suggestion of New Jersey State Senator Diane Allen whom I met on the book tour when she received a public service award. All these years later she remembered and I had the pleasure of speaking at her home on the bank of the Delaware River where the tea was held. The rains had subsided and the sun was trying to peek through. The setting couldn’t have been more serene and the participants couldn’t have been more engaging. Some women brought their daughters and nieces and others brought their mothers. Among the youngest was 11-year-old Grace whose mother is a former state judge and 12-year-old Amanda who attended because she wants to be a writer.
On the other end of the spectrum was former Freeholder and former 7th District State Senator Cathy Costa who was full of stories about standing up to her male colleagues and who was the first Director of the New Jersey Division of Alcohol Beverage Control. Other women in attendance included Burlington County Sheriff Jean Stanfield and Delanco Township Mayor Kate Fitzpatrick, among several elected officials.
Given the recent passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg I was asked to speak about the 1982 Senate campaign in which Millicent Fenwick lost her first election at the age of 72 to political newcomer Lautenberg. Fenwick should have won, but she was her own worst enemy. She refused to spend money to counter her self-financed challenger and she refused to hit the campaign trail if Congress was in session. I could go on and on about the long list of reasons why Fenwick lost, but basically she did everything wrong, and didn’t listen to her advisors, compared to Lautenberg who did everything right from defining the issues to advertising. But the women in attendance didn’t need a campaign 101 since most of them have already had success at the ballot box. And it was encouraging to see so many young people in attendance, hopefully shaping a new generation of female elected officials.
A special thanks to Senator Allen for hosting and Lisa Conte and Linda Hughes for organizing!
My first memory of Frank Lautenberg dates back to high school. Mrs. Forsman’s senior honors history class went to Washington and we were going to meet with Senator Frank Lautenberg, our state senator. Around the same time, legislation passed in the wee hours of the night. An amendment tacked on to a bill sold Linden Airport for $1. My father, Jack Elliott, an aviation columnist was livid about the deal. Ironically, my father and Frank Lautenberg were born on the same day, same year – January 23, 1924 – in New Jersey. Despite this irony, my father was not a fan and he challenged me to ask Senator Lautenberg about the Linden Airport deal when I went to Washington. The exact details have faded from my memory, but at the time they were as clear as day. The bigger challenge was not remembering the facts, but gaining enough courage to ask a question. I was extremely shy.
My high school class arrived at Senator Lautenberg’s office and I got my first lesson on how Washington works. We didn’t meet with Senator Lautenberg; we met with a very young staffer. I was disappointed about not meeting the Senator, but it was much easier to ask the big question to someone not much older than me. And so I did what I didn’t even do in class, I raised my hand. I was called upon and asked the question. The staffer had not a clue about what I was talking about and bumbled his way through an answer.
Fast forward, years later when I was writing my biography of Millicent Fenwick and Frank Lautenberg was still a senator. He was first elected in 1982. It was his first campaign and his challenger was the popular grandmother in congress, Millicent Fenwick. The pair couldn’t have been more different. Both were wealthy, but Fenwick was frugal and Lautenberg wasn’t. He was willing to spend his personal war chest to defeat her and he did.
One of his arguments against Fenwick was her age. She was 72 and he was 58. Lautenberg said she would be too old to have staying power in the Senate, yet he proved his own theory wrong. Lautenberg served in the Senate for nearly thirty years, but not consecutively. In 2001, he retired, but it didn’t last long. In New Jersey scandal always rears it’s ugly head. It did so in 1982, creating a vacancy when Senator Harrison Williams resigned due to the Abscam scandal. He was convicted of bribery and conspiracy paving the way for Lautenberg’s first victory. In 2003, it was Senator Torricelli who got caught up in scandal, this time it related to illegal campaign contributions. Last minute, Torricelli pulled out of the Senate race and Lautenberg was recruited by the Democratic Party to run in Torricelli’s place. Lautenberg did and he won.
During his long career as a public servant, Lautenberg was an advocate for gun safety, transportation, public health and environmental issues. Despite his health, Lautenberg made it to the Senate floor in April to vote in favor of tougher gun control laws, and, specifically stricter background checks. The measure failed, but his vote was counted.
Although Lautenberg died today, June 3, attention isn’t being focused on his long career and many accomplishments, but rather the politics of his vacant seat and the balance of power in the Senate. Lautenberg was a Democrat, and Republican NJ Governor Chris Christie gets to appoint an interim successor. Speculation is already going viral on what Christie should do.
Regardless of who replaces Lautenberg, chances are they will not be a World War II vet. Lautenberg was the last remaining WWII veteran serving in the Senate. Like Lautenberg, my father is also a WWII veteran. Unlike, Lautenberg, my father is still with us.
Last weekend I attended the fourth annual Biographers International Organization (BIO) Annual Conference held in New York City. This year more than 225 biographers gathered at the Roosevelt Hotel to discuss research, writing, book reviews, social media, and a host of other topics.
I had the pleasure of moderating a panel entitled “Crafting Biography” featuring three biographers – Kate Buford, David Stewart, and Marc Leepson – who among them have written more than a dozen books. My favorite tidbit from this panel was from Marc Leepson. He does not sleep with a notebook by his side to capture all those brilliant late night ideas. Instead, he uses his phone to send himself e-mails about his words of wisdom. Why didn’t I think of that?
For those that lament the obstacles of finishing a book, feel sorry for yourselves no longer. Amanda Foreman, award-winning author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, managed to finish her second book, A World on Fire, with five children under five and a husband diagnosed with cancer. She regaled the audience with tales of how she accomplished this feat including how she had to return her original advance and find another publisher. I will never complain again.
The conference isn’t just about what you learn, but who you meet. On Friday, I took a research tour of several libraries with our guide, Nancy Goldstone. At the New York Public Library I learned about the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Papers, and have since found correspondence between him and the subject of my next book, Nicholas Katzenbach. One letter in particular provided me with a timeframe for a William Safire column I have tried to track down. I was off by about a decade, no wonder why I couldn’t find it?!?
Networking is another perk of BIO. At the conference I met fellow writer Steve Weinberg who is writing about Garry Trudeau. I did a slew of research about the evolution of Lacey Davenport, most of which I didn’t include in my book due to space constraints. Now, however, I plan to give the Lacey research to Weinberg so it can be put to good use. And for me, Weinberg offered to put me in touch with his father who was in the same POW camp, Stalag Luft III, as Nicholas Katzenbach during World War II. I’m always surprised by the bountiful serendipity that occurs at BIO.
I could go on and on about all the connections made, but I don’t want to bore the reader. So I’ll conclude where the conference ended, awarding the first Plutarch Award to Robert Caro for The Passage of Power, his fourth volume on President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Ironically, Caro was in Texas doing research for his next LBJ volume so one of his editors, Katherine Hourigan from Knopf, accepted the award on his behalf. Well-deserved.
After a long hiatus, Six Degrees of Millicent is back. And it’s only appropriate that there is a connection between today, May 7, and Millicent Fenwick. To historians and trivia lovers May 7, 1915 is the day a German U-Boat torpedoed the Lusitania, a British luxury liner. To Millicent Fenwick it was the day she lost her mother.
Her parents were among nearly 2,000 people who set sail on the Lusitania for the cross-Atlantic voyage from New York to Liverpool, England. Like the Titanic, the Lusitania was the biggest and best of its day. Unlike the Titanic, there were warnings that danger lay ahead. The Germany Embassy took out an ad in the New York Times warning passengers not to sail on the Lusitania because “a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies … and travelers sailing in the war zone … do so at their own risk.“
Despite the warnings, Millicent’s mother, Mary Picton Stevens, would not alter her travel plans. She did, however, draft and sign a will prior to her departure. Millicent’s father, Ogden, tried to change his wife’s mind but to no avail. Realizing she was going no matter what, Ogden accompanied his wife as he didn’t want her to make the journey alone. As fate would have it, Mary was among the nearly 1,200 dead and her loyal husband, Ogden, survived. Millicent was just five-years-old when her mother died leaving a gaping hole in her young life.
In the current issue of Smithsonian there is an article about “8 Famous People Who Missed the Lusitania” and Millicent is included in that story. To read more about her and the other famous people who were not aboard the Lusitania that fateful day visit: