Tag Archives: missouri

Book Review: Standing on a Volcano: The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis (Harper Barnes 2001)

Rating: 5/5

David Rowland Francis was mayor of St. Louis and governor of Missouri, the only man to have done both in a state that distrusts its urban centers. When Academic Hall burned down at the University of Missouri, he kept the university in Columbia. Francis brought the 1904 Olympics and World’s Fair to St. Louis. From 1916 to 1917, Francis was the US Ambassador to Russia, serving through the February Revolution and the October Bolshevik Revolution. In its first half, Standing on a Volcano details Francis’ family life and career in Missouri; in its second half, it details his service in Russia. In Missouri, Francis is a man in his element, a man who knows how the machine whirs; in Russia, we see Francis struggle to grasp the mechanisms of a society whose machine has gone haywire. It’s a fascinating biography and a fascinating history of St. Louis and the Russian revolution.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I attended the University of Missouri. I’m a St. Louis native, and I love Russian history. The quadrangle at Mizzou is the Francis Quad, but I didn’t learn about David R. Francis until the 250th anniversary of St. Louis exhibit at the Missouri Historical Society. I bought this biography in the gift shop.

THE GOOD

  • Volcano (like so many St. Louisans) discusses why Chicago boomed and St. Louis didn’t. We often blame the Civil War, but Barnes suggests the steamboat. Chicago developed rail, while St. Louis languished.  A rail route crossed the Mississippi west of Chicago before the Civil War; the St. Louis Eads Bridge was completed in 1874, well after the contest was lost. Barnes also argues that the St. Louis business community was more conservative in an era that, overall, rewarded risk. After learning about the St. Louis business community in Veiled Prophet and the Chicago business community in Death in the Haymarket, this feels true.
  • Philip Jordan was a light-skinned black man from Jefferson City, an orphan or something close to it, a street fighter with a drinking problem. He became Francis’ indispensable companion, accompanying him to Russia. We so rarely learn about the support staff of our famous antecedents, and Jordan is fascinating. He became fluent in Russian, expertly navigating the food shortages of conflict-ravaged Russia. In Russia Jordan was perceived as native, but perhaps from the south. In the United States, he was often mistaken for white, but subject to the discrimination of the era whenever his race was known.
  • Volcano indirectly reveals how women and people of color get written out of history. Francis wrote little of Jordan, his companion, caregiver, and even partner of many years. A Russian woman, Matilda de Cramm, also occupies much of the book, and was a close friend to Francis during his time in Russia. Francis mentions her once in his book about the revolution. If we were to use only documents from Francis, we would see very little of Jordan or Madame de Cramm.
  • I enjoyed the examination contrast of diplomatic veterans with Francis. Although history has sometimes been unkind to Francis (Russia didn’t turn out so well, after all), Volcano makes the case for Francis.

 THE BAD

  • It’s great that Volcano includes Matilda de Cramm, a Russian woman whom many suspected to be a German spy. Francis had some level of inappropriate relationship with her during his ambassadorship, which elicited a lot of gossip. But we learn little about her. The book includes dozens of contemporary speculations and frettings about de Cramm. It was a big part of Francis’ time in Russia, but ultimately, there is very little of substance. She doesn’t seem to have been a German spy. It was hard to track and boring after a while.
  • Francis’ Kentucky childhood and family genealogy was dull and I would have preferred less of it.

 

OVERALL

If you have an interest in St. Louis history or Russian history, at least half of this book is worth your while. I’ve never read a nonfiction book with such contrasting halves, but I really enjoyed it. The contrast made for an interesting human study as well. We see a man working in his element, and the same man struggling to tread water. We see 19th century American wheeling and dealing, and we see foreign policy. Francis was a free-market enthusiast, but saw the argument for socialism in Russia. The reader sees Francis’ thinking evolve with his experiences; he wasn’t an ideologue. I enjoyed Standing on a Volcano as a history and as a biography.

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Book Review: The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration (Thomas Spencer 2000)

Rating: 3.5/5

St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995 details a strange institution in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. The Veiled Prophet celebration was St. Louis’ response to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras inverts the social order; the fool is king for a day, and the rich man mingles with the poor man. The Veiled Prophet celebration was created to reinforce the social order, to show the lower classes the differences between them and the leading luminaries. Veiled Prophet details the evolution of this celebration; it began in 1878 in response to a massive labor strike in 1877, and continues to this day, although less overtly political.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Starting in the late 1970s, The Veiled Prophet society organized the Fourth of July celebration in St. Louis. Until 1992, the celebration was called the VP Fair (today it is called Fair St. Louis). When I learned with bafflement that the VP stood for “Veiled Prophet,” I grew curious. The Veiled Prophet society is such an old tradition in St. Louis, but little talked about, due to lack of interest and the elitist threads of the society. But many of the most influential St. Louisans took part in this strange organization; it’s a part of St. Louis history and shapes today’s city. Many of you even know a queen of the Veiled Prophet Ball—Ellie Kemper, perhaps better known as Kimmy Schmidt.

THE GOOD

The Veiled Prophet society, to the extent folks even remember it today, has a reputation for being snobbish and racist. It was unsurprising to learn that the society formed to praise the strong hand of business in the face of labor unrest. (For more about 19th century labor unrest, Death in the Haymarket is a great book; I reviewed it here.)

Initially, the parade anchored the celebration, timed to revive the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair in October. It was an attempt, although too late, to compete with Chicago. The Veiled Prophet was a robed man, his face hidden, that oversaw the parade. The first Veiled Prophet was Police Commissioner John Priest, an active foe of the prior year’s labor riots. After Priest voluntarily unveiled himself in 1878, the Prophet’s identity remained secret, revealed only once by a crazed caper in 1972.

The celebration evolved with time. Some decades the parade would be educational, others more lighthearted. With time, the Veiled Prophet Ball became the more important component; at its peak it was covered in minute detail in the local papers, and even broadcast nationally after World War 2. The Veiled Prophet character evolved too. Originally just a title, they eventually added a mythology of an exotic easterner.

The relationship between the organization and the media changed substantially with time as well. The Republic was owned by members of the society, and thus covered the events in detail. More recent coverage has been more critical.

I also enjoyed reading about the people involved, though there was less of this than I would have liked. David R. Francis, the man who brought the Olympics and the World’s Fair to St. Louis, was an active member. One of the first members, Alonzo Slayback, died after a fight with a newspaperman. The 1927 Veiled Prophet queen was, scandalously, already married at the time she became queen, and, even worse, without her father’s permission! In an interview in 1977, she mused that the society still hadn’t gotten over it.

THE BAD

Although Veiled Prophet is meticulously researched, it is fairly dry. It reads like a list of facts and newspaper archives more than a narrative. The roles of the people involved in the society are only lightly sketched. This meant the book was shorter, but less relatable.

Also absent is any local St. Louis history. The World’s Fair, the tornado of 1896, mayoral elections and politics, various strikes—these events do not appear in the book.

The book stays narrowly focused on the Veiled Prophet society, for good or ill. I would have preferred more context. This book is, for the most part, just the facts, and less interpretation than some other works of history.

OVERALL

This book is a 5/5 for content about the society and quality of sources. The writing quality is fine, but the narrow approach of the topic makes it a dry read. For someone interested in St. Louis history, it is well worthwhile. I found it less enjoyable and informative than I had hoped; I wanted to better understand St. Louis history, the Veiled Prophet context in that history, and how St. Louis differed from other cities in this respect. This book doesn’t offer a lot of interpretation for the reader. Not everybody wants that, but I was hoping for it.

Girls in boys sports: My experience playing boys water polo

A few days ago, I read about an 11-year-old girl in Philadelphia who has been kicked off her football team because and only because she is a girl. It is a Catholic league, so technically they may discriminate as they wish. The archdiocese says they wish to prevent her injury. I was dismayed to see comments on various websites that many people agree with this decision. I have also heard similar rationales for not allowing women in combat.

First off, the obvious stuff. The girl, Caroline Pla, is 5’3″ and 110 pounds. This is above average for an 11-year-old. She has played for years and played well. There are undoubtedly boys smaller than her, so we know her size is not the issue. Yes the boys will be getting bigger, but she probably will too. Does anybody think Holley Mangold (sister of NFL player Nick Mangold), who played football in Ohio and is an Olympic weightlifter, was too small? Men and women both come in large and small. But by this logic, all men and big and strong, and all women are small and weak.

I played boys water polo in high school. It was called boys water polo, even though football was not called boys football. This was because in other states, there was girls water polo, but not in the state of Missouri. In college I also played on a men’s team. Now there is a women’s team where I live, and I play women’s water polo.

As a girl playing water polo, I was often not welcomed either. The year after I graduated high school, one of my teammates told the school paper he didn’t believe girls should play because they weren’t strong enough and could get hurt. I was shocked when I read it. I am 5’10” and 160 pounds– I was one of the tallest and fastest players on the team and the only lefty. I had a weak arm, but I did other things well. Our varsity team only had nine players. The game requires seven to play, and many of the other teams had whole lines of substitutes. We had two substitutes. But one of my teammates felt strongly enough that girls should not play on a team lacking players that he agreed to be quoted in the paper.

In high school and college I often dealt with hostility. I was once extensively groped by an opposing player in a way that had nothing to do with gameplay. (Players often say that we make “friends” when gameplay results in intimate contact.) He failed to stop even after I asked him to stop. Fortunately, much of the action in water polo is underwater and invisible to the refs, and I delivered a well-placed kick. Often opposing teams immediately pegged me as the weakest despite the fact that I was not the smallest. Players often didn’t bother to guard me as tightly. But my teammates had subtle yet obvious biases too. Even when I was unguarded, they often would not pass me the ball. One of my teammates (who was otherwise a friend) felt it his duty to yell at me every time I failed to score if I shot. When I did score, the whole pool would gasp, which was simultaneously gratifying and annoying.

Missouri had only 18 high school teams when I played, and thus water polo should have been clamoring for all the participants they could. But that was not the case. Some of the schools had reputations of being hostile to girls, without officially disallowing them. For the good of the boys and girls and the sport, realistically water polo in Missouri and many places can use anyone it can get.

Despite all this, I did and still do love water polo. I never for a moment considered quitting polo. I liked playing against bigger and faster players and testing my limits. I once played against a training mate of Michael Phelps. What pains me most I think is all the girls who never played because of the nonsense. I knew plenty of girls who would have played water polo, but they didn’t want to play with the boys. They were smaller or just didn’t care for the stigma of it. There were a couple other girls on the team with me too. Even if we formed a girl’s team, there were no other girls teams to play. Out east, I play women’s polo now. It’s awesome to be among the biggest and fastest and strongest with the girls, and I can play a different style of game. But there are gameplay merits to each game, and I wish it would just boil down to that.

Both girls and boys should be encouraged to play sports, and we should not be telling girls or boys that all boys are stronger than all girls. We should retire the phrase “throw like a girl”. Girls should play contact sports if they wish to, and they should have their own leagues too. Water polo gives me a new appreciation for the power of my own body; in this age of image obsession and eating disorders, we should give more girls the opportunity to appreciate their bodies. Why should Caroline Pla not play the sport she loves?

Artists: Thomas Hart Benton

Previously I have talked about depression era posters and Soviet propaganda posters. Thomas Hart Benton was a depression era painter and muralist from southwest Missouri. Growing up in St. Louis, I was exposed to his art from a young age. His shading brings the people in his paintings to life. He often depicts scenes of work, as suits the depression. (Both of the images in this entry can be found on Wikipedia.)

Cut the Line (Wikipedia)

If you for some reason find yourself in Jefferson City, Missouri (unlikely), the capitol building has many of his murals. Then stop by Central Dairy, where you can get a pile of amazing ice cream for very little $. Then you have seen all there is to see in the illustrious capitol.