Anyone who knows me knows that I love the 1920s. What began with reading Gatsby in 7th grade has turned into a minor obsession the last few years. I have fallen in love with Zelda Fitzgerald and Louise Brooks, and would take Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin over any modern day comedian any day. That said, I wasn’t sure what things would be new to me in Bill Bryson’s book One Summer: America 1927, but was pleasantly surprised to find any number of new tidbits. I put the audiobook on my Ipod and listened to the first half or so while traveling around the country and did not take any notes on it. (It was full of good stories to fall asleep to on the train. Well, as much as I ever was able to sleep on the train.)
For those not to familiar with the year, some of the major happenings that summer included Henry Ford stopping production on the Model T, The Jazz Singer and the introduction of talking pictures, Charles Lindberg’s fight to Paris, the best season in Babe Ruth’s life and an amazing season by the Yankees, Calvin Coolidge, prohibition, Al Capone, the creation of TV, the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the beginning of Mount Rushmore.
And so here are some things I found interesting from the second half (once I was home and started making note of these things):
- Lou Gehrig was a mama’s boy. He and Babe Ruth, while polar opposites in many ways, were the best of friends – at least until Ruth was found messing around with Gehrig’s wife. Oh, Babe.
- Driver seats were on the right side of cars so that the driver could step out onto the sidewalk or a patch of grass, rather than onto the muddy road. Henry Ford put moved the driver’s seat to the left side because he thought the ladies would appreciate being able to step out onto the grass/sidewalk. Other car manufacturers followed this lead.
- Ford set up Fordlandia, in theory an ideal American town, in Brazil in order to get control over rubber prices. It was basically an autonomous state. It didn’t end well. Nor did it start well. The middle was pretty much a disaster as well.
- Mount Rushmore was supposed to have a 500 word history of the United States chiseled below it with letters big enough to be seen 3 miles away. The task was given to Calvin Coolidge, who put in a great deal of work (especially considering he averaged a four hour work day as president), but it never came to pass.
- Al Jolson’s idea of a good joke was to urinate on people.
- By 1927 more people were being deported from Ellis Island then were coming in through it. Ah, those pesky immigrants always coming to try to take away “our” America.
- Zane Grey was a bit of a sex fiend, taking illicit photos and filling ten journals with his sexual exploits – all written in secret code.
- Edgar Rice Burroughs was a big believer in eugenics and many of his plots dealt with creating super beings. Bryson notes that Tarzan could be seen as the poster boy for the eugenics movement, which was pretty huge in America until that whole Nazi thing happened.
- By 1927 Chicago had never convicted a mobster of anything.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone interested in the 1920s or history in general.