This Living Hand and Other Essays by Edmund Morris, Random House, 496 pages ($32). Here is not an everyday problem. A universally lauded biographer of Teddy Roosevelt has been persuaded that his next presidential subject should be Ronald Wilson Reagan. He wins the approval of the Reagans to be the president’s “authorized” biographer, with all the massive access that implies. He soon discovers that “the central paradox about Ronald Reagan, our most world-changing president since Harry Truman, was that a man so attractive in his public persona, so implacable in negotiation and so transparently decent a human being, could have been such a bone-cracking bore. … It wasn’t what he said or wrote that glazed your eyes … Only where you begin to note around the sixth or thirty sixth time he repeated himself, that his facial expressions, his phraseology, even his self-deprecatory chuckles seemed to be projected from some inner, infinitely replayable DVD, did you get the creepy feeling he was not quite real and wondered where, if anywhere, the real Reagan was.”
The resultant “biography” by Edmund Morris – called “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan” – was a scandal, a “biography” where facts were presented in an entirely fictional “memoir” by a Reagan contemporary, a wild and wickedly deviant bit of creativity that solved Morris’ “bone-cracking bore” problem but earned almost universal obloquy from “history profs and political drones” as well as TV reporters (Lesley Stahl calls him after his “Today” show set-to with Katie Couric and nastily chuckles over Morris’ evasions). It is Morris’ curse that he is, self-evidently in this essay collection, the exact opposite of a “bone-cracking bore.” Musical subjects abound in these merrily perverse pages, as befitting a Beethoven biographer. So do pieces on Teddy Roosevelt (of course). But he is fascinating too about Evelyn Waugh, Janet Malcolm and, in one essay, renowned public prevaricators Bill Clinton, Lillian Hellman, Teddy Kennedy and O.J. Simpson. His final defense of “Dutch” called “The Ivo Pogorelich of Presidential Biography” turns out to be a near-classic overview of civilization’s long and complex contrapuntal interplay between imagination and fact.
– Jeff Simon.