His hair is the biggest thing about him, the woman in the next chair exclaimed as rail-thin best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell took his place Wednesday evening at the lectern in the University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena.
During the next hour, however, Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker and the man who gave us “The Tipping Point,” demonstrated two even bigger things about him – his ideas and his gift for storytelling.
In advance of this appearance in UB’s Distinguished Speakers Series, Gladwell and “The Tipping Point,” his world-changing analysis of how trends get started, were assigned to students this semester in the UB Reads program.
But rather than talk about that book, he wanted to dwell on his latest one, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.” Specifically, on Chapter 3, which centers on an act of defiance by Irish Catholic women in the face of heavily armed British soldiers in the early days of the civil war in Northern Ireland.
“The question that I explore in that chapter,” he said, “was what inspired the women to march? What compels underdogs to fight? ... But if I tell you too much about what’s in my book, I’ll diminish your incentive to read it.”
So Gladwell embarked on another tale to make the same point – that people will go along with a situation or a condition only if they believe it’s legitimate.
He told the story of Alva Smith, later Alva Vanderbilt and Alva Belmont, whom he described as “one of the great ... heroes of the 20th century.” She was a strong-willed woman living in wealth and privilege, he noted, but “halfway through her life, she became a radical, a very important radical.”
Gladwell laid out Alva’s story at length, with frequent observations on her talent for manipulation (“She was a force of nature”) and the excesses of the wealth she attained after she worked her wiles on the grandson of one of the richest men in America, Cornelius Vanderbilt.
He recounted how Alva built opulent homes in Manhattan and Newport, R.I., and forced her daughter to marry a penurious British peer, Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough and a first cousin of Winston Churchill.
But then, he continued, when her daughter returned to America more than a decade later, inflamed by the British suffragette movement, and gave a stirring speech to society women in New York City, Alva was transformed.
“She realizes there is something wrong with the structure of American society,” he said. “There will be no legitimacy until women get the right to vote. She surveys the state of the suffragette movement in America and she realizes it’s in shambles, so she barges in and takes over.”
She moved the suffragette movement’s headquarters from Ohio to Manhattan. She led a march through the Bowery in support of striking garment workers. She hired a lobbyist to push for women’s right to vote.
“She said, ‘Men don’t worry about antagonizing men, so why should I?’ ” he said. “You know what happened? On Aug. 18, 1920, women won the right to vote for the first time in our history.” The point, he said, is that “if you deny people legitimacy, they will one day, by one means or another, come back and defeat you.”