It Was All Started by a Mouse

We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin — a little fellow trying to do the best he could. When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human; and that is the secret of his popularity. I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.

— Walt Disney


There he is, lying in the ruins of a bombed-out apartment building. Mickey Mouse, splayed, limbs akimbo, surrounded not by the denizens of the Magic Castle, but a bleak war-zone landscape of rocks, shards of glass, a dark red truck, a couple of people in the distance, but otherwise devoid of humanity. The caption to the photograph reads:

#108: A child’s toy lies amidst broken glass from the shattered windows of an apartment block near those that were demolished by Israeli air strikes in Tyre, southern Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 7, 2006. Israeli bombs slammed into a complex of buildings flattening four multistoried apartment blocks, including the one apartment that had been the target of Saturday’s Israeli commando raid, whilst a civil defense ambulance was hit in the rear and slightly damaged with emergency workers who had gone to the bomb site to search for bodies being forced to flee.

The implications may depend on our politics. Here is a child’s toy and the ruins of an apartment building. We know enough — “Israeli bombs slammed into a complex of buildings” — to infer (correctly or incorrectly) that Israeli forces targeted civilians. The Mickey Mouse photograph is not unique. A blog post, “The Passion of the Toys,” collected a number of wire service photographs taken in southern Lebanon. The sheer number of toys photographed seems to suggest that some of the images could have been staged.

Among the photographs are a Minnie Mouse and an assortment of non-Disney toys, taken by Reuters photographers (Sharif Karim, Issam Kobeisi, Mohamed Azakir, among others), and one photograph with a Mickey Mouse in Tyre, Lebanon by an Associated Press photographer (Ben Curtis). Why are there so many similar photographs? How did all these toys come to be photographed? What is the viewer supposed to infer from such a scene? Is it simply that the idea of children and their toys ratchets up the drama of a war photograph? The juxtaposition of innocence and destruction in one image? Is it just anti-war? Or is something more sinister involved? Is it disguised propaganda with a definite bias towards one side or another?

I wanted to speak with all the “toy photographers,” but found that only Ben Curtis, Chief Photographer/Photo editor, Middle East, of the Associated Press, was willing to be interviewed.

ERROL MORRIS: The first time I noticed your name in a blog was in connection with toys.

BEN CURTIS: It was after there had been a bunch of strikes on a housing estate in Tyre, that the Israelis had said was housing for Hezbollah operations. Very large strikes. We’d been outside the hospital in Tyre when we heard these huge explosions, and we could see smoke not too far away. We hit the ground. About 10, 15 minutes later, myself and a bunch of other journalists headed up to the scene, where a couple of multi-story apartment buildings had been completely flattened. And one of the pictures I took was a toy Mickey Mouse that was in the street. A number of blogs were suggesting that it had either been put there or moved there, or placed in the middle of the street, which of course it hadn’t. The buildings that hadn’t been flattened, but were directly opposite, half the contents of the apartments had been strewn into the street. There were sofas; there were children’s toys; there were books — all sorts of the usual things that you have in an apartment were scattered everywhere. Now, interestingly, when I sent that photo, the editors on the AP desk called me up and said, “Ben, we have to ask, was that toy there when you arrived? Was it moved? Was it placed there? Was it altered in any way, either by yourself or by other media?” These are the questions that, as an editor, you sometimes have to ask your photographers. Even if you have great trust in your people in the field, sometimes you have to go through asking those questions to make sure that what we put out is accurate.

ERROL MORRIS: So the call was routine?

As an editor, if you have any suspicions at all about an image, you call up the photographer and say, “O.K., what happened? Where were you?” You interrogate the people in the field. I’ve worked a lot in Baghdad as an editor, and it’s especially important there. An incident occurs, maybe a roadside bomb or a truck bomb or some attack, and an hour later the reports start coming in, and you’ll have three completely different versions of events. Editing in Baghdad taught me that you have to slice through these multiple versions of events and come up with something that you can stand by. One side might say it was an IED that killed 10 American soldiers. The American military authorities might say, “No American soldiers were killed.” The Iraqi government might say, “Ten civilians were killed.” And if you have conflicting information that you can’t verify, then you don’t say it. You say, “The aftermath of an explosion of unidentified cause took place.” When I write my captions, I’m very meticulous and methodical, and I go through and check them before I send them, and I have to establish to my own satisfaction that everything I’ve said in the caption is true, and that I can stand by it because I’ve witnessed it myself with my own eyes, or I’ve questioned the people in the field and I’m confident that I can stand by that information.

ERROL MORRIS: Do you remember the caption that was put on the Mickey Mouse picture?

BEN CURTIS: I don’t, but it was after the Reuters incident. I read the Reuters website after that, and there was a lot of handwringing and reevaluation of their procedures. After the war, I read that Reuters was working with Adobe on some software component for Photoshop that would keep a record of all the changes that had been made in Photoshop, so that editors could see exactly what had been done to an image. It would aid in preventing manipulation of photographs. I found that quite interesting from a technical perspective, and I could see how such thing could be useful in the work flow of maintaining accuracy of images. This was one of the things that was in my head when I was writing the “in defense of captions” post — while that’s useful or could be useful, a technical solution alone is never going to solve the problem of accuracy in the media. You could take a photographer’s image straight from the camera, not even processed with Photoshop, put it on the wire, and it’s the caption that provides the accuracy for that picture. The caption is the place where it’s easy to mislead the reader. [I have written about this in my essay “Photography as a Weapon.”] The caption is the thing that provides accurate context. And without an accurate context or with a misleading context, you can completely distort the meaning of an image. At the end of the day it comes back to old-fashioned ethics. You have to trust your people on the ground and you have to drill into them the ethical standards that your organization has. I remember the day after the Reuters incident I instructed a Lebanese photographer —

ERROL MORRIS: The Reuters incident was the Photoshopped photograph?

The manipulation of the smoke over the Beirut skyline, and then subsequently they also found a photograph where it was an Israeli F-16 flying overheard, and he’d cloned in another F-16, so there was two whereas there had only been one. But after the smoke incident I instructed our Lebanese photographer to call every single stringer who was working for us in the country to remind them that any technical manipulation or inaccuracy of information or telling us things that they think but are not sure about — that if something inaccurate goes out and it’s found out to be inaccurate, they’re going to be fired, and they won’t work for us again. But technical solutions are never going to be the one and only solution to the problem. At the end of the day, it comes down to the ethics of the people who work for you and the trust that you have in them.

ERROL MORRIS: The good example, of course, is the Mickey Mouse photograph, because it is not a photograph that has been manipulated in Photoshop. And yet people find it problematic, regardless. People look at the photograph and think, “They’re trying to blame this on Israel, saying the country killed innocent children.” And then comes the follow-up thought: “How dare they! They’re anti-Semitic,” and so on and so forth. And my own two cents of opinion on posing is that often we say a picture is posed if the photograph suggests a view that we don’t like, regardless of what the intention of the photographer might have been and regardless of whether it has or has not been manipulated.

BEN CURTIS: Photoshop manipulation is one thing; caption manipulation is another thing. But there’s also a question of editing in terms of picture selection and, obviously, the pictures you select out of all the pictures you’ve shot, one can argue that that is also one area where the news is shaped. It’s what the media decides to report on. And when you’re covering a story, there’s quite often a number of different elements of that story, and you may choose certain elements to send pictures of and certain elements not to.

ERROL MORRIS: There is a selection process. And where there’s war, there’s controversy. I’m sorry to say that it was through your Mickey photograph that I first became familiar with your name.

BEN CURTIS: Here, I just looked up my photo of the Mickey Mouse on the archive and the caption reads:

A child’s toy lies amidst broken glass from the shattered windows of an apartment block near those that were demolished by Israeli air strikes in Tyre, Southern Lebanon, Monday, August 7th, 2006.

Which I stand by. The toy was there when I arrived. My caption doesn’t imply what happened, whose the toy was, whether there were children killed. Keep it neutral. Keep it neutral, and only say what you know and that you can verify. And I can happily stand by that caption. I can say every element of that caption was true, and I know it to be true.

ERROL MORRIS: One question that immediately comes to mind: Was your photograph the first of the published toy photographs? Did other photographers say, “Ah, he sold that photograph. Let me see if I can produce a similar one?”

BEN CURTIS: I don’t know when those other photographs were taken. When you’re covering destruction, you’re always going to focus in on details, rather than general views of destroyed buildings. You see similar pictures during a conflict like Lebanon; you see similar pictures over and over. When you come across an interesting detail in a scene . . . . But I didn’t say in my caption that children were in that apartment when it was bombed, that children were killed. I don’t know that, so I don’t say it. But if you look at my picture without the toy, you don’t know what those buildings are. It could be an office block. It could be anything. So, the inclusion of the Mickey Mouse in the picture adds an element of humanity to it. You get a feel of what was going on, what type of area it is, and that gives you a bit of a context to the fact that there have been recent air strikes in that area.

ERROL MORRIS: The blog article, “The Passion of the Toys,” provides little context. We aren’t told when the pictures were taken.

BEN CURTIS: There was a lot of media covering Lebanon, you know? And they’ve collected four pictures together, four pictures together on this blog, and what do they say? They say, “While it may be possible that these photographers all happened to stumble on toys and stuffed animals perfectly positioned for maximum emotive response” — you’ve got thousands of pictures coming out every day, and air strikes every day. And when you blow apart a building, something happens to the contents of it. They get scattered across the street.


BEN CURTIS: If the Lebanon war had been covered by the much smaller number of photographers that the media has there on a normal basis, you probably wouldn’t have seen half of these things, simply because there would never have been a photographer there to record them. Now, when you have a massive media influx, you’re going to get more comprehensive coverage of every single aspect of that war, and there’s going to be photographers around all very close to the scene for a lot of those incidents.

ERROL MORRIS: There’s a famous photograph taken by an FSA [Farm Service Administration] photographer, Arthur Rothstein, of a cow’s skull. He was accused of moving the cow skull in order to make more effective propaganda for the Roosevelt administration. These issues have been with us, probably, since the beginning of photography. They weren’t invented in the Lebanon war. I thought that you hit on it: Are we saying that there’s no damage done to these apartment buildings? That no children were killed? Even in the clearly Photoshopped image of the smoke over Beirut? Are we saying that Beirut was never hit by a bomb? That there were no apartment buildings leveled by Israeli drones? Is the crime posing? Or is the crime creating an image — even if it was produced ethically — that leads the viewer to a controversial conclusion. A photographer makes the decision to take a picture with a Mickey Mouse toy in the foreground. Is that a crime? Is it a crime if he found the toy and didn’t place it? Is it unacceptable because it suggests that children were killed?

BEN CURTIS: Yes. I’m looking at the Mickey Mouse picture again. A reader might infer from that, that a child had been killed in the attack and that this toy belonged to some child who is dead somewhere. Okay, you’re a reader, you can infer that if you want. But we’re not saying that. I’m not saying that. I’m saying it’s a child’s toy lying in the middle of a street after an air strike. That’s all I’m saying. If you want to infer from that what you want, that’s your prerogative, but you can’t then criticize us for that, you know? If I knew who that toy belonged to, if I knew his name and where he was now and what happened to him, that would be great. I’d include it in the caption. But I’m running around and I’ve got 10 minutes to get in, shoot pictures and get out of there, before maybe they’ll launch another air strike.

You have a limited amount of time.

BEN CURTIS: In an ideal world, you have lots of time to go and do that. We’re an up-to-the-minute news agency; you’ve got to go and file those pictures. Sometimes it’d be nice to, O.K., you’ve got the pictures, I’ll go back tomorrow and track this person down and interview them and get their story and provide the context for it. And maybe if I were working for a weekly magazine, I’d have more of an ability to do that. So you make these compromises.

ERROL MORRIS: But in principle, you would like to get more information.

It makes the picture more powerful. You put a picture of a child or an old woman amidst destruction, whatever, O.K., visually, it’s a powerful image, but you don’t know who this person is, you don’t know what their story is. If you go up to them and you get their story and you find out what she did and this is her husband, and maybe he’s been killed, and she doesn’t live here at all, but she came from Beirut and was visiting relatives when this happened or whatever — when you can provide that information on the subjects in your picture, then it makes the visual photograph more powerful. If you see photojournalism as a window on the world, then providing that context and information about the people in the pictures provides a more direct connection with the people in those pictures.

ERROL MORRIS: But the picture of Mickey is powerful because it is vague. Its vagueness allows us to imagine all kinds of diverse scenarios, depending on our political sensibilities. It’s one of the things that’s fascinating about photography: photographs are both specific and vague.

BEN CURTIS: I was thinking about this after my “in defense of captions” thread.


Ben Curtis had posted a blog, “In Defense of the Caption,” on the photojournalist Web site Lightstalkers1:

Curtis wrote on March 29, 2008:

Where’s the captions?

These days I’m seeing so many Web photo galleries by photographers that have no captions with them — at all. I don’t get it…

I see a bunch of perfectly fine pictures, but without captions I have no context. Who are they? When and where was this? What are their names? Why are they doing what they do? How did the circumstances arise? Et cetera.

Perhaps it’s my wire-agency background, but I see so many “photojournalists” these days who completely forget the “journalism” part of the job. Maybe it’s simply limitations of their gallery-creation software (in which case please use software that does support captions) but I suspect not. The tools to create Web photo galleries are much more automated than they used to be, but that ease has made some people get a bit lazy…

People talk of photographic intimacy but in my mind putting on a wide-angle lens doesn’t make a photo-story intimate. Intimate is when a photo story really lets me in to someone else’s life, and for that to happen (generally speaking that is) I need to know something about the circumstances. At least tell me who they are…

I know that there is a old argument that good news photographs should be able to stand alone and still give meaning to the reader. That is certainly true for some photographs, but on the whole I don’t buy it.

You need full and accurate captions. Anything less demonstrates a lack of professionalism.

Thoughts anyone?

Best wishes,



BEN CURTIS: Someone was arguing the merits of being vague — providing more avenues of inference and this sort of thing. And I read that and I agreed, or at least I understood what he was saying, and that there were merits in his argument. From my perspective, professionally, that’s an interesting argument and one that probably has validity in terms of how photos are used and more from an artistic viewpoint. That question is a valid one — on how you’re going to put pictures in a gallery or maybe how you’re going to use photos in a book. That doesn’t affect how I work or how I want to work. I want to get the pictures and I want to get full, accurate information. And if I had the time, I’d write 200 words about a picture. There’s a reasonable limit to how long captions can be. But I try and put as much information in the caption as I possibly can. Now, what a newspaper does with that or what a gallery might do with that or what a website might do with that, that’s their decision. Sometimes I might see one of my photographs with no information and think, “That’s a shame they didn’t put it in.” Sometimes they might rewrite the caption. Quite often this happens. Someone will use a wire agency picture and write their own caption under the picture, and then you’ll get criticized by some reader somewhere for the caption that was put under the image on a particular website. They think that you wrote that. All I can say is, I take the pictures, I write the captions, I put as much information as possible, I send it to my desk in London, they put it out to the world, and everything that happens after is completely outside my control. A lot of newspapers won’t put bylines, they won’t put credit to either the agency or myself. Other newspapers will put a full byline. Others will put a full credit. Others will print a very full caption. Others won’t put a caption in at all. Everything that happens after my pictures hit the wire; it’s not within my control.

ERROL MORRIS: The Joe Rosenthal picture of the flag raising at Iwo Jima is an example of how a picture is often captioned by someone other than the photographer. Rosenthal did not even see his iconic photograph before it was developed and sent off to various newspapers and magazines. Nor did he write the caption.

[Later, when asked whether his photograph was posed, Rosenthal said that it was. But he was referring to a different photograph — his photograph of the soldiers posing for his camera just after the flag was raised. Indeed, there is even a photograph of Rosenthal taking the posed photograph of the soldiers. Private Robert R. Campbell, a Marine photographer, was standing behind Rosenthal and captured the scene. Joe Rosenthal himself was seemingly unaware his picture was being taken by Campbell. And the soldiers were posing for Rosenthal’s camera — not for Campbell. So, is Campbell’s photograph candid or posed?]

BEN CURTIS: Going back to that skull photo that you were talking about. I have a basic knowledge of the FSA history, but not in depth in any way. A photo like that, if you were taking it for artistic purposes, then it’s perfectly acceptable to move the skull, to put it in nice light, to move this here, move this there, if your photographs are purely for artistic consumption. The reason why you’re taking the photos affects everything. If you’re doing fine art photography, you can do what you want. But if your photos are intended to represent the truth, then it’s a completely different situation.

ERROL MORRIS: Truth in photography is an elusive notion. There may not be any such thing.

BEN CURTIS: You can have one event, say, an explosion takes place somewhere in Iraq. Now, there is one single reality to that situation. Now, in our imperfect world, there are five different points of view to that situation. Insurgents are going to see it one way. American military will see it another way. The public will see it another way. And more and more, it seems impossible to bridge those realities. These realities seem so disparate, it seems very hard to bridge those realities.

ERROL MORRIS: The world is becoming increasingly polarized. Maybe it always was.

BEN CURTIS: Maybe it always was. I myself get all my news from the Internet — primarily the AP wire. I don’t watch much TV, I don’t have access to a wide range of English language papers, so I get most of my news from the Internet. Now, when you get news from the Internet, and especially if you’re getting it from blogs, you can really fine-tune the range of opinions that you receive on a daily basis, and you can fine-tune it to just those opinions that conform to your opinion.

Indeed. But it’s a generic problem. We only get to see part of everything and usually only what we want to see.

BEN CURTIS: People want to hear about things that interest them and people like to hear about things in a way that tells the story in a way that they agree with. But the end result is, if you’re a right-wing neocon and you get your entire daily news from 20 different neocon blogs, then you’re going to get one reality of the world. And in some ways, there are advantages to the mainstream media. You’re forced to get a range of opinions.

ERROL MORRIS: The photograph with the smoke that was altered, was that your photograph?

BEN CURTIS: No, no, no, no. There was an allegation that Adnan Hajj [the Reuters photographer accused of faking photographs] had taken my photograph and cloned stuff onto it to use for his photograph. But when we looked into it, that wasn’t what happened [2].

Oh, good to know.

BEN CURTIS: It was a different photograph, but was from the same viewpoint. Basically, there was a hill outside Beirut that provided a really beautiful view of the whole city, and there was one bend in the road where you could get a view of the city that wasn’t blocked by apartment buildings. And so, you could go up there on any given day and you’d find a lot of media up there. And you’ve got the same point of perspective. When people looked at the photos and complain, “These are the same buildings, this is the same viewpoint,” they make the assumption it must be the same photo. “Isn’t it coincidental that two photographers happen to be taking a picture at the same time in the same place?” But when you understand the reality of it — no, it wasn’t. It’s not unusual. There’s nothing untoward about it. It’s the fact that that particular point gives a good view of the city.

And we’d go up there and sit for eight hours. You’d have other people covering other stuff around the city, of course, but you might send a photographer to go up and sit on that hill, on that bend, for eight, nine hours, waiting. And if something happens, everyone is going to photograph it, and they’re going to be at the same point and they’re probably going to have a fairly similar viewpoint. That’s what made people think it was my photograph that he’d taken and cloned. But it wasn’t.

ERROL MORRIS: As you accurately and correctly point out, the internet is a source for information, disinformation and misinformation. It’s because of the sheer quantity of it.

BEN CURTIS: People don’t really understand how the media works. People see two photographs taken in the same place a split second apart and they find it incredible that two photographers could have been there by coincidence. No, the photographers probably sat there all day long, waiting for a picture, and then it happened. I often find the truth is a lot more mundane than bloggers often want to believe. People see conspiracies where the truth is rather boring.

ERROL MORRIS: Conspiracies are what people turn to when they don’t want to bother with more complex explanations. They are usually the product of not wanting to think about why things happened. For example, the photographs with toys? Do you know when they were taken?

BEN CURTIS: See, that’s the thing. The original photographs may have captions, but you don’t know that from the blog posts, do you, because there are no captions? And that’s my point. “Well, what do you know about these pictures?” Maybe they’re taken in the same incident. Maybe they’re not even in the same town. Maybe some of them are Beirut; some are in Tyre. I have no idea. I have no way of knowing

ERROL MORRIS: No, the captions are absent.

BEN CURTIS: I’d forgotten about that Mickey Mouse photo. I took so many, I can’t remember how many pictures I filed from Lebanon — 400, 500 or something — but, when you think of the amount I took, it would have been tens of thousands.

ERROL MORRIS: Do you save your pictures?

BEN CURTIS: I do. I save every frame. I archive every frame.

ERROL MORRIS: Would you be interested in looking through the photographs that you took that day?

BEN CURTIS: The Mickey Mouse day?

ERROL MORRIS: Yes, if you were willing to do this, we would go through the photographs and we would talk about the whole day.

BEN CURTIS: It was a crazy day, because we’d seen the first explosions, and then you see an explosion and you’re, “Oh, I better go there, I better go and photograph it,” but you never know if there’s going to be another one. And this ambulance had headed up there, and then suddenly there was this other one, and the ambulance came back and parts of the vehicle had been hit by some pieces of stone that had been from the explosion or something. It came screaming back to the hospital. And then you’re, “Well, should I go there? Is another one going to go off?” You have no idea. It was a very unusual conflict, at least from my experience. I covered the Liberian civil war in West Africa, and you couldn’t get more different. In the whole of Lebanon, I don’t think I even heard a shot fired. There was very little shooting. There was no small-arms fire. There was nobody firing guns — I’m talking about the places media could get to. It was all from the air. You think of a war and you think of soldiers firing at each other. Nobody was using small arms around us. You’d walk around and all you could hear was this “bzzz” of the drones in the sky — these unmanned aircraft. It tells you that someone’s watching you, that you are being seen from the sky. And then you’re walking around and, suddenly, some huge bomb takes out an apartment block. It’s random. I’m not suggesting at all the Israelis dropped the bombs randomly. They obviously had targeting and intelligence about where they were putting them. But from a journalist’s perspective on the ground, it was random as to when it was going to happen. You couldn’t predict it.


After a brief negotiation with Curtis and Santiago Lyon, the Director of Photography for the AP, Curtis and I talked at length about the Mickey Mouse photograph and that entire day in Tyre, Lebanon, the day the Mickey Mouse photograph was taken. It was my attempt to put the photograph in context, or, if you prefer, to write an elaborate caption for it.

I was curious about the exact location of the photographs. And so I attempted to pinpoint the location on a map. There are a series of UN reconnaissance maps and photographs[3][4]. I sent them to Ben Curtis and asked him to identify where the Mickey Mouse was found. He sent back an e-mail,

Re: the map and the insert “Destruction of 8 large residential building…”

This does appear to be the same as the location of the Mickey Mouse incident. I couldn’t say 100%, but it’s in pretty much the correct area and the layout, particularly the green area to the left of the buildings makes sense. That green area is I think seen on far left of the “truck” photo.

The hospital (from which I took the photo of the smoke from the buildings) is a small way down a side street on the right of the road that leads from Tyre center to the buildings site, but I couldn’t pinpoint it exactly… We didn’t have any maps then, I’d only recognize it from ground level.

Satellite View of Damage in Tyre (pdf)
The maps provide a “picture” — two of them are photographs — of a vast area of destruction, but little explanation of why the destroyed areas were targeted. Were they of strategic value? Why were they destroyed? Without additional information we are left with a cornucopia of possibilities. We can see from the detail of the satellite reconnaissance map that a number of buildings around the Mickey Mouse were destroyed. Were there families living there? Had the buildings been occupied by Hezbollah? If wire service photographs are often too specific, these satellite photographs are too general.

I waited for Ben Curtis’ AP photographs to arrive.



1. “In Defence of the Caption… ” on Lightstalkers.

2. “Reuters Doctoring Photos From Beirut?”

3. This map of Lebanon provides an overview of the war zone through the movement of U.N. relief convoys as of Aug. 7, 2006. This map was produced by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

4. This map of damage in the region of Tyre, Lebanon, as of Aug. 14, 2006, was produced by UNOSAT, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Program, implemented in cooperation with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Errol Morris, New York Times


Full article and photos:

A brief survey of the short story

A brief survey of the short story: part one

Anton Chekhov’s subtle portrayals of complex, morally ambiguous characters set an example writers are following to this day.

A great observer … Anton Chekhov

This is the first in a regular series of blogs that propose to offer a (very) partial survey of the short story, each post dealing with a single author who did or is doing something special with the form. In the interests of full disclosure I should point out that when I say “partial” I mean both “incomplete” and “biased”, and I hope I’ll get to hear dissenting opinions from you folks.

My determination to avoid a straightforward recitation of recognised greats notwithstanding, first up is Anton Chekhov. I couldn’t justify starting with anyone else because for me he’s the uncontestable father of the modern short story, both by dint of bridging 19th-century realism and 20th-century experimentation and because his stories are some of the best that have ever been written. Plus, spit in a bookshop and chances are you’ll hit something marked by his influence. Unless you’re in the coffee bar.

Despite the panegyric, it’s fair to say that Chekhov started as a hack, albeit a talented one, knocking out short comic stories and doggerel for newspapers at a furious rate – around 500 pieces in eight years – mostly under the pseudonym Antosha Chekonte. Some of these appeared in his first collection, Motley Tales (1886), which he wanted to give the immeasurably better title Buy This Book or I’ll Smash Your Face In. By the late 1880s his craftmanship and ambition had evolved significantly, with his long story The Steppe (1888) becoming the first of his works to be published in one of Russia’s serious literary journals.

While The Steppe still bears strong traces of Gogol and Tolstoy‘s influence, by the time of its writing most of the key elements of what’s meant by the term “Chekhovian” were in place, not least his revolutionary approach to the details with which his stories are littered. Certain readers at the time were discomfited by these welters of seemingly arbitrary information that led nowhere. That they didn’t lead nowhere, that in fact these stories changed the way in which a story asked to be read, is one of Chekhov’s greatest achievements. The consternation was at least partly due to the sheer accessibility of his writing: there is perhaps no other body of work in which the border between reading an opening line and becoming immersed is so slight. But this accessibility doesn’t denote uncomplicated intentions.

This is supported by Chekhov’s attitude towards character, especially following his 1890 journey to the penal colony of Sakhalin Island where the savage cruelty he witnessed made a deep impression. After this doers of good and evil continue to appear in his stories, but never as saints or monsters. Instead, Chekhov’s characters and stories, particularly throughout the 1890s and up to his death from consumption in 1904, can be defined by their very lack of definition, their unwillingness to simplify the complexities of personality.

With the notable exception of Ward No 6, a ferociously pessimistic satire wherein a mental ward comes to stand for the Russian state and in which he adopts the style of a Dostoyevskyian intrusive narrator, Chekhov contrives to be an utterly selfless author: what’s noticed is what his characters would notice, and in the manner they’d notice it. His 1890 story Gusev, in which the third-person narration takes on aspects of the eponymous soldier’s way of viewing the world, is a particularly good example of this trait.

It’s largely for this reason that Chekhov is a supremely unquotable writer (at least in the space afforded here): his stories are discrete totalities, entirely defined by subject and context. Their styles conform to character and event, rather than character and event conforming to a single style.

Other innovations include moments of epiphany (an evolution from Maupassant, although it’s Joyce who gave the technique a name and thus is often proclaimed as its pioneer), his shifting deployments of irony, and experiments with stream of consciousness (such as in the startling conclusion of Ward No 6). Finally, and most impressively of all, by rejecting Tolstoy’s idea of the author as a guide directing his readers towards salvation Chekhov became the author laureate of not knowing, which in his case means the absolute opposite of not caring.

His stories are so often ambiguous because they don’t trap a portion of life and analyze it to make a point. Instead they observe and recount, entirely unafraid of open-endedness, and in the process provide little in the way of answers, but a vast store of wisdom.


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How Canada Does Banking

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is among many Canadians these days who are boasting about the strength of the country’s banking system.

During the credit crisis, no Canadian banks failed, and none required government capital infusions. And last week when Canada’s major banks issued their quarterly statements, all but one were profitable. Even that exception, a second-quarter loss of 50 million Canadian dollars (on 6.8 billion Canadian dollars in revenue) at the Royal Bank of Canada, was largely related to a write-down in the value of its American operations.

Mr. Harper, a Conservative who generally favors limiting government influence in markets, credits Canada’s regulatory system for the banks’ good fortune and suggests that it should be a model for the world.

He’s not alone. Julie Dickson, the superintendent of financial institutions, has gone from being an obscure bureaucrat to something of a minor celebrity. A recent cover story in The Report on Business Magazine, which is published by The Globe and Mail newspaper, said she was “integral to the policy that is being credited with keeping the nation afloat during a financial storm that saw banks just about everywhere else in the world pushed to the brink because they had taken on too much leverage and excessive risk.”

Canada’s regulatory system, of course, is not perfect. And Mr. Harper’s enthusiasm aside, the health of its banking industry may have more to do with its structure than its watchdog.

Ms. Dickson’s office is known to be risk-averse. When the market for Canadian structured debt products collapsed because the banks, apparently at the suggestion of the regulator, declined to support it, Ms. Dickson rejected criticism from investors.

“Our primary job is to protect the interests of depositors,” she said at a news conference.

Her office also requires Canadian banks to maintain relatively large capital holdings. Brenda Lum, the managing director for Canadian financial institutions at DBRS, a debt rating agency in Toronto, said that Canadian banks have an average  Gier 1 capital level of 10.8 percent. By comparison, even after substantial recent growth, the comparable figure for American banks is 8.4 percent.

Helping Ms. Dickson with her job were other government policies that ensured that subprime mortgages accounted for only a tiny portion of Canada’s housing market. And because Canadian tax rules never allowed mortgage interest deductibility, home purchases in Canada are not effectively subsidized by the government.

But looming above all of those factors is the scope and market power of Canadian banks within their home market. While many foreign banks have subsidiaries in Canada, Ms. Lum estimates that Canadian banks hold 80 to 85 percent of their home market. Most of that business, in turn, is concentrated in the five largest banks.

The big five are also one-stop shopping banks offering everything from retail services (a particularly profitable line of work) to investment banking through networks of branches and offices spanning the country. On top of that, government rules prohibit anyone or any company from owning more than 20 percent of a Canadian bank, effectively making it impossible for foreign competitors to enter the market through an acquisition.

All that makes for what Ms. Lum described as “an orderly market.”

While such order may seem desirable compared with the current alternative in the United States, it is not without significant side effects.

A report by the International Monetary Fund last year found that the resulting lack of competition makes life difficult for small borrowers.

“A range of analysts and business representatives have argued that the major banks, comfortable in their entrenched positions, have little incentive to venture into areas where borrowers are small, the cost of ascertaining creditworthiness may be higher and returns are more uncertain,” the I.M.F. paper said.

Catherine S. Swift, a former government and bank economist who is now the chairwoman and chief executive of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, a lobbying group, criticized the banks for “going around and beating their chests right now.”

“While the United States has what we economists refer to as destructive competition, in Canada we have the opposite: ultraconservative financial institutions,” she said. “What we’d like to see is some true competition in the Canadian market.”

Being a central banker, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of Canada, is not as blunt as Ms. Swift. In fact, when testifying before the banking committee of Canada’s Senate last month, he didn’t even directly name the country’s bank regulator when speaking about it.

But Mr. Carney did suggest that Canada, and all Western countries, should control banks in a way that considers not just the health of those financial institutions, but the broader needs of the economy: “one of the most important things is that all regulators, in the broadest sense, must take into account the implications of their actions for financial system stability, that is, they must think about the system as a whole as well as their core responsibility.”


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See also:

Nobody’s saviour

Julie Dickson has kept our banks stable through one of the worst economic crises in recent history. But please don’t give her the credit.


The most powerful woman in Canadian banking has a corner office on the 23rd floor of a tower in Toronto’s financial district that looks as if it were furnished in one hurried trip to Ikea. To enter it, visitors first pass a large bathroom, then a spare room that lies dormant and dark—both were once part of the original office, but were amputated by her predecessor in a display of frugality. You could be forgiven, upon entering, for briefly mistaking Dickson for a college student, sitting facing the wall in a chair that’s too low, behind a no-frills desk that could have been assembled with an Allen key. There are no pictures of her two sons or her husband, no trinkets, no mess—just a squeeze bottle of Purell, a Porter Air water bottle, and a small black suitcase lying on the floor near the doorway.


Poem of the week

This week, something from Robert Frost.

Stone wall, New England

‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall … ‘

Good afternoon, poetry fans. Let me begin by apologising for the tardiness of today’s blog – it’s been ridiculously busy here since I got in this morning. Another weekend would be very welcome at this point …

It was with not a little relief, therefore, that I finally turned to today’s poem, Mending Wall by Robert Frost, nominated by joedoone, who says of Frost, “he has always been one of my favourite poets, ever since I came across Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening at school. I love the way he writes about the physical world, making it seem both fresh and timeless, and Mending Wall is one of his best.”

I’m inclined to agree. I’ve always found Frost’s poetry soothing; his spare, clean New England landscapes join with the lilt of his lines and encourage the reader to slow down, listen and reflect. In this poem, Frost uses the image of the boundary wall – forever disintegrating, forever being rebuilt – to explore the paradox created by our desire to protect ourselves and our simultaneous longing for connection. The image is such a simple one that in the hands of a less skilled poet it would almost certainly have drifted into banality; Frost, however, sustains it effortlessly, turning its simplicity into a virtue. Here it is, in full.

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”


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Poster poems

A call for poster poems

There should be a place for more original poetry to be posted and shared – let’s start right here.


Inspiration can bloom in spring…

Anyone who spends a bit of time on the Books blog must have noticed the huge number of original poems, rhymes, pieces of doggerel and all manner of other verse that has been posted in recent months. Now, for me, this is something to be encouraged – celebrated, even – so I’d like to propose a dedicated space in which original poetry and verse can be shared and discussed.

First of all, I’d like to make it clear what this blog is not. It isn’t intended to be another poetry workshop; this isn’t a place for poems to be appraised by a professional poet, after all. No, poems can and should be posted here for the enjoyment of anyone who happens to see them, and all who do see them can comment, if and when they want to.

Neither is this column meant to cut across Carol Rumens’ excellent and extremely popular Poem of the Week series, which introduces a wide range of interesting and vital poetry new and old.

This space is for you to show the rest of us what you’re up to, what you’re capable of. It’s also an opportunity to have the kind of immediate relationship with an audience that is all too often unavailable to poets, no matter how well-known they are. What I had in mind was to set a theme or form (or maybe both theme and form) and then let it rip. If there’s enough interest, perhaps we’ll have a weekly thread.

Naturally enough, the kind of freedom afforded here brings with it certain responsibilities, but let’s try to keep the rules to a minimum. Beyond the restrictions already in place in the talk policy, I’d suggest three more rules. First, no plagiarism. Any poems posted here must be your own original work. Second, all criticism of other people’s efforts must be constructive – we’re not here to score points, and it’s always good to remember that the person you’re being cruel to today may be commenting on your poem tomorrow. Finally, this is an open shop. Any registered user can comment on poems posted here whether or not they share work of their own.

So, all that’s left is to come up with a theme for this first week. Last weekend we had both the vernal equinox and the celebration of the Christian festival of Easter, with its lingering echoes of earlier fertility cults. The days are already getting longer, and this weekend the clocks go forward. Birds mate, lambs frolic in fields (or at least those that escaped becoming Easter dinner do). It’s spring again. Shakespeare said that sweet lovers love it and EE Cummings celebrated its mud-lusciousness. Not all poets have been quite so keen, however. TS Eliot famously described April as “the cruelest month”; for Wordsworth it was the season to “lament/what man has made of man”, and William Carlos Williams thought of it as the time when “The pure products of America/go crazy”.

But what does it mean to you? You are cordially invited to post your poems on the subject of spring, interpreted as narrowly or broadly as you like. Oh, and no longer than 20 lines, please, but in whatever form you like – including no form at all. Over to you; let the games begin.


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A childhood of privilege, promise, and pain


The youngest Kennedy had charm aplenty, and gargantuan shoes to fill


A Kennedy family portrait taken in Bronxville, NY. Seated (left to right): Eunice, Jean, Edward, Joseph Sr., Patricia, and Kathleen. Standing: Rosemary, Robert, John, Rose, and Joseph Jr.


On a spring day nearly two years ago, Senator Edward Kennedy sat on the porch of his sprawling Hyannis Port home with a friend of five decades, Edmund Reggie, who is also his father-in-law. The two men gazed out at the ocean that has been such an anchor in Kennedy’s life and talked about the future.

“You’re nuts to beat yourself to death like this on the Senate floor,” Reggie said. “Passing a new law won’t be any more glorious for you than the reputation you’ve made. Some people say you and Daniel Webster are the greatest senators of all time.”

Kennedy looked at the older man and deadpanned: “What did Webster do?”

It was a telling line, typical of the competitive Kennedys. But Reggie persisted. Waving an arm toward Nantucket Sound, he said: “You have all this. You and Vicki love to travel. Why are you beating your brains out? You’ve got all the money you need. Your kids are all raised.”

But Kennedy wasn’t buying it. “No,” he said. “I don’t think so. I’ll stay in the Senate.”

For the past 46 years, the US Senate has been as much a home to Edward Moore Kennedy as his beloved Hyannis Port. Still, that Kennedy could go down in history with the likes of Daniel Webster — the giant of the Senate in the first half of the 19th century — would have been inconceivable at many points in his career, as he weathered crises both personal and professional, tragic and scandalous.

There were the gargantuan shoes to fill, and for so long Kennedy seemed unable to fill them. His father’s outsize expectations passed from son to son, until, through the shattering deaths of the three older boys, they came to rest upon Teddy’s shoulders.

The youngest of nine, the fourth of four boys, he has spent his life trying to both escape and embrace the burdens placed upon him by ambitious parents, the long shadows cast by his brothers and a public hungry for a return to Camelot.

At his worst, he was considered a shallow playboy relying on the Kennedy name,a green understudy for his spectral brothers. His legendary personal problems were so public that they were reduced to shorthand: Chappaquiddick, Georgetown, Palm Beach. Each episode revealed a reckless and arrogant streak that would have sunk many careers. Politically, opponents painted him as no more than a poster boy for outdated leftist causes, the last of the liberal lions in a conservative age.

But over time, Kennedy’s energy and endurance emerged. The youngest son who had faced so much pain became, in his later years, a symbol of patriarchal strength in the Kennedy family and to others who suffered losses around the country. Senate colleagues who had long admired his work ethic began to see in the bipartisan coalitions he built to advance his health and education agenda the skill of a true master of legislative politics.

No senator in history, many now say, was able to be both his party’s most forceful spokesman for its causes and the leader who cajoled colleagues of both parties into agreement.

In what once seemed like a premonition, President John F. Kennedy at his inauguration had given his youngest brother a silver cigarette box engraved with the biblical words from Matthew: “And the last shall be first.”

Ted Kennedy did not succeed in following his brother’s path, either in cultivating a faultless image or in wielding the powers of the presidency. But by the early 21st century, the achievements of the younger brother would be enough to rival those of many presidents.

That day on the Hyannis Port porch, his father-in-law’s advice to relax and bask in his hard-won glory was also prescient. A year later, Kennedy would be diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

But then, as always in his turbulent life, Kennedy looked to his moorings: the Senate and the sea. He would meet cancer the way he met so many challenges.

He would keep working, and he would keep sailing.

Charming and challenging

Joseph P. Kennedy — the architect of the fledgling family dynasty — could not have planned it better himself. On Feb. 22, 1932, the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday, his and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s ninth child, Edward Moore Kennedy, was born at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Dorchester. Whether or not he took it as an omen, the proud father, who already envisioned a Kennedy becoming the first Catholic president, often pointed out the felicitous date to others.

Joe and Rose were high school sweethearts whose grandparents had arrived in Boston from Ireland and whose fathers both held elective office. The couple’s political backgrounds and overarching ambitions meshed to create a family that would one day be called America’s royalty.

Rose, a devout Catholic, would not use birth control, and friends told her she was crazy to have another child at 41. “I became so incensed and so annoyed at being constantly berated that I determined secretly that no one was going to feel sorry for me or my baby, and so perhaps that is why Ted is so full of optimism and confidence,” she wrote in her journal.

The littlest Kennedy was chubby and cheery, the freckle-faced pet of the family. “Biscuits and Muffins,” was the nickname his sister Jean — the next-youngest, four years older than Teddy — gave him. From the start he had an unusually sunny disposition. Like many youngest, he was eager to please, and took the teasing — and the occasional big-brother torture — with good humor. He mimicked the exploits of his siblings, skiing with them in Europe, jumping off high rocks on the French Riviera, and sailing in races — all by the age of 7.

When he was 5, his much-loved oldest brother, Joe Jr., tossed him out of the sailboat and into the cold Atlantic Ocean because Teddy didn’t know where the jib was. Joe hauled him right out of the water, but Teddy never forgot the wet lesson.

Rose and Joe Sr. expressed their love for their children in the form of high expectations, and by their standards, Teddy was often lacking. Rose was not a demonstrative mother, but the lifelong closeness between her and Teddy was extraordinary. Joe, too, had a weakness for his youngest, and neither parent pushed him quite so hard as they did the older boys, on whom the yoke of the family name rested most heavily. Teddy would for a long time be the victim — and the beneficiary — of lower expectations.

“We tried to keep everything more or less equal,” Rose once said. “But you wonder if the mother and father aren’t quite tired when the ninth one comes along.”

Teddy soon realized that his role in the family was like that of court jester, and he performed beautifully. A naturally gregarious child, he loved jokes and stories, and would entertain the others with his antics. At age 7, he wrote his father that he was going to the World’s Fair. “I think I am going to get a pony there and where do you think I could keep it? Maybe in the little tool house.”

Teddy was also the most considerate of the Kennedy boys. When he was 7, he wrote to his father about Halloween: “I got dressed up like a ghost and went all the way down the road. I didn’t scare because you said not to scare anyone because they may have a weak heart.”

But being the baby often means not being taken seriously, a consideration that would dog him throughout his life. The Kennedy dining room had an adult table for the older children where politics, current events, and literature were digested along with Joe’s favorite roast beef and strawberry shortcake. Teddy and Jean would sit at the baby table with an assigned older sibling. As Ted later wrote: “I learned that if I wanted to contribute something worthwhile to the conversation, I would have to talk about a book I was reading or an interesting place I had visited.”

Something worthwhile.

That was one of the many mantras the Kennedy parents imposed upon their children. Do something with your lives. Make something of yourselves. Give something back to others. Joe Kennedy Sr. set up million-dollar trust funds and told his children they’d never have to earn money; they should devote their lives to public service.

He had made a fortune as a banker, shipyard executive, liquor distributor, real estate investor, and Hollywood producer. But politics was his real love. In the early 20th century, Irish-Americans stood on the outside of America’s power structure; wealth was Joe Kennedy’s ticket to the inside.

A generous supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joe was rewarded by being named the first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. In 1938, he got the job of his dreams: He became the first Irish-American ambassador to the Court of St. James. For a brief time, Joe even entertained the unlikely notion that he might become the first Irish-Catholic president of the United States.

In London, the Kennedy family settled into the 36-room embassy at 14 Princes Gate. To Teddy, the best part was the lift that he and Bobby nearly wore out until their parents put a stop to it.

Weary of the talk of war and bored with stuffy King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, London embraced the energetic, photogenic Kennedy family. The press followed the children to the zoo, Kensington Gardens, Buckingham Palace, and Hyde Park. They were there when Teddy tried to take a picture with his camera upside down and when sisters Rosemary and Kathleen made their debuts into London society. At the Vatican, Teddy received his First Communion from Pope Pius XII.

Those were happy times for the family, a rare period when all 11 were together. Joe Sr. gave their nanny, Elizabeth Dunn, a movie camera and told her to record whatever she could: a frisky Teddy in short pants and knee socks posing with the king and queen, goofing off with his father, sitting on his sisters’ laps.

But behind the frivolity, Joe Kennedy had made a massive miscalculation. He had naively misjudged both the Nazis and England, and his outspoken isolationist views on keeping America out of World War II won him few friends in the White House or abroad. It was the end of his political career. Returning home in 1940, he began to focus on his sons’ futures instead. Joe Jr., he hoped, would assume high office someday, followed by Jack.

Bobby and Teddy were still boys; the pressure on them would come later.

Epic tragedies, everyday travails

World War II would cost the Kennedy family dearly; it marked the start of what later would be called “The Kennedy Curse.”

In 1943, Jack narrowly escaped death when his PT boat was sunk in the South Pacific. A year later, Joe Jr. was killed when his Navy plane blew up during a risky volunteer mission. A month after that, Kathleen’s husband, a British airman, was killed in the war. And in 1948, Kathleen, who had stayed in London, died in a private plane crash over the French Alps.

Before all that, in 1941, Joe, without telling the family, had Rosemary, who was said to be mildly retarded, lobotomized. The operation failed, and she remained in an institutional setting until her death in 2005.

Teddy was 8 when Rosemary disappeared from the home, 12 when Joe Jr. died, and 16 at Kathleen’s death. After London, the Kennedy kids were scattered. The Hyannis Port house became the one constant in their disparate lives, particularly for Teddy. Mary Jo Gargan, his cousin, spent many summers there after her parents died. Her mother, Agnes, was Rose’s beloved sister.

“For us younger children left at home, we were a little bit like the golden children of the war, and Teddy was the golden child of Joe and Rose at the time,” says Mary Jo, who later would marry Ted’s Harvard football teammate Dick Clasby.

But there was sadness everywhere. After Joe Jr.’s death, Rose would take her books, journal, and rosary beads down to the one-room hut her husband built for her next to the ocean. In some ways, Mary Jo recalls, Rose relied on her youngest child as a calming, cheery presence, an escape from her grief and worry. “My observation now is that Teddy was sort of the bright light. He’s got a lot of empathy and I think those years at the Cape, as those tragedies were happening, he probably took on that role.”

Joe and Rose, who were often apart, acted as partners in a franchise. Their product: national leaders who would vastly expand the Kennedy brand. As Rose once wrote: “A mother knows that hers is the influence which can make that little precious being to be a leader of men, an inspiration, a shining light in the world.”

Teddy was only 8 years old when his father wrote him from London during the Blitz: “I hope when you grow up you will dedicate your life to trying to work out plans to make people happy instead of making them miserable, as war does today.” It was advice Ted Kennedy never forgot and often repeated.

Though the children were blessed with all the material comforts they could want, every-day life wasn’t always easy. Second place was never good enough for their father, whose parenting slogans included, “I don’t want any losers in this family,” and “No sour pusses.” There would be no “rich, idle bums,” either.

It wasn’t much different with their mother. With nine children, Rose had to run a tight ship, and she set household rules that few dared break for fear of a whack from her infamous wooden coat hanger. Child-rearing was a strict endeavor in that era and Rose, a perfectionist, followed the books to the letter. The children were to get up at the same time every day and go to bed at the same time. Dinner was always at 7:30, and Rose would lead the way into the dining room. At the end of the meal, she would lead the way out.

The Kennedy dinner table was a classroom, with Rose and Joe quizzing their children and encouraging their political views. Where is Siam? Who is the president of France? Rose’s obsession with improving her children knew no bounds. In 1975, when Ted was a third-term senator and Rose was 85, she wrote him: “I watched you speak about drugs last Friday night . . . Please say, ‘If I were President,’ not ‘If I was president.’ The reason is the old what used to be known in Latin as condition contrary to fact. For instance, ‘if I were he,’ etc.”

As for Joe, he was known to order the boys to their rooms if they goofed off and lost a sailing race. Still, he was the emotive hugger in the family and wrote his children reams of letters during his frequent absences.

It has been said that the Kennedys competed among themselves and against the world. Indeed, Joe and Rose encouraged what they considered healthy competition, which could become a Darwinian struggle within the family — the youngest often losing out. The legendary football games in Hyannis Port were dress rehearsals for the real family sport: politics.

With the kids off at boarding school, college, or the military, both Rose and Joe traveled widely but rarely together: She went for shopping and culture, he for business and extramarital affairs. Before landing at the Fessenden School in Newton at age 11, Teddy had been in 10 different schools, always the new boy, never able to put down roots.

“I think Ted did have probably a very sad childhood in spite of terrific parental support,” says his longtime friend John Culver, who would later join Kennedy in the Senate. “I mean, to be away at school at that age is hard, and the thing that’s amazing to me is how he’s come through it, in terms of his personality. Part of it I think is reflected in his incredible empathy and sympathy and in the political positions he’s taken. 

Parental prodding, from afar

Ted’s academic record was mediocre, and both parents were constantly on him about his spelling, his marks — and his weight. The huskiest of the weight-obsessed Kennedys, Teddy had a love of sweets that was the stuff of family lore.

Rose didn’t just write Teddy chiding him about being in “the fourth fifth” of his class. She also wrote the headmaster at Fessenden to complain that her 11-year-old still counted on his fingers: “Will you please bring it to the attention of his arithmetic teacher in the fall?”

Joe could be merciless, too. “You still spell ‘no’ ‘know,”‘ he wrote his 13-year-old son. “Skating is not ‘scating,’ ” and so on. He ended on a sardonic note: “I am sorry to see that you are starving to death. I can’t imagine that ever happening to you if there was anything at all to eat around, but then you can spare a few pounds.”

Perhaps the toughest parental scolding was that which compared the siblings with one another. In a letter that reveals much about the family dynamic, Joe wrote the 11-year-old Teddy: “You didn’t pass in English or Geography and you only got 60 in Spelling and History. That is terrible. . . . You wouldn’t want to have people say that Joe and Jack Kennedy’s brother was such a bad student, so get on your toes.”

Joe Jr. was the charming, ambitious brother. Jack was the reflective intellectual. Bobby was serious and dogged. Teddy was the late bloomer, more into sports than grades.

Always deferential to his parents, Teddy took such comparisons as a normal part of growing up Kennedy. To him, family loyalty was paramount. He believed that his parents’ words were for the children’s own good — a generous interpretation, since he often came out on the short end.

He would remain a devoted son, putting together books of remembrances upon his parents’ deaths. “For all of us, Dad was the spark and Mother was the light of our lives. He was our greatest fan and she was our greatest teacher,” he wrote. “Whatever any of us has done — whatever contribution we have made — begins with Rose and Joe Kennedy.”

During that time at Fessenden and Milton Academy, where he spent his high school years, Ted grew especially close to his maternal grandfather, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a former congressman and mayor of Boston who was the consummate constituent politician.

Teddy often spent Sundays with the old man, an affable and voluble character who would take his grandson on the same historical tours he took Rose on as a child, explaining the importance of the Old North Church or the elegance of Louisburg Square. He also took Teddy down to the wharves where the immigrants came in and he introduced him around.

“Teddy was more Honey Fitz than Joe Kennedy,” says Robert Healy, who covered the 1960 presidential election for the Globe. “Honey” was sweet and warm, whereas Joe was colder, more calculating.

At Milton Academy, which was also Bobby’s alma mater, Ted played football, tennis, and hockey but was not a standout. He was also in the drama, debate, and glee clubs, the latter reflecting his lifelong love of singing. As a senior, he ran a distant third in the “Class Politician” category. He went to dances and wrote his father that he was “getting to know more girls, which couldn’t please me more.”

Despite his mother’s best efforts, young Teddy was far from perfectly behaved. Though teachers remarked on his genial personality, there were also notes home about demerits for minor offenses. While at Milton, Teddy borrowed the car of former Boston Police Commissioner Joseph Timilty, a close family friend. After it stalled out a few times, Teddy simply abandoned it in Mattapan — though he informed “The Commish,” as the family called Timilty.

In the fall of 1950, Ted followed his brothers and his father to Harvard, where his main interest was football. He was a big, fearless end on the freshman team. But that spring, he was in danger of flunking Spanish. He needed to pass the final to be eligible to play the following fall. A teammate took the exam for him but when he turned in the blue book, the teaching assistant recognized him as Bill Frate, not Ted Kennedy. Both boys were thrown out of school; they could return in two years pending good behavior.

“Teddy didn’t manage himself effectively,” recalls classmate Burton Hersh, later a Kennedy biographer. “Afterwards, his father said, ‘Don’t do this cheating thing, you’re not clever enough.’ ”

Biding his time until he could be readmitted to Harvard, Ted joined the Army and spent two years as a military policeman stationed in Paris; Joe, with his political connections, had made sure his youngest wasn’t sent to Korea. Ironically, a few months before the cheating incident, he had written Ted: “Keep after the books if only to keep the draft away from your door.”

Back at Harvard in the summer of 1953, Teddy buckled down with his government studies — and managed an A- in Spanish. But he saved plenty of time for play, holding court at a jock’s table in Winthrop House, where his brothers had also lived. “He had such a zest for life,” says classmate Claude Hooton, who has remained a close friend. “We had so much fun.”

When Jack Kennedy was in the hospital recovering from an illness, Ted and Hooton would visit and sing “Bill Bailey” and “Heart of my Hearts.” One summer, they started a water-skiing school in Southern California.

Teddy often took friends to Hyannis Port for cookouts and touch football and went to dances with Wellesley College girls. Teddy and Dick Clasby would rate the girls they met: A through F. “He had a twinkle in his eye for pretty girls,” Clasby says.

The high point of Ted’s football career came senior year in a snowstorm when he caught a short pass on Yale’s seven-yard line and scored. Harvard lost, but Joe, who came to all of his games, was deliriously proud, and Teddy got his varsity football letter.

Then there was church, a given in the Kennedy household. Rose was obsessively religious, often attending Mass twice daily. She told her son if he went to Mass seven straight Fridays, he was guaranteed to go to heaven.

“So Ted and I went seven Fridays, and that was it,” says Clasby. “That was the deal.” Ted still attends Mass regularly, even when Clasby and other friends are at Hyannis Port for their annual sailing hiatus.

‘Let’s stay out of gossip columns.’

In 1956, Teddy graduated from Harvard and enrolled in law school at the University of Virginia, Bobby’s alma mater. At UVa., Teddy pored over his books, writing his father: “Am holding on down here on my 12-hour-a-day schedule.” He would end up around the middle of his class, says his friend John Tunney.

Still, he and Tunney, his roommate and son of heavyweight boxing champ Gene Tunney, won the law school’s prestigious moot court competition, beating out 49 other teams over five rounds that spanned a year and a half. “And of course, Teddy just loved the fact that he had won and Bobby had not,” says Tunney, who would also serve in the Senate with Ted and John Culver.

Just as important was a note he got from Joe, who couldn’t resist a family comparison: “You did a great job winning that event. Scholastically, it certainly fits with anything anybody has ever done before — including your father!”

In Charlottesville, Ted and Tunney lived in a house on Barracks Road, “just made for two young men who loved to speed because it had turns,” says Tunney. Kennedy’s fast driving had long been noted by his friends: Ted Sorensen, JFK’s speechwriter, remembers riding back from the Cape to Boston with Teddy. “It was the first time in my young life that I realized when cars coming from the other direction blink their lights at you, it means there’s a trooper up ahead and you ought to slow down,” says Sorensen.

After one police chase while in law school, with speeds up to 90 miles per hour, Teddy was charged with reckless driving and driving without a license, which he had left at home. “If you’re going to make the political columns,” wrote his father, “let’s stay out of the gossip columns.”

Still, Joe managed to keep the arrest out of the news for several weeks, releasing it just after he released the news that Teddy was going to head Jack’s 1958 Senate campaign. The positive story had the effect of blunting the negative one and again Joe, the ultimate fixer, had come through.

Marital step, political leap

Joe and Rose soon decided it was time for their free spirit to settle down. After all, Jack was a US senator and Bobby was making a name for himself as a chief counsel in the Senate.

At the start of Ted’s second year at UVa., the family went to Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. to dedicate a sports complex they had built in honor of Kathleen. There, Jean, a Manhattanville alumna, introduced Teddy to Joan Bennett, a senior at the Catholic women’s school. “I was not intimidated because I had never heard of the Kennedys before,” says Joan, who grew up in Westchester County. ” No one had ever heard of the Kennedys outside Massachusetts.”

Teddy made quite an impression on his own: “He was tall and he was gorgeous.” The two began seeing each other and Rose invited Joan to Hyannis Port, where so many Kennedy dates had been vetted.

Ted proposed on the beach near the Kennedy estate, mumbling: “What do you think about us getting married?” The two hadn’t spent much time alone — their half-dozen weekends together were always group affairs. “I guess we felt we knew each other, but there were no deep talks,” she says.

They were married Nov. 29, 1958, by Cardinal Spellman at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Bronxville. At the reception, Jack had to tell a hovering Rose: “Mother, he’s not a baby anymore. He’s married. He has a wife.”

During the festivities, Jack, Ted’s godfather and best man, wore a microphone because the Bennetts had hired a film crew as a wedding gift. Later, watching the footage, Joan would hear Jack whisper to his brother that marriage didn’t mean you had to be faithful. It was not the gift her father had planned, but it did serve as an early warning: Like his father and his brother Jack, Teddy would have a problem with fidelity.

Three weeks before the wedding, Jack had won reelection to the Senate against an obscure candidate, Vincent Celeste, with an unprecedented 74 percent of the vote. Joe’s plan had been to make this election the largest landslide in Massachusetts history, the better to position Jack for a 1960 presidential run.

It also served as Teddy’s political baptism: Jack had tapped his 26-year-old brother, still in law school, to be chairman of the campaign. What Teddy lacked in experience he made up for in enthusiasm, going to union halls, factory gates, and teas.

Unlike his brothers, Teddy seemed to revel in the hand-shaking and back-slapping. “One of his abiding strengths was that he genuinely liked talking to people,” says Gerard Doherty, who ran signature drives with Ted. “He’d talk to telephone poles if he could, whereas Bobby and Jack were a little more uncomfortable.”

Still, he was considered the kid brother, the one who campaigned on behalf of others.

In the 1960 race, he was assigned the 13 western states, which were predominantly Republican. “Teddy’s role was that of a young kid who would do anything to get his brother elected,” recalls Bob Healy. In Wisconsin, he promised folks at a bar that he’d go off a ski jump if they’d support Jack. Soaring off the 180-foot jump, he managed to land on his feet. In Montana he came out of a rodeo gate riding a bucking bronco, holding on for five seconds before being tossed off.

Despite Ted’s efforts, JFK lost all but three western states. But he had won the election, and it was about time, Joe thought, for his youngest son to emerge from the shadows and take his rightful place in American politics.


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