Monday, September 20, 2010


So, this being a place where works of nonfiction are discussed, it might well be unseemly for me to mention Ghosts of the White House. Some wistful, romantic souls might fancy that spirits walk those storied halls, but this was not the idea behind my book about the occupants of the Presidents' House. I was looking for a lively way to tell about the Presidency, about our elected leaders (including brief biographies), down the years, being that each represents a chapter in the story of the Republic. So I had George Washington pull a child into his picture frame in the East Room. He introduced young "Sara" to his fellow Presidents among the departed, all spooking about the place. The real-life Sara, my niece, went with me to the White House, in 1997, when I was preparing to do this book. In the years since it was published, two Presidents (Ford and Reagan), have passed away; Presidents No. 43 and No. 44 have been elected, and Sara is a graduate student and bride-to-be.
I'm happy to employ fantasy if it will interest young citizens in what America has been about before they came on the scene.
I'll gladly zap a kid back into Ancient Egypt?(Ghosts of the Nile, Simon & Schuster, 2004. Out of print, sad to say.) if in doing so I can clearly convey life as it was lived in that time and place.
Will I have Willie Lincoln conduct a modern child back into his time so as to explain the War Between the States? (Ghosts of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2002) Heck, yeah! A fine way, I figured, to show and tell, to 'overhear' past Americans talking about what was happening in their country. Historical literacy is the omelet I'm going for. I don't mind busting an egg or two. And what tremendous fun I have had doing it – except for Ghosts of the 20th Century (1999, out of print these days) I'm much more at ease in the era pre-internal combustion engine. Horses & carriages/stagecoaches/buggies/wagons are ever so much more fun to draw.)
Here now, I've digressed, run off the road, strayed from what I had in mind, that being my book about the Presidents. It was on this day in history that one of them assumed the office. It was at his home in New York City, in the wee hours of September 20, 1881, when Vice President Chester Arthur got the news that 20th poor President Garfield had died. Brilliant James A. Garfield had survived an impoverished childhood and service in the Civil War, but he was mortally wounded on July 2, 1881, when he walked into Washington D.C.'s grand railroad station. His assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, was waiting there, with a gun.
The earliest attempt to air condition the White House occurred that summer, to help ease the President's suffering. X-ray technology and modern antiseptics would have helped, too, but alas: These were yet to be invented. In the end, Mr. Garfield was taken to New Jersey, to be closer to the sea breezes, and in time, Vice President Arthur, was notified that he was to be President No. 21. He's coming up, by the way, on his 181st birthday, October 5.
Fashionable, side-whiskered "Chet" Arthur was a widower, a political wheeler-dealer in a system in which civil service jobs were handed out to folks in return for their votes.. New Yorkers called him "The Gentleman Boss." He ended up surprising the American people, becoming something of a reformer. I drew him, standing alongside Andrew Jackson in the East Room, telling Sara how he wished that she "could have seen the candles gleaming in the chandeliers and ladies' diamonds glittering, as music filled this room..." I'd rather like to see that myself....

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