William and Harry confidential

Plus, what the White House doctor saw, a famous heat wave, a memoir from Johnny Cash’s daughter, a world without Islam and the most beautiful woman in film

Shayne Robinson/AP

Katie Nicholl
In his 1867 book The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot wrote: “A family on the throne is an interesting idea also. It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life.” A century later, the world witnessed the perfect illustration of Bagehot’s musing: the divorce of Charles and Diana. According to Mail on Sunday gossip columnist Katie Nicholl, Queen Elizabeth II blamed her daughter-in-law for destroying “the mystery that shrouded the royal family.” The “people’s princess” certainly did change the palace game, not least in her determination that her two sons would lead lives as ordinary as possible, a wish the boys have often echoed, as Nicholl shows in her new biography. Whether as tots bashing their toy trucks through royal corridors or young soldiers desperate for a tour in Afghanistan, Nicholl reveals the “heir and spare” to be, in many ways, normal boys. She tapped a legion of friends, teachers and palace aides, many unnamed, to unearth such nuggets as 18-year-old Wills’s campfire confession during his “gap year” in South America that he was “not much interested?.?.?.?at all” in becoming king, and the hilarious voicemail greeting Harry recorded on his grandmother’s phone: “Hey, wassup? This is Liz. Sorry I’m away from the throne.”

While Nicholl points out the boys’ good works—from raising millions for charity to chasing bad guys in Helmand province—she doesn’t gloss over their less regal escapades. William pursued other girls—at least one seriously—even after he and current girlfriend (and rumoured fiancée) Kate Middleton had been dating for almost two years. Harry is known for stumbling out of nightclubs, drunken groping, and lunging at photographers. William has looked at porn mags; Harry can be lazy. Then there are the beyond-special privileges—like the waiving of £2,000 bar tabs and permission to fly an RAF chopper to a cousin’s stag on the Isle of Wight. These excesses inevitably raise the question (never addressed by Nicholl) of the monarchy’s long-term viability, and whether the princes may one day be granted their wish for a life more ordinary.

Dr. Connie Mariano
The physician behind the throne has always been a staple of historical fiction, the one man aware, amidst all the palace intrigue, of the human weaknesses of the exalted ruler. The actual experience seems to be almost as intriguing in the account offered by Mariano, the driven daughter of a Filipino naval steward who ended her U.S. military career as a rear admiral. But first came her nine years as White House physician, from the waning days of President George Bush Sr. through the Bill Clinton years. There’s good reason for the White House to draft its medical staff from the military: they shadow the first family wherever they go, in the same manner as the aide who carries the “football,” the briefcase with the nuclear launch codes. Between Mariano’s regular duties, which ranged from her first—bandaging a blister caused by Bush’s new golf shoes—to drawing blood from Clinton for special prosecutor Ken Starr to use in comparing the presidential DNA to that found on a certain semen-stained blue dress, the doctor went on 130 trips with the Clintons.

She spent nights on the Britannica and in Japan’s Akasaka Palace; met the King of Spain, who flirted with her by pretending to faint when they shook hands; was consulted on gout relief for the visiting president of Guatemala; and adroitly sidestepped international embarrassment at the 1997 APEC summit in Vancouver, best remembered in Canada for Jean Chrétien and pepper spray. A State Department functionary approached Mariano for cough medicine for the Korean delegation. While the doctor, who never travelled without supplies ranging from blood reserved for the first family to, yes, cough syrup, rummaged in her purse, the chatty State woman added that it was the Japanese, annoyed with the Korean coughing, who had asked for the medicine. Mariano, with visions of insulted Koreans heading straight to the airport, snapped her bag shut and blandly announced she must have left the syrup at home. Just another day on the job for a White House physician.

Ruth Barton
If you think Angelina Jolie is famous despite forgettable movies, wait until you meet Hedy Lamarr. The author, an Irish academic, tries to explain why the ’30s sex symbol’s “reputation has grown” though her movies are obscure, and suggests that it’s her image that matters. Her story is more interesting than her films: Hedy Kiesler, a Jewish girl from Austria, became famous for a nude scene in the Czech film Ecstasy, and wound up in Hollywood after running from a possessive husband (not to mention Hitler). While making films that capitalized on her stone-faced beauty, the intelligent, ambitious Lamarr led a secret life as an inventor, patenting a new form of wireless communication.

Much of Barton’s job is to find the reality amidst the legends about Lamarr’s origins, marriages and affairs. The actress, who died in 2000, was no help; she published a salacious autobiography and then sued her ghostwriters for writing it. Barton finds no evidence for many of the legends—her first husband probably didn’t buy up prints of Ecstasy to destroy them—but says that a few of them are true, like the claim that she was an inspiration for Catwoman in Batman.

While Barton analyzes Lamarr’s movies, the real interest is seeing how a star changed to fit what the public wanted. She built her career on her naughty reputation from Ecstasy, along with what Barton calls “exotic glamour,” but once the U.S. went to war, Lamarr tried “not to appear too foreign,” and publicized her domestic life with a new English husband. Like today’s stars, she sold her private life so shrewdly it didn’t matter that she couldn’t act. It’s sometimes hard, though, for Barton’s writing to convey the excitement of that life. After recounting the story of a man who claims to be Lamarr’s son, Barton concludes with a thud that “this is a story whose full truth will never be established.”

Still, there are fun moments amidst the equivocation: we learn that Lamarr originally joined up with her co-inventor because she thought he could give her “a cream that would increase her bust size.”

Rosanne Cash

“At the heart of all real country music,” writes Rosanne Cash, “lies family.” She should know. The first-born daughter of the legendary Johnny Cash has spent more than 30 years as a performer negotiating the potentially toxic trio of her father’s legacy, the music business and the public eye. As this aptly titled memoir shows, Cash doggedly “put the work before the worry,” and became a musician on her own terms.

Born in 1955 to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian Liberto (he would marry June Carter when Rosanne was 12), Cash’s childhood was coloured by her mother’s anxiety over her father’s long absences and drug use. A day out of high school, she began 2½ years touring with Johnny, learning to play guitar from June’s sister Helen. (It was during this time, in 1973, that her father scribbled down his list of 100 essential songs, from which Rosanne chose 12 for her 12th studio album, 2009’s The List.) Cash broke away in her 20s, doing a stint in London and a few years dabbling in acting before recording her first demo in Germany—the start of a successful career that would be informed by two marriages and five children, the loss of her voice, brain surgery and, of course, her father’s death.

Though Composed occasionally moves confusingly around in time—and oddly includes full eulogies for Johnny, Vivian and June (and, even more jarringly, details of the author’s funeral outfits)—Cash is a thoughtful writer, most passionate when talking about becoming an artist, and elegant when writing about loss (which she calls “the terrible club to which we all eventually belong”). Her story is moving and relatable, even for those of us who weren’t born to the Man in Black.

Graham E. Fuller
For the most dedicated warriors on both sides, the War Against Terror is an ideological conflict; depending on one’s allegiance, either the Islamic faith vs. the godless West or the Enlightenment vs. Islamo-fascism. Fuller begs to differ: whether or not Islam ever came to be, East and West would still be at odds in the Middle East. A former CIA station chief in Kabul and one-time vice-chair of the agency’s National Intelligence Council, Fuller is now a history professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and his argument is historical. Without Islam, ethnic conflicts, which were so helpful to Western imperial interests in playing one group off against another, would still exist. So too would religious conflict: if the region had remained Christian, it would have been Eastern Orthodox Christian, one side of what Fuller describes as “one of history’s most enduring, virulent, and bitter religious controversies,” that between the Catholic Church in Rome and Orthodox Christianity in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). And the long, murderous history of Western anti-Semitism would still have culminated in the Holocaust and thus in the state of Israel, the key flashpoint in Muslim radicalism. Most importantly, in Fuller’s opinion, the technological and industrial superiority of the West would still have driven it into the Middle East in search of oil and strategic advantage.

Fuller’s argument is a useful reminder that however much radical Islamicism has metastasized Middle Eastern grievances, those grievances are still very real. But it also comes up against its own limits. Fuller can only remove Islam from the picture and maintain he can clearly see what would remain because he doesn’t think much of religion’s power: it’s merely a cultural code, a way of expressing socio-economic facts. Those who see faith as having a far deeper effect on our very patterns of thought will not be overly impressed. They will continue to believe that the Middle East without Islam—like the West without Christianity—would be an utterly unrecognizable place.

Edward P. Kohn
Anyone who detects a note of cognitive dissonance in the way weather forecasters greet heat waves—the cries of “glorious summer weather, temperatures in the mid-30s, humidex of 40 plus, hurrah!”—can look to the historical record for confirmation of their suspicions. Heat waves are quiet killers on a massive scale, and tend to be quickly forgotten by survivors and government officials. As Kohn’s meticulous reconstruction of 10 lethal August days in 1896 New York documents, the heat’s 1,300 victims outnumbered the dead in Chicago’s far more famous Great Fire of 1871. And the heat’s toll rose inexorably in a city that, ravaged by cholera epidemics throughout the century, had marshalled its forces (an army of workers scrubbed 39,000 tenements with disinfectant) to cut its deaths in the 1892 epidemic to only nine. But victims of heat expire silently, and New York’s government slumbered through most of the 1896 crisis.

Kohn plots his disaster against the era’s headline events, especially the hotly contested presidential election race between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley. He uses death certificates issued by the coroner’s office—soon overwhelmed with bodies, despite extending its hours from sunrise to 2 a.m.—and press accounts. The latter chronicled everything from the hundreds of dead horses in the streets to the heat’s collateral toll. With conditions in Manhattan’s baking tenement houses almost literally hellish—temperatures inside soared to 50° C—poor New Yorkers took to rooftops and piers to sleep; dozens rolled off to die by trauma or drowning.

New York’s heat wave did, in Kohn’s opinion, play a tiny role in greater American history. It broke on Aug. 14, just as police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, beginning his climb to the presidency, finally won his battle with other officials to have the city distribute free ice to the tenement dwellers. That life-saving measure was one of the first stitches, Kohn points out, in weaving the U.S. social safety net, soon to take early form in Roosevelt’s Progressive Era.