Bill Bryson (2013) One Summer America 1927.

Bill Bryson offers an idiosyncratic snapshot of America as the workshop of the world, the most powerful nation on earth that had a good 1st World War—with most other countries, debtor nation—that produced tax surpluses that largely benefited President Warden G. Harding and his wealthy cronies with shades of the moron’s moron Trump. Bryson wasn’t to know this having written the book before the rise of bankrupt rapist, serial liar, tax dodger, draft dodging, insurrectionist, Nazi loving dad who talked openly about incestuous fantasies with his daughter but somehow is in a race to be re-elected President.

President Calvin Coolidge never talked to anybody about anything and worked less that the moron’s moron, averaging around four hours or fewer a day. His hands-off approach wasn’t really a strategy, more a way of live. He was honest as the day wasn’t long.

President Hoover loved to be on the front page. Apparently he built the Hoover damn single-handedly after the Mississippi had flooded an area the size of Scotland, which probably had a better—underwater— football team. His only interest was work, and he appeared to be everywhere at once. Despite lacking charisma, his incredible organisational skills led to people claiming that he saved more people in the First World War than anyone else by providing food to Belgian citizens dying of starvation after the German invasion.

But this isn’t a story about presidents. They are mostly incidental. The heroes of 1927 are Charles Lindberg and Babe Ruth.

Lindberg was the all-American hero and most well-known person in America and possibly the world. His single-handed transatlantic flight 21st May 1927 to Le Bourget airfield Paris in the Spirit of St Louis changed his life, but also the trajectory of modern flight. Interest and investment followed.

Lindberg was unprepared for such fame. Average intelligence, non-drinking, non-smoking. He hadn’t dated a girl before his flight when he was in his twenties. He spoke little taking after his mother, whose idea of maternal warmth was shaking hands with her son. Lindberg’s father’s father had left behind a family in Germany. He travelled to America with his mistress. His name was Mannson (not the serial killer), but changed his name to the more Americanised Lindberg.

Lindberg is perhaps better known now for his baby son being kidnapped and ransomed and for his Nazi eugenic views. Bryson deals with this in the Eulogy. 1927, almost 100 years ago, was the age of great loathing: The Ku Klux Khan was widely popular and part of normal everyday society. Hating Blacks, Jews, Catholics, Communists, Socialists, Irish, East Europeans and those generally from non-Nordic countries were a vote winner.  

Prohibition, like Brexit, was an economic disaster. Al Capone seemed untouchable. Chicago was the most corrupt of American states. The city paid the police men. So did Capone. He ran a beer factory in the city, paying no taxes and with price hikes hundreds of times more lucrative than pre-Prohibition. He owned the judges and politicians. He explained, almost ninety percent of the people in his city like to drink. He was meeting demand and providing a product.

This was the year of the Ponzi scheme. Charles Ponzi involved postal reply coupons. Those sent from abroad could be redeemed and a profit made from the different pricing structures. He guaranteed high returns to investors and opened offices all over America.

The secretive Mantis and Ottis Van Sweringen were new money. They made their fortune in railways and property. They built Shakhar Heights, a planned community and the second highest building in America at the time, Cleveland’s Union terminal. They had thousands of employees and used this collateral to buy more, to do more. Borrow now and pay later. The 1929 Stock Market Crash wiped them out, as it did so many others. The contagion of the Great Depression meant one-in-four Americans were unemployed.

But this was to come later. The ‘It Girl’ of the Twenties, Clara Bow never made it beyond the Silent Screen. Her Brooklyn accent was parodied in Singing in the Rain.

America’s premier industrialist, Henry Ford, was also becoming unstuck. Like Lindberg, he was a Jew hater and baiter and much admired by Hitler in a mutual admiration society. His Model T had circled the world. And he’d built factories to meet demand. To control costs from suppliers his costly experiment in producing rubber for tyres by building a Little America in the Amazonian jungles of Brazil was yet another expensive folly. Americans were going car crazy, but they were no longer buying Ford.  

I’ve not said much about Babe Ruth. I’ve no interest in baseball. Lindberg might have been the best pilot in the world. Babe Ruth was the best at the national sport. His one skill was with a 54lb bat. He hit more home runs than anyone else. He grew up and out of an orphanage and had an outsized appetite for food, sex and booze, but not necessarily in that order. He was married that many times he couldn’t always remember who to or when. Marilyn Munroe, ahem. When he retired, his ambition was to manage the team he loved and helped bring to a different level, The New York Yankees. ‘You can’t even manage yourself,’ he was told.

Bryson’s One Summer 1927 offers a modern America with cars and planes and Tommy guns and radios and the coming boom of talkies and TV, but also rural Americans without electricity or inside toilets. Mostly everything you caught killed you (no antibiotics). A snapshot like Schumpeter economics when modern life is in the air, but it never quite clear when correlation and causation differ or begin. But this is entertainment. This was the golden age of books and magazines. Amen to that. Read on.