Friday, March 23, 2012

Guest Review: Island of Vice

Summary: When young Theodore Roosevelt was appointed police commissioner of New York City, he had the astounding gall to try to shut down the brothels, gambling joints, and after-hours saloons. This is the story of how TR took on Manhattan vice . . . and vice won.

In the 1890s, New York City was America’s financial, manufacturing, and entertainment capital, and also its preferred destination for sin, teeming with forty thousand prostitutes, glittery casinos, and all-night dives. Police cap­tains took hefty bribes to see nothing while reformers writhed in frustration.

In Island of Vice, Richard Zacks paints a vivid portrait of the lewd underbelly of 1890s New York, and of Theodore Roosevelt, the puritanical, cocksure police commissioner resolved to clean it up. Writing with great wit and zest, Zacks explores how young Roosevelt goes head to head with Tammany Hall, takes midnight rambles with muckraker Jacob Riis, and tries to convince two million New Yorkers to enjoy wholesome family fun. When Roosevelt’s crackdown succeeds too well, even his supporters turn on him, and TR discovers that New York loves its sin more than its salvation.

With cameos by Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, and a horde of very angry cops, Island of Vice is an unforgettable snap­shot of turn-of-the-century New York in all its seedy glory and a brilliant miniature of one of America’s most colorful presidents. -- Doubleday

My dad made me promise that I wouldn't give him any more books to read about Teddy Roosevelt. He said he's sick of reading about President Roosevelt and he couldn't possibly want to know anything more about the guy. I guess he does have a point that I've given him about four or five books in the past year or so about him; however, when I saw ISLAND OF VICE: THEODORE ROOSEVELT'S DOOMED QUEST TO CLEAN UP SIN-LOVING NEW YORK by Richard Zacks, I thought it looked really good... and different from all of the other ones that have been recently published. I think I can now say that I was right! Here are his thoughts:

Theodore Roosevelt has been a popular subject over the past few years and when I received ISLAND OF VICE by Richard Zacks I thought: “Not another Roosevelt book! Hasn’t everything possible been written about this man?”

However in spite of my initial negative reaction I found the book to be both entertaining and informative. It was much more than a portrayal of Teddy Roosevelt. It is about New York City in the late nineteenth century and its emergence as a world city. New York was struggling with issues such as Tammany Hall, immigration, wealth, vice, politics, finance and industry growth, politics and a corrupt police department.

The public's concern about these issues led to a reform candidate being elected as mayor in 1896. Teddy Roosevelt was one of four newly appointed New York City police commissioners charged by the mayor with cleaning up the city and police. Roosevelt took his assignment seriously and attacked the issues with the same high-energy he approached all challenges.

Generally, Roosevelt’s tenure as a police commissioner was not particularly successful. After some early positive results, Roosevelt’s self-righteous and arrogant attitude and his demand to enforce every law on the books with equal vigor led to commission infighting and public dissatisfaction. The public sentiment soon moved against the commission to such an extent that Tammany Hall candidates were once again elected to key city offices. After a little more than a year, Roosevelt moved on to become the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the leader of the Rough Riders and then McKinley’s Vice-President and as we say… the rest is history.

The strength of ISLAND OF VICE is in the great stories the author shares with the reader. His depictions of Teddy Roosevelt in action give us a picture of a highly volatile and egocentric man. Roosevelt’s midnight tours to check on his policemen are chronicled in great detail by Zacks. His accounts of New York City at the end of the nineteenth century bring the story to life. Zacks introduces us to characters such as Henry Cabot Lodge, Little Egypt who was a popular stripper, Reverend Charles Parkhurst who led the charge against corruption, Commissioner Andrew Parker who feuded with Roosevelt and Police Chief “Big Bill” Devery who later brought to New York the team that would become the Yankees. Zacks’ portrayals of poverty among the immigrants and the accounts of police trials and raids on prostitution and illegal alcohol sales are exciting, deeply troubling and sometimes humorous. The author’s description of the Roosevelt-backed Raines Law enacted by the New York State legislature to prevent Sunday liquor sales tells a very enlightening story of the unintended consequences of government actions.

ISLAND OF VICE is a well researched, informative and entertaining novel. Richard Zacks brings to life a portion of the life of Theodore Roosevelt that has been neglected in other Roosevelt novels I have read. It is also a study of New York City at the turn of the century. I would highly recommend this book to those who are students of Theodore Roosevelt or anyone with an interest in the history of New York City.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy and to Booking Pap Pap for his excellent review.

And by the way, it's Booking Pap Pap's birthday! Happy Birthday Dad!


Serena said...

this is the Teddy Roosevelt I want to learn about!

bermudaonion said...

Sounds interesting. I guess you have to have a big ego to be President.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

That is a riot about what your dad said! And might I recommend the newly completed 3 volume history by Edmund Morris to give to him as a gift! LOL

The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

As a huge Roosevelt fan, I'm sure I can never be tired of reading about him but I can see how other people would be tired. I am slowly reading this, about a chapter every night, and can't wait for Roosevelt to make his big appearance!

Carin Siegfried said...

I have heard nothing but terrific things about this book, and since I loved The Alienist, also set in this time/place with Roosevelt as police chief, it's going on my TBR list!

Beth F said...

Now that I've written my own review, I can finally read Booking PapPap's. Excellent review ... he did a much better job than I did.