A Boy’s Life

From Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt to Steven Spielberg and Bill Clinton the evidence is overwhelming: the adult American male’s dream of paradise is eternal boyhood. David Nasaw’s Hearst is a sublime example. Nasaw presents him at age ten in London asking his mother to buy him the royal family’s carriage horses and in his seventies throwing costume parties for movie stars—Gary Cooper coming as Dr. Fu Manchu, Groucho Marx as Rex the Wonder Horse, Hearst presiding as cowboy gunslinger, Tyrolean peasant, circus ringmaster. In the years between ten and seventy-five he builds himself a castle on 60,000 acres and furnishes it with a private zoo, tries to start some wars, cruises Europe like a king on a royal progress chatting up the mighty and buying any and all treasures that catch his fancy. He hires Winston Churchill, puts both Mussolini and Hitler on his payroll, runs for president.

Not since Tahara, Boy King of the Yucatan has a book so delighted my inner boy. There is much more. How about a good war story? In this one, war has been declared against the Spanish in Cuba, and Will wants to be there, see the action, scoop his newspaper rivals with on-the-scene stuff. (Only his mother and very close pals call him Will, of course, but, aesthetically, it’s the only possible name in this episode.) His rival Teddy (Roosevelt, that is) has already beaten him to Cuba, bringing along his very own personal cavalry—cowboys, naturally—and is looking for a hill to charge.

Lacking cavalry, Will rents a steamship, loads it with printing presses, ice, medical supplies, cooks, stewards, and “food fit for a king.” Also correspondents, illustrators, editors, telegraphers, and two showgirls he’s been escorting around New York for the past year or so. Ashore, he and his warrior journalists blunder into enemy gunfire which wounds one of his correspondents. “I’m sorry you’re hurt,” Will tells his bleeding colleague, “but wasn’t it a splendid fight? We must beat every paper in the world.” And leaving his fallen pal to medics on the beach, off he sails for Jamaica to file an exclusive eyewitness story. What fun!

Joy, alas, is ever but an instant away from despair in the boyish heart, and the war is scarcely ended before Will realizes that Teddy has whipped him in the struggle for glory. “I made the mistake of my life in not raising the cowboy regiment I had in mind before Roosevelt raised his,” Will writes his mother. “I really believe I brought on the war but I failed to score in the war.”

Cuba has made Teddy a national hero; he has been drafted to run for governor of New York. That happens to be a job Will wants, as well as the presidency of the United States. “I had my chance and failed to grab it,” he tells his mother, “and I suppose I must sit on the fence now …

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