What is the highest compliment payable to a stout, 800-page collocation of investigative articles, cultural and literary essays, think pieces, and random philosophical noodling? That I was sad when it was over – aggrieved that my boon companion of a full month would no longer startle, amaze, entertain or edify me. Such is the case with Ron Rosenbaum’s The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms – not a snappy title, but one that aptly addresses its contents.
Rosenbaum, who is perhaps best known as the author of Explaining Hitler, has been a writer of “literary nonfiction” for such periodicals as Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Observer for 30 years, and has personally compiled his favorite pieces (and written end-of-the-millennium postscripts to many) for this book, which is structured in loosely chronological order.
These “intellectual adventure stories” include the Curse of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Why have the scholars closest to the famous scrolls been plagued by a bewildering assortment of evils and ills?); The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal (Why did several Ivy League and other elite schools allow nude photos to be taken of their incoming freshman for decades, including a Yale frosh named Ron Rosenbaum?); and investigations into the recondite wherefores and whatnots of Yale’s secret Skull and Bones society (with a postscript addressing the implications for member George W. Bush), Bill Gates’ stiflingly high-tech home/prison, J.D Salinger’s “Wall of Silence,” and the presence of Satan on Long Island. In a subcategory of investigations, Rosenbaum has a special nose for the lives and theories of conspiracy buffs (including those concerned with the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, superspy Kim Philby, and meta-conspiracy theorist Danny Casolaro) – he is a “buff buff.”
The author has also composed a lengthy introduction to the book in which he compares and contrasts the pieces and looks for underlying and overarching links between them. One of my few complaints about this remarkable book is that this intro both attenuates a few of the startling revelations that lie ahead, and is rather premature unless one is already familiar with these pieces, which I was not; in other words, the intro should be an outro.
Rosenbaum’s excellence derives from three attributes: he is a dogged reporter who follows a trail wherever it may lead (not necessarily to where he would want it to go), knowing what most writers don’t, that understanding often accrues through the investigative process, not through an “explosive” conclusion (although there are also a few of those). In fact, many of his stories don’t really have “conclusions” in the sense of tying loose ends together – Rosenbaum is often content to leave his ends flapping in the breeze. He is also an exceptionally well-read and culturally-aware deep thinker (who is not afraid to make bold aesthetic and moral judgments: pro-tabloids, anti-Seinfeld, pro-Tarantino and Stone, anti-Chaplin and Benigni) with an intuitive grasp of, and genuine affection for, all three of his brows – high, middle, and low – much like one of his literary heroes, Thomas Pynchon. And, fortuitously, Rosenbaum is also an able, often brilliant writer with a feel for drama, irony, and the melody of words.
With over 50 pieces in the book, a discussion of just the most important would still lead to a novella-length review, but I can’t resist a closer look at a couple of favorites. One of Rosenbaum’s earliest investigations (1971) was into the subculture of “phone phreaks,” the nerdy proto-hackers whose outlaw spirit and technical acumen gained them free long distance service, access to Ma Bell’s most intimate secrets, and directly influenced the digital revolution.
After empathetically introducing us to the clandestine world of various “phreaks” (many of whom were teenaged and/or blind) with nom de te’le’phones such as Captain Crunch, Dr. No, Cheshire Cat, and Midnight Skulker, Rosenbaum, in his postscript, relates some of the story’s “curious ongoing repercussions”: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, co-founders of Apple Computer, read the original article in Esquire and attempted to build “blue box” phone-hacking devices described in the story, which ultimately led to the founding of Apple. Captain Crunch went legit and “put his genius to work in programming the breakthroughs that made the p.c. user-friendly to the masses.” From the beginning of his career, Rosenbaum has not only described modern culture, but affected its course.
Another favorite tale involves a foppish, foolish, but brilliant young man named David Whiting, actress Sarah Miles’ “business manager,” and his 1973 death under mysterious circumstances in Miles’ motel room, on location in Gila Bend, Arizona, for the shooting of the MGM Western, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. Rosenbaum leads the reader through an extremely thorough, subtle and disturbing investigation that points to one of the book’s real bombshells: that Miles and her Cat Dancing co-star Burt Reynolds were at best disingenuous about events leading to Whiting’s death, and at worst they conspired to cover up their own culpability regarding it, including the possibility that a beating from the hot-tempered Reynolds contributed to that death. The cat’s out of that bag, but read the book for many more surprises and a month’s worth of great company.