Between The Covers

By Terri Schlichenmeyer, October 2019 Issue.

Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan & William Rufus King by c.2019,
Oxford University Press $34.95 / higher in Canada 337 pages

Tethered by a cord.

That’s what people think when they see you and your closest pal: that you’re tethered by some sort of invisible cord. You think alike, talk alike, you sometimes mirror each other’s actions. Where there’s one, there’s the other even, as in the new book Bosom Friends by Thomas J. Balcerski, when you’re often poles apart.

In the years prior to the Civil War, our nation’s capital was “very much a work in progress”: roads were little more than mud, neighborhoods were far apart and, indeed, Washington, D.C. was a swamp to which most Congressmen had to travel. Since nearly all were landowners elsewhere, few elected officials brought their families to the city with them; those who came solo needed places to live, so boardinghouses — called “messes” — sprung up to house the politicians.

Thomas J. Balcerski

It was at one such “mess” that William King met James Buchanan.

King was born to be a politician: educated at the University of North Carolina, he almost immediately went into politics after graduation. He was a social man, and very charming, but he never married, blaming it on a broken heart over a princess who was angered by a perceived insult. Balcerski hints that the princess story was a convenient ruse.

Buchanan was also educated and politically-minded but his personal life differed: he was engaged to be married but a misunderstanding caused his fiancé to call off the nuptials. Before Buchanan could patch things up, she fell ill and died. For the rest of his life, he, too, claimed that a broken heart kept him from marrying.

At that time in history, says Balcerski, homosexuality was strictly forbidden but deeply “intimate” friendships between men were common and even encouraged; it seems likely that King and Buchanan formed one of these while living at the “mess,” partaking in debates together, and working at the capital. Their “bosom friendship,” however, appeared exceptionally close: tongues wagged and others publicly teased the politicians for their particular bond.

But were they lovers, as rumors have claimed for over 170 years?

Inconclusive, as you’ll see in Bosom Friends. There are many reasons to think either way; although author Thomas J. Balcerski says they weren’t, evidence otherwise is tantalizing.

To get there, though, will take some rock-climbing.

To understand the lives of King and Buchanan, one must inherently understand politics, of which much of this book consists. This is necessary, since it also shows division between the two men, ultimately both physically and emotionally; the scrappy political competition in which they engaged; and an untraversable gulf of disagreement — facets that, individually and together, are fascinating. Readers will clearly see the affection between the two men here, though we’ll never completely know the true nature of it: possibly-argument-settling written communication between the two disappeared shortly after the Civil War.

That sets up a delicious double-mystery that leaves you to make up your own mind: letters lost or tossed? Bosom Friends, or more than that?  If you’re curious to know, this book will keep you tethered to your chair.

A Wild and Precious Life: A Memoir by Edie Windsor
with Joshua Lyon
c.2019, St. Martin’s Press $27.99 / $37.99 Canada 274 pages

There’s a long line of people behind you.

Some are afraid to be seen, to speak up, or to show up. Others don’t want to get involved, so they’re sitting this one out. One thing, though: they’re all watching to see what you do next because, as in the new memoir, A Wild and Precious Life by Edie Windsor with Joshua Lyon, someone’s got to be first.

There was never any doubt that little Edie Schlain was fiercely adored.

The youngest child of the family, Edie grew up wanting to be like her big sister, protected by her big brother, and the apple of her parents’ eyes. She admits that she was “spoiled” then, not in a bad way but just enough to give her the confidence and brass a child of the Depression might need.

She remembered the beginning of World War II, although not in the sense that most did: her recollections were of a houseful of boys, her brother’s friends, laughing and eating and gathering in her parents’ home before going off to war, and mourning when word arrived of those who’d never come home. Edie always liked boys and as she matured, she bantered with her brother’s friends although she occasionally thought it odd how much she liked watching other girls.

“The idea that anything physically intimate with a girl could happen simply did not exist,” she said.

Edie Windsor

But eventually, it did, with a tennis partner in college, then with a female roommate she loved before realizing that there was “no other available reality” than to fall into lockstep with other young women of the 1950s, settle down, and marry a nice man.

The marriage lasted six months.

At the end, Edie, who’d convinced her husband to adapt the surname “Windsor,” realized that she needed to tell him the truth. Pondering how to tell him, she immersed herself in Judy Garland “fantasy” musicals, and she planned: “Guess what, Judy? I’m a lesbian.”

“If you’re looking to read about Edie’s Supreme Court case, put this down …” says co-author Joshua Lyon in his preface. But don’t be too hasty: A Wild and Precious Life has enough to offer, all by itself.

Indeed, though he still touches upon the fight that helped achieve marriage equality, Lyon says that Windsor “desperately wanted” readers to know about her pioneering work in computers and technology, which was a “core part of her identity” and of which she was enormously proud. In her words here, which Lyon indicates that she edited herself, Windsor also woos readers with breezy wit, racy love stories, and seemingly casual-not-casual, semi-nonchalant depictions of being a lesbian in the mid-twentieth-century, and what it was like living in the shadows but flirting hard with the light.

Early in this book, Lyon says he fretted about how to finish it after Windsor died, but he needn’t have worried. Though its ending feels a little rushed, A Wild and Precious Life flows perfectly and entertains delightfully, making it a book you’ll want in front of you.