Monday, February 6, 2012

Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks

The blurb:
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.

To be honest, I didn't really know that much about Teddy Roosevelt beyond the book The War Lovers by Evan Thomas, his general reputation of being a Rough Rider, an adventurer, a Harvard man, one of the forces behind the Museum of Natural History in New York City.   I wanted to read Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York and had expected to like him very much.  

Richard Zacks' account of Teddy Roosevelt's term as a police commissioner is meticulously researched, detailed, and an interesting read.  However, it doesn't paint Roosevelt in a flattering light at all.  Through the correspondence between him and Cabot Lodge, his letters to his sister, and through various newspaper accounts, we get a sense of Teddy Roosevelt's grandstanding, his rigid and sometimes unreasonable behavior, and the depth of his ambition.  Zacks spares little and we join TR and his companions as they perform their sting operations - outing the madams and their brothels, the barkeepers and the underground saloons, the police that are willing to look the other way.  The book gives us a fascinating account of an unusual time in New York City's political and cultural history.

ISBN-10: 0385519729- Hardcover $27.95
Publisher: Doubleday (March 13, 2012), 448 pages. 
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.

About the Author:
RICHARD ZACKS is the author of several nonfiction books, including The Pirate HunterAn Underground Education, and History Laid Bare. His writing has appeared in the New York TimesAtlantic MonthlyTimeHarper’s and Sports Illustrated, among many other publications. He writes in an office in New York City overlooking Union Square.

No comments:

Post a Comment