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Injecting some personality into behind-the-scenes history

Does "character-driven history" shed new light on events that determine the course of the world? David Fromkin's answer is "yes" in "The King and the Cowboy."

Fromkin gives us sketches of Edward VII and Theodore Roosevelt -- and their cooperation as world leaders -- to demonstrate his view. He tells us how these two leaders lived and apparently changed the course of history at the Algeciras conference in 1906, allying U.S., Britain and major European powers against Germany's bid for Moroccan independence.

In broader context, the character-driven history query has no "either-or" reply. The proper answer is sometimes "yes" and sometimes "no." The writing of history is multisourced, a fabric woven of the winners who write it, the losers who whine about it, larded with the dispositions of those who read it, and the whippetlike table manners of lesser academics who go after the scraps. For his part, Fromkin is eating right off the table, seeing his writing as a corrective to what he calls academic historians tending to "focus on the impersonal forces that shape history."

Fromkin, a professor at Boston University, earlier short-listed for a Pulitzer when he wrote the 1989 book, "A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East 1914-1922" may have popularized history a bit too much in "The King and the Cowboy." The author gives us 18 pages of gossip about Bertie's amours, and 2 1/4 pages dealing with his politics, probably a legitimate division but a touch too plebeian for serious history. Edward the Seventh (1841-1910), called Bertie, oldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Consort Albert, one of nine children, was not the queen's choice for anything. His was a hard birth for the queen and she seems to have disliked his looks and behaviors over her long life. She had reason.

Bertie's poor behavior was a piercing disappointment to Prince Albert, chosen for dynastic reasons to marry Victoria. He came to England from Hanover, a minor principality in Germany, with a view to promoting continental liberalism. Victoria was English, but had German parents. In fact, German was her first language only later learning English as a young child.

Bertie took no interest in book learning, although he was taught French, German and English at an early age. He rejected Prince Albert's orderly plans for his education. Instead, Bertie, named the Prince of Wales by his mother, cultivated a louche existence symbolized by the phrase, La Belle Epoque (1890-1914.) He was a regular at the Moulin Rouge and the Folies-Bergere, where the striptease was introduced in 1894.

Bertie was a world figure, the opposite of his mother who went into mourning after Prince Albert died in 1861. Bertie changed clothes six times a day and the term "Edwardian," signifying high fashion, style and art between 1901 and 1910, was his legacy.

The Prince of Wales was devoted to his wife, Alexandra of Denmark, Alix, and their six children, in his way. "His way," according to Fromkin, meant that Bertie claimed he could not go to sleep at night unless a woman was in bed with him. The future king consorted with Lilly Langtree, Sarah Bernhardt and innumerable continental whores. He grew so large that his weight threatened the physical welfare of his partners.

How Bertie had time for politics is a puzzle to the reader. But he did. If he was not an intellectual, he wasn't stupid. He was wise to the ways of the world, glomming onto the opinions of the well informed, like Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace, foreign editor of the Times of London, who sent him confidential reports on Russia and Eastern Europe.

As Bertie grew older, becoming king at age 59, the English public seemed to reconcile its earlier fears about his rule and began to see him as a kindly uncle.

Now comes the fly in the ointment of the English royals' extended family. Marriages within royal families were arranged to build alliances, but they did not take into account frequent competition of leaders representing different countries who were related. Willie, who grew up to be the Kaiser, hated his uncle Bertie. Willie, born in Prussia in 1858, was his older sister Vicki's first child.

Meantime, on this side of the Atlantic, a young Brahmin, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), "Teddy" to his family, was born in New York City, of Dutch knickerbocker stock on his father's side, and a mother, Mitty, who was a true-blooded Southerner from Georgia.

The skein of the Roosevelt story is familiar to Americans. Asthmatic as a child, Roosevelt's unbounded energy and lifelong friendship with Henry Cabot Lodge, another Brahmin, catapulted him in politics after Harvard and a brief time in law school. With Lodge's help, he became president of the board of police commissioners of New York City, a member of the New York State Assembly and assistant secretary of the Navy. During the war with Spain, Roosevelt raised his own troops, the "Rough Riders."

His first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, died shortly after the birth of their daughter, Alice Lee. Roosevelt left his daughter with his sister and went to the Dakota Badlands, spending time as a cowboy and enjoying the robustness of frontier life. A year later Roosevelt married a childhood friend, Edith Kermit Carow.

By the time of the American presidential election of 1900, Roosevelt was being touted as a vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket headed by William McKinley. McKinley was elected president. He was shot on a visit to Buffalo for the opening of the world's fair, the Pan-American Exposition in September 1901. Thus, Teddy Roosevelt was thrust into the presidency.

He had many critics. The author tells us that Henry Adams observed, "Here is America run by a schoolboy barely out of college." Henry James, the novelist, wrote, "I don't either like or trust the new president, a dangerous and ominous Jingo (chauvinist)"; Mark Twain wrote that "the president is insane." Roosevelt's critics were wrong. America loved the young, energetic new president.

It may be that David Fromkin makes too much of Bertie and Teddy's friendship. They never met in person, although they exchanged cordial letters on issues concerning both countries. Fromkin writes about them, "One had been accused of being a prig; the other was a confirmed philanderer. Roosevelt was not a mannerless savage; Edward was not a mindless playboy."

In fact, they came together through intermediaries at the Algeciras Conference in southern Spain in 1906 because they saw things the same way: Germany -- and cousin Willy -- had to be contained.

It suited the King and the Cowboy, acting for England and the United States, to cooperate in what has been a valuable long-term political relationship.

Michael D. Langan is a former Labor Department official and frequent reviewer for The News.


The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners

By David Fromkin

The Penguin Press

244 pages, $25.95

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