Opening and Closing: Louis Menand on Wild Bill Donovan and the Hollywood View of History
Nathaniel Rogers over at Film Experience has a fun feature he does semi-regularly, called “First and Last,” in which he shows readers a screenshot of the first and last images of a movie and asks them to guess the movie. It's harder than you'd think.
This isn't meant to emulate that. Yesterday I simply read Louis Menand's review of Douglas Waller's “Wild Bill Donovan," about the founder of the O.S.S., and thus the granddaddy of all U.S. foreign intelligence operations, and was particularly impressed by Menand's opening and closing paragraphs. I wanted to share.
Here's the opening:
There is history the way Tolstoy imagined it, as a great, slow-moving weather system in which even tsars and generals are just leaves before the storm. And there is history the way Hollywood imagines it, as a single story line in which the right move by the tsar or the wrong move by the general changes everything. Most of us, deep down, are probably Hollywood people. We like to invent “what if” scenarios—what if x had never happened, what if y had happened instead?—because we like to believe that individual decisions make a difference: that, if not for x, or if only there had been y, history might have plunged forever down a completely different path. Since we are agents, we have an interest in the efficacy of agency.
Here's the closing:
Waller believes that Donovan got his nickname from his soldiers in the 165th, one of whom is supposed to have shouted out, during a particularly intense drill, “We ain’t as wild as you are, Bill.” Other writers, such as Tim Weiner, in his eye-opening history of the C.I.A., “Legacy of Ashes,” claim that it came from a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who was called Wild Bill Donovan in tribute to the number of walks and hit batters he was responsible for. The first story suggests fearlessness, the second recklessness. Donovan had both. It is good that his time onstage was brief.