Skip to main content

The Front Lines against Authoritarians

Dear Friends,

Fats Waller died on December 15, 1943, in Kansas City at the age of 39. He had contracted pneumonia on board the Super Chief, aka “train of the stars,” flagship of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway that ferried celebrities between Chicago and Los Angeles. What a life.

Waller was once kidnapped in Chicago. That was in January 1926 when, after a performance at the Sherman Hotel, four men shoved Waller into a car and took him to a place called the Hawthorne Inn, a joint owned by Al Capone. The 21-year-old musician was dragged inside at gun point. Waller was nervous. Who wouldn’t be? There was a piano in a room crowded with revelers. Waller was ordered to play. He was the “surprise guest,” it turned out, at a birthday party. Capone was turning 27.

There was another party, hosted by George Gershwin, that launched Waller’s career. Scroll down for more on that.


• Thanks to Michael Mandelbaum for bringing to my attention the new biography (Opens in a new window) of J. Edgar Hoover by Beverly Gage. The work portrays the legendary FBI director as, among many other things, a serious, competent, and effective civil servant, arguably the type we need today and the shortage of which has been a topic in Frank Fukuyama’s recent writing (Opens in a new window). The Yale historian and Hoover biographer will join us for a Zoom discussion on January 9 at 12 noon ET.

• Thanks to Kate Epstein for introducing us to Matt Suarez, who has an interesting piece (Opens in a new window) for us on Taiwan. Matt’s a first lieutenant and AH-1Z helicopter pilot in the United States Marine Corps. Recent supply-chain problems are likely to pale in comparison should China wage war on Taiwan, writes Matt. The United States is badly in need of a strategy.

• Thanks to Roya Hakakian for bringing Nima Rashedan to our attention. Nima is a former Iranian political prisoner currently working in Central Europe as a blogger-analyst. He’s invaluable as a conversation partner for a number of reasons, including for his study of what’s happening inside the Iranian regime. Nima joined our Leaders’ Circle members (Opens in a new window) earlier today for a Zoom. Otherwise, please read Roya’s recent essay (Opens in a new window) in The Atlantic. She continues to be one of the most eloquent voices urging the United States and its allies to do more to support the people of Iran. Human rights journalist Golnaz Esfandiari joins us by Zoom in early January. More about Golnaz and the date soon.

• We need to stick with Ukraine. George Will has warned all along about American tentativeness. He worries about our attention span. “Ukraine is looking to the West,” he writes in his Washington Post column (Opens in a new window), “away from Putin’s ethnoreligious, blood-and-soil notion of nationhood.… For the West to look away from Ukraine would be an apostasy foreshadowing a dark future.” Here’s (Opens in a new window) Bill Galston’s call for steadiness in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Here’s (Opens in a new window) Frank’s assessment and appeal on Ukraine this week. Former Ukrainian finance minister Natalie Jaresko will join us by Zoom on Monday December 19 at 12 noon ET on Reconstructing Ukraine. You can register here (Opens in a new window).

• We need to stay focused on all that’s at stake. John Connelly writes (Opens in a new window) about Ukrainian identity and a nation in the making. John sees in Ukraine an extraordinary example of language and memory, enlightenment values and imagination for a common liberal future. He argues there’s much to learn for the region and beyond. For more history on the making of a democratic nation, read Gabe Schoenfeld next week on Jeff Herf’s book on Israel’s founding.

• In January, American Purpose joins Stanford in Washington to cohost an exhibit on war and gender with works of art from female Ukrainian artists. Sonya Michel will lead a discussion in the run-up to the opening on January 12. Thanks to Sonya’s initiative in getting this project rolling. American Purpose arts and culture editor Syd Lipset leads from our side. Special thanks to Adrienne Jamieson for sponsoring and hosting the exhibit at Stanford’s Washington campus.

• In February, American Purpose engages with the Washington, D.C., public library system for a series on politics, culture, and American exceptionalism. We’ll include programs on Iran and Ukraine. Again, thanks to Syd and to Rob Schneider and his colleagues from the L Street branch library for their support and collaboration.

For the United States and the West, Russia’s war against Ukraine and Iran’s revolution come at an utterly inconvenient time, with inflation, polarization, and all the rest. Yet, if we can assist the Ukrainians and the Iranians in their struggles, we can help to take wind out of authoritarian sails. Carl Gershman writes (Opens in a new window) about the Solidarity playbook. Carl’s piece is adapted from remarks he recently delivered to the Polish Senate.

Music Notes

Thomas Wright Waller was born in New York, the seventh of eleven children. His mother was a musician. His father was a truck driver and pastor. Waller dropped out of school as a teenager to play organ at the Lincoln Theater of Harlem (where Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey would later perform). Fats Waller loved playing jazz — and Bach. He got around. He played at the Vendome in Chicago for movies alongside Louis Armstrong. He ended up copyrighting some 400 songs, influencing a generation of jazz pianists, and becoming the first African American to write the music for a Broadway hit. John McWhorter had plenty to say (Opens in a new window) about the musical Early to Bed in a 2013 essay for The New Yorker.

As for that soirée hosted by Gershwin, the year was 1936. Waller tickled the keys that evening, sang his heart out, told jokes, and dazzled the assembled. An executive of Victor Records at the party was so impressed that he arranged for Waller to record with the company, signing Waller to a deal that stuck until Waller’s death in 1943.

Here’s (Opens in a new window) a Waller classic I like very much.

At that birthday party for Capone, Waller is said to have gotten a hundred bucks in tips for each song he performed along with endless champagne and a feast for three days. He loved his food and drink. He knew how to make the most of things.

Next week, I’ll share my holiday playlist, including best performances of Handel’s Messiah, Handel’s oratorio Solomon, and a lovely bunch of Christmas operas.

Plan now for January. Angel Gil-Ordóñez and PostClassical Ensemble have a wonderful concert planned for January 11 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. The program (Opens in a new window) includes African-American spirituals and works by Adolphus Hailstork, Samuel Barber, William Grant Still, and J. S. Bach.

Keep an eye on the work of the tireless Joe Horowitz. Joe’s first novel is due out in early 2023. It’s called The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York. Joe is a wonderful critic, historian, and storyteller. We’ll never tire of tales about Gustav and Alma. We’ll invite Joe to a Zoom to talk about his book.

My best,


Only members who support American Purpose can read and write comments on this post.