What I Read in August

I read some good stuff in August so I thought I’d start sharing what I read at the end of every month! Full disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

stack of books

Columbine by Dave Cullen
I’m going to date myself here and say that I was 11 when Columbine happened. There is so much about it that I didn’t understand at the time and so much misinformation has been spread that nearly two decades later, there was a lot that I was still unclear about. Columbine clears it all up in a way that makes it hard to put the book down. On Twitter and Instagram, I said this is one of the best books I’ve ever read and it definitely is. It’s easily in my top five and I would recommend it to anyone, especially Americans as I believe this massacre changed our country.

Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy Carter
After finding out that one of my coworkers is a big Hamilton fan and we geeked out a bit, she asked if I had this book. I said I didn’t so she let me borrow hers. I ordered my own copy the very same day. It’s the coolest book ever. The pictures are just gorgeous and the breakdown of the lyrics is amazing since Lin snuck so many little touches into the soundtrack. If you like Hamilton and you don’t have this, what are you doing?

Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, And Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley
I had been meaning to read this for a while and finally read it for my upcoming posts about Elizabeth Keckley. It’s a really unique book not only because of her incredible life but because, like I cover in the post, literate slaves were extremely rare. To have something that a former slave wrote makes for a fascinating primary source. FYI: the Kindle version is only .99!

My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business: A Memoir by Dick Van Dyke
The Dick Van Dyke Show is my favorite classic TV show and probably one of my favorite shows, period. So when this came up in a BookBub email a few weeks ago, I had to snag it. Dick Van Dyke is very upfront about the fact that there is no dirt in this book (I get the feeling that there is no dirt to put in a book.) It’s just a charming look at his life and career. If you need a palate cleanser for whatever reason, I recommend this one.

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins
I picked this up on a whim in a used bookstore. I’m so glad I did. I haven’t finished it yet but it is eye-opening. To know that my grandmothers were restricted in ways that I can’t begin to imagine (and that, as white women, they didn’t even experience the worst of it) is humbling and makes me very grateful for the strides we’ve made.

And in a completely different realm, I’ve been reading this magazine I picked up at an antique shop near Asheville…

life magazine LSD

Look at that cover!

Go ahead and click to enlarge those. If you want to see more, you can probably find a copy on eBay or in an antique shop near you. I actually found one here in Raleigh the other day! This article inspired a post that will go up sometime in September (it’s up!)

On that note, what did you read in August?

Richard Nixon, King Tut, and the Exhibit That Became a Cultural Phenomenon

1974. Patty Hearst was kidnapped, The Brady Bunch was canceled, and Gerald Ford stepped into the role of President after Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

Not quite two months before his resignation, though, he took a trip to Egypt. This was the first time a sitting president had traveled to the country since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visit over 30 years earlier.

Nixon with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. June 12, 1974.

Nixon with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. June 12, 1974.

“Today marks the day when, by your meeting with the President of the United States…we cement the foundations of a new relationship…”

The US and Egypt had severed diplomatic relations seven years earlier and Nixon wanted to remedy the situation. There is a lot more going on with this visit (having to do with The Cold War and the Soviet Union) but I’m going to focus on the cultural aspect of the visit and agreement. The Cold War aspect will come back into play in a bit.

In the agreement that the men signed, the culture clause stated that the US would help Cairo rebuild their opera house while Egypt would send some of Tutankhamun’s treasures to tour the US. It would be a cultural, and economical, win-win in the midst of Nixon’s crumbling presidency. The US State Department began negotiations with Egypt and it was decided that Tut’s treasures should go on tour beginning in 1976 to celebrate America’s bicentennial.

Hoving vs. Brown

In Washington DC, the National Gallery had already begun planning their own Tut exhibit, tentatively slated to open in 1977 or 1978. They had even received approval from President Sadat and the Egyptian Cultural Ministry. Now that was off the table. Still, the National Gallery’s director, J. Carter Brown, offered the Gallery as the exhibit’s organizing institution. Sounds like a no-brainer. But in the museum (and government) world, things are rarely so straightforward.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art stepped in. The president of the Met’s board of trustees, C. Douglas Dillon, had a discussion with Henry Kissinger that left him with the impression that the museum may stand to lose access to federal grants if they didn’t take an active role in the planning of this exhibit. Thomas Hoving, the Met’s director, dove into the negotiations head first.

This wasn’t just about wanting the best for their respective institutions or even the prestige that comes with organizing and hosting an exhibit of this magnitude. This was personal. The two museums often competed for benefactors, resources, and exhibits. Brown seemed to be better at negotiations and regularly beat out Hoving when it came to securing these exhibits. In 1974, Brown beat out Hoving to have a major art exhibit titled “The Archaeological Treasures of the People’s Republic of China” at the National Gallery. Hoving had lost big time and wasn’t going to let that happen again.

The State Department asked Brown to bow out and let the Met have this one. Brown agreed, provided the exhibit opened at the National Gallery. All parties agreed, Hoving stewing over losing to Brown yet again. But Hoving eventually took solace in the fact that the exhibit would end its US tour in New York. He later wrote, “being last was actually better than being first—visitors would flood to the final opportunity to see the show.” As you might imagine, the budget for an exhibit of this magnitude is staggering. The Met would need funds for transport, insurance, extra staff, exhibit construction, the list went on and on. They were granted $250,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, matched by The Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Charitable Trust and Exxon. They received insurance aid from the new Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Act, ratified in December 1975.

Thanks, National Endowment for the Humanities!

Between November 1976 and April 1979, the exhibit would hit six US cities: Washington DC, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York. Those cities had no idea what was about to unfold.

Oh, this exhibit only visited three cities in the Soviet Union. Nixon wanted to make sure the US tour hit more than that because apparently during the Cold War, there was no such thing as being too petty.

king tut exhibit 1970s

Crowds lined up for Treasures of Tutankhamun at the National Gallery, February 1977. Photo via Humanities Magazine.

King Tut Arrives in the States

On opening day, November 16, 1976, the line wrapped around the building…the three-block-long building. Since the tickets were first come-first served, people lined up at dawn. Even when they reached the museum’s entrance, they still had a four-hour wait to get into the exhibit. When the exhibit closed four months later, over 835,000 people had visited. That was more than the population of DC at the time.

When it went to the Field Museum in Chicago, the staff was a little panicked. They weren’t equipped to handle crowds like DC saw. They changed their ticketing system, installed a new switchboard to handle the influx of calls, and brought on more staff and volunteers. They issued over 8,500 tickets on opening day and by the end of the four months, over 1.3 million people had visited Tut’s treasures.

king tut exhibit 1970s

A woman visiting the exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago, 1977. Photo via The Field Museum.

The same thing was repeated around the country: museums had to prepare themselves for millions to pass through their doors in a short period of time. At the New Orleans Museum of Art, the director made the decision to stop offering memberships as they had climbed from around 3,000 to over 12,000 in just a few months and were unable to keep up. Over 870,000 people saw the exhibit and spent over $75 million (over $280 million in 2016) in the city. When the exhibit closed in New Orleans, they sent Tut off with what else? A jazz funeral.

king tut exhibit 1970s

Tut’s New Orleans jazz funeral, January 15, 1978. Photo via Nola.com

When it came to the Los Angeles Museum of Art (LACMA), tickets were $2, which would be $7.51 in 2017. An absolute bargain. But like any show in high demand, scalpers got in on the action. They sold tickets for $35, the equivalent of $131.40 in 2017. No matter. Over 1.25 million visitors saw the exhibit at LACMA, an attendance record that still stands for the museum. The Seattle Art Museum saw similar numbers.

king tut exhibit 1970s

1978 photo of the line to enter Treasures of Tutankhamun at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

King Tut in New York City

And finally, Tut reached New York and the Met. It opened on December 15, 1978, and tickets sold out in six days. By the end of its run in New York, over 600,000 tourists had descended into NYC and spent over $110 million (upwards of $370 million today) in the city. Over 1.27 million people visited in total.

Everywhere it went, it seemed to be a blessing and a curse. It provided a short boom to the local economy and museum attendance and memberships skyrocketed. It reminds me of the Olympics: lots of preparation for a once-in-a-lifetime blockbuster event that strains resources and doesn’t lead to any long-term economic benefits. I’m not going to disparage a museum exhibit that got millions of people around the country excited about history, though!

Commercializing King Tut

Some weren’t happy with how commercial the exhibit was. You could buy all manner of souvenirs, official and unofficial, at each stop. The Met sold life-size reproductions of the goddess Selket for $1,500 while street vendors sold women’s shirts that said things like, “Hands off my tuts!”

And of course, there’s Steve Martin’s song, “King Tut.” Martin wrote it to criticize the commercialization…and the song ended up selling over a million copies and hitting #17 on the Billboard charts.

steve martin king tut

“He gave his life for tourism.”

This was perhaps the first blockbuster museum exhibit and left an indelible mark on the 1970s. It’s part of the cultural zeitgeist of the decade and is a strangely bright light for Nixon’s presidency as the agreement that would lead to the exhibit came as government officials were waiting for those infamous tapes to be handed over.

King Tut: A Classic Blockbuster Museum Exhibition That Began as a Diplomatic Gesture by Meredith Hindley
The King of New York by David Kamp
LACMA’s 50 Years on Miracle Mile by Noelene Clark
Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs from The Field Museum
King Tut from Saturday Night Live
King Tut Tours are Big Sellout in New Orleans from the Chicago Tribune, August 23, 1977
King Tut in New Orleans: Museum Hosted 1977 Exhibition for Thousands by Chelsea Brasted
Photo of Nixon and Sadat

Must-Read Books About the Holocaust

Like many, I was taught about the Holocaust via Anne Frank. It was in fourth grade, Mrs. Stephens’ class. I remember wanting to learn everything I could about the Holocaust because my 9-year-old mind couldn’t comprehend humans murdering other humans simply for being different.

Adult me still doesn’t understand.

I scoured the library for books (this was pre-internet!) and looked at pictures that I probably shouldn’t have at such a young age. But that instilled in me an interest in and passion for Holocaust education. And since I’ve always been an avid reader, I’ve read a lot of books by and about survivors. In light of recent events, I wanted to share these as a reminder of what unchallenged hatred can do. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. For more book recommendations, go here.

Must-read books about the Holocaust

Full disclosure: this post contains affiliate links. Any funds generated by the sale of books via these links will be donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
If you’ve read my other must-read lists, you know I’m a fan of Erik Larson. I think this might be my favorite from him. It tells the story of William Dodd, the US ambassador to Germany from 1933-1937. FDR appointed him shortly after becoming president, which happened shortly after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Dodd wrote to Roosevelt about the true state of affairs in Germany, which many were hesitant to believe because the Nazi propaganda machine was running in full force. I think it’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read and, unfortunately, feels relevant today.

Night by Elie Wiesel
This is probably the most famous book about the Holocaust and for good reason. Wiesel survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald and wrote Night to bear witness. It’s short but powerful, raw, and horrific. If you are going to read one book about the Holocaust, make it this one.

Hiding for Our Lives by Esther Gutman Lederman and Ezjel LedermanHiding for Our Lives by Esther Gutman Lederman and Ezjel Lederman
A few years ago, I did a short volunteering stint with the Holocaust Speakers Bureau of Chapel Hill. During my time there, I was tasked with interviewing a few survivors about their journey to North Carolina and their lives here. One of those survivors was Esther. I will probably never forget the afternoon I spent with her. She told me her story over lunch (she had a kosher hot dog, I had a BLT) and I feverishly wrote down notes between bites. Like my own grandmother would, she told me to order dessert because I didn’t eat enough. She complained that her kids begged her to stop playing tennis a few years ago because of her age. She stopped but insisted that at age 90, she could still play just fine! Before we parted, she gave me a copy of her book, which I cherish. In it, she and her husband tell their story of hiding from the Nazis in a potato cellar, losing family members, and coming to the US after the war. It’s incredible and I will never forget what she told me about writing the book and speaking about her experience: “I still speak about it because I want this generation to be able to stand up to deniers. I want them to be able to say, ‘I’ve met someone who lived through it. I heard her story. It happened.'”

In My Hands: Memoirs of a Holocaust Rescuer by Irene Gut Opdyke
Irene was a teenager when the Nazis invaded her native Poland. In this book, she tells about life in occupied Poland, working in a hotel frequented by German officers, and saving the Jewish workers she supervised at the hotel. She ended up hiding some of those workers in the home of the Nazi officer she worked for. It’s actually classified as a young adult book so if you are looking for something for preteens or younger teenagers, this is a great pick.

Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening by Primo Levi
I think Survival in Auschwitz is one of the most well-known Holocaust memoirs and The Reawakening is a continuation of Levi’s story. Levi was arrested as part of the anti-fascist resistance in Italy and sent to Auschwitz. The Reawakening picks up with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviets and chronicles Levi’s journey back to Italy. It also explores his feelings as he grapples with his experiences and life after liberation, which I found fascinating.

Our Crime Was Being Jewish by Michael S. Pitch
This is another book I was fortunate enough to snag for a few dollars via Book Bub. It is a collection of stories by Holocaust survivors, over 500 stories by over 350 survivors. They tell about their lives before the war, imprisonment, and liberation. It is incredible to have so many stories and perspectives in one book.

The Collaborator by Alice KaplanThe Collaborator by Alice Kaplan
This last one is not quite a Holocaust story but still a very important one. What constitutes a collaborator? Does publishing an anti-Semitic newspaper mean that you are guilty of collaboration? Robert Brasillach, a Frenchman, was a vehement anti-Semite and editor of the fascist newspaper Je Suis Partout. While he didn’t directly murder anyone, his beliefs were in line with Nazi ideology and no doubt emboldened French Nazi sympathizers. But did he deserve to be executed for it? Kaplan discusses Brasillach’s life, career, and what qualifies as collaboration in a way that makes it hard to put this one down.

Do you have another recommendation? A book everyone should read? Please share!

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Must-read books about the Holocaust

The Best History Podcasts

Looking for the best history podcasts? Look no further. I’m an avid podcast listener and these are my favorites from the history category. They’re all a little different, but really enjoyable and you’ll learn a thing or two!

The best history podcasts

This podcast is pretty academic seeing as it’s hosted by history professors from the University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins, and Yale with guest hosts and interviews from other historians. They use current events to explore US history. How did we handle immigration in the past? How long has “fake news” been around? How have women influenced American politics?
Episodes to check out: National Lampoon, The Habit, and Counter Culture.

The History Chicks
The “chicks” in the title is working overtime here: the show is two women talking about women in history. They cover everyone from Catherine the Great to Lucille Ball in an approachable yet authoritative way. Basically, they do their research and I feel like I could hang out with them. The audio quality of early episodes isn’t as polished as most podcasts but it does get better and the content is so good, I can deal with the audio issues.
Episodes to check out: Julia Child (duh!), The Wizard of Oz, and Lizzie Borden.

A History of the World in 100 Objects
This podcast is a conglomeration of my favorite things: podcasts, history, and museums. In this series, Neil MacGregor, director of The British Museum, takes a look at 100 objects from the museum’s collection that shaped the world. He discusses everything from stone tools to Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’ to the credit card in a delightful, insightful way. The series ran during 2010 so don’t expect new episodes. This is a BBC production so the quality is top notch!
Episodes to check out: Really, all of them. But if you really need a recommendation, I’ll say The Rosetta Stone and the Suffragette Defaced Penny.

Witness, also a BBC production, is almost exclusively 20th-century history as it features interviews with people that experienced history (the witnesses.) They cover every topic you can think of and with episodes that are around 10 minutes long, you can listen to them here and there without having to commit to a 1+ hour long podcast. There is a new episode almost every day and the archives stretch back years so there is a lot to check out!
Episodes to check out: due to the sheer number of episodes in their archives, I’m going to direct you to their collections page. Pick a topic you’re interested in and have a listen!

Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine
Dr. Syndee McElroy and her husband Justin McElroy explore medical history and all the bad, dumb ways we’ve tried to heal people over the centuries. It’s one of my favorite podcasts, period. I should make it clear that this is a comedy podcast first and a history podcast second. Still, I’ve learned so many weird, interesting things from Sawbones while laughing until I cry. Sawbones isn’t for everyone but if you like a little silliness, check it out.
Episodes to check out: The Dancing Plague, Medical Cannibalism, and all of the episodes about patent medicines.

Lore is about folklore and true, often historical, scary stories. Aaron Mahnke, the host, is stellar. If you like to be creeped out, like folklore, and/or like stories from history, Lore is for you.
Episodes to check out: Negative Consequences, The Big Chill, and Mary, Mary.

You Must Remember This
You Must Remember This is about “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.” Even if you’re not super into old movies, give YMRT a listen. Karina Longworth, the host/researcher/editor, is an incredible storyteller. I’ve been listening to the current season about Jane Fonda and Jean Seberg…and I’d never heard of Jean Seberg until a few weeks ago.
Episodes to check out: All of the episodes from “Charles Manson’s Hollywood.” Seriously. It’s incredible. Also, check out all of the episodes from “Dead Blondes.”

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the best history podcasts