Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille, by Scott Eyman
Veteran Hollywood biographer Eyman brings to life one of the greatest movie impresarios of all time. But while DeMille’s The Ten Commandments is ubiquitously known, his small but significant philanthropic legacy is not. As host of the popular Lux Radio Theater broadcast from 1936 to 1945, DeMille was a member of the radio performers’ union. In 1944, the union assessed an additional $1 fee for a political campaign in support of the closed shop. Though favorably disposed toward unions, DeMille opposed mandatory political contributions. When he refused to pay, he was promptly expelled from the union, banned from working in radio (and later TV), and denied standing in court. “When one man or group has the power to decide who shall work and who shall not,” said DeMille, “that is a national cancer.” He founded the DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom and began campaigning for right-to-work laws around the country. (His role was more promotional than financial; he contributed only a few thousand dollars to its corpus.) “DeMille appeared before the committee considering the Taft-Hartley bill and his testimony helped lead to a clause that outlawed the closed shop in interstate commercial relations,” writes Eyman. “The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 forbade denying anyone the right to work for refusing to pay a political assessment.” DeMille’s right-to-work advocacy puts a fresh, personal perspective to his prologue in The Ten Commandments: “Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.”
High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg, by Niall Ferguson
Ferguson is perhaps the finest economic historian working today, and his new biography is everything one would expect from him. It is thorough, thoughtful, and elegant, the definitive study of the man who, more than any other, revived postwar London as a preeminent center of international finance. One quibble: “Like so many members of the Rothschild family,” writes Ferguson, “Warburg was a philanthropist. Youth Aliyah, the Central British Fund for Jewish Relief and Rehabilitation, the Weizmann Institute in Israel, the Dilworth Chair at Yale University, and the Warburg Science School at King Edward’s School, Witley—these were just some of the institutions to which he made donations in cash and kind.” A footnote follows, in which Ferguson cites a 1980 letter from Warburg to his cousin Lola Hahn-Warburg. “Two close friends of mine,” wrote Warburg, “whom I consult continuously on my charitable contributions have been telling me since the beginning of last year that over quite a long period of time I have earmarked too large sums of money for philanthropic purposes and that it would be madness on my part to go further in this respect.” In 576 pages of text, that is more or less what Ferguson has to say about Warburg’s philanthropy. Ferguson is Scottish by birth; Warburg, English by adoption. Perhaps the reluctance to discuss charitable giving is a manifestation of British reserve. Regardless, it will fall to another biography to explore Warburg’s philanthropic “madness.”
The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, by John McKnight and Peter Block
The Abundant Community offers an impassioned critique of the way we live today, if passion can be expressed with such leaden, plodding prose. (“They elementalize and order it. The process gets curricularized.”) We have become consumers, not citizens, argue McKnight and Block. Our daily dealings happen in the marketplace instead of in the community. We rely on professional services, from education to health and child care to car tune-ups, instead of depending on—and contributing to—a rich web of individual talents that belong to the community. Our neighborhoods and families thus break down, our communitarian spirit withers, and our lives are atomized. There is some truth to this explanation for social decay. But certainly McKnight and Block’s generalized blame on “the marketplace” is misplaced. The spontaneous order of the marketplace is a naturally occurring means for individuals and families to share their talents with one another. Hinted at, but left undeveloped in this book, are ways that government bureaucracies, public school systems, and social service providers have disrupted community life, ignored what the authors call “community competencies,” and contributed to the decline of citizenship.