Review: Secret Life

Making for great TV since 1873

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A Secret Life

Now that the reading portion of the Well-Read Man project is at an end, I’ve started looking for other edifying content to fill my text-consumption hours. With the 2012 election in full swing, I’m on an American president kick. I’m reading books by and about the presidents, and one of my first targets is Grover Cleveland, POTUS number 22 and 24 for those keeping track.

The only Democratic Party president between the Civil War and World War I, Cleveland was known as a no-nonsense leader who rode into Washington through his anti-corruption efforts. As the sheriff of Erie County, New York, and later as mayor of its county seat of Buffalo, the future president put into practice his anti-bad-guy beliefs. As sheriff, he even personally carried out the hangings of three convicts. As my son quipped when I told him this bit of history: “Cleveland is a BAMF.”

But he may have been a few worse things, if A Secret Life, Charles Lachman’s 2011 exposé on Cleveland, is to be believed. In this biographical sketch of the split-term president, Lachman portrays Cleveland as draft dodger, rapist, and kidnapper. The second charge receives the bulk of the focus. In 1873, Cleveland began a public relationship with Maria Halpin, a widow who had recently moved to Buffalo. According to the charges, Cleveland forced himself on her, leading the birth of a son nine months later. To keep the story under wraps, Cleveland had the child put in an orphanage, kidnapped Halpin, and had her forcibly committed to a mental institution.

Other scholars humbly disagree with Lachman’s assessment, chalking up Cleveland’s admitted alone time with Ms. Halpin to nothing more than youthful indiscretion. Allan Nevins, the leading published authority on all things Grover, downplays the entire affair, but in a way that would never end up on TV’s Inside Edition, of which Lachman is the executive producer.

Perhaps Lachman put the most exciting spin possible on what certainly was shocking news for the late nineteenth century. But in our century, where the smallest misspoken quote by a presidential candidate can appear just hours later as the scandal of the century, A Secret Life is sure to fit right in.

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