Deford, the Cone sisters, Baltimore

Books of the Region

October 06, 2002|By James H. Bready | By James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Sports writing may be what Frank Deford is most widely known for -- a Sports Illustrated editor's urgent appeal for a farewell garland came to him, in Connecticut, the night of John Unitas' death. But more than half of Deford's 14 books so far have been novels. And it is in fiction that his momentum and skill increase.

An American Summer (Sourcebooks, 256 pages, $24) is about a 14-year-old boy from Indiana whose father, with a new job as factory manager, moves the family to Baltimore. This is northern-suburb, propertied, private-school Baltimore -- Deford himself started there. The year is 1954, just before Jonas Salk's poliomyelitis vaccine.

By taking on a local paper route, Christy Bannister makes acquaintances -- and a friend, Kathryn Slade, 23, smart, beautiful and, from bulbar polio, permanently unable to breathe unaided or move. The buildup is to a backyard-pool swimming meet: Christy competing, Kathryn coaching him. Their summer-long conversation will wring some readers' hearts.

Deford is after people, not places (the Elk Ridge Club bears its own name in a climactic episode). Yet, in this infant century, this is absolutely the best Baltimore novel so far.

Claribel was the showoff, the nonpracticing physician; meek, younger Etta saw to the household's functioning. But Etta lived 20 years longer, and may have written more diaries and letters (in an age that saved such things). Her name comes first, in Mary Gabriel's The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone (Bancroft, 282 pages, $35). One other thing: while Claribel was busy being Claribel, Etta Cone quietly learned modern art.

Much is already in print about the Cones from Eutaw Place (13 siblings, originally). Gabriel's account is the one that will last, thanks to her background (Maryland Institute College of Art as alma mater), experience (her earlier life of Victoria Woodhull), unstinting research, and detachment as a current Reuters London correspondent.

The Cone sisters followed Leo and Gertrude Stein to Europe, especially to Paris -- in the pre-World War I dawn of fauves and cubistes. What an effect on Baltimore history, when Alice B. Toklas then arrived from California, elbowed Etta the amanuensis, and moved in as Gertrude's housemate. Stein favored Picasso. The Cones, beginning collectors, turned to Matisse.

Gabriel is a collector herself, of crisp sentences and pungent detail: Claribel sitting out 1914-1918 in a grand hotel in downtown Munich; their income in dollars, steady even during the Depression, from Cone Export & Commission Co., of New York, and its Carolina textile mills; the embonpoint of two lady shoppers that meant, for a Paris taxi ride, their having to get in backward, while being pushed by a servant with a carved stick; and Gertrude in youth, "a hellion, everything between her topknot and her sandals jiggled with life and energy."

On Etta's death in 1949, that double apartment in the Marlborough yielded some 3,000 artworks for the Baltimore Museum of Art, one in six of them the work of Henri Matisse, to a "value thought in 2002 to be nearly $1 billion."

A basic Maryland book.

Does anyone in a 2002 Mechanic Theater audience place the name John E. Owens? In the mid-19th century, the country hailed him as its most gifted comic actor and manager. Touring annually from Baltimore to Boston, from New Orleans to San Francisco, and Broadway too, Owens played 447 roles altogether, but specialized in garrulous old men.

Summers, he was back at his country estate in Towson (the mansion, named Aigburth Vale -- Owens' parents were Welsh -- is still there, as a retirement home). A new age will do him honor yet, thanks to Thomas A. Bogar's admirably balanced and thorough biography, John E. Owens (McFarland, 226 pages, $35 softbound). One source was John McGrain, the Baltimore County historian -- a great grandson of Owens' farm manager.

The P.I. is a hard person to get hold of, off somewhere on a case, his office closed. Or hers -- Baltimore's best-known private investigator nowadays being, after all, Tess Monaghan. She really dwells, to be sure, on the computer screen of Laura Lippman, where Tess has been working on not one but five unexplained deaths, scattered about Maryland. Some nonprofit group wants to know how much diligence there was in the inquiry by each set of local police.

Before long, the possibility of a serial murderer arises. Before much longer, there is the possibility of an intended sixth victim, named Theresa Monaghan, P.I. For the outcome, turn to Lippman's latest thriller, The Last Place (Morrow, 352 pages, $23.95).

At the moment, Lippman is a hard person to get hold of -- she heads abroad. By now, her seven novels of detection exist in five languages. Her prizes have first names only: Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Shamus. It shouldn't have been hard to figure out ahead the answer to last weekend's Baltimore Bookfest "whowonit," the first annual $1,000 Mayor's Prize for Literary Excellence: Laura Lippman.

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