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Candy · Lindy · Who Killed Jane Stanford?
Plus the Pulitzers, the Sacklers, and the Amish
On this day in 1932, the body of Charles Lindbergh Jr., kidnapped over two months prior, was found in the woods less than a mile from his famous parents’ home in Hopewell, NJ. The case has fascinated me for most of my adult life, thanks to this passage from John Douglas and Mark Olshaker’s The Cases That Haunt Us:
During a period of appeals, several people, including [Bruno Richard Hauptmann’s attorney] Edward Reilly, approached Hauptmann in prison with the hope that he would confess in return for a commutation of his death sentence to life. He refused all entreaties, including a last-minute one from famed defense lawyer Samuel Leibowitz and another from New Jersey governor Harold G. Hoffman, who was troubled by the investigation and trial and did not believe that Hauptmann’s conviction told the entire story.
After all appeals were exhausted, Bruno Richard Hauptmann steadfastly maintained his complete innocence.
So did Bruno Richard Hauptmann do it?
I think he did something. (170; 181)
What Isidor Fisch knew, why Violet Sharp preferred taking her own life to admitting romantic indiscretions tangential to the investigation, how big a cog Hauptmann was in a larger machine and why he refused to admit any wrongdoing even to spare his life…we’ll never really know, and something about those blank spots in the sepia-toned record of the case is fascinating to me.
It’s also interesting, in what we might call the Firehose Age of prestige re-examinations of major cases, that we haven’t seen an HBO or a Netflix tackle that case — or even a Lifetime twist like we saw with Lizzie Borden. The ranking property as far as I can tell is 1976’s The Lindbergh Kidnapping, which I chased down on YouTube
and wrote up for Previously.TV years ago — and with Anthony Hopkins playing Hauptmann and a deep bench of Hey, It’s That Guy!s rounding out the cast, that’s not un-prestigious, but Hauptmann’s trial really was the trial of the century. Where’s the eight-part meditation on Depression-era investigations and the corrosive effects of fame? Where’s the Rashomon-esque docudrama from the POV of the household staff, John Condon, and Anne Morrow? (HBO did do a Crime of the Century feature docudrama back in the 1990s, starring Stephen Rea as Hauptmann, and I could swear I reviewed that too at some point, but I’m damned if I can find it in the archives. In any event, that sort of project doesn’t quite qualify. It is, however, also on YouTube.)
I suspect that, if “turnaround” were a physical place, we’d find dozens of projects on the case stashed there, named things like Eaglet: A History and shelved when development execs stumbled over the third rail that is Lindbergh Sr.’s outré personal life and deeply racist beliefs…or the dank puddle of crackpottery that humidifies so many theories about what really happened, and the second thing is often fed by the first, like the Rutgers historian positing that Lindbergh arranged the kidnapping himself and getting a talking-head spot on Nova to promote the idea. I wouldn’t especially want to wade into the many problematic aspects of Lindbergh Sr. either, but I do think there’s a way to approach the case and the Hydra of stories springing from its neck without having to look too long or squarely at that part of it. (Conversely, you could do a documentary feature or podcast series on only that part of it, one which indicts it as facilitating hate crimes.)
But it continues not to happen, possibly because production-designing a scripted take on the case is a pricey prospect. In the meantime, I reviewed other case materials from Mark Falzini here and here, and you can spend the weekend marveling at the casting of CotC (Michael “Ben Stone” Moriarty as Governor Hoffman!). — SDB
Speaking of pricey production design, I watched the first episode of Candy yesterday, and man did the costuming and set design bring me back. Combined with the runner of the Gores’ cranky baby, I was transported back to fussy summer mornings in my own house, my mother whipping on a wrap skirt and bustling in to get my brother out of his crib, me clambering into camp shorts and an iron-on tee and already feeling sweaty. It’s very evocative. It’s also quite pleased with itself (like, yes, we get it, that’s a legit old-school heavy vacuum cleaner) but if you lived through a suburban summer back then, Candy will take you back there.
It’s also no doubt very proud of the first episode’s name, “Friday The 13th,” but they kind of had to go there, and the build of the opening episode, while somewhat laborious in spots, is extremely effective at building horror tension, especially in the second half of the ep. Allan Gore (Pablo Schreiber) phoning around to his neighbors, the convergence of the street’s menfolk on the yard, the cutting back to Allan and over to Candy (Jessica Biel) is all impressively suspenseful given that we all know how it ends for Betty (Melanie Lynskey). It’s diverting and made with obvious care. It’s also making choices — and/or Lynskey is, and that reminds me, I probably need to update her BET-CRP — about the portrayal of Betty as both exhausted and exhaust-ing, pinched and resentful, in contrast to Candy’s fun-mom vibe, that I can’t decide how I feel about. My notes read “interesting play,” and it is; it’s never a bad idea to trust Lynskey as to what she’s intuiting about a character; I just don’t know how intentional it is in terms of putting us on Candy’s “side” in this fashion, given what, again, we all know going in.
Jessica Biel gets off to a rocky start with the Texas ack-sint, but she’s pretty good. I mentioned a few issues back that Biel’s turn here could be her Farrah Fawcett moment, an opportunity to leverage a certain thespian opacity into a provocative portrayal of a deeply troubled or sociopathic RL figure. I don’t know where I’d come down on that after a single episode — the series is hedging its bets somewhat as to POV in that first hour — but she’s doing fine, nothing revelatory but not leaning on the costuming too heavily either. Candy looks great, it’s getting solid performances across the board, and whatever self-regard is creeping in around the edges is off-set by an evident attentiveness to the story and its people.
So why did it take me days to get around to it? For that matter, why didn’t I ask for screeners, which I most likely could have gotten? Because it’s functionally the second hot potato of the week around here, and despite its doing a lot of things well and mostly living up to the hype, my plan is to recommend it, let y’all talk amongst yourselves about it if you like,
and then…be done with it. I would blame it on the “genre fatigue” Eve talked about yesterday vis-a-vis The Staircase, but…you know, I co-publish a genre newsletter and own an entire genre bookshop, and it’s not that I never want to just read a fizzy celebrity bio instead, but the genre really does contain multitudes that let me avoid burnout. It’s not the genre itself. It’s a calcification of the production cycle within the genre — the optioning of the story, the attaching of the talent, the casting of the “name” roles, the careful calibrating of expectations — and the never asking whether the genre needs a given case study or re-examination. As a result, even a well-made and thoughtful miniseries like Candy can feel like a thought exercise, a docudrama-fair project, and it’s like, yeah, you got the volcano to erupt, but we…already know how this is done. “Let’s see if we can” is not the same as “we need to/should.”
And this correspondent once said “let’s see if we can” about bunny Peeps and a homemade slingshot, as an adult, and then went and did it and filmed it while wearing a lab coat; there’s nothing wrong with “let’s see”! And there’s nothing wrong with Candy either, I think it’s a fine use of your time — but I think it’s also fine for us, for the Eve-and-me “us” but also all of us in the B.E. space here, to look at whatever prestige property is dominating the anticipation/review cycle at a given time and just…not have much of a response, or feel fatigued by a specific property and choose to engage with something in a smaller font. — SDB
A few quick hits and headlines I didn’t want to overlook, from fall line-ups to prize-winners…
My wife Tara Ariano interviewed Pablo Schreiber about Candy, among other topics. She also had to inhale Halo for the assignment so please honor her sacrifice. [GQ.com]
Peacock original Sins of the Amish hits the streamer May 24. I can’t decide if this key art is hall-of-fame tasteless or perfect. In this genre, sometimes it’s both. [Futon Critic]
Oxygen unveiled five new series, plus a bunch of renewals. Few surprises here, except perhaps that Black Widow Murders didn’t already exist, but Sleeping With Death…well, I was going to say it’s a new low buuuut I don’t know how “new” it is. The show “will tell the story behind people who have woken up to a dead body.” Britta Devore’s “so but they had a whole season’s worth of that shit?” comment is right on. [Collider]
The Pulitzer Prizes for work from the year 2021 were awarded Monday. The list of winners and nominees is here, and you’ll see the expected complement of true-crime/criminal-justice pieces here, with what seems like a higher percentage of material on J6 and political corruption. [Pulitzer.org]
The Guggenheim finally got rid of the Sackler name. A recent settlement against the opioid barons allows cultural institutions to strip the Sackler name off halls, endowed chairs, buildings, etc. “without penalty.” Although the Brooklyn Museum is apparently trying to split hairs over which Sacklers are “okay,” I’m still not giving them membership money until they rename the feminist-art center. [Hyperallergic] — SDB
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Jane Stanford is having a bit of a moment. Two books in two years have explored the murder of the co-founder of Stanford University — and the coverup college staff undertook following it.
First, Lulu Miller’s masterful Why Fish Don’t Exist (reviewed in Best Evidence by Dan Cassino in December) explored Stanford President David Starr Jordan’s efforts to ensure Jane’s death was not declared a murder. And now, Stanford historian Richard White is examining the case in his upcoming book Who Killed Jane Stanford?, which comes out May 17.
In his introduction, White explains that he set out to write a book that used Stanford’s poisoning to explore the Gilded Age, not to write a true-crime tale. In the end, though, he ended up doing both.
Unlike Why Fish Don’t Exist and The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford, a 2003 book by Stanford physician and neurology professor Robert W.P. Cutler that first argued Jane was murdered, White posits the identity of the murderer. The historian unearthed new evidence showing that just one person close to Jane had motive, means and opportunity.
At its core, however, Who Killed Jane Stanford is a popular history book. White, an award-winning historian focused on the American West, builds upon the work he did with Railroaded, a book on the construction of the transcontinental railroad, and The Republic for Which It Stands, a history of the U.S. from 1865 to 1896.
Using the Stanford case as a framing device, White illuminates the corruption and excess of the Gilded Age. Leland Stanford, Jane’s robber-baron husband, made his fortune building the transcontinental railroad — and cheating taxpayers out of billions. One of Jane’s employees was tangentially involved in the Tong Wars, a series of feuds between organizations of Chinese immigrants. The Stanfords were spiritualists, a popular Gilded Age movement based on the tenet that the living could communicate with the dead. Leland said he founded the University after his deceased son visited him and suggested the idea (an assertion that is noticeably absent from Stanford’s official history page).
Fans of Devil in the White City or Killers of the Flower Moon will find a lot to like about Who Killed Jane Stanford. True-crime purists, though may want to skip this one. While I enjoyed the chapters devoted to academic in-fighting, they might be more than many readers want.
Verdict: If you like your true crime with a healthy side of history, grab this one. If not, skip it. — Elizabeth Held
Friday on Best Evidence: Dick, Depp, and Our Father.