In his review of Anthony Summers's and Robbyn Swan's biography of Frank Sinatra (Book World, May 15), Richard Harrington said that I did not interview any immediate members of the Sinatra family for my book, His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra (Bantam, 1986).
While it's true that the Sinatra family would gladly put out a contract on me today for writing that book, you can see from the enclosed photo that I interviewed Frank Sinatra Jr. on Jan. 15, 1983.
The first 45 minutes of that interview went beautifully. Sinatra Jr. spoke candidly about what it was like to be the only son of a world-famous singer. He talked about his father's Hollywood friends and his Las Vegas crime connections.
"You know, hon. I know a lot of those people. Do you know what I'm saying?"
"Those people? You mean mobsters?"
He hesitated a moment, and looked at me over his glasses. "I know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa."
I thought for sure I was going to win the Pulitzer Prize. My tape recorder was running and Frank Sinatra Jr. was about to give me the answer to one of the unsolved mysteries of the 20th century. Just as he started to speak, the photographer, Stanley Tretick, dropped his cameras on the floor and slammed himself into the nearest seat.
"Well," he yelled. "What the hell happened?"
Sinatra realized what he was about to say, rushed from the hotel living room and locked himself in the bedroom. The interview was over. I did not speak to my good friend, the photographer, for several days!
Genes and Autism
Gregory Mott's review of David Kirby's Evidence of Harm (Book World, May 15), about the controversy surrounding childhood vaccines and autism, misstates one fact about autism: that it is "widely understood to be a genetic disorder." It is well accepted that autism is strongly affected by genetic factors but also that non-genetic factors do play a role. Studies of identical twins with autism have shown that it's not true that in all cases they both have the disorder. In addition, identical twins are almost surely exposed to a lot of the same environmental factors, including vaccines. This is not to say that vaccines have anything to do with autism, as that theory has been well refuted in the scientific literature, but there are clearly factors other than genetics involved.
If Carolyn See didn't like my husband's book (From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler, reviewed in Book World, Style, May 13), that's her prerogative. But to assert in print that if she had been his student and received his advice, she would have poisoned his wife is irresponsible.
This is a day and age in which students have been known to gun down the professors who didn't give them the grades they wanted. Any current, former or future student of my husband's -- and this amounts to thousands of people -- who reads the review and assumes that the reviewer is a reasonable person, rather than a homicidal maniac, could make the case that See's response would be a reasonable course of action for them as well: either Bob tells them what they want to hear or they exact revenge. A surprising number of students really do think this way -- most people in academia have encountered at least one of them -- and for See to encourage this sick mindset by indicating that violence toward the wife of someone with whom you disagree is an option at all is dangerous. Maybe she thought she was joking, but what's funny about poisoning a writer, much less his wife? This is how terrorists, not civilized people, think.
Carolyn See replies:
I deeply and profoundly apologize to Ms. Dewberry. Of course I don't advocate the mass murder of faculty families by disgruntled students! As a university professor myself for many years, I'd be a fool to do so. My figurative writing got the best of me.
Peter Novick failed to meet two minimum standards of criticism in reviewing my book, Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper (Book World, May 1). First, if a reviewer's work is explicitly criticized in the book under review -- as Novick's The Holocaust in American Life is criticized in Buried by The Times -- the reviewer should disclose that fact and explain the basis of the disagreement. Second, if a reviewer accuses an author of misrepresenting source material -- as Novick does with his claim that I use tendentious "paraphrases and truncated quotations" -- he or she should provide at least one example to substantiate that very serious charge. Because he neither disclosed his role nor supported his accusation, Novick and his editors at The Washington Post abdicated their responsibilities to ensure a fair review.
West Hartford, Conn.
Peter Novick replies:
Laurel Leff says that it was unethical for The Post to assign me to review her book, and unethical of me to accept the assignment, because in her book she "explicitly criticized" my The Holocaust in American Life. The index to her book shows four (glancing) citations to my book. Three are neutral; in the fourth -- in a footnote -- she questions my describing the Holocaust as a "process" rather than a series of "events." This is hardly "explicit criticism."
Leff challenges me to provide an example of what I described as her "tendentious" description of news stories in the Times. Here's one. She writes (on p. 142 of her book) that "it was not possible to tell" from a page-one July 22, 1942 Times story reporting denunciations of Nazi crimes and atrocities by President Franklin Roosevelt, among others, "exactly what those crimes were or against whom they were directed." In fact, contrary to what Leff wrote, the story made it clear that the crime was murder and that the victims were Jews.
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