Magazine article The New Yorker

Channelling Ike

Magazine article The New Yorker

Channelling Ike

Article excerpt

Nonfiction writers who succumb to the temptations of phantom scholarship are a burgeoning breed these days, although most stop short of fabricating interviews with Presidents. But Stephen Ambrose, who, at the time of his death, in 2002, was America's most famous and popular historian, appears to have done just that. Before publishing a string of No. 1 best-sellers, including "Band of Brothers" and "D-Day," Ambrose had made his name chronicling the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower. More than half of the thirty-plus books that Ambrose wrote, co-wrote, or edited concerned Eisenhower, and Ambrose spoke often, on C-SPAN or "Charlie Rose" or in print interviews, about how his life had been transformed by getting to know the former President and spending "hundreds and hundreds of hours" interviewing him over a five-year period before Eisenhower died, in 1969.

"I was a Civil War historian, and in 1964 I got a telephone call from General Eisenhower, who asked if I would be interested in writing his biography," Ambrose said in a C-SPAN interview in 1994. In another interview, he added, "I thought I had flown to the moon."

In Ambrose's oft-repeated telling of the tale, Eisenhower contacted him after reading his biography of Henry Wager Halleck, Abraham Lincoln's chief of staff. "I'd walk in to interview him, and his eyes would lock on mine and I would be there for three hours and they never left my eyes," Ambrose told C-SPAN. "I was teaching at Johns Hopkins and going up two days a week to Gettysburg to work with him in his office."

Last November, Tim Rives, the deputy director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, in Abilene, Kansas, moderated a panel that celebrated Ambrose's writings, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the completion of his two-volume Eisenhower biography, a work that is still regarded as the standard. Rives was looking for items to put on display at the event when he came across previously unpublished source materials that debunk the Boswellian tale that Ambrose loved to tell.

In a letter dated September 10, 1964, Ambrose, having recently joined a team of historians at Johns Hopkins who were preparing Eisenhower's papers for publication, wrote to the former President, introducing himself: "For the past six weeks I have been reading your World War II correspondence and feel I am getting to know you intimately; therefore I think it only fair that you have the opportunity to see some of my writing." He enclosed two books, one the biography of Halleck. About a month later, on October 15th, Ambrose sent another letter. "It therefore seems to me that the time has come to begin the scholarly biographies of the leaders of World War II," he wrote. "I would like to begin a full scale, scholarly account of your military career."

The two men finally met two months later, on December 14th, when Ambrose's boss, Dr. Alfred Chandler, took him to Gettysburg. "I want the General to meet Dr. Ambrose," Chandler wrote in a letter to Eisenhower's office.

Rives was interested to discover that, contrary to Ambrose's claims, Eisenhower never approached him to write his biography. By telephone the other day from his office in Abilene, Rives said, "And, I'm sorry to say, these weren't the only problems."

Access to Eisenhower in his retirement years was tightly controlled and his activities were documented by his staff, particularly by his executive assistant, Brigadier General Robert L. …

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