Posts Tagged ‘Bertrand Patenaude’

The sun never sets on Sunset’s Bill Lane

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Kevin Starr at the Sunset book launch. (Photo: E. Spencer Toy)

“Bill waited a bit late to start a memoir – he was 88,” said historian Bert Patenaude at the annual “A Company of Authors” event last week at Stanford.  He was speaking about L.W. “Bill” Lane, Jr., and the book for which Bert served as a sort of midwife, The Sun Never Sets: Reflections on a Western Life.  The book traces the story of the late Bill Lane, who was not only longtime publisher of Sunset, but also a pioneering environmentalist and U.S. ambassador.  He died in 2010.


Lane’s late labor (Photo: E. Sunny Toy)

Bert began the project with a series of audiotaped interviews conducted at Lane’s home in Portola Valley and at his summer home at Lake Tahoe.  They were augmented with an oral history for Berkeley’s Bancroft Library in the 1990s. The book was just published Stanford General Books, an imprint of Stanford University Press.

Sunset, as the introduction notes, has played a significant historical role in Western life, especially for those of us transplanted from other climes.  Kevin Starr read from his introduction:

When Laurence W. Lane, Sr., stepped off the ferryboat at the foot of Market Street in mid-October 1928 after a long train ride from Iowa, a parade was in progress and the music of a great brass band filled the Ferry Terminal.  All this was for Columbus Day, of course, but it might have been for Larry Lane as well, since a process was being set in motion – for the new publisher of Sunset, his wife, Ruth Bell Lane, and the two Lane sons, Laurence W. “Bill” Junior and Melvin Bell Lane – that would eventually present the Far West with its most successful magazine publisher and its most successful book publisher, from whom millions would learn how best to live in this still-new region.

I never had the opportunity to build a house of my own, but if I had, it would have been a hacienda like the Sunset offices in Menlo Park.  And if I had ever had any kind of a green thumb, I would have created something like the heavenly garden that surrounds it.  These photos don’t quite do them justice – no fault of photographer Spencer Toy, but the massive Spanish doors and tiling aren’t in the shots of the event. And the gardens … well, nothing could do them justice.

I once knew Sunset well – I lived a stone’s throw away, on the Palo Alto side of San Francisquito Creek.  I hadn’t been back for 25 years, however.  So it was strange and familiar to attend the launch for the book a few weeks ago.

But it was the gardens, in particular, that caught my attention during the visit.  The last time I had visited them was (and this is a confession) when I trespassed onto the property in the early evening hours of March 3, 1988, very nervous and worried.  I knew the beauty of this place would be soothing and healing, for the next day, I knew, would be one of the hardest days of my life.  I didn’t yet know it would also be the best day of my life:  I gave birth to a perfect 9 lb., 9 oz. daughter, who remains perfect to this very day.


Landmark gardens of Sunset (Photo: E. Spencer Toy)

Forgotten tale of how America saved a starving Russia

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

American Relief Administration transport column on the frozen Volga. (Photo: Hoover Institution Archives)

Every so often, a journalist stumbles upon a great, untold story during routine research or interviews.  And other times, a mammoth TV organization, such as PBS, stuffs a press release and DVD into your hand and urges you to cover it.

The latter case is how I found out about the terrible Russian famine of 1921-23 – and the American charity that alleviated it, marking perhaps the first time a large-scale relief was extended to an enemy. Historian Bertrand Patenaude tells how Herbert Hoover saved more lives than any person who has ever lived. Yes, I know, hard to believe, but apparently true.  (I wrote about it here.)

It’s at once a grim, inspiring, and astonishing story – the American Experience broadcast, The Great Famine, airs nationwide on Monday, April 11, on PBS.

The world barely remembers the terrible famine in the Soviet Russia – why?

Author, author!

Bert Patenaude, author of The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921, told me that he was a Stanford graduate student writing the last chapters on his dissertation about early Bolshevik food policy when, as he explains it, “I’m seeing what wasn’t such a simple story from the communist side.”

“This was a huge famine could have brought the whole country down.  And Americans were bringing in food supplies and relief,” he said.  “I couldn’t figure out why nobody talked about it – I resolved at that point to write a book.”  (The Stanford University Press book received the 2003 Marshall Shulman Book Prize.)

Of course, a decade later there would be a Stalin-engineered Ukrainian famine that is now considered genocide.  That famine, which killed 5 million Ukrainians, has become well known – perhaps, as Bert suggests, because it is “associated with the evil figure of Stalin.” Nevertheless, “this earlier famine was out right out there in the open.”

Orphaned and abandoned children

Author Maxim Gorky wrote to Hoover on behalf of the Soviet government to praise the relief efforts in 1922:  “Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement, worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians whom you have saved from death,” he wrote.

It didn’t happen. The Soviet government had a strong interest in forgetting.  In any case, 1921 was a pivotal year for the new market economy, said Bert.  That new economic policy (NEP) received the thunder – and the death of perhaps 10 million helpless Russians was quietly erased from the history books.

“As students in history in the 1970s, we did the same thing,” said Bert. “We would never talk about this famine.  We would talk about NEP.”

When I was writing the story about his research and the PBS show, I hesitated … I couldn’t say that Bert had actually rescued the tale from oblivion.  I was sure to get at least five angry scholars writing to me to complain that they had known about it.  Yet Bert admits that the reaction to the story, typically, is “Why didn’t I know anything about this?”

Bert had the perfect Solomonic suggestion:  he has retrieved the tale from archival oblivion.  With the PBS film, it will no longer be something buried in the Hoover Archives, or a footnote at scholarly conferences – but it will enter the public consciousness, where it deserves to be.  Even Gorky said so.

(Preview below.)

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.