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Terror Then, Stories Now

Pursuing bomb-throwers, mobsters or Nazis, Howard Blum finds the adventures in history.

Mark Schafer/Courtesy of Vanity Fair

SABOTAGE, AMERICAN-STYLE: Blum, in a book to be published September 16, investigates violence that threatened to become a national war between labor and bosses.

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By Stephen Whitty

It is a monument to Manhattan, masculinity and mutton chops (the entrée, not the facial hair). The menu carries $150 Kobe steaks. The tables are full of businessmen on bonuses.

But Howard Blum looks at the ancient walls of Keens Steakhouse, hung with turn-of-the-century theatrical posters and the long-extinguished pipes of patrons, and sees another era.

“D.W. Griffith lived two blocks from here,” he says. “He used to take the streetcar up to the Met. That's where he said he got the idea for close-ups—looking at the Rembrandts.”

The way Blum, MA '70, is speaking, you almost expect Griffith to sit down at the next table and order a brace of oysters. It would be a neat trick, as the director's been dead for more than 60 years. But then Griffith has been living with Blum for a while.

So has Clarence Darrow. And William J. Burns, former Secret Service agent and premier private investigator. And a bold and often brutal assortment of bomb-throwing radicals and heartless capitalists—all leading characters in Blum's American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, Movie-Making & the Crime of the Century (Crown, $24.95), the exciting history of a 1910 attack on the Los Angeles Times that killed 21 people. The book starts as a vintage story of yellow journalists and desperate anarchists; it ends as a timely reflection on sabotage, surveillance and a country at war with itself.

“I had wanted to write about terrorism, but in a way that was a little oblique,” says Blum, 59. “And then I saw this small article about the anniversary of the bombing, and I thought I'd look into it. Being a writer is like going to school—you keep on learning.”

Blum learned plenty—about socialist cinema, about Darrow's trial for jury tampering, about a violent showdown between capital and labor that had the nation “on the brink of another civil war.” But what he also discovered along the way were real people—exciting and energetic, complex and contradictory.

He's been telling stories like that for a while—Blum's journalism career includes stints at the Village Voice and the New York Times, big-buzz stories for Vanity Fair and nine non-fiction books, including The Gold of Exodus, about the search for the true location of Mount Sinai; The Brigade, about Jews who fought alongside the British army in Italy during World War II; and Gangland, about how the FBI nabbed mobster John Gotti.

All of which is a bit of a course correction from the career he envisioned more than 35 years ago, when the native New Yorker arrived at Stanford with a Ford Foundation fellowship and an interest in politics.

“I had no doubt I was eventually going to be a professor,” he says. “And it was really a wonderful time. I was renting a house in East Palo Alto; I had a Volvo my parents had bought me. I think it was the richest I ever was in my life! And the professors were all accessible, inviting you over to their houses to discuss ideas over dinner—it was a revelation.” (And a revolution—Blum also remembers the smell of “tear gas wafting in off the Quad.”)

In between classes, Blum started contributing to the Village Voice—“sort of 'Notes From Abroad,' as I was on the other end of the world, in Palo Alto.” After his graduation, the paper offered him a staff job back in New York. After all, Blum thought, he could always go back and get the Ph.D.

From the Voice, Blum eventually went to the New York Times where he “ran around in a trench coat for nine years, doing investigations.” Blum enjoys the digging; his earliest big project was tracking down Nazi war criminals, many of whom were rumored to have escaped into quiet suburban lives in the States. His stories led to congressional hearings and, soon, to his first bestseller, Wanted!

In person, Blum looks like the mild-mannered Connecticut father of three he is. But he writes about so many shady villains and valiant heroes that his nonfiction has the pace of adventure films—a quality not lost on movie producers, who turned his book I Pledge Allegiance into a miniseries on the John A. Walker spy case and occasionally ask Blum to punch up scripts.

“Maybe if I started out now, I'd want to write movies instead of books,” Blum muses. “I got into journalism without a journalism degree, published my first book when I was 26, 27. I don't know if those opportunities are around today. . . . And I worry about the future of newspapers. I think there's something about picking up a newspaper in the morning which is atavistic and will last forever. But I'm not sure my children would agree.”

Yet even if magazines become cell phone updates, and books become downloads, there will still be a need for someone to follow the leads, interview the characters, write the words. So long as there are stories, we'll need storytellers. And few are better at bringing stories to life than Blum—even though his own sense of adventure is much more refined than that of the men he writes about.

“I was interviewing Sammy the Bull at an Arizona restaurant once,” he says. “And I was signing the check when he said, 'You see that guy sitting over there? I could put him away with a .22 and not feel a thing. So don't f--- with me.' And I said, 'You see that waitress over there? I'm scared to death of her—why on earth would I f--- with you?'”

STEPHEN WHITTY is the movie critic at the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.

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