1929: THE YEAR OF THE GREAT CRASH; By William H. Klingaman; Harper & Row; $18.95, 351 pages.
To anyone who - like this reviewer - was born in that pivotal year, "1929: The Year of the Great Crash" offers a fascinating picture of the world as it was 60 years ago.On Feb. 7, Henry Ford arrived in Fort Myers, Fla., to help celebrate the 82nd birthday of his old friend, Thomas A. Edison. They were joined four days later by President-elect Herbert Hoover, and at the party Edison announced to the press that he envisioned great national prosperity for America under Hoover's inspired leadership.
Asked by a reporter, however, what dangers he foresaw for the current wave of stock speculation, the inventor replied tersely, "Ultimate panic."
On Feb. 14, Al Capone's hoodlums gunned down six thugs of the rival Bugs Moran gang in Chicago's St. Valentine's Day Massacre. The Prohibition Age was reaching its violent climax.
In Washington, President Calvin Coolidge was playing schoolboyish pranks on his Secret Service men with the alarm buzzer on the White House portico. Silent Cal, who had presided over the garish Jazz Age of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and one of the wildest stock market booms in history, didn't think much of his successor and fellow-Republican Hoover.
After the Great Engineer's election, Coolidge told a friend, "We are in a new era to which I do not belong." He died four years later in the depths of the Great Depression.
On Oct. 29, Black Tuesday, the stock market crashed. On Wednesday, Winston Churchill woke up in New York's Savoy-Plaza Hotel to shouts from the sidewalk outside, where a ruined stock market plunger had fallen 15 stories to his death. The next day, as he sailed for England, Churchill wrote: "This financial disaster, huge as it is, cruel as it is to thousands, is only a passing episode in the march of a valiant and serviceable people."
Churchill himself had lost a packet. Klingaman notes that until 1940, when he became prime minister in World War II, Churchill "would have to earn his living with his pen, churning out books and newspaper articles at a frantic pace."
Klingaman's book is packed with similar anecdotes. If you know any 60-year-olds, give it serious consideration as a birthday present. And if your friends and relatives are younger or older than that, Klingaman has also written "1941: Our Lives in a World on the Edge" and "1919: The Year Our World Began." - David Smyth (Associated Press)