A few years ago as I was reading Katherine Graham’s Washington, the late Washington Post matriarch’s collection of various authors’ essays about the capitol city and its history, I came across an excerpt from an old book that means a lot to me. It’s called Starling of the White House, the autobiography of Colonel E. W. Starling, a Secret Service agent who protected Presidents Woodrow Wilson through Franklin Roosevelt. It was one of the very first books I ever read.
My mother had brought it to Oakwood, our little east Texas town, along with several dozen other volumes from the left-over inventory of the book shop she ran in the front room of her parents’ house in Livingston during and just after the second World War. My father, home from the South Pacific and back in his position as Superintendent of the Oakwood schools, had swept her off her feet and up into the country, along with and all those books. A few years later, after I had made my grand entrance, I pulled Starling and a few other tomes down from the shelf and commenced what would become a lifetime of reading.
At the supper table, I recounted the heroic deeds of the brave colonel to my parents and sister and stated my intention of becoming a Secret Service agent myself one day. Everyone managed not to laugh and, needless to say, I didn’t follow through on the plan. I doubt my parents took that career goal very seriously, but they never advised against it. If any American boy could grow up to be the president, I guess they figured, then he had the equal right to become the protector of presidents.
The next time I pulled the book down was nearly forty years later, when my old friend and college roommate Jim Willett, the retired warden of the Walls prison unit in Huntsville, asked me to help him with his memoirs. I had no idea how to go about writing another man’s story in his voice. And then I remembered that was exactly what the author of Starling of the White House, Thomas Sugrue, had done with the Colonel’s life.
I revisited the introduction by Sugure, in which he set forth his goal of getting into his subject’s head and relating the events in first person, as if Starling were telling him the story over a glass of iced tea on the front porch. And, after reading the entire book again, that is exactly what I did with Warden, down to and including prefacing it with a chapter of my own in which I introduce Willett, myself, and the prison and then get myself completely off the stage before Jim’s story begins.
So Starling, its pages brittle and brown as autumn leaves, served me well a second time. It’s a solid yarn – too old fashioned for many modern readers, I imagine, who are given to plots splashed out quickly, with plenty of sex and violence and foul language the Colonel wouldn’t have abided. Starling of the White House is about a good man with a hard job, who was humble, quiet, courteous, brave, and altogether devoted to his duty and to the nation that he loved dearly. Virtues that some cynics would say are difficult to locate in modern society. But I suspect they aren’t, if you look hard enough. In fact, I found them all alive and well in my buddy Jim Willett.
I suspect, too, that if any of those things ended up in me – which is arguable, at best – it is at least partly because I found that book and read it so long ago. Good writing, especially about good lives lived well, has a way of rubbing off on readers. I’m glad of that. It serves other functions, too, like when a writer doesn’t know how to go about telling a particular story. Like I didn’t with Warden, until I remembered a book that proved to be a useful model.
I’m confident that I’ll read Starling of the White House again at least once or twice, maybe several times, before I’m done with reading for good. And I recommend it to you. It was published in 1946 by Simon and Schuster, and you’ll have to search pretty hard for it. It’s out of print.
But it shouldn’t be.
Most of this first ran as a newspaper column and then in a compilation of articles titled Sundays with Ron Rozelle (TCU Press, 2009). I wanted it to be called Over Coffee: My Little Corner of the Sunday Paper. The one the publisher chose makes it sound like a devotional. It’s not.