Island of Vice by Richard Zacks
Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean up Sin-Loving New York

75%

12 Critic Reviews

A nuanced, comprehensive portrait of unique man and the surrounding period, culture and political system.
-Kirkus

Synopsis

A ROLLICKING NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT'S EMBATTLED TENURE AS POLICE COMMISSIONER OF CORRUPT, PLEASURE-LOVING NEW YORK CITY IN THE 1880s, AND HIS DOOMED MISSION TO WIPE OUT VICE

In the 1890s, New York City was America’s financial, manufacturing, and entertainment capital, and also its preferred destination for sin, teeming with 40,000 prostitutes, glittering casinos, and all-night dives packed onto the island’s two dozen square miles. Police captains took hefty bribes to see nothing while reformers writhed in frustration.
     In Island of Vice, bestselling author Richard Zacks paints a vivid picture of the lewd underbelly of 1890s New York, and of Theodore Roosevelt, the cocksure crusading police commissioner who resolved to clean up the bustling metropolis, where the silk top hats of Wall Street bobbed past teenage prostitutes trawling Broadway.
     Writing with great wit and zest, Zacks explores how Roosevelt went head-to-head with corrupt Tammany Hall, took midnight rambles with muckraker Jacob Riis, banned barroom drinking on Sundays, and tried to convince 2 million New Yorkers to enjoy wholesome family fun. In doing so, Teddy made a ruthless enemy of police captain “Big Bill” Devery, who grew up in the Irish slums and never tired of fighting “tin soldier” reformers. Roosevelt saw his mission as a battle of good versus evil; Devery saw prudery standing in the way of fun and profit.
     When righteous Roosevelt’s vice crackdown started to succeed all too well, many of his own supporters began to turn on him. Cynical newspapermen mocked his quixotic quest, his own political party abandoned him, and Roosevelt discovered that New York loves its sin more than its salvation.
     Zacks’s meticulous research and wonderful sense of narrative verve bring this disparate cast of both pious and bawdy New Yorkers to life. With cameos by Stephen Crane, J. P. Morgan, and Joseph Pulitzer, plus a horde of very angry cops, Island of Vice is an unforgettable portrait of turn-of-the-century New York in all its seedy glory, and a brilliant portrayal of the energetic, confident, and zealous Roosevelt, one of America’s most colorful public figures.


From the Hardcover edition.
 

About Richard Zacks

See more books from this Author
Richard Zacks spent more than three years researching The Pirate Hunter, including months at the Public Record Office in London (where he found a pirate prisoner's long-lost diary). Zacks is the author of two previous books of unusual research: the bestselling History Laid Bare and perennial book club favorite An Underground Education. He lives in Pelham, New York.
 
Published March 13, 2012 by Anchor. 465 pages
Genres: History, Political & Social Sciences, Law & Philosophy, Professional & Technical. Non-fiction
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Critic reviews for Island of Vice
All: 12 | Positive: 8 | Negative: 4

Kirkus

Excellent
Dec 15 2011

A nuanced, comprehensive portrait of unique man and the surrounding period, culture and political system.

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NY Times

Below average
Reviewed by Joseph Berger on Jul 20 2012

What the book could use more of is a deeper understanding of Roose­velt’s Manichaean ways, something more textured than a sputtering “Arsenic and Old Lace” caricature.

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Publishers Weekly

Excellent
Dec 05 2011

Zacks probes this period of Roosevelt’s life with exhaustive details, drama, and intrigue.

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WSJ online

Excellent
Reviewed by David Wondrich on Mar 16 2012

In the end, Mr. Zacks's exhaustively researched yet lively story is a classic battle between an irresistible force, Roosevelt's ego, and an immovable object, the people of New York's unwillingness to follow laws they thought were stupid.

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The Washington Post

Excellent
Reviewed by Daniel Stashower on Apr 13 2012

He has pumped his book full of entertaining details about such things as a “dog’s nose,” an ungodly beverage made up of barrel dregs and leavings from the glasses of other drinkers, and a five-cent whiskey that tasted of “kerosene oil, soft soap, alcohol and the chemicals used in fire extingushers.”

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USA Today

Excellent
Reviewed by Deirdre Donahue on Mar 18 2012

n his delightful and often hilarious ode to Manhattan, Island of Vice, Richard Zacks makes a comparison to another famously wicked metropolis: "As in ancient Rome, the vitality of New York City sometimes seems to come more from the crooks than the do-gooders.

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Review (Barnes & Noble)

Below average
Reviewed by Barbara Spindel on Mar 14 2012

But it occasionally gets bogged down in details of little interest, even with a figure as compelling as Roosevelt at the center of the action.

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Newsday

Excellent
Reviewed by Peter Gianotti on Mar 15 2012

In "Island of Vice," an entertaining, enlightening chronicle of New York City in that raucous, seedy decade, Zacks presents a cinematic saga about one of the reformer's early battles: trying to clean up the city that definitely never sleeps.

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The Agony Column

Excellent
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel on Apr 16 2012

Zacks is a master of crafting characters, fitting them into context and setting them loose in a wild-east landscape.

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Smithsonian

Excellent
Reviewed by Chloe Schama

Other biographers have glossed over Roosevelt’s two-year police stint, but Zacks shows it was a crucial period in the evolution of the 26th president

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New York Post

Below average
Reviewed by Glenn Altschuler on Apr 08 2012

Zacks' claim that biographers have viewed Roosevelt's accomplishments as commissioner through "rose-tinted glasses" is something of a straw man.

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Capital New York

Below average
Reviewed by Brian Sholis on Mar 20 2012

Readers familiar with the period might crave more analysis of, say, the sometimes contradictory goals of municipal, state, and national politics, which are hinted at in the actions of Roosevelt, Senator Thomas C. Platt, New York’s Republican Party kingmaker, and Ohio’s William McKinley, who would be elected president in 1896.

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Leila McKinnon 5 Sep 2013

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