The most interesting lives are not always the best-known lives, and this is the account of a truly fascinating person. The stories of Alexander Gerschenkron—his great escapes, his vivid wit, his feuds, his flirtations, and his supremely cultured mind—are the stuff of legend.
Born in 1904 into the progressive Odessa intelligentsia, Gerschenkron fled the Russian Revolution at sixteen and settled in Vienna, immersing himself in the charged civic and intellectual life of another doomed city. Escaping the Nazis in the late 1930s, he made his way to Massachusetts, evolving from a political exile and social outcast into a man referred to by The New York Times as “Harvard’s scholarly model,” and by his peers as “The Great Gerschenkron”—the Harvard professor who knew the most.
Gerschenkron was a dazzling thinker, and his professional theories complemented his personal preoccupations. He was particularly interested in people—and economies—that cleverly overcame the large forces conspiring to hold them back; there were uses, he said, to adversity. Colleagues admired his vigorous ethical code and considered his personality to be perhaps even more original than his work. Gerschenkron was an uncompromising man who feuded with everyone from Vladimir Nabokov to John Kenneth Galbraith, who played chess with Marcel Duchamp, who enjoyed an intimate interlude with Marlene Dietrich, and who was a confidant of both Isaiah Berlin of Oxford and Ted Williams of the Red Sox.
Or was he? Layers of mystery and contradiction are at the core of this brilliantly recreated life, this prism through which we look back across some of the most important and unsettling moments of the twentieth century. With The Fly Swatter, best-selling author Nicholas Dawidoff gives us an intelligent, beautifully written, deeply felt biographical memoir of a real-life American character.
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Published May 7, 2002
Biographies & Memoirs, Business & Economics, History.