Massie, Robert K. 1929–
Massie, Robert K. 1929–
(Robert Kinloch Massie)
PERSONAL: Born January 5, 1929, in Lexington, KY; son of Robert Kinloch and Mary (Kimball) Massie; married Suzanne Rohrbach (a writer), December 18, 1954 (divorced, 1990); married Deborah L. Karl, 1992; children: (first marriage) Robert Kinloch, Susanna, Elizabeth; (second marriage) Christopher. Education: Yale University, B.A., 1950; Oxford University, B.A. (Rhodes scholar), 1952. Hobbies and other interests: Sailing.
ADDRESSES: Home—60 West Clinton Avenue, Irving-ton, NY 10533.
CAREER: Collier's, New York, NY, reporter, 1955–56; Newsweek, New York, NY, writer and correspondent, 1956–62; USA-1, New York, NY, writer, 1962; Saturday Evening Post, New York, NY, writer, 1962–65; freelance writer, 1965–. Princeton University, Ferris Professor of Journalism, 1977, 1985; Tulane University, Mellon Professor of Humanities, 1981. Military service: U.S. Naval Reserves, 1952–55; became lieutenant, junior grade.
MEMBER: Authors Guild (vice president, 1985–87, president, beginning 1987), Authors League of America, PEN, Society of American Historians.
AWARDS, HONORS: Christopher Award, 1976, for Journey; American Book Award nomination, American Library Association Notable Book citation, and Pulitzer Prize for Biography, all 1981, all for Peter the Great: His Life and World.
Nicholas and Alexandra (biography), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1967, reprinted, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 2000.
(With Suzanne Massie) Journey, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.
Peter the Great: His Life and World, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.
(Author of introduction) Jeffrey Finestone, The Last Courts of Europe: A Royal Family Album, 1860–1914, Dent (London, England), 1981, Crown (New York, NY), 1983.
Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, Random House (New York, NY), 1991.
The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, Random House (New York, NY), 1995.
Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
Massie's works have been translated into Spanish and German.
ADAPTATIONS: Nicholas and Alexandra was adapted into a motion picture by James Goldman and Edward Bond and released by Columbia, 1971; Peter the Great was adapted for television as a four-part miniseries for National Broadcasting Company, Inc. (NBC), 1986, and has been recorded as an audiobook by Books on Tape.
SIDELIGHTS: A journalist turned historian, Robert K. Massie is the author of the acclaimed works Peter the Great: His Life and World, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, and Nicholas and Alexandra. As Booklist critic Brendan Driscoll noted of Massie in a review of the author's Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea, Massies's major gift is a talent for creating "narrative histories so engaging that readers, losing themselves in the romance-novel story style, forget that they're reading nearly 1,000 pages of nonfiction."
Massie worked as a journalist for ten years before the circumstances of his personal life led him to the serious examination of Russian history. Soon after joining Newsweek as a book reviewer, Massie and his wife Suzanne discovered that their six-month-old son Bobbie suffered from hemophilia, a hereditary and incurable blood disease. Investigating his son's condition led Massie to spend many hours in the New York Public Library where he became caught up in the story of Al-exei Romanov, heir of the last ruling family of Russia, who had been stricken with hemophilia through his mother, the Empress Alexandra. Familiarity with the devastating effects resulting from such a family tragedy prompted Massie to study the short, tragic reign of Al-exei's father, Czar Nicholas II, from a unique perspective. Massie once commented: "When something unusual happens in your life, you are curious to see what has happened before. We were busy trying to find out how to deal with this disease, talking to a lot of other families, to doctors and social workers and people like that about hemophilia in mid-twentieth-century America. But I knew a bit of the story of the Tsarevich Alexis and I was curious to find out how his family had dealt with it, what was all this business about hypnotism and so forth."
Massie said he had no thoughts of writing a book: He was simply curious to find out what eventuated. While reading all he could find about the family, he began to notice discrepancies between accounts. "The general narrative historians swept pretty quickly by this whole business of the boy's illness with a sentence or two. I found that it was much more complicated than that. The links that even I could find, with very little background in the field, between the illness and what was happening politically were very much in evidence and were important," he commented. Nicholas and Alexandra was published ten years later to much critical acclaim. Robert Payne praised the book in the New York Times Book Review: "Massie's canvas is the whole of Russia, the Czar and Czarina merely the focal points…. What emerges is a study in depth of the reign of Nicholas, and for perhaps the first time we meet the actors in the drama face to face in their proper setting." The profits from Nicholas and Alexandra, along with royalties from the film that would later be based upon it, provided Massie with sufficient funds to help his son cope with life as a hemophiliac.
In 1975, Massie and his wife coauthored Journey, chronicling their young son's courage in facing his condition and describing how the disease affected their own lives as parents. "The substance of the book shifts from the mastery of pain to the mastery of life, and it is done in part by a turning outward in contrast to the Romanovs' [Nicholas and Alexandra] secretiveness and withdrawal," commented New York Times Book Review critic Elizabeth Hegeman. Journey contains a harsh indictment of America's "pitifully inadequate health plans, the workings of hospitals and the politics of the Red Cross which, charged the Massies, places the welfare of drug companies above that of hemophilia victims," according to Newsweek reviewer Margo Jefferson. Hege-man echoed the authors' frustration in describing "the grotesque folly of trying to raise enough money for the Hemophilia Society through charity balls and premieres and the inadequacy of the 'patchwork' of uncoordinated charities and agencies set up to help special need groups." She added that Massie's impassioned criticism should not be construed as self-serving: "It is the statement of a father who feels guilty over using so much of the precious blood derivative even though he pays for it, because he has carefully thought out his connection to society and he knows that something is deeply wrong with our social policy if blood is treated as a commodity to be exchanged for money."
After completing Journey, Massie once again turned his attention to the lush panorama of the Russian past. Although now familiar with the time period encompassing the life of the Tsarevich, there were still many areas of history with which Massie was unfamiliar. "While I was working on Nicholas and Alexandra, I was giving myself a course and reading as much as I could," Massie remembered. "I was fascinated by Peter [I]. There were glimpses of his character, stories and legends about him, but I couldn't find any biography which really captured him. After thinking about it for a while, I thought I could try one." Massie made frequent trips to Russia to do research for Peter the Great. He was fortunate in receiving a great deal of both official and scholarly assistance from the Soviet people who continue to have great reverence for Peter as one of the greatest of Russian heroes.
Considered the architect of modern Russia, Peter the Great was an imposing figure obsessed with forcing a backward Russian society into step with seventeenth-century Europe. Off came the flowing beards, gone were the long robes with their drooping sleeves; the monarch abolished such traditional emblems of the old order in favor of a "German" style of dress that allowed for the freedom of movement necessary for an active, forward-thinking people. Peter the Great went on to establish Russia as a major power. Flooding his homeland with Western technology through the importation of thousands of craftsmen and military personnel, raising the educational standards of his fellow Russians by setting up schools and sending young men abroad to study arts and sciences yet unknown in Russia, and defeating longtime opponent Charles XII of Sweden in the battle of Poltava in 1709, Peter crowned his growing empire with the city of St. Petersburg, capital of the new Russia and his "window into Europe," which he commanded be built upon the northern marshes bordering the Gulf of Finland.
A London Times critic felt that Massie's obvious admiration for his subject tends to color his view of the facts and remarked that "the urge to show Peter in the best light must spring partly from the relief of writing about a monarch who could, and did, do everything for himself, after devoting so many years to Peter's descendants who, between them, barely seemed able to tie up a ribbon or fasten a stud." John Leonard of the New York Times criticized Massie for the fact that "there is, in [Peter the Great], no thesis…. Peter's spotty education, his voracious curiosity, his epileptic convulsions, his talent with his hands, his ignorance of literature, his humor and his terror—all are merely reported and forgiven, like the weather." However, while noting in the New York Times Book Review the book's somewhat daunting length, Kyril Fitzlyon hailed Peter the Great as "an enthralling book, beautifully edited, with a first-rate index and excellent illustrations," and later added: "It would be surprising if it did not become the standard biography of Peter the Great in English for many years to come, as fascinating as any novel and more so than most."
"I had done enough about Russia," Massie acknowledged in an interview with Joseph A. Cincotti for the New York Times Book Review, "so I decided to come home from Russia by way of western Europe." End-of-the-century western Europe was the route that Massie chose to travel and the one that provided the subject for his next book, Dreadnought. Nine years in the writing, the book is a narrative account of Britain's retreat from "splendid isolationism" after the crisis at Fashoda, the battle that resulted in France's cessation of efforts towards building a rival colonial empire after 1898, Dreadnought covers the period from 1897 to August, 1914, when Britain came to France's aid in World War I. Taking its title from the name given to the heavily armored and gunned battleship H.M.S. Dreadnought, designed by the British to render all other navies obsolete, Massie's lengthy volume uses the naval antagonism between Britain and Germany as a point of departure. Organizing such a broad range of cataclysmic events into a comprehensive format is no easy task, and some reviewers found fault with the book's areas of concentration. Stanley Weintraub commented in the New York Times Book Review: "Since Massie uses the lens of the British-Germany rivalry, the picture that emerges of the European powder keg and its multiple fuses, all sputtering at different speeds, is out of focus, although dramatic nevertheless."
However, Dreadnought was praised for the characteristically engaging narrative style of its author. Commending Massie's sharp eye for detail and his ability to vividly portray characters, Geoffrey Moorhouse observed in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "one will not forget … Bismarck working in his office, watched by his dog Tiras, who terrorized all visitors … or Lord Salisbury, who 'treated his children like small foreign powers: not often noticed, but when recognized, regarded with unfailing politeness.'" "Dreadnought is a saga elegantly spun out in palaces and cabinet rooms, on the decks of royal yachts and the bridges of battleships, in Europe's spas and rambling country houses," wrote Douglas Porch in Washington Post Book World. "Massie traces the development of naval forces and the calculations of European diplomats with clarity and humor," he added. "He has a subtle appreciation for interplay of personalities in an era when the ruling houses of England and Germany were blood relations, and their political leaders shared a strong sense of cultural com-munality."
In 2003 Massie completed his equally well-researched sequel to Dreadnought. In Castles of Steel he studies the rise of the German U-boats, which through their effectiveness at travelling undetected prompted advances in sonar technologies, as well as Germany and Great Britain's battle for supremacy at sea. The assumptions undergirding the initial war strategies of both sides in the war quickly proved faulty, and Massie follows the efforts of both Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II—grandson of England's Queen Victoria and a man who believed he could quickly gain a well-mannered victory—and the British admiralty to reassess the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. Praising Massie's work as "readable and dramatic" as well as well researched, David A. Smith noted in the Naval War College Review that Castles of Steel gives readers "a clear sense of how important the clash of British and German navies was to the war's eventual outcome, and it illustrates how Winston Churchill's dramatic description of Admiral John Jellicoe, commander in chief of the British Grand Fleet, as 'the only commander who could lose the war in an afternoon' could be an accurate one." Massie argues that it was Germany's decision to engage in unre-stricted U-Boat attacks, sinking not only British battleships but also neutral merchant ships and passenger liners. "The tactic worked in the sense that Britain, like Germany, started to run out of food and fuel," explained an Economist reviewer. "But it was also in Mr. Massie's view the colossal misjudgment that ensured Germany's defeat by bringing an entirely new enemy with unlimited resources into the war: the United States." Praising Massie's history as "imposing in both size and quality," a Publishers Weekly contributor noted that the historian "describes his cast of characters with the vividness of a novelist."
With the collapse of communism in Russia in the early 1990s, Massie was able to continue his story of Nicholas and Alexandra. Records formerly hidden were revealed, and this new information allowed the author to complete his 1995 volume, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. Beginning with the execution of the Russian royal family, Massie traces the events of the burial of their bodies in Ekaterinburg, their discovery almost half a century later, their exhumation in 1991, and the genetic analysis of the bones that determined conclusively that all seven members of the Romanov family—including the Tsarevich and Anastasia—had been executed in 1918. "Although no specialist in Russian history, and clearly dependent on translated sources, Massie tells the story with the same narrative skill that he displayed in his bestselling Nicholas and Alexandra," wrote Times Literary Supplement contributor Orlando Figes. Characterizing the book as "a tale of jealousy …; bureaucratic fighting …; false claims by impostors; endless legal hearings; and quarrelling between clans of the Romanovs," Figes added that "the prize of the imperial bones has brought out the worst in all those who would gain by laying claim to them," particularly most of the few surviving members of the Romanov family. Including a thorough discussion of the sixty-five-year-long deception by a woman claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, Massie's volume also traces the fate of other members of the Romanov family, seventeen of whom were killed within days of the Tsar. Calling the work "masterful" and "enthralling," Washington Post Book World contributor Joseph Finder praised The Romanovs as "a narrative as gripping as a well-wrought murder mystery, told in vividly realized, densely atmospheric scenes, rich with moments of grim fascination." While Massie subtitled his book "The Final Chapter," Finder noted that there are still mysteries left to be solved regarding this Russian chronicle, which may find the author returning to Mother Russia yet again in the future.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Spectator, December, 1989, p. 32; September, 1992, p. 65.
Booklist, September 15, 2003, Brendan Driscoll, review of Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea, p. 178.
Economist (U.S.), January 10, 2004, review of Castles of Steel, p. 73.
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2003, review of Castles of Steel, p. 1114.
Library Journal, October 1, 2003, Danile K. Blewett, review of Castles of Steel, p. 95.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 8, 1991, Geoffrey Moorhouse, review of Dreadnought, pp. 4, 15.
Naval War College Review, spring, 2004, David A. Smith, review of Castles of Steel, p. 185.
Newsweek, August 28, 1967; May 26, 1975; October 20, 1980, Walter Clemons, review of Peter the Great, p. 90.
New York Review of Books, March 26, 1992, p. 15.
New York Times, October 7, 1980, John Leonard, review of Peter the Great, section C, p. 8.
New York Times Book Review, August 20, 1967, pp. 1, 26; May 11, 1975, pp. 5-6; November 10, 1991, Joseph A. Cincotti, review of Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, pp. 7, 9, and Stanley Weintraub, review of Dreadnought, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly, September 22, 2003, review of Castles of Steel, p. 97.
Punch, April 1, 1981, pp. 534-535.
Time, November 10, 1980, pp. 107-108; November 11, 1991, p. 90.
Times (London, England), February 5, 1981.
Times Literary Supplement, April 28, 1981, p. 467; April 17, 1992, p. 10; August 9, 1996, p. 26.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), December 15, 1991, p. 5; December 3, 1995, p. 3.
Washington Post Book World, November 24, 1991, Douglas Porch, review of Dreadnought, p. 5; October 22, 1995, Joseph Finder, review of The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, p. 5.