Von Hoffman, Nicholas 1929–
Von Hoffman, Nicholas 1929–
PERSONAL: Born October 16, 1929, in New York, NY; son of Carl (an explorer) and Anna (a dentist; maiden name, Bruenn) von Hoffman; married Ann Byrne, 1950 (divorced); married Patricia Bennett, 1979 (divorced); children (first marriage): Alexander, Aristodemus, Constantine. Education: Graduated Fordham Prep School, 1948.
CAREER: Industrial Area Foundation, Chicago, IL, associate director, 1954–63; Chicago Daily News, Chicago, staff member, 1963–66; Washington Post, Washington, DC, staff member and columnist, 1966–76; Spectator, London, England, Washington correspondent, beginning 1976; free-lance writer; Point-Counterpoint commentator on CBS's 60 Minutes; New York Observer, New York, NY, columnist.
AWARDS, HONORS: Friends of Literature Journalism Award, 1965, for Mississippi Notebook.
Mississippi Notebook, David White (New York, NY), 1964.
The Multiversity: A Personal Report on What Happens to Today's Students at American Universities, Holt (New York, NY), 1966.
We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against, Quadrangle (Chicago, IL), 1968.
Two, Three, Many More: A Novel, Quadrangle (Chicago, IL), 1969.
Left at the Post, Quadrangle (Chicago, IL), 1970.
(With Garry Trudeau) The Fireside Watergate, Sheed (New York, NY), 1973.
Make-Believe Presidents: Illusions of Power from McKinley to Carter, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1978.
Organized Crimes, Harper (New York, NY), 1984.
Citizen Cohn, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1988.
Capitalist Fools: Tales of American Business, from Carnegie to Forbes to the Milken Gang, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
A Devil's Dictionary of American Business, Texere (New York, NY), 2003.
Hoax: Why Americans Are Suckered by White House Lies, Nation Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Author of syndicated column "Poster." Contributor of numerous articles to periodicals, including the New Republic, Esquire, and GQ.
ADAPTATIONS: Citizen Cohn was adapted as a film for HBO.
SIDELIGHTS: Nicholas von Hoffman began his career in Chicago, where he worked for nine years as associate director of the Industrial Areas Foundation under the tutelage of Saul Alinsky. A grass-roots organizer and social activist, Alinsky's spirited defense of underdog causes made him a Chicago institution. Alinsky's notoriety helped von Hoffman get a job in 1963 as labor reporter for the Chicago Daily News, a position he held until 1966. At that point, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post offered von Hoffman a job. As a reporter for the Post, von Hoffman covered a wide range of stories, from the civil rights movement to Watergate. It was also while at the Post that von Hoffman began writing a column entitled "Poster" for King Features Syndicate. According to Chalmers M. Roberts, author of The Washington Post: The First Hundred Years, von Hoffman's column rarely failed to elicit response: "His vivid prose, often intentionally provocative, produced more angry letters to the editor than the work of any other single reporter in the paper's history. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, von Hoffman became a favorite of the New Left and of some youth cults. At the Post some adored him; others considered him a menace to journalism…. By the very power of his words, the details of his reporting, and the outrage of his expressed beliefs he forced uncounted Post readers to examine a life style that repelled them, especially when it became that of their own middle-class offspring."
Von Hoffman's gift for voicing the concerns, problems, and aspirations of the young has been apparent in much of his writing, most notably The Multiversity: A Personal Report on What Happens to Today's Students at American Universities and We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against. The latter became a watershed of sorts due to its unflinching portrait of discord among America's youth. The book began as an assignment for the Washington Post about the 1967 "summer of love," with von Hoffman centering his focus on San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. Included were gritty and sometimes grim details of the drug/counter-culture scene as it really was, the provocative contents angering and shocking many people. It was not, however, the only time von Hoffman dealt with potentially incendiary topics in his writings. Both his novels, such as Two, Three, Many More (about a college revolt), and nonfiction, such as Mississippi Notebook, which was concerned with the civil rights movement, engendered strong reaction. Von Hoffman further aroused public sentiment with his Point-Counterpoint appearances on 60 Minutes, where he vocally embraced the views of the far left.
After leaving the Washington Post in 1976, von Hoffman worked on two books with political satirist Garry Trudeau, acted as the Washington correspondent for London-based Spectator magazine, and continued writing commentary. Von Hoffman's prodigious output slowed a bit as the 1980s began. In 1984, however, von Hoffman received critical attention for his novel Organized Crimes. Set in Chicago during the Depression, the novel tells the story of several notorious gangsters and the "better" moneyed people who both supported and decried their activities. The central character of the story is Allan Archibald, a wealthy, handsome student doing sociological field research about the Chicago underworld. Allan's meetings with various criminals are tempered by his love affair with another student, the beautiful but poor Irena Giron. Their relationship blooms amid gang warfare, political manipulation, and social upheavals. As Allan becomes more and more involved in gang associations, his father's fortunes reverse, and young Archibald finds himself driven into the arms of a gangster's moll. All is resolved in a climax that is violent, shocking, and sudden.
Critics were impressed with von Hoffman's ability to re-create an era and populate it with colorful characters. "It is historical fiction of a kind: although the period it deals with is just fifty years past," Washington Post writer Bruce Cook said, Organized Crimes "is crammed with accurate and fascinating social detail of the kind usually lavished on novels dealing with periods more distant in time…. This is one of the best Chicago novels in quite a while." Time reviewer William Henry III compared von Hoffman's Chicago to turn-of-the-century New York in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, praising the author's "ruefully comic invention." In the New York Times Book Review, Jan Herman stressed the novel's "clever blend of anecdotal history and sentimental history" remarking that von Hoffman "sketches a fascinating era with disarming ease."
Much of the detail von Hoffman introduced into Organized Crimes was the result of his reportorial skills. These skills were integral to von Hoffman's next project, a biography of attorney Roy Cohn. Entitled Citizen Cohn, the text is an unflinching look at a controversial figure. Cohn died of AIDS in August of 1986, leaving behind a perplexing legacy. During the course of his career, Cohn was a political manipulator, wheeler-dealer, and confidant of the rich and famous. Best known for his role as chief counsel to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy during the infamous "red scare" of the 1950's, Cohn was also involved in the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. His private law practice was very lucrative, but its profits were largely based on Cohn's ability to exploit the legal system. At the time of his death, he faced government scrutiny of his business affairs and disbarment action.
Ironically, von Hoffman's 1988 Cohn biography was released simultaneously with Sidney Zion's Autobiography of Roy Cohn. As a result, many critics reviewed the books concurrently, noting that while von Hoffman and Zion shared the same subject matter, their treatment of it differed. Zion was a close friend of Cohn, and had taken over the transcription of his memoirs when Cohn was no longer physically able to continue. As a result, Zion's transcription has a more personal, sympathetic emphasis. Von Hoffman assumed a more analytical stance, concentrating on the facts (such as were available) of Cohn's life, beginning with his death from AIDS-related ailments (a condition Cohn denied until the very end) and concluding with his ongoing battles with the IRS and New York State Bar Association.
Critical reaction to Citizen Cohn was mixed. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times felt that von Hoffman was not always clear in identifying his source references, but still managed to offer the reader a "richer, more rounded, better balanced view of his subject's life" than Zion. In the Times Literary Supplement, Gary Wills noted that von Hoffman had a good grasp of the political ramifications of Cohn's activities, but "misses the deeper ironies and betrayals" while maintaining a "whimsically clinical" attitude toward his subject that makes for a sometimes rambling discourse.
Peter Collier of the Washington Post Book World observed that von Hoffman's emphasis on prurient trivia indicates he has "picked through Cohn's life with a kind of repelled fascination." Collier found muddled passages and haphazard editing distracting, yet maintained that one "begins the book with disdain for the subject, but ends with a distant sympathy…. While von Hoffman is far from preaching forgiveness, what he writes does remind us once again of the truth in H.L. Menken's observation that this would be a dull world if it were not for the sinners." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Tom Wolfe concluded that Citizen Cohn is a fast, entertaining read that eventually "bogs down," not so much for literary reasons, but because the book concerns "the depressing spectacle of a prodigy who grew old without overcoming the childhood fevers that inflamed him."
In the book Capitalist Fools: Tales of American Business, from Carnegie to Forbes to the Milken Gang, von Hoffman provides a study of capitalism in the United States and the transformations it has undergone over the course of a few generations. The author began the book as a straightforward biography of businessman Malcolm Forbes, but he soon expanded his subject. As Wendy Smith reported in Publishers Weekly, von Hoffman's book "scathingly criticizes contemporary American business leaders as shortsighted scavengers who make money by leveraging and conglomerating rather than manufacturing useful products." Although the author paints the business tycoons of yesteryear as unashamedly greedy and unresponsive to the needs of workers, he nevertheless sees the ways in which they truly contributed to the building of the United States. Today's business captains have the same failings but less leadership and vision. "Whole chapters of Capitalist Fools read like the anguish of a middle-aged elitist who despairs of modern times. Von Hoffman berates the trashing of children's minds by an entertainment culture which has turned them into couch potatoes." stated Robert Dawson in Management Today. Dawson found that any generation could be subject to the same criticisms von Hoffman directs at the modern era, but concluded that "Capitalist Fools is a thoughtful book containing many persuasive insights and startling prescriptions."
Von Hoffman analyzed the rationale behind the invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces in his book Hoax: Why Americans Are Suckered by White House Lies. The author's stance on the issue is clear from his title, and he discusses not only the strategies used to build up support for the Iraq invasion, but for other foreign policies as well. Noting that many books on similar subjects came out at about the same time, a Publishers Weekly reviewer called von Hoffman's offering "a smart, elegant standout," which "relies on subtle, nuanced cultural analyses to examine the peculiarity of America's hermetic view of itself." The reviewer concluded that while this penetrating critique of American actions would not please "the blindly patriotic," it would be of great interest to those who question the foreign policy decisions of the Bush administration. Booklist reviewer Vanessa Bush also predicted that while some would agree with the author's conclusions and others would find them "harsh … all will find them provocative."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Roberts, Chalmers M., The Washington Post: The First 100 Years, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1977.
Booklist, July, 2004, Vanessa Bush, review of Hoax: Why Americans Are Suckered by White House Lies, p. 1806.
Economist, May 7, 1988, review of Citizen Cohn, p. 85.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2004, review of Hoax, p. 321.
Management Today, July, 1993, Robert Dawson, review of Capitalist Fools: Tales of American Business, from Carnegie to Forbes to the Milken Gang, p. 74.
Nation, May 21, 1988, Robert Sherrill, review of Citizen Cohn, p. 719.
National Review, June 24, 1988, review of Citizen Cohn, p. 44.
New Leader, May 16, 1988, David M. Oshinsky, review of Citizen Cohn, p. 17.
New Republic, December 7, 1992, Michael Lewis, review of Capitalist Fools, p. 43.
New York Times Book Review, October 21, 1984, Jan Herman, review of Organized Crimes.
People, May 2, 1988, Mary Vespa, review of Citizen Cohn, p. 25.
Publishers Weekly, September 21, 1992, Wendy Smith, interview with Nicholas von Hoffman, p. 72; April 19, 2004, review of Hoax, p. 48.
Time, December 3, 1984, William A. Henry III, review of Organized Crimes.
Washington Post, October 22, 1984, Bruce Cook, review of Organized Crimes.