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David McCullough: America's historian, Pittsburgh son

Sunday, December 30, 2001

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor


ime to reload." David McCullough's cartridge pen had run out of ink, not surprising since he'd autographed 250 copies of "John Adams" the night before. A refill was found, and the signing resumed.
He was sitting at his dining-room table in this Martha's Vineyard village, scrawling through a pile of books brought by son Bill from his friends and neighbors who were giving them as Christmas gifts.

Bill sat alongside, steadily replacing each signed book with a fresh one, at the same time telling his father what inscription to write.

David McCullough calls walking from his home to the backyard shed that serves as his writing studio his "daily commute." The structure's walls are lined with about 800 books, most of them from his work on "John Adams," one of the most popular books in publisher Simon & Schuster's history. (Steven Senne, Associated Press)

Back and forth through the room roamed one of his grandchildren, a 3-year-old dynamo nicknamed "Popper" who never seemed to run out of questions.

Then Rosalie McCullough arrived with bags of food for lunch and questions of her own. The phone started to ring.

Her husband's right hand never stopped moving. The pile of autographed copies grew higher. He could do this in his sleep.

Since May, when "Adams" arrived in bookstores, the 68-year-old Pittsburgh native has been in constant motion, moving around the country talking about the second president of the United States and, everywhere, signing books for admiring readers.

Following the appearance of his first book, "The Johnstown Flood," in 1968, McCullough has been one of the nation's most successful historians, winning the Pulitzer Prize for his 1992 biography, "Truman," and gaining recognition as host of the PBS program "The American Experience."

But nothing he's done before has come close to the success of "John Adams."

Since it hit stores May 22, the book's been one of the fastest-selling nonfiction titles in history, said Publisher's Weekly. This month, said Aileen Boyle, director of publicity at Simon & Schuster, the demand for the book "is the greatest in the history" of the publisher.

Like its short, stout and irascible namesake, "John Adams" is an unlikely success story. McCullough himself claims to be at a loss for its astounding popularity in a nation known for its short historical attention span.

"We are in danger of being a country of historical illiterates," McCullough has warned. "We have amnesia about our history."

Books by David McCullough

All books published by Simon & Schuster or its Touchstone division.

"The Johnstown Flood" ($14 paperback)

"The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge" ($30 hardcover, $18 paperback)

"The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914" ($18 paperback)

"Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt," ($28 hardcover, $16 paperback)

"Brave Companions: Portraits in History," ($14 paperback)

"Truman," 1992 ($40 hardcover, $22 paperback)

"John Adams" 2001 ($35 hardcover)

Also: "Truman" and "John Adams" are available on audiotape, read by McCullough, from Simon & Schuster Audioworks.


Yet his 700-page account, which quotes extensively from 18th-century documents written in an English 200 years removed from the slangy prose of today, has never stopped selling. And, with its story of a dedicated patriot who put everything on the line for his young country, "Adams" is hitting just the right note in this time of nationalistic fervor.

It's clear that in watching McCullough's reception over the past two months, he has become a key public figure in American life, his knowledge and views of our past greeted with enthusiasm around the country.

On a bulletin board in the kitchen of his 19th-century farmhouse is a snapshot of McCullough stretched out on a bench in his garden.

It was taken after he'd finished the "Adams" manuscript last year. "He looks pretty relaxed and satisfied with himself, doesn't he?" said Rosalie. "He didn't know what he was getting himself into."

In early June, at BookExpo in Chicago, McCullough looked relaxed and well-rested during lunch with reporters as he began that public side of writing -- selling the book. The stories were fresh, the famous voice heard for years on a variety of PBS shows at its most resonant.

By the time he'd finally come home two weeks ago after more than 50 appearances from coast to coast, McCullough looked tired, his voice still gravely from a bout of laryngitis.

His return to this island best known nowadays as a summer resort for the rich and famous seemed to restore some of his bounce, however, and he was eager to show off the landmarks in a recent Saturday morning-long tour. It started with a big breakfast at the Art Cliff Diner in Vineyard Haven, where the writer was greeted by several customers.

In the off-season, this is a small community, a place where McCullough is known first of all as a long-time resident whose children attended the island schools and who drops in on town council meetings.

He first arrived in 1951 at the invitation of Rosalie Barnes of Massachusetts, whom he'd met in Pittsburgh earlier that year. Her family owned a summer house in Oak Bluff.

"My friend Cynthia Booth was from Pittsburgh, and when I was visiting her, she arranged for me to meet David," Rosalie said. "When I went home, he started writing me, and that was that.

"I remember the first letter I got from him. It started out, 'Unaccustomed as I am to writing a young lady ...' "

"My brother Hax had a Ford convertible he let me borrow, and I drove from Pittsburgh," McCullough said. "Boy, here I was, 18, on my own, driving a convertible. I felt pretty special, but I couldn't imagine the world I found here."

The McCulloughs now live in a renovated two-story frame house on an acre of land that borders a working farm. They bought it in 1965 as a summer place and gradually turned it into a permanent home.

In the fall of 1951, McCullough would, like his three brothers, go to Yale University. "My father wanted me to go to either Carnegie Tech or Pitt. The old man was a real Pittsburgh guy. We could only use Gulf gas in the car."

His father, C. Hax (it's a family name) McCullough, helped run the electrical contracting company that still bears the family name, McCullough Electric Co. It was started by his grandfather and father in Pittsburgh in 1904.

But, his mother, Ruth, intervened on David's schooling.

"Mother said it was part of going to college to leave home, so I went off to Yale." The McCulloughs were part of Pittsburgh's upper-middle class, living on the cul-de-sac Glen Arden Drive in Point Breeze.

The McCullough family gathers for a family portrait during a Ligonier vacation in 1944; back row, from left, George, Jim, father C. Hax and mother Ruth; front row, Hax and David.

They belonged to the Third Presbyterian Church in Shadyside and the Duquesne and Twentieth Century clubs and sent their four sons to Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel.

"We were comfortable, but by Pittsburgh standards, not wealthy by any means," said McCullough, who attended public school, Linden Elementary, until heading to private school.

His parents built their Point Breeze home in 1929. "Dad took his money out of the stock market for the house and missed the Wall Street Crash," McCullough laughed.

Growing up in Pittsburgh has left a permanent mark on the historian who frequently cites the city's school system and the Carnegie Institute as major influences on his education.

"I spent a lot of rainy Saturdays at the library and museum. I got a great education and I think a great sense of history from growing up in Pittsburgh."

The accessible author

McCullough remains active in his hometown, working with the Heinz History Center and donating money to the Pittsburgh Public Schools to transport students to Pittsburgh Symphony concerts.

In his library is the 1951 Shady Side Academy yearbook. All of the artwork was done by McCullough, who had seriously considered becoming an artist. He continues to paint today, and his watercolor paintings can be found in his house and study.

Academic historians have sniffed at McCullough's accounts of key events in American history and his glowing assessments of Adams and Truman, but he refuses to do battle with them. One of the loudest critics has been Sean Wilentz, whose review of "Adams" in the July 7 New Republic accused McCullough of gliding over some of his subject's negative traits.

He lets his book sales and large audiences do the talking.

The appeal of "John Adams" has even reached actor-producer Tom Hanks, who earlier this year optioned the book for a miniseries on HBO. "Truman" was turned into an Emmy-award winning HBO movie in 1995, and "The Johnstown Flood" also has been optioned for film.

McCullough Electric Co. was started by David McCullough's grandfather and father in Pittsburgh in 1904.

One reason for McCullough's popularity, it seems, is his genuine friendliness. Whether handling the terse questions of the colorless Brian Lamb on C-SPAN2's "Book Talk" or talking to a grandmother at a book signing, he gives his full attention.

Speaking last month at a benefit dinner for the Texas Book Festival in Austin, McCullough drew round after round of applause from the well-dressed crowd for his tales of Adams' unselfishness and sacrifice in the service of his country.

It had been a noisy group until his familiar face, with its shock of snow-white hair, appeared at the podium. Then the hotel ballroom grew as quiet as a church.

The next day at the festival book-signing session, he went well over his allotted time because he chatted with everybody in a line estimated at nearly 250. He wrote personal inscriptions along with his signature. He told jokes, laughed at others and frequently patted the book bearers on the back.

McCullough spent most of that day at the festival on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol, then showed up at the author's party that night. There, the chatting and signing continued.

The only break he took was to learn the Texas two-step to the sounds of the Flatlanders. He was going strong at 11 p.m., then appeared at a 7:30 a.m. breakfast the next day before heading to Oklahoma State University for another round of speeches and signings.

"He's finally slowing down," said Ann Nelson, owner of the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven on the northern end of the island. "He's not writing so many personal inscriptions anymore."

McCullough had dropped by her store Friday night to sign those 250 books that Nelson will ship to St. Louis, where McCullough speaks to a business group next month. Her store is one of the most successful independents in this day of the chain store, and having McCullough as a neighbor has been great for business.

Nelson estimates she's sold nearly 3,000 copies of "Adams."

(The author himself is a steady Bunch of Grapes customer as well. Several days before Christmas, he was there buying books as gifts.)

"People love it because it reads like a novel," she said. "And, the love story is at the center. What a story! Abigail and John. You can't find anything like it."

McCullough might disagree. Celebrating their 47th anniversary last week, Rosalie and David have an extraordinary relationship that he freely acknowledges.

Ann Nelson: "David was speaking at a meeting here a few weeks ago, and he said his publisher, agent and editor were all in the audience. Well, I know those Simon & Schuster people, and none of them were there. Then, he pointed to Rosalie."

"She's my best editor," McCullough said. "I read my writing aloud to her, and she'll tell me if something doesn't sound right." He also credits Rosalie with suggesting that he quit his full-time job at American Heritage to work on his books.

"We had five kids by then, but she thought we could do it. We had some rough times financially after that, but we made it."

Brought into focus

Today, the McCulloughs live comfortably in their modest house. In the back yard are two newer structures, clad in the New England clapboard style -- an office near the back door and a peaked "shed" at the end of the property.

"Here's my daily commute," said McCullough, leading the way through the garden to his writing studio (he rejects the term "shed"). It's a narrow plot with a raised vegetable bed and two low stone walls.

The studio's security system is a padlock. Inside, its unfinished walls are covered with shelves holding about 800 books, mostly from his "Adams" project.

"I put it out here so the kids didn't have to worry about making too much noise while I was writing," he said.

Geoff McCullough and his dad attend the History Makers Award Dinner in Pittsburgh last year. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Perched near the center of the building is a dull black Royal typewriter on which he's written each of his seven books.

"I change the roller about once a year, but other than that, it never needs any attention. It's a perfect example of a fine piece of American equipment."

Back at what he calls "world headquarters," his office decorated with some of his watercolors, McCullough points to an old framed photo on the wall.

"That's what got me writing history."

It was taken in 1883, the day the Statue of Liberty was unveiled. The statue can be seen behind the steam clouds of ships, a veil-like cloth draped over its face.

McCullough found the picture in federal archives in 1963, when he edited a magazine for the U.S. Information Agency. Curious, he researched events of that day and turned his work into an article for American Heritage magazine, which hired him the next year. The senior editor was another Pittsburgher, Richard Ketchum, whose father started the advertising agency that still bears his name.

"I love looking at old photographs," McCullough said. "They've made me wonder what it must have been like back then."

It was photography that also led to his first book. Published in 1968, "The Johnstown Flood" brought him national attention and set him on the path to becoming the country's most popular historian.

McCullough said he never forgot the images of the 1889 flood he came across in the Library of Congress.

"They were these marvelously clear prints taken by a Pittsburgher who somehow got to Johnstown soon after the flood," he said. "I couldn't get over the violence they showed."

McCullough said he knew little about the flood despite his Pittsburgh childhood. "All I can remember as a kid was pouring gravy into mashed potatoes, then pushing the potatoes down to make the gravy flow out. 'Here comes the Johnstown Flood,' I'd say."

When his book proposal was turned down by Little, Brown, he arranged a meeting with Peter Schwed, an editor from Simon & Schuster, through a friend. They were to have lunch, but the editor was late.

"Finally, he showed up. Said he was late because he was looking up the Johnstown Flood in the encyclopedia," McCullough said. "Well, what happened next is something anybody who knows publishing can't believe.

"After I explained why I wanted to do the book, because it was a story about a manmade disaster, Schwed said, 'Well, I suppose you want an advance.'

"I didn't know what to say, so I used that old rule that when you ask for money, always double the figure. I said, '$5,000.'

"He looked at his watch and said it was too late to get a check today, but would tomorrow be all right?"

Working nights and weekends, McCullough, finished the book in three years. "I'd come home from the magazine, have dinner and help put the kids to bed. Then, I'd sit down and start to work. You know, I was more fresh and full of energy at 11 than at 9 because the material was so compelling to me."

McCullough said he never talked to Schwed until he finished the book. "I couldn't think of a title. I tried this and that, but nothing was any good. "Finally I called him and said 'Look, I've finished the book, but I don't have a title.' "

The editor said, "How about 'The Johnstown Flood'?"

The title question was solved, but a bigger one faced the new author -- what would he write next? Since the flood book was a critical success, it earned him another offer from Simon & Schuster, forcing McCullough to search for another compelling subject.

McCullough said he remembered the words of Thornton Wilder, the playwright and novelist who was his adviser at Yale.

"Wilder said he got the idea for a book or a play when he wanted to learn about something. Then, he'd check to see if anybody had already done it, and it they hadn't, he'd do it."

When a friend wondered about the history of the Brooklyn Bridge, a span McCullough had often walked across when he lived in Brooklyn in the 1950s, the idea for the next book was formed.

"I knew about the Roebling family -- that they were from near Pittsburgh -- but that was it. The first thing I did was head for the New York Public Library. The card catalog was on the third floor, and I took the steps two at a time," he remembered.

"I found more than 100 references to the bridge, but none of them was a history of it. I had my second book."

Schwed accepted his proposal but added one of his own -- a book on the Panama Canal. (Simon & Schuster has published all seven of his books, and each one is still in print.)

"The Great Bridge" appeared in 1972, but it was "The Path Between the Seas" that gained McCullough widespread attention. Published in 1977, the book arrived about the time the U.S. Senate debated the fate of the canal treaty that called for Panama to assume full control of it by 2000.

He testified before a Senate committee and also discussed the canal with President Jimmy Carter.

1776 in his future

McCullough's writing career continued to blossom.

His first biography, "Mornings on Horseback," about the early life of Theodore Roosevelt, won the National Book Award in 1982.

"Truman" brought him the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1993, but by that time, McCullough had become a TV personality as well.

With no acting experience other than roles in plays at Shady Side, McCullough was picked in 1983 to be host of "Smithsonian World: The American Experience" on PBS.

He was much more than a host, writing the introductions and handling interviews. Later, he moved to narrating a variety of other public television programs, including Ken Burns' "The Civil War." McCullough finally ended his TV performances this year.

"I'm back to being a full-time writer again," he said.

His next book will be the story of America's first year of independence, 1776.

"That was the absolute nadir of this country. It's a miracle and a matter of luck that the nation survived," he said. "And for me, the book will also be a nice break from writing biography, focusing on one person. This will be straight history, the way I got started."

Appearances for his Adams book will continue but at a slower pace in the new year. At last, David McCullough can return to what he loves best -- sitting at his Royal typewriter in his backyard studio, telling the story of America.

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