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Murder in the White City; mayhem along the Great White Way.


The Devil in the White City

By Erik Larson

Crown, 432 pp., $25.95

Civic leaders fretted that their city had a reputation as America's distribution center but it wasn't in the same league as other cities across the U.S. What it needed was some symbol to make the country stand up and take notice.

Sound familiar? This isn't Memphis in the 21st century. This is Chicago in the late 1800s, a city that had established itself as "Hog Butcher for the World" but a city that was considered a backwater by "world-class" cities.

So the good people of Chicago petitioned Congress for the right to hold a world's fair that would pay tribute to the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the New World. St. Louis and New York had fought for the honor, but Chicago won the day, and by drawing together some of America's best architects and designers, Chicagoans constructed one of the greatest world's fairs of all time. In little more than a year, acres of neglected lakefront were magically transformed into the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, and since all the buildings were painted a gleaming white, the fair came to be known as the White City.

Erik Larson, author of the best-selling history Isaac's Storm, presents a fascinating account of this massive undertaking and manages to do it by focusing on the efforts of architect Daniel Burnham and his partner John Root to design and build the fair in record time. The details and images are impressive; Larson easily makes the reader feel he or she is in the Chicago of the Gilded Age as Burnham, architect Louis Sullivan, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and other luminaries create what, for many of them, would be their proudest achievement.

Against this backdrop, however, Larson also describes one of the darkest tales in Chicago's -- even America's -- history. The story of "Dr." H.H. Holmes (among his many other aliases) is, for some reason, little-known today, but he ranks as one of this country's worst serial killers. Near the entrance to the fair, he built a three-story hotel -- "Holmes' Castle" as it came to be called -- which included acid vats, gas chambers, and crematories: essentially a killing factory that quietly and efficiently disposed of the many young men and women who stayed or worked there. The exact number of his murders will never be known; estimates range from 13 to as many as 200.

Larson's study is a blend of two opposing ideals -- the efforts of the city's leaders to build one of the greatest fairs in history and the efforts of one of America's greatest "devils" to destroy the lives of those who came there. The book could use more photos -- of the stunning fair itself, of Holmes, and of the sinister castle where so many of the White City's visitors met their fate. But Larson's own words present a vivid picture, as declared in the book's subtitle, of "Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America." Literary judges apparently agree. On October 15th, The Devil in the White City was one of five books in the nonfiction category nominated for a 2003 National Book Award.

-- Michael Finger

Ted Chapin was in college in January 1971 when he signed on to act as "production assistant" for a musical set to open four months later on Broadway. What he really was was "gofer" for a dream team consisting of Hal Prince (producer-director), Michael Bennett (choreographer-director), Stephen Sondheim (composer-lyricist), James Goldman (book), and Boris Aronson (sets). He was a diarist too, recording the hourly making and unmaking of a show that in January 1971 had hardly a cast, a score, a book, or a set. But it had a name: Follies. And it went on to have a cult following, despite the fact it was a financial failure and artistic open question. Still, it had that dream team. And it had on stage the nervous wreck Yvonne De Carlo, who couldn't remember her lyrics, and the valiant dance-man Gene Nelson, who couldn't remember his moves, and how could they when lyrics and moves were being reworked by the minute? But Dorothy Collins throughout was a trouper. And Alexis Smith became a bona fide star rescued finally out of a less-than-stellar film career.

Chapin got all this down on paper, and Everything Was Possible (Knopf) gets it all between covers. You think it's maybe more than you ever needed to know? But you love musicals, know people who do too? You, they will be hanging on every tantrum, tear, and triumph. -- Leonard Gill


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