Wednesday, December 5, 2007
In February, 2008, Crown will publish a book called Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him, And the Age of Flimflam. I wanted to read it from the moment I saw the cover, which I swear they must have cooked up just for me, because my picking up the book was a foregone conclusion once I saw the goat.
The huckster in question, John Romulus Brinkley, pioneered the implantation of goat naughty bits into both men and women to reinvigorate them (both generally and sexually). Morris Fishbein, head of the nascent AMA, waged a 25-year war against Brinkley to try to stop him. Brinkley was unrepentant and all but unstoppable because he was always at least a step ahead.
When there was no mass media, being denounced by one newspaper was no big deal. Brinkley bought himself a radio station and was the first person to use the airwaves as advertising and promotion, creating in the process the first radio variety show. The show featured singers and musicians and storytellers and preachers and Brinkley himself and everything was a not-so-subtle plug for Brinkley, his clinic, and his elixirs. He had a knack for convincing the common folk that he was one of them.
When Fishbein had him before an AMA board and very publically revoked both of Brinkley's medical licenses, Brinkley's response was a late entry into the Kansas governor's race. He proved so popular with the people that it took a last minute finagling of election laws to keep him out of office.
While waiting to run again, he became disenchanted with the restrictions on broadcasting power for his radio station, so he convinced the Mexican government to give him free land and build him the most powerful radio station on the planet across the border from Del Rio, Texas. He used the same format, so people like Gene Autrey and The Carter Family went from regional acts to national treasures. (Long after Brinkley was no longer involved, XERA hired a DJ named Wolfman Jack.)
The book's got a little bit of everything, including world travel, H.L. Mencken, a courtroom showdown, and Nazis. Yeah, that's right, I said Nazis.
The tone of the book is wildly uneven, with Fishbein mostly absent and Brinkley so larger-than-life that you have to admire the chutzpah, if not the man. This makes the epilogue, where Brinkley is suddenly America's worst mass murderer a bit jarring.
But the book is worth the read, and a great jumping off point for further reading like Border Radio by Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford.