Tag Archives: Les Standiford

A clever, clear-eyed look at a community driven by wealth and all it can buy

 Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanado, by Les Standiford. Atlantic Monthly Press. 288 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

In the history of the United States, many communities have vied for the top rung on the ladder of exclusivity and attraction. Most cultural historians have declared Palm Beach the winner. Les Standiford’s delightful book tells us why, exploring the lives and contributions of the town’s creators and major residents.

Les Standiford

They are story-book names, people with a kind of royalty (and sometimes married to royalty). The island, sitting as it does been Lake Worth and the Atlantic Ocean, was not an easy place to reach until a major entrepreneur determined to make it so.

That man, Henry Flagler, saw the promise of what wasn’t much more than a swamp. Mr. Standiford gives Flagler the lion’s share of credit for being a visionary a man who put his money and mouth together to promote one notion of an ideal community for the super-rich.

The initial problem was getting there, and as a railroad entrepreneur, Flagler got it done.

It wasn’t easy getting far south from Jacksonville and St. Augustine, but his railway made it happen, later extending access to the bottom of the peninsular – Key West and its sibling keys. Of course, the big picture of how Flagler opened the state’s east coast includes Miami as well.

In leading up to and through Flagler’s genius, the author takes note of the displaced indigenous tribes and reminds us that Flagler was a former partner of John D. Rockefeller. He sketches the rivalry and intermingling of the Gilded Age front runners, knitting together those already mentioned with the Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Carnegies, and the rest of the wealth constellation. 

These people, sometimes rivals and sometimes partners, needed southern climes to call their own. Flagler knew where and how to lead them.

As if practicing for his virtual founding of Palm Beach, Flagler built in St. Augustine the 450-room Hotel Ponce de Leon and a nearby home named Kirkside.

As the 1890s turned into the 20th century, Flagler more and more focused on being a developer, eventually acquiring two million acres of Florida land via a land grant act and other means. And he kept pushing south, building several estates and hotels. Standiford names and describes them all, and then the torrent of Flagler wannabes takes hold. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the December 11, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 12 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Venice editions. and the December 19 PalmBeach edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Palm Beach

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An exciting account of an astounding engineering achievement

“Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles,” by Les Standiford. Ecco. 336 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

WaterAngelshccCan statistics be exciting? In the case of Les Standiford’s energetic presentation of this enormous undertaking, the quantitative facts are essential and astounding. The goal was simple: to find a way for a small desert town to flourish. The lack of an adequate water supply circumscribed that possibility. William Mulholland had the vision, a vision many doubted and quite a few mocked.



He designed an aqueduct system to bring copious amounts of fresh water from 223 miles away via the power of gravity. Through landscapes often beautiful, but remote and stubbornly resistant to conventional reshaping methods, crews working under Mulholland’s leadership reshaped the flow of rivers, built conduits above and below ground, and established a network of dams incrementally taking the water from higher to lower levels.

Before the aqueduct could be built, an infrastructure for transportation; electricity; and the housing, nourishment, and medical care for countless workers was needed. Much of this construction was through a mountainous region, and unique equipment had to be invented and fashioned to solve engineering problems never before faced.

William Mulholland, a self-taught Irish immigrant, was up to the task that took six years and cost $23 million dollars. How did the fellow find himself in the position to do this job? To what extent did his colossal, confident, and forthright personality predict the course and eventual outcome of this venture? These are among the questions that Les Standiford answers in a book that is at once biography, history, and science.

Such projects need to be sold. Where does the money come from? What vested interests have to be satisfied? What kind of water and property rights need to be obtained? Mr. Standiford clarifies the economic and political issues, which are also enormous in scale. Indeed, often these issues threatened to cripple the endeavor.

Such gigantic undertakings are a bet on the future. For Los Angelinos, the bet paid off big – if you think immensity is desirable. Fresh water became more plentiful and less expensive, making all kinds of expansion possible. Confidence in the future of Los Angeles brought plenty of investment capital. Transforming waterpower into electric power helped to sell and sustain the aqueduct system.

Though people in the northern communities affected by the aqueduct construction often complained about the project’s negative impact on their property values, it is likely that some of those communities gained substantial benefits. The project, and the enhanced water and electric power system, was and is an employer. Mr. Standiford provides a fine analysis of the pros and cons, sorting out the claims, the facts, and the rumors. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 1, 2015 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 2 Naples, and Bonita Springs editions, click here Florida Weekly – Water to the Angels

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Les Standiford depicts the grassroots firebrands who led the American colonies to revolution

Desperate Sons: Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and the Secret Bands of Radicals Who Led the Colonies to War, by Les Standiford.  Harper. 336 pages. $27.99.

Breathing new life into an already lively story, Les Standiford takes as his focus the self-style “Sons of Liberty” who helped energize colonial Americans to see their future as citizens of an independent nation rather than as subjects of England. In bringing us from the catalytic acts of perceived British (actually, Parliamentary) oppression to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Mr. Standiford underscores the contributions of a handful of determined individuals whose words and deeds pressed issues to the breaking point. They were unwilling to settle for expedient, short-lived, artificial bandages of conciliation. 

The author does a splendid job of building a sense of daily life in Colonial America during the 1760s and early 1770s. Without being showy about it, this Florida International University creative writing professor immerses his readers in the texture of life: its tastes and smells, its architecture and technology, its economic and physical realities. Charleston, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Providence come alive with the urgent concerns of tradesmen, laborers, landowners, militiamen, and politicians.

What affects the growing minority of discontents is, of course British oppression in the form of parliamentary actions intended to refill England’s depleted coffers at the expense of the “thankless” colonists. The Stamp Act, essentially a tax on transactions, sets the angry, loquacious, and not particularly likeable Samuel Adams into motion as a rabble-rousing force whose speeches and scribbles assault the audacity of British lawmakers, fomenting resistance and refusal to comply.

Les Standiford by Marla Cohen

Mr. Standiford’s narrative has a pulse. He details the repeated pattern of proposed legislation, threats of resistance, completed legislation, noncompliance, threats of enforcement, and ebbs and flows of brinksmanship in a series of sturdy chapters clearly demarking stages on the road to war. . . .

To read this review in its entirely, as published in the December 5, 2012 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 6 Naples, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, and Bonita Springs editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Standiford’s “Desperate Sons”

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The missing child case that revolutionized law enforcement

“Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America,” by Les Standiford with Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews. Ecco. 304 pages. $24.95.

Les Standiford’s career has taken a fascinating turn. Once best-known for his popular genre novels, notably the John Deal mystery series, he has now become a first-rate fashioner of suspenseful and informative nonfiction narratives.  Some of these books, like “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (about Charles Dickens) and “Washington Burning” (about Pierre L’Enfant and the founding of Washington, DC), re-imagine important historical figures and their times. Others, like the already-classic “Last Train to Paradise” (about Henry Flagler’s railroad fantasy) and the present title, explore more recent, Florida-based historical materials, investing them with the urgency, cultural insight, and telling detail of the best fiction. 

“Bringing Adam Home” is less about the crime that took the life of TV host John Walsh’s son and Walsh’s achievements through the “America’s Most Wanted” series than it is about an endlessly bungled investigation. Though Mr. Standiford attends to how John Walsh and his wife Revé turned their grief into transforming the ways in which crimes against children are handled, his gripping, central story is about the combination of laziness, arrogance, and unprofessional police work that left a readily solvable crime unsolved for decades. It is also about serial killer Ottis Toole, who committed the crime, confessed to it over and over again, and yet escaped responsible detection until after his death.

Here’s where Joe Matthews comes in.

Early on, soon after Adam Walsh’s disappearance from a shopping mall Sears store, Joe Matthews was borrowed from the Miami Beach police to help the Hollywood, Florida police department with this case. He had the expertise and experience to make a difference.  However, Detective Hoffman, in charge of the case, seemed reluctant to make full use of Matthews’ talents and suggestions. Hoffman pursued the fruitless investigation of his favorite suspect and wouldn’t take seriously any ideas that pointed elsewhere. The case Hoffman attempted to make went nowhere. . . .

Les Standiford (photo by Marla Cohen)

To read the entire review as it appears in the April 27, 2011 issue of  Fort Myers Florida Weekly and April 28 issue of the Naples edition, click here:  Florida Weekly – Les Standiford.

pdf version: Standiford pdf-1 and Standiford pdf-2

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