George Howe Colt




Date Reviewed:

January 19, 2013

rothers is a book about brothers. Half of the book is about George Colt and his three brothers (Harry, Ned and Mark). The other half of the book focuses on famous sets of brothers in history: John Wilkes Booth and his older brother Edwin, W.H. Kellog (of cornflakes fame) and his older brother John Harvey, the Marx brothers - Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo, Vincent van Gogh and his younger brother Theo, and Henry David Thoreau and his older brother John. Along the way other siblings are mentioned - the Wright brothers, the Kennedy's, the Rothschilds, Lehman brothers, and of course Cain and Abel. I found the personal chapters, where Colt wrote about his own family and his relationship with his three brothers, to be the most interesting part of the books - this is five star material. The other chapters on the other siblings wasn't as fascinating, I award three stars to that half of the book. Thus, Brothers rates an overall score of four stars, well worth reading.

George Colt was born the second of four boys, Harry was just a couple years older than him and Ned was just a couple years younger. Mark was born relatively late, and so did not directly compete with the three older boys. George tells of constant competition and fights between him and his brothers. The Colt brothers fight for parental attention, food, and success in the classroom and on the ball fields. Naturally Harry, being the oldest, excels at everything. So Ned and George will sometimes gang up on him. As they grow older, the boys all grow apart. While Harry goes to Harvard and ends up going to medical school to become a doctor, George seemingly spends most of his college years in a boozy stupor, trying to write poetry and impress women. Ned travels and has amazing adventures, while Mark, the youngest and sweetest turns out to have a hidden gambling problem. It surprised me that boys with such obvious advantages of wealth, brains and family ended up in therapy, struggling with addictions and repressed emotions. But aging mellows everyone, and the last chapters describe nothing but happy outcomes for everyone in his family.

I didn't know much about John Wilkes Booth before reading this book. I knew he was an actor who broke his leg jumping to the stage after shooting Lincoln, but I had never heard of his older brother Edwin, who was actually the more famous of the two brothers until the assassination. Both Edwin and John were famous as actors, but critics lauded Edwin as the better of the two. Indeed, Edwin Booth may have been the best actor in all of America in the middle of the 19th century. Although John was a southern sympathesizer, it is quite possible that his real motivation for killing Lincoln was to achieve greater fame than his more accomplished brother.

I was disappointed by the chapter on the Van Gogh's. Yes, this book is about the relationship between brothers, but there is almost no description of Vincent Van Gogh's paintings. Starry, Starry Night might have been mentioned once. Most of this chapter discusses how Vincent struggles with sanity and finances, while his long suffering younger brother Theo supports him with funds, art supplies and emotional support. Apparently Theo kept all 600+ letters that Vincent wrote to him, and it seems like Colt must have read each of those letters. This chapter has a lot of detail about Theo keeping Vincent going. I suppose Colt wants to talk about the relationship between the two brothers, but I would rather have read more about the actual painting.

The chapter on the Kellogs' brothers William and John Harvey is a long description of a contentious relationship that often devolved into protracted legal battles. John Harvey was the older brother, and for the first twenty years or so of his career, William obediently labored for him, even though John treated him poorly, underpaid him, and failed to appreciate his achievements. John ran a large spa where patrons could come for healing renewal of proper exercise, meditiation, and healthy eating. Working to develop a healthy food that was based upon corn and could be packaged in a cereal box, Will came up with the recipe for cornflakes. John was not interested, so Will struck out on his own, forming his own company and becoming hugely successful. The bitterness between the two rival brothers lasted for decades.

Groucho Marx was actually the middle brother. Chico was the eldest brother, followed by Harpo. But Chico was a womanizing compulsive gambler, and Harpo didn't have the same wit and drive as Groucho. The brothers acted like modern day rock stars - tempermental, tyrannical, impossibly disorganized, sleeping with every available women. On stage and on screen they acted as a team of comedians, but when the limelights were off they competed against each other. Indeed, even during the acts they sometimes interrupted their brothers skits, resulting in wild improvisations and comedic moments.

Henry David Thoreau's older brother John tied of tetanus at a young age (in his twenties). Henry and John had been inseperable, working and playing together. They owned and and taught at a small schoolhouse together. John's death was devastating to Henry, it seemed to have influenced him for the rest of his life.

I wish George Colt had given less exhaustive detail on the Kellogs and the Thoreau's and instead given more details on some of the other famous brothers. What Colt does tell us about the Mayos (of the Mayo Clinic), the Kaczynskis (of unabomber infamy), the Disneys, DiMaggios, Grimms (of Grimms Fairy Tales) and Frank and Jesse James is fascinating, and I would have liked to read more about them.