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Chapter one: the Colt Boys 1 Chapter two: Good Brother, Bad Brother: edwin and John Wilkes Booth 24 Chapter three: the Fallout shelter 83 Chapter Four: Brother Against Brother: John and Will Kellogg Chapter Five: Baseball 167 Chapter six: Brothers Keeper: Vincent and theo van Gogh Chapter seven: Under the Influence 257 191 107


Chapter eight: Brothers, Inc.: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo Marx 275 Chapter Nine: Aerogrammes 327 Chapter ten: the Lost Brother: John and Henry David thoreau Chapter eleven: the Colt Men 394 Acknowledgments 421 selected Bibliography 425 Index 447 352

Chapter six

Brothers Keeper: Vincent and theo van Gogh

ne morning in early March of 1886, Theo van Gogh, the twentyeight-year-old manager of the Montmartre branch of Boussod, Valadon & Co., a leading European art dealership, received a note written in black crayon:
My dear Theo, Dont be angry with me for arriving out of the blue. Ive given it so much thought and Im sure well gain time this way. Shall be at the Louvre from midday onwards, or earlier if you like. Please let me know what time you can get to the Salle Carre. As far as expenses are concerned, I repeat that it wont make much difference. I still have some money left, of course, and I want to talk to you before spending any of it. Well sort everything out, youll see. So come as soon as you can. I shake your hand. Ever yours, Vincent

Theo must have read the hastily scrawled message with apprehension. Each sentence in the seemingly innocuous note had a subtext. Dont be


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angry with me for arriving out of the blue. Ever since 1880, when Vincent had given up work as an evangelist to become an artist, Theo had periodically suggested that his brother come to Paris, the epicenter of the art world, but Vincent had insisted that he wasnt ready. He had spent most of that time in remote corners of Holland and Belgium, drawing and painting peasants, coal miners, birds nests, and potatoes. During the last year, however, Vincent had started pestering Theo for the go-ahead; now it was Theo who had been putting Vincent off. Although he was devoted to Vincent, Theo realized that he wasnt quite ready to have his irascible older brother in the same city, much less in the same cramped apartment. It was hard enough getting along with him at a distance. Theo wanted Vincent to wait, at least until June, when he could rent larger quarters. But Vincent was unwilling to postpone his move any longer. Being in Paris, he told Theo, would accelerate his education and give him a better chance of selling his work. Im sure well gain time this way. And so Vincent had taken the night train from Antwerp, where he had spent the last three months, to Paris. As far as expenses are concerned, I repeat that it wont make much difference. For six years, Theo had been his brothers sole support, sending him more than a quarter of his modest salary each month. Theo could ill afford the moneyhe also supported his widowed mother and two of his sistersbut he knew his brother had nowhere else to turn. Over the years, Vincent had burned his bridges with teachers, friends, and family everyone except Theo. I still have some money left, of course, and I want to talk to you before spending any of it. Vincent, who felt a corrosive shame at being a financial burden to his brother, was attempting to impress Theo with his thriftiness. What he neglected to tell Theo was that he had the money only because he had left Antwerp without paying his bills. Well sort everything out, youll see. Vincent was trying to reassure his younger brotherand perhaps himself, as well. Both brothers suffered from depression, a condition Vincent was convinced ran in the Van Gogh family. But Vincent, despite a life of grinding poverty, had an optimistic, idealistic, almost childlike outlook. Practical, cautious Theo was less hopeful. He was a shy man, eager to please and willing to make accommodations, but his relationship with Vincent had been conducted largely



by mail. They hadnt spent more than a weekend or a Christmas vacation in the same house since childhood, and at one point had gone over a year without seeing each other. Theo knew from his parents, with whom Vincent moved in from time to time to save money, how impossible Vincent was to live with. He worried that his quiet, well-ordered lifelong days at work, evenings of billiards and conversation at the Holland Club would be turned upside down. But he knew he had no choice. Theo was his brothers keeper, but no one could keep Vincent; as a former classmate put it, He did not know what submission was. In the end, it was always Vincent who acted and Theo who sorted everything out. Yet even Theo could not have guessed how difficult the upcoming months would be. Long after both men were dead, Theos widow would observe, of all that Theo did for his brother, there was perhaps nothing that entailed a greater sacrifice than his having endured living with him for two years. And yet if Theo had not met Vincent in the Salle Carre, if he had not put him upand put up with himin Paris, there would have been no Arles, no Sunflowers, no Starry Night. * * *

It seems ironic that we owe the phrase brothers keeper to an incident in which someone refused responsibility for his brother. Yet ever since Cain, when asked the whereabouts of the murdered Abel, cried out Am I my brothers keeper? the phrase has been shorthand for the assumption that we have a fraternal duty to look after our siblings. That duty may last a lifetime, as it would for Theo van Gogh. It may consist of rising to the occasion during a time of need: John Keats nursing his tubercular younger brother Tom until Toms death (and, in the process, likely catching the disease that would kill the poet himself three years later); Mathieu Dreyfus petitioning officials, hiring private detectives, and consulting clairvoyants for five years until his younger brother, Alfred, a French army captain falsely convicted of treason, was pardoned; Michael Marrocco leaving his home and job in New York City to live at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington with his younger brother, Brendan, a twentytwo-year-old infantryman who had lost his arms and legs to a roadside


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bomb in Iraq in 2009. It may be a short-term intervention: twenty-threeyear-old Ronald Herrick donating a kidney to his dying twin, Richard, in the first successful organ transplant, in 1954. It may be a spur-of-themoment decision: Hector stepping in for feckless Paris to fight Achilles (the classical version of the older brother fighting the playground bully on a younger brothers behalf ); the future naturalist John Muir seeing a man stick a needle into his infant brothers arm and, never having heard of vaccinations, biting the doctor on his arm. It may consist of a simple act of kindness. When Booker T. Washington, born into slavery on a Virginia plantation, was a child, his clothing was made from flax, a coarse material that chafed his skin raw. As he recalled in his autobiography:
I can scarcely imagine any torture, except, perhaps, the pulling of a tooth, that is equal to that caused by putting on a new flax shirt for the first time. It is almost equal to the feeling that one would experience if he had a dozen or more chestnut burrs, or a hundred small pin-points, in contact with his flesh. Even to this day I can recall accurately the tortures that I underwent when putting on one of these garments. . . . In connection with the flax shirt, my brother John, who is several years older than I am, performed one of the most generous acts that I ever heard of one slave relative doing for another. On several occasions when I was being forced to wear a new flax shirt, he generously agreed to put it on in my stead and wear it for several days, till it was broken in.

Theo hadnt always been Vincents keeper. Growing up, it had been Vincent who, in his own quixotic fashion, looked out for his younger brother. That the balance of their relationship would change was, in some measure, due to a third brother neither of them ever met. On March 30, 1852, Anna van Gogh, a ministers wife in the village of Zundert in the southern Netherlands, gave birth to a stillborn child, a son named Vincent Willem. The parents, who had married late in life, were still mourning the loss when, a year later to the day, a second son



was born. They gave him his older brothers name. The second Vincent spent his early years in a house in which his mother was preoccupied with her grief, his father with his congregation. Each Sunday when the boy went to church, he saw his own name on his brothers gravestone. Years afterward Vincent remembered his childhood as gloomy and cold and sterile, and went on to observe, The germinating seed must not be exposed to a frosty windthat was the case with me in the beginning. But if Vincent would accuse his parents of pushing him away with their rigidity, his parents would accuse Vincent of pushing them away with his erratic behavior. Vincent was an unusually silent, serious child who preferred to be alone, reading books and collecting beetles he pinned in a box lined with white paper and neatly labeled with their Dutch and Latin names. He liked to draw flowers and animals, but disliked the attention his efforts brought him. When he was eight he destroyed a small clay elephant hed sculpted because his parents made such a fuss over it. When his mother praised his drawing of a cat climbing an apple tree, he ripped it up. There was something strange about him, recalled a maid who worked for the Van Goghs. He did not seem like a child and was different from the others. Besides, he had queer manners and was often punished. Theodorus and Anna van Gogh had high expectations of their six children, particularly of their eldest, but the more they tried to steer their son, the more resistant he became. Worried that the rough-edged village children were a bad influence, they sent eleven-year-old Vincent to boarding school nineteen miles away. On visits home, he took long solitary walks across the marshy flats and pine forests outside Zundert, collecting fallen birds nests, strengthening tree-bound nests he thought might not survive a storm. It would be the paradox of Vincents life that he longed for family, for friendship, for community, but was temperamentally unable to get along with people. Born four years after Vincent, Theo gave Vincent a second chance at brotherhood. Living in the shadow of the brother who died, Vincent would forge a lifelong bond with the brother who lived. (A fourth brother, born ten years after Theo, was so much younger that he grew up, in essence, as an only child.) They made an unusual pair. Theo had the blond hair and delicate features of the father for whom he had been named, while Vin-


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cent had his mothers copper hair, sturdy build, and homely face. Vincent was a broad-shouldered fellow of great strength and energy; Theo was slender, frail, and frequently ill. Both boys were unusually sensitive, but Vincent could be brusque and quick-tempered, while Theo was always unassuming and agreeable. Their sister Lies noted that Theo had inherited his fathers warm-heartedness; their sister Anna believed he had been a friendly soul from birth. Perhaps in part to compensate for Vincents obstinacy, Theo rarely gave his parents cause for worry. Pastor van Gogh liked to compare his two elder sons to Jacob and Esau. There was never any doubt which he considered the rough, uncouth Esau, and which the practical, presentable Jacob. Unlike the biblical brothers, Vincent and Theo got along well. Theo, alone in the family, enjoyed Vincents company. In later life, his sisters recalled young Vincent as prickly, teasing, and aloof; Theo remembered him as imaginative and clever. Vincent built sandcastles with Theo, took him fishing and ice skating, taught him how to shoot marbles, invented games for him to play, and talked with him into the night in the attic room they shared. His sisters learned to give Vincent a wide berth, but from the beginning, Theo worshiped his older brother. I adored him more than anything imaginable, Theo recalled. Years later, when Vincent would quarrel bitterly with his father and look back on his early years with resentment, his letters to Theo cited fond memories of their shared childhood: the walks they took, the starlings that perched on the church, the look of the clouds in the blue sky, the road lined with beech trees. Toward the end of his life, when he lay in a hospital in Arles after cutting off part of his ear, and Theo laid his head in sorrow on the pillow beside him, Vincent, recalling the days when they had shared a bed, would whisper: Just like Zundert. When Vincent was sixteen, his godfather, Uncle Cent, a well-known art dealer, secured him a job as an apprentice clerk in The Hague with his firm, Goupil. Vincent was a tireless worker who was fascinated by the lithographs and etchings he spent his days packing and unpacking. His parents were heartened when they received a letter from Vincents boss,



telling them that everyone at the gallery liked dealing with Vincent and that he had a bright future in the profession. In August 1872, fifteenyear-old Theo spent two days with his brother in The Hague. One afternoon, they strolled out of town along a canal path to the mill at Rijswijk. There, over glasses of milk, they promised that no matter what happened, they would stand by each other for the rest of their lives. It was a day both brothers would long remember, and at times of strain in their relationship, each found reason to remind the other of it. A year later, Vincent sent Theo a reproduction of Jan Weissenbruchs painting of the mill, writing, That Rijswijk road holds memories for me which are perhaps the most beautiful I have. It seemed inevitable that Theo would follow his older brother into the art business. On January 1, 1873, several months after their walk to the Rijswijk mill, Theo began work in the Brussels branch of Goupil. I am so glad that we shall both be in the same profession and in the same firm, wrote Vincent from The Hague. We must be sure to write to each other regularly. They did. None of Theos letters to Vincent from those early years have survived (though Theo carefully saved his brothers correspondence, Vincent rarely saved Theos), but Vincents letters give a heady sense of two young men from the provinces sharing their excitement at their expanding worldsthe epistolary equivalent of wide-eyed college freshmen staying up all night to discuss lifes eternal questions. Vincent played the role of mentor, shaping the tastes of his eager acolyte. Here are the names of a few painters I particularly like, he wrote. Scheffer, Delaroche, Hbert, Hamon . . . (A few, to the enthusiastic Vincent, turned out to mean sixty-one.) Vincents reading lists for Theo were only slightly less extensive: Balzac, Hugo, Dickens, Michelet, Zola, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, among dozens of others. (With the money I gave you, you must buy Alphonse Karrs Voyage autour de mon jardin. Be sure to do thatI want you to read it.) Vincent copied out verses by his favorite Romantic poets; passed along quotations from thinkers he admired; and sent art prints, some of them duplicates of ones he owned so that he and his brother, a hundred miles apart, could gaze at the same pictures on


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their bedroom walls. He gave Theo encouragement and advice. Indeed, there seemed to be no subject on which the elder brother did not counsel the younger: what to do (Try to take as many walks as you can and keep your love of nature, for that is the true way to learn to understand art); what to feel (Admire as much as you can, most people dont admire enough); how to act (be as patient and kind as you can); how to lift ones spirits (I strongly advise you to smoke a pipe; it is a good remedy for the blues); and how to deal with the opposite sex, a subject about which the advisor himself was clueless but opinionated (you are quite right about those priggish girls . . . but watch your heart, boy). Theo soaked up his brothers counsel; he took long walks, he read Michelet, he smoked a pipe. Their relationship began to shift with an incident that, like a fault line, would expose deeper rifts in Vincents equilibrium. In 1873, after four years in The Hague, Vincent had been promoted to a position at Goupils London gallery. (Theo sent him a wreath of oak leaves hed gathered from the heath near the parsonage to remind Vincent of home.) For almost a year, Vincent nursed a secret infatuation for his landladys daughter. One afternoon, finding himself alone with her, the awkward twenty-oneyear-old declared his love. The shocked young woman told him she was secretly engaged. With characteristic persistence, Vincent hounded the girl, urging her to break off her engagement, to no avail. He came home that summer almost catatonic with depression. Hoping a change of scene might lift his godsons spirits, Uncle Cent arranged for Vincent to work in Goupils main office in Paris. (Vincent unsuccessfully petitioned his uncle to transfer Theo there to keep him company.) But Vincent was no less morose. At work he argued with his employers and insulted his customers. If a client wanted to buy a painting Vincent considered inferior, he tried to steer him toward work he considered worthy; if a client chose to disregard his advice, Vincent couldnt hide his disgust. When his superiors complained about his sales technique, Vincent insisted he couldnt keep quiet when a customer showed poor tastedidnt they want him to tell the truth? Not surprisingly, two days after his twenty-third birthday, seven years after he first came to Goupil, Vincent was asked to leave the company.



Vincents intensity had found a new focus. In his letters to Theo, reports on museums were replaced by reports on church services; critiques of paintings by critiques of scripture; swatches of romantic poetry by lyrics to hymns; quotes from Zola and Michelet by quotes from the Old Testament and The Pilgrims Progress. In October 1876, after preaching for the first time, Vincent copied out the entire sermon and sent it to his brother. Any gratification his parents felt when their son turned to religion curdled as Vincent, who never did anything halfway, became increasingly fanatic. He fell asleep each night reading the Bible, he attended as many as seven services each Sunday. One Sunday he threw his monogrammed silver watch into the collection plate, another Sunday his glovesthe initial symptoms of an obsession with sacrifice and suffering that would end with him wearing rags. His advice to Theo turned rigidly pious: go to church as often as possible; learn to distinguish between good and evil; eat only plain food; throw out every book but the Bible. Do not be afraid to sing a hymn in the evening when you are out for a walk and nobody is about, he urged, a suggestion his self-conscious brother was unlikely to follow. It was a measure of Theos growing confidence that he didnt succumb to his brothers proselytizing; as he watched his brother slip into zealotry, Theo became less enamored of organized religion and eventually renounced the church. Confused, lonely, and consumed by religious fervor, Vincent bounced from job to job: boarding-school teacher (given the end-of-term task of collecting overdue tuition, Vincent couldnt bring himself to put the squeeze on impoverished families and was dismissed); lay preacher (like his father, he was an awkward speaker and was seldom invited to the pulpit); booksellers clerk (he spent much of his time translating the Bible into French, German, and English, or making what the bosss son described as silly pen-and-ink drawings); theological scholar (he quit less than a year into his studies, insisting one didnt need to know Latin and Greek to relieve human suffering); probationary evangelist (he was so obstinateasked whether a certain word was dative or accusative, he replied, I really dont care, sirthat after his three-month trial period, the mission-school elders refused to appoint him). In December 1878,


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the evangelical-school dropout went off to serve anyway, to preach the Gospel to the poor and to all those who needed it, as he put it, in the coal fields of Belgium. Vincents parents despaired. Proper Calvinists who had envisioned Vincent as a respectable country minister, they were embarrassed by their brooding, unpredictable son and did their best to keep news of his failures from their neighbors. Vincents sisters worried that their peculiar brother would ruin their chances for marriage. His religion makes him absolutely dull and unsociable, one of them wrote. Alone in the family, Theo still believed in his brother, telling his parents that Vincents quirks were marks of his special character, assuring them that Vincent would eventually find his way. Lies scoffed. You think that he is something more than an ordinary human being, she wrote Theo, but I think it would be much better if he thought himself just an ordinary being. When Theo was a child, his parents had urged him to follow in his older brothers footsteps. Now they were terrified that he might do so. But their conscientious younger son was succeeding in the very job at which Vincent had failed. Within eight months at Goupil, Theo had gone from filling orders in the stockroom to standing in for the manager when he was away on business; after only a year, the sixteen-year-old was given Vincents old salesmans position at the companys more prestigious branch in The Hague. Vincents troubles made it even more vital to his parents that Theo do well. Now the oldest has rocked the boat, we hope all the more that the second will steer a steady course, wrote Pastor van Gogh to Theo. The second, who wrote his parents regularly and sent money home to help pay for his sisters education, rarely disappointed: The crowning glory of our old age, his doting parents called him, our most prized possession. While Vincent was failing theology school, Theo was in Paris working for Goupil at the 1878 Exposition Universelle, where he sold a painting, listened to Edisons phonograph, and met the French president, who stopped by the Goupil booth and asked the young Dutchman a few questions. When, in a rare misstep, Theo took a mistress from an inferior social class (the kind of embarrassing behavior his parents had come to expect from Vincent), his parents pressured him into giving her up. You shall and must be our joy and honour! his father reminded him. We



cannot do without it. As if trying to expunge evidence of their elder sons failures, the van Gogh parents saved none of Vincents letters. They kept every one of Theos. Pastor van Gogh and his wife confided their worries about their neer-do-well elder son to his prematurely responsible younger brother. In October 1874, when they hadnt heard from Vincent in three weeks, they urged seventeen-year-old Theo to keep writing to him, hoping he would be a steadying influence, and asked him to report back on his brothers state of mind. Im afraid that something awful will happen, my dear Theo, wrote his father. I say this to you as your confidanteif you run across something that might be useful, let us know. I believe there must be some kind of illness, whether physical or mental. At times, Theo and his father sounded like anxious parents fretting over a recalcitrant teenager. In 1877, on the eve of Vincents departure for Amsterdam to study theology, Pastor van Gogh bought new clothes for his chronically disheveled son. We have improved his appearance a little bit with the help of the best tailor from Breda, he wrote to Theo, imploring him to perform another work of mercy and persuade Vincent to visit a clever hairdresser who might be able to tame his unruly orange mop. When Vincent dropped out of the seven-year theology program, his father helped him enroll in evangelical school. But he had little hope that things would improve. It grieves us so to see that he literally knows no joy of life, but always walks with bent head, whilst we did all in our power to bring him to an honorable position! he wrote Theo. It seems as if he deliberately chooses the most difficult path. Theo found himself in the position of intermediary between the parents he revered and the brother he adored, trying to explain each to the other. His aging parents increasingly relied on him to look after the son to whom they referred as the lost sheep. Unbeknown to Vincent, Theo began sending sixty francs a month to his parents for them to pass along to his brother. A few years later, when Vincent was considering where to live, his father wrote: Just write to Theo, and arrange with him what is best, and what will be the cheapest way. As Vincent became ever more estranged from his parents, he became ever more dependent on Theo. Eventually, Theo was Vincents link to the family he yearned to connect

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with but with which he couldnt stop quarreling. It was in letters and visits with Theo that Vincent kept the idea of home, family, and childhood alive. Each time he movedand in his brief adulthood he would move more than two dozen timesVincent never failed to describe his lodgings to Theo: the view from the window, the postcards (many of them supplied by Theo) he had nailed on the walls. It was as if by describing his rented room to his brother, he might make it a home. Vincent treasured the rare times Theo could get off work long enough to visit him in his far-flung retreats, when theyd take long walks and talk about art and family. As soon as Theo left, Vincent would write him a letter, picking up the thread of their conversation. What a pleasant day we spent in Amsterdam, he wrote after one 1877 visit. I stood watching your train until it was out of sight. We are such old friends already. Theos visits buoyed Vincent as he resumed his solitary life. I still keep thinking of the day you came to Brussels and of our visit to the museum, he wrote in 1878. And I often wish you were a bit nearer and that we could be together more often. Do reply soon. * * *

Theo van Gogh was part of a long tradition of brothers stepping in for ailing or absent parents. In 1695, after his mother and father died within a year of each other, twenty-three-year-old Johann Christoph Bach took in his thirteen-year-old brother, Johann Jacob, and his nine-year-old brother, Johann Sebastian. Although his modest income as church organist was hardly enough to provide for his own children, Cristoph not only fed and clothed his younger brothers, but taught Johann Sebastian to play the clavier and introduced him to the works of Pachelbel, under whom Cristoph had studied, and other great composers of the day. He would look after Johann Sebastian until the musical prodigy went away to school shortly before his fourteenth birthday. Nearly a century later, sixteen-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven, the eldest of three brothers, traveled to Vienna in hopes of studying with Mozart. In March 1787, two weeks after he arrived, Beethoven learned that his mother was ill with consumption. He rushed home to Bonn, but his mother died not long thereafter, pushing



his father deeper into alcoholism. The adolescent Beethoven spent the next five years at home, taking care of his two younger brothers, helping pay for their upkeep by playing viola in the court orchestra. He would be twenty-one before he was able to get away again; by then, Mozart was dead. Sydney Chaplin spent much of his childhood in late-Victorian London looking after his half-brother, Charlie, as they were shuttled through workhouses and charity institutions while their mother was intermittently confined to mental asylums. Years later, he would serve as Charlies business manager. It has always been my unfortunate predicament or should I say fortunate predicament? to concern myself with your protection, wrote Sydney. This is the result of my fraternal or rather paternal instinct. In 1942, instructed by his dying father to make sure his frail, artistic younger brother went to college, John Warhola, a machine shop worker, not only helped pay Andys way through the Carnegie Institute, but after his brother left for New York City and became Andy Warhol, he called him every Sunday until the artists death in 1987. In 1992, following the deaths of his parents within several months of each other, twentyone-year-old college student Dave Eggers assumed responsibility for his eight-year-old brother (cooking his meals, taking him to Little League practice, attending parent-teacher conferences), an experience he would recount in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Sometimes a brother must protect a sibling from a parent. When the author Richard Rhodes was ten, his widowed father married a disturbed, sadistic woman who all but starved Richard and his brother, Stanley; permitted them to bathe only once a month; and beat them with belt buckles, broom handles, and stiletto heels, among other weapons. Their cowed father didnt intervene, but twelve-year-old, eighty-pound Stanley protected his younger brother as well as he could: scouring trash cans at drive-ins for half-eaten hamburgers, comforting him after beatings, standing up to their tormentor. When Richard, forbidden to use the bathroom at night, resorted to surreptitiously peeing into a bottle, Stanley smuggled the brimming vessel past their sleeping stepmother to the bathroom each morning and poured its contents into the toilet, muffling the splash with the sound of his own urination. After two years of escalating


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abuse, Stanley, worried that their stepmother might kill one or both of them, persuaded the police to place the brothers in a boys home. Stanley saved us, wrote Rhodes in A Hole in the World, his account of the ordeal. The roles of keeper and kept are not fixed. Following Emancipation in 1863, John Washington, breaker-in of Bookers flax shirts, worked in a coal mine so that his younger brother could attend the Hampton Institute. When Booker graduated, he returned the favor, teaching school to help pay for John to study at Hampton himself. (Years later, as president of the Tuskegee Institute, Booker would employ his brother as superintendent of industries.) In 1968, Chuck Hagel, the future Nebraska senator, and his younger brother, Tom, were on patrol in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War when someone in their unit stumbled on a trip wire, setting off mines the enemy had hung in the trees. Seeing that Chuck was bleeding profusely from his chest, Tom, who had taken shrapnel in the arms and shoulders, tore open his brothers shirt and bandaged the wound, saving his life. Less than a month later, the Hagels armored personnel carrier hit a land mine, triggering a barrage of Vietcong machine-gun fire. Badly burned from the initial blast but knowing the ammunition-laden vehicle would soon ignite, Chuck dragged his unconscious brother from the APC just before it exploded. With a moody, alcoholic father, a doting but hypochondriacal mother, and a bright but unstable older brother who went off to sea, the young Walt Whitman was more parent than brother to his six younger siblings: teaching them how to spell, helping build a succession of family houses, and paying the lions share of the family expenses as soon as he was old enough to work. It was as if he had us in his charge . . . said his brother George. He was like usyet he was different from us, too. Whenever there was a family crisis (and there were many; the Whitmans were a prodigiously troubled brood, touched by alcoholism, insanity, prostitution, and early death), it was to Walt his siblings turned. And though he felt close to only one of themJeff, an engineer who shared his love of opera and long walks, was, he said, his one real brother and only understanderWalt was always willing to foot a bill or extricate someone from a jam. When Georges name appeared on the list of casualties after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Walt set out at once for the front,



searching camps and hospitals, undergoing the greatest suffering I ever experienced in my life, until he found his wounded brother. Two years later, when George was starving in a Confederate prison, it was Walt who pushed General Grant to negotiate the special prisoner exchange that freed him. That same year, when the eldest brother, Jesse, turned violent and threatened their mother with a chair, it was Walt who reluctantly had him committed to the Kings County Lunatic Asylum. And it was Walt who provided for Eddy, his epileptic, mentally disabled youngest brother, to whom he would leave the majority of his modest estate. But in 1873, when fifty-four-year-old Walt was crippled by a stroke and immobilized by depression after the death of his beloved mother, George took Walt and Eddy into his Camden home. A stolid, practical man who worked as an inspector in a pipe foundry, George didnt understand his poetry-writing brotherof Leaves of Grass, he commented, didnt think it worth readingfingered it a littleyet for eleven years he looked after Walt, who slept late, cared little for schedules, and could be, said George, stubborner . . . than a load of bricks. (One can only imagine what George thought when a long-haired, velvet-coated, foppish young man who announced himself as Oscar Wilde showed up at his door to pay homage to Walt.) George and his wife named their first child for Walt, who, after the infant died at eight months, visited his grave every few days. In 1884, when George and his wife moved to a farm, they built a room for Walt, but he preferred the city and stayed in Camden, where, despite a series of strokes, he managed the last eight years of his life on his own. Walt never lost his sense of responsibility for his dwindling family. As he would tell an interviewer, a year before he died, Tho always unmarried I have had six children. * * *

In the summer of 1879, Theo visited Vincent in the Borinage, the coalmining region of southwest Belgium where Vincent served as a combination preacher-cum-teacher-cum-social-worker-cum-nurse to the miners and their families. (To the shock of the miners wives, he even helped with the laundry.) In an area of abject poverty, Vincent was determined to be

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