Cover image for The secret parts of fortune : three decades of intense investigations and edgy enthusiasms
The secret parts of fortune : three decades of intense investigations and edgy enthusiasms
Rosenbaum, Ron.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2000]

Physical Description:
xlii, 799 pages ; 25 cm
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E169.12 .R643 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In 1998, Ron Rosenbaum publishedExplaining Hitler, a national bestseller and one of the most acclaimed books of the year, hailed by Michiko Kakutani inThe New York Timesas "lucid and exciting . . . a provocative work of cultural history that is as compelling as it is thoughtful, as readable as it is smart."Timecalled it "brilliant . . . restlessly probing, deeply intelligent." The acclaim came as no surprise to those who have been reading Ron Rosenbaum's journalism, published widely in America's best magazines for three decades. The man known to readers of hisNew York Observercolumn as "The Edgy Enthusiast" has distinguished himself as a writer with extraordinary range, an ability to tell stories that are frequently philosophical, comical, and suspenseful all at once. In this classic collection of three decades of groundbreaking nonfiction, Rosenbaum takes readers on a wildly original tour of the American landscape, deep into "the secret parts" of the great mysteries, controversies, and enigmas of our time. These are intellectual adventure stories that reveal:  ¸  The occult rituals of Skull and Bones, the legendary Yale secret society that has produced spies, presidents, and wanna-bes, including George Bush and his son George W. (that's the author, with skull, on the cover, in front of the Skull and Bones crypt)  ¸  The Secrets of the Little Blue Box, the classic story of the birth of hacker culture  ¸  The Curse of the Dead Sea Scrolls; "The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal"; the underground realms of "unorthodox" cancer-cure clinics in Mexico; the mind of Kim Philby, "the spy of the century"; the unsolved murder of JFK's mistress; and the mysteries of "Long Island, Babylon"  ¸  Sharp, funny (sometimes hilarious) cultural critiques that range from Elvis to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Bill Gates to Oliver Stone, Thomas Pynchon to Mr. Whipple, J. D. Salinger to the Zagat Guide, Helen Vendler to Isaac Bashevis Singer  ¸  And a marriage proposal to Rosanne Cash Forcefully reported, brilliantly opinionated, and elegantly phrased, The Secret Parts of Fortune will endure as a vital record of American culture from 1970 to the present.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Rosenbaum has written on a variety of subjects, reflecting his own quirky, eclectic interests rather than the dictates of topicality set by what he calls the "publicity-industrial complex." This book is a collection of essays from 30 years of reporting and writing for magazines such as the New Yorker, Harper's, the New Republic, and Esquire, as well as Rosenbaum's "The Edgy Enthusiast" column in the New York Observer. Rosenbaum describes his style as "narrative nonfiction." He brings literature and journalism together with a talent for probing investigation, adroit observation, and clear and incisive writing. The essays are organized by decades; the subjects featured include alternative cancer cures, the Skull and Bones secret society, computer hacking, and Adolf Hitler and the concept of a master race. Rosenbaum offers a critical eye for the absurdities of U.S. culture, e.g., the ceaseless appetite for get-rich-quick schemes, the penchant for conspiracy theories, and the obsession with Elvis Presley. He also skewers individuals from Bill Gates to Oliver Stone. Utterly enjoyable. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

Rosenbaum's third collection of articles and essays (he's "The Edgy Enthusiast" columnist for the New York Observer) shows again that he is one of our most original writers of nonfiction. His two previous compilations made sense, respectively, of the 1970s and '80s; this much thicker volume collects a dozen or so pieces each from these decades, and adds 33 from the 1990s. Prefaced by a long anecdotal introductory essayDin which the journalist explains both his own history and the story behind the compiled articlesDthe book offers up consistently lively and thoughtful writing that combines investigative reporting, cultural context, humor, self-deprecation and erudition. A Yale graduate with a degree in English, Rosenbaum (Explaining Hitler) started contributing in the 1970s to such publications as Esquire, New York, Harper's and the Village Voice almost by accident; later, propelled by his interest in finding out what is hidden beneath the surface of things, more essays appeared in Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine. His pieces tackle the theories of conspiracy buffs (Rosenbaum aptly calls himself a "buff buff")Dfrom rumors about the real motivations of notorious double agent Kim Philby to the possible existence of Shakespeare's lost works. He also meditates on the link between Yale's Skull and Bones Society and the CIA; J.D. Salinger's walled-in house; the Zagat restaurant guide; Borges's efforts to disprove the existence of Time; and a score of other hidden aspects of American culture. Filled with literary allusions, ruminations on the motor of human history and a straightforward sensitivity, Rosenbaum's essays are gems of narrative nonfiction. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Rosenbaum (Explaining Hitler) has collected some previously published essays that span three decades of his accomplished career as a journalist and illustrate his wide-ranging interests. The sheer breadth of this volume, which covers topics such as politics, conspiracy theory, entertainment, crime, and literature, may overwhelm the casual reader, but Rosenbaum's thorough investigations and decisive voice make for an intriguing collection. In "Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Dead," for example, Rosenbaum critiques Dr. Elizabeth Kbler-Ross, leader of what he calls the "death-and-dying movement," arguing that Kbler-Ross and her followers are misguided: "Death has claimed another victim, the mind of Kbler-Ross." No matter what the subject of his scrutiny, Rosenbaum never fears making judgments, but he never rushes to them either; nor does he shy from examining how his subjects have affected him. His consideration of conspiracy theories surrounding both Watergate and the JFK assassination and his expos of hoax serial killer Henry Lee Lucas are journalism at its finest. Recommended for larger public and academic libraries, particularly those with journalism collections.DCheryl Van Til, Kent Dist. Lib., Comstock Park, MI (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Foreword by Errol Morris Ron Rosenbaum is one of the great masters of the metaphysical detective story, a nonfiction writer in the spirit of Borges, Nabokov, and Poe. Like Poe, he can take a tabloid story (the death of identical twin gynecologists, a motel suicide, a suicide doctor) and turn it into profound and nightmarish art. And like Dupin, Poe's alter ego, he is a supreme investigator. Yet he goes Dupin one better. Poe, after all, had to disguise himself as an all-knowing detective. In his investigation of historical enigmas, Ron lays his cards on the table--his doubts about the evidence, even his doubts about himself. He appears in his own stories often perplexed, sometimes bemused, occasionally even tortured by his own investigations. I have been reading Ron's stories for many years, but it wasn't until I saw his pieces assembled that a grand scheme, a master plan became evident. This is a collection in which the many parts are great, and the sum of the parts even greater. Here is a vision, an entire cosmology, or, if you prefer, an anticosmology. Because the central feature of Ron's grand scheme, his master plan, is to squash grand schemes and master plans, to defeat our natural human tendency to retreat into easy answers and bogus explanations. Many of these stories are skeptical examinations of our great need to create grand taxonomies, systems of classification that pretend to comprehensiveness. Take Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, whose effort to provide a definitive chronology of death results in a bizarre evasion of it. There is something immensely appealing about watching someone in combat with the world, wrestling with our attempts to understand the world, trying to talk the world into making sense of itself. Ron provides a clue to his attitude in his metaphor of the lost safe-deposit box, a metaphor for truth that exists but that may be beyond our grasp. These are not essays about the impossibility of knowledge, they're skeptical and hopeful. Borges cites a line from Chesterton: There is nothing more terrifying than a labyrinth without a center. Ron's labyrinth is a labyrinth of theories, evidence, interpretations, and misconceptions--but it has a center, if not some ultimate truth then a sliver of it, a standpoint from which one can at least decide what the untruths are. And so the reader should look for at least three Rons in these essays. * Ron, the connoisseur of irrationality and insanity, who savors the astonishing varieties of error for, as he calls it, that " frisson of strangeness" they offer. It is the Ron who manages to evoke that lost-in-the-funhouse feeling, of being odd man out on the psycho ward that is the world. * Ron, the detective in search of the "lost safe-deposit box," his search for the overlooked connection in the morass of possibilities that might provide an important clue as to what really happened or as to who we really are. (This is the Ron who identifies with those like Alan Bullock who are still wrestling with such knotty subjects as the enigma of evil and the vexing question, Do we know, can we be sure of, anything at all?) * Ron, the moralist, the guy who makes it absolutely clear that he has standards: that some things won't wash and he won't be toyed with. That we don't live in a world where everything goes, everything is acceptable, all options have equal weight--no, no, no. There is a scale of value that has to be applied. This has produced some of his most powerful and also extremely funny (and by funny, I mean often laugh-out-loud funny) work, something deeper than conventional journalism, an attempt to probe the madness behind the world. His subjects are ostensibly nonfiction, but his real subject is the fictions we project on the world and ourselves. And yet he is a no glib postmodernist. There is no hint of the claim that we should give up on truth and reality altogether, that we can't possibly hope to know anything about the world when our ability to judge, to perceive, to reason, are hopelessly colored by self-interest, wishful thinking, and self-deception. His work is a powerful attempt to find a way around this dilemma. It's an attempt to recover the world by compulsively examining and reexamining our misconceptions of it. I remember reading one of his Hitler essays and realizing, Oh my God, he's doing something extraordinary. He's up to something new and unique, chronicling the way people's interpretations of themselves (and others) shape and distort what they project on to history. This is not to say that history itself is subjective but to recognize the way it's often driven by subjectivity. And so, for Ron truth exists and must be sought after, even if it sometimes can't be known with certainty. There's a terrific moment in "Oswald's Ghost." It illustrates Ron's belief that you can get so lost in a labyrinth of detail you not only lose the forest for the trees, you lose the trees as well. It's when the Kierkegaard scholar-turned-private eye talks about the unreliability of evidence, the fact that some piece of the puzzle may forever be missing. Yet we continue to search for those elusive certainties knowing that the only place to start is us -- us , the whole mess: the evasions, the confusions, the misconceptions. Ron has made the point better than anybody else I can think of: The proper route to an understanding of the world is an examination of our errors about it. The great Rosenbaum line, the epigram I love more than any other, the one that repeats itself in my mind again and again, is the one about the underlying mechanism of illusion and belief in the world of unorthodox cancer cures. He's speculating about the way false hope derived from bad science nonetheless seems to work miracles for many of these people. He's worried that by exposing this mechanism, he's done something terribly wrong. He's given away the game. He's deprived them of the one thing that could provide a cure: hope. And then he decides he can't really kill it because, after all is said and done, " False hope springs eternal." Here is Ron in a nutshell. It is his version of Pandora's box: Is the hope at the bottom of the box a good thing or a bad thing? It is that admixture of principled hopefulness and intense skepticism that characterizes what he does. Quite simply, I love Ron's work. I believe it will last. I want everybody to read it. --Cambridge, Mass. January 2000 Excerpted from The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms by Ron Rosenbaum All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.