DODReads with the US Naval Institute bring you an interview with 1st Lieutenant Laurence George Luckinbill on his book Teddy
July 1918. Preparing to speak to an eager audience, 61-year-old Teddy Roosevelt receives the telegram that all parents of children who serve in war fear most: His son Quentin’s plane has been shot down in a dogfight over France. His fate is unknown. Despite rising fear for his youngest son, Teddy takes the stage to speak to his beloved fellow citizens. It is, he says, “my simple duty.” But the speech evolves from politics and the war, into an examination of his life, the choices he’s made, and the costs of his “Warrior Philosophy.”
Overflowing with his love of nature, adventure, and justice, Teddy dramatically illustrates the life of one of America’s greatest presidents. His many accomplishments ranged from charging up San Juan Hill in Cuba as commander of the Rough Riders, to facing down U.S. corporate monopolies, to launching the Great White Fleet, building the Panama Canal, and the preservation of hundreds of millions of acres of natural American beauty. And finally, to the vigorous life at Sagamore Hill and his immense pride in a beloved and rambunctious family. Teddy reveals how even the greatest of men is still just a man, and how even the most modest man can grow to be great.
What is the back story behind TEDDY?
One of my many mentors was Harry Middleton, Director of the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas. After bringing me to the Library to perform LYNDON for Lady Bird Johnson and 1100 of her best friends, he asked me if I had a play on Teddy Roosevelt. I didn’t–but after researching I found a couple. I read them. Both were, in a word–awful–just lists of his accomplishments on a timeline. I told Harry I would write one. How long do I have? I asked. Until January, he said. It was September. Fool me, I took the challenge. I went to the library where I lived–connected to the New York City Public Library. Did you know librarians can save your life? In this case, they did–I drew out all of Teddy’s works, and as many newspaper accounts of his life and daring exploits, I could find. I kept all this stuff for about five months and they didn’t charge me for unreturned books when I brought them back! I read everything and re-read it. I now knew all about Teddy, but still had only a list of events. I had no play. A play is an action, Aristotle taught. And all action has motive–but a play–especially a one-man play, must have another reason to exist. WHY is this man standing on a stage and spilling his guts about his accomplishments? In a play, you must write the actions AND you must discover and write the reason why on this particular occasion, this person chooses to reveal the meaning of these actions–the emotional content–and the hope he or she may have of personal redemption or to change the lives of his or her hearers, or what other motives might be at work–coercion, for example, or, say, in Hamlet’s case, be under such enormous stress from his belief that his father was murdered by his uncle in collusion with his mother, that he sees the ghost of his father who exhorts him to revenge his death, and he talks to anyone he trusts to figure out why one has “to be,” and what humans are here for in this brief hour of life, and he speaks to himself in soliloquies as he works through this trauma, for which ultimately takes revenge upon his uncle and mother and dies for it.
For TEDDY, I didn’t find the “motor” as I call it, until, down to the absolute wire, back against the wall as the days and hours ticked by, I opened the last unread book on my cluttered table with post-its on hundreds of pages of history. It was by Corinne, Teddy’s younger sister, and it was full of treacly stories about growing up with “Teddy,” until I came across one paragraph where she described asking him to give a speech in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. for her husband who was running for state Republican office. He had said yes. Then the news came in the papers that Teddy and Edith’s youngest son, Quentin, had been shot down in aerial combat over France (late 1918) by a German air squadron and was feared (not yet known) to be dead. She told her brother that of course, he need not entrain to Saratoga (from his home in Oyster Bay, Long Island) to speak. The final news came to Teddy the day he had to leave–Quentin had not survived and had been buried “with full military honors,” in a grave in a now unreachable lonely place in France. Teddy told his sister he would come, “Corinne, it is my simple duty.” When I read this, the hairs on the back of my neck rose. Checking further, I saw that the speech he gave that night had been “black-boxed” on front pages of the newspapers of the world the day following the speech. In it, he had departed from his prepared speech and spoke with powerful emotion of “the boys we send overseas to fight for us and for democracy, and how they deserved–those who returned and those who didn’t–to come home to a better nation than the one they had left behind. He never mentioned his own son. He died five months later–alone– in his son’s small bedroom at Sagamore Hill, of “congestive heart failure.” After I dried the tears streaming down my face, I knew I had a motor for his speech that night. It was his memorial and commemoration of his son. He had died of a broken heart. I began to write TEDDY, finished in three weeks, rehearsed like a madman, and went to Austin to perform TEDDY for the first time.
Is there one story from the book you want to share?
Yes. See above. And know that I have played this play on stages across the country and in the world, and in every case, members of the audience have come back to say how they have been inspired by this story of a man and his love for his family and country.
How would this book benefit average folks?
Given the dire challenges to our country and democracy today, I would say this book reveals a man and president who believed in truth, justice, and the American Way. He. too, was an average man. And he was a powerful exponent of democracy–even though he came from a well-to-do family and attended an Ivy League university, he never forgot for an instant what he was taught as a child–and he learned even more from the rough and tumble and humble cowboys he lived within the Dakotas. He fought hard as president for equality for all, for immigrants, for the vote for women and all minorities, for science, which seeks to better mankind and help us to understand and repair the only earth we have to live in and to keep us safe physically. For honor and exemplary personal ethics. He was born a severely asthmatic child, but remade his body and therefore his mind at his father’s exhortation to save his own life. He believed in possibility. In compromise in government. He believed, as Lincoln did, that human rights were more important than property rights–but that capital must also be protected. He fought public corruption like a grizzly bear in all spheres and ways. He was a Progressive Republican–which meant at that time, a party whose platform was almost indistinguishable from The Democratic Party’s platform today! He told the corrupt Republican Party of his day that they “must return to being sane, constructive and radical!” He said, “If it does not, then I have no place in it!” The comparisons to today are strong and sobering. Teddy told the simple truth.
And not only this–the main thing that Teddy Roosevelt believed in–was Love. Love of family, love of knowledge, love of honor, love of country. We owe to Teddy the preservation of the public lands and the grand beauty of America which is all owned still today by us–the American public–we average citizens–all that which has not been despoiled by industry and careless citizens and politicians and all who don’t know the history or care to. We shall not see him like again–unless we, the people, can restore, through the study of the past and even the present, our history of Great Americans by whose humanist ideas and canny political skills we still have a Democracy and a small “d” democracy.
Is there anything you had to edit out that you wish could have been kept in?
Yes. A million adventures. A million episodes of fun and good humor that Teddy caused and was an enthusiastic part of. A million actions by the man of courage and simple humility.
What is the biggest takeaway you hope from the book?
All of the above. And I hope the play inspires a visit to Teddy and, if possible, to his lovely home in Long Island, N.Y. Sagamore Hill. The house IS Teddy.
What lessons can a junior officer take from Teddy?
Challenge corruption and undemocratic actions when you see them. In my own military experience do it carefully and with all the facts.
What advice do you have for a mid-career officer who is thinking of writing a book?
If the military is your life and career, write seriously about how the lives of soldiers can be improved. In my limited experience, I saw a lot of giving up to the system as opposed to the goal of the military which is to provide safety for our country and our democracy to flourish and be healthy. You must “write what you know,” as Hemingway learned the hard way and did, and said–but raise what you know to an inspirational level. It’s the simplest way to write, and the best way to improve life for your compatriots and for us who no longer serve directly, but want to help our armed forces to have better lives. Have faith. Everyone can write a good story. Even me.
What are you reading now?
Biographies of legislator John Lewis, and civil rights leaders and those who reported on the struggle for rights here, Doris Kearns Goodwin on Leadership. On the meeting of Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama to talk about human joy. Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen on how America has always had a propensity to give credence to con men and scoundrels across the board from religious fanatics to purveyors of get-rich-quick schemes and have-better-sex-lives and elixirs that cure everything–it’s funny and sad, and crazy and infuriating. It starts with the Puritans and follows us up to tomorrow!
I read, as I always have, everything printed, from six newspapers a day at one time, to the backs of cereal boxes at breakfast, to books on heroes and discoverers of all kinds and purposes, to dictionaries–even though I have Google and Wikipedia. If I can’t read, I am not alive. I want to know everything. And I want everyone else to know everything. Ask me the time, and I’ll give you the history of time, and spacetime and then I’ll go read up on thyme and spices and help you with that, too.
What would you recommend to a new Private or 2nd. lieutenant who wants to write about leadership?
TEDDY! Ha! And everything Doris Kerans Goodwin has ever or will ever, write. But I would say, hang out awhile. Learn more. I was a brash new 2nd Louie who thought he knew a lot–until I met the first sergeant who conducted my basic training.
What did I read that influenced my leadership thinking?
Doris Goodwin. And, I have to say, Thich Nhat Hanh on any subject: Anger, Humility, Fear…
What books have had the most impact on your development?
The Adventures Of Robin Hood. It made me think that being a hero was possible and far different than I thought it was. And the epistles of Saint Paul–especially 13 Corinthians. And Dante–The Divine Comedy.
Why reading is important for our military and the nation.
If we don’t read, we are blind men walking in a heavy fog in the dark on a cliffside over the ocean. “Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Seamus Heaney (and others). Reading–not watching movies or television–is the only possible way to lure your imagination to come out of its self-imposed retirement and go back to work to save your life, to inspire you to do better, to save your life, and to make you think you know something about life on the one hand, and on the other, to show you that you know nothing–but not that you never will! Through reading, I learned that life is short–but it seems long at the time. Through reading, I learned to be a decent officer because I learned how much I didn’t know and need to learn.
Writing a book is tough–what surprises did you have on your journey?
Keep on keepin’ on. Every day.
How did your leadership and ethical philosophy develop?
Pain and sorrow from my mistakes which hurt others–even when I was trying to do something better. I only found it had developed last Tuesday. And I’m 86.
What have you learned from failure?
No such word. Try again. And thank Spirit for the opportunity.
Ain’t I said enough? Oh, God bless you all. And God bless this country–we must make it a “more perfect union” or lose it to the tsunami of reaction to good democracy that is sweeping the nation and the world. And make brotherhood real–from sea to shining sea!!!
Laurence Luckinbill has achieved extraordinary success as a stage, film and television actor, as a writer, a teacher, and as the founder & producer of a non-profit NY theatre company. He served as a cultural affairs director for the U.S. Department of State during the Kennedy Administration, as a producer for network television, and for his own multi-media production company which produced two CD-ROM products: Lucy & Desi: The Scrapbooks, Volume I; and How to Save Your Family History: A 10-Step Guide by Lucie Arnaz. Luckinbill has written a series of interactive multimedia stories for digital CD-ROM entitled Adventures in Hyperhistory, with the aim of engaging audiences in history’s human stories through the use of original dramatic video scenarios with continuing characters, combined with a unique hypertext research engine.
Luckinbill wrote the Emmy-winning biographical story for the NBC TV special, Lucy & Desi: A Home Movie; a play with music, Mind on Trial, about the infamous Slansky trials in Czechoslovakia, which was produced at the Actor’s Studio Playwright’s Unit; and three of his four solo presentation plays, Clarence Darrow Tonight!, Teddy Tonight! about the life of President Theodore Roosevelt, and most recently, Hemingway, all of which he produced for the New York stage, for television and for DVD.
Currently, Luckinbill appears around the world in his one person portrayals of Lyndon Johnson, Clarence Darrow, Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway. He has had rave reviews nationwide for his powerful interpretations of these passionate Americans. He performed his plays at the 1997 inauguration Celebration in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of President Clinton.
Luckinbill, a native of Arkansas, resides in Weston, CT. He is married to actress/singer Lucie Arnaz and is the father of five – Nick, Ben, Simon, Joe and Kate.
United States Army Reserve (ret.) – 04048465 – Chemical Corps – Service: 1956-62 – Active Duty, 1956.