Three Families Are the Base of ‘The Washington Century’
Driving east on K Street, Burt Solomon did not see the “hard, cold cubes” that now line the road. Instead he saw a boulevard of gracious mansions — and that’s when he knew he was on the right track.
“I knew I was getting somewhere when I could see the city that used to be here before the current city that got built,” Solomon said, as he discussed his latest book, “The Washington Century: Three Families and the Shaping of the Nation’s Capital,” which hit shelves Nov. 9.
The 401-page book, complete with a 16-page photo spread in the middle, examines how the nation’s capital evolved into “this strange place we love to hate” through the stories of three families that have had multigenerational influences in Washington.
It took Solomon about a year to choose the Boggs, Cafritz and Hobson families and to get their cooperation. Once he had it, he got his information from sorting through archives, old newspaper clippings, audio tapes, textbooks and maps. An enormous amount of his information also came from the handful of interviews with surviving family members and others connected with the families, he said.
However, in Solomon’s eyes, the families are used to support the “major character” in his book — the city itself.
“Washington is a pretty complicated place,” Solomon said about his “adopted hometown” — he’s lived in the District since 1977. “One of the criteria I had for choosing the families, they had to have a foot in both the local and political Washington. To me, that made it a lot more interesting.”
Interest was a driving force behind the publication of this book. Solomon, who said he was never interested in history while in school because “everyone you read about is dead,” has now come to realize it’s the only way he can understand things.
“The history grabbed me in ways I didn’t expect, it was really powerful,” Solomon said, in reference to his previous book, “Where They Ain’t,” which examines the history of baseball in the 1890s. “In order to understand what we see around us, we’ve really got to figure out how we got here. And it really does help you understand, it gives you a sense of dynamics that is useful in being predictive.”
To help readers grasp what events were happening when, Solomon’s latest work chronicles the lives of the three families and the progression of the nation’s capital by separating the chapters by presidential terms, from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. Tying together the stories of each family from generation to generation at first seemed daunting, as Solomon wanted the three stories to come together as one.
“I was really conscious of this at the start,” he said. “I didn’t want them to feel separated from one another. This is a strange city and there are sort of parallel universes here.”
However, to Solomon’s delight and surprise, he found the stories of the families actually did match up. He said at times one passage with one family ends, and the next passage picks up on the same point and propels the story further.
Although the families Solomon profiles are quite different, they all had a hand in molding Washington into what it is today.
Hale Boggs was a Democratic Congressman from Louisiana who died in a plane crash, leaving his wife, Lindy, behind with their two children, Tommy and Cokie. Tommy Boggs is a Washington lobbyist, and Cokie Roberts is a member of the Washington press corps.
Morris Cafritz was a real-estate developer who influenced much of the downtown area along K Street. His wife, Gwen, became quite the socialite, hosting elaborate parties that brought together the political forces of the city.
Julius Hobson Sr. was a leading black activist and served on the District’s first elected city council. His son, Julius Hobson Jr., worked for former Mayor Marion Barry and became a top lobbyist at the American Medical Association.
Solomon’s choice of families and their stories move the reader through the immense amount of history effortlessly. The reader unearths the backgrounds — the good and the bad — of the Boggs, Cafritz and Hobson families in addition to absorbing interesting, quirky facts about how the District came to be.
One of Solomon’s favorite facts in the book is in the Lyndon Johnson chapter, and the passage is just one of many examples of how he wrote the book wanting “you to feel like you were there.”
He strove to give readers a tactile sense of how things were years ago. In doing so he tells of a “sweltering August morning in 1964” when a horde of “drivers who kept the air-conditioning turned on” gathered for the ribbon cutting for the final 25 miles of the Capital Beltway, which is described by the Federal Highway administrator as “a huge wedding ring for the metropolitan area, uniting all of its suburbs.” Once the ribbon was cut, the crowd all tried to leave at once, which resulted in the Beltway’s first traffic jam.
“It’s not dry and expository,” Solomon said of his historical tome. “You can really get a sense of what it was like to live at various times and places in the city.”
Solomon’s editor had him write an epilogue to “explain what the hell the story was about, explicitly.” He notes that it was Phil Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post, who called the District a “sleepy southern town,” and Lindy Boggs many years later agreed it was that way when she arrived, but “now it’s a transient metropolis.”
As Solomon neatly wraps up the generational and historical stories of the book, he claims “the capital lost much of whatever local character it had.” He said Washington is not as interesting as Boston or Baltimore because “there is a whole lot less localness to it — in that way it’s kind of boring.” But, as he states at the end of the book, “As the twenty-first century arrived, Washington was no longer sleepy or southern. It had become a compendium of the American character, the nation’s true capital.”
Solomon will be promoting his book at 6 p.m. Nov. 20 at Politics and Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington and as the November pick for the Washingtonian magazine Book Club at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 23 at Barnes & Noble Bookseller in Bethesda. These appearances will give Solomon a chance to meet with one of the two audiences the book primarily is written for — the local audience.
“It’s for people around here who are interested in their city and how this odd city got to be the way it is and attracted the people it’s attracted,” Solomon said. “I’m hoping there is a national market, too. People are interested in Washington, I think, or at least interested in what happens here.”