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Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York Paperback – September 4, 2012

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2012: Those living in New York City today may be surprised (or not!) to read about the state of their city in the 1890’s; overrun with prostitution, gambling, boot liquor and Tammany Hall, NYC was known as the “Island of Vice.” Enter the ever-ambitious Theodore Roosevelt, years before he became president, who stepped-in as the NYC Police Commissioner and made it his mission to clean up the city. Richard Zacks’ enthusiastic account of this period is a fun read—an adjective rarely used to describe history books. It would be difficult to invent a cast of characters as exuberant and flawed as those involved here, and Zacks brings them all to life with ease. He clearly enjoys the subject, elevating this well-researched book into something memorable. --Caley Anderson

A Look Inside Island of Vice

Thompson Street Bar Photo:
Jacob Riis called this Thompson Street joint “a downtown morgue.”
(Jacob Riis. Museum of City of New York [])
The Bowery Photo:
The Bowery, under the shadow of the elevated train tracks, bustled at night with colored lights and cane-swirling barkers in places such as the Lyceum Concert Garden. The joint then featured a minstrel show and cake walk.
(The New Metropolis by E. Idell Zeisloft (1899) p. 518.)
TR at desk Photo:
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), sworn in as police commissioner on May 6, 1895, soon decided to try to enforce every law on the books and every rule for police conduct. “New York has never been so shocked and surprised in all its two hundred and fifty years of existence,” commented one observer.
(Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library (560.22-001))

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


Praise for Island of Vice:

"Impeccably researched, excitingly told."
—E. L. Doctorow, award-winning author of Ragtime
"An engagingly vivid picture of the rise of Roosevelt, the birth of the reform movement, and the creation of 20th century America. Roosevelt comes alive with all of his blustery and belligerent passion, and so does New York City."
—Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of Steve Jobs
“A fascinating narrative history of Theodore Roosevelt's doomed struggle to put a lid on crime. . . . Penetrates beneath the bluster into the psychology of this strange, restless man.”
“As thrilling as the low dives and wanton women it describes. This is the real-life story of an American icon. . . . Zacks does a superb job as both a historian and a storyteller.”
—Kevin Baker, bestselling author of Paradise Alley

“Excellent . . . A fish-out-of-water comedy, in that it tells the story of what happens when one of the virtuous clubmen—a square, incorruptible, ‘law-and-order Republican’—is placed in charge of the New York Police Department.” 
The Wall Street Journal

“A cinematic saga about one of the reformer’s early battles: trying to clean up the city that definitely never sleeps. Zacks… tells a clear-eyed immorality tale with cameos by Stephen Crane, Lincoln Steffens, exotic dancer Little Egypt, plus a cast of locals who’d have pleased Damon Runyon.”
“Part of the pleasure of Richard Zacks’ Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York is in knowing how the story ends—that the stubborn, imperious young city official trying to reform Tammany-era New York would achieve greatness throughout his larger-than-life career.”
Christian Science Monitor
“From the opening pages of his rousing new book, Island of Vice, Richard Zacks plunges readers into the filth, debauchery and corruption of 1890s New York. When an ambitious young Theodore Roosevelt strides in to clean up the mess, the story, already brimming with incredible characters and jaw-dropping details, only gets better.”
—Candice Millard, bestselling author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic
“An irresistible force—young Theodore Roosevelt, the police commissioner, determined to wipe out vice—meets an immoveable object—the corrupt, pleasure-loving city of New York in the 1890s. And the result is: a whole lot of fun. What a marvelous time Richard Zacks must have had researching this story. The information is fascinating, the amazing tale moves with a headlong pace. I’m sure Island of Vice will be a best-seller, and it deserves to be.”
—Edward Rutherfurd, bestselling author of New York: The Novel 
“It’s been said that New York City politics were invented to scare young children. True, according to Richard Zacks whose riveting account lays bare the depravity and corruption of the Gilded Age—and the failed crusade of Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to stop it. A must-read for any student of Gotham.” 
—Teresa Carpenter, author of New York Diaries, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing
“Zacks probes this period of Roosevelt’s life with exhaustive details, drama, and intrigue. The 40 pages of bibliographic notes indicate the five years of research that went into this remarkable re-creation of fin-de-siècle New York. Writing with a prismatic, poetic slant, Zacks unveils a colorful portrait of a volcanic Roosevelt towering over the soul of the city.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Set in gas-lit 1890s Manhattan, Zacks’ depiction of virtue versus vice pits Theodore Roosevelt against a gallery of antagonists. . . . A fascinating story that Zacks relays with zest. His pungent vignettes of sinful establishments and the police who ‘protected’ them hang on the main plot of Roosevelt’s campaigns to dismiss bad cops and enforce long-dormant alcohol and prostitution laws, which often resulted in proceedings showcasing Roosevelt at his most combatively indignant. His research artfully attired in active prose, Zacks writes a winner for Roosevelt and NYC buffs.” —Booklist
“Zacks returns with a sharply focused look at Theodore Roosevelt’s brief tenure as a New York City police commissioner. . . . The author takes us inside fin-de-siècle brothels and bars, Tammany Hall and courtrooms, contentious commissioners’ meetings and cops’ barracks. A nuanced, comprehensive portrait of a unique man and the surrounding period, culture and political system.”
—Kirkus Reviews


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (September 4, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767926196
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767926195
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (122 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #226,191 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Zacks grew up in New York City, wandering to Times Square when it was still evil. His mother sought to refine his manners with white-glove dance lessons at the Pierre Hotel but that effort failed miserably. As a teenager, he gambled on the horses, played blackjack in illegal Manhattan card parlors and bought his first drink at age fifteen at the Plaza Hotel. He also attended elite schools such as Horace Mann ('73), University of Michigan ('79) and Columbia Journalism School ('81). He majored in Classical Greek and studied Arabic, Italian and French.
His whole life he has felt torn between the seedy and the high brow. He is a born contrarian. His books reflect that, with topics ranging from Joan of Arc's virginity tests to a vindication of Captain Kidd, from Edison's electric chair to Mark Twain's erotic writings. .
Zacks spent the decade of the 1980s as a journalist, writing a widely syndicated newspaper column, as well as freelance pieces for the likes of The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, and he brings a who, what, when, where and an occasional why to his writing of historical narrative. The N.Y. Times, commenting on his first book, "History Laid Bare", stated that Zacks "specializes in the raunchy and perverse." That was two decades ago; he has perhaps evolved since then. His second book, "An Underground Education" became a cult hit; his third book "Pirate Hunter" has sold more than 175,000 copies and TIME magazine chose it among the five best non-fiction books of the year. Zacks has also appeared in four documentaries.
Tall, bald, spry, he still plays full court basketball at age fifty-six, and does his writing in an office, overlooking Union Square Park in Manhattan.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

100 of 106 people found the following review helpful By Personne on January 23, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The New York of the 1890s was badly in need of reform. The poorest of the poor slept draped over ropes; underpaid police worked 110 hour weeks. Thousands of poor young (and not-so-young) women were forced into prostitution: the only option available to many. The corrupt Democratic machine of Tammany Hall ruled over all, providing essential services at the cost of a vote or a kickback. Graft money went into the hands of the beat cop and worked its way up the chain to captains and superintendents. New Yorkers had finally had enough and demanded reform.

Enter Theodore Roosevelt, the new Commissioner of Police. Along with his fellow board members, Roosevelt put the wheels of reform into motion. Richard Zack's vivid description of this time shows the conflict between men and culture, and ultimately serves as a cautionary tale. Roosevelt was an impatient man, with a priggish view of the world. A bag of contradictions and competing impulses, he's revealed as something of a martinet. He was convinced of his own virtue, and eventually came to believe that any competing or moderating view was corrupt. He served in his post for only a year and a half, turning the police department into a vice squad. He 'rambled' the city at night, searching for infractions. The violator might be a sleeping cop, an unaccompanied female (his views on single women would fit well in today's Riyadh) or a saloon open on Sunday. He campaigned tirelessly, forcing considerable--albeit short-lived--change.

It turns out that New York wanted reform, but not so much of it. Poor people lost a soothing cold beer on Sunday. The down-and-out lost the corner of the police barracks where they might sleep. Roosevelt's privileged upbringing left him no ability to see pain at the bottom.
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44 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Dienne TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 24, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"...the vitality of New York City sometimes seems to come more from the crooks than the do-gooders."

--Epilogue, Island of Vice

Richard Zacks presents a rollicking, yet thoroughly researched account of the year (or so) in the life of then-future president Theodore Roosevelt, as well as the city which (rather unwillingly) boosted him onto the national stage. New York in the mid-1890s was a vile yet vibrant dragon of a city and Roosevelt was the white knight born to tame, if not slay, it.

The book opens, fittingly enough, with a nude woman. Manhattanites in the Victorian Era were graced by a thirteen foot sculpture of Diana at the highest point of their skyline, just above Madison Square Garden. Diana was "the perfect symbol of New York in the 1890s, a city of silk top hats on Wall Street and sixteen-year-old prostitutes trawling Broadway." And so through this symbol Zacks sets up the contrasts and conflicts of a teeming city thronged with multi-cultural immigrants at the height of the morally "pure" Victorian Era. This is the story of the poor and working class masses of that city struggling to survive and thrive, the base and criminal elements which protected, entertained and exploited them, and the zealous noblesse oblige of the man who tried to "save" them.

Zacks spends the first sixty or so pages setting the stage for Roosevelt's grand entrance. Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst, playing John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, decries the state of vice and corruption which has gripped the city - the prostitution, the gambling, the drinking. His passionate, although perhaps ill-advised sermon ruffles a few well-connected feathers, who charge Parkhurst with libel.
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63 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey Phillips VINE VOICE on January 9, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I can't help but be puzzled by the story that emerged from Island of Vice. After all, could there be a more compelling story to tell? Trying to clean up drinking and prostitution in a city like New York at the end of the Robber Baron era? When the main force for change was none other than Teddy Roosevelt? Shouldn't that story be captivating, moving at a brisk pace, with indelible, larger than life characters? Yes, it should, but in Island of Vice, it isn't.

The author, Richard Zacks, clearly researched his topic. If I can place my finger on what goes wrong in this book, it's that there's really no character or story line that one truly cares about. Roosevelt comes across as a self-righteous schoolboy, never understanding how his actions effect other people. Zacks provides too much emphasis on Roosevelt's fellow commisioners, especially Parker, who seems aligned to Roosevelt on the need to clean up New York, but who constantly thwarts his actions. Parker's reasons are never explained, and really never explored. We meet hordes of characters throughout the book, but grow to like or care about very few of them. Clearly a Quixotic task - closing the saloons on Sunday and reducing or eliminating prostitution seems to only create unintended consequences, like the small "hotels" that can obtain liquor licenses and which quickly morph into houses of prostitution based on a law meant to stamp out drinking.

There's plenty of deep research, some character development and a wealth of information about New York at the turn of the century. But the book fails to gain pace, to accelerate and to fully engage the reader or make the reader care about the characters or the outcome.
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