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JOHN WILKES BOOTH, ARTIST?

by Charlie Finch
 
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In 1947, a young writer named Barnaby Conrad became secretary to the irascible Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis. Lewis challenged Conrad to collaborate with him on a novel speculating that Lincoln's assassin, the celebrated actor John Wilkes Booth, had escaped a burning building, surrounded by Union soldiers, substituting the body of a Confederate deserter whom Booth shot in the building at point blank range.

Lewis and Conrad even drew up a contract to split royalties, a contract reproduced in The Second Life of John Wilkes Booth (Council Oak Press), a new novel which Barnaby Conrad, the author of 35 books (including the bestsellers Matador and Time Is All We Have) and the father of the writer Barnaby Conrad III (author of Absinthe: History in a Bottle and my lifelong friend), has finished and published at the age of 88.

Felicitously, there is renewed interest in the fate of Booth due to the 150th anniversary of Fort Sumter, the beginning of the Civil War, and efforts by the Booth family to exhume Booth's alleged remains in Baltimore for a DNA match with the remains of his famous actor brother Edwin, to see if long-held beliefs that Booth lived on might be true.

In the tale, Barnaby Conrad expertly fathoms Booth's psyche as the actor transforms himself into an artist named Marlowe in the Montana Territory of the post-Civil War mining era. He weaves Booth through a love affair with a beautiful, facially disfigured (by an evil stepfather) frontierswoman named Fern, as Booth paints Blackfeet Indians, local children, bears and eagles in the manner of George Catlin.

All the while, as Booth changes his facial features, his name and his location, a reporter from the New York World named Upham, convinced that Booth lives, is on the assassin's trail. Conrad faithfully follows the plot as laid out, years ago, by Sinclair Lewis, but the real strength of the book lies in our sympathy for Booth, whose painting skill transforms him from an egomaniacal stage star into an empathetic artist, who weirdly draws Lincoln, his victim, reads the President's speeches, and, ultimately, plays him in a Fourth of July spectacular.

Booth ceases to project his ego and becomes, through the act of painting, skillfully described in minute detail by Barnaby Conrad himself (also a lifelong painter of some talent), a thinker and a humanist, thus guaranteeing a melodramatically ironic fate for Booth, which I shall not spoil here. As a Lincoln aficionado brought up in a family of same, I never thought I could be brought to sympathize with his assassin, but, through the means of recreating Booth as a painter of depth and feeling, Barnaby Conrad has pulled off the trick.


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).