Stephen Fried says we have Fred Harvey to thank for retail chains, Western tourism, and our model of exemplary customer service. He also suggests that his just-published book about the man and the “railroad hospitality empire” he embodied represents a new nonfiction genre: history buffed.
BY JOHN PRENDERGAST
“Absurdly different,” suggests Stephen Fried C’79, when my choice of adjective—“wildly”—does not seem sufficiently extreme to encompass the narrative territory covered in the five nonfiction books he’s published since cutting his journalistic teeth at 34th Street as a student. Like his award-winning articles for magazines including Philadelphia (where he was on staff for many years and served a stint as editor), Vanity Fair, GQ, Rolling Stone, and many others, Fried’s long-form works feature exhaustive research, meticulous reporting, and a vivid sense of detail—but that’s about all they have in common.
Thing of Beauty, which came out in 1993, told the tale—pieced together from hundreds of interviews—of the rapid rise and swift descent into drug addiction and death from AIDS of late-1970s “supermodel” Gia. It was followed by Bitter Pills, a dense, somewhat sprawling investigation of the pharmaceutical industry and in particular the little-discussed dangers of prescription drugs. The New Rabbi explored the various dramas surrounding a suburban Philadelphia synagogue’s choice of a successor to a longtime, much-beloved spiritual and community leader, while Husbandry was a collection of personal essays, mostly in the ruefully humorous vein, about marriage, originally written for Ladies’ Home Journal.
Fried’s latest book—Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West, published in March—blazes two new trails, taking him out West and into the past. It has been well received, with a prepublication notice in Publishers Weekly that praised its epic sweep, “[f]rom the battle of the Little Bighorn to the Manhattan Project,” and positive reviews in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, among others.
Fried himself calls Appetite for America his most ambitious piece of work yet, and even suggests he may emulate its method in the future. “The other books were hard, each in their own way. But they grew out of some natural skills that I already had from writing for magazines,” he says. “To do a book this big, this broad, to be able to learn enough to write knowledgeably about each part of history, but still not become a nerd and make it really boring, I felt I was putting myself through, like, nine college courses. And now that I’ve done that, I feel, ‘Oh, what’s the next book that I could write that’s like this, that would take me through another period of history and make it come alive the way this period in history did for me.’”
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FEATURE: The History Buffer By John Prendergast
©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette
EXCERPT: From the book, Appetite for America, by Stephen Fried. Copyright © 2010 by Stephen Marc Fried. Published by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.