As the length of Fried’s subtitle suggests, the Fred Harvey story is not widely remembered. Old-movie fans may recall The Harvey Girls, the 1946 musical that starred Judy Garland and featured the Oscar-winning song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” but the Harvey legacy lives on most vividly these days at the Grand Canyon, where the company managed the El Tovar Hotel and associated attractions when the South Rim of the Canyon was first developed. That’s where Fried and his wife Diane Ayres, visiting the Southwest back in the 1990s, first encountered his future subject.

“Fred Harvey’s portrait hangs in the main lobby” of El Tovar—which remains, Fried says, “the classic, the one you want to stay at” among the lodgings around the Canyon. “And in the room you get a little pamphlet that tells you about Fred Harvey,” he adds. “I’m not used to basing a lot of my career decisions on pamphlets in hotel rooms, but it was intriguing.”

After learning more at nearby Painted Desert National Park, where he found Fred Harvey written in giant letters on the gift-shop building, Fried decided Harvey’s story would make for a good magazine article, but found no takers. Americana wasn’t selling in the 1990s, he says, and travel magazines—the logical market for such a piece—were focused on the international scene. But Harvey stuck in his head, and so did the surreal image of the great hotel perched at the edge of the immense canyon. “When you go to the Southwest, you start realizing that a lot of what’s there was created by the Santa Fe Railroad and run day-to-day by Fred Harvey,” he says. “Fred Harvey took care of everybody there.”

Something about the intersection of romance and moneymaking struck him as essentially American. A person’s first view of the Grand Canyon is famously awe-inspiring, Fried says. “They look at the canyon, and it’s amazing. And I had that same experience. But I also said, ‘How the hell did this hotel get here?’

“That very much sort of drove this [book], because, even though the Fred Harvey story begins way before the Grand Canyon and continues way after, it still is the best example of the audaciousness—to build a train to the Grand Canyon so that people can see this thing?—and at some level it’s so commercial.”

Lunching with his longtime editor at Bantam Books to discuss possible follow-ups to The New Rabbi, which had come out in 2002, Fried waxed enthusiastic about all things Fred Harvey—so much so that she instructed him to drop the other projects he was considering and put together a book proposal, promising “to make it worth my while,” he says.

“And so we very quickly tried to access everything that was out there, did a proposal,” he says. “And then I dove in and really started exploring the story, which was much bigger and more complicated and more of a family saga and more multi-generational than I realized.”

Over the next five years, Fried interviewed surviving family members; examined diaries, correspondence, notebooks, and other documents; made excursions to former Harvey House locations; collected various items of Fred Harvey ephemera; squinted over decades’ worth of local newspapers from Harvey-served towns on microfilm; and combed through shelvesfull of old books for passing references to the family and firm, assisted by a team of student interns.

“I employ 10 students as interns. They get credit through [Kelly] Writers House,” he explains. “There were times when we had 300, 400 books from Van Pelt and other books that we had brought in from libraries all over the country because we saw somewhere that there was, like, one line in them that seemed to suggest a story either about Fred Harvey or related to the story.”

When one set of interns graduated, they would cart the books back to Van Pelt, check them out to the next group, and cart them back to Fried’s home office. “You have to be able to deal with primary sources. And the Penn students who were involved in this—there were four shifts in all—got a really interesting education.”

One of the interns, Jason Schwartz C’07, wrote an award-winning thesis based on research conducted while working on the book, Fried recalls. “He was the one who got stuck reading all the newspapers from the early years of Fred Harvey that were not digitized,” he says. “And he ended up writing a great history thesis on frontier journalism, based on the most amazing editor in Leavenworth, [Kansas, where Fred Harvey was headquartered] who was this guy who carried guns and shot a number of people.”

Fried sees his book as within a budding genre of nonfiction, in which writers trained in magazine journalism are taking on historical subjects previously handled, if at all, by academics. He offers as further examples Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, set at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, and Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit: An American Legend, about the iconic 1930s racehorse.

“I think that what’s been happening in these more narratively written, more journalistically written, I think more dramatically written, history books is very much a product of what [the writers] were doing before these books,” he says. “A lot of what we do as long-form journalists is read things that are really boring, but are interesting to us, and then try to figure out how you could write them interestingly and still have them be as accurate as the boring versions. I think of that as a magazine-y view.”

Fried even has a name picked out for this new genre: “I’m trying to get people to call it ‘history buffed,’” he says—adding that no one thought fashionista, a word he coined while working on his supermodel biography, would take off, either. While plenty of professional historians might dispute Fried’s view of their prose style, he certainly tells a lively, fascinating story in Appetite for America that conveys both the sweep of history and the granular detail of daily life through some critical decades in the nation’s past. (See the excerpts following this article for a sampling.)
 

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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.

 

 

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