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Island of Vice

Teddy Roosevelt takes on New York City: the Rough Rider vs. the Rotten Apple

Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York
By Richard Zacks
Knopf Doubleday
448 pp.

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Reviewed by Barbara Spindel for The Barnes & Noble Review

During Theodore Roosevelt's contentious two-year term as New York City police commissioner, he headed a divided four-man board that also included Colonel Frederick Grant, son of former president Ulysses. Sometime after Roosevelt's righteous crusade to eradicate vice had alienated much of Gotham's citizenry, the New York Mercury newspaper sided with Grant on an intra-board squabble, calling him "the noblest type of man like his father, Ulysses" and adding for good measure that "no Roosevelt was ever President; no Roosevelt ever led an army to victory – and none ever will."
Grant fils is now forgotten, while T.R., of course, went on to achieve the rank of colonel himself, leading his Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, before becoming the 26th president of the United States. 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. The book holds other pleasures, too: it's a lively and often entertaining portrayal of urban life at the close of the 19th century. But it occasionally gets bogged down in details of little interest, even with a figure as compelling as Roosevelt at the center of the action.


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