It seemed to be an offer that young Tom Fleming couldn't refuse.
"Become a lawyer," his father said, when Fleming graduated from Fordham University in the 1950s, "and I guarantee you'll make a million dollars by the time you're 30."
Fleming's dad, Thomas James Fleming, was a top official in Frank Hague's notorious political machine, which ran Fleming's native Jersey City into the 1940s. So this was no empty promise. But while Fleming admits the prospect of going to law school—not to mention the big payoff—was attractive, there were other things to consider.
"I also might end up in jail," says Fleming with a hearty laugh, seated on a plush couch in the Upper East Side Manhattan apartment where he's lived for nearly four decades. In the end, Fleming turned his father down, and embarked on a career in publishing, which has proven to be nearly as lucrative as machine politics. In a career spanning nearly five decades, Tom Fleming has churned out more than 40 books, including fiction and nonfiction bestsellers, and garnered the respect of fellow novelists and historians alike.
Fleming, 75, is the only author ever to have won main selections for the Book-of-the-Month Club in both fiction and nonfiction. His novels—such as The Officer's Wives, about three tumultuous military marriages from the Korean to Vietnam Wars—have sold millions of copies internationally. Fleming has also written much-discussed histories, including a revisionist take on FDR and the New Deal (2001's The New Dealer's War) as well as more popular narratives such as Liberty!, published in conjunction with a 1997 PBS series on the American Revolution (one of Fleming's favored topics).
This month, Fleming's latest novel, Conquerors of the Sky (Forge), hits bookstores. Dubbed "a novel of aviation," Fleming's publishers are saying his 22nd novel is the culmination of his career. Hype aside, Fleming admits his latest novel is, in many ways, unlike any he's ever written. Conquerors covers the 20th century and explores the evolution of the aviation industry, which celebrates its 100th birthday next year. Through the triumphs, tribulations and tragedies of the airplane, Fleming introduces us to a large cast of characters that can certainly be described as Flemingesque, given their myriad passions, scars and achievements.
"I've been thinking about this novel and working on it off and on since 1988," says Fleming, who interviewed over 60 people in aviation as part of his research. "[Aviation] is the quintessential American industry. We invented the damn thing. In the beginning, people thought [the airplane] was this symbol of spiritual ascent. Simultaneously, the plane destroyed the American sense of isolation. The symbolism of that appealed to me."
It's a theme Fleming has returned to over and over again, in both his novels and nonfiction: the clash of lofty ideals and complicated reality. In Conquerors of the Sky, as far back as 1912, one character warns that airplanes are "evil creatures," adding, with an ironically Icarusian flourish: "The spirit should soar without man-made wings! This will only swell men's pride and folly."
But Fleming characters such as Frank Buchanan, the plane designer who creates the aviation company around which Conquerors revolves, never lose their passion for the glories of flight. Despite the shortsighted politicians and the ruthless generals who use planes solely "to incinerate women and children" (as Buchanan puts it near the end of World War II), Fleming also makes sure readers grasp the spirituality, and yes, even the eroticism, of flying. As for the men and women whose lives revolve around aviation, well, you don't exactly fly the friendly skies with Tom Fleming. Wounded men and women hop from bed to bed, seeking escape from their tradition-bound mothers, or shameful family histories, or oppressive social norms or ultra-demanding business environment. Whiskey is swilled by the gallon, and the only normal marriage is rife with anxiety and infidelity.
Though he describes aviation as a thoroughly macho world, Fleming—as he has done in many novels—refuses to consign women to some marginal corner where they merely whimper. In Conquerors, we meet the likes of Sarah Chapman, a starry-eyed, well-read English girl who is swept off her feet at a World War I dance by doughboy Cliff Morris. Sarah, though, soon becomes an overly plump, thoroughly disappointed mother and housewife. Her husband, as do so many at Buchanan Aircraft, regularly samples the available goods at "the Honeycomb club," a kind of company brothel maintained for "the boys." Sarah, however, doesn't accept her fate. She fights back, for the sake of her marriage and children, not to mention her own libido.
Alongside Fleming's tortured principal characters, Charles Lindbergh, Winston Churchill, Ezra Pound and a less-than-presidential Richard Nixon make cameo appearances. As a result, Conquerors seems similar to previous Fleming novels, like the Civil War—set When This Cruel War Is Over or his Revolutionary War—era Stapleton family novels, all of which mingled private lives and public figures.
But according to Fleming, writing Conquerors was a new challenge. First and foremost, says Fleming, it's the first time he's centered one of his sweeping novels around something as broad as "aviation," as opposed to a specific war, place or family. "I really started from scratch this time around," says Fleming. "I had to plunge into this whole new world, which I found enormously stimulating."
After conducting dozens of interviews and immersing himself in aviation histories and highly specialized theses and dissertations, Fleming did find himself drawn back to more familiar turf. "[My research] kept verifying all of my intuitions about American life, especially the clash between American men and women... it's in the raw in the aircraft business. The women literally have to fight for their lives in this totally macho business. But some of them fight pretty well," says Fleming.
Another familiar theme Fleming returns to in Conquerors is the unique place of America in the world. "What I've been doing as a writer is thinking about America. Starting from being an outsider," says Fleming, who casually refers to the neighborhood of his youth as an "Irish ghetto." A navy stint at the end of World War II was a transforming experience for Fleming, an Irish-American who says he was always "conscious of the hyphen." In 1945, however, the kid from Jersey City's Sixth Ward found himself touring Japan and the entire Pacific Rim with soldiers from all over the U.S. "That introduced me to the wider American world with a bang," says Fleming. After graduating from Fordham and entering the world of journalism and publishing, a small magazine assignment led him to previously unexamined papers at the New-York Historical Society. The end product was not just a solid magazine feature, but the publication in 1960 of Fleming's first book, Now We Are Enemies: The Battle of Bunker Hill. A string of U.S. histories followed, on the battle of Yorktown, the Pilgrims, Washington and Jefferson.
"I started exploring the American side of the hyphen in history," Fleming says. His first efforts at fiction, however, were on a more personal topic: the waning days of Jersey City's Irish political machine, explored in 1960s novels such as All Good Men, The God of Love and King of the Hill. It was not until 1976's Liberty Tavern—about divided loyalties during the American Revolution—that Fleming said he felt truly comfortable exploring historical complexities through non-Irish fictional characters. Since then, Fleming has become one of America's most popular and respected historians and novelists. The Officer's Wives, in 1981, was a publishing phenomenon. Fleming's alternately poignant and salacious tales of sex, marriage and careerism in the military (based on personal accounts he'd heard from women he met while writing a history of West Point) struck a nerve with readers. Subsequent novels continued Fleming's exploration of the American experience: antebellum America (The Wages of Fame, 1998), World War I (Over There, 1992) and World War II (Loyalties, 1994). Again and again, whether they were American revolutionaries or members of the German resistance, Fleming's characters jousted over the place of high ideals in a messy world. Interestingly, for all his extensive and learned research, Fleming says he received the most vivid lesson in this conflict right inside his own Jersey City home.
"My mother," says Fleming, "was the quintessential idealist. She always said to me: 'Aim high.' Meanwhile, my father was getting out the vote.... They were from two different worlds [and] it was fascinating to discover [this conflict] in other forms elsewhere."
Another fascination Fleming pursues in Conquerors is the unique position of California in the American consciousness. Even back when he visited the state during his navy days, Fleming says, "You did get a sense of how different it was.... It's edenic... it's Mark Twain's 'territory,' where people went to renew and reidentify themselves." If all of this sounds quintessentially American, well, Conquerors suggests that there is indeed a distinctly American way of seeing the world. Europe is, as one American character in Conquerors puts it, "a land of literature and monuments, the dead past that could be explored from a distance...."
On the other hand, Americans are eternally "optimistic, possibly naïve," as Fleming himself puts it. "It's that can-do spirit. It comes out of the experience of liberty, of freedom rooted in revolution." Not that either Fleming or his characters ever present such a one-dimensional view of things. In a neat, early twist in Conquerors, Adrian van Ness—an ambitious, utterly pragmatic airline executive in the making—discovers that the family tree his mother is so proud of actually has at least one rotten apple: Oakes Ames, the corrupt congressman who, nevertheless, helped build the transcontinental railroad.
"In a flash, Adrian saw an ancestor he could respect, even love," writes Fleming. " 'I don't think he was corrupt,' Adrian said. 'I think you need another word for him. Effective?' " Told that he's indulging in the "crudest sort of cynicism," Adrian responds: "It's what history does to you."
It is this dark side of the American experience that Tom Fleming, though he does not revel in it, also does not shy away from. "Manifest destiny wasn't just sheer optimism. There was a hell of a lot of dirty work to be done," says Fleming. Eternally fascinating figures such as Franklin, Washington and Jefferson constantly remind Fleming that history offers many leaders who successfully balanced their ideals and pragmatism.
Next out for Fleming is a book about a figure who had a lot more trouble with this delicate balance: Woodrow Wilson. Nearly complete, and to be published by Basic Books, Fleming's next work is a political history of World War I, in which Wilson comes off as a well-meaning but ultimately ineffective peacemaker. Fleming is also in the early phase of writing a Civil War—era novel, though he's tight-lipped beyond that.
For now, Fleming is gearing up for the publicity end of Conquerors, which coincides with a prestigious honor he will receive from New York's Union League Club later this month. On January 29, Fleming—already a Fellow of the Society of American Historians and past president of the American Center of PEN—will receive the Union League's Abraham Lincoln Award for his lifetime contribution to American literature. (Past winners include such luminaries as John Updike and David McCullough.) All of which makes Fleming's decision to avoid law school and machine politics look pretty shrewd.
"It's a good thing, too," adds Fleming, ever the prescient historian. "The Hague machine collapsed two years later."