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Dave Wood's Book Report, June 18, 2007

"Presidential Courage," by Michael Beschloss (Simon & Schuster, $28) is subtitled "Brave Leaders and How They Changed America: 1789-1989."

Beschloss is NBC's presidential correspondent and author of eight books about the American presidency.

In his new book he plays no favorites, mentioning Republicans and Democrats alike who risked their own careers to do what they thought was right.

Beschloss shows us Teddy Roosevelt taunting J.P. Morgan, John Adams refusing to go to war with the French despite his party's viewpoint, saying that "Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war."

It's great fun to read about the hijinks of the very rich, how they made their money and how they spent it and what happened after they had.

Years back I read a book about the descendants of Commodore Vanderbilt. Only one descendent was worth a million dollars and that was Gloria Vanderbilt who actually earned her money.

"The Clarks of Cooperstown," by Nicholas Fox Weber (Knopf, $35) tells the story of Edward Clark, one of America's richest men, who got his start as a partner of Isaac Singer of sewing machine fame. Edward also commissioned Manhattan's first luxury apartment building. These days it's called The Dakota.

His kid was Alfred, a reclusive gentleman and family man who inherited $50 million from old Edward and spent his money on charity and art and his time in Europe where he carried on a secret homosexual life. His kid was Stephen who became chairman and president of the Museum and Modern Art.

His brother was Sterling, an art collector and horse breeder and, more important, was a central Wall Street figure in an attempted coup of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency. Part of the group's plot was to form a half million strong paramilitary group headed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

"Finding Betty Crocker," by Susan Marks (University of Minnesota Press, $15.95 paper) slipped by me without notice when it first was published in 2005. Now it's out in paper and deserves a look. As a child of the 1950s I associate Betty Crocker with that decade.

In actuality Betty got her start in the 1920s when a Washburn Crosby ad man cooked up the character, who then answered letters from anxious housewives in an era when cookbooks weren't as common as they are today.

Soon Betty -- more accurately the actress who played Betty -- had her own radio show on Washburn Crosby's radio station, WCCO. Washburn Crosby morphed into General Mills, but Betty-- or her portrait -- stayed the same for decades. More recently she's been redrawn and redrawn and redrawn, so that today in our age of inclusivity she has shades of Hispanic and Asian facial characteristics along with her WASP qualities.

Marks does a fine job of quoting letters from women, many of whom thought Betty Crocker was a real person and many of whom played along just for the fun of it, like this one:

"Dear Betty Crocker:

"Right now I am in the process of making your new 'Miracle Cake' and believe me it turns out it will be a miracle! ... I have no 10-inch tube pan, four-inches deep, so The Thing is in two pans, one a loaf pan 8 ½ by 3 ½ x 3 inches deep. My oven has no control on it, being vintage 1924. ... At the moment there is the most wonderful odor filling the kitchen.

I have just taken a peek and things are happening, the batter is rising all over the place. I forgot to explain that my young son broke the only good clock in the house, so I am timing it by the General Mills Hour on the radio.

Can this be made in any other flavor than orange or lemon? My husband is one of those men that likes any cake as long as it is chocolate, so although he will eat this -- or I will ram it down his throat -- I would like to know if you can make a chocolate version."

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at