By Hillel Italie
Walking briskly across the Brooklyn Bridge, smiling under a splendid morning sky, David McCullough is in the mood for telling stories, like the time he had a chat with James Cagney.
"I asked him if he ever considered doing another movie," McCullough says of the actor who rarely worked over the last 25 years of his life. "And he said yes, he would. It would depend on the part. And I said, 'What kind of part would you like to have?' And he said, 'Oh, I'd love to play a scamp.' He said, 'Everybody loves a scamp.'"
Readers may think of McCullough as the chronicler of upright presidents and patriots in "John Adams" and "1776," the historian who abandoned a biography of Picasso because he couldn't stand the artist's private behavior. But McCullough does have an impish side and it has something to do with the Brooklyn Bridge.
McCullough is celebrating the 40th anniversary of "The Great Bridge," which New York City historian Kenneth T. Jackson calls not just the standard work on the Brooklyn Bridge but "the best study of any bridge anywhere." Ranked No. 48 on the Modern Library's list of the best 100 nonfiction works of the 20th century, "The Great Bridge" has just been reissued with a new introduction by McCullough.
And the book is very much a narrative of sin, the kind that made Adams despair for democracy. Along with the vision and persistence of the bridge's father-and-son designers, John and Washington Roebling, you have some of the more low-minded fellows of 19th-century municipal politics: the corrupt contractor J. Lloyd Haigh, New York City Comptroller Richard "Slippery Dick" Connolly and that gluttonous Manhattan kingmaker, William Magear "Boss" Tweed.
If only Cagney could have played him.
"Tweed is a scamp," McCullough says with a wink. "He's not just a crook. He's sort of a merry, fat, dancing bad guy."
The 78-year-old writer is feeling springy, even scampy. He doesn't loosen his tie or toss his dark blazer into the East River. But he does hasten across streets against the light on his way to the bridge. He sings a little calypso, swears mildly and, with acknowledged bias, likens the nearby Manhattan Bridge — a sleek, steely contrast to the Brooklyn Bridge's heavy stone — to an erector set.
Ah, but the Brooklyn Bridge. He breathes it in like the sunny air.
"That brilliant, golden triumph of an achievement rose up around one of the most corrupt eras of our history," he says, adding that the bridge very much holds a message for today. "Just because it was a time of rampant corruption, greed and selfishness, inequality and all the rest, it doesn't mean that great things can't still come out of it. We don't all have to be crooked real estate or financial people, or self-serving people with no conscience. We could do that."
"The Great Bridge" was his second book, but it's the start of a long run of narratives about success. His debut, "The Johnstown Flood," came out in 1968 and told of the 1889 disaster that killed more than 2,000 people. The book did well enough that McCullough feared being labeled "Bad News McCullough." He considered the Brooklyn Bridge and saw the chance to highlight the qualities he admires — courage and accomplishment.
"And with accomplishment comes, of course, work," he says. "What can be achieved when we have a lot of people working together. The other thing I've definitely come to see is that almost nothing of consequence is ever accomplished alone. Everything is a joint effort. America is a joint effort."
He will hear nothing of that American archetype, the self-made man.
" 'Self-made man' is a bunch of crap," he says, his kindly baritone turning sharp. "It's ... disgusting, egotistical, bragging. There's no such thing, no such thing. We're all the products of the teachers, the parents, the friends, the rivals that have shaped us along the way."
McCullough has won two Pulitzer Prizes among many other awards. His books have sold millions of copies, raised the standing of John Adams and Harry Truman and inspired many readers to learn more about the American Revolution. Presidents from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama have enjoyed his company and asked for his wisdom.
The author has had help. It begins with his wife, Rosalee, who reads and reviews his every word. He also credits his longtime research assistant, Mike Hill, and his editors at Simon & Schuster, from Michael Korda to Bob Bender. An early influence was the revered professor of architecture, Vincent Scully, whose class McCullough attended at Yale University.
"He gave a lecture one day on the Brooklyn Bridge and said, 'It's a brilliant, triumphant expression of the theme of the open road, which is all through American art, American music, American culture. The open road.' And I thought, 'Isn't that exciting!'" he says.
McCullough, a longtime Massachusetts resident who lives in Boston, walks the Brooklyn Bridge at least once a year and knows the highlights as well as any tour guide. Midway between Brooklyn and Manhattan, he stops and takes in the view — the Statue of Liberty, the Verrazano Bridge, New York Harbor. From the bridge, you can see where George Washington's troops escaped at night after the devastating Battle of Brooklyn, a turning point featured in "1776."
McCullough then gestures to the wind-tossed water below and points out that the East River is, in fact, not a river. It's a tidal strait, the currents moving in different directions. At the time of the bridge's construction, workers had to worry about sharks.
"The most extraordinary and terrifying part of the story is what you don't see, down under," he says.
For a few years, McCullough lived in New York. He moved here in the mid-1950s after graduating from Yale, and he marvels now that being an English major actually helped him find work, as an assistant editor at the newly created Sports Illustrated.
Like so many New Yorkers of an earlier era, he prefers the old buildings to the modern ones. The World Trade Center did not impress him and the glass towers on the lower tip of Manhattan seem like "big boxes" to him. "I'm much more of a Woolworth man," he adds.
He means the Woolworth Building, completed in 1913 and one of the country's first skyscrapers. McCullough has all kinds of information about the Woolworth. It was designed by Cass Gilbert, a master of neo-Gothic architecture. Frank Woolworth himself, founder of F.W. Woolworth Co., commissioned the building and paid $13.5 million for its construction, in cash.
Someday, McCullough might even write about it.