I just finished reading a fascinating book, Warren Leslie’s Dallas: Public and Private. Leslie, a public relations man in Dallas for two decades who went on to coordinate PR efforts for cosmetics firms Max Factor and Revlon, wrote the book in 1964 as something of a catharsis after the Kennedy assassination.
In Dallas: Public and Private, the author tries to explain how Dallas became “the city that killed a president” from a historical standpoint. But that’s just the jumping-off point, as he soon delves into a thorough analysis of the city’s business, cultural and political mores from the early 20th century up through the time the book was written. The more recent and better-known Big D: Triumphs and Troubles of an American Supercity in the 20th Century by SMU’s Darwin Payne goes into more detail about the city’s historical timeline, but Leslie’s book takes more of an insider’s perspective, talking about specific people, the Dallas Citizens Council and the various interests around the city that had an influence in major mid-century decisionmaking.
Of particular interest were discussions in the book on the arts scene in Dallas, including references to financial troubles at the Dallas Symphony and the Dallas Opera, and how city banking icon (and freeway namesake) R.L. Thornton and the other Citizens Council members would – upon request – open their checkbooks and give whatever was needed for the organizations to survive. Thornton famously remarked that he was happy to support the symphony as long as he wasn’t expected to go; for him, it was more about his pride of Dallas and the health of its civic institutions.
Later in the book, Leslie recalls a controversy over an exhibit planned by the Dallas Art Museum (the name was changed later) which featured several artists thought in the 1950s to have communist sympathies. Contentious meetings escalated the debate, fueled by right-wing groups who felt the exhibit would poison the youth of Dallas by filling their minds with un-American thoughts. Ultimately the exhibit went on here as scheduled, although a Washington, D.C. museum later pulled out of their plans to show the exhibit partly due to the brouhaha in Dallas.
The original edition of the book (which I discovered by chance on the Texana shelf at Half Price Books) is long out of print, but a 1998 reissue by the SMU Press is easier to find, and features a new preface by Leslie and a new foreword by Harvey J. Graff and Patricia Evridge Hill (both history professors who were formerly at UTD). The book is an easy read, and provides a unique perspective on aspects of our fair burg’s storied past.