Glenn W. LaFantasie: From the Civil War to James Bond in One Quick Step

Roundup: Talking About History

Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. He is working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.

When I set out in the early 1990s to write a short biographical piece on Col. William C. Oates, the Confederate commander of the 15th Alabama Infantry, who failed to dislodge Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Regiment from the slopes of Little Round Top at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, I had no idea where the project would take me.  For one thing, that brief sketch led eventually — some 15 years later — to my writing a biography of Oates, cradle to grave.  For another thing, it showed me how close our connections are to the past and how relevant is William Faulkner’s comment that the past is not dead; in fact, it’s not even past....

For those who know [his granddaughter Maron Oates Leiter Charles, known as Oatsie to her friends] well, she is a force to reckon with --- a woman who is blunt, charismatic, intelligent, witty and marvelously disarming.  “You know, Glenn,” she said to me after several of our meetings, “I do like you, even though you are a damn Yankee.”  I took it as a great compliment.  Reporting Oatsie’s flamboyant arrival to a Mount Vernon lawn party by a boat on the Potomac River, one fashion magazine correctly called her “unsinkable.”

The thing that astounded me the most, I suppose, was learning that Oatsie had introduced Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, to Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960.  Oatsie and her late husband, Thomas Leiter, had gotten to know Fleming in Jamaica in the early 1950s.  Fleming gave his secret agent a friend in the Central Intelligence Agency named Felix Leiter after Oatsie’s husband. After Oatsie settled down in Newport, she got to know the Kennedys well.  While Jack was recuperating in a Newport hospital after one of his many back surgeries, Oatsie gave him a copy of Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale,” and Kennedy became an immediate fan of the James Bond book series....

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