BRIDGEPORT—“Indiana Jones with a pen” is how Joseph McAleer describes the subject of his entertaining new book, a biography of a British adventurer at the turn of the twentieth century.
“Harry Perry Robinson was a journalist who found himself in history’s shadow, taking part in major events but never getting the recognition he deserved,” McAleer says. “Until now.”
Escape Artist: The Nine Lives of Harry Perry Robinson was published last fall by Oxford University Press. It’s McAleer’s fourth book, and reviews have been glowing.
“They don’t make lives like this anymore,” praised the London Times. “Joseph McAleer has performed a valuable service in bringing [Robinson’s] fine work to the fore,” said The Spectator. The Wall Street Journal noted the book is “well researched” with “many virtues.”
Many will recall McAleer as the former Director of Communications for the Diocese of Bridgeport and editor of Fairfield County Catholic. Hired by then-Bishop Edward Egan in 1998 as the first layperson to hold the office, McAleer was at the front lines during the clergy abuse scandal which exploded in 2001.
“Those were dark days,” he recalled. “We lost ten percent of our priests, and trust in the Church was eroded. It was a necessary purging and vital recognition of victims. In many respects we’re still coming to terms with this tragedy.”
During McAleer’s 12-year tenure, which saw Bishop Egan promoted to the Archdiocese of New York and the arrival of Bishop William Lori, the diocese launched its website, produced a short-lived radio show (“Sundays with the Bishop”), and engaged a not-always-friendly press corps.
“My mantra from those days sounds corny but it works: ‘Always tell the truth and you’ll never have to remember what you said,’” McAleer notes.
Since leaving the diocese, McAleer joined his brothers in the family business, a global ship brokerage firm, while remaining active in his parish, the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford. But he also stayed true to his real passion as an historian. In fact, his third book, Call of the Atlantic (2016), dealing with the American author Jack London, led to the current project.
“Jack London’s first overseas publisher was a small firm run by Harry Perry Robinson in 1902,” McAleer explains. “In Robinson’s letters he mentioned adventures he had had in America. I was intrigued and followed the trail.”
And what a trail it was, as described with gusto in Escape Artist. Robinson came to America in 1883, age 24, eager to make his name and fortune. He started out as a journalist, covering gold rushes out West, before settling down in Minnesota. Marriage to the daughter of a wealthy tycoon set him up in Chicago, where he became a national voice for the railroad industry. Robinson befriended William McKinley, aiding his presidential victory in 1896.
Life took a dramatic turn, and Robinson returned to England and journalism. He was the oldest correspondent at the Western Front in World War I and was knighted for his efforts. “Sir Harry” capped his career by covering the opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1923, then the “scoop” of the century.
In his “spare” time, Robinson wrote books of his own, best-selling novels and collections of short stories. His non-fiction work promoted the “Special Relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom, with Robinson convinced that global peace depended upon the two countries working together.
“Robinson had a fascinating but exhausting life,” McAleer says with understatement. “He worked non-stop until a month before his death in 1930.”
What’s next for McAleer? He’s hopeful that Escape Artist will be dramatized by a streaming service like Netflix. In the meantime, he’s embarked on his next book, another biography, but is mum about the details.
“A woman this time, and another grand adventure,” he teases, offering three tantalizing clues: espionage, Hollywood, and condiments.
Escape Artist: The Nine Lives of Harry Perry Robinson is available on Amazon.com in hardback and Kindle editions as well as an audiobook.