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Maxine Atwater’s self-published Capital Tales: True Stories About Washington’s Heroes, Villains & Belles provides an unusual tour of D.C. Instead of bombarding the reader with a fusillade of facts, Atwater compiles whimsical accounts of famous Washington personalities. A longtime D.C. tour operator and licensed guide who runs Special Interest Tours, Atwater believes that people crave down-to-earth stories rather than textbook accounts. “We want to know how it was to live in another era to broaden our worldview…,” she says. “You don’t get that feeling by reading facts; you get it by meeting the people and setting out with them on their missions, living through their trials and struggles.”
In Capital Tales, Atwater delivers 17 anecdotes on the likes of John Wilkes Booth, John Philip Sousa, Dolley Madison, muckraker Anne Royal, and Daniel Sickles, a congressman who literally got away with murder. “Everything is based on fact,” she says, although she allows personal biases to shine through. For example, Atwater romanticizes Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, who attracted misfortune after purchasing the 42-carat Hope Diamond from jeweler Pierre Cartier in 1922. All of the diamond’s previous owners had died violently, and although Evalyn thought she could foil the alleged curse, her luck soon changed: Her 9-year-old son died in a car accident, her husband was later confined to a mental institution, and her 25-year-old daughter died of a drug overdose. Atwater accentuates the melodrama, ending with: “Today the gem reigns behind thick glass at the National Museum of Natural History….Some wonder if its spell hasn’t been cast on the United States government.”
Although traditional scholars may scoff at Atwater’s fragmented approach to history, the author feels that Capital Tales reflects the mission of many a D.C. tour guide: “By telling stories we’re changing the visitor’s experience. We’re helping people connect with their heritage….”—Julie Wakefield