Growing up in a family of four boys, George Colt was stunned to read about presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth and his brothers, one of whom was the nation’s most respected actor. “How could two brothers grow up in the same family and be so different?” he wondered. “Could something like that happen to my brothers and me?” It didn’t, of course, but as Colt ponders his own boyhood and the stories of brothers throughout history in his new book he finds a dizzying range of fraternal dramas.
The most pervasive is competition, whether over maternal affection, food, or fame. Among the worst was the rivalry between Battle Creek’s Kellogg brothers, which led to an extended round of legal battles over the cereal empire each helped build. Bumptious but essentially benign brotherly competition pushed the Marx brothers into outrageous, unpredictable performances from vaudeville to the Broadway stage, where they played out roles and tensions spawned in early childhood. Even devoted sibling relationships are marked by competition; the novelist Henry James and his brother William compared medical complaints so much that their “correspondence reads like a hyper-literate version of the Merck Manual.”