The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth
(Little, Brown, $29)
The name Linda Taylor means little to most Americans today, said Kate Giammarise in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But our ongoing conversations about how to address domestic poverty “continue to be haunted by Taylor’s Cadillac-driving ghost.” In 1976, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan included in his stump speech an anecdote about Taylor, a Chicago woman who used false identities to live lavishly on food stamps, veterans’ benefits, and Social Security. She was, literally, the original “welfare queen,” and Reagan used her example to suggest that a whole class of people was abusing taxpayer largesse. Josh Levin of Slate.com tracked down the truth behind the Republican talking point, and his Taylor is guilty not just of welfare fraud but also of much worse. His “highly readable” portrait establishes that Taylor is better understood as an American outlier.
In the book’s early pages, “Taylor is like a one-person Ocean’s 11,” said Chris Hewitt in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. As her grifting exploits are detailed, “you can feel Levin’s respect for Taylor’s daring.” She feigned mental illness, passed herself off as an heiress, even persuaded her daughter to play deaf. But there’s a grimmer story, too, and “Levin gives it its due”: Taylor was a monster—likely guilty of killing at least one person and even of kidnapping and selling children. Quite possibly, Taylor walked into a Chicago hospital in 1964 and walked out with another woman’s baby.
The roots of her aberrant behavior may lie in her background, said Lily Meyer in the Washington City Paper. Born Martha Louise White, she was raised in 1920s Alabama by an abusive white mother who more than once denied her daughter’s existence—probably because Martha was the product of an affair with a black man. The girl, after giving birth herself at about 13, fled Alabama and, in Seattle, was arrested at 18 on the first of multiple prostitution charges. The world had no place for her, and somewhere along the way, “she learned to take advantage of every person and system she could.” Whatever else her tale represents, it’s “a powerful reminder to ask what stories lie behind the ones that catch the public eye.” ■