Cool people I know: Daniel Stashower

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Daniel Stashower, author of The Hour of Peril, was in town this weekend on a publicity tour scheduled tighter than the subject of his new book: Lincoln’s perilous 1861 train trip from Springfield, Ill. to his inauguration in Washington.

About 200 people packed the Beachwood Public Library on Sunday to hear Stashower – an accomplished speaker – discuss the book, which describes the first known plot to assassinate Lincoln.

Stashower grew up in Cleveland Heights and it was a crowd filled with friends – so many of them, in fact that his father, retired ad man David Stashower, was relegated to standing near the door in the back. I whispered to him: “So who DO you have to know to get a seat?”

Also claiming a small foothold against the back wall was another celebrated Cleveland Heights writer, food man Michael Ruhlman.

Ruhlman and Stashower go back at least 30 years, when they were summer interns together at the old Lang, Fisher & Stashower – the ad agency run by their fathers, among others.

They were apparently a memorable pair of interns; that’s what I kept hearing the next year, when I shared an internship with Stashower at the same agency. Ruhlman was off doing something else; I don’t know what.

Daniel Stashower, 1978

Those were pretty good times for advertising in Cleveland. It was exactly midway between the Mad Men era and the moment when ad guys everywhere began saying, “Remember when this business was fun?”

Stashower and I shared a tiny office suite on the top floor of 1010 Euclid Avenue – a tired little aerie with wood floors and steel desks – where we were one or two floors removed from the remotest part of the agency that anybody important ever visited.

Those were the days when you could still smoke in the office, so while we were playing at the ad biz, Stashower and I took a few trips to Cousins Cigars and bought some big, fat stinkers to puff on while working – if that’s what you’d call what it was that we did to fill the days.

Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

We competed to write a TV ad that would persuade people not to be afraid of new technology that had been introduced by Ameritrust – a thing called an Automated Teller Machine. His got produced; mine didn’t.

We wrote table-tent copy for Girves Brown Derby. We spent the better part of one week brainstorming hundreds of names for a new business that would sell popcorn and candy  (and were more than a little put out when the owner ignored them all and just called it The Popcorn Shoppe.)

As kids, Stashower and I swam together on the Cleveland Heights summer rec team; neither of us was particularly distinguished at it. He graduated from Heights in 1978, two years before I did. We both went to the same college too, though we rarely bumped into each other there. His first job out of school was writing for Time Life Books in Washington D.C., where he has lived ever since.

I said, “Congratulations. You went to college so you could get a job researching witches and wizards.”

“And gnomes,” he deadpanned. “Don’t forget about gnomes.”

Stashower had a couple passions growing up: Sherlock Holmes and magic. His first novel, three years out of college, was literally a Harry Houdini meets Sherlock Holmes mystery called The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man.

My Stashower library – not quite complete

His work has evolved and matured. As a writer he’s now a historian and biographer, having taken on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Filo T. Farnsworth and now Allan Pinkerton as subjects and/or narrative foils.

Like his friend Ruhlman – whose early writing ranged from private schooling to boat building before he really settled into the food writing that has made him famous – Stashower’s focus has narrowed.

On Sunday at the library, someone in the audience asked about his next project. Stashower replied: “I don’t know yet. But I can tell you there will be blood. There will be murder.”

Suzanne DeGaetano of Mac’s Backs book store on Coventry was selling copies of The Hour of Peril from a small table in back. It was a good day for her; she had four or five cases and sold out at about the time Stashower was describing Lincoln’s insistence on being accessible to the public – even when he was in danger.

For example, at the pre-inaugural stop in Cleveland, Lincoln stood on the second-floor porch of his hotel while people waited in a greeting line that stretched for blocks down St. Clair Avenue, and up the stairs where, as Stashower put it, they would get the chance to pump the president’s hand before being carried along by the mass of people.

The line of people waiting to get books signed by Stashower wasn’t quite that long. But it was long enough to draw a comparison. So that’s what I did when I turned to David Stashower – the man who sired Daniel’s sense of humor.

“Well let’s hope this works out a little bit better than that,” the senior Stashower said.

I am always the straight man for both of them.


  1. Stashower says

    How did I miss this? And who is this saintly paragon you’re describing? Perhaps my memory is failing — because, after all, I’m quite a bit older than you are — but I don’t remember things in quite the same way. Or, as Sherlock once remarked to Watson, “I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements, you have habitually underrated your own abilities.” I remember Bob Rosenbaum as the scary-talented kid who was always nipping at my heels, always had a fresh take, and always left everyone smiling. I remember working hard to keep up, except on the swim team, where I was invariably half a length behind. Thanks, Bob, for a really wonderful and gracious piece. It’s been years since I went near a cigar, but I’ll looking forward to a Mad Men-style martini the next time I’m in town.
    — Dan Stashower

  2. says

    Well I did say your swimming career was less than distinguished, didn’t I? Thanks for the kind words Dan. Reading them crystallizes something for me: You are making a career out of synthesizing thousands of facts into a couple hundred pages. My writing, on the other hand, is characterized by taking a single (often arguable) fact and using it as the basis for as many words as imagination will allow.

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