The April 26 issue of The New Yorker seems to have added one more nail to the reputation of the late Stephen E. Ambrose, university historian turned hugely popular -—and prolific—author of nonfiction historical narrative. Originally known for his scholarly biographies on Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon, Ambrose broke into the popular market with Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, which was turned into a well-known, and much rebroadcast television series. After he retired from teaching, Ambrose set up a family company, Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc., to help him lead historical tours and work on best sellers about such diverse topics as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, World War II, Crazy Horse, and much more.
In 2002, Ambrose was accused of lifting passages for The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany from the work of the historian Thomas Childers. Citing faulty citations, Ambrose apologized, and his publisher promised to put the sentences in question in quotes in future editions. But shortly after, other accusations arose: about passages in books like his Crazy Horse and Custer, Citizen Soldiers, and a volume of his three-volume biography Nixon. Ambrose responded that the relevant material was cited in his footnotes.
Now The New Yorker in an article by Richard Rayner raises new questions about the foundation of Ambrose’s academic reputation: his work on Eisenhower. The article says that while Ambrose always claimed to have been asked by Eisenhower to write an authorized biography, in fact he himself asked permission to do so. Further, while he said that he had had numerous long and often personal discussions with the general, he really met him just a few times. The story came to light after officials at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum came across unpublished correspondence.
Ambrose died late in 2002. According to rankings on Amazon.com, his books continue to sell well.—Karen Winkler