Criticism & Features

Year 2019: 30 Books

The Queen by Josh Levin: 2019 Biography finalist

By Elizabeth Taylor

The Queen: The Forgotten Life behind an American Myth by Josh Levin (Little, Brown)

The “welfare queen” meme was built on a myth that Josh Levin takes to its gnarly, contradictory origins in his lucid and engaging The Queen.

The euphemism was often associated with Ronald Reagan in his failed 1976 presidential campaign, though he didn’t use those words. She was Reagan’s Cadillac-driving “woman in Chicago” with an income of $150,000 a year, who had claimed 80 names and 30 addresses to get food stamps, veterans benefits for nonexistent husbands, and other aid. As Levin writes, this was code for the “lazy, black con artist, unashamed about cadging the money that honest folks worked so hard to earn.”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago reporter brought Linda Taylor to national prominence in 1974 in stories with headlines that dubbed her the “welfare queen.” That image fueled public hysteria about welfare abuse, and Reagan amplified her as an outrageous example of fraud.

In The Queen, a feat of investigative reporting matched with a deep understanding of history, Levin uncovers this creation myth that hardened into a stereotype and was deployed to chip away at benefits for the poor. But he does more than that;he subverts this image with his far more interesting portrait. While he writes a fascinating tale of how the myth was constructed, he also reveals Taylor to be a grifter, a thief, a kidnapper, and possibly a murderer — a damaged woman who was victimized, but who also victimized those more vulnerable than she.

From her myriad aliases, Levin reconstructs the life of the woman known as Linda Taylor from her 1926 birth in Golddust, Tennessee, and though sources as varied as old property deeds, court transcripts, police records, and the few who met her but didn’t really know her. Levin finds that the woman whose mother was white and her father black was listed as white on a census report, yet claimed to be white, Mexican or even Hawaiian. Victim and victimizer, she demonized black women in particular. Abused as a child, she abandoned her own children and is accused of selling others on the black market.

In his determined quest,Levin untangles the twisted story of a fascinating woman — known to some as Linda Taylor, both a perpetrator of crimes and a victim of them — and shines a klieg light on a moment in history.

– Elizabeth Taylor