I have a theory. We, consumers of media in a capitalist, money-obsessed country, love a good fraudster. There's some compelling evidence, too.
Exhibit A: Catch Me If You Can, the high-grossing 2002 film in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays the charming, quick-thinking Frank Abagnale, who was a con man in his youth, forging his identity almost as convincingly as he forged his checks. Exhibit B: Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the critically acclaimed 2018 film where the indomitable Melissa McCarthy plays author Lee Israel, who forged and sold letters ostensibly written by famous authors and actors. Exhibit C: If you haven't heard yet of Anna Delvey, aka Anna Sorokin, the young woman who scammed her way through New York City's elite by pretending to be a German heiress, I don't know where you've been. She's all over the media — and a movie is coming about her, too.
What do all of these have in common? They're white, and they conned individuals who moved in their circles. On the other hand, few, it seems, know the true story of another con artist — Linda Taylor — a mixed-race woman who wasn't allowed to attend the white school in her sundown town. She does not have a blockbuster movie being made about her, but she could. She passed as white, black, Latina, Hawaiian, and Filipina at different times; she wore fabulous clothes and drove incredible cars at some points in her life; she must have been charming — as well as domineering and controlling — because she kept ingratiating herself into people's lives and earning their trust before betraying it. And the thing is, even if you think you haven't ever heard of her, you have: She is the 1970s Ronald Reagan boogeyman, a racist dog-whistle-turned-stereotype, the ever-infamous Welfare Queen.
The Queen, by Josh Levin, tells the true story of Linda Taylor, the name she used during the few years she was making dubious headlines. Born Martha Louise White, she also used the names Martha Miller, Martha Gordon, Martha Davis, Connie Reed, Betty Smith, Connie Harbaugh, Beverly Singleton and Constance Wakefield, among others. Through incredibly involved reporting that clearly required not only a slew of interviews but a vast swath of documents that had to be cross-referenced and compared to figure out the timeline and the many names — including alternate spellings — that Taylor used, Levin has managed to bring the human being out from under the stereotype. He does so in clear, concise writing that refrains from overwrought editorializing. And though there is so much material in the book that it sometimes seems to lose the plot, Levin succeeds in always drawing readers back to his main subjects: systemic oppression, the rhetoric that feeds it, and how Taylor fits into both.
Linda Taylor rose to infamy during the 1970s, when a reporter named George Bliss — who won Pulitzer prizes for some of his work — told the stories of her arrests and trial for welfare fraud, which she succeeded in mostly by using a variety of names and addresses. Then-presidential wannabe Ronald Reagan got a memo about her that he began to use in his stump speeches, exaggerating her story over and over again. He succeeded in turning her into a type — one that didn't really exist, according to Levin, though Reagan and the media would work hard to find and showcase a few others who fit the description. Levin writes:
"Reagan's version of the Taylor story was mind-boggling but simple. A woman in Chicago had used eighty names to steal $150,000 a year of welfare money. The wigs and the kids and the murder allegation — those were extraneous details. Welfare cheats were bad. Linda Taylor was the worst of them all."
What murder allegation? What kids? Those are the important questions that were never asked in a court of law.
In the author's note that opens the book, Levin tells us that one of his sources, John Parks, ex-husband of a woman named Patricia Parks (who died in June of 1975 after a barbiturate overdose), had waited a long time for someone to ask him about Patricia's friend Linda. No one had, despite his knowledge that, as Levin writes:
"Linda Taylor submerged Patricia in ice-cold water and fed her medications stored in unlabeled bottles. Taylor also took possession of the sick woman's house on the South Side of Chicago and became the executor of her estate."
Taylor was, for a while, a suspect in Patricia's death, but ultimately no one followed up or charged her. As John Parks told Levin, "All they said was, 'That's another black woman dead.' "
The Queen isn't about trying to exonerate Taylor; it's an attempt to put her in the proper context. She learned early that race marked her, and that without her various disguises and makeup, she would be read as black — and, thus, she would be treated as less than worthy. The stereotype Reagan created was of a woman on welfare in Chicago; the city and the implied poverty alongside the implied theft making it clear that he was speaking about a black woman. Taylor was a lifelong criminal, yes, and she was also the product of racism that shamed her from birth.
Besides Parks' death, Levin reports, Taylor was suspected of another homicide, as well as various child kidnappings. She preyed mostly on poor and working-class black people, whom police, prosecutors and lawmakers had no real interest in protecting, Levin says, because they were perceived to be just like Taylor — undeserving. Yet the only crime that made Linda Taylor infamous was stealing money from the government — possibly a small amount of money, Levin found, as Reagan's figures were way off, according to court documents and contemporaneous newspaper reports. Whether she managed to receive the $150,000 the president alleged, the amount lawyers could prove she took was a fraction of that — about $8,000.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel, All My Mother's Lovers, is forthcoming from Dutton in 2020. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.