Josh Levin’s “The Queen” isn’t what it first presents itself to be. Fitting because the “Queen,” the title references, wasn’t either.
Levin, editorial director at Slate, tasks himself with illuminating the identity of the woman, Linda Taylor, who came to be known as the “Welfare Queen” — less a real-life figure than a pernicious trope that found a prominent place in the national narrative around welfare reform in the 1970s.
Levin demonstrates that Taylor’s infamous — and distorted — public reputation was the least of her infractions. He spent six years tailing ghosts, chasing thin leads, researching and interviewing sources who’d encountered Taylor and those who were left behind in her wreckage. Much of it is horrifying.
While the book investigates the strange, discursive path of Taylor’s life, it also illuminates the critical role a network of police officers, journalists and politicians played in keeping the image aloft.
“The Queen” begins as a deftly drawn, quick-paced police procedural: A tenured Chicago cop sets out to investigate a “preposterous” case involving a woman who reports a burglary riddled with too many improbable details. “To fit a double-door refrigerator through [the] narrow gap [of a kitchen window], you’d have to cut it in half,” the officer calculated. That officer, a detective named Jack Sherwin, rang some doorbells, but he couldn’t find anyone “who’d seen a mysterious stranger wander off with a large appliance.”
Something nagged at him. The woman’s distinctive face, coupled by her detached manner, triggered a memory. Two and a half years earlier, he’d been investigating another alleged burglary in which another woman, Connie Jarvis, reported that she’d lost more than $8,000 worth of jewelry and furniture. She wouldn’t be specific about what was stolen, which raised Sherwin’s suspicions. That time he’d knocked on doors and found a witness who saw someone loading furniture into the back of a truck. Tracing the vehicle, he learned that it belonged to a man who lived across state lines in Michigan — out of his jurisdiction.
Sherwin made a request of that old case file from Michigan. In 1972, Jarvis had indeed staged that burglary of her own apartment. But what the file also revealed was a long trail of treachery. Jarvis had spent decades in motion, shape-shifting and trying to cover her tracks. She kidnapped babies, swindled unsuspecting men and women who fell under her thrall. She tried on multiple identities, (“Dr. Shfolia,” “Dr. Whoyon” among them); she claimed to practice voodoo. Mixed-race — African American and Caucasian — she passed for Irish, Italian, Mexican, Filipino and Hawaiian. She also falsified paperwork to apply for benefits from government social service agencies — and played the system. The “victim” whom Sherwin stood before, two years later, was the same woman: New hair, new name, same con — "Connie Jarvis" was Linda Taylor.
In its early chapters, “The Queen” is as much about Taylor’s duplicity as it is the detective’s need to break out of his own workaday tedium and make his mark in a deeply segregated and racially charged Chicago. It also illustrates the concerted efforts of a network of journalists, cops and politicians who sought to make a quick-sketch of Linda Taylor, a figure who could be held accountable for the city’s, state’s and nation’s raft of troubles in a climate of inflation and recession.
Taylor was slippery, with her string of aliases, her shifting addresses, her wardrobe of elaborate wigs and late-model luxury cars. But it would be the Chicago Tribune Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter George Bliss who assembled these many pieces of Taylor’s deception and grifting, and crystallized them into something sound-bite worthy, something memorable and with the weight and purchase of a cudgel.
Bliss’ first story ran on Page One on Sept. 29, 1974. It would make a huge splash. It was less about Taylor than it was the story of a “valiant police officers fighting against an indifferent system.” Bliss’ headline said it all: “Cops find deceit — but no one cares.”
While Taylor the person was a mere shadow, her infractions were writ large, cast in bullet points pulled from Sherwin’s case files. Bliss included them in his article: “Goes under at least 27 different names; Uses 31 different address . . . Has 25 different phone numbers...”
The article would be one in a series that Bliss would file on the subject. In this third follow piece about Taylor’s “larceny,” and public aid’s incompetencies — Bliss chooses a particularly resonant and indelible identifier: “‘Linda Taylor, the 47-year-old ‘welfare queen.’ ”
The story would snowball, becoming part of the national conversation. Most significantly, however, the term “Welfare Queen” would wind itself into the lexicon. Most famously, it would become a racially coded dog whistle that former California governor and newly minted presidential candidate Ronald Reagan would invoke — and exaggerate — as a way of eliciting emotion and rallying constituents’ support in the deepest part of the conservative south. “[Reagan] made it clear that the federal government was preventing the country from reaching its true potential,” Levin writes, “but this unnamed woman in Chicago — she was the enemy too.”
Grand scale manipulation
Levin’s reporting is exhaustive — a study of welfare reform, a deep dive into FBI files and old court transcripts. It’s here that the book begins to take an unexpected series of turns — both opening up and stepping back. Levin shows his meticulous backstory work, and sometimes those extended contextual passages take us out of the spell he’s cast; that taut narrative becomes, in places, overwhelmed with backstory.
But Levin keeps trained on Taylor — even in the most uncomfortable, reprehensible moments of her story. Know this: “The Queen” is not a tale of redemption. It’s not a reframing or recasting. What Levin keenly emphasizes, through his deep dig, is that numerous other crimes she may have allegedly committed were useless to status-quo-upholding police officers, Page-One-dreaming journalists or on-the-stump politicians seeking expedient solutions.
“The Queen” is a story of grand scale manipulation, both of Taylor’s trail of brazen deceptions but also the role media and politics played in shaping a narrative — making all of us the victims of games of shadows and smoke.
Little, Brown; 432 pp., $14.99
George is an L.A.-based writer. She is the author of "After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame." She won a 2017 Grammy for her liner notes for "Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings."