The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth

The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth

On the South Side of Chicago in 1974, Linda Taylor reported a phony burglary, concocting a lie about stolen furs and jewelry. The detective who checked it out soon discovered she was a welfare cheat who drove a Cadillac to collect ill-gotten government checks. And that was just the beginning: Taylor, it turned out, was also a kidnapper, and possibly a murderer. A desperate...

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Title:The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth
Author:Josh Levin
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The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth Reviews

  • Kusaimamekirai

    Before getting into this review, it is perhaps important to emphasize that I in no way sympathize with the subject of this book. Linda Taylor cheated the state of Illinois and the federal government out of an untold amount of money over 50 years of criminal activity. She was a habitual liar, child trafficker, kidnapper, manipulator, con artist, and quite possibly a murderer as well. She may very well be one of the more reprehensible people I’ve read about in a long time. And yet….

    For all the

    Before getting into this review, it is perhaps important to emphasize that I in no way sympathize with the subject of this book. Linda Taylor cheated the state of Illinois and the federal government out of an untold amount of money over 50 years of criminal activity. She was a habitual liar, child trafficker, kidnapper, manipulator, con artist, and quite possibly a murderer as well. She may very well be one of the more reprehensible people I’ve read about in a long time. And yet….

    For all the aforementioned crimes, they all went mostly unnoticed during the mid 1970’s in a heated Republican presidential primary with the exception of one. Linda Taylor became the “Welfare Queen”. Without her name being mentioned personally, then candidate Ronald Reagan and the Republican party took the admittedly shameless exploits of one woman and made her into a symbol of poor Blacks ripping off the system (i.e. white people). Wherever Reagan went he would evoke “the woman in Chicago with 100 aliases, 30 addresses, and 14 children who has stolen 150,000 dollars”. That Taylor had closer to 10 aliases, a handful of fake addresses, somewhere around 7-8 children (some not her own which she used to defraud the government), and had stolen an indeterminate amount of money doesn’t excuse her behavior, but they didn’t match Reagan’s incendiary claims or represent the millions who relied on welfare for their survival. Of course having even slight factual claims to hold up Taylor as the system’s rule rather than its exception gave Reagan license to make up other stories wholesale from around the country, all in coded language to remind white voters what poor blacks were doing to them. When he would be called on these claims he would always come back to “The woman in Chicago….”

    Taylor for her part was no shrinking violet. Rather, she was the textbook definition of audacity. Leaving the courthouse and going directly to rob a former roommate in broad daylight is one example that comes to mind (who does that?!), forcibly confining an old woman (and possibly murdering her to steal her dead husband’s pension) is another.

    Taylor with her cadilacs, furs, and outlandish hats, seemed to symbolize everything opportunistic politicians and White America saw wrong with welfare and the Black faces they were told were abusing it. That she was a kidnapper, and possibly a murderer as well didn’t interest anyone. She was Black and gaming the system at your expense. That is all that mattered.

    That the majority of welfare recipients were White and poor was immaterial. Reagan was able to use the outrage her case generated and fan the flames of racial and class animosity to his political advantage.

    This however is ultimately the story of a changing America where sympathy for the most needy began to erode and politicians looking to exploit the sentiment attached hitched their wagons to a shameless, corrupt, and flamboyant con woman.

    It is a story with few heroes, and rife with odious villains.

    It is a story of greed, excess, lies, racial animus, and the very worst of what America can be when it is fed endless news cycles of fear and hate.

    It is a fascinating story without a doubt but one that, while over 40 years old, seems all too familiar.

  • Jill Meyer

    In 1975, during his first run for the Republican Presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan (from his team of advisors) came up with the term "Welfare Queen". These words denoted a black woman who has connived and cheated the United States' program of welfare, aid-to-dependent-children, and other social programs that were for the "deserving poor", The "Queen" was driving around in her Cadillac, stopping at the supermarket where she'll use her food stamps to buy caviar and expensive cuts of steak, wa

    In 1975, during his first run for the Republican Presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan (from his team of advisors) came up with the term "Welfare Queen". These words denoted a black woman who has connived and cheated the United States' program of welfare, aid-to-dependent-children, and other social programs that were for the "deserving poor", The "Queen" was driving around in her Cadillac, stopping at the supermarket where she'll use her food stamps to buy caviar and expensive cuts of steak, washing it all down with Dom Perignon. And, she was, of course, wearing her full length mink coat. This "Welfare Queen" actually had a name. She was "Linda Taylor", and she lived on the South Side of Chicago.

    But, who was "Linda Taylor"? Journalist Josh Levin spent six years tracking down "Linda Taylor", with all her aliases and lies, and has written a book, "The Queen", with his findings. His book is an exhaustive look at "Taylor" - she was known to have about 25 aliases - and the methods she used to break the system of social programs. I bet that Levin needed an spreadsheet to keep up with the aliases Taylor used in her 50 years of deception. This deception also included fake children, stolen children, bigamy, possible murders, one possible kidnapping, and just all-around wickedness. He also looks at the society in which she was raised and how she was treated by her own birth relatives.

    Linda Taylor was not a black woman; it was thought that her mother was white and had had an affair with a black man. When Taylor was born in the mid-1920's, she really didn't have much more than a small idea of her identity. She was light skin and that allowed her to adopt almost any racial identity she wanted. Sometimes she claimed to be white, sometimes black, and sometimes Hispanic. She even had a Jewish husband or name somewhere along the line; "Steinberg" pops up in her list of aliases.

    Josh Levin's book is a long read. It is 350 pages of details of names and places and alternate identities. Levin thoughtfully puts in a timeline of Linda Taylor's life in the back, and I sure hope the release copies will include pictures, because I'd just love to see some of the people he writes about. I enjoyed the book because it is one of my favorite type of book - a work of non-fiction written like a work of fiction. Be sure to have access to Wikipedia when you're reading the book.

  • Abby Morris

    This book was excellent. I am blown away by the skill it took to write a book about a real person that you absolutely despise and also sympathize with. Yes, this woman is a con artist and a criminal. But Levin turned the questions back to the reader about what we have done as a people to create situations like these. The nation goes into panic at a welfare cheat, but not that children in our country go hungry everyday. The story isn’t really about Linda Taylor at all. It is about us.

  • James Carmichael

    I received a galley copy of this book because I know the author. It's as good as you've (hopefully) heard. You've perhaps also heard the basics: the story Levin tells is about Linda Taylor, the woman on whom the political trope of the "welfare queen" was based.

    What I so enjoyed was how deftly the book tells, essentially, two parallel stories: the political one, which is about the cynical use of a racist trope to further the electoral chances and domestic political agenda of Ronald Reagan and the

    I received a galley copy of this book because I know the author. It's as good as you've (hopefully) heard. You've perhaps also heard the basics: the story Levin tells is about Linda Taylor, the woman on whom the political trope of the "welfare queen" was based.

    What I so enjoyed was how deftly the book tells, essentially, two parallel stories: the political one, which is about the cynical use of a racist trope to further the electoral chances and domestic political agenda of Ronald Reagan and the Reagan-era GOP -- this story has all the carelessness about factuality and dog-whistling and dubious claims one might expect of a mainstream American politician at this point (or that point. whatever. you get it).

    And the second story, which is the true crime story of what Linda Taylor actually was and did which is both sad and totally bonkers. It's hard to talk about this book without a phrase like "welfare fraud turned out to be the least of her crimes": not only is that definitely true, but the nature, extent, and...existential depth of her criminal nature is breathtaking (in a bad way). With crisp prose that's even occasionally funny, Levin unearths Taylor's lifelong string of lies and of victims -- people she took advantage of with theft, identity fraud, and perhaps much much worse...by all accounts apparently throughout her whole life.

    The book also delicately threads a tough needle: it presents the ways in which Taylor herself was victimized--most specifically by racial and gender bias, including with her own family--without ever letting its acknowledgment of these facts mitigate the toll her crimes took on her victims or the portrait of her as a dangerous sociopath that ultimately emerges.

    This makes the book a bit bigger than either of its two--already big--stories. It's a sad book; it's an exciting book, and an 'easy' read in a good sense in that it zips along. But it's sad because it's about lying and the low place of truth in our lives; it's about the awful costs that bias and entrenched inequalities have exacted on people in this country since forever; it's about victimization in our society. It's an exciting, strange read of a story that feels like an 'outlier' narrative (and indeed, is a pretty wild narrative) but that--for me--was anchored in a melancholy reflection on all the ways we can be bad.

    I can't recommend the thing highly enough.

  • Kevin Maney

    I cannot recommend this book highly enough. On a basic level, this is an absolute page turner. The author has clearly put in years of hard work trying to piece together a life of someone with no desire to be known. Linda Taylor will be familiar to any reader as the inspiration for Ronald Reagan's "Welfare Queen," hence the title, but the author has uncovered a story that is 10x more incredible than you could imagine. It defies summary in this space, so I'll just emphasize that once you pick it u

    I cannot recommend this book highly enough. On a basic level, this is an absolute page turner. The author has clearly put in years of hard work trying to piece together a life of someone with no desire to be known. Linda Taylor will be familiar to any reader as the inspiration for Ronald Reagan's "Welfare Queen," hence the title, but the author has uncovered a story that is 10x more incredible than you could imagine. It defies summary in this space, so I'll just emphasize that once you pick it up you will not be able to put it down.

    What makes this book particularly fantastic other than the obviously entertaining story is that Mr. Levin takes particular care to frame the story in the context of what it means for society. The "welfare queen" was not only a cheap example to rile up voters, it became an incredibly harmful stereotype that stuck to poor black women. When you read this book you cannot help but relate it to the current political climate and how that developed over years.

    Buy this book, if it isn't in the works already, you can bet this story will be made into a movie, it's that compelling!

  • Scott S.

    -- lyrics from the song

    by Guy Drake (1970)

    Sports and technology journalist / editor Josh Levin's excellent debut as a book author is a triple-threat of a story, combining near-equal parts true crime, politics, and sociology. The unemployed "Welfare Queen" mother known as Linda Taylor - although she was actually born Martha White, and additionally had scores of aliases throughout her life - was briefly a househo

    -- lyrics from the song

    by Guy Drake (1970)

    Sports and technology journalist / editor Josh Levin's excellent debut as a book author is a triple-threat of a story, combining near-equal parts true crime, politics, and sociology. The unemployed "Welfare Queen" mother known as Linda Taylor - although she was actually born Martha White, and additionally had scores of aliases throughout her life - was briefly a household name in the mid-to-late 70's. She gained notoriety for the discovery (due to some good police work by a dogged but also modest Chicago PD investigator) of her years-long shady bilking of the welfare system in Illinois and Michigan. She was so proficient in her scamming that she owned multiple vehicles and residences from the $50,000+ she improperly obtained from government aid just in the Chicago area. During and after her prosecution and imprisonment she was of course demonized by the political right, best exemplified by presidential candidate Ronald Reagan's derisive mention of her in his many speeches.

    But was there more to Taylor? Absolutely - in a few good but mostly

    bad ways. Taylor was not just a repeat con artist-type thief but a burglar, a child kidnapper, and very possibly a murderer (in three separate incidents), too. The trail of her activities - from her first arrest in 1944 until her final one 50 years later (!) - indicates this was likely one stone-cold unrepentant and irredeemable person.

    Yet author Levin delves deeply as possible into Taylor's checkered past, and while not letting her off the hook there are some nature vs. nurture elements in her troubled and unusual childhood which may partially explain why she chose her path in life. You won't come away forgiving or condoning this woman's law-breaking actions, but it does offer a shred of understanding to her criminal career.

  • Betty

    The Queen is a fascinating book revealing the life and crimes of Linda Taylor, a Chicago woman who spawned the myth of the infamous welfare queen. While Taylor was undoubtedly a welfare cheat, she was also a kidnapper and perhaps even a murderer... but the welfare fraud was the only thing anyone seemed to care about.

    I think it's safe to say it's unlikely to live in America without ever hearing the phrase "welfare queen". As soon as the topic of welfare programs is raised online, dozens of angry

    The Queen is a fascinating book revealing the life and crimes of Linda Taylor, a Chicago woman who spawned the myth of the infamous welfare queen. While Taylor was undoubtedly a welfare cheat, she was also a kidnapper and perhaps even a murderer... but the welfare fraud was the only thing anyone seemed to care about.

    I think it's safe to say it's unlikely to live in America without ever hearing the phrase "welfare queen". As soon as the topic of welfare programs is raised online, dozens of angry people rush in to talk about people who are cheating the system, and sooner or later, someone will throw out the derogatory term. Having seen it hundreds of times over the years, I often wondered if there was any truth behind the phrase or not.... which is why it was important to me to read this book.

    It's impossible to briefly touch on all the crimes committed by Linda Taylor (one of her many aliases) in this review. Suffice to say it was shocking to see how the least of her crimes garnered the most attention, and disheartening to know how the mythos of the welfare queen lingers on, engendering distrust of the poor and, particularly, poor people of color.

    The Queen is well-researched and written in an easy-to-read style. Simultaneously intriguing and disturbing, the life and crimes of Linda Taylor will linger in your memory for quite some time.

    I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.

  • Kasa Cotugno

    Linda Taylor, who from any point of view had no ethical compass whatsoever, managed with little accountability to live an entire life rife with crime, her welfare scams being the least of her actions. She became a tool for the Reagan administration, held up to the public as the embodiment of fraud, thusly demonizing actual poverty stricken black women in the eyes of the voting public. I went into this thinking I'd read about a scoundrel, a rascal, someone who could on some level be sympathized w

    Linda Taylor, who from any point of view had no ethical compass whatsoever, managed with little accountability to live an entire life rife with crime, her welfare scams being the least of her actions. She became a tool for the Reagan administration, held up to the public as the embodiment of fraud, thusly demonizing actual poverty stricken black women in the eyes of the voting public. I went into this thinking I'd read about a scoundrel, a rascal, someone who could on some level be sympathized with. No. She was an opportunist whose actions had far reaching consequences, and who never expressed any remorse for the fallout that ensued.

  • Nenia ⭐ Literary Garbage Can ⭐ Campbell

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    A lot of us are familiar with the phrase, "Welfare Queen." It's a phrase conservative people like to toss around as a reason to deny people food stamps or government-subsidized care, because low-income people might use the tax dollars to buy caviar and a yacht. Never mind the fact that it's actually pretty difficult to defraud most food programs, especially SNAP (having worked in retail), where registers will not even let you ring up non-el

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    A lot of us are familiar with the phrase, "Welfare Queen." It's a phrase conservative people like to toss around as a reason to deny people food stamps or government-subsidized care, because low-income people might use the tax dollars to buy caviar and a yacht. Never mind the fact that it's actually pretty difficult to defraud most food programs, especially SNAP (having worked in retail), where registers will not even let you ring up non-eligible items.

    THE QUEEN is about the woman who contributed to the coining of the phrase, and ironically, the welfare fraud was the least of her crimes. Racism got her on the hook for the crimes but, even more ironically, racism prevented her from being charged for the more serious of what she did-- potential murder, estate fraud, and even kidnapping. Linda Taylor was an ethnically ambiguous woman who was operating under multiple aliases, laying claim to various ethnic heritage, and had numerous spouses and children-- imaginary and not-- in order to get thousands of dollars from the government, and live an outrageous and incredible lifestyle.

    I was surprised by the length of this book (almost 400 pages with the bibliography and the sources), and wondered how this woman's life and crimes could possibly fill a whole book. The first half is pretty good and it's clear how much time and effort Josh Levin poured in to researching THE QUEEN, from the police officer who helped bring her down, to Ronald Reagan's staunchly adversarial approach to government aid, to Linda Taylor herself, a woman who was easy to paint as the villain to an aggrieved populace that was becoming increasingly aware of the wage disparity between the top earners and the bottom earners as poverty itself became a partisan issue.

    Linda Taylor is a fascinating individual and while I don't support what she did at all, it was interesting to see how she was able to get away with her crimes. Social media has allowed for a different kind of fraud, so it was kind of eye-opening to see that people have been doing such scams for years, albeit in a different way (and maybe in a way that was slower to catch without the instantaneous nature of the internet). She played cat and mouse with the newspaper reporters and the detectives chasing her in plain sight for years, seemingly assured that she would never face any real consequences, and the public interest in her case ended up making her a byword for people who were willing to cheat the system and a scapegoat for the crime to satisfy a xenophobic and tight-fisted population.

    The second half of the book is much slower, as it's about Linda Taylor's actual history, childhood, and then, later, her life after the trial that ended up making her (in)famous. This part was dull and felt more like an opportunity for the author to show off his research, and was not very interesting or engaging. THE QUEEN could have been a much shorter book, and a much more effective book because of it, but instead, Levin chose to draw things out and ruin the effect he started with the first half of THE QUEEN. I ended the book feeling dissatisfied and bored.

    Overall, I would say that this is an interesting glimpse into the 1960s/70s, as well as the inherent racism that was still quite prominent in the system, and it gives the story behind one of the go-to dog-whistling terms that is thrown around to this day with the relevant historical context removed.

    2 stars

  • Pamela

    A fascinating introduction into the construction of the "welfare queen" myth, and the almost desperate need for some Americans to believe in her existence in order to justify cutting aid to the poor. In addition to providing that social history, Levin investigates Linda Taylor's real life, the life obscured by the myth, which was far darker, corrupt, and dangerous than Reagan could have believed. It's telling that Taylor's real victims—vulnerable women, innocent children—have been all but forgot

    A fascinating introduction into the construction of the "welfare queen" myth, and the almost desperate need for some Americans to believe in her existence in order to justify cutting aid to the poor. In addition to providing that social history, Levin investigates Linda Taylor's real life, the life obscured by the myth, which was far darker, corrupt, and dangerous than Reagan could have believed. It's telling that Taylor's real victims—vulnerable women, innocent children—have been all but forgotten, whereas her supposed victims—kind American taxpayers!—were never all that threatened.

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