Archive for the ‘Autobiography/Biography’ Category

Even This I Get To Experience

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Even This I Get to Experience” by Norman Lear, published in 2014. This is the autobiography of an alpha male.

Lear had a difficult childhood– had conflicted feelings about his irrationally optimistic, charismatic yet swindling father, and emtionally distant, narcissistic mother. He was: a creative intellectual typical for his generation, an excellent judge of people, and astute about human nature. He wrote comedic scripts with a partner starting in the 1940′s, when it was easy to get in touch with the performers of comic material.

Later, the workaholic author wrote and produced the TV sitcoms that characterized and changed the zeitgeist of America in the 1970′s. He created controversial dialogue and episode plots on ethnicity, religion and sex on “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons.” He learned that a fairly small number of fanatically religious people could cause CBS to phobically censor his work. However, at the first attempt of the network to stifle him, Lear stood his ground because if he didn’t, he knew the TV-ratings-obsessed (and money-from-advertisers-obsessed) “suits” or an ideological actor, would win all arguments from then on. More than once, situations became so heated, he threatened to quit.

From the mid to late 1970′s onward, Lear became politically active, meeting with politicans and starting his own patriotic groups. He also submitted all sorts of ideas for campaigns but, he writes, “… no matter how sincerely they seemed to listen, or how grateful they were for suggestions they couldn’t wait to put into effect, no one ever acted on a single idea I ever presented, not ever. Every bit of contact following versions of that speech had to do with my checkbook and my Rolodex.” This blogger thinks that in this area, perhaps the author naively failed to realize that a number of factors needed to come together for him to succeed: timing (his ideas needed to be recognized during an election year), money (he should have made a sufficient donation to the campaign); and content (his ideas needed to be on hot-button issues).

Please note: the book’s last section is a name-dropping bragfest. Granted, the man has bragging rights and is not an “outlier” by any stretch of Malcolm Gladwell’s definition. Lastly, unfortunately, this book lacks an index. But read the book to learn the details of: Lear’s trials and tribuations with the above, his acquaintances with U.S. presidents and entertainers, his business ventures, and his families, consisting of six children he had with three different women.

Bonus Post

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

This blogger read “So, Anyway…” by John Cleese. The author initially thought he was going to be an attorney, actually acquiring a legal education. But he changed his mind and became a comedy writer.

Cleese is a rare bird, in that he possesses capacity for analytical thinking and comedic absurdity in equal measure– the former has kept him sane, and the latter has made him funny.

The author had the luck of entering the field of British television comedy around 1960 when it was in its infancy. He worked with David Frost– a TV executive who undeservedly grabbed writing credits by listing his name first in large letters on his own show, while there were tens of other writers, contributors of original material, whose names appeared in small type thereafter. Cleese comments that people harbored little or no jealousy over this because Frost had a hands-off management style, never said a mean word about anyone, ignored his immature critics, and sincerely believed people were cheering for him rather than trying to cut him down.

The author, a major contributor to the BBC TV show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and some funny movies, also writes, “I regarded swearing as a form of cheating, a lazy way of getting a laugh out of material that wasn’t intrinsically funny enough.”

Read the book to see Cleese’s other words of wisdom on comedy writing, and how he has been able to continuously contribute creative content to various shows through the decades– a major feat for someone with a career such as his.

The Real Deal

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

The Book of the Week is “The Real Deal, My Life in Business and Philanthropy” by Sanford Weill and Judah S. Kraushaar, published in 2006. This career memoir describes how, over the course of about fifty years, Weill became a major change agent in the American financial services industry. His specialty became leading the execution of mergers and acquistions for the investment, banking, and insurance companies of which he was an executive and board member.

In spring 1960, he started a securities brokerage, actually on Wall Street, with three partners. The stock market was bearish in 1962 and 1963. Interesting sidenote: “The typical stock in the Dow Index had a price 23 times its earnings as this downturn began, compared to a multiple of only 10 times in the early 1950s.”

Through the years, he gained more and more power and accumulated more and more wealth. When he attended events at which he had to speak to stockbrokers, he adopted a policy of brevity, saying, “You’ve heard enough speeches– what questions do you have for me?”

Although the author fostered a corporate culture of informality and “Management By Wandering Around” at his own company, in many instances, he failed to take into consideration the culture of the target company. His strengths lay more in bringing the top executives of the parties together to do the deals, and negotiating the new management structures. It was ironic that he was such a poor judge of how the two cultures would mesh once the integration process began.

At times, Weill tapped the power of his friends in high places, one of which was the government. It helped him change federal law to allow transactions to proceed. For instance, prior to 1999, certain banking and investment banking services could not be legally offered by the same company, due to financial conflicts and possibilities for abuses. He and his cohorts had a hand in making the historic change so that people within the same company could offer their clients all kinds of financial services.

Weill describes a whole bunch of instances that provided evidence for the necessity of strict financial auditing laws. In just a few years at the turn of the 21st Century, greed had spun out of control in the industry, leading to the accounting scandals of Enron and WorldCom, the dot-com crash, and a major hedge-fund crash that requried a bailout. A terrorist attack didn’t help, either. By 2002, the chickens had come home to roost in the form of a bear market. “The regulators, the press, and politicians of all stripes…” played “the game of pointing fingers.”

And yet Weill writes, “…governance rules mandated by Sarbanes-Oxley (enacted in summer 2002) made it seem likely that bureaucratic needs would trump the fun of the business.” He also complains that businesses would have to spend more money preparing their financial statements. Sorry about that, Mr. Weill. Yes, pesky, bureaucratic, expensive laws reining in greed are no fun.

Six years later– same song, different verse… a whole lot worse. Need it be said– The more things change, the more they stay the same. History will continue to repeat itself, given human nature.

Read the book to learn the details of Weill’s career ups and downs and trials and tribulations. This blogger skipped the last chapter, in which Weill merely rambles on stating his opinions, and the endnote, which is an interview with his wife, whom he lavishly praises as loving and supportive throughout this ebook.

Molly Ivins

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Molly Ivins” by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith, published in 2009. This is a biography of Molly Ivins– witty, brash journalist.

Born in 1944, Ivins was someone whom Malcolm Gladwell would characterize as an “outlier.” Her daddy was a social climber in the oil industry in Texas. The family was good friends with the political Bush family. They lived in the wealthy area of River Oaks. Ivins and her older sister and younger brother went sailing on her father’s yacht and their house had a swimming pool.

In the 1960′s and 1970′s, female journalists were relegated to writing about food, the country club and fashion. Except for Ivins. She did years-long stretches writing about urban issues and politics for newspapers in Minneapolis, New York and Austin. While at the New York Times, she wrote, “I am becoming a Yankees fan, that’s how low I’ve sunk.”

Ivins was morally repulsed by the conflicts journalists had. She thought objectivity in reporting was virtually useless. Her irreverent, wickedly funny articles, frequent participation in the nicotine- and alcohol-fueled social culture of journalists, and her generosity in her personal life earned her a large following.

Read the book to learn the details of how Ivins achieved her fame and eventual fortune.

Bonus Post

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

This blogger read Howie Mandel’s autobiography, “Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me” published in 2009.

Mandel has been a TV and movie actor, game show host and stand-up comedian. In this ebook, he reveals all of his psychological issues– ADHD, OCD, desperate need for attention, etc; “I was constantly consumed with my own pranks. I had no sense of boundaries.” Although his creative antics are amusing, he has poor impulse control. This has led to damaged relationships.

Read the book to learn how he became famous, despite, or arguably, due to his various mental and physical problems– he has used entertaining others as a coping mechanism to forget about the negative aspects of his identity.

All or Nothing

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “All or Nothing” by Jesse Schenker, published in 2014. This suspenseful, eloquently written ebook tells the exceptional life story of a member of America’s “Generation Y” who has beaten the odds for survival, considering his situation.

“I had two jobs and no place to stay, but I literally cared more about having drugs than even a roof over my head… at night I slept outside, swathed in a blanket of newspaper… ”

The author describes in vivid detail his ordeal in connection with substance abuse– of his own making– and how he got through it. He wrote that in Fort Lauderdale, sellers of illicit drugs diluted their wares with “… laxatives, Benadryl, sugar, starch, talc, brick dust, or even f–g Ajax” and how all junkies commit thievery against each other.

Schenker also recounts his experiences in the restaurant industry, where he encountered other addicts in the kitchen. The culture is also one of an abusive hierarchy; the justification for this is that everything must be perfect. On more than one occasion, when the author’s food preparation was less than perfect, he was loudly berated and had a tray with his creations violently thrown at his chest.

Read the book to learn how Schenker transferred his skills at manipulating other people, from getting high to getting his career in gear. Malcolm Gladwell would categorize him as an “outlier.”

Bonus Post

Monday, December 1st, 2014

This blogger skimmed “The Gentleman From New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan” by Godfrey Hodgson, published in 2000.

It is a long biography that details Moynihan’s careers as a Navy officer, sociological researcher and writer, Harvard professor, ambassador to the UN and four-term senator from New York State. Throughout, he received invaluable assistance from his wife, Liz.

In the early 1960′s Moynihan received a quality education, thanks to a scholarship and the GI Bill. He assisted several presidents, starting with JFK, in generating reports on social policy. Lyndon Johnson wanted to right the historic injustices of slavery and segregation. Moynihan was known as a thoughtful, moderately liberal Democrat.

After the Watts riots in the mid-1960′s, “urban studies” were trendy. Moynihan jumped on the bandwagon, teaching and writing about them. Professor James Coleman at Johns Hopkins University led a study of 570,000 children, 60,000 teachers and 4,000 schools, whose results were controversial. It found that student standardized test scores were higher when students were in classes with others who were more affluent and had better home environments than they; facilities and resources across schools were largely the same. A statistically significant number of the students who scored lower were of certain ethnic groups.

In 1966, Moynihan ran for president of the New York City Council, even though he and his family still lived in Washington D.C. In summer 1967, major urban areas in the U.S. saw rioting over Vietnam and racial tensions. Ironically, liberalism was the order of the day in the policies of legislation, political officeholders and reports from the media.

Moynihan shocked his contemporaries when he went to work for the Nixon White House in 1969. He and the president both wanted to implement solutions to American social and economic problems. He stayed a Democrat, though, and opposed the Vietnam War. Moynihan wrote a report that prompted accusations of racism, possibly due to misinterpretation. He suggested that people take a break from discussing racism, allowing the issues “benign neglect.” Amid the furor, a few people theorized that differences in “intelligence” between blacks and whites were due to genetics. He was still needled about his report decades later.

There is a bit of sloppy editing in the section describing the Moynihans’ and Clintons’ relationship in 1993. The latter were trying to push through the bill for national health care in the U.S. Moynihan repeatedly raised the issue that the costs of labor-intensive social programs, such as “… Medicaid doubled in the eight years of the Reagan administration, then doubled again in the eight (sic) years of the Bush administration.” That said, the following page might confuse readers when it says, “… slow the projected rate of growth in the cost of Medicare by one-half after years of double-digit growth…”

Nevertheless, read the book to learn everything you ever wanted to know about Moynihan’s viewpoints and writings.

Laughter’s Gentle Soul

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Laughter’s Gentle Soul, The Life of Robert Benchley” by Billy Altman, published in 1997. This is the biography of Robert Benchley, literary humorist and Hollywood writer and actor in the first half of the 20th century.

Born in 1889, Benchley had to pass a three-day battery of exams to get accepted to Harvard in 1908. He was known for witty, wiseass writing, and playing pranks. In the late nineteen teens, when the editor of Vanity Fair magazine went on vacation, Benchley and his coworkers dispersed “…outlandish banners, streamers, signs, crepe paper, and assorted parade paraphernalia” around the editor’s office. The editor was not amused when he returned.

In Benchley’s generation, the American populace read columns and essays in newspapers and magazines– major sources of information and entertainment then. Benchley was a member of the “Algonquin Round Table,” also called the “Vicious Circle” formally named in spring 1919. The group consisted of writers of various genres, leading ladies, artists and women’s rights activists. Its members regularly met at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City for dinner and drinks, and some, through connections with the super-wealthy, went on jaunts to Great Neck, Manhasset and Syosset on Long Island in New York State, and overseas, into the mid 1930′s.

In October 1923, the Algonquinites acquired a permit to play croquet in Central Park in New York City. They were incurable hedonists. In 1926, Benchley was best man at a friend’s wedding in California, at which he appeared with a broken leg he’d gotten from a fall at a party. “That the [plaster] cast had been profusely autographed with lewd comments by most of the guests at the bridegroom’s bachelor party only added to Benchley’s embarrassing popularity at the ceremonies.”

In 1928, an acquaintance of Benchley chartered a private plane to fly them from London to Paris. At that time, such aircraft was extremely noisy, even for the passengers, and there was no heat in the cabin.

Benchley became a Broadway theater critic for The New Yorker magazine. “With hundreds of productions surfacing each season, the theater critics of Benchley’s era had the ill fortune to confront, over and over, shows with identical or nearly identical plots, character types and even dialogue.”

Read the book to learn other details of Benchley’s professional and personal life on both coasts.

 

Sirio

Sunday, November 16th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Sirio, The Story of My Life and Le Cirque” by Sirio Maccioni and Peter Elliot, published in 2004.

Sirio, born in spring 1932, came from a poor family in the resort city of Montecatini in Tuscany. His immediate family members could read, unlike most other people his family knew. His father had been a multi-lingual concierge who worked long hours at a hotel. His uncles worked long hours on the farm. Since he was orphaned at an early age, and was short on education, he felt his career options were limited. He therefore fell into the role of waiter at a hotel restaurant. In the 1930′s, waiters were required to dress elegantly, be multilingual and actually prepare food in front of diners at the table.

In the 1950′s, Sirio was receiving training the traditional French way as a hotel chef. But he was part of a trend later labeled “nouvelle cuisine”– meaning preparing food creatively– putting a regional, personal touch on the food. “…And they [the chefs] refused to treat people badly… Paris was still ruled by the hotel mentality.”

The French had an elitist system whereby the trainees slaved away long hours and were bullied unmercifully so only the most dedicated ones survived. If they were courageous, they started their own restaurants and repeated the cycle with their underlings. As was common for aspiring chefs of his generation, Sirio paid his dues in a few different European cities. In the 1960′s, he basically played the role of greeter at an upscale hotel restaurant in New York. He was skillful at this job, given his diplomatic temperament with the rich and famous diners.

Sirio has these words of wisdom for the reader: “There’s a saying, ‘The customer is always right.’ Not true. Not always. The customer always gets what he wants. Very different. All I do is try to understand what they want.” and “You know, if you talk to a real man, not a phony, they tell you where and how they learn things… So many chefs I know just pretend to know things… Many times in the kitchen they don’t want to learn anything at all, especially not from an owner…”

Read the book to learn how Sirio finally got to run a restaurant of his own; of the chefs he employed (including his falling-out with Daniel Boulud who behaved  unprofessionally at the end); his adventures in the business; and how Sirio’s co-author gets a bit full of Sirio when he boldly proclaims, “By 1981 Le Cirque was the most famous restaurant in the world.”

God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked” by Darrell Hammond, published in 2011. This ebook is the autobiography of a professional entertainer who recounts how he has dealt with his serious psychological problems.

As a versatile impressionist of celebrities, Hammond made appearances on the TV show “Saturday Night Live” for about a decade and a half, starting in 1995. He describes the show’s people thusly: “…an incredible staff of Emmy winners– hair, make-up, costumes, writers, producers.”

Hammond grew up in Melbourne, Florida, and moved to the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City as an adult. He erroneously writes that the Javits Center is at Forty-Second Street– an easy error to make for even clear-headed New Yorkers, as the city has so many famous points of interest; keeping their locations straight is a tough job.

However, from his twenties to his fifties, the author was often drunk, high, cutting himself, and/or trying to escape uncomfortable feelings in other ways that resulted in his taking various medications (some self-prescribed), numerous emergency room visits and psychiatric hospital stays. This was because, in his childhood, Hammond experienced extreme psychological and physical abuse at the hands of his mother, and was witness to the violent behavior of his father, a veteran of two wars. Hammond concisely states that he was plagued by alcoholism and trauma– a progressively fatal combination.

Hammond naively went from one psychiatrist to the next, each one misdiagnosing the cause of his behavior by labeling it as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc.  This way, they could write prescriptions for anti-psychotic drugs for him. They were afraid he would commit suicide on their watch, so it was safer for them to minimize his ability to harm himself.

Read the book to learn of: how Hammond beat the odds despite his problems; what happened when he finally found a competent doctor; the three kinds of bipolar disorder; and intimate details of the culture of Saturday Night Live.