Archive for the ‘Autobiography/Biography’ Category

Stephen Sondheim

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Stephen Sondheim: A Life” by Meryle Secrest, originally published in 1993. This is the biography of a Broadway composer who was born in spring of 1930.

In 1946, when Sondheim was attending Williams College, he was finally accepted to a fraternity on his third attempt. Many fraternities automatically prejudged people who had last names that were perceived as Jewish, and rejected them. Throughout this entire book, there was mention of neither Sondheim’s religious observances, if any, nor of his beliefs. Nevertheless, in the spring of 1948, Sondheim religiously wrote more than twenty musical numbers for a show that parodied the school.

After graduation, Sondheim wrote an entire musical. Oscar Hammerstein, a family friend in his childhood, became his mentor. He taught Sondheim that “an author was not writing to satisfy himself… or even the actors… His main consideration should be how to relate the work to the audience’s experience… if the sympathies of the audience were not engaged, it did not matter how brilliant the work was.” The musical, on the initial draft, was angry and bitter, and had no likeable characters– they were all jerks. This blogger is reminded of various unfunny works of that nature: the plays, “Art” and “Some Americans Abroad” and the TV shows, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Office.”

On a more entertaining note, Sondheim also invented a board game called “Stardom” in which players have sex with show-business celebrities in order to reach the peak of the social ladder. There were different levels of fame and real properties (like in Monopoly) of stars’ homes. However, a player would regress when an opposing player leaked a rumor of a love affair to a gossip columnist.

Sondheim’s score of West Side Story (both a musical and a movie-musical) became popular largely due to the movie’s expensive ad campaign; people had a chance to get to like it. Absent the making of the movie, the songs would have languished in obscurity.

In 1960, Sondheim bought a house in the Turtle Bay section (East 40′s) of Manhattan, five stories high, for $115,000. It was next door to Katharine Hepburn’s. He and the other creators of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” learned from producer/director Jerome Robbins that the opening number of a musical is crucial for setting the tone for the whole show, so it must be likeable and indicative of the nature of the show.

At age 29, Sondheim formed his own publishing company in order to make significantly more money than other composers. By age 32, he had three hit Broadway shows under his belt. During his career, he wrote more than eight hundred songs.

Read the book to learn the rest of the intimate details of Sondheim’s life.

Toughing It Out

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Toughing It Out” by Claire Reed, published in 2012. This ebook is the autobiography of a “shrinking violet” turned political activist.

Reed was born in Brooklyn, New York in the late 1920′s into a relatively wealthy Jewish family typical for its generation. Her parents cared not a whit for her education, allowing her to miss school to spend time out-of-town with her wealthy friends. Her mother was an especially bad influence, conditioning her to believe that she should simply marry a rich man to have a good life. After the deaths of various of her relatives within a few years, and lacking income-producing skills and self-confidence, she was obliged to get married.

The author illustrates the American mentality of the rich in the immediate Postwar Era through several anecdotes on herself and her sexist husband, who was like her late father. One example involved a fur coat– the material object a wife needed to wear as a symbol of a husband’s ability to provide for his family and of his masculinity.

Read the book to learn how Reed overcame her low-self esteem problem, came to play a vital role in Congresswoman Bella Abzug’s political activities and came into her own as a productive member of society.

The Courage of Strangers

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “The Courage of Strangers” by Jeri Laber, published in 2002. This autobiography describes the making of a passionate human rights activist.

The author grew up in privileged surroundings in New York City, in the Sunnyside section of Queens, and Jamaica Estates when the wealthy suburban enclave was in its infancy. This was because her Russian father was a multi-skilled home builder with his own business. On the family’s newly-constructed home: “Back in 1936, it was a technological wonder, with central air-conditioning, a built-in room-to-room intercom system, garage doors that opened automatically, and, buried under the steep cobblestone driveway, wires that heated up to melt the snow.”

In the early 1950′s, Laber wanted to study Russian in graduate school, but her father objected partly because it was the McCarthy Era, and because he felt over-education would hurt her chances for marriage. She defied him. In 1954, she got the opportunity to visit Moscow with three other students. Their tour guides tightly restricted their activities, allowing them to visit only tourist sites, and Moscow State University. She recorded her impressions of the people she met, including, “They have replaced God with Lenin and Stalin…These people are healthy and happy, as long as they conform.”

Excuse the cliche, but “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” At that time, there was the “Military-Industrial Complex.” Now there is the “Military-Corporate Complex.” However, world annihilation via nuclear war was the biggest fear in the 1950′s. The continuing increase in global oppression via telecommunications and other underhanded means is the biggest fear in the early 2000′s.

The author was an eyewitness to the different speeds at which different countries threw off their communist yoke, as she visited various countries behind the Iron Curtain in turn. She writes that people in the former Soviet Union had lived under communism for decades longer than their Eastern bloc counterparts. The older ones residing in the latter had known a better quality of life prior to Soviet takeover. “They looked around them and saw corrupt, repressive governments, failing economies, contaminated water, polluted air, alcoholism, and apathy.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Read the book to learn of Laber’s career adventures in Eastern Europe, her checkered love life, the difference she made at meetings with top Soviet leaders and others by speaking out against injustice, and Eastern Europe’s radical political and social changes in the 1990′s.

My Mistake

Monday, July 21st, 2014

The Book of the Week is “My Mistake” by Daniel Menaker, published in 2013. This is the autobiography of a well-educated Northeastern American male typical for his generation who, born in the 1940′s, entered the publishing profession. However, his mother was exceptional for her generation in that she was an editor at Fortune magazine.

At the then-academically rigorous Swarthmore College, during spring of his senior year, Menaker was “… taking Honors exams– eight three-hour written exams and eight oral exams, all administered by professors from other colleges.” He spent most of his career at The New Yorker, and then switched to Random House about a year after Tina Brown took over the magazine in 1992. He wrote that she halved the quantity of fictional stories appearing in the publication and employees of both the fiction and nonfiction sections competed with each other in kissing up to her to get their pieces published.

Read the book to learn the details of Menaker’s work, of a traumatic event involving his older brother, and his bout with cancer.

Louis Renault, A Biography

Sunday, July 13th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Louis Renault, A Biography” by Anthony Rhodes, published in 1969.

Renault, an automobile extrepreneur, was born in February 1877. When he began his career, there were only two classes of any real importance in France– the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. Renault sold vehicles initially for commercial purposes like taxis, public buses and milk delivery trucks.

By 1905, there were 22 intensely competing European automakers. The year 1908 saw six-cylinder engines made by eight French, ten American, three Belgian and one German manufacturer. In 1909, Renault sold his cars in New York. The goal was to sell 1,200 to 1,500 of them.

In the 1920′s, Citroen, Renault’s chief rival, employed many women in his factories. He condutcted an ongoing direct-marketing campaign, mailing letters to potential first-time and new car buyers who had visited the local showroom and expressed interest in a purchase. He also made toy models of his cars for kids. Renault and Citroen competed in starting bus lines between cities in France. Citroen was taken over by Michelin after going bankrupt in 1935.

Read the book to learn of Renault’s accumulation of wealth, his company’s corporate culture and labor troubles, what transpired among automakers during the World Wars and through the decades, and how history dealt Renault a serious blow toward the end of his life.

Dirty Daddy

Sunday, June 29th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Dirty Daddy” by Bob Saget. This is a tell-all autobiography. Some people are shocked to learn of Saget’s stand-up comedy persona–all toilet and sex jokes– because they knew him only as the goody-goody father of three young daughters on the 1980′s American sitcom “Full House.”

Saget writes that the development of his dirty image was influenced by his father, a butcher, who had a lively, shameless sense of humor. He rambles on a little too long about relationships– his own, and in general. Nevertheless, one should read this book to learn about the people and experiences that shaped his life through his gratuitous name-dropping and lighthearted anecdotes, if one can stomach occasionally repulsive scenes.

Bonus Post

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico” by Jorge Garcia Robles, translated by Daniel C. Schechter, published in 2006.

The author William S. Burroughs was of the “Beat” generation of the 1950′s. Such people engaged in an unconventional lifestyle, as they were artists and writers. Many took drugs and consumed alcohol in large quantities. In 1949, Burroughs and his wife Joan moved to Mexico, where there was lots of vice and corruption. He was a heroin addict and she was an alcoholic. They had a son and a daughter.

Read the book to learn the minutiae of the family’s lifestyle, and the untoward occurrence that engendered much grief for everyone involved.

I Stooged to Conquer

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

The Book of the Week is “I Stooged to Conquer” by Moe Howard, published in 2013. This is the autobiography of the longest-time member of the comedy-movie troupe “The Three Stooges.”

“When I was a teenager, everyone interested in fairs, circuses, Broadway theater, vaudeville, and the stock companies read Billboard magazine.” In March 1914, the fourteen-year old Moe (full name Moses), living in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn with his family, answered a help-wanted ad for a movie actor in Jackson, Mississippi. He got the job through deception and fast-talking.

With persistence and talent for comedy, Moe broke into vaudeville. He assembled a blackface act with his brother Shemp and others through the years. On one occasion, as a prank, he grew a bushy beard on the right side of his face while shaving the other, and his brother, the left.  They horrified strangers on the street and embarrassed their mother.

In 1917, Moe and Shemp were able to work on vaudeville for both RKO and Loew’s simultaneously by appearing in blackface for the former, and whiteface for the latter. The very first version of the Three Stooges was called “Ted Healy and His Three Southern Gentlemen” and included Moe, Shemp and Larry– unrelated to the Howard brothers. They picked up Curly– another Howard brother– to replace Shemp, when they started making movies in 1930. Healy, the leader, swindled the group for years, receiving more than ten times the salary he paid the group.

Read the book to learn how Moe and his comedy partners also got swindled by Columbia Pictures; of their adventures in movies that continued into the early 1950′s; the sudden deaths of three of them; and what their pay had risen to by the late 1950′s.

The Education of a Coach

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “The Education of a Coach” by David Halberstam, published in 2005. This ebook describes the career of Bill Belichick, eventual head coach of two different professional American football teams from the 1990′s into the 2000′s. His excellence at analyzing films of players in action was instrumental in assembling winning teams and Super Bowl victories.

Job security is poor for coaching positions in college sports departments and in professional sports. There are many factors out of the control of the personnel, and networking is crucial for obtaining the next job, often in a different city. A newly installed athletic director could fire the head coach, and the assistant coaches would have to leave with him. Players could get injured or the team owner could interfere with the coaching of the team. Egos are big and the system for how players are chosen for professional football teams has changed over the decades.

Read the book to learn how Belichick rose to the top and why he ran into trouble in Cleveland but achieved tremendous success in New England.

Bonus Post

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

This blogger skimmed the book, “So Far, So Good– The First 94 Years” by Roy Neuberger, published in 1997. This is Neuberger’s autobiography. He was born in July 1903. His father was 52 at the time. He was nine when his mother died and thirteen when his father died. His sister Ruth was twelve years older than he was.

In the winter, he would ice skate on the flooded tennis courts of Columbia University in Manhattan. Neuberger inherited lots of money from his father, who had been a successful businessman. He dropped out of New York University after a year because he felt he wasn’t learning enough to justify staying to join the tennis team when permitted to– in sophomore year.

In October 1929, Neuberger worked to record stock transactions via pencil and paper for a clearinghouse. The market at that time was open for two hours on Saturday. The borrowing power allowed for a margin account in the late 1920′s was 1000% but at the time of release of Neuberger’s book, it was only 100%.

Neuberger & Berman– the investment-managing business started by the author in December 1940– bought a computer in 1967, costing $1.5 million. It needed sixty people to run it, but was worth the cost because in 1970, “… five of the ten largest Wall Street brokerage firms failed, in part because they couldn’t keep up with the volume of trading.” And the market closed at 3pm in those days.

Read the book to learn of how Neuberger, along with his contemporaries amassed tremendous wealth and privilege, and a giant collection of fine art.