Archive for the ‘Autobiography/Biography’ Category

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.

Bonus Post

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

This blogger skimmed “Man Up!” by Ross Mathews, published in 2013. This ebook is the autobiography of the guy best known for appearing as “Ross the Intern” on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Read this bunch of lighthearted anecdotes to learn of the author’s relationships with various female celebrities, the life lessons he was subjected to in high school and college, and how he became famous.

Drama

Sunday, October 12th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Drama: An Actor’s Education” by John Lithgow, published in 2011. This ebook is Lithgow’s autobiography.

The author has had a very successful acting career in theater, TV and movies. He learned from his father– a super role model and passionate producer of Shakespeare festivals. His father’s career necessitated the family’s relocating every few years, from Ohio to Massachusetts to New Jersey and elsewhere; a disruptive force in his social life. Nevertheless, Lithgow earned a full scholarship to Harvard, where he continued to hone his acting skills.

Read the book to learn how the author escaped the Vietnam draft, about his 1970′s theater experiences in twelve Broadway shows, his explanation of why actors have trouble staying faithful in their love lives, and his professional and personal trials and tribulations.

Idea Man

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Idea Man” by Paul Allen, published in 2011. This autobiographical ebook’s author is best known as the co-founder of Microsoft, and one of the world’s wealthiest people.

This is not exactly a career memoir, because he gives only an overview of his eight years with the company– from which he withdrew as an employee– and the rest of the book is devoted to his other life experiences. It appears that the amount of information he chose to provide on his short tenure with the software company is insufficient to fill an entire book, so he supplements with his: investments in sports teams, stadiums and communications and aerospace companies; his medical problems; travels; musical encounters; and philanthropic endeavors.

Allen, a ten-grader in 1968, describes eighth-grader Bill Gates’ physical appearance: “…pullover sweater, tan slacks, enormous saddle shoes… blond hair all over the place…”

The two youths took full advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime to learn the craft of programming in the computer room of a private school in Seattle. They had endless capacity for the extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive brainwork required. When he had yet to turn twenty years old, Allen’s experience spanned “…ten computers, ten high-level languages, nine machine-level languages, and three operating systems.” Pretty good for a college dropout.

In the late 1970′s, affordability was a major requirement for selling personal computers, an industry in its infancy. “Today’s laptop is thirty thousand times faster than the machine [the PDP-10] I was lusting after, with ten thousand times more memory.” At that time, memory was expensive and lack of it made machines glacially slow. Today’s base iPhone has four million times the memory contained in BASIC– the programming language that ran on Altair, one of the first computers sold to businesses and consumers in the late 1970′s.

Allen said Gates was a thrill seeker, enjoyed driving fast. In the early 1980′s, “Bill got so many speeding tickets that he had to hire the best traffic attorney in the state to defend him.”

The author discussed how a technology company must always be on the qui vive for the Next Big Thing, and introduce it before its competitors in the right way with the right people, or perhaps suffer significant financial losses. In 1982, DEC came late to the party by selling the high-quality Rainbow 100. Unfortunately, the minicomputer was behind the times– running on the old 8-bit CP/M system, while a 16-bit system was already on the market.

Suffice to say on most of his investments, Allen was a Warren Buffett wannabe. He deserves credit for freely admitting to his epic losses. Nevertheless, it was just another case of redistribution of wealth among the wealthy.

Read the book to learn the details of this billionaire’s life stories.

Life Is Not a Stage

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Life Is Not a Stage” by Florence Henderson with Joel Brokaw, publishedin 2011. This is Henderson’s autobiography. She is best known for playing the mother in the American TV sitcom “The Brady Bunch” which initially aired from 1969 to 1974.

Her early life was difficult to say the least, because she was born to a poverty-stricken family with an alcoholic father at the height of The Great Depression, the youngest of ten siblings. In Indiana. Her mother left her father when she was thirteen. But she had singing talent, so she had that going for her, which is nice (apologies to Bill Murray). She has been a Broadway actor, TV star, night club singer and has also been in movies.

Read the book to learn how:  but for Henderson’s good friend from a wealthy family, Henderson probably would not have had the fabulous career she has had; she was a product of her time as a female; despite all her fame and fortune, she has suffered much unhappiness; and how her outlook on life has seen her through many difficulties and allowed her to keep her sanity and avoid dying young like so many other super-famous entertainers.

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.