Act One

The Book of the Week is “Act One” by Moss Hart, published in 1959.

In his teen years in the 1920’s, the author had a passionate desire to work in the theater on Broadway in some capacity. However, his childhood of dire poverty, limited formal education and dysfunctional family were hardships he had to overcome to achieve his dream.

It was a major triumph for him to snag the position of office boy for a booking agent by a random twist of fate. However, he tempted fate too early. He then tried his hand at acting. He was an eighteen-year-old playing the role of a sixty-year-old man. When that gig ended, another chance occurrence with an acquaintance led him to directing plays in the evenings, and slaving away as a social director at various summer camps for several years, while plugging away at the part of aspiring playwright.

Read the book to learn all the sordid tribulations Hart endured in order to find fortune and fame, as well as the secret to how he fixed the third act of his first Broadway play, and how he came to be assisted by one of the great playwrights of his generation.

This Just In

The Book of the Week is “This Just In, What I Couldn’t Tell You On TV” by Bob Schieffer, published in 2003.

The author started his journalism career at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the dawn of the 1960’s. Later, he covered the overnight shift police beat. In those days, there was no security in the detectives’ office. He and people off the street could roam the station at will. Before Miranda Rights, reporters frequently recorded the confessions of suspects because they could type and the cops couldn’t.

Schieffer got his wish to go to Vietnam to cover the war in 1964, before it became controversial. During more than four months, he rooted out and interviewed all of the soldiers from Texas, hitching rides on military helicopters. President Lyndon Johnson was also from Texas, so the author trusted him when he initiated fighting in order to nip Communism in the bud and keep neighboring states from it, too.

The author later changed his mind when he saw how extremely inefficient it was to have tens of U.S. troops searching for one or two Viet Cong guerrillas per day in rural areas. He also saw how the teenage South Vietnamese would-be ragtag soldiers recruited by the Americans, refused to help the U.S fight. Stateside, he was sent to cover countless anti-war protests. At that time, protestors were expressing their feelings about a super-controversial situation in their country that was a matter of life-and-death.

In 1966, the author started to anchor TV news in Forth Worth. At the time, the screening of primitive newsreels was the norm. Next came CBS radio news in Washington, D.C. in 1969. Washington’s real beats consisted of the White House, State Department, Pentagon and Capitol Hill. Schieffer’s station chief expected his news gatherers to be on call 24/7, so CBS became the network that covered the government best.

However, President Richard Nixon held sway over the FCC. Negative news about the president was censored, because the agency had the power to revoke the licenses of TV stations.

In 1971, Nixon’s childish aides had nothing better to do than generate a blizzard of memos pouncing on every little negative thing that the press reported on the president, or memos on issues they failed to cover. Ironically, there was no security at the Pentagon– most of the building was open to the public. Anyway, the aides also did phony letter-writing to the networks with exaggerated complaints about slanted coverage, and had praise for the Nixon administration.

In 1972, during George McGovern’s presidential campaign, it was found that “Man-on-the street interviews are notoriously inaccurate gauges of public sentiment…” Broadcasting news on the traveling candidate was quite cumbersome. In those days, two reporters were at every campaign stop– one to get the story and the other to go get the film developed. Another fun factoid– the campaign plane served whiskey and food to the news crews, paid for by the networks.

THE AUTHOR HAD PEOPLE TELL HIM THEY THOUGHT A GOOD BUSINESSMAN COULD “… STRAIGHTEN OUT THE GOVERNMENT IN NO TIME…” The author disagreed. Sure, the positions of CEO and president both require leadership skills. However, a business and a government have different goals. THE GOAL OF GOVERNMENT OUGHT TO BE PUBLIC SERVICE, NOT MONEY-MAKING AND THE ACQUISITION OF POWER. All too often, elected officials forget what they were supposed to have been taught in high school civics class. They go astray. And a leopard doesn’t usually change its spots. Businessmen are usually once and always.

That’s why business leaders are less than ideal candidates for government. Besides, the 535 members of Congress make up a very diverse group of individuals who bear listening to, unlike a small board of directors- who are less likely to disagree.

Even when journalists are not under duress to slant their reporting, they have confirmation bias– hearing and seeing what they want to– which is “… the easiest and most destructive habit that a reporter can fall into and has probably caused more stories to be missed than any other single thing.”

Read the book to learn other pearls of wisdom from Schieffer. His decades-long career included experiences in the newspaper, radio and TV trenches covering crime, war and politics– which in some cases, were and still are, one and the same. 🙂

Iphigene

The Book of the Week is “Iphigene, Memoirs of Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger of The New York Times Family” by Susan W. Dryfoos, published in 1979. This is the life and times of a New York Times heiress, as told to Dryfoos– her granddaughter.

Iphigene was an only child in a wealthy family. Her father was a highly successful newspaper publisher, having turned around The Times upon his purchase of it in 1896. “While the other New York papers fought a ruthless and unscrupulous battle for circulation by means of outrageous headlines and sensational stories, The Times sought to expand readership with sober and comprehensive reporting.”

In 1898, The Times faced stiff competition from the tabloids that sent their reporters on location to the Spanish-American war front. Iphigene’s father, Adolph Simon Ochs, dropped the price of his paper from 3 cents to 1 cent instead of making up inflammatory war stories.

The paper maintained its integrity and avoided conflicts of interest under Ochs . For instance, he claimed to refuse to accept gifts from, or print laudatory stories, about advertisers.

Iphigene was born in September 1892. Suffering from then-undiagnosed dyslexia, she was beset with poor grades although her schooling was the best that money could buy. Nevertheless, Iphigene studied for Barnard College’s entrance exams. At that time, the school had a two-year program for students whose academic abilities were less than stellar, but were eager to learn. She wrote, “I found the atmosphere of the school congenial, the students friendly and the teachers excellent…” Iphigene passed additional exams in order to upgrade to the four-year program, enabling her to graduate in 1914 with a degree in economics.

The Times went beyond the call in covering WW I. Its daily circulation between 1914 and 1919 rose to 170,000. Iphigene wed a man who eventually proved himself equal to the task of publishing The Times as competently as her father did. In 1944, he had the company purchase the New York radio station WQXR.

Read the book to learn much more information on what Iphigene did for various communities in New York City in various areas including parks and education; her global travels during which she met various politicians and dignitaries, and her impressions of them.

Stalin’s Daughter

The Book of the Week is “Stalin’s Daughter” by Rosemary Sullivan, published in 2015. This biography tells of the life and times of someone who could not escape her father’s shadow. As is pretty well known, Joseph Stalin, of Soviet Georgian origin, was a twentieth-century world leader who committed untold atrocities for decades, during which his country ended up on the winning side of WWII.

Born in February 1926, Stalin’s daughter was given the first name Svetlana, but her last name kept changing later in life, pursuant to her marriages and desire for anonymity. In order to run his brutal dictatorship of her birth country, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, her father formed a cult– an atmosphere of fear and loathing with himself an object of worship. Soviet citizens who had seen peoples and cultures other than their own developed a split personality because in their hearts, they knew they were living a lie. “Many Red Party members were seen at their dacha but mysteriously disappeared through the 1930’s.”

There was a 23-year age difference between Svetlana’s mother and father. The older one, her father, was 48 when she was born. She, although receiving what was thought to be the best of everything while growing up, was sheltered from many truths, such as the real cause of the death of her mother when she was six. As was common in wealthy families of that era, she got a nanny, governess, and tutors until she started attending school. She was taught German and Russian at an early age.

In the autumn of 1937, Svetlana was assigned a bodyguard, who stuck to her like glue. Her whole life was seen by that bodyguard, and she was forced to terminate relationships with friends whose parents had shown any signs of political leanings adverse to Stalin.

In the late 1930’s, Stalin “purged” his own in-laws– employees of the State Bank. When Svetlana was seventeen and a half years old, she was tested on assembling a rifle as part of the final exam her first year of college. When her son was four years old, he met with his grandfather Stalin for the first time. As an adult, her father had always provided her with luxurious housing– a four-room apartment with a private kitchen, unlike most folks who shared their kitchens and bathrooms and had one-room apartments with plywood separations.

In March 1953, ironically due to a murderous policy perpetrated by Stalin himself– the “Doctor’s Plot”– Stalin failed to receive possible life-saving medical treatment for his arteriosclerosis and later, stroke. Svetlana’s father might have died, but his ghost lived on to sully her reputation for the rest of her life. No matter that she constantly changed her geographic location, her Soviet mentality was evident. Regarding her friendships, she expected 100% loyalty and reciprocity. She adopted a “go big or go home” attitude in hiring former professional mentors and coaches to help her younger daughter learn piano, drawing, swimming and horseback riding. They attended many social events at which her fourteen-year old daughter was a party to numerous customary drinking-toasts, and was a marriage prospect in Tbilisi.

Read the book to get what is probably a more comprehensive picture of the life of Stalin’s daughter in one volume, than any other.

inventing late night

The Book of the Week is “inventing late night (sic), Steve Allen and the original tonight show (sic)” by ben alba, published in 2005.  This slightly sloppily edited book tells how Steve Allen created the format for late night talk shows on American television, starting in the early 1950’s.

When television was in its infancy, Allen’s original ad-libbing and off-the-wall physical comedy made audiences laugh through the 1950’s.  However, since history is written by the most prolific propagandists, and Allen was modest and less than aggressive at self-promotion, other entertainment-industry moguls such as Johnny Carson and his ilk, bragged that they were the ones amusing Americans in an unprecedented way on their late-night talk shows. David Letterman was one of the few who attributed his show’s stunts to Allen’s ideas.

In autumn 1954, Pat Weaver, president of NBC, gave Allen free rein to do whatever he wanted on his new, unrehearsed, live (!) program, “Tonight!” What resulted was an unscripted variety show featuring insane stunts, a band, singers, celebrity guests, news and theater reviews. In planning each weeknight’s episode, Allen would loosely specify the number of minutes of each segment– but continue with a segment if it got a great audience response, and cut the next act on the spot. If the show was a bit slow, he would go into the audience to converse with them.  Every minute of airtime was unpredictable. The only segment that was usually predictable, was the music.

Unfortunately, episodes of the taped, live shows were later incinerated due to lack of storage space at the network. Shortly after the airing of the show, the only way for the general public and cast and crew to get a recording was to buy one– a kinescope for $160. The singers made about $300 a week.

Eydie Gorme had this to say: “All of us working singers would go the Brill Building [in Manhattan] and get all the new sheet music, which they gave you free in those days.” Other celebrities who appeared on the show and were interviewed for this book, lamented that of late, performers of recent decades have resorted to obscenity and vulgarity to elicit cheap laughs from the audience, because they lack talent and creativity. Sadly, most audience members are unaware that their intelligence is being insulted. Even so, the younger ones are unaware of how high Steve Allen set the bar for quality entertainment.

Even more impressive– Allen’s show had TWO writers and twenty band members, while nowadays, late-night shows have TWENTY writers and five or six band members.

Read the book to learn the specifics of Allen’s stunts, antics, routines and style, and what changed when he started a second talk show simultaneously with what became “The Tonight Show.”

Francis Bacon

The Book of the Week is “Francis Bacon, The Temper of A Man” by Catherine Drinker Bowen, published in 1963. This biography describes the life and times of an English aristocrat born in 1561.

When Bacon was in his late teens, his father died. His older brother got the lion’s share of the estate. Bacon was an arrogant debtor, always blaming others for his debt. Nevertheless, he continued to maintain the standard of living to which he was accustomed, thanks in part to his uncle– who was immensely wealthy with a global network of contacts and a collection of mansions with hundreds of rooms.

England in the 1570’s was a nation of four million fronted by Queen Elizabeth. It was still seen as a primitive backwater, “…her native tongue rude, her food and wines execrable… No less than eight hundred men, women and children were hanged each year… maybe for picking a pocket or stealing a sheep.” Deaths from disease were rampant.

The church elders at Trinity College, Cambridge– where Bacon started his higher education at thirteen years of age (not uncommon for his generation)– thought more truth could be found in faith than in knowledge.  Bacon, an extremely intellectually curious lad, a budding grand thinker and passionate, prolific writer, disagreed. “Beyond the first row of the House of Commons were men unlike Bacon, nonintellectuals who knew more of hounds, horses and crops than of Latin and philosophy.”

During Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the custom was to arrange a marriage between next door neighbors so as to enlarge the families’ estates and wealth. Bacon finally wed in 1606 to a fourteen year old girl. He was 45.

In 1620, Bacon published a fictional story whose plot mentioned many of the advances in humanity he anticipated, such as the existence of institutions of higher learning that would perform empirical research in the “hard” sicences. It was written in Latin so that all of Europe could read it.

Read the book to learn about the ups and downs of Bacon’s legal career, and how he became one of the first victims of the beginning of reform for England’s political system in the 1620’s.

Rebel Without Applause

The Book of the Week is “Rebel Without Applause” by Jay Landesman, published in 1987. This ebook-autobiography has a few slightly distracting misspellings, but reveals the zeitgeist of Landesman’s generation.

Landesman was born in 1920. The talents of the author and his two brothers and sister differed considerably. Thus, he and his siblings got along well, as they weren’t in competition. However, his mother had control issues, so his parents opened separate antique shops; his mother in St Louis, and his father in Houston.

Landesman became distracted from the family business, and got into magazine publishing in New York. He co-founded “Neurotica”– launched in March 1948.  The publication contained articles of famous writers’ anxieties to which readers could relate. Sex was a taboo topic of discussion but violence was all the rage.

In 1949, Landesman dared to ask for a divorce from his first wife. Describing himself as a “respectable Jewish boy” he later met someone new, who had looked up his family in “Dun & Bradstreet”– the  keeper of the data in those days.

Landesman had two sons with his second wife, Fran. Their wealth allowed them to hire a nanny. “We were like any other ordinary American family enjoying the Ed Sullivan Show. Instead of a six-pack, we shared a couple of joints.”

Read the book to learn of what later transpired with the author’s second wife, about their collaboration on theater productions, his relationship with Lenny Bruce, and where the family moved to and why.

Frank & Charli

The Book of the Week is “Frank & Charli” by Frank Yandolino, published in 2016. This is the (imperfectly edited) double biography of a married couple, or rather a name-dropping bragfest recounted mostly by the husband (Frank), who was a project manager for artistic and musical celebrities from the 1960’s to date.

Frank believed the secret to his success has been his opportunism, ability to be innovative, be himself and trusted by his clients. His wife Charli, the love of his life, served as his loyal and competent assistant during most of his endeavors, some of which were failures.

Frank thought that “Woodstock” was a major event in American cultural history . “The Woodstock Nation was supposed to be the birth of a new generation, a generation of Green Peace (sic), Save the Whales, and No More War.” Sadly, a few attempts were made to re-enact the event on anniversaries, but two of its major organizers had a falling out after the original, and were not on speaking terms.

Frank feels that unhappiness stems from phoniness– “Facebook is a place that narcissists use to post how they want to be seen.” Read the book to learn how Frank and Charli stayed happy together through the decades.