Jim Henson, The Biography

The Book of the Week is “Jim Henson, the Biography” by Brian Jay Jones, published in 2013. This large volume describes the life of a super-successful puppeteer who brought innovation to the genre of puppetry.

Born in September 1936, Henson grew up alternately Mississippi and Maryland. He was best known for creating “Muppets”– a cross between puppets and marionettes. Henson took his time about finishing college at the University of Maryland studying set design. Initially, he thought he wanted to develop a behind-the-scenes career in theater. But he was an early adopter of the new medium of television and wanted to do puppet shows on it. In 1955, he made his Muppets TV debut with Jane, the woman who would later become his wife and bear his five children. He fell into a brilliant puppetry career instead.

Henson’s performances extended to the talk-show circuit, during which the early Muppet characters he created, lip-synched to songs and mimed comedic storylines. The skits would usually end with an explosion or one character’s eating another. Very quickly, he became a highly paid entertainer. In the summer of 1958, he went on a research expedition to Europe, where puppetry was much more popular than in the United States. Americans thought of puppet shows as appropriate mostly for children.

Despite Henson’s desire to become known as a respected puppeteer for audiences of all ages, he became famous for creating some major characters that appeared on a groundbreaking children’s TV show– Sesame Street. Nevertheless, the Muppets appeared in some forgettable skits for Saturday Night Live (SNL) in its first season. True story. Union rules required that SNL writers rather than Henson’s, compose said skits. The SNL people didn’t know the Muppets like Henson’s did. After several false starts and many rejections, Henson finally achieved one of his goals. In autumn 1976, a CBS affiliate in England finally gave the Muppets their first weekly TV series.

Read the book to learn of Henson’s cinematic successes and failures, his management style (or lack thereof), the key people in his organization, other major highlights of his career, his marital infidelity, and what transpired just as he was in the thick of difficult negotiations to sell his company to Disney. The reason for the difficulty was that “In show business in particular, where so much depends on the ruthless art of the deal, Jim’s generosity and genuine respect for talent… made for an unconventional way of doing business.”

The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue

The Book of the Week is “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue” by Robert Klein, published in 1991. This is a compilation of the moments most memorable to the author during the first 25 years of his existence.

The author grew up in the Bronx in the 1940’s and 50’s. He attended P.S. 94 and DeWitt Clinton High School. His first college year was spent trying to fulfill his parents’ dream of having a doctor for a son. However, he possessed much greater talent in the performing arts.

In 1967, after he had been “discovered,” Klein, doing standup comedy, was mentored by Rodney Dangerfield at the Improvisation Club in Manhattan.

Read the book to learn of the author’s career success, of his many sexual encounters, and one during which “She wanted it from every conceivable position, and with such passion and ferocity that I feared the occupants of the adjacent room would call the police or an ambulance.”

Living History

The Book of the Week is “Living History” by Chaim Herzog, published in 1996. This autobiography describes the life of a Jew who participated in Palestine’s military and political life before, during and after its birth as the state of Israel.

Herzog’s father was named chief rabbi of Ireland in mid-1919.  As a teenager, the author chose to leave Ireland to attend school in Palestine. At that time, there were three competing, underground intelligence services in Palestine: the Haganah, Irgun and the Stern Group.  The author joined the Haganah. His father was named chief rabbi of Palestine in 1937.

In 1938, the author started his undergraduate years in London, then studied law at Cambridge University. Upon graduating in 1941, he immediately volunteered for the British Army. As an intelligence officer, he interrogated German prisoners of war.

After the war, Herzog’s father helped orphaned children who had previously had a Jewish identity to move to Palestine, fighting against their conversions by the Catholic Church, which had hidden and taken care of them during the war. Herzog himself helped promote the settling of Jews in Palestine.

The author married Aura Eban, daughter of Abba. Originally from Egypt, she completed a special program that enabled her to join the Israeli diplomatic corps, then in its infancy. Herzog and his wife worked in the most dangerous areas of Jerusalem. During Israel’s war for independence, the enemies’ (Arabs’) terrorist car bombs were all the rage.

In 1949, truces were signed with Israel and its neighbors– Egypt, Lebanon, Transjordan and Syria. The rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization meant that “Any Arab politician who was visibly friendly toward Israel faced serious, often fatal, repercussions” from retaliatory terrorist attacks.

David Ben Gurion watched television in Oxford and “…decided it was the ruin of mankind.” That was why Israel’s people were unable to have a television in their homes until 1968.

In autumn 1984, after a new government was formed in the country, (according to the author) Prime Minister Shimon Peres performed an economic miracle.  He had reduced the inflation rate from 450% in July to 20% in October, via an agreement among the government, the trade unions and industrialists. The resulting 30% compensation decrease of the unions curbed unemployment and saved the economy. However, he still failed to achieve world peace. And cure cancer.

Read the book to learn of what transpired when the French were looking to withdraw troops from Algeria, of the Israeli government’s internal power struggles in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, of the political positions held by the author, and what he accomplished in each of them through the decades.

A Reporter’s Life, Peter Jennings

The Book of the Week is “A Reporter’s Life, Peter Jennings” edited by Kate Darnton, Kayce Freed Jennings & Lynn Sherr, published in 2007. This is a compilation of selected contents of interviews with the late ABC anchorman and documentary writer Peter Jennings, of people who knew him.

Peter Jennings’ father was a famous Canadian radio broadcaster. He mentored and primed his son to be the larger-than-life information provider he became to millions of TV viewers. In 1963, Jennings began to co-anchor a fifteen-minute TV news show at dinner time, but his lack of formal education and experience became apparent after a while. So in November 1967, he went on-location, gathering news globally. In 1970, he began to open the ABC bureau in Beirut, a cosmopolitan city until the start of its civil war in 1975. In the interest of fairness, Jennings got the Palestinian side of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He became an expert on the Middle East. This played a large role in why he was able to scoop the story of the hostage crisis at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and get a tremendous career boost.

Jennings was the consummate passionate, professional workaholic perfectionist. He politely cajoled people into answering his questions instead of interrupting them or aggressively pushing for a “gotcha” response. He was into fact-checking– he preferred to get a story right and be second reporting it than get it wrong and report it first. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, which he acquired through reading and talking to everyone, everyone he met. This gave him background on any and all stories he gathered and reported on. In summer 1983, ABC’s ratings caught up to NBC’s and CBS’s, and overtook them for a long time.

In 1994, Jennings made people pay attention to the genocide in Bosnia. He hated tabloid stories. When he was pressured to do them, he would try to educate rather than just gossip. During the O.J. Simpson trial, he showed the race relations aspect of the story. Read the book to learn a wealth of additional information about one of TV’s best journalists of a bygone era.

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.