Baryshnikov

The Book of the Week is “Baryshnikov, From Russia to the West” by Gennady Smakov, published in 1981. This is a biography of the famous ballet dancer who became Westernized.

Born in January 1948 in Riga, Latvia, Mikhail Baryshnikov started ballet lessons at twelve years of age. Despite the late start, he happened to be exceptionally talented, a natural. He was sufficiently versatile to play roles in both “schools” of ballet, classical and Romantic.

During Baryshnikov’s childhood, his country underwent major ideological changes. The generation gap between young and old grew much wider, especially when Soviet leader Khrushchev revealed the crimes of the previous administration under Stalin. There occurred a shift from designing and building structures toward liberal arts careers. Ballet was a nonpolitical one, whose chosen few participants were  extremely lucky to make a living.

Nevertheless, for  ballet students, living conditions were cramped (ten per room in the school dormitory) compared to those in industrialized countries, and upon graduation, not much better. The two major rival ballet companies at the time consisted of the Kirov and the Bolshoi. Baryshnikov joined the former, based in St. Petersburg in 1967. The pay was significantly better when the dancers were permitted to perform internationally. Of course, the KGB closely monitored their activities in foreign countries, fostering an environment of fear and distrust.

Read the book to learn the historical backdrop of Baryshnikov’s generation, the nature of shows in which he performed, how he  came to dance with the two major American ballet companies beginning in the mid-1970’s, and more.

Wired

The Book of the Week is “Wired, The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi” by Bob Woodward, published in 1984. This is a career biography of the performer best known for his sketches on “Saturday Night Live” (SNL), “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers.”

Born in 1949, Belushi started his career at an early age, thanks to a paternal high school drama teacher. Belushi formed a comedy troupe in college. At the youngest age ever (22), he  joined the improv group, “Second City” in Chicago.

Belushi’s brand of comedy was lowbrow and attention-whorish. He became the onstage focus when he joined such group-oriented acting companies as SNL and Second City; this irked his fellow performers.

Belushi met the younger and less experienced Chevy Chase when they performed in an Off-Broadway black comedy about death. Then came a National-Lampoon-produced radio show, and SNL.  Other roles included Bluto in the movie “Animal House” and comedian Dan Akroyd’s partner in the movie “The Blues Brothers.”

As is typical of talented yet insecure performers who hit the big-time almost immediately, behavior problems abound. But since the star is “the goose that laid the golden egg” his or her behavior is tolerated.

“… John could inflict remarkable chaos… There was no telling what was gone or broken or misused. It seemed that John had dipped his fingers into everything in the refrigerator” while attending a 1982 Super Bowl party at the home of his agent, Bernie Brillstein.

Toward the end of his life (which should not have been unforeseen), Belushi was surrounded by enablers to his cocaine addiction. He was provided weekly with $2,500 cash for “expenses” in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with his business associates. They allowed him to act like a spoiled child borne of their own greed, or out of trying to avoid the hypocrisy of being drug addicts themselves. They continued to believe in his talent even though the movies he did after Animal House were money-losers.  A major rationalization of that era was that cocaine was unavoidable backstage at SNL and it was uncool to decline to socialize with one’s fellow comedians.

Read the book to learn the details of how Belushi ended up the way he did.

 

Wait Till Next Year

The Book of the Week is “Wait Till Next Year” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, published in 1997.  This is the first portion of an autobiography of a New York female baseball fan who grew up in the suburb of Rockville Centre, Long Island in the 1940’s and ’50’s.

During the author’s childhood, there were three baseball teams in New York: the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants and New York Yankees. Between 1949 and 1957 inclusive, one or another of these teams played in the World Series. The author’s father inspired in her a diehard Dodgers fandom. She was taught to keep score, and did so for every regular season game for years and years, starting in the late 1940’s. It was a time in history in which men played for their love of the game. The greats at that time included Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Peewee Reese, Gil Hodges, Enos Slaughter, Robin Roberts, Richie Ashburn, Allie Reynolds, Phil Rizzuto and many others.

Kearns Goodwin was raised as a Catholic, but attended public school. Nevertheless, the nuns struck fear in her heart in many ways, one of which was pressuring parishioners to refrain from entering any house of worship other than a Catholic one.  So when Campanella was coming to her area to speak at a non-Catholic church, she faced a moral dilemma. The priest reassured her that she would not be going to hell, because the event was not a religious service.

Baseball was so popular in the author’s community that in 1955, a radio broadcast of the seventh game of the Dodgers-Yankees World Series was piped through the public address system of her high school. The kids were willing to stay after school to hear it. Back in the day, World Series games were played in the afternoon. When the Dodgers won, thousands of people danced in the streets. The baseball players came back to a Brooklyn restaurant that evening for their victory dinner, interacting personally with fans without any security at all.

For the first twelve years of her life (before the neighborhood changed), Kearns Goodwin’s family was quite close with all of the different (white) families (of different religions) in her community. Their homes were as open to her as her own home.

Read the book to learn more about the author’s coming of age in a bygone era of baseball and Postwar suburbia.

Koop

The Book of the Week is “Koop, The Memoirs of America’s Family Doctor” by C. Everett Koop, M.D., published in 1991.

Koop grew up in Brooklyn, New York. In the late 1920’s, when he was in his teens, the operating rooms at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital had no security, so he pretended to be a medical student in order to watch surgeries. He snuck in, thanks to his next door neighbor, who worked there. In the late 1930’s, he began to realize that he was attending the medical school that had the right environment for him– the friendly and cooperative Cornell, rather than the arrogant and competitive Columbia.

Koop’s medical training was abbreviated due to a shortage of personnel during WWII, so that he was performing advanced procedures before he was truly ready to do so. Nevertheless, he had a tough, take-charge personality which stood him in good stead in the face of medical generalists who resented being crowded out when medicine underwent more and more specialization.

For decades, Koop was a pediatric surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. In 1980, newly-elected President Reagan tapped him to be Surgeon General of the United States. The nomination and confirmation processes were rigorous, as Koop’s personal life-and-death beliefs were clearly favored by conservative Republicans but opposed by liberal Democrats.

Nevertheless, Koop became famous for his anti-smoking crusade. As might be recalled, he educated the American public on the dangers of, and influenced legislation on, smoking. He explicitly wrote: “Smoking is not only dangerous for the smoker, but also dangerous for the nonsmoker who inhales environmental tobacco smoke… [Such] passive smoking causes many diseases, including cancer.” He reported that more than 50% of adults in the United States smoked in 1964; in 1981, 33%. When he resigned as Surgeon General in 1989, that figure was just over 26%.

Read the book to learn of Koop’s adventures in college, in medicine, and as a political appointee.

Havel, A Life

The  Book of the Week is “Havel, A Life” by Michael Zantovsky, published in 2014. This is a biographical tome of the late president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel.

Born in 1936, Havel’s family was wealthy prior to the Soviet Communist takeover of 1948. Fortunately, Havel parlayed his talent for writing plays, essays and articles into a lucrative career. His literary works were performed and read internationally, affording him compensation in stable, valuable foreign currencies.

The Soviets could not summarily execute him for his seditious activities, fearing an angry outcry from the international community. So instead, they arrested and jailed him a few times, and had the secret service on his tail, 24/7.

In the early 1970’s, Havel wrote a play in which he commented on the unsurprising but inevitable result of “Prague Spring” of 1968; the Soviets weren’t ready to concede their power to the Czechoslovakians, “In the finale, all the conspirators, after crossing and double-crossing each other, execute the piece de resistance, bringing in the only person who can effectively suppress all the threats, prevent chaos and restore stability: the dictator himself.”

In 1977, Havel and his fellow activists wrote a Charter detailing a democratic system they hoped would be implemented in the future. However, the then-government crushed the opposition with “…harassment, bullying, beatings, blackmail intended to make them leave the country, kidnappings, illegal house raids and searches along with other forms of abuse.”

In 1989, dissatisfaction with Soviet Communist oppression was reaching critical mass. The methods by which thousands of street demonstrators were quelled, was through head-bashing and water cannons. Havel was pushed into becoming a leader for the dissidents because he was one himself and was a talented peacemaker who could bridge the gap between his own artistic crowd and other persecuted citizens of his homeland.

For four decades, Czechoslovakians forced to live under Communism had been told everything was great. In January 1990, Havel truthfully told his countrymen that the nation was in an economically, infrastructurally, environmentally and ethically horrible state. The younger generation who had been born into the Soviet mentality– unless they were dissidents– were obedient robots. So converting people to a capitalist, liberated, honest way of thinking was very difficult.

Sidenote: The author spent an entire chapter on the newly elected Czech president Havel’s visit to the United States (via invitation by President George H.W. Bush) but failed to specify even once, the year in which that occurred, and described events and incidents topically rather than chronologically, making the storyline difficult to follow.

Numerous political parties jockeying for power during Havel’s reelection campaign in 1991(?) included:  the Civic Democratic Alliance, People’s Party, Christian Democratic Party, Social Democrats, and Liberal Democrats.

It took approximately six years to build, from the ground up– a legal system, economy and “…countless institutions that make a free society work and flourish”– the new (democratic) nation of Czech Republic (after its split from Slovakia).

Read the book to learn more about the hardships suffered by the Czechoslovakians including Havel, his and his wife’s marital infidelities, and how he was instrumental in helping build a new nation.

Werner Erhard

The Book of the Week is “Werner Erhard, The Transformation of a Man, The Founding of est” by W.W. Bartley, III, published in 1978. This is a biography of the founder of a consciousness-raising movement of the 1970’s.

Born with the name Jack Rosenberg in 1935, the subject of this biography grew up in the Philadelphia area, raised as an Episcopalian. He was the oldest of three siblings, who were born after he turned twelve years old. As a teenager, he rebelled against his mother, who treated him like a spouse rather than a son. Additionally, he got his girlfriend pregnant. Rosenberg and his girlfriend wed just after he turned eighteen years old. They had three additional children but he abandoned his family and absconded with another woman. Rosenberg thought of himself as a victim. In his words, “That requires that someone must have done it to you. That person is automatically bad, and may be punished. As a victim, you get to be righteous…”

In May 1960, Jack Rosenberg changed his name to Werner Erhard in order to transform himself into the complete opposite of what he once was. This also involved cutting off all communication with his first wife, children and immediate family. This he did for more than a decade. But in his new self, Erhard found his calling. He was a spellbinder as a salesman. He began training sales forces and making lots of money. Erhard used an unconventional approach to door-to-door sales: communication based on trust through total honesty rather than attempting to make a quick buck. He became incredibly well-read in psychology and philosophy.

Finally, Erhard jumped on the behavior-modification-training bandwagon fad of the 1970’s, naming his business “Erhard Seminars Training.” He held therapy sessions for hundreds of people at a time, pressuring them to change the “positionalities” of their minds by getting rid of their righteousness, regret and resentment. He lectured them on perfectionism with regard to attention to detail. Anything less would mean they were just surviving and not maximizing happiness.

In the real world, people tolerate bad customer service and mean corporate cultures because they must; in the ideal world Erhard envisioned– people’s effective, honest communication would help them shed their value judgments in their existence, activities and possessions in a way that would make them happy.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details on Erhard’s life and how he came to realize that he was meant to help his customers and clients improve their lives.

My Life So Far

The Book of the Week is “My Life So Far” by Jane Fonda, published in 2005. This insightful autobiography describes an actress, activist and exercise instructor whose childhood family life was psychologically challenged. Throughout her life, she has been continually working through various emotional, moral and gender issues.

Born in the Santa Monica Mountains in December 1937, Fonda was lavishly raised alternately by a nanny and her parents, who were absent on and off. Her father was a famous actor on Broadway and in movies; her mother, until she suicided, was in and out of mental hospitals. Fonda was close with her younger brother, Peter. She became a bulimic and developed an “appeaser” personality.

Although Fonda had a leg up in her career due to her famous father, she chose to engage in activities that she felt were societally beneficial. The media and the U.S. government, however, treated her like a criminal. She was put under surveillance by the FBI, CIA, State Department, IRS and Treasury Department, which created dossiers of thousands upon thousands of pages just about her. In 1979, she settled a lawsuit against them in which the government admitted its guilt.

In 1972, Fonda visited Hanoi to gather information and inform the American people about Nixon’s evil Vietnam-War schemes, a few of which were already in progress. Later that same year at the Academy Awards ceremony when she won a Best Actress Oscar for “Klute,” she maturely did NOT make a political statement, having been told it was the inappropriate place for doing so.

Fonda believed that presidents made war due to their feeling pressure from society to prove their masculinity. She herself was a product of this same environment, judging from her taste in men. Her third husband– media billionaire Ted Turner– “…was unable to experience intimacy because there just wasn’t room in his brain for words other than his own.” He was an emotionally needy narcissist.

Read the book to learn how Jane overcame her eating disorder, achieved success in acting, exercise-business enterprises and political activism, and how she improved her relationships with family and friends.

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.”