The Chief

The Book of the Week is “The Chief, The Life of William Randolph Hearst” by David Nasaw, published in 2000. This tome described not just the life of the media emperor, but the historical backdrop of his generation.

Born in April 1863 in San Francisco, Hearst was a mama’s boy. He grew up in a highly cultured family. However, its fortunes waned, and finally waxed in the 1870’s. The father was in the gold mining business; politics too– he was elected as a Democratic member of the state assembly of California in November 1865.

When Hearst was at Harvard, his mother “…redecorated his rooms [in Matthews Hall] in Harvard crimson, equipped him with a library, hired a maid and valet to look after her boy.” In those days, one student could live in an on-campus suite and have servants. Hearst was an outsider who bought himself a position in society by making the Harvard Lampoon profitable and donating big money to Harvard’s sports teams. But he lacked the manners to get invited to the elitist summer resorts.

In October 1880, Hearst’s father bought San Francisco’s Evening Examiner and turned it into a morning newspaper to win a future election. Father and son helped get Grover Cleveland elected president in November 1884. Two years later, Hearst’s father was elected to the U.S. Senate. Hearst eventually failed out of Harvard.

In his mid-twenties, Hearst got an opportunity to attempt a financial turnaround of the Examiner. He took various creative steps to achieve this goal. The Examiner‘s editorial bent was pro-labor, anti-capital and anti-railroad.

In the 1890’s, the culture of journalism was a mixture of “fact-based reporting, opinion and literature.” Readers liked emotionally-moving stories. They could tolerate a lot of fiction in their news. And they must’ve, when Hearst published made-up war stories to help Cuba gain its independence from Spain in 1898. However, toward the mid-twentieth century, journalism strove to be more objective.

In 1893 at the time Hearst bought the New York Morning Journal, there were eight established morning newspapers in New York. The Journal‘s editorial bent was pro-labor, pro-immigrant and anti-Republican. But it did have anti-African-American cartoons and jokes. According to Hearst, New Yorkers were overpaying for their gas, power, coal, ice, milk and even water due to monopolies (in those days called “trusts”).

In 1900 and 1901, the Hearst papers constantly criticized and even mentioned killing president McKinley. When the president was shot by a madman in September 1901, Hearst was accused of hiring the hitman. In 1902, Hearst was elected to Congress as a Democrat from New York, eleventh district. When he ran for a third term, he gave every man, woman and child in his district a free trip to Coney Island, including most of the Luna Park shows (thousands of tickets). Then he changed his mind and ran for mayor instead in 1905 in an attempt to “drain the swamp.” He wed in 1903, at forty years old. In May 1905, he bought Cosmopolitan magazine, kicking off his entry into the magazine business.

Hearst lived high on the hog and spared no expense when it came to gathering stories for his growing media empire. He paid his employees well, sent droves of them to cover stories which appeared in his newspapers that had more pages and special features than the competition’s. His business was losing more money than ever.

In the early 1920’s, “After 2 decades of debate and agitation, the rise and fall of Populist, Progressive and Socialist parties…” and lots of labor unrest, there was general consensus between government and American business “… that the role of government was not to supersede or control the corporation, but to legalize and legitimize it by regulating its excesses.”

Public relations at the turn of the twentieth century consisted of billboards and posters, newsreels and serial films, stunts, service features and contests. Radio was the next big thing in the 1920’s.

After recording political history for decades, Hearst concluded that “…politicians were, with few exceptions, mendacious, corrupt, and incompetent. The country needed a leader who was not tainted by the political process and was not dependent on the largess of machine politicians or big businessmen.”

On one trip on Hearst’s yacht, with a group of Hollywood celebrities, a movie director was celebrating his 43rd birthday. The director had a major heart attack and later died. All sorts of wild stories abounded in the newspapers that Hearst had killed him. A 2001 FICTIONAL movie called “The Cat’s Meow” was made of one wild-story version. No evidence of any crime has ever surfaced, except Hearst’s violating Prohibition– a crime whose exposure he wanted to avoid. That was the reason he didn’t want the media anywhere near the heart attack victim.

In late 1927, for nearly a month, Hearst had published front page articles based entirely on fictitious sources. He had libeled several nations, dozens of foreign statesmen, at least two prominent American journalists, Oswald Garrison Villard and Ernest Gruening, and four U.S. senators. Yet he wasn’t taken to task on any of that. There’s nothing new under the sun.

Read the book to learn the details of Hearst’s friendly relationships with William Jennings Bryan, Marion Davies, Mussolini, Hitler, Churchill and others; his wire service; his reporting on Tammany Hall; San Simeon and how his other estates with mansions came to be; his art collection; the size to which his media empire grew; his rabid anti-Communist activities; and how he worked his way out of financial ruin. Most of the aforementioned involved disgusting excesses.

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.”

Michelle Obama

The Book of the Week is “Michelle Obama” by Peter Slevin, published in 2015. In this biography, the author writes that Michelle possesses the skills, talents and abilities of a politician. She is a great public speaker who appeals to blacks of all economic classes. However, the book also implies that she is looking forward to living a life free of the political spotlight and its attendant stresses.

Initially, the book describes the historical backdrop of Michelle’s generation as much as a general overview of her life, and then, Barack’s political life. She is a rare bird, having risen from humble beginnings in Chicago. She is what Malcolm Gladwell would describe as an “outlier.” She grew up in a loving but strict home environment where her parents had high expectations for her, and believed that success could be achieved through hard work. After receiving an elitist education, she became a community organizer. She was able to raise a family while managing her high-powered career despite her politician-husband’s frequent absences, because she got assistance from relatives and close friends, who also rose to prominence and prosperity.

It will be recalled that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack was attacked on various fronts– his beliefs, nationality and high school and college lifestyle. His skin color also evoked the controversial debate on the root causes of black disadvantage.

Michelle’s experience in community organizing came in handy on the campaign trail, enabling her to: exchange personal stories, make one-on-one connections, gather a following and inspire voters and volunteers to lead. Nevertheless, by 2012, Michelle had been characterized as elitist, socialist and militant by her critics.

Upon his election, Barack faced a difficult state of affairs. For, “The $236 billion surplus at the end of the Clinton years turned into a $1.3 trillion deficit under George W. Bush, thanks to substantial Republican-inspired tax cuts for the wealthy and a pair of wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, churning along without end.” Not to mention a recession. Meanwhile, as First Lady, Michelle was expected to hire and supervise staff to work in the the White House, where there are 36 rooms, including 11 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms.

Read the book to learn of the three major political initiatives Michelle launched:  Let’s Move, Joining Forces and Reach Higher, and the details of her life and times.

Trouble Man

The Book of the Week is “Trouble Man” by Steve Turner, published in 1998. This is a biography of Marvin Gaye. His father, a Pentecostal preacher for the House of God church, and violent drunk, was the third oldest of thirteen surviving siblings, born in October 1914.

Gaye was born in April 1939. His full name was Marvin Pentz Gaye II. “His Motown image was still that of a polite, handsome black man who believed in fidelity, success and family life… like his father, Marvin was misogynistic. The function of women, he believed, was to serve and obey men.”

Unfortunately, his life spiraled downward into drug addiction and promiscuity, not unlike another famous and popular peforming artist of a later generation– Richard Pryor. Read the book to learn the details.

You Might Remember Me

The Book of the Week is “You Might Remember Me, The Life and Times of Phil Hartman” by Mike Thomas, published in 2014. This biography has a spoiler in the introduction that ruins the suspense of the ending, if the reader is unfamiliar with Hartman’s life.

Hartman was a multi-talented actor. He did eight seasons on Saturday Night Live, voiced various characters on the animated TV show “The Simpsons” and appeared in various movies. A middle child with seven siblings, he had a difficult childhood.  He thought that people are filled with rage, but many do not know how to express it in healthy ways. As an aside (unrelated to Hartman), if the truth makes one angry, one is living a lie.

Read the book to learn of a major incident involving Hartman in the spring of 1998. His brother John kept a hounding press away from the family. His brother Paul explained why “If it bleeds, it leads”: “People are miserable, and when they see more misery than they’re experiencing [themselves], it makes them feel good.”

Molly Ivins

The Book of the Week is “Molly Ivins” by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith, published in 2009. This is a biography of Molly Ivins– witty, brash journalist.

Born in 1944, Ivins was someone whom Malcolm Gladwell would characterize as an “outlier.” Her daddy was a social climber in the oil industry in Texas. The family was good friends with the political Bush family. They lived in the wealthy area of River Oaks. Ivins and her older sister and younger brother went sailing on her father’s yacht and their house had a swimming pool.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, female journalists were relegated to writing about food, the country club and fashion. Except for Ivins. She did years-long stretches writing about urban issues and politics for newspapers in Minneapolis, New York and Austin. While at the New York Times, she wrote, “I am becoming a Yankees fan, that’s how low I’ve sunk.”

Ivins was morally repulsed by the conflicts journalists had. She thought objectivity in reporting was virtually useless. Her irreverent, wickedly funny articles, frequent participation in the nicotine- and alcohol-fueled social culture of journalists, and her generosity in her personal life earned her a large following.

Read the book to learn the details of how Ivins achieved her fame and eventual fortune.

Louis Renault, A Biography

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

Renault, an automobile entrepreneur, 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 conducted 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.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

The Book of the Week is “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, published in 2009.

This ebook is the inspiring autobiography of a boy born in 1988 in Kasungu, Malawi. He grew up on a farm where corn, tobacco and pumpkins were grown and livestock was raised. The people there believe in witchcraft, but his father believed God protected his family from it because they were Presbyterian. Nevertheless, he wrote, “Sadly, our country’s constitution doesn’t have a clause that protects us from witchcraft.” He recounted incidents in the single-digit 2000’s in which people were put on trial for witchcraft and when deemed guilty, heavily fined.

In the mid 1990’s, entertainment in the “trading center” near Kasungu consisted of “… a thatch hut with wooden benches, a small television, and a VCR” on which to watch movies.  The author and his friends played a game they called “USA versus Vietnam.”

The Malawians celebrate their independence from Great Britain on July 6. Throughout his childhood, the author was a fan of the MTL Wanderers, aka the Nomads, a professional soccer club– the enemy team of the Big Bullets, in the Malawi Super League. He listened to the games on Radio One on a battery-operated radio. There was only one other radio station, Radio Two. Both were run by the government. The author wrote, “Only 2% of Malawians have electricity, and this is a huge problem.”

Read the book to learn of the extreme hardships Kamkwamba and his family faced with respect to famine and his education, and learn of his ingenuity, resourcefulness, persistence and industriousness in doing a project that was eventually noticed by people halfway around the world.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

The Book of the Week is “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” by Crystal Zevon, published in 2007. This is a biography of singer/ songwriter/ guitar player, Warren Zevon, written by his ex-wife.

Born in 1947, Zevon started partying like a rock star in his teenage years. He and fellow musicians partook of a variety of controlled substances, including marijuana, acid and hash. Warren later became addicted to alcohol and prescription painkillers. Philandering was a lifelong part of Zevon’s persona. Nevertheless, he was well-versed in what developed nations consider “the classics” in literature and in classical composers. As an adolescent, he was afforded the opportunity to meet Igor Stravinsky.

The many people interviewed for this ebook who drifted in and out of Zevon’s life all said he was immensely talented at writing imaganitive song lyrics. However, the reason most of them had a relationship with him that was rocky, or permanently severed, was due to his temperament when he was drunk, or his taking offense at a remark they made. He would ignore their communications for weeks or months.

At times, Zevon could utter witty lines, such as a) the title of this ebook, and, b) in the author’s recollection, “I can’t eat on an empty stomach.’ He’d down a little more vodka and we’d go have breakfast. Of course, every afternoon we spent hours in the cocktail lounge…” Sometimes, his self-destructive tendencies were insane, such as when she observed him playing darts in his bedroom; absent a dartboard. “There were all these holes in the wall… they were knife holes. He was lying in bed throwing a knife at the wall.” He also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, for which he received no treatment. Various of his residences were a disaster.

The songs Zevon became most famous for include “Werewolves in London” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Read the book to learn about a) his music career making albums; b) his composing music for movies; c) playing in the band on a prominent TV show as a fill-in musician; and d) whether he was able to turn his life around and repair his severed relationships with his family, friends and colleagues.

The Undiscovered Paul Robeson

The Book of the Week is “The Undiscovered Paul Robeson”  by Paul Robeson, Jr., published in 2001.

This is a biographical account of Paul Robeson from his birth until the start of WWII, written by his son. At times, it is like a soap opera. This ebook is mostly commentary on the diary entries, letters and notes of Robeson and his wife, Essie, and covers the following topics:

  • Robeson’s runaway success as a scholar and athlete in the nineteen-teens in the United States
  • how Robeson came to choose his ultimate career of professional actor and singer, starting in the mid-1920’s
  • how Essie’s identity was dependent on Robeson’s because she gave up her own career to manage his career
  • anti-black discrimination the couple encountered
  • his extramarital affairs
  • the intimate details of their relationship
  • Essie’s health problems
  • Robeson’s on-and-off presence during his son’s early childhood years
  • Robeson’s philosophy on life and international political activities

Robeson took up the cause of fighting for civil rights for African Americans, but his son writes, “He lived a pampered, aristocratic life, far from the radical humiliations endured daily by even the highest-ranking blacks in the United States.” In the 1930’s, the Robeson family was living in the Soviet Union because the country showed no racism, colonialism or fascism; thus, Robeson was able to overlook the atrocities committed by Stalin at a time when the behavior displayed by other nations was ugly.

Also in the 1930’s, Robeson decided he did not want to act in theatrical or movie roles that portrayed negative black stereotypes. His mythic status, which eventually brought him great wealth, afforded him flexibility in deciding the course of his career.

Read the book to learn all you ever wanted to know about Paul Robeson up until WWII.