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.

Al Jaffee’s Mad Life

The Book of the Week is “Al Jaffee’s Mad Life:  A Biography” by Mary-Lou Weisman, published in 2010.

This book describes the life of the oldest of four sons of neglectful parents. Fortunately, that son had a marketable, incredible talent that allowed him to live a decent life as an adult.

When Jaffee was six years old, in 1927, his mother decided to take her sons from Savannah, Georgia, back with her to a shtetl in an increasingly anti-Semitic Lithuania. The family– absent the father, who stayed in the United States, scrounging out a living as a part-time postal worker– went back and forth between their new and old countries a few times, causing emotional upheaval for all involved.

Read the book to learn the details of Jaffee’s unstable childhood and how he parlayed his experience with hardship into a successful career in cartooning.

One Of Us

The Book of the Week is “One of Us” by Tom Wicker.  This is a biography of Richard Nixon, published in 1991.

This book discusses aspects of the late president’s psychology as well as his life story and historical events. Nixon had an inferiority complex. He always felt like an outsider in Washington because he was a Duke University, rather than an Ivy League, graduate. He used an apt phrase to describe the focus one needs to succeed in a law career: a “lead butt” that can sit in a chair for hours, reading.

Despite his shameful crimes and resignation, he still took some actions that benefited the United States, the most well known of which was “opening up” China.

Against Medical Advice

The Book of the Week is “Against Medical Advice” by James Patterson and Hal Friedman, published in 2008. This book discusses the struggle of a teenage boy (Friedman’s son) with various psychological disorders; obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette’s syndrome among them.

Cory tried to live a normal life, but by his teen years, he had fallen woefully behind socially and educationally. He had friends, but they were misfits like himself. At one point, he tried checking into an institution but found his life was not improving. However, the law required him to stay there a certain number of days, unless his parents signed a document stating he was refusing to accept the judgement of professionals about his treatment.

A last-ditch effort saw Cory enter an extremely radical program– a survival camp, of sorts– in which kids were forced to cooperate with each other in a harsh environment, or literally face death.

Read the book to learn how Cory fared.

Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion

The Book of the Week is “Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion” by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel, published in 2010. As can be surmised from the title, this book is about Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s life and liberalism.

When Brennan was first appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the mid 1950’s, the United States Supreme Court was ruling on cases dealing with integration, Communism and censorship of pornography. “Brennan and his allies on the Court were being attacked by the mid 1960’s for encouraging racial mixing, coddling Communists and trying to drive God out of public life.”

The Court turned very conservative after Richard Nixon was elected president. Conservative politicians secretly investigated liberals for any conflicts of interest, or worse sins, to force the liberal justices off the Court. Brennan quit all teaching and lecturing to eliminate all of his own conflicts of interest and divested himself of real estate interests and stock. No other liberal justices took such precautions.

Although principled, legally obedient and even supportive of several women’s rights issues, ironically, Brennan refused to hire females as clerks in his own chambers. It was only after an aide wrote to him in strong language in the early 1970’s– that sooner or later, someone would sue a Supreme Court Justice alleging gender discrimination in clerk selection. Besides, Brennan would want his own daughter to be hired, if she were in a position to apply.

The Court stayed conservative for the rest of Brennan’s tenure. Read the book to learn the impact Brennan made on the Court nevertheless.

Peter Stuyvesant, Boy With Wooden Shoes

The Book of the Week is “Peter Stuyvesant, Boy With Wooden Shoes” by Mable Cleland Widdemer, published in 1950. This is a children’s biography of Peter Stuyvesant. He had adventures growing up in Holland, and as an adult in Curacao and Brazil and New Amsterdam while serving as a political representative for the West India Company from the mid-1640’s through the 1660’s. Despite his arrogance, bad temper and stubbornness, he was a born leader.

When he arrived in New Amsterdam, Stuyvesant was appalled to find that farmyard animals ran rampant in the unpaved streets. In addition, fire hazards such as wooden chimneys and whole houses made of wood, and reed roofs, abounded. He paved the streets with cobblestones, and mandated the use of brick, stone and tile. He also shored up the city’s defense: “The men had to build a fort to protect them from the enemy who may come by sea, and a wall across the island to separate them from wild animals of the forests and ‘red men.” Stuyvesant traded furs, meat and fish for the Native Americans’ blankets, beads and wampum, but he would not give them firearms.

The Burghers and Councilmen ignored Peter’s wish to fight an English takeover of New Amsterdam. So the English took over and it was renamed New York, after the brother of the King of England, the Duke of York, in September 1664. Peter returned to Holland for four years, then returned to New York because he liked it so much.

Irrepressible

The Book of the Week is “Irrepressible, the Life and Times of Jessica Mitford” by Leslie Brody, published in 2010.  This biography recounts the life of the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, charismatic rebel.  Her motley English family included duke and duchess parents, two Nazi-sympathizing sisters, three other sisters, a brother, and she, who, born during WWI, was a Communist.

Jessica, nicknamed “Decca,” led an eventful life. In her late teens, she ran away with her lover to the United States. Later, she underwent an abortion, committed thievery from the wealthy social set with whom she rubbed shoulders, pleaded the Fifth Amendment on the stand at a McCarthy hearing, eventually gave birth to four children, raised money with her second husband for the Civil Rights movement, wrote several books including a very successful one on the American death industry, and grieved over deaths of various of her family members.  She enjoyed herself to the fullest, regardless of what others thought of her actions, falling in and out of relationships with her family members through the years.

In a letter to her unconventional daughter, nicknamed “Dinky,” Decca provided her take on life:

“One is only really inwardly comfortable, so to speak, after one’s life has assumed some sort of shape… which would include goals set by onseself and a circle of life-time type friends… Even after one has, all may be knocked out of shape, so one has to start over again…”

Piaf

The Book of the Week is “Piaf” by Simone Bertaut, published in 1969.  This is Bertaut’s biography of her sister, Edith Piaf. They shared the same father, and both grew up in Paris in the nineteen teens and twenties, with nary a formal education.

Edith spent her early childhood in a brothel whose occupants acted as  her surrogate mothers, because her biological mother never cared much for her.   However, her father was an artist and street performer, who took her with him as soon as she was old enough to sing so he could earn enough money to survive.  Fortunately, she had incredible natural talent.  Simone also accompanied her father on his rounds after Edith had left him, but she could only do some simple acrobatics.  At fifteen years old, Edith took twelve year old Simone into her employ, and Edith embarked on her quest for fame and fortune as a singer.

The inseparable sisters endured many hardships before Edith achieved fame.  Throughout her life, the strong-willed, bossy Edith fell in and out of love with numerous men, some of whom she made into singing stars.  Read the book to learn about her antics with them, and other aspects of her edgy existence in the fast lane.