Sandy Koufax

The Book of the Week is “Sandy Koufax, A Lefty’s Legacy” by Jane Leavy, published in 2002.  This is a biography of a legendary Major League Baseball pitcher who played for the Dodgers from the mid 1950’s to the mid 1960’s.

SIDENOTE:  The nature of this short paperback’s structure makes it repetitive and disorganized. It appears that the author is trying to build suspense by providing an entire one-chapter-per-inning description of a historic game pitched by Koufax in September 1965,  interspersed with chapters on other subjects. It doesn’t work. Perhaps the author thought the reader has the attention span of a fly, and wouldn’t be able to handle the whole game in one go. Too bad, because the content of the book is full of facts, figures and what seems to be thorough research.

Born in December 1935, Koufax’s full first name was Sanford. His initial dream was to play for the New York Knicks basketball team.  He was an excellent all-around athlete. However, in college, he got the chance to pitch.

The then-New York Dodgers scout who observed Koufax saw exceptional potential, although others thought his pitching was wild and inconsistent. Even thought he had almost no experience, the Dodgers extended an offer to him, to which he committed. Koufax played his first season of professional ball in 1955.  The next four seasons, he was benched most of the time, but his pitching was improving. He became a starter in 1962.

The year 1963 was the first in which the media revealed tabloid gossip on the private lives of professional athletes, including that of Koufax. Prior to that, the media merely reported on sports-related information. One nosy news outlet had a field day when it found out that Koufax  was adopted. That opened the floodgates on asking personal questions of players.

Read the book to learn about the sad state of affairs in sports medicine– during Koufax’s generation– that made top athletes’  careers all too short, the painkillers used at that time, how biomechanics and arthroscopic surgery have evolved since then, a vast quantity of other information on Koufax, including how, after retirement from baseball, “He became a serious runner, a marathoner who smoked, competing in Europe, where he was least likely to be recognized.”

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.

 

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.

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.”

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.

Chester Alan Arthur

The Book of the Week is “Chester Alan Arthur” by Zachary Karabell published in 2004. This history book describes a little-known president who became so, through the assassination of President James Garfield.

In 1871, Arthur was earning about $10,000 a year as counsel to the New York Tax Commission when the average American earned about $500 annually. Arthur’s pay rose significantly when he assumed the powerful position of collector of the customhouse of the Port of New York. He received a percentage of the revenue collected when smugglers were caught. The numerous conflicts of interest and widespread influence-peddling that was considered standard procedure in New York City politics then, would be considered morally repulsive in this day and age.

In 1880, the Republican Garfield chose Arthur as his running mate. “They had won the ticket, but they lived hundreds of miles apart, barely knew each other, and were hardly friends.” In those days, a new president was inaugurated on March 4. In summer 1881, Arthur became president, an unwanted promotion. Nevertheless, he got to ride in the then-equivalent of Air Force One– a luxury horse-drawn carriage.

Read the book to learn of Arthur’s public-service career, and what his administration accomplished despite various unhappy circumstances in his life and times.

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.”