Extreme Measures

The Book of the Week is “Extreme Measures” by Martin Brookes. This is a biography of Francis Galton.

Galton was born in Birmingham in 1822, the youngest of seven children of a wealthy, prominent family in the Victorian Era. During his third year at Cambridge University, Galton had a mental breakdown. Ironically, he wrote, “…life seemed a game, played for the benefit of a select few, and from which he had been excluded…”

Galton had two major passions in his life:  a) exploring Africa, specifically Namibia– where he reported on navigation, land formations, climate, flora, fauna and its tribes– at the time, territory uncharted by Europeans; and b) collecting data on humans and what made them tick. He coined the expression “nature” or “nurture” to describe the roles played by genetics or the environment on people’s behavior and circumstances. He also labeled the statistical concepts of “regression” and “correlation.”

“Eugenics, his socio-scientific philosophy of the future would be built, according to Galton, on a solid foundation of knowledge, and exercised through a ruthless system of competitive examinations.”

Through the decades, other science projects of Galton’s included but were not limited to tea brewing, and a fingerprints database for law enforcement. Read the book to learn of the contents of the resulting publications, and how Galton seized upon the intellectual ideas of his generation, in a way that allowed him to achieve a minor footnote in the history books.

Genius on the Edge – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed “Genius on the Edge” by Gerald Imber, MD, published in  2010. This long book describes the career of Dr. William Halsted.

Halsted was born in 1852 in New York City. There was still much ignorance about medicine in his generation. Fatal diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever and tuberculosis were rampant. He developed a passion for medicine at Yale University. The most prominent doctors of his age included Pasteur, Lister, Morse, Hunter, Wells, Koch, Morton, Young and Warren. They spurred progress in sanitation, anaesthesia, and the collection of new information and techniques for treating patients.

In the 1870’s, Columbia College, Physicians and Surgeons didn’t require undergraduate degrees for entry because it was seeking revenue from student tuition. The three-year program was all lectures– no labs, no interaction with patients. In the 1870’s, during Halsted’s internship at Bellevue Hospital, many personnel didn’t wash their hands before operating, and smoked.

In late 1884, Halsted started using cocaine as a local anaesthetic in dentistry. He displayed, “…hyperactivity, rambling speech, inattention, and suspended decision-making ability.” Medical students and their teachers started using cocaine as a pick-me-up. They became addicted. “The drug was readily available in Europe, through Merck, and there was no stigma associated with its purchase.” In late 1886, Halsted went to work at Johns Hopkins Pathological– the “Bell Labs” of medicine. He went to Baltimore because his addiction had wrecked his career in New York. He substituted morphine for cocaine.

It is unclear how much better Halsted could have performed were it not for his addiction. He did have a brilliant career, but there were bouts of irresponsibility, socially and teaching-wise. He missed classes, started surgery at 10am instead of 8 after a while, failed to show up for meetings, and retreated to his country home for almost half the year. One positive side effect of his addiction was that Halsted delegated complete patient care to residents when he had morphine withdrawal symptoms. So the residents got a golden opportunity they would not have had otherwise, to learn their craft.

Side Note (There’s nothing new under the sun.): “As a group, they [nurses] felt themselves underpaid and overworked.” The Training School taught them to cook and clean. They were required to wear brown Oxford shoes.

Halsted experimented on dogs on and off for a couple of years, between months-long stints in drug rehab. He began seeing human patients for surgery in early 1889. He pioneered the medical-school residency program. He instituted the training of surgeons to train other surgeons. Three other doctors at Johns Hopkins who wrought major change in medicine in the U.S. were William Osler, William Welch, and Howard Kelly. Halsted specialized in surgery for breast cancer and inguinal hernia.

Johns Hopkins wanted to remain on the cutting edge of medicine by opening a medical school but it needed money to do so. Female heirs of prominent, wealthy families raised the money and placed conditions on the school’s opening, requiring gender equality. After much controversy, it opened in the fall of 1893.

Read the book to learn how medicine in America changed through the years of the late 19th into the 20th century, and how, according to this book, Johns Hopkins led the way.

Wolf

The Book of the Week is “Wolf, The Lives of Jack London” by James L. Haley, published in 2010. This is the biography of an American author whose books and short stories were popular at the turn of the 20th Century.

London’s mother died giving birth to him in 1876. He was the eleventh and last child in the family, and the ninth to survive. Due to his stepmother’s gambling addiction, when he was ten years old, he was forced to work at various jobs, such as paperboy, ice wagon boy and pinsetter at a bowling alley, to lend financial support to his family. He quit school after eighth grade.

London was determined to escape a life of hard manual labor via writing, which paid significantly better. In 1898, “… to the average American indoctrinated with the ideals of patriotism– socialists, communists, and anarchists had all become lumped together into a bomb throwing vaguely Slavic cartoon that was inaccurate, and out of which they needed to be educated.” When he tasted success in publishing, ironically, he cruised the globe in a $30,000 yacht, taking with him one hundred books, a phonograph and five hundred records, but his writings were of exploitation by robber barons who were “…oblivious to the havoc they were wreaking in the lives of the have-nots.”

Read the book to learn more of London’s adventures stealing oysters, riding the rails, serving as a war correspondent and socialist lecturer, as well as in the sexual realm and personal relationships.

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.

The Gentleman From New York – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed “The Gentleman From New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan” by Godfrey Hodgson, published in 2000.

It is a long biography that details Moynihan’s careers as a Navy officer, sociological researcher and writer, Harvard professor, ambassador to the UN and four-term senator from New York State. Throughout, he received invaluable assistance from his wife, Liz.

In the early 1960’s Moynihan received a quality education, thanks to a scholarship and the GI Bill. He assisted several presidents, starting with JFK, in generating reports on social policy. Lyndon Johnson wanted to right the historic injustices of slavery and segregation. Moynihan was known as a thoughtful, moderately liberal Democrat.

After the Watts riots in the mid-1960’s, “urban studies” were trendy. Moynihan jumped on the bandwagon, teaching and writing about them. Professor James Coleman at Johns Hopkins University led a study of 570,000 children, 60,000 teachers and 4,000 schools, whose results were controversial. It found that student standardized test scores were higher when students were in classes with others who were more affluent and had better home environments than they; facilities and resources across schools were largely the same. A statistically significant number of the students who scored lower were of certain ethnic groups.

In 1966, Moynihan ran for president of the New York City Council, even though he and his family still lived in Washington D.C. In summer 1967, major urban areas in the U.S. saw rioting over Vietnam and racial tensions. Ironically, liberalism was the order of the day in the policies of legislation, political officeholders and reports from the media.

Moynihan shocked his contemporaries when he went to work for the Nixon White House in 1969. He and the president both wanted to implement solutions to American social and economic problems. He stayed a Democrat, though, and opposed the Vietnam War. Moynihan wrote a report that prompted accusations of racism, possibly due to misinterpretation. He suggested that people take a break from discussing racism, allowing the issues “benign neglect.” Amid the furor, a few people theorized that differences in “intelligence” between blacks and whites were due to genetics. He was still needled about his report decades later.

There is a bit of sloppy editing in the section describing the Moynihans’ and Clintons’ relationship in 1993. The latter were trying to push through the bill for national health care in the U.S. Moynihan repeatedly raised the issue that the costs of labor-intensive social programs, such as “… Medicaid doubled in the eight years of the Reagan administration, then doubled again in the eight (sic) years of the Bush administration.” That said, the following page might confuse readers when it says, “… slow the projected rate of growth in the cost of Medicare by one-half after years of double-digit growth…”

Nevertheless, read the book to learn everything you ever wanted to know about Moynihan’s viewpoints and writings.

Laughter’s Gentle Soul

The Book of the Week is “Laughter’s Gentle Soul, The Life of Robert Benchley” by Billy Altman, published in 1997. This is the biography of Robert Benchley, literary humorist and Hollywood writer and actor in the first half of the 20th century.

Born in 1889, Benchley had to pass a three-day battery of exams to get accepted to Harvard in 1908. He was known for witty, wiseass writing, and playing pranks. In the late nineteen teens, when the editor of Vanity Fair magazine went on vacation, Benchley and his coworkers dispersed “…outlandish banners, streamers, signs, crepe paper, and assorted parade paraphernalia” around the editor’s office. The editor was not amused when he returned.

In Benchley’s generation, the American populace read columns and essays in newspapers and magazines– major sources of information and entertainment then. Benchley was a member of the “Algonquin Round Table,” also called the “Vicious Circle” formally named in spring 1919. The group consisted of writers of various genres, leading ladies, artists and women’s rights activists. Its members regularly met at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City for dinner and drinks, and some, through connections with the super-wealthy, went on jaunts to Great Neck, Manhasset and Syosset on Long Island in New York State, and overseas, into the mid 1930’s.

In October 1923, the Algonquinites acquired a permit to play croquet in Central Park in New York City. They were incurable hedonists. In 1926, Benchley was best man at a friend’s wedding in California, at which he appeared with a broken leg he’d gotten from a fall at a party. “That the [plaster] cast had been profusely autographed with lewd comments by most of the guests at the bridegroom’s bachelor party only added to Benchley’s embarrassing popularity at the ceremonies.”

In 1928, an acquaintance of Benchley chartered a private plane to fly them from London to Paris. At that time, such aircraft was extremely noisy, even for the passengers, and there was no heat in the cabin.

Benchley became a Broadway theater critic for The New Yorker magazine. “With hundreds of productions surfacing each season, the theater critics of Benchley’s era had the ill fortune to confront, over and over, shows with identical or nearly identical plots, character types and even dialogue.”

Read the book to learn other details of Benchley’s professional and personal life on both coasts.

 

Stephen Sondheim

The Book of the Week is “Stephen Sondheim: A Life” by Meryle Secrest, originally published in 1993. This is the biography of a Broadway composer who was born in spring of 1930.

In 1946, when Sondheim was attending Williams College, he was finally accepted to a fraternity on his third attempt. Many fraternities automatically prejudged people who had last names that were perceived as Jewish, and rejected them. Throughout this entire book, there was mention of neither Sondheim’s religious observances, if any, nor of his beliefs. Nevertheless, in the spring of 1948, Sondheim religiously wrote more than twenty musical numbers for a show that parodied the school.

After graduation, Sondheim wrote an entire musical. Oscar Hammerstein, a family friend in his childhood, became his mentor. He taught Sondheim that “an author was not writing to satisfy himself… or even the actors… His main consideration should be how to relate the work to the audience’s experience… if the sympathies of the audience were not engaged, it did not matter how brilliant the work was.” The musical, on the initial draft, was angry and bitter, and had no likeable characters– they were all jerks. This blogger is reminded of various unfunny works of that nature: the plays, “Art” and “Some Americans Abroad” and the TV shows, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Office.”

On a more entertaining note, Sondheim also invented a board game called “Stardom” in which players have sex with show-business celebrities in order to reach the peak of the social ladder. There were different levels of fame and real properties (like in Monopoly) of stars’ homes. However, a player would regress when an opposing player leaked a rumor of a love affair to a gossip columnist.

Sondheim’s score of West Side Story (both a musical and a movie-musical) became popular largely due to the movie’s expensive ad campaign; people had a chance to get to like it. Absent the making of the movie, the songs would have languished in obscurity.

In 1960, Sondheim bought a house in the Turtle Bay section (East 40’s) of Manhattan, five stories high, for $115,000. It was next door to Katharine Hepburn’s. He and the other creators of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” learned from producer/director Jerome Robbins that the opening number of a musical is crucial for setting the tone for the whole show, so it must be likeable and indicative of the nature of the show.

At age 29, Sondheim formed his own publishing company in order to make significantly more money than other composers. By age 32, he had three hit Broadway shows under his belt. During his career, he wrote more than eight hundred songs.

Read the book to learn the rest of the intimate details of Sondheim’s life.

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 Education of a Coach

The Book of the Week is “The Education of a Coach” by David Halberstam, published in 2005. This ebook describes the career of Bill Belichick, eventual head coach of two different professional American football teams from the 1990’s into the 2000’s. His excellence at analyzing films of players in action was instrumental in assembling winning teams and Super Bowl victories.

Job security is poor for coaching positions in college sports departments and in professional sports. There are many factors out of the control of the personnel, and networking is crucial for obtaining the next job, often in a different city. A newly installed athletic director could fire the head coach, and the assistant coaches would have to leave with him. Players could get injured or the team owner could interfere with the coaching of the team. Egos are big and the system for how players are chosen for professional football teams has changed over the decades.

Read the book to learn how Belichick rose to the top and why he ran into trouble in Cleveland but achieved tremendous success in New England.