Louis D. Brandeis, A Life

The Book of the Week is “Louis D. Brandeis, A Life” by Melvin I. Urofsky, published in 2009. This is the lengthy biography of an attorney and Supreme Court Justice.

The youngest of three siblings, Brandeis grew up in Louisville, KY in the 1850’s and 1860’s, and graduated from Harvard Law School.

Prior to the early 20th century, Brandeis felt that his job as an attorney was to help develop a fair solution for all parties involved in a dispute. He felt he was a mediator and moralist, rather than an attorney being paid to favorably act on behalf of and give legal advice to only his client. This mentality led Brandeis to engage in a few conflicts of interest in dealing with his firm’s clients.  For instance, he represented a corporate client in litigation in which a third party was represented by his firm.

Despite becoming embroiled in a few episodes of hypocrisy, Brandeis fought against corrupt, monopolistic practices of various large American institutions. He felt obligated to do what he considered public service, pro bono. Fortunately, his income as a law partner allowed this.

In the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, there were three big insurance companies that wielded an amount of power similar to that of big-name brokerages in the early 2000’s. The outsized ego and greed of the insurance executives, too, led them to manipulate the government, commit accounting irregularities, and abuse their power and the public’s trust. Brandeis took them on, exposing what he thought was their moral depravity. He then found a way for the public to avoid adding to the profits of the evil insurance corporations by initiating the sale of affordable life insurance through savings banks.

Brandeis was nominated a Supreme Court Justice by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. “When confronted with the first Jew named to the Supreme Court, and in a time of growing nativism, clearly those who ‘feared foreigners’ would oppose the appointment.” Brandeis had to endure four stressful months of hearings and background checking before he was appointed.

Around 1920, Brandeis became active in the Zionist movement. He controversially defined the movement as one in which oppressed Jews could receive financial assistance to improve their lot through settling in Palestine. Since the persecuted Jews who had found a haven in the United States had become successful in their adopted country, they did not need to go to Palestine to build a homeland there. But they were urged to help their fellow Jews who were worse off than themselves, to do so. Other people in the movement felt Brandeis did not truly understand the mentality of the oppressed Jewish immigrants, who viewed Palestine as a place they could freely practice their religion.

During the 1930’s, when Great Britain realized that Arabs greatly outnumbered Jews, and that there was so much oil in the Middle East, she changed her political position on Zionism as mentioned in the Balfour Declaration. She found the Jews argumentative, and wanted Palestine to be “an Arab-dominated region under English tutelage.”

Brandeis favored a workday shorter than twelve or fourteen hours, in order to give unionized American workers time to fulfill their civic responsibilities to get involved in local politics and “as parents and members of their communities.”

As a Supreme Court Justice, Brandeis left an influential legacy in that he had a “… great impact not only on jurisdictional matters but on commercial law, antitrust, administrative law, utility regulation, federalism, and individual liberties.”

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.

I Got A Name

The Book of the Week is “I Got A Name, The Jim Croce Story” by Ingrid Croce and Jimmy Rock, published in 2012. This is a career biography of the singer-songwriter Jim Croce.

In struggling to be his own man, Croce’s strengths and weaknesses emerged. In the early 1960’s, Croce rebelled against his parents in various ways. He broke free of his strict Catholic upbringing by converting to Judaism, marrying a Jew and pursuing a music career irrelevant to his Villanova University education in psychology and German.

He was able to stand up to his family but not the music company he chose to represent him and his wife. Although Croce had incredible talent and passion for composing and singing folk songs about working class people and love, the couple got swindled due to their phobia for dealing with attorneys. For years, Croce’s music made only his promoters wealthy. The couple stayed dirt poor even after there was widespread purchasing of his music.

In the late 1960’s, the Croces were pressured by the music company to go on concert tours at colleges. In the early 1970’s, Croce, without his wife, went on long, grueling road trips, during which he adopted the stereotyped rock-star lifestyle– taking drugs (not the hard ones, though) and philandering, but without the luxury accommodations and high pay.

Read the book to learn the full story (that ended tragically) of the suffering that Croce and his family endured in order for him to pursue his dream.

Wendy and the Lost Boys

The Book of the Week is “Wendy and the Lost Boys” by Julie Salamon, published in 2011. This is a biography of Wendy Wasserstein, award-winning playwright.

Wasserstein grew up in a wealthy Jewish family with a mythmaking, high-pressure mother. Born in 1950, Wasserstein had four older siblings. As an adult, she followed in her mother’s footsteps, carefully orchestrating public relations for herself. For much of her life, she denied the existence of an older brother who was mentally challenged and sent away to a home.

A large number of women of Wasserstein’s generation were fighting for gender equality. She realized that she was attending the wrong college when her classmates at Mount Holyoke knitted sweaters in class and obsessed over getting engaged instead of planning their careers.

Wasserstein became famous through making connections with powerful people she might not have met had she not been born to an upper-class family.  Nevertheless, it took her several years to find herself; all the while her mother was needling her about her super-successful older siblings.

At one point, Wasserstein befriended New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. He found himself in a conflict whereby as Wasserstein’s friend, he was inclined to write a favorable review of her plays. A New York Times theater review makes or breaks a new production because it is the bible of theatergoers.  One review can hold overwhelming power and influence over the success of playwrights like Wasserstein.

Another factor in Wasserstein’s popularity was getting the right directors for her different works. The wrong director can spell doom for a show while a different one with a certain vision can make it shine.

Read the book to learn about Wasserstein’s relationships, eventual fulfillment of her dreams and her and her family’s sad fate.

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.

Growing Up Laughing

The Book of the Week is “Growing Up Laughing” by Marlo Thomas, published in 2010. This book is part memoir, part biography of the author’s father, part snippets of conversations with comedians of different generations, and lots of jokes.

Marlo’s famous father, Danny, ran with a crowd of live entertainers, which included, but was not limited to George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Don Rickles, the Marx Brothers, Joey Bishop and Sid Caesar. Danny was mistaken for Jewish due to his nose and the company he kept, but he was actually of Lebanese, Catholic extraction.

In this book, Marlo chats with various personalities– Lily Tomlin, Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld and Stephen Colbert among them– about how they started their comedy careers, and why their acts are funny.

Marlo is probably most famous for starring in the sitcom “That Girl” and co-creating– along with a group of other celebrities– the book, movie and record, “Free to Be You and Me,” a hodgepodge of songs and skits for kids.

Gore Vidal: A Biography

The Book of the Week is “Gore Vidal: A Biography” by Fred Kaplan, published in 1999. This volume geared toward educated readers describes memorable facets of the life of Vidal, who is a political pundit, playwright and author. He is a colorful character. A distant relative of Al Gore, he helped make Anais Nin a famous author.

Additionally, Vidal engaged in heated political debates with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley. On one occasion, when Buckley had failed to appear for a scheduled debate, the press asked Vidal where Buckley was. Vidal answered, “Mr Buckley? Oh, he’s at Wallace headquarters, stitching hoods.” Also mentioned in this book is Vidal’s dated screenplay about a martian, that contains a disturbing message about human nature. A unique read, indeed.

A Boy Named Shel

The Book of the Week is “A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein” by Lisa Rogak, published in 2007. This biography describes the life of the cartoonist, children’s poet and songwriter.

Silverstein was an eccentric, creative thinker who collaborated with other like-minded individuals.  He started out as a cartoonist. However, his social skills were poor. One such friend of his who was interviewed for this book remarked that he never stayed in one place for long.

As an adult, whenever he got bored with a conversation he might be having with a friend at an eatery where they met to exchange ideas, he would simply get up and leave without warning. He would also switch residences frequently– he kept several inside and outside the United States. Fortunately, he could afford to do whatever he liked, whenever he liked, once royalties started rolling in from sales of various works he wrote, such as the best-selling classic children’s book of poems, “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” the song “A Boy Named Sue” (sung by Johnny Cash) and the rather depressing children’s book “The Giving Tree.”

Although Silverstein had difficulty getting along with his father, he still grieved at his father’s death.  He realized “You never get over it.”

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.

John Purroy Mitchel

The Book of the Week is “John Purroy Mitchel, The Boy Mayor of New York” by Edwin R. Lewinson, published in 1965.

Previously a young attorney, co-Commissioner of Accounts and President of the Board of Aldermen in New York City, Mitchel was elected Mayor in 1913 on the Fusion Party ticket.  However, he was inept as a politician because both his speech-making and political-machine-building skills were poor. Like Mayor John Lindsay, Mitchel had good intentions, but did not get much done. He was brutally honest and never took action for the purpose of gaining the popularity of his constituents.

Like Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Mitchel’s economic concerns overrode all others, and his administration operated under a veil of secrecy. Mitchel rubbed shoulders with the Rockefellers, and thus acquired a reputation of favoring big-money interests. However, he wanted to keep the then-46 members on the Board of Education, rather than have the power to appoint only 9 members.  If he had such power, those 9 men would be difficult to find, in that they would be “required to give all their time.”  The only people who could afford to, were millionaires, “and they are the very worst type to put in control of the schools.” Further, “The tendency of mayors is to respect the aristocratic voice of the community and to forget the democratic.”

The irony of the Mitchel administration was that, although he was pro-education, he was more interested in saving money than providing New York City’s children with a decent education. The mayor was not a narcissist out to acquire power and appoint his cronies. Nevertheless, the Board of Estimate was a penny-pinching entity, and engaged in petty squabbles over money, with the Board of Education.  Estimate refused to spend money to build much-needed schools. Mitchel wanted Estimate to control the wages of Education’s employees, which included teachers.  Besides, during his entire time in office, Mitchel’s public relations was non-existent with teachers and parents.

In 1914, Mitchel and other city officials visited Gary, Indiana to observe an education experiment, and decided to introduce “The Gary Plan” to New York City’s schools. The Board of Estimate favored the plan because it saved money and saved school-building space. Not surprisingly, teachers and parents opposed the plan. Under the plan, students could opt to start learning a trade in middle school. The schools superintendent published a two-year progress report showing poor performance among students in the two “Gary” schools in New York City.  The plan was abandoned in 1917, after 35 participating schools experienced negative results.

In 1917, Mitchel ran for re-election because he wanted New Yorkers to support the United States in World War I. He accused others of being unpatriotic if they did not support the war. He himself attended a military camp while still in his first term. When he lost the mayoral election to John Hylan, he joined the Air Force, which was at that time part of the U.S. Signal Corps, and was sent to San Diego, then to Louisiana for training. Although he was 38, he wanted to fight in the war.

In July 1918, Mitchel did not have his seatbelt fastened when he died in a solo-flight accident in Louisiana.  More people paid their last respects to him than did people who attended New York’s 4th of July celebrations just a few days before. He was highly praised for his “bravery, patriotism, his integrity and his ability as a public official.”   Mitchel Field, an airfield just finished on Long Island, was so named in his honor.