My Autobiography, Charlie Chaplin

The Book of the Week is “My Autobiography, Charlie Chaplin” published in 1964.

Born in 1889 in London, Chaplin had a traumatic childhood. Both his parents were vaudevillians, but his father had trouble with alcohol; and his mother, with her voice. Thus, they found themselves unemployed. Their relationship suffered, and they separated. Chaplin and his older brother lived with their mother in a hovel. Unsurprisingly, his father failed to pay alimony and child support. Chaplin was pushed by his mother onstage beginning when he was five years old.

A commune known as a “workhouse” took in the family. The mother crocheted lace cuffs and the kids attended school. After two weeks, they were transferred to a suburban workhouse. Boys at age eleven were conscripted. So Chaplin’s brother entered the Navy. His mother, however, suffered from mental illness, and was institutionalized. Chaplin went to live with his father in a London slum.

At nine years old, Chaplin showed a true talent and passion for performing. His father got him into a clog-dancing troupe. Later, he lied about his age to get hired by an acting troupe. He had natural ability to play comic characters.

In autumn 1911, Chaplin by chance got into the then-silent motion picture business (only musical sound tracks– no talking), replacing another actor in Hollywood. It was then he created his Tramp character. He was allowed to try his hand at directing and writing, although the bosses of that period were still clinging to their tired “Keystone Kops” scenarios of slapstick chases. His fresh approach that evoked an emotional response became wildly popular among American audiences. He immediately became a legend. Once he came into his own, his brother became his business manager.

“Fulfilling the Mutual [film company] contract I suppose, was the happiest period of my career. I was light and unencumbered, 27 years old, with fabulous prospects, and a friendly, glamorous world before me.” Chaplin and his friends Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford found out that the movie production companies were going to merge, lower the outrageous pay of actors, and take control away from them. So Chaplin et al formed their own production company, United Artists.

During a trip on W.R. Hearst’s yacht, the Hollywood director who had taken over Hearst’s film production company, had a heart attack. Chaplin wrote, “I was not present on that trip but Elinor Glyn, who was aboard…” told Chaplin about the episode. The ridiculous rumors regarding the director’s murder were false. “Hearst, Marion [Davies] and I went to see Ince [the director] at his home two weeks before he died.”

Read the book to learn a wealth of other details of Chaplin’s life, and why he moved to Switzerland with his family; get the explanation– straight from “the horse’s mouth.”

Memoirs

The Book of the Week is “Memoirs” by Mikhail Gorbachev, published in 1995. This tome described the Soviet leader’s push for political and economic change for the benefit of the millions and millions of people governed by him.

Born in March 1931 in Stavropol, Gorbachev grew up to become a bureaucrat, following the mentality of his agricultural community.  The (federal) Central Committee of the Soviet Union (the Union) had a command economy– the government dictated all aspects of labor, capital and goods. It also assigned housing to all people living in the Union, including officials, pursuant to the political hierarchy. Additionally, vacation houses (dachas) were bestowed upon higher-level officials. Incidentally, according to the author, Politburo members socialized among themselves at work-related functions only, nowhere else– because they were afraid others would gossip about them.

The bureaucracy by the State Planning Committee (“Gosplan”) generated endless memoranda and plenums, not to mention meetings– on harvests, irrigation, infrastructure and what to do about natural disasters such as drought. A dozen different departments and ministries involved themselves in the approval process. “At the beginning of each year the oblast [Communist] Party committees would make unrealistic commitments, which were promptly forgotten. Manipulators were the heroes of the day. Those who worked diligently were looked upon with pity.”

The local government felt a desperate need to keep a stranglehold on their power. They were content with their culture of bribes, graft and mutual favors. So the bureaucrats scotched an early 1960’s capitalistic experiment of paying piece-rate wages to farmers in the infant territory of Kazakhstan when productivity caused payroll expenses to soar. Yet, the bosses wanted to see high returns on a stingy budget.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, farms disappeared when the Union underwent a period of industrialization with extraction of fossil fuels, the introduction of electricity, and construction of army bases. The Baltic Republics counteracted increased soil salinity with lime, but Latvia didn’t. The use of weed killer worsened the already unchecked spread of pollution.

Gorbachev wrote of 1985, “No one even imagined the extent of our ecological disaster, how far we were behind the developed nations as a result of our barbaric attitude toward nature… A wave of bitterness and anger rolled through the country when it came out that the genetic pool of our peoples had been threatened.” Curiously, starting in mid-November 1982, the Union had a series of three leaders who died of ill health within a three-year period: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

Besides, the Politburo consisted of “dead wood” who preferred to maintain the status quo because their own living standards were the highest in the nation in terms of housing, health care, education and necessaries (food, clothing). Each bureaucrat was like the Wizard of Oz–  a phony behind a curtain– except that Gorbachev couldn’t even offer accurate data to the people who needed his help.

Members of government agencies– for the purpose of public and foreign consumption– generated fanciful statistics on the Union’s products: weapons, grain, oil, gas and metals. The real numbers were abysmal. The KGB’s numerical data were also kept secret. That was just the tip of the iceberg on censorship. No negative news coverage of anyone was allowed (except of dissidents). In the spring of 1987, Gorbachev was distressed to learn that true military expenses accounted for 40% of the Union’s budget, and 20% of GNP. Four-fifths of “scientific research” was military-related.

Gorbachev opposed sovereignty for territories ruled by the Union’s central government due to his paternalistic arrogance. He claimed he wasn’t informed that Soviet tanks rolled in to Georgia to quell unrest in the spring of 1989.

Back in March 1987, Margaret Thatcher criticized Gorbachev for making arms shipments to war-prone nations worldwide. He said she made the (hypocritical, untruthful) claim that the West and the United States sent financial aid and food instead, to needy nations. He tried to correct her. No word on whether he succeeded.

On their first visit to the United States in the mid-1980’s, Gorbachev and his wife Raisa were defamed by American propaganda. The media contended that Raisa wouldn’t deign to visit specific places. In reality– those places were on her schedule but she couldn’t control her vehicle’s driver in her motorcade who bypassed those places without consulting her. Also, the tabloids made up the story that she was having a cat fight with Nancy Reagan.

Gorbachev knew and took the risks involved in “rocking the boat” to move the nation forward after so many decades of deleterious political and economic self-delusion, with his concepts of “glasnost” and “perestroika.”

Read the book to learn the details, and how he was punished for doing so, why Soviet tanks rolled into Moscow (!) in October 1993, and how the Union broke up.

Endnote:  This book’s translation was awkward in a few spots, such as: “After our forces were sent to Afghanistan, the USA and other nations took a number of measures against us.” [were sent?]

Summing Up – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Summing Up, An Autobiography” by Yitzhak Shamir, published in 1994.

Born in 1915 in a very small town that was alternately Soviet and Polish territory, future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish. Although they were Zionists, his parents were active in the Bund, the recently founded non-religious, anti-Zionist Socialist party that attracted Eastern European Jews to its ranks.

At twenty years old, Shamir moved to Palestine. Over the next three decades, he served in three of the different militant underground groups/intelligence services fighting for the independence, and later, the continued existence, of a Jewish state in the world.

Shamir believed in practicing frontier justice– unlike Menachem Begin, who thought disputes should be settled through law courts. In March 1981, Shamir favored the preemptive Israeli bombing mission that took out the Iraq nuclear arms factory that Saddam Hussein built with the help of the French.

In June 1982, violence in Lebanon was already the status quo when Israel sought to eliminate the PLO once and for all in that bloodied nation. The civil war in Lebanon was a complicated affair with conflicts among Shiites, Sunnis, Maronites, Druze, Palestinians, Syrian troops and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Amid the fighting, Lebanese terrorists massacred hundreds or thousands of people in two Palestinian refugee camps that were supposed to be guarded by the Israeli military. Even though Shamir was then-foreign minister of Israel, the way he was informed of the incident by his subordinates didn’t convince him that such violence was out of the ordinary.

Nevertheless, the media of various countries blamed  Israel for the deaths, and created an atmosphere ranging from “… outright lies to elaborate carelessness, from staged photographs of atrocities all the way to phoney (sic) interviews– just as long as the Jewish state and the IDF were besmirched.” Excuse the cliche, but there’s nothing new under the sun. A refugee crisis is not a new propaganda tool.

In August 1983, Prime Minister Begin resigned/retired. Perhaps the job was no longer fun for him. Due to a hotly contested election, Shamir was pushed into an arrangement with Shimon Peres whereby they each would serve about a three-year term as prime minister, leading their respective parties; the former, the Likud (conservative) party, and the latter, the Alignment party, whose collective name was the National Unity Government, between 1984 and 1990.

Shamir contended that the Arab nations had a double standard when it came to helping their allies– the Palestinians. Beginning in 1948, the Arab states wouldn’t take in Palestinian refugees, but instead, kept them in squalid camps for almost half a century “… solely for the anti-Israel propaganda benefits… thousands of children, who could have been rescued from their dreadful lives a hundred times over by the investment of a fraction of the Arab oil revenues and helped by the Arab rulers to relocate somewhere in the Arab world.”

On the other hand, through the decades, Israel has welcomed with open arms– as many as it could afford to accommodate– anyone who self-identified as Jewish and wanted to live there.

Anyway, read the book to learn of the ways that American Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton were actually anti-Israel, and of the actions of Israeli government officials (Shamir’s own countrymen!) that so distressed him in later years, and much more.

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

The Book of the Week is “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate” by Al Franken, published in 2017.

Born in 1951, Al Franken grew up in Minnesota. His career as a comedy writer for the TV show Saturday Night Live spanned about fifteen non-consecutive years, starting with its first season in 1975. He also entertained American servicemen in the Middle East in the single-digit 2000’s.

Franken wrote that Norm Coleman put his own life and other American lives in danger because he failed to make sure that Americans stationed in Iraq in 2003 were provided with adequate protective gear. Coleman’s job was to oversee war contracting of equipment and hold hearings when he witnessed fraud, waste or abuse. He held zero hearings; Harry S Truman, who held a similar position during the United State’s WWII preparations, held 432 hearings.

Then, after decades in show business, Franken really sold out and entered politics. He eventually ran against Norm Coleman for the office of U.S. senator from Minnesota. Coleman, petty and litigious, contested the election results to the maximum– a recipe for sky-high legal bills and time-consuming nonsense; eight months to be exact… wait for it… Franken won.

Franken’s political opponents were masters at using misleading statistics. Fortunately, his sensitivity to liars was on high-alert. He pointed out that by 2016, the Republican landscape was littered with broken promises. They had failed to prove that Kenya was Obama’s birthplace, were unable to bankrupt Planned Parenthood by stripping it of subsidies, and failed to overhaul the new national healthcare system. Franken expressed his skepticism about replacing that last item. Ever.

Read the book to learn what it’s like to be a senator, what Franken was still seeking to accomplish politically at the book’s writing, and the (funny!) jokes he couldn’t tell in public (uncensored!).

A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin” by Kathy Griffin, published in 2009.

This memoir described the comedian whose shtick consisted of telling humorous, embarrassing stories about members of the entertainment industry. Or, as she characterized herself: “… someone who gets fired, stirs up trouble, and gets debated about on CNN for saying bad things on award shows.” Kudos to her for being an honest, amusing attention whore. She must have brought in sufficient profits for the entertainment industry to tolerate her behavior.

Born in November 1960 in Forest Park, Illinois, the youngest of five children, Griffin grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. At eighteen years old, she moved to Santa Monica, California to be an actress. She apparently had the talent, drive and creativity to get famous.

In the early 2000’s, Griffin performed sufficiently well at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles to double the length of her show to two hours. This allowed the cocktail waitresses to make sufficient money to pay their rent, “Plus they loved serving the gays, because they were well-dressed, respectful and tipped well.”

Griffin didn’t talk about Anna Nicole Smith right after she died out of respect. As Greg Giraldo would have said, “Too soon, too soon.” Griffin revealed deeply personal information– both of her parents were functional alcoholics, and her oldest brother was a pedophile and substance abuser.

Griffin tried to raise the alarm about her brother, but, as she joked– her parents thought “denial” was a river in Egypt. She admitted to two major errors in her life– poor judgment in both her marriage and in having liposuction. Read the book to learn the details of this and other episodes.

SERIOUS ENDNOTE: Griffin had no qualms about making political statements unrelated to the awards shows she attended. It is therefore not inappropriate to make a political statement unrelated to Griffin’s book, below.

This nation seems to be in denial about the amount of debt load currently carried by not only individuals and businesses, but by the federal government and local governments. It appears that bankruptcies of government entities is the next financial crisis in the offing; the reason why, will be explained shortly.

Within the last thirty or so years alone, the United States has seen greed fests and then busts with regard to junk bonds, savings and loan associations, derivatives, tech stocks, and subprime mortgages, just to name a few. Mortgage-backed securities used to be one of the lowest-risk investments around. Tax-free municipal bonds are presumably still one of the lowest-risk investments around.

BUT one small bond brokerage (and possibly others, too) whose website says it “specialize[s] in tax-free municipal bonds. That’s all we do.” recently changed the language on its customers’ monthly statements. It is forcing them to accept the words, “trading & speculation” (!) for their “Investment objective/Risk tolerance” or else they won’t be able to purchase bonds. It makes itself sound like a penny-stock broker-dealer of the 1980’s that churns accounts. Or a currency broker.

The brokerage is so phobic about covering itself legally that there must be bond issuers who are going to go belly up AFTER THE CURRENT PRESIDENT HAS BEEN REELECTED or has left office, whenever that is. (It might be recalled that Detroit took the plunge in July 2013, after Obama was reelected.) Or its brokers are getting greedy and unscrupulous. Or both. Good luck with that, all.

Shoe Dog

The Book of the Week is “Shoe Dog, A Memoir by the Creator of Nike” by Phil Knight, published in 2016.

Born in 1938 in Portland Oregon, Knight showed irrepressible passion and optimism through years and years of financial losses. He got seed money from his father, and moral support from his mother.

By his mid-twenties, Knight possessed a quality education but still needed to find himself. He did some international traveling with a friend. He learned that Japan made running shoes he could import and sell in the U.S. So in 1964, he partnered with his college track coach– a legend in his social circle- to start a business. At that time, “running wasn’t even a sport.”

Even though he was a pioneer in an evolving industry, he returned to school to become a Certified Public Accountant, just in case the sneaker gig didn’t pan out. He was working around the clock at a full-time accounting job, and nurturing his shoe business. He and later, his employees, personally drove to track meets of schools in western states to meet and sell sneakers to scores of people– coaches, runners, fans.

Banks lending money to businesses at the time did not provide revolving credit facilities– they expected to see solvency. Knight believed in reinvesting every penny of profit into the business– thus generating an endless debt cycle.

He would borrow to purchase more sneakers, sell them, then repeat the process. He had to have competitive sales prices for his products; else they wouldn’t sell against Puma and Adidas. But they were selling like hotcakes. Starting in the mid-1960’s, before he rented a warehouse, he stored the shoes, floor to ceiling, in his bachelor pad. The business was initially named Blue Ribbon and the first shoe model was named Tiger.

At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, eleven Israelis were killed in a terrorist attack. The nation was again mourning yet more deaths, in addition to those of previous years– the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., the Kent State University students, and of course, the tens of thousands in Vietnam. “Ours was a difficult, death-drenched age, and at least once every day you were forced to ask yourself: What’s the point?”

By 1976, Knight had changed his business’s name to Nike Inc. and had factories in New England, Puerto Rico and Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, his family life took a backseat to his workaholic lifestyle.

Read the book to learn of Knight’s interactions with his business partners and their personalities, and the million worries he faced every day in running his business, including products, manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, advertising, retailing, and dealing with lenders, employees, counterfeit goods, etc., etc. etc.; plus, what prompted him to take the company public.

In Search of Memory – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “In Search of Memory” by Eric R. Kandel, published in 2006. This book was mostly about neurology and psychoanalysis. The autobiographical parts included descriptions of how and why the author’s family fled Austria for the United States in 1939, and his role in reconciling psychology and biology.

Kandel identified himself as Jewish. He explained that “racial anti-Semitism” is the idea perpetrated by the Catholic Church that the Jews killed Christ and therefore, they are members of “… a race so innately lacking in humanity that they must be genetically different, subhuman.” Such idea was used to justify genocide during the Spanish Inquisition and of course, the Holocaust. Gentiles in Germany, Poland and Austria especially, took up the cudgel of racial anti-Semitism during the Holocaust.

However, what is interesting is, that while the Catholic Church calls the Jews a “race” as a putdown, the Jews think of it as a point of pride.

When American Jews use the term”born Jewish” ironically, most are unaware of the belief that Jews as a group are thought by anti-Semites to have genes in common that bring out their stereotyped, negative traits. By born Jewish, they mean to say, they, like religious Jews, believe that Jews are automatically Jews regardless of their beliefs or observances, because their mothers were Jewish. Not in a derogatory way.

But wait. If people can convert to or from Judaism, it’s not genetic. Hindu people could actually call themselves a “race” because they allow no conversions. That’s the difference. The Hindus were a group of people who did all share the same genes up until the time they started marrying non-Hindus and having children.

By the way, read the book to learn about the progression of the fields of neurology and psychology in the twentieth century.

Front Row At the White House

The Book of the Week is “Front Row At the White House, My Life and Times” by Helen Thomas, published in 1999. The cover of this volume hints at a career memoir, but the contents are mostly about other people and topics– namely, U.S. president-related information meant to entertain as much as inform, targeted at female readers.

Born in 1920, Thomas grew up in Detroit in a family of nine children. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English, she hired on at United Press, a news wire service, assisting with radio broadcasts. When men went off to fight WWII, opportunities became available for women in journalism.

However, in the 1950’s, female journalists were forced to form their own press club; for, until 1971, they were banned from the National Press Club. Thomas was president of the women’s group for the 1959-1960 term. In 1975, she was the first woman to be admitted to the Gridiron Club. It is known mostly for having an annual dinner that roasts elective officeholders.

At the very end of 1960, the author was assigned to cover the White House. She did this for 38 years. It appears that she gathered “soft” news until around the Reagan Era, when her male bosses allowed her to do what the men had been doing. Nevertheless, she built a reputation for herself as a hard-hitting reporter (figuratively).

Initially, Thomas interviewed store owners that sold goods and services to Jackie Kennedy, and wrote about Jackie’s children. Acquiring such information was more difficult than it looked, as Jackie actively hid herself and her children from the media. The tabloid gossip during Lyndon Johnson’s administration included Thomas’ scoop on his daughter’s engagement.

Thomas wasn’t allowed to cover serious political issues until the 1980’s. Yet, ironically, here in the double-digit 2000’s, “journalism” has come full circle. The media is allowed to cover whatever they want. Yet, increasingly, in recent decades, they have continued to insult viewers’, readers’ and listeners’ intelligence. There used to be people called journalists who reported facts. And they checked them.

Now there are people on TV reading Teleprompters, on the radio reading scripts, and providing screen-based text stating their opinions on: the first lady’s clothing, the president’s diet, and all manner of comments from narcissistic attention whores on Twitter. Other outlets are commenting on the fact that their competitors are covering this stupid trivia. Ad nauseam.

Anyway, the author rambled on about press secretaries of Kennedy onward. She described the renovations done to the White House and Air Force One, and the food served in them. She also provided a detailed account of a Washington, D.C. busybody who got involved with the Watergate scandal.

Martha Mitchell (the wife of President Richard Nixon’s campaign manager and Justice Department head, John Mitchell) complained that Nixon wanted her husband to take the rap for the coverup. She also knew Nixon was evil and said– this was about a year and a half before it actually happened– the president should resign.  In August 1974, finally vindicated, she went on the talk-show circuit.

Thomas delved into the personal lives of the first ladies, and how they stood by their men. She showed how President Ronald Reagan’s best friends were plausible denial and willful ignorance.

Read the book to learn much more about trivial White House goings-on from JFK to Bill Clinton, but also– a summary of hard political and historical facts on each president’s administration. Perhaps the latter should have become a separate book– as it could be a valuable resource for a unit on American presidents for a high school social studies class.