onassis (sic)

The Book of the Week is “onassis” (sic) by Will Frischauer, published in 1968. The biographer immediately resorted to a disclaimer on his Acknowledgements page. In compiling this volume, he sourced twelve books in his Bibliography, claimed he drew upon interviews, and fifteen years’ worth of his readings on his subject, conceding that “… in many instances the dividing line between fact and fiction is so blurred…”

Nowadays, an equally vague author, whether authorized or unauthorized– to write about a wealthy alpha male (especially a politician) whose crack public-relations mythmakers gloze over unpleasant details– usually has the goal of rewriting history. That did not appear to be the case, at least with this book.

Born in 1906 in Smyrna, Onassis was of Turkish extraction. He was six years old when his mother passed away. His father lucratively sold tobacco, grain and hides. Sent to a Greek Orthodox (Christian) school, Onassis excelled at water polo and, already fluent in Turkish and Greek– became so in English, French and Italian.

In September 1922, when hostilities flared up between the Turks and Greeks, Onassis helped his family (except for his father, who was arrested early on) survive by playing well with parties on both sides of the conflict. His good relationship with the United States Vice Consul (a neutral party) allowed him to reunite with his older sister, two younger half-sisters and stepmother in Athens, and then travel to bail his father out of jail.

The father was furious that Onassis wasted money to bribe the authorities to get him sprung, as he would’ve been released anyway. The Turks froze foreign bank accounts of the family’s business when they took over Smyrna.

In 1923, taking advice from friends, Onassis got a job with a telephone company. He got away with lying about his age (said he was older) and birthplace to obtain an ID card. Then he felt the need to strike out on his own. His persistence paid off after a number of frustrating weeks, when he was finally able to sell his father’s Oriental tobacco to the Argentinians, who had been importing it from Brazil and Cuba.

Onassis was eventually able to get both Argentinian and Greek citizenship with the use of his dishonest identity-document application. After presiding over a failed cigarette business, in the next five or so years, he made his first million dollars. It was unstated exactly how. It was stated that he made business contacts wherever he went, some of whom he obviously inherited from his father.

Onassis was appointed a trade diplomat for the Argentinian government, and got into the shipping business. He started with used ships with Greek registration, then, in the early 1930’s, to avoid petty bureaucrats, switched to Panamanian registration. Other advantages with the latter included financial transactions that were permitted to be made in any currency, that were tax-free.

Onassis revolutionized the industry by ordering the construction of monster-sized oil tankers– with unprecedented capacities of tens of thousands of tons. The Swedes built the boats, and J. Paul Getty shipped the oil to Japan. Onassis, unlike the competition, also built comfortable living quarters for his ships’ crews, to foster employee loyalty.

During WWII, Onassis broke into the whaling industry, selling whale meat to mink farms and whale livers to the Borden food outfit. After the war, he took a bride; she was seventeen, he was forty. They raised their family in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

Yet another unique shipping-related activity Onassis pioneered, involved a risk-management contractual arrangement for international shipping. Prior to its implementation, he thought he had done his due diligence.

Onassis consulted an attorney to make sure he would be complying with maritime law– as he was purchasing surplus vessels of the United States, but registering them under other countries’ flags for purposes of deregulated operations and tax evasion. Nevertheless, by the mid-1950’s, the American Maritime Commission questioned its legality, anyway.

Read the book to learn additional specifics on how Onassis became rich and famous, and stayed that way.

Dummy – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Dummy” by Ernest Tidyman, published in 1974.

This story describes the unusual situation of a murder suspect whose deafness and muteness raised questions about his ability to stand trial in mid-1960’s Chicago.

Donald Lang, the suspect, had been unable to communicate verbally since birth. He dropped out of school around kindergarten with no legal consequences. With his family’s help, he got along in life sufficiently well to get a job and live relatively happily. There were no witnesses to the murder of which the deaf Lang was accused. However, witnesses saw Lang and the victim prior to finding the victim’s dead body in a stairwell in a bad neighborhood in Chicago.

Fortunately, the attorney assigned to the indigent Lang had been deafened as a child, but read lips and knew sign language. He was the best lawyer in Illinois, that Lang could have gotten.

Read the book to learn how the letter of the law allowed Lang to be indefinitely detained– treated as though he was guilty– because he had no clue about what was happening in the courtroom, and about the arguments his attorney made in determining his fate.

Blood & Ivy – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Blood & Ivy, The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard” by Paul Collins, published in 2018. This true-crime story described the nature of homicide among elitists in American culture, as well as the Ivy League university Harvard, in the mid-1850’s.

The students to be accepted to Harvard’s undergraduate school, to start in autumn of 1849, were required to report for oral examinations in July. Initially, the applicants were ordered to declare basic information on themselves, including their fathers’ professions. The lucky incoming class numbered 87 students, the largest to date.

The students received demerits for failing to attend morning prayers at dawn, in the chapel. The curriculum consisted of Latin, Greek, mathematics, and the history of Rome.

A handful of professors taught at Harvard Medical School, in semesters that lasted six or seven weeks. A Harvard geology professor was suspected of murdering a medical school professor. The former was arrested the day after Thanksgiving of 1849.

The feature of this criminal case that has endured for more than a century and half is the definition of “reasonable doubt”– explained for laypeople (the jury) by the judge.

Read this suspenseful book to learn the details of the case.

The Defense Never Rests – BONUS POST

The  Bonus Book of the Week is “The Defense Never Rests” by F. Lee Bailey with Harvey Aronson, published in 1971. This is the career memoir of a criminal defense attorney best known for the Sam Sheppard and Boston Strangler cases.

Born in 1933, Bailey served in the Marines, and later started practicing law at a firm in Boston. He became a polygraph-test expert, and later argued that test results should have been admissible in all courts. When he started his career in 1961, Massachusetts law still required that in court, a murder suspect be confined to a wire cage.

Read the book to learn of various cases litigated by the author, including those of Sam Sheppard and the Boston Strangler and his own, when he found himself in trouble (not for murder, though). Perhaps that is why he provided no: Notes, Bibliography, Sources, References or Index in this book, although he did provide verbatim excerpts of court transcripts.

Into the Raging Sea

The Book of the Week is “Into the Raging Sea, Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro” by Rachel Slade, published in 2018. This sloppily proofread volume recounts a suspenseful, emotionally charged story about a rare but preventable epic fail. It is a cautionary tale of how TOO MUCH DEREGULATION in the shipping industry turned out to be penny-wise and pound foolish.

Just as a little bit of socialism is good (in the form of public libraries and the like), too much socialism is bad. So too– some deregulation might be good, but too much deregulation leads to conflicts, corruption, monopolies and crashes (financial and physical). With the ship El Faro, one thing led to another: Getting rid of pesky laws that hindered commerce ultimately increased the risk of deaths, as will be explained.

All the money the government and El Faro‘s owner thought they were “saving” with the help of deregulation, was wasted in the accident in various, extremely high costs– rescue-resources, the emotional toll taken on all of the parties involved, litigation, etc. What happened to the ship showcased the extremes of human nature– greed and hubris of shipping-company executives and their accomplices (politicians) versus the braving of life-threatening conditions, by rescuers trying to prevent deaths in the disaster.

At the beginning of October 2015, El Faro was hauling commercial cargo heading for San Juan in Puerto Rico, but ended up in the path of hurricane Joaquin. The whole voyage was one long cluster screw-up.

For starters, the shipping industry had an abusive, hierarchical culture. There had been a long period of deregulation starting in the 1970’s in the interest of political expedience and profit-seeking; safety be damned. But by the 2010’s in the shipping industry, the gravy train was over.

Due to the safety crackdown, El Faro‘s corporate owner had been doing some lean and mean cost-cutting in connection with all of its holdings, at the expense of vessels and their personnel. El Faro had been grandfathered in under older regulations that made its long-term seaworthiness doubtful. But it was lucrative enough not to be scrapped.

Architecturally, the ship had been designed for speed rather than safety, and the physical arrangement of the cargo caused the ship to ride low in the water, and list in rough seas. Rushed workers sloppily loaded the cargo– consisting of cars and other heavy, unwieldy items, and they weren’t entirely secure (both the workers and cargo). The ship’s anemometer was broken. But for deregulation, the government would have taken the ship’s owners to task on these and various other accident-prevention issues.

During this, El Faro‘s last voyage, in which it encountered a horrific storm, the captain could pick and choose from a few different sources of weather forecasts. He happened to choose the most outdated one, unbeknownst to him. Nevertheless, he stubbornly refused to consider any others, or significantly change the ship’s route, even when his subordinates tried to tell him about storm data from other sources. He needed to please his bosses, whom he knew preferred that he get the ship to its destination ASAP, to minimize costs. In transportation, time is money.

Also, the captain lacked social graces. Not only that, he was a survivalist, one of those nutjobs who was prepared for the end of the world, with weaponry and provisions and planned to defend himself if necessary, against other survivalists. Thanks to deregulation, he was still employed.

The sleep-deprived chief mate of the ship was a new employee, just getting to know the captain, so he was eager to impress him and reluctant to question his authority. The second mate was psychologically weary of her job.

Other ship workers were less than loyal, as they had no job security. To add insult to injury, racial tension pervaded the ranks. To boot, the ship was understaffed.

To be fair, the storm formed faster than anyone had anticipated. But obviously, TOO MUCH DEREGULATION played a major role in the incident.

As an aside, “It’s an open secret in the meteorological community that the ECMWF [the European weather service and hurricane software modeler] is consistently better than the NWS [American National Weather Service and hurricane software modeler].” The former collects more data worldwide and gets more funding than the latter. (Apparently, whenever a storm is brewing near the United States, the American weather media still show the projected route of the American model, as a point of pride).

Read the book to learn: other disturbing lessons; the fate of the ship; and fascinating details of the investigation.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” by Jane Sherron de Hart, published in 2018.

Born in Brooklyn in March 1933, Bader grew up in a cultured household. She took piano lessons, played the cello, and summered annually at her relatives’ Adirondacks camp. A voracious reader, she was sent to Hebrew school, and skipped an academic grade. However, her mother, with whom she was very close, passed away of cancer when she was seventeen.

The culture and politics of Bader’s generation “… limited aspirations and choices for young women.” The GI Bill, the Federal Housing Administration and Social Security– just to name a few sources of privilege, provided the men with resources denied the women. The far-reaching institutional discrimination they engendered was accepted as a given in American culture.

Bader received a scholarship from Harvard Law School. But, since she married before attending the school, it was naturally assumed that she no longer needed the scholarship because her-father-law would pay the tuition. Obviously, the school would have honored the scholarship if the married Bader had been male.

Unusually, though, Bader’s parents-in-law encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming an attorney, even though she was female. She was one of nine women in her class of 552 students. She made Law Review, and before graduating, had a daughter. Bader’s husband served as a true equal partner while the two alternated attending law school, and fulfilling childcare and domestic responsibilities. Before he graduated, he had a serious bout of testicular cancer.

In 1959, even though Bader graduated co-valedictorian, she couldn’t find a job due to her gender. Such prejudice was equivalent to the denial of graduate-school acceptance of Jews in the Soviet Union that lasted into the 1980’s.

With the help of a law-school professor’s aggressive recommendations, Bader ended up clerking for a judge, teaching law at Rutgers, then teaching law at Columbia University (benefiting from “Affirmative Action”), and directing legal projects on gender discrimination for the ACLU. She was super-dedicated, and worked around the clock.

Unfortunately, Bader was unable to be a major legal mover and shaker in the Women’s Movement because it was fragmented and complex with infighting. Various organizations were trying to further gender equality through litigation and lobbying, whereas, with the Civil Rights Movement, only the NAACP was trying to change laws.

Read the book to learn of how Bader became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, a few major cases she argued during her career, the difference between “benign discrimination” and “paternalistic discrimination” and much more about her professional and personal life.

The Good Fight – BONUS POST

“The Good Fight, Hard Lessons From Searchlight to Washington” by Harry Reid, published in 2008 is an autobiography that describes the life of a man who suffered many hardships in his early years and has overcome much adversity.

Born in December 1939, Reid grew up in a limited environment in a small mining town– Searchlight– in Nevada. The area’s economy was based on mining and prostitution, not unlike Washington, D.C.

Reid’s father gravitated toward a career (gold mining) suitable for his personality–introverted loner. The author became a lawyer and U.S. senator. One issue that stuck in Reid’s craw was America’s continued involvement in President George W. Bush’s Iraq war which Bush started in 2003. Years later, when Reid was Senate Minority Leader, he visited Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld to try to convince him that the United States should withdraw troops from Iraq. Rumsfeld blew Reid off and treated the war like a joke.

When Reid and other politicians visited Iraq personally, they realized that the emperor really did have no clothes. General David Petraeus put on a show for them, exhibiting soldiers who were training Iraqis to fight on their own, similar to the way the late President Richard Nixon tried to implement “Vietnamization.”

In early 2006, the author and his fellow Democrats defeated an attempt by Bush to privatize Social Security. “We knew we had won when the White House simply stopped talking about it.”

Read the book to learn of Reid’s adventures as chair of the Nevada Gaming Commission starting in 1977, a few of his interesting law cases, and much more.

Deadly Spin

The Book of the Week is “Deadly Spin” by Wendell Potter, published in 2010. This is a book that explains how health insurance companies engage in unethical behavior in the name of profit, that results in needless deaths in the United States.

It follows then, that serving as a top executive at a health insurance company requires sociopathic tendencies, favoring money over people. One reason the insurance companies are so obsessed with their bottom lines (aside from the greed of their top executives) is that they have to answer to Wall Street.

Potter worked for Humana and then CIGNA a combined approximately twenty years as head of their public relations departments. By the late 1980’s, Humana realized it had a conflict in running a for-profit hospital and a managed-care plan simultaneously. The hospital was more than happy to maximize the stays of its most lucrative patients, while the plan’s goal was to minimize costs through preventive health care– promoting wellness.

The author learned to play the game of maximizing his employer’s profits through fighting legislative changes to his industry; and protecting, defending and enhancing his employer’s reputation. For, there was a direct relationship between his employer’s profits and his raises and bonuses. He therefore emotionally detached himself from health insurance plan members, and focused specifically on actuarial tables and legalese to help him project an image of his employer as a reasonable,  if not caring participant in patient care.

Whenever a threat to his former employers’ profits arose, such as the movie “Sicko” or proposed legislation that financially favored patients, his former employers hired a big-name, monster-sized public relations firm, and secretly co-funded and co-founded a political front group, such as “Health Care America” that publicly pretended to favor health care consumers, but truly sought to maximize insurance industry profits. The group was a propaganda machine, and an object lesson in how to lie with statistics.

Other tricks of the trade include:  “…rescinding individual policies, denying claims, cheating doctors, pushing new mothers and breast cancer patients out of the hospital prematurely and shifting costs to consumers.”

Read the book to learn additional details of the hegemony of the health insurance companies. One interesting endnote: “Obama opposed any requirement that everyone buy insurance, one of the few points on which he disagreed with Hillary.”