Wild Ride

The Book of the Week is “Wild Ride” by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach, published in 1994. This is a long story largely similar to many others in which one person acquires and abuses too much power in an organization that eventually comes to a bad end.

The horse racing industry is largely a playground for the wealthy, as it costs big bucks to purchase, stable and train horses for racing. There is only a tiny probability of profiting, considering all the different risks, and the factors required to produce a winning horse.

Major racing sites are located in Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky; New York City, Saratoga Springs in New York State, and Hialeah in Florida.

Calumet Farm was the site of the training and spawning of racehorses. It was owned by the Wright family, whose patriarch’s goal in the 1980’s was to turn it “… into a bustling assembly-line style breeding operation, hellbent on producing winner after winner.”

In the early 1980’s, J.T. Lundy wed a Calumet heiress with the aim of inheriting the large horse farm. He inherited it at 41 years old.  He  immediately engaged in excessive spending on farm renovations, the purchase of a corporate jet and additional horses, and paying more workers. In the industry in general, new systems were created by financiers to cash in on the horse-racing boom.

Lundy spent other people’s money (namely the Wright family’s) to fund his wheeling and dealing, while also commingling personal and business funds. The family (who knew nothing about horse racing) trusted him and his colleagues (who had numerous conflicts) to run the business and do what was in the family’s best interest.

The chief financial officer of Calumet attempted to duly inform Lundy of the farm’s mounting debt service, the unpaid insurance premiums and dwindling resources, etc. at the end of the 1980’s.

By November 1990, Calumet had approximately two hundred thoroughbreds and one hundred employees. Its fifteen-year-old stud Alydar, accounted for a large part of its revenue.

Sadly, the industry would reach its saturation point within a decade of Calumet’s soaring reputation as the premier place to breed winning horses. Read the book to learn the details of how the farm had gone from owing not a cent with the death of an heir prior to Lundy’s takeover, to the largest instance of debt explosion in the history of bluegrass.

My Life So Far

The Book of the Week is “My Life So Far” by Jane Fonda, published in 2005. This insightful autobiography describes an actress, activist and exercise instructor whose childhood family life was psychologically challenged. Throughout her life, she has been continually working through various emotional, moral and gender issues.

Born in the Santa Monica Mountains in December 1937, Fonda was lavishly raised alternately by a nanny and her parents, who were absent on and off. Her father was a famous actor on Broadway and in movies; her mother, until she suicided, was in and out of mental hospitals. Fonda was close with her younger brother, Peter. She became a bulimic and developed an “appeaser” personality.

Although Fonda had a leg up in her career due to her famous father, she chose to engage in activities that she felt were societally beneficial. The media and the U.S. government, however, treated her like a criminal. She was put under surveillance by the FBI, CIA, State Department, IRS and Treasury Department, which created dossiers of thousands upon thousands of pages just about her. In 1979, she settled a lawsuit against them in which the government admitted its guilt.

In 1972, Fonda visited Hanoi to gather information and inform the American people about Nixon’s evil Vietnam-War schemes, a few of which were already in progress. Later that same year at the Academy Awards ceremony when she won a Best Actress Oscar for “Klute,” she maturely did NOT make a political statement, having been told it was the inappropriate place for doing so.

Fonda believed that presidents made war due to their feeling pressure from society to prove their masculinity. She herself was a product of this same environment, judging from her taste in men. Her third husband– media billionaire Ted Turner– “…was unable to experience intimacy because there just wasn’t room in his brain for words other than his own.” He was an emotionally needy narcissist.

Read the book to learn how Jane overcame her eating disorder, achieved success in acting, exercise-business enterprises and political activism, and how she improved her relationships with family and friends.

The Franchise

The Book of the Week is “The Franchise, A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine” by Michael MacCambridge, published in 2009. There were two attempts to publish a magazine called Sports Illustrated in the late 1930’s and again in the late 1940’s, but both failed after a few years.

In summer 1954, Sports Illustrated (SI) was launched for wealthy men who engaged in golfing, croquet and yachting. Time, Inc. was able to arouse significant interest in its new magazine venture by soliciting existing subscribers of Time and Life.

Sidenote– The New Haven line leased out private rail cars to wealthy Westchester-County New York commuters. Rye was one train stop of the 1950’s Sports Illustrated’s first project manager, who got his shoes shined and was served ice water on his way to work.

Postwar prosperity and more leisure time allowed Americans to do more ping pong, softball, bowling, roller skating and boating. The original goal was for the publication to project a brand image of superiority in quality and comprehensiveness in coverage. However, target readers– athletes and spectators– were not thought of as intellectuals, so there was doubt as to whether they would read a magazine, even if it was about their hobbies.

The 1960’s saw television decrease the intellect of the nation as a whole, but it caused the popularity of such spectator sports as baseball, football and basketball, to soar.

The main competitive advantage of the magazine was full color photos. The publishing of those photos, even when generated with the latest technology, was very expensive and had a lead time of days. Nevertheless, in those days, publishers were willing to spend lots of money to ensure quality, and gave new projects lots of time to develop into successful ventures. SI was losing money for ten years before it turned the corner.

Long lunches and greatly exaggerated expense-account claims were also rife then. As were excessive alcohol consumption and bloated staffing. Starting in spring 1974, at SI, there was a team of four editors for every single article in every issue.

In September 1979, the magazine’s major area of dominance (college football and basketball recaps) was attacked with the introduction of ESPN.

Beginning in the late 1980’s, staffers “…willfully blurred the line between… edit and business, publicity and journalism.” The ethics conflict peaked during the 1996 Olympics, when “… the effect of having the business side of the magazine promoting an event that the editorial side was covering was profound and distracting.”

Read the book to learn of the other obvious contrasts between Sports Illustrated‘s early history and the current climate in magazine publishing in general in terms of sloppiness, illiteracy and lack of fact-checking, not to mention lack of ethics (mostly due to unwillingness to spend money on quality, and too much focus on the big dollar sign); the people who ran SI; their office politics; and their ability to change with the times.

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.”

The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue

The Book of the Week is “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue” by Robert Klein, published in 1991. This is a compilation of the moments most memorable to the author during the first 25 years of his existence.

The author grew up in the Bronx in the 1940’s and 50’s. He attended P.S. 94 and DeWitt Clinton High School. His first college year was spent trying to fulfill his parents’ dream of having a doctor for a son. However, he possessed much greater talent in the performing arts.

In 1967, after he had been “discovered,” Klein, doing standup comedy, was mentored by Rodney Dangerfield at the Improvisation Club in Manhattan.

Read the book to learn of the author’s career success, of his many sexual encounters, and one during which “She wanted it from every conceivable position, and with such passion and ferocity that I feared the occupants of the adjacent room would call the police or an ambulance.”

Act One

The Book of the Week is “Act One” by Moss Hart, published in 1959.

In his teen years in the 1920’s, the author had a passionate desire to work in the theater on Broadway in some capacity. However, his childhood of dire poverty, limited formal education and dysfunctional family were hardships he had to overcome to achieve his dream.

It was a major triumph for him to snag the position of office boy for a booking agent by a random twist of fate. However, he tempted fate too early. He then tried his hand at acting. He was an eighteen-year-old playing the role of a sixty-year-old man. When that gig ended, another chance occurrence with an acquaintance led him to directing plays in the evenings, and slaving away as a social director at various summer camps for several years, while plugging away at the part of aspiring playwright.

Read the book to learn all the sordid tribulations Hart endured in order to find fortune and fame, as well as the secret to how he fixed the third act of his first Broadway play, and how he came to be assisted by one of the great playwrights of his generation.

Up Late With Joe Franklin

The Book of the Week is “Up Late With Joe Franklin” by Joe Franklin with R.J. Marx, published in 1995. This is the career memoir of an entertainment jockey.

Franklin started his career in radio, playing old records. He was a compulsive hoarder of them. When he moved to television, he introduced old movies. Then he became a late, late night talk show host. Although Franklin had popular shows that ran for years and years, fewer people have heard of him than of other talk show hosts because his shows ran at 1am or later.

Read the book to learn how Franklin achieved his entertainment success, and a little trivia about tens (out of hundreds) of the celebrity-guests Franklin had on his shows, which ones he interviewed before they were famous, and the ones he claims he made famous.