Johnny Carson

The Book of the Week is “Johnny Carson” by Henry Bushkin, published in 2013. This is a biography of the most popular late-night TV talk-show host of the 1970’s and 1980’s, as seen through the eyes of his attorney and closest non-spouse confidant in those decades.

Carson might have been a natural at stand-up comedy and interviewing celebrities, but his personal life was always a shambles. His psychological troubles began in his childhood. Both of his parents were emotionally distant, but his mother was a particularly detestable creature. Her treatment of her son gave rise to lifelong self-destructive behavior patterns in him, such as excessive drinking, smoking, and Jekyll-and-Hyde episodes.

A man typical of his generation, Carson believed all of the female stereotypes, and his confirmation bias inevitably led him to meet and marry three gold-digging, emotional women, and pay them big bucks upon divorcing them. He died before divorcing the fourth wife.

During his marriages, he was continually paying for his infidelity by showering his aggrieved partners with expensive gifts. Once he became a member of the super-rich set, he behaved like many of them, sparing no expenses on residences, vehicles and clothing, and throwing money at problems to make them go away.

Up until the 1970’s, prior to acquiring excessive wealth, however, Carson was getting swindled by all of the business professionals he had hired. He had naively chosen to associate with untrustworthy individuals. Upon meeting Carson, the author– who had barely started his career but had savvy legal bosses–  sorted out his financial dealings. He re-negotiated various legal situations to not only stem the bleeding, but maximize earnings for his new boss.

Read the book to learn much more about the impact Bushkin had on Carson’s life, and vice versa.

Appetite for Self-Destruction

The Book of the Week is “Appetite for Self-Destruction, The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age” by Steve Knopper, published in 2009. This is an account of how the American music industry, for the most part, reacted badly to the jarring changes wrought by technological advances starting in the late 1970’s.

For decades prior to the 1970’s, the music market in the United States had had a shady reputation– involving drugs, kickbacks, bribes and cronyism, among other vices.

Even after CDs proved to provide sound that was superior to plastic records, entities in the music industry supply chain resisted making CDs because it necessitated the reconfiguring of their: factories, marketing materials, store displays, etc. Modernizing everything was expensive.

In 1978, the Sony CDP-101 could play the first CD title:  “52nd Street” from Billy Joel. But only in Japan. PolyGram Records, CBS Records and Sony understood the value of the new product. Arista Records, Capitol Records and EMI didn’t.

In addition to the widespread introduction of CDs in America by the late 1980’s, the sale of CBS Records was another disruptive force in the industry, resulting in power struggles and lots of layoffs. The old-school record labels depended on MTV, radio and music stores to distribute their wares for another decade.

The tail end of the 1990’s saw a new technology that really turned the industry on its ear:  the World Wide Web. It enabled people to create software that allowed free (no-cost and no restrictions) electronic-music-file sharing. In December 1999, the organization regulating intellectual property rights on music, the RIAA, sued one of the major organizations doing the sharing– Napster– for copyright violations. By the following summer, the latter had approximately nineteen million users per month.

Read the book to learn of the outcome of the above and other legal battles; the new 1990’s and early 2000’s music conduits and devices, their relationships to the laws on music piracy; and many other actions taken by the American music industry that have fueled the current state of digital music sales.

Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

The Book of the Week is “Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right” by Al Franken, published in 2003. This was a comedic look at news reporters, commentators, politicians and even media outlets who and that intended to deceive, and succeeded in deceiving viewers, listeners and readers via distortion, misleading statements, exaggeration, outright fabrication and all shades of falsity in between. Franken did his homework with the help of Harvard students, and called people to get information directly from “the horse’s mouth.”

First, the author provided credible research results showing that there was no liberal media bias at least up until the book’s writing. In fact, one of countless examples was that Al Gore was covered more negatively than George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. Further, after the Monica Lewinsky story broke, former President Bill Clinton was criticized nonstop by media people of all persuasions.

At that time, cost-cutting measures in the media had also taken hold. In-depth reports cost big money– compared to two pundits who read one tabloid article on a popular political issue, and then heatedly argue on camera.

Franken provided ample evidence that political commentator Ann Coulter produced little or no support for her supposedly factual statements on conservative issues mentioned in books she wrote. The few sources she mentioned were in hard-to-find endnotes.

Former president George W. Bush lied numerous times during his 2000 presidential campaign and thereafter. One particular set of lies was about past crimes he committed for which he never spent a day in prison: insider trading, cocaine possession, drunk driving, and going AWOL from the National Guard.  The author cited reliable sources– it wasn’t just tabloid gossip.

When the book went to print, a particular Fox political show with four commentators which claimed to be “balanced” actually featured “…two hard-core conservatives and two centrists.”

Bill O’Reilly (remember him?) prevaricated pathologically. He had a “… shopworn inventory of boorish tactics– bluster, bullying and belittling– in order to advance a thinly disguised conservative agenda.”

Dick Cheney contended that his and Halliburton’s profiting in an extremely, extremely large way through Halliburton’s secret subsidiaries was unrelated to the United States government. Yet his company was able to completely ignore the law to do business with Iran and Iraq, anyway. In July 2000, Cheney made known on ABC’s This Week that he was allegedly ignorant (willfully ignorant, if he was, which is unlikely) of Halliburton’s business deals in Iraq. This continued while America  went to war with that member-state of the “Axis of Evil.”

The Wall Street Journal also insulted the intelligence of Americans by giving credit to former President George W. Bush for the drop in crime during the years former President Bill Clinton was in office (!)  Dick Cheney tried to credit his boss’s administration for the effectiveness of the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq. But in August 2000, prior to the wars, he said “A Commander in Chief leads the military built by those who came before him.” That would be Bill’s Clinton’s lookout, not Bush’s.

Although Sean Hannity probably truly believed what he was saying, he meant to dishonestly sway his viewers:  “I think the weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq] will be found. I don’t think we don’t have any doubt about that.” He gives viewers the false impression that he knows something they don’t know. And they believe him; otherwise, they wouldn’t watch him. In late May 2003, speaking to TV viewers in Poland, President Bush announced, “We found weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq].” Rush Limbaugh uttered similar opinions in the same vein. The dishonest utterances just went on and on.

Read the book to learn of a boatload of people and entities who and that, twisted the truth on important issues; to name just a few issues: George W. Bush’s tax cut, his education program erroneously entitled “No Child Left Behind” and the horrible pollution of both hog farms and coal mining operations resulting from Bush’s relaxation of health and safety laws; and the adversely affected parties– taxpayers, students, and residents near the farms and mines.

Endnote: It’s a shame that this physical book lacked an index, which would have outed the liars in a comprehensive list, immediately. Since the author was already stooping to their level in name-calling, he should have gone all the way and saved his critics time by telling them where they were mentioned. Franken would not have had to reply to a significant additional barrage of inane online comments. Lazy, angry people who don’t do their homework are going to lash out at people who attack their side with factual research results, even if they have the most comprehensive research tools in the world.

Lastly, this was a book of jokes, but it actually covered lies about serious issues– life and death, money, education, etc. The nation is still lying about serious issues, and it appears that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Ethel Merman, An Autobiography

The Book of the Week is “Ethel Merman, An Autobiography” with George Eells, published in 1978.

Born in 1912 in Astoria (a section of Queens in New York City), Ethel Merman started singing when she was five years old. Her parents encouraged her to do so. By the tail end of the 1920’s, she had acquired stenography/shorthand training and had become a secretary, just in case the show business thing didn’t work out.

Working full-time during the day, and singing in dives at night and on weekends, Merman was extremely lucky to be “discovered” in a matter of a few years. She got herself an agent and was off and running. She played in big-name clubs, movie venues and vaudeville theaters in and around New York City– doing five shows a day at the Brooklyn Paramount. She got to meet celebrities like singer Guy Lombardo and composer George Gershwin. She sang in the musical “Girl Crazy” on Broadway.

Merman never had singing lessons or a vocal coach; she was just a natural. Early on, Ginger Rogers got paid $1,500 a week, while Merman got $375. For a number of years, Merman moved back and forth between Los Angeles to make movies, and New York City to appear in Broadway musicals.

In the 1930’s, Broadway musicals thrived. The culture was such that “Nobody worried whether it [a song] fit logically into the score, and the successful songwriters thought more about reaching the top of the Hit Parade than integrating the song into the story.” She played Annie in “Annie Get Your Gun” eight times a week for two years between 1945 and 1946.

The one beef Merman had about her fabulous career, though, was the media’s intrusion into her private life. Read the book to learn the details of her almost instantaneous and long-lived success, her psychologically troubled love life, and much more.

Funny Cide

The Book of the Week is “Funny Cide” by The Funny Cide Team with Sally Jenkins, published in 2004.

Sidenote: Here is yet another nonfiction book that fails to list any References, Notes, or Bibliography. And NO INDEX. The co-author is a respected journalist who lends credibility to the work, and omitting  backup documentation does cut costs in time and labor. However, this trend will open the floodgates to laziness and dishonesty among “nonfiction” writers whose names are not known because they have no reputations to uphold. They can avoid scrutiny by their critics because extra work is involved in tracking down information (since there is no index) and  sources for purposes of fact-checking. Arguably, audiences will believe the most prolific propagandists’ version of history regardless of the writers’ reputations, given the current fragmented and complex publishing environment in the United States.

This book is about a racehorse named Funny Cide that became successful in an unusual situation. Born in 2000 in Sacketts Harbor, NY– a place upstate slightly larger than a small town– the colt was tended to and trained by extremely passionate, meticulous personnel on a small farm. He was purchased by a group of about ten men who liked gambling. Having been close friends for years, they pooled their resources for fun and profit.

Read the book to learn about the horse-pool members; the first few horses they acquired; Funny Cide’s trainer (Barclay Tagg) and other attendants, his jockey (Jose Santo), why the horse was made a gelding; the numerous, different factors that affect a horse’s performance in races; and how Funny Cide performed in 2003 in front of upwards of 100,000 spectators.

Baryshnikov

The Book of the Week is “Baryshnikov, From Russia to the West” by Gennady Smakov, published in 1981. This is a biography of the famous ballet dancer who became Westernized.

Born in January 1948 in Riga, Latvia, Mikhail Baryshnikov started ballet lessons at twelve years of age. Despite the late start, he happened to be exceptionally talented, a natural. He was sufficiently versatile to play roles in both “schools” of ballet, classical and Romantic.

During Baryshnikov’s childhood, his country underwent major ideological changes. The generation gap between young and old grew much wider, especially when Soviet leader Khrushchev revealed the crimes of the previous administration under Stalin. There occurred a shift from designing and building structures toward liberal arts careers. Ballet was a nonpolitical one, whose chosen few participants were  extremely lucky to make a living.

Nevertheless, for  ballet students, living conditions were cramped (ten per room in the school dormitory) compared to those in industrialized countries, and upon graduation, not much better. The two major rival ballet companies at the time consisted of the Kirov and the Bolshoi. Baryshnikov joined the former, based in St. Petersburg in 1967. The pay was significantly better when the dancers were permitted to perform internationally. Of course, the KGB closely monitored their activities in foreign countries, fostering an environment of fear and distrust.

Read the book to learn the historical backdrop of Baryshnikov’s generation, the nature of shows in which he performed, how he  came to dance with the two major American ballet companies beginning in the mid-1970’s, and more.

Wired

The Book of the Week is “Wired, The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi” by Bob Woodward, published in 1984. This is a career biography of the performer best known for his sketches on “Saturday Night Live” (SNL), “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers.”

Born in 1949, Belushi started his career at an early age, thanks to a paternal high school drama teacher. Belushi formed a comedy troupe in college. At the youngest age ever (22), he  joined the improv group, “Second City” in Chicago.

Belushi’s brand of comedy was lowbrow and attention-whorish. He became the onstage focus when he joined such group-oriented acting companies as SNL and Second City; this irked his fellow performers.

Belushi met the younger and less experienced Chevy Chase when they performed in an Off-Broadway black comedy about death. Then came a National-Lampoon-produced radio show, and SNL.  Other roles included Bluto in the movie “Animal House” and comedian Dan Akroyd’s partner in the movie “The Blues Brothers.”

As is typical of talented yet insecure performers who hit the big-time almost immediately, behavior problems abound. But since the star is “the goose that laid the golden egg” his or her behavior is tolerated.

“… John could inflict remarkable chaos… There was no telling what was gone or broken or misused. It seemed that John had dipped his fingers into everything in the refrigerator” while attending a 1982 Super Bowl party at the home of his agent, Bernie Brillstein.

Toward the end of his life (which should not have been unforeseen), Belushi was surrounded by enablers to his cocaine addiction. He was provided weekly with $2,500 cash for “expenses” in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with his business associates. They allowed him to act like a spoiled child borne of their own greed, or out of trying to avoid the hypocrisy of being drug addicts themselves. They continued to believe in his talent even though the movies he did after Animal House were money-losers.  A major rationalization of that era was that cocaine was unavoidable backstage at SNL and it was uncool to decline to socialize with one’s fellow comedians.

Read the book to learn the details of how Belushi ended up the way he did.

 

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.