Molly Ivins

The Book of the Week is “Molly Ivins” by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith, published in 2009. This is a biography of Molly Ivins– witty, brash journalist.

Born in 1944, Ivins was someone whom Malcolm Gladwell would characterize as an “outlier.” Her daddy was a social climber in the oil industry in Texas. The family was good friends with the political Bush family. They lived in the wealthy area of River Oaks. Ivins and her older sister and younger brother went sailing on her father’s yacht and their house had a swimming pool.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, female journalists were relegated to writing about food, the country club and fashion. Except for Ivins. She did years-long stretches writing about urban issues and politics for newspapers in Minneapolis, New York and Austin. While at the New York Times, she wrote, “I am becoming a Yankees fan, that’s how low I’ve sunk.”

Ivins was morally repulsed by the conflicts journalists had. She thought objectivity in reporting was virtually useless. Her irreverent, wickedly funny articles, frequent participation in the nicotine- and alcohol-fueled social culture of journalists, and her generosity in her personal life earned her a large following.

Read the book to learn the details of how Ivins achieved her fame and eventual fortune.

Laughter’s Gentle Soul

The Book of the Week is “Laughter’s Gentle Soul, The Life of Robert Benchley” by Billy Altman, published in 1997. This is the biography of Robert Benchley, literary humorist and Hollywood writer and actor in the first half of the 20th century.

Born in 1889, Benchley had to pass a three-day battery of exams to get accepted to Harvard in 1908. He was known for witty, wiseass writing, and playing pranks. In the late nineteen teens, when the editor of Vanity Fair magazine went on vacation, Benchley and his coworkers dispersed “…outlandish banners, streamers, signs, crepe paper, and assorted parade paraphernalia” around the editor’s office. The editor was not amused when he returned.

In Benchley’s generation, the American populace read columns and essays in newspapers and magazines– major sources of information and entertainment then. Benchley was a member of the “Algonquin Round Table,” also called the “Vicious Circle” formally named in spring 1919. The group consisted of writers of various genres, leading ladies, artists and women’s rights activists. Its members regularly met at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City for dinner and drinks, and some, through connections with the super-wealthy, went on jaunts to Great Neck, Manhasset and Syosset on Long Island in New York State, and overseas, into the mid 1930’s.

In October 1923, the Algonquinites acquired a permit to play croquet in Central Park in New York City. They were incurable hedonists. In 1926, Benchley was best man at a friend’s wedding in California, at which he appeared with a broken leg he’d gotten from a fall at a party. “That the [plaster] cast had been profusely autographed with lewd comments by most of the guests at the bridegroom’s bachelor party only added to Benchley’s embarrassing popularity at the ceremonies.”

In 1928, an acquaintance of Benchley chartered a private plane to fly them from London to Paris. At that time, such aircraft was extremely noisy, even for the passengers, and there was no heat in the cabin.

Benchley became a Broadway theater critic for The New Yorker magazine. “With hundreds of productions surfacing each season, the theater critics of Benchley’s era had the ill fortune to confront, over and over, shows with identical or nearly identical plots, character types and even dialogue.”

Read the book to learn other details of Benchley’s professional and personal life on both coasts.

 

My Mistake

The Book of the Week is “My Mistake” by Daniel Menaker, published in 2013. This is the autobiography of a well-educated Northeastern American male typical for his generation who, born in the 1940’s, entered the publishing profession. However, his mother was exceptional for her generation in that she was an editor at Fortune magazine.

At the then-academically rigorous Swarthmore College, during spring of his senior year, Menaker was “… taking Honors exams– eight three-hour written exams and eight oral exams, all administered by professors from other colleges.” He spent most of his career at The New Yorker, and then switched to Random House about a year after Tina Brown took over the magazine in 1992. He wrote that she halved the quantity of fictional stories appearing in the publication, and employees of both the fiction and nonfiction sections competed with each other in kissing up to her to get their pieces published.

Read the book to learn the details of Menaker’s work, of a traumatic event involving his older brother, and his bout with cancer.

A Political Education – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the book, “A Political Education” by Andre Schiffrin, published in 2007. The author, born in 1935 in France, discussed how his family survived WWII, and his career in American publishing.

Schiffrin followed his father, a prominent figure, into the industry. In the late 1940’s, “… there were 350 bookstores in New York City, ten times the number there are today.” The author received an American elitist Northeastern education, despite the religion he was perceived to be, and with which he himself identified (Jewish). In the early 1950’s, he was politically active in school– leading various organizations that spread their opinions and lodged protests in cooperation with other student groups internationally. Schiffrin opposed France’s colonialism in Algeria and Vietnam, and Soviet repression in Hungary.

The last third of the book contains the author’s lament over how, “In America, we gradually built a system of welfare for the large corporations…” Up until the 1970’s, in the industrialized nations of the world, the publishing business was used to making an annual profit of 3%. The philosophy of publishers was “…that the successful books should subsidize those that made less money”– like, ironically, with venture capitalism nowadays– because there will never be maximum profitability for every entity funded. Yes, the ultimate goal is to make money. Humans have a history of spawning unexpectedly wildly successful books and start-ups. But society benefits more than otherwise from a diversity of intellectual, experimental endeavors, even if they fail.

The atmosphere changed when corporate America got even more greedy. It was the usual story: When avaricious bean-counters take over a creative and/or intellectual realm, everything goes south. “Wall Street was looking for profits of 10 to 20 percent.” As can be surmised, it didn’t get them. This blogger thinks the author was naive in saying, “For the first time in history, ideas were judged not by their importance but by their profit potential.” Even in the 1970’s, there was nothing new under the sun.

Read the book to learn how the last three decades of Schiffrin’s working life saw radical political and cultural changes that adversely affected the book business in the United States. For instance, the major publishing companies practiced censorship due to American politics from the mid-twentieth century into the first years of the twenty-first. Schiffrin wrote that the Right wing felt entitled to control the Middle East. Communists and Islamists were interlopers; “… if things weren’t working out [with regard to America’s takeover], it had to be due to traitors and subversives at home.”

As an aside, this blogger was reminded of two books Mr. Schiffrin would have enjoyed: “Wasn’t That a Time?” by Robert Schrank and “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” by John Perkins.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth

The Book of the Week is “The Girl to Fell to Earth” by Sophia Al-Maria, published in 2012. This is the autobiography of a member of Generation Y of mixed parentage. Her father was a Bedouin from Qatar; her mother, from the United States.

Al-Maria’s childhood began in America but her father’s job in the oil industry took him back to Qatar. She, her mother and younger sister then followed him. However, there occurred a serious rift in her parents’ relationship, due to the nature of his culture.

Read the book to see how the author learned to deal with switching between the two very different cultures while feeling a sense of belonging to both.

Yossarian Slept Here – Bonus Post

This blogger read the book, “Yossarian Slept Here” by Erica Heller, published in 2011. This is the author’s autobiography. She is the daughter of a one-hit wonder novelist, whose book “Catch-22” is now fading in the public’s memory. Heller herself admits she still has yet to actually read the book.

The meaning of the phrase “catch-22” is still well-known– an ironic situation; for example: an inexperienced new graduate who is seeking employment cannot obtain it because employment is the only way to obtain experience, but obtaining employment requires experience.

Heller’s life is typical for her generation of a particular population segment– coming of age in the New York of the early 1960’s in an Upper West Side family which was financially comfortably well off. They dined out frequently, vacationed in Europe and in the Hamptons, and she attended a private school. For an unexplained reason, she fails almost entirely to acknowledge her younger brother’s existence. She also mentions the religion with which she identifies (Jewish) only in passing– perhaps because her having a Jewish last name creates instant bias.

The topic areas Heller turns to again and again, however, are: the building in which her family resides, the famous people her father knew, and her active involvement in her parents’ lives and how they emotionally manipulated her.

Read the book to learn about the rifts in the relationships among and between Heller, her mother and father, and the serious illnesses suffered by each of them through the years, coping with their “catch-22” contradictions.

The Astonishing Mr. Scripps

The Book of the Week is “The Astonishing Mr. Scripps” by Vance H. Trimble, published in 1992. This large volume documents the life, among other family members, of Edward Willis Scripps, born in June 1854, the 13th child of James and Julia Scripps. He became the head of the nation’s first newspaper chain by the end of the 19th century.

Prior to journalism, starting at twelve years of age, Scripps was required to assist his father at bookbinding, on the farm and at a sugar mill. He quit school at fifteen. In 1872, after dabbling in a few other ventures, at eighteen, he escaped a life of manual labor to help his 38-year old older brother in the print shop at the Detroit Tribune. The culture was such that journalists had to frequent a bar in order to get good assignments. There was peer pressure to drink.

About five years later, Scripps moved to Cleveland to start another newspaper there. He wanted to sell the paper on the streets, rather than through the customary routes with paperboys. “A newsboy could buy copies wholesale at the pressroom door for half a cent, thus earning fifty cents for each hundred sold.”

The composing room was where the ad and editorial departments had a conflict because advertising copy and news stories competed for space so the one that was typeset second got short shrift at deadline time. Scripps’ paper favored blue collar readers. Its rivals were read by wealthy, industrialist readers. Scripps supported trade unionism and opposed the capitalists. He tried to maximize revenue from subscribers rather than advertisers so he could write what he wanted; he thus didn’t have to print what advertisers told him to.

In 1880, Scripps started yet another newspaper in St. Louis– the Evening Chronicle. A competing paper, the Post Dispatch, was bribing the Chronicle carriers to transfer their route customers to the Post Dispatch. That same year, during the presidential election, the Chronicle’s circulation jumped to 13,000 and afterwards, fell back to 10,000.

In early 1881, when James Garfield was inaugurated U.S. President, Scripps wrote, “Hence we are writing the thing up from home [St. Louis], dating it from Washington and putting big headlines over it. Of course it is fraud, but there is no greater fraud than the doubt whether the country ever had a president with a title honestly acquired.”

The four newspapers were losing money, so in 1888, Scripps formed a “syndicate”– consolidated them– to achieve economies of scale and make them profitable. Nevertheless, he still imposed draconian, petty cost-cutting measures on his employees the following year, such as making reporters pay for work-related costs like transportation, pencils, business cards and promotional copies of the paper.

On the home front, Scripps’ wife had gotten pregnant seven times in twelve years. Four children lived to adulthood.

In 1904, Scripps knew it was a conflict to “… pollute its columns with noxious hucksterism. America’s press would never be truly free and honest until newspapers flatly refused to print any advertising matter at all.” Wealthy merchants could threaten to bankrupt a paper by not advertising. Scripps looked for a city where a paper could stay in business through circulation revenue alone. He thought the paper should be an instrument for fighting oppression and improving quality of life: “… better sanitation, better education, better and healthier and more moral amusements, better homes, better wages, better sermons in our churches, better accommodations on street cars.”

The two conditions required for success with an advertising-free paper are: it must be interesting and have prompt and dependable delivery. But for Scripps, the costs exceeded the profits because he had to pay printers, pressmen, reporters, circulators, rent, utilities, etc. This blogger believes that in the 21st century, many online publications have the aforementioned conditions; however, a third condition includes the fact that readers must be willing to pay for the product.

In 1915, Scripps invested in Max Eastman’s radical weekly “The Masses” – ironically named, because the weekly’s focus was not on the downtrodden, but America’s elite. Eastman’s 22 liberal contributors submitted articles for free. The paper still operated at a loss; circulation was stagnant. There is nothing new under the sun.

Scripps wanted his teenage son Bob to work, saying “I do not want to you to be a simple onlooker and student and critic of life…” Around 1913, Bob had an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, just like in the movie “The Graduate” (1967). Only, Bob was under 18 years old. There is nothing new under the sun.

Unsurprisingly, Scripps was a cynic. He was “… convinced, rightly or wrongly, that altruism, which is almost universal, is still almost universally a minor motive in a man.”

Read the book to learn the history of the wire services, how the people at the Scripps newspapers coped with local political corruption, how they shaped policy in Washington, survived natural disasters and wars, company power struggles, and the consequences of the Scripps family’s alcoholism.