There are some who say that the City of Miami was never he same after Giovanni Maria “Gianni” Versace (1946-1997) was shot and killed on July 15, 1997 by Andrew Cunanan (1969-1997). The world-famous fashion designer had given the city new life with his bold designs, outlandish parties and mansion called the Casa Casuarina. At the time of his death, the Versace name was a juggernaut in the fashion world, dominating news headlines and magazine covers. Tragically, in less than ten seconds, Cunanan changed all of that in ways that no one could have imagined. After Versace’s death, trials and tribulations nearly brought the company to the brink of extinction but today it is still going strong. And its creator is regarded as one fashion’s greatest minds. The story of his death is well-known having been relived through the FX award-winning series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. But what may not be familiar to viewers is the story behind the public faces of the company; Santo, Gianni and Donatella. The three siblings put their minds and personalities together forming the company that became a legend and a legacy. This is the story of their genius, a murder and the survival of a business.
The Versace story begins in Reggio Calabria, a small coastal town in southern Italy, where Nino and Franca Versace, raised their three children who would go on to achieve world-wide fame. A fourth sister and their oldest child, Fortunata, who was known by her family as Tinuccia, died in her youth. As one would expect from a story about a simple family living in post-war Italy, poverty initially makes itself known, not just for the Versace family but for many in Reggio, who would later immigrate to Milan only to face discrimination from the northerners who viewed their southern neighbors with disdain. But what no one knew then was that Milan, would one day serve as headquarters for the Versace product and a stepping-stone to stardom for Gianni and his siblings. From a young age he begins to lean from his mother Franca, the intricate parts of sewing and fashion design. As he gets older, chance meetings, including one in Paris with Karl Lagerfeld, provided the change of fate Gianni needed and before long, he and his siblings began to set the foundation for the Versace empire.
The book contains a significant amount of information about fashion products, earnings, cat walks and an endless number of celebrities who came into the Versace inner circle. But at its base, the book maintains its focus on the personal story of the three siblings. Their minds were and are still brilliant but even they would not be impervious to the many seductive aspects of quick fame, endless money and an abundant supply of vices, one of which nearly caused the complete self-destruction of Donatella. Marriages, relationships and the Gianni’s sexual orientation play their parts in the book as components to the complex yet tragic story that unfolds. The highs are many but the lows open to the eye to the dangers of excess and the pitfalls that surround the rich and famous. At the top of the command chain was the creative Gianni, backed by the bookkeeper Santo and the publicity worker Donatella. Together they seemed unstoppable as they continued to pull in millions of dollars while spreading the Versace name across the world. But their strengths are also what helped contribute to the dysfunction that existed and increased after Gianni’s untimely death. Both Donatella and Gianni were known to be lavish spenders but what is revealed in the book is nothing short of jaw-dropping. The money nearly went out as fast as it came in.
No one will ever know why Cunanan decided to murder Versace. Ball states that clearly in the book. And while she covers the murder, she does not give it extensive coverage. For those who are interested in Cunanan and the manhunt that followed, I highly recommend Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth in which she tells Cunanan’s story from start to finish. Here, Ball focuses on the aftermath of the murder and how it affected all of those around Gianni, even his niece Allegra who could have imagined the way her late uncle would change her life without her knowledge beforehand. To her credit, she rises to the occasion, providing an interesting turn of events in the story that never lets up from the start. Regrettably, she did not provide an interview for the book and Ball states that she would have provided invaluable insight into the story of the company’s survival. Nevertheless, Ball has clinched it here through interviews with Santo, Donatella and hundreds of other people who work for or personally knew the Versace family. And the result is the definitive account of the House of Versace.
“I want to be a designer for my time” – Gianni Versace
I remember with vivid clarity the day that Giovanni Maria “Gianni” Versace (1946-1997) was shot and killed in front of his home in Miami, Florida. My friends and I were in shock and in the wake of the shooting, we kept hearing the name Andrew Cunanan (1969-1997). None of it made sense but from the news we did learn, Cunanan was a one man crime spree and through fate, he crossed paths with the world-famous fashion designer. Twenty-one years have passed since Versace’s death but the fashion line that bears his name continues to remain strong. Several days after Versace was shot and killed, Cunanan took his own life aboard a houseboat that was eventually seized by the City of Miami. In the days after his death, more information about his erratic and deadly lifestyle came to light and also revealed how law enforcement missed vital clues contributing to what Maureen Orth calls the largest failed manhunt in U.S. history. By all accounts, Cunanan should have been caught long before he walked up to Versace on July 15, 1997. However, miscommunication and in some cases prejudice against homosexuals, resulted in investigations crippled from neglect, allowing Cunanan to remain at large before committing his final murderous act. The world now new the name Andrew Cunanan and it would never be forgotten. But just who was Andrew Cunanan and how did he make the FBI’s Most Wanted List? The list is reserved for the most dangerous of criminals and typically a suspect such as Cunanan would not normally be found on the list. His use of extremedly deadly force rightfully earned him a place among the most deadly killers on the run in America at the time. Maureen Orth, a journalist for Vanity Fair, covered Versace’s murder and was familiar with Cunanan before the final events in Miami. In this chilling account of Cunanan’s path of rage, she recounts his life helping us understand how and why he descended into madness.
Orth takes us back in time to the Cunanan home were Modesto “Pete” Cunanan (1930-2005) and his wife Mary Ann (1938-2012) raise their several children. Andrew quickly becomes his dad’s favorite, but even his charm would not be enough to keep the family together as his father fled to his native Philippines in 1989. The event would have a profound effect on the young child and unbeknownst to many, the seeds of chaos had already been planted. What is evidently clear in the book is that from an early age Cunanan displayed many of the characteristics that would be shown in adulthood and vividly remembered by those he encountered. And as he makes his way to manhood, he becomes more immersed in his homosexuality and it is at this point in the book picks up speed and Orth takes us deep inside the world of gay men. I should point out that Cunanan was not a “gay killer”. While he did commit murder, it was not based off of his orientation nor were his victims targeted because of their orientation. And I also believe that readers uncomfortable with homosexual subject matter should avoid the book altogether. But for those who have been fascinated by the Versace murder and Cunanan’s story, it is necessary to understand this world to understand Cunanan. Further, the misunderstanding of this world is one of the factors behind the failure of authorities to capture Cunanan earlier in their investigations.
If Bret Easton Ellis had not written American Psycho in 1991, he could have easily used Cunanan as the model for the book’s central character Patrick Bateman, but with a few minor tweaks. Every killer has that one moment where something snaps and they begin their rampage. Cunanan was no different and once he began his murder spree that would spread across several states, he left a trial of violence that will undoubtedly shock many readers. At times the book may seem like a Hollywood production but this is not fiction, the events were real and the aftermath devastating. Selfishly, Cunanan chose suicide instead of standing trial for his crimes. He did not leave behind any journals or notes explaining his motives. In fact, it seems that his own goal was to kill. Orth does an incredible job of taking us through the events as we follow him across the U.S. From one city to the next, he adds a new victim leaving law enforcement in the dark as to why and how he was able to keep evading authorities. Tensions ran high and even the FBI, drawn into the case through cross-state crimes, found itself deeply wanting to apprehend the monster. When Cunanan was found dead, authorities and the public breathed a sigh of relief. His death would not bring Versace back but it did mark the end to a path of destruction that surpsisingly did not claim many more victims.
If you want to know the story behind the hunt for Cunanan and the crazy yet glamorous lifestyle he lead, then this is the book for you. It is not a biography of Versace although she does include a good of information on the Versace empire. This is Cuanan’s story and the deadly path he took as he slowly made his way to the home of the world’s most popular fashion icon.
One of the definitions of the word irony is an incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result. What seems to be given can ultimately turn out radically different and such was the case in the life of the late Luther Ronzoni Vandross, Jr. (1951-2005), known simply to fans and friends as “Luther”. To the world, he was a household name and his classic Here and Now has been played at countless weddings across the country. His voice was unique with no singer coming to close to its richness and smoothness. When he died on July 1, 2005, many fans were in a state of shock and the idea that Luther Vandross was no longer among us seemed surreal. Sadly, it was true and his voice was silenced as he departed this life and now rest in peace, having left behind a legacy that will far exceed his time on earth. But how much did we really know about Luther and what was happening in his life behind the hit songs and glamorous stage appearances? Craig Seymour once wrote for VIBE magazine, and interviewed Luther becoming very familiar with the singer but even he was unable to completely penetrate the walls Vandross had erected around his personal life, taking many secrets with him to the grave. But what he has captured is presented here in this sharp biography that will surely suffice for Vandross’ fans.
Typically, we tend to view the lives of celebrities strictly based on what we see in magazines, on television and even on the internet. Gossip has a dark tendency to follow any celebrity extremely successful or controversial. And for male celebrities, the absence of a female counterpart fuels the rumor mill of possible homosexual tendencies. Vandross fought all of these throughout his life and while many have their suspicions, the rumors have always remained just that. Vandross was adamant about maintaining the privacy in his persona life but upon closer inspection there was far more than meets the eye. The son of a working class couple, born in New York City, rose through the music industry to become a titan. However, no one could have predicted such feats on the 20th day of April, 1951 when May Ida and Luther, Sr., welcomed him into the world. Vandross’ life is typical of that time until tragedy becomes a staple and his family found itself struggling to keep itself alive. Words cannot truly express the surprise and possible shock the reader will encounter with regards to the lives of those that compose the Vandross family. Their plight would form a cloud over Luther’s head for his entire life, reminding him of the preciousness of being alive another day. But before he made his own departure, he created a legacy and a reputation that will remain with us for years to come.
Those that knew him either loved him or disliked him for various reasons. Personally, he never professed to being perfect but like every great artist, life is far from simple. The blessing of a voice full of soul and the inability to find the very love he sang so passionately about, created a cruel irony that he was unable to escape from. As a singer, he crossed paths with nearly every giant in the industry, collaborating on projects with several artists including the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018). The relationships were not always cozy and Seymour does not shy away from Vandross’ conflicts with Franklin or those with Anita Baker and even the 90s all-female group En Vogue. But one thing they can all agree on is that there was only one Luther and no one can ever take his place.
For years, it had been rumored that Vandross was a closeted gay singer. While he never confirmed or denied any rumors, he only permitted knowledge of being in a relationship. With whom was never known to the public. And while Seymour does not have a full proof smoking gun coming from Vandross himself, there is a revelation by someone close to Luther that might prove to be the clue many people have been looking for. Personally, I could care less about Vandross’ love life. I have always enjoyed his music and felt that whomever he was romantically involved with is his personal business. But as an entertainer in the public life, it is a subject which was and is unavoidable. Luther handle it exceptionally well but I am sure that inside, it took a toll on his mental and emotional well-being. Fitting that the title of this book contains the word longing for that is exactly what Vandross was doing as he belted out love songs while coming to terms with his own quest for love and closure regarding the death of his father Luther, Sr. In death I can only hope that he found the peace that escaped him here on earth. And if we listen closely to his many songs which we will play over and over again, we can listen carefully for the messages contained within their lyrics. The is the life the late and great, Luther Vandross.
This November will mark twenty-seven years since the death of Farrokh Bulsara (1946–1991), known by his stage name of Freddie Mercury. On November 2, 2018, moviegoers will be able to see the anticipated biopic Bohemian Rhapsody starring Rami Malek as Mercury. The film is on my list of those to view before the year is over. I do not know what to expect from the film but I certainly do hope that the filmmakers accurately portray the events in Mercury’s short but extraordinary life. When he died on November 24, 1991, the music world mourned the loss of one of its true greats. Today, if you hear a song by Queen on the radio, you can rest assured that at least several people will be happily singing along, knowing every word to the classic tune. The longevity of his music is a testament to his genius as a songwriter and the talents of his band. The world has yet to see another artist that possesses the aura that Mercury did. Incredibly, for all of his public antics, the singer was highly private and in fact, the world only learned of his battle with AIDS less than twenty-four hours before his death, through a carefully prepared statement. In his final moments, he was surrounded by those closest to him, including his partner at the time, Jim Hutton. Contained within the pages of this book is Hutton’s story of his time with Mercury and life after his death. Hutton died on died January 1, 2010, from the effects of lung cancer and will not be able to see the film about his former partner when it is released. But I believe he can rest in peace knowing that even today, Freddie’s fans are still as fascinated by him as they were when Queen was tearing up music charts.
I instantly loved the book once it began and I think the reason for that is Hutton does not talk extensively about Queen or the music business. On occasion he does mention a new song that Freddie was writing or a hit that was released, but the primary focus is his relationship with Mercury and what made him tick. Readers uncomfortable with homosexual subject matter might decide to take a pass on the book. While there are no descriptions of sexual acts, the story is about a gay couple. Lovers, ex-lovers, domestic issues and the like appear in the book showing the human side of the man deemed by many to be a music God. Hutton is very direct in his words, possibly because of his Irish roots and Freddie, like most musical genius is not a simple character but multi-dimensional and composed of many traits, some interesting and others amusing. But from Hutton’s words, we can see that to know him was to love him.
If you have decided to read this book or consider reading it, then I take it to mean that you are a fan of Queen or interested in Mercury’s life. Whichever applies to you, I believe that this book will appreciated. In comparison with publicity photos and recorded video, this side of Mercury is not from a script but a reality of his very private side filled with shopping sprees, property in multiple countries, lavish parties, the gay scene, a long-term relationship and a love of cats. To say his life was unorthodox would be an understatement. Mercury lived on his own terms and every day was a new adventure. The thrills are high and the pace fast but there does come a point in the book where the inevitable appears and it is the part the reader might dread the most. Roughly about halfway through the book, Mercury’s health begins to become an issue. Hutton, was not oblivious to Freddie’s lifestyle before they met and even after they became an item. And during era in which AIDS wreaked havoc on the gay community, mortality became a dark cloud over daily events. As Mercury makes his descent towards the end, Hutton is there with him and his recollections of those times highlight the devastating effects of AIDS on the human body in the days before advanced drugs kept the virus in the stage of HIV only. But through it all, Freddie remained stoic, accepting his fate and embracing death as the next phase in his life. And there to support him was the partner whom he could always trust, his beloved Jim.
If you like this book and have more questions about Mercury’s life, I highly recommend Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne. It will not let you down.
There are many questions about the origin of man, the human race has yet to find conclusive answers for. We know that ancient civilizations existed and flourished before some mysteriously ceased to exist. Relics, structures and writings have survived giving us clues about their lives. Of all of the ancient civilizations, the most inspiring and sought after remains Ancient Egypt. The pyramids and Sphinx are marvels that have puzzled engineers for thousands of years. Without the benefit of blueprints, we can only offer guesses as to how and why the structures were created. But from the temples, mummies and monuments that have survived, it is evidently clear that ingenuity was one of its greatest traits. Africa has been cited as the cradle of civilization, serving as the home to the oldest tribes known to man. The Christian Bible and Hollywood have done their part in bringing the stories to life, and in the process put Ancient Egypt on center stage. The Pharaoh Ramses II in The Ten Commandments, beautifully played by the great Yul Brynner, has become a commonly accepted image of the real life Ramses II. But how accurate was Brynner to his real life counterpart? And what did the Ancient Egyptians look like? It is tempting to think of them based on those we see in Egypt today. But we should know that history often includes many surprising facts, some which we may have never guessed without revisiting the past. Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-1986), of Diourbel, Senegal, was a noted historian and anthropologist, who studied the origin of the human race and in his eye-opening account, he seeks to find the truth about the role of Black Africans in the origin of civilization.
Any reader considering this book must be able to clear his/her mind of images today of the continent of Africa. Not only are the images typically disheartening, but they have no resemblance to the time period of which Diop is speaking. Here we go back in time thousands of years when Egypt was the most powerful nation of earth and home to knowledge sought by truth seekers from afar. Among these was Herodotus, credited as the first historian of the modern world. The famed scholar recorded a journal of his travels and with regards to the Egyptians, made note of their negro appearance. But Diop does not stop there and revisits the words of other scholars who visited the ancient kingdom and saw with their own eyes, the Egyptians and Ethiopians described by many of them as Negroes.
Some may be asking what is the point of proving that the Egyptians were negro? That is a very good question and I do believe the book speaks for itself. But I will say that the reason is that for thousands of years, the negro has been viewed as substandard and Africa has historically been viewed as a land of savages that needed “culture”. Those who study history will readily know how imperialism wreaked havoc across the continent as tribes were decimated while Christianity and Islam fought for converts. The late Harry S. Truman once said “the only new thing in this world is the history you do not yet know”. True words indeed. What is key to keep mind while reading this book is that history has for too long, been written to make those of color look inferior. But truth typically reveals much different pictures. For those readers who are African or Black American, you may find this book hits close to home. Personally, it confirmed many things I learned in high school regarding African culture. But sadly, across most history textbooks, you will be hard pressed to find these facts. Every Easter, The Ten Commandments is played on television. The film is a cinematic masterpiece regardless of what one believes about Christ, and the performances by Charlton Heston (1923-2008) and Yul Brynner (1920-1985) made the film legendary. But the film ignores the truth about the Ancient Egyptians and the role of Africans in the origin of civilization. The revelations in the book in no way seek to negate the contributions to society of Ancient Greece, Germany, the Sumerians or Mesopotamia. But the crux is that nearly all of these societies took their cues from the Egyptians who were much different from what many of us have believed for thousands of years as history was redacted or re-written.
The book is not an attempt to disparage other nations. Diop seeks only to highlight the truth which has been hiding in plain sight. And the artifacts, hieroglyphics and statues he uses in the book give credence to his words. Without question, he proves that there was more to the Ancient Egyptians than many have been willing to acknowledge. It might be worthwhile to brush up on world history, in particular the periods before Christ to keep up with Diop. His scholar background resulted in the book being on the heavy side with dates and names. A chart might be necessary for those readers who intend to continue down this path of research. Nevertheless, any reader can follow along and understand the concept of the book. Admittedly, there are many things about Ancient Egypt that we may never answer and Diop does not profess to have all of them. How and why the pyramids were built is still a mystery. We may never known how Egyptian architects made exact measurements without the aid of modern technology. Notably, in our lives today, we have many things that come from them that have been retained over time. In short, we owe our lives to them for they are our ancestors along with the Aztecs, Mayans and other ancient civilizations that possessed incredible knowledge and customs which still amaze us today.
There is something about soul music that is incredibly hard to put into words. Its ability to reach the listener and touch them in ways they never knew give credence to the title of its genre. The men and women who perfected their craft singing soul music became legends in the process. Many of them are no longer with us having died either violently or tragically. Planes crashes, murder, drugs and diseases formed the nexus of poison from which they chose. Nevertheless, their voices still reign supreme and remind us of an era which we will never see again. James Brown is known as the “Godfather of Soul” but in reality there were other challengers to the throne, most notably the late Wilson Pickett (1941-2006). He is best known for his classic hit “In the Midnight Hour” which helped propelled him to legendary status. But behind the music was a man whose life was anything but ordinary. Instead it was filled with genius, vices, love and heartbreak. Pickett’s death on January 19, 2006 at the age of just sixty-four years of age, was the final chapter in the singer’s life which had steadily declined in his final years. However, to this day he still remembered as one of the best to ever do it and his legacy is cemented in the many memorable songs he mastered during his time on this earth.
But just who was the real Wilson Pickett? And how much of his on stage persona crossed over into his personal life? Tony Fletcher was born in Yorkshire, England and some might find it surprisingly that a White Englishman chose to chronicle Pickett’s life. But by Fletcher’s own admission, he grew up listening to soul and the book became a passion. Regardless of his country of origin, he has thrown his weight behind this excellent biography of the late singer. The story begins in Prattville, Alabama when Pickett enters the world on March 18, 1941. His early life was quite chaotic with the young Pickett moving from state to state as he discovers himself and his talent for singing. It isn’t long before he begins to ply his trade and once his career took off, it took him on a ride that some can only dream about. The heights he reached in his career were astounding and his induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame was the figurative icing on the cake. His true goal stayed out of reach and until the day he died, he never did get the Grammy Award he coveted. But he did top charts and sell out arenas and his music has stood the test of time.
Like all great musicians, there was a very dark side to Pickett stemming from his unorthodox childhood and indulgence in drugs and alcohol. Combined with Pickett’s hair-trigger temper, the concoction resulted in acts of violence on many occasions, some of which would land Pickett behind bars later in life. Domestic violence also reared its ugly head and not even band members could escape his wrath. In later years he would attempt to make amends for those acts but his reputation as unstable would never leave him. The descriptions of Pickett’s acts of violence and comments from those who were their as a witness or as the recipient, are mind-boggling but also an inside look into the paranoia that nearly consumed Pickett. As his drug use increased, so did his paranoia as he begun to spin out of control. His downfall placed him on the list of celebrities whose lives were nearly or completely ruined by drugs, alcohol, money issues and in some cases, crime. Their daily lives became a walk on a fine line between genius and completely insanity. For Pickett, his genius behind making hit music and captivating audiences was betrayed by his backstage antics and precarious mental state. Some speakers in the book speculate that he may have had a mental condition that was never diagnosed. Whether that was the case, his actions can only be described as surreal. Fletcher brings the past to life leaving the reader mystified at Pickett’s actions.
Remarkably, nearly all that knew him, loved him even with his sometimes dangerous flaws. In death he was elevated to a higher status on order of soul singers whose natural talents were believed to have been given by divine intervention. Some of the make an appearance in the book such as Robert Dwayne “Bobby” Womack (1944-2014), Riley B. “B.B.” King (1925-2015) and the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Louise Franklin (1942-2018). Womack is a critical part of the story and those sections will undoubtedly pull the reader in. Pickett’s lovers including ex-wife Bonnie Covington and his children would all be witnesses and the targets of his rage and his relationship with his son Michael is perhaps the most surreal example of parental fail I have ever seen. But that was Pickett, the good, the bad and the brutal. After his death they would all come together giving him the proper send off to the next life. The world lost a musical legend who suffered from inner turmoil, paranoia and ultimately vices which he could not shake. This is the story of the life of Wilson Pickett, a soul music legend.
The civil war the engulfed the small Central American nation of El Salvador from 1980-1992 caused the deaths of over 75, 000 people. The violence, heartache and oppression felt by millions of El Salvadorans has reverberated over the years as a reminder of dark times for the country known as the “Pulgarcito” (Tom Thumb of the Americas). The conflict forced millions of people to flee, many of them settling in the United States. For those that remained, they faced years of more turmoil but also slow and steady healing. The nation still has a long way to go and for the youth, there is much to tell about growing up in one of the most violent countries in the world.
Jim Winship is a Professor of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewate and was once a Fulbright Scholar in El Salvador and Colombia. By his own admission, he has traveled to El Salvador well over a dozen times. It has become a second home for him and his fondness for the country is evident in his words. This book by Winship takes a different approach to El Salvador and in comparison to Joseph Frazier’s El Salvador Could Be Like That, the story here is about the youth of the country and what it means to come of age in a place without many sources of hope. The book is set in two parts, the first tells the history of El Salvador, introducing or re-introducing facts to the reader. I believe many Americans will be surprised at some of the things that can be found in the book. And I will go a step further and say that there may be some people who could place the small country on a map. To some, it is an afterthought or just another Latin American nation plagued by corruption and violence. But to take a such narrow-minded view disregards the complicate and tragic history between El Salvador and the United States. In fact, El Salvador’s existence for the last forty years is directly related to U.S. foreign policy. The truths are uncomfortable but necessary in understanding the decline of a beautiful country with some of the nicest people who I have met.
The second half of the book moves on to the stories of young people who have grown up in El Salvador, some of them through the civil war. This is the crux of the book and drives home the author’s points about coming of age in El Salvador. The words are sharp and the stories moving, leaving readers to question what they thought they knew. Person after person, we learn of the despair and income inequality faced by young men and women making life in El Salvador perilous. Unsurprisingly, nearly a third of El Salvadorans live in the United States. Some are legal, others illegal, but they all have their stories of how and why they left the only home they knew. Some will go back either on their own accord or by deportation. What they will bring back to their home nation could be a blessing or a curse. As Winship relays in the book, the deportations carried about the U.S. Government helped set the stage for one of the largest crime waves in El Salvador’s history. And that same crime wave is now spreading across American cities. I believe many readers will shake their head in bewilderment at the revelations in that section. The old adage holds true that we do reap what we sow.
No book about El Salvador would be complete without a discussion about violence there. Winship discusses this to give readers an honest analysis of violent crime. Latin America is a hotbed of revolution and has been for over a century. The late Simón Bolívar once said “when tyranny becomes law, rebellion is right”. Across the continents of Central and South America, violent protests and removals of presidents sometimes by military force, have etched into the fabric of the many nations found on both continents, a lingering distrust of government and vicious cycles of corruption that may never be broken. Whether El Salvador can leave both of these in the past completely, remains to be seen. The future for some is bleak but others never give up. And one day they may reach their goals of prosperity, health and happiness. But their stories will always remind of days past when there was no shining light.
September 30, 1955-Two motor vehicles collided at the intersection of Routes 41 and 46 near Cholame, California. The first vehicle, a Ford sedan suffered light damage. Vehicle number two, a Porsche 550 Spyder, was found twisted like a piece of aluminum foil. Inside the car is film star James Byron Dean (1931-1955). His passenger, Rudolf Karl Wütherich (1927-1981) was thrown from the vehicle but survived. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital. He was twenty-four years old. Nearly sixty-three years have passed since his death but incredibly, he is still the poster boy for youths determined to be the “rebel without a cause”. He is credited with three films during his career and multiple television appearances. By Hollywood standards, his resume is short but at only twenty-four, he had the prospect of a long and successful career first in front of him and then taken away the instant his car collided with by Donald Turnupseed’s Ford. His fans were devastated and Hollywood was forced to grieve for a young star taken before his time. In death, he joins the long list of celebrities who died before their thirtieth birthday. But what is it about James Dean that captivates millions of people, young and old six decades after his death?
David Dalton looked into his life and came away with this biography of the man he calls the “Mutant King”. It is fair to say that before and after him, there was and has never been another James Dean. He was one of those rare stars who stood out not simply on acting ability but on persona that was about the cut, unique and irresistibly attractive. But like all great stars, Dean’s life was as interesting on-screen as it was off-screen and what we have seen in his films and television appearances was not that far from the truth. Born in 1931 in Marion, Indiana to Winton and Mildred Dean, he entered the world as the country was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression. His mother Mildred would only be in her child’s life for nine years, dying of cancer in 1940 at the age of twenty-nine. From this point on, Dean’s life would never be the same and throughout his short but incredible life, he would remember his mother’s untimely death and how it caused his longing for that relationship in all aspects of his life.
Dean’s story is told best not by just factual research but by those who know and worked with him. Dalton has wisely taken this course and the statements of scores of film stars and Hollywood personalities who knew Dean are contained within the pages of this fitting biography. Their stories give the reader of the complete picture of James Dean’s life. Far from the “rebel without a cause”, the real James Dean was a multi-dimensional character for whom one label would not nearly be enough. What I found interesting in the interviews is that the speakers were very candid in their recollections even when the narrative was not favorable towards Dean. Perhaps the most scorching of all of them are the words of the late Marlon Brando (1924-2004). As harsh as some words are, there are words favorable to Dean and what we can gather is that none of them had ever met anyone like him nor did they ever forget him. Jimmy as he was known to those who knew him, always seemed to keep them guessing, rarely revealing his true self as he fought with his inner-struggle and grief over his mother’s early demise and a relationship with his father, temperamental at best. However, if readers are looking for a dysfunctional childhood, it will not be found here. In fact, Dean was supported by many who loved him and no traces of insanity can be found in the story at hand. He was just another child out of Marion and Fairmount, Indiana. But being ordinary did not last for long and in just a few short years, Dean was on his way to becoming a box office legend before his passion for cars and racing led him down the path that ended with his life being cut short on a lonely California highway.
The world will never forget Dean and his image of the rebellious youth is cemented in place for generations to come. We can only guess as to what he would have thought of all of this. From all accounts, he was somewhat shy and secluded in private, a far cry from the larger than life star he appeared to be in front of the camera. For some, he always be the rebel without a cause and for others, another senseless victim of unforgiving roads and fate. His defiant personality and unwillingness to conform to society’s standards helped set him apart from his peers. Hollywood has yet to see the next James Dean and I dot believe that we will. He was a once in a lifetime star who remains in our consciousness as the image of what Hollywood stars used to be. But there is always another side that we rarely see that reveals the humanity or dark side behind the celebrity. Here we get a mix of both in the story of James Byron Dean.
The images that were published in Jet magazine of Emmett Till’s (1941-1955) mutilated corpse still cause readers and viewers on the internet to recoil in shock. With their graphic detail and macabre detail, the pictures of Till’s face become burned into the memory of anyone who has seen them. The story of Till’s murder at fourteen years of age because of allegedly “whistling or cat-calling a white woman” is a dark reminder of the ugly history of racism that prevailed in American culture. Today such a crime is unimaginable, but in 1955 it was not only very real but also encouraged by rabid racists with a vendetta against people of color. In January, 2017, Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman at the center of the Till story, allegedly admitted that her claims were false. Regardless, the mere thought of such an act was more than enough to get a Black American lynched at that time and Till became one more victim on a long list of senseless murders carried out by maniacs emboldened by racist ideology. Till’s murder was creepy, appalling and downright shocking but another part of the story which is just as dark is the execution of his father Louis Till (1922-1944) by the Unites States Army in Civitavecchia, Italy, after being convicted of being part of the rape of two Italian women, one of whom was murdered during the crime. Till never gave any statements about his innocence nor did he confirm his guilt but the army had what it needed and he fell victim to the hangman’s noose taking any facts with him to his grave. After his death, details of the execution were withheld from his widow Mamie but were revealed ten years later. His final resting place is at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Fère-en-Tardenois, France.
The thought that both father and son were executed because of perceived slights against white women is chilling and it is impossible to escape the aspect of race. Two young Black men accused of having committed crimes against white females could not and would not be permitted to survive. Their deaths are reminder of the misguided belief of the pursuit and dominance over white females by black males. Sadly, it is a misconception that still exist to this day. But what exactly did happen in Civitavecchia? Undoubtedly a crime did take place and most likely by the hands of U.S. servicemen. But there is always the requirement of conclusive evidence and in this case, there is much we do not know. But author John Edgar Wideman decided to take another look at Till’s case, even requesting and receiving a copy of the military’s case file by way of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In the book he does not include the entire file and moves between excerpts of it and his own story which is recounts as he writes about Till. The style of writing might confuse some readers but I believe Wideman presented it that way because of the parallels between his life and Emmett’s. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Wideman is presenting to the reader an idea of the struggle of many Black American families during a time of fierce racial prejudice. But the focus of the book is on Louis Till and it is here that I think it falls just short of hitting its mark.
Wideman’s personal story is highly interesting and he does a great job of showing the plight of Black families in America during his and Emmett Till’s childhood. But I think that more of the Louis Till file should have been presented. He concludes that he could not save Till from either prison or the hangman but from the portions of the file that he does include in the book, it is clear that reasonable doubt exist as to whether Till actually did the crime. And this is where the book should have reached its pinnacle. But this does not happen and the book’s slightly abrupt ending makes the reader yearn for more or some sort of closure. Sadly it never comes. And we are left to wonder about what actions, if any, Till did take on that night. In Wideman’s defense, the Army’s file had no index and was disorganized. I would not be surprised if some portions of it were removed or lost over the passage of time, making a definite conclusion beyond the reach of anyone today. None of figures involved with the case are alive preventing us from having the benefit of spoken words from those that were there. We are left to rely on the case file and our own beliefs. But I think one area where Wideman may have succeeded is igniting interest in Louis Till’s case in those that have read this book. I believe that there is more the Till’s case than we currently know and some day, another independent investigator may uncover the truth about his conviction and execution.
The book is a good read and just enough to get an idea of what did happen to Louis Till. But I believe it could have been much more effective with the inclusion of more of the file and some sort of definite conclusion even if it were the author’s belief. I do not know if Wideman will publish another book on the file but time will tell. For those looking to know more about Till’s sad and tragic life, this is a good resource to have.
When we think of Reggae music, Rastafarianism and the island of Jamaica, the vision that usually comes to mind is of the mythical figure that was known as Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley (1945-1981). He has been gone for more than thirty-seven years but his music still inspires millions of people around the world and his image graces t-shirts, posters, book covers and other items deemed to be collectibles by their sellers. To some, there is no Reggae without Marley and he is considered to be one of Jamaica’s greatest icons, the superstar from Nine Miles who made his way up through the ghettos of Trench Town until making it big in the music business, where he found international fame. His untimely death on May 11, 1981, sent shock waves through the music industry and the sense of loss continues to confuse as many will ask the question, why did he leave this world at such a young age? To answer that question, it is first necessary to understand Marley’s life. Timothy White (1952-2002), a former journalist with the Associated Press, interviewed Marley scores of times and conducted extensive research to compose this phenomenal biography of the late musician. But just who was Bob Marley? And what was it about him that captivated millions?
The story begins in the small village of Nine Mile, St. Ann Parish, where Bob enters the world in the early part of 1945. The son of a white father and Black Jamaican mother, his early life was that of a child caught between two different worlds as his parents each sought to keep him close to heart. In the end, his mother would win out and throughout his life, she would always remain in his corner. Cedella “Ciddy” Marley is a strong presence in the book from start to finish as she raises Bob before making the painstaking decision to relocated to the United States settling in Wilmington, Delaware. Her young son tried his hand at American life but fate intervened and he returned to his destiny in Jamaica where he would rise to stardom and become the king of Reggae music. But his story is far more than just singing tunes.
The reader should know that White chose to include Jamaican Patois as he recounts the statements of Marley and others whose words were critical in the formation of the book. Those unfamiliar with the dialect might have a little trouble at first following along. For others, especially those familiar with Jamaica or those who come from the island, will follow along rather easily. I think the decision to include and not translate the interviews in standard English is what gives the book its authenticity. White transplants the reader from the comfort of the their own dwelling to the village of Nine Mile where language is sharp, words fiercely spoken and modern amenities unheard of. But without learning the story of Marley’s early life, his future would not make any sense. Furthermore, White captures the social climate of Jamaica and for some readers, it may seem like another world. Culture, politics and violence are found in the book bringing the reality of life in Jamaica vividly real. And in the middle of this was Bob, the voice of peace and icon of the infusion of Reggae and Rastafarianism, in which he and others pay their homage to the late Emperor Haile I Selassie (1892-1975). It is critical for the reader to understand the impact of Selassie on Jamaican culture, Bob’s life and the pillars of the Rastafarian movement for these points will explain the path he took later in his life.
No book about Marley or Jamaica at that time would be complete without the political battles which nearly ravaged the island. Marley found himself in a tug of war at times, between the right and left-wing parties of Edward Seaga (Jamaican Labor Party) and Michael Manley (People’s National Party) (1924-1997). Their battles and the violence that broke out across Jamaica, set the stage for the poverty, drugs and turmoil that continue to grip the island. Thousands of Jamaicans would suffer and Marley himself nearly lost his life during an ambush in which he and his wife Rita were shot and wounded. Other musicians would always meet violence and Marley’s former band mate Peter Tosh (1944-1987) would pay the ultimate price in a climate in which violence spiraled out of control. But throughout all, Reggae remained strong and is pioneered today by Marley’s children and a younger generation of singers. The Rastafarian movement continues as well, with more converts growing their locks, embracing Ganja and giving praise to Jah.
Reggae is a genre of music that has brought millions of people together in harmony as the soft tunes and uplifting lyrics reached deep into the soul causing the listener to be engulfed in emotion. Many have come and gone but there will always be the late king, Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley.
“None but ourselves can free our minds.” -Bob Marley