Category Archives: Biographies

Our Mary Jo-Georgetta Potoski and William Nelson

Mary JOn July 18, 1969,  Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy (1932-2009) lost control of his vehicle while crossing the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. In the passenger seat was a twenty-eight old former staff member of Robert F. Kennedy’s (1929-1968) presidential campaign and member of a group of women known as the “Boiler Room Girls”.  She was later identified as Mary Jo Kopechne.  In death she became a permanent part of the history of Chappaquiddick and a reminder of what happens when we are negligent in our actions.  Over time she has been largely forgotten, having been overshadowed by the lives of the Kennedy family.  And with regards to Chappaquiddick, she has been known as the “woman in Kennedy’s car”.  But the real Mary Jo Kopechne has an interesting story of her own that was cut short at only twenty-eight years of age.

Her cousin, Georgetta Potoski and her son William “Bill” Nelson, decided to tell Mary Jo’s story so that we finally have a complete picture of her short but dedicated life to the causes she believed in.   Interestingly the book is not just about Kopechne’s short life but those of her parents Joe and Gwen whose lives were never the same after her death.  The thousands of letters they received and kept after the tragedy help to shed light on just how many people their daughter had an impact on.  Some of the letters are included in the book.  The photos shown in the book compliment the story at hand and reveal a close-knit and happy family that believed in reaching one’s full potential and the importance of hard work.   The Eastern-European roots of the family’s progenitors remain intact and their story is similar to that of other immigrants who came to America to make a new life.

We all know how she perished but what is often left out is how she became acquainted with the Kennedys.  That part of the story is filled in here with even more information about her time with  Senator George Smathers before joining the Kennedy camp where she would remain up until her death.  There are many interesting facts that are revealed in particular how important she was to Robert F. Kennedy whom was known to all as simply “Bobby”.

Readers expecting to find anything about Chappaquiddick will be disappointed. In fact, the authors intentionally left it out of the book.  I understand their decision for the book is about Mary Jo and not about the incident or the investigation that followed.  To have included with have resulted in a completely different book.  This is Mary Jo’s story or more appropriately, the story of her life that remains unknown to most.   Her cousins have done a great to her memory by presenting this book which gives a permanent voice to the often forgotten victim of Chappaquiddick.

ASIN: B07466W8S8

Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury-Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne

freddie2It is said that legends never die. Long after they are gone, their accomplishments and gifts to the world remain as a reminder of their genius and in some cases, short time on this earth.  Growing old is often not in their interest and the ways in which they leave us are typically tragic.  For Freddie Mercury (1946-1991), this was certainly the case and his decline and eventual death from AIDS is well-known.   Mercury and the band Queen became household names over the span of thirteen studio albums and countless live performances.  Their song We Are the Champions is still played today at sporting events.  The hit song Another One Bites the Dust seizes the listener with its engaging and provocative melody.  But of all the classics, it is perhaps Bohemian Rhapsody that stands out as possibly his greatest composition.  Regardless of what your favorite song is, the popularity of his music is a testament to the genius of Mercury and the aura of Queen.

But who was the real Freddie Mercury?  His death on November 24, 1991 came just hours after he released a statement informing the world that he had developed AIDS after being diagnosed as HIV positive several years earlier. Those close to him were not surprised at the announcement. The press was relentless is following Mercury around London attempting to get a glimpse of the star who was rumored to be on his deathbed.  I remember when Mercury died and the news broadcasts that flashed across several networks.  The music world had lost one of its greats.  However, like all musicians, much of his life was subject to speculation and misinformation.  In fact, to this day there is much about him many people may not know.   But here in Somebody to Lovem we have a complete picture of the life of the late Freddie Mercury.

The story begins with the origins of HIV and its progression from SIV in Chimpanzees to a disease that became an epidemic.  In 1946, the world welcomed Farrohk Bulsara, born to Persian parents of the Zoroastrian faith.  He would be joined a younger sister, Kashmira.  From an early age, it is evident that music is his calling but the path he would take to stardom and his life after finding it, is a classic example of the importance of always following your dreams.  But with his rise to stardom and relationships with women, there was another side to Freddie Mercury that he fought desperately to hide from the press.  Today most of us think nothing of a gay or lesbian celebrity.  But we often take for granted how much the world has changed. For Mercury, coming out was not an option and the efforts he went to in order to contain his secret life are astounding.  But it is also a tragedy for Mercury was never able to find the true love that escaped him his whole life.  He does his best to find true love and the people who came in and out of his life all play a part his rise and eventual decline.   Mercury was not innocent himself and at times is nearly out of control and seemingly on a path of self-destruction.

It goes without saying that any book on Mercury could not be written without addressing the gay community.   Coincidentally, as Mercury was becoming a household name, kaposi sarcoma began to afflict large numbers of gay men in New York and San Francisco.  It would be known at first as the “gay cancer” and prompt officials in San Francisco to close all of the City’s bath houses. The race to identify the disease and find a cure became the topic of Randy ShiltsAnd The Band Played OnThe book was later adapted to a film starring Matthew Modine and Alan Alda.  Mercury was fully immersed in the gay lifestyle at this point and his connection to the story by Shilts might surprise even those who are well-read on the AIDS epidemic.   Before Mercury’s demise, he would lose many of those once close to him and the world would learn about a deadly killer that crossed all social and ethnic lines.

In just forty-five years, Freddie Mercury rose to the top of the music industry and Queen became legends.  In death, his status as a rock icon grew without boundaries but sadly he joined a long list of victims of AIDS, and his name is mentioned next to many such as Arthur Ashe and Rock Hudson, as celebrities who were unable to escape a killer that spared no one.  I sometimes wonder what would have happened had Mercury lived.  Before his death he had been planning more projects and writing material until he was forced to abandon his passion.  His passing was our great loss and we should be grateful for all of the great music he left behind.  His lifestyle was not agreeable to all but his talent was undeniable.  This is the life, death and legacy of Freddie Mercury.

ISBN-10: 1681881888
ISBN-13: 978-1681881881

Hugo!: The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution-Bart Jones

HugoToday, Venezuela finds itself at the brink of a migrant crisis that could very surpass that of Syria.  The mass exodus of Venezuelans to surrounding countries in Latin America has increased as social conditions have deteriorated with food shortages, absurdly inflated currency and political suppression having become daily aspects of life. Nicolás Maduro (1962-) is the sitting President of Venezuela.  His administration has come under fire both domestic and abroad for its dismal record on improving Venezuelan society.  The country’s fall from grace is one of the most confusing and astounding transformations in modern history.  The nation was once at the top of the petroleum export industry and under President Hugo Chávez (1954-2013), Venezuela re-merged as a country to be recognized.    On March 5, 2013, he died after a two-year battle with colon cancer and with his death came the end of an era in Venezuela to which the country has been unable and in some cases unwilling to return.

In the United States, Chávez was often demonized as brutal despot that ruled Venezuela with an iron fist.  Absurd stories of public shootings, censorship of the press and human rights violations were regularly broadcast in U.S. media outlets.  The anti-Chávez stance was espoused by the White House as official government policy.   Many Americans firmly believed that Chávez must go.  But how much do we really know about Hugo Chávez and his life?  Bart Jones is a reporter for Newsday and for eight years he worked in Venezuela, documenting the regime changes and spectacular rise and fall of Hugo Chávez.  He has a keen insight into Venezuelan society from a first-hand view and because of this, the book has an even more authentic feel to it.

Jones takes us back in time to 1954 in the small town of Sabaneta in the State of Barinas in west-central Venezuela as Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías enters the world.  Raised at first by his grandmother Ines, there are no inkling that the young child will grow up to rule the country.   What is clear is the high esteem in which Chávez held his grandmother for all of his life and up until her death.   As he matures into a young man and enters the military, it is here that his story begins to pick up speed.  The author goes into great detail about Chávez‘s early life, through old-fashioned research and discussions with Chávez that lasted several hours.  The portrait that begins to take shape is of a young man with a passion for baseball, history and the well-being of the country he calls home that has been plagued by corruption and poverty supplemental by a racial hierarchy.   Books become his favorite hobby and through history, Chávez becomes familiar with the man who is the Latin American equivalent of George Washington; Simón Bolívar (1783-1830).  For the rest of his life,  Chávez would inject Bolívar into nearly all of his speeches, plans and actions.   American readers who are drawn to history will appreciate the recap of the story of the late revolutionary and come to understand why he is so revered in Latin America.  For Chávez, there was no Venezuela without the spirit of Bolívar.

Latin America has been plagued by military coups and endless changes in regime.  Venezuela was no stranger to either. Chávez, the brilliant and aspiring leader, seized his opportunity on the heels of political upheaval and in contrast to what is often mistakenly repeated, catapulted to office in a free and open election.   But what is paramount is how he rose to power and that is what Jones carefully explains to us.  The man who was the outsider, achieved the impossible and during his time in office, left a mark on Venezuela that will last forever.   Not without his faults, he was a complex character and the author leaves it up to the reader to decide. And had he not died at such a young age, perhaps he would have gone on to achieve more in his later years.  I forewarn the reader that if you approach this book with anti-Chávez bias, you will not appreciate the gift contained in these pages.   In fact, Jones is no Chávez fan and does an incredible job of remaining unbiased.  He points out Chávez‘s triumphs and also his failures.  And what we can take away from what we learn is that Chávez was a human being who some believed was larger than life.  From the comfort of our homes in America, it may be hard for some of us to understand his popularity but in Latin America, hope is more powerful than we may think.  Chávez masterfully became a man of the people and his ascension to power was extremely well-played.

Similar to other biographies of great leaders, the book contains a cast of real-life characters from President George Bush (1946-), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (1954-) and even the late Fidel Castro (1926-2016).  Chávez had never served in office before winning the presidential election but he quickly made up for his shortcomings and did change Venezuelan society.  Sadly, it seems that after his death the nation was never the same and under the current administration, is sliding deeper in anarchy with each passing week. If Chávez were alive, I am sure he would be ready to work to carry on the revolution to make Venezuela the greatest Latin American nation the world has seen.  He was brash, inspiring, shrewd and at times unrealistic but above all, he was Venezuela.  This is the incredible life story of Hugo Chávez and the nation he led.

ISBN-10: 158642145X
ISBN-13: 978-1586421458

The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe-Donald H. Wolfe

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On August 5, 1962,  newspapers around the world relayed the news of the death of Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) the night before at her home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, California at the age of thirty-six.  The cause of death was listed as suicide from an overdose of the drugs Pentobarbital and chloral hydrate.  However, decades after her death, several question still remain regarding that tragic night of August 4, 1962.  What really happened that night and why was she paid a visit by then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) and his brother-in-law Peter Lawford (1923-1984)?

The image we have been given of Monroe is a drug-addicted sex symbol, starved for validation from the opposite sex and unable to cope with the rigors of Hollywood.  Her previous suicide attempts gave credence to this perpetuated image and for many, it was the ending that they expected for quite some time.   Her life reads like a tragic novel of a heroine unable to fully come to terms with herself and seeking love and affection in all of the wrong places.  However in just thirty-six years, she lived a live that some can only dream of.  At at one point in her life, she was the most desired woman in the world.  Donald H. Wolfe takes us back in time to the those final days in August, 1962 to piece together what really did happen and why.

The book opens by revisiting the night of August 4 and the pandemonium that ensued following Monroe’s death.  Immediately we learn of several disturbing facts that set the tone of the book. Wolfe does an incredible job of keeping the suspense going and the reader engaged.   And rightfully so, he not only explores her death but also provides a concise biography that sets the stage for events that took place later in her life.  Behind the facade of a starlet singing happy birthday to the President, lay a woman raised in a childhood which could best be described as tragic.  However, in order to understand Monroe’s life and her death, it is necessary to explore her beginnings which Wolfe presents to us without breaking the momentum of the book.  And I can assure you that once you start you will be hard pressed to put it down.

Although the book is about Monroe’s final days, there are many sub-stories that are told which gives us an inside view of the inner-workings of Hollywood and politics in the middle of the twentieth century.   As she moves through one circle to the next, some of the biggest names in show business, sports and politics make an appearance in her life such as   John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), Clark Gable (1901-1960), J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) and Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio (1914-1999).   However, among all of the people who cross paths with her, her life takes a much darker and tragic turn through her association with the Kennedys and their associates and it is this relationship that forms the crux the remaining third of the book.  After you have finished the book, you may come to see the administration in a different light.  Today it is public knowledge that an affair did take place between Jack Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.  And if all accounts are correct, Monroe and Robert Kennedy also had their intimate moments.  The sexual content is fodder for gossips and tabloid magazines.  But what was critical was the true nature of their relationship and the many secrets Monroe possessed about the most powerful man in the country.   In fact, it is quite possible that she did have the power to bring down a presidency.   Was this the reason for the urgent visits by J. Edgar Hoover to the White House in May, 1962 and that last visit by Robert Kennedy on the day she died?  Or was this the reason for the heated arguments that took place between Monroe and Robert Kennedy in the weeks leading up to her death? And how much did she know about their association with Frank Sinatra and mobster Sam Giancana?  Certainly, many of their discussions which were likely picked up by the FBI may never be known.  Other recordings by the President are locked away in the Kennedy library.  A little over one year after Monroe’s death,  John Kennedy himself was cut down in a hail of bullets in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.  Several years later, Bobby would be gone as well, also the victim of an assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California on June 5, 1968.  In death they joined a long list of political figures and stars that died during the turbulent decade of the 1960s.

Marilyn Monroe remains a sex icon decades after her death.  Young women still hang posters of her on their walls and purchase t-shirts with her image.  In death, she became a legend whose left this world far too soon.   Her life was in some ways a soap opera with affairs, fairy tale romances, political scandals, drugs, mental health issues and tragically, broken homes.  Sadly, many people in her life failed her not just on one but on several occasions.  But if there is one inspiring aspect of the story, it is her resiliency to move forward in life and command respect even in the most difficult of times.   And had her life taken a slightly different course, then perhaps she might still be alive today well into her senior years and full of knowledge about Hollywood’s golden era.  This is the story of the life and final days of Marilyn Monroe, a true Hollywood icon.

ISBN-10: 0688162886
ISBN-13: 978-0688162887

Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James with David Ritz

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There is a saying that a fine line exist between genius and insanity.   Some would argue that they are one in the same.  The greatest minds in history were possessed by those who could have been described as unorthodox to say the least.  But creativity needs a foundation, one that encourages and allows the creator to tap into all of their gifts.  Musicians tend to stick out the most when it we think about this for their industry is not only fiercely competitive but without creativity, you have no career.   Those who understand this concept and master it, go on to become great and in some cases, legendary.  When Rick James (1948-2004) died from a heart attack on August 6, 2004, a light was extinguished and a musical great was lost forever.  During his lifetime, he created a persona for himself and composed music that is still played to this day.  His hits Super Freak and Give It To Me Baby are dance classics that sound as good today as they did when they were released.  Prior to his death, he found himself in the spotlight when actor and comedian Dave Chappelle created a skit based on James’ life.  In the skit, Chappelle takes on the role of James as Charlie Murphy recalls his Hollywood stories.   In one of the skits, James remarks  “cocaine is a hell of a drug”.   It was a part of his life as was much more as can be learned in this brutally frank autobiography of one of the music industry’s most extreme characters.

But just who was James Ambrose Johnson who we came to know as Rick James?  And just how crazy was his life?  I can tell that you his life was a wild ride and once I started this book I could not put it down.   It was a miracle that he lived as long as he did.   His life was anything but boring and there is no point in the book where there is a calm moment.  His story is told with the help of David Ritz, whom some readers may recall, is the author of Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye.  The difference here is that this is James telling us his story whereas in Gaye’s case, Ritz is telling us about Marvin’s short life.  Regardless, both books are enjoyable and shocking to read but necessary in understanding the character behind the musical geniuses we came to love.  And no matter what we think about their lives, we can agree that they saw and accomplished things that many of us never will.   Tragically, both died before reaching sixty years of age.  As Rick tells it, he did not want to meet the same fate as Marvin, but ironically drugs would play a part in his demise.  And although he outlived Gay by a few decades, his lifestyle caught up to him.  The only difference is that Gaye was murdered by his father whereas Rick’s heart could not keep up.

His story is simply incredible and filled with names that we all know such as Steven Tyler, Carrie Fisher,  and gridiron great Jim Brown, among others.   And his feud with Prince is both hilarious and confusing.  Prison, the military and even assault make appearances in his recollections.  I warn readers that James holds nothing back and tells us what he went through in some gritty terms.   But as you read the book and come to know him, you will understand that it could only have been written that way.  He was not one to sugar coat things and be politically correct.  With Rick James, you either take him or leave him and fortunately for us, most of the world took him and his songs that have moved many dance floors.   This book is rough and at times he can be quite vulgar.  The incidents are shocking but the key is to remember that James and many artists. lived in a completely different world than the average person.  To be successful, it was  sometimes necessary to view the world through very different lenses.  The fast life becomes the norm with drugs, money, sex and power readily at your fingertips.  The seduction of that life is often too strong for many to resist and as James tells us himself, he could not escape his inner demons or what it is called in the book, the Me Monster.   In fact, at one point, Ray Charles flat-out states that he wrote some of his best material when he was high.   But the pull of the devil is stronger than gravity forcing the abuser to use all of their might to escape rock bottom.

I believe that it took an extraordinary amount of courage to write this book.   What I found striking is that for all of his antics, he never ceased to love his mother who figures prominently throughout his autobiography as the grounding force to Rick’s increasing erratic life. She and others would do their best to set him on the right path but in the end, he lived his life on his terms whether for better or worse.  He is long gone but left behind many great songs , interviews and television appearances.  This autobiography is a gift, allowing us to read his story as he wanted it told.  And when you have finished this book, you will understand what he meant by the glow.

ISBN-10: 1476764158
ISBN-13: 978-1476764153

Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese American Family Caught Between Two Worlds-Pamela Rotner Sakamoto

50242335The Second World War remains the most brutal conflict in history.   The number of those who perished is still up for debate and there are many secrets of the war that have been lost to history forever.  In the United States, foreign-born citizens with roots in any of the countries part of the Axis powers, found their selves under suspicion and in the case of the Japanese, placed into concentration camps.   Although not as inhumane and deadly as the camps in Germany and Poland, they resulted in the rise of resentment among Japanese-Americans toward the United States Government and the country they called home.  The dropping of the Atomic bombs further heightened the feeling of resentment and was the first and only time a nuclear weapon was used in warfare.  Survivors of the bomb attacks can still be found today, advanced in their years but tragically familiar with the barbarity of modern warfare.  Across the pacific, Japanese-American veterans of the war remember the tragedy that befell Japan, the nation to which their families trace their origins.  But what happens when half of a family is in Japan and the other half is in the United States?  Or what do you do when one son is part of the Japanese Imperial Army and the other is part of the United States Armed Forces?  And when the war is over, how do you come to terms with the effects war has had on your family and yourself?  This is the story of the Fukuhara family whose lives are the answer to those questions. Written by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto and containing snippets of interviews conducted with those relevant to the story, Midnight in Broad Daylight is a heart wrenching story of a family struggling to survive, having been affected by a war in more ways than one.

Following the death of the family patriarch, a widow is faced with the daunting challenge of raising several children on an almost non-existent budget.  Her plight is compounded by the social climate of strong prejudice against Asian-Americans.  Seeking a better quality of life, she makes the decision to relocate to her homeland of Japan where several other children reside.  There, they are briefly reunited and their situation forms the nexus for the remainder of the story as we follow Kino, her children Harry, Victory, Frank and Mary as they move through life and encounter war on a scale unlike anything ever seen before.  Harry (1925-2015) and Mary eventually move back to the United States leaving behind Kino, Victor and Frank.  Life moves along for each until December 7, 1941, the day that lives in infamy, when the Japanese air force bombed Pearl Harbor bringing the United States into the war.  From that point on, none of their lives would ever be the same again.  Harry became the most popular of the siblings, earning his induction in the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1988.

The East and West still have much ground to cover in completely understanding each other.  Foreigners who move to the United States often face the challenge of enforcing native traditions on their American children.  Generational and cultural gaps are formed making the path to understanding and compromise seem as if it is completely out of reach.  But if we take the time to read the story of the Fukuhara’s, we can find solid footing allowing us to examine the fears and concerns about culture being lost.   Today, it is probably impossible for any of us to begin to understand the inner conflict a person must have had if they were Japanese during World War II.   The attacks at Pearl Harbor caught nearly all by surprise including Japanese-Americans.  But following the attack and the United States entry into the conflict, life became harder and the prejudices against Japanese far much stronger.  With hindsight we can easily find fault with government policy during that era but today we would be hard pressed to say if some of us would do otherwise. Regardless of whether you are a hawk or a dove, this story is moving and one that should be widely read.  As I made my way through the book, I found myself rooting for the Fukuhara’s, hoping that they all make it through the war and reunite with a happy ending.  This did not happen.  The book is not easy to read in some parts, in particular with regards to the concentration camps and the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  We should never fail to comprehend the level of devastation caused by the devices known as Fat Man and Little Boy.   The effects of the blast and subsequent radiation sickness are on full display and reinforces my belief that Japan’s resurrection after the war was nothing short of miraculous.

I hope that the world never experiences a conflict on the scale of World War II.  If we do, it might be the world’s final war.  As the people of Japan were preparing for the Allied invasion, I am sure that they too thought that the war would be Japan’s total demise.  For their relatives here in the United States, there was only waiting and uneasiness as news of the atomic bombs spread across the globe.  The Fukuhara’s lives are a case study of what happens to those families caught on both sides of a conflict regardless of their personal beliefs or character.  For the rest of their lives, the events of the 1940s remained with them as reminders of a dark period in world history.  If you are a student of world history and/or a World War II buff, then this book a welcomed addition.

ISBN-10: 006235194X
ISBN-13: 978-0062351944

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