Category Archives: Biographies
October 10, 1967 – Argentine newspaper Clarin announces that Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928-1967) has died in Bolivia on October 9 after being capture with a group of guerrilla fighters attempting to spread revolutionary ideology throughout Latin America. In Buenos Aires, his family receives the news of his death and is completely devastated. Juan Martin, his younger brother, races to his father’s apartment where his mother and siblings have gathered as they attempt to piece together the last moments of Ernesto’s life. Che was secretly buried in an unmarked grave and his remains remained hidden for thirty years before author Jon Lee Anderson convinced a retired Bolivian general to reveal the grave’s location. His remains were returned to Havana on July 13, 1997 where he was buried with full military honors on October 17, 1997. In death, Che’s legacy grew exponentially and even today in 2017, he is the icon of revolution around the world. But after his death, what happened to his family and where did their lives take them? Juan Martin, at seventy-two years old, has decided to tell his story and reveal to us many facts about the Guevara family that have sometimes been overlooked by history.
Before reading this book, I was already familiar with Che’s story, having read Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara and several others relating to the campaigns in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia. But I was always curious to know how Guevara’s fame affected the lives of his family. A couple of months ago, I watched an interview with Juan Martin from Buenos Aires that appeared on the news station France24. And it was then that I learned of his book in which he reminisces about his famous older brother. And what I found in the pages of this book is a story that should be read by those who admire Che and even those who loathe him. I would like to point out that the book is not a glorification of his brother. Without question, they shared a special bond and he remembers him with fondness but admittedly, he was fifteen when Che died and did not have the decades long relationship with him that his parents and older siblings did. Nevertheless, he shares many great details about their lives, shattering long-held myths about the Guevara and Lynch names.
In death, famous people sometimes become larger than life and their stories are retold but often misinterpreted and sometimes outright distorted. It is well-known that Che was very close to his mother, but as Juan Martin shows, Ernesto even tested her patience at times and his relationship with his father was not as great as some have been led to believe. They had many battles and never completely saw eye to eye on various issues but it in the end the elder Guevara supported his son and benefited from his legacy.
To understand Che’s life, it is necessary to trace the family’s origins several generations back. Juan Martin provides a short biography to clear the record about the family name. What I found interesting is that their family life was far from upper class and was highly nomadic. Money was usually and issues and several moves between Rosario, Misiones, Alta Gracia and Buenos Aires proved to be a challenge for the family of seven. But incredibly, they maintained strong family bonds that were desperately needed following Che’s death. The events in Cuba would change the family’s life forever in more ways than one. What is often misunderstood is that while Che had enormous success in Cuba, his accomplishments received little to no acknowledgement in Argentina. And having been there myself, I can attest to the fact that you will not find monuments or murals to him rampant throughout Buenos Aires. And following his death, the family would have to fear for their lives as a brutal dictatorship under Juan Peron locked the country in a vice grip and leftist organizations were persecuted beyond belief. And it is this part of the story where Juan Martin’s life takes on a life of its own.
Juan Martin Guevara spent eight years in incarceration for suspected leftist activity. His wife Viviana was incarcerated for an equal amount of time. In fact, most of Che’s immediately family were forced to leave Argentina as the government initiated a crackdown on anyone suspected of being communist. And during that time, the Guevara name was suspect to immediate suspicion. He along with millions of other Argentines lived through the tragedy of the “disappeared” in which an estimated 30,000 Argentines are believed to have been seized and murdered by nefarious elements within the government. The Falklands War followed in 1982 and the country reached its breaking point under the government of Carlos Menem (1930-) when the convertibility system imploded and the Corralito was imposed on Argentine citizens limiting the amount of money people were allowed to withdraw from their bank accounts. Today he is still going strong, having lived through appendicitis, hepatitis and even a heart attack while in prison. Sadly, his older sister Celia, who he describes as being just like Che in many ways, has steadfastly refused to discuss her famous older brother, never recovering from his death and according Juan Marin, completely unaware he had written this book. His children grew up in Cuba and now live in Europe and other parts of the world. Four of Che’s five children still reside in Cuba where his daughter Aleida and son Camilo carry on their father’s legacy. And Fidel, who died on November 25, 2016 makes his presence felt in the book providing many gestures of good will for the Guevara family as they made a new life in Cuba.
Che will also be a controversial figure but with this book, Juan Martin has in fact shown more of the private side of Che and relayed the truth about what their family life was really like as they grew in Argentina. There are many parts of the book which are said and also shocking but necessary to understand the political climate that existed then and continues to plague Latin America. In the end, this is a fitting tribute from a younger brother to an older sibling, whom he misses dearly and idolized.
As a student growing up in the United States, my classmates came from many different backgrounds. Some came from as far away as India and Korea. Others from Guyana and Dominican Republic. No matter where they came from, we were equal peers studying to enhance our lives through prosperity. However, only sixty-four years ago, the ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson was still the law of the land which mandated that separate but equal facilities for White Americans and minorities were permitted under the constitution. One year later in 1964, events in Topeka, Kansas would change the course of United States history and catapult a young lawyer to legendary status. The case was Brown v. Board of Education and the lawyer was Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), the late civil rights icon who attacked segregation and served on the United States Supreme Court for twenty-four years before retiring in 1991. The decision reversed the court’s earlier ruling in Brown and declared that separate but equal facilities were in fact unconstitutional in the United States. Today is name is rarely mentioned and the younger generation of Black Americans are growing up in an era vastly different from the one in which he was born and raised. But his life should be a case study for students of all backgrounds as a reminder of the enormous effort that was required to break the back of Jim Crow and move the Unites States forward.
Outside of classes in school, I never heard many discussions about Marshall. In college, a class I took revisited the Brown decision so that we could see the development of the privileges that I and others took for granted on a daily basis. But who was Thurgood Marshall? And behind the legal victories and appointment to the Supreme Court, what were the detail of his personal life? Juan Williams has composed this biography of what he appropriately calls an American Revolutionary. And what is contained in the pages of this book, is a story that lies at the heart of American society. Today, decades after the Brown decisions, millions of students in America attend classes with peers who come from different ethnic backgrounds and have the ability to enroll in schools which in prior times would have denied them entrance based on the color of their skin or the spelling and sound of their names.
The book is well researched and contains quotes by Marshall himself. From the beginning of his life to the end, Williams shows the good, bad and at times ugly of Marshall’s behavior. Like all great figures, he was also a man with flaws. But his dedication to his cause and victories in the courtroom propelled him forward as a champion of civil rights and earned him his appointment to the Supreme Court by then President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973). It is an incredible story written in a thoroughly engaging fashion that leaves no stone un-turned and compels the reader to keep going. However, for all of Marshall’s victories, the regrettable moments in the book are his indiscretions and the brutal climate of prejudice that once encompassed the majority of the United States. The stories, particularly those in the Jim Crow era are heartbreaking and may cause the reader to wonder how human beings could treat others in such horrific ways. And the actions and courage of Marshall is commendable and inspiring.
As a sub-story to Marshall’s life, readers will pick up on the behind-the-scenes political battles that waged between Liberals, Conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. Promises, side deals and political agendas all take center stage as a brilliant African-American civil rights lawyer battled his way to the top, destined to cross paths with some of America’s most widely regarded historical figures such as Adam Clayton Powell (1908-1972), late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) and former President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963).
When Marshall died, he had been in failing health and considered a “relic” by many of a dark distant past in America. At the time of his death, he might have been past his prime, but he remained until his last day, a living part of history and a first hand witness to the legal battles needed to challenge the establishment and ask what the constitution truly means to Americans of all colors. Juan Williams has chronicled and manifested Marshall’s life in this definitive biography of an American icon. Currently, America finds itself at another crossroads with division, mistrust and suspicion sowing chords of discontent. But as in previous times, the nation will survive and continue to move forward for there are many Thurgood Marshalls today, waging similar battles the many that he fought during his life. And in order to understand his life, Williams’ book is the place to start.
October 1st marked forty-seven years since James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix (1942-1970) died in the flat of Monika Danneman in the Kensington section of London at the age of twenty-seven. Today his music is still revered and Hendrix is considered one of the greatest electric guitar players in music history. In fact, there are those who believe that we was the greatest to ever live. The collection of music he left behind continues to be discovered by younger generations and maintains a place in my own collection. His cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower and the classic Hey Joe are among my favorites and some of Hendrix’s best works.
Sharon Lawrence started her career working for the United Press International’s Los Angeles bureau and was introduced to Hendrix by a mutual acquaintance. Not only did she go on to witness key events in his life but she became of his closest friends all the way up until the time of his death. In this intimate account of a friend’s memories of another, she takes us behind the scenes into the personal life of a rock legend. And what she reveals about the life of the first child of Al and Lucille Hendrix, is a star with a rare gift that died far too young in a life on the fast track and filled with nefarious characters, unfortunate events and a family history that had long-lasting effects. But most importantly, she clears up long-running misconceptions about Hendrix’s death and the fabrications that he died from a drug overdose. In fact, savvy readers familiar with Hendrix’s story will already know this and the story of the mysterious Danneman (1945-1996), whose actions after Hendrix’s death are beyond bizarre. Her suicide on April 5, 1996 only served to raise more questions about her life and her relationship with the late star. Lawrence sheds light on her interactions with Danneman as well adding even more puzzling questions to the unsolved puzzle.
The book is a biography in some regards and Lawrence explores the family lineage in detail setting the stage for the future inner turmoil that would plague Hendrix throughout his life. And like most other musicians of that era, controversy followed him serving as a threat to his increasing fame. His life would be affected in one way or another by record executives such as Mike Jeffrey (1933-1973), groupies like Devon Wilson (1943-1971) and miscellaneous characters that sought out Hendrix to serve their own self-interests. And sadly at the time of his death, none of them would be there in his time of need. Lawrence however, served as confidant throughout Hendrix’s career and their interactions throughout the book are significant for they shed light on what really went through his mind as he navigated his way through an industry filled with predators. Incredibly, not one person interviewed for the book had a negative word to say about Hendrix. From all accounts, he was a gentle person that perhaps cared and loved too much, not only about music but about his family members and relatives. His relationship with his father is eerily similar to the tragic story of Marvin Gaye, Sr. and Marvin Gaye, Jr. Part of what truly makes Lawrence’s account a fascinating read is that she does not shy away from Hendrix’s indiscretions most notably the two children he fathered out-of-wedlock and the issue of narcotics, prevalent throughout the film and music industries.
The story of Hendrix’s death has been retold many times but what is brought to light here is the fallout with his estate following that tragic night of September 18, 1970. Like wolves circling their prey, next of kin and aspiring entrepreneurs all made a claim for their stake in his estate to control his legacy. Litigation became the tool of the trade as Hendrix’s father Al, his brother Leon and step-sister Janie engaged in a legal tug of war that severed what remained of family ties and earned Hendrix’s name more money in death than in life. Today his image is found on t-shirts and posters, purchased by adoring fans and those who discovering him for the first time. And like many of the other greats of his time such as Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison his death before the age of thirty, is both tragic and cruel. In later years, Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur joined the list of musicians whose works earned staggering amounts following their deaths. But for older fans who saw him play, purchased his records as they were released or knew him at some point in their lives, no poster of t-shirt could ever take the place of the Jimi they knew and this includes my father who played Hendrix’s song all throughout my childhood and is the reason why I love his music to this day.
If you are a fan of Jimi Hendrix and want to know more about the life of a true legend, Sharon Lawrence honors her friend the right way in this memoir about one of rock’s greatest performers. And after you have finished this book, you may find yourself singing The Wind Cries Mary, Purple Haze or maybe even Voodoo Chile. Whichever you choose, Hendrix will surely be smiling from wherever he is at, content that his music has continued to inspire.
At 1 p.m. on January 29, 1977, Freddie Prinze, Sr., died at the UCLA Medical Center after suffering a self-inflicted gunshot wound the night before while talking to his manager Marvin “Dusty” Snyder. Prinze was twenty-two years old and left behind grieving parents, siblings, a widow and a son, Freddie, Jr., who would go on to have successful career of his own in Hollywood. Prinze rose to stardom at the age of 19 and in just three years went from aspiring comedian to a star on the comedy circuit and in the hit show Chico and the Man. His time on earth was brief but at the height of his career, it is estimated that his face had been seen by nearly 40 million viewers. I had often heard about Prinze and listened to my parents talk about him in conversations about their favorite shows from the past. I had always wondered what drove him to take his own life? And could it have been prevented? His late mother Maria Pruetzel (1921-2013) tells her story and the story of Freddie’s short but incredible life in this memoir of their time together as mother and son. His father Karl (1914-1979) is also in the story but in a supporting role for reasons Maria explains early in the book.
As I started the book I felt a bond with Maria and Freddie being a native New Yorker myself. No stranger to the area known as Washington Heights where Prinze called home, I have always been aware that Manhattan has been the birthplace of some of the world’s greatest stars. Born on June 22, 1954 to a Hungarian father and Puerto Rican mother, Prinze would characteristically refer to himself as the “Hungarican”. It was just one of his many catchphrases that became his trademarks. Maria takes us back to his early years as a young kid on the streets of Manhattan who has big dreams of making it in show business. The young Freddie we see could easily be one of us, a young teen, dealing with hormones, his peers, girls and his visions of leaving Washington Heights and one day living the lifestyle of the rich and famous. He succeeded but as we see in the book, at a price that for many of us is far too high.
Unsurprisingly, the reader is drawn to Freddie who was quite the character even before he became famous. The anecdotes relayed by Maria are nothing short of hilarious and will have readers shaking their heads. As he moves through life and enters the School for Performing Arts, it is here that his life takes unexpected turns and changes forever. Prinze never did finish at the school but as we learn through Maria’s recollections, he was destined to stardom and possessed an uncanny vision that propelled him on to the national scene following a breakout performance on the Johnny Carson Show. But with the fame came the demons which would follow him all the way to the end.
Those who are familiar with the personal lives of Hollywood stars and the industry culture, know of the dark side of tinsel town. As Corey Feldman recalled in his biography Coreyography, you can get any drug you want in Hollywood and there never is a shortage of supply. Prinze was no stranger to them and their effects on his life are heartbreaking. A young man who rose to fame an at incredibly young age with the responsibility of supporting a wife and child, found himself under the grip of narcotics unable to shake their grasp. And that is the true tragedy of his life. At twenty-two, he had many years ahead of him to make millions laugh and enjoy a successful career in the television and film industries. But like many stars, he found a war within himself and struggled with his own feelings and the many stresses that plagued him. And his death occurred far too soon and far too tragically. As his mother explains to us, Freddie’s way is not the way you want to leave here, there are always other options. But beautifully, she also reminds us that Freddie is still here with us every time we watch him again on our television screens.
Harlem, New York has been and still is crucial to New York City politics. The area that was home to the majority of African-Americans has been affected by the wave of gentrification that has reached nearly every major city across the nation. Musicians, actors, gangsters and politicians have found fame and fortune in the neighborhood with a storied past. And of all of the colorful characters to use Harlem as their base of activity, perhaps none is as famous as the late Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908-1972) There is a street named in his honor in the area but sadly, the generation of today is largely unaware of his story and his contributions to American society. He has been described as flamboyant, stubborn, cunning and of great intelligence. He earned the affection of his congregation and millions of minorities and the wrath of presidents and senators determined to put an end to his career. Forty-five years have passed since his death on April 4, 1972. Cancer proved to be his biggest opponent, taking his life at the age of sixty-three. But who was the real Adam Clayton Powell, Jr? And why is he so important to the Civil Rights Movement and the African-American experience? Wil Haygood has researched Powell’s life and compiled this definitive account of the late congressman’s life.
Powell’s life was anything but ordinary and Haygood brings the past alive as we become more acquainted with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as we follow him through life as he attends Colgate University, succeeds his father as pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and takes the plunge into politics. Legendary figures of the past make an appearance throughout the book, some of whom are still alive today. Some loved him and some hated him, but all can agree that there was no other like him. The Powell amendment, which mandated the withholding of funds to cities that refused to follow federal law mandating desegregation was a landmark piece of legislation and remains his crowning achievement. But for all of his highlights, there was also another side to the famed politician. And Haygood, as a biographer, does not avoid the darker parts of his life.
Several marriages, a playboy like lifestyle and a larger than life character are just some of the many dimensions that composed Powell. The revelations in the book are not easy to accept but they reinforce the notion that in life we do have to take the negative with the positive. And flawed as he was, he lived his life on his own terms and without compromise. Today, many would not blink an eye to the escapades of Powell but in his era, far more conservative than today, Powell was pushing the boundaries of acceptability at every turn. And for millions of young men and women of color, he became a source of pride and inspiration. His power allowed him to move through political circles but also earned him the wrath of powerful enemies who would come together as the cast of villains in the hearings that resulted in Powell losing his congressional seat which he eventually obtained again following a successful litigation campaign.
Life for Powell was fast and full of highs and lows. In hindsight, we can see the habits and decisions that led to his early death. And in death, he is remembered as one of Harlem’s greats. Powell’s is long gone but through this book, his memory to continues. The children of Harlem and across the nation today have no connection to Powell, but if he were alive, he would be fighting right now in their best interest. And for New York City residents, we should remember his life every time we drive down Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. This is his life, the story of a New York City legend whose legacy shall never fade. Haygood’s book is a welcomed addition to any library.
Today, sixty-four years after his death in, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) remains one of the most polarizing and studied figures of the 20th century. As the leader of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, he enforced the legendary Red Army as it fought off a German onslaught and helped the Allies put an end to Germany’s Third Reich. Following the war, tensions between the United States and the USSR escalated giving birth to the Cold War. In 1991, the USSR collapsed and today Russia is under the control of Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly one of the world’s most controversial figures. Stalin’s reign may seem to be in Russia’s distant past but it was less than one hundred years ago that Stalin ruled with an iron fist, striking fear into the hearts of not only his enemies but those closest to him. Rumors have surfaced over the years regarding everything including his love life, health, mental state and bungled policies. But who was the real Joseph Stalin? Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Gori, Georgia on December 18, 1878 to Besarion “Beso” Jughashvili (1850-1909) and Ketevan “Keke” Geladze (1858-1937), few could have imagined that the young child would grow up to rule an entire nation. His life in later years became mysterious to those inside and outside of Russia. Misconceptions and falsehoods have spread, causing even more confusion about the truth. Stephen Kotkin has takes on the late leader’s life in a multi-part definitive biography that is simply outstanding.
Kotkin’s compendium is extensive, totaling over seven hundred pages of text. And from what I have seen, the second volume, due to be released in November, 2017 will be slightly larger. But contained within the pages of this book, is the incredible story of the life of Joseph Stalin from his birth until the year 1928. The book was exhaustively researched and at times, is heavy on historical figures, places and dates. At first it may seem challenging to keep track but as the book goes on the, the figures reappear to remind us of their importance. The beauty in the book is that Kotkin deeply examines all situations that require explanation. And in his writing, he is neither for or against Stalin. He simply shows us his life and who he was, based on his own statements, transcripts of Party Congresses and documents that have survived from the era. For history lovers, this is nearly heaven on earth. History textbooks tell some of the story of the Russian Revolution, but here we have an inside look into the movement that catapulted Stalin, Vladimir Lenin (1877-1924) and Leon “Lev” Trotsky (1879-1940) to eternal fame and later condemnation. The subsequent Russian Polish War and escalation of tensions between Russian and it’s allies Germany and Britain following Lenin’s death, highlight the fractured foreign policy enacted employed by the Bolshevik party.
As Kotkin showcases, Stalin’s rise to power was based on fear, intimidation and deception. Even those closest to him, never truly knew what he was thinking or how to approach him at times. His first wife Yekaterina “Kato” Svanidze (1885-1907) died only a year into their marriage but his second wife Nadya Alliluyeva (1901-1932) witnessed first hand his unpredictable nature and abrasive moods. And for those that were enemies, they often face exile in Siberia, where Stalin himself was once confined to during the First World War. Trotsky, Grigory Zionviev (1883-1936) and Lev Kamenev (1883-1936) would find this out firsthand. His NEP or “New Economic Policy” was supposed to be the plan that saved Russian but instead propelled it towards disorganized collectivization intended to balance the economy as Stalin moved further to the left. But as we see in the book, the Bolsheviks had steep learning curves in many areas. The results of their shortcomings are tragic having resulted in the deaths of over seven million people. Famine spread like a virus forcing many to eat things unmentionable and unimaginable. And throughout the crisis that arise, Stalin comes off as a cold machine unaffected by anything and driven by ideology. As we re-live the past through Kotkin’s words, we see the deep level of seriousness and vindictiveness that composed the former Soviet dictator.
Stalin took with him to the grave, answers to many questions that have puzzled researchers for years. And although we have documents that have been graciously preserved, some parts of his life are lost for good. Perhaps some day in the future, more information about him may be discovered but with Kotkin’s work, we have the first part of what could be the best biography of Stalin to date. It is one of history greatest stories and filled with historical figures such as Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), Maria Spiridonova (1884-1941), Fanya Kaplan (1890-1918), Gavilro Princip (1894-1918) and Nicholas II (1868-1918) among others. Students of Russian history have been presented with a gift in this book and I am sure it will find its way to the bookshelves of many.
Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas” – Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin
In December, 1991, Warner Brothers pictures released Oliver Stone’s JFK, the film adaptation of the investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (1921-1922) into the death of President John F. Kennedy. The film is filled with an all-star cast and remains one of Stone’s greatest accomplishments. Reviews of the movie are generally favorable but there are many critics who have voiced their dissatisfaction with the film believing that Stone omitted crucial information and glorified Garrison on screen. The famed director did an incredible job of bringing the past of life and his effort paid off immensely as more records related to President Kennedy’s assassination were released to the public. The actors that took part in the landmark film all did an incredible job in making the story one that will continue to spark curiosity. From history, we know that Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963) was the alleged assassin but was murdered himself before he could stand trial. Several years later, Garrison began his own investigation, focusing on what he believed to be a plot in his own City of New Orleans to murder Kennedy. His investigation resulted in the arrest and prosecution of local businessman Clay L. Shaw (1913-1973). The trial became infamous for its absurdity and Shaw was exonerated in March, 1969. Garrison later tried Shaw on the charge of perjury and Shaw subsequently filed a civil suit against Garrison and others for the violations of his civil rights. These matters and others were unresolved at the time of Shaw’s death from lung cancer on August 15, 1974.
But just who was Clay Shaw and what really was his significance in the murder of John F. Kennedy? In the film we do not know much about Shaw’s past and the focus remains on his alleged connections to Oswald and David Ferrie (1918-1967). The impression that can be made from the movie is that a plot to kill Kennedy evolved among homosexual right wing extremists determined to see the President removed from office. Curiously, nearly none of the popular books on the assassination regard Shaw as a conspirator in the President’s murder. The reality of the case, as shown by Donald Carpenter in this phenomenal biography of Shaw, is that his life was far different from what we have been led to believe and the real Clay Shaw really was a man of a million fragments.
Carpenter researched Shaw’s life over a period of eighteen years before completing the book. Interviews with those who knew Shaw were conducted and Carpenter also reviewed Shaw’s surviving documents, newspaper clippings, statements given by Shaw on screen and other important notes and memorabilia. The final story is simply one of amazement and sheds light on a man who lived a incredible life. For those of us who have visited the French Quarter in New Orleans, we can attest to the level of enjoyment that awaits all of those who pay visit to the legendary Bourbon Street. Today Shaw’s name is an afterthought but at one time, he was a well-known, respected and beloved resident of the French Quarter whose efforts to transfer the neighborhood paid off well and earned him a permanent place in the City’s history.
For all of the shortcomings that plagued JFK, the film was correct regarding the issue of Shaw’s sexual orientation. And in the book it is a reoccurring subject which follows Shaw throughout his life and takes center stage during his trial. The true motives for Garrison trying Shaw remain somewhat elusive and the “evidence” of Shaw’s guilt was fragile at best. Further, rumors about Garrison’s own sexual conduct become fodder for conversation peaking with an incident involving a minor at an athletic club in 1969. I had previously read about Garrison’s indiscretions which are directly addressed by the late Kent “Frenchy” Brouilette (1936-2015) in his autobiography Mr. New Orleans: The Life of a Big Easy Underworld Legend. If Brouilette is truthful, which appears to be the case, then the anecdotes contained within this book carry more clout and shed light on Shaw’s statement to more than one friend that he would tell them the real motive behind his persecution after the trial was completed. As far as we know and the author has concluded, there is nothing in Shaw’s handwriting or oral statements by him addressing the issue.
Carpenter did an immaculate job of chronicling Shaw’s life providing a staggering amount of information on the late star of the International Trade Mart. In particular, he dives into the topic of Shaw’s affiliation with the Central Intelligence Agency bringing more clarity to the issue while also refuting unfounded conspiracy rumors. Shaw’s life is covered from beginning to end and it was an incredible journey that included service in World War II, a stint in New York City, a career with foreign trade, restoration of the French Quarter and a showdown with a controversial district attorney whose case threatened the foundation of the U.S. legal system. There are many things that we do know about Shaw’s life, but there are many more that went with him to his grave. This is by far the most accurate detailed analysis of Shaw’s life that I have read to date. And if you have watched Stone’s groundbreaking film, are planning to or are curious about Clay Shaw, this is the place to start.
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer-Kali Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
In August, 1945, the course of modern warfare was changed forever when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, striking the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Following the successful deployment of the bomb, the Soviet Union and other nations enhanced their own programs to develop a nuclear weapon. The nuclear arms race produced a fear in mankind that still exists today as war continues and dictators drunk on power set their eyes on world domination and a test of egos. It has often been said that the next major world war will be the last war mankind will ever fight. Humanity now has the absolute power to destroy itself literally at the push of a button. Thankfully, since the second world war, there has been no further use of atomic weapons in an armed conflict. But the danger still exists and there have been many who have warned against the escalation of nuclear armament. One of these voices was that of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), referred to as the father of atomic bomb and in this excellent biography, an American Prometheus. Kali Bird and Martin J. Sherwin have captured Oppenheimer’s life splendidly making sure that his life is recorded for history.
Today, Oppenheimer’s name is connected with a distant past during war that the world has long tried to forget. Less than eighty years ago, Nazism, Japanese expansion and fascism threatened the security of the world and plunged several nations into the most savage war the world has seen. Allied commanders and German commanders both began to see the potential of a weapon that could end the war in one stroke. Nuclear energy, still then in its early stages became increasingly attractive. The U.S. military enlisted the help of the greatest physicist the country had to offer. A young brilliant mind joined the mission and his life was never the same again. Readers should know beforehand that the book is not heavily focused on the bomb itself. For extensive technical details, it would be best to look elsewhere. This is Oppenheimer’s story and the events that took place in his personal life which became interwoven with his duties at Los Alamos. There is a saying that there is a fine line between genius and insanity and as Bird and Sherwin show us, Oppenheimer walked the line very closely throughout the majority of his life.
The beauty in the book is that the authors truly did an outstanding job of revealing the real Oppenheimer. He was a father, brother, husband and scientist. In addition he was also a perfect example of Jung’s theory of the duality of man. At some points in the book, it is hard to reconcile how such a gentle figure would create a weapon that would later take thousands of lives and put humanity at permanent risk. The book is exhaustively researched and was completely over many years. All of the figures in the book are now deceased but their words are critical in understanding Oppenheimer’s life. It is well-known that following his accomplishments at Los Alamos, he became a proponent of disarmament. His stance earned him the wrath of many in the government and ultimately lead to his secret clearance status being completely revoked during an investigation in his communist ties. The investigation is analyzed perfectly in the book and I could not help at times but to become enraged at the trials and tribulations inflicted upon him. But I remind myself that this was the 1950s, the time when communism was the ultimate evil and Sen. Joseph McCarthy was making a name for himself with his war on communism. The FBI makes an appearance in the book as J. Edgar Hoover enforces his status as the chief watcher of the country. I shudder to think what Hoover would think today about America if her were alive to see it.
To say that Oppenheimer was an unorthodox figure would be an understatement. As I have learned through this book, he was a complex man with a complex life full of many highs and lows. He is a heroic and tragic figure that remains cemented in America’s past. I dare to say that possibly there was no one who truly did know him completely. In the book there is an aura of mysticism about him that many are unable to accurately put into words. The praises from those who knew him are some of the greater moments in the book and highlight why he was such a unique and fascinating individual. And while he is best remembered for the creation of the bomb, we should not forget that he was also a human rights advocate and crusader against the dangers of unrestricted nuclear warfare. As the father of two children, there are many aspects of his relationship with them and of his wife Kitty who plays an important role in the direction that his life took. But throughout all of it, he remained himself, the genius physicist with a love for literature and poetry and from all accounts, the make of a killer martini.
By far, this is one of the best biographies that I have read. For the majority of us who read this book, we will never know what it is like to have created a weapon that could eliminate an entire nation in less than fifteen minutes. It is an incredible burden to bear for even the most radical of us. Lyndon Johnson awarded Oppenheimer the Enrico Fermi award on December 2, 1963 for his contributions to science and the advancement of theoretical physics. It was a fitting honor to a man whose life had nearly been destroyed several years earlier before an investigative committee. His final years read like a Shakespearean tragedy. Although vindicated in the court of public opinion and among his peers, he would remain controversial until his last day as his battle with throat cancer reached its tragic conclusion. He is long gone but his work and words are still with us reminding mankind of the preciousness of life and the cataclysmic threat that exist in nuclear weapons. For those seeking to learn more about Oppenheimer’s life, this is a good place to start.
“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.” J. Robert Oppenheimer
The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Live, Love and Loss-Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
During a trip back to New York from Miami this week, I was browsing the books at the terminal’s newsstand and came across this book by Anderson Cooper and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt. Like most Americans, I know Cooper from CNN and the years of journalism that he has provided to us. I was not aware of his mother’s story or that she is still going strong at ninety-three years of age. I decided to purchase the book and I am delighted to say this New York Times Bestseller was worth the investment. The title is quite self-explanatory but there is so much more in this book which is a collection of correspondence between Cooper and his mother. It takes place over a period of time and through electronic means. The story of their lives is fascinating and contains an interesting history of its own.
The beauty in this book is the newfound relations ship that develops between mother and son as they try to heal old wounds and find out who the other person really is. To say that I learned a significant amount of information about them would be an understatement. The Vanderbilt name is among the most famous in American history. At her age, she is direct link to the family’s storied past. Her memory of her family lineage at her age is astounding but also a testament to her longevity and ability to analyze herself. As Anderson throws the questions her way, she opens up extensively about the periods in her life and what they meant to her. Many years have passed since she has seen or heard the voices of her late Aunt Gertrude, Dodo, Naney and even her own mother. And all of the stars she was acquainted with as a young starstruck teenager on the west coast are deceased. Nonetheless, her memories of her time with Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra, Sidney Lumet and her last husband Wyatt Cooper are enlightening and precious.
However, not all the story is happy and there are many tragic moments as well including the passing of her father, the death of Wyatt and the suicide of Anderson’s older Carter in July, 1988. In spite of the many deaths that have surrounded her throughout her life, Gloria does not fear it but provides an interesting look at what she knows could come for her at any time. Her ability to accept her mortality and live the most rewarding life that she can, is an example which we all should strive to follow. Some of us will live to the age of ninety-three and some of us will not. But it is not about the number of years we live but how we live them. That is a lesson which Gloria seeks to reinforce to the reader. I truly enjoyed her story but it is only part of the book. This is Anderson’s show too and he also opens up about his own life and struggles.
I found that I was able to relate to this story as I have a sibling who is also gay and went through a process of coming out to our mother. Like Gloria, my mother also had her feelings on sexuality that have softened over time. But in the beginning things were not always so easy and many rough patches existed that had to be paved over. Today my mother and brother have an even stronger relationship than they ever did. In reading Anderson’s story I saw my brother and the personal decisions he has been forced to make because of his orientation. But as the older brother, I have long realized that it is my job to reassure him and stand in his corner throughout thick and thin. The main difference however, is that my brother is still alive while Cooper’s brother died nearly thirty years ago. The death of Carter Cooper comes up towards the end of the book and is clearly a tough topic for both mother and son. I do not believe that either will ever completely heal from his death or the death of Wyatt Cooper, their father and Gloria’s last spouse. Wyatt reminds me of my own father in the way that he approached life which we see through Gloria’s words. His death in 1976 came far too soon and left many what-if questions. Mother and son touch on these questions but ultimately accept what is and focus on the time they still have left and that is the most touching part of the book. In fact, reading has made me appreciate both of my parents even more but especially my mother who also shares a unique bond with her son(s). If you are a fan of Anderson Cooper this is a must read.
In death several musicians have become in a sense larger than life. Their recordings, writings and interviews become collector’s items catapulting them to legendary status. A cruel irony in life is that some of the greatest artist and performers to have graced a stage, died a young age before reaching their full potential. James Dean (1931-1955), Tupac Shakur (1971-1996), Janis Joplin (1943-1970), Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) and Jim Morrison (1943-1971) are just a handful of names of talented individuals who rose to fame and were gone before thirty years of age. Morrison, with his band The Doors, had become a sex icon and the poster boy for the anti-establishment movement sweeping across the United States. His death on July 3, 1972 concluded a chaotic life that seemed to get even more bizarre as it continued. Eerily, Morrison joined the group of musicians who died at twenty-seven. Joplin, Hendrix and Brian James of The Rolling Stones all died at the age of twenty-seven. And Morrison’s long-term girlfriend Pamela Courson (1946-1974), also died at the age of twenty-seven. The dark coincidences highlights the fragility of life and its unpredictable nature for we are here one day and sometimes gone the next. In death, Morrison became an even bigger legend and still has millions of adoring fans across the globe. But for all of his wild antics on stage, some of which nearly resulted in his incarceration for an extended-stay, the real Morrison proved to be a mysterious and confusing character as evidenced by this informative and well-researched biography by James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky.
Capturing the essence of Morrison is critical for any biography and the authors do an outstanding job of presenting to the reader the real Jim Morrison in all of his glory and infamy. The native of Melbourne, FL, starts off life similar to most all-American kids in the 1940s. But as he matures and makes his way through high-school and college, his life begins to take on its own dynamics which would carry him all the way through to his death in Paris, France. He exemplified living outside the box and seemed to thrive on controversy. While The Doors created musical hits, their leader and singer lived life on a fine line between genius and insanity often dabbling between the two. Through interviews and critical research, Morrison’s most outrageous antics are covered and some are beyond shocking. The demons that he developed during his life take center stage and it is unfathomable to realize that in only twenty-seven years, Morrison had a life that could have spanned several decades. As a rock star he was unable to resist the many temptations faced by stars. His compulsive nature, spirituality and indulgence in excess served as a confluence of factors that nearly pushed the rock icon completely off the deep end.
It will seem absurd and possibly unbelievable that such a talented individual lead a life of severe self-destruction. But Morrison, like other great performers, typically viewed life through a different lens than the average person. Substance abuse has long been a common ailment among the world’s greatest performers. For some it was used to keep things in focus and for others, as an escape from the pressures of stardom and personal struggles they sought to avoid. For Morrison, it may be have been a combination of both or one of the other. The real reasons went with him to the grave and shall never be known. As he rose to fame, he became a force on his own and then no longer belonged to himself. He belonged to the fans who refused to allow him to be anything other than the Jim Morrison who turned out arenas and caused mass riots. For them, he was their icon and The Doors was their band providing a leading voice for social change and the rage against the establishment.
It has been said that death is not the true tragedy in life, what is tragic is what dies in inside of us while we are still alive. Tragically, towards the end of his life, Morrison had begun to come full circle and even began to talk about his parents from whom he remained detached through nearly his entire career. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, Paris became the place where he collided with fate and his life ceased to exist giving birth the eternal legacy of James Douglas Morrison and band known as The Doors. For fans of the pioneering group whose example has been followed by countless others, this is a must read.