Category Archives: Biographies
Today, 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.
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.
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.
Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese American Family Caught Between Two Worlds-Pamela Rotner Sakamoto
The 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.
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