Category Archives: Biographies
The Cuban Revolutionary war has been viewed through different lenses, typically dependent upon which side of history the viewer falls on. Fidel Castro’s march through Havana after the exit of Fulgencia Batista was paraded as the era of change that Cuba needed in order to break out from Yankee imperialism and the iron grip of organized crime. The charismatic and bearded leader introduced a new pride in Cubans with promises of true revolution and equality for all. Today, nearly sixty years later, we know that did not happen and the true number of people persecuted under his rule may never be known. Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) was just one of thousands of exiles who were able to leave the island they called home to escape relentless persecution because of their sexuality and literary beliefs. And when he took his own life on December 7, 1990, an end came to a short but painful life in which he never truly found peace. Before his death he made it a goal to complete this autobiography as a sort of farewell gift to those who knew him or his work. His death was no accident and Arenas explains himself that he will in fact leave this world as his choosing. Twenty-seven years have passed since his death but his story is remarkable even today. The book was adapted into a screenplay by Julian Schnabel and the film starred Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp. Both are great actors but as good as the film may be, the only person who told Arenas’ story the best was Arenas himself.
The author begins the book by taking us back to his childhood in Cuba, in particular his village of Holguín where he was born into a village of poverty where he and his closest siblings had no shoes and sometimes ate the earth. The descriptions of the poverty that could be found in his village are shocking but an accurate portrayal of life in small villages just decades ago. At a young age, he realizes he is a homosexual and his sexual orientation will be a major factor in almost all of the events that take place throughout the rest of his life. They are also central to everything in the book. Stories of the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba under the Castro government are well-known but those outside of Cuba may not know just how much. In a society where all were supposed to be equal, the blatant harassment and discrimination of gay men and women contradicted the revolutionary ideology. Nevertheless, from Arenas’ words, it does seem at times as if homosexuality was as common as heterosexuality. His encounters with men are spontaneous, dangerous and also numerous. And his descriptions of his encounters and what he witnesses are graphic and not for readers that are uneasy with explicit sexual dialogue.
As a writer, Arenas also possessed another quality which made him an enemy of the state. He explains himself that Castro does not like writers, either those for or against the government and the suppression of free thought, speech and works of literature is present everywhere as big brother cracks down in Orwellian style manifested in the classic 1984. Informants, mail-opening and surveillance were tools of the trade as ordinary citizens lived under a microscope where everyone was suspected of being counter-revolutionary and forced to live on meager rations with nearly no income. In fact, their lives stood in stark contrast to the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Castro and his subordinates. In short, it was the classic totalitarian state despite of the image projected by the Castro regime. Cuban exiles will readily agree with this but even in Cuba, there are those who believed in Castro and still do. The debate will go on for an eternity.
Arenas realizes that his sexual orientation and writing have made him a target and he knows it is just a matter of time before the authorities come for him. They do and his incarceration in Cuban jails makes up the central part of the book. His descriptions of life in Cuban prisons defy belief and it is a miracle that anyone survives. Towards the end of the book, he admits that he never fully healed from prison and that no one ever does. But he remains strong in the face of adversity as authorities do their best to break his spirit and turn him into informant. When he finally puts prison behind him, he troubles are over as he has to earn a living but is known to the State and known in society as part of a group of people who are often ostracized. He knows he must get out of Cuba, but the questions remains as to how he will do it. A chance event in Peru changes his life and the lives of thousands of other Cubans and when he finally steps foot on U.S. soil, the next phase of his life begins but not long before it tragically ends.
Although this is Arenas’ autobiography, he tells the story of the lives of many people close to him, all struggling to find peace and happiness in a society which represses anything an everything. Scene and scene of debauchery and tragedy play out by characters just short of despair. Their stories and Arenas’ life reveal the facade behind the triumphant revolution which replaced on dictator with another who was at times even more brutal towards his own citizens. In a cruel twist of fate, Castro outlived Arenas and many other Cuban exiles depriving them of the chance to see Cuba after Castro. The future will tell if Cuba will every truly be free but as the nation moves towards that goal, then it is best served to remember the stories of those who have suffered and Arenas who through his words, one of Cuba’s loudest voices.
Darkest Hour: John Alite: Former Mafia Enforcer for John Gotti & The Gambino Crime Family -John Alite, S.C. Pike and Kayla Robichaux
There is something about the Italian-American crime syndicate that continues to fascinate American culture. The larger than life characters that appeared on television and in newspapers have been immortalized in movies and documentaries. Their close-knit organization which we have come to know as the Mafia, became as American as apple pie. Violence, money, sex and power become staples of the gangster’s life. Many of them die before their time as the street life inevitably catches up with them. John Alite knows this all too well. The former hit man for the late Gambino Family boss John Gotti (1940-2002), served several years in prison after being extradited from Brazil in 2006. He later agreed to testify against a former associate which reduced his sentence. In 2017 he was released from supervised parole.
When I saw this book on Amazon it immediately grabbed my attention. As a New York City native, I vividly remember the time when the Mafia controlled nearly every industry in the city with an iron grip that was broken main by the RICO Act. Alite was in a unique position similar to another associate who also agreed to help prosecutors, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano. The better days of the Mafia are long past but the memories of its reign of terror remain firmly fixed in the minds of many. From the beginning, Alite’s story pulls the reader in and mainly because unlike Gotti, he his not of Italian heritage. In fact, his family comes from Albania. And his childhood is composed of a three-generation family, an environment in which I myself grew up in. Those familiar with Eastern Europe will recognized the profound differences between Italian and Albanian culture. What helps make Alite’s story interesting are the dynamics between family members and the struggle by his parents and grandparents as they adjusted to a new country with a language they had to learn later in life. To enforce the point, phrases of Albanian spoken by Alite’s parents and grandparents are peppered throughout the story. And it is clear that his Albanian heritage was and is a source of pride. However, every story has an antagonist and Alite’s is no different.
I should point out right now that this book is part one in what will surely be either a two or three book series. This story is strictly about his childhood and his slowly descent into rebelliousness and a life of crime. But perhaps, no other relationship was as critical in this development than that between him and his father Meti (Matthew). This is the crux of the book and Alite pointedly states that it was his father’s teachings that made it easy for him to end up in the life of crime later in his life. Today it would be considered abuse but back then, what went on at home often stayed at home. Under their roof existed a tyrant whose life was complicated and stressful and unfortunately led to outbursts of violence that affected each person in their own way. But ironically, love also exists at home but it is carefully guarded by some and shown in different ways. The fondness Alite had for his grandparents is endearing and an example of the importance of the bond that should exist between multiple generations. The old country lives with the new country in a land with completely rules and customs. An in a climactic scene between Alite and his father, we see the different ways of life come to a head in what could only be described as the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The story takes place in the Woodhaven section of Queens, New York. Readers that are from Queens or familiar with the neighborhood and era will nod in agreement at some of the things he recounts. Queens truly is the borough of immigrants and for this Albanian family it would prove to be a blessing and a curse for their young boys. The budding baseball player and boxer sometimes crippled with epileptic seizures grows fast and tough on the streets of Queens. At the conclusion of the book, he has begun to embark on the path that would lead him into the clutches of the Gambino Crime Family where the stakes are higher and the activities and conspirators far more deadly. If the writers continue on the path set in this first part, the second will be an even better read.
He was arguably the most feared and secretive intelligence officer to have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. And although he left the agency in 1974, his name still conjures up images of the cold warrior with nerves of steel, engulfed in the world of counterintelligence and determined to protect the United States at all costs. Formally he was known as James Jesus Angleton (1917-1987), but to author Jefferson Morley, he is referred to as the ghost. The title fits appropriately for the secret life of the late CIA spymaster was one which Hollywood could never replicate on screen. By all accounts, his personality was outwardly unassuming, but behind the horn rimmed glasses, was an operative that ate, slept and breathed counterintelligence.
This project began in 1994 and the amount of research Morley has invested is impressive. Angleton did not leave behind diaries or personal writings, he was far too cloak and dagger for that He did however, testify before Congress as the CIA’s domestic mail spying program came under fire after being revealed by the press. The spymaster escaped without prosecution but his career at the agency was effectively finished. He would remain hidden in the shadows but still involved in the field until his death on May 11, 1987. The mystery surrounding Angleton helps to keep him in the public light, but what is it about him that is so fascinating?
Morley has composed a solid biography of Angleton, but there is still much about his life that has probably been lost to history. Angleton himself said that he would take things to his grave and I have no doubt that many secrets were buried with him. And next to Allen Dulles, Dick Helms, Bill Harvey, Cord Meyer and the many legendary officers once part of the OSS, Angleton stood as a gatekeeper to the trove of the Agency’s dark secrets. And throughout his life he was involved with a cast of characters who made their names famous as operatives of the agency that John F. Kennedy once threatened to scatter into a thousand pieces. As he moves up the ladder and increases his power, his secretiveness and paranoia grows at an exponential rate. His hunt for Soviet moles would prove to be one of the final nails in the coffin of his career and nearly crippled the CIA. But was he too paranoid or did he know more than he let on?
There is so much about Angleton’s life that remains a mystery. He was a family man, but his wife and children barely factor into the story. Instead, the book is filled with CIA intrigue, informants, double agents and political gambles in Washington. And sadly, it seemed that when no enemies existed, they were manufactured to suit personal agendas. And for Angleton, this might have been an underlying cause of his later obsession of moles within the government. But such was Angleton’s mind, the maze with false exits, traps and more riddles than answers. The man whom Morley calls “the ghost”, led a life which did not give away secrets and prevented even the most prying eyes from gaining too much insight. It may have been by design or just an extension of the counterintelligence legend’s way of operating.
To say that Angleton’s life was incredible would be a severe understatement. In fact, throughout every major event that takes place, the CIA seems to be close by and his actions regarding some are bizarre and even disturbing. Although detested by many, scared of by others and mind boggling to subordinates, he endeared himself to more than one president and those relationships gave rise to many questions surrounding his actions following JFK’s murder, RFK’s murder and the murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer.
By the time he died, his CIA life was far behind him but the saying goes that you never really leave the agency. For James J. Angleton, the agency was his life and in a taped interview with Thames TV in 1975, he stated pointedly that he regretted nothing. I have no reason to doubt him and after reading this book I believe that you will also feel the same way. But as I read the book, I could see that in more than one way his life was quite tragic. As Morley explains, secret intelligence work was his life, but what suffered in the process was his personal life and in some cases his health. In a tragic fate, the love he would give to the CIA would not come to him from his family. Even to them he remained the elusive ghost.
Readers who are familiar with the stories from the cold-war CIA era will know many of the facts revealed in the book. We have heard the names before and their actions are now well-known. But I do think that the section on Lee Harvey Oswald is telling and adds yet another question to the mystery of Kennedy’s murder. When asked about the assassination, Angleton reportedly said ” a mansion has many rooms, I was not privy to who struck John”. Exactly what he meant we will probably never know. But what is clear is that Angleton possessed knowledge of many things that most Americans would prefer not to know.
I cannot imagine that writing a book on a secret CIA operative is an easy task. But Morley’s account of Angleton’s life is a solid work and will be appreciated by historians. Love him or hate him, there is no denying Angleton’s legacy, fame and infamy in the annals of the history of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“Deception is a state of mind–and the mind of the state.”– James J. Angleton
His voice was unlike any other I have ever heard. My grandparents, aunts and uncles played his music regularly and his songs are recognized as part of the soundtrack to the continuing movement for equality carried on through Black Americans. His hits We’re A Winner and Keep on Pushing are some of most iconic songs from that era and a testament to the skill and passion of the late Curtis Lee Mayfield (1942-1999). Along with his group, the Impressions, Mayfield helped redefine music as we have come to know it. His soundtrack for Super Fly is legendary and next to Isaac Hayes, the music therein was the cream of the crop for the Blaxploitation films that became the norm for African-American stars. And although he has been gone for nearly nineteen years, his music sounds as if it were recorded yesterday. On the surface, the beard, eccentric clothing, glasses and guitar tuned to F sharp gave the image of a musician larger than life. But how much of his personal life do we, his fans, know? And what was the real Curtis Mayfield like?
Todd Mayfield is one of the late star’s ten children and together with Travis Atria, he tells the story of his father’s life. Early in the book, Mayfield points out that to date, there is no biography that captures the full story. Well that is until now. Drawing on family history, music records, interviews with those who knew his father and his own recollections of his time with his dad, Mayfield has written the definitive biography of his father’s life that ended at only fifty-seven years of age. I am sure that many rarely known facts are revealed in the book and the information about Curtom records and Curtis’ working relationships with other stars of that era are great material for music fans with a thirst for knowledge. On a personal note, I wonder what would have happened if Donny Hathaway had worked more with him but both are no longer around to give their thoughts. The book is also a look back at the racial climate that blanketed the United States during the era of Jim Crow and even after the Civil Rights Movement and the later Civil Rights Act of 1964. These events weighed heavily on Curtis and throughout the book we see how he deals with the injustice he witnesses while making hit music that would outlive him and nearly all of the greatest leaders during that time.
Although the biography is written by Curtis’ son, there is no strong bias either for or against him. In fact, Todd does a remarkable job of pointing out his father’s flaws and the times where he took the wrong path in life. The love he had for his father is undeniable but as he points out in the book, Curtis could charm anyone but at the same time be one of the coldest people you could meet. And like all musical genius, there is that fine line between genius and insanity. As a songwriter, Curtis composed some of music’s biggest hits, many of which are still in rotation today. I think that if people knew just how many songs he wrote during his career, they would be speechless. But for all of his highs, there also lows, some of which are regrettable.
I imagine that for Todd, it must have been difficult to reveal some of his father’s worst traits that remained hidden behind a carefully molded public facade. But I believe that in order to write the story of his father’s life as it should be told, he could not have done it any other way. Drugs, domestic violence, infidelity, paranoia and selfishness were some of the many parts of Curtis, a multi-dimensional figure whose genius at music was at odds with his aloofness and vindictiveness as a husband and father. But like all great stars, the world sometimes appears through a different lens revealing a lifestyle that is foreign to the average person. Tours, albums, studio sessions, family demands and personal insecurities are the staples of every great artist’s life and Mayfield was no different.
Interestingly, as I made my way through the book, at times I loved Curtis and at other times was scratching my head in disbelief. I was shocked at some of the antics he pulled and the violence that took place. But regardless, I never lost my fondness for the man whose music I play when I am in the need for some good music that reaches deep down into the soul. And while I wish some parts of the story did not exist, it was imperative to remember that underneath everything, he was a human being with his flaws. As the story moves to Wingate Field in Brooklyn, there is bad omen that hangs over the book. By this point his life, Curtis had slowly begun his downward spiral and the freak accident that took place on August 13, 1990, changed his life and music forever. The remaining years of his time on earth as told here by Todd, was heartbreaking to read. However, in spite of everything that happened to him, Curtis never lost his spirit and his positive outlook was nothing short of inspiring. Sadly, he did not live to see his children move up in the world and keep on pushing or his grandchildren, but he left a legacy that will remain with his family and fans for life. This is the story of the life of Curtis Lee Mayfield.
On July 18, 1969, Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy (1932-2009) lost control of his vehicle while crossing the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. In the passenger seat was a twenty-eight old former staff member of Robert F. Kennedy’s (1929-1968) presidential campaign and member of a group of women known as the “Boiler Room Girls”. She was later identified as Mary Jo Kopechne. In death she became a permanent part of the history of Chappaquiddick and a reminder of what happens when we are negligent in our actions. Over time she has been largely forgotten, having been overshadowed by the lives of the Kennedy family. And with regards to Chappaquiddick, she has been known as the “woman in Kennedy’s car”. But the real Mary Jo Kopechne has an interesting story of her own that was cut short at only twenty-eight years of age.
Her cousin, Georgetta Potoski and her son William “Bill” Nelson, decided to tell Mary Jo’s story so that we finally have a complete picture of her short but dedicated life to the causes she believed in. Interestingly the book is not just about Kopechne’s short life but those of her parents Joe and Gwen whose lives were never the same after her death. The thousands of letters they received and kept after the tragedy help to shed light on just how many people their daughter had an impact on. Some of the letters are included in the book. The photos shown in the book compliment the story at hand and reveal a close-knit and happy family that believed in reaching one’s full potential and the importance of hard work. The Eastern-European roots of the family’s progenitors remain intact and their story is similar to that of other immigrants who came to America to make a new life.
We all know how she perished but what is often left out is how she became acquainted with the Kennedys. That part of the story is filled in here with even more information about her time with Senator George Smathers before joining the Kennedy camp where she would remain up until her death. There are many interesting facts that are revealed in particular how important she was to Robert F. Kennedy whom was known to all as simply “Bobby”.
Readers expecting to find anything about Chappaquiddick will be disappointed. In fact, the authors intentionally left it out of the book. I understand their decision for the book is about Mary Jo and not about the incident or the investigation that followed. To have included with have resulted in a completely different book. This is Mary Jo’s story or more appropriately, the story of her life that remains unknown to most. Her cousins have done a great to her memory by presenting this book which gives a permanent voice to the often forgotten victim of Chappaquiddick.
I Had to Survive: How a Plane Crash in the Andes Inspired My Calling to Save Lives-Dr. Roberto Canessa with Pablo Vierci
The definition of courage is the ability to do something that frightens one. On October 13, 1972, Roberto Canessa was one of forty passengers aboard Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 bound for Santiago, Chile. The plane clipped the top of a mountain peak and crashed in a region known as the Valley of Tears. Seventy-two days passed before all of the survivors were rescued. Canessa and Nando Parrado, author of Miracle in the Andes, walked for ten days through the mountains towards Chile to find help. A peasant, Sergio Catalan, rode his horse for eight hours to notify authorities. The ordeal of the survivors was turned into a book called Alive, and a film of the same name starring Ethan Hawke and John Malkovich. In 2010, a documentary was released by the History Channel under the name of I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash. The films and books that have been published do an incredible job of allowing readers and viewers to step inside the nightmare than existed on that isolated mountain slope. Here, Canessa tells his story but his account differs from the others not in facts but in presentation and focus.
Parrado’s book deals mainly with the time they spend stranded in the Andes. The end of the book is focused on his life after the crash and updates on the other survivors. Canessa takes a different track and the book is not just about him but also about his family and patients. A small part of the book is dedicated to the crash. Canessa confirms statements given by Parrado both in his book and in the documentary. But I honestly believe it is what happens in his life after the event that makes the book so intriguing. As the story progresses, the reader will note that at times we are reading Roberto’s words and then another section will be the testimony of his children, father or patients. These interviews were not conducted by Canessa himself. Vierci, a childhood friend and journalist, reached out to Canessa’s patients and obtained their recollections without his involvement. I believe that this decision was critical to the book’s aura for it gives us a complete picture of not just the rugby player that survived the impossible, but also of a husband and doctor of medicine.
Dr. Canessa, as he has been known since finishing medical school in his native Uruguay, became a well-known cardiologist throughout the world. He has performed operations on scores of patients, mainly children and devoted his life to their survival. But as we read the stories and read Canessa’s words, we get the feeling that the Andes mountains always remain present in his mind and as he admits, they shape the way he has viewed life since he returned to Montevideo. He certainly could have never imagined he would face death in the autumn of 1972 but the experience is one which no person can ever fully leave behind.
As a supplement to the book, numerous color photographs are provided by Canessa and families of his many patients. The photos show the progression of age, wisdom and how far he has come in life. By his own admission, he has always been a bit rebellious and done things his way whether they were accepted or not. But it is this rebellious nature that served him well as he and Nando walked for over seventy miles to find another trace of human existence. The Chileans have a saying “the Andes don’t give back what they take”. For the players and other passengers on Uruguayan Flight 571, the mountains almost took everything. But sixteen young men held out hope, steeled their nerves and accomplished what no one thought could be done.
Dr. Canessa has lived his life applying the lessons he learned during that ordeal and his story will always amaze shock those who are discovering the story of the crash for the first time. Like Parrado’s book, I read this one sitting. His words and those are others are clear and in an easy to read format making the story flow smoothly without losing the reader’s attention. And although the crash took place more than forty years ago, the story of their survival and the approach to life by Canessa are more than enough to inspire anyone.
It is not often that a former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation writes a book. In fact, it is almost unprecedented. In all fairness, there have been books written by former members of the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. intelligence apparatus. When James Comey published this book, news outlets were eagerly waiting to get a copy of one of the most anticipated book releases in history. The political climate of the United States is unlike anything most of us have ever seen. There are a number of adjectives that come to mind, any of which could be rightfully applied to Washington, D.C. Time will tell what will happen in the oval office. The firing of James Comey through the media left many of us shocked, confused and even angry. For some, it was just one more act by a vindictive and childish commander-in-chief. Others believed that it was the right call as they believed the FBI was out of control. I watched broadcasts that day and found myself astonished at the day’s events and wondering if this was just the start of a regrettable trend developing in the United States government.
During the 2016 president election, James Comey became a celebrity of sorts as a result of the bureau’s investigation of improper use of e-mail by Hillary Clinton. She was never charged with a crime and given a warning about improper use of a mail server. Several weeks later, it was announced that once again, the FBI was looking into the e-mail issue. Critics of the FBI jumped on the announcement and blasted it as a smear campaign to discredit Clinton and tilt the election in favor of Donald Trump. Whether the e-mails was the deciding factor that caused Clinton to lose the election, is still up for debate. Comey was labeled all sorts of names by Clinton supporters and disliked even by some Trump supporters for not fully going after Clinton as they believed he should have. Seemingly a man caught in the middle, he did his best to wade through difficult waters. I have often wondered what really did happen and why did the FBI put out the statement about re-opening the investigation in Clinton’s emails? Well, here in this book Comey answers that question and many others that have crossed the minds of millions of Americans.
The book is largely an autobiography where we learn about Comey’s childhood, his role as a husband and father and experiences in the U.S. Department of Justice. The young kid from Yonkers, NY, probably never imagined that one day he would lead the Federal Bureau of Investigation and find himself at the center of an election controversy. What I found most interesting about the book is that Comey does not come off arrogant or self-pitying. He is a neutral as you could expect. It is clear that he truly believes in the bureau and the laws of the United States. But any beliefs about him being out to sabotage Clinton, help Trump or just make a mockery of the Department of Justice is ludicrous. In fact, his revelation about his true feelings towards the election says a lot about how he approached his job.
Many of us are unaware of the sacrifices made by those who work in top positions in the U.S. Government. Long hours and time away family is often the norm and the jobs are sometimes quite unorthodox. Comey speaks on this and the several times his family had to relocate as his career took yet another term is an example of the chaotic life that can come with service in government. But not once does Comey complain and is grateful for everything he has done. His story reads like that of an accomplished employee looking back on all that he has done. That is until we get to the current President.
To say that the story takes a dramatic turn would be an understatement. I do not believe that any of us knew exactly what would happen once Donald Trump took office. The celebrity television star and real estate figure ran a campaign that bordered on the unreal at times. But he received the electoral votes needed to become the next President of the United States. Almost immediately, the relationship between Trump and Comey is filled with uneasiness and bizarre situations. Readers might be tempted to believe that the book has turned into fiction but it does not. The recollections come from Comey’s memos and memory of the meetings, the substance of which will make most people scratch their heads in bewilderment. In addition, Comey puts to rest any notion people might hold about any relationship he has with Donald Trump. And I would like to think that his very public firing confirms what Comey says about their prior encounters. Most of the story will sound unbelievable but then again, the man in office was elected on a campaign that many thought was also unbelievable.
Regardless of party affiliation, if you believe in the laws of the United States and our democratic institutions, the book is a good read about the Department of Justice. And now we know the story of James Comey, who went from FBI Director to a man known to millions of people as the person unfairly fired by a President whose is beyond unpredictable. I do not know what the future holds for Donald Trump of James Comey but with this statement, the former FBI Director has taken a large step in clearing his name and reputation and telling his side of a most interesting story.
It is said that legends never die. Long after they are gone, their accomplishments and gifts to the world remain as a reminder of their genius and in some cases, short time on this earth. Growing old is often not in their interest and the ways in which they leave us are typically tragic. For Freddie Mercury (1946-1991), this was certainly the case and his decline and eventual death from AIDS is well-known. Mercury and the band Queen became household names over the span of thirteen studio albums and countless live performances. Their song We Are the Champions is still played today at sporting events. The hit song Another One Bites the Dust seizes the listener with its engaging and provocative melody. But of all the classics, it is perhaps Bohemian Rhapsody that stands out as possibly his greatest composition. Regardless of what your favorite song is, the popularity of his music is a testament to the genius of Mercury and the aura of Queen.
But who was the real Freddie Mercury? His death on November 24, 1991 came just hours after he released a statement informing the world that he had developed AIDS after being diagnosed as HIV positive several years earlier. Those close to him were not surprised at the announcement. The press was relentless is following Mercury around London attempting to get a glimpse of the star who was rumored to be on his deathbed. I remember when Mercury died and the news broadcasts that flashed across several networks. The music world had lost one of its greats. However, like all musicians, much of his life was subject to speculation and misinformation. In fact, to this day there is much about him many people may not know. But here in Somebody to Lovem we have a complete picture of the life of the late Freddie Mercury.
The story begins with the origins of HIV and its progression from SIV in Chimpanzees to a disease that became an epidemic. In 1946, the world welcomed Farrohk Bulsara, born to Persian parents of the Zoroastrian faith. He would be joined a younger sister, Kashmira. From an early age, it is evident that music is his calling but the path he would take to stardom and his life after finding it, is a classic example of the importance of always following your dreams. But with his rise to stardom and relationships with women, there was another side to Freddie Mercury that he fought desperately to hide from the press. Today most of us think nothing of a gay or lesbian celebrity. But we often take for granted how much the world has changed. For Mercury, coming out was not an option and the efforts he went to in order to contain his secret life are astounding. But it is also a tragedy for Mercury was never able to find the true love that escaped him his whole life. He does his best to find true love and the people who came in and out of his life all play a part his rise and eventual decline. Mercury was not innocent himself and at times is nearly out of control and seemingly on a path of self-destruction.
It goes without saying that any book on Mercury could not be written without addressing the gay community. Coincidentally, as Mercury was becoming a household name, kaposi sarcoma began to afflict large numbers of gay men in New York and San Francisco. It would be known at first as the “gay cancer” and prompt officials in San Francisco to close all of the City’s bath houses. The race to identify the disease and find a cure became the topic of Randy Shilts‘ And The Band Played On. The book was later adapted to a film starring Matthew Modine and Alan Alda. Mercury was fully immersed in the gay lifestyle at this point and his connection to the story by Shilts might surprise even those who are well-read on the AIDS epidemic. Before Mercury’s demise, he would lose many of those once close to him and the world would learn about a deadly killer that crossed all social and ethnic lines.
In just forty-five years, Freddie Mercury rose to the top of the music industry and Queen became legends. In death, his status as a rock icon grew without boundaries but sadly he joined a long list of victims of AIDS, and his name is mentioned next to many such as Arthur Ashe and Rock Hudson, as celebrities who were unable to escape a killer that spared no one. I sometimes wonder what would have happened had Mercury lived. Before his death he had been planning more projects and writing material until he was forced to abandon his passion. His passing was our great loss and we should be grateful for all of the great music he left behind. His lifestyle was not agreeable to all but his talent was undeniable. This is the life, death and legacy of Freddie Mercury.
Betrayal in Blue: The Shocking Memoir of the Scandal That Rocked the NYPD-Burl Barer, Frank C. Girardot, Jr., Ken Eurell and Kevin Pierce
Nearly twenty-six years ago, New York City Police Officer Michael Dowd was arrested by the Suffolk County Police Department in cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for the possession and distribution on narcotics. His arrest, trial before Judge Kimba Wood of the Southern District of New York and testimony before the Mollen Commission solidified Dowd’s reputation as the dirtiest cop in NYPD history. Arrested with him were other officers, drug dealers and other participants. Ken Eurell was retired at the time of his arrest but during his active tenure, he patrolled the streets of the Seventh-Fifth precinct with Dowd and embarked on a path of corruption that is still unbelievable to this day. The duo recounted their life of crime in the 2015 documentary The Seven Five. Undoubtedly, Dowd is the main focus and his recollections are backed up by Eurell and the other former officers. This is the story from Eurell’s point of view about how and why he found himself more deeply immersed in crime with Dowd.
Eurell starts off by explaining his family history and how he joined the NYPD. Hi story is relatively straightforward and certainly non-eventful until he crosses paths with Dowd. Corruption had already existed and as Eurell points out, it was quite widespread throughout the department. Incoming officers were forced to learn on the quickly and those who made the decision to inform on dirty cops often faced a career derailed from being ostracized. Dowd is not just corrupt but takes everything to the extreme and is blessed with a mind geared for exploiting every angle possible. It does not take long for Eurell and Dowd to begin to pull off numerous capers and form a working relationship with two of the biggest drug dealers in East New York.
I lived five blocks from the 75th Precinct and remember when the story broke. Prior to Dowd’s arrest, there at had been stories of arrest at other precincts of cops that engaged in corruption of all sorts. Most of the people in the neighborhood were not surprised as most of the officers from the “75th” were considered to a bunch of cowboys. Having read this account by Eurell and that of Internal Affairs Investigator Joseph Tromboli in his book Good Cop, Bad Cop, the moniker of cowboys is a huge understatement. They were nothing short of out of control and Dowd was on a mission to self-destruct and might have succeeded in the end if not for Eurell’s decision to cooperated with authorities.
The book is shocking at times but I do think Eurell and the authors were right about what East New York was like during the 1980s and 1990s. Having lived there at the time, I can say with all honesty that the neighborhood looked like a war zone. Poverty was rampant, murders common and the police struggled with containing the constantly increasing criminal elements. But what happens when the cops are part of the element? Through participation with Adam Diaz and Baron Perez, Dowd and Eurell had crossed a line from which there was no safe return. East New York, described by officers herein as the “Land of F*ck”, was hell on earth and the problems that plagued the neighborhood extended far beyond the reach of the NYPD and led directly to City Hall. Today, those days are long gone and the landscape bears no resemblance to what it used to look like. Vacant lots have disappeared, crack-cocaine is no longer the drug of the street and the faces of the NYPD are now more diverse. But the 75th is still there at 1000 Sutter Avenue and for older residents, the place that was once the source of the dirtiest cops in all of New York City.
Today, Ken Eurell no longer lives in New York, having relocated to Florida as he attempted to put his life back together again following the fallout after Dowd’s final downfall. As he tells his story he is candid about what he did, how he was seduced by the lifestyle and the pain he inflicted upon his own family. He does not ask for sympathy, freely admits where he went wrong and never portrays himself as a victim or hero. This is simply his part of the story and I think a good supplement to Tromboli’s book and the documentary. I would go as far as to say that if you have watched the film and read Tromboli’s book, then his is another piece of the puzzle. Some of the information is revealed in other places but I do think Tromboli’s book contains a bit more because it is told from the side of Internal Affairs so he is able to convey what was known about Dowd and when NYPD brass knew it. Some readers might be tempted to ask how did they get away with it for so long? The answers are in the book and they just might surprise or even shock you. But this was New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was one of the most dangerous cities in America before gentrification arrived.
I often think about my childhood and early adult life in East New York. Many of my friends have long left the neighborhood and I no longer live there myself. But we all carry many memories and they will remain with us for the rest of our days as I am sure they will for Dowd and Eurell. The East New York they knew is different today and if the City is successful, it will be unrecognizable to them in just a few years. But no matter how much transformation occurs, the dark history of corruption within the Seven-Five will remain in its history.
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.