Category: Biographies

harveyOn November 27, 1978, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed by former Supervisor Dan White. The New York born Milk had relocated to San Francisco, taking up residence in the Castro section.  He and lover Scott Smith opened Castro Camera before Milk set his eyes on politics.  After several tries, he was finally elected as a City Supervisor and in the process became the first openly gay man to serve in public office in San Francisco.  His efforts at City Hall and community activism earned him the nickname “The Mayor of Castro Street“.  In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in Milk and in 2008, director Gus Van Sant took the reigns in the biopic about Milk starring Hollywood veteran Sean Penn in the leading role.  It was an incredible performance and one of Penn’s best.  However, there was much more to Harvey Milk than we saw on the silver screen.  Randy Shilts, author of And the Band Played On, looks back on Milk’s life in this definitive biography of the late activist.

It is critical to remember that Milk died at only forty-eight years of age.  In less than five decades, he went from a former sailor working for the Great American Insurance Company to the face of the gay rights movement in San Francisco.  The native of Woodmere, New York had done something that was unheard of at a time in which the LGBT community was in a fierce struggle to protect their very lives.  The Stonewall riots in 1969 and Proposition 6 by then Senator John Briggs, became defining moments in the movement for equality.   As homosexuality became more scrutinized and in some cases accepted, thousands of young men flocked to San Francisco where they were able to live openly without fear of persecution.   But even there, the fight continued against a brutal police department and the political establishment that had no use of time for what many called “the others”.  In Milk, the movement found its voice but as he said himself he was not the candidate, the movement was the candidate.  But he did have the vision, determination and skill to inspire the invaluable feeling of hope. Shilts did a masterful job of telling Milk’s story and it is evidently clear how and why he became the “Mayor of Castro Street”.   But the story is not all happiness and even the darkest moments in his life are re-told as they were showing the disarray and tragedy that composed Milk’s private life.  And from the moment he became a political figure, the threat of death was never far away.  But through it all, Harvey continued to push forward until he finally achieve the goal that had eluded him several times. And at the time of his death, he had come to assert substantial influence in San Francisco politics.

Dan White was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. The light sentence triggered the ” White Night Riots”, after a jury apparently believed White’s “Twinkie” defense.  In 1984, after serving the five years, White committed suicide at the age of thirty-nine.  The trial, conviction and the riots are covered by Shilts and at times caused me to shake my head in disbelief.  I do believe that had Mayor Moscone been the only one killed, White would have received a much harsher sentence.  He lives on in infamy as the murderer of two politicians who had the promise and skill to change the course of history for the City of San Francisco.  Shilts provides an inside view of the political climate that existed at the time and the uphill battle Harvey faced as he broken into politics.

In the film Milk, we come to learn about two of Harvey’s lovers, Scott Smith and Jack Lira.  What the film did not show, were Harvey’s other love interests which were an integral part of his life story.  I do not hold anything against Gus Van Sant for 90 minutes is not nearly enough to cover any person’s life in full detail. And such is the beauty of a good book.  Shilts was always one to present a complete picture and he does not disappoint here. The book picks up speed from the beginning and never slows down.   I think it is to be expected that the worst moment is Moscone and Milk’s murders.  By the time I reached the trial of Dan White, I fully came to understand the legacy of Harvey Milk.   For those who want to know his complete life story, this is the book for you.  And I also recommend that you watch Rob Epstein’s incredible documentary  The Times of Harvey Milk’.

ISBN-10: 0312560850
ISBN-13: 978-0312560850

Biographies

sammyOn May 16, 1990, Sammy Davis Jr. succumbed to his battle with throat cancer at the age of 64.  His health had continued to decline following his release from the Cedar-Sinai Medical Center earlier that year on March 13.  His death is felt in Hollywood and in the African-American community where Davis is viewed as one of its greatest performers.  His friendship with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis stood out in Hollywood during a time when integration was not permitted in many parts of the United States. The four friends known as the Rat Pack became legends on the Las Vegas strip.   To the public, Davis is seen as pioneer for other young African-American performers seeking fame and fortune in the music industry.  Davis remains firmly implanted in our minds with his performances of ‘Bo Jangles’ and acting roles on the silver screen.  His final film performance in the late Gregory Hines’ ‘Tap’ is both nostalgic and sad for the deterioration in Davis’ physical condition can be seen in the film.  As incredible as his performances were, the story of his life as told by Davis in this phenomenal autobiography is even more fascinating and key to understanding the many directions in which his life took him.

Davis begins by recalling his childhood in which he started as an entertainer and the stormy relationship between his biological parents, both of whom were also entertainers and separated when he was young.  His grandmother is enlisted to oversee his well-being but time and time again he goes on tour with Will Mastin, who serves as his second father at times.  As World War II comes around, he enlists in the U.S. Army which at the time was infamous for racial prejudice and segregation.  His memories of the treatment and lessons he learned in the service are both heartbreaking and eye-opening.  Following the military he once again follows the show business path, the path on which he would travel for the rest of his life.  Behind the scenes, his life became a rollercoaster ride.  He lost an eye in a car accident, married May Britt in 1960 in the face of miscegenation laws, converted to Judaism and even carried a loaded gun on stage as he performed.  He was a vocal supporter of the movement for civil rights, many of which he was denied himself throughout his life.

His marriage to May Britt in 1960 caused both shock and outrage.  The reactions of the press and even ordinary citizens is repulsive at times during the book but also critical to understanding the times in which Davis lived and how bold their actions were.  Miscegenation was not struck down by the Supreme Court until 1967, and even then, interracial marriage was strongly discouraged and treated with hostility.   Davis’ ability to move forward in life and the struggles he faced within himself while married to Brit are key to seeing through to the real Sammy Davis, Jr.   The book closes with the birth of his daughter Tracy.  We now know that he was married several more times and had two additional children in his lifetime.   When he died, he did not leave behind a mass of wealth as would be expected.  But what he did leave behind is a legacy that continues to this day.   If you want to know more about the real Sammy Davis, Jr., this is the place to start.

ISBN-10: 1477611924
ISBN-13: 978-1477611920

 

 

Biographies

index1The stories of those who survived the Holocaust have been read by millions and their words a reminder of one of history’s darkest times. Their will to live and courage in reliving their experiences have given the world invaluable treasures in books that have stood and will continue to stand the test of time.  Among them is the story Annelies Marine “Anne” Frank (1929-1945), whose diary kept while hiding from the Third Reich, became one of the most popular books in the world.  In June, 2013 while visiting The Netherlands, I paid a visit to the Anne Frank Museum. As I entered the museum and made my way up to the attic, I was overcome by chills at just how small it really is.  Pictures and words do not suffice, it is something to be seen in person.  And it continues to boggle my mind that several people lived in such a compact space.  But their will to survive kept them focused on their surroundings and remaining in the attack for as long as possible.  Their hiding place was eventually discovered and for many years it was believed that the family was betrayed. However, historians have never found conclusive proof that the family’s location was given to the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) in the form of an anonymous phone call as is widely believed.  The truth may remain lost to history.   Frank was sent to the Bergen-Belsen camp where she died of Typhus in February, 1945, several days after her sister Margot and would have been simply another victim of the Final Solution if not for her father Otto, who survived the war and returned to Amsterdam where he found her diary.  Believing his daughter’s words to be important to future generations, he found a publisher willing to put the words in print.  And the result is a literary masterpiece that is read each year by growing numbers of young students across the world.

The diary is fascinating and shows the musings of a typical teenage girl living in atypical times.  Her account of daily life in the annex and thoughts about her family, war and her feelings towards the other occupants in the annex are interesting and at times humorous.  Her sharp wit and analytical observations of those around her, show that she is wise beyond her years. And her ability to maintain a sense of humor even as they are hiding in the attic, is a testament to her character and that of those around her. We the readers know that eventually she falls victim to the Nazis and is sent to the camp where she will die.  But as the book moves forward, it is impossible not to become drawn to her through a vivacious personality and blossoming mind.  We are even introduced to her paramour, Peter whose family is in hiding with the Franks.  Her story really is the diary of a young girl.

When I finished the book, I found it incredibly difficult to come to terms that such a young woman was sent to her death simply because of her religious faith.   It forced me to ask myself why humans do the things they do to each other.  We have an uncanny ability to cause the destruction of ourselves and those around us.  Anne Frank, never finished high school, went to a university, met the love of her life and started a family.  During the Second World War, she and the occupants of the hidden attic fell victim to Nazi terror formulated by Nazi ideology.  But in death, Frank has become a martyr of the Holocaust and one its brightest voices from beyond this world.  Today, more than seventy-three years after her death, this book remains on the shelves of bibliophiles, libraries and teachers throughout the world as new generations of students learn about the Third Reich and the quest of Adolf Hitler to accomplish world domination.

Anne Frank’s story is one that will remain with you long after you have finished the book.  Although it is recommended reading to young adults, I find that even older adults can find meaning in this captivating journal recorded by a young woman whose life was changed permanently in the country she called home as the Austrian menace pushed Germany in a world conflict. And until the end of time, people will continue to read and cherish this diary of a young girl.

ISBN-10: 9780553296983
ISBN-13: 978-0553296983

Biographies

chariman-maoOn September 9, 1976, Mao Zedong (1893-1976) died in Beijing, China at the age of eighty-two. The late Chairman served as ruler of the People’s Republic of China following the defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) party in 1949. The People’s Liberation Army, under the guidance of Mao, pushed the KMT to complete physical exhaustion before claiming victory. To some, Mao represented the face of a new frontier for the people of China. To others, his regime was viewed as an expansion of Soviet influence as Communism became embraced in Europe and Asia. His failed policy of the Great Leap Forward resulted in mass starvation and is viewed as an epic failure in planning at the highest levels. Over time, many became disillusioned with the “Cultural Revolution” as the reality of a Communist government drearily set in. Mao, seemingly impervious to the deadly effects of his actions, continued to live the opulent lifestyle he had created for himself as the new leader of China. And the “Closed Door” policy afforded him with a shield to protect his empire from the prying eyes of the western hemisphere. But Mao’s meeting with President Richard M. Nixon in 1972 offered a glimmer of hope that the two world powers could form a bond that would in turn bring the two countries together through mutual understanding. Today relations between China and the United States remain tense and show no signs of changing in the foreseeable future. China continues to go through social change but the nation remains haunted by the legacy of Mao Zedong.

Propaganda plays a pivotal role in any ruler’s playbook. Mao created a very carefully crafted image of the supreme leader, unfazed by foreign governments and determined to change China by any means necessary. The public facade largely worked and even today, decades after his death, his name alone is enough to cause a change of expression during conversation. But behind the public facade, there existed another Mao who lived a life that could only be described as unorthodox. He had hired a personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui to monitor his health and make any recommendations and/or changes when needed. Unbeknownst to the Dr. Zhisui, his left would never be the same again as he took a ringside seat to watch the show that was the private life of Chairman Mao. By his own admission, his wife urged him to write the book before her death. Knowing ahead of time that the publication of the book would require that he leave China, he embraced the project and pulls no punches, revealing the daily insanity that was Mao’s administration. From the beginning it becomes clear that Mao rules with an iron fist and those that serve him do so not out of low but mainly fear. To Mao, nearly all were talked tough were what he called “paper tigers” and he was not afraid to use force when necessary. His ruthless nature and shrewd mind tricks created a climate of suspicion and distrust that gripped everyone working in his inner circle. And as the doctor explains, the wrong words or even suspicions were enough for removal and in some cases far worse.

No story about Mao is complete without a word regarding his widow, Jiang Qing (1914-1991), who served as the Spouse of the Paramount Leader of China from 1949 until Mao’s death in 1976. A former actress, she married Mao on November 28, 1938 becoming his fourth wife. Their marriage and the tribulations contained therein, serve as the back story to the topic at hand. Mao’s infidelities and Qing’s insecurities are key issues in the book and a constant source of tension between her and his chosen physician. She serves as the books antagonist and a mental game of chess develops as she seeks out any chance to put the doctor in the cross hairs of suspicion. At times, the scenes are nothing short of comical and reveal the desperation in Qing’s actions. Her rage at Mao’s philandering were typically directed as other for she lacked the backing or resolve to directly challenge and change the nation’s leader. Following Mao’s death, she was convicted as part of the “Gang of Four” for treason and initially sentenced to death before her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She died in 1991 after taking her own life while suffering from the effects of throat cancer.

If there is one section of the book that hits home with the reality of Mao’s callousness, it is the doctor’s comments about Mao’s true purpose behind the Great Leap Forward. In fact, it might seem unreal to some readers at first but Dr. Zhisui was there next to Mao witnessing firsthand the Chairman’s erratic behavior. And there is a high probability that Mao never intended for the Great Leap Forward to succeed in any shape form or fashion. There are many cold hard truths in this book but to understand Mao Zedong, his public and personal life must be examined and it is here that Dr. Zhisui has written the best account of crazy, unorthodox and complicated life of Mao Zedong. Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0679764437
ISBN-13: 978-0679764434

Biographies