Category Archives: Biographies

Ribbentrop: A Biography – Michael Bloch

20190202_003914On September 1, 1939, the Second World War began as the German army invaded Poland as part of Adolf Hitler’s quest for world domination.  Britain had warned Germany that any military action against Poland would result in England coming to the aid of its ally.  Interestingly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) did not want to go to war with England, preferring to accomplish the annexation of Poland through diplomatic methods after having successfully partitioned Czechoslovakia in what is infamously referred to as the “appeasement at Munich”.  But if Hitler did not want to wage war against Britain, knowing their intention to save Poland, then why did he give approval to the invasion that plunged the world into a major conflict?  The answer to that question lies in the story of his Foreign Minister and Nuremberg defendant, Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946).

In the annals of the Third Reich, perhaps no other figure is as glanced over as Joachim von Ribbentrop.  Standing next to nefarious characters such as Hermann Goering (1893-1946), Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) and Heinrich Himmler  (1900-1945), he is often an afterthought.   Semi-illiterate but able to speak fluent English, he was one of the few officials in the Third Reich with extensive exposure to the culture of the west. And the time he spent in London early in his life, made him the right choice by Hitler for the position of Ambassador to Great Britain.  By all accounts, no one found him to be enjoyable company but incredibly, he maintained a position close to Hitler’s ear with the Führer listening intently and in some cases implementing Ribbentrop’s suggestions.  Their unusual relationship would have dire consequences in 1939 at Hitler set his sights on Poland. It is here in this phenomenal biography that we learn another part of the story behind the Poland invasion and Ribbentrop’s critical role in the events.

At first glance, it is easy to write of Ribbentrop as “non-essential” to the story of the Third Reich.  And although he is mentioned in many books about the Nazi regime, his role is typically minor in the grand scheme of events.  But make no mistake, his advice and misconceptions about foreign nations, played pivotal roles in the rise and fall of the Third SS Reich. Bloch has capture Ribbentrop’s life beautifully in this biography that tells the story of the former Foreign Minister for all to see.  In comparison to the other figures of the Nazi regime, his personal life could be considered average.  But his entry in the Nazi party and actions thereafter, helped changed the course of history.  As I was reading the book, I could not help feeling mystified as to how a figure such as Ribbentrop maintained the confidence of Hitler as each blunder piled up.   Admittedly, Hitler did not consult him on every foreign policy matter, apparently realizing his many shortcomings.  But he did trust Ribbentrop enough on some of the most important decisions to be made, many of which changed the course of world history and produced a mark on the history of Germany which can never be erased.

Notwithstanding his restricted voice in Hitler’s government, he was an important figure in Hitler’s vision of a Anglo-German unification.  In fact, Ribbentrop’s actions towards and with the British government are the crux of the book.   Naturally, his positions as Ambassador and later Foreign Minister, resulted in his constant communication with the Ambassadors of England, Italy and Japan.  However, his close position to the Führer did not earn him the envoy of others but rather their wrath.  Hitler was known to pit subordinates against each other, using the divide and conquer technique.  Their fights and attempts to sabotage each other take center stage in the book as they compete for Hitler’s approval, the elimination of enemies and advancement in rank.   The story reveals a terrible cast of characters drunk on power and filled with venom for competitors and the Jews of Europe.  Standing center among these characters was the sad Ribbentrop, the man often the butt of jokes and contempt, who was rarely seriously.  Having finished the book, I am dumbfounded as to how Hitler’s administration functioned at all.  The decisions they reached and methods used were simply surreal and Ribbentrop plays a direct part in many of them.

On October 14, 1946, Ribbentrop was the first to be executed after Goering committed suicide in his cell the night before.  He left behind a widow and four children, all of whom are still alive today.  Decades have passed since their father’s death and in the passage of time, their lives will also reach a conclusion.  But they remain witnesses to a time in history in which the world was on the brink of complete anarchy as Adolf Hitler set out to dominate the planet.  Next to him was his fanatically dedicated Foreign Minister.  This is the definitive biography of the life and death of Joachim von Ribbentrop.

ISBN-10: 0517593106
ISBN-13: 978-0517593103

Bolivar: American Liberator – Marie Arana

simonIn the annals of Latin American history, perhaps no other figure is as studied as Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), the liberator of South America.   Former Venezuelan President Hugh Chavez (1954-2013) famously spoke with images of Bolívar behind him as he sought to transform the country into a contender on the world stage. The life of Bolívar lasted less than fifty years but within two decades he became the leading figure in the Latin American movement for independence from the Spanish Empire. The nations of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama and Bolivia (his namesake) are the products of his vision, a united South America free from the influence of its northern neighbor.   And prophetically, many of his beliefs about the future of South America have come to pass, cementing his legacy as one of the continent’s greatest heroes.  Marie Arana, a native of Bolívar’s beloved Peru, has composed a stunning biography of the late figure that shows a complex character, driven by ideology but crippled by his own generosity and disregard for personal well-being.

On July 24, 1783, Don Juan Vicente and Doña María de la Concepción Palacios y Blanco welcomed their fourth child into their growing family but neither of them could have imagined then that their son would one day become the liberator of South America.  To understand the mind of the future leader, it is necessary to understand his past and Arana presents his story in a format that is guaranteed to pull the reader in.  The story takes us back in time where the Spanish Empire controls nearly all of the continent and a young Bolívar is learning about colonialism first hand.  Tragedy became a part of his life from an early age as the deadly disease known as tuberculosis wreaks havoc across the continent.  What is clear however, is that from a young age, the rebel the world would come to know was being crafted through life experiences and the ugly hierarchy of exploitation and racism used to subjugate those considered to be unworthy by the Spanish monarchy in Madrid. The young revolutionary proved to be a fast learner and before long, he became part of the growing movement for freedom.

The book continues to heat up as Arana brings the past alive allowing us to follow Bolívar as he traverses Latin America, covering more ground than any of the greatest warriors in history. But the campaign was far from easy and behind the scenes, back door deals, treachery and in some cases luck, combined to push forward the independence movement.  And as Bolívar rises through the ranks, a cast of characters develops, increasing the suspense in the story as the final showdown with Spain looms in the horizon.   The author increases the suspense as the book moves forward, making it impossible for the reader to stop.   I found myself captivated as I followed the events that culminated in the legendary battles that chartered a new path for Bolívar and millions of South Americans.

The battle of Ayacucho in the Peruvian War of Independence proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back with the Spanish Empire withdrawing the majority of its forces from South America. For Bolívar this was just the beginning of a long struggle that would see the continent nearly tear itself apart and result in his exodus from the place he called home.  Assassins, opportunist, traitors and cowards became major players in a deadly game of treachery that ensued following the continent’s liberation from Spain.  Arana puts all of the players and pieces together in a narrative that is both shocking and disheartening.  And through the story, we can clearly see the development of the Spanish Empire’s system of racial hierarchy  that has remained with Latin American society to this very day.  Fully aware of this, Bolívar made it a point to include everyone in his campaigns with the belief in his heart of a truly united and free Latin America.

Before he died, he recorded a statement regarding the lessons he learned after two decades of service in the revolution.  Hauntingly, his words proved to be correct and to this day, Latin America has never been able to eradicate the very issues proclaimed by  Bolívar in 1830.  And if he were alive today, he would be discouraged to see that he was correct.  Nevertheless, he did succeed in liberating Latin America before greed and deception caused infighting among the new republics that has never fully subsided.  But perhaps one day, we may finally see a truly united continent, free of demons from Spanish and British rule and the dreadful effects of the systems of class division and slavery.  And in that moment, the spirit of Bolívar will truly live on.

The story at hand is one of courage, love, triumph, betrayal and vindication.  Bolívar is long gone but his name and legacy continue to live on.  Marie Arana has done a great service to a legendary historical figure who changed the course of world history and paved the way for the birth of a new South America.

ISBN-10: 1439110204
ISBN-13: 978-1439110201
ASIN: B008J4PNX8

Becoming – Michelle Obama

Books-Michelle ObamaAny former First Lady of the United States will tell you that there is nothing “easy” about that lifestyle.  As the wife of the most powerful man on the planet, there is a high demand on appearance, initiatives and unwavering support for the policies that originate from the White House. Michelle Obama is an alumnus of this world, serving as the nation’s First Lady from January, 2009 to January, 2017.  Her style, look and presence is unmistakable and she will be remembered in time as one of the most dynamic to have lived in the White House. Almost two years have passed since Donald J. Trump took office and the where the United States is headed seems at times uncertain.  There exist a political climate built on division and hate, which will require many years ahead for healing and understanding. As the first Black-American woman to be a First Lady, she has unique perspective on Washington, D.C., and the country she calls home.  Her views and life story are presented here in this phenomenal autobiography of the life of Michelle Robinson who went on to become Mrs. Barack Obama.

As I purchased this book, I satisfied a growing curiosity about the story the former First Lady.  As an American citizen at times dismayed, but I believed that the book could take me back to time in which a sense of normalcy was found at the highest levels of government.  Not only was I completely engulfed in the book, having read it in three days, but it reminded me that it was less than two years ago that the Obamas were in the White House and America seemed to be moving forward in the right direction.  Today it seems like an eternity has passed and only time will tell who will occupy the oval office next.  But this is Michelle’s story and to understand the former First Lady, it is necessary to hear her story as a young girl from the South Side of Chicago who commits to hard work, dedication and supporting the presidential campaign of one of America’s most popular political figures.  In many ways, her story is the epitome of the American Dream supplemented by the added variable of her being a Black-American.

On January 17, 1964, Fraser and Marian Robinson welcomed Michelle LaVaughn Robinson into the world, but I do not believe anyone could have imagined then, the heights she would reach in less than fifty years on earth.  As the product of a hard-working blue-collar home, her story reminded me of my own upbringing.  My father worked for General Electric and my mother for what is now J.P. Morgan Chase.  Both are retired now and I am fortunate to have both of them present each day.   In my neighborhood of East New York, diversity was lacking after New York City endured its own “white flight” to the suburbs.  Over time East New York became one of the worst ghettos in the country with a murder rate that was astronomical.  But our parents and extended family members refused to let my brother and I slack on anything.  And just like Michelle’s grandfather, affectionately called “Southside”,  we had my grandparents and great-parents there to remind us the importance of an education in life.

From the start, the story is seductive as the reader becomes eager to learn about the life of the former First Lady.   Her teen and college years are pretty typical for most young ladies and after graduation from Princeton, she earns a position at the law firm of Sidley Austin, LLP, where fate intervened and she met the man who would change her life forever. It is at this part of the book that the story kicks into high gear and the ride never lets up.  To say that her story is incredible is an understatement.  But what makes it even more special is her humbleness and firm grip on reality.  While I read the book, I never detected any sense of arrogance or entitlement nor was it her chance to brag about herself.   She never loses touch with the fact that at the core, she is still the same Michelle Robinson from the South Side of Chicago., only now older and wiser. Her time as the First Lady has left her with a veteran’s seasoned view of Washington, politics and life.

Some readers might be wondering where Barack Obama fits in to the story.   After their initial courtship, he is as integral to the story as one could imagine.  In fact, it would have been virtually impossible to separate their stories for obvious reasons.  His decision to enter politics was the point at which their lives forever changed in ways they could have never imagined.  And as he ascends to higher office before winning the 2008 Presidential Election, we are given a rare inside view of what was transpiring behind the scenes in his campaign and the changes that took place in the lives of the Obamas.  Following his inauguration in January, 2009, the young couple were placed into an entirely new world in which learning is always constant and surprise around the corner.   And although the focus is always on “Mr. President’ ,  her story is equally interesting even as she settles in to the role of the First Lady while trying to be a good mother, friend, daughter and sister.

There are many highs in the book and also some lows,  but throughout, her story remains inspiring and I recommend that every woman and young woman read this book.  Her story is yet another example that women that achieve great things in this world regardless of what any misogynist may think.  This is a former First Lady of the United States, who personifies class, intelligence and many other things that young women all over the world can aspire to achieve.

ASIN: B079ZYWJJ8
ISBN-10: 0525633758
ISBN-13: 978-0525633754

 

Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life – Jonathan Gould

OtisOn December 10, 1967, a charter plane carrying singer Otis Redding (1941-1967) crashed in Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin as it made its final landing approach.  Redding was twenty-six years old and left behind a widow Zelma, and three young children.  At the time of his death, he was a top-selling recording artist on the brink a stellar career and the song he recorded shortly before his death “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay”, went on to become a hit that still sounds good to this very day.  His widow Zelma, is the president of the Otis Redding Foundation and his children Karla, Otis, III, and Dexter are on the board of directors.  Through their hard work, Redding’s legacy lives on as millions of fans of the Soul music replay his songs singing along with an artist who helped define a genre and an era.

Redding died more than a decade before I was born but I have come to appreciate his musical genius.  When I saw this book by Jonathan Gould, I knew that it would be an interesting read.  And to my satisfaction, my instincts proved to be correct.   Admittedly, my knowledge of Redding’s personal life was lacking but I had always known, like millions of others, the particulars of his untimely death.  But what I did not know, was the man behind the music.  Redding, like other artists such as Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Wilson Pickett, became a larger than life figure and a titan in the genre of music that became known commercially as Soul.  But the question remained, how did Redding rise to fame and why did he die so young?  Contained within the pages of this definitive biography are the answers to those questions and many others and Gould not only tells Redding’s story, but also takes us back in time as we relive the Civil Rights Movement while taking a closer look at what race once was and still is in America.

Without question the book is a biography, Gould ingeniously intersperses Redding’s story with historical events that changed the United States one step at a time.  And the way it is done fits perfectly for in order to understand Redding, it is necessary to understand the America he was born into, a country far different from the one in which more than 300 million now live.  Born in 1941 in the deep south, Redding came face to face with the horrors of Jim Crow at an early age and the system of legal segregation and oppression affected every aspect of life for African-Americans.  The daily threat of death and deprivation gave rise to a movement for equality, accompanied by music that reached deep inside a person, in effect, touching their soul.  Some parts of the book might be a tough read as Gould does avoid many dark episodes that occurred during Jim Crow such as lynching, the humiliating practice of blackface and the absurd laws that once prevented Black and White Americans from being seen together in the same place.  The stories and the events are uncomfortable but there is no way around it and its purpose is to remind us of the seemingly endless barriers artists like Redding were forced to overcome in pursuing the passion that they loved as America was being forced to look at itself in the mirror.

Similar to other singers of his time, Redding found his voice in the church as the son of a pastor before realizing that his voice could give him a career.  But in contrast to other singers, his early life was not filled with craziness and in many ways was quite ordinary until fate takes over and he crosses paths with Phil Walden, the man who would help make him a star.  At this point in the book, the story picks up in pace as Redding sets his sights on Los Angeles while becoming a husband and father.  And at twenty-two years of age, he was living a life that many could only dream of.   He performed with some of the biggest names in the business from James Brown, Booker T & The MGs to the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018). The result is that the book is not simply a biography but a step back in time to a period that we will never see again.  In fact, what was being done by singers then could not be done today as Soul is a genre all but retired and there is no equivalent Civil Rights Movement.  Hip-Hop and Pop haven taken over the airwaves making the days of Motown a distant memory.  But to their infinite credit, the sounds coming out of Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, New York and other cities have stood the test of time, sounding as good today as they did when they were recorded.

It should be noted that Redding had his faults like other stars and also saw life through a different lens.  Gould includes all of it as any good biographer should do.  In the end, Redding was a human being, born with flaws that many of us have.  Those flaws as well as his positive traits, are critical in analyzing his life and understanding why he was mourned in death.  Stardom was already in his grasp and he was on track to ascend to an even higher level of fame. Gould, did an incredible job of putting together this story that covers Redding’s life from start to finish.  Through interviews with those who knew him, Walden and even the late Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, Gould has created the go-to book on the life of Otis Redding.  His writing style brings the past alive and at times I felt as I were right next to Otis as he had discussions with Walden and Wexler.  There will never be another Otis Redding who did in fact have, an unfinished life.

ISBN-10: 9780307453945
ISBN-13: 978-0307453945

 

 

Luther: The Life and Long of Luther Vandross – Craig Seymour

LutherOne of the definitions of the word irony is an incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.  What seems to be given can ultimately turn out radically different and such was the case in the life of the late Luther Ronzoni Vandross, Jr. (1951-2005), known simply to fans and friends as “Luther”.  To the world, he was a household name and his classic Here and Now has been played at countless weddings across the country.  His voice was unique with no singer coming to close to its richness and smoothness.  When he died on July 1, 2005,  many fans were in a state of shock and the idea that Luther Vandross was no longer among us seemed surreal.   Sadly, it was true and his voice was silenced as he departed this life and now rest in peace, having left behind a legacy that will far exceed his time on earth.  But how much did we really know about Luther and what was happening in his life behind the hit songs and glamorous stage appearances?  Craig Seymour once wrote for VIBE magazine, and interviewed Luther becoming very familiar with the singer but even he was unable to completely penetrate the walls Vandross had erected around his personal life, taking many secrets with him to the grave.   But what he has captured is presented here in this sharp biography that will surely suffice for Vandross’ fans.

Typically, we tend to view the lives of celebrities strictly based on what we see in magazines, on television and even on the internet.  Gossip has a dark tendency to follow any celebrity extremely successful or controversial.  And for male celebrities, the absence of a female counterpart fuels the rumor mill of possible homosexual tendencies.  Vandross fought all of these throughout his life and while many have their suspicions, the rumors have always remained just that.  Vandross was adamant about maintaining the privacy in his persona life but upon closer inspection there was far more than meets the eye.   The son of a working class couple, born in New York City,  rose through the music industry to become a titan.  However, no one could have predicted such feats on the 20th day of April, 1951 when May Ida and Luther, Sr., welcomed him into the world.  Vandross’ life is typical of that time until tragedy becomes a staple and his family found itself struggling to keep itself alive. Words cannot truly express the surprise and possible shock the reader will encounter with regards to the lives of those that compose the Vandross family.  Their plight would form a cloud over Luther’s head for his entire life, reminding him of the preciousness of being alive another day.   But before he made his own departure, he created a legacy and a reputation that will remain with us for years to come.

Those that knew him either loved him or disliked him for various reasons.  Personally, he never professed to being perfect but like every great artist, life is far from simple.  The blessing of a voice full of soul and the inability to find the very love he sang so passionately about, created a cruel irony that he was unable to escape from.  As a singer, he crossed paths with nearly every giant in the industry, collaborating on projects with several artists including the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018).  The relationships were not always cozy and Seymour does not shy away from Vandross’ conflicts with Franklin or those with Anita Baker and even the 90s all-female group En Vogue.  But one thing they can all agree on is that there was only one Luther and no one can ever take his place.

For years, it had been rumored that Vandross was a closeted gay singer.  While he never confirmed or denied any rumors, he only permitted knowledge of being in a relationship. With whom was never known to the public.  And while Seymour does not have a full proof smoking gun coming from Vandross himself, there is a revelation by someone close to Luther that might prove to be the clue many people have been looking for.  Personally, I could care less about Vandross’ love life.  I have always enjoyed his music and felt that whomever he was romantically involved with is his personal business.  But as an entertainer in the public life, it is a subject which was and is unavoidable. Luther handle it exceptionally well but I am sure that inside, it took a toll on his mental and emotional well-being.   Fitting that the title of this book contains the word longing for that is exactly what Vandross was doing as he belted out love songs while coming to terms with his own quest for love and closure regarding the death of his father Luther, Sr.  In death I can only hope that he found the peace that escaped him here on earth.  And if we listen closely to his many songs which we will play over and over again, we can listen carefully for the messages contained within their lyrics. The is the life the late and great, Luther Vandross.

ASIN: B00JNL0TK8

Mercury and Me – Jim Hutton

hutton This November will mark twenty-seven years since the death of Farrokh Bulsara (1946–1991), known by his stage name of Freddie Mercury. On November 2, 2018, moviegoers will be able to see the anticipated biopic Bohemian Rhapsody starring Rami Malek as Mercury.  The film is on my list of those to view before the year is over. I do not know what to expect from the film but I certainly do hope that the filmmakers accurately portray the events in Mercury’s short but extraordinary life.  When he died on November 24, 1991, the music world mourned the loss of one of its true greats.  Today, if you hear a song by Queen on the radio, you can rest assured that at least several people will be happily singing along, knowing every word to the classic tune.  The longevity of his music is a testament to his genius as a songwriter and the talents of his band.  The world has yet to see another artist that possesses the aura that Mercury did.   Incredibly, for all of his public antics,  the singer was highly private and in fact, the world only learned of his battle with AIDS less than twenty-four hours before his death, through a carefully prepared statement.  In his final moments, he was surrounded by those closest to him, including his partner at the time, Jim Hutton.  Contained within the pages of this book is Hutton’s story of his time with Mercury and life after his death.  Hutton died on died January 1, 2010, from the effects of lung cancer and will not be able to see the film about his former partner when it is released.  But I believe he can rest in peace knowing that even today, Freddie’s fans are still as fascinated by him as they were when Queen was tearing up music charts.

I instantly loved the book once it began and I think the reason for that is Hutton does not talk extensively about Queen or the music business.  On occasion he does mention a new song that Freddie was writing or a hit that was released, but the primary focus is his relationship with Mercury and what made him tick.   Readers uncomfortable with homosexual subject matter might decide to take a pass on the book.  While there are no descriptions of sexual acts, the story is about a gay couple.  Lovers, ex-lovers, domestic issues and the like appear in the book showing the human side of the man deemed by many to be a music God.  Hutton is very direct in his words, possibly because of his Irish roots and Freddie, like most musical genius is not a simple character but multi-dimensional and composed of many traits, some interesting and others amusing. But from Hutton’s words, we can see that to know him was to love him.

If you have decided to read this book or consider reading it, then I take it to mean that you are a fan of Queen or interested in Mercury’s life.  Whichever applies to you, I believe that this book will appreciated.  In comparison with publicity photos and recorded video, this side of Mercury is not from a script but a reality of his very private side filled with shopping sprees, property in multiple countries, lavish parties, the gay scene, a long-term relationship and a love of cats.   To say his life was unorthodox would be an understatement.   Mercury lived on his own terms and every day was a new adventure. The thrills are high and the pace fast but there does come a point in the book where the inevitable appears and it is the part the reader might dread the most.  Roughly about halfway through the book, Mercury’s health begins to become an issue. Hutton,  was not oblivious to Freddie’s lifestyle before they met and even after they became an item.  And during era in which AIDS wreaked havoc on the gay community, mortality became a dark cloud over daily events.  As Mercury makes his descent towards the end, Hutton is there with him and his recollections of those times highlight the devastating effects of AIDS on the human body in the days before advanced drugs kept the virus in the stage of HIV only.  But through it all, Freddie remained stoic, accepting his fate and embracing death as the next phase in his life.  And there to support him was the partner whom he could always trust, his beloved Jim.

If you like this book and have more questions about Mercury’s life, I highly recommend Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne.  It will not let you down.

ASIN: B00U8IVOVI

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