Category: Biographies

1If you have traveled to or live in Louisiana, I think you will agree that it is one American’s most unique states.  The City of New Orleans has a storied past on its own and each year, it attracts millions of visitors, curious to see Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and the world-famous French Quarter.  Baton Rouge proudly serves as the state’s capitol and an icon on the landscape of the deep south.  However, there is also a dark history of Louisiana, one that filled with racism, corruption, crime and poverty.   Louisianans with a long memory will remember that there once lived a governor who ruled the state with an iron grip until his reign was ended by an assassin’s bullet.  He was Huey P. Long (1893-1935), the 40th Governor of Louisiana who left a complicated legacy that is nothing short of surreal.

Long’s self-proclaimed title of “Kingfish” matched his unrelenting quest for absolute power and projection of himself as the only person that mattered in any room he was in.  Richard D. White examines his reign and the effect it had on politics in Louisiana and the United States.  To say that America had not seen a candidate like him before would be an understatement.  He exploded onto the scene and in the process seized control of the highest office in the state.  Interestingly, Long never finished high school and today, that alone would earn him few votes.  But in the late 1920s and after the depression, illiteracy was a far more common problem than it is today. Long understood this and had an uncanny ability to reach millions of people that felt as if they had been forgotten by the wealthy.  Louisiana was often viewed as a backward place full of backward people that cam from the swamps.   This casual prejudice against Louisiana, was found in many places in American politics and helped provide the spark for Long’s infamous reign and determination to make Louisiana the example to be followed by the rest of America.

From the start, Long was far from what anyone would have considered a candidate for public office.  Boastful, confrontational, brutish and vulgar, Long earned the disgust of the political establishment but the hearts of poor white Americans.  His popularity soared has he talked of improving the economy, providing free textbooks, building roads and other projects to improve the state.   And while he did accomplish many of those things, his darker side tended to overshadow the good deeds and put him on a collision course with Washington, D.C. and his destiny, which he met on on September 8, 1935 when Dr. Carl Weiss fired a single and fatal shot.  The story from start to finish is captured beautifully by White and will leave readers in shock at Long’s endless antics.

White takes us back in time to an era before air conditioning and political correctness.  As I read the book, I felt as if I were sitting in the gallery watching Long launch into yet another vicious tirade against a perceived enemy.   I found myself in shock at his actions and the vindictiveness in which he carried out his agenda.  Corruption had plagued the south for years and New Orleans has long been known as a place where one can go to have a good time and find any vice known to man. The brash openness with which Long operated would result today in impeachment, indictment and undoubtedly prison.  But this was the 1930s and Louisiana was like the wild west with pistol packing politicians who sometimes resulted to fisticuffs to settle disputes.  Long himself brawled on more than one occasion after cooler heads failed to prevail.

In many ways, Long was everything that most Americans have come to despise and distrust.  He was loud, obnoxious, uncouth, racist, flamboyant, drank too much and had enemies all across America.  His larger than life persona and constant attacks on others, attracted the eyes of the FBI lead by J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945).  Long’s battle with Roosevelt is explored in the book and highlights how serious of a threat Long became to the establishment.  In Europe, Adolf Hitler had risen to power using a nationalist and populist platform.  Here in America, there were many that feared Long could mimic his success.  Long had no desire to be compared to Hitler but failed to recognize his own racism which is on ugly display in the book.  And as the author points out,  the true irony is that Long’s outlandish behavior did more to prevent Louisiana from becoming a true democracy than it did to push the state forward.  While he was an advocate for the advancement of disenfranchised people, he had no intention of giving those advancements to Black Americans and his actions towards them are one of the darkest stains on his legacy.   He truly did have the ability to change Louisiana in many ways, but ultimately became his own worst enemy as he became drunk with power and engulfed by paranoia.

Eighty-three years have passed since Long’s death and today is rarely mentioned in conversation.  Visitors to Baton Rouge take photos in front of the statue erected in his honor but it is anyone’s guess if they know the story of his life.  Richard White presents a clear and concise biography of the Kingfish who made himself the God of Louisiana.  This is a good look at the life and death of Huey P. Long.

ASIN: B002361KQM

Biographies

20190409_214533On February 13, 1961, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) placed a call to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and informed him that Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), the first Prime Minister of the Independent Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been murdered a month earlier.  The moment that Kennedy took the call was captured by a photographer and the image shows him with his hand covering his face in shock.   The picture truly does speak a thousand words and Kennedy’s dismay resonated with millions of people around the world.

To a growing following, Lumumba represented hope for a new course to be charted by the continent of Africa. The Congo would lead the way and help other African nations achieve independence and change the world. As the leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), he stood at the front of the growing movement for independence which occurred on June 30, 1960.  Nearly immediately after his historic election as Prime Minister, his enemies began plotting his elimination.  Brussels became increasingly alarmed as its grip over the Congo became weaker with each day that passed.  And before long, the decision to remove Lumumba became a priority for Belgium and other nations afraid of the rising Congolese star.   In less than one year,  he was dead and all hopes for a new Congo were shattered beyond repair.  There are some people in the Congo who have never moved on from his murder.  To this day, Lumumba remains a martyr in the African struggle for liberation from imperialism.

The first question to be answered is why was the Congo such a desirable location? Leo Zeilig has the answer to that question and many others.  He explores the Congo’s past and in particular the actions of Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) and Dunlop Rubber.  Their actions set the stage for the brutal Belgian occupation that ruled the Congo with an iron grip. Racism was a founding principle and enforced through strict segregation.  It was into this world that Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925 in Onalua, located in the territory of Katako-Kombe.  From the beginning, his life was anything but ordinary.

Zeilig did a masterful job at presenting Lumumba’s story so that we can see his development into an adolescent and then young man, forced to navigate a racist society whose goal was to reap enormous profits at the expense of Congolese men and women, often viewed by their occupiers as “savages”.   Lumumba’s path to politics took many turns along the way and his personal life nearly rivaled his political life in intrigue. Zeilig pulls no punches, revealing any facades and clarifying any myths that might exist. Several wives, multiple children and a burning passion for knowledge were just some of the many sides to Lumumba’s life.

The book picks up speed after the election and granting of independence.  Unsurprisingly, the Congo was plagued by tribal divisions which would later become problematic for any chance of unity.  Those familiar with the events of that time will know very well the names of Joseph Kasa Vubu (1915-1969) and Moise Tshombe (1919-1969).   Each would play a role in the removal of Lumumba and what is revealed will surely leave the reader in shock.  Behind the facade of a coalition government, a deadly game of chess ensued, pitting critical figures against each other as the country slipped closer and closer to all out civil war in the wake of the Belgian exodus.  Zeilig covers all angles and puts the pieces together as multiple nations soon join in the call for Lumumba’s removal.  It is hard to put into the words how much of a threat he truly was to western powers.   But Lumumba made several missteps along the way that helped open the door for the actions that resulted in his demise.

Suspense builds in the story and the effort to removal Lumumba kicks into high gear. The young leader is not unaware of opposing forces but believes he has the will of people behind him.  One of the true ironies of his tragic story is that his fate was partly a result of the simmering Cold War between Washington and Moscow.  His efforts at diplomacy are eerily similar to those of Ho Chih Minh and other revolutionary leaders who reached out to Washington and received no response.  We can only ask what if questions today and ponder how things might have turned out different had President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) given Lumumba the courtesy of a meeting.  The actions of Washington pushed many nations toward the Soviet Union, which welcomed the new allies as it attempted to expand its reach beyond the Soviet Republics. In hindsight, we can see with clarity the many errors made by all involved as they sought to outsmart each other in a game of cat and mouse that could have reached catastrophic levels.

The author builds the tension just right as the pending doom in Lumumba’s life steadily approaches.  I could not help feel overcome by a feeling of dread as I read through the sections leading up to the assassination.  The writing was on the wall and I felt myself wanting to tell Lumumba to move faster and leave even quicker.  However, his fate came to pass on January 17, 1961 in the town of Elisabethville.  Unbeknownst at the time, his savage death was a premonition of the future chaos that engulfed the continent and highlighted that moment as the day when the Congo was lost.

I had always wondered what happened to his children and Zeilig followed up with them as he researched this book.   Their experience during and after his death, adds another level of tragedy to an already gripping story.   They join the long list of victims who have suffered following the murder of the person who Zeilig rightfully calls Africa’s lost leader. Lumumba’s story is told beautifully by Zeilig and stands out as a firm biography.  This is the life and death of the late Patrice Émery Lumumba.

ISBN-10: 190579102X
ISBN-13: 978-1905791026

Biographies Investigative Report

Fu ShengLegends never die, that is an absolute fact.  Some legends never live past fifty years of age, often leaving their mortal coil through tragedy or illness.  For Alexander Fu Sheng (1954-1983), a single car accident was the cause of his demise and in the early morning hours of July 7, 1983, he died at the young age of twenty-eight.  He left behind grieving parents, siblings and his widow Jenny Tseng, an accomplished Hong Kong singer who has also performed abroad. At the time of his death, he had risen to become one of the most popular stars to come out of the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio.  Before ceasing film production in late 1985, Shaw Brothers had released several hundred films which had been locked away until Celestial Pictures bought the rights to the films and digitally remastered the majority of the collection. As a long-term fan of the martial-arts film genre, I had amassed a large collection of films which included all of Fu Sheng’s movies.  My favorite is the film that catapulted him to international stardom, The Chinatown Kid (1977). Terrence J. Brady gave this biography the perfect finishing touch by included the name of that film in the title of this book. His exhaustive efforts have resulted in the only known biography of the late film star.

If you have no idea who Fu Sheng was, I do recommend that you watch some of his films, a full list of which can be found here.  It should be noted that the list does not contain The Mark of the Eagle which was being filmed at the time of his death.  The project was shelved permanently.  Readers familiar with Black Belt Theater will feel a sense of nostalgia as memories of Saturday afternoons filled with Shaw classics then distributed by the World Northal Corporation.  It truly is an era that we will never again see.  Today, CGI and fancy camerawork has replaced the old-school method of filming that relied heavily on coordination, training and relentless stamina.  Many Shaw Brothers stars are still alive, well into their 60s, 70s and even 80s.  The Shaw studio is long gone, but the magic they created will last a lifetime.  Fu Sheng was part of that magic and Terrence J. Brady has finally put together the true story of his short and extraordinary life.

The book is without question a biography, but the author did a great job of providing a tremendous amount of back-story for the topics at hand. In fact, throughout the book, snippets of Chinese military and literary history are included showing the link between China’s past and what the filmmakers had intended to capture on-screen.  Undoubtedly, Fu Sheng is the star of this story and Brady carefully retraces his steps from film extra to superstar.  And along the way, he was surrounded by cinema greats who became mentors, friends and mourners.  Their stories and their relationships with Fu Sheng  show the very personal side to the individuals who helped create the films that I and scores of others have come to cherish dearly.

His widow Jenny is also a central part of the story and I firmly believe Brady lays to rest any rumors that have persisted about their lives together up until the time of Fu Sheng’s death.  And following his demise, Jenny has a surprise of her own which I had never known of.  Her revelation, whether it is true or not, adds to the tragedy of his life.  But what is evidently clear, is the love they had for each other, which the late Chang Cheh (1923-2002) showcased in his most eccentric film Heaven & Hell (1980).  The film has been written off as Cheh’s most bizarre work but personally, I found it to be highly entertaining.  In the film, the couple performs a duet that complements the prior act perfectly.  But there was more to their singing partnership than many might have known or remember. Brady covers that as well here and his research provides a steady stream of incredible information about the couple during their several year courtship and subsequent marriage.  Of note, Tseng never remarried after Fu Sheng’s death.

Fans of the Shaw Brothers will absolutely love this book.  It is an insider’s look into how the studio created its hit films and a good reference guide for a quick background information on some of the biggest names to work there.  In this story, nearly all of the legends make an appearance including Ti Lung, David Chiang and the late Lau Kar Leung (1934-2013). A who’s who of stars is put on display and as I read the book, I could feel the Shaw Brothers studio come back to life again during what could only be described as a classic era in the Hong Kong film industry. In fact, this book has encouraged me to revisit the Shaw classics, some of which I haven’t watched in nearly two years  I still have my entire collection which started in 1995 when my father took me up to 42nd Street.  There, I purchased my own VHS English dubbed copy of the Five Masters of Death. The original Hong Kong title is The Five Shaolin Masters.  Fu Sheng had a starring role in the film and it was in this movie that I first became a fan.  It is just one of many great masterpieces he contributed to during his storied career.

This book truly is a blessing and I am forever grateful for Brady’s monumental effort. Fu Sheng is long gone, having died nearly thirty-six years ago, but his memory and legacy live on not only in Hong Kong but across the world.  During his time at the Shaw Brothers studio, he rightfully earned the nickname of the Chinatown Kid.

ISBN-10: 1717363679
ISBN-13: 978-1717363671

Biographies

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

Biographies World War II