Category: Biographies

RosemaryThe life of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), former dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (“USSR”), has been the focus of endless books, articles and documentaries.  His tyrannical reign over the Soviet Union resulted in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens, persecuted for the slightest of offenses.  The Gulag known in English as a forced labor camp, was the place most were exiled to in particular the Siberian region known for its desolate geography and brutally cold winters. The very word itself caused fear and stroked paranoia across the USSR.  No one was safe, not even members of Stalin’s family, some of whom would find themselves banished to Siberia. This climate of distrust, violence and vengeance would cause a ripple effect that culminated with his daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva’s (1926-2011) defection to the United States in 1967.  Undoubtedly, the news was explosive and if her father had been alive at the time, he surely would have issued an order for her death no matter where on earth she would have attempted to find refuge.  When I saw the title of this book, I had to take a second look.  I knew of Stalin’s family but I did not know the life story of his daughter Svetlana.  In fact, in the books I had read that discuss him, his sons are mentioned but rarely his daughter.  Rosemary Sullivan has changed all of that with this biography that is simply outstanding.

The story begins on March 6, 1967 when Svetlana arrives at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.  At first, she is waived off by the night guard but after showing her Soviet passport, it is clear to the guard that this is no ordinary visitor and Washington will have to be notified.  A cat and mouse game develops to smuggle the new defector out of India before Soviet officials become aware of what was possibly the greatest defection in Soviet history.  The very opening of the book is riveting and sets the stage for the roller coaster ride that follows.  But before we can learn of her life post-defection, we must first go back and Sullivan acts as the driver, transporting the reader to the early days of Svetlana’s life while her father controls the USSR with an iron fist.  This part of the book is actually the most critical.  Svetlana’s childhood and the tragedy contained within, shaped her views and actions throughout her life.  Sullivan recreates the atmosphere at the dacha where Stalin holds court, surrounded by party officials trying to curry favor with the dictator.  The charade is not much different from meetings at the Politburo.  It is an insider’s look in Stalin’s family life and the climate of fear he created that resulted in a series of events.  Among them was the suicide of Svetlana’s mother Nadezhda Sergeevna Alliluyeva (1901-1932), which had a profound effect on her young daughter and permanently changed the relationship between father and daughter.

Some readers might find this section about the Stalin household to be quite shocking.  I could only shake my head in disbelief at the number of arrests that took place of family members.  Like a master puppeteer, Stalin pulled was pulling all of the strings behind the scenes, sometimes feigning ignorance of acts that he surely would have been privy too.  Those of us who are American may find that this part of the book reinforces many of the things we heard and saw growing up with regards to the USSR.  As a young student, I easily recall how I and my friends viewed the Soviet Union as a mysterious superpower that operated on secrecy and rigidness.  To say that we only knew part of the story would be an understatement.  Sullivan’s reconstruction of the time period between Nadya’s suicide and Stalin’s death in 1953, highlights just how treacherous life could be under his rule.   History buffs will certainly love this part of the book, I know that I truly did. But suffice to say, it is only a part of the story which is even more unbelievable as it progresses.

The book takes its expected turn as Svetlana is allowed to travel to India to spread the ashes of Brajesh Singh (d.1966), whom she had intended to marry in Russia.  Soviet rules prevented marriages between Russians and foreigners but in a cruel twist of fate, she was allowed out of the country to satisfy Singh’s request that his ashes be spread in the Ganges River.  While in India, she makes the difficult decision to defect to the United States.  For Svetlana, life would never be the same again and would soon take a number of twists and turns, resulting in her moving across several continents and having to confront the ghost of her father in her homeland once more.  Following her defection, a cast of characters enter her life as friends, business associates, U.S. officials and lovers.  Her fame becomes both a blessing and a curse but she is determined to survive and find her true purpose in life.  Her personal thoughts, conveyed in letters to friends and lovers, are resurrected by the author showing the intellectual and emotional side of Stalin’s daughter.

While in America, she has another child named Olga in addition to the children she left behind in Russia, Joseph and Katya.  Her life with Olga and attempts to reconnect and reconcile with her older children are some of the most heartbreaking moments in the book.  I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to defect from the USSR knowing her children would be left behind.  Her relationships with her older children are clearly fractured and the times where they do have contact, are cloaked under the all knowing eye of the KGB.  Svetlana’s movements and actions did not escape the eye of Moscow.  Declassified cables and memos, upon which the author relies to tie the story together, show that even Moscow did not fully know what to do at times with its biggest defector.  She had become even too hot for Moscow to handle.  And many who met her soon realized that when crossed, she was in fact Stalin’s daughter.

Sullivan has done a masterful job of putting Svetlana’s life into a chronological narrative that starts off with a bang and never slows down.  The story is gripping and refuses to let the reader go. From the very beginning I found it hard to put the book down as I continued to learn more about life in the Stalin household and Svetlana’s growth into a young woman who comes to see the truth about her father.  I do urge caution for World War II buffs though and point out that this book is not about World War II.  The conflict is mentioned but only briefly so that the story does not stray away from its intended subject.  Those looking for a discussion of the war will not find it here for that was not Sullivan’s purpose in writing the book.  This is Svetlana’s story from beginning to end and it is far more than I could have ever anticipated.

As I read the book, I found myself thinking that there were probably millions of other women and men who thought of defecting but never did.  The collapse of the USSR in December, 1991, allowed the opening of Soviet archives that revealed many ugly truths.  Svetlana believed that the election of Vladimir Putin would take Russia back to its days under Stalin.  I would hard pressed to argue differently.  The daughter of the most infamous ruler in Russian history leaves behind a life story that shows the privileges we enjoy in the west that did not exist in the Soviet Union.  It also shows that people make life changing choices when confronted with realities that change the way they see their existence and the lives of others.  Great read.

ASIN: B00LEXL6VY

Biographies

Jimmy1Martin Scorcese’s recent film ‘The Irishman’, reunited the legendary director with ‘Goodfellas’ stars Robert Dinero and Joe Pesci.  Al Pacino also joined the cast, taking on the role of former Teamsters President James “Jimmy” Hoffa (1913-1975).  The movie is great cinema and Scorcese delivers the goods with an all star cast.  However, Hollywood is known to take liberties with films and here is no different. In fact, there is a lot of Frank Sheeran’s (1920-2003) story that is up for debate.  His book ‘I Heard You Paint Houses‘ is an interesting read and served as the basis for the film.   I had read Sheeran’s book prior to creating this blog and thought that while it was a good story,  there were many claims therein that needed deep cross-referencing for validation.  Sheeran is no longer here and cannot defend himself or answer the large number of questions undoubtedly generated by the release of the film.   Al Pacino plays the role of Hoffa with the energy that we have come to expect from him, bringing the former Teamsters boos back to life on the silver screen.  But there was more to Hoffa than is shown in the film.  And it is here in this short but eye-opening book, that Hoffa tells his own life story to Oscar Fraley

The book was being written at the time of Hoffa’s disappearance.   As a result, the story ends about a few weeks prior to July 30, 1975 when he told his wife Jo that he had a meeting with Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (1917-1988) and Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone (1919-2001).  The book is really an autobiography which Hoffa had intended to finish once he regained the Teamsters presidency.  Although he never finished it, what he did write is highly informative.  He takes us back to his childhood in Brazil, Indiana, highlighting the rough way of life that developed in the wake of the Great Depression. His words are frank and straight to the point.  For those who have always wanted to know how he rose to power, he lays it out here, recalling his immersion into the world of unions and ascent in the Teamsters, which became the most powerful union in America under his guidance.

From the book, it is clear that Hoffa was born to be involved with unions.  And despite several brushes with violence that could have killed him, he never wavers from the goals set by the union in support of its workers.   The battles between employers and unions still place to this day and if Hoffa were alive, I am sure he would be right out front leading the way. In the book, things are going well with the Teamsters until the arrival of his arch enemy Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968).  It is at this point in the book that the story takes a sharp turn.  To say that Hoffa and Kennedy were enemies is an understatement.  There is no love lost between the two and here Hoffa explains how and why he found himself on Kennedy’s radar.  And some readers may even wonder, was Hoffa really guilty of the charge he was convicted of?  Or was he the victim of an ego trip of an Attorney General often ridiculed as being in his brother’s shadow?  There is compelling evidence that both are true.   Hoffa presents the case for readers to reach their own conclusions. One thing I can say is that I have rarely seen a feud as tense as what is found in this book.

Kennedy is not the only person who draws Hoffa’s wrath.  In fact, he unloads on his successor Frank Fitzsimmons (1908-1981) and Charles “Chuckie” O’ Brien, his former protege.  Hoffa does not mince words and makes it clear that he was dead set on purging the Teamsters and returning to power as its president.  Tragically, his intentions never came to pass and his disappearance remains unsolved to this day.  There are many theories about what did happen to him that day.   Some are plausible while others have no basis in reality.   Perhaps we may never know what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa but I am sure that whoever was responsible for his disappearance intended it to be that way.  Tony Pro and Tony Jack are mentioned in the section about his disappearance but aside from that, their names appear briefly throughout the book.  And to be clear, there is no smoking gun here regarding his disappearance.  However, I do think what Hoffa says, offers some insight into why he disappeared.  Readers that are well versed on the subject will probably agree.

If you loved the Irishman and are curious about the life of James Riddle Hoffa, then this book is a must read.

ASIN: B07ZJRTP5Y

Biographies

IshikawaWhen I read the synopsis for this book, I was a bit surprised.  Stories by defectors from North Korea are not uncommon, but the name of the author caused my interest to rise.  The surname is clearly Japanese but the connection to North Korea was the part that pulled me in.  Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Korean father.  In 1959, the Japanese Red Cross Society and the Korean Red Cross Society secretly negotiated a “Return Agreement”, allowing any native born North Koreans living in Japan to return to their homeland.  The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, then initiated a repatriation campaign which reached the Ishikawa family.  His father was convinced by the league to return to North Korea in 1960, the family moved to North Korea under the illusion of a bright and prosperous future.

Soon after their arrival, the Ishikawas soon realize that North Korea is no paradise.  In fact, it was a far cry form life in Japan and over the next thirty years, they would endure trials and tribulations that will cause the reader to recoil in shock at the extent to which humans can degrade each other.  In Japan, life was good and although the family was not wealthy, they lived a stable and middle class lifestyle.  In North Korea, the facade easily cracks and the Ishikawas are now just another family in the communist regime under Kim ll Sung  (1912-1994).  The rhetoric is strong and the propaganda endless.  The people are taught that American invaders could attack at any minute and one must use Juche to become a good party member.   Young Masaji is forced to navigate this new world as a foreigner who does not speak Korean and is routinely called derogatory terms for Japanese returnees.  This was the reality that many Japanese faced while living as minorities in North Korea.

I have read other books about defectors from North Korea but this one stands out.  The author reveals life in the country and all of its gritty reality.   There are no moments of joy. In fact, as Ishikawa points out on several occassions, it is like being in hell and the misery with which the people live will undoubtedly shock some readers.  While the tanks rolled in Pyongyang and the Dear Leader gave his speeches attacking the West, the people lived a much different reality.  To readers who live in a western culture, there will be many things that make no sense at all. However, Ishikawa discusses this and explains very frankly how and why North Koreans believe what they do.   His observations about the North Korean mindset and the actions of Pyongyang are keen and an inside look into the fallacy of the Dear Leader.

One question I have always wondered to myself is if things were so rough, how did the population continue?  Ishikawa reflects on this as well.  His personal life took many twists and turns before his defection, including marriage and fatherhood.  He discusses the many challenges of bringing a child into the world and then finding support to raise a new family.  His plight and that of others who had the misfortune of coming down with an illness, highlight the climate of distrust and deception created by Pyongyang.  Human nature is on full display in the book, at times in its its ugliest form.  The actions of neighbors and those who are part of the system are a reflection of the deep social dysfunction that plagued a country in which people were simply trying to survive.  The State was succeeding with its divide and conquer technique working perfectly.

On July 8, 1994, Kim II Sung died and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-il (1947-2011).  At this point in the book, things take an even sharper turn.  What was already hell becomes Dante’s inferno.   Ishikawa recalls the descent into further misery for many Koreans as food became even more scarce, work non-existent and fear more prevalent.  Mentally he is at the breaking point and soon makes a decision that changes his life and those of his family forever.  He makes the difficult decision to defect but knows that it is a one way ticket with no such thing as returning to visit.  He is a father and husband about to leave his family behind in a country sealed off from the rest of the world.  But he is also determined to escape misery and certain death in North Korea, and his journey to return to Japan is nothing short of miraculous.  Readers will find this part of the book uplifting and confirmation that at times, hope and faith are indispensable.  Ishikawa’s story is incredible and I believe that anyone can find many things to learn in this short but appreciated memoir.

ASIN: B06XKRKFZL

Biographies

baurA few days ago I was browsing recommendations on Amazon and came across this book whose title caught my attention. I have not read anything on Nazi Germany in quite some time so I decided to take a closer look.  I was unaware of Hans Baur (1897-1995) and his relationship with Adolf Hitler (1889-1945).  As the Fuhrer’s pilot, I knew Baur would have very intimate knowledge of Hitler’s life behind the scenes and the book does not disappoint.  However, it should be noted that it is really Baur’s story with Hitler filling many of the pages for obvious reasons.  The story is interesting but I could not help feel that Baur left many things out.  Readers may also feel the same way for reasons that will be discussed below.

Baur begins with his early life but quickly moves forward to his career as a pilot.  It is apparent from the start that he was a very gifted aviator with an extraordinary career.  His recollections about the early days of aviation are fascinating and will remind the reader that flying today is exponentially safer than it once was.   He does not go into too much technical detail but just enough so that anyone can follow along.  He even discusses some monumental moments in aviation including the founding of the German airline Lufthansa.  From a historical standpoint, it is a good summary of the development of air travel in Europe. But by no means is it the only source of information and Baur never implies as much.  He was a devoted pilot and you can feel his love of aviation in his words.  With hundreds of thousand of air miles, the future for him was bright but his entire life changed when he was summoned to appear before Adolf Hitler.

It will be no surprise that at this point in the book, the story picks up pace sharply.  Hitler is no ordinary passenger, but instead the Fuhrer who ruled Germany and began a world war.  Curiously, the image of Hitler given by Baur is in stark contrast to the man who plotted to take over Europe and gave the go ahead for the Final Solution. The Hitler we see here comes across as an affable uncle type character who dotes on his close acquaintances and their children.  In Baur’s defense, his time with Hitler was mainly spent in the air and in private conversation.  And according to his words, Hitler did not discuss future plans for the war with him, typically resulting in Baur finding out major news at the very last minute from someone else working for the Fuhrer.

Because the book is about the Third Reich, there is the elephant in the room regarding the treatment of the Jews.  Baur barely discusses it and only brings it up once in the book.  Without Baur here to answer for himself, it is nearly impossible to say what he believed about Jewish people.   At no point in the book does he display any antisemitism but it is possible that even if he did have those feelings, he would not have stated such in his memoirs.  I was honestly mystified about this and felt that if he was against the Final Solution, he would have made a statement clarifying his position.  But that is simply my opinion.  0Most likely, he had very good reasons to avoid discussing the Final Solution.   This may not satisfy some readers but I caution that the book is still good regardless.

His inside position in Hitler’s circle gave him unrestricted access nearly everywhere and he interacted with all of the major figures of the Reich.  Hermann Goering (1893-1946) and Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) are frequent flyers with Baur, whose criticisms of Goering are quite amusing.  But what is more incredible is that he was present at nearly every major moment in the history of the Reich.  And although he had no military power or responsibilities in planning aerial missions against the Allies, he was a keen observer of the reality facing Germany as it started to become clear that the war would be lost.  Baur is frank in his assessments of those around him and the German war effort.  He confirms what historians have written for years and what many Germans began to realize as the Allies started to make gains and bomb in broad daylight.

In April, 1945, the Allies began to close in on Berlin.  Hitler knew the end was near and had buried himself inside his bunker.  Baur stayed with him until the very end, resisting Hitler’s efforts to send him off.  He provides a detailed account of the final days with Hitler and what happened inside the bunker.  The information he provides can be crossed-referenced and readers will find that it matches with the descriptions given by other authors. However, I believe that the entire dialogue between Baur and Hitler is not provided anywhere else.  As I read this part of the book, I found myself in disbelief at some of the scenes that play out even as the Red Army is only hundreds of yards away.   They are surreal and caused me to wonder if those involved believed they were in a film and waiting for the director to yell cut.

Following Hitler’s death, Baur escapes with several others before falling into Soviet Hands.  The last part of the book is about his time as a prisoner of war being held in Russia.  It was clearly a rough experience and he explains in detail all that happened.  His title and rank resulted in never ending questions and Soviet officers maintained disbelief that he had no knowledge the Reich’s war plans.  After ten hard years, he was released and returned to Germany in a homecoming.  I leave it up to readers to decide whether he was a hero or a war criminal guilty by association.  Yet it is also possible that he was simply Hitler’s pilot.

ASIN: B00FOGG0ZE

Biographies World War II

jspeierForty-one years ago, over nine hundred men, women and children died at the People’s Temple compound in Jonestown, Guyana.  Their charismatic and paranoid leader, Jim Jones (1931-1978), died of a gunshot wound to the head, avoiding the lethal liquid concoction given to a majority of his followers. Disturbingly, many of the deaths were not in fact suicide, but outright murder.  Children and infants were forced to ingest the deadly brew that took their lives in a matter of minutes.  The events of November 18, 1978, concluded the final tragic chapter in Jones’ tyrannical reign.

Earlier in the day on November 18, Congressman Leo Ryan (1925-1978) and a group composed of staff and reporters, were preparing to leave the Jonestown compound with defectors that had come to despise Jones and his lunacy.  Many Temple members knew early on that something was not right about Jones and his continuing descent into madness raised their suspicions and confirmed their belief that they had to leave before it was too late. As the group prepared to board the plane for the short flight to capital of Georgetown, shots rang out on the air strip.  Five people, including Ryan were killed and nine others would seriously wounded.  Among them was Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-California).  She sustained five bullet wounds but miraculously survived the attack.   Her experience at the Jonestown and the death of Ryan, compelled her to enter a life of politics.  This is her story of Jim Jones, U.S. Politics and all that life has to offer.

I should point out that the book is not solely about Jonestown. In fact, the events there compose only a section in the book.  Readers looking for a more focused discussion Jones and his following will like Tim Reiterman’s Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People. This is primarily a biography but undoubtedly, the attack permanently changed her life, leaving her with physical and emotional scars will never completely heal.   Her early life is typical of the average American girl growing up in the 1950s.  But as she gets older, she comes into her own as a teenager and decides to apply for a position on Ryan’s staff.  To her surprise she is accepted and embarks on a path that would take her all the way to Washington, D.C.

Jones eventually enters the picture as Ryan becomes more concerned with reports filtering in from those desperate to leave Jonestown and others who have already departed.   Jones’ decision to move the People’s Temple, allowed him to evade the eyes of reporters, law enforcement and elected officials. Its remote location in the jungles,  added a valued layer of secrecy that prevent prying eyes from observing Temple activities.  Ryan is determined to see Jonestown for himself and Speier is right by his side to provide legal advice and offer support to those who are determined to leave.  The group eventually arrives in Guyana but is forced to wait several days before being allowed into Jonestown.  Once they are admitted, Speier quickly realizes that there is a dark cloud hovering over the compound and that her group is in grave danger if they continue to stay.  Ryan had seen enough to know that Jonestown was not what Jones had claimed it to be.  The congressman was attacked himself while conducting interviews with various Temple members.  The group’s departure, scheduled for November 18, came a little too late; Jones had made his final descent into the depths of hell.

She recalls the story of her will to survive and the grueling medical treatment she received during her recovery.   Her path was a long process, requiring multiple surgeries and extensive therapy .  However, she never quits and incredibly jumps into politics not long after being discharged from the hospital.  The damage caused by the bullets was extensive and physically she found her herself challenged, but she does her best during her campaigns and success eventually came over time.  All of the highs and lows are discussed, showing the tenacity and devotion of Speier to effecting real change in America.

And as if Jonestown was not enough, her private life is also a roller coaster ride and to say that she has been through a lot would be a severe understatement.  At times, I was literally in shock at everything she has had to endure, even after being shot several times.  Perhaps another person would have broken down for good but Speier does not give up and keeps moving forward even in the face of unrelenting adversity.  Her drive and determination will certainly inspire every reader.  And by the end of the book, you might find yourself in awe of her unwavering spirit and commitment to her beliefs.

The book is a bit short and I wish it had been longer. But in this case, it is quality over quantity.   I truly enjoyed reading it and have a new found understanding and respect for Congresswoman Speier.   Highly recommended.

ASIN: B07GPBS6T2

Biographies

SalmIn 1955, Warner Brothers released ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ starring the late film icon James Dean (1931-1955).  And though the film cemented Dean’s legacy in Hollywood, the actor tragically died the month before the film’s release in a violent car crash while en route to Salinas, California.  In death, Dean became the poster boy for the new sense of rebellion sweeping across America.  In the film, he was joined by actress Natalie Wood (1938-1981) who played the role of Judy and Sal Mineo (1939-1976) in the role of Plato.  The film was a hit and is considered a classic.  The enormous success enhanced the careers of the three stars and Mineo quickly became one of Hollywood’s hottest new stars.  The Italian kid from the Bronx had arrived with charming good looks and acting skills to match.   For the next twenty-one years, he would leave his mark on Hollywood and television before his tragic departure on February 12, 1976.  In just thirty-seven years, he had lived what could be considered for some, a lifetime.   I knew of Mineo before reading this book but there was much about his life that I was completely unaware of.  This book came up as a recommendation and I decided to see for myself, why Mineo is still revered.

Author Michael Gregg Michaud presents the story of Mineo’s life, based on meetings with his former lovers, friends and interviews Mineo gave during his career.  The story begins in the borough of the Bronx in New York City where Salvatore, Sr. and Josephine Mineo welcome their youngest son Salvatore, Jr. into the world on January 10, 1932.  As we see in the book, from an early age Mineo was a performer and it was destined that he would later make it to Hollywood.   But before the film industry came calling, he was a young kid in an immigrant family trying to make ends meet in the city that never sleeps.  Michaud takes us back in time to the early 1930s post-depression.  The Mineo family story highlights the challenge faced by many immigrants making a life in America then and even today.  The struggles and successes of Salvatore, Sr., are a prime example of the attainability of the American Dream.   He and his wife do whatever they can for their children and Sal would need and benefit from their never ending support.

The story moves along as a typical biography until Sal is offered a role on Broadway at the age of eleven.  As the roles start to come in, the pace of the book picks up as we follow Sal along his path to stardom. Guided by his mother Josephine, he climbed up the ladder to stardom.  Michaud wisely inserts Sal’s own words which gives the appearance that he is telling the story along with Michaud.   The book does not come off as simply a collection of facts.   By the time Sal made to Hollywood, his life took twists and turns that no one could have ever anticipated.  Michaud covers it all brilliantly and tells Sal’s story in a way that keeps the pace of the book moving just right and at no point did my attention wane nor did I ever feel that Michaud had strayed off track.  The book is focused and stays on point.

One surprise that I did find in the book was the topic of Mineo’s sexuality, of which I had very little prior knowledge.   The revelations are eye-opening and even shocking considering the time period in which Mineo lived. However, he was undoubtedly a free spirit and Michaud captures it in the story.  Readers that are more on the reserved side with regards with sex might find the book a bit of challenge to read.  While there are no graphic details of sex provided, it does feature prominently as Sal matures in manhood.  The idea of normal becomes subjective and it is up to the reader form their own opinion about Sal’s adventures.  I can say that as I read the book I was reminded of the novel ‘Giovanni’s Room‘ by James Baldwin (1924-1987). The author here offers no personal opinion and rightfully remains neutral.  He is simply telling Mineo’s story and does it  showing both the star’s bright side and also his dark side.

As to be expected,  other Hollywood stars make an appearance in the book including Yul Brynner (1920-1985),  Jill Haworth (1945-2011) and Don Johnson.   The story begins in the Bronx, but as Sal moves through life, we follow him to California, France and even London as he searches for the next big project.  There are highs and lows, which show just how difficult it can be in Hollywood to stay relevant.  Michaud addresses Sal’s inability to get work through the words of those who knew Sal best and Mineo’s words on why he believed Hollywood was not knocking on his door.   Today we call it typecasting and it is a vicious cycle many actors work hard to avoid.

As we approach 1976,  you can feel that something is about to change in Sal’s life.  His casting in ‘P.S. Your Cat is Dead‘ after two prior auditions brightened his spirits. On February 12, that spirit was dimmed when the lives of Sal Mineo and Lionel Williams intersected and changed history.  Michaud discusses the crime, the investigation and the trial that followed.  However, it is not an exhausted analysis of the legal proceedings but rather a summary of what happened after Sal’s death with regards to the law and his family.   The encounters between Sal’s family and Courtney Burr are tense and telling.  Mineo was quite open about his sexuality and Burr had an intimate role in Sal’s life.  But incredibly, Mineo was never officially “out of the closet” .  And he was not the only star with a voracious sexual appetite as many of us know.  The tales of Hollywood sexual scandals are endless.  And I think back to my father who has always said “they don’t call it tinsel town for nothing son”.  Sal was free, open and lived with no regrets.  That is a lot more than many of us can say for our own lives at times.

Michael G. Michaud has written what I believe is the definitive biography of Sal Mineo.  It is an incredible story with a sad ending.   A star was taken too soon but this book ensures that along with his films and television appearances, that Sal Mineo is never forgotten.  Had he lived, we can only guess as to where his career would have taken him.  But regardless, he was and is still considered one of the greats from a pivotal time in the history of Hollywood.  He is gone but certainly not forgotten. Great book.

ASIN: B003F3PMN4

Biographies

20191029_225511(0)Some of you known him as a rapper, others know him as a film star.   To be fair, he is both of them and a lot more.  Personally, I knew of Common for years before he broke into Hollywood.  The star of ‘John Wick 2‘ and ‘Run All Night‘ earned his stripes on the underground rap circuit before going mainstream.  I saw him perform live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and it was a show for the ages.   The electricity was in the air and the place erupted as soon as he stepped on stage.  He was larger than life and rightfully so.   I saw this book in the lobby of my building and instantly grabbed it.  Admittedly, I was unaware of this biography but thoroughly intrigued to see what he had to say.

From the start, it is clear that the book is not a typical autobiography.  In fact, the structure of the book is different with Common and his mother Mahalia Ann Hines taking turns in presenting the story.  As expected, it starts with his birth in Chicago to Mahalia and the late ABA star Lonnie Lynn (1943-2014).   The marriage did not survive and Lynn would later relocate to Denver.   But he remained a part of his son’s life and Common discusses many memories of his father that helped shape him into the man he is today.   But make no mistake, his mother is the dominant force here and their relationship was cemented in stone over the years as young Rashid grows up in one of America’s most dangerous cities.

Since this is a story about Common, the world of rap music is a topic of discussion. Common tells us how he became entranced by rap and his traversal from possible college graduate to a young rapper determined to strike it big.  The odds were surely against him but his determination and belief in himself are inspiring and one of the many uplifting moments in the book.   His success was not easy by any means but he does exemplify the old wisdom that one should never give up on a dream.   And yes, other stars make an appearance in the story such as the late Tupac Shakur (1972-1996).

To say that there is more the Common than what we see on screen is an understatement.  Being from Chicago, he is fully aware of the streets and reveals some mishaps and deeds of his own that he would probably take back if he could.  But such is life and it is full of lessons.  One of the most challenging is love and Common is not immune to the trials and tribulations that come with relationships.  While he does not provide gossip for online forums of magazines, he does talk about his relationships with singer Erykah Badu and actress Taraji P. Henson.   We sometimes view celebrities as living in another dimension but the truth is that they are just like everyone else. Heartbreak can and does happen to everyone.  But this is Common we are talking about and he does not stay down.  He keeps moving forward, taking the lessons in stride with the intention of not making the same mistake again.   And from what I have seen, he is a remarkable person who understands the importance of hard work and humbleness.

His mother Mahalia’s wisdom is timeless and she is wise beyond her years.  I truly loved her part of the book where she passes along sages of knowledge that we can all keep with us.  However, she is not without her faults and is open about where she went wrong at times.  But what is clear is that she loves her son and has always been his biggest supporter.  I am sure that will continue as Common matures and takes on bigger projects which will reap him more and more success.

Common’s story is not over yet, and I do hope that he has many more years to go in his career.  In fact, he is only forty-seven years of age.  But if you want to know who he is, where he comes from and where he wants to go, then you cannot go wrong with this enjoyable autobiography by mother and son who open up their lives to the public.  And it is true that one day it’ll all make sense.

ISBN-10: 1451625871
ISBN-13: 978-1451625875

Biographies

arrnerWhen I first heard of this book, I was slightly puzzled.  As a fan of the NLF, the name Curt Warner was very familiar to me but it turns out that I had the wrong person in mind.  And I am willing to wager that a large number of people who come across this book will also make the same mistake and instead think of the NFL player Kurt Warner, who once played for the New York Giants. Both are retired but only one has a family of four that includes twin sons born with autism.  Many of us many know someone who struggles with autism.  And others may be teachers who have taught autistic students. Regardless, we can all agree that it is a condition which requires enormous patience and understanding.  This is the story of Curt and Ana Warner, two parents faced with the monumental task of raising twin sons born autistic while maintaining family life that includes tow other children.

Since retiring from the NFL in 1990,  Warner had remained largely hidden from public life.  But with the publication of this book, the creation of his personal website and the Curt Warner Autism Foundation, he and wife Ana are at the forefront of the continuing struggle to understand and solve the mystery of autism.  Currently, no one truly knows why some people are born autistic.  There have been attempts to diagnose it while a fetus is still in development but an actual cause still eludes doctors.  What is known is that there is no cure for it and there may never be. But what we can do as a society is to listen to those who deal with it so that we all can understand what it is and how it affects those born with it.  Curt and Ana Warner made the courageous decision to turn their struggle in this incredible book which shows the struggle behind the scenes in a household with autistic children.

Both parents take turns speaking in the book but there is a notation at the beginning of the section so that the reader knows which parent is commenting.  The commentary does swtich back and forth quite often and that might be just a little confusing to some readers but both do a great job of staying in sync as the story progresses. And what is clear is that without each other, there was no way the family would have ever survived what can only be described as mind-blowing.   My knowledge of autism prior to the book was limited in some ways but having finished the story,  I can say for certain that I now have a new found undrestanding for the amount of work required by parents of autistic children.

My only complaint about the book is that I wish it  had been longer.  As I read through the book, I found myself rooting for Curt, Ana and their kids to pull through as a family.  We know today that they have survived many situations that could have been tragic for all involved. The book concludes on a positive note and I hope that the Warners are continuing to enjoy life as much as they can.  The bravery they displayed in writing this book is a testament to their character, cemented by their struggle together.  Their experiences should remind us all that perseverance, hope and faith are the keys required to make it through even the most difficult situations.  Highly recommended.

ASIN: B07B9KR118

Biographies

ManningLast week,  my mother and I had a discussion about the actor Denzel Washington, who is widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s greatest stars.  For both of us, his role as civil rights figure Malcolm X (1925-1965) in 1992 biopic ‘Malcolm X‘, was a shining moment in which he showed the world his talent as an actor and Spike Lee’s known skills as a powerful filmmaker. I had been contemplating my next book to read and came across this biography by late author Manning Marable (1950-2011). I had previously read The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley and Bruce Perry’s Malcolm: THe Life of Man Who Changed America .  The former is a classic read widely across the globe.  Perry’s biography is a great read and addressed many topics that Haley did not include.  Stepping into the picture is Marable with this phenomenal biography that surpasses Perry’s and provides an even more intimate look into Malcolm’s life.

One of the hardest parts of completing a project as daunting as a biography is separating fact from fiction.  Marable exhaustively researched his subject and it clearly shows throughout the book.  The amount of information in the book is staggering and will leave many readers speechless at times.  I cannot say with certainty how much information Spike Lee had access to when making the film.  But what is clear from reading this book is that there is a good chance some things were withheld from him by those with intimate knowledge of Malcolm’s life and that editing the film down to three hours and twenty-two minutes resulted in a fair amount of footage ending up on the cutting room floor.   Regardless, Lee created a masterpiece of a film.  However, there was far more to Malcolm’s life than what moviegoers saw and some of that information shows his life and the Nation of Islam in a whole new light.

No story about Malcolm is complete without mention of Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975), the former leader of the Nation of Islam.  His influence on Malcolm’s life and their subsequent falling out is covered extensively in the book.  I personally learned new information that I had never anticipated when I started the book.  As to be expected, Malcolm’s time with the Nation of Islam, his marriage to Betty Shabazz (1934-1997) and the creation of Muslim Mosque, Inc. make up large portion of the second half of the book.  And it truly is a story that is surreal at times.  Undoubtedly the book carries a serious tone but there are bright moments in the book, some of which focus on Malcolm’s time outside of the United States. His visits to the Middle East, which helped shape and then change his views are pivotal moments in the book, showing the process of reinvention that he goes through as he matures.

Some of the reviews I read on Amazon were interesting but one in particular caught my attention for its critique of Marable’s discussion of Malcolm’s sexuality in his youth.   I do not believe that Marable tainted Malcolm’s image or was irresponsible in the way that he chose to handle the subject matter. In fact, Bruce Perry also addressed it in his biography of Malcolm and there is a strong possibility that both authors were on the right track.   Marable devotes a very small portion of the book to the subject and I think he made the right decision.  And the overall story is so interesting that I believe most readers will go through the section and quickly move forward to the rest of the book.

One of the book’s major strengths is the author’s willingness to take on even the most sensitive parts of Malcolm’s life.  In fact, there were many things revealed that I am sure the Nation of Islam would have killed to protect years ago.   These events are not only about Malcolm’s life but they also reveal information about figures intimately involved in his life such a Minister Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm’s protege and Ella Little (1914-1996). Interestingly, both figures do not make an appearance in Lee’s film for reasons known to the filmmakers.  Marable does provide some insight and what he reveals might surprise some readers.  Civil rights figures such as Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), Dick Gregory (1932-2017) and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908-1972) are also part of the story and reading Marable’s words made me feel as if I stepped back into time during the tumultuous decade that was the 1960s.   Readers who lived during the era will surely reminisce about a time in American history where fear permeated across the nation and the assassination of political figures was nearly commonplace.

About two-thirds through the book, the stage is set for Malcolm’s tragic end at the Audubon Ballroom.  The tension and outright hostility between him and the NOI had reached a deadly level. Marable highlights the multiple attempts on Malcolm’s life and the escalation in fearmongering that ensued.   The assassination is revisited from start to finish and the author sheds light on a few things that I had previously been unaware of.   It is well-known the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) had been keeping Malcolm under surveillance. The paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) was endless and he wasted no time in having his agents open a file for the Bureau’s benefit.  But what is often left out of the discussion regarding Malcolm’s controversial life is the role of the secret Bureau of Special Services and Investigation (“BOSS”), formed by the New York City Police Department.  The roles and actions of these two entities raise new questions about Malcolm’s death that remain unanswered.  Perhaps in the next fifty years, more files will declassified and we may finally know the truth as to what state and federal agencies knew about Malcolm, the Nation of Islam and his murder on February 21, 1965.

The epilogue of the book is equally fascinating, and in it Marable opens a discussion about fundamental differences between Malcolm and other leaders of the times.  Death was a constant threat in his life and he clearly knew that he had been marked for it but refused to live in fear.  Throughout the book, he makes a series of decisions that we can now look at with the hindsight unavailable to him.  At the time, he was following his beliefs and remained dedicated in his goal to spread true Islam to anyone willing to learn.  His faults and transgressions are also on full display, showing us a multi-dimension yet often streamlined person that helped place the Nation of Islam into the national spotlight.  He is revered around the world as a champion of civil rights and a brilliant mind taken from this world far before his time.   There is so much more to his story contained within the pages of this book which is an exceptional work that will cause one to ask, how much do I really know about Malcolm X?  Here is a good place to start.

ASIN: B0046ECJ9Q

Biographies

corettaI find that as I age, I am more focused on historical events that changed the course of America, in particular from Black Americans.   It has been said that in order to know where you are going, you have to know where you come from.   For millions of Black Americans, the question of identity has been a difficult one to answer.  Some prefer the term African-American while others prefer Black-American.  And there are some who prefer Afro-American or just simply Black.  Regardless of the label, there is a shared history of pain, struggle and the never ending goal for full integration American society.  Over the past fifty years, tremendous progress has been made in the United States but there is still much work to be done.  But one of the greatest things about America is our ability to correct and learn from mistakes that have lingered for too long.  The young generation of today lives in a world far removed from only twenty years ago.  Their world is one in which technology is ingrained and life moves at an even faster pace.  My father often thinks back to the period of integration and the times where it seemed as if America was going to tear itself apart.   Even to him, as a kid it seemed as if the accomplishments by Black Americans over the years were just a pipe dream.

The Civil Rights Movement was a platform not just for Black-Americans but for all people that had been denied basic civil rights to which everyone is entitled, whether here in the United States or around the world.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has always been seen as the “leader” of the American movement.  The reality is that he was one of endless figures who displayed unparalleled bravery and dedication.  But he is easily the most recognizable.  But behind him, was his wife Coretta Scott King (1927-2006), who in later years became even more vocal in her commitment to Dr. King’s legacy and the movement they both believed in.  This book is her autobiography so that the world can learn more not about Mrs. King but about Coretta.

Her story begins in 1927, in the small town of Heiberger, Alabama during the Jim-Crow Era.  Readers sensitive to the subject matter might find this part of the book a little unnerving.   Although there are some low points, there are equally many high points as well and the pride and dignity with which the Scott family carried itself offsets the darker memories that she recalls.  From an early age, she is independent, tough and open to change.  Those traits would prove to be invaluable later in life when a young bachelor named Martin Luther King, Jr., walked into her life.  It is at this point in the book that the story picks up speed at an extraordinary pace.

Martin’s story is well-known and he remains one of the most iconic figures in world history so I do not think it is necessary to go into detail about his life in this post.  Plus, Coretta does that for us but not in the position of a biographer, but simply as his wife and the mother of their four children.   This is the behind the scenes look into their very private life which might surprise some.  In contrast to the public version of Dr. King which was cool, controlled and always prophetic, the version shown by Coretta is humble, playful, a homemaker, a prankster and a father.   The movement is never far away and Coretta explains early on that they both believed that the movement was a higher calling than anything else.  And each would maintain that belief until the end of their lives.

As the story moves into the 1960s, the movement gains momentum and Coretta revisits all of the critical moments that changed America.  The bus boycotts, Rosa Parks (1913-2005), Bull Connor (1897-1973) and Jim Sharp (1922-2007) are just some of the events and figures that she discusses.  She also discusses the much darker moments that occurred such as a the murders of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy and her beloved Martin, whose death rattled the globe and changed her life permanently.  Following his assassination, she became the heir apparent to the King legacy and she has never wavered in that task.

The book changes gears after Martin’s death and the focus shifts primarily back on Coretta. Her children also come into sharper focus and she discusses how each responded to their father’s death and what he meant to them.  Although Martin was gone, Coretta was still in high demand and the movement never stopped.  Her circle of friends and acquaintances changes slightly but the core group of support remains intact.  Later in her years, she finds herself in what some would call the widow’s club but to her, it was far from that.  She was a survivor of the movement who understood that death was a constant threat to anyone who dared to challenge the system.

There is one part of the book that did strike me and that was her discussion of rumors of Martin’s infidelity.   Accounts of philandering, allegedly picked up through FBI wiretaps has circulated for years.   It is true that tapes were mailed to their house and Coretta elaborates on what they contained.   She also has choice words for J. Edgar Hoover and his bureau.   King’s friend Ralph Abernathy (1926-1990) comes under fire here for his statements in his autobiography And The Walls Came Tumbling Down wherein he discusses Martin’s transgressions.  Coretta remains firm in her beliefs about Martin’s actions outside the home and Abernathy never changed his position.  All are now deceased, leaving us without the opportunity to clear up the issue.  What I can say is that I have never seen any photo evidence of such activity and the main source for the information came from the very agency whose job it was to discredit him.  I will leave the issue up to the reader to research.

Dick Gregory once said that Black History is American History.   One month in February does not come close to telling the full story.  But that is easily circumvented through books such as this, written by those who were present during the defining moments in the American experience.   Coretta is no longer with us, but her words of wisdom and guidance remain as a light to lead us through our darkest times, some of which have yet to come.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 1627795987
ISBN-13: 978-1627795982

Biographies