Category Archives: Historical Account
In December, 1991, the unthinkable happened as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) dissolved into fifteen separate countries. Known informally as the Soviet Union, the USSR seemed at times indestructible to those viewing the union from abroad. But within dissension had been brewing for many years in the wake of the tyrannical reign of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). His successors embarked on a period of de-Stalinization that thrived under the administration of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (1894-1971). The Soviet Union remained a superpower and in direct competition with arch-rival the United States. It dissolution shocked the world and left the future of the former Soviet republics in limbo. In the aftermath of the monumental and historic collapse, the individual republics established their own rights to self-governance and in some cases, completely rejected Russian rule. Tensions between many of the nations continues to this day. Currently, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin serves as the President of Russia, and is as much of a controversial figure as many of his predecessors. His appointment by late President Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin (1931-2007) gave many Russians hope that a new direction was in store for the beloved country. Today, as we look back at the time that has passed since he was chosen to lead Russia, we can see a tortured nation still suffering from systematic oppression and what is rightly described in this book as totalitarianism.
In 2017, Gessen was hired by The New Yorker magazine as a stiff writer and she continues to be a leading voice for LGBT causes in her homeland of Russia. She hails from Moscow and is acutely aware of the persecution that she and many others face because of their sexual orientation. In Russia, the government embarked on a crusade against the LGBT community that began to flourish in the 1990s with the passing legislation against “homosexual propaganda”. The change in society which gave license to open discrimination of LGBT citizens is nothing short of barbaric. The murder of Vladislav Tornovoy marked a point of no return and although outrage at the crime was widespread, homophobia continued to increase. There are many ugly truths to be told and this phenomenal book that reveals the dark side behind the Iron Curtain, we can see first hand how Russia missed its opportunity to move away from the iron grip of Leninism and embrace democratic ideas. Some Russians undoubtedly wish to return to the Soviet days while younger Russians wish to move forward and transform Russia into a country of which they can be proud. To understand life in the Soviet Union and in new Russian society, Gessen interviewed several individuals, each with their own story to tell that will prove to be riveting to readers. Their names are Lyosha, Masha, Seryozha, and Zhanna and they each devoted a year of their time to tell Gessen about the Russia they know and in some cases, have left. Zhanna may be familiar to some readers as the daughter of Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov (1959-2015) who served as the First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin.
Gessen takes up deep inside their lives in post-Cold War Russia as Perestroika becomes of the official policy of Moscow. It is cited as one of the reasons of the fall of the USSR and a major factor in the resurgence of totalitarianism. The debate will continue for years but what is clearly apparent is that life in the Soviet Union was one of hardship, poverty and the loss of hope. These stories should remove any illusions readers may have of a high quality of life for the average Russian citizen. This is a sobering look at the daily struggles Russians face and the relentless abolition of individual liberties. Homosexuals became easy scapegoats and in the book, we follow Lyosha and his struggle to maintain a stable life in the midst of fierce homophobia supported and encouraged by official government policy. Masha and Zhanna would later become voices for the opposition while Seryozha would come to learn about the privileges attached to his family’s residence in “Czar Village”. Each faced their own struggles and their anecdotes reveal the dark transformation of Russian society as the departing Boris Yeltsin hands over the reigns to the former director of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). Putin wasted no time as President of Russia and has placed the country in a vice grip, showing no signs of relinquishing his hold on power.
Where this book truly excels, is the author’s clarity in explaining the failures of Moscow post-Stalin and the importance of neighboring Crimea and Ukraine. Both territories have become hotbed issues during Putin’s presidency and increased tensions between Moscow and Washington, with the latter establishing punishing sanctions. The promise of hope, which existed for a brief time in Russia, seems to be receding on a regular basis as the Kremlin extends its totalitarian grip as far as it possibly can. Many have fled Russia, making a home in other parts of Europe and Brighton Beach, a small enclave in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York. As the author points out, Seryozha stopped responding to her messages in 2015, but the others have each made the tough decision to leave the places they called home in search of a better life, free from the grip of Putin’s regime. Slander, political oppression and even assassination, are hallmarks of Putin’s tactics to stifle the voices of perceived enemies of the state. Large numbers of expats will not return to Russia as long as Vladimir Putin remains determined to keep the men and women of their homeland held firmly in subjugation. Gessen has dared to speak out, risking persecution that has plagued other brave voices that have done their best to expose the facade created to cover the realities of Russian society. Opposition of any kind is not tolerated and the descriptions in the book of the actions towards those who dared to speak out have the markings of the classic police state.
Many misconceptions about Russia exist, mainly due to incorrect reporting and propaganda released by the Kremlin. But as we can see through Gessen’s work, life in Russia is quite different from the image the has been projected by officials. Persecution, oppression and famine are just some of the daily factors that make life in Russia a hard one to live. Deception and mistrust have become widespread and are eerily similar to the climate of suspicion created the Third Reich. The Soviet Union is long gone and in spite of Putin’s agenda, it will never again rise to the heights that it reached during the Cold War. And as the younger generation of Russians continue to find ways to make their voices heard, Russia will be faced again with a moment of monumental change. But in order for it to move forward, the people will have to ask what kind of Russia do they want for future generations? Do they want a true democracy or do they wish to endure several decades of rule by Vladimir Putin? The voices in the book have made their positions clear. It remains to be seen if anyone truly listens. They know the Russia that you and I have only read about. The Russia they know is a cold place, mostly closed off from the outside world and a nation that can never shake the ghost of Joseph Stalin and his mentor Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924), known to the world as Vladimir Lenin. But if Russia chooses to listen, the message is loud and clear that the future is history.
On January 11, 2019, Netflix released ReMastered: Massacre at the Stadium, a look back at the violent coup in September, 1973 in which President Salvador Allende (1908-1973) was overthrown by the Chilean military. In his place, General Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) assumed power and unleashed a reign of tyranny that lasted sixteen years and caused the deaths of thousands of Chileans. His reign came to an end when Patricio Aylwin (1918-2016) was elected as the next President of the Republic of Chile. Pinochet was arrested in October, 1998, by British intelligence and repatriated to Chile on March 3, 2000. He died on December 10, 2006, without having served a day in prison for the human rights violations that occurred during his time in office. Today he is largely recognized as one of Latin America’s most infamous tyrants. The story of his rise to power and fall are covered beautifully in Peter Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability . His ruthlessness knew no bounds that tragic September day, and the military engaged in a purge of all perceived enemies of the new regime. Among the endless number of victims was former activist, playwright and singer, Victor Lidio Jara Martínez (1932-1978), known to the world as Victor Jara.
Jara’s widow Joan, is now 92 and has never ceased in her efforts to promote Victor’s legacy and find justice for his murder. In the Netflix documentary, his brutal death and the successful lawsuit against former Chilean soldier Pablo Barrientos, take center stage in the mission to unravel Jara’s final moments at the stadium. The film is thought-provoking and I do believe there is more to his death that remains hidden. After I finished the film, I became determined to learn as much as I could about Jara and his importance in Chilean history. I found this book by Joan Jara, wherein she discusses the Victor she knew and her life in Chile, a place that became her home away from home. British by birth, life took her across the Atlantic and to Santiago, where she continued to perfect her craft as a performer. Soon she was divorced with a young daughter trying to find her purpose far away from the bustling city life in London. Soon, a young charismatic singer crossed her path and before long, the story of Victor and Joan Jara had begun.
The beauty in this book is that Joan allows us into their home, to learn about Victor’s private life and his rise from the poverty-stricken town of Lonquén to become one of Chile’s most vocal supporters of Allende’s government. She provides a short biography on Victor and herself, filled with anecdotes that show how the basis for their political beliefs. As she admits, at first she had no fondness for anything communist but after witnessing the poverty and inequality in Chile and other parts of Latin America, she became more accepting of communist ideology. These beliefs would have far-reaching and tragic implications up until the time she fled Chile with Manuela and Amanda, her daughter with Jara. Today, it seems unreal that someone should be physically assaulted or even murdered for political affiliation, but this was the atmosphere that existed in Chile under Allende’s administration. Joan captures the atmosphere, recalling tense situations in which anarchy could have prevailed at the drop of a hat. Her analysis is a prime example for anyone seeking to understand how and why the coup had formed.
Joan takes us through the development of their relationship, their new daughter and success in the theater, a place she and Victor have always called home. Life is good and the girls are growing up nicely, but there is an undercurrent of dissent among the right-wing faction, determined to end Allende’s rule by any means necessary. The involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Allende’s downfall is well-documented. And the further fracture of Chilean society is critically examined in A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet by Pamela A. Constable and Arturo Valenzuela. I found myself startled as I read the book, at the revelations that it was openly assumed by many Allende supporters that the CIA was actively working to bring down Allende. It seems as if it was the secret that was not no secret. Perhaps the events in Cuba, Guatemala and Vietnam had provided fuel for the suspicion. The political turmoil that later engulfed the nation had started to build nearly the day that Allende was sworn in. The right-wing extremists failed to get the two-thirds vote to remove him from office and it was clear to Allende’s detractors that his removal would only come through violence. Allende was not oblivious to his precarious situation and even gave an unofficial last address to the nation in the days leading up to the coup. Little by little, dissension grew and the stage was set for September 11, 1973.
Open contempt by opposing parties had reached toxic levels in the week leading up to the coup and the audacity exemplified by enemies is recounted here by Joan. Some of the behavior might shock some readers. The descriptions of the brutality inflicted upon political opponents is reprehensible and as a woman states in the book, the coup taught Chileans how to hate. Similar to the Netflix film, Joan discusses that day in detail and how she came to learn about Victor’s death, her retrieval of his remains and her actions in the wake of his untimely demise. The story is riveting and Victor’s death silenced a voice of hope in a country that later endured a tyranny that soon spread across the continent, making its mark in places such Argentina and Uruguay under the regimes of Juan Perón and Juan María Bordaberry. Today, the dictatorships are a dark reminder of the past and the perils of extremism.
In January, 2019, I visited Chile and it has found a place in my heart as a true gem. It is hard to put into the words, the feeling that comes over the body upon the arrival on Chilean soil. To many of its neighbors, Chile is the black sheep of Latin America. But similar to its neighbors, it too has suffered through and survived its own history of military rule under right-wing dictatorship. Victor Jara was one of many voices who spoke out and took action to transform society in the hope of correctly many of mankind’s mistakes. His belief in his actions made him a marked man but Jara refused to abandoned his position and stood by his beliefs until the end. Joan has kept her husband’s memory alive in both the Netflix documentary and his book about their time together and the man she simply knew as Victor and his life which truly is an unfinished song.
Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out – Jason Rezaian
The United States and Iran share a long and storied past, defined in moments that changed world history. The removal of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, followed by the reinstatement of the Shah and the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979, set the stage for decades of tension between the two nations. And incredibly, it was under this tension that the administration of U.S. President Barack H. Obama engaged in talks that resulted in the The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, simply known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. The deal was both heralded as a landmark achievement and a kowtow of the worst kind. But what many Americans did not know, was that there was far more taking place behind the scenes, including the release of U.S. prisoners held in Iranian jails. Among those prisoners, was American born journalist Jason Rezaian, of The Washington Post. You may remember him from his appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s (1956-2018) hit show No Reservations. The episode was beautifully done and Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh, appear as voices of insight into Iranian culture. At the conclusion of the episode, there is a message on the screen that they both had been taken by Iranian intelligence. The episode is my second favorite, the first is Vietnam in which President Obama makes a surprise appearance and enjoys a meal with Bourdain in Ho Chih Minh City. On January 16, 2016, Rezaian was released was repatriated to the United States. Joining him were his Iranian born wife and his mother who never stopped fighting for her son’s release.
The book came to me as a recommendation from Amazon and I have to say, it was right on the money with this one. I easily recognized Rezaian and was curious to know exactly what did take place during his incarceration. The goods are all here and at times, I had to shake my head at the words and actions of his captors. The Twilight Zone atmosphere, as Rezaian once describes it, is periodically broken by his recollections of his early life and his family’s history. He explains his reasons for leaving America in his early thirties and moving to Iran, the place of his late father’s birth. At first, the book reads like a typical story of a young man who found a home away from home. He meets the love of his life, Yeganeh and the two begin to build their life together as a married couple. But on July 22, 2014, that all changed when they were arrested, blindfolded and transported to the Evin Prison in Tehran.
Authorities are convinced Rezaian is conduction “spionage”, as they call it and have labeled him a master spy who has come to spread revolution in Iran, through the import of “avocados”. At first I could not believe my eyes but the insanity only increases. Interrogators employ endless mind tricks in order to get Rezaian to “cooperate” and “admit” his wrongdoings, even without being able to say for certain what they were. They assure him that they are there to “help”. Rezaian’s sharp wit, adds a level of comedy to the story that lightens the mood and keeps the reader glued to the book, anticipating the next page. But the reality is that the charges were serious, in fact, deadly serious. More than once he is threatened with execution. The jury is still out whether the Iranians ever intended to actually commit such an act or if it was strictly a scare tactic that they knew would have backfired publicly and politically. Their attempts to interrogate him and their obsession with American films and politics, has the effect of turning the affair into a three-ring circus in which Rezaian is the only one with a sane mind. How he kept his sanity, sense or humor and composure, many of us will never truly know. Perhaps it is the human will to survive which at times can be stronger than most would expect. Rezaian admits that he nearly gave in on more than one occasion but the world was rooting for him and the support of his family, in particular his brother, help provide the inspiration he needed to remain stoic and defiant, until he once again walked the streets as a free man.
As to be expected, the Iran Nuclear Deal is a significant back story to the book and integral to his eventual release. As a prison inside Iran, Rezaian was given an insider’s view into Iranian society and the mood in Tehran as its leaders and Washington hammered out an agreement that had been reached with the hope that the two nations could begin open dialogue which could eventually end in peace that has eluded both for nearly forty years. Rezaian discusses the process and the difficulties of reaching an agreement which also included himself and other prisoners. But even he admits that at the time, he had no idea of how many people were at work, doing everything in their power to secure his release and several others. The ending of the book plays out as if Hollywood sent its best writers but this is not fiction. It was a show of diplomatic power at its finest and a story in which the good guy does win.
Sadly, hopes of peace between Iran and America faded with the announcement of President Donald J. Trump that the United States would withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal. On May 8, 2018, the withdrawal went into effect and only time will tell what will happen but I sincerely hope that peace does prevail. For Jason Rezaian, peace came in a different form and his freedom from the Evin Prison, has given him an even deeper perspective of where Iran continues to go wrong. He also explains the many areas in which non-Iranians fail in understanding how and why its society operates in the manner that it does. But make no mistake, this is his story and how he survived incarceration in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America – Annie Jacobsen
On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler fatally shot his wife Eva Braun and then turned the gun on himself as it became evidently clear that allied forces were closing on the führerbunker. The fear of falling into Russian hands and a subsequent trial for war crimes proved to be too much for the top echelon of the Third Reich that remained in Berlin. Many top-ranking officials had previously fled and others had left Germany after realizing that all hope for a victory in the war had been lost. As allied forces move in and occupied the country, the true horrors of the Nazi reign became clear and soldiers were faced with the grim discoveries of concentration camps, emaciated and dead prisoners. The Final Solution had been revealed for the entire world to see. In the aftermath of the war, several hundred Nazi party members were executed by allied forces. Others were acquitted or had their death sentences commuted to long-term imprisonment. Another group consisting of scientists and doctors, found their way to America with the help of the United States Government in what became known as Operation Paperclip. Their story is the focus of this incredible book by author Annie Jacobsen.
Government files regarding the secret operation had been marked classified and would have remained hidden if not for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which gave Americans a tool to learn the truth about many of the Government’s secrets. This tool was thoroughly employed by Jacobsen in discovering the truth of this story that was first disclosed by the New York Times. Jacobsen explains herself that some of her FOIA requests are still pending and it is unknown if or when they will be answered. Nevertheless, she has written the story that will shock anyone who decides to open the pages of this book. Her focus is on selected former doctors and scientists of the Reich who had worked on the V-2 rocket program at Nordhausen and concentration camps in which medical and biological experiments had been conducted, with Auschwitz and Ravensbrück being high on the list. I warn readers that this book is not for the faint at heart . The atrocities that are revealed defy logic and reveal the very dark side of human nature. And as the book progresses, the names of the former scientist and doctors will be seared into the reader’s memory as a reminder of the many secrets the Third Reich tried to hide as the military collapsed. As horrible as the actions of the Reich were, the crux of the book is the courting and resettlement of former Nazis by the United States Government through a program that will cause consternation, shock and even anger in some readers.
The book begins as the German military collapses in defeat and allied forces are scouring Berlin and other parts of Germany on intelligence missions to discover the secrets of the Reich. Britain and Russia are also conducting their own intelligence missions and a race against time develops as the three nations each seek to obtain as much information as they can from their defeated enemy. As the author explains, the Cold War was looming in the distance and in the name of “national security”, government officials were more than willing to recruit former Nazis out of fears they would be recruited and resettled in the Soviet Union. The V-2 rocket and nerve agents Tabun and Sarin, became hot items as superpowers prepared for the next world war which they believed would include the use of biological weapons. The United States spared no expense and would not let Joseph Stalin have the upper hand. The brilliant German minds behind innovations that exceeded allied capacity were to be recruited at all costs, even at the expense of morality. Annie Jacobsen has captured the emotion and tense battles that raged as the State Department battled the military over a program that it found to be appalling. The American public slowly became aware of this nefarious program and mounting opposition forced the Government to act in what could described as a war against itself.
The main focus is rightly on the secret intelligence operation but the author also includes a stead stream of facts about other members of the Reich and actions that were being taken behind the scenes throughout Germany as the tide of the war changed and defeat became a stark reality. The entire cast of characters makes an appearance in the story. Some would escape Germany, fleeing to South America and others took their own lives rather than be tried, convicted and executed in a military trial. Before the collapse of the Reich, officials went to great lengths to hide as much information as possible from the allied forces. Today there is a strong possibility that secret tombs exist containing secrets of the Reich are still hidden across Germany. Time will tell if all of them will be discovered or if they will continue to fade from public consciousness.
The amount of research that was conducted in order to produce this book is staggering. Yet, there is still much we do not know about Operation paperclip as the Government claims files were lost or destroyed. Some are still classified with no release date on the horizon. At some point in time, someone will find out the truth about what truly did happened in the wake of World War II as America embraced German talent. By then, anyone who participated in World War II will be long gone, rendering any type of prosecution or accountability null. But the public will finally know just how complicit American officials and the White House were in recruiting war criminals for the technological advancement of the United States. Jacobsen has given us a detailed roadmap with which to start and this book will undoubtedly stand the test of times as one of the finest works on the Third Reich. My only complaint about this book is that I wished it had never ended. I found myself glued to the book from the beginning and was unable to put it down. The is the true story of Operation Paperclip, one of World War II’s darkest secrets.
Those of us who have visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, can testify to its seduction of visitors with a passion for treasured art. The second floor is home to Campbell’s Soup Cans and Other Works, 1953–1967, a collection of thirty-two pieces by the late Andy Warhol (1928-1987). February 22 will mark thirty-two years since his untimely death at the age of fifty-eight. Art students and museum aficionados have long studied his work as the shining example of the Pop Art movement that swept across the United Kingdom and United States during the 1950s. Warhol undoubtedly became the poster child for the movement with his sleek frame, white wig, large frame glasses and black sweater. His personal life, carefully hidden from the public, became a mystery to those seeking to know just who is and who was the real Andy Warhol? Bob Colacello worked for Warhol on their publication Interview, for twelve years and in this intriguing account of their time together, he reveals the Andy Warhol he knew with all his quirks, ingenuity and fears in life.
The book is not an autobiography and Colacello does not try to assess Warhol’s psyche. Further, this is Colacello’s story from start to finish but Warhol does play a critical role to the events that transpired in his life for obvious reasons. From the start, it is apparent that Andy is not the typical boss and writing for Interview will be no easy task. As Colacello explains, it was usually a test of wills with Andy believing everyone had a hidden story or “problem” and that Colacello should proposition them with the offer of a cover shot and even change his name to “Bob Cola” to sound more appealing. Their contrasting personalities and those of the other members of what Colacello refers to as the “factory”, created a magazine that grew into a serious contender and in the process, made Warhol’s name synonymous with modern pop art. His successes took him and his staff across several continents and through endless cities. Colacello was dutifully by his side along with a dedicated team of collaborators, each of whom would wage their own battles with Warhol over his eccentric behavior and domineering personality. They all recognized that within their boss was a visionary who straddled the fine line between genius and insanity.
Anyone who decides to read this book, probably has some inkling of who Andy Warhol was. His carefully crafted public facade, gave off an aura of chic that tabloids found irresistible. But behind the facade was a different person, and Colacello was there to witness those revealing moments when Andy let down his guard. The anecdotes from Colacello are amusing and in some cases puzzling as Andy’s behavior typically bordered on the surreal. Armed with his tape recorder which he called Sony and hindered by his social awkwardness, Andy sometimes became a square trying to fit into a circle. But yet, most could not resist being around him as his name grew in popularity. That fame resulted in a steady stream of film stars, foreign dignitaries and politicians giving Interview and Warhol the publicity they constantly needed. It was an unbelievable ride for the young artist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, born to immigrant parents from the small region of Ruthenia. Some of you may be wondering, where on earth is Ruthenia? It is located in the Carpathian Mountains, sitting between the meeting point of the borders of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Russia. Sadly, Warhol never addresses his family’s ancestry and often said that “I come from nowhere”. Perhaps it was just Andy being Andy or was a sign of a deeper inner struggle that manifested itself in his work. We will never know for sure as Andy took that and many other secrets with him to his grave.
Every story about a famous figure has the proverbial “elephant in the room”. For Andy, it was sexuality, a theme that was found in many of his works and which fueled his belief that everyone had a juicy sexual secret they were hiding. As Colacello reveals, Warhol was entranced by gossip and in particular, the sex lives of celebrities. But was this a defense mechanism to deflect from his own love life? Colacello provides great insight into Andy’s love life or lack of it. And even with his revelations, many questions still linger about what type of love life he actually had. Maybe that was Andy’s plan, to keep everyone guessing, on their toes and confused. But there are two people who appear in the story and Colacello explains their importance thoroughly and how they affected Andy’s personal life. One of them, Jed Johnson, tragically perished on TWA Flight 800 in 1996, which exploded shortly after takeoff from New York City’s JFK International Airport. The flight was bound for Paris and all 230 passengers perished in the accident. Johnson was with Andy the longest and their relationship provides some clues as to why Warhol behaved as he did.
Towards the latter part of the book, Colacello focuses on his increasing dissatisfaction working for Warhol and the impact upon the lives of his colleagues as a result of their boss’s behavior. Like a master manipulator, Warhol would push their buttons and then later soothe their egos, dangling them on strings in the process. Alcohol and drugs became coping mechanisms and flowed freely in their circle that consisted of Hollywood stars, music stars and the famous Studio 54, where Andy became a fixture. The image that appears as Colacello discusses working conditions at the factory, is one in which Andy keeps his subordinates in check, at odds and never in a position to amass too much influence in affairs. This system of dysfunction pushed many to brink and over time, nearly all left to escape from Andy’s off-handed and in some cases, callous treatment. However they remained loyal to him and his legacy, even when they no longer worked for him. Their commitment to Interview, the factory and Andy’s films, created a bond that could never be broken, not even with his death on February 22, 1987. Theirs is a story of a family with a broken parent that many of them tried to diagnose and piece back together. But Andy could never be the same after being shot several times on June 3, 1968. Valerie Solanas nearly ended his life that day but Andy survived and carried with him the scars from multiple surgeries and a life-long fear of being in public. His physical condition and paranoia of being attacked again, nearly crippled his social life, resulting in him needed a chaperone for nearly everything. More often than not, Colacello was assigned this task. However, the role he assumed gave him a very intimate look into the fractured life of his boss.
The mystery of Andy Warhol will continue for years to come. I do not believe there is one simple explanation for his life. Colacello even states that although he was close to Andy, he’s not sure if they were really that close as personal friends. Andy carefully kept everyone at a guarded distance. He avoided hospitals and even funerals, including that of his own mother Julia. His lovers had separate lives and seemed to come and go as they pleased. Andy threw himself into his work, pressuring all that worked for him to make sacrifices that at times were unrealistic. We can only assume that his constant drive to work, accumulate gossip with Sony and his prevention of letting anyone become close to him, may have been his way of protecting himself. Before his death, he said to close friends that he did not want to go into the hospital because you do not come out. But as his gallbladder became inflamed to the point of possibly rupturing, he was faced with having no other choice but going into the one place that he dreaded. And tragically, his prediction came true. But there is far more to Andy’s life and death, covered beautifully by his former employee and star writer. And fittingly Colacello has given us a very-welcomed portrait of what he calls the holy terror. Warhol fans will love this book.
America often has an uncomfortable relationship with its past. The dark moments in the founding of the nation are sometimes left out of history books and never discussed in conversation. Native Americans are either viewed with empathy or disgust, typically depending on the observer’s knowledge of history. Alcoholism, depression and economic instability have continued to plague Native American reservations, given as a token gesture by the United States Government. In Hollywood, they have often been presented as wild savages determined to murder Americans, only to be repelled by heroic soldiers and cowboys seeking to preserve the union. The reality however, is that there is much about the Native Americans of North America that remains largely unknown. In the State of New York where I reside, virtually nothing is taught about the Lenape Indians who owned what is today the Tri-State area, in addition to other vast territories. In the South, the once mighty Cherokee nation owned land, lived under their own rules and were content with life before the arrival of new nation, created following the independence of 13 colonies from British imperialism. Today the Cherokees are an afterthought for most, but at one time, they ruled large parts of what became the future United States of America. This is their story and that of the infamous “Trail of Tears”, that would permanently change the lives the Cherokee Indians.
John Ehle takes us back in time to the late 1700s as George Washington takes his post as the first Commander-in-Chief. The new colonies need land and expansion is their answer. But the land they seek is owned by Native Americans who have no desire to leave the only homes that they have ever known. New settlers become engaged with native tribes and the stage is set for some of the bloodiest conflicts in United States history. The Creeks, Choctaw, Sioux and Iroquois are just a few of the dozens of tribes that composed North America. Their removal and partial extinction is similar and relevant to the current story. And I assure you that after you have finished this book, you will look at American history quite differently. Further, there is more to the story than just the seizure of land and it is a story that proved to be more than I had anticipated as I began to read this book.
The early parts of the book are detailed with the many skirmishes that occur as the two opposing forces become entangled in conflict. Reminiscent of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, released in 2015, relations between White settlers, French settlers and Native Americans were at times fragile and the battles deadly. Ehle provides detailed and sometimes graphic descriptions of the brutal conflicts that developed which break down the facade of the glorious creation of America. In fact, I warn readers easily upset that this part of the book might prove to be challenging to read. The words are uncomfortable but so is the truth and the author minces no words.
The story has its central characters and it becomes slightly difficult to follow as they each make an appearance. Major Ridge, John Ridge and John Ross become the power players at the top of the Cherokee command. The United States is represented through President Andrew Jackson and Georgia Governor John Forsyth, among others. Their names and actions often intersect and the story may seem a little confusing at first but once the government’s position is established, the narrative becomes highly focused as Georgia and Washington put the official plan into action, and the removal of thousands of Native Americans commences. It is here through the Treaty of New Echota in 1935, that the “Trail of Tears” is born and the story takes a dark and regrettable turn.
Earlier I mentioned that there was more to the story and there is one aspect of Cherokee life that is largely unknown and never acknowledge and that is its relationship with slavery in America. It came as a surprise to me and I am sure that many Americans never learned this in school. But it is relevant to their story and a part of history that we must understand as we continue to revisit the legacy of the United States.
Predictably, the latter part of the book is focused on the Trail of Tears itself and the deadly impact it had upon the Cherokees and African slaves, forced to march mainly by foot, from Georgia and other parts of the South, out west to Oklahoma, the territory designated for them by Washington. The full number of people who made the journey is still up for debate but it is quite possible that up to 100,000 were forced from their homes and ordered to move west. The number of Cherokee deaths ranges anywhere from several thousand to as high as 16,0000. Harsh winters, disease and famine combined to produce a deadly plague that took the lives of many. And for those that did survive the journey, their lives were never the same again. And to this day, they have never reclaimed the lives they once had.
In recent years, more U.S. States have taken the bold step of renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, recognizing the complicated and violent history America has with its Native American citizens. And if we are going to continue to move forward while acknowledging wrongdoing and correcting it, then we must first learn the true history of America’s birth.
This past Saturday was the fifty-fourth anniversary of the death of the late American playwright and author Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (1930-1965). Her untimely death at the age of thirty-four silenced one of literature’s greatest voices. However, more than fifty years after her death, her masterpiece, A Raisin In the Sun, continues draw audiences curious to learn why the play is one of the longest running on Broadway. I personally attended a run starring Denzel Washington and his portrayal as Walter Lee Younger is as good as the original performance by the legendary Sidney Poitier. For some, Hansberry remains a bit of a mystery. and a throwback to an era long past. The younger generation of today largely have yet to discover her genius and her influence on the African-American experience. And what many of them are unaware of is that five decades ago, she was a voice advocating for the many freedoms they have today. Sadly, it has taken many years for her to be recognized for the gifted writer that she was. As we come to know her work more intimately, we must ask ourselves, who was the real Lorraine Hansberry? Imani Perry searched for and found her in this semi-autobiography and psychoanalysis. The book is an examination of Lorraine’s thoughts and writings while also adding recollections of historical events filled with larger than life figures who are no longer with us today. But make no mistake, this is about Lorraine, the woman who changed Broadway.
Before I started the book, I was not sure what to expect. I had previously read a biography of Hansberry, Young, Black and Determined: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry, by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack and Lorraine’s published works. Surprisingly, this book takes a completely different approach in revisiting Hansberry’s life. The author does follow her life from beginning to end like a standard biography but where the book takes its own path is in the author’s excellent analysis of who Hansberry while breaking down each part of her life so that we may unravel the complicated layers that composed the dynamic figure. And like most popular figures gifted with talent, her life was anything but ordinary.
If you are expecting this book to read like a standard biography, this is not the case. In fact, things get very psychological as we step deep inside Lorraine’s mind to understand how she came to view the world she lived in. Jim Crow, Communism, homophobia and Vietnam were just some of the many topics she felt so passionately about. Her words were sharp, cutting right to the heart of the matter and her point was made, always unapologetic. Today she is viewed as a pioneer and visionary, but in her era, she was viewed as a radical who even attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). But such was the character of Lorraine Hansberry, afraid of no one and nothing. Perry captures her fierceness and determination with a haunting accuracy that caused me to feel as if Lorraine was alive and speaking directly to me. In addition, throughout the book, I could not help but feel a strong sense of loss over the death of Hansberry, a woman who died many years before my birth. But those feelings are a testament to her gift and legacy which continues to thrive.
There is one subject in the book that I feel deserves special mention. For many years, rumors have persisted about Hansberry’s sexuality. We know that she was once married to Robert Nemiroff (1929-1991), who worked dutifully to preserve her legacy all the way up until his final days. But from Perry’s research and Lorraine’s own words, I believe the rumors can be put to rest once and for all as her true feelings are clearly shown. Fittingly, Hansberry’s sexuality is a key component to her work and the story at hand. Perry handle the subject perfectly, making sure not to let it dominate the story or detract from it. And that is one of the true hallmarks of a good biographer.
To say that Hansberry’s life was eventful is an understatement. This is her life, a story filled with love, civil rights, fame, loneliness and tragedy. She was far from simple and it is clear that from everyone that knew her, she was unique and one of those rare people who come into your life and change it forever. It is my sincere hope that more young men and women continue to discover her work and learn about her life. For Black-Americans, she is sometimes a forgotten voice in a power movement that changed the United States and countries around the world. If you have the time, take a journey with Imani Perry and go looking for Lorraine.
June 5, 1968 – Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) (D-New York) concludes his speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California after scoring a critical primary victory in his quest for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. As he walked through the pantry while exiting the hotel, he was shot and mortally wounded. Twenty-six hours later in the early morning hours of June 6, 1968, his life and the dream he inspired came to a tragic conclusion. He is survived by his widow Ethel and eleven children, the youngest of whom was born after his death. Her name is Kerry Kennedy and along with brother Robert, Jr., she keeps her father’s memory alive and well. Her book Robert F. Kennedy: Ripples of Hope: Kerry Kennedy in Conversation with Heads of State, Business Leaders, Influencers, and Activists about Her Father’s Impact on Their Live is a fitting tribute to her late father’s life and is yet another testament to the profound influence he had on those who knew him and even those who never met him. His alleged murderer Sirhan Sirhan, remains incarcerated at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County, California. The official narrative paints a picture of Sirhan being a deranged lunatic determined to murder Kennedy at all costs. He was initially sentenced to life in prison after his conviction but several years later, his sentence was commuted to life. In the eyes of many, he is the man who killed Kennedy in an open and shut case. But there have always been questions surrounding Sirhan’s actions that night that cause many to pause before proclaiming his guilt. Did Sirhan Sirhan really act alone and did he fire the shots that took Kennedy’s life?
Tim Tate and Brad Johnson have taken another look at one of America’s most tragic murders fifty years after Kennedy gave his last speech, examining the crime from start to finish. And in the process they have raised many questions which have never been answered by the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”) or the State of California. In fact, what we can see very clearly, is an investigation full of missteps, inaction and disturbingly, outright deceit by law enforcement. The investigation became a mixture of destruction of evidence, stonewalling and witness intimidation as the LAPD focused its attention on Sirhan with the intention of convicting him at all costs. But as Tate and Johnson show, there were many reason to doubt Sirhan’s guilt and proof that more than one gunman was in the pantry area that night. While they do not provide a smoking gun as to who the shooter may be, they do establish that there was more that occurred that night than police were willing to admit. And Sirhan may not have been the person he has been portrayed to be. We know that he did discharge a gun that night, but the authors have given reasons to believe here, that none of his bullets struck Kennedy.
As I read through the book, at times I could not believe my eyes. Similar to the murder of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Bobby’s death became shrouded in controversy as rumors swirled of a conspiracy. At the center of the many conspiracies is the infamous woman in the polka dot dress. The authors examine her role in the matter and give a strong explanation regarding her possible identity. Readers curious about the mystery woman will find Fernando Faura’s The Polka Dot File on the Robert Kennedy Killing: Paris Peace Talks Connection a good read regarding this infamous figure who official remains unidentified and ignored by supporters of Sirhan’s guilt. However, the authors have shown that not only did multiple witnesses see the woman, some had personal encounters with her, including Sandra Serrano, a worker in Kennedy’s campaign. Her experience with LAPD investigators is one of the most bizarre parts of the story but also reveals an important clue about the department’s motives in streamlining the investigation. We may never know who the woman in the polka dot dress is or was, but what is clear is that she was not a figment of anyone’s imagination.
Previously, I had read material on Kennedy’s murder but this assessment of the assassination, revealed many things which I did not have prior knowledge of. Sirhan’s trial was an easy win for prosecutors as they successful painted Sirhan with the image of a lone gunman with a deadly fixation on Kennedy. As the shadow of Dallas hung over the trial, authorities made sure Sirhan was tried and convicted as expeditiously as possible. However, there was one aspect of the trial that no one could completely put to rest which would come back to haunt the case until this very day. Sirhan’s claim of having no memory of the shooting was at first dismissed but as the authors show, there was and is strong evidence to support this theory. And at this point in the book, the story kicks into high gear as a cast of characters appear including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). And we are forced to ask, was Sirhan a “Manchurian Candidate”? To some, the idea sounds like another crack pot theory. But as Tate and Johnson show, the CIA actively engaged in mind control through several different programs it admitted to conducting, the most well-known being MK ULTRA. I would like to stress the fact that the authors never claim to have a smoking gun regarding Kennedy’s death. However, they do succeed in providing ample evidence provides a strong basis for a new investigation into the murder of Robert Francis Kennedy.
If you are curious about Kennedy’s murder or have studied it previously, then this book is a must have. To say it is mind-blowing is an understatement. The authors pull no punches, leaving the reader with chills as they show the side of the investigation police never intended for the public to see. Highly recommended.
The Declaration of Independence of the then Thirteen States of America, is often looked upon as inspiration for what liberty truly means. The second paragraph drives home the point with the following words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The words, when taken at face value, give off the impression of a country in which one can truly be free. But we very well know through history, that the opposite has been true, millions of people, in particular Black Americans have had to endure a long and hard struggle to achieve equality in the United States. Two weeks from today, America remembers the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) and his view for a United States in which its citizens were truly united. Great strides have been made since Dr. King’s death, but by no means should his legacy be forgotten. Congressman John Lewis (D-Atlanta) was a close associate of Dr. King’s and today he is one of the remaining figures from the Civil Rights Movement. Many of his peers are deceased but today at seventy-eight years of age, he is still serving in the U.S. House of Representatives continuing to fight for what he believes is the direction to the move the United States forward. At first glance he is unassuming but if you study his life and words closer, you will soon learn that this remarkable figure has an extraordinary story to tell about his participation in the movement for racial equality.
When we think of the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis is typically not the first figure many would have in mind. With his short stature and plain image, he appears to be the loving grandfather on the neighborhood block rather than the activist he was and still is. But just how did a young kid from the country in Georgia go on to be a pivotal figure in the movement that changed America? The answer to that question and many others about Lewis’ life are contained within the pages of this autobiography that is sure to leave the reading asking for more. In fact, I found it increasing difficult to stop reading the book once I had started. With Lewis’ easy-flowing narrative and endless anecdotes about himself and some of the most legendary figures America has ever seen, the book transplants the reader back in time to witness how a cause became a national and world-wide struggle against discrimination.
One of the things that I found likeable about the book is Lewis’ openness about his own shortcomings. He never portrays himself to be above anyone or all-knowing. In fact, he easily recalls the times in which he was lacking in knowledge, overcome with fear of his opponents and reluctance to partake in the cut-throat world of politics. Quite frankly, he has walked the walk and talked the talk, risking his life in sit-ins, marches and voter registration drivers in the deep American south, culminating with the showdown with the virulent racist Sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, Jim Clark. (1922-2007). In fact, the events Lewis recalls, are also discussed in the book by another of his close associates, Ralph David Abernathy (1926-1990). His autobiography and memoir of the movement was appropriately titled And the Walls Came Tumbling Down . Both authors played an important part in those events and do not fail to explain in full detail how they developed and why they were important. I highly recommend that book as a complement to Lewis’ story.
Similar to Abernathy’s book, King is a critical character in the story and both authors show how important King was to the movement at hand. What is also revealed, particularly here is the complicated power struggles within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Infighting, jealously and egos all play their parts in the story revealing the sometimes fragile relationships at the base of the movement. Misogyny, homophobia and even racism against White Americans became the tools that turned the SCLC into a shell of its former self. The assassinations of the 1960s convinced many that nothing could ever be the same again. Lewis addresses all of them and his relationship to several of the late figures. Students of the movement will recall that Lewis eventually became part of the campaign by Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) for President of the United States. His memories of Kennedy are touching and is yet another example of the extreme sense of loss that following in the wakes of the assassinations that became all to common in the turbulent 1960s.
Today it is nearly impossible for youths to imagine what life was like for Black Americans during Jim Crow and later, even as President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) pushed forward an earth-shattering civil rights bill. As Lewis puts it, raw fear was a daily reality in a time where social justice warriors sometimes died early deaths and authorities used every trick in the book to maintain a strict social structure of power. His ability to fair in the book and examine every situation from all sides has earned him followers and detractors but here, Lewis explains himself, leaving it up to the reader to digest his words and perhaps use them in a positive way. What I found equally important as the story at hand is his messages to Black Americans as well. Change in society must come from all places, and only then can a nation truly move forward. John Lewis has spent the majority of his life fighting for equality on behalf of those who sometimes have no other voice. His eyes have seen some of the most important events in history and he is a living testament to the strong character common to his peers who became world-respected figures in their own right.
If you are looking for a good read about the Civil Rights Movement, this is a fine place to start where you can follow John Lewis as he is walking with the wind.
It is difficult to put into words, the polarizing effect of the trial of O.J. Simpson had on America. The ugly history of racism took center stage as lead attorney Johnnie Cochran (1937-2005) formed a defense based on it and the prosecution under the guidance of lead attorney Marcia Clark, sought to exclude it. The crime was beyond brutal and contained a level of savagery that caused a twitch even in the most hardened of stomachs. Photos of the crime scene are available on the internet in all of their shocking and gory details. I vividly recall the car chase that played out on the television screen as the Los Angeles Police Department followed Simpson’s white Ford Bronco. The truck later became fodder for parody but at the time, caused bewilderment as everyone wondered where on earth Simpson could be going. When he was acquitted of murder, loud cheers could be heard throughout the school. To many of us, it seemed unfathomable that Simpson, the gridiron great could have committed such a heinous crime. Further, the L.A. Riots remained fresh on our minds and the video footage of the beating of Rodney King, a reminder of the fragile co-existence between the police and Black communities across the country. To some, the justice system had worked and we knew O.J. was innocent. Or did we? Were we assuming his innocence based on his skin color and our need for a hero? Or was it, as some believed, a chance to “get even” with the system? The trial was many things but above all it was surreal.
The moment when Simpson was asked to try on the gloves found at the scene, is among the most intense in television history. Cochran’s famous line “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”, has become a classic catch phrase that instantly recalls memories of the trial. For prosecutor Christopher Darden, it was a pivotal moment in the case that changed the course of the trial. Legal experts thought it was a mistake. Even Darden’s own team had wanted to stay clear of it, but the seasoned prosecutor held to his belief that it would happen at some point and there was only one way to be sure. After the trial, he slowly faded out the public light but has continued to serve the county of Los Angeles as a dedicated prosecutor. Initially, he had resisted writing a book but slowly came to terms with the fact that he did have a story to tell, one that is just as important as co-counsel Marcia Clark’s “Without a Doubt” . And this is Darden’s show, he is here not only to talk about O.J. Simpson, but about his private life which many people had very little knowledge of.
The book begins as an autobiography as Darden goes back to his childhood in the town of Richmond, California as the fourth child out of a total of eight children. From an early age, he forms a tight bond with his late brother Michael and the two quickly become known as trouble. In fact, some of Darden’s revelations regarding his youth might cause the reader to wonder how he became a star prosecutor. The answer is here and Darden minces no words about his many mishaps and errors in judgment as a youth and even as an adult. Bu throughout the book, he remains focused on the story at hand, never letting the pace slow down and bore the reader. His story picks up pace from the moment it begins and keeps building momentum. Darden finds his calling in law, working his way through law school while becoming a father and learning about life in ways he could have never expected. And his career as a prosecutor might have remained the way it was if not for the grisly murders of Nicole Brown Simpson (1959-1994) and Ronald Goldman (1968-1994).
As Darden explains, he had a feeling he would become part of the O.J. trial and he was right, except he could not have foreseen just how involved he would be. From the moment jury selection begins, it is clear that this trial will be one for the ages but Darden is not one to back down and as we follow him back in time to revisit the past, we are able to see the case from another angle, that of the man known as the “African-American prosecutor”. Cochran would throw the race card into every angle the case and the introduction of notorious detective Mark Fuhrman would ultimately prove to be one of the nails in the prosecution’s coffin. In fact, the battle of race, would pit Cochran and Darden against each other with both receiving death threats. Like a master narrator, Darden goes over what went right in the trial and what went horribly wrong. Further, he explains how and why many decisions were made even in the face of clear adversity. But he is a dedicated prosecutor who believes in the wheels of justice. However, in a trial inflamed by race, the L.A. Riots, fame, domestic violence and distrust of the California legal system, those wheels would turn in much different ways. For Darden, it was the time in his life where he was always in contempt. This is a cold hard look at one of the most notorious and important trials in American history.