People's Lives : The Famous, the Infamous, and Do I Know You?
By David Pitt
Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon (Perseus, hardcover), by Justin Martin, is the first full-scale biography of the controversial consumer advocate -- and would-be U.S. president -- in a quarter century. Nader's had a rather interesting life: educated at Princeton (he focused on Eastern Studies and economics) and Harvard (law), he spent some of the early sixties travelling: Scandinavia, Latin America, Cuba, Russia. He became reasonably proficient in a number of languages, and was a keen observer of other cultures.
Back in the States, he quickly launched himself into consumer-advocacy; a paper on highway safety, written for the government's Labor Department, led to his huge bestseller, Unsafe At Any Speed, an indictment of auto manufacturers and the safety of their products. With this 'instant visibility,' his life's course was charted, and through the seventies and eighties he fought for one cause or another, becoming -- depending on how you feel about him -- either a tireless crusader for consumer rights or an incessant loudmouth who doesn't know when to take a breath. His recent presidential campaigns, similarly, have either been the natural culmination of a brilliant career, or an enormous joke. Either way, you can't deny the man is terrifically interesting.
Also terrifically interesting, and also a you-either-respect-him-or- laugh-at-him kinda guy, is Rupert Murdoch, the media giant who, beginning in the late sixties, began building one of the most impressive media empires that you could ever imagine. Neil Chenoweth's Rupert Murdoch (Crown, hardcover) chronicles the Australian's life, concentrating, appropriately, on the business deals that brought Murdoch so much attention. This is, after all, a man who bought newspaper companies as though he were a collector: The News of the World, the Sun, the Star tabloid, the New York Post, the Village Voice, the Boston Herald, the Chicago Sun-Times.
This is a guy who bought magazines (TV Guide), movie companies (20th Century-Fox), publishers (Harper and Row, William Collins). 'Murdoch,' Chenoweth writes, 'was fifty-four years old when he began his great adventure,' but what an adventure it's been. Murdoch emerges as a man deeply driven by his urge for conquest, deeply committed to turning a profit, and -- somehow, despite his rampant ravenousness -- deeply likeable.
For a life story that's a little more personal -- in fact it's subtitled 'A Personal Biography' -- check out Nobody's Perfect (Simon & Schuster, hardcover), Charlotte Chandler's wonderful book about Billy Wilder, the great American film director. If the name doesn't immediately ring a bell, here are some hints: Double Indemnity; Some Like It Hot; Irma La Douce; Stalag 17; Witness for the Prosecution; Sunset Boulevard. He directed all of these magnificent movies, and many others, too.
In many ways the book's an extended interview with Wilder; substantial chunks of it are Wilder telling us his own story, in his own words. And this is a splendid idea: Wilder, who started out as a screenwriter (first in Germany, then in the States), was there when moviemaking was in its infancy, and, as Hollywood grew, so did he. Wilder's biography is, in essence, a biography of Hollywood, and oh what a wonderful tale it is.
Another wonderful tale, because it's so darned charming, is Homesick (ReganBooks, hardcover), by Sela Ward. You might know her from her most recent television series, Once & Again, or perhaps from her six-year stint on Sisters, but this memoir is almost like a re-introduction. Here we see little of Ward the actress; Hollywood takes a back seat to her personal life.
This is the story of a Southern belle (Mississippi, to be precise), born into a loving family and taught traditional down-home values, a natural beauty who was a cheerleader, then a model, and then, as though it was the proper order of things, an actress. It's the story of a small-town girl who grew up, moved to the big city, did some big-city things, but who never quite left the small town. She returns there now, as often as she can. There's no backstage gossip here, no momentous revelations, and that's just fine. Instead we have someone who loves her family, loves her job, and who values the peace and simplicity of the place where she was brought up. Such a nice change from the usual fame-is-everything Hollywood autobio.
There are no momentous revelations in A Daring Young Man (Knopf, hardcover), either, and that's fine, too. But John Leggett's biography of William Saroyan, the American short-story-writer-playwright-screenwriter-novelist (in roughly that order), is, like all good writers' biographies, chock full o' nuggets that any budding author will devour. Here was a man so convinced of his own talents that nothing could stop him; a man whose gifts were so rare that editors and publishers nearly bent over backwards to keep him writing.
Saroyan, who gave the world The Time of Your Life (which won him a Pulitzer Prize) and The Human Comedy, not to mention fistfuls of short stories as exquisite as any polished gem, was, like most of his contemporaries, a working writer. He had to write if he wanted to make money. A Daring Young Man is a portrait of a man whose job was also his inspiration, and his passion.
Speaking of working writers, here's First Job (PublicAffairs, hardcover), a memoir by Rinker Buck, the veteran reporter-turned-magazine-editor-turned-publisher. In his early twenties, fresh out of school, he fluked his way into a job on The Berkshire Eagle, a country newspaper that was among the most respected in the country. A paper that won Pulitzers, and launched the careers of many noted journalists, the Eagle was Buck's home for only a couple of years, but it was there that Buck learned the skills that he'd use for the rest of his life. Imagine, if you will, the television series Lou Grant re-set in a Massachusetts country paper, and you'll have a good sense of this hustling, bustling, hugely entertaining memoir. Buck was a cub reporter, which meant he frequently got the stories no one else wanted to cover; but he learned from them all, turned from a boy who wanted to write into a man who was a writer.
Here's a different sort of writer's memoir: Toby Young's How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (Da Capo, hardcover). In 1995 Young, a British journalist and magazine editor (he co-founded The Modern Review), came to America. Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, had offered him a job. This was the top of the journalistic food chain; the merest thought of working at Vanity Fair set most writers to drooling. Young joined the staff, prepared for the best years of his life.
Two years later, it was over. He'd been fired. Now how does a guy who gave up everything back home in London survive in the New York world of freelance journalism? How does he keep his enthusiasm, and his self respect, as he takes one third-rate job after another, when he's already sat, briefly, at the top of the heap? Fast-paced, funny, and occasionally moving, this is the kind of book you give someone who looks like he's about to burn a few too many bridges behind him.
On the other hand, you can always give 'em The Trials of Lenny Bruce (Sourcebooks, hardcover), the story of a stand-up comedian who, apparently, never saw a bridge he couldn't burn, a man whose 'comic campaign to bleed racist words of their poisonous meanings' landed him, frequently, in jails and courtrooms -- a man who managed to attain such a level of popularity and respect that, nearly four decades after his death, he's still considered a cultural icon
This well-presented biography by Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover chronicles Bruce's professional life, from his early performing days as 'a living black-and-white Brylcreem ad' doing celebrity impersonations on the Arthur Godfrey Show in the late 1940s, through his mid-fifties shift from clean to cutting-edge in strip clubs and sleazy dives, to the controversy and obscenity trials that turned him from a performer to a soldier in the fight for freedom of expression. The book comes with an audio CD that contains several of Bruce's more famous routines (so you can get an idea of the kind of language that got him in so much hot water), actual testimony from Bruce's trials (he smuggled a tape recorder into the courtroom), and commentary from people like George Carlin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It's a splendid package.
For sports fans, there's Facing Ali (Knopf, hardcover), by sports journalist Stephen Brunt. You can build a pile of books written about Muhammad Ali, the world-famous boxer, but this is perhaps the only book that focuses solely on the fighters to stood against him in the ring. Here you'll find profiles of such notables as George Chuvalo; Joe Frazier, whose longstanding feud with Ali is the stuff of legend; and Ken Norton. Brunt travelled around the world, interviewing these men who, mostly by losing to him, helped build Ali into the legend he is.
Here, too, are people you may never have heard of, like Tunney Hunsaker, who met Ali in the young boxer's first professional fight; this was on Oct. 29, 1960, and Ali was still known as Cassius Clay. These days, Hunsaker can scarcely remember it; 'dementia,' Brunt writes, 'has robbed him of so many memories, and jumbled most of the rest.' The man who first fought Ali after he turned pro can't tell you what it was like, facing this young, brash, enormously talented man. That's sad. So, from time to time, is the book. It's also exhilarating, captivating, and endlessly engaging.
Also endlessly engaging, if a little kooky, is They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus (Bantam, hardcover), by Elizabeth Weil. Subtitled 'An Incurable Dreamer Builds the First Civilian Spaceship,' it's the story of Gary Hudson, who dreamed all his life of going into space. He was just a boy when Sputnik orbited the planet, a young man when Neil Armstrong gave his one-small-step speech. Hudson spent a quarter-century, beginning in 1970, building companies with a single purpose: to construct, and launch, a spaceship. In 1997, he formed Rotary Rocket, and set out once again to make his dream come true.
The book is Hudson's story, but it's also the story of his creation: the Roton, the world's first manned, reusable spaceship designed to lift regular folk -- not scientists, not researchers -- into orbit, and back, in a single day. A space-yacht, if you will, for day-trippers. Is Hudson crazy? A genius? Somewhere in the middle? Read the book, and decide for yourself.
Another story about inventors and their inventions is Brotherhood of the Bomb (Henry Holt, hardcover), by Gregg Herken. The bomb is, of course, the atomic bomb, the weapon of mass destruction that thrust the world into the nuclear age; the brotherhood is the trio of scientists who made the bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. Herken, who spent a decade putting this massively detailed book together, mixes biography and history seamlessly -- we not only learn who these men were, and the unique events that bonded them together; we learn about the world they lived in, a world of conquest and annihilation and...spies. It's a story that's never been told in quite this way.
Finally, for biography readers on your list, there's Genius (Warner, hardcover), Harold Bloom's rather nifty collection of 'one hundred exemplary creative minds.' Here are Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Goethe, Mann; Nietzsche, Kafka, Chekhov, Wilde; Donne, Pope, Melville, Woolf; Blake, Lawrence, Rilke; Dickens, Dostoevsky, Ellison.
The essays are short, lightly scholarly, and offer both a capsule biography of the subject and a brief appreciation of his or her works. Bloom, an eminent literary critic, explores the very notion of genius: what it is to possess it, and how rare it truly is. Bloom has always had a knack for making the most potentially-stodgy material come to life, and this is no exception: in someone else's hands, Genius could have been a dull, tiresome tome, the sort of thing they make you read in first-year university courses. Instead it's lively, intellectually exciting, and supremely enlightening.
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