Stalin’s Daughter

The Book of the Week is “Stalin’s Daughter” by Rosemary Sullivan, published in 2015. This biography tells of the life and times of someone who could not escape her father’s shadow. As is pretty well known, Joseph Stalin, of Soviet Georgian origin, was a twentieth-century world leader who committed untold atrocities for decades, during which his country ended up on the winning side of WWII.

Born in February 1926, Stalin’s daughter was given the first name Svetlana, but her last name kept changing later in life, pursuant to her marriages and desire for anonymity. In order to run his brutal dictatorship of her birth country, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, her father formed a cult– an atmosphere of fear and loathing with himself an object of worship. Soviet citizens who had seen peoples and cultures other than their own developed a split personality because in their hearts, they knew they were living a lie. “Many Red Party members were seen at their dacha but mysteriously disappeared through the 1930’s.”

There was a 23-year age difference between Svetlana’s mother and father. The older one, her father, was 48 when she was born. She, although receiving what was thought to be the best of everything while growing up, was sheltered from many truths, such as the real cause of the death of her mother when she was six. As was common in wealthy families of that era, she got a nanny, governess, and tutors until she started attending school. She was taught German and Russian at an early age.

In the autumn of 1937, Svetlana was assigned a bodyguard, who stuck to her like glue. Her whole life was seen by that bodyguard, and she was forced to terminate relationships with friends whose parents had shown any signs of political leanings adverse to Stalin.

In the late 1930’s, Stalin “purged” his own in-laws– employees of the State Bank. When Svetlana was seventeen and a half years old, she was tested on assembling a rifle as part of the final exam her first year of college. When her son was four years old, he met with his grandfather Stalin for the first time. As an adult, her father had always provided her with luxurious housing– a four-room apartment with a private kitchen, unlike most folks who shared their kitchens and bathrooms and had one-room apartments with plywood separations.

In March 1953, ironically due to a murderous policy perpetrated by Stalin himself– the “Doctor’s Plot”– Stalin failed to receive possible life-saving medical treatment for his arteriosclerosis and later, stroke. Svetlana’s father might have died, but his ghost lived on to sully her reputation for the rest of her life. No matter that she constantly changed her geographic location, her Soviet mentality was evident. Regarding her friendships, she expected 100% loyalty and reciprocity. She adopted a “go big or go home” attitude in hiring former professional mentors and coaches to help her younger daughter learn piano, drawing, swimming and horseback riding. They attended many social events at which her fourteen-year old daughter was a party to numerous customary drinking-toasts, and was a marriage prospect in Tbilisi.

Read the book to get what is probably a more comprehensive picture of the life of Stalin’s daughter in one volume, than any other.

inventing late night

The Book of the Week is “inventing late night (sic), Steve Allen and the original tonight show (sic)” by ben alba, published in 2005.  This slightly sloppily edited book tells how Steve Allen created the format for late night talk shows on American television, starting in the early 1950’s.

When television was in its infancy, Allen’s original ad-libbing and off-the-wall physical comedy made audiences laugh through the 1950’s.  However, since history is written by the most prolific propagandists, and Allen was modest and less than aggressive at self-promotion, other entertainment-industry moguls such as Johnny Carson and his ilk, bragged that they were the ones amusing Americans in an unprecedented way on their late-night talk shows. David Letterman was one of the few who attributed his show’s stunts to Allen’s ideas.

In autumn 1954, Pat Weaver, president of NBC, gave Allen free rein to do whatever he wanted on his new, unrehearsed, live (!) program, “Tonight!” What resulted was an unscripted variety show featuring insane stunts, a band, singers, celebrity guests, news and theater reviews. In planning each weeknight’s episode, Allen would loosely specify the number of minutes of each segment– but continue with a segment if it got a great audience response, and cut the next act on the spot. If the show was a bit slow, he would go into the audience to converse with them.  Every minute of airtime was unpredictable. The only segment that was usually predictable, was the music.

Unfortunately, episodes of the taped, live shows were later incinerated due to lack of storage space at the network. Shortly after the airing of the show, the only way for the general public and cast and crew to get a recording was to buy one– a kinescope for $160. The singers made about $300 a week.

Eydie Gorme had this to say: “All of us working singers would go the Brill Building [in Manhattan] and get all the new sheet music, which they gave you free in those days.” Other celebrities who appeared on the show and were interviewed for this book, lamented that of late, performers of recent decades have resorted to obscenity and vulgarity to elicit cheap laughs from the audience, because they lack talent and creativity. Sadly, most audience members are unaware that their intelligence is being insulted. Even so, the younger ones are unaware of how high Steve Allen set the bar for quality entertainment.

Even more impressive– Allen’s show had TWO writers and twenty band members, while nowadays, late-night shows have TWENTY writers and five or six band members.

Read the book to learn the specifics of Allen’s stunts, antics, routines and style, and what changed when he started a second talk show simultaneously with what became “The Tonight Show.”

Murder in the Stacks

The Book of the Week is “Murder in the Stacks” by David DeKok, published in 2014.  This book describes the November 1969 murder of Betsy Aardsma– Penn State University graduate student– and provides extensive biographical information on the prime suspect in the case.

In 1969, Penn State was Pennsylvania’s largest public university, with almost 26,000 students. The library where Aardsma died contained the resources required for completing research papers for English classes. It was a sprawling, dark place where anyone off the street could engage in illicit activities involving sex or drugs, and often did. There was no security like there would be nowadays.

Aardsma made serious sacrifices to be somewhat geographically close to her then-boyfriend, a doctor in training. She turned down a Peace Corps tour in Sierra Leone, and applying to medical school, before she decided to become an English teacher instead. She was counseled by her family to get her master’s degree at Penn State because at that time, ironically, there was a serial killer of female students on the loose at the University of Michigan, the school she would have attended.

The murder investigation was a cluster screw-up. The police interviewed thousands of students and professors. The person thought to have committed the crime escaped notice due to the circumstances. If the investigators had done a better job, they would have learned that as a pedophile, he had a history of trouble with the law. However, with regard to past incidents, he got off because the victims or their families failed to call the police, so he had no arrest record for a long time. Additionally, the 1960’s perception of his monstrous behavior was simply a matter of indecency. There was insensitivity with regard to the victims– little thought was given to the traumatic toll of sex crimes on the psyches of the victims.

Read the book to learn many details of the life of the suspect– about whom much more was known than those of the victim– and the outcome of the case.

Francis Bacon

The Book of the Week is “Francis Bacon, The Temper of A Man” by Catherine Drinker Bowen, published in 1963. This biography describes the life and times of an English aristocrat born in 1561.

When Bacon was in his late teens, his father died. His older brother got the lion’s share of the estate. Bacon was an arrogant debtor, always blaming others for his debt. Nevertheless, he continued to maintain the standard of living to which he was accustomed, thanks in part to his uncle– who was immensely wealthy with a global network of contacts and a collection of mansions with hundreds of rooms.

England in the 1570’s was a nation of four million fronted by Queen Elizabeth. It was still seen as a primitive backwater, “…her native tongue rude, her food and wines execrable… No less than eight hundred men, women and children were hanged each year… maybe for picking a pocket or stealing a sheep.” Deaths from disease were rampant.

The church elders at Trinity College, Cambridge– where Bacon started his higher education at thirteen years of age (not uncommon for his generation)– thought more truth could be found in faith than in knowledge.  Bacon, an extremely intellectually curious lad, a budding grand thinker and passionate, prolific writer, disagreed. “Beyond the first row of the House of Commons were men unlike Bacon, nonintellectuals who knew more of hounds, horses and crops than of Latin and philosophy.”

During Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the custom was to arrange a marriage between next door neighbors so as to enlarge the families’ estates and wealth. Bacon finally wed in 1606 to a fourteen year old girl. He was 45.

In 1620, Bacon published a fictional story whose plot mentioned many of the advances in humanity he anticipated, such as the existence of institutions of higher learning that would perform empirical research in the “hard” sicences. It was written in Latin so that all of Europe could read it.

Read the book to learn about the ups and downs of Bacon’s legal career, and how he became one of the first victims of the beginning of reform for England’s political system in the 1620’s.

Rebel Without Applause

The Book of the Week is “Rebel Without Applause” by Jay Landesman, published in 1987. This ebook-autobiography has a few slightly distracting misspellings, but reveals the zeitgeist of Landesman’s generation.

Landesman was born in 1920. The talents of the author and his two brothers and sister differed considerably. Thus, he and his siblings got along well, as they weren’t in competition. However, his mother had control issues, so his parents opened separate antique shops; his mother in St Louis, and his father in Houston.

Landesman became distracted from the family business, and got into magazine publishing in New York. He co-founded “Neurotica”– launched in March 1948.  The publication contained articles of famous writers’ anxieties to which readers could relate. Sex was a taboo topic of discussion but violence was all the rage.

In 1949, Landesman dared to ask for a divorce from his first wife. Describing himself as a “respectable Jewish boy” he later met someone new, who had looked up his family in “Dun & Bradstreet”– the  keeper of the data in those days.

Landesman had two sons with his second wife, Fran. Their wealth allowed them to hire a nanny. “We were like any other ordinary American family enjoying the Ed Sullivan Show. Instead of a six-pack, we shared a couple of joints.”

Read the book to learn of what later transpired with the author’s second wife, about their collaboration on theater productions, his relationship with Lenny Bruce, and where the family moved to and why.

The View From the Vue

The Book of the Week is “The View From the Vue” by Larry Karp, originally published in 1977. This is the personal account of a medical intern at Bellevue Hospital in New York City in the 1960’s. The place had a reputation for treating poor, mentally ill patients, as well as the medical facility to which lazy doctors from other facilities transferred poor patients.

The author related a series of anecdotes of the kinds of patients who frequented the hospital and the experience he received in diagnosing their sometimes then-rare ailments, such as abdominal pregnancy, and common ailments– J-O Rat Paste and lead poisonings. He also related a few interesting factoids of that bygone era, like “In these days, the name cards on the foot of each bed were color-coded according to the religion of the patient. Blue was the Jewish color.”

Read the book to learn of how his wife was allowed to assist him in his work as an unpaid intern of sorts (a situation that would never exist these days), and what transpired when he developed sleep-deprivation syndrome.

Frank & Charli

The Book of the Week is “Frank & Charli” by Frank Yandolino, published in 2016. This is the (imperfectly edited) double biography of a married couple, or rather a name-dropping bragfest recounted mostly by the husband (Frank), who was a project manager for artistic and musical celebrities from the 1960’s to date.

Frank believed the secret to his success has been his opportunism, ability to be innovative, be himself and trusted by his clients. His wife Charli, the love of his life, served as his loyal and competent assistant during most of his endeavors, some of which were failures.

Frank thought that “Woodstock” was a major event in American cultural history . “The Woodstock Nation was supposed to be the birth of a new generation, a generation of Green Peace (sic), Save the Whales, and No More War.” Sadly, a few attempts were made to re-enact the event on anniversaries, but two of its major organizers had a falling out after the original, and were not on speaking terms.

Frank feels that unhappiness stems from phoniness– “Facebook is a place that narcissists use to post how they want to be seen.” Read the book to learn how Frank and Charli stayed happy together through the decades.

Butterfly in the Rain

The Book of the Week is “Butterfly in the Rain, The 1927 Abduction and Murder of Marion Parker” by James L. Neibaur, published in 2016. This short ebook recounts a gruesome crime and the aftermath, that occurred in late 1927 in Los Angeles, California.

The fame of this sensational case was comparable to that of O.J. Simpson’s. However, the newspaper, rather than television, was the medium through which the nation was riveted by the unfolding story. The case involved a child and plenty of controversy. Read the book to learn the details.

Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City

The Book of the Week is “Jerry Orbach, Prince of the City” by John Anthony Gilvey, published in 2011. This is a biography of multi-genre actor Jerry Orbach.

In 1985, at 50 years old, Orbach chose to pursue roles in the fickle world of TV and movies to achieve fortune and fame, instead of a secure income on Broadway, where he would have much less fame. Luckily, he hit it big with the surprisingly successful 1987 movie Dirty Dancing. He received 1% of the gross revenue of the movie. After that, he started to play a slew of bit parts on TV. Thus, people recognized his face on the street, but did not know his name. That is, until he became a major character on “Law and Order” in autumn of 1992. Unfortunately, cancer cut his career short.

Read the book to learn more about Orbach’s fabulous career and personal relationships.

Fischer Spassky, The New York Times Report

The Book of the Week is “Fischer Spassky, The New York Times Report on the Chess Match of the Century” by Richard Roberts, with Harold Schoenberg, Al Horowitz and Samuel Reshevsky, published in 1972.

This short paperback describes “… Channel 13’s exhaustive television coverage of the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky match…” which consisted of “analyses, interviews, demonstrations and illuminating asides.”

The world’s top chess players can analyze, say, six moves ahead. Each of those moves, has, say, six possible moves, so they play their moves pursuant to a complex decision tree.

Here is one simple tip to remember about the how the rook moves as opposed to how the bishop moves: The rook moves only from side to side and up and down because it is too wide to move diagonally, whereas the bishop’s slim waist means it moves only diagonally.

The best tournament players are called “grandmasters” and at the book’s writing, there were about ninety of them in the entire world. The international central authority for chess, Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE), based in Paris, was started in 1924. At the tail end of the 1960’s, FIDE held an “Interzonal” competition to determine the next chess champion of the world. The Interzonal games were played in places like Palma de Mallorca, Spain; Vancouver, Canada; Seville, Spain; the Canary Islands; Sochi, on the Baltic Sea in Russia and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Boris Spassky, a 32 year old journalist from Leningrad, became the new champion. The champions had been of Soviet origin since 1948.

The title had to be defended every three years. Thus in early 1971, countries started to bid on the prize money, and on the chance to host the final round of championship games. The setting up of the physical environment for play was taken very seriously. There was a 300 pound mahogany table, and “… hand-carved John Jacques & Sons chess pieces that had been flown in from England.” There were about 2,500 spectators at the event.

A soap opera transpired for months prior to the actual competition. That took place in the summer of 1972, between Fischer and Spassky, who both behaved like drama queens in negotiating where and when they would play their approximately twenty-game series. The former was a bit more demanding and exacting about various issues– such as the prize money, and cameras and noise in the room–  as he was paranoid and had extreme control issues. The latter was under tremendous pressure by the Soviet government to win, as a win would show the Soviets’ continuing superiority in the world. Read the book to learn all the details, including who won.