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“Zelda: A Biography” by Nancy Milford

I tried to read this book during Banned Books Week 2011, as F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the most frequently challenged authors around.  However, as I was mere weeks away from delivering a baby, it got cast aside back onto the bookcase, where it’s just chilled out ever since.

I probably should have tried a little harder to read it a year ago — because this is some good reading.

Zelda Fitzgerald was a train wreck.

Of course, many book nerds are already aware of this.

Me, I knew she was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “crazy” wife, the woman to whom “The Great Gatsby” is dedicated, and considered by many to be the original flapper.

Here are some things I DIDN’T know about Mrs. Fitzgerald until I read Nancy Milford’s thorough and engaging biography.

  • Zelda HATED Ernest Hemingway, who had a bit of a bromance with F. Scott.  She even called him “bogus,” which is a word that isn’t used nearly enough.
  • Zelda, above all things, loved the ballet, and – as an adult – dedicated herself fully to being a professional dancer, even to the point of exhausting herself.
  • Zelda was a talented writer, probably even on par with her husband in many respects.
  • Zelda was a schizophrenic.

Born in the south and raised an Alabama debutante, Zelda was a playgirl with a load of boyfriends who met and fell passionately in love with her husband, and the two became celebrities before she was even 21.  Hanging in glittery circles with all sorts of luminous famous friends, the Fitzgeralds drank to excess and fought like the Dickens.  They also had a baby girl, but she was really (sadly) quite inconsequential to their story. There was jealousy and fighting and finally Zelda wound up committed to an institution and diagnosed as bi-polar.  Zelda died in Hollywood in 1948, when the hospital she was checked into caught on fire.

Nancy Milford’s biography relates the tragic tale of this promising woman’s life in the very best of ways, by letting the letters, journals, newspaper articles, and the stories written by the Fitzgeralds do the talking.  The biographer never seems to get in the way of this tale, which is a good thing.  The book flies by, and leaves you with a sense that this was a life that didn’t have to end with so little to show for itself.

It reminds me a little of the opening line to the musical, “Chicago,” which is also about the jazz age.

“You are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery—all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts.”

Well, at least there wasn’t murder.

“Catherine the Great” by Robert K. Massie

Robert K. Massie knows a thing or two about writing biographies. Dude won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Peter the Great, so it should be no surprise that his most recent work, “Catherine the Great,” is a spectacularly crafted work of non-fiction.

Catherine (who was actually born Sophia) rises from a lower-level Princess to Empress of Russia, thanks to her savvy understanding that in order to attain the position of power she desires, she must humor her strange and childlike husband, Peter III.  (He’d rather play with toy soldiers in bed than deal with more intimate matters.  Yeah, he’s a wackjob.)  It’s Peter’s assassination that makes her empress, and takes her from being a girl living a Cinderella in jail life to Empress of the land.  Along the way, she finds herself gaining a parade of lovers, becoming one of the most prolific art collectors in the world, as well as a political powerhouse.

And, she was a book nerd.  (Even a friend of Voltaire.)

And, her crown also had a 389 carat ruby in it.  Beat that.

There’s court intrigue, seduction, political plays, and children out of wedlock.  Also, there’s a heck of an emotional grande dame/diva in the form of Elizabeth, Peter’s aunt and the previous Empress. Coming off like a nurturing version of Cruella DeVille, Elizabeth is a train wreck of mood swings, ego, and tricks.  Still, she remains a better mother to Catherine than Catherine’s actual biological mother Justine.  Justine, and her own issues, are also documented in this book.  With a history of family issues and complications, Catherine’s struggles with her own children – Nicholas and Alexander, of course – are also detailed.

Massie’s book, pulled from Catherine’s own memoir and letters, is a beast.  It’s also fascinating, and a fast read despite it’s size. It’s definitely one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.

Check out NPR’s feature on Massie, and read an excerpt of “Catherine the Great.”

Miss Nesbit, Recollected – “American Eve” by Paula Uruburu

For those (like me) who only know Evelyn Nesbit as a character in E.L. Doctorow’s brilliant novel “Ragtime” (or the wonderful musical based off it) I encourage you to get this book in your hands right now.

For those who have no idea who Evelyn Nesbit was, but like their American history/biographies seedy, sexy, and twisted, this is also a book for you.

In 1900, Evelyn Nesbit was sixteen.  She was also considered the most beautiful woman in America.  Photographed and painted by artists and photographers, and causing a stir in roles in shows, Evelyn was the original “It” girl.

Behind the gorgeous face was a young woman with issues.  After her father’s death, her mother had a hard time supporting Evelyn and her younger brother. So, when Evelyn started making money as a model, it seemed the answer to a prayer.  Little did the family know the circles that young Evelyn would soon be running in.  Lusted after by millionaires and caught up in their perversions, this was a young woman who had to grow up incredibly fast.

After a twisted relationship with architect Stanford White, Evelyn wound up marrying a millionaire named Harry Thaw – unaware of the skeletons in Harry’s own closet. (Namely, a tendency to lure young boys and girls to his place, only to flog them.)  Driven insane by jealousy of Stanford’s having taken Evelyn’s virginity and “ruining her,” Thaw wound up shooting White in a theater full of people, thereby committing what was then known as “The Crime of the Century” and launching a trial to rival the O.J. Simpson trial.

Victorian society had it’s weird fascinations with youth and sex, and “American Eve” illuminates that while at the same time never crossing the line into truly creepy.  Uruburu clearly knows her subjects incredibly well, and shares the story in great detail and with great relish.  Evelyn, her mother, White, Thaw, and all the other characters mentioned are fascinating, and it’s literally a book you won’t be able to put down.

What a read! Wow!

Check(mate) this ego – “Endgame” by Frank Brady

I don’t know jack about chess.

Well, that’s not 100% true.  I know it’s a game with black and white squares and pieces.  I know that “checkmate” is the ultimate goal.  I also know there’s a musical (called “Chess”) about a chess match during the cold war, which is loosely based off Bobby Fischer.

There – That’s all I know of Chess and Mr. Fischer.

“Endgame,” Frank Brady’s new biography of Bobby Fischer, is a painstakingly researched story of a man who raised eyebrows at every turn, from his youthful mastery of an incredibly hard game to his later Anti-Semitic remarks and fleeing from the United States. Bobby Fischer was a complicated guy who remained an enigma until his death in Iceland in 2008.

Growing up in New York with his single mother, Bobby had only one interest – the game of Chess.  His obsession with the game led to his triumph, but a serious lack of social skills, a seriously inflated ego, and a hot temper nearly (and eventually) cost him everything. He turned his back on fame, became a recluse spouting conspiracy theories and hate-speech, and eventually found himself an ex-patriot of the U.S.A., finally having to seek asylum in Iceland, where he died out of the sight of a world still fascinated by him.

Brady takes it all step-by-step as he charts the rise of this wunderkind, and fortunately doesn’t go deep into the technical aspects of chess.  We, as readers, are given enough to know what was a mistake and what was a good move as far as Bobby’s countless games go, and it’s more than enough.  (There are a few parts of the book that get a little heavy anyway, due to the sheer number of chess matches detailed, but they’re easy to skim.) Fischer is an anti-hero the reader won’t necessarily root for, but he’s mesmerizing nonetheless.

It’s an interesting read about an intriguing person.  Who can ask for more from a biography?

(Interesting note:  One of Fischer’s classmates was a young girl named Barbra Streisand, who admits to having had a crush on the mysterious Fischer.  Who knew?)

“Endgame” will be in stores February 1, 2011.

Amelia in Life – “East to the Dawn” by Susan Butler

Granted, I’m certainly no expert, but I would have to think that Susan Butler’s “East to the Dawn – The Life of Amelia Earhart” would have to be among the most complete biographies of the legend ever written.

This marvelously detailed – and obviously exhaustively researched – biography charts the life of the noted feminist/aviator in such exquisite detail, I feel like I don’t have to read anything else about Ms. Earhart ever again.  It’s all in this book.

Though her death remains perhaps forever one of the world’s great mysteries, Amelia Earhart lived her life in the open. Plucky, intelligent, motivated, and whip-smart, she was a woman who came from humble beginnings and wound up setting aviation records, serving on the boards of prestigious organizations, and hobnobbing with celebrities.  President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were among her friends.  A feminist before the word was even invented, Amelia rocked the world with her style and brains, and laid the groundwork for female accomplishments in many fields.

“East to the Dawn” is packed with so much information about Amelia and the world around her, sometimes it gets a tad weighted down by it’s own stronghold of information. There’s a great deal of discussion about Amelia’s family, starting at her grandparents and trickling down into Amelia and her siblings, and it gets to be a tad much.  Though it’s certainly fascinating to hear about all the other women flyers who were making names for themselves around the same time, sometimes it seems like the list of them goes on for pages.

On the other hand, recalling the many accidents and crashes these early pilots (male and female alike) went through help showcase how dangerous flying was in it’s infancy.  Basically, you had a 50/50 shot of making it back.

However, I’m guessing that a thorough biography was Ms. Butler’s goal – and she wins.

Lots of details about the woman behind the legend are noted, too.  For example, though a slender woman, Amelia disliked her “fat ankles” which is why she was nearly always photographed in pants, which she helped pioneer as a woman’s fashion.  The details of her friendship/affair with Gene Vidal (father of Gore Vidal) is discussed, along with a note that Gene and Amelia’s husband, George, were actually friends the entire time. Did you know she wore men’s underwear while flying, as they were more comfortable than the silk underwear favored by women? I didn’t either!

Amelia Earhart’s last flight gets quite a bit of ink, as expected.  The book ends where the story ends – at least, the story that can be documented and proven.  We might never know what happened to Amelia, her navigator Fred Noonan, and her plane after they vanished somewhere over the Pacific, but “East to the Dawn” doesn’t waste pages on all the different theories swirling around. (Though a little bit is given to shoot down the theory that Amelia and Fred were captured by the Japanese to give American soldiers a reason to go search Japanese military bases, which has been disproven.) Instead, “East to the Dawn” ends rather suddenly and on a quick mention of the other early pilots who died attempting great feats of flight.  There are also a few mentions of female pilots who have made commemorative flights around the world following Amelia’s own course, in tribute.

For a well-written and complete biography of Amelia Earhart, this is your book.

(I picked this book up after stumbling into the last twenty minutes of the movie “Amelia” on HBO.  “East to the Dawn” is actually the biography that inspired the Hilary Swank/Richard Gere/Ewan McGregor film. Though the film was a little cheesy-seeming and screamed “Oscar-bait,” I think Hilary Swank was a perfect choice for the title role. )

Kenya, Orgies, and Idina Sackville – “The Bolter” by Frances Osbourne

Writer Frances Osbourne didn’t have to look far to find the a topic for a book.

She simply had to learn who her grandmother was.

In the twenties and thirties in Britain, women who fled their affluent marriages were called “Bolters.” This was a time with strict rules regarding the actions that did and didn’t affect a marriage.  For example, having other lovers was alright as long as you didn’t divorce your spouse.  Of all the crimes you could commit, bolting was the worst.

Still, women bolted.

Of all the Bolters, Idina Sackville was the most reported on, and the most notorious.

Not only did she leave her handsome (and philandering) husband and their two children, she fled to Kenya, of all places.  There, in the African desert, she became the most prominent member of a group of British folk who brought themselves to Kenya to indulge in wildly drunken parties and orgies.  Partner swapping, lewd parlor games, nothing was off limits for the Happy Valley set.  Women even wore pants! (Gasp!)

Idina Sackville was right in the center of it all.

Osbourne tells the story of her grandmothers life with a balanced eye.  Though she places emphasis on the fact that Idina was searching for something in all her partners and parties, she doesn’t condone leaving her children behind or many of the actions she and her circle of friends partook of. Idina is painted as a woman who desperately wanted love and affection, and would take it where she could get it.  She married five times in an attempt to find someone whose eyes would never wander, and never hesitated to leave the man behind should their attentions ever fade or stray.

“The Bolter” is an intriguing book that is made better by the real-life people that inhabit it.  A fiction writer could not have come up with a better cast.  For example, when you first meet Idina’s best friend Alice, it’s because Alice is having an affair with Idina’s husband.  Strangely, the two women become friends.  You never expect Alice to become almost as equal a fascinating character as she does. (How a woman shoots a man and herself, yet gets six months in jail and a fine of four dollars is something I will never forget, or be able to wrap my head around.)

This book proves that sometimes the world is so wacky that fiction just isn’t necessary.  Novelists would probably kill for a story like this one, and Osbourne unearthed it in her own lineage.

Behind the Bombshell – “Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe” by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment

“I guess I’m to [sic] emotional in the wrong spots.” – Marilyn Monroe.

After the death of Marilyn Monroe, her personal notes and possessions went to her acting coach and friend, Lee Strasberg.  When he died, they passed to his wife, Anna.  Unsure what to do with the items, Anna asked her friend Stanley Buchthal for advice.  Such began the story of “Fragments.”

“Fragments” is a beautifully produced collection of personal notes and photos of the beloved screen legend in her private time.

There are recipes and lists of songs and even a long-form poem that portrays Strasberg as a surgeon.  A few pages contain lines from some of her movies, scribbled in her handwriting, clearly having resonated to her for one reason or another.  The notes, scribbled on everything from hotel stationary to notebook paper, reveal an insecure and struggling woman who desperately wanted to improve herself.  (Hey, if the whole world thought of you only as a sexy blonde, wouldn’t you want to show them your smart side?)  Her notes are introspective and searching.  She wanted to be a better actress, and wanted to be someone worth being proud of.  (Meanwhile, there’s a particularly heartbreaking note written after she discovered her husband, Arthur Miller’s, journal, in which he’d written about how he was sometimes ashamed of her in front of more intellectual company.)

Marilyn writes in a wonderfully free and unpretentious way – not being aware of the rules, she didn’t have to obey them.  Her spelling wavers, and her handwriting is a bit chicken-scratchy, but her point is clear and unwavering.

The book is also decorated with numerous photos of Marilyn the book nerd, reading everything from James Joyce to Michael Chekhov’s “To the Actor,” and hanging with literary luminaries from Truman Capote to Carl Sandburg to Carson McCullers.

Reading “Fragments” admittedly felt a bit invasive.  These are private things I’m certain Ms. Monroe never intended to be published to the world.  However, they grant the world (a world still obsessed with her) a new understanding of the woman behind the legend. It’s an incredibly touching collection, beautifully bound and arranged. I’m delighted to have read it.

Here she is, boys! – “American Rose: The life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee” by Karen Abbott

Karen Abbott’s 2007 novel, “Sin in the Second City” was a sizzling look at prostitution in jazz-age Chicago.  The story of sister brothel owners Minna and Ada Everleigh and their Everleigh club, it was a fascinating history of America’s jacked up relationship with sex – we’re fascinated, yet repelled by it, and yet it’s a part of everyday adult life.

Following up that fantastic book, Karen Abbott (smart lady she is) stuck to the same basic idea.

“American Rose,” her newest book, is the story of Gypsy Rose Lee, arguably the biggest star of the 1920s.  More than just a stripper, she became iconic for tackling American sensibilities about sex, while simultaneously dealing with a family life that was more outrageous than anything that can be put onstage.

In the musical “Gypsy,” the story of the connected lives of Gypsy, her sister June, and their mother Rose is told in such a way that cheery songs frequently interrupt scenes and people’s actions are nearly always excusable.  Though there’s family drama, it’s almost all okay in the end.  The musical bears the subtitle,”A Musical Fable.”

Now, after reading Abbott’s wonderful book, I understand the need for the addition of a subtitle at all.

This lady’s life was not a joyride interrupted by bursts of song.

In reality, Gypsy’s transition from awkward Vaudeville circuit second banana to world-renowned sex symbol was a lot harder than two acts and some dance routines.

It all begins with a name.  At her birth, Gypsy was named Ellen June Hovick.  Soon after, when her little sister was born, her mother changed her name to Rose Louise Hovick. No joke.  The notorious Madam Rose was a force to be reckoned with, and her actions affected her two daughters until the day they both died.  June was a natural talent, and she was pushed forward into the spotlight, while the more awkward and intellectual Louise played secondary roles.  Eventually, June would run off to get married to one of the dancing boys in the act, but after years of working on the marathon circuit would establish herself as a serious actress.  With only Louise left, Rose struggled to fit her less-talented daughter into the role of a singing/dancing star, to no avail.

As legend goes, one night while Rose and Louise’s crumbling act was playing in a burlesque house, one of the featured performers wasn’t able to appear, and Louise stepped up to the plate and did her first strip routine.  Once she realized she liked it, and had a knack for it, she was off to the races.  Of course, that might not be the true story…

Abbott’s book takes the sparkle off the legend of Mama Rose and her daughters, first of all by telling the truth. Though the focus is kept on Gypsy, Rose and June are given generous chunks of attention.  Abbott was even able to speak with June before her death.  Rose, in particular, comes off in a harsher light than she’s previously been portrayed now that all the glitter and showbiz legend has been stripped away. Among Rose’s crimes include the decapitation of a cat, the shooting of a cow, pushing a hotel manager from a window, the attempted murder of June’s new groom, hitting a maid with a frying pan, tons of petty theft, and she may have also shot a woman in the head, though that’s never been proven. Basically, she was an unpleasant and diabolical person. It’s pretty hard to consider Rose endearing.

When Gypsy Rose Lee – the stripper – emerged, she became a near-instant sensation.  Among her friends and admirers were Fanny Brice and Carson McCullers, in addition to an array of gangsters.  Not only was she sexy, she was a smart cookie.  Gypsy wrote novels, plays, and was an all-around smartypants (and book nerd, too!)  This side of the story is rarely told, and Abbott is smart to recognize the interesting paradox between a stripper being an intellectual.

Into all this family drama, Abbott also ties in the story of the Minksy brothers and the rise of their entertainment empire.  Abbott, always a history buff, uses a lot of the politics happening at the time to show what a strange world it must have been to be in burlesque in the twenties. The Minksys were accused of corrupting America’s morals, when in reality burlesque wasn’t really doing anything we in modern times would look at as that unusual.

“American Rose” hits stores on December 28th, 2010.  Fascinating, enlightening, and a little twisted, it’s an awesome read. Check it out. (And thanks, Random House, for letting me read it ahead of time.)  There’s so much more goodness in this book than I could fit in one review.

In closing, check out an abbreviated version of Gypsy Rose Lee’s routine, from the movie Stage Door Canteen.

(Yes, this is the real Gypsy Rose Lee.)

The Last Queen of Hawaii — “The Betrayal of Liliuokalani” by Helena G. Allen

Recently, my husband and I went to Hawaii for our honeymoon.

In between all the sunshine and Mai Tais, it became apparent that these islands are loaded with history.  In particular, a political history that is much darker and deeper than the postcards of palm trees can ever suggest.

So, during a stop at a Barnes & Noble in Waikiki, I picked up a copy of Helena G. Allen’s “The Betrayal of Liliuokalani,” to learn more about one of the figures that was most interesting to me; Liliokalani, Hawaii’s last (and perhaps most beloved) queen.

Ms. Allen had a royal seal of approval to write this exquisitely researched novel.  Simply, Lydia K. Aholo (daughter of Liliuokalani) asked her to.  With a request like that, who could resist?  Ms. Aholo clearly asked the right person, for Allen’s biography – spanning from the birth of the queen until after her death – is thorough, sympathetic, and marvelously detailed.

Liliuokalani was a woman born and raised in old-school ways to be royalty, in a world where new theories and politics were coming into play.  During her life,  Hawaii was struggling to retain being a kingdom while being pulled by businessmen and the “haole” (white men) to become something else – which eventually became a U.S. state.

A musician and scholar, Liliuokalani loved her people first and foremost.  Though the book discusses her dysfunctional marriage (to a Mama’s boy) it is apparent that most of her decisions were made in efforts to do best by the people of Hawaii and their customs.  As it was a time of great governmental hardship, there’s quite a load of political talk, which Allen wisely keeps brief and fairly basic.

After all, it’s the woman herself who is most interesting.

From the questions surrounding her potential lack of royal blood, to her girlish crushes, to her desire to learn, Liliokalani is a fascinating figure.  She traveled the world, attended parties with the Queen of England, was a friend of presidents, and even met Robert Louis Stevenson.

(A photo of ‘Iolani Palace, taken during my recent trip.)

While in Hawaii, I was fortunate enough to take a tour of ‘Iolani Palace.  This beautiful building, located in downtown Honolulu, brings back memories of days of glamour and dancing princesses.  However, it also holds a room that is a key to the darkest days in Hawaii’s history.

On January 16, 1895, Queen Liluokalani was arrested.  For the next 21 months, she was under arrest.  The first eight months were spent in a room at the ‘Iolani Palace, no bigger than my apartment.  (These months were to be followed by five months of house arrest at her actual home, and then six months where she was restricted only to the island of Oahu.)

Any other person would have lost their mind or retreated into themselves.  Not this queen.  During this period, she never lost her spirit, and wound up composing a song that would become recognized as a symbol of Hawaii – “Aloha Oe.”

(The song is so associated with Hawaii that it was even used in the Disney film “Lillo & Stitch,” which you can see in the video below.)

The Hawaiian people had a belief that, when an alli (person of royal blood) was about to die, red fish would appear in the waters around the island.  A few weeks before Liliuokalani died, in 1917, these legendary fish did indeed appear.  Hawaii did become a state, but there’s still something old-world magical about it.

History-Nerds, you’ll love this book.

Book-Nerds, if you’re at all interested in well-written biographies, this is definitely one to check out.

(Also, if you’re interested in Hawaii, I recommend reading two other books.  The first is “Mark Twain in Hawaii,” which is a collection of Twain’s writings about his time in the Sandwich islands.  It’s not always politically correct, but it’s written with the humor that has made Twain so legendary.  The second book is James Michener’s “Hawaii,” in which he uses historical fiction to tell the story of the entire history of Hawaii – from the first Bora Bora tribes arriving, all the way up to World War Two.  It’s a massive, sweeping novel, but I loved it.)

The Power of Ayn Rand: “Goddess of the Market” by Jennifer Burns

(Originally published in my personal blog, The Kids Got Moxie, on November 16, 2009)

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I’m not an Ayn Rand fan.

I carried “Atlas Shrugged” (all 1000+ pages of it) around in my purse for probably 2 months trying to wade through it, but finally (right about the point John Galt started his big ol’ preachy speech) gave up.

BUT – When I started reading that two new biographies of Ms. Rand had hit the market, and started hearing some of the stories contained within, I knew I was going to have to check one out.

I selected Jennifer Burns’ “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right,” and it was a really good choice.

Burns herself acknowledges that in writing about Ayn Rand, she was almost overloaded with information and sources, but she’s managed to lay everything out in a book that is completely engrossing and easy to read.  Instead of exerpting long passages from Rands books, she uses her personal letters and speeches to both tell the story of this fascinating woman, as well as to explore why Rand’s theory of Objectivism appeals so much to conservatives, particularly young conservatives.

BUT – If political theory isn’t your bag, don’t count this book out.

Did you know Rand, though married, had a relationship with Nathan Brandon, a young follower of hers?  It’s complicated, but let me say the story of their.. intermingling.. is worth the read alone. For someone people hold up as an example of high moral value, it’s salacious.  Rand basically had a cult around her (it reminded me of the tales one hears of Scientology, with a compound and rules and leaders..) and her followers were rabid for everything she said and did.

Though the book certainly didn’t make me want to go out and read everything Rand ever wrote, it did shed light on a really interesting woman and the world she created.

I enjoyed it.

Writers are nuts.