Tag Archives: biography

Review: One Righteous Man, Samuel Battle, shattering the color line in New York

book cover: One Righteous Man

Samuel Battle and the shattering of the color line in New York

Samuel Battle led an interesting life in interesting times. Arthur Browne’s, “One Righteous Man” a biography of Battle, the first African American on the unified greater New York City police department impressive even though I had a few reservations about it. Born one generation away from slavery Battle grew as a bit of what would later be called a juvenile delinquent but managed to put that behind him as a young adult when he traveled to New York in search of opportunity. He found that the color of his skin meant that doors were shut to him in the north just as they were back home. Battle makes his own opportunities and after several underpaid dead end jobs he finds opportunity as a porter at Grand Central Station. With a secure job he finds a wife and starts to build a life. When the community comes looking for a candidate to become the first black man on the city police force he risks his security and takes the challenge. What he managed to achieve was so incredible that Langston Hughes was commissioned to write his biography.

Browne’s writing is clear and easy to read, like a popular history should be. My biggest concern was, is, could this be more memoir than history? The wealth of Browne’s sources seem to be Battle’s own words, Langston Hughes’ unpublished manuscript and an oral history project a graduate student recorded with Battle. Arthur Brown makes good use of these resources along with Harlem and city newspapers to flesh out not just Battle’s story but it seems, sanitized. It strikes me as disingenuous that the biggest problems Battle had integrating the police force was the silent treatment and sleeping in the attic. I suspect that the baton swinging cops of the 1910s would have been more actively outspoken. Browne includes the story of integrating Harlem and the New York City fire department along with Battle’s story. He also gives us a look at the wider story of African American history in the early 20th century whenever it is needed to fully comprehend the times.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the name dropping, if it is fair to call it that. If pressed I could come up with some people that don’t show up in Battle’s story but he managed to meet and get acquainted with such a range of celebrities and power brokers, from heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who did not tip, to Eleanor Roosevelt, who deeply impressed Battle by simply giving a glass of water to a black woman speaker at a benefit. That insight into the impact a small kindness can make alone made the book more than worth reading.

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Review: The remarkable education of John Quincy Adams

Book cover of The Education of John Quincy Adams

The Education of John Quincy Adams

Phyllis Levin’s “The remarkable education of John Quincy Adams” is a detailed look at the life and family of our sixth president from his childhood through serving as ambassador to Russia during the War of 1812 and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. John Quincy’s time as Secretary of State, as President and in Congress doing his best to assault the “peculiar institution” of slavery, is still ahead of him. These are the years, according to Levin’s title, when John Quincy receives his “remarkable education.”

During the early decades of the United State’s existence it was very common for people to keep journals, diaries. Thanks to the Adams family observation of this popular pastime and their, and their ancestors, digilant preservation of letters, provided Levin with a wealth of primary documentation to work with. At one point she even mentions what John Quincy had for dinner, as a demonstration of the wealth of resources available, not from any compulsion for completeness. The family journals and letters, along with the standard documents related to his and his father’s government service, provided Levin detailed insight on John Quincy’s public, personal and private lives.

My real interest in John Quincy Adams lies in his work in Congress, after his time in the White House and long after the events of this book. Still, Levin kept me interested. Her writing is excellent, nothing about the book is dry and scholastic except the quality of the research. I think any one interested in the Adams family, the early history of the United States, or of its diplomats will be interested in this book.

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Review: Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight

Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight

Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight

Howard Bingham’s title, “Muhammad Ali’s greatest fight : Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America”, explains the thesis of his book. Ali’s most powerful opponent wasn’t Liston or Frazer or Foreman but the government of the United States. I have to say that this could well be the most enjoyable book I will read this year. Bingham presents the compelling story of Ali’s fight to follow his own personal morality. Even a serious student of history cannot know everything about an era or topic. Bingham does an excellent job of explaining to the reader the history of race in boxing in America and, just as important, he bookmarks events in Ali’s story with the world events that shape it.

This is not the story reported in the newspapers and on network news. Bingham is a friend of Ali and worked as his photographer for a time so he has access to details that the media did not know or left out. There is some pro Ali bias, however, as any historian knows, everything written has a bias. In the 1960s media was more biased against Ali than Bingham is for him. In my opinion this helps level the field. As American writer Budd Schulberg observed in the early 1970s, if you knew someone’s opinion of Ali, you knew where that person stood on half a dozen other issues. “Never before in this ideological sense had there been a champion of the world. Never before a champion fighting for millions of people of the United States against the government of the United States.”

What I found most interesting was that Ali failed the military aptitude test, twice, the second time under observation by a military appointed psychiatrist who testified that Ali made an honest effort to answer the questions. It is obvious to anyone who has heard or read Ali that he is a brilliant orator. His poetry and his off the cuff eloquence is legendary. That he had such problems with math brings up the question did his school fail their brilliant boxing champion or, as one of his teachers speculated, does he struggle with a learning disability which, in the 1950s would have been a mystery to everyone. When it shown that Ali did not meet the standards the Pentagon lowered the required score for induction into the military from 30 to 15. Ali’s score was 16.

My only disappointment with the book is that it is not better documented. That is not the fault of the book, it is meant to be popular, not scholarly, history and the documentation is acceptable for popular history, but is it wrong to hope for more? Regardless of your opinion on Ali and the draft I think that you will find this book as entertaining as it is enlightening.


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Review: All Told: My Art and Life among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs

Book cover

All Told: My Art and Life among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs

I don’t remember when I first became aware of LeRoy Neiman’s art but I do remember when I became a true fan. It was when I bought Frank Sinatra’s album “Duets” and saw the cover Nieman did for it. A few weeks after Neiman’s death I learned about his autobiography / memoir “All Told: My Art and Life among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs”. Reading it was a joy filled trip through the twentieth century with one of its outstanding individualists.

Neiman’s mother raised him and his older brother in St. Paul, Minnesota. The family was poor even during the Roaring Twenties. When the Depression came it forced the boys to take temporary refuge at their grandparents farm so the family would at least not sink into deeper poverty. Neiman took to the street life early, exploring the city while playing hooky from school. Exploring the state capitol building in Minneapolis he first became intrigued with art. How it was possible to paint the glass in the eyeglasses of the former governors puzzled him.

After serving in World War Two as a cook, where he was often AWOL, and spending a year with the occupation forces as a painter he realized that the GI Bill was his ticket to a better life. Returning to Minneapolis he earned his high school diploma and went to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. This was the beginning of a long association between Nieman and the school. He started teaching fashion illustration for the school before he graduated and, as I learned on a visit to Chicago, Nieman provided the school with its first student center which opened shortly before his death.

Working as a fashion illustrator in Chicago, he met two important people on the same day. Janet Byrne, who he would marry and spend the rest of his life with, and Hugh Hefner, who he would work with until 2008 when Nieman cut back his schedule. I don’t want to recap the story of Nieman’s life here, you will enjoy it more in his own words and pictures. According to Neiman he always wanted to paint like Jackson Pollock but “faces kept coming through the paint”. Throughout the book Neiman drops the names of artists and works that he admired. Some of those names, like Pollock and George Bellows, I was already familiar with but his descriptions of their works ignited a curiosity about many others that I will be looking for whenever I visit a museum. The book is filled with Neiman’s art and photographs from his life and the printing is the quality you would expect from the namesake of Columbia University’s LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies.

LeRoy Neiman's Pete Rose

LeRoy Neiman’s Pete Rose

The second half of the book is more memoir than autobiography, by that I mean that the arrangement is more topical than chronological. Neiman’s life was too full of five star events and encounters with all types of celebrities to condense into a book in any other way. His friendships with Ali, Sinatra, and Miss Lillian, President Carter’s mother, provide some of the best stories in the book. Thanks to Neiman’s writing style, he has a friendly, conversational voice that is easy to read, no part of the book that is less than entertaining.

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Review: Vince Guraldi at the Piano

Vince Guaraldi at the Piano

Vince Guaraldi at the Piano

I jumped at the chance to review Derrick Bang’s biography, “Vince Guaraldi at the Piano”, having been a fan of Guaraldi since I first heard his song “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”. Listening to Guaraldi’s music made me think that I would have liked him had I ever met him, after reading Bang’s well researched biography I’m sure I would have.

Bang concentrates on Guaraldi’s professional life but manages to include relevant aspects of his personal life. For instance two of Guaraldi’s uncles are professional musicians, he grew up exposed to the realities of the job,
the need to always be practicing, the work hours, and the uncertain paychecks. Bang follows Guaraldi’s career from playing at school dances and parties for his classmates to summers moving back and forth from lesbian bars and strip clubs, to first occasional work as a sideman with Cal Tjader, to becoming a regular with Tjader’s group until finally stepping out with his own group.

Guaraldi’s third album, titled for the 1959 movie “Black Orpheus” focused on Guaraldi’s interpretations of Latin music. Since those cuts were not enough to fill an album Guaraldi used several of his other compositions to fill out the album. Fantasy Records, the company Guaraldi was under contract with, issued a 45 single to promote the album. One of Guaraldi’s other compositions, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” became the B side of the record. Over the next few years that recording climbed the charts, first the 45, then the albums, one Stereo and one Monaural, made it into their respective “Best of the Week” charts and Guaraldi’s life became hectic.

He became so busy that Bang had to devote separate chapters to events unfolding at the same time. First the rise of Guaraldi’s Grammy winning recording of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”. Second, as a direct result of someone hearing that record, he was asked to compose a Jazz Mass for the opening of San Francisco’s long awaited Grace Cathedral, a controversial effort to bring, as some said, saloon music, into the church. Third, again because of CYFttW,, a struggling local production company asked him to score a documentary they were doing on a local writer.

“Cast Your Fate to the Wind”, a jazz instrumental, climbed the pop charts in a year when Elvis and the Memphis Sound was battling it out with the Beatles and the British Invasion. Guaraldi’s Jazz Mass changed church music forever. It was the third project that became Guaraldi’s overshadowing success. I do mean overshadowing. In fact when I saw that Bang’s other works were on Charles Schulz I feared that the Peanuts gang would crowd Guaraldi out of his own biography.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Bang shows us the life of a hard working piano man, a determined professional who overcame his inability to read music. We get a look at what is was like to struggle as a Union musician in the days when a week was a long engagement and as a recording artist when the record companies ruled like feudal lords. He paints a vivid picture of the San Francisco jazz scene and what a small world professional jazz is. Of the few jazz musicians I know most of them turned up at one time or another sharing a stage with Guaraldi. Of the names that I never expected to show up, Jerry Garcia was the most surprising.

This is a wonderfully entertaining story that somehow gets even more engrossing after Guaraldi’s death in 1976 at age 47. The only negative I can say about this book is that exploring its discography of Guaraldi’s recordings is going to be expensive.

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Review: Fierce Patriot the tangled lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

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Fierce patriot : the tangled lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

I don’t read many biographies but after reading Robert L. Connell’s “Fierce Patriot: the tangled lives of William Tecumseh Sherman” I think that maybe I should. I will confess that I have always been interested in William Tecumseh Sherman, my grandfather, Sherman Lee Crawford, was the product of a “mixed” marriage, formers Union and formers confederate. Until I was in my thirties I only knew him as William. Now I am wondering if my grandfather knew of the parallels between his life and the life of General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Tecumseh Sherman, his birth name, grew up in Lancaster Ohio. His father, Charles, was a well respected but financially unsuccessful lawyer who died when Tecumseh was nine. This left his wife with eleven children and no means of support. A friend of the family, the successful lawyer and politician Thomas Ewing, offered to take “the smartest child” in. They picked Tecumseh and Ewing gave him the name “William”. William Tecumseh Sherman got along well with the Ewing family. A strong bond developed between William and Ewing’s daughter Ellen. The bond was so strong that Thomas decided it best to sent William off the West Point at age sixteen. Fourteen years later Captain William Tecumseh Sherman and Ellen Ewing married in Washington City. By that time Thomas Ewing was such a prominent politician that even President Taylor attended the ceremony.

Sherman’s grades and demerits at West Point rescued him from the Engineers Corps and put him on the road to a real military career. He saw limited combat in the Seminole Wars but none in the Mexican War. In his eyes his military career was a failure. After leaving the military he continued to see himself as a failure. Connell made sure to point out that those around him saw things otherwise. Sherman’s friends and cohorts saw that he had bad breaks but he always landed on his feet and he always managed to do it with honor.

With the outbreak of the Civil War Sherman wanted back in the military. As Connell put it “team Ewing/Sherman went into action to make it happen”. At first using this modern expression to describe historical events bothered me. Connell’s description of Sherman as a “willing wingman” was also like fingernails on a blackboard to me. These concepts did not exist in the 1860s, it is anachronistic I told myself. After some thought I realized that Connell was not using modern values to interpret these historical actions. He was using words a modern audience would understand to describe what happened. The Ewing / Sherman family, which had developed powerful connections in state and national politics, did, time after time, come together to protect and advance their own members interests. William Tecumseh Sherman would not have understood the term “wingman” but he definitely was one. He was never more able to act independently than when he was under Grant’s command. It sounds implausible but read the book, I think Sherman’s reaction to Grant’s orders after his march to the sea bet demonstrates this idea. Connell divided the book into three sections, Sherman’s military career from West Point to his retirement, his Civil War army from the soldiers perspective, and his family life. It seemed odd that his childhood should be one of the last things we learned about but the arrangement worked well.

If my grandfather did adopt the name William because of General Sherman I now understand what it was about the general that inspired him to do it. Family loyalty. William Tecumseh Sherman was loyal to all his families. Connell has produced a well researched, well written work on one of the nations most interesting wingmen and shed light on one of the most powerful extended families in American history. I have to recommend this book to anyone interested in 19th century American history

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