300 Biographies

I’ve read over 300 biographies.

The last several years of my life have been dominated by biographies, in fact, in all their forms. Some are slanted political narratives, meant to illustrate pros or cons in the life of a certain person. Some are densely researched tomes of knowledge, with 200 pages worth of sources and cited works at the end. Some are fluffy, feel-good autobiographies, written by a famous person who wants to keep their secrets, while other autobiographies are caustic tell-alls.

I hand-select many of these books, setting goals for myself to learn about key individuals from important times in history (examples: Joe McCarthy and Chairman Mao), or to learn about people who have become my personal heroes (examples: Sally Ride and Barbara Jordan), or to uncover areas of personal passion like feminism (examples: Bella Abzug and Coco Chanel) or LGBT history (examples: Freddie Mercury and Bayard Rustin). Yet other books, I choose completely at random, closing my eyes and pulling them off a library shelf. Some of these are fluffy life anecdotes by people trying to capitalize on temporary fame (examples: Bristol Palin and Caitlyn Jenner), others are forgotten tomes on former celebrities (examples: Christine Jorgensen and Richard Wright), some are fascinating historical epics from unique voices (examples: Natacha Rambova and Guglielmo Marconi), while others are slap-your-knee hilarious and leave me devouring every word (examples: Minnie Pearl and Davy Rothbart).

I could write one hundred thousand words on reading these stories. Every shade of humanity from every corner of the globe, the only thing these 300 individuals have in common is they have either taken time to write their stories or someone has been interested enough to write about them. And they, strangely, all share a commonality, whether they are an Iraqi war refugee in the present, a 1950s American movie star, a prominent Civil Rights activist, or British royalty from the 1800s: they all encompass a simple yet complex human life. No matter what their lives were or are, no matter how consequential to human history, I learn the same lessons from every book.

  1. All human lives are temporary. Every passion, problem, struggle, endeavor, and conquest is relegated to ‘something that happened’ at the end. Nelson Mandela’s decades in prison, Rock Hudson’s wrestle with AIDS, Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, Judy Garland’s pill addictions, Gilda Radner’s battle with cancer… all things that just happened.
  2. Everyone gets older, one day at a time, until they aren’t there anymore; we all start and end somewhere. Brigham Young was a carpenter before he was a religious leader and statesman, Patty Hearst was a lonely heiress before she was kidnapped, and Gypsy Rose Lee was the forgotten child before she perfected her stripping act.
  3. We all see the world through our own eyes, and we all generally believe we are right during the time we thought it; we all usually change our minds as well. Slim Keith married Howard Hawk before she divorced him, Tig Notaro suffered through the cancer before she told jokes about it, and Gloria Steinem had to learn about women of color and their struggles through hard education.
  4. There is a lot of sad in the world, and there is a lot of happy, and this leaves me wanting to learn from the sad and to embrace the happy. I feel the heartbreak of the parents of Trayvon Martin and I celebrate the legal victories of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I ache for the once kidnapped Elizabeth Smart and I rejoice at how hard Tina Fey can make me laugh.
  5. Our heroes tend to be those who triumph over difficult, even impossible, odds and inspire us with their stories. Greg Louganis won his Olympic medals, Charlie Chaplin made incredible films against all odds, and Sonia Sotomayor inspired a generation after being appointed to the Supreme Court.

I tend to get through about one book per week. I read when I travel, and some of my favorite books have become tied into my personal experiences. I can’t think of Kay Graham taking over the Washington Post without remembering that six hour flight with the crying baby, the execution of Joe Hill makes me think of coffee and rainy Utah days, Evelyn Nesbit’s tragic rape takes me to the sidewalks of Liberty Park, and the deportation of Emma Goldman brings back the hot sun of a Mexican beach.

I’m learning from history. I’m finding new heroes. I’m learning to be outraged at history and injustice, and I’m learning how to live in my own now and create a better life for myself. Books and stories make me want to be better, be more, to live my dream and to make a difference. I have learned to love writers and their craft, and I let them fuel my own writing and research. I love libraries. I love the pressure I feel to get through a stack of new books. I love learning about both my heroes and the unknown. I carry books with me pretty much everywhere. I read between sets at the gym, over breakfast, and before I fall asleep. I usually have a book-on-tape playing in the car. I want to absorb everything I can, lose myself in the stories of others, and I want to emerge a better person on the other side.

I want more books. I want to read them all. One at a time, as I live my life, I want to read each and every story out there.

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Raping Evelyn

Florence Evelyn Nesbit was a petite girl, with thin hips and a small frame. She was a bit androgynous, with a boyishness about her that photographers found irresistible. Her lush brown hair draped over her shoulders in some photographs, or was piled upon her head in the more adult style in others. When she started modelling as a young teen in the late 1890s, her popularity quickly mounted. She posed for paintings, for classic photographs, for stained glass windows, for magazine ads. Her likeness was placed on postcards and hanged in museums. Evelyn enjoyed the attention, and what teenage girl wouldn’t. She was carving a life for herself away from her controlling mother and sickly brother even while supporting them financially; her father was dead. Soon her work took her to New York, where she could model and pose, sing and dance. She was absolutely lovely.
When millionaire architect Stanford White, who had built famous parts of New York City, took notice, Evelyn was flattered. She was only 15 and he in his 40s. He was portly, with a thick moustache, and married, but he paid special attention to just her, spending months flattering her, entertaining her, and taking her to private dinners, where he would smile and coo at her across the table. He bought her gifts, gave her mother and brother money, and pushed Evelyn on a red velvet swing he kept in a room of his private quarters. He even had Evelyn’s teeth fixed at the dentist, taking away her only flaw in his eyes. And so Evelyn thought little of it the night he drugged her champagne and she woke up naked in his bed, her virginity stolen. He explained that no one could know, that her reputation would be ruined if she spoke a word and that no one would ever want her again, so she mustn’t even tell her mother. Evelyn was 16. Evelyn was far from his only victim.

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But Stanny wasn’t the only millionaire to take notice. Harry Thaw had a sizable monthly income of $8000, drawn from his family’s railroad and coal fortunes, so vast that he didn’t need to work. Harry’s mother kept the family history of insanity quiet from the public, and she overlooked Harry’s habit of luring young women and young men up to his room, where he would force them to get naked, beat them with a riding crop, and sexually assault them. If the victims complained, Harry and his mother could just pay them off to keep them quiet.
Thaw courted Evelyn from afar for several weeks, sending her notes and gifts before introducing himself. Also much older, he worked to convince her that she should be with him, and began sending money to her family so he could Evelyn alone more often. With her mother’s permission, Thaw took Evelyn for weeks to Europe, and he proposed to her multiple times before she finally told him of the loss of her virtue to Stanford White, a man Thaw hated beyond measure. After weeks of violently and obsessively questioning Evelyn about every aspect of the events with White, he finally locked her in a room in a Bavarian castle and beat and raped her over the next few weeks. Evelyn was 17. Thaw would later marry her, after he had her followed, trained her how to act, and made her aware of his consistent demands and the consequences if she did not meet them. He then required her to get her dental work undone.

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In 1906, at Madison Square Garden, Stanford White sat watching a play among a crowd of hundreds, including Evelyn and Harry. As the performers sang the song, “I Could Love a Million Girls”, Harry Thaw walked forward in his tuxedo, drew a gun, and shot White three times, killing him instantly for “ruining” his wife. Thaw was put on trial for murder a few times over the next few years and, declaring temporary insanity, was placed into a mental institution. Despite violent episodes and an escape requiring recapture, he was set free just a few years later, but was soon re-confined after committing more rapes and assaults.
Evelyn herself struggled the rest of her life with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction, and suicide attempts. She had multiple careers, including, most famously, a touring show where she sang and danced about her husband killing her lover. She lived into her 80s after becoming a grandmother.

The Nesbit-Thaw-White story dominated the newspaper and gossip circuits for years, and reporters called it “The Crime of the Century.” Who could resist a story about a super-model and two millionaires, with all of the sordid details of murder and sex and rape and violence thrown in? The public couldn’t get enough.

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Although this story is well over 100 years old, it is easy to recognize the parallels of money, privilege, abuse, rape culture, misogyny, corrupt justice, exploitation of women and their bodies, internalized homophobia, insanity, and media sensationalism that are alive and well today. Reading this history, in conjunction with the results of the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, has left me feeling how far we have come as a society at all. Many who abuse and exploit women use the same tactics of grooming, isolation, persistence, excuse-making, blaming, violence, shaming, and threats to get away with their crimes, and the media seems to only pick up on the stories about the millionaires.

America just elected a man who has been accused of sexual assault multiple times, and who has paid off people to drop lawsuits (and yes, I’m aware, Bill Clinton did the same thing). A man who has been heard on a public recording to brag about being rich and able to do what he wants with women, who excuses his actions and words as “locker room talk”, and who regularly rates women on their appearance. A man who buys women gifts hoping to lead them to the bedroom. A man who has publicly bragged about entering the locker rooms of teenage girls and seeing them change. A man who has cheated on his spouses.

I know a great number of people who are in shock right now. Among them are women who have been assaulted, groped, groomed, coerced, silenced, pressured, and abused, who now feel that their government is loudly saying that what has happened to them doesn’t matter and hasn’t mattered. Men have been using these tactics for far too long, and far too many have ended up hurt.