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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Remembering Natalie

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Natalie Wood had that dangerous gleam in her eye. The smallest change of intention can be seen there in her movies. With one glance and no words, she could turn from playful to flirtatious, sexual to bored, casually interested to deeply hurt.

And that laugh. That delicious, almost childlike laugh of hers, whole body behind it. And she could definitely turn on the tears.

And, my god, her figure, her small-waisted perfect figure.

Natalie Wood was a powerhouse.

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In her movie career, she would play Native Americans and HIspanics and Puerto Ricans, but her ethnicity was actually Soviet. Natalie’s parents both hailed from Russia, and her birth name was Natalia Zakharenko. Her parents (though it is believed the man who raised her wasn’t her biological father) fled from Russia after violent political conflicts that had deadly consequences for both sides of the family, came to America, and started a family, changing their name to Gurdin. Natalie Gurdin had an impossible stage mother, Mara, who pushed, prodded, screamed, and manipulated to get Natalie roles in films in Hollywood.

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And so the studios started casting little Natalie in movies, using the last name Wood to make her more accessible. And so she spent her childhood sometimes a regular kid in a regular class, and sometimes on movie lots, working long days alongside Fred MacMurray and Bette Davis and a hundred others, going to school on a lot. She made duds (Tomorrow is Forever and Father Was a Fullback) and she made classics (The Star and the Ghost and Mrs. Muir), but she became immortalized as the practical monkey-faced girl who learned to believe in Santa Claus in the Miracle on 34th Street.

As a teenager, Natalie sought to claim life as her own. She discovered alcohol and sleeping pills, rebellion against her overbearing mother, and how to use sex, even to get roles if needed. She made films that were iconic for her time but that have been nearly forgotten now, like Marjorie Morningstar, and she made sure she would never be forgotten when she played the female lead in Rebel Without a Cause at the age of 16. The following years were hard. She lost friends to tragic deaths, fell in and out of love, struggled through medcical emergencies, had her heart broken and broke hearts, dabbled with substances, even attempted suicide.

But those eyes… those eyes just kept showing up in role after role. And that laugh. That smile. That figure. That soft voice that could carry weight. Bob and Carol and Alice and Ted. West Side Story, yet another iconic role. Splendor in the Grass. The Great Race. Gypsy. They wouldn’t let her sing in West Side Story, she just wasn’t ready for that, but she did her own songs in Gypsy. Various moments in her adult life were immortalized in Hollywood as you watched her grow from child to mother.

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Natalie ha one great love, the actor Robert Wagner. But after her marriage to him failed, she tried again with actor Richard Gregson, and had a daughter, Natasha. She married Wagner again and had little Courtney. And she loved being a mother. She had years off screen when she wasn’t acting. She traveled the world. She had lovers and friends, straight and gay, in Hollywood and around the world.

Natalie died far more tragically than many realize. She grew up deathly frightened of dark water. Her mother had received a warning from a fortune teller about dark water, and Natalie herself had had a frightening experience as a child, nearly drowning in dark water on a movie set. She told friends about her fear her entire adult life, refusing to swim unless the area was well lit. So when she boarded a boat in her early 40s with her husband Robert and her movie costar Christopher Walken, and had far too much to drink, mixing it with sleeping pills, and argued with her husband that night… well, her body was found the next day, drowned, floating in dark water. Controversy and opinions about Natalie’s death still make tabloid headlines, and the investigation into her death is still ongoing, even 31 years later.

Were she still alive, Natalie would be in her 70s now. Her life would undoubtedly have had more heartbreak, losing friends through the AIDS crisis, struggling to find roles in her older life, likely struggling with alcohol and depression still. But she would have seen her daughters grow, and she would have met her grandchildren. And she would have definitely made at least a few more classics to be remembered alongside the others for hundreds of years to come.

And she still would have had those dangerous and alluring eyes. Those eyes…

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Daddy Issues: Rebels Without Cause

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In 1955, James Dean became a household name for his portrayal of Jim Stark in the movie Rebel Without a Cause. Dean, who had recently been critically acclaimed in East of Eden, made Rebel, then went on to film the movie Giant. Shortly after, he was violently killed in a car accident in Hollywood at the age of 24, just before Rebel was publicly released. The world was devastated, and never quite got over it. James grew up very close to his parents, but his mother died suddenly when he was 9, and James’ father shipped him off to live with a family member. A young bisexual man with a penchant for fast driving, he had no idea he would become one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons.

Meanwhile, 16 year old Natalie Wood played the character Judy. Natalie slept with the much older director, Nick Ray, to get the part. Wood had an entire childhood in movies and a difficult home life and she was trying to establish herself as an adult actress before she was even an adult. Natalie grew up with a mother who acted as Natalie’s stage manager, pushing her to abusive levels to succeed in Hollywood. Her father was a drunk, and she never knew she had a different birth father. Natalie tragically drowned at the age of 43, a young mother of 2.

Lastly, barely 15 himself, Sal Mineo played John Crawford, called Plato by his friends. Sal grew up Italian in New York to parents who were coffin makers. A bisexual teen with a preference for men, he got his big breakthrough in Rebel and acted in many films over the following years before being murdered by being stabbed in an alley during a mugging, at the age of 38.

I watched Rebel recently for the first time. Hollywood movies at the time seemed to focus on happy little Caucasian families, Dad works, Mom cleans, brother plays baseball, and sister wants a new dress. Rebel was different. It took three rather privileged spoiled and emotionally volatile teenagers, thrusting them into the spotlight, and giving teens all over America an understanding on the big screen that they hadn’t experienced before. No wonder the movie became iconic.

Jim’s dad just wouldn’t stand up for himself. Jim’s mother was emotionally abusive, constantly manipulating, complaining, and shaming, but his father would duck his head, avoid, and sacrifice his own interests to keep the peace in the home. Even when Jim begged his father to stand up for himself, he wouldn’t do it.

Judy’s dad was tough on her. He seemed to prefer her little brother, and he spent a lot of time ignoring Judy. When she kissed him to get his attention, he grew angry; when she kissed him again, he slapped her face with an open palm, driving her from the room in tears, as Judy’s mother watched in shock. He refused to talk to her about it later.

And Plato is the saddest of all. Emotionally disturbed and terribly lonely, Plato was being raised by his housekeeper; his father had left when Plato was a toddler, and Plato’s mother was frequently gone. His father payed child support, but Plato didn’t want it, he just wanted his dad.

The movie opens in the police department, where all three teens have been arrested: Jim was drunk and loitering, Judy was walking the streets at night, and Plato had killed some puppies out of curiosity.

Things go crazy from there, well, in a 1950s way. We are much more densensitized to stories like this in 2016. But for the 1950s, this movie was insane. Teenage violence and angst, family drama, internal pain, bullying, gun violence, and tragic deaths. And the theme of it all, coming out of this movie, was the idea that while these fathers and mothers created these children, they were stepping out of where they came from, and living life on their terms.

Finishing this film, I thought about fatherhood, about my father and my stepfather and the impact that each has had on me over the years, and I thought about being a father. I thought of these three actors, who each met their tragic end, and I thought about these three characters, and about their fathers, their origins, where they ended up. And then I looked at where I am, where I have ended up, and wondered what is in store for me and what is in store for my sons, and for theirs.

In some strange sense, we are all of us Rebels Without Cause. Although every human story is unique and different, each human has an origin, a set of parents that they derive from, a father and mother that they appreciate and resent and resemble and rebel against. And we, each of us, take our individual stories and we rebel. We create our own. And none of us plan to have a tragic end.