Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review: Once Upon a Secret, by Mimi Alford (2012)

The cover of Once Upon a Secret, by Mimi Alford, 2012.

Mimi Beardsley, circa 1962. She was an intern in the White House press office during the summer of 1962, and worked at the White House again during the summer of 1963.

President John F. Kennedy. He wouldn't have been smiling if he had ever had to field questions from the press about his extramarital affairs.
John F. Kennedy once said that the reason we read biographies is to answer the question, “What was he like?” That’s certainly the reason that Kennedy still intrigues people more than 50 years after his tragic death. Personally, I find JFK to be one of the most interesting Presidents, so I was fascinated by Mimi Alford’s excellent 2012 book, Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and its Aftermath. Alford, then known by her maiden name as Mimi Beardsley, was a 19-year-old college student and intern in the White House press office during the summer of 1962. On her fourth day on the job, presidential aide Dave Powers invited her to go swimming in the White House pool during lunch. She said yes, and joining her for the swim were two White House secretaries and the President. At the end of the day, Powers invited Beardsley to a party for new White House staffers. She accepted, and once again, President Kennedy was there. Later that evening he took her on a tour of the private residence and had sex with Alford in First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s bedroom. Mimi Beardsley lost her virginity in 1962. To John F. Kennedy. While he was President. In the White House. Wow, now that’s a story.

Kennedy seduced many women, both before and throughout his Presidency. He once said to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, “I wonder how it is for you, Harold? If I don’t have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches.” (President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves, p.290) Despite his charm and good looks, Kennedy wasn’t known to be a great lover. Actress Angie Dickinson was rumored to have had a relationship with JFK, and this quote has often been attributed to her: “Sleeping with the President was the greatest 20 seconds of my life.” That pretty much sums up John F. Kennedy’s attitude towards sex. It was definitely all about his pleasure, not hers. Beardsley writes that her first sexual experience with Kennedy was brief, but later on she writes “As time went by, he was also more attentive, more gentlemanly than he had been in our first encounter…Our sexual relationship was varied and fun.” (Alford, p.65) 

Kennedy saw Beardsley regularly for the rest of the summer of 1962, and their sexual relationship continued. Kennedy even continued seeing Beardsley after she went back to college in the fall, using a fake name to place phone calls to her dorm, and arranging for her to make weekend trips back to the White House. Beardsley was even in the White House during one of the most tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. The reason that Beardsley was able to sleep over at the White House so often was that Jackie Kennedy was hardly ever at the White House, which is ironic, since one of the most famous things that Jackie Kennedy did as First Lady was to oversee a remodeling of the White House. But Jackie hated politics, and wanted to ride horses in the country, so she spent most of her time at Glen Ora, the Kennedys’ house in rural Virginia. 

Beardsley also traveled with the President, making several trips as a part of the President’s entourage. I was surprised as I read the book by how much time Beardsley spent with Kennedy. She spent many, many hours in his company during 1962 and 1963, which made me wonder, how deep was their relationship? What would Kennedy have said about their relationship, how would he have defined it? I don’t think that he was in love with her, but he was obviously drawn to her, and there must have been a reason other than sex that he spent so much time with her. For her the relationship was something like a schoolgirl crush, but what was the relationship like for him? Kennedy obviously enjoyed Beardsley’s company; otherwise he wouldn’t have gone to such great lengths to keep seeing her. 

Beardsley continued working in the White House during the summer of 1963, even as she got engaged to Tony Fahnestock, a college student at Williams. Beardsley knew that she would eventually quit working at the White House and stop seeing President Kennedy. The last time she saw Kennedy was at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City on Friday, November 15, 1963. Kennedy gave her $300 and told her to buy something nice, as his wedding present to her. Kennedy told Beardsley, “I wish you were coming with me to Texas. I’ll call you when I get back.” (Alford, p.127) A week later Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

The second half of Once Upon a Secret deals with how the secret that Alford kept for so long affected her relationships in her life. She told her fiancé Tony about her affair with JFK on the night of November 22, 1963, as they were watching television coverage in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination. Tony took the news poorly and made Mimi promise that she would never tell anyone, ever. Their marriage eventually crumbled, and they divorced. Alford writes very well about her struggles on her journey to becoming a woman who is happy with herself and who can love someone on her own terms. She has been happily married to Dick Alford since 2005. Her secret relationship with JFK remained something that she had only shared with a few people until May of 2003. There was a reference to Alford in an oral history that Robert Dallek quoted in his acclaimed biography of JFK, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963, although she wasn’t named. But soon the press figured out her identity, and reporters were stalking her. Alford made a brief statement confirming her relationship with JFK, but didn’t give any interviews to the press. 

Once Upon a Secret is an excellent book, and I applaud Alford for telling the truth, even when it’s difficult. Her book sheds new light on John F. Kennedy, and he comes off as a very flawed human, but still likeable.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"For Your Pleasure," an Essay on Roxy Music

All the iconic album covers of Roxy Music, not in chronological order.

Roxy Music, 1972. Top row: Bryan Ferry, Graham Simpson, Andy Mackay. Bottom row: Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno, Paul Thompson.

Roxy Music, 2000's. Left to right, Phil Manzanera, Bryan Ferry, and Andy Mackay.
I’ve known about the British band Roxy Music for a long time, probably since my infatuation with David Bowie began around 2000, but it wasn’t until ten years later that I started seriously listening to their music. I quickly became a big fan of their unique style. 

Earlier this month, Roxy Music’s lead guitarist Phil Manzanera told Rolling Stone that the group has broken up, which seems like a rather belated announcement for a group that hasn’t released a new studio album since 1982. But Roxy Music did re-form in 2001 and has toured off and on since then, although their last live appearance was in 2011. So what legacy does Roxy Music leave behind? Between 1972 and 1982 they released 8 studio albums that trace the evolution of the band from glam rock and experimental art rock to smooth, slick dance grooves. 

Roxy Music started out as an arty glam rock band, releasing their debut album in June of 1972, the same summer that David Bowie finally broke big in the UK with the single “Starman” and the “Ziggy Stardust” album. Similar to Bowie, Roxy Music looked like they had been beamed down to Earth from some other planet. Lead singer Bryan Ferry’s unique croon was paired with Phil Manzanera’s scorching lead guitar, Andy Mackay’s saxophone and oboe contributions, Paul Thompson’s thumping drums, and Brian Eno’s electronic experimentations on synthesizer to give Roxy Music an unmistakable sound. Their debut album is astonishing. With Roxy Music there were no half measures, no hesitation, no finding your voice. The group seemed to emerge from the womb fully formed. 

Early Roxy Music songs were definitely a bit weird. “Re-Make/Re-Model,” the first song on their first album, had a cryptic backing chorus of “CPL 593H,” which was apparently the license plate number belonging to an attractive woman that Bryan Ferry saw. (The song actually makes a lot more sense viewed through the lens of a failed flirtation.) One of their most famous songs, “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” is about a blow-up doll that Bryan Ferry gets a little too attached to. Ferry doesn’t so much sing the lyrics as recite them, like a bizarre prose poem. 

One might think that Roxy lost some of their thirst for experimentation once Brian Eno left the group in 1973, after their second album “For Your Pleasure.” But Roxy continued to expand their sonic palette, as Ferry wrote songs like “Bitter-Sweet,” which sounds like a lost song from “Cabaret.” Roxy Music turned out three excellent albums in a row without Eno, “Stranded,” “Country Life,” and “Siren.” Oddly enough, Eno has said that his favorite Roxy Music album is “Stranded,” the first album the group made without him. The lead single from 1975’s “Siren” album was the insanely catchy “Love is the Drug,” which proved to be Roxy’s only US Top 40 single. Ferry had written catchy songs before, but “Love is the Drug” paired a funky bass line with a killer chorus that made it an easier song to follow than, say, “Mother of Pearl.” 

After the 1976 live album “Viva!” Roxy Music went on hiatus. I’m not entirely sure why they decided to take a break. Part of the reason might have been for Bryan Ferry to focus on his burgeoning solo career. Ferry had released his first solo album “These Foolish Things,” an eclectic collection of cover versions, in October of 1973, just a month before the Roxy Music album “Stranded” came out. Ferry released a staggering total of 10 studio albums between 1972 and 1978, 5 with Roxy Music, and 5 solo. 

Roxy Music reconvened in late 1978 to begin recording “Manifesto,” issued in 1979. “Manifesto” is really a transition album. There are still some rough edges, but it’s definitely a little smoother than their previous albums. The song “Angel Eyes” highlights this. The album version of the song is rougher and rockier, but the single version is smoother and more polished, a hint of the new direction that Roxy would be moving in. The hit single “Dance Away” was also a smoother piece of great pop than they had previously put out. 

The group’s next album, 1980’s “Flesh and Blood” shows the new, smoother Roxy Music in full flower. Personally, it’s my own favorite Roxy Music album, as I can’t resist the slinky tunes like “Oh Yeah,” “Same Old Scene,” “My Only Love,” and “Over You.” Roxy Music followed up “Flesh and Blood” with another supremely smooth album, 1982’s sublime “Avalon.” It’s a perfect pop album. And then suddenly they were gone, breaking up after finishing the “Avalon” tour in 1983.

What made Roxy Music such an interesting band? It’s the yearning passion that typifies their songs, Ferry’s romantic and expressive vocals, the excellent arrangements that seemed to fit each song perfectly, and their stylistic range. It’s kind of weird for a band to go from “Do the Strand” to “Avalon,” but Roxy Music did it, and both songs are great in their own way. 

Visual style was always a large part of the Roxy Music mystique. Bryan Ferry is not only one of rock’s great singers; he’s also one of the most stylish rock stars. Roxy Music was also famous for their sleek and sexy album covers-the most famous of which, 1974’s “Country Life,” was heavily censored in the U.S. The original cover showed two beautiful women clad only in see-through lingerie. The U.S. cover omitted the women and instead featured a close up of the trees they were posing in front of!

Roxy Music never achieved as much success in the US as they did in the UK. Stateside, their highest charting album was “Manifesto,” peaking at #23, and their biggest hit single was “Love is the Drug,” which hit #30. In the UK, all 8 of their studio albums peaked in the Top 10. In all, they had 11 Top 10 albums and 4 that made it to number 1. On the UK singles chart, they had 10 Top 10 singles, and 1 number 1, a cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” that was released in early 1981 as a tribute to Lennon. 

Whether you enjoy smooth pop tunes crooned by an effortlessly cool singer, or spiky arty songs filled with references to visual art, you’ll find something to enjoy in the albums of Roxy Music.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson (2011)

Cover of In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, 2011.

Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts.
Berlin. The name of the city conjures up numerous visions-the decadent nightlife of the Weimar Republic, immortalized in Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, the bombed-out ruins of Hitler’s bunker, the drab gray concrete of communist East Berlin and the infamous Berlin Wall. Erik Larson’s excellent 2011 book In the Garden of Beasts gives us a riveting account of Berlin at the very start of Hitler’s rule. The main character of In the Garden of Beasts is William E. Dodd, the ambassador of the United States to Germany from 1933-1937. 

Dodd was an odd choice for ambassador, as he was a history professor at the University of Chicago. He had become a good friend of Woodrow Wilson’s during Wilson’s successful run for President in 1912, and he later wrote a biography of Wilson. Dodd was not well suited to the job of ambassador. He didn’t enjoy the social obligations that were a large part of being an ambassador, and he doesn’t seem to have gotten along well with anyone on his staff. Because he wasn’t independently wealthy, Dodd didn’t fit in with the other U.S. diplomats, and many of his colleagues undermined him in their letters and reports. 

When Dodd arrived in Germany in July of 1933, Hitler was Chancellor, but he was not yet the all-powerful dictator he would later become. At that time Paul von Hindenburg, the elderly President of Germany, still had the power and authority to remove Hitler as Chancellor and declare martial law. But it was obvious to Dodd and other foreign observers that the Nazis were the dominant faction in Germany. 

In the beginning of his service in Berlin, Dodd did not see the danger that the Nazis represented, and like many other observers thought that either Hitler’s government would quickly collapse, or that the Nazis would eventually moderate their extreme views. Obviously, as we know all too well, neither of those things happened.

In the Garden of Beasts focuses on Dodd’s changing attitude as he sees more of the brutality of the Nazis’ rule, and he gradually understands that Hitler is not a man who can be dealt with rationally. The book also deals with Dodd’s family, who accompanied him to Germany. Specifically, it focuses on his spirited daughter Martha, who was 24 when the Dodds arrived in Berlin. Martha was quickly entranced by the Nazis, as she only saw what she interpreted as good things, like a renewed sense of national pride in Germany. Martha attracted many suitors, and she had a close relationship with Rudolf Diels, who was then the head of the Gestapo. While she was in Berlin, Martha also fell in love with Boris Winogradov, a Russian who was a member of the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB. Martha only needed to sleep with a member of Stasi, the brutal East German secret police, to complete her trifecta of notorious authoritarian secret police forces. 

The climax of In the Garden of Beasts is Hitler’s June 1934 purge of the SA, the brown-shirted “Storm Troopers” led by Ernst Röhm, who had been a long-time ally of Hitler’s. Röhm’s brown shirts tended to be a rowdy bunch who were likely to randomly beat up American citizens for not giving the Hitler salute during parades. (This behavior, and the German police’s reluctance to punish the SA members, led to many headaches for Ambassador Dodd.) Hitler was facing pressure from President Hindenburg to reign in the excesses of the SA, or else Hindenburg would strip Hitler of his title and declare martial law. Röhm was at the same time pressuring Hitler to let him take control of the German army. Hitler’s purge of the SA, known as the “Night of the Long Knives,” led to the murder of many key SA leaders, including Röhm. The official Nazi story was that Röhm was trying to overthrow Hitler, which was untrue. Hitler claimed that the purge was necessary to protect Germany from traitors. In purging the SA, Hitler satisfied Hindenburg, and at the same time did away with a key rival within his own party. When Hindenburg died in August of 1934, Hitler persuaded his cabinet to pass a law merging the offices of President and Chancellor, and thus when Hindenburg died, the last real threat to Hitler’s power died too. Hitler and the Nazi party now had total control of Germany. 

Larson is able to craft a non-fiction book that also has a fast-paced narrative, which is a difficult feat to pull off. He creates vivid portraits of the many fascinating and bizarre characters that populated the early days of the Third Reich. I have only two criticisms of In the Garden of Beasts. One is that, like Larson’s previous book The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts doesn’t have a separate picture section. Larson paints such great portraits of Berlin and the people who inhabited the city at the time that I wanted to see more pictures of what these people looked like. My other criticism is that Larson skates over the fact that Martha Dodd was a spy for the Soviet Union after she returned to the United States in 1937. She and her second husband Alfred Stern were indicted on charges of espionage in 1957, and they fled the United States and never returned. Larson does not say that Dodd was indicted on charges of espionage; he merely writes “as pressure from federal authorities increased, they moved again…” (In the Garden of Beasts, p.361) But that omission doesn’t detract from the many pleasures that In the Garden of Beasts provides the reader. I learned a lot more about a fascinating time in world history, a brief window in which Adolf Hitler might easily have been removed from power, which would have changed much of the history of the 20th century. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Book Review: Lana: The Lady, The Legend, The Truth, by Lana Turner (1982)

Book cover of Lana: The Lady, The Legend, The Truth, by Lana Turner, 1982.

The beautiful and glamorous Lana Turner at the peak of her beauty.

Another glamorous still of the lovely Lana.

Lana making her dramatic entrance in The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946. It's no wonder that John Garfield was willing to kill for her. 
Lana Turner was one of the biggest movie stars in the 1940’s and 1950’s and also one of the most beautiful and glamorous. Turner was well known for her stunning beauty, and also for her dramatic personal life. She was married 8 times to 7 different men. None of her marriages lasted longer than 5 years. Turner chronicled her extraordinary life in her 1982 autobiography Lana: The Lady, The Legend, The Truth. The book actually started as a biography of Turner by movie critic Hollis Alpert, but once he interviewed her for the book, it slowly turned into her autobiography, which explains why Alpert’s name is listed as one of the copyright holders.

Lana the book is an interesting look at the woman behind the image. However, the book is not without its faults. The ending of the book is oddly rushed, as the last 11 years that the book covers, from 1971-1982, take up only the last 15 pages. Granted, those are not the most fascinating years of Lana Turner’s life and career, but it felt like she suddenly ran out of time and rushed the ending. And suddenly, in the last four pages of the book, Turner has a religious awakening. This seemingly life-changing moment is catalogued without much detail. 

The real focus of Lana is on her husbands, and not her movies. Unfortunately for fans of old Hollywood, there’s not much behind the scenes information on any of Turner’s movies. We learn that Clark Gable, her most frequent co-star, was nice to her, but she only saw him socially once. There’s a lot that Turner doesn’t tell us, which holds back Lana from being a classic Hollywood autobiography. Who were Turner’s good girl friends who she socialized with? What leading men did she like playing opposite? We never find out because Turner simply doesn’t tell us. It’s too bad there isn’t more focus on her acting and her movies, because Lana Turner had true acting talent, and she was much more than just a pretty face. 

Turner had an unfortunate penchant for marrying men who were bad for her, and the catalogue of failed marriages eventually becomes numbing. It also begs the question, why did she marry so many men who were not suited for her? Turner attempts to answer the question, but doesn’t come up with a very satisfactory answer. Turner wrote:

“With the exception of dear Fred May, who is still my good friend, all my husbands have taken, and I was always giving. Why? Well, I was always a giver, even as a little girl. If I had candy and you had none, I’d give you half of mine….But that’s an easy answer, one I’ve used all my life. Now I see that somewhere there was a pattern, something in me that made me choose takers, over and over again. Surely I should have learned that, when respect goes out the door, love flies out the window. So why did I lose respect again and again? I honestly don’t know. Once would have been enough for some people.” (Lana, p.249) 

My own guess is that Turner must have had low self-confidence when it came to her relationships with men. Turner once said, “My plan was to have one husband and seven children but it turned out the other way.” She got off to a bad start at age 19 by eloping with big band-leader Artie Shaw to Las Vegas on their very first date! Shaw proved to be selfish and mean, and the marriage soon collapsed. Husband number 2 was Steve Crane, who eventually became a successful restaurant owner. Turner and Crane married twice because when they first got married Crane wasn’t divorced from his first wife. Oops! Crane fathered Turner’s only child, her daughter Cheryl Crane. Steve Crane inspired perhaps my favorite line in the book. While Turner was pregnant, he bought a tiny lion cub as a pet. Why, I don’t know. Turner writes, “With a baby coming, having a lion around the house seemed too risky to me.” (Lana, p.73) Good call Lana! 

In between husbands 2 and 3 Turner had a passionate affair with matinee idol Tyrone Power, who Turner describes as her true love. But Power was in the process of getting divorced from his first wife, and when she got pregnant with his child they weren’t able to marry. Turner writes about wanting to go away and have the baby in secret and then claim she adopted it. But she dismisses it as a foolish idea, even though it’s exactly what Loretta Young did when she got pregnant with Clark Gable’s baby. Young’s career survived unblemished. Power left for a press junket in Europe, leaving the ball in Turner’s court about whether to keep the child or not, saying it wasn’t his decision to make. Power contacted Turner via shortwave radio during his trip and she told him “I found the house today,” which was their secret code that meant she decided to have an abortion. When Power returned to the United States, he had fallen in love with actress Linda Christian, who would become his second wife. 

Husband number 3 was millionaire Bob Topping, who had a drinking problem and spent too much money. When Topping proposed to her, Turner told him “You know I don’t love you.” (Lana, p.109) Which is a good sign that you shouldn’t marry someone. But she eventually said yes. Turner makes it sound as though she wanted someone who would take care of her monetary needs, but did she really want to quit making movies and become a lady of leisure? She never answers definitively. Depressed and despondent over the failure of her marriage to Topping, Turner attempted suicide in late 1951, taking an overdose of sleeping pills and slashing her wrist. Her manager Ben Cole saved her by breaking down her bathroom door. The incident was covered up, and the official story was that Turner had slipped in the bathroom and broken the glass of her shower door, thus injuring her wrist. Husband number 4 was actor Lex Barker, most famous for playing Tarzan. According to Turner’s daughter Cheryl Crane, Barker sexually abused Crane, and once she told her mother about the abuse, she promptly left Barker. Turner doesn’t mention this in her autobiography.

In between husbands 4 and 5 was the most notorious relationship of Turner’s life, her year-long affair with minor mobster Johnny Stompanato, a former bodyguard for gangster Mickey Cohen. He introduced himself to her as “John Steele,” and had no inkling of his ties to gangsters until much later in their relationship. Stompanato was relentless in his pursuit of Turner, obsessively sending her flowers and trying to get her to go out on a date with him. Turner had a queasy feeling from the beginning about him, but unfortunately she finally went out with him. He quickly proved to be abusive and controlling. Once Turner learned of his connections to the underworld, she feared the bad publicity that would result if it became known that she was dating him. Ironically, Turner’s nightmares of bad publicity would come true, but not in any way she could have imagined. Turner wanted to end her relationship with Stompanato, but she proved unable to get rid of him. In the midst of this crisis, Turner was nominated for Best Actress for her role in Peyton Place. After the Oscar ceremony on March 26, 1958, when Turner came home to Stompanato that night, he went into a violent rage and brutally beat her, slapping her and punching her repeatedly. Turner wrote, “There were welts all over my face and neck, and the beginnings of what would be terrible bruises.” (Lana, p.194) Just a week later, on April 4th, Turner and Stompanato had another loud argument and he was threatening her again. Turner’s daughter Cheryl was listening to their argument, and entered the room. Holding a kitchen knife, she stabbed Stompanato in the stomach, killing him. The incident was a huge Hollywood scandal, and Turner saw her private life splashed all over the front pages. Cheryl’s stabbing of Stompanato was ruled a justifiable homicide, and she was spared having to go to jail. Luckily for Turner, the scandal didn’t ruin her movie career, as Peyton Place’s box office totals were probably helped by all of the press coverage.

Husband number 5 was Fred May, who sounds like he was a really nice guy. He’s the only one of Turner’s ex-husbands that she remained close friends with, and Turner admits in the book that maybe she shouldn’t have divorced him. Husband number 6 was Robert Eaton, who misused lot of Turner’s money and threw extravagant parties when she was out of the country. Her final husband was nightclub hypnotist Ronald Pellar, also known as Ronald Dante. He allegedly stole a lot of money and jewelry from Turner. Turner declared herself finished with men at that point and never married again. I guess she knew that once she had basically married Gob Bluth, Will Arnett’s character from “Arrested Development,” she probably shouldn’t get married again. 

To her credit, Lana Turner was a survivor. She made it through 7 failed marriages, 2 abortions, 3 stillbirths, and she still kept going. That takes guts, and you have to respect someone who has been through all that.