Tag Archives: A Life

Under Pressure

Mike Wallace: A Life by Peter Rader (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 309 pages)

“Day by day, Mike was losing his bearings – slipping inexorably into a darkness that would soon envelop him.”

Like the news anchor in Don Henley’s song “Dirty Laundry”, Mike Wallace could have been an actor but instead he wound up as the attack dog on CBS-TVs vaunted and often over-praised show 60 Minutes.   As clarified by biographer Peter Rader, Wallace was in fact an actor, a performer and not an actual investigative reporter.   That’s because he did not do his own research, his own homework – he relied on others to do the dirty work and write his material for him (including two supposed autobiographies)…  And yet, Wallace was very good at what he did.

To this reader and TV watcher, Wallace always seemed one-dimensional – the type of character so easily satirized on Saturday Night Live.   Tick, tock, tick, tock…  To Rader’s credit, this is a bio that presents Wallace as an actual three-dimensional man; a gifted and seemingly fearless performer who was actually very fearful of a lot in life.   He very much feared the notion of retirement and the prospect of trying to survive out of the public’s eye.   Rather managed to stay on past CBS’s mandatory retirement age (receiving an exemption that had not been granted to Walter Cronkite), and continued doing interviews for 60 Minutes until he turned 90!   This meant that he outlived his co-workers and friends, and led Wallace to admit:  “I think I’ve lived too long.   But I don’t feel sorry for myself.”

“Beneath the brash, unnerving persona, the master of the jugular…  lies a more hidden man, a man of scars and storms and deep black melancholies.”   Eve Berliner on Mike Wallace

As detailed in this frank account, Wallace may not have felt sorry for himself but he constantly dealt with depression.   Wallace was to make multiple suicide attempts, he divorced three wives before marrying a fourth, and he was generally – even close to the very end of his life – estranged from his children.   On the small screen, Mike Wallace was a tiger – but in his own life, in his own skin, he was often afraid of the shadows of the night.

This is one of those biographies which does not ask you to change or revise your opinion on the subject.   If you were not a fan of Wallace (and this reader/viewer was not), this book will not make you an admirer.   If you were a fan of Wallace, this book will not require you to dislike the man that he was.   Like a great political compromise, it provides enough for those on both sides of the argument to feel both vindicated and not quite pleased.

In Mike Wallace: A Life, Rader has met his self-stated goal of producing a comprehensive bio of a public figure which “sheds light on our understanding of both the world in which we live and also on what it means to be human.”   It seems that for the legendary, on-stage performer Mike Wallace, living the day-to-day existence of a normal human being – away from the stage lights, without makeup – was the toughest of all his assignments.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Mike Wallace: A Life is also available as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition e-book.

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Mike Wallace (400)

A review of Mike Wallace: A Life by Peter Rader.

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September 24, 2012 · 2:24 pm

All Good Things

Paul Newman: A Life by Lawrence J. Quirk (Taylor Made; $16.95; 360 pages)

“Sometimes God makes perfect people, and Paul Newman was one of them.”   Sally Field

“This country is better for his being in it.”   Robert Redford

I may have met Paul Newman twice, although it is far from certain.   According to family legend, I was one of the children in the park at night in Stockton, California watching as the filming of Cool Hand Luke took place in front of the Catholic church.   This was the scene in which a very drunk Luke chops off the heads of parking meters.   Whether I was actually present or not, I do not know.   What I am certain of is that years later I met Newman, for a few seconds, as he walked around the spectator grounds of the Long Beach Grand Prix.   It seems that he had just won a celebrity race and he was celebrating.   With the assistance of two younger men, he was offering plastic tumblers of fine wine – or red party cups filled with beer – to everyone he encountered.   It took only a couple of seconds to see that this was a man in love with life and living.   The joy in his blue eyes was one-of-a-kind.

Perhaps it’s precisely because Newman showed us the sparkle of joy in simple living that he had such an impact on so many.   As I purchased a Newman’s Own product yesterday, the grocery clerk told me, “I can’t believe that he’s gone.”   It’s a feeling and sentiment shared by many.

Lawrence J. Quirk’s biography is one of two with the same title; this is the superior one.   It’s the better account because Quirk is a movie expert and he does a fine job of explaining why Newman went into acting, and of reviewing the highs and lows of the actor’s career.   This Paul Newman was not perfect, he was human, but a very lucky one.   As Quirk relates, Newman – who was certain in his belief that he would  never win an Oscar – rose to the very top of his profession.   And so, “his greatest dream came true.”

Quirk, with his expertise, does not fawn over Newman as an actor.   For example, in writing about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he opines that, “although Newman is very good in the film, he’s not quite as good as Redford…  (and) neither actor is exactly convincing as an old-time outlaw…”   Yet it’s this tough standard that makes Quirk’s sometime praise of Newman so valuable.   And he reminds us that Newman was not just an actor, he was a philanthropist whose Newman’s Own Foundation has never failed to raise and distribute less than $55 million a year for charities around the world.

If Paul Newman had just been terribly handsome, he would have been loved only by women.   But he could also be a man’s man, a guy’s guy:

“…he was essentially a likeable, friendly guy, especially with several beers in him, and he frequently bought the beer, (which) just made him even more appealing to his buddies…  (There were those who felt) extremely flattered by the attention of famous people, who feel proud and somehow legitimized that someone the whole world knows is taking an interest in them.”

“Newman has personality to spare; he loves practical jokes, having good times with his buddies, and lots of beer…”

Quirk notes that while Newman the actor usually starred in “macho fantasies,” as a director of movies like Rachel, Rachel he “showed a more sensitive side that he seemed determined in all other aspects of his life to keep hidden.”

Paul Newman was a fascinating man, something which Quirk affirms so well in this biography, and he was – Quirk never lets us forget – first and foremost an actor.   He was an Academy Award-winning actor, and loyal husband (“Newman was never really a skirt chaser…”).   He was a man who lived each day with gusto until he left us at 6:45 p.m. on September 26, 2008.   It was such a loss for this country, and for the world.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A copy of this book was purchased by the reviewer.

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A review of Paul Newman: A Life (Updated Edition) by Lawrence J. Quirk.

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A Day in the Life

Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew by Suzanne Berne (Algonquin; $23.95; 296 pages)

“He had lost his mother when he was a little boy.   He’d hardly known her…  I wished I could give his mother back to him.”

Missing Lucile is a loving, lovely and lively account of the life of Lucile Kroger Berne, the grandmother that author Suzanne Berne was never to meet.   Lucile graduated from the prestigious and challenging Wellesley College in 1911, was married in 1923, gave birth to two children and died in 1932.   Hers was a short life and the author’s father was just 6 when his mother died.

Lucile was a member of THE Kroger family of Cincinnati, her own father being the founder of a grocery empire that today is worth billions of dollars.   Despite being part of such a prominent family, little was known of her life.   As Suzanne Berne writes early in her account, “Lucile has slipped out of memory…”   That is, until the author stumbled across a history of the Kroger family which provided her with the outlines of the story that is told here.   She also found developed and never-before-developed photographs that helped her to fill in some gaps in Lucile’s story.

Suzanne Berne’s father was in his eighties when she began trying to put the pieces together to create a living, breathing, woman named Lucile.   She has largely succeeded in this effort, even putting to rest some family myths.   For example, it was said of Lucile that she never smiled, but the reader sees photographs of Lucile smiling – even while her college graduation photo is being taken – and reads accounts of her being almost hysterically happy.   This is what happens in real life.

Suzanne Berne spent a great deal of time conducting research at the Wellesley College library, and a large part of this biography involves the time that Lucile spent there – a period she often referred to as the very best period in her life.   And, yet, despite the author’s best efforts some riddles remain as such…  “Every life has its blank squares.”   (Lucile was captain of the Wellesley Running Team until she dropped out for a reason that is still unknown.)

Senator Robert Taft’s wife once said of Lucile that she was, “The only one in the Kroger family with brains.”   She was also an adventurous person, a young woman who went to France just two weeks after the end of World War I; her intent being to fulfill the mission of Wellesley’s graduates – to minister to others rather than being ministered to.   There it seems she may have engaged in a romance with a military man.   Perhaps.

Perhaps is a word often used by Suzanne Berne in this work, because filling in the blanks on a life requires some guesswork:  “In my opinion, writing about other people requires a certain stupid bravado – a willingness to chat up the unknowable.   Especially since what you don’t know about someone is always going to be more interesting than what you do…”   But this account is plenty interesting enough in telling the reader what’s known about the life of Lucile Berne.

The manner in which Suzanne Berne fills in “the unknowable” is charming (this is a novelist applying her creative skills to tying the events of a life together).   The author writes about a woman she never knew in a tone that is filled with love and respect.   The reader will suspect that Suzanne Berne sees a large part of herself in her late grandmother, a feeling that haunts many grandchildren.

“…everyone’s life is a promising novel when reduced to a few lines in a reunion record…  every yearbook is full of promising-looking people who have no idea what will happen to them.”

Suzanne Berne’s father died in 2009, but not before he was able to read the majority of the manuscript that makes up this unique portrait.   His daughter Suzanne provided him with an invaluable, lyrical, account of his mother’s life – one that turned a ghost back into a living person, a woman with strengths and weaknesses; a woman who won and lost in life; a woman who lived a life in full before her early passing.   What a tremendous gift!

Lucile Berne’s life is now well accounted for, and it is well, well worth reading.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head

“I’m two people.   I’m me, Paul Newman.   And I’m Paul Newman the actor.   The first one is not for sale.”   Paul Newman is quoted as having said this to “the press” in Shawn Levy’s biography Paul Newman: A Life.   This is the point at which your typical review would use a phrase with a descriptive adjective phrase such as “Levy’s adoring biography” or “Levy’s cranky biography.”   I have a hard time coming up with anything other than “apparently well researched and factual biography.”

It’s hard to say because there seem to be more than just two Newmans here, there seem to be dozens.   Perhaps it is because the author never had the chance to interview the man.   What we get are dozens and dozens of Newman quotations in this 474 page project compiled without the blessings of Mr. Newman or his wife (Joanne Woodward).   The different quotes seem to have different tones, differing voices, as if Newman was sometimes factual and sometimes being the practical joker he was known to be.   One also has to wonder if some of the Newman “quotes” were the creations of publicity agents.

There’s a seriousness to Levy’s work which is very, very admirable.   You can almost picture him frowning while typing up the facts of Newman’s life, gleaned from official records and interviews with “friends and associates.”   What seems to be missing is the sense of joy about life and living that Paul Newman seemed to possess; in his own eyes, he was nothing if not a very, very lucky man.

Two key questions went unanswered for me in reading this biography:  Why exactly did Newman become an actor (we get some guesses here and some circumstances but not motivation) and what did Newman get out of acting (in a non-commercial sense) that was so satisfying?   Something else has been missed here, which often needs to be answered in telling a person’s story:  How smart, exactly, was the actor?   The answer would have helped to gauge who he was.   (Newman attended three colleges including Yale.)Paul Newman

As with most life stories these days, there’s a “fair and balanced” approach to detailing Newman’s strengths and positives (especially his philanthropic activities) and his weaknesses and faults.   Fine, but it seemed a bit too much by-the-numbers for me.

There is one small fact that comes through well in the telling which is that Newman felt that he never got to know or achieve the admiration of his quite successful merchant father.   Newman began to attain his professional success after his father’s death, something that appeared to haunt him.

Let me close by noting that I once came within two feet of Paul Newman.   He had just won a celebrity auto race at the Long Beach Grand Prix and – with the help of a couple of young assistants – was walking through the crowd of thousands of race fans…   He and his crew had massive magnums of wine and he was offering a plastic cup full of the libation to anyone and everyone he saw.   His smile was huge, his blue eyes were bright and I thought, “This man really loves people and loves life!”   Sadly, that is the Paul Newman I did not come across in this telling of his life’s story.

Note:   Steve McQueen – Portrait of an American Rebel by Marshall Terill (Plexus trade paperback, $19.95) is recommended as an example of a biography where you will get to know and understand both the actor and the man.

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