Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Captivated by Marilyn – A Brief Biography of Gary Vitacco-Robles

Thursday, August 25th, 2016

#sexsymbol #MarilynMonroe #Fifties #Cinema

This is the third in a series about Gary Vitacco-Robles, the author of the monumental biography ICON:The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes I and II. I have reviewed both volumes and published two segments of my interview with Vitacco-Robles. In this installment, I asked him to share something about his personal life.

Gary, the biographical information on you is quite sketchy as presented by the usual sources. Please fills us in on your background.

Gary Vitacco-Robles - A Birthday Photo

Gary Vitacco-Robles – A Birthday Photo

I was born to a warm Italian family and lived until age 10 in Flushing/Bayside New York. In 1975, my family relocated to a rural area north of the Tampa Bay – a severe culture shock for me, but I grew to enjoy how generations of Florida-born residents were melding with transplanted families from the northeast.

I was an honor student in high school, president of the drama club, editor of the yearbook, and involved in many other school and community organizations. Entering St. Petersburg College in 1983, I majored in architecture with an emphasis on Speech English Education. It was there that I was encouraged to consider mental health counseling. I transferred to the University of South Florida, Tampa, and majored in Psychology with electives in theater and Women’s Studies. Graduating in 1987, I went to work at a local community mental health center assisting adults who suffered from severe and persistent mental illness as they transitioned from state psychiatric hospitals into the community. I was promoted to case manager and ultimately to program supervisor. I completed my masters at USF in Counseling Education.

My first position as a therapist was in a program specializing in trauma-informed treatment of youth and families who had survived physical/sexual abuse and neglect and children with sexual behavior problems. I became licensed as Mental Health Counselor in Florida in 1997 and a Nationally Certified Counselor in 1998. I’ve remained at the same organization for thirty years and currently supervise an adult and children outpatient department. I am a founding member of a sexual abuse intervention network to prevent child sexual abuse and respond to children and youth with sexual behavior problems. For about five years, I had a concurrent private practice in Tampa.

My spouse and I met 26 years ago. I consider my marriage and the life my spouse and I created together my greatest achievement. We have enjoyed tremendous support from our families as a same gender couple. We are also very grateful for the support we have received from the relatively conservative area where we live.

When did you first become interested in Marilyn Monroe?

Gary and Oscar Vitacco Robles - Partner for over 30 years.

Earlier Photo of Gary and Oscar Vitacco Robles – Partners for over 26 years. Commitment Ceremony 1994. Civil Union 2000. Married 2004

Marilyn has always chased and haunted me. Norman Mailer’s biography of her was published in 1973 when I was eight. Images of her were everywhere when I was in junior high in the late 1970s. One that comes clearly to mind was Milton Greene’s iconic “ballerina” pose. Her soulful eyes captivated me like none other I have ever seen. I also remember Bert Stern’s portraits originally for Vogue in 1962 being widely circulated in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

I saw Bus Stop and The Prince and the Showgirl back to back when I was in junior high school. They were my first Monroe movies. Her performances moved me. I quickly found and devoured Fred Lawrence’s 1960 biography, Norma Jeane, The Life of Marilyn Monroe, Edward Waghenknecht’s Marilyn: A Composite View, and Norman Mailers Marilyn: A Biography from 1972. I was immediately fascinated and felt tremendous compassion for her. Despite her tragic early death, I saw her as a resilient survivor.

Over the years, I’ve read at least 200 biographies. I recommend the works of Fred Lawrence Guiles, Maurice Zolotow, Donald Spoto, and Michelle Morgan. As for memoirs, look to the works of Norman Rosten, Sam Shaw – Rosten & Shaw’s Marilyn Among FriendsSusan Strasberg, and Berniece Miracle. Since my volumes contain over 1500 pages of text with no photos, Monroe photo books make the perfect companion. James Spada’s is a personal favorite from 1982. Also the photo books of George Barris and Bert Stern’s The Complete Last Sitting. The auction catalogues like Christie’s The Personal Property of Marilyn Monroe from 1999 is a good source. Marilyn Monroe’s My Story is a primer. Fragments contain images of pages from her personal diaries and letters.

Richard Meryman’s lengthy Life 1962 interview and Allan Levy’s for Redbook the same year are fascinating. I recommend documentaries which include audiotapes of Meryman’s interview of Marilyn as well as Georges Belmont’s for Marie Clare magazine, the latter recorded in 1960. Both men asked brief open-ended questions which allowed Marilyn to expound in two of the most revealing narratives. They are a significant record of her thoughts and insights about her life because she speaks in her natural voice recalling the events of her life and commenting on her daily routines. The result is the closest glimpse of her true self available to us today.

When did you realize that you wanted to become a writer?

Gary Vitacco-Robles - Aspiring Writer

Gary Vitacco-Robles – Aspiring Writer

I have been writing short stories and plays since junior high school. Two books had a major impact on me. The Diary of Anne Frank is the book of all books with its spiritual content. It is almost a miracle that it survived. To Kill a Mockingbird is another great book that changed the world. Harper Lee’s backstory fascinated me. She attained distinction despite not being prolific.

I set a goal at age fourteen on New Year’s Eve 1979-80 to  become published someday . My English teachers saw me as a playwright or mystery novelist. A young woman, Courtenay O’Connell Sims, was my mentor in junior high school. She encouraged me to take a chance on publishing. We’re lifelong friends to this day. She gave the toast at my wedding.

Publishing biographies about Marilyn have been my only success. My first effort, Cursum Perficio: Marilyn Monroe’s Brentwood Hacienda/The Story of Her Final Years, turned out to be self-prescribed occupational therapy. I self-published it through iUniverse in 2000. The book focused on Marilyn’s renovation of a home in the last months of her life. The renovation, incomplete at the time of her death, is an obvious metaphor for her unfinished life and premature death. The second edition of Cursum Perfico resonated with readers because it was professionally illustrated by Brandon Heidrick. The book prompted many to encourage me to write a full-length biography.

What plans do you have for your next book?

Icon" The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe - Volume I Book Cover

Icon” The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe – Volume I Book Cover

I’ve been involved since February of 2015 in the Goodnight, Marilyn radio show investigation into Marilyn’s death. Nina Boski and Randall Libero have had me as a frequent guest and I am currently a weekly panel member for three seasons, I will be an investigative team member for the Seeking the Truth Conference in Los Angeles in 2017. I’ve recently acquired the 641-page LA District Attorney’s investigation materials and final report from 1982. I’ve been privileged to consult with forensic experts including psychiatrists Dr. Cyril Wecht, Dr. Reef Kareem, and suicide expert Dr. Scott Bonn. This 21st century investigation will yield new results and impact our perceptions about her death. I intend to publish the findings in Volume III and have received encouragement from Ben Ohmart, my publisher (BearManor Media) who is very interested. The next volume, ICON: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume 3 – The 1982 and 2016 Investigations into Her Death (the current working title) will be the largest volume in completing the trilogy.

What if Marilyn Monroe had lived? How would her career have taken shape if she lived to the fullness of her years?

Marilyn, as a woman of 40, would have to survive the turbulent 1960s in film. She would have turned 40 in 1966. The studio system had collapsed, and freelancing and independent films were the norm. Changing times challenged actresses over 40, although the new freedoms and cultural revolution were liberating and allowed for creativity. Some of the notable female performances included Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate.

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II - Cover

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II – Cover

The 1970s ushered a cultural nostalgia for the 1950s and the veterans of the Golden Age of Film, an era for which Marilyn was the icon. I believe she would have made a come-back. Consider the ensemble casts of Hollywood greats in the disaster films of the 70s: The Towering Inferno (Fed Astaire), The Poseidon Adventure (Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons), Earthquake (Eva Gardner) and Airport ’75 (Gloria Swanson). Marilyn might team again with Jack Lemon in the Sandy Dennis’ role in the hilarious The Out of Towners in 1970. Marilyn as Auntie Mame in 1974 seems better cast than Lucille Ball. The public would have seen a more mature Marilyn, but her growth as an artist qualified for these roles and she would have remained relevant and become rediscovered by another generation.

In 1962, Marilyn stated her desire was to become a character actress. Aging and television would have provided an opportunity. Television was a burgeoning option for stars of the 50s with its sitcoms, dramas, variety shows and specials. The new made-for-television movies would have been a medium for Marilyn as she moved into her late 40s and early 50s, affording her ample opportunity to enjoy success as a dramatic actress. TV was less expensive and more creative than film at that time and holds true even today.

Gary Vitacco-Robles - Biographer, Therapist

Gary Vitacco-Robles – Biographer, Therapist

Shirley MacLaine’s later film career suggests what Marilyn could have achieved in film in the 1980s and beyond. Think of her in Terms of Endearment, Used People, Steel Magnolias. She would have had to turn to television in the 1970s to secure a film presence later. Comedy and self-parody were both options: The Golden Girls, perhaps even a sequel to Some Like It Hot. Marilyn belongs to the boomer generation after all, the largest single group in the population. Her aging would be revered as boomers strove to remain young on the tennis courts, in exercise studios and on the golf links.

In a parallel universe, Marilyn would also remarrie DiMaggio and retire to a ranch in Carmel (like Doris Day and Kim Novak),where she’d rescue animals and abandon film altogether until someone like Ron Howard or Tom Hanks would coax her out of reclusion and retirement for a sexy elderly mother role.

The high level of interest in  Marilyn among cinema fans and movie historians attests to her enduring appeal as a person. Her performances set new standards the have prevailed over the years in an industry that, almost by definition, is transitory at its core.

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Marilyn Monroe – A Definitive New Biography by Vitacco-Robles

Friday, July 15th, 2016

#MarilynMonroe  #Movies #Hollywood

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

Marilyn Monroe is an enigmatic figure in the history of the entertainment industry. Half a century has passed since her death, yet she is remembered today as if she were yet alive. Her story has evolved into legend. Breathtakingly beautiful, talented and charismatic, she begins her career in the heyday advent of the movie industry. The widescreen CinemaScope technology and stereophonic sound present her on the wide screen as sensual, alluring and innocent – the undeniably seductive child-woman somehow untainted by the world. She was so compelling in her portrayals that two of her more successful films (Some Like It Hot and The Misfits) were produced in black-and-white. Other glamorous stars preceded her, but none secured the same lasting impact.

Marilyn Monroe is both the product and the victim of twentieth century America as the country moves into new-found affluence after World War II. The age is witness to the rise of materialism, the redefinition of sexual values, the questioning of the place of women in society and the leaderless rebellion of youth against the established order. Monroe’s name is associated with some of the elite of the era, Carl Sandberg, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy Frank  Sinatra and Clark Gable among others.  It would only follow that many would try to exploit her memory for personal advantage. Over 600 books have been published about her. Many accounts distort the collective memory to such an extent the task of untangling and clarifying Ms. Monroe’s story takes on monumental dimensions.

Unassailable Credibility . . .

Gary Vitacco-Robles = Author and Biographer

Gary Vitacco-Robles = Author and Biographer

Gary Vitacco-Robles was not one to be deterred from the challenge of making certain truth would prevail. His two volumes, Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes I and II constitute the definitive biography of the great actress. (See the earlier review of Volume I click here on this web site.) That Vitacco-Robles cares, and cares deeply, for his subject is clear. His compassion and sensitivity are never more obvious than when he addresses the less-than-glamorous episodes in her life. Readers can expect to be impressed with the depth of his research. Every scene is filled with poignant detail. His credibility is unassailable and thus the power behind his narrative flows from genuine empathy for his subject.

Volume II covers the turbulent years from 1956 to 1962, the year the star died of a tragic, accidental overdose. By 1956, Ms. Monroe has gained star status. The Seven Year established her securely as a box office draw. Successes followed including The Prince and the Showgirl, Bus Stop, and arguably the greatest comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot. The world comes to know the screen persona of the actress. What becomes central to the spiritual and psychological plight for Ms. Monroe is that the world does not know her for who she truly is. “Do you want me to be Marilyn?” she teases one guest. In private the actress finds the adulation, addressed as it is to a characterization, void of the affirmation she desperately seeks. She struggles with depression, the anguish of bipolar emotional swings and the unfulfilled yearnings with their roots in a deprived and abusive childhood. Vitacco-Robles has the professional credentials to state his own analysis, but he remains objective and quotes other authorities who knew Ms. Monroe whenever he wants to write about her tormented mental state. Throughout, the author is even-handed and balanced in presentation; neither apologist nor critic. He treats the actor’s professional growth in the same manner. Monroe’s contemporaries observe that she is at the height of her talent and growing as an actress at the time of her death.

Marilyn Monroe in the  Iconic Publicity photo for The Seven Year Itch

Marilyn Monroe in the Iconic Publicity photo for The Seven Year Itch

Several persons emerge from the author’s narrative as major influences in the star’s life. Arthur Miller’s emotional withdrawal from her while they are married leaves readers questioning the depth of artistic sensitivity. Joe DiMaggio’s devotion to her throughout her life is moving. Lee and Paul Strasberg seem to thrive on keeping Marilyn dependent rather than helping her move toward a more autonomous self-sufficiency. Readers may also conclude that Psychiatrist Ralph Greenson is guilty of cultivating a dependency. Monroe was on the verge of firing him at several points.

Approaching Ridicule . . .

Surprises await also. Ms. Monroe’s performance of Happy Birthday at JFK’s party can be seen on You Tube today. It may appear to be spontaneous. Not so, however.  It was rehearsed and she was very nervous before the performance. It was suggested that she appear in a more modest formal gown, but she decided to surprise the President and those attending with something of  her own choosing. The dress she selected was sewn on her. She wore no under garments. Emcee Peter Lawford, who was instrumental in bringing Ms. Monroe and JFK together in his home, built his introduction of the actress on a belittling patter that approached ridicule.  The “audience roared,” the author reports, when she crossed the stage.. Her seductive presentation borders on travesty, especially in the face of the rumors that were flying about her and the President. Public values were very much in transition at the time, but even today, many would see her act as an affront to the decorum expected in the presence of a head-of-state. “That was poor form on her part,” Mort Viner, Dean Martin’s manager said. Many would agree. The President, in acknowledging her performance, observes with humorous sarcasm that he enjoyed being serenaded in such a “wholesome” manner and the line drew a laugh from the crowd. Sarcasm is always a mixed message. Audience members may have roared at her appearance but for the most part it was at her expense.  One wonders whether she realized at some level that she may have discredited herself. At the very least, she was not well served by those who rehearsed her. Nothing highlights the dichotomy between the performing Marilyn and the private Marilyn as much as this short historic appearance. The author does not report that private Marilyn drew any satisfaction over how her performance was received. “I  liked it,” she said in response to a direct question about the party by reporters afterward.

Her Own Glittering Mist . . .

Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., JFK’s biographer, made a journal entry that speaks for most when he wrote, “I do not think I have seen anyone as beautiful. I was enchanted by her manner and wit, at once so masked, so ingenuous and so penetrating. But one felt a terrible unreality about her-as if talking to someone under water. . . . One never felt her to be wholly engaged. She receded into her own glittering mist.”

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II - Cover

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II – Cover

Vitacco-Robles, as an author, refrains from moralizing and passing judgement. Readers, however, will find the story he has presented as moving and tragic, so much so that one may feel Marilyn Monroe’s legacy looms much larger than her artistic achievements. Her performances will attest through the ages to the depths of her enormous talent. Given her kindness to others, her generosity and her forgiving nature, she stands, however, for so much more. It is not too difficult to imagine that she would have done everything within her power to make certain no child would ever again experience the horrors that she endured during her early years. Her memory needs to be invoked in every effort to assure a better world awaits the birth of every child than the dreadful circumstances she was born into. The psychological damage and painful disorientation of her early years remained with her throughout her life. It crippled her, locked her in “her own glittering mist” as she searched for fulfillment and true happiness. Her life is proof that no amount of fame or fortune can compensate for the loss of the nurturance, love and affirmation every child needs to establish a thriving, healthy sense of self and a belief in his or her essential worthiness.

Turning to conditions under which Ms. Monroe worked, the author provides insight into the workings of the major Hollywood studios. Marilyn Monroe was a money maker for them but she was never treated with the respect she deserved. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were driving the studio into bankruptcy with their self-indulgent behavior and shoddy performances on the set for Cleopatra. Yet they were coddled and catered to. Ms. Monroe may have had problems with punctuality and keeping her commitments to appear but her performances were always exceeded expectations. Yet she was ostracized and threatened with termination. The harsh uncharitable treatment kept her mindful of her the painful abandonment and abuse she experienced as a child.

Vitacco-Robles’s writing style is sturdy and straightforward. There are moments when the author could have moved his story along more efficiently had he used footnotes to provide background data. On occasion the central story all but surrenders to detail and the trail of the narrative fades. The author includes an appendix that provides a synopsis of each of Monroe’s films. Extending the practice to include background information on some personalities and events would have served equally as well. These are the minor shortcomings of an impressive work of unflinching objectivity. Marilyn Monroe’s talent and memory deserved a biographer who brings to his task a dedication and skill that is worthy of her as a subject. Vitacco-Robles had done just that. He has paid her the highest possible tribute in completing this most memorable biography.

This review initially appeared in somewhat condensed form on the web site

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The Honeymoon – A biographical novel of the life of George Eliot

Friday, May 6th, 2016
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer


#georgeeliot #marianevans #engishlit

George Eliot’s Silas Marner was required reading in English lit when I was a sophomore in high school in the 1055. Written in the previous century, there was no way we guys would admit to liking the book. It was so old. Nothing in the days of George Eliot had any bearing upon our current time. Richard McCormack was our teacher, a gentleman through and through. We nicknamed him “Silas” because of his affection for Eliot’s novel. (I wonder if he ever found out.) By the time I began teaching sophomore high school English in 1962, a profession I undertook thanks to men like McCormack and my senior year teacher Richard Bisbee, Eliot had been dropped. Thorton Wilder‘s The Bridge of San Luis Rey had taken its place along with Hawthorne‘s Scarlet Letter (“How come she had the baby if she wasn’t married, Mr. Hohn?”) and an abridged version of Melville‘s Moby Dick.

I suppose the change was for the better. Kids took to the new selections readily. But I remembered McCormack and Silas Marner. My senior year in college, I represented my school at the annual Minnesota English Majors Convention and delivered a paper on George Eliot’s Middlemarch which is revered today as one of the great novels of the English language. I hoped I could produce a copy of my paper in preparing for this post, but alas, it vanished somewhere along the way. Prof Stephen Humphrey* helped me prepare the work for presentation. At the end of the conference, he said, “Your ending was especially strong.” I was surprised. He had never seen the ending. I had gone over most of the paper with him on at least two occasions. But the ending,  I had written it in my pajamas the morning of my presentation.

Prof had reason to be pleased with my ending, or at least relieved. The year prior, a senior with the first name of Paul  presented a paper on Shakespeare‘s King Lear at the convention and pretty much embarrassed Prof and the school by failing to draw any conclusion in his report or resolve it with closing remarks. “That’s it,” Paul said unapologetically as he stopped without abruptly with his unfinished paper.  To this day, I thought Prof should have checked Paul’s work. But then he never checked mine to make sure I finished it. I can only guess that Prof trusted us as scholars to do our utmost. Why I postponed writing the last two-and-a-half pages until the very last minute mystified me for years. Now that I write frequently, I have come to realize that I learned a great lesson from the experience.

Cinch Everything  up . . .

George Eliot - Marian Evans

George Eliot – Marian Evans

Much of writing is exploratory, a poking and probing in the hope that the ideas just beyond my reach are viable and worth my time to run down. Once into a piece, however, I know that it must go somewhere, not ramble along like this posting is at the moment. I have learned patience. It is important to yield to impulses, apparent non sequitors that actually do lead somewhere after all. Some become sequitors, but like so many random articles throughout the house, all the ideas need finally to be rounded up to a conclusion. Readers expect closure. Sustaining ambivalence can lead to madness. So, as a piece feels as it wants to close, as I find myself exhausted of whimsy and inspiration alike, I try to embrace everything that found its way onto the screen (yes, the screen; not the paper – ah technology). Then, like a draw string on a large plastic bag, I cinch everything up. Pull it together with a knot of finality and pitch it out — out in front of others for their judgment.

I’m not there yet with this posting.

Prof Stephen B. Humphrey was a major influence on my choice of the teaching profession also. Students admired him. He taught courses in the modern novel and in modern poetry. Both were favorites. We called him the “silver fox,” hardly original, but word reached us that he was pleased. His choice for his class of an early novel was The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler. Anthony Trollope also worked his way into the syllabus, although I can’t recall which of his novels we read (a bad sign, I’d say). Trollope, however, was cited by George Eliot as one who had tremendous influence on her and she said Trollope’s Barchester Towers inspired her to write Middlemarch, which brings me  full circle and back to the real topic of this post.

I was pleased recently to note that a new book has come out on the life of George Eliot. Richard McCormack would be pleased,. may he rest in peace. Dinitia Smith’s wonderful new book The Honeymoon, recently released, is a biographical novel of the life of Marian Evans.

Whisperings . . .

Dinitia Smith, Author

Dinitia Smith, Author

The Honeymoon opens with Evans as a wealthy widow at age 60. Evans gained fame as a novelist under her chosen nom de plume, George Eliot, during a time when women writers could not expect to be well received. Johnnie Cross, an elegantly handsome bachelor of 39, moved gracefully among the better circles in London society. Never much of a ladies man, whisperings drifted about whether he might be a “Nancy man” in the terms of day. Johnnie kept a secret certainly, one few knew. He withheld it from Evans even after they married.

Author Dinitia Smith sets up her biographical novel with the two unlikely newlyweds starting their honeymoon in Venice. Readers sense immediately that something is going very wrong. The stench of the canals, the sweaty, sneering gondolier taking them to their hotel, brown knots of feces bob in the water, all register with Evans. The canal is an open sewer – hardly a romantic setting.

When they arrive at the hotel, the manager recognizes Evans as George Eliot, the famous novelist, and the anonymity she hoped would keep their time together private is shattered. Cross becomes angry. He begins pointing out the sites of the city to his bride. He is so obsessed with the task that his wife cannot coax a smile to his lips. The next morning, she awakens to find him still in his evening dress (they slept in different rooms) which he insists on wearing to the beach regardless of how inappropriate his apparel may be. When he wades into the water fully clothed, Evans pleads with him to return to shore. The honeymoon is turning into a nightmare. With the irony of her title established, author Smith leaves the newlyweds and backtracks to explain how this mysterious state of affairs came about.

The Honeymoon = Book Cover at Amazon

The Honeymoon = Book Cover at Amazon

Marian Evans was born on the estate that her father manages for the wealthy owners. She and her father were very close. Very bright, Evans’ finds herself at home in the company of some of the greatest liberal minds of the time. Her androgynous physical appearance leaves her yearning for love, especially after her father dies. Free love is in fashion among the literati of England. Evans yields to several men, but as they have other alliances, she is abandoned, heart broken and lonely. Seemingly resigned to her fate as a single woman, she begins to write, first for periodicals and eventually publishes a novel which becomes popular and favored by critics. She meets George Lewes, who is married, and the two leave for the continent where they set up household and pass as husband and wife – a la Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley a generation earlier.  Lewes becomes the love of Evans’ life. Smith presents their relationship with poetic sensitivity, a fulfilling relationship for both of them.

Evans is devastated when Lewes dies,. She returns to London to find whatever comfort she can among friends who include the greatest minds of the time. Her novels are praised by Turgenev, Ruskin, Dickens and Spencer, to name a few. One who attends her during her grief is Johnnie Cross.  He pledges his love to her and vows to devote himself to taking care of her. Evans has misgivings because of their age difference, the awkwardness likely in any physical intimacy and sends Cross away. He persists, however, and she eventually agrees to wed and the stage is set for the honeymoon.

The Honeymoon is compelling, compassionate biographical novel, a story best told by a woman of Dinitia Smith’s abundant talent and insight. The author describes her protagonist’s experience in finding the joy of her own writing voice as “. .  . arriving at the point where the words became a melody, took on life, filled the page, became, finally, a symphony.” The phrase could only come from another writer, one who knows the joys of gaining entry to the flow a piece, and the same phrase applies to The Honeymoon as Smith demonstrates her mastery of the language. Her phrases flow. They entrance. She slips into her heroine’s thoughts so unobtrusively readers do not recognize the change in perspective. Evan’s thoughts and feelings pour out onto the page with stunning authenticity. Smith transports her readers with the sights, sounds, scents and textures of her scenes. Marian Evans’ life story is well worth the read. The author’s style in presenting The Honeymoon is a masterpiece of contemporary writing – a study in itself.

Fifty-five years have passed since I delivered my paper on Middlemarch. There something very reassuring in realizing George Eliot’s work remains under discussion and that she as an author still commands the attention that she deserve.

* An internet search produces nothing on Stephen B. Humphrey except notes on the theater named after him on the campus of St. John’s University. Prof was very self-effacing. It is a credit to St. John’s that they honored him by naming the theater after him. Nevertheless, somewhere amid all the historical photos, one would hope to find a photo of Prof.

This review first appeared in in a somewhat condensed version.

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Poet Robert Lax – Michael N. McGregor’s Powerful Biography

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax by Michael N. McGregor is a powerful biography of a poet who only recently has been recognized for his contributions to the evolution of contemporary poetry. The book succeeds on several levels.

Lax was born to immigrant parents in Olean, New York in 1915. The middle class values of his Jewish upbringing instilled in him a deep desire to achieve. His mother nurtured his aspirations and his loving relationships with his siblings, especially his sister Gladio, lasted all of his life. Coming of age during the depression – a time of financial hardship and open antisemitism in America – Lax enrolls in Columbia where he finds himself quickly at home among some of the brightest of his generation, including lifelong friend, Thomas Merton. Here also, Lax meets the Hindu monk, Mahanambrata Brahmachari, who Lax describes as the first true ‘holy man’ they’d (Lax and Merton) met.” McGregor writes:

The influence of Brahmachari’s words and way of being was so pivotal and long-lasting that Merton mentioned him in his last letter to Lax, days before he died. By then, based in part on decisions Brahmachari had led him to, Lax was living in a manner much like that of the guru in blue sneakers.

A list of all who influenced Lax during these impressionable years would be long indeed. Lax, however, was not part of the mainstream. Rich in detail, McGregor’s narrative never bogs down, a credit to his easy, flowing style. Sensitive readers will walk away from the book feeling that they have spent time in the company of an enlightened holy man – a rare and beautiful accomplishment for any writer.

Precursor to the Beatniks . . .

Robert Lax - Poet, Essayist and Philosopher

Robert Lax – Poet, Essayist and Philosopher

Merton and Lax room together upon graduating in a cottage near Lax’s hometown of Olean. The cottage becomes a hangout for others who, like Lax and Merton, were ambivalent about starting a career. McGregor suggests that their community was a precursor to the beatnik subculture that would emerge twenty years later. Nevertheless, during this time, Lax read the Bible and the works Shakespeare, Dante, Eliot, Blake, Donne, St. Augustin, and St. John of the Cross and others – all of which bring about a deepening of his spiritual beliefs.

All of Lax’s friends grow apprehensive about the conflict in Europe. Lax frets about what he should do and decides finally to register as a conscientious objector, a decision that put him at odds with some of his friends. I do not believe in killing, he writes. I will not kill. McGregor reports the poet writes with the unshakable conviction that “what he did and said had wider, even eternal implications.” In working out his position, Lax writes further, The world is, or seems to be (except for disease, unfortunate accidents, hostile beats, poison plants, murderous thievish, blaspheming, idolatrous, lying, adulterous, scandalous man) for joy.

These statements, all part of a single journal entry, might seem grandiose and naive – almost to the point of humor. Lax knows his mind. What his statements measure is not the young poet’s maturity but his passionate commitment to a view of mankind in the world and his place in it among his fellows.

Michael N. McGregor, Biography

Michael N. McGregor, Biography

Author McGregor seems aware that readers may misjudge his subject, perhaps to the point of dismissing Lax altogether. Yet McGregor never assumes the role of apologist for Lax. The author’s view is not idealized. He trusts his readers and gives a balanced account. Lax is his own victim at times. He is listless and eager to please, indecisive and often unwilling to confront even when it is in his best interests to do so. But McGregor depicts rather than judges, subtly affirming the reader’s judgements rather than enumerating Lax’s shortcomings.

Almost Paradoxical . . .

Friends eventually leave the cottage near Olean, Merton enters a Trappist monastery and Lax is fusses over what to do professionally. Despite holding positions with prestigious publications, He inevitably finds himself out of place. He abhors what the American world of commerce asks of people of talent. His solution is to seek solitude and live a life of poverty. Alone, his quest to discover and live as his true self will be unencumbered. As a man discovers his true self, he also draws closer to God. Man’s inner voice prays and talks to God. From the same voice poetry springs. McGregor writes:

In seeking to hear his inner voice, he was seeking as well to be a center of calm in the world. In making decisions or answering questions, he wanted to take his time, to let the answer rise quietly and naturally from his inner being – not a partial answer but a full one he could agree with completely.

As Lax takes up solitary residence among the residents of the Greek Isles, it is apparent the poet holds an idealized view of his neighbors, a view that is almost paradoxical – so fragile that if it were to be challenged, the impact would be profound, perhaps a shattering disorientation. Yet, his beliefs shape his perception. He sustains his view with the sheer power of his intellect. He wants to believe humans can live simply in the moment, congruent lives, where spirit, mind and body function as one, to live as a circus acrobat dashing toward a trotting horse, leaping into a somersault and landing upright and sure-footed on the animal’s back. Circus performers become yet another fascination for the evolutionary poet because in their movements, Lax see humans approximating his ideal of a pure act.

A Passion for the Essence . . .

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax as featured on Amazon

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax as featured on Amazon

Lax’s poetry and other works did not receive much recognition during his lifetime. He worked in the shadow of Merton and persisted with little support from the larger literary community. In his passion for the essence of words, almost an obsession, he sought to strip every word of the accepted connotations and associations so that each would appear on the page, strike the reader’s mind, as a primal, discrete entity. McGregor credits him with the discovery of vertical poetry. In his restricted vertical poems, Lax dedicates a single line to each syllable. Syllables are to words what atoms are to molecules. Finding the true intended self requires purity of language. Pure prayer requires the same. His more expansive pieces are reminiscent of e. e. cummings in form, cummings being among the poets of the previous generation much admired by Lax.

In the 1950’s he meets Jack Kerouac and is impressed with Kerouac’s spontaneous writing, which Lax sees as akin to the work of one of his idols, James Joyce, in the freedom it enables and the belief that it accesses pure thought directly. Lax briefly weighs the merits of a theory emerging among mid-twentieth thinkers that art is to be created as art, as a being with itself as its reason for existing rather than as a mirror of life. Art is art. Life is life. Or so it is argued. Back on his island home, watching a girl weave a simple rug and fisherman repair their nets, Lax rejects the new wave of thinking. Art springs from life.

McGregor refreshes his narrative at intervals with engaging first-person accounts of his own travels and visits with Lax. The author’s voice is unpretentious and authentic. If his personal beliefs ever differ with those of his subject, it is never evident. Catholicism figures prominently in the lives of Merton and Lax. When Lax is asked why he converted, the poet states  that as a young man he needed more structure. Readers expecting more from a man of profound reflection and immersed in the writings of Aquinas, Augustine, John of the Cross – to name just a few – may be disappointed. Merton and Lax, aside from profound respect for the teachings of Christ – especially the Sermon on the Mount – are not reported as engaged much in the life of Jesus, the mystery of the redemption and resurrection. Both men seem more theist than Christian. In the end, Lax realizes almost as a concession that no one religion is ever enough. It is important to go beyond.

Pure Act is a book to own. Beautifully written, there is wisdom within its pages. Everyone’s walk is different. Pure Act has a place along everyone’s way to be read once, slowly, and referred to again and again. Life is to be lived slowly, Lax admonishes, because answers come slowly – as slowly yet persistently as questions do.

This review, in somewhat condensed form, first appeared on the web site,

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Paperbacks Reshape American Culture

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014
John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

Ah, the lowly paperback. It has had a powerful impact on American culture. Author Paul Rabinowitz delineates the role it has played since first appearing for sale on American newsstands, drugstores, and coffee shops in the 1930’s. Her book, American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street, examines the often overlooked influence that the cheap, pocket-sized books had on every phase of American culture.

The word pulp usually often connotes prurient, escapist literature featuring unsavory characters who live outside the moral norms ostensibly espoused by the rest of society. Rabinowitz broadens the definition, however. For her, pulp defines the character of the medium; shoddily bound coarse paper volumes that degrade quickly.

According to Rabinowitz, pulp has influenced every facet of American culture from civil rights to the feminist revolution. It set the stage for the sexual revolution of the mid-twentieth century. The paperback, more than any other medium, carried Modernist thinking, or Modernism, into cities and villages across the country. As the author writes:

This is a story of paper, or rather of paperback books, produced in massive numbers between the late 1930s and the early 1950s These throwaway items hold within their covers a rich history of literary tastes; the point to, even reflect, a democratizing literacy and the new forms of identity and community that emerged in mid-twentieth-century America.

Curiously, the above passage is very good example of the author’s rambling, verbose writing style. If, for example, the story is about paperbacks, it follows that it would also be about paper. If the period of time for the study is from 1930 to 1950, readers know it is the mid-twentieth-century. Either “point to” or “reflect” adequately carries the thought, unless the reader is being asked to resolve the author’s ambivalence.

Cover to American Pulp -- Available on Amazon

Cover to American Pulp — Available on Amazon

Rabinowitz writing reflects her passion for her subject. Some passages are truly eloquent and succinct. The highly quotable lines flutter around like canaries lost in a murder of raucous crows. What eventually wears the reader down is a tedium of overwriting. Rabinowitz slings a sentence like a hammock over seven or eight lines of text and then loads it up with subordinate clauses and phrases, modifiers galore, parenthetical observations, personal asides, multiple verbs and allusions to other authors, artists, historians and philosophers. She invariably prefers the less well-known modifiers. The phrase “The demotics of reading” appears no less the 4 times within the first 80 pages of text. (Demotics, the plural form, was not recognized by Word or  WordPress Spell check.) Demotic means ordinary, common or popular. Using the plural, Rabinowitz morphs the term from an adverb into a noun–commonness or popularity. Readers are usually accepting of a coinage when they are clever and easy to recognize. Not so in this case. This is writing to impress rather than inform.

Anomie, evanescent, quotidian, and totemic, as words, are impressive, but seldom heard in everyday conversation, even among academics and rarely found in paperbacks intended for the general population.

Rabinowitz writes around her subjects. Her definition of Modernism is there, of course, but sprinkled here and dribbled there when a straightforward presentation of the meaning in the context the author intends would be greatly appreciated.

Author Paul Rabinowitz

Author Paul Rabinowitz

Modernism, in its most pervasive form, represents a breaking away from the moral, aesthetic, social, political and theological values that prevailed through most of the 19th century and into the first few decades of the 20th. Modernism emphasizes individual autonomy over conformity to established ethical and aesthetic codes. The paperback was an effective stealth medium for tearing down old standards because it was cheap, portable, and widely available.

The author strives to make the simple point that slavery is a grave sin of America’s past. Racial discrimination continues today. The paperback put a tool in the hands of writers eager to address this evil as an unrecognized crime that goes on year after year in our communities. Paperbacks, the conveyor of sleazy sex and brutal crime stories, become the medium through which the crime of discrimination is exposed. Thus, a medium that is usually about crime becomes a tool against the ignored crime of racism. That’s what? Ironic? Making this point in writing about  African-American author Richard Wright, the author explains:

Crime, as a narrative device, enabled, as had for two of his inspirations, Theodore Dreiser and Fyodor Dostoevsky, his exploration of psychological and economic forces, showing how the two collide in an individual. But it did more for Wright – or rather he did more with it – and this is the subject of this chapter: how Richard Wright’s and Edwin Rosskam’s phototextual book, 12 Million Black Voices, supplements the crime narrative, or better, inverts it, to make clear that the crime, that which the American people (or at least white Americans) have been lied to and been lying to themselves about, was the crime of slavery and its attendant Jim Crow laws and culture of racism. This is the true crime story that Wright was exploding/exposing—America’s crypt encrypted, thoroughly evident yet utterly unrecognized, its corpse not dead by haunting us still.

Rabinowitz strains to make a several points in the above passage but simply overlooks the obvious. Wright and others used the paperback because it was there, an efficient propaganda tool, cheap, and widely distributed. The point is so self–evident. The author is over intellectualizing. The passage is representative of the style in which the book is written. It speaks for itself. Rabinowitz’s propensity for leaving the choice of verbs up to the reader and telescoping qualifying phrase within qualifying phrase creates a dithering maze that obscures rather than clarifies her thoughts.

This is all such a shame. Despite the author’s lack of precision, the book has many redeeming features as it includes numerous reproductions of book covers, some in color. The notes about the artists responsible for the cover designs are intriguing. Readers will be surprised by the names of some of the artist contributors. The author’s comments about collecting and collectors are some of the best reading in the book. This is a beautifully produced volume on an engaging subject that cries out for an editor’s hand.

This article, somewhat condensced, first appeared in

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Marilyn Monroe — Icon: The Life, Times and Movies of Marilyn Monroe

Thursday, April 17th, 2014
John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962, yet she has remained alive in the minds and hearts of people throughout the world ever since. While 600 books have been published about the actress, Gary Vitacco-Robles’ biography, Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, is a prodigious achievement that easily relegates the efforts of all others to obscurity.

Meticulously research, Vitacco-Robles digs for all the details; i.e. Marilyn’s attire, choices in reading, housekeeping habits — the minutia that is part of her day-to-day existence. The result is that the reader experiences Monroe almost as if she draws breath, steps out of the pages, comes into the house and sits down to chat.

With a sturdy, straightforward prose style, the author takes a balanced, compassionate approach to his subject. He begins with Ms. Monroe’s great-grandparents and traces her lineage through her out-of-wedlock birth to a mother who was hospitalized off and on throughout her life due to mental illness. Marilyn is shunted from household to household as a child. By the time she attains age 16, she is a ward of no less than 12 different caretakers. The impact of being abandoned, rejected, and abused is beyond calibrating.

Gary Vitacco-Robles, Author

Gary Vitacco-Robles, Author

Vitacco-Robles, a psychotherapist, reports objectively about the damage done Marilyn during her nightmarish childhood. About one of Marilyn’s early successes, he writes:

The little girl who had never been told she was pretty and who bathed in the dirty water left behind by others, now commanded attention. There was no turning back.

At another critical point in the text, he observes:

Marilyn compensated for her lack of parental support by endearing herself to motherly and fatherly figures who could help her attain her dream of becoming an actress . . . Acting had now become more a religious calling to Marilyn, and like spirituality, it provided her with purpose and meaning. 

Marilyn Monroe, Actress

Marilyn Monroe, Actress

The author offers clear insights as Marilyn matures and confronts her demons. He avoids the jargon of his profession and debunks many of the unsubstantiated claims of others. Marilyn, it turns out, did go into psychoanalysis very intensively at one time. In addition, she began working with Lee Strasberg in Actor’s Studio where she was required to delve deeply into her own emotional past to give power to her performances. She eventually gives up on her therapy sessions because she decides that they are not good for her. Strasberg and his wife, however, nurture her through her strongest film achievements.

The book is filled with quotes from the greatest stage and screen actors and directors of the era who testify to Marilyn’s power and sensitive delivery in her roles. She was, and often still is, seen only as a dumb blond, a sex symbol, but the author breaks through this stereotyping to depict Marilyn Monroe as an incomparable artist.

The author reminds his readers of the prevailing cultural values of the times. These references provide a backdrop of relevance to his subject’s struggles and triumphs. He presents a synopsis of all of the films in which Marilyn appeared, even those in which she had bit parts, and for good measure provides much more detail on each in an addendum. He takes the time to draw poignant thumbnail bios on many Hollywood personalities – actors, directors, producers, hairdressers, coaches – helping readers viscerally grasp the impact of Marilyn’s interactions with the people around her.

The book takes Marilyn’s story up to 1956, a year in which she goes over the top and finally achieves the recognition her hard work and extraordinary talent have earned. The author reports on Marilyn’s three marriages, giving a studied, objective view into each. Her first marriage to James Dougherty was arranged by her legal guardian when she was only 16 years of age. He abandoned her for the merchant marine. Then along came Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, who was physically abusive, controlling, and jealous. The reader is treated to a good dose of adolescent behavior on the part of DiMaggio and Sinatra as the latter goads the ballplayer into breaking into an apartment one night where they expect to find Marilyn in bed with another. The author adds credence to his reports by using the testimony of friends close to Marilyn in writing about such incidents.

Nitpicking, the text is nearly flawless except in the handling of some proper names. Bennett Cerf is correct; not Bennett Cert. Bob Fosse; not Fob Fosse. And finally, is Miller’s home on “Goldmine Road” or “Gladmine Road?”

This review covers only volume one which ends with the marriage between Arthur Miller and Ms. Monroe, an event that surprised many at the time but makes perfectly good sense once those unacquainted with both parties grow to know them better. The second volume, according to the publisher, is due out at the end of the summer, 2014. Vitacco-Robles has written a monumental, definitive work on one of greatest actresses and enduring public personalities of all time. The next volume will carry Marilyn’s story forward to her untimely death in 1962. Readers have every right to expect that the same balanced, compassionate treatment will follow the actress through to what ultimately must be viewed as a horrible tragedy.

This review was initially written for and published in

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Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment by James C. Thompson – A Review

Thursday, March 6th, 2014



John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment James C. Thompson is published by Commonwealth Book Publishers of Virginia which was founded by the author in 2009. According to their press announcement Commonwealth “publishes three-dimensional stories about ideas—where history, philosophy and art meet.” The book succeeds on all on all three counts­, but the achievement is virtually negated because of the author’s failure to follow the most rudimentary rules of composition and punctuation.

(A disclaimer on the title page of the paperback version reads, “The ‘illustrated edition’ provides and overview of the author’s book length narrative of Jefferson’s experience in France.” PLEASE NOTE: This review is based only on the paperback version. The reviewer has not seen the hardcover version.)

Thompson is an audacious historian. He has his readers listening in on conversations among the most enlightened minds of the late 18th century of France who are in awe of America becoming an independent democracy. France at the time was moving toward its own bloody revolution. But France has no heritage of common law that respects the rights of man regardless of station in life. Order in France has been maintained by the feudal system that is falling apart. The poor are moving into the cities where some of them a becoming literate. The monarchy is bankrupt. Citizens are listening to the rhetoric that calls for a new order. The burning question for the French intellectuals, however, is whether the people are capable of governing themselves.

“France has twenty-four millions of people, Monsieur,” Mademoiselle de Grouchy interjects (directs at Jefferson – parenthesis and punctuation mine). “The great majority of them can neither read nor write nor deliberate.” (Punctuation mine).

The book presents Jefferson the man and the thinker, often dispelling popular notions about the man. Jefferson disclaims any understanding of the Law of Nature, for example. He cites Samuel Adams as the man responsible for the allusion to it in the Declaration of Independence. “It was a political statement,” Jefferson insists squelching the notion that the Declaration is a philosophical treatise. At another point he makes a startling distinction in his own thought. “Freedom has less to do with democracy, than with the rule of law! This was the understanding that guided America’s patriots at the time of our revolution.”

Author Thompson does not allow his narrative to bog down in footnotes or tedious philosophical speculation. He reports Jefferson’s days in Paris almost as if he was peering into his subject’s diary. Upon first glance, the paperback illustrated version of the book reminds the reader of a middle school history. With the heft of a magazine, its pages are broken up into blocks of print often highlighted by various background colors, font sizes, and other graphics. Page layout approaches being too busy. Art work is reproduced abundantly with portraits of all the principals mentioned in the text and views of the various settings.

Thomas Jefferson's Enlightenment - 1875 Book Cover

Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment – 1875 Book Cover

Thompson, for all his research and ease with the language, refuses to follow any of the conventions regarding punctuating dialogue and paragraph structure. Quotation marks are not used designate spoken dialogue from the author’s narrative. Quotes of several characters are dumped into single on-running paragraphs that require the reader to stay poised to recognize when a change occurs in speakers. Compounding the confusion, the author fails to put the unexpressed thoughts of a character in italics. The entire mishmash has the reader backing up repeatedly to keep track. Words are run together. Gratuitous hyphens are all over the pages. It is as if the author has prepared a gourmet meal of several exquisite dishes but before setting the repast in front of his guests, he dumps everything into a blender and serves up a puddle of glop.

What is so tragic about all of the mechanical, and to a lesser degree aesthetic, failures of the book, is that Thompson writes beautifully. Sentence after sentence, he is powerful. He has a wonderful command of the language. He is a great story teller with a novelist’s eye for the essential details. He sets the scene. The historical characters come alive. Jefferson is depicted with sensitivity and compassion as moves among the elite of Parisian society. Thompson presents a vivid picture of France at the dawn of the revolution with the grandeur of its architecture and gardens along with the stench of Paris teeming with poor who constitute 90 percent of the 600,000 residents.

Many of the issues of the enlightenment period in Europe are still very much alive and with us today. Looking to break from the autocracy of the Church and move man away from moral dictates based upon belief, the philosophers and intellectuals of the era seek to redefine mankind’s view of itself and a morality based upon reason and a better understanding of the common good. Author Thompson presentation of the ideas of the great men and women of the age is clear and engaging. Had the author employed an editor to help with punctuation and paragraph structure his book would be a runaway classic. As it stands, perhaps the paperback version should at least be recalled, edited and rereleased.

Please note: This review first appeared in, march 6, 2014.)

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Duryea: The Movies — An Exquisitely Presented Book from BearManor Media

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014



John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

Duryea: The Movies, by Joseph Fusco, is another beautifully produced book by BearManor Media. The publisher presents books that are thoroughly researched and brimming with documentation including news articles, vintage photos and advertizing. Like so many other volumes from BearManor, Duryea: The Movies not only makes for an engaging first read but will serve the cinema aficionado as an excellent reference work that earns its own shelf pace in the viewing room.

The book opens with a brief biography. Duryea was not part of the volatile Hollywood scene at any time during his career. Or as Fusco writes,

The irony of Duryea’s career is that the man who created a roster of scoundrels, connivers, murderers and thieves was actually a mild man who enjoyed a fulfilling home life and a marriage that lasted thirty-six years and produced two sons.

Fusco traces Duryea’s career from the very beginnings with his bit parts in movies produced in the 1930’s, through his rise to stardom and top billing in 1950’s, and the roles in the 1960’s that featured his talents in strong supporting roles. During those years, Duryea appeared with all the legendary greats including Charles Laughton, Edgar G. Robinson, James Stewart, Gregory

Peck, Gary Cooper, James Mason, Jane Russell and Barbara Stanwick, to name only a few. Never memorable for yelling in the streets of New Orleans, as Brando did, or cursing the crew from the helm, as Laughton did, Duryea characterized himself as a “bread and butter” actor. His physical assets included a broadly handsome face, especially winning when he smiled; a distinctive reedy baritone voice, and a physical stature that blended into any scene without upstaging anyone. Fusco cites the actor’s genius lay in his ability to create a wide range of portrayals without ever abandoning his own natural if somewhat limited emotional range as an actor.

Author Fusco divides the book into sections based upon the time period and the prevailing popular themes of the day. Everyone of Duryea’s movies is discussed in the book with a very well written, concise synopsis that includes commentary on all theDuryea: The Movies – Book Cover

Duryea: The Movies - Book Cover

Duryea: The Movies – Book Cover

members of the cast and often the director and producer as well. The author delivers a balanced, thoughtful review of each

production. Readers will benefit from recalling the movies as Fusco discusses them. In fact, using the book as a guide to choose

movies on DVD would greatly enhance the viewing experience.

Fusco is an excellent writer and critic. In a paragraph devoted to Peter Lorre to illustrate, the author writes,

He was diminutive, with a reptiles tortured face and eyes that popped with he spoke. . . . In the movie, he is an obscene piece of putty in a tuxedo.

At a time when research is a snap because of the internet, a book like Duryea: The Movies reminds the reader that research need not be a clinical pursuit of the facts but a full and rewarding reading experience; a pleasure in itself, in other words, when presented as thoughtfully and artistically as Joseph Fusco does with BearManor Media publishers.

Link to Amazon listing:

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Fredric March: A Consummate Actor by Charles Tranberg — Reviewed by John J. Hohn

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013
John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer.

#fredricmarch #cinema #thebestyearsofourlives

Charles Tranberg’s biography, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor, belongs in the library of every fan of theater and film in America. Tranberg’s masterful work follows March’s career from his Wisconsin boyhood through to his final triumphant appearance as Harry Hope in The Iceman Cometh released by 20th Century Fox in October, 1973. March was a man of the era and grouped among the many stars who, according to the author, “. . . excelled on both stage and screen.”

March, born Frederick McIntyre Bickle on August 31, 1897, showed an early interest in the stage. Graduating from the University of Wisconsin and after a short stint in the military, March moved to New York in the summer of 1920 to take a job in banking. Fate interrupted his corporate training in the form of an attack of acute appendicitis. During his convalescence, March realized he wanted above all else to be an actor.

Appearing alternately in Denver and New York, his big break came in the role of Tony Cavendish in The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman an Edna Ferber. Based loosely on the Barrymore family, Cavendish is modeled after John Barrymore. March’s imitation delighted the senior actor and for a time the character became a  near alter ego for March. The role followed March into films when he appeared few years later as Norman Maine in A Star is Born. David Thomson, David O. Selznick’s biographer, described March’s performance in the film as “the most compelling thing in the film.” The Judy Garland/James Mason production may be the most widely remembered, but critics praise March’s performance as more subtle and compelling that Mason’s.

MV5BMTk1NTAxNzg3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjU4OTQwNw@@._V1_SX214_Tranberg’s book is extremely well researched. The author reproduces the text of letters, reviews, newspaper articles and the memoirs of peers and the author to track the March’s life from starting on stage to becoming a dominate presence in films. Tranberg is careful to let March’s peers fill in the picture of the actor. The book reads like who’s-who of the era with quotes from the best and brightest of the artists of the time.

March breaks into movies as silent films give way to “talkies,” where his stage training serves him well. For all of his casualness in front of the camera, Tranberg cites repeatedly how diligently March researched his roles, studied his parts, and paid passionate attention to the slightest details. The actor knew his own weaknesses and admonished his directors to keep him from “hamming it up.” As a result, his performances were consistently praised as polished, subtle, suggestive, and restrained.

Tranberg is an accomplished writer. Fredric March: A Consummate Actor gains momentum as the central character’s career expands and the roles become more demanding. Readers may want to watch March’s movies again given the details the book provides about the actor’s preparation, direction and execution.

Big Break . . .

March’s big break comes when he appears in the 1932 release of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The film is a box office success. Tranberg pays attention to the technical challenges—no computers anywhere in sight—in making the film, not the least of which is the on-screen terrifying transformation of Jekyll into Hyde.

Fredric March: A Consummate Actor -- Book Cover

Fredric March: A Consummate Actor — Book Cover

The transition from a refined, charitable doctor into a craven rapist-murderer is a curious clue to a side of March’s own personality that is mentioned again and again in the book by those knew the actor well. March, it turns out, was a groper and a womanizer, yet when his wife Florence was around he was a different man, as the author quotes Elia Kazan, “’Freddie was a child who couldn’t keep his fingers out of the cookie jar.’ When Florence did come over for a visit, March, as usual, became ‘another person.’” His wife tolerated his behavior, although it must have mystified some that a man capable of exquisite sensitivity on stage could be so disrespectful and invasive of the dignity of the women with whom he worked. With Florence, however, he was very protective, often lobbying to get her parts and promoting favorable reactions to her performances. Elia Kazan wrote of the couple, “I’d find, as I came to know him, that one of his pleasures was to be naughty and have Florence—his surrogate mother—chide him, ‘Now Freddie.’” Tranberg assiduously avoids commenting as the author on why March behaves as he does and never speculates about the formation of March’s personal character or the psychological forces that drive him.

Telling of the decades during which March worked are the contentious issues of censorship and blacklisting. During this dismal chapter in the industry, March is labeled a communist by irresponsible journalists, an allegation he forcefully denies. March and his wife were citizens of the world and thoughtful in articulating their liberal views. March ultimately won a retraction, but the rumor mill and vigilante press created a climate in which the author states that “it would be several more years before he (March) would be reestablished in motion pictures—mostly in leading character roles.”

Successes on Stage . . .

In addition to The Ice Man Cometh, March’s performances include many classics such as The Best Years of Our Lives, Seven Days in May, and Inherit the Wind. Tranberg rightfully spells out March’s successes on stage also. It is regrettable that all that is left of his performances are the rave reviews.

MV5BNTU0MTQyNjQ5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMTI2NTk4._V1_SX148_CR0,0,148,200_Tranberg writes in a conversational style that is easy to read. The attention to detail the author demonstrates in his research, however, does not carry over to his copy editor who failed to catch a number of glitches in the text.. The cast list for the 1935 release of Les Miserables, for example, has Charles Laughton as Valjean, whereas Laughton played Javert. At another point, describing March’s USO travels, the copy reads “. . . a special command performance for the Shah—with whom March also played tennis with . . .” In another passage, the text reads “March said that the retraction gave he and Florence great satisfaction. . ..” A few other typographical errors appear in the quoted passages.

These blemishes, however, do not detract from the depth of the author’s presentation. Aptly titled, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor is a beautifully crafted history of a legendary actor and of the entertainment industry during his lifetime.

This review was initially published in a somewhat shorter form on Thanks for visiting my web site. Please feel free to look through the other pages of my site. I invite you to comment in the area below about any of the content.

Quizmaster: The Life and Times and Fun and Games of Bill Cullen, by Adam Nedeff — Reviewed

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer

#billcullen #beattheclock #what’smyline #quizshow #gameshows

Media legend Bill Cullen never had a bad day in his life. It’s true that he was afflicted with polio in his youth – a disease that left him with a pronounced limp. It’s true that his first marriage – to a woman his mother chose for him – failed after four years. A second marriage, to the attractive, vivacious Carol Ames, collapsed under the strains placed on it by two demanding careers. No, the resilient, indefatigable and ebullient Mr. Cullen navigates these setbacks like a contestant on Beat the Clock and emerges unscathed and ready for the next challenge.

Cullen’s career takes off with the love and support of his third wife, beautiful Ann Macomber Cullen. Their childless marriage is joyful and lasts the rest of his life. Ann remains at home while Bill rushes from studio to studio, even coast to coast before jet air travel came into being, at a pace that suggests to even the least lethargic that something of the manic must be driving the man.

If the reader is looking to Adam Nedeff’s biography, Quizmaster: The Life and Times and Fun and Games of Bill Cullen, for the keys to Cullen’s personality, the forces that his drive and passion, forget it. Cullen, according to Nedeff and scores of other celebrities, is that Cullen is as he is – an uncomplicated genius who is kind, considerate, creative, generous, and funny. Cullen describes himself as a writer who works in television and radio. And work he did.

Starting as an adolescent, he worked without pay in the studios of the limited range pioneer radio station WWSW in his hometown of Pittsburg, PA where he began a career as a late night disc jockey. Radio grows, of course, and so does Cullen’s career. He calls radio his first love and remains loyal it even as he moves into TV.

Cullen moves into TV with ease, his limp hidden from view by the camera. His wit, charm, ease with others, and poise when the unexpected happens makes him the top man in his profession – a profession that lists notables like Gary Moore, Steve Allen, Gene Raymer, Dick Clark, John Daly, Allan Funt, Alex Trebec, David Letterman, to name just a few.

No Dark Side . . .

Nedeff finds no dark side to Cullen, perhaps by choice. The author is impressively thorough in his research that includes viewing kinescope recordings, listening to tapes, interviewing friends and family, and reading all that has appeared about the man. The problem with the book, however, is that Bill Cullen comes off as shining white all of the time. Nearly every chapter begins with homage to him as a man who was a thoughtful, engaging colleague, the guy who remembers the little people on the set, who never fought with anyone, never carried a grudge, or refused an offer to help. Dying from cancer, Cullen marshals his meager reserves to get out of bed, dress and take his beloved Ann out to dinner one more time. Readers learn nothing about Cullen’s political or religious views, although he was raised Catholic. What the reader encounters over and over is that Cullen was loved and respected by all who came into contact with him.

Cover to “Quizmaster: The Life and Times and Fun and Games of Bill Cullen” by Adam Nedeff

Nedeff understandably devotes time to groundbreaking shows as The Price is Right, What’s My Line, I’ve Got a Secret and $20,000 Pyramid. The book is an encyclopedia for the devotee of game shows as it traces the history of the genre from the initial two-camera black-and-white offerings through to color, live taped shows, and the migration of studios from New York to Los Angeles. For the reader less than enamored of the media specialty, the book bogs down. Detailed reviews of the shows that failed and the reasons for their collapse will carry special interest for historians and aficionados. Others will begin counting the number of pages left until the end of the book.

Nedeff is a skilled writer. Featuring excerpts from the transcripts of the shows on which Cullen appeared is a welcomed break in the flow of the book, as are the many photos. The book is a treat for those who remember when television was first introduced into their homes.

It is difficult to decide for whom Nedeff intended his work. The detail – perhaps trivia – borders on tedium for the average reader. Absence of any depth to Cullen’s motivation and passion push the depiction of his character to the point that threatens to become, while admirable and positive, almost one dimensional. Readers expect a biographer to ask why. Nedeff never does.

The book is a prodigious accomplishment that perhaps would have been better executed in two volumes; namely, one about Bill Cullen with less detail about the shows and a second to showcase Nedeff’s exhaustive research.