Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Perfect Man The Muscular Life And Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman by David Waller

Though many may not know his name today, Eugen Sandow (1867-1925) was once one of the most famous men in the world. He was the reigning sex symbol of his day, considered by many to be the perfect specimen of manhood. His near-nude and classically draped photos were prized possessions for numerous late Victorian and Edwardian era ladies and closeted homosexuals.

Written by a distant relative, this books tells the entire Sandow saga, from his humble beginnings as an illegitimate child in Prussia to super-stardom. After seeing classical statues, he decided to model his own physique upon these works of ancient art. He worked hard to achieve his ambitions then ran away from home and became a circus strongman and also supplemented his income as an artists’ model. He performed feats of strength in scanty costumes for awed music hall audiences. And appeared as a star attraction at the World’s Columbian Exposition (aka The World’s Fair) in 1893 under the management of Florenz Ziegfeld, who invited society ladies to come backstage after the show and feel Sandow’s muscles.

Sandow is considered one of the pioneers of physical culture and bodybuilding. In England, where he settled in 1896 with his wife, Blanche, he operated his own gymnasiums, offered mail order fitness courses, sold his own line of workout equipment, penned books and articles about fitness, and even published his own magazine, and worked as a personal fitness instructor. His clients included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who credited his survival of a serious automobile accident to Sandow’s training. His image as a handsome, curly-headed blonde and mustachioed Hercules was emblazoned on postcards, immortalized by artists and sculptures, and appeared on numerous product endorsements, including cigars, cocoa, corsets, body lotion, dolls, and baby powder. When he visited America he was filmed, striking poses, for Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope, and the resulting short film, which can be seen today on Youtube, became a popular attraction at peepshows.

Sadly, beyond the muscles, the man remains elusive; which makes Eugen Sandow a difficult subject for any biographer. There are no diaries or personal letters to offer clues about the private man. Mr. Waller does a fine job with what he has to work with. He admits that with Sandow’s personality lost to history, sometimes it’s hard to separate facts from gossip and legends, but he does his best. He addresses rumors about stage trickery in Sandow’s strongman act and also about his sexuality, stating plainly that at this late date we just don’t know if he was a faithful husband, a rampant or occasional dallier, and if his affairs—before and if he had any after marriage—were with women, men, or both.

After the outbreak of World War I, Sandow’s fitness empire went into a decline. Though he was by then a British citizen, a loyal and patriotic one who even offered fitness training for men who wanted to enlist but had failed the army physical, he could not escape his origins. He had been born in Prussia, German was his first language, and in those paranoid days people became suspicious of him. There were even rumors that he was a German spy. And when rumors erupted that his cocoa was manufactured in German or from a German recipe sales plummeted, stores refused to stock it as the public shunned it.

Sandow faded into obscurity and died in 1925, supposedly from the lingering effects of an automobile accident. There is some confusion about his death and the author discusses this.

Whether you’re interested in fitness or not, if you enjoy biographies about people who have not been the subject of dozens of books, like Marie Antoinette, George Washington, and Marilyn Monroe, you might enjoy learning about the once world famous but frustratingly elusive Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Peaches & Daddy A Story of the Roaring 20s, The Birth of Tabloid Media, & The Courtship That Captured The Heart And Imagination of The American Public by Michael M. Greenburg

This is a book I waited years for, hoping that someone would write a good, book length account of one of my favorite scandals of the 1920s. If you've never heard of Peaches and Daddy, I think you’re going to get a kick out of this audacious pair, and maybe even want to travel back in time and kick them too.

In 1926 fifty-one-year-old millionaire Edward “Daddy” West Browning met fifteen-year-old Frances “Peaches” Heenan at a high school dance he was sponsoring at a prestigious New York hotel. Thirty-seven days later they were married to the horror of Child Protective Services. It was love at first sight according to the smitten millionaire.

Throughout their whirlwind courtship, during which the child-bride spent an average of $1,000 (in 1920s currency) a day in New York department stores, newspapermen and photographers were right in step with them.  Daddy and Peaches courted the media as well as each other and were always happy to pose with each other and their pet African honking gander and provide plenty of photo opportunities. The public could not get enough of them. And ten months later, when Peaches, claiming to be a nervous wreck, and to have discovered the hard way that money isn't everything, was seeking a separation from Daddy and a generous settlement, every lurid and titillating detail was splashed across the front pages.

This wonderful, engrossing and entertaining book, recounts the whole mad, bizarre, and fantastic saga of Peaches and Daddy from start to end. It’s also a great book for those interested in the history of tabloid journalism. The press of the day even put together faked photos, with the heads of Peaches and Daddy pasted on, to illustrate some of their stories. It’s also a great book for those who enjoy reading about the 1920s or scandals of the past that have been forgotten but were once front page news.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Charlatan America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him, And The Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock

In 1917, after years of peddling worthless patent medicines with wondrous claims, John R. Brinkley set up a medical practice in the small town of Milford, Kansas. But this was no ordinary doctor’s office. Dr. Brinkley had a new procedure guaranteed to restore masculine virility and cure all manner of diseases. Soon men from all over the globe were flocking to this tiny Kansas town, eager to pay their $750, pick a goat from the pen, and be wheeled into the operating room to have their scrotum sliced open and the goat’s testicles sewn inside so that, as soon as the incisions healed, they would be as randy as a billygoat. Soon women were getting into the act too and having goat ovaries implanted inside them in the hope of conceiving. Even deep in the Great Depression, Dr. Brinkley was in the money, bringing in $12 million a year when the average doctor was lucky to earn $3,000.  He enthusiastically seized on advances in radio broadcasting to give questionable medical advice, advertise his products, promote politics, and popularize country and hillbilly music.

But America’s richest and most famous doctor soon had the American Medical Association’s quackbuster on his tail. Dr. Morris Fishbein was determined to put Dr. Brinkley out of business and expose the goat gland operation for the fraud it really was, and a dangerous one at that, as many developed infections and died.

This is another fine example of non-fiction writing at its best, it gives the reader a window not just its subject’s life, but also his world. I’ve always been fascinated by the old patent medicines that promised miracles in a glass bottle, in fact an antique cod liver oil bottle is on my desk as I write this, so I really enjoyed this one. If you like tales of audacious conmen, I think you’ll enjoy meeting Dr. Brinkley and his formidable adversary. This would also be a great book for anyone who enjoys interesting non-fiction books that are not dry and dull, or the history of medicine or the quacks and fraudsters who have played a role in it.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels The Lives, Careers, And Misfortunes Of 14 Hard-Luck Girls Of The Silent Screen by Michael G. Ankerich

This is one of the best Hollywood history books that I've happened across in a long time. The author steers clear from the same old tragedies and familiar names most classic movie lovers are familiar with and trains the spotlight on the more obscure stars from the silent era who crashed and burned or simply dimmed out and faded into obscurity.

Here are some highlights of blondes and brunettes most of the world forgot:

Agnes Ayres, who is best remembered for her role as Valentino’s beautiful captive in “The Sheik,” her movie producer lover made her a star, but struggles with her weight led to a downward slide, though she never stopped trying to claw her way back up to the top again. She suffered a nervous breakdown in 1938 and died two years later at only forty-two.

Raven-haired “Joy Girl” Olive Borden, who was known for the naughty negligees she wore on screen, but the advent of talkies on top of too much booze and too many bad choices, big spending, and a bigamy trial led to a life of obscurity and alcoholism.

Golden blonde Grace Darmond got her fifteen minutes of fame when the alluring lesbian lured Rudolph Valentino’s bride, Jean Acker, away to set up house with her.

Elinor Fair was considered one of the most promising actresses of the 1920s, but her struggles with mental illness and alcohol kept her promise from being fulfilled. In the end she had to beg gossip columnist Hedda Hopper for charity just so she could buy medicine for the liver disease that was killing her.

Heroin heroine Juanita Hansen learned from her mistakes—when a showerhead malfunctioned and scalding water poured down on her she was given morphine for the pain and quickly became addicted. Drugs ruined her life, looks, and her career. She became the first celebrity to come clean and speak openly about drug abuse, she did her best to educate others but the comeback she hoped for never happened and she faded from the public eye and died quietly of heart disease in 1961. 

Wanda Hawley dreamed of being an opera singer, but after she was discovered by Cecil B. DeMille and soon found herself playing opposite Rudolph Valentino and Wallace Reid, the biggest male stars of the day, but she mysteriously, suddenly, gave it all up and sailed away to Europe with her handsome business manager.

Natalie Joyce lived to be ninety, she was one of the rare ones who walked away by choice, this brunette beauty refused to play the Hollywood game, she kept herself off the casting couch, and while her more famous cousin, screen beauty Olive Borden, crashed and burned, Natalie quit the movies, married, opened a beauty salon, and led a quiet life until her death in 1992.

Barbara La Marr, “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful” a dark, exotic beauty who boasted “I take my lovers by the dozen, like roses,” never seemed able to find the love she was craving, despite five husband, countless lovers, and friends. She lived her life on a steady diet of nightclubbing, champagne, drugs, and no more than two hours sleep a day. When she secretly gave birth to a son, she arranged to adopt him. Little Martin gave her the unconditional love she had always longed for, but after she sprained her ankle on the set of “Souls For Sale” the studio doctors injected their star with morphine to keep her moving and by the end of the movie she was hooked. She died in 1926. She was only thirty.

Martha Mansfield, a former Ziegfeld Girl, was standing on the brink of stardom in 1923 when she was cast as a southern belle in love with a Union officer in The Warrens of Virginia. But her life, and with it her career, went up in flames when someone’s carelessly discarded match set her full, frilly hoop skirt on fire.

Mary Nolan, the beautiful and the damned bottle blonde, who lived her life by a pattern—changing her name after each scandal. She was variously known as Mary Robertson, Imogene Robertson, Imogene Wilson, Mary Nolan, and Mary Wilson. After a miserable life, part of which was spent in a Catholic orphanage, she became a Ziegfeld Girl while still in her teens. She became involved with a married man, a sadistic comedic star who beat her, and in the wake of scandal and lawsuits fled to Europe, there she stared in a few German films before an American producer brought her back to America under the name of Mary Nolan. But drugs, alcohol, affairs, abusive relationships, and drugs their toll and her film career fizzled. She died a suicide in 1948.

Marie Prevost began her movie career as one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties but today, if she is remembered at all, it is usually for a rumor about her death. A string of tragedies led to Marie’s own downfall. Grief over her beloved mother’s death and her own failed marriage led to depression, drinking, weight gain, when she tried to pull herself together, she was only able to land a few bit parts. Still, she was determined to try, she fought a valiant battle against the bottle and her weight, but in 1937 she was found dead, alone in bed, with a whiskey bottle in the kitchen sink and her beloved dachshund Maxie beside her. Her body was malnourished from dieting and her heart gave out under the strain of it all. Somehow a rumor got started that her dog, alone in her apartment, with nothing to eat, turned to its mistress’s body for sustenance. But this is not true. The little dog had only attempted to awaken her by nipping at her and thus left behind a few teethmarks.

Lucille Ricksen is one of the most enigmatic ladies in this book. She was known as “The Youngest Leading Lady.” The public thought she was sixteen but she was actually thirteen. She had begun as a child model, a tot with golden curls posing for pictures and illustrated postcards, then a child star, the course of her career steered by her mother. She could be spunky or sweet, whatever the director desired. One day as a joke she went to the wardrobe department and dressed up like a grown lady then returned to the set, pretending to be her own sister, asking everyone “Have you seen Lucille?” That was the end of kiddie roles and Lucille Ricksen became Hollywood’s “Youngest Leading Lady.” Although she was only a little girl, she was the sole breadwinner for her family and worked harder than most adults. For years she was dedicated to maintaining her scrapbook, pasting in articles and pictures, and writing notations in white ink. Then, all of a sudden, she stopped. In 1924 she collapsed with a mysterious illness and died a year later. She was only seventeen. Speculation abounds about the cause of her death—was it tuberculosis, exhaustion, a nervous breakdown, anemia, or a secret abortion that went tragically wrong?

Eve Southern was “Hollywood’s Mystic.” As Mary, Queen of Scots in a past life, she may have thought she deserved more regal treatment in Tinseltown  but more often than not she ended up as “the face on the cutting room floor.” Then a car accident, followed by a tobogganing accident, ending her career, and, almost, her life and she vanished into obscurity.

Alberta Vaughn was dancing on the side of a public highway in a pair of men’s longjohns to amuse some soldiers in 1946 when the police arrived to cart the drunken dame off to jail. No one realized that this middle-aged alcoholic had once been one of the brightest comedic stars on the 1920s. Since the end of her career she had been in and out of jail, for boozing and running a brothel out of her home, which she complained was haunted by a ghost.

I really enjoyed this book, I have been a classic movie fan since I was a little girl and I discovered names and stories here that I had never heard of. My only complaint is that some were tantalizing vague and left me wanting to know more, but that is not the author’s fault, the information is simply lost to time.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Untamed by Helga Moray

Since today is my birthday, my 39th, and I'm feeling rather down as I usually do, I thought I would do something a little different and post a review of both a book and the movie it inspired, since this is one that always makes me smile.

Imagine the plot of Gone With The Wind as a snowglobe given a vigorous shake during which some of the characters fall away and the others are transported to Ireland in 1847 just prior to the great potato famine. Melanie doesn’t exist and young, impetuous Scarlett O’Hara gets her dearest wish and marries her beloved Ashley Wilkes and then spends the rest of the story lusting after Rhett Butler and chasing him all the way to, and all through the wilds of, South Africa, marrying men she doesn't love, making and losing fortunes, popping out numerous babies, and quarreling and making love with the strong, willful man who has stolen her heart whenever they do happen to meet. That pretty much sums up Untamed. Only here Scarlett is a flame-haired Irish lass named Katie Kildare and Rhett is a Dutch freedom fighter, a blonde, strong, silent type named Paul von Riebeck who has devoted his life to establishing a Dutch free state in South Africa.

I decided to read this novel after seeing the 1955 movie starring Susan Hayward and Tyrone Power. It seemed to be trying so hard to be my favorite movie Gone With The Wind (Katie even has a green dress she puts on when she’s ready to wile and beguile; when Paul leaves her to return to fight she loses her temper and says she hates him in a scene reminiscent of Scarlett’s reaction to Ashley’s decision to marry Melanie; there’s even a plantation later on in the story called Abend Bloem—Dutch for Evening Blossom) that I was curious if it was because the book was one of its many imitators or if Hollywood was just trying to recapture its greatest success. 

The truth is, you’ll find the ghost of Gone With The Wind haunting both the book and the movie. The movie is, of necessity, a much condensed, more glamorous, story than the book is, the novel spans many years and isn't afraid to be dirty and rugged, or to depict a woman having half a dozen children, which was common to the 19th century but not to Hollywood’s version of it. 

If you are a reader who shies away from long books, don't worry, that is one similarity Untamed does not share with the mammoth Gone With The WindUntamed is only 286 pages in the vintage paperback edition I have (the first picture at the top of this post), but, a word of warning, it's small type, as these bargain paperback editions tried to cram the whole text in as cheaply as possible, so the original  hardback might be a longer, but more comfortable read and gentler on your eyes.

Some readers might find the writing style of Untamed a tad old-fashioned, and lurid, in a tame and sometimes humorous way compared to books of today, but, overall, I enjoyed the time I spent with this novel, though I have to confess, since I saw the movie first, I had trouble keeping true to the author’s original vision of Paul as a blonde, since Tyrone Power was such a striking brunette.

Reading it was a wonderful excuse—as if I really needed one!—to watch the movie again. But who could resist a scene like this: fiery redheaded Susan Hayward as Katie, and tall, dark, and handsome Tyrone Power as Paul, a cheerful campfire and lively music as the settlers dance and celebrate their victory over a tribe of attacking Zulu warriors who attacked their wagon train, Katie bare shouldered in her green satin ballgown, hardly respectable mourning considering that her first husband has just been killed by the Zulus, standing out amidst all the humble calico-clad matrons and belles, setting out to tempt Paul again, leading him into the shadows to have the following conversation:

Paul: Why did you come to South Africa?

Katie: Didn't you say to leave Ireland and find a new land?

Paul: Yes, well…Australia’s a new land, or America, so why South Africa?

Katie: You!

Paul: Me? You married Sean, brought him, and your child, here for me?

Katie: Yes! Does that shock you?

Paul: Well don’t you think that it should?

It’s a treat! If you like classic movies, watch it, and if you like it, give the book a try too. There’s also a sequel, The Savage Earth, which I plan to read sometime.