Archives for posts with tag: biography

Although I don’t read a lot of children’s storybooks, one occasionally catches my eye with its use of artwork or subject. The latter was the case with “Pride: the Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag,” written by Rob Sanders and illustrated by Steven Salerno.

This slim volume opens with some brief background of then-unknown Harvey Milk, relating his hopes and the crux of “Pride”: “Harvey dreamed that everyone – even gay people – would have equality. He dreamed that he and his friends would be treated like everyone else. He dreamed that one day, people would be able to live and love as they pleased.”

Harvey goes on to find success as a politician, winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and becoming one of the United States’ first openly gay people elected to public office.

He and his friends plan protests to highlight inequality and unfair laws. Before one such march, Harvey has an idea. Deciding that the gay community needs a symbol, he talks to artist and Chanute, Kan., native Gilbert Baker, who suggests a flag. Gilbert’s vision culminates in the creation of a flag with eight colorful stripes, a rainbow flag.

The flag was first unfurled on June 25, 1978, at the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco. It was “A rainbow, as bright and unique as the men and women who walked behind it.”

Sadly, five months later, on November 27, 1978, five months after the debut of the rainbow flag, Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone are assassinated by former city supervisor Dan White. That night, there is no flag, no protests, only thousands of silent, grieving people marching with burning candles and mourning the loss of two lives.

Harvey’s death didn’t slow the momentum of the rainbow flag, however.

After a couple alterations – hot pink and turquoise are removed, leaving six stripes, and indigo is changed to royal blue – the flag is mass produced and begins to appear everywhere. “It was a flag of equality,” author Rob Sanders writes. “More and more people began to think of the flag as their flag. And they began to feel pride. They began to have hope.”

A 30-foot wide, mile-long rainbow flag is even carried by 10, 000 people during a New York City Pride celebration in 1994. And on June 26, 2015, when the United States Supreme Court rules that gay and lesbian couples have the constitutional right to marry, the White House is lit with the colors of the rainbow flag.

“Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag” moved me. Like many children’s books these days, it doesn’t shy away from tough, potentially divisive topics such as gay rights and death. The writing is as vibrant and inspiring as the colors of the rainbow flag, with strong action verbs and alliteration. It is poignant, as well. The illustrations are colorful and realistic.

By the way, if you’re looking for more information on Harvey Milk, you can find in the adult DVD collection the fine documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” or the motion picture “Milk,” for which Sean Penn won a Best Actor Academy Award. The Joplin Public Library also has an excellent collection of LGBTQ+ books for all ages, among them Cleve Jones’s memoir “When We Rise: My Life in the Movement.”Pride

Clarinbaseball-bookda Iowa, population 5,562, sits just north of the Missouri state line. With a rich history this small town was home to the “Mother” of 4H Jessie Fields, bandleader Glenn Miller, very briefly Johnny Carson, and Merl Eberly.

Unless you are a huge fan of collegiate summer league baseball, you are no doubt thinking ‘Merl who?’ Michael Tackett’s The Baseball Whisperer: a Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams more than answers that question.

Usually it would be hard to recommend a book that starts with a funeral and ends with a death. But the inspiring story of Merl, his family, and community that Tackett relates is a rewarding read, especially so if you’re a baseball fan.

Merl believed in second chances.  He was given one as a high school dropout who spent his time hanging out with his friends and drinking. High school football/baseball coach John Tedore issued him a challenge, “Come out or get out.”

Merl took the challenge. He went back to school and joined the team. He still struggled with other aspects of his life but on the athletic field he was a natural. Through Coach Tedore and being part of a team Merl learned about discipline and teamwork.

He spent his life passing on lessons learned. During an interview he said “However corny it might sound, I think we’re all supposed to do something while we are here on this Earth. I guess the good Lord took me out of the garbage can and said, “Go play sports, but don’t forget the message that it teaches you.’ If you get the opportunity, pass it on.” Merl did that for over 40 years through the Clarinda A’s.

Merl loved baseball and started playing at a time when it was more about the game than the money. He tuned a town team into a premier collegiate summer team. He put together a plan, rallied his community and created a program that rivaled the best in the country.

The community of Clarinda was essential to the plan. Local businessmen contributed money, families housed and cared for the players. Each player that came to play for the Clarinda A’s was given a job for the summer.

One of those players was Osborne Earl Smith who arrived in the summer of 1975. Smith came from the Watts section of Los Angeles via Cal Poly – San Luis Obispo to this small white community set in the middle of cornfields. His summer job was with a construction company where he was their first African American employee.

This seeming mismatch resulted in a close enduring friendship between Ozzie, Merl, and the town. Ozzie embraced Clarinda and Clarinda embraced him. The fans loved his signature backflip when he took the field each night. He came to the A’s with intelligence, defensive ability and the willingness to work. He left a better hitter who could steal bases and play phenomenal defense. He also left with a different view of the world.

Ozzie was not the only major leaguer to play in Clarinda.  There were many including Chuck Knoblauch, Von Hayes, Bud Black, Jose Alverez, Cal Eldred, Andy Benes, and Jamey Carroll. Most of the talented players that came to Clarinda never made it to or beyond the minor leagues. But they all left Clarinda a better ball player and a better person because Merl passed on lessons learned. As he said “It’s not about can we make them a better baseball player. It’s about can we make them a better person.”

Much of Merl’s story is told through the players who played for him. Their remembrances of the time they spent living and playing in Clarinda reveal the impact that summer had on their life.

“The Baseball Whisperer” is a tribute to Merl, to Clarinda, and to baseball. It’s a story I didn’t know and now won’t soon forget.

Death must seem like a strange topic to review on a warm Sunday in early April. Spring brings birth and new beginnings and here I am talking about death or rather the customs of death.

First I encourage you to come to the library for a fascinating display. Historically it was customary to memorialize the dead in a photograph or charcoal drawing called a mourning picture.

Cheryl Smith has generously shared her collection of charcoal drawn Victorian Mourning Pictures. They date from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century and are compelling. They will be in the glass display cases through the end of April.

My next offering is not so much compelling as memorable.  Kate Mayfield brings her family, friends and the people of Jubilee Kentucky to life for us in her memoir The Undertaker’s Daughter.

Her story is not about death but the revelation of a life lived through death. On December 31, 1959 Frank Mayfield moved his family to Jubilee and opened Mayfield and Son Funeral Home. The business was on the first floor and the family lived upstairs.

Kate learned at an early age that ‘we’ve got a body’ meant you stayed out of the way and stayed quiet. She grew up with death and silence. The business of death fascinated her and the silence became easier as she grew older.

Kate grew up comfortable with death. She remembers the first time she touched a dead body but not when she first saw a dead person. She says “I recall no first viewing because from the time I entered the world there were always dead bodies”.

During the times when a viewing or a funeral was not being held, Kate had free reign in the funeral home. Her father, whom she calls the Beau Brummell of morticians, answered every question.  When there was a funeral or viewing, Kate would watch from the landing. The way her father conducted a funeral and the different ways people mourned fueled her interest.

While the business of death was central to Kate’s life, this book is about the living. Kate adored her father when she was young but Frank Mayfield was not a perfect man. Kate’s acceptance of that continued throughout the book.

Her relationship with her mother, Lily Tate, followed a different trajectory. Her mother was the enforcer of silence and quick to discipline. But she was the protector of the family which included brother Thomas, sister Evelyn, and later the baby, Jemma.

The other member of the household was Belle.  Belle was the hired help but to Kate she was family. Kate wanted to share things with Belle that society frowned upon.  Kate grew up during the end of segregation. She writes of the time with the confusion of the child she was and a matter-of-factness of the era in which she grew up.

The color of one’s skin didn’t make a difference to Kate. She was bewildered when someone cried because of desegregation. “I couldn’t understand why Paulette was so upset about her children going to school with black children. Belle was black and I thought she was exquisite.”

While family is the focus of this memoir, Jubilee offered many other colorful characters that influenced Kate’s life. None more so than Miss Agnes Davis.

Miss Agnes was a shrewd woman who built her own thriving fertilizer business at a time when women didn’t own fertilizer businesses. She always dressed in red, owned the biggest house in town, and never let in the people who turned their back on her when she was down. Miss Agnes liked Frank and Kate and became a reclusive member of the Mayfield family.

This memoir reads like a novel. Mayfield’s portrayal of family, the citizens of Jubilee, and the era will remain vivid long after you read the last word.


2015 could probably be considered the year that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made it in pop culture. After gaining notoriety for her dissenting opinion on the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling, Ginsburg began popping up here and there in pop culture.

Ginsburg became a fairly regular character on “Saturday Night Live.” A blog called “Notorious RBG” sprang up, comparing her to rapper Biggie Smalls. The more I heard about her, the more she sounded like the sort of person I’d want to adopt as an honorary grandparent. Stars aligned, cogs turned, and “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” came across my desk.

Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg has led a career that puts her in the upper echelon of lawyers. Her career began in the 60’s as a clerk, helping research cases for Judge Edmund L. Palmieri. She wasn’t content to work behind the scenes, however, and by January 1973, she was presenting cases to the Supreme Court. RBG hasn’t slowed down since.

Much of her career was spent fighting to establish legal precedents for gender equality. She fought not only for the rights of women to move up in careers and make their own decisions about their bodies, but also for the rights of men who took on caregiver roles. Her goal for many of the cases she took on was to achieve gender equality under the law. One case, Duren v. Missouri, argued that jury duty for women shouldn’t be optional because it made women’s service on juries seem less important than men’s.

“Notorious RBG” also paints a picture of the Justice’s personal life, especially her marriage to Marty Ginsburg. The pair complemented each other well throughout their nearly 60 years of marriage. Ruth wasn’t a great cook, so Marty took over, much to everyone’s delight. They supported each other through all sorts of obstacles.

While he fought cancer in law school, she took notes for him and helped him complete his classwork. After she was done helping him each night, she would then work on her own assignments. Teamwork was the at the heart of their marriage, mirroring the overall theme her legal career. Sadly, Marty passed away in 2010, from a second encounter with cancer.

RBG has dealt with two bouts of cancer and in 2014 had a stent placed in her heart, but she shows no signs of stopping. One of the funniest portions of the book comes from her personal trainer, Bryant Johnson, who describes the tenacity with which RBG approaches her workouts. She once left early from a White House dinner to meet a training session, Johnson says.

On March 15, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg turned 83. When asked about retirement, RBG doesn’t have a date set. She seems to have a lot more in mind for her career and isn’t ready to stop working just yet. RBG’s sense of humor hasn’t faded over the years. Her office, the book’s authors report, is filled with memorabilia related to her recent rise in fame.

“Notorious RBG” is an interesting, humorous, and straightforward biography about one of the most influential women in the United States, maybe even in the world. While not tremendously in-depth, the authors included charts outlining RBG’s legal work, her dissents with commentary from other legal professionals, and even a quick guide to RBG’s workout regimen. “Notorious RBG” is probably best described as a gateway book: full of the sorts of interesting stories and details that will likely inspire readers to further investigate RBG and her astounding life.

Being both a fan of the actor Alan Cumming and genealogical shows like ”Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots,” I eagerly checked out “Not My Father’s Son” by the talented Mr. Cumming. I knew it would not be a frolicsome read from the reviews which alluded to the abuse Cumming’s father dealt out to his family, but I was prepared.

I was not aware that the original ”Who Do You Think You Are?” series began in England in 2004 and spawned Irish and Australian versions before the American version started in 2010. Many of them are available on YouTube, but I refuse to be drawn down that time sink!

At any rate, in 2010 the production company approached Cumming about appearing on the program. He immediately said yes, primarily because of the family mystery about his maternal grandfather who had fought in World War II and subsequently left his family and died under mysterious circumstances in Malaysia.

Around the time that production was starting, Cumming did some interviews and (as is often the case with English journalism) there were some misstatements. Some of them greatly angered Cumming’s father, with whom he had had little contact since he left home at seventeen to work for a year before attending the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

Cumming’s older brother Tom called to tell him he needed to speak to him urgently. He refused to discuss whatever the issue was on the phone, but immediately began the three hour trip to see his younger brother. After he arrived, the brothers sat down and the by now rather distraught Alan asked what the problem was. His brother told him that their father had called him ten days earlier to give him a message to relay to Alan. What message? “He told me to tell you that you are not his son.”

Now, given the title of the book I wasn’t in complete shock to read that, but the circumstances were certainly shocking. He told Alan’s brother to tell him? Huh? What kind of man would deputize one son to tell another something like that? Well, the book answers that, and it’s not pretty. Cumming senior was, at best, a man with undiagnosed psychiatric disorders. At worst, a monster. Either way, he made both boys’ lives miserable for most of their childhoods. He was a dreadful husband, to boot, although I kept wondering why the boys’ beloved mother didn’t find a way out of the situation before the boys were both grown and gone, as she eventually did.

I don’t want to give away anything about the discoveries made and the past revealed in the book, but the book is both interesting from a genealogical viewpoint and as a memoir of a terrible childhood. It is extraordinarily well-written and I found it engrossing. I was hard pressed to put it down to eat or sleep. I can only hope that Mr. Cumming feels an urge to write more in the future. I would listen to him read the phone book, and I think I would read his shopping list!

I’ve always been interested in the communist witch hunts of the 50’s and some of my favorite acting moments are from the movie In the Heat of the Night, so I was immediately drawn to Lee Grant’s memoir, “I Said Yes to Everything”.

The big picture of Lee Grant’s career is that she got off to a big start in theater and then in Hollywood, getting an Oscar nomination for her first film, “Detective Story” at the age of 24. Almost immediately after that Grant was blacklisted. From the age of twenty-four until she was thirty-six, prime years for an actress, Grant remained blacklisted and was not allowed to do any film or television work. Fortunately for her, the theater did not accede to the blacklist and she was able to continue working in that venue. Her first Hollywood role after her blacklisting ended was as the victim’s widow in In the Heat of the Night. Numerous roles followed, both large and small, in television, movies and theater making hers one of the most successful post-blacklist careers. Too soon, though, middle age occurred and roles became less desirable.

In 1975, the American Film Institute created a program to help women get into directing, and she took part in the first round. As she puts it she would no longer “have to depend on the kindness of strangers” to create. Her husband produced her short film for the AFI, leading to a long collaboration with Grant directing and her husband producing.

After seeing herself onscreen in a B-movie she did in Canada, Grant realized that she was beginning to look her age and that future acting jobs would not be leading lady parts, but old ladies. She decided to step away from being in front of the camera all the time and move behind it more. Her first commercial film was a documentary about women striking at a bank in Minnesota, “The Willmar 8.” She has gone on to do many other documentaries, including “What Sex Am I?” (one of the first looks at the LGBT community) and “Down and Out in America” which won the 1986 Best Documentary Oscar and has also directed a number of films for television.

The book is an interesting read. Grant is nothing if not candid. Her language is frequently salty, and she spares no one, including herself. It is a pretty even mix of her personal (hard to say “private” given her candor) and professional lives. Some of it is funny, much sad. Her personal relationships have been, for the most part, less than rosy. Her first marriage brought her stepsons who she loved a great deal, but lost after the marriage ended. Her second marriage has lasted many years, but has certainly not been of the storybook variety. Her relationships with her daughters have gone, in one case, from idyllic to awful to good and, in the other case, from bad to worse to better. Her friendships have similarly been all over the map. Many one-time friends became enemies, others have remained steadfast ending only in death. Much space is devoted to her second husband, parents and maternal aunt all of whom had profound (if not always good) impact, less to children and in-laws.

There are, of course, anecdotes about actors, directors, and others like one-time boyfriend Burt Bacharach, and those she has worked with or with whom she was associated via the blacklist. Indeed, the blacklist runs through nearly the entire narrative, rearing its ugly head from time to time both professionally and personally. Joe McCarthy and HUAC have a lot to answer for. Summing up, an interesting life to read about and an interesting, if not particularly happy, life to have lived.