5 must-read biographies about quirky, influential men
Mon, Sep 09 2013 at 5:16 PM
Their reach spans continents, and they’ve changed our world, but we don’t always know their life stories. From the man whose love for the unusual made him one of the most successful entertainment figures of his time to the man who brought down Central American governments in his ambition to succeed, these five quirky biographies will entertain and inform.
Publisher: Crown Archetype
With more than 90 museums and attractions in 10 countries, best-selling books, a network television series, and the longest continuously published newspaper comic in history, Ripley’s “Believe It or Not!” is a beloved franchise the world over. And while the company’s vast collection of weird treasures and surprising facts are well known, most people are not as familiar with its founder, Robert Ripley. Acclaimed biographer Neal Thompson stands to change that with his new book, “A Curious Man.” Thompson shows how the shy, bucktoothed kid "who was mocked and teased for his funny looks and shabby clothes, his balky speech and his pathological dread of girls” turned his sense of being an outsider into an appreciation for the strangeness of the world. Born in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1890, LeRoy Robert Ripley’s father was a carpenter and his family was poor, and though today Santa Rosa is an Epicurean mecca, in Ripley’s time it was "more Wild West than wine country.” A high-school dropout and self-taught artist, Ripley sold his first cartoon to Life magazine when he was 18. By 1936, he was one of the highest-paid men in America, bringing in a salary roughly on par with the president of General Motors. He was also one of the most popular: "The Boys Club of New York conducted a nationwide survey that spring of 1936, asking thousands of boys between the ages of 8 and 18 one question: "If you had your choice of all the jobs in the world, whose job would you want? Overwhelmingly, the boys preferred the job of that bucktoothed cartoonist, world traveler, and radio and film star Robert L. Ripley." From the sale of his first cartoon to his hugely successful “Believe It or Not” conceit, Thompson describes how Ripley’s love for the unusual would spur him to search the globe’s farthest corners for bizarre facts, exotic human curiosities, and shocking phenomena, making him one of the most successful entertainment figures of his time.
Publisher: The Dial Press
Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras. Recognize the name? Probably not, but he’s the big cheese at the center of longtime GQ correspondent Michael Paterniti’s latest book, “The Telling Room.” Though the title makes it sound like a tale about police interrogation, it’s actually a savory mix of memoir, travelogue, and history woven with biographical sketches of a larger-than-life artisan Spanish cheesemaker. Paterniti first became acquainted with the cheese and its maker when, desperate to earn cash after earning an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Michigan, he took a part-time job with Zingerman’s Deli. He’d been hired to edit deli co-owner Ari Weinzweig’s monthly newsletter, “a "revved-up reflection of Ari's peregrinations." Weinzweig was “a man of panache, chutzpah, and wide-roaming palate ... gourmet argonaut, the Sherlock Holmes of nosh and niblets," and Paterniti clearly enjoyed the task: “I couldn't wait for him to return from St. Petersburg, or wherever, so I could entirely rewrite his next newsletter about beluga caviar." While editing Weinzweig’s October newsletter, Paterniti was struck by a description of Páramo de Guzmán: a cheese that was “rich, dense, intense, a bit like Manchego, but with its own distinct set of flavors and character.” The cheese’s maker, from the remote Spanish village of Guzmán, collected fresh milk from "his flock of one hundred Churra sheep" every day, and explained that his product was so expensive — at $22 a pound, the most expensive cheese that Zingerman’s had ever carried — because it was “made with love.” Paterniti found himself obsessed. “There was something about all of it — the village cheesemaker, the ancient family recipe, the old-fashioned process by which the cheese was born, the idiosyncratic tin in which it was packaged — that I couldn't stop thinking about." Over the years that followed, Paterniti established himself as an editor, magazine writer and author, but he never forgot about that cheese. Years later, convinced that there was a book in its story, Paterniti traveled to rural Castile with a Spanish-teacher neighbor in tow as a translator. In the picturesque village of Guzmán, Spain, in a cave dug into a hillside on the edge of town, Paterniti passed through an ancient door that led to a cramped limestone chamber known as “the telling room,” where he discovered a saga far richer than he could ever have imagined. Before long, he was fully embroiled in village life, relocating his young family to Guzmán to chase the truth about this cheese and explore the fairy tale-like place where the villagers conversed with farm animals, lived by an ancient Castilian code of honor, and made their wine and food by hand, from the grapes growing on a nearby hill and the flocks of sheep floating over the Meseta.
By Rich Cohen
New York Times bestselling author Rich Cohen is known for his vividly written psychodramas about rough-edged, tough-minded Jews who change the world in the process of achieving their goals. He has written about Jewish resistance fighters and gangsters, music moguls and movie machers. His 2006 book “Sweet and Low” told the story of Ben Eisenstadt who, in the years after World War II, invented the sugar packet and Sweet'N Low, converting his Brooklyn cafeteria into a factory and amassing the great fortune that would destroy his family. Last summer, Cohen brought us “The Fish That Ate the Whale,” which is now available in paperback from Picador. The fascinating tale of Samuel Zemurray or “Sam the Banana Man,” a poor Russian Jew who emigrated to Alabama as a teenager and ended up controlling much of Central America, the book unveils Zemurray as a hidden kingmaker and capitalist revolutionary, driven by an indomitable will to succeed. Though much has been written about America’s banana empire in the Caribbean, this is the first full-fledged biography of Zemurray, who got his start as a banana peddler in Mobile in the 1890s. Starting with nothing but a cart of freckled bananas, he built a sprawling empire of banana cowboys, mercenary soldiers, Honduran peasants, CIA agents and American statesmen. When the Depression was laying waste to United Fruit’s balance sheet, he staged a boardroom coup and installed himself as chief executive, leading United Fruit back into the black. He also had a hand in the founding of Israel. But his final triumph, in Guatemala, would leave a dark legacy. Cohen writes, “To me, Sam Zemurray's life is the true story of the American dream — not only of the success but of the price paid for the ambition that led to that success." From hustling on the docks of New Orleans to overthrowing Central American governments and precipitating the bloody 36-year Guatemalan civil war, the Banana Man lived a monumental and sometimes dastardly life.
By Fred Nadis
Decades before "The X-Files" claimed that the truth was out there, Raymond A. Palmer was molding our current conspiracy culture. One of science fiction’s earliest fans and the man behind the genre’s first fanzine, Palmer changed the world as we know it — jumpstarting the flying saucer craze, frightening hundreds of thousands of Americans with “true” stories of evil denizens of inner earth, and reporting on cover-ups involving extraterrestrials, the paranormal, and secret government agencies. In the first-ever biography devoted to the figure who molded modern geek culture, pulp scholar Fred Nadis paints a vivid portrait of Palmer — a brilliant, charming, and wildly willful iconoclast. Born in Milwaukee in 1910, Nadis describes Palmer as "curious, fascinated by how things worked” and “intellectually precocious." Until his first years in elementary school, he was happy and energetic, but at age 7 he was hit by a truck and suffered a broken back. An unsuccessful operation on his spine stunted his growth and left him with a hunchback. As Palmer explained in an autobiographical sketch published in the June 1934 issue of Fantasy, "At the age of 7 ... I jousted with a truck in the middle of the street. The truck won; and landing on my head, folded me up to a permanent height of 4'8". I'm still folded. Followed years and years in hospitals. Passed the time reading thousands of books. Acquired a vocabulary thereby, and the deed was done. All I needed was a typewriter. Santa Claus brought that." As editor for the ground-breaking sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories and creator of publications such as Other Worlds, Imagination, Fate, Mystic, Search, Flying Saucers, Hidden World, and Space Age, Palmer pushed the limits and broke new ground in science-fiction publishing in the 1940s and 1950s — and was reviled for it by purists who called him “the man who killed science fiction.” Nadis quotes liberally from Palmer’s editorials and reader letters to paint a vivid portrait of the postwar science-fiction scene and fan culture, presenting his subject as an energetic provocateur who “offered unorthodox ideas to shake things up, overturn preconceptions, and create mystique.”
By Martin Gardner
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Martin Gardner was a writer, amateur magician, religious philosopher, pseudoscience debunker, and mathematical hobbyist who teased brains with his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American for a quarter-century and wrote more than 70 books on topics as diverse as magic, philosophy and the nuances of "Alice in Wonderland." When he died in 2010, cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter called him “one of the great intellects produced in this country in the 20th century.” His illuminating autobiography, “Undiluted Hocus-Pocus,” is out in September from Princeton University Press and offers a rare, intimate look at Gardner's life and work. The book takes readers from his childhood in Oklahoma to his college days at the University of Chicago, his service in the U.S. Navy, and his varied and wide-ranging professional pursuits. Before becoming a columnist for Scientific American, he was a caseworker in Chicago during the Great Depression, a reporter for the Tulsa Tribune, an editor for Humpty Dumpty, and a short-story writer for Esquire, among other jobs. Gardner shares colorful anecdotes about the many fascinating people he met and mentored, among them Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford, now a best-selling author about consciousness and the brain, John H. Conway of Princeton University, who saw his game-of-life computer program, a metaphor for evolution, flourish after appearing in the column, and even Dutch artist M. C. Escher, whose work Gardner helped to publicize in 1961. In addition to reflections on his upbringing and professional life, Gardner voices strong opinions on the subjects that mattered to him most, from his love of mathematics to his uncompromising stance against pseudoscience. As Stanford Mathematician Persi Diaconis writes in his forward, “Martin is gone, but his depth and clarity will illuminate our world for a long time.”
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