Clarence Birdseye 1886-1956: The Adventures of a Curious Man

Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, by Mark Kurlansky, Doubleday, 2012.

Not to be confused with Admiral Byrd who apparently fudged a bit on getting to the North Pole.  Birdseye is the guy who froze vegetables.

Cheerful  fellow of boundless energy and an innate inability to stay still.  Bit like Teddy Roosevelt in that regard.  He was also one of these small men who can endure appalling abuse where men mas macho would collapse.   He was embodied a curious mixture of lust for adventure,  curiosity over how things work, obsessive bent for  tinkering, and ambitious business moving.  An unusual quartet of impulses which Kurlansky describes but does not underscore.

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Georgy Zhukov, 1896-1974: Russian Blood

Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov by Geoffrey Roberts, Random House.

“There is only one thing which these gentlemen who long for the western way of life cannot explain – why we beat Hitler.”
Stalin

Bit of a gob smacker, that, at least for those whose knowledge of WWII comes from Hollywood and Ken Burns.  Sure, the Russians were part of the alliance, but, you know –  Pearl Harbor,  Dunkirk,  Normandy Beach,  Battle of the Bulge, Midway, Hiroshima, those places were where the action was.  The Russian Front, that was some place Germans were sent for punishment.

Well, it’s only natural to focus on the home team, but that war strikes closer to the bone in Russia than America.  They suffered 90 to 95% of all allied casualties.  Not for the Soviets was this an ecumenical affair  of Allied nations fighting shoulder to shoulder, a World War if you like. For Russians, it was, and is, the Great Patriotic War.  They point to the cost to the motherland, and can still grumble over the west’s failure to open a second front in a timely fashion.*

And they point to Georgy Zhukov as the greatest Soviet general of that war. Continue reading

Hedy Lemarr 1913-2000/George Antheil 1900-1959: What’s It All About, Hedy?

Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
Richard Rhodes, Knopf, 2012.

Of course we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover,  but honestly, what are we to make of a Come Hither Hedy sliding down a golden torpedo?  Is this supposed to encourage the sexy girls to bone up on calculus? Or the smart girls to reach for the feather boas?  Work those propellers, baby!  And what exactly are these inventions in the subtitle? I mean, judging from that golden torpedo, well, a guy could get the wrong idea. Or the right idea. Or, or….*

Okay, Americans love an underdog and what better scoop than the Hollywood starlet coming up with a high tech solution to a serious wartime need?   The story’s been kicking around in one form or another since 1942, and for the short version, the details scarcely mattered, not when put next to the glam (hence the cover shot).  Kind of disrespectful of the promised story of intellectual achievement, I would say.  Kind of disrespectful of her lab partner George Antheil, too, which, along with the zing zing picture, may say something about the convoluted state of current sexual politics.

What’s it all about, Hedy? Let’s start at the beginning.

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Catherine the Great, 1729-1796: Great-ish.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Robert K. Massie,  574 pages, Random House

They don’t make biographers like this anymore. Usually these days the ability to write clear English is much less and the tendency to promulgate unsupported speculation is much greater, than in the last decades of the twentieth century. That was when Massie published the bestseller which made his name, Nicholas and Alexandra.

The same qualities that propelled Massie to the top then are evident in his prose now. He may not be a great writer of lyrical sentences. Consider his description of the day that Catherine usurped the crown of Russia from her husband Peter III: “That afternoon at Peterhof was warm and sunny, and the lesser members of Peter’s entourage remained on the terraces near the cool spray of the fountains or wandered through the gardens under the cloudless summer sky.” Continue reading

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571-1610; Darkness and Light

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon, Norton, 2011

Caravaggio, brawler, pimp, murderer, fugitive from justice.  Basically your wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley kind of man.

He was also (like Kit Marlowe) an artist of startling quality and originality.   A painter of lush paintings of horrific realism and originator of the Mannerist style.

It’s powerful work, Caravaggio’s and not surprisingly as you read his story, it can be a bit queasy making.

Caravaggio fell out of favor with the art establishment until the twentieth century.  (It happens. You couldn’t give away Vermeers until the late nineteenth century.)  What changed? Difficult to say, though Graham-Dixon notes that Caravaggio’s style fits in well with the son et lumiere fashion that movie making exploits (there is a good deal of worthwhile ink spilled on Martin Scorcese).  Continue reading

Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, 1885-1921: Bloody White Baron

The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia, by James Palmer, Basic Books, 2011.

It doesn’t much matter how vile, cruel, insane, despicable a person may be, if the war or country he’s disgracing is obscure, his bad behavior will probably also be obscure.  It was this unfortunate fact that led Hitler to tell doubters that no one remembered the Armenian genocide, and that no one would remember what the Nazis might do.

Wrong on both particulars. The Armenians are getting their overdue press.  That said, there is a depressing truth in the general concept. The victims of Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg are still more or less a footnote to the list of atrocious murderers of the twentieth century,  though God knows he tried. Continue reading

Yolande of Aragon (1384-1442): Farewell, Yolanda

The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc
by Nancy Goldstone, Viking Adult (2012)

Subtitling anything with “Secret History”  is a bit risky, given the number of alternative theories of Joan there are out there, some more wacko than others.*

The good news is that the secret here is not at all wacko, but rather an expansion on the shadowy role of Yolanda of Aragon, Duchess of Anjou,  in getting Joan into the company of the Dauphin.  This book is a three parter, a bio of Yolanda, a bio of Joan, and aftermath of the execution to the end of the Hundred Years War.

Joan you already know.  Yolanda – you may need an introduction.

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