NOTES ON A COWARDLY LION by JOHN LAHR – Garry Armstrong

It’s been a while since I finished reading the Bert Lahr biography, “Notes on a Cowardly Lion“, written by his son, John. I am still emotionally involved.

Why does a book which was written more than 40 years ago about a show business figure who peaked more than 70 years ago sit front and center in my mind?

I’m a retired TV and radio news reporter with more than 40 years in “the business”. The “news biz” is journalism, but it’s also performance, even for those of us who strive for objectivity.

Part of the job is celebrity. When you appear on television five or six days a week for more than four decades, you become a household face. People ask for your autograph. You receive special treatment in stores and restaurants. Eighteen years into retirement, folks still recognize me, tell how they grew up watching me on TV and ask for autographs.

Mine is a regional celebrity although I’ve encountered fans almost everywhere I’ve traveled in the United States and overseas.

I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated my celebrity. I miss it a bit when I’m not recognized but I don’t get depressed if I go unnoticed. I needed to share a little of my life because it puts my feelings about the story of Bert Lahr’s life into perspective. I really understood in a very personal way where the man was coming from.

I enjoyed the biographical side of the book. It speaks to history, the history of vaudeville and burlesque, show business venues that are frequently misrepresented.

As a self-proclaimed trivia maven, I received a little education. Case in point: Clifton Webb, long perceived as a middle-aged effete, film actor actually was a well-received song and dance man in vaudeville.

I learned the difference between vaudeville and burlesque. I came to appreciate the art form of Bert Lahr’s overly broad slapstick comedy. I understood how Lahr’s art form suffered at the hands of Hollywood film directors who tried to minimize his well-honed craft and squeeze it into a musical comedy.

Lahr’s comic genius never had a chance to shine in Hollywood. “The Wizard of Oz” was the exception. But that success also spelled disaster in Tinseltown because Lahr never again received a film role like the Cowardly Lion.

Years later, he would find similar frustration with television which tried to restrict his comedic moves in variety shows. Lahr didn’t think much of TV comic legends like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar.

Ironically, both Berle and Caesar spoke highly of Lahr in lengthy interviews with me — even as they lamented the fading of their celebrity. But that’s another story.

Back to Bert Lahr.  Born into poverty, Lahr was always worried about financial security.

BertLahrEven when he returned to Broadway where he found his greatest success over the years, Lahr never felt secure though he was earning top star salaries.

In later years, as a TV pitchman for Potato Chips, Lahr earned more money for a thirty-second commercial than he did for starring in a play, movie or TV special. He still didn’t feel secure.

Bert Lahr did find some unexpected late professional success with surprising turns in work like “Waiting For Godot” co-starring E.G. Marshall. Lahr savored critical acclaim but was never satisfied. It was never enough. For all of his professional and financial success, he was an unhappy man. He was insecure as an aspiring comedian/actor seeking stardom.

He was insecure as a star sure that others were trying to undermine him. He was insecure as he aged, a respected legend. He always believed people had forgotten him even though he was recognized everywhere he went. Lahr was miserable as a husband and father, demanding but not giving.

Lahr desperately needed the audience — the laughter, the applause — throughout his life. Sadly,  he never appreciated the love and admiration he got from his family.

As the curtain closed on his life with his loved ones gathered around him, Lahr still longed for his audience, their laughter, and applause. He couldn’t let it go and move on, nor could he appreciate the good things life offered him. Lahr’s loneliness haunted me. The deeper I got into the book, the more painful I found reading his biography.

I know first-hand how intoxicating and addictive celebrity is, especially when you fail to appreciate real life. Bert Lahr was never able to see the joys and sorrows of family and friends as “the real thing” that makes the rest of it all worthwhile. It’s the celebrity that is unreal and ephemeral.

It’s the people who love you who will sustain you after the curtain closes and the audience departs the theatre. That Lahr was never able to recognize what he had and accept the love that was there for him was his personal tragedy.

It’s a fine biography, but not a joyful reading experience. It is in many ways a cautionary tale, a reminder of how important it is to keep one’s perspective and one’s feet on the ground.

THE END OF REPUBLICAN ROME – Marilyn Armstrong

Cover of "Imperium"

Imperium, by Robert Harris
Random House
Sep 7, 2010
Fiction – 496 pages

It’s déjà vu all over again as we travel back with author Robert Harris to Republican Rome just before it became Imperial Rome.

In America, we complain of corruption. Lying politicians. Fearing the end of our Democracy. We wonder about conspiracies. We brood darkly on the failure of the government to address issues of inequality.

We deplore the bribery of officials. The world, we say, is going to Hell or, depending on our point of view, has already gone to Hell.

Except that the government went to Hell a long time ago and you could easily argue that government — all government — was always hellish. Compared to Rome, our government is a clean machine, as clean as a fresh snowfall. It’s a matter of perspective.

English: Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rom...
Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Roma Italiano: Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome (Photo: Wikipedia)

Reading history puts the world in which I live into perspective. Whatever problems we face, we — the human family — have faced them before. We survived. It’s important to remember our ability to survive is greater (for the most part) than our ability to screw up.

Imperium, by Robert Harris, is about a guy named Cicero. You’ve undoubtedly heard of him. Famed as a lawyer, more famous as an orator, Cicero rose to power during a critical cusp in history as Rome was about to change from Republican to Imperial. Julius Caesar had just stepped onto the stage of history.

It was the beginning of the greatest imperial power the earth had ever seen … and the end of the greatest republic the world would ever know.

Perspective.

Marcus Cicero started his journey to power as an outsider from the provinces. His first significant legal case put him head-to-head with the dangerous, cruel and utterly corrupt Gaius Verres, governor of provincial Sicily. Using his stunning oratorical abilities and displaying a dogged determination and persistence in the face of impossible odds, Cicero beats Verres in court. He then goes on to triumph over many powerful opponents, making friends — but more enemies — along the way.

Cicero seeks ultimate power — imperium. His allegiance is to the Republic. Cicero’s secretary and slave, Tiro, is the inventor of shorthand and has become the author of this biography of his master. Tiro was at Cicero’s right hand throughout his career, by his side, through triumph and catastrophe. Through his voice, the world of ancient Rome is brought to life.

It’s a fascinating story. Pompey and Julius Caesar stride across the stage of this deeply corrupt, depraved, dangerous and strangely familiar society.

imperium audibleRobert Harris is a brilliant story-teller and author of historical fiction. He lures us into a violent, treacherous world of Roman politics simultaneously exotically different from and startlingly similar to ours.

This is part one of a duology.  The second volume in the American printing is titled Conspirata. In Great Britain, the same book is titled Lustrum.

Both books are available on Kindle, paperback, and Audible.com.

JANE ALLEN PETRICK’S NON-WHITE AMERICA IN NORMAN ROCKWELL’S PAINTINGS – Marilyn Armstrong

NormanRockwell Little RockJane Allen Petrick has written a wonderful book about Norman Rockwell, the artist, and his work. It focuses on the “invisible people” in his painting, the non-white children and adults who are his legacy.

For many readers, this book will be an eye-opener — although anyone who visits the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts or takes a serious look at Rockwell’s body of work can see Norman Rockwell never portrayed a purely white America. This perception of Rockwell’s work is a gross injustice to a man for whom civil rights was a personal crusade.

This country’s non-white population were in Rockwell’s paintings even when he had to sneak them in by a side door, figuratively speaking. Black people, Native Americans and others are anything but missing. Rockwell was passionate about civil rights and integration. It was his life’s cause, near and dear to his heart. Yet somehow, the non-white peoples in his pictures have been overlooked, become invisible via selective vision. They remain unseen because white America does not want to see them, instead choosing to focus on a highly limited vision which fits their prejudices or preconceptions.

Ms. Pettrick tells the story of Rockwell’s journey, his battle to be allowed to paint his America. It is also the story of the children and adults who modeled for him. She sought out these people, talked to them. Heard and recorded their first-hand experiences with the artist.

This is a fascinating story. I loved it from first word to last. HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT is available on Kindle for just $3.49. It’s also available as a paperback.

InPlainSight

From the Author

Whether we love his work or hate it, most of us think of Norman Rockwell as the poster child for an all-white America. I know I did. That is until the uncanny journey I share with you in this book began to unfold.  Then I discovered a surprisingly different truth: Norman Rockwell was into multiculturalism long before the word was even invented.

Working from live models, the famous illustrator was slipping people of color (the term I use for the multi-ethnic group of Chinese and Lebanese, Navajos and African-Americans the artist portrayed) into his illustrations of America from the earliest days of his career. Those people of color are still in those illustrations. They never disappeared. But the reason we don’t know about them is that, up until now, they seem to have been routinely overlooked.

For example, in her book, “Norman Rockwell’s People,” Susan E. Meyer catalogs by name over one hundred and twenty Norman Rockwell models, including two dogs, Bozo and Spot. But not one model of color is named in the book.

Another case in point? “America, Illustrated,” an article written for The New York Times by Deborah Solomon, art critic and journalist In honor of (an) upcoming Independence Day, the entire July 1, 2010 edition of the paper was dedicated to “all things American.”

“America, Illustrated” pointed out that Norman Rockwell’s work was experiencing a resurgence among collectors and museum-goers. Why? Because the illustrator’s vision of America personified “all things American.” Rockwell’s work, according to the article, provided “harmony and freckles for tough times.” As Solomon put it, Norman Rockwell’s America symbolized “America before the fall.” This America was, apparently, all sweetness and light. Solomon simply asserts: “It is true that his (Rockwell’s) work does not acknowledge social hardships or injustice.”

America illustrated by Norman Rockwell also, apparently, was all white. Seven full-color reproductions of Rockwell’s work augment the multi-page Times’ article. The featured illustration is “Spirit of America” (1929), a 9″ x 6″ blow-up of one of the artist’s more “Dudley Doright”-looking Boy Scouts. None of the illustrations chosen includes a person of color.

This is puzzling. As an art critic, Solomon surely was aware of Norman Rockwell’s civil rights paintings. The most famous of these works, “The Problem We All Live With,” portrays “the little black girl in the white dress” integrating a New Orleans school.

One hundred and seven New York Times readers commented on “America, Illustrated,” and most of them were not happy with the article. Many remarks cited Solomon’s failure to mention “The Problem We All Live With.” One reader bluntly quipped: “The reporter (Solomon) was asleep at the switch.” The other people in Norman Rockwell’s America, people of color, had been strangely overlooked, again. I have dedicated Hidden in Plain Sight: The Other People in Norman Rockwell’s America to those “other people”: individuals who have been without name or face or voice for so long. And this book is dedicated to Norman Rockwell himself, the “hidden” Norman Rockwell, the man who conspired to put those “other people” into the picture in the first place.

AVAILABLE TODAY! THE LATEST DAVIS WAY CRIME CAPER, DOUBLE AGENT by GRETCHEN ARCHER

DOUBLE AGENT – A DAVIS WAY CRIME CAPER #8
By Gretchen Archer


Print Length: 252 pages
Publisher: Henery Press 
Publication Date: March 26, 2019

It’s a category four — and soon-to-be category five — hurricane. They call it Kevin, but at the Bellissimo Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi. they are calling it the “the end of the world.”

Maybe not the absolute end, but close enough. Nothing this powerful has come ashore since Katrina flattened Louisiana. The Bellissimo has been built to withstand a reasonable amount of weather stress. It is, after all, on that frequently thrashed southern U.S. coast … but nothing is built strong enough to take this kind of pounding.

So, the name of the game is evacuation. Davis Way wants to get everyone out the door and most especially, her twins, her husband and of course, everyone on the casino and resort staff. It looks like she and Fantasy have more than enough time to get it done.

They’ve been carefully monitoring the track of the storm. They have to cash out ten slot machines, secure the funds, then move everyone out of the reach of hurricane Kevin.

Sounds easy enough, right?

Wrong.

After clearing most of the slot machines, fifty million dollars of the cash vanishes. Instead, they find a corpse.

Definitely dead.

That would be bad enough, but there are more bodies to come. Bodies keep turning up while Davis is desperate to get everyone out of the Bellissimo.

At which point who should arrive but her boss and body double, Bianca Sanders. A woman who doesn’t appear to have a grip on what’s going on because she has fled to the Bellissimo to get out of danger, but while she was fleeing, the storm changed direction.

Who else has shown up?

Eddie, Davis’ ex-ex. And his pet pig. Or is it his girl friend’s pet pig? It’s definitely someone’s pet pig. Eddie has been shot and is sure he’s dying, but as it turns out, he’s not dying, but he’s sure his girlfriend is dead. She’s not dead either … but someone else IS dead because they found the corpse in the fountain in the main court.

There’s a double agent somewhere. Instead of evacuation, it’s more like coagulation including some very odd people. All of whom claim to be inspectors from one official agency or another, but … well … neither Davis, Fantasy, or Bradley … or those very strange and drunken meteorologists thought so either.

Meteorologists?

As the storm finally begins to make landfall and there’s a whiff of poison in the air. As Davis, Fantasy, and Bradley do their best to track down who is who and doing what and whether the Bellissimo is the victim of one incredibly complicated heist or possibly several unrelated but intertwining heists, a lot of lives and more than a few deaths are on the line as the various knots are teased apart and the water finally recedes.

This is by far the most lethal, complex, and frightening Davis Way caper to date. You’ll need your best mystery-solving abilities to find your way to the end. It’s an exciting ride with never a dull moment!

This is a sophisticated and extremely complex mystery. Until the end, I was not entirely sure who were the bad guys, the worse guys, the worst guys … and maybe not such bad guys after all. And occasionally, a good guy.

Gretchen Archer’s ties up all the ends into a neat bow. And it all makes sense.


 AVAILABLE ONLINE AND IN STORES — TODAY, MARCH 26th, 2019! 

PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION – A NEW NOVEL By KIM HARRISON – Marilyn Armstrong

The title as written on the cover is “PERfunctory AfFECTION” because it’s all about “perfection.” The reality of perfection. The truth and falsity of perfection. How nothing “normal” is perfect. If it seems perfect, it isn’t. Perfection can’t be in our world so that which seems perfect contains a lie.

Humanity, people are imperfect. Maybe somewhere in a parallel universe, perfection may exist, but we aren’t living there. We may strive for it, live and die for it. We will never attain it.

In the Hindu dynasty of gods and godlike figures, if you achieve perfection, you became a god whose job it is to help others attain perfection. Religion can urge you to seek perfection, but everyone knows it isn’t possible. Thus any who achieve it become gods.

Okay, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s a piece of the concept.

If you read “The Hollows” series, this isn’t it. This is a different Kim Harrison. Still a brilliant author, she is treading in places where waters run deep.

Meg had a terrible accident during which her boyfriend was severely injured. He is still in her life and his presence haunts her, drags her down. He is not helping her move forward in her life. She remains afraid of “the world” and the people she meets, yet she is in love with her art.

Thus despite her sense of isolation and fear of many things both real and imaginary, she is an inspiring painter who packs her classroom at the university where she works. She has developed a style where her paintings are incomplete but suggest completeness. She can find the exact amount to paint which allow viewers to sense and feel what else should be in the picture.

In many ways, the book is like those pictures leaving you mentally filling in spaces, taking your best guess based on suggestions and ideas or partial conversations. The book has a quiet start that continues to build, fill out, become more complete — and suggests that Meg is seeing reality and no one else is — or everyone else is seeing reality and Meg is not.

Is she meant to be perfect, part of a magic universe? Is it a dream or a nightmare? Possibly both? The interweaving of reality, truth, lies, uncertainty, imagination and something otherworldly is complex and fascinating.

Rather than spoil anyone’s read, I want to say this is a book you should read to the end. You cannot omit a chapter or even a few pages. Secrets, hints, images are waiting for you. What you were sure you knew you may soon discover you didn’t know.

It is a beautifully written book. Intense, sensitive, and passionate. At the conclusion, you will be asking yourself many questions. A second reading perhaps?

Hardcover from Amazon

It’s difficult to describe the story without using spoilers, so I’ll quit before I ruin it for you. This is a unique, stirring tale that leaves you wanting more.

Perfunctory Affection” will be released on March 31st and I’ve pre-ordered the hardcover. It is available for pre-order on Amazon in hardcover and as an audio CD. I believe other stores are also offering it. I’m sure a paperback will be released at some future point and hopefully, it will also come out on Kindle.

“FAMOUS FATHER GIRL” – By ELLIN CURLEY

I just read a memoir by Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s oldest child and I absolutely loved the book!

The central characters are fascinating and complex as well as endlessly entertaining and the circle of friends is mostly famous people who are colorful and fun to read about.

Bernstein with the very young Jamie

Friends of my mother’s, the Coopers, lived in the same Park Avenue building in New York City as the Bernsteins for over a decade and became friends with the Bernstein family.

The oldest Cooper child, still a friend of mine today, was Jamie’s age and played with her for many years. I grew up hearing stories about the Bernstein family through the Coopers, so I feel a connection to them, however tenuous.

Helen Cooper in 1979

One of the stories I heard had to do with an incident at the Bernstein pool in Fairfield, CT. The middle Cooper child heard the word ‘gay’ from one of the adults and went up to another adult and asked him what gay meant. Leonard Bernstein was gay but lived a straight, family life for decades before coming out of the closet. That was necessary during the forties and fifties, and even the sixties, if you wanted to have a significant career. This story takes place during the closeted years.

The adult who the child approached thought it would be funny to tell the curious little girl to go ask Leonard what ‘gay’ was, so she did. Apparently, she got a paean about what wonderful, creative people gay men were and how glorious it was to be gay.

I’m sure this elicited lots of laughter around the pool that day.

The Bernstein’s Fairfield pool patio

Getting back to the book, the main reason it resonated so much with me is that Jamie and my childhoods had a lot in common. I’m only three years older than Jamie and we both grew up Jewish in New York City at the same time. Jamie was only half Jewish, but the Jewish half, Leonard, was strongly Jewish, at least culturally.

We both lived on Park Avenue in the same Upper East Side neighborhood and went to prominent private schools in the city. We both spent summers and some weekends at our second home in Fairfield County, Connecticut – Jamie in the town of Fairfield and me in nearby Easton. Our mothers were both beautiful and fashionable former actresses who entertained often and impeccably.

Jamie at a Bernstein rehearsal

However, the major experience that I shared with Jamie, was living in the shadow of a famous father. The title of Jamie’s memoir is “Famous Father Girl,” a nickname given to her by someone in her grade school class.

My father was not as universally well-known, but in our social circles and in the social science fields, he was a celebrity. Kids at my school knew that my father was an intellectual giant and he was spoken of with respect and awe by their parents, many of whom were psychiatrists, like my father.

My father

Jamie’s mother used to excuse Leonard’s excesses and eccentricities by telling her kids that this is what comes with ‘genius’, and my mother did the same thing. We had to forgive a lot of character flaws and social missteps because my father was a genius.

I can understand why superstars are surrounded by apologists and enablers because I grew up with that dynamic. In fact, my father was absolved of almost all paternal obligations and responsibilities, including talking to his child on a regular basis. At least Leonard Bernstein interacted with his kids, played with them and talked to them all the time when he was around.

Both of our fathers spent a lot of time teaching their children about their fields of expertise. Jamie learned about all styles of music at an early age and I knew about psychology, sociology, anthropology, as well as history and archeology (a favorite topic of my father’s) while still in elementary school. Both of our fathers were also hard acts to follow and we spent our young lives trying not to disappoint our larger than life parents.

Jamie tried to write and sing music for many years and I felt the need to excel academically, at least through college. I got a life, finally, in law school and stopped trying to be at the top of the class, which was a great relief. I’m sure Jamie shared my lifelong feeling of not measuring up in some significant way.

Bernstein’s famous TV series

Ironically, both Jamie and I found our voice and our passion in our thirties by becoming mothers. Years later Jamie found a true career running educational music programs based on her father’s Young People’s Concerts. I found myself in my father’s adjunct career – writer.

He published seven books over the years and numerous professional articles, which I helped my mother edit from the time I was fifteen. I publish blog posts and have the scripts I write with my husband performed by our audio theater group.

Jamie and her book cover

So Jamie and I each took something from our mothers and something from our fathers and later in life, came up with our own mix, creating satisfying lives for ourselves.

EARLY RISER – A NEW NOVEL BY JASPER FFORDE – Marilyn Armstrong

Early Riser
A Novel – By Jasper Fforde



In Audible. I have it in hardcover too.
I’ve read it and listened to it.
Narrated by Thomas Hunt
Length: 15 hrs and 16 mins

Jasper Fforde has written some of the funniest books I’ve ever read. You know, the kind of book you read in bed, but you are laughing so hard it makes your partner wake up and irritably ask what the hell you are laughing at?

This book has moments of humor and once in a while, a chuckle. There’s no hilarity, however. Overall, there’s a seriousness to this story that none of his other books have had. This isn’t so much humor as it is a warning about where our climate is going and who is running our world. I don’t know which is more terrifying: the obvious sub-arctic winters in Scotland … or the death grip the mighty “pharma” company has on all humankind.

There are fighters against big pharma and the corporate grip the company holds over everyone. For reasons you will have to read the book to understand, it isn’t easy to figure out who is the good guy or who is the bad guy. There’s not “history” about how the world got to this place, but if you have been reading even the headlines, it isn’t hard to put it together.

This is science fiction, except … it’s not all that far-fetched. Sometimes, I found myself not merely listening to the story but worrying if this is just a story or this is the real future history of my Earth — unless we DO something about it. Like … NOW.

Of course, it’s beautifully written because everything Jasper Fforde has written is wonderful, though I still am in love with Thursday Next.

I do recommend this book very highly, but I have to warn you — it isn’t like his other books. It isn’t hilarious and sometimes, it’s pretty serious. But he’s telling us a story that I think we need to think about … while being well-entertained. Just so you know, this does take place in the future, so it actually is science fiction. Not your usual sci-fi, however.

Is this science fiction or is it our science future? I think you will have to decide for yourself.


I have mixed emotions about the narrator. He was good … but I think I’d have preferred a deeper voice? Or maybe I’m just being overly picky.