As an author of award-winning biographies, I take my craft seriously, and I am fairly critical when I read those written by other people. I recently read three totally different biographies. These particular subjects may or may not appeal to you for summer reading, but you can apply the same principles when choosing subjects of your choice and selecting your biographies this summer. These books all receive my biographer’s nod for excellence.
Cecil Smith: Mr. Polo, by Blair Calvert (1990) — This book is a must read for the student and fan of the history of polo in the United States of America. Smith was considered by many to be the best American polo player of all time. He carried a maximum ten goal handicap for a record twenty-five years. The apex of his career was early on during an East-West tournament in 1933, when Smith led the West team to show the East that they were not the only show in town. Humorist Will Rogers reported that polo had moved from the board room to the bunkhouse when the cowboys beat the east coast dudes. Publication of the book was a little rough as were some of the subject transitions, and I would have enjoyed more coverage of the later years in Smith’s career with the progression of the sport’s history. However, this biography serves the supreme purpose of saving an important and impressive life story of a true sports hero.
Eminent Hipsters, by Donal Fagen (2013) — Although this does not qualify as a biography in the true format sense, it contains autobiographical material by Steely Dan (rock band) front man and philosopher, Donald Fagen. The first half of the book shares remembrances from Fagen’s formative years with descriptions of the artists who influenced him and his work, from jazz greats to Tina Turner. The second half of the book is a diary of criss-crossing the country on the road in 2012 in claustrophobic tour buses with the “Dukes of September”, which included Michael McDonald and Bozz Scaggs. This was a decidedly lower budget style of travel than he was accustomed to with Steely Dan, and cause for recurring anxiety, from which he suffers. It was enlightening to learn what feeds the craft of this talented musician, and his viewpoint as he produced his tunes for the entertainment of rooms full of a combination of aging rockers, and those he calls “TV Babies,” who have no clue about good music and quality production. I was drawn in and understood Fagen’s outlook and frustration of dealing with everyday challenges while attempting to maintain the quality and art in his music. I enjoyed it thoroughly because Fagen approached it as a serious think piece rather than a self-indulgent tell-all gossip fest.
Stan Musial – An American Life, by George Vecsey (2011) — I kicked myself for not purchasing this book when I saw it while I was walking through the St. Louis airport, so I ordered a copy from home. I was a steadfast fan of “Stan the Man” while growing up in Illinois. I had read a fairly dry biography of his life in the 1960s. This one was a modern take on Musial’s life and times and brilliant baseball career. It took me back to good times, lurking in the parking lot at Busch Stadium with my dad, waiting for Stanley and his pal Red Schoendienst to appear from the locker room chatting away about the game, yet always ready to stop and sign an autograph. I also enjoyed reading about the struggles of a man as talented as Musial as he worked his way to the top in major league baseball, worked hard to stay there, and to maintain his character as a really good guy. He wasn’t a saint but dealt gracefully with pressure from public expectations. He worked hard and kept his character, and all that was important to him, close to his heart. I came away admiring him more than ever, for his foibles as well as his obvious assets. This is a top-notch biography. I don’t say this often, but I could not have done a better job than Vecsey of writing this important biography about my first true hero, Stan “The Man” Musial.
Biographies not only preserve details of the lives of their subjects, but give us real insights into the history and times in which they lived. Read biographies, read them often, and choose your biographer with care. A good biographer will either peel away the sludge, or else identify it for readers, so they know what is real and what is pure fabrication. You can find plenty of that in fiction.
Happy reading, Joyce B. Lohse