First in Flight
- Created on Sunday, 26 July 2015 17:24
I have read many biographies but none have been as awe-inspiring as the new Wright Brothers biography by David McCallum. The Wright Brothers story may be the greatest story of accomplishment of all time.
It was an unusual family situation. A family in Dayton, Ohio with 5 kids (4 boys and a girl) where the mother died at age 58 of tuberculosis when they were adolescents to young adults. Their father, Milton Wright, was a Protestant Bishop. I don't know how religious the Wright Brothers were, but I did find out that they refused to work or even fly on Sundays because of the Sabbath.
Two of the boys followed the typical course of leaving home getting married and having children. But, Wilbur, Orville, and their sister Katharine continued living at home with their father. And that played a crucial role in the development of flight because how could the Wright Brothers have done what they did if they had wives and children? There aren’t enough hours in the day.
But, trauma played a role in it too. Wilbur was extremely bright and very scholastic, and he was definitely college-bound. But, he was viciously attacked during a hockey game by a boy who went on to become a famous murderer. Wilbur was too injured to meet the deadlines for college, and the whole idea faded away after that.
While still in high school, Orville started his own printing company, which was done by building his own printing press. The printing business grew after high school, and Wilbur got involved with him, although it was always Orville’s baby. And something they did in association with the printing business was publish a local newspaper for their section of Dayton, Ohio. And both boys contributed to the writing of it.
But, bicycle fever hit Dayton in the late 1890s. It was a real craze, and they got into it themselves. They loved to ride, and they became absorbed with the mechanical side of bicycling, which they mastered. And then they saw an opportunity to capitalize on it, so they opened their bicycle shop. But, many people mistakenly believe that they just repaired bicycles. They built bicycles from scratch. They had a whole line. It was called the Van Cleve, which was their grandmother’s maiden name. It was a high end bike costing $65, which was a lot then. But, they proudly claimed that it the best built and most durable bicycle in the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.
The thing about Orville and Wilbur Wright was: they liked to work. They liked to be productive, to see something built, fixed, improved or enhanced by their own hand. It gave them more satisfaction than any kind of entertainment or recreation. I’ve known people like that. My father was like that. Like the Wright Brothers, he was happiest when he was doing constructive work, accomplishing something, especially mechanical.
The Wright Brothers had always been fascinated by the flight of birds. As lads, they had played around with airborne toys. But, the way the serious flying idea got started was that Orville got sick with typhoid fever.And it was a bad case. He very easily could have died, as many did. He was laid up in bed for weeks and weeks. And while he was convalescing, Wilbur would come in and read to him. And they started reading about this glider enthusiast in Germany whose name was Otto Lilenthal. He was known as the Glider King, and he was the first man to glide long enough and high enough to call it a sustained flight. Lilenthal controlled his glider entirely by shifting his body weight. And, he died in a gliding accident in 1896.
Something struck Wilbur and Orville that now that Lilenthal was dead, somebody needed to carry on the work of developing a flying machine. And their first thought was that control had to come from something other than the pilot shifting his weight.
So, the first thing Wilbur did was write to the Smithsonian Institute and ask for scientific resources on aviation. He was referred to the work of Octave Chanute who was French and to Samuel Langley who was American and the head of the Smithsonian. I don’t believe the Wright Brothers ever met Langley, but they did become friends with Chanute. So, Wilbur and Orville took to reading the known materials on flight. And Wilbur took up bird-watching as a serious hobby. He also read a book about the flight of birds called Empire of the Air by Pierre Moullard. And with that, the Wright Brothers became, as they said, “infected” with the desire to fly.
So, the first step was to build a glider that could fly for a sustained period, but more important, that could be precisely and accurately controlled.
Their very first discovery, which was really Wilbur’s and came from his bird-watching, was “wing-warping”. He demonstrated it to Orville and his sister with a model that he made of a double-wing bi-plane, that if you twisted the wings on one side, it changed the air pressure, causing more “lift” on one side than the other side, causing the plane to turn. That idea of “wing-warping” or “wing-twisting” was the first great idea of the Wright Brothers, and it came directly from watching birds.
It was the summer of 1899 that they started building their first aircraft, a glider. Just think: it would be only four years later, in 1903, that they make history and change the world forever by building the first real airplane. But this first unit was really just a glorified kite. It was bi-plane, with two sets of wings. They liked the bi-plane design because Chanute recommended it and used it in his experiments, and it seemed more stable than a monoplane. A bi-plane was like a box, and a box is more stable than a board.
But, what made their glider different was that they had long cords that allowed the operator on the ground to manipulate the plane in the air to effect the wing-warping. No one had ever thought of that before.
So, they spent 3 years just working with gliders, to gain the greatest control of the aircraft at all times. And it was very important to them that their motorized plane also be able to glide- in case the motor failed.
But, when they were ready for a motor, they first tried to buy one from a car manufacturer but with no success. So, they had this guy named Charlie Taylor, who worked for them in the bicycle shop for $18/week, build them a motor from scratch, using a 4 cylinder aluminum block.
They took everything in pieces to Kitty Hawk and assembled the plane there, including the motor. And, against a strong head wind, Orville made the first flight. It was December 17, 1903 at 10:35 AM. The course of his flight was “erratic”. The distance he flew was 120 feet, and the total time being air-borne was 12 seconds. That was the first time someone had flown a manned aircraft that was heavier than air and powered by a motor. Before the day was done, Wilbur would fly for half a mile in a time of 59 seconds.
Over the next two years, the Wright Brothers built bigger planes with larger, more powerful motors. They put on public demonstrations but forbid picture-taking. They were afraid that a blow-up of a photo might give away crucial details of their design. And there were several times that Wilbur caught someone, usually a journalist, taking a picture, and he stormed over and demanded the film. And I mean “demanded” as in: “give me that film, or else.” And the guy invariably handed it over.
Of course, word spread quickly, and it was the talk of the country. But, it wasn’t until 1906 that things really bounded forward in terms of national and international recognition. It was the French who had always been most keen on developing manned flight, and the French government, through emissaries, approached the Wright Brothers about buying a fleet of planes. But, the condition was that they had to come to France to demonstrate the plane and also provide instruction in its use to French pilots.
So, Wilbur went to France, alone, while Orville stayed behind to take care of things on the home front. And in France, Wilbur stunned the French. He put on air shows. And just think: from the beginning, aerial acrobatics was part of it. He did repeated figure-8s to the crowd’s amazement and delight. And since the plane was now a 2-seater, he took people up for rides, including dignitaries, government officials, and posh ladies. It was done at Le Mans, and you just can’t overstate what a spectacle it was.
But then, disaster struck. Back in the States. Orville was putting on similar demonstrations for the Americans, which happened near Washington. He had a passenger riding with him, a high-ranking military officer. Suddenly, the propeller broke. It was a mechanical failure; it was not pilot error. But, the broken propeller tore through the cable that controlled the rudder, and the result was that they plummeted to earth- nose first.
That the military officer, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, died (the first aviation casualty) is no surprise. What’s astonishing is that Orville survived. But, he was badly hurt with bones broken all over his body. It took him months to recover, and he never fully recovered. He walked with a limp and needed a cane after that, and one leg was more than an inch shorter than the other.
Wilbur came back from France, and the sister Katharine took leave from her teaching job to take care of Orville. The eerie thing is that there had been talk of President Theodore Roosevelt wanting to go up with Orville. When told about it, Orville said, “He’s the President of the United States, and I’ll do whatever he says. But personally, I don’t think he should take the risk.”
But, Orville did become functional again, and he did fly again. He and Wilbur started a new company to manufacture airplanes. And there were more big events ahead for them. The pace of the development of aviation soared immediately after that. By 1908, just two years after Wilbur dazzled the French at Le Mans, they had an air competition in France with 20 contestants. The Wright Brothers were invited but didn’t attend. But a few weeks later, Orville and Katharaine went to Germany, and there, Orville broke the world records for speed and altitude that were set in France just a few weeks before. Another big event was Wilbur’s flight up the Hudson River Valley which included him doing several circles around the Statue of Liberty, to the crowd’s delight.
Wilbur’s last flight was as a passenger. It was the first and only time that he and Orville flew together. That was in 1911 at an air show. They had always said they wouldn’t fly together so that if one died the other could carry on the work. So, by flying together, it was their way of saying that they had accomplished all that they had set out to do. Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912. He was 45 years old.
How ironic that is. Wilbur, who was older, was always the bigger and stronger of the two. And the disparity became even greater after Orville’s catastrophic accident. That Wilbur would precede Orville in death is something that nobody expected.
Orville continued piloting Wright planes for another 7 years. But then, he had to quit because of his disabilities from the near-death disaster. Severe arthritis set in, as it often does after such traumas. He just didn’t have the dexterity to fly any more. So, his final flight was in 1918 at age 46. He also sold the Wright manufacturing company and devoted the rest of his life to aeronautical research at the Wright Aeronautical Laboratory which he started.
And, he spent much of his time in the latter years in lawsuits for patent infringement. And, it wasn’t so much about money. He was famous for saying that all the money that anybody needs is enough to not be a burden on others. But, nothing mattered more to him than the legacy of the Wright Brothers.
Orville died of a heart attack on January 30, 1948. He was 77. But, just imagine what he lived to see: jet propulsion, rockets, and the breaking of the sound barrier- all in his lifetime. However, he also lamented greatly the use of aviation in warfare, which of course happened as early as World War 1. So, just a few years after Wilbur died, they were having air battles and using airplanes to drop bombs on people.
So, did health play a role in the developments of the airplane? I would say so. I mentioned that it was when Orville was convalescing from typhoid fever that Wilbur sought things to read to him, which wound up including the reports about Lilenthal perishing in a crash. I really think the Wright Brothers felt an obligation to Lilenthal to carry on his work. But, they also saw a fatal flaw in his approach: lack of control, the fact that Lilenthal tried to control the aircraft just by shifting his body weight like a sledder does going down a course. But, they knew that would never suffice in aviation.
There is no denying that Wilbur and Orville Wright were two very unusual guys. They were extremely bright, and they were very mechanically gifted. And, they loved to work. They loved to solve mechanical problems. Just think: Wilbur Wright, though he was only a high school graduate, gave speeches to prominent engineering groups which included complex mathematical analysis. And these speeches were translated and published all over the world.
I don’t think anyone doubts that manned flight would have happened without the Wright Brothers. How much later would it have been? That’s anyone’s guess, but I’d say at least 5 years. But maybe longer than that because it was the Wright Brothers who stirred up the whole worldwide frenzy to fly.
But, I have to say that I think it’s one of the greatest things that Americans have to feel proud about , that it was Americans who accomplished flight. And not just Americans, but regular working-class Americans who had no advanced education, little money, and very little help. You can have your military heroes, your sports figures, your Hollywood celebrities and your distinguished statesmen. I’ll take the Wright Brothers as my heroes any day.
- Created on Thursday, 09 July 2015 03:06
Recently, California Governor Jerry Brown announced that California children will not be allowed to attend public school in that state unless vaccinated, that there would be no more exemptions for any reason. It was prompted by a recent outbreak of measles in California.
Is such coercion justified? If vaccines are effective, then vaccinated children should have nothing to fear from unvaccinated ones because the vaccines protect them. And if the vaccines are not effective, then what's the point of forcing anyone to get them?
For the state to force the injection of chemicals into a child's body against the will of the parents is drastic to the extreme. Whether it is ever justified is debatable, and that's true even if vaccines are proven safe and effective. But, whether vaccines are safe and effective is also debatable, and the fact that it hasn't been established or resolved makes the violation of rights even more egregious.
The safety and effectiveness of vaccines can only be determined in one way: through scientific testing. But, do you know how many times vaccines have been scientifically tested? Nice round number: zero. And what I mean by that is that vaccines have never been tested by comparing the outcomes of vaccinated and unvaccinated children as to the incidence of the disease or diseases in question and as to other health issues and to general health. Instead, the only testing they do concerns antibody titers, such as "the immune responses to the antigens of the hexavalent vaccine were noninferior when compared with those of the control group." So, the administered vaccines did cause the antibody titer to rise in the subjects who received them. But, that's not an end in itself. It's just a theoretical construct. A serological outcome is not a clinical outcome, and it's clinical outcomes that matter.
Here's a CDC report on a measles outbreak at a 100% vaccinated high school in Illinois.
"This outbreak demonstrates that transmission of measles can occur within a school population with a documented immunization level of 100%. This level was validated during the outbreak investigation. Previous investigations of measles outbreaks among highly immunized populations have revealed risk factors such as improper storage or handling of vaccine, vaccine administered to children under 1 year of age, use of globulin with vaccine, and use of killed virus vaccine (1-5). However, these risk factors did not adequately explain the occurrence of this outbreak."
Didn't adequately explain it? How's this for an explanation: The outbreak occurred because the vaccine is ineffective. Even if it did raise the antibody titer, the assumption that that conveys protection is only an assumption. In plain English: the vaccine didn't work.
The rest of what they said is just rationalizing and excuse-making. In the recent California measles outbreak, less than half the afflicted children were unvaccinated. And remember, that's their numbers. I wouldn't put it past them to lie through their teeth.
So, have they ever taken two comparable groups of children, given one group the vaccines, and the other group not, and tried to control for everything else to keep the comparison fair, and then looked at the results, including the incidence of infectious disease and the incidence of other problems? NO! Never! Not once in the history of vaccination have they ever done that.
And their excuse is that it wouldn't be ethical, that to deny the vaccines to the test group wouldn't be right.
But, they know that there are kids who aren't going to be vaccinated anyway because their parents don't believe in it. So, since those kids aren't going to be vaccinated anyway, there are no ethical issues involved in doing a scientific study to compare the outcomes of those children to vaccinated children.
But, they still won't do it. They claim that because of the structural differences between the groups that the comparison wouldn't be meaningful. That is nonsense! Of course it would be meaningful. They won't do it because they are afraid that the unvaccinated children will show better outcomes, that people will hear about it, and then there will be a large-scale revolt against vaccination. And even if they don't actually expect that, they do fully realize that IT'S POSSIBLE! They know it from experience. The same drug companies that make drugs make vaccines, and they know from their own experience in testing drugs that sometimes the placebo group does better than the treatment group. I'm not going to say it happens all the time, but it happens sometimes. If you think it's rare, then you are naïve. And that is exactly why they do not test vaccines.
There are celebrities joining the campaign against vaccinations, including Rob Schneider, Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy, and football player Jay Cutler and his wife Kristin Cavallari. They are denounced for not being doctors, as if they are too ignorant to make informed decisions, but let's be honest about something here: the average family doctor's understanding of how vaccines work is extremely limited. They just have a rote, cursory, perfunctory understanding of it. They could probably tell you everything they know about it in five minutes; ten max. And yet, they're spending their days injecting poisons into children like the good little vassals of the state that they are. And believe me, vaccinations are a state thing, a government thing. It's an unholy alliance between Big Pharma and government that brings it about.
Belief in vaccination is like a religion. It's based on a dogma. It is not based on looking at the world objectively. They carefully avoid shining a light on showing whether vaccines are truly effective. They really don't want to know. They just want to believe. To say that there's bias in their interpretation of the data about vaccines is a gross understatement. The world-wide vaccination cult is really a very sick religion.
I will never be vaccinated again; I would sooner leave the country. And I have no doubt that more vaccination harms lie ahead for the masses.
The Danger of Diet Sodas
- Created on Monday, 06 July 2015 17:33
This was sent to me by a friend. I have long been concerned about the danger and harm from diet sodas. Millions of people are addicted to them, and in most cases, they tend to be FAT. That may seem paradoxical that a non-caloric drink could make you fat, but such is the case. They work against weight control, and that is a fact. But, they do more harm than that, which you can read about below. There is no place for them in anyone's health program.
Gene Tierney: Beauty and Tragedy
- Created on Saturday, 27 June 2015 21:37
If you’re young, and you’re not a fan of classic movies, you may not know about Gene Tierney, but she was one of the great screen sirens of Hollywood’s Golden Age, meaning the 1940s. She was chosen to play the irresistible Laura in the 1944 movie of that name. But, Gene Tierney is also remembered as the star who suffered from severe mental illness- and recovered.
Though she lived to 71, she wrote her autobiography, entitled Self-Portrait, at age 58, which I just finished reading.
She was born into a well-to-do New England family, which meant private schools, country clubs, horses, boating, tennis lessons, and even a debutante ball when she was 16. She spent two years in Switzerland attending a posh boarding school where she became fluent in French. She was discovered in Hollywood when she was 17. Her family was on a vacation to California, and a friend had arranged for them to visit a movie set. The movie was being directed by the famed Russian director Anatole Litvak who was struck by Gene’s beauty. He invited her to submit to a screen test, which she did, and that resulted immediately in a contract offer.
Gene had never thought about acting before, but she eagerly wanted to do it. However, her parents would not allow her. But, her father offered her a compromise that he would help her pursue a career in theater in New York instead. That way, she would be close to home.
So, Gene pursued a career in live theater on Broadway for several years until her star rose high enough there that she was again offered a Hollywood contract which she accepted.
To understand Gene’s plight with mental illness, you have to understand that she suffered a lot of traumas in her life, and I don’t mean physical ones. Some very bad stresses happened to her, including the following:
-a complete falling out with her father after he abandoned her mother- and the whole family really – to marry another woman. He even wound up suing Gene for money relating to his having managed her career early-on, which resulted in Gene finding out that her father had been stealing from her all along.
-her marriage to fashion designer Oleg Cassini, whom she met in the movie business where he designed costumes, was turbulent throughout. Her family and loved ones had pressured her not to marry him, but she did anyway, and their worst fears materialized.
-worst of all was that her first child, a daughter Daria, was born deaf and nearly blind and also severely retarded mentally, all the result of Gene having contracted German measles at a war bond rally from an afflicted female soldier. After two years, Gene gave up trying to care for Daria herself and allowed her to be institutionalized, which she was for the remainder of her 66 years. Daria had the mind of a 1 and 1/2 year old. But, Gene visited Daria and supported her, and it was the utmost tragedy of her life.
-her relationship with John F. Kennedy, who never mistreated her, but when he decided not to marry her, it was devastating for her. She had such high hopes that they were going to have a life together.
-after that, she reconciled briefly with Oleg, and they conceived their second child, Christina, who was born healthy. It’s interesting that although they lived in America, they decided to speak only French at home so that Tina would learn that language first. At the time she started school, Tina spoke very little English. But again, Gene’s relationship with Oleg tumbled, and they split up again for good, and she became a single mother raising a daughter.
In addition to all that, she had all the usual stresses of being an actress, the competition, the pressure, etc. Plus, there were other turbulent relationships with men, such as with the Pakistani jet setting playboy, Ali Khan, which she never felt right about.
Her mental illness surfaced, as it often does, as depression. She’d wake up in the morning and not want to get out of bed. But, the second thing was an inability to concentrate, to focus. She couldn’t remember her lines. And it wasn’t just that she couldn’t remember them; she couldn’t learn them in the first place. She would read the lines out-loud several times, or even many times, but then when she put the paper down, she couldn't remember a thing. That occurred first during the making of A Private Affair in England. She got through it, but the problem only worsened. By the time she went to California to film The Left Hand of God with Humphrey Bogart, she was a mess; she fell apart completely. She couldn’t remember anything. She got through the movie, but only because Bogart fed her her lines, reciting them before she did so she could repeat them, which required a lot of editing at the end to conceal. Bogie had a sister who was severely ill mentally whom he supported, and he recognized the signs in Gene. He urged her to get help. So, after the completion of that movie, Gene returned to Connecticut and sought medical help. She wound up at a prominent residential psychiatric clinic called the Hartford Retreat.
That began years of institutionalized treatment for Gene, and I’ll say first that I am not sure that any of it was beneficial or played any role in her recovery. It included 32 shock treatments: electro-convulsive therapy, like Jack Nicholson’s character received in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. In later years, Gene became an ardent and outspoken critic of shock treatments. She came to feel that they did nothing but destroy her memory and harm her otherwise.
She also received drugs, and she said that at one point, she was the most heavily drugged patient there. She never named any of the drugs she was given. I don’t know what they were, but I think it’s likely that they have all fallen out of use in Medicine.
And she received some psychoanalysis and talk therapy as well, although she sounded critical of that too, from what I could gather. She complained that they kept trying to plumb the depths of her unhappy childhood, but she kept telling them that her childhood was happy.
So, what did she speak of positively about all the treatment? It was the general caring and compassion that she received from the doctors and nurses. That she appreciated, and that she felt really helped her. Perhaps it is the only thing that really helped her.
She got out after about a year, and she resumed living with her mother and her daughter Tina, who was now in school. But then, she started deteriorating again, to where she wanted to spend the whole day in bed and would have if her mother had let her. One day, she had a close brush with suicide when she walked out on the ledge of their high-rise apartment building.
And that resulted in her being re-institutionalized at the famed Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. She was there for over a year and received the same kind of treatment as before. When she got out, the first thing she did was accompany her mother and daughter on a skiing trip to Aspen, Colorado. There she met the man who would become her second husband, Texas Oilman W. Howard Lee. He was 11 years older, and he fell head over heels in love for her. That was in 1958, and they may have gotten married sooner, but she was planning her movie comeback, and as she got involved in it, she started deteriorating again mentally and behaviorally. She became rambling and incoherent, and even Howard noticed. Willingly, she re-entered the Menninger Clinic and stayed there another full year. But, that was the last time she was to be institutionalized. She and Howard Lee got married in July 1960, and they lived together happily until his death in 1981, so over 20 years. She never needed to be hospitalized again, but she did continue to see a psychiatrist and take medication. And she did achieve a remarkable comeback as a movie actress- not as a leading lady but in supporting roles in several movies for which she received wide acclaim. Her last movie was The Pleasure Seekers in 1964, but she did several television projects after that, all the way until 1980.
She and Howard lived in Houston, where she got very involved in charitable work there. He died in 1981, and she lived 10 more years until 1991, but never remarried. The cause of her death was given as emphysema.
And that brings us to Gene Tierney’s habits. Since she died of emphysema at age 71, you might suspect that she smoked, and you would be right. But, she didn’t start smoking until she got into movies, and it’s a darn shame what happened. She was encouraged to start smoking because she had a high, girlish voice which they wanted to lower. So, she took up smoking, and she got hooked. She became a heavy smoker, and at times a chain smoker.
It seems strange that a woman whose whole career was launched by her fabulous looks would take up such a beauty-destroying habit as smoking. But, of course, she wasn’t the only one. Back then, they didn’t recognize the age-accelerating and uglifying effects that smoking has.
Regarding her food, she was a conventional eater. Things like steaks and barbecue were mentioned. Also eggs; she was very fond of eggs and enjoyed having laying hens at home to get fresh eggs. A fondness for desserts was also mentioned. But, she said that during filming she would watch her weight closely and stick to vegetables and lean meats.
But, she was not a big drinker. She drank socially, but it wasn’t a problem for her. And she said nothing about indulging in illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, etc.
She was quite active physically, playing tennis from a young age. And, her first husband Oleg was an outstanding tennis player who apparently could have gone pro if he wanted to. He played Davis Cup tennis for Italy as a young man. So, that was something they had in common.
Apparently, her psychiatric diagnosis was manic depression. And, undoubtedly, it was triggered by the traumas that she experienced, particularly the tragedy of her first daughter Daria. Today, they treat manic depression, now called bipolar disorder, with various drugs, none of which were around in her time. And, the use of lithium got established in 1970, which was also after her worst time with it. But, I have to wonder if she started to take lithium after it became available in the 1970s, and perhaps she did.
Lithium is a naturally occurring mineral, and it does have a stabilizing effect on mood and on nerves. And, it occurs in trace amounts in food. We actually sell a low-dose version of lithium called lithium orotate. It provides 4.5 milligrams of lithium per tablet. It is much weaker than the lithium compounds used in Medicine, but for some people, it seems to suffice. It’s also much safer to take than the prescription forms of lithium.
But, I am left with unanswered questions about Gene Tierney. Would she ever have gotten sick if not for all the stresses in her life, particularly her impaired daughter? I mentioned that she lauded the caring and compassion that she received from the medical staff, but I don’t think it’s right to consider that therapeutic. So, to what extent was she helped by the specific treatments she received? And to what extent was she harmed by them?
I suspect that her signature movie will always be considered Laura, which I have seen more than once. Recently, I watched her in The Mating Season from 1951, which was a comedy, and it’s very good. I recommend it. I liked it better than Heaven Can Wait which is more of a farce. But, I intend to watch her in The Left Hand of God which she made in the throes of mental illness, but only with the generous and compassionate support of Humphrey Bogart. I'd like to see how it came out.
Gene Tierney. What a life. It was an incredible mixture of vaunted highs and desperate lows, neither of which she could ever have imagined or anticipated as a girl. I’m sure she’ll always be remembered as one of the great film stars and great beauties of all time. However, she is no one to envy. They say that money can't buy happiness, but, apparently, neither can beauty.
J. D. Salinger
- Created on Tuesday, 12 May 2015 02:05
I decided to read a biography of JD Salinger partly because of The Catcher in the Rye, which I read in high school, and partly because of his reputation for being so reclusive and hermetic and eccentric. He was known to say that he was in this world but not of it. That was very aptly put, but then again, he was a writer.
To this day, Catcher in the Rye which was published in 1951, the year of my birth, is considered the ultimate novel of teenage angst and rebellion. The character of 17 year old Holden Caulfield was based to a great extent on Salinger himself. The theme is that Holden is on the threshold of adulthood, but he sees so much hypocrisy and so much phoniness in the adult world that he’s not sure he wants to be part of it. Holden is considered one of the most enduring and influential characters in 20th Century American literature, and the only reason why you haven’t seen him on the silver screen is because Salinger wouldn’t allow it.
And that’s another strange thing about Salinger: he apparently didn’t care much for money. He turned down offers that would have made him an Ungodly fortune. His last published work came out in 1965, and after that he retired, not from writing, but from publishing. He continued writing, working like a fiend, and reportedly putting out novels and short stories galore which the world has never seen.
Jerome David Salinger was born in 1919, the son of Solomon and Miriam Salinger. They were Jewish, but Miriam was actually Irish, and she converted to Judaism. Her given name was Mary, and she changed it to Miriam. Salinger grew up thinking that he was 100% Jewish when he was really only half Jewish. I’m pointing it out because his identity as a Jew played a major role in the direction that his life took, which I will explain.
His father was an importer of specialty meats and cheeses from Europe, and his business did well, even during the Great Depression. So, they got to live on Park Avenue, and Jerome (who was called Sonny at home) got to attend posh schools. But, he was a poor student, and he flunked out several times. And it was no different at college; he flunked out of several, including Columbia University. He never did complete a college degree.
His father sent him to Europe for a year to learn the family business. Salinger would later say that his father made him work in a pig slaughterhouse for a year. He spent the time in Poland and Austria, and he saw and experienced the rising tide of anti-Semitism. And when WW2 broke out, he knew right away that he wanted to fight the Nazis- and it was from what he had seen in Europe.
But, the US Army turned him down initially because of a heart defect. It didn’t say what it was, but it probably was a heart murmur. But after a while, they needed more boots on the ground, so they relaxed their medical standards, and Salinger got in.
Now, at that point, he was already semi-successful as a writer. During his time at Columbia, he had a Creative Writing teacher named Whit Burnett, who was the Editor of Story magazine. Whit saw Salinger’s potential and encouraged him to write, and eventually, he published his first story, which was widely praised. And that led to other published stories, including one that was published in The New Yorker magazine, which brought very wide acclaim. So, by the time Salinger entered the US Army, he was already accomplished as a writer.
And, as with other famous people with unique talents, the Army really didn’t want to use him as a fighting man. They wanted to use him as a writer. And he did write for them. He wrote a short story that was meant to stir up passions to join the war effort. And it worked. It was considered excellent. However, Salinger never considered it anything but a fluff piece.
However, like Jimmy Stewart who insisted on getting in the thick of the action, Salinger did the same. So, he was indeed sent into battle. On D-Day, he landed on Utah Beach in the thick of it and then fought in the Battle of the Hedgerows and other fierce battles. Then, he was part of the first American unit to enter Paris. And in Paris, he got to meet Ernest Hemingway who was working as a war correspondent for Collier’s magazine. And Hemingway had heard of him and read some of his stories and had a lot of respect for him. They got to talk shop about writing for hours. Salinger and Hemmingway got to be good friends and stayed so for the duration, but it's interesting that Salinger did not include Hemmingway among his favorite authors.
Then, Salinger was part of the first American unit to enter Germany territory. Then, after months of hard fighting, his unit, the 12th Infantry Regiment, was sent to Luxembourg for some R&R. But there, they got slammed by the strongest battalion left in the German Army. And that developed into the Battle of the Bulge, which was the costliest military conflict in US military history. The death toll was staggering. The 12th started with about 4000 men, but by war’s end, there were only about 1000 left.
And it wasn’t just the fighting that killed them, but also, the elements. The American Brass was so confident that the D-Day Invasion was going to bring the war to a speedy end, that they didn’t bother to provision for the next winter. Well, military progress was swift, but it wasn’t that swift. Indeed, they were fighting through the winter, and the winter of 1944/1945 was one of the most severe on record. You recall how at Valley Forge, it was so cold that men were dying of frostbite, and the same thing happened to Napoleon’s Army, which lost more men to the Russian winter than to Russian bullets. Well, believe it or not, it was the same way during WW2. Salinger spent many nights shivering in foxholes.
But, he was a linguistic genius. He was an intelligence officer and also a spokesman. For instance, when they liberated a town, they would have him stand up on a truck and speak to the locals about what was going to happen next. Why him? Because, with very little academic training, he could speak both French and German fluently.
But, when the war finally ended, he had to enter a mental hospital- for months. He was diagnosed with what today we call post-traumatic stress disorder. And when he got out, he surprised everyone by deciding to remain in Germany to work for the Army as an interrogator. In fact, he was stationed at Nuremberg, and he was involved in interrogating Nazis. And he was doing it now as a civilian. But, the main reason he decided to stay is because he fell in love with a German woman, Sylvia Welter, although he told his family and friends that she was French. They spent one relatively blissful year together (in the marital sense) in Nuremberg. But then, when his contract with the Army expired, the two of them set sail for New York and moved in with his parents on Park Avenue. That was a bad idea. Sylvia and Miriam did NOT get along. And after a few months, Sylvia returned to Germany alone. Ironically though, she wound up coming back here as the wife of another American, and she spent her life here and had a career as an ophthalmologist. She spent her final years as a widow living in a nursing home- writing about her year and a half with JD Salinger.
Salinger was thrown by the marital breakup, but only for a short while. And as usual, his relief, his escape from uncomfortable reality, was found in writing. He kept putting out short stories, most of which were published in The New Yorker. And incidentally, he continued writing all through the war, even from the foxholes. His story: To Esme’- With Love and Squalor, written during the war, is considered one of the finest literary pieces to come out of the 2nd World War.
It took him years to write Catcher in the Rye. You just have no idea how hard he worked on it. But when it came out in 1951, it made him a literary superstar.
But, he didn’t like the fame. He didn’t want any spotlights on him. So, he ran away to rural New Hampshire, buying 90 acres with a cabin near the town of Cornish. It didn’t even have running water, and he lived that way for a while. But eventually, he converted it into a comfortable, fully equipped residence.
Salinger met a 16 year old girl named Claire Douglass, the daughter of an acquaintance of his. And they instantly felt a connection, even though he was a little over 30. The book emphasized that he had no inappropriate physical contact with her when she was a minor. And when she was 22, they got married. They had two children, Margaret (Peggy) and Matthew. Salinger loved his wife, and he adored his kids. And when he was with them, he was with them. But, nothing and no one took precedence over his writing. He built himself a bunker- a writing bunker- on his property, and he spent 12 hours a day there, and sometimes more. And he did not like being disturbed when he was working. It was a major strain on Claire, and after some years (less than 10) she left the marriage.
His life changed after that. At one point, he got romantically involved with an 18 year old girl. She was of legal age, so there were no legal issues, but many considered it sordid. Late in life, he got married for the third time to a local woman from Cornish, Colleen Zakreski, who was 35 years his junior.
He continued writing short stories for The New Yorker, and he wrote several novellas, but it all ended in 1965 with the publication of Hapworth 16, 1924. He said that would be the last work he would publish, and he stuck to it. But he lived to 2010! And he claimed to be writing furiously between 1965 and 2010! There is actually a chance that at some point in the future, more Salinger stories are going to see daylight.
But now, let’s talk about his health because this is a health blog.
He lived 91 years, which is well beyond average. And it’s surprising for one reason in particular: he was a heavy smoker. The book I read is entitled J.D. Salinger, A Life by Kenneth Slawenski, and Ken said that even by the time he was a young man, Salinger’s fingers were stained yellow from all the nicotine. And, it never said anything about him quitting. A lot of smokers, even heavy smokers, do eventually quit. But, I have found no references to him quitting. It doesn’t mean he didn’t, but we can’t assume that he did. And even if he did, he smoked for most of his life, and I don’t think there is any reason to doubt that.
Salinger drank alcohol regularly, and I mean hard liquor. The book didn’t say anything about him getting intoxicated, but he liked to drink. And people have pointed out that there is a lot of drinking in his stories; his characters tend to be drinkers, even his admirable characters. Alcohol is incorporated into most of his stories. To me, it shows a lot of appreciation for alcohol. I am reminded of Ayn Rand who made all her characters bigtime smokers who celebrated the joy of smoking. Why? Because that’s how she was. And I, for one, do not consider alcohol a health positive. I definitely put it on the negative side of the health ledger.
So, what did he have going for him on the positive side? First, Salinger was thin his whole life: thin as a boy, thin as a man, and thin in maturity. He never got fat. And that counts for a lot. Caloric undernutrition is the most proven life-extending modality that we know of, and it’s been proven in many different species. Second, in a big, committed way, Salinger got into eating fresh food. And not just eating it, but growing it. When he got up to New Hampshire, he got into organic gardening, and that was before people even talked about organic gardening. He really wanted fresh uncontaminated, uncompromised food. He grew all he could, and he bought locally otherwise. He was quite active physically. He was no big sportsman, but he played sports with his kids. And he was a homesteader who did work around his spread. I don’t think his health suffered from lack of exercise.
But, here’s another thing: he shied away from medical doctors most all his life. He much preferred natural methods; he was wary of medical drugs. He became very spiritual but unconventionally. He got into Eastern religion and Easter mysticism. He got directly involved in the Self-Realization Foundation and the Yogananda. He practiced yoga. He meditated. He avoided Western Medicine as much as possible. I regard that as a major positive- not that there aren’t exceptions where you need Western Medicine. But, you’ll often find that very long-lived peoples have had little involvement with Medicine, where they have steered clear of it for most or all of their lives.
But, admittedly, another big factor is that both his parents reached their 90s, dying within a month of each other. There’s no denying that genes play a major role in longevity.
Though I think 91 isn’t bad as a lifespan, I think we should try to do better. Why not? I’ll never forget something my father said to me once. It was when he was in his early 70s. We were talking about someone who was very long-lived, and I asked him if he would like to live that long. And his answer was: “As long as I’m feeling good.”
And I agree that quality of life is more important than quantity. So, how was Salinger’s quality of life? It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either. He was subject to painful bouts of Shingles. He developed a major hand tremor, which had to make it difficult for him to write. (He did his writing on an old mechanical typewriter, and he hunted and pecked with two fingers. He never learned touch-typing). And shortly before he died, he broke his hip. In fact, that may have been the catalyst that caused him to die. That’s how it often goes when an elderly person breaks a hip. Both the book I read, and every other source I’ve seen, have it listed that Salinger died of “natural causes.” Period. And I have no doubt whatsoever that that was HIS doing, that he arranged it that way. He took his privacy very seriously.
- Created on Thursday, 07 May 2015 05:22
I have written on sleep before, but it's been some time, so I thought I would do an update. Millions upon millions of people develop sleep problems, especially as they get older. The fact is that the biological switch that toggles us back and forth between wakefulness and sleep doesn't work as well when we get older. Even people who live healthfully can face this problem, and it's challenging because it is so chronic and intractable.
The most important thing, in my opinion, is not to do the wrong thing. And that would be to start taking pharmaceutical drugs for sleep. Sleeping pills, such as Ambien, are among the most prescribed drugs in the world, with annual sales in the billions. And besides the standard sleep drugs, there are still a lot of doctors who prescribe benzodiazepine tranquilizers for sleep, even though they are highly habit-forming and addictive. And there is a push in Medicine to go back to certain sedating antidepressants for sleep, such as Trazadone.
I am not in favor of any of these drugs, and I think it is a big mistake to get started on them- any of them. None of them deliver real, natural sleep, and that's what you want. Just because a drug "knocks you out" doesn't mean that you are experiencing healthy sleep. I say don't bother with any of them. If you have to struggle with your sleep, then struggle with it, but don't start taking drugs because you are never going to get a good result that way.
So, what can you take? There is always melatonin. People report different results from taking melatonin, but it's bound to improve your sleep some- if only a little. The melatonin product that I use and recommend is not available on this site. It is Dr. Walter Pierpaoli's MZS Melatonin. It is manufactured in Switzerland and wasn't available here until recently. I used to have to order it from England, but now you can find it on Amazon.com. So, do a search for it there. And the good news is that it is not expensive. Dr. Pierpaoli designed his product so that it would produce a nighttime peak in melatonin between 1 and 3 AM. He believes it is VERY important to achieve that. He also adds small amounts of zinc and selenium to the product for their synergistic roles in melatonin metabolism. And remember that melatonin has many health benefits besides sleep enhancement. It is truly an anti-aging hormone.
I still think that sedative herbs can be useful, and my favorite is Lemon Balm. The problem with taking a combination herbal product (and there are many) is that you don't know what's working and what's not. So, I prefer to take one at a time, and I would start with Lemon Balm because I think it's the best.
Theanine is an amino acid from green tea with calming effects. It also increases alpha brain waves, which support relaxation, and it increases the brain's production of the inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma amino butyric acid, also known as GABA. I like the Sun Theanine from the Japan, and I think it is an excellent product to take to aid with sleep. Keep in mind that it is not directly sedating. You could take it during the day and not feel sleepy at all. But, it does induce relaxation and calmness which are conducive to falling to sleep. That's what you want: to fall asleep.
The minerals magnesium and calcium both have relaxing effects, and you could take those at night to aid sleep. And of the two, I particularly value magnesium.
Finally, the amino acid Taurine has a relaxing effect on the brain, and it does all kinds of good things for your body. Millions are getting insufficient Taurine anyway. The only way to get a lot from from food is to eat a lot of organ meats (such as cow heart) and fish. Vegetarians don't get any taurine at all. So, how do they get by? The body can convert another sulfur-containing amino acid, methionine, which is abundant in food, into taurine. But again, it's a conversion that slacks off with age. I'm all for getting some pre-formed taurine, and I think it's a good idea in general. Taking 500 to 1500 mgs of Taurine a day can be a very good thing to do.
Those are my main recommendations for sleep aids, and again, it's all about supporting sleep indirectly so that you can fall asleep; not be knocked out.
But in addition, do as many other things right as possible to enhance sleep. Eat healthy and nutritious foods, and avoid junk. Get sunlight in your eyes, especially in the morning. Exercise every day, and the more the better as far as sleep is concerned. You've got to earn your sleep through exercise. And finally, if you have other issues interfering with your sleep, such as an anxiety disorder or depression, then you should seek help for that. But again, I prefer non-pharmacological solutions.
It's possible, even likely, that no matter what you do and no matter how hard you try, you are NEVER going to sleep like a baby again. And you may have to wrestle with your sleep- to some extent- for the rest of your life. Well, join the club because millions are in that boat. But, don't panic; don't get desperate; and don't do the wrong thing. Work on your sleep, and doctor it sensibly, but don't follow the masses into drug dependency on this important issue. Sleep is a physiological process, and it cannot be forced.
John: a memoir by Cynthia Lennon
- Created on Thursday, 02 April 2015 12:45
Cynthia Lennon, the first wife of John Lennon, died today of cancer at the age of 75. Her son and only child, Julian, wrote a beautiful song to her, which you can find on Youtube.
And it so happens that I just finished reading her memoir about her life with John Lennon and after John Lennon called John.
And I can tell you that it is well-written and an excellent read. It is candid; honest; and it is very revealing. She didn't hold back. She was just a normal girl with normal ambitions and normal expectations who happened to meet John Lennon at art college. He was the bad boy, and she was the good girl, and their union was not instant. But, once it started, it had all the intensity of young love- a very passionate connection.
But, they broke up once- after he hit her hard, in the face. It was because he thought she had flirted with another boy, which she hadn’t. But, he saw it that way, and he lost control of himself. But, after some weeks, he apologized to her for that and told her that he would NEVER strike her again. And that's one promise that he kept.
Such a thing is never defensible for any reason, and one should never make excuses for it or make light of it. However, I don't think it would be fair to characterize him- the person that he was, at the core of his being- based on that one incident.
The actual circumstance of their wedding was the unplanned conception of their son Julian. It was after the Beatles were going but before they made it big. But, it wasn't a forced marriage. They sincerely loved each other, and it was something they both very much wanted. And the marriage lasted for 10 years.
So, how did such a strong passion (which they undoubtedly had) go wrong? The incredible success of the Beatles had a lot to do with it. It would have been an awful lot for anyone to adjust to. And, it didn’t help that he was gone an awful lot- on world tours, making movies, etc. She traveled with him sometimes, but not always and not usually.
She heard rumors of infidelities, but she didn't provoke him about it. And when he finally came clean in admitting it, he said that it was just sex, that the one he loved was her, only her. I guess that was supposed to be a comfort. But, my impression from reading the book is that his trysts on the road were not the cardinal reason for their break-up. In many ways, she was very tolerant of him; you might say too tolerant.
Of course, the one tryst that mattered a whole lot and changed everything was the one he had with Yoko Ono. But, Yoko Ono was really more the last straw than the cause of his break-up with Cynthia because their marriage was already on the rocks and crumbling at the time John and Yoko met. So, what was the cause? It was mainly drugs; his use of drugs.
John Lennon got started early on drugs. He had an affinity for them. He was a heavy smoker from a young age. And tobacco is a drug, right? He got into alcohol early too. And the culture for him, as it was and is for many, is that getting drunk, getting wasted is a good thing, that it's something to aspire to. And on the Beatles' first tour of the US, they met Bob Dylan, and Dylan introduced them to marijuana, which the Beatles took to heavily. Did they love marijuana? From that point on, they had employees repack cigarettes with marijuana so that they could travel with it freely all over the world. It worked most of the time, but occasionally it didn't, such as in Japan.
But, "Cyn" could tolerate all that; it was the LSD she couldn't stand. And John was one of those guys who, when he got into something, he got into it big-time. And, he got into LSD big-time. And, he wanted her to trip-out with him, which she did, several times, at his insistence. But, she never liked it. It was always a horrible experience for her. She never had a good trip. And finally, she refused to do it with him at all. So, he did it with others or by himself. Obviously, that was not good for the marriage.
And when he met Yoko, she introduced him to the joys of heroin. And pretty soon after that, it was all over for him and Cyn, and pretty soon after that, it was all over for the Beatles as well.
Previously, I read a long biography of John Lennon. I am most intrigued with musical genius, so I like to read the biographies of musical geniuses, which I think John Lennon was. But, from reading Cynthia's memoir, I definitely came away with the feeling that he was a very troubled, and in many ways, very dysfunctional person. Despite all the “awareness” one is supposed to get from taking LSD, he became increasingly unaware- of the hurt he was causing her and others- others who loved him very much.
Cyn tried very hard to save the marriage- for her son’s sake and even for her own sake because she continued to love John. And even after Yoko came along, if John had agreed to straighten out and curtail further involvement with her, Cyn would have forgiven him. That’s the impression I got. But, it was just the opposite. Although he was the offending party, he acted as though Cyn had betrayed him.
From the health perspective, it is interesting that Cyn reported that the heavy drug use, particularly the LSD, suppressed his appetite, and the result was that he started losing weight. And then when he met Yoko, she right away got him started on a Macrobiotic diet, consisting mainly of brown rice and vegetables. Of course, that is healthy food- don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of people who would benefit greatly from eating more brown rice and vegetables. But if that’s all you eat is brown rice and vegetables, and if your system is used to eating chipped beef, Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips, and whatever else the British eat over there, you are going to lose weight. Of course, the weight loss is a good thing if you happen to be overweight, but he was never overweight; that wasn't his nature. John Lennon was a classic "ectomorph": long and lean and thin by nature. So, the radical and extreme change in diet was simply too much for him, and it resulted in undesired weight loss. And his weight loss continued and worsened. Eventually, he was nearly emaciated.
The bottom line is that John Lennon was very much inclined towards: obsession, and Yoko Ono became his latest obsession. Most painful of all to Cyn was that John’s obsession with Yoko very much hurt his relationship with his son, Julian. Inexplicably, John went long periods without seeing Julian- for years. And, it may have been longer if left entirely to himself. But, I don’t doubt that he loved his son. It's just that he kept waiting for things to settle down, but they never did.
And he loved his other son too, whom he had with Yoko, Sean. But, he would get moody and snappy with his kids, especially with Julian. He just did not have the patience to be around kids.
And let’s face it: children require a lot of patience. But, that’s something that John Lennon did not have. For example, he reacted badly to the way Julian laughed. And I don’t mean just to make fun of him for the way he laughed, which would have been bad enough, but rather, he got seriously irritated with him about it. “Don’t you ever let me hear you laugh like that again” he would scream. Who does that to a child?
But eventually, John started having Julian make visits from England to his famous residence at the Dakota Apartments in New York, across from Central Park. So, it was him and Yoko and Julian and Sean and whatever servants they had. There was no mention of him doing sports with the boy, but he did get him started in music, teaching him the guitar, etc. And, you know that Julian Lennon went on to become a successful musician in his own right. The song he wrote as a tribute to his mother really is lovely.
But, for the most part, it is a very tragic story with far more lows and than highs. (I don't mean in the drug sense.) It’s tragic because of the way John Lennon died, but it’s also tragic because of the way he lived. And, it is tragic because of what he didn’t get to do. He never really reached the level of friendship and accord with Julian to make up for all the years of neglect. And that’s according to both Cynthia and Julian. And he never really came around to apologizing to Cynthia and acknowledging the fact that she was OK: as a wife, as a friend, and as his partner in life. It was him; it wasn't her. She was true-blue.
She was as devoted to him as any woman could be to any man. And, I think it was her nature to be that way; very loyal and devoted and faithful. But, his drug-laden mind would play tricks on him and make him see things that weren't real. Such as: if she was just friendly and warm to someone, a man, John took it as a sign that she was pining for the guy and scheming to bed him. It was ridiculous. And, it seems that to a great extent it was his way of rationalizing his own infidelities- by seeing the same fault in her, which did not exist.
He wasn't good at being a husband or a father, and it was partly because his own parental experience was so bad. His father had walked out at the beginning- so he really had no father. The man, Alfred Lennon, did show up after John had become wealthy and famous, but mainly to put his hand out. Did John help him? Yes, he did, but it never led to anything good.
And there was a problem with his mother too. She was living with a man who was not her husband, and the whole situation was deemed sordid, and John was placed in the custody of his Aunt Mimi, who became his mother figure. He did see his mother, Julia, who was Mimi’s sister, but it was more like visiting his aunt. So basically, his aunt became his mother; and his mother became his aunt; their roles were reversed. And then, his mother Julia died suddenly in an auto accident when he was only 12. And, by the way, his tribute song to his mother, entitled Julia, is very beautiful. Hey, John Lennon was a musical genius; an immense talent- talented enough to write so many beautiful and enduring songs. If he had only written Imagine, it would have been enough to make him worthy of permanent recognition, in my opinion. But, all this musical creativity went on despite his chronic drug abuse. But, I don’t think for one second that the drugs were the source of his creativity. That is ridiculous. The creativity came from him, not the drugs. And, I think he oscillated between being high and coming down from being high, and both states were very destabilizing. I think it came down to the “Law of Dual Effects” that Herbert Shelton used to talk about, where the high that people get from drugs, whether LSD or cocaine or heroin or whatever, is followed by a low when the initial effect of the drug wears off. It leaves you depressed- very depressed. And that, I suspect, was the primary cause of his erratic behavior, which included angry outbursts, mood swings, sullen withdrawn periods, and a whole lot of insensitivity and callousness. He was ping-ponging back and forth between various drug states and the effects of drug withdrawal, and that went on for years; decades.
And the irony is that once he realized that he had a lot of influence on people, he tried to use it for good, such as joining and even leading the Anti-War movement. So, he cared about people; he cared about humankind. But, he never developed the ability to relate well to people one-on-one, especially to the people he was closest to, and particularly his own family.
At the very end of the book, Cynthia Lennon summed it up, and she did not mince words. She wrote this:
“I never stopped loving John, but the cost of that love has been enormous. Someone asked me recently whether, if I’d known at the beginning what lay ahead, I would have gone through with it. I had to say no. Of course, I could never regret having my wonderful son, Julian. But the truth is that if I had known as a teenager what falling for John Lennon would lead to, I would have turned around right then and walked away.”
As I said, it is a tragic story, and really, it is heart-wrenching. Oh, but what music. If you were going to list the top songwriters of the rock and roll era, it's hard to Imagine John Lennon not making everyone's short list.
Steve McQueen: the King of Cool
- Created on Friday, 13 March 2015 15:30
I just finished reading the biography Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon by Marshall Terrill, and it is one of the most interesting bios I have ever read. Terrence Steven McQueen (he always went by Steve) certainly had one of the most amazing life arcs of anyone who ever lived. By “life arc” I mean how far he went from how he started out to what he became. And that meant going from being a poor kid, nearly an orphan, and definitely a juvenile delinquent, to becoming not only the biggest movie star in the world, but the most celebrated and widely recognized person on the face of the Earth.
But, he started out poor, being born in rural Indiana in 1930, the son of a man who abandoned him at birth and whom he never met, (though as an adult, he did look for him and located him three months after he died) and whose mother was an alcoholic prostitute who was incapable of taking care of him. So, she left him with her parents in Missouri, but they both died forthwith, so he was sent back to Indiana to live with his great uncle Claude, who was a hog farmer.
And, Uncle Claude was good to Steve and was the closest thing to a father-figure that he ever had. But, he was also strict with him, and he made him work on the hog farm. And that was just the first of many grunt labor jobs that Steve McQueen had in his life before he became an actor. As he liked to say, he shoveled a lot of shit in his life.
At the age of 13, his mother (whose name was Julia Ann which got contracted into one word: Julian) summoned him to California to live with her and her new husband. Unfortunately, her new husband, like her, was an alcoholic, and he was a mean drunk. That became the worst period in Steve’s life because the man would beat him- severely. Eventually, Steve ran away and just lived on the streets, joining a gang and surviving mainly through petty crime, such as stealing hub caps. He wound up getting in trouble with the law and was sent to a reform school in California called Boys Republic.
That turned out to be a blessing for Steve because he was treated well there. And, it became a lifelong passion of his. When he made it big, he became a major financial supporter of Boys Republic, and through his estate, he still is. Here is their website:
And he did more than just support them financially. He also made regular visits there to talk to the boys and encourage them. And he is still supporting them because Steve McQueen is one of the most successful dead people there ever was. Only Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe have raked in more money in death than he has.
At the age of 17, Steve joined the Marines, which came about mainly because some of his buddies at Boys Republic were doing that, so he joined them. He did 3 years in the Marines, and he got through it with an honorable discharge. But, it was a rough go. He got into trouble; he got into fights; and he spent some time in the brig. However, he was commended for being good at handling weapons.
When he got out of the Marines at the age of 20, you might say he became a drifter. But, he was not a bum because a bum doesn’t work, and he did- at all kinds of hard physical labor. He wasn't lazy. He was not afraid of hard work. But eventually, he wound up in New York City and for only one reason: his mother Julian was there. And this time, she wasn’t married, but she was living with a man, Victor Lukens, who was an artist and film maker. And Victor was a good man. He was good to Julian, and he was good to Steve when he joined them. And he offered Steve a job as a helper on his film sets. Steve, who was mechanically inclined, would help by building sets and props, running errands, and if necessary, he would be available as bit actor to fill out a scene. These were very minor parts, with little or no speaking. But, it seemed he had a knack for it, and the camera liked him. And that’s how he got started in acting. It was nothing that he ever dreamt of doing or thought that he had any talent for. If his mother hadn’t taken up with this minor film producer, it most likely never would have happened, and who knows what he would have done with his life.
And for Steve, it was not as though he discovered that he loved acting. Rather, it was that he realized that, being uneducated, his prospects were dim. Acting was a way out of poverty for him; that’s all.
But, he took the craft very seriously. He joined the Actors Studio, which schooled such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Paul Newman. In fact, he met Paul Newman there, which began an intense lifelong rivalry. They starred together in adversarial roles in The Towering Inferno in 1974, and they wanted it to be McQueen and Newman in Butch Cassidy, but Steve wasn't satisfied with the terms. He felt that Newman was getting top billing, which was probably true at the time.
Few people know this, but Steve McQueen’s career began as a stage actor. He worked on Broadway and off-Broadway, and that lasted several years. It was there that he met the woman who became his wife, Neile Adams. Neile, who was Filipina, was a little pixie, as cute as a button, and she had already found success as an actress and dancer. And then, she was invited to go to Hollywood to make a movie, and Steve followed her out there. And shortly after that, they got married.
Steve McQueen was a ladies man. He attracted women because he was good-looking and because he was cool. He rode motorcycles, etc. And when he became a star, his attractiveness to women increased exponentially. But, there was simply no chance that he was going to be faithful to just one woman. He was rather like John F. Kennedy that way.
I am saying this because it's like he had a split personality. On the one hand, he adored family life, hanging out with the wife and kids and doing family stuff. But, at other times, it's like he became another person, this swinging single guy. It's like there was a switch in his brain that would switch back and forth. Sexual fidelity was not in the cards for him, and of course, it did cause stress in his marriage.
Once they had kids and his star began to rise, Neile had to retire and just be a wife, mother and homemaker because that's how he wanted it. His first significant film was in 1958, The Blob, which they say is a cult classic. He also did television, including a successful Western called Wanted Dead or Alive. His first really big blockbuster hit was The Magnificent Seven where he reportedly upstaged the star, Yul Brenner. And that was followed by The Great Escape, where again, he stole the show, and he soared right to the top from that. And by the way, in the story, the Germans kept throwing his character into solitary confinement, but he complained that he had nothing to do. He didn't think it looked good for him to be wallowing in a cell doing nothing. It wasn't good for his image. So, he came up with the idea of his character having a baseball mitt and a baseball with which to play catch with himself against the wall.
I am not going to review his entire movie career because that you can find elsewhere, and I really want to focus on his health, since this is a health blog. But, there is no denying that his string of blockbusters is still unrivaled, culminating in three from the 1970s: The Getaway, Papillion, and The Towering Inferno. It’s incomparable the extent to which he dominated Hollywood for about a 10 year period. He was the biggest and highest paid movie star in the world.
Now, as to his health, he apparently was born with a good constitution. The only significant health problem mentioned during his childhood was an ear infection which left him partially deaf in one ear. He was lean and athletic by nature, a natural mesomorph as they say, and by working out with weights, he acquired a wiry muscularity which served him well, on and off camera. For most of his life, he could eat whatever he wanted and as much as he wanted without getting fat. In fact, back in New York in the early days, his girlfriends would envy him for being able to eat a lot of food without gaining an ounce, which was something they couldn’t do. Only in his last decade did that catch up with him. I learned that during the making of Papillion, they had to do things with camera angles and with his clothing to hide his slightly paunchy condition.
As for his eating habits, they were totally conventional. All the citings about food in the book were just the standard fare, such as hamburgers, barbecue, birthday cakes, etc. During the making of The Great Escape, he complained about the German food and said that he missed California hamburgers. And when he was in France, he complained about the food there. They tried to serve him eel once, and he got mad and stormed out. He liked good old American food. In Taiwan, during the making of The Sand Pebbles, which won him his only Academy Award nomination, he complained about the food there as well.
What’s interesting is that even though he went from rags to riches, his eating habits didn’t change. He didn’t eat any better or any differently even when money was no obstacle. And it goes to show that eating habits are formed early in life, and they tend to persist regardless of changes in income or circumstances.
Steve McQueen had a lot of bad habits, and that's putting it mildly. He smoked and smoked heavily. He smoked cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. Only late in his life did he try to quit smoking, and only with partial success. He cut out cigarettes, but he never quit smoking cigars- even when he was dying of lung cancer. He also chewed tobacco and used snuff. He also adored marijuana; he was a big pot smoker.
He also developed a serious cocaine habit, which was quite common in Hollywood. He made several movies with Sam Peckinpah who was a major, super-addicted cokehead, and they did coke together.
He also used LSD but mainly as a sexual enhancer. He went through a phase where he was spending his nights on the Sunset Strip at the Whiskey A Go-Go. It was like he was a fixture at the place, and I'm sure it was good for business. And it involved a lot of sex and a lot of acid.
He also liked to drink alcohol, but mainly just beer. And he had a favorite: Old Milwaukee. He drank it religiously. He even had it for breakfast sometimes. It was like a sacrament to him.
Besides being an actor, Steve McQueen was heavily involved in both car racing and motorcycle racing. It inspired him to make the movie Le Mans, although it was a commercial failure that cost him dearly. But, at one point, he actually considered giving up acting and becoming a full-time racer. Wisely, he decided not to do that.
But, he was very mechanically inclined, and he loved not just the speed but the mechanics of it all. They say he was an ace mechanic, and he loved getting his hands dirty. Like my father who loved working on cars, Steve McQueen got the black soot in the cracks of his fingers which stayed there for years at a time, and it was a problem during film shoots. In his later years, he also learned to fly airplanes and besides being a pilot, he learned to service the planes that he owned.
So, even though he was uneducated (he never finished high school), he was very intelligent, and he excelled at a lot of things.
But, in discussing his health, there is also the issue of his mental health, and he had problems with it. I’m quite sure that today, Steve McQueen would be diagnosed as manic/depressive or bipolar. He had severe mood swings, and when his mood turned bad, it was frighteningly bad, and he could be violent. There were times that his wives, Neile Adams and Ali McGraw, feared for their lives, but not his last wife, Barbara Minty. It seems that he mellowed quite a bit by the time she came along. Of course, she was young enough to be his daughter. But, his mental instability and volatility also created problems on the movie sets. There were many actors and directors who despised him and refused to work with him because of his belligerence and incorrigibleness. He was like a dictator. It was either his way or the highway. But, as far as I know, he was only self-medicated for his mental health problems- with alcohol, marijuana, etc.
You probably realize that Steve McQueen died young, at the age of 50. He died of mesothelioma which started in his lungs. That’s the cancer that is usually associated with asbestos exposure, and Steve McQueen had asbestos exposure. Some of the grunt labor jobs he did as a young man before he became an actor involved asbestos exposure, such as tearing down old houses. It was said that he had asbestos exposure in the Marines. Also, it said that with the car racing, he had asbestos exposure, that the fire-resistant suits that they wear when they race contain asbestos. Or at least they did. So, apparently, he had a lot of asbestos exposure. But, I have to think that his legion of bad habits had something to do with it as well.
I would have to say from watching his movies that Steve McQueen aged rapidly and prematurely. He certainly did very well with his hair, retaining a full, thick head of hair until the end. But, that I attribute entirely to genetics. But, if you look at his skin and the aging in his face, you see that he definitely aged prematurely. And I attribute that to his bad habits.
It’s baffling in a way because the truth is that his good looks were a big part of his appeal. He was talented, for sure- but, for the kind of roles he played, he had to be good-looking as well. So, why do anything to destroy such a valuable asset?
But then again, part of his whole charisma was that he was a “tough guy” and when you get lines in your face and a leathery skin, it does make you look tougher- I guess. So, maybe that's why he let himself go.
And I should add that part of it was due to photo-aging, meaning from excess sun exposure, and I am sure he was not the kind of man to slap on sun screen every time he went out in the sun (although it is actually a good practice).
They say that for most of his life he was a very high energy person, but I have to wonder to what extent that was due to his mania. He was hyper.
But, his physical decline came on quite rapidly. It started during the making of his final movie, The Hunter. It was noticed that he was out of breath a lot, that during the chase scenes, where as a bounty hunter he was chasing somebody, that he couldn’t keep up. He struggled to do it. He also developed a chronic cough that wouldn't go away. So, when he returned to California from Chicago, he saw a doctor, and x-rays revealed the cancer in his right lung, the mesothelioma.
He did not undergo too much conventional treatment because they held little hope for him. They never thought that surgery or chemo would do him any good, but they did try radiation briefly. But, that was soon stopped as well. From that point on, he sought alternative treatment, particularly with this Dr. Kelly, who was the rage at the time. But, my impression is that nothing he did helped the least bit. It was an unrelenting downward spiral towards death.
But, it was very touching to read about his final year because he knew he was dying, and he wanted to make the most of his remaining time and do the things he needed to do before he died, including apologizing to the people he had wronged, including both of his ex-wives. He also found religion in quite a serious way and even did some counseling with Billy Graham.
The way he died is that he went to Mexico in order to have an operation just to relieve pressure on his abdomen. It wasn't meant to be a cure. He had terrible ascites at the end, which is where the abdomen swells up, and the pressure from it was causing him a lot of pain. So, he flew to El Paso (where he had made The Getaway years before) and was driven to Juarez where he had the surgery. He survived the operation, and they thought it was successful, but then he had a heart attack which killed him. That was on November 7, 1980. He was just 50 years old.
It’s reasonable to assume that he had heart disease because you really can’t have a heart attack unless your arteries are diseased. And, the clogging of his arteries with plaque was no doubt something that built up over time, over many years, even when he was looking good and feeling good and acting vigorous.
I think the main message is that Steve McQueen was dying even when he seemed to be thriving. It was all an illusion.
What an amalgam Steve McQueen was, with exceptional talents and strengths, but also deep flaws and weaknesses. He showed great compassion and generosity at times, and that's many times. But, he also had a dark side that lashed out at people, sometimes to a scary and startling degree, including to people he loved. He could be extremely selfish and also extremely unselfish. But, he also underwent an amazing transformation in his life where he really seemed to have conquered his demons before he left the world. He was human, which is to say that he was flawed; but it's also fair to say, as people do, that he was one-of-a-kind- a phenomenon.
I think probably his most signature movie was The Getaway because in it he plays a bank robber; so, he was bad; a criminal; yet somehow, he never really strikes you as bad. The other criminals in the story, they strike you as bad- really evil and wicked to the core. But not him. And as he and Ali MacGraw make their escape into Mexico in an old pickup truck, and with all the loot, you really get the feeling that they are going to live happily ever after and be just fine. It's too bad life can't be as sanguine as the movies.