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By Mark Kurlansky
Published March 29, 2011
“A graceful appreciation” —USA Today
One of the reasons baseball fans so love the sport is that it involves certain physical acts of beauty. And one of the most beautiful sights in the history of baseball was Hank Greenberg's swing. His calmly poised body seemed to have some special set of springs with a trigger release that snapped his arms and swept the bat through the air with the clean speed and strength of a propeller. But what is even more extraordinary than his grace and his power is that in Detroit of 1934, his swing—or its absence—became entwined with American Jewish history. Though Hank Greenberg was one of the first players to challenge Babe Ruth's single-season record of sixty home runs, it was the game Greenberg did not play for which he is best remembered. With his decision to sit out a 1934 game between his Tigers and the New York Yankees because it fell on Yom Kippur, Hank Greenberg became a hero to Jews throughout America. Yet, as Kurlansky writes, he was the quintessential secular Jew, and to celebrate him for his loyalty to religious observance is to ignore who this man was.
In Hank Greenberg Mark Kurlansky explores the truth behind the slugger's legend: his Bronx boyhood, his spectacular discipline as an aspiring ballplayer, the complexity of his decision not to play on Yom Kippur, and the cultural context of virulent anti-Semitism in which his career played out.
What Kurlansky discovers is a man of immense dignity and restraint with a passion for sport who became a great reader—a man, too, who was an inspiration to the young Jackie Robinson, who said, “Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.”
By Molly Haskell
Published January 3, 2017
“Uncommonly absorbing” —The New Republic
A film-centric portrait of the extraordinarily gifted movie director whose decades-long influence on American popular culture is unprecedented
“Everything about me is in my films,” Steven Spielberg has said. Taking this as a key to understanding the hugely successful moviemaker, Molly Haskell explores the full range of Spielberg’s works for the light they shine upon the man himself. Through such powerhouse hits as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones, to lesser-known masterworks like A.I. and Empire of the Sun, to the haunting Schindler’s List, Haskell shows how Spielberg’s uniquely evocative filmmaking and story-telling reveal the many ways in which his life, work, and times are entwined.
Organizing chapters around specific films, the distinguished critic discusses how Spielberg’s childhood in non-Jewish suburbs, his parents’ traumatic divorce, his return to Judaism upon his son’s birth, and other events echo in his work. She offers a brilliant portrait of the extraordinary director—a fearful boy living through his imagination who grew into a man whose openness, generosity of spirit, and creativity have enchanted audiences for more than 40 years.
By Neal Gabler
Published April 26, 2016
“Fascinating and insightful” —The Wall Street Journal
An enthralling appreciation of the monumentally gifted popular artist and cultural icon who challenged Hollywood’s standards of beauty and glamour
Barbra Streisand has been called the “most successful...talented performer of her generation” by Vanity Fair, and her voice, said pianist Glenn Gould, is “one of the natural wonders of the age.” Streisand scaled the heights of entertainment—from a popular vocalist to a first-rank Broadway star in Funny Girl to an Oscar-winning actress to a producer and director. But she has also become a cultural icon who has transcended show business. To achieve her success, Brooklyn-born Streisand had to overcome tremendous odds, not the least of which was her Jewishness. Dismissed, insulted, even reviled when she embarked on a show business career for acting too Jewish and looking too Jewish, she brilliantly converted her Jewishness into a metaphor for outsiderness that would eventually make her the avenger for anyone who felt marginalized and powerless.
Neal Gabler examines Streisand’s life and career through this prism of otherness—a Jew in a gentile world, a self-proclaimed homely girl in a world of glamour, a kooky girl in a world of convention—and shows how central it was to Streisand’s triumph as one of the voices of her age.
By Lee Siegel
Published January 12, 2016
“Delightfully perverse” —The New York Times Book Review
A trenchant examination of an iconic American figure that explores the cultural and psychological roots of his comic genius
Born Julius Marx in 1890, the brilliant comic actor who would later be known as Groucho was the most verbal of the famed comedy team, the Marx Brothers, his broad slapstick portrayals elevated by ingenious wordplay and double entendre. In his spirited biography of this beloved American iconoclast, Lee Siegel views the life of Groucho through the lens of his work on stage, screen, and television. The author uncovers the roots of the performer’s outrageous intellectual acuity and hilarious insolence toward convention and authority in Groucho’s early upbringing and Marx family dynamics.
The first critical biography of Groucho Marx to approach his work analytically, this fascinating study draws unique connections between Groucho’s comedy and his life, concentrating primarily on the brothers’ classic films as a means of understanding and appreciating Julius the man. Unlike previous uncritical and mostly reverential biographies, Siegel’s “bio-commentary” makes a distinctive contribution to the field of Groucho studies by attempting to tell the story of his life in terms of his work, and vice versa.
By Robert Gottlieb
Published September 21, 2010
“A terrific book" —NPR
Everything about Sarah Bernhardt is fascinating, from her obscure birth to her glorious career—redefining the very nature of her art—to her amazing (and highly public) romantic life to her indomitable spirit. Well into her seventies, after the amputation of her leg, she was performing under bombardment for soldiers during World War I, as well as crisscrossing America on her ninth American tour.
Her family was also a source of curiosity: the mother she adored and who scorned her; her two half-sisters, who died young after lives of dissipation; and most of all, her son, Maurice, whom she worshiped and raised as an aristocrat, in the style appropriate to his presumed father, the Belgian Prince de Ligne. Only once did they quarrel—over the Dreyfus Affair. Maurice was a right-wing snob; Sarah, always proud of her Jewish heritage, was a passionate Dreyfusard and Zolaist.
Though the Bernhardt literature is vast, Gottlieb’s Sarah is the first English-language biography to appear in decades. Brilliantly, it tracks the trajectory through which an illegitimate—and scandalous—daughter of a courtesan transformed herself into the most famous actress who ever lived, and into a national icon, a symbol of France.
By David Thomson
Published August 8, 2017
“Witty and stunningly original” —Jeanine Basinger, author of The Star Machine
Behind the scenes at the legendary Warner Brothers film studio, where four immigrant brothers transformed themselves into the moguls and masters of American fantasy
Warner Bros charts the rise of an unpromising film studio from its shaky beginnings in the early twentieth century through its ascent to the pinnacle of Hollywood influence and popularity. The Warner Brothers—Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack—arrived in America as unschooled Jewish immigrants, yet they founded a studio that became the smartest, toughest, and most radical in all of Hollywood.
David Thomson provides fascinating and original interpretations of Warner Brothers pictures from the pioneering talkie The Jazz Singer through black-and-white musicals, gangster movies, and such dramatic romances as Casablanca, East of Eden, and Bonnie and Clyde. He recounts the storied exploits of the studio’s larger-than-life stars, among them Al Jolson, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Doris Day, and Bugs Bunny. The Warner brothers’ cultural impact was so profound, Thomson writes, that their studio became “one of the enterprises that helped us see there might be an American dream out there.”