The Last Marlin: The Story of a Family at Sea
by Fred Waitzkin '65
Legend, superstition, and fact mixed easily in this watery place where men pulled larger-than-life creatures from the depths." Fred Waitzkin '65 is writing here about the island of Bimini and its culture of celebrities, sensuality, and big fish. But the sentence might well be an emblem for the story in which it is embedded, a fascinating memoir in which Waitzkin pulls outsized, and outlandish, characters from his own family's troubled depths.
The Last Marlin interweaves the story of Waitzkin's own youth and young manhood with the stories of his charismatic, crass father; his artistic, angry mother; and their strong-willed familiesand with the worlds of business, avant-garde art, New York City, the Long Island suburbs, and the fishing crowd in Florida and Bimini. In this welter of often-conflicting influences, and amid the struggles of a family that is figuratively very much "at sea," Waitzkin must work out notions of worth and wholeness.
The biggest fish in the book is Abe Waitzkin, Fred's father, a master salesman and deal-maker whose sheer drive and personal magnetism seem to enlarge a mundane careerselling fluorescent lighting fixturesinto the realm of myth. Fred views his father as something of a god: "At dusk, when the Manhattan skyline began to sparkle with lights, it was my dad's workthat's how I saw it."
Wining, dining, and shmoozing with contractors, politicians, entertainers, and minor mobsters, Abe deploys everything, including his own chronically poor health, in pursuit of success. Young Fred, "intoxicated" by his father's schemes, draws strength even from Abe's bullying. The father's hunger feeds a disturbing hunger in the son, who suffers bouts of hypochondria and who, when Abe is away on business trips, "would smell the shoes in his closet, the sheets on his bed."
But Abe also imparts to Fred a passion for deep-sea fishing. And if part of that passion is a taste for the glamour of yachts, moguls, exoticism, and macho exploits, the part that Fred makes his own is the love for fishing as a version of paradise, a realm where he feels "charmed and safe."
Unfortunately, Fred's mother, Stella, sees fishing as cruel, banal, and absurd, even as she sees the business world, her husband's field of action, as crassly materialistic. Stella's father is the patriarch of Globe Lighting, and in marrying her, Abe joined the family business and helped it grow. But Stella's passions, just as strong as her husband's, couldn't be more different. An artist and idealist who believes that great art must be "raw, immediate, gestural, ragged, emotional, uncompromising," she immerses herself in New York City's demimonde of jazz musicians, abstract impressionist painters, and beat poets. While Abe dazzles Fred with the glorious visions of lighting fixtures and big fish, Stella cajoles him into taking conga-drum lessons and lectures to him on the virtues of artists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
Beset almost from the outset by tensions that grow steadily more severe, the marriage fails. While Abe, steadily ailing, plots revenge against Globe Lighting and later wars with his own family, while Stella pursues an increasingly unconventional life in art, and while Fred's younger brother, Bill, sadly drifts, Fred gropes toward a career in writing and a course of his own. He preserves his allegiance to his father, comes to appreciate his mother's artistic sensibility, marries, and, with his wife and children, creates a healthier family, one that seems to thrive in embracing the skills, beauty, and ocean rhythms of fishing.
Waitzkin, who so vividly portrayed the obsessive world of chess in Searching for Bobby Fischer, here captures the gritty detail and emotional coloring of many other worlds, from yacht clubs to artists' studios, from posh New York City restaurants to Caribbean shanty towns. He writes incisively about intricate family conflicts, recounts his own adolescent anxieties with honesty lightened by humor, and, perhaps most impressively, conveys the drama and intensity of Abe's business dealingsthe tough seduction of negotiations, the gray magnificence of factories.
Perhaps most memorable, however, are his lyrical passages about fishing. "Sometimes the ocean just opens up, reveals itself. All of a sudden there's no more resistance or dead water, the clues are sharp and urgent. Color changes, wind and weed lines, edges of storms and tidal rips are fresh trails. . . . In such moments I can smell fish, and even the first time this sensation felt familiar."
In passages such as this one, Waitzkin confirms for us that in great writing about the pursuit of fish, as in great writing about the elusive truths of families, the subject is really humanity.
Nat King Cole
Daniel Mark Epstein '70
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
In his sweeping biography of one of the most popular entertainers of this century, Daniel Mark Epstein '70 narrates the highs and the lows of Nat King Cole's all-too-short life. Fans of Cole's jazz period will be delighted with the story of his life in music before he became the chart-topping singer that he is remembered as today. Those who play and replay the great popular hits will revel in the detailed accounts of how "Mona Lisa," "Nature Boy," and other enduring songs came to be recorded. An unabashed fan of Cole's music, Epstein nevertheless also reveals the less commendable parts of the great singer's life in a sprightly biography that is the most complete yet of the entertainer's life.
Nathaniel Cole grew up on Chicago's south side, the son of a preacher but also an enthusiast of jazz and a piano prodigy from a very early age. The minister's son was soon sneaking into jazz clubs to hear, to see, and to get to know the great jazz musicians of the golden agemen such as Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong. Even as a teenager, Nat played in Chicago's jazz clubs, leading bands, and later trios, from his piano. After touring as a youngster, Cole moved to Los Angeles in 1937, from there struggling to make a name in the world of jazz.
Nat Cole's first success came as the leader of the King Cole Trio. Some of Epstein's best writing describes the music that Cole and his partners made in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as Nat became one of the finest jazz pianists of his time. Respected for their jazz recordings, the trio became popular sensations with the release of "Straighten Up and Fly Right" in 1944, a Nat Cole composition that Epstein analyzes with great insight. Cole's life would never be the same.
The challenges posed by sudden fame after years of struggle to make ends meet becomes a major theme in the second half of Epstein's biography. To his credit, the author does not ignore the difficulties Cole had in dealing with celebrity, especially financially. That Cole and his family gained so little financially from his musical accomplishments is tragic given how great a star he became, outselling Sinatra in some years and playing a central role in the emergence and success of Capitol Records.
Nat King Cole is probably best known for the popular records he made in the 1940s and 1950s. Although many lamented his shift from jazz to popular tunes, his impact on American music would not have been the same had he remained the leader of a jazz trio. Given the care with which Epstein describes Cole's jazz period, the reader might surmise that he, too, wishes Nat had remained with jazz, but the biographer does not criticize the move into popular music. Indeed, the impression that Epstein leaves is that Nat King Cole may have wished to return to jazz, but the momentum of his career led him into new ventures and brought to him new songs to record at such a pace that Cole was never able to revisit his roots. His success soon had him touring not only the major concert halls of the United States but also venues in Australia, Europe, and the Far East. A television show followed.
Cole became the biggest African-American celebrity of his day, and important themes for Epstein are the challenges of being a black celebrity in the years before the civil-rights movement and Cole's approach to race relations during the early years of the movement. The Nat King Cole Show failed because advertisers refused to offend the sensibilities of their southern customers by supporting a show starring an African-American. Attacked during a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1956, Cole often had to endure the everyday affronts of segregation.
Yet the singer chose not to become openly political during the civil-rights movement, remaining cautious and arguing that his first responsibility was to his fans. Epstein does emphasize, however, that Nat and Maria Cole played an important part in challenging racial segregation in housing when they held out against the efforts of white neighbors in the Hancock Park section of Beverly Hills to apply a racially restrictive covenant and to intimidate the couple into moving.
Nat King Cole died of lung cancer at the age of forty-five in 1965. He had lived an incredibly fast life, as Epstein's brisk portrait demonstrates. That fast-paced lifestyle may have hastened his death, but it leaves us with many great recordings. This book provides a superb, eminently readable, carefully researched account of one of the greatest entertainers of this century.
Joseph L. Klesner, professor of political science
New York Modern: The Arts and the City
by William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff
Johns Hopkins University Press
In 1937, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, and Marc Blitzstein had one of their frequent meetings over coffee and tuna on white bread, courtesy of the nickels they deposited in the slots at the automat on West 23rd Street, near the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. New York City could boast two major professional schools of music, the Juilliard and Mannes, and it provided access to a variety of chamber, choral, operatic, and orchestral offerings performed and led by the world's best musicians and conductors. And yet people rarely heard modern American music, such as Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock or Thomson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune. Amid the clatter of dishes at the automat, they agreed to create Arrow Music Press, named after the luncheonette across the street. The Brooklyn-born Copland, the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants and a homosexual, became the acting president of modern American music.
At the same time, Lincoln Kirstein, Harvard-educated and a frustrated dancer standing six feet, three inches tall, decided on his own to create a new dance company, Ballet Caravan, which complemented the work of Copland's friends. Kirstein paid Thomson five hundred dollars to write a score for a ballet about American life at a gas station. Filling Station, by Thomson and choreographer Lew Christensen, made its debut on New Year's Eve 1937, and Ballet Caravan performed the piece many times during the following three years. Thomson said he was trying to "evoke roadside America as pop art."
These are among hundreds of anecdotes that make New York Modern, by Kenyon history professors Peter M. Rutkoff and William B. Scott, a great book about the actors, architects, artists, composers, dancers, musicians, painters, and writers who lived in New York City in the twentieth century and who made it the world's cultural center. Rutkoff and Scott have created a pageant, the story of the men and women who, as much as any group during the past hundred years, inspired our thinking and appreciation of contemporary American art and music.
Stella Adler, George Balanchine, Willa Cather, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Mabel Dodge, Isadora Duncan, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Dizzy Gillespie, Martha Graham, Clement Greenberg, Edward Hopper, Scott Joplin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Arthur Miller, Georgia O'Keeffe, Eugene O'Neill, Charlie Parker, Man Ray, Margaret Sanger, and Bessie Smith: all had their place in the parade of people who created monuments of American sight and sound. Many of those people's lives ended badlyJoplin, for example, was committed by his wife to Manhattan State Hospital in 1916; he died there a year later. But sixty-three years after those dinners at the automat (the original and, arguably, more wholesome purveyor of fast food) Copland is celebrated as America's greatest composer. And Kirstein's New York City Ballet, successor to his Ballet Caravan and Ballet Society, is probably our most storied institution of dance.
New York Modern shows how, in twentieth-century New York, "the absence of clear boundaries between art and employment, entertainment and commerce, or even between social classes exposed its artists to a wide range of experiences" that expanded their reach and scope "while undermining the assumptions of upper-class taste." Rutkoff and Scott also show that the art, drama, and music that flourished during the past fifty years "often expressed explicitly democratic values and anticapitalistic sentiment" to the point where "the notion of fine art, with all its upper-class connotations, had become an anachronism in New York."
There is a paradox that the white Protestant bastion of Western capitalism--Wall Street--would ultimately support and subsidize the unspoken enemy of propriety in Harlem and Greenwich Village. By the 1980s, when African-Americans, women, and homosexuals had secured a place among New York's recognized artists, the biggest financial center in the world was the main sponsor of the New York Modern. That may mark the apogee of New York's influence.
Whatever the case, Rutkoff and Scott have provided the most convincing argument yet that "no city will ever dominate Western art, certainly not world art, as New York did after World War II."
Matthew Winkler '77, editor-in-chief, Bloomberg News
Kenyon Reborn: The Modernization of Kenyon College under the Administration of William Foster Peirce, 1896-1937
Christopher D. Barth '93
Kenyon College Bookstore
Longevity alone makes the Kenyon presidency of William Foster Peirce remarkable: he led the College for forty-one years, from 1896, when he was only twenty-eight years old, to 1937. But the Peirce era looms large in Gambier, more significantly, because it transformed Kenyon from a small, poor church college with only sixty-five students into a nationally recognized liberal-arts institution with an enrollment of three hundred and a modern curriculum.
Christopher Barth '93 recounts this transformation with a wealth of detail in Kenyon Reborn. Drawing on both published and unpublished materials, as well as letters that he solicited from alumni, Barth discusses everything from compulsory chapel to faculty salaries, from the militarization of Gambier during World War I to the building boom of the 1920s, when the campus gained Leonard and Samuel Mather halls, in addition to a new commons named for Peirce. Excerpts from the alumni letters, printed in an appendix, provide intimate and sometimes amusing glimpses of campus life and of "Fat" Peirce himself. Barth makes the case that Peirce's leadership was crucial, both in weathering crises and in articulating ideals and working toward them.
Written as Barth's senior honors thesis, published informally by the bookstore upon his graduation in 1993, and now reissued in a handsome new edition, Kenyon Reborn makes a vital contribution to our understanding of the College's history. For anyone interested in that rich history, indeed, this book is indispensable.
Do you have feedback on this page?