“19 Biographies in 12 Years” –February 2, 2003

If I have read more than a dozen biographies (not to be confused with memoirs) in the past 12 years, I would be surprised. Surprise! Scrupulous record keeping contradicts this recollection. So okay, I’ve read nineteen:

Autobiography of a Face – Lucy Grealey
Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J.Edgar Hoover – Anthony Summers
Crazy Horse – Larry McMurtry
City Poet – Brad Gooch [poet Frank O’Hara]
Autobiography of a Face – Lucy Grealy
Winchell – Neil Gabler [Walter Winchell]
Francis Drake – John Cummins
Speaking to MyselfStuds Terkel
Ludwig Wittgenstein – Ray Monk
Ambrose Bierce – Roy Morris
Lush LifeDavid Hadju [Billy Strayhorn]
Che Guevara – Jon Lee Anderson
Fidel; A Critical Portrait – Tad Szulc
Another Man’s Poison – Charles Fountain [writer George Frazer]
The Operator – Tom King [David Geffen]
The Devil and Sonny ListonNick Tosches
American Pharaoh – Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor
[Mayor Richard J Daley]
Richard Wright: The Life and TimesHazel Rowley
The Flyswatter: How My Grandfather made his Way in the WorldNicholas Dawidoff [Professor Alexander Gershenkron]

Reading Jeffrey Tobin’s piece in The New Yorker about his lunch with Martha Stewart, this caught my keen eye:

In this kind of differentiation, Stewart’s role model is Ralph Lauren, who created Polo, Purple Label, and other brands less directly tied to his name. "He was able to expand his empire greatly by different brand labels," she said.

Having just read a biography of the Ralph I got to thinking about how merchants and hucksters, not content with accumulating wealth, require adulation and recognition for something in addition to successfully competing in the Greed game.

The infrequency of my attention to personal history is either the cause or the effect of the diverse aggregation of lives (who would make a great fantasy dinner party) I have read about, a tautology I will resolve at another time. Perhaps in my memoir–in–progress, Loose Lips. Also, I have a warm, oozy feeling that info miners like Amazon can’t easily work their collateral metric paradigmatic profile mumbo jumbo on me. I dare ‘em to go, "People who have read _______ also have read _______." In any case, reaching for a biography of the sort that scrutinizes well-known brand Ralph Lauren may be an act of cultural dumpster diving, especially when the strong possibility exists of a time-wasting encounter with hagiography. Of course, the author needs to grapple with this concern early on (and he does). He must tread the divide between a writing a big wet kiss of a (worthless) book or an expose that will make it difficult to work in this virtual town again. And thus, even such journalistic adroitness can be instructive. Before I forget, Gross seems like nice enough guy—he acknowledges his Westie, Calpurnia and he did a commendable job with the tough hand he was dealt.

Michael Gross’ Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren is not the first biographic attempt to focus on Bronx-born Ralph Lifschitz. There was the 1988 Ralph Lauren: the Man behind the Mystique by Jeffrey Trachtenberg. I was not compelled to read that one as I never accepted the premise that there was (is) a mystique. More to the point, in 1988 Ralph was not such a big macher.

I was tempted to go no further than the preface where Gross details, in eleven pages, his back-and-forth with Ralph about the extent of the cooperation this book would receive from him. The Ralph was very concerned about references to his very public dalliance with one of his models and the effect of that recapitulation on Ricky, his wife of thirty-five years. In a way, the negotiations encapsulated everything I wanted to know about RL. But like a good soldier, I trudged on. And, of course, I wouldn’t know what I did or didn’t need to know until I had read all the stuff I didn’t really want to know.

The only question I asked myself is: why bother to give any consideration or attention to a major character in the ephemeral world of fashion, the mostly crass world of retailing and the murky world of dream making? I suppose the fact that the Lauren enterprises have been financially successful on such a large scale warrants some interest. But as in the case of my reading Tom King’s book on David Geffen, I found it of interest to try to unearth some sign of originality, speciality or distinction and then determine whether Lauren (Geffen) had made any contributions to culture or civilization.

In both cases, for me, the answer was a resounding, “No!”

Shrewd, quirky, dogged in satisfying his own narcissism, riddled with emotional tics, Ralph Lauren comes off as an incompetent businessman. He was lucky at essential times to work with competent people. He required an absolute loyalty from his minions, and his talents, at best, were to synthesize or adapt what already existed. Granted, that is a talent, but one hardly worthy of the accolades attached to him, even in the hyperbolic lexicon of the Fashion World (though I believe ‘zone’ is the it word of the moment). How his persona brought him to lording it over a multi-billion dollar empire and in possession of unspendable wealth seems as much about luck as anything else. Although one argument could be presented that he was smart enough to hire Bruce Weber to create his image campaigns that are the real heart of his success, the sales of billions of dollars of polo shirts with the Polo logo affixed was an unintended (and not even a desired) consequence that ultimately was the foundation of the Ralph’s success.

Ah, poor Ralph. Not an enviable person. Kind of sad.

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