“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 Life - David 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 World

Nicholas 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,


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


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