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

If I have read more than a dozen biographies (notto 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 [writerGeorge 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 NewYorker about his lunch with Martha Stewart, this caught mykeen eye:

In this kind of differentiation, Stewart's rolemodel is Ralph Lauren, who created Polo, Purple Label, and otherbrands less directly tied to his name. "He was able to expandhis empire greatly by different brand labels," she said.

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

The infrequency of my attention to personal historyis either the cause or the effect of the diverse aggregation oflives (who would make a great fantasy dinner party) I have readabout, a tautology I will resolve at another time. Perhaps in mymemoir–in–progress, Loose Lips. Also, I havea warm, oozy feeling that info miners like Amazon can’t easilywork their collateral metric paradigmatic profile mumbo jumbo onme. I dare ‘em to go, "People who have read _______ alsohave read _______." In any case, reaching for a biography ofthe sort that scrutinizes well-known brand Ralph Lauren may be anact of cultural dumpster diving, especially when the strong possibilityexists 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 virtualtown again. And thus, even such journalistic adroitness can be instructive.Before I forget, Gross seems like nice enough guy—he acknowledgeshis Westie, Calpurnia and he did a commendable job with the toughhand he was dealt.

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

I was tempted to go no further than the prefacewhere Gross details, in eleven pages, his back-and-forth with Ralphabout the extent of the cooperation this book would receive fromhim. The Ralph was very concerned about references to his very publicdalliance with one of his models and the effect of that recapitulationon Ricky, his wife of thirty-five years. In a way, the negotiationsencapsulated everything I wanted to know about RL. But like a goodsoldier, I trudged on. And, of course, I wouldn’t know whatI did or didn’t need to know until I had read all the stuffI didn’t really want to know.

The only question I asked myself is: why botherto give any consideration or attention to a major character in theephemeral world of fashion, the mostly crass world of retailingand the murky world of dream making? I suppose the fact that theLauren enterprises have been financially successful on such a largescale warrants some interest. But as in the case of my reading TomKing’s book on David Geffen, I found it of interest to tryto unearth some sign of originality, speciality or distinction andthen determine whether Lauren (Geffen) had made any contributionsto 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 incompetentbusinessman. He was lucky at essential times to work with competentpeople. He required an absolute loyalty from his minions, and histalents, at best, were to synthesize or adapt what already existed.Granted, that is a talent, but one hardly worthy of the accoladesattached 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 dollarempire and in possession of unspendable wealth seems as much aboutluck as anything else. Although one argument could be presentedthat he was smart enough to hire Bruce Weber to create his imagecampaigns that are the real heart of his success, the sales of billionsof dollars of polo shirts with the Polo logo affixed was an unintended(and not even a desired) consequence that ultimately was the foundationof the Ralph’s success.

Ah, poor Ralph. Not an enviable person. Kind ofsad.

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