The somewhat straightlaced theatre-going audiences of 1880s America, eager for performances by European artistes like Jenny Lind and solid, home-grown, classical actors such as Otis Skinner, were hardly prepared for the on-stage vulgarity that the (usually) Russian and Polish immigrant impressarios, with their particular nous for show-biz, were to unleash into the saloons and fleapits across the young nation.
The last words of Hungarian-born portraitist Philip de László, spoken to his nurse, were apparently, ‘It is a pity, because there is so much still to do.’ As Duff Hart-Davis’s biography amply demonstrates, for de László, art — which he regarded as ‘work’ as much as an aesthetic vocation — was both the purpose and the substance of his life.
In the Rainbow Grill in New York one evening in 1971, according to Robin D. G. Kelley, Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Southern California, Duke Ellington halted his band in mid-flow and announced: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the baddest left hand in the history of jazz just walked into the room, Mr Thelonious Monk.'
Why haven’t we heard of Phillis Bottome? In her 60-year career she published 33 novels, several of them bestsellers, short stories, essays, biographies and memoirs.
‘His cursed concubine.’ That was the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys’ judgment on Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn.
For all of the nine years that he worked, first as official spokesman for Tony Blair and then as Director of Communications for the government, Alastair Campbell was obliged to defend a huge lie: that all was well at the heart of the New Labour project when, manifestly, it was not.
The first game played by the Allahakbarries Cricket Club at Albury in Surrey in September 1887 did not bode well for the club’s future.
Of those prime ministers whom the old grammar schools escalator propelled from the bottom to the top of British society since the second world war, Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher were in many ways the most alike.
This book recounts a terrible story of self-destruction by two painters who, in their heyday, achieved considerable renown in Britain and abroad.
Patrick Shaw-Stewart was the cleverest and the most ambitious of the gilded gang of young men who swam in the wake of the not-so-young but perennially youthful Raymond Asquith.
John Henry Newman was an electrifying personality who has attracted numerous biographers and commentators.
The last time I saw Benazir Bhutto was at Oxford, over champagne outside the Examination Schools, when she inquired piercingly of a subfusc linguist, ‘Racine? What is Racine?’ Older and richer than most undergraduates, and as a Harvard graduate presumably better educated, she was already world famous, and was obviously not at Oxford to learn about classical tragedy.
The 22nd Earl of Erroll, Military Secretary in Kenya in the early part of the second world war, was described by two of his fellow peers of the realm as ‘a stoat — one of the great pouncers of all time’ and ‘a dreadful shit who really needed killing’.
‘With time,’ writes David Remnick, ‘political campaigns tend to be viewed through the triumphalist prism of the winner.’ Never more so, perhaps, than in Remnick’s idolatrous new biography of Barack Obama, which presents the First Black President’s ascension to the White House as nothing less than a glorious saga.
In 1931, a 23-year-old Englishman called Henry ‘Gino’ Watkins returned from an expedition to the white depths of the Greenlandic ice cap.
The memoirs of the Grand Duchess Olga are an entertaining record for anyone interested in the imperial family’s home life during the last years of Russian autocracy.
Torn with grief, Melvyn Bragg has produced a condolence book for the South Bank Show (born 1978, died of neglect, 2010).
A hundred years ago, when Britannia still ruled the waves, the Royal Navy fell victim to a humiliating hoax, reports of which kept the public amused for a few wintry days in February 1910.
Voltaire’s was a long and amazing life.
Alistair Urquhart describes himself as ‘a lucky man as well as an angry man’.
When I was at Eton, many years before David Cameron, much of the school was run by a self-elected society known as ‘Pop’.
I have always been sceptical of those passages in the ‘Ancestry’ chapters of biographies that run something like this: Through his veins coursed the rebellious blood of the Vavasours, blended with a more temperate strain from the Mudge family of Basingstoke.
When she was a little girl, playing in the countryside around her missionary parents’ home in China, Pearl Buck used to come across the scattered body parts of babies abandoned for animals to devour. She would bury them, and tell no one.
What sort of person would you expect to be bringing out a life of J.D. Salinger two months after his death, bearing in mind that Salinger was more obsessive about his privacy than any other writer in human history and fought the publication of the last biography all the way to the US Supreme Court?
In his memoir Somebody Down Here Likes Me, Too, the boxer Rocky Graziano, on whom Paul Newman based his performance in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), describes the actor in perfect Runyonese: