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Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein

In 1905, when he was just 26 years old and working as a clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern, he wrote four scientific papers that would forever change the way humanity comprehends some of the most fundamental laws of nature:

  • First, he demonstrated that light comes in specific quantities or packets, called quanta, later to be called photons, and this discovery helped explain the photoelectric effect, which is what happens when light bounces off an object. This disproved the long-held belief in “ether,” or a substance in space through which light waves were thought to travel.
  • He helped prove the existence of molecules and how they can be measured, and he showed how the existence of molecules explains Brownian motion, or the vibrations of particles suspended in liquid.
  • He then put forth his theory of Special Relativity, in which he disproved Isaac Newton’s concept of absolute time. According to Einstein, measurements of time, and also of space and distance, are relative to the motion of the observer. He said that there can be no absolute time or absolute space, but something he called spacetime.
  • Next, Einstein came up with the principle of mass-energy equivalence, as expressed in the most famous formula in all of science, e=mc2, in which e is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light. The equation means that energy can be converted to mass and vice versa. Decades later this formula would lay the foundation for the development of nuclear weapons. More on that in a moment.

Albert Einstein came up with all four of these scientific breakthroughs in a single year, known as his “annus mirabilis” or “miracle year,” in his spare time. That’s because his day job was that of patent clerk, a position he had settled for after being unable to get a job as a professor following his graduation from university in Zurich. Despite having set the scientific world on fire, he remained relatively unknown and even kept his patent clerk job for several more years.

Einstein book review
“Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson

 

This is according to “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson, a book that describes, in 551 pages, not only Einstein’s many theories but his entire life story as well. For me as a reader, I must admit I found much of the science in this book difficult to understand. Come to think of it, I was actually quite baffled. The chapters on his life and times were much more enjoyable.

Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist. He was born in Germany in 1879. He was a Jew. When he was a boy he was given a compass, which fascinated him. When he was still in his teens he moved to Switzerland and renounced his German citizenship. This might have been to avoid compulsory military service. According to the book, Einstein did not like military parades, soldiers marching in the street or any such glorification of war. He also shunned blind deference to authority. He questioned everything.

He was “stateless” for five years after moving to Switzerland, at which time he became a Swiss citizen. He attended the Swiss federal polytechnic institute in Zurich. He married and would later divorce Mileva Maric, a fellow student who was from Serbia. She was a Christian. They had two sons, Hans Albert Einstein and Eduard Einstein. According to the book, he and Mileva also had a daughter, who apparently either died at a very young age or was given up for adoption. His second wife was Elsa, who was his cousin. She had two daughters, one of whom would eventually live with Einstein. For many decades Einstein had a live-in secretary, Helen Dukas, who was with him constantly and served as his gatekeeper. Einstein also had several mistresses over the years, sometimes in plain view of his wife.

After leaving the job at the patent office, Einstein held several teaching positions and eventually landed at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, in Berlin, where many of the world’s brightest minds then held court. But to go there he had to become a German citizen again. It was from there that he put forth his theory of General Relativity, in which he said, among other things, that gravity happens when objects bend the fabric of spacetime. He also predicted that light from another star would be bent by the Sun’s gravity, and in May 1919, during an eclipse, this was tested and proven to be true. The results were published on the front pages of newspapers around the world, thus making Einstein an overnight global celebrity. From then on his name would be synonymous with the word “genius.”

In 1921 Einstein made his first trip to the United States, at the invitation of Chaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization. Everywhere he went Einstein was greeted by large crowds and inquisitive reporters. Einstein played the part of the friendly professor and answered the reporters’ questions with quick, snappy lines delivered with a grin.

In subsequent visits to the United States, Einstein attended the opera, went to a Hollywood film premiere with Charlie Chaplin, was feted with statues, awards and keys to cities, and he spoke at universities. For a time, Einstein expressed pacifist views and even encouraged all who would listen to shun compulsory military service. But when the Nazis came to power in Germany, Einstein’s views on pacifism and conscientious objection to the draft changed. For the second time he renounced his German citizenship. In 1933 Einstein sought refuge, first in Great Britain and then in the United States, accepting a position at Princeton University in New Jersey. He had also been courted by the California Institute of Technology. Einstein spent the rest of his life in the United States. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940. He died in 1955.

At the outset of World War II, Einstein, with the help of another scientist, Leo Szilard, wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning that it would be possible to use uranium in a chain reaction that would release an unimaginable amount of energy. The letter was hand delivered to FDR and was read aloud to him. After that and a follow-up letter from Einstein, the president established the top-secret Manhattan Project, which would result in the development of nuclear weapons. Einstein himself did not work on the bomb, Robert Oppenheimer and many other scientists led that effort. When Germany’s defeat in the war seemed imminent, Einstein wrote FDR yet another letter calling for caution in deploying the weapon, but FDR died before he received it and the letter instead went to President Harry S. Truman, who passed it to a subordinate.

Einstein had brought the possibility of a bomb to the attention of FDR because he thought the German scientists back in Berlin would certainly be working on one themselves, but when he learned that was not the case he regretted his decision for the rest of his life. After World War II Einstein spoke out in favor of arms control, and for the establishment of a world government. He wanted a body that would be stronger that the United Nations turned out to be, something with a military force, which he considered necessary to prevent future wars and human annihilation. Isaacson quotes Einstein, speaking to Newsweek magazine, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Here are some additional facts about Albert Einstein:

  • He thought visually, and he conceived of his theories largely in visual terms. He often used “thought experiments” to develop his ideas.
  • He was a creative thinker who was similar in many ways to those who revolutionized other fields, such as Sigmund Freud in psychology and Pablo Picasso in art.
  • According to the book, he was not an atheist.
  • Nor was he a communist. But he was investigated by J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, which kept a file on him.
  • He believed in social and economic justice, as well as personal freedom. He was skeptical of the socialist revolution when it began in Russia because he felt it would be repressive and authoritarian.
  • In general, he was good natured and friendly, although he could be emotionally distant and even a bit cruel to those close to him. According to the book, he was especially mean at times to his first wife.
  • He had wild, unruly hair. It was part of his image of a disheveled scientist. He could also be forgetful and often misplaced his keys or train tickets.
  • He played the violin.
  • He also enjoyed sailing.
  • He had many lifelong friends and scientific colleagues.
  • One of his friends was Queen Elisabeth (later the Queen Mother) of Belgium.
  • When his first wife originally refused to give him a divorce, Einstein was able to persuade her by promising to give her the money should he win the Nobel Prize at a future date.
  • Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921, not for relativity but for his work on the photoelectric effect. Isaacson’s book explains all the drama and politics of how that happened.
  • Originally Einstein had written his famous formula as L=mv2, but he later changed it to E=mc2 to comply with more common symbols.
  • Before collaborating with Szilard on the letter to FDR, the two patented a refrigerator.
  • Both of his stepdaughters had husbands who wrote books about Einstein.
  • After the death of Weizmann, who had become the first president of Israel, Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel, but he politely and firmly declined.
  • After Einstein’s death, in a ghastly act, his brain was preserved in a jar and was later experimented on by various scientists, none of whom ever learned anything significant.
  • The theoretical physicist is portrayed in the musical “Einstein’s Dreams,” currently running Off-Broadway, which, in my opinion (I went to see it last weekend) was completely wrong scientifically and on many other levels. It is based on a book of the same name.
  • In the movies, Walter Matthau gives what I consider to be a much more enjoyable portrayal of Einstein is in the 1994 film “I.Q.,” also starring Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins.

Also during Einstein’s lifetime the field of quantum mechanics took shape. This is the study of atoms and subatomic particles. In his own mind Einstein was troubled by many of these discoveries, which were made by Niels Bohr and many other scientists. That’s because determining the location of an electron around the nucleus of an atom required the use of probabilities, which caused Einstein to utter his immortal words that God does not “play dice” with the universe!

Another facet of quantum mechanics is known as entanglement, which is an observed phenomenon in which two particles that have interacted with each other will have opposite properties even when far apart from each other. Einstein called this “Spooky Action at a Distance,” which is a term still in use today — google it or look it up on YouTube!

Einstein spent the final years of his life thinking and working on a theory that would reconcile relativity with quantum mechanics. It’s an effort that continues to this day.

For me, reading “Einstein: His Life and Universe” was a nice little peek into the world of theoretical physics. I think I might understand some of this stuff a little better now, but I am not sure. But it was still fun to read about, and I am glad I did. This was the second biography I have read by historian Walter Isaacson, who is the former managing editor of Time magazine. Earlier I also read his book on Benjamin Franklin, which was fantastic in my opinion. Isaacson also wrote a biography of Steve Jobs, which I do not plan to read, and another of Leonardo DaVinci, which I certainly will at a future date.

Still Life: American Concert 1981

In 1981, the Rolling Stones were at the top of their game. They had a No. 1 album, “Tattoo You,” from which the first single, Start Me Up, was a smash hit on the radio. They also had videos running constantly on a brand new cable station called MTV. The band’s tour that year was arguably the biggest any rock band ever done to date, filling large outdoor stadiums and sports arenas, including the Pontiac Silverdome. (I happened to be just starting high school at the time, and was therefore too young to go to the show.) Opening acts for the Stones that tour included Journey and George Thorogood. With the exception of bass player Bill Wyman, the lads were all still in their 30s. Mick Jagger, trim and fit and with long hair, wore football pants and performed shirtless through much of the show. Then for the encore (usually the song Satisfaction, some nights Street Fighting Man), he would come out on stage wearing a colorful cape made of the British and American flags sewn together. He sang into a cordless microphone, which he stuffed into his crotch while running about the stage during the instrumental bits.

Documenting this tour was a live album, released the following year, called “Still Life: American Concert 1981.” This is not considered one of the best Rolling Stones albums, but it was the first one that I ever bought. I got it at Meijer Thrifty Acres. I remember the DJ Allison Harte talking about the album on WLAV when it came out and playing songs from it. I also remember that at first I was not hugely impressed. My biggest complaint was the album’s length. It was just 10 songs! For some reason I thought this was a recording of a complete concert. I wondered what kind of band would only play for 45 minutes? It was not until years later that I learned that the Stones played 25 or more songs on that tour, for close to three hours each night.

At some point I was in my room playing the record with all the lights off (as I did back then) and it was one specific moment in the song Twenty Flight Rock, where the other members of the band give a brief pause while Mick sings a line, that got me. I can’t explain it. It was something about the band’s ability to do that, to be so precise, so tight, that got me hooked. I learned later that Twenty Flight Rock was an Eddie Cochran song that the Stones were doing a cover version of. They also did a cover of the Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song Going to a Go-Go, which got airplay on the radio and on MTV. But it was the song Twenty Flight Rock, all one minute and 45 seconds of it, that initiated my love for the Rolling Stones.

Here are a few additional notes about the 1981 Stones tour and the “Still Life” album:

  • The album contains an “intro” of Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train and an “outro” of Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner from Woodstock. Both the intro and outro were played at the concerts, the latter as fireworks exploded over the crowd.
  • The album artwork is by the Japanese artist Kazuhide Yamazaki, based on his colorful stage backdrops used on the tour.
  • In addition to the album, there was also a concert movie, directed by Hal Ashby, called “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” which was filmed at the 1981 Stones shows at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., and at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. The movie came out in 1983 and was shown in movie theaters.
  • There was also a televised pay-per-view special with radio simulcast for the final show of the tour, at Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia. In 2014, this concert was released as a CD/DVD set, titled “From the Vault: Hampton Coliseum (Live in 1981).”
  • Following the 1981 tour of the USA, the Stones went on a big tour of Europe in 1982. They did not tour again until 1989.

If you get the “Still Life” album, listen to the song Twenty Flight Rock and let me know what you think. Also listen to the song Let Me Go (from their 1980 album Emotional Rescue, which opens Side 2) and tell me if you can count the number of different ways Mick sings the word “hey” and how he turns that one word into a whole sentence just about every time he sings it. You might also get hooked on the opening song, Under My Thumb, or by Shattered, or by Let’s Spend the Night Together, which is played with guitars rather than on piano.

And then there’s their live rendition of Time Is On My Side, which is played and sung with such emotion. By this time the Stones had been performing so long together that his song had real meaning for them and their fans, yet I was just starting to get to know them.

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Theodore Roosevelt’s South American adventure

Before moving on to Taft, here’s another book about Teddy. This one is about his perilous journey with a group of explorers down an unmapped river in Brazil. “River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” takes place in 1913, a year after the bespectacled former president had lost his insurgent third-party run for what would have been an unprecedented third term.

Fred Michmershuizen

 

Roosevelt teamed up with a number of naturalists and explorers for a trip that lasted several months, through an unknown section of the Brazilian rainforest. Roosevelt’s second oldest son, Kermit, was part of the expedition. Along the way, there were many hardships. It took the men more than a month just to get to the river, and once they got started downstream in their canoes they were not exactly sure where they were going. They were hoping to eventually reach the Amazon. Once on the River of Doubt — that was the name of the river, but it was later renamed after Roosevelt himself — there were dangerous fish and snakes. Food was scarce, and the mosquitoes, ants and termites made everyone miserable. When rapids or waterfalls made navigating the river impossible, they had to portage all their supplies around the obstacles, causing excruciating delays that often took many extra days.

At one point before a difficult portage one of the men was swept down the river to his death, in an incident that was Kermit’s fault. Later another of the men committed murder by shooting one of his compatriots, then vanishing into the forest. Roosevelt himself came close to death after succumbing to an infection resulting from cutting his leg on a rock.

The co-leader of the expedition was a legendary native Brazilian explorer named Colonel Candido Rondon, who had dedicated his life to mapping the Amazon and who was a fierce defender of the native Indians. He had famously instructed his men who might encounter the Indians, “Die if you must, but never kill.”

This book is by Candice Millard, who is also author of a similarly gripping book called “Destiny of the Republic,” about the assassination of President James Garfield. “River of Doubt” is skimpy on maps but has plenty of helpful pictures. For me, the most interesting sections were Millard’s descriptions of the animal and plant life of the Amazon rain forests. She describes how South America was formed over millions of years and how living things evolved by carving out specialized niches. She also describes the various native Indian tribes, who were largely unseen. They could have killed the intruders at any time but chose not to.

Theodore Roosevelt pointing towards the area explored during the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition. (Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Ready Freddie

I caught the new Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” over the weekend, and I thought it was fantastic. I was deeply moved and in tears through most of the two-hour-plus running time. Rami Malek was so, so good, and I hope he wins the Oscar for this. The movie focuses on the history of the band, their creative process, touring, dealing with record company executives, and Freddie’s private life. The culmination is the band’s legendary performance at Live Aid in 1985, where they brought their “stadium rock” show to Wembley in London.

Freddie MercuryIn the opening credits Brian May (he’s the guitar player with the big hair) and Roger Taylor (the drummer) are listed as producers, so we can assume this is the their official version of how they want the story to be told. According to the movie, the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” was all Freddie. But “We Will Rock You” was Brian May’s idea, and “Another One Bites the Dust” came from bass player John Deacon.

Also according to the movie, Freddie proposed marriage to his female companion, Mary, and gave her a ring, but as he began to record and tour with Queen he became distant from her. He developed relationships with men, both fleeting and longer lasting. At one point he confides to her, “I think I am bisexual” and she says, “No, Freddie, you’re gay.” Even back in the 1970s, everyone knew Freddie Mercury was gay. But it was a different era then. This was before Ellen. Before RuPaul. Before Gus Kenworthy. Celebrities just did not come out. At Live Aid, Freddie wore a white tank top, skintight jeans, sneakers, a studded black leather armband and a thick mustache. You could not get any gayer than that, if you ask me!

For those who do not remember, Queen’s 22-minute set during Live Aid was phenomenal. It’s really easy to find the complete performance on YouTube. According to this article in the New York Times, the band had rehearsed extensively for the show and, unbeknownst to all at the time, they had someone on the soundboard turn up the volume a few notches for their performance. The crowd went wild. The movie ends at this high point.

The band had never been more popular. A year later they toured with a new album and returned to Wembley for another huge show, followed by a live album. In subsequent years they continued to record new albums, but by the time they released “Innuendo” Freddie’s health had deteriorated and touring was out of the question. Just before Freddie died in 1991, he issued a statement disclosing to the world that he had AIDS. I am still in mourning over his death all those years ago.

Of all the entertainers who died of AIDS and there were many, it is Freddie’s way-too-early departure that stings the most.

 

Sticky Fingers Live at the Fonda Theater 2015

When the lads were on tour in 2015, they decided to perform an entire album in concert, and “Sticky Fingers Live At the Fonda Theater” documents this complete show — on both DVD and also a companion music CD.

Review of Sticky Fingers Live at the Fonda Theater 2015 red MichmershuizenReleased in 1971, “Sticky Fingers” is one of the best albums the Stones ever put out. It has “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses” and Bitch” on it. It’s also the one featuring a close-up picture of a man’s crotch, complete with a working zipper! Back when people bought records, this was a really cool gimmick. Andy Warhol designed the cover, and I had always assumed it was Mick Jagger’s junk bulging out. But as we learn in some behind-the-scenes interviews on the DVD, it was actually a picture of a male model. In the interviews, two different guys claim to be the crotch-man. The world will never know.

Anyway, fast-forward to 2015, and the Stones are still touring — and they decide to perform this whole album in one show. For me, it’s a real pleasure to see the Stones play these songs in a smaller venue. They don’t go in order of the track listing on the album itself, but they do perform ALL the songs. There are many different kinds of songs, from hard rockers to slow blues and even some country songs. Many of the tracks on “Sticky Fingers” are not ones they usually play live. Some of my favorites on this particular concert DVD/CD set are “Sister Morphine,” “I Got the Blues” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”

Before they play the Sticky Fingers songs, they open with “Start Me Up,” and at the end they throw in an encore that includes a rollicking version of the BB King song “Rock Me Baby” in which Mick plays harmonica.

This is one of the many offerings in the “From The Vault” series from the Stones.

 

Thoughts after reading about Napoleon

Reading about Napoleon makes me appreciate George Washington even more. And James Madison! It was not long after the United States Constitution had been ratified and Washington inaugurated as our first President that the French people took matters into their own hands. The French Revolution was long, complicated and violent, and it’s hard to comprehend even today. The Jacobins and Girondins fought one another. The French overthrew their Bourbon King, Louis XVI, who incidentally had not long before supported the American Revolution by sending us money, ships and troops! King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette eventually lost their heads to the guillotine, and later a “Committee on Public Safety” controlled by Maximilien Robespierre took over. There was a “Reign of Terror” in which political enemies were beheaded left and right. Eventually Robespierre himself was beheaded, and a five-person “Directory” took over.

Napoleon: A Life

It was in the middle of all this chaos that Napoleon came to power. He eventually declared himself Emperor and conquered most of continental Europe. He even held a coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral, in which he crowned himself and his wife, Josephine, in the presence of the Pope. Along the way he wrote laws called the Civil Code or Napoleonic Code, established a school system, supported the arts and directed large public works projects. He also was a brilliant military commander, whose troop movements and strategies changed forever the manner in which battles were waged and won. Napoleon’s battles would be studied at West Point for generations, including by Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and many others.

Napoleon, who had been trained in artillery, started out early in his military career by invading what is today northern Italy. He then led an army through Egypt and Syria, returning to Paris to help stage a coup in which a three-person “Consulate” took over. But Napoleon controlled everything, and by 1804 he got powerful enough to crown himself Emperor. Europe’s other “crowned heads” frowned on this because they feared they could be overthrown themselves. They formed alliances against him and the wars continued. Napoleon racked up wins all over the place, bringing his reforms and his civil code with him wherever he went.

But he also made mistakes. His invasion of Spain did not go well, meeting with much resistance. His biggest blunder was to invade Russia. He brought 400,000 troops all the way to Moscow, only to have it burned down by the locals before he could do anything there. He was forced to turn back just as a brutally cold winter was beginning. Most of his soldiers died of starvation, disease or frostbite. By the end of the Russian campaign, his army was down to just 40,000. It would be the beginning of the end for Napoleon. (More on his demise in a moment.)

The Bonaparte family tree is broad and complex. Napoleon had seven brothers and sisters. He was second oldest. As he conquered more and more of Europe, he named his siblings and their husbands and wives to rule as sovereigns of the various kingdoms. He named Joseph, his older brother, King of Naples and King of Spain. He made younger brother Louis the King of Holland. Lucien became Prince of Canino, Jerome King of Westphalia. He made his sister Caroline and husband the Queen and King of Naples, and so on.

In 1796 Napoleon married Josephine, a widow who had two children, Eugene and Hortense. Immediately after their marriage, Napoleon went away to war and Josephine cheated on him. He had been sending her a bunch of sappy love letters, but when he found out about his wife’s infidelity he began cheating on her. Napoleon took many mistresses over the years, often paying them large sums of money. He fathered illegitimate children with at least two of the women.

As the years went by and Josephine did not bear Napoleon any children, he decided he needed to divorce her. He asked Tsar Alexander to let him have his younger sister but the Russian ruler said no, so he married Marie Louise, who was the daughter of the Emperor of Austria. Marie Louise bore Napoleon a single child, a son, Napoleon II, also known as the “King of Rome,” who died at age 21. Marie Louise would later cheat on Napoleon with an Austrian general.

Napoleon liked to arrange marriages of his relatives and close associates. He got his brother Louis to marry Josephine’s daughter, Hortense, and they had three children, including Napoleon III, (Napoleon’s nephew, also his step-grandson!) who would later become Emperor of France.

Here are a few additional facts about Napoleon:

  • He was not French! He was born on the island of Corsica, in the Mediterranean.
  • He was born Napoleon Bonaparte, but went by just Napoleon when he became Emperor. Sovereigns go by just their first names. He considered himself to be peers with the other monarchs, but they did not see him that way. Unbeknownst to Napoleon, Tsar Alexander in particular saw him as a nuisance and was waiting for the right moment to get rid of him.
  • In paintings and drawings, Napoleon appears lean and good-looking when he is young, and short and fat when he is old.
  • He was sexist.
  • He admired Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. He aspired to be like them.
  • When he met someone, he had a way of asking the person a number of quick questions in a rapid-fire, matter-of-fact manner.
  • Wherever he went, he plundered artworks and artifacts and sent the loot back to be exhibited in the Louvre.
  • In Egypt he traveled with a group of “savants” who put together an extensive report on the geography, culture and artifacts of the ancient civilization. They also discovered the Rosetta Stone, which would later fall into British hands.
  • Napoleon did not hold deep religious beliefs, but he would often adopt the religious customs of the local population of whatever country he happened to be invading. In Egypt he told those he met he was interested in converting to the Muslim faith. In northern Italy, Catholicism.
  • One of his closest deputies, Jean-Jacques Cambaceres, was gay.
  • Although Napoleon was not an evil dictator bent on genocide (he was not a Hitler), he was responsible for a number of atrocities including a massacre in the Middle East.
  • Because Napoleon needed money for his wars, in 1803 we got the Louisiana Purchase! James Monroe and Robert Livingston negotiated directly with Napoleon during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. It doubled the size of the United States.

After his disastrous invasion of Russia Napoleon was more vulnerable than ever, and a “Sixth Coalition” including Russia, Prussia, Austria and Great Britain united to fight him in what is today Germany. Napoleon won in Dresden but was defeated in Leipzig. The “Allies” offered Napoleon peace terms that would have allowed him to stay in power but give up most of the territory France had conquered. When Napoleon refused the deal, the Allies tightened the screws by invading France and occupying Paris. They forced Napoleon to abdicate and leave France, but they let him become king of the somewhat small, somewhat remote island of Elba — located in the Mediterranean off the coast of Italy. This was Napoleon’s first exile. Before being sent away, Napoleon attempted suicide by taking poison but survived.

Napoleon was on Elba for less than a year, during which time he instituted a number of reforms and public improvements there. Meanwhile, back in Paris, Louis XVIII became king. Remember the Bourbon king Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who had been beheaded during the French Revolution? Their surviving relatives — the Bourbon family — had been hiding in exile all this time! Louis XVI’s son (that’s the Dauphin in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), who would have been King Louis XVII, had died during Napoleon’s reign, and therefore Louis XVIII, who was Louis XVI’s brother, took charge. But he wasn’t much of a leader and made a number of blunders that resulted in taxes and food prices going up. Stupidly, he also put the military on half-pay.

Sensing an opportunity, Napoleon escaped from Elba by boat, landing on the southern coast of France near Cannes (where the film festival is held today). Napoleon had a small band of troops with him, but as he traveled north through France he picked up more and more troops and momentum. By the time he got back to Paris, Louis XVIII and the rest of the Bourbons had run away again, allowing Napoleon to re-form a government, and raise yet another army to go against the Allies — now known as the Seventh Coalition, made up of Austria, Russia, Prussia and Britain. The fighting that resulted culminated in the battle of Waterloo, in what is today Belgium. This period came to be known as the “Hundred Days.” After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon returned briefly to Paris before fleeing to the western coast of France, where he sought asylum aboard a British warship.

Napoleon wanted to go to the United States or even to London, but the British decided to send him to the island of St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic — much smaller and much more remote than Elba. This was Napoleon’s second exile. He was allowed to take a small number of followers with him to St. Helena, including a pastry chef and a lamp-lighter. But Longwood House, where he was to reside, was damp and dreary and was infested with rats and mosquitoes. The British named a custodian to watch over him, someone who was unnecessarily mean. Napoleon died six years later of stomach cancer. In 1840 his body was brought back to Paris and entombed in an elaborate monument.

I learned so much reading “Napoleon: A Life,” the 810-page biography by Andrew Roberts. Published in 2014, this book is complete with helpful maps and beautiful color images. I read the paperback edition. I very much enjoyed this book. The author, a British historian, drew on a recently compiled collection of 33,000 letters and referred to tremendous amounts of other source material. The tome is divided into three parts: Rise, Mastery and Denouement.

George Washingon His ExcellencyBack to George Washington. The biography “His Excellency” by Joseph Ellis had me crying on just about every page, but I did not shed a single tear for Napoleon. Washington had been as popular in America as Napoleon was in France, and had he wanted to Washington could have ruled in a similar manner here. But Washington was a bigger man by giving up power and going back to his farm. Another gift Washington gave us was the policy of neutrality when it came to international affairs. Around the time of the French Revolution, many here in America wanted us to go to war with France against Britain. What a horrible error that would have been. I also came to appreciate the wisdom of James Madison and the other Founding Fathers, who wrote a constitution for our own country complete with separation of powers, checks and balances and provisions for peaceful transition of government from one administration to another.

For the past two years almost, I have been reading biographies of the U.S. presidents, but I wanted to take a detour and read about Napoleon. I’m glad I did. I noticed this book while looking through the biography section at Barnes and Noble, and it caught my eye. Learning Napoleon’s story has enhanced my appreciation of our nation’s founders.

 

The Will Rogers Follies

The first Broadway show I ever saw was “The Will Rogers Follies.” To this day the show remains one of my favorites, and I still play the original cast recording from time to time. It starred Keith Carradine in the title role. It also featured Cady Huffman, who would later go on to star as Ulla in “The Producers,” and the late great Dick Latessa, as Clement P. Rogers. The music was by Cy Coleman and the lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. This big, fun show also had cowboys and Indians, a bunch of cute dogs — and it featured the “special participation” of Gregory Peck as the legendary showman Florenz Zeigfeld, which was akin to the “voice of God.”

This would have been the fall of 1991, if I remember correctly. I was working as an editor at the Hudson Valley News in Newburgh, N.Y., at the time, and I had just completed a big project and my boss wanted to reward me by a trip to the big city to see a Broadway show. I stayed at the Milford Plaza, and I almost got mugged. A year later I had moved to my apartment in Manhattan, I had a new job working at National Jeweler, with offices in Times Square, right across the street from the Palace Theater. When my dad came to visit we went to see “Will Rogers Follies” together. It was still running, with Mac Davis in the lead role.

The Will Rogers Follies

Big River at New York City Center Encores!

I was so moved on Friday night by “Big River,” the country-music musical based on the novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, that I went to see it again Saturday night. I loved it even more the second time. The music and lyrics in this show, written by the acclaimed songwriter Roger Miller, are really, really good. The on-stage orchestra of this production — by New York City Center Encores! — was top-notch, and the actors were terrific. From my perspective, their voices brought Twain’s characters to life in a powerful way.

Big River NYC Encores

Watching many of these songs performed on stage brought tears to my eyes, starting with “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” sung by a charming Nicholas Barasch as Huck. Here’s this kid, this innocent outsider in 1840s Missouri, trying to figure out where he belongs in the world. Essentially homeless, he’s been taken in by the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson (who own slaves). They make him wash up for dinner and wear uncomfortable clothes and learn to read, so that he can study the Bible and eventually wind up in “the good place,” as sung to him in the song “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” He also pals around with a band of other kids, who are under the spell of Tom Sawyer, who has his own set of rules — those he has read about in adventure books. And then there’s Pap Finn, an abusive alcoholic, who takes Huck and locks him in a shed and beats him. So Huck fakes his own death and runs away to a nearby island, where he declares his own personal independence in the song “I, Huckleberry, Me.”

On the island Huck meets up with Miss Watson’s slave Jim, played by the powerfully voiced Kyle Scatliffe, who has “run off” because he overheard that she was about to sell him for $800 and if that happens he will never see his wife and children again. But Huck is on the run too, and so he and Jim flee on that iconic raft. Down America’s great river. Together they sing two of the musical’s most beautiful and memorable numbers — “Muddy Water” and “River in the Rain.” More tears from this theater-goer.

Their quick departure all happens so fast that Huck does not have time to reflect much on the consequences of his actions. After all, helping a slave escape is not only illegal, but, in essence, stealing. He will have to reckon with that later.

For Huck and Jim, the mighty Mississippi is freedom. But for others it means just the opposite. In the novel, as they are floating downstream on their raft, a boat passes them going in the opposite direction, filled with runaway slaves who have been recaptured and who are being returned to their owners. In the musical, the slaves are being marched on land, and Huck and Jim can hear them from their raft and they are singing a gospel song, “The Crossing.”

Another departure from the novel comes in Act Two, when Huck mocks Jim and plays a cruel practical joke on him by pretending to be a slave hunter. In the novel Huck does play a trick on Jim, but it is much less nasty. Yet the effect is the same: Huck sees that he has hurt Jim’s feelings and feels he must apologize. This is a pivotal moment for Huck, because it is at this point that he sees Jim’s humanity. And it sets up yet another beautiful song, “Worlds Apart” — a song that in my view features lyrics that are just as relevant in today’s partisan political climate as they would have been a century and a half ago.

There’s more. The king and the duke, played by the excellent David Pittu and Christopher Sieber, close Act One with a rip-roaring “When the Sun Goes Down in the South” and open Act Two with a thoroughly entertaining “The Royal Nonesuch.” Lauren Worsham as Mary Jane Wilkes uses her pitch-perfect vocal instrument on two consecutive numbers, “You Oughta Be Here With Me” and “Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go,” the latter performed with Huck and Jim. Again, more tears. Both songs are pure country, and in my view they rank right up there with the very best ballads of the genre. Wayne Duvall, as Pap Finn, goes on a drunken tea-party rant in the song “Guv’ment,” and ensemble member Katherine A. Guy brings down the rafters with her gospel number, “How Blest We Are.”

Huckleberry FinnAnd now for Huck’s reckoning. In the novel, the climax, the punch line of the whole thing, comes in chapter 31. The king and the duke have sold Jim for $40, and now Huck has no choice but to really think about what he has done. This is the pre-Civil War South, and in his 13-year-old brain, Huck thinks that he has sinned. Damnation will follow unless he turns away from his wickedness. But he can’t quite pray because he realizes he is “not square.” So he writes a letter to Miss Watson telling her where Jim is. But this does not bring him peace either, because he cannot turn against Jim. He says aloud, “All right then — I’ll go to hell,” and rips up the letter. He’s decided that he is going to help Jim, even though it means he is headed for the “bad place,” as Miss Watson would say. He does the same on stage, just before launching into a reprise of “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” but this time he sings with even more power, more feeling, and more energy than before. This is followed by the 11 o’clock number, “Free at Last,” sung in a muscular voice by Kyle Scatliffe’s Jim, which is the emotional high point of the evening. I can’t stop the tears now. They are streaming down my face, and I don’t care if anyone sees.

The review in the New York Times called this production “ill timed” and said it had “little room for feeling or emotion.” Huh? And the reviewer lamented the use of the n-word in both the novel and the musical as a “racial slur.” Oh come on. “Huckleberry Finn” is arguably the most anti-racist story every written.

Sure, the production itself was not without flaws. Throughout the show both nights, it seemed to me that there was something wrong with the amplification. At times the volume level sounded like it was going up and down in the middle of various songs. Also a problem for me: More than once the singers could have put more oomph into it. In fact, I wanted to yell out from my seat, “Sing out, Louise!” to some of the chorus members on stage in Act 1 during “The Boys.”

It also seemed to me that at times some of the transitions between the spoken-word portions of the work and the musical numbers and back again were choppy. “Huckleberry Finn” is a sprawling tale, and by necessity large portions of the Twain saga were considerably condensed or eliminated entirely.

But these are minor issues, as the songs themselves said more than anything else. And for sheer depth of feeling conveyed by the actors for their characters and the classic book they inhabit, I can’t think of a much more powerful theater experience.

These Encores! productions only run for a week, so if you missed this one I am sorry for you. But you might look up the original Broadway cast recording on iTunes, as I did. As I mentioned, these songs are really worthwhile. The original Broadway staging of “Big River” won a well-deserved Tony for best musical back in 1985, and you can do a YouTube search for the two numbers that the original cast performed on the televised broadcast back then. And of course there’s the book itself. It is always worth reading, or reading again— or even reading a third time.