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Book Reviews

Proof that America’s got talent


The Adventures, Escapades, and Triumphs of Alicia Patterson

By Alice Arlen and Michael J. Arlen

Pantheon, 368 pp., $28.95

Alicia Patterson arrived in 1906, the second of three daughters born to wealthy, well-connected parents — newspaper scion father, beautiful debutante mother — whose marriage was already foundering. “Father had much wanted a boy,” Patterson would note years later; perhaps intuiting that it would bring her closer to him, she grew up a rough and tumble girl, “hair permanently unbrushed, dirty hands at table,” incorrigible, frustrating, and charming. Naturally, she was her father’s favorite, the daughter he could hunt and fish with, who became one of the first women in the country to earn a commercial pilot’s license, the child who would follow him into the family business as a newspaper owner.


Written by Patterson’s niece and her husband, “The Huntress” is a biography that fascinates as it illuminates. As they chronicle Patterson’s long editorship of Newsday, the Long Island paper she launched in 1940, the authors manage to dish delicious gossip about her three marriages and her long affair with Illinois governor and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. In long, sinuous sentences, the book paints a portrait of a unique and powerful woman, her ambitions only thwarted by the “vast gulf between men and women” that persisted even as so many things changed. Not only “a proud, briskly unsentimental woman,” Patterson emerges as a complicated person, one whose “own past, with its soup of vague and vivid memories, with its powerful and sometimes deafening tribal music,” weighed heavily, and often painfully. If the test of a biography is whether readers come to feel they truly know and care deeply about its subject, this one is a smashing success.


The Inspiring True Story of the World’s Worst Singer


By Nicholas Martin and Jasper Rees

St. Martin’s Griffin, 256 pp., paperback, $16.95

What does it mean when one person’s sincere artistic expression becomes everyone else’s comic relief? We’re accustomed these days to viral videos of horrible singers auditioning for televised contests; we might feel guilty for laughing, but their entertainment value is undeniable. For New Yorkers in the 1930s, a similar amusement could be found in the small concerts, presented in apartments and hotels, by a music maven and highly questionable singer named Florence Foster Jenkins. By the time she performed in a solo recital at Carnegie Hall in 1944, her final concert, the 76-year-old founder of the Verdi Society, a small-time heiress known for over-the-top costumes and wigs, the coloratura soprano was at the height (or was it depths?) of her powers. “Her notes range from the impossible to the fantastic . . . and bear no relation whatever to any known score or scale,” wrote one newspaper critic. “We had sore muscles in our stomachs the next day,” one audience member reported, “as we laughed so hard and so long.”

Originally published in England, this new biography arrives to coincide with the release of a film by the same name. Its glossy packaging (including a photo section of the Hollywood versions of the actual subjects) might put off serious readers — but they would be missing an amusing and even sensitive portrait of a truly original human being. Martin and Rees write with sympathetic affection about Florence’s life, which included elopement at 14, lifelong aftereffects of syphilis, and a series of court battles over wills and inheritance. In the end, there’s something almost heroic about this tone-deaf diva.



The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies (And Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Anymore)

By Hadley Freeman

Simon and Schuster, 352 pp., paperback, $16

“The eighties movies I watched as a kid are still the eighties movies I love today,” writes Hadley Freeman, speaking for pretty much the entirety of Gen-Xers and a significant chunk of millennials. From “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to “Pretty in Pink,” these are the films that taught a generation (or two) that they weren’t alone in their awkwardness, that they would survive their teenage years, that life would never be fair, but it might be fun. Or “Dirty Dancing,” which deals with abortion in a way no studio would touch today or “The Princess Bride,” which Freeman notes is really about all different kinds of love.

For Freeman, a columnist for the Guardian, these movies are also a reminder of what Hollywood has abandoned in its quest for the next comic-book blockbuster. The economics of moviemaking forces studios to try to appeal to everyone with every movie, which is why so many of them seem both nonthreatening and interchangeable. But the ’80s movies Freeman loves “are sweetly specific in their references and completely universal in their humor and stories, whether they be about parents, friendship, or money.” Like a lot of the films she writes about, Freeman’s book is deceptively lighthearted; underneath the jokes and gossip is a serious, heartfelt argument for the kind of movies that we return to again and again.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at