Monthly Archives: November 2021
My sixth book has just been released: On Borrowed Fame: Money, Mysteries, and Corruption in the Entertainment World. It shows the underbelly of show business, and delves into why the financial compensation doled out to entertainers is so inconsistent. In many ways, the industry mirrors our rigged economy at large.
The book was a long time coming. Most of it was written more than a decade ago, when I first began contacting old entertainers from my youth. It was heady stuff to go back and forth with people I’d watched on television, or listened to their records on my old transistor radio. Too many of those I communicated with passed on before the book was published. Skyhorse held it for quite some time before opting not to take it. I went with Bear Manor Media, a publisher that specializes in entertainment books.
I learned a lot while writing this book, as I do while researching all of my nonfiction. The disparity in compensation in the industry is sometimes mind-boggling. To cite just one example; why did Bette Davis, one of the biggest stars in the history of Hollywood, die with less than a million dollars, while Steppin Fetchit, the poster child for old fashioned racism, left a fortune of $10 million? There are lots of figures like that in the book. They fascinate me, and I’m hopeful readers will be intrigued as well.
The inspiration for the book was George “Spanky” McFarland, my favorite Little Rascal, and in my view the greatest child actor who ever lived. He was basically washed up by the age of six or so, but he was the most spellbinding toddler to ever appear onscreen. Spanky’s name and likeness was used by restaurants (and still is), and for other commercial endeavors. The fact he received nothing from this, or from the perpetually run Our Gang shorts, understandably frustrated him. I wrote to his widow, but she never replied.
A secondary inspiration was Bela Lugosi. Lugosi was one of the classic cases of the industry ripping off a vulnerable target. The English-challenged actor was paid all of $3500 for his iconic role in 1931’s Dracula. Meanwhile, David Manners, who was billed third or fourth in the cast, made more than four times that amount. I talked to Lugosi’s son, and more recently, his granddaughter. The granddaughter was a bit too difficult for me, so I didn’t include anything about her in the book. Almost all the others I spoke to were pretty accommodating and friendly.
An underlying theme to the book is; what exactly is fame? Once my nonfiction books were published, I began to relate a bit more to this. I’m not deluded enough to think I’m famous in any way at all, but the fact is some people (who knows how many) have heard of me. They’ve read my work and/or listened to me on the radio. I hear from strangers every day, from all over the world, who admire my work. I have stalkers as well. One guy I’ve never even exchanged posts with online writes about me regularly on a forum run by an Australian researcher who irrationally hates me. He knows way too much about me, and has constructed an inaccurate, villainous image of me. That kind of thing is pretty scary.
So, if the definition of fame is being known to others who you don’t know, I guess I have a very small measure of fame. The CEO of a corporation is famous to the thousands of employees there, but may be unknown outside that cocoon. As I noted often in my book Bullyocracy, the most popular kids in every school are essentially famous in their own little world. Big fish in a small pond. We see this same phenomenon in social settings; cliques form everywhere, from workplaces to country clubs. And there are “famous” people in all of them.
I talk about the totally forgotten famous entertainers from a few centuries ago. The stage was the Hollywood of its day, and there were plenty of marquee names who garnered public adulation. No one knows the name of even the most high profile actor of the eighteenth century now. And if not for the Lincoln assassination, no one would recognize the name of John Wilkes Booth, who was compared to Brad Pitt in terms of fame by a local historian. Like the old ballplayers dubbed The Glory of Their Times, in one of the great baseball books of all time by the same name, the greatest entertainers from a few hundred years ago have lost every measure of their fame.
On Borrowed Fame examines many of the most suspicious deaths in the entertainment business. Elvis Presley. John Lennon. Marilyn Monroe. Natalie Wood. John Belushi. Brittany Murphy. To name just a few. This, of course, is more in my wheelhouse. It is undeniable that show business is the only industry, outside of politics, which features an inordinate number of unnatural deaths, with often absurd explanations for them. Hollywood and the music business both have impressive Body Counts.
I was gratified to get some formerly big names to write blurbs for the book. Billy Gray, who played Bud Anderson on one of the seminal television shows of the 1950s, Father Knows Best. Susan Olsen, who portrayed Cindy on The Brady Bunch. Others, like singer-songwriter Graham Parker, never became household names, but meant the world to me. His music was part of the soundtrack of my youth, and I have to pinch myself to consider that we are now friends.
This book is not really uncharacteristic for me. I have been a Golden Age of Hollywood movie buff since I was a preteen, watching the yearly television broadcasts of The Wizard of Oz and King Kong, which were a big deal in those days. I loved especially the black and white world, the snappy dialogue, and the much higher production values. Everything had class. And even as a child, I wanted to write, and instinctively understood that the words recited in those older films were more literate and interesting than the current stuff.
The foundation of my populist philosophy was deeply influenced by Frank Capra’s quartet of timeless films; It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Like Huey Long’s speeches, those homages to the Little Guy struck a powerful chord within me. Capra’s admittedly naive optimism was responsible for grounding me a bit; without my mother’s happy, carefree outlook on life, and the messages in these uplifting films, I would have been as dark a cynic as my father, or one of my literary heroes, Ambrose Bierce.
I was also a fan of rock and roll from a young age. My sister bought me my first stereo when I turned seven, along with the 45s It’s Up to You by Ricky Nelson and Two Faces Have I by Lou Christie. She also threw in Rick Nelson’s Million Sellers LP. From there, I built a budding collection; most of the 45s from the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and a lesser number of LPs, including the first three Beatles’ albums. If only I hadn’t written my name on most of the LPs and 45s, I might have something really valuable.
I knew, and continue to know, way too much about pop culture. More than anyone needs to know. We used to joke that my head was full of knowledge that could never earn me any money. That turned out to be all too true. No one has ever been willing to pay me for reciting ridiculously obscure trivia about the early talkies, or one hit musical artists. Until now, I guess. Writers earn the same kind of miniscule royalty rates that even the biggest musical artists did. I could relate to the likes of Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits joking about their lack of royalties.
I purposefully tracked down the most mysterious examples of actors suddenly disappearing from the limelight. One early talkies leading man became so obscure there is no record of his death. It is only presumed he died sometime during the 1980s. Think about that; do any construction workers become that obscure? And again, it’s similar to what I run into all the time, in trying to track down JFK assassination witnesses, or those connected to 9/11, Oklahoma City, etc. They can become, in effect, as obscure as some of those old actors.
I am always confident that the my books will sell well. I was right about Hidden History and Crimes and Cover-Ups in American Politics: 1776-1963. But not about Survival of the Richest or Bullyocracy. I just can’t trigger many sales for my non-political books. On Borrowed Fame should appeal to more “normies,” and attract a much larger crossover market, than all my other books. But I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t sell much. Most of my support seems to come from the conspiracy world.
The Foreword for On Borrowed Fame was written by the only person who could write it, John Barbour. My friendship with John is the most rewarding one of my life. This man stood at the pinnacle of success when he created and hosted Real People, the number one television show in America. But he’s humble enough to be impressed with the likes of me. Barbour’s career was undoubtedly impacted by his work with Jim Garrison. Actor Paul LeMat, star of American Graffiti, is someone else I’ve communicated with quite a bit. He admitted that his career was negatively effected by his activism regarding both the JFK and RFK assassinations.
I hope you all will buy and read On Borrowed Fame. The hardback is pretty expensive, but writers have nothing to do with pricing. I’d be just as happy if you suggested it to your local library system, or perhaps your college alma mater, to add to their collection. A library sale is just the same as any other, and it can attract a lot more readers. As always, adding the book on Goodreads (and ideally giving it 5 stars) would be a big favor to me, and rating or reviewing it on Amazon would be wonderful.
I’m not often shocked by any statistic, but have just found one that truly flabbergasted me. A recent study found that one in six Americans have never been outside the confines of the state they reside in. It’s hard to believe this. But perhaps it’s not so surprising, when we consider the nature of our rigged, casino economy.
Vacations are expensive, when you’re making less than $27,000, as the bottom half of American workers do. You have to expend a far greater percentage of your income to essentials, like food and housing. Since over 70 percent of Americans have less than $1000 in savings, that doesn’t leave much room for vacations. Or even travel out of state- say to a concert or amusement park. It’s becoming more expensive every day to travel anywhere, given the rising cost of gas.
My hero Huey Long was advocating a month long paid vacation for all workers, in the early 1930s. It wasn’t until the passage of watered-down legislation in 1938, which created the forty hour work week, the concept of overtime, and vacation and sick leave, that the common people finally started traveling a bit. How many generations had lived and died without ever seeing the ocean? My grandparents certainly never did. A highlight of my grandmother’s life was a day trip to Baltimore. She lived in Washington, D.C., so this was probably her first and only time out of state.
I grew up in a lower middle-class neighborhood. We had a single real vacation during my childhood; a week long trip to Virginia Beach when I was eight years old. I remember the kids on my block thinking I was a big shot, getting to swim in the real ocean. None of them seemed to go on any vacations. As I’ve stated many times, the standard of living was much higher then for average people. But traveling really wasn’t a part of the equation for the majority of Americans, let alone the poorest half.
Until John F. Kennedy visited them during the West Virginia primary in his 1960 presidential campaign, the poorest people in America- those mired in Appalachia- were truly invisible. No exciting bling, or rap music, or drive-by shootings. Just desperate poverty. Holes in roofs. Holes in floors. No indoor plumbing. Too many living without electricity. During the 2012 census, it was discovered that some 41.5 percent of Appalachian County residents were living below the poverty line.
Obviously, no one in Appalachia enjoys a summer vacation. How many in our inner cities do? Our housing projects? Our trailer parks? Or the forgotten Native Americans, living an Apartheid existence on dilapidated Reservations? Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” was a bigger joke, and a bigger failure, than the ensuing “War on Drugs” would be. The dogs and cats in any middle-class neighborhood- never mind any palatial estate- have more creature comforts than humans in Appalachia do.
The shameful disparity of wealth- which I exposed in detail in my book Survival of the Richest, is all the more inexcusable when we consider just how much wealth there is in present-day America. If you divided up all the known wealth- and keep in mind this doesn’t include all the ill begotten offshore profits and money sheltered in tax-free foundations- amongst the people, every man, woman, and child would get something like $341,000. As Huey Long said, Every Man (and Woman) a King. And every child.
I don’t advocate such a thing. We need to keep the path to upward mobility open. The problem is, as I showed in my book, there is presently virtually no upward mobility for the poor and working class. Aside from the worlds of sports and entertainment- and succeeding in them is tantamount to the odds of winning the lottery- almost everyone born poor dies poor. The only ones who rise above their circumstances are those born wealthy, who usually become even richer. As Gerald Celente likes to describe it, “Born on third base, and think you hit a home run.”
I refer to the disparity of wealth as The Greatest Conspiracy of All. It is also the oldest conspiracy; the rich have been waging war against everyone else for all of human history. In the middle ages, royalty would force peasants to stay up all night by the ponds outside their castles, where they would be tasked with hitting the lily pads to stop the frogs from croaking. Some historians believe that among the duties of groomsmen was the wiping of the royal behind. We all know that very wealthy people have help in getting dressed. In a more modern example, many celebrities hire “ghost tweeters” to express their words on Twitter. As they say, the rich are different.
I think that says it all; some Americans have assistants to do virtually everything for them, while others have to sleep on the sidewalks. You don’t have to be a socialist, like Eugene Debs, to understand the profundity in his statement that, “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” I oppose that system, too, with everything I write and say.
A worker averaging a yearly income of $40,000, over the course of a fifty year employment career, would make a $2,000,000 cumulative income. The average salary for an NBA player is now $7.7 million. One person-Jeff Bezos is worth more than $204 billion. An average worker would have to toil for nearly four lifetimes to earn what the average pro basketball player makes in one season. And he’d have to spend 102,000 years working to earn the net worth of a Jeff Bezos. That kind of thing bothered Eugene Debs. And Huey Long. And it certainly bothers me.
Why don’t we hear some of these allegedly “communist” Democrats talk about this? Why doesn’t Bernie Sanders tout these numbers? No one can argue with them. No one can claim that any person’s life is worth more than 102,000 lifetimes are worth. As I’ve pointed out many times, if you want to judge the value of relative jobs, consider this: all the executives in the country disappear for a month. So do all the cleaning crews and trash pickup workers. Whose absence do you think would be more noticeable?
I criticize the putrid rhetoric of the authoritarian Left on a regular basis. But what about the conservative rhetoric, which scoffs at any raising of the minimum wage? The mantra is: “anybody can flip burgers!” Well, okay, but can’t anyone be a “yes man” vice-president in charge of looking out of the window? The average acolyte in upper management most notably nods in agreement at whatever his superiors say, and keeps a straight face during all those pointless mandatory meetings. I really think most of us could be trained to do that.
With cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles now taking on the ambiance of real Third World areas, this issue is more relevant than ever. Our entire rigged system could be summed up succinctly in that photo from a year or two ago, of upper class San Franciscans eating in an expensive restaurant, as one of the city’s homeless denizens defecates right outside the establishment’s large picture window. I think that illustrates it better than the desperate poverty existing only a few blocks from gated multi-million dollar mansions.
Henry David Thoreau noted that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That is a timeless and insightful observation, but what about the lives of poor men (and women)? You’d need to come up with something more grim than “quiet desperation” to describe that. Generational poverty. A family and social environment that discourages any attempt at personal betterment. Like the lobsters trying to escape the tank, the others will invariably try to drag them back down.
Yesterday, the official Jobs report caused the stock market to go up. Of course, since 90% of all stock is owned by only 10% of the people, this is largely irrelevant to the masses. It’s certainly irrelevant to that bottom half of Americans, and to the one in six who have never traveled outside of their own state. And those totally fake numbers were contradicted, a few weeks earlier, by an intrepid young man in Florida who applied for sixty entry level jobs, and got called in for one interview. And yet the conservative talking point is, “I can’t hire anyone! No one wants to work!”
I am not a conservative. Or a modern day liberal. I’m a populist and a classical liberal. I always stand up for the little guy. Huey Long bragged that he had never taken a case against a poor man. I will never write or say anything against the poor. Their poverty doesn’t bestow virtue upon them, but it does saddle them with disadvantages that few of us could overcome. I wish the Left would spend one tenth the time it spends on bleating about “racism” and “White Supremacy,” to blasting the unfairness and injustice of our class-tiered system.
Only the affluent in this country have any influence, and our “representatives” don’t represent anyone except the wealthy and powerful. The rich are more entitled than the most stereotypical “welfare queen” could ever hope to be. Things we take for granted, like owning a car, are beyond the means of the working poor. I personally know people who are too poor to buy and maintain the expenses of an automobile. They must work within walking distance, or Uber to the job. Which, of course, puts them further behind the eight ball in trying to eke out an existence.
As a young blue-collar worker in the 1980s, very few of my fellow employees were without personal transportation. Physical laborers, not making an impressive salary. But able to own their own car. That is a huge change that has occurred over less than forty years, and almost no one talks about it. And I guess all those lowly paid workers, who can’t afford cars, have another reason why they can’t travel. Not only do they not make enough money, they don’t own a vehicle to travel with.
There are things that can be done to make things fairer. Tax all income for Social Security, not just the first $120,000, as it is under the present regressive system. Tie every company’s maximum compensation package (they usually don’t call them “wages” at the top of the ladder) to a minimum wage. So the highest compensation in the company couldn’t be more than, say, twenty times the lowest compensation. That would even things up as well between small and larger companies.
Few people know that Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” program would have exempted the first million dollars of income from any taxation. That would be around $12 million in today’s dollars. So no one would have been paying income taxes at all except for the the most wealthy. Not exactly a communist plan. The biggest Ayn Rand disciple wouldn’t dare suggest a proposal that guaranteed only a tiny percentage of the population would be paying all the taxes. But Huey knew then, as I know now, that this miniscule band of elitists have a monstrously disproportionate share of the collective wealth. To get revenue, you go to who has it. They have it.
It would be impossible to create a system as corrupt and rigged as ours is, without an organized conspiracy behind it. As Truman’s Secretary of Defense James Forrestal said, before they pushed him out of a window at Bethesda Naval Hospital, if there wasn’t a grand conspiracy, once in a while they’d make a mistake in our favor. The historical record shows that nothing they’ve ever done has truly been in our favor.
William Henry Harrison, who served only thirty two days as president, the shortest term of any in American history, once said, “I believe and I say it is true Democratic feeling, that all the measures of the Government are directed to the purpose of making he rich richer and the poor poorer.” This may be the most accurate assessment of our political system that I’ve ever read. There’s a reason why we all nod appreciatively at the working class lament, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” They do.
As I write this, there are mothers fretting over whether their child will make it home alive from the mean streets of their inner city. In Appalachia, they’re gathered around the antiquated wood stove that serves to heat their tiny dwelling. Where there’s no money for a burial. Or a wedding. Or a decent Christmas. We all recognize the brilliance in Dickens’s depiction of greed in Ebeneezer Scrooge. No one thinks poverty is a good thing. And yet, there are more people now than ever before.
In between my acerbic rantings about our hopelessly criminal leaders and their reprehensible system, I try and take a moment to reflect upon what the poet Thomas Gray called “the short and simple annals of the poor.”