Book Review: House of Nutter

house of nutterHouse of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row
by Lance Richardson
Nonfiction / Biography / LGBT
375 pages
Published 2018

This biography is titled for Tommy Nutter, the tailor, but it’s really a dual biography of Tommy and his older brother, David. Both gay, both influential in their own celebrity circles, both intimately affected by the AIDS crisis.

Lance Richardson is himself gay, and I think his personal connection brings a depth to the biography that a straight author wouldn’t have. He writes about the persecution of gay men in Britain in the 70s, and the underground gay clubs, with a kind of underlying passion that illustrates the pressure these men were under to hide the very cores of themselves while still finding a sense of community and revelry with each other. (And later, when he talks about the AIDS crisis in the 90s, you can feel the emotions and grief behind the fairly objective words.)

The story itself is gripping; Tommy the tailor and David the photographer, and the high-profile celebrities they orbited around – The Beatles, Yoko Ono, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson. Tommy made clothes for them all, including the suits three of the Beatles wore on the cover of Abbey Road, and the outfits worn by Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman. David took photographs of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s wedding, and was Elton John’s personal photographer, publishing a book of photos of the star in 1977.

The biography is part social history, giving an incredible view of the underground gay club scene in the 70s and 80s in London and New York, which the two brothers bounced between.

One thing I was struck by is how casually everyone used drugs at the time! Tailor’s assistants mention doing speed to get work done; everyone drunk themselves into a stupor as often as they could; David unexpectedly blacks out after combining alcohol and some kind of drug while partying one night. David ferries cocaine for a friend/employer at one point – and not a little bit of cocaine, either. A lot. It was definitely a different era for drug use!

The book is also an amazing example of how much people can influence culture and still be forgotten. I’d never heard of David or Tommy Nutter, but the celebrities they clothed and photographed almost everyone has heard of! They didn’t just clothe and photograph them, but influence them. David was a close friend of Elton John’s, cheering him up when he fell into the depths of depression. Tommy was a major pillar of support for the manager of The Beatles, and created a lot of Elton John’s off-stage wear. These two were huge in the cultural change of the 70s and 80s. How do we not know their names?

I really enjoyed this book, and it’s a great piece of gay history for Pride Month. I highly recommend it.

From the cover of House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row:

From an early age, there was something different about Tommy and David Nutter. Growing up in an austere apartment above a cafe catering to truck drivers, both boys seemed destined to lead rather humble lives in post-war London – Tommy as a civil servant, David as a darkroom technician. Yet the strength of their imagination (plus a little help from their friends) transformed them instead into unlikely protagonists of a swinging cultural revolution.

In 1969, at the age of twenty-six, Tommy opened an unusual new boutique on the “golden mile” of bespoke tailoring, Savile Row. While shocking a haughty establishment resistant to change, “Nutters of Savile Row” became an immediate sensation among the young, rich, and beautiful, beguiling everyone from Bianca Jagger to the Beatles – who immortalized Tommy’s designs on the album cover of Abbey Road. Meanwhile, David’s innate talent with a camera vaulted him across the Atlantic to New York City, where he found himself in a parallel constellation of stars (Yoko Ono, Elton John), who enjoyed his dry wit almost as much as his photography. 

House of Nutter tells the stunning true story of two gay men who influenced some of the most iconic styles and pop images of the twentieth century. Drawing on interviews with more than seventy people – and taking advantage of unparalleled access to never-before-seen pictures, letters, sketches, and diaries – journalist Lance Richardson presents a dual portrait of brothers improvising their way through five decades of extraordinary events, their personal struggles playing out against vivid backdrops of the Blitz, an obscenity trial, the birth of disco, and the devastation of the AIDS crisis. 

A propulsive, deftly plotted narrative filled with surprising details and near-operatic twists, House of Nutter takes readers on a wild ride into the minds and times of two brilliant dreamers.

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Book Review: The Black Rose

black roseThe Black Rose
by Tananarive Due
Biography/Fiction
373 pages
Published 2001

The Black Rose is the lightly fictionalized story of the life of Madame C. J. Walker, America’s first black female millionaire. Tananarive Due seems to have taken over the project from Alex Haley, the acclaimed late co-author of Malcolm X’s autobiography. Due is a wonderful storyteller; many biographies I’ve read have been dry and uninteresting, but The Black Rose is technically a novel, and kept my attention through the entire book. Madame Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, is an incredibly charismatic figure. She was born to former slaves just after the Civil War – the only member of her family born free – and the book chronicles her entire life. From her parents’ deaths, to her early years working in a cotton field, to being a washerwoman, cook, then finally an entrepreneur. According to Wiki she had four brothers; the book only mentions one. Wiki also mentions a marriage in between her daughter’s father and CJ Walker; that one wasn’t mentioned in the book at all. So there are some differences.

The Black Rose is an engrossing look at an influential woman whose name seems to be largely forgotten. Or perhaps it’s only forgotten because we’re not taught nearly as much African-American history as we should be in this country. Madame Walker’s company was a path to economic freedom for thousands of black women in the early 20th century. Besides the jobs she created, she also made many charitable donations and was active in politics and civil rights, participating in marches and, once, visiting the White House to speak with the president. (According to the book, the president declined to speak with her group, though.)

This is a good example of why I’m trying to diversify my reading. I didn’t know the name C. J. Walker. I had no idea where she came from, or the scope of the company she built and the people she helped.

Excellent, educational book.

I actually really don’t like the cover, though, so this is my pick for “ugly cover” for the 2018 PopSugar Reading Challenge!

From the cover of The Black Rose:

Born to former slaves on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker rose from poverty and indignity to become America’s first black female millionaire, the head of a hugely successful beauty company, and a leading philanthropist in African American causes. Renowned author Alex Haley became fascinated by the story of this extraordinary heroine, and before his death in 1992, he embarked on the research and outline of a major novel based on her life. Now with The Black Rose, critically acclaimed writer Tananarive Due brings Haley’s work to an inspiring completion. 

Blending documented history, vivid dialogue, and a sweeping fictionalized narrative, Tananarive Due paints a vivid portrait of this passionate and tenacious pioneer and the unforgettable era in which she lived.

Book Review: The Notorious R.B.G.

notorious rbgNotorious R.B.G.
by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik
Biography
195 pages
Published 2015

This was EXCELLENT. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of my feminist heroes (I have a long list, with biographies I should read!) and this book is great. It’s VERY easy to read, and was never less than fascinating. It includes some of her dissents, with commentary for the layperson written by various lawyers. There are photos of her at various points in her life; her face now is so familiar that seeing pictures of her as a young lawyer was really neat.

The only thing I didn’t like was that it’s not completely linear; there’s a chapter about her 56-year-long marriage to Marty Ginsburg, ending with his death, and then the next chapter starts talking about Marty’s reaction to something! So that was slightly odd and I had to flip back a few pages to find the actual dates for what I was reading about now.

Other than that, though, the book was really interesting, and talks about the cases she argued before the Supreme Court before becoming a justice, her nomination and senate confirmation to the Court, and the cases she’s seen since becoming a justice. It talks about how Ruth and Marty balanced their work and home lives, in a way that was definitely not normal at the time; Marty was a full partner in parenting and housework, taking over all of the cooking and the 2 am infant feedings because it was easier for him to get back to sleep!

Overall, this was a really neat look into the life of one of the U.S.’s most prominent female figures right now. Justice Ginsburg has been a tireless fighter for equality for her entire career, and this book reveals some of her motivations and thought processes. I loved it.

(This is also my PopSugar 2018 selection for “Book by two authors.”)

From the cover of Notorious RBG:

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg never asked for fame—she has only tried to make the world a little better and a little freer.

But nearly a half-century into her career, something funny happened to the octogenarian: she won the internet. Across America, people who weren’t even born when Ginsburg first made her name as a feminist pioneer are tattooing themselves with her face, setting her famously searing dissents to music, and making viral videos in tribute.

Notorious RBG, inspired by the Tumblr that amused the Justice herself and brought to you by its founder and an award-winning feminist journalist, is more than just a love letter. It draws on intimate access to Ginsburg’s family members, close friends, colleagues, and clerks, as well an interview with the Justice herself. An original hybrid of reported narrative, annotated dissents, rare archival photos and documents, and illustrations, the book tells a never-before-told story of an unusual and transformative woman who transcends generational divides. As the country struggles with the unfinished business of gender equality and civil rights, Ginsburg stands as a testament to how far we can come with a little chutzpah.

Book Review: Angry Optimist – The Life and Times of Jon Stewart

angryoptAngry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart
Lisa Rogak
Biography
225 pages
Published 2014

So I’m a little ambivalent about this book. Jon Stewart took over at The Daily Show the same year I graduated high school. I was 16 and only starting to pay attention to politics. I was also raised quite conservative Christian – the pundit we listened to the most was Rush Limbaugh. And here was a man saying things that were the total opposite of what I’d been taught – but also things that resonated a lot more with me. Many years later, when The Daily Show and Jon Stewart were labeled the most trusted voices in news media, I had no trouble at all believing it. He not only knew how to speak to my generation, he also spoke for us. All the things we were thinking, he was out there shouting. He was our window into this grown up, corrupted world of politics, and we loved him for it.

Not to say he’s perfect. I’d heard – and Angry Optimist mentions – that he can occasionally be a rage-filled asshole. That the staff of The Daily Show has a woman problem. (As in, not enough of them, and can’t keep them.) So while I do admire the man, I am not blind to his flaws.

The book is interesting – I learned more about his early life and career – but nothing really game-changing. And perhaps that says something about Stewart. There aren’t really any skeletons in his closet, or scandalous stories. He’s just an angry Jewish comedian.

Rogak’s style of writing is easily consumed; I read the entire book in about three hours. Perhaps part of why I find it so anticlimactic is that she ends it with this sense of not knowing what Stewart might be up to next, and whether, if he does decide to leave The Daily Show eventually, if the show will end with him – and we know those answers now, three years after the book was published. Stewart has retired (barring the occasional appearance on Colbert’s show) and Trevor Noah is doing an admirable job of holding down the fort after Stewart’s exit. (With less anger, and a little more befuddlement, which is a fun change.) I was also a little disappointed that she mentions Stewart’s friendship with Anthony Weiner – but doesn’t say anything about how he took the ribbing from Stewart over Weiner’s rather unglamorous exit from politics.

I have also heard that the audio book is not good – apparently the narrator is boring. So I’d recommend the print book over the audio, if you choose to read it.

From the cover of Angry Optimist

Since his arrival at The Daily Show in 1999, Jon Stewart has become one of the major players in comedy as well as one of the most significant liberal voices in the media. In Angry Optimist, biographer Lisa Rogak charts his unlikely rise to stardom. She follows him from his early days growing up in New Jersey, through his years as a struggling stand-up comic in New York, and on the short-lived but acclaimed The Jon Stewart Show. And she charts his humbling string of near-misses – passed over as a replacement for shows hosted by Conan O’Brien, Tom Snyder, and even the fictional Larry Sanders – before landing on a half-hour comedy show that at the time was still finding its footing amidst roiling internal drama. 

Once there, Stewart transformed The Daily Show into one of the most influential new programs on television today. Drawing on interviews with his current and former colleagues, Rogak reveals how things work – and sometimes don’t work – behind the scenes at The Daily Show, led by Jon Stewart, a comedian who has come to wield incredible power in American politics.