Category Archives: Biography

Dee L. Clayman, Berenice II and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt

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Title: Berenice II and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt

Author: Dee L. Clayman

Series: Women in Antiquity

Publication Information: Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, c2014

ISBN: 978-0-19-537089-8

Library of Congress Classification: DT92

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Berenice, Queen, consort of Ptolemy III, King of Egypt, approximately 270 B.C.-221 B.C.
Queens—Egypt—Biography
Egypt—History—332-30 B.C.
Berenice, Queen, consort of Ptolemy III, King of Egypt, approximately 270 B.C.-221 B.C.—In literature

First, I want to say that I know Dee Clayman. I am the library liaison to the Classics Program at the Graduate and University Center, City University of New York, and Clayman is the executive officer of the program.

That said, this is an interesting piece of detective work. It’s easy when writing biographies of modern people; there’s a plethora of information out there in print and on the Internet, documents, newspaper articles, photographs, you name it and you can probably find it. However, the further back into history the person existed, the harder and harder it is to do a biography.

Bernice II, the wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes I (“benefactor”), was the princess of Cyrene, which ruled the Cyrenaica, an area that is now in Libya but at that time was, up until the time of the Alexander the Great, for the most part independent. A delegation from the city met Alexander in the Siwan oasis and surrendered the city to him. Since Ptolemy I Soter (“savior’”) saw himself as Alexander’s successor in Egypt, Cyrenaica was naturally viewed as being under Ptolemaic control even though in actuality the area regained its independence.

Bernice is portrayed as a very strong woman, operating within and without the traditional, limited roles assigned by women in the Greek world. Her father, King Magas, had planned on her marrying her cousin Ptolemy, thereby bringing Cyrenaica back under Egyptian control. Upon his death, however, Bernice’s mother, Apama, had other ideas. She repudiated the arranged marriage and instead had Bernice marry Demetrius the Fair, a prince from Macedonia. Demetrius was arrogant and scandalized the Cyrenean court by having an affair with his mother-in-law. (This was probably considered incest by the Greeks.) Taking advantage of the situation, Berenice rallied support behind her, and had Demetrius killed in his mother’s bed chamber; she spared her mother’s life. After this, Berenice sailed to Alexandria and married Ptolemy just as her father had planned.

And what do we know about Berenice? All that is known comes from the literature of the time. Callimachus, appointed head of the Alexandrian library, was one who would write poetry in praise of Berenice. This type of hagiography is typical for the time, but not all hagiographers were successful in their works. Apollonius Rhodius, the author of Argonautica which was about Ptolemaic times veiled in mythology, was driven from Alexandria and ended up in exile on the island of Rhodes. Callimachus, also from Cyrene, had a common background with Berenice that he exploited until he became close to her—as close as a servant could come to a queen.

Berenice, like her husband, was a highly cultured individual. Heads of sculpture identified as Berenice have been found in Alexandria and all over the Near East including the Athenian agora, thus serving as an example of the influence of Ptolemy III over the region. It was at this time that Ptolemaic Greek culture flourished; the Alexandrian library was well-funded, and Ptolemy and Berenice built temples all over Egypt. The Serapeum in Egypt was enlarged, with a library being added which was known as the “daughter” of the original Alexandrian library. The Ptolemaion, a gymnasium that also contained a library, was probably built by Ptolemy III and given as a gift to the people of Athens. There is even some evidence that Bernice may have played a role in foreign affairs.

How the Ptolemies portrayed themselves to their subjects and the world deserves mention. It was ancient Egyptian custom for the kings of Egypt to marry their sisters and daughters. These incestuous unions were common. Ptolemy I portrayed himself and his wife as brother and sister even though they were not. Ptolemy II actually married his full sister and had Ptolemy III and other children with her. Ptolemy III and Bernice’s marriage was cast in terms of a brother-sister union. Outside of Egypt, however, unions of this type (Ptolemy I and III’s marriages; Ptolemy II’s certainly) would considered incestuous; the Greeks would not have accepted them. Therefore, all three Ptolemies and their wives were referred to in traditional terms of king and queen. Only in Egypt was the brother-sister unions promoted and seen as a continuation of the dynasties that came before.

Clayman compares Berenice to Cleopatra VII—the Cleopatra known from her love affairs with Caesar and Antony. Both were daring, intelligent women. Unlike Berenice, Cleopatra ruled in her own right; like Berenice, Cleopatra’s end was tragic. Berenice was murdered by her son, Ptolemy IV who killed not only her but his younger brother Magas and his uncle to make sure there was no one to challenge his rule. And from here, Ptolemaic Egypt declined as Ptolemy IV, debauched and irresponsible, started the state on its way to ruin. Ironically, Cleopatra was not only the last of the Ptolemies but also a very intelligent, cultured and capable individual that, in better times, could have continued the expansion and influence of Ptolemy III and Bernice II. Unfortunately, she inherited an Egypt that already hampered by Roman interests, its greatness long gone.

This book actually supplements my research focus on ancient libraries. It was interesting to get a flavor of who was ruling Egypt at the time when the Alexandrian library and Museion (the scholarly building of which the library was a part) were at their height.

Thomas A. Foster, Sex and the Founding Fathers: the American Quest for a Relatable Past

(2014-03-09 023)Title: Sex Lives and the Founding Fathers: the American Quest for a Relatable Past [NETGALLERY DOWNLOAD]

Author: Thomas A. Foster

Series: Sexuality Studies

Publication Information: Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014

ISBN: 1439911029 (978-1439911020)

Library of Congress Classification: E302.5

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Founding Fathers of the United States—Sexual behavior—United States—History
Presidents—Sexual behavior—United States—History
United States—History, 1783-1815—Biography

This is an interesting book.

Anything that has sex in the title usually sells, and Foster goes through the sex lives of the Founding Fathers: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris, the least remembered. Foster traces how the sex lives (what we know about them, which in most cases is not much) have changed in biographies over time from right after the Revolutionary War to now. It is a fascinating look at how society has perceived the Founders, and the importance of their sex lives is to the public.

Most of the Founders left very little about their personal lives, with the exception of Franklin and Morris. With George’s death, Martha Washington burned most of their correspondence so little of it remains. Adams was fearful of putting anything private in letters because a popular past-time was the reading of letters to friends and relatives. Private parts of letters were marked but Adams took no chances. What is known about Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the slave who is now believed was his lover, is circumstantial. Such stories circulated about Jefferson while he lived, but such stories were put out by political opponents to smear their rivals. There is no doubt that Hemings’ descendants are related to the third president, but was he or another Jefferson  her lover?

Hamilton’s affair with another woman was made public by his enemies because he was being blackmailed by the woman and her husband; he enemies wanted to cast Hamilton as an embezzler of public funds to pay off the blackmailers. This proved to be untrue and Hamilton, who was illegitimate, went public with what happened to him. Washington stood by him.

Franklin wrote is autobiography, which allowed him to shape his legacy, the only Founder to do so. His oldest son was born out of wedlock, and Franklin and his wife raised the boy. Franklin has always been seen as a ladies man, and he was sexually active before he married. He also had plenty of opportunities when he was in France. Franklin made the rounds of the salons that were run by women, but these groups were more than just social get-togethers. Politics, dealing and spying were rolled into the gatherings presided over by the French aristocratic women. Did Franklin cheat on his wife, or was it all just show? He is not considered a good husband; even after receiving a letter from his wife imploring him to return home to see her before she died, he did not come back until after her death.

Was Adams a good husband? Like the relationship between George and Martha Washington, the marriage of John and Abigail Adams has been portrayed as loving and warm. Adams was not at home much, traveling around the colonies and eventually going to France with Franklin to represent the United States at the French court during the Revolution. Again, there is not much evidence to base a judgment. Hamilton is seen by many as the “gay” Founder because of an intense relationship he had with another soldier in the Revolutionary Army. There are letters where their affection for one another is evident, but Foster points out that letters of the time were written in a certain style. Was Hamilton close friends with this young man, who died in the Revolution, or were they lovers? Again, the evidence is circumstantial.

Morris’ legacy was mixed right after he died; he was a known libertine, at least before he got married (in his 50s); he liked sex, and he liked women. Unlike the rest, including Franklin, Morris kept extensive diaries that not only discussed what he was doing but with whom he was having affairs. It was not unusual for Morris to record his activities in the salon, doing some political dealing, then slipping off to have a tryst with his favorite aristocrat, whose cuckold husband was clueless and, at least in one case, was in the next room. What is most shocking is that many of Morris’ entries have been vandalized; lines and pieces of entries have been scratched out, making much of it unreadable. An earlier biography by a relative cited some of these now-destroyed entries, so who vandalized the diaries?

A very interesting book.

John Lithgow, Drama: an Actor’s Education

(2013-07-12 133)Title: Drama: an actor’s education [UNCORRECTED PROOF]

Publication Information: New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-06-173497-7

Library of Congress Classification: PN2287.L473

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Lithgow, John, 1945-
Actors—United States—Biography.

As stated, this is an uncorrected proof, which I got at one of the publishers’ functions for librarians the day before Book Expo America a few years ago. John Lithgow attended, but no one got a chance to talk to him. He read the foreword of his autobiography to those assembled and then left. The foreword deals with his father’s recovery from a serious operation and his bouncing back to his jovial self before his death less than two years later.

Lithgow’s book is about his life as an actor: the pitfalls and the privileges that come with the job. However, his father is always off in the wings, so to speak, as Lithgow recounts his life and adventures on the New York stage as well as in Hollywood. Lithgow’s father comes back into the autobiography on a regular basis. His father had a big impact on his life.

Lithgow’s father wanted to be an actor but ended up directing plays and went wherever there was work. He took his family with him as he moved from town to town. This took a toll on young John, who would make friends in his new town only to leave a year or so later and to have to start all over again. This type of moving affected him deeply and probably helped create what Lithgow called his “delayed adolescence.” His father never offered comforting words to console his son; as the autobiography progresses, his father’s fatal flaw emerges.

There is no doubt that Lithgow loved his father, but his father—like all fathers who are, after all, only human—was never there to give support and advice as Lithgow grew up. Lithgow can remember his father being there for celebrations and all the good memories he has of family functions. However, whenever there was a problem or crisis his father, though present, never gave his opinion or advice. Lithgow married at 21 and recounts that his father never offered him any advice about how much work a marriage is, or that he was too young to get married. Lithgow later divorces his first wife after a string of affairs that he has over the years, scarring himself, his ex-wife, and their young son.

Lithgow does not give any details about the “wild parties” held by the cast of the various plays in which he acted. He mentions these parties early in the book. It is only within the last thirty or so pages that he admits to his infidelity. He then discusses how leads in plays and movies very often end up falling in love, at least until the end of the production, when reality returns.

I never paid much attention to John Lithgow (I pay little attention to Hollywood overall), but this was an open and honest portrait of someone who has been on the stage and before the camera for decades. From his childhood to his second marriage, Lithgow recounts his life and experience as an actor with candor and humor.

Simon Pegg, Nerd do Well: a Small Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Big Kid

(2013-07-07 096)Title: Nerd Do Well: a Small Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Big Kid

Author: Simon Pegg

Publication Information: New York, N.Y.: Gotham Books, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-592-40681-4

Library of Congress Classification: PN2598.P367

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Pegg, Simon, 1970-
Motion picture actors and actresses—Great Britain—Biography
Television actors and actresses—Great Britain—Biography

It’s hard to call this book an autobiography, since Simon Pegg isn’t that old. I’d call it more of a memoir. This might be splitting hairs, but the book is by someone who is slightly younger than I am, and I still have a lot of living to do.

The book was interesting, but every few chapters Pegg would write about himself as a 007-type, Simon Bisley, complete with robot servant and big-breasted arch-enemy with whom he has terrific sex. Pegg is a comedian and knows his craft well, but this just was not my cup of tea. I found myself rolling my eyes at the beginning of each fantasy chapter. (Another reason I do not consider this an autobiography.)

Pegg talks about his childhood in England and the things that helped shape who he is today, specifically the first three Star Wars films. He recounts when he had to see Return of the Jedi after it premiered because of a medical procedure. This reminded me of when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back with my friend Tom at the Showcase Cinemas East outside of Pittsburgh on the day it premiered; the two of us also saw Return in the same theater three years later when it, too, premiered.

There are many growing up stories. No one who has read the book can question that Pegg is heterosexual, as he recounts the hundreds of women he fell in love with as a child, Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, the French girl he met one summer, and of course the well-endowed Simon Bisley arch-enemy. He did a stand-up routine in grade school every Monday, a deal he made with a teacher to stop being disruptive in class.

The most poignant part of the book is when Pegg recalls the death of a childhood playmate, He was a rival for Pegg’s best friend’s affections and the two of them would fight occasionally when the three of them were together, but they were happy playing with their Star Wars action figures in the woods behind Pegg’s house. His best friend told him of the death, and then the two of them went into the woods to play with their action figures. It’s after this loss that Pegg begins to understand death.

Playing Scotty in the reboot of Star Trek was a dream come true for Pegg. He’s got some interesting stories about the people he’s met as an actor, and he’s made new friends since his career started. As for meeting his fans, Pegg tells a story that, as a child, he approached one of his idols for an autograph. Pegg got the autograph, but the person was rather nasty. This taught him a valuable lesson: no matter how he feels when someone approaches him, he always tries to be nice and give them the autograph or picture.

How I got interested in Pegg is when a co-worker told me about Shawn of the Dead. It’s a good movie. (I own it and watch it periodically.) Yes, the protagonist is an idiot, but he is a likable one. Pegg admits to being a dick when he was growing up, and embraces his nerdiness, hence the title. Besides Star Wars, he liked Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Thunderbirds—all shows that I liked or later liked when I learned about them.

A definite must for Pegg fans.

Michael Seth Starr, Hiding in Plain Sight: the Secret Life of Raymond Burr

(2013-07-07 095)Title: Hiding in Plain Sight: the Secret Life of Raymond Burr

Author: Michael Seth Starr

ISBN: 978-1-55783-694-6

Publication Information: New York: Applause Theater & Cinema Books, 2008

Library of Congress Classification: PN2287.B88

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Burr, Raymond, 1917-1993
Actors—United States—Biography

Raymond Burr came from the same generation as Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors where homosexuality was not only a crime, but it was not talked about. All gay actors were closeted, and the studios had women that they would have their male stars “date” by taking them to various appearances at events. Some, such as Hudson and Burr, actually were married. In their case, the marriages ended in divorce.

Burr was a product of his time. He told the story that he had been married before his actual marriage. This marriage resulted in a son. His wife was killed in the airplane crash that took Leslie Howard’s life and his son, at the age of 10, died of leukemia. There was no truth to these stories, but Burr repeated and embelished them throughout the decades. Burr refused to talk about them whenever asked, so that it became accepted as gospel until after Burr’s death. Even in 1991, when he had returned to television in an Ironside movie, Burr talked about finding someone to finally marry and settle down. Burr had already been with his partner, Robert Benevides, for decades.

The gossip columnists were all-powerful in early Hollywood, and Burr made friends with Hedda Hopper, who helped keep his sexuality a secret. In return, Burr would pass on tidbits of information he would learn from working on the Hollywood sets and the dinner parties he would throw. (Burr loved to cook.) Hopper’s son William became one of the regulars on Perry Mason.

Though a very busy character actor once he had established his career, Burr only played the heavy, and he was desperate to get out from under that image. His first leading role was as a defense attorney in Please Murder Me. Playing opposite him was Angela Lansbury as the scheming, manipulative murderer whom Burr’s character gets off. However, it was Perry Mason that changed the public view of Burr. Perry Mason proved so popular that it spawned a series of reunion movies that outlasted Burr, who died in 1993.

Burr was a private person, though, and most people were not able to penetrate his demeanor. He was a big man, over six foot, and always struggled with his weight. A heavy smoker in his early years, Burr had a deep, commanding voice and was always able to steer conversations with reporters. He kept his proclivities well-hidden, but that did not mean that his fellow actors did not know that he was gay. As Angela Lansbury said, “We know there were certain aspects of their [male actors’] lives that weren’t necessarily one thing or another, but in those days they were such icons in the movies that nobody bothered—and certainly it never occurred to the public, I’m sure.” In Burr’s case, it took him awhile to become an “icon,” and in the meantime he kept who he really was well-hidden.

This book isn’t a who-did-Burr-do, but a biography about a gay actor who had to hide who he was all his life. Burr had to assume a persona where he was heterosexual, a man’s man. Perhaps what is heartening about Burr’s life is that he had a wonderful one in spite of the public lies, and was happy with his partner. Later in life after living on a Polynesian island he bought from a dying Englishwoman, Burr and Benevides relocated to California where they started a winery, which is still producing wines.

The book is an easy read. The focus is definitely on Burr and his career in Hollywood. I felt that there was something lacking, though. Burr did not write an autobiography, so any personal insights are impossible, and unless Benevides writes an autobiography of his life with Burr, some things will remain a mystery.

Perhaps this is the way it should be.