The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure

The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure

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by John Mitchinson, John Lloyd
     
 

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The team behind the New York Times bestseller The Book of General Ignorance turns conventional biography on its head—and shakes out the good stuff.
 
Following their Herculean—or is it Sisyphean?—efforts to save the living from ignorance, the two wittiest Johns in the English language turn their attention to the

Overview

The team behind the New York Times bestseller The Book of General Ignorance turns conventional biography on its head—and shakes out the good stuff.
 
Following their Herculean—or is it Sisyphean?—efforts to save the living from ignorance, the two wittiest Johns in the English language turn their attention to the dead.
 
As the authors themselves say, “The first thing that strikes you about the Dead is just how many of them there are.” Helpfully, Lloyd and Mitchinson have employed a simple—but ruthless—criterion for inclusion: the dead person has to be interesting.
 
Here, then, is a dictionary of the dead, an encyclopedia of the embalmed. Ludicrous in scope, whimsical in its arrangement, this wildly entertaining tome presents pithy and provocative biographies of the no-longer-living from the famous to the undeservedly and—until now—permanently obscure. Spades in hand, Lloyd and Mitchinson have dug up everything embarrassing, fascinating, and downright weird about their subjects’ lives and added their own uniquely irreverent observations.
 
Organized by capricious categories—such as dead people who died virgins, who kept pet monkeys, who lost limbs, whose corpses refused to stay put—the dearly departed, from the inventor of the stove to a cross-dressing, bear-baiting female gangster finally receive the epitaphs they truly deserve.
 
Discover:

* Why Freud had a lifelong fear of trains
* The one thing that really made Isaac Newton laugh
* How Catherine the Great really died (no horse was involved)
 
Much like the country doctor who cured smallpox (he’s in here), Lloyd and Mitchinson have the perfect antidote for anyone out there dying of boredom. The Book of the Dead—like life itself—is hilarious, tragic, bizarre, and amazing. You may never pass a graveyard again without chuckling.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this biographical miscellany, British authors Lloyd and Mitchinson scan the lives of "three score and eight" historical figures ranging from the world famous (Marx, Freud, Alexander the Great) to the forgotten (Mary Seacole, Titus Oates, Archibald Belaney). The authors' aim with these capsule sketches is to provide material about their subjects that "their official biographers would have unquestionably left out." This means sex, of course, but also includes mental illness, hearsay, and just plain bad taste. As the average sketch runs about four pages, there is not much opportunity for depth. The authors' combat this through prurience, glib psychologizing, and by linking their subjects thematically: Leonardo da Vinci and Lord Byron are in the same section because they had "a bad start in life," while Genghis Khan and Robert Peary were "driven"; they also discuss the sexual proclivities of H.G. Wells and Catherine the Great. As the biographies are all crammed so closely together, they quickly begin to blur into one another. (Sept.)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307716415
Publisher:
Crown/Archetype
Publication date:
09/07/2010
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
416
Sales rank:
974,755
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

from Chapter Four, Let’s Do It
 
Some people didn’t wait for Alfred Kinsey to come along to know they needn’t be ashamed of their sexual desires, among them the actress Tallulah Bankhead (1902–68) who bragged that she had over 500 lovers. When the Kinsey report was published, she’d seen it all before: “The good doctor’s clinical notes were old hat to me,” she remarked.

As a girl Tallulah was short and plump, weighing almost 140 pounds and just 5’2” tall, but by the age of fifteen she had shed enough puppy fat to win a beauty contest in her home town, Montgomery, Alabama. This decided her to head for New York and try her luck as an actress. She went on to appear in over fifty plays and eighteen films, with her final appearance as a character called the “Black Widow” in a 1967 episode of Batman.

Early on, she got a reputation for partying, and was a regular user of cocaine and marijuana. She was annoyed by what she saw as petit bourgeois fears about drug misuse, but chose humor to confront it: “Cocaine isn’t addictive,” she said, “I should know: I’ve been using it for years.” She was equally blasé about sex. She was once asked if it was true that she had been raped as a twelve-year-old on the drive of her father’s home. “Yes, it was awful, truly awful,” she said. “You see, we had so much gravel.” Her early career on Broadway was a series of false starts but in 1923 she came to London to appear in a play called The Dancers opposite the suave elder statesman of the West End stage, Gerald du Maurier. Her lustrous hair, husky voice and exuberant cartwheels turned her into an overnight star. The writer and actor Emlyn Williams wrote that her voice “was steeped as deep in sex as the human voice can go without drowning.” Her most devoted fans were her “Gallery Girls,” a group of Cockney teenagers who cheered, stamped their feet and threw flowers onto the stage whenever she said a line. The writer Arnold Bennett was dazzled:
 
Ordinary stars get “hands.” If Tallulah gets a “hand” it is not heard. What is heard is a terrific, wild, passionate, hysterical roar and shriek. Only the phrase of the Psalmist can describe it: “God is gone up with a shout.”
 
Winston Churchill was a regular at her shows and before long “to Tallulah” had become a verb. She told an American reporter: “Over here they like me ‘to Tallulah.’” You know – dance and sing and romp and fluff my hair and play reckless parts.” After a triumphant and extravagant eight years, she returned to the USA to be signed up by Paramount who planned to make her “the new Dietrich.” They didn’t: they made a string of turkeys. There was something about the nature of film that failed to capture what made her so sexy and delicious in the flesh. She continued to make the occasional movie but, through the 1930s and 1940s, her best work was on Broadway.
Tallulah was bisexual but liked to joke that she couldn’t be a lesbian because “they have no sense of humor,” and she once let slip that she could never have an orgasm with anyone she was in love with. The only man she truly loved was an English aristocrat called Napier Sturt Alington, known as “Naps,” who was also bisexual. He married someone else, became a fighter pilot and died in the Battle of Britain. Tallulah married only once, in 1937, to the bit-part actor John Emery. She told friends that she had chosen him because he was “hung like John Barrymore,” but later confided that “the weapon may be of admirable proportions but the shot is weak.” They never had children and were divorced after four years. When she was thirty, Tallulah had to have a hysterectomy brought on by a bad case of gonorrhea, an infection she blamed on going to bed with Gary Cooper. Leaving hospital in a very weakened condition, and having lost a lot of weight, she barked at her doctor, “Don’t for one minute think this has taught me a lesson!”

She was the mistress of the one-liner. When a former lover came up to her excitedly babbling that he hadn’t seen her for many years, she shot back: “I thought I told you to wait in the car.”

Arranging an assignation, she scribbled a note: “I’ll come and make love to you at five o’clock. If I’m late, start without me.” She talked non-stop: one of her friends followed her around for a day, timing her with a stopwatch, and estimated that she spoke 70,000 words – the length of a short novel. As the Hollywood publicist Howard Ditz wearily remarked, “A day away from Tallulah is like a month in the country.” Sometimes her mouth got her into serious trouble. Speaking to a fan magazine in 1932, Tallulah confessed that she hadn’t had an affair for six months, adding, “Six months is a long, long while, I WANT A MAN!” This drew a sharp reprimand from Will Hays, Hollywood’s censor and moral guardian, for allowing a star to indulge in “verbal moral turpitude.”

Tallulah took her clothes off in public so often that her friend Estelle Winwood asked, “Why do you do that, Tallulah? You have such pretty frocks.” She was notorious for not wearing underwear, and delighted in showing off the fact to as many people as possible. When the film crew complained of her regular exposures on the set of Lifeboat in 1944, Alfred Hitchcock’s laconic reply was: “I don’t know whether that’s a concern for wardrobe or hairdressing.”

Interviewing Tallulah was never easy. When Time magazine tried it in 1948, their reporters came away bemused. She had played the piano, performed some ballet, told jokes, done impersonations, made them lunch, plied them with mint juleps and talked without pause— accompanied by several dogs and her free-flying budgie, Gaylord, whom she had taught to drink champagne. (Luckily, by that time, she had got rid of her pet lion, Winston, and her chimp, King Kong.) As usual, her conversation was peppered with bon mots, which included, “I never think out anything, dahling; I do it instinctively or not at all. I do things I’d loathe in anybody else.” Trying to pinpoint her age, the reporters sought verification from her younger sister Eugenia who sighed:
“Every time Tallulah knocks a year off her age, I have to, too. I’m not sure how long I can keep it up.”

Success, as opposed to notoriety, returned to her life from two unexpected quarters. In 1950 she became the host of a weekly celebrity talk radio slot called “The Big Show.” It featured Tallulah reciting Dorothy Parker monologues, interviewing other stars and introducing comic turns by the likes of Jimmy Durante and Groucho Marx. Held together by her unpredictable charm, it became an instant hit. Then two years later her autobiography Tallulah went straight to the top of the best-seller lists. She had recorded most of it on a tape recorder and it reads like one long, frank, funny, opinionated Tallulah monologue.  This welcome return to the limelight couldn’t mask her rapid descent into dependency on drink and sleeping pills. She recruited a bevy of young men as her assistants, calling them her “caddies.” Although they were usually gay, they often had to sleep in her bed because she was terrified of being alone. At night, one of her boys would tape her wrists together to stop her taking any more pills. Raddled, frequently irrational, her looks a grim parody of her former beauty, she still had her sense of humor.  Not long before she died, a fan approached her and asked if she was Tallulah Bankhead. “Well, I’m what’s left of her, darling,” she replied.
Long after her death, declassified British government papers revealed that Miss Bankhead had been investigated by MI5 in the 1920s over allegations that she had corrupted the morals of pupils at Eton with indecent and unnatural acts. No conclusive proof was ever found.


From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

JOHN LLOYD has a broadcasting background. As a radio producer he devised The News Quiz and To the Manor Born before moving to television to start Not the Nine O’Clock News, Spitting Image, and Blackadder. Like the philosopher William James, he thinks there are only three important things in life: “The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”
 
JOHN MITCHINSON is from the world of books. The original marketing director of Waterstone’s, he became managing director of Cassell, where he published The Beatles, Michael Palin and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. He’s with Einstein: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
 
The cult TV panel show QI first aired on the BBC in September 2003 with John Lloyd producing and John Mitchinson in charge of the research.


From the Hardcover edition.

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The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
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SheilaDeeth More than 1 year ago
Stephen Fry calls this book “dead good” according to the cover text. And he’s right. It’s weird, odd, intriguing, absorbing and deathly good. It’s also a perfect reminder, to fiction readers like me, that biographies can be entertaining reads. It’s the sort of book where you’ll laugh quietly, then insist on telling some vital detail to whoever’s sitting nearby, then you’ll read on, and read aloud, and no one will wonder why. It’s full of strange and fascinating details. It’s classified and collected in such a curious way (dead people who kept monkeys perhaps) that you’ll never know what’s coming next. It’s well constructed with fascinating tie-ins and connections that really shouldn’t work. And it covers a world and a wealth of people who only have in common the fact that they’re dead. Study Catherine the Great’s sex life, imagine St. Cuthbert’s visions, spy on the discovery of a smallpox vaccine (and learn the reason, in passing, that it’s called vaccination), then follow the lives and times of many many more, justifiably famous or unjustifiably obscure. And enjoy! Disclosure: One of my sons gave me this book for Christmas
EZEKILL More than 1 year ago
Wow, this book is an excellent read, especially when you want bite sized information. You will learn a lot of obscure information about people from Sigmund Freud to Nikolai Tesla. It's one that's great to keep coming back to every now and then. If you would like to learn about the weird and interesting things some of our greatest inventors, writers, psychologists, rulers, etc then pick this one up.
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