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The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists…

The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret…

by Jenny Volvovski

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If you already know every one of the 65 historical figures that are the basis for this book, I'll give you $10. If you already know the actual subjects of this book – the 65 people behind the 65 historical figures; the sidekicks – I'll give you $10,000. (The preceding is not an actual offer and cannot be construed to mean that the author of this review will ever give anyone $10,000, overriding the fact that he doesn't have $10,000 to give nor, if he did, would his wife ever allow such a foolish thing.) Because the primary focus of this book is on those individuals – mostly unsung and effectively unknown – that helped the more famous individuals achieve their spots in history.

The historical figures are quite an eclectic group including the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Dostoyevsky, the Wright Brothers, and Emily Dickinson. But some of the historical figures, while famous within their own circles, are less well known to the general public. For me this included such individuals as architect Le Corbusier and photographer Harry Callahan. And in both these examples (and for many other entries) I became interested in what these people had done, responding by getting sidetracked on an examination of the work they had accomplished. So part of the fun of this book is discovering new art, new science, and new people that have had a greater impact than the reader might have realized

But, of course the real focus of the essays are the sidekicks that helped make the historical figures who they are. Some of these are already well known. For example, if you've seen the movie Hitchcock, you already know the roll his wife played. Similarly, many people already know the story of how Washington Roebling's wife, Emily, took over the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge when he became bedridden. And I would guess there is no way you would know about Gertrude Stein without also knowing about Alice B. Toklas.

But in other instances it is quite interesting to learn the supporting role relatively unknown individuals had. Some quick examples: Sam Shaw, Marilyn Monroe's photographer; Yakima Canutt, John Wayne's stuntman; and G. P. Putnam, Amelia Earhart's husband

Occasionally the book reaches a bit in describing a sidekick, the worst example being the listing of Emily Dickinson's dog, Carlo. And a few times alienation or a rift is used as the reason an individual is chosen as a sidekick. (One example: Edgar Allan Poe's father.) True, these individual s were instrumental in the development of the famous individual, but I feel like it plays fast and loose with the concept of "sidekick".

And, as a big Disney fan, I found the write up on Ward Kimball (no doubt an important influence on Disneyland) a bit slanted. A nice picture of the situation, but a bit skewed. Seeing this particular item instantly made me question the veracity of any of the descriptions. But I soon got over it.

So, with all that being said, it is important to remember that this book is as much about art as it is history. Each description is, at most, one page long. On the facing page, 65 different artists have provided illustrations representing the relationships between the historical figure and their "sidekick".

With 65 different illustrations it is not surprising that these range from excellent and stimulating to mundane. Some illustrators have really stretched and provided excellent art that stands on its own. In some instances, the individuals are recognizable, in others the product of their work is evident, and in some the overall story is there. However, in others it felt like the artist just thought "how can I get this done quickly and get paid."

However, as with all art, your mileage may differ. And the ones I find to be the top you may list at the bottom (and vice versa.) But that is a good thing; it is the discussion that makes good art.

So, the book works on both levels. It contains interesting snippets of history that will compel the reader to look for more. And it is a nice work of art that enhances the reading experience. And, overall, it is an enjoyable experience on many different levels. ( )
1 vote figre | Aug 13, 2015 |
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"This ... illustrated history reveals 65 people you've probably never heard of, but who helped shape the word as we know it. Muses and neighbors, friends and relatives, accomplices and benefactors--such as Michael and Joy Brown, who gifted Harper Lee a year's worth of wages to help her write To Kill a Mockingbird. Or John Ordway, the colleague who walked with Lewis and Clark every step of the way"--Amazon.com.… (more)

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