“Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving” is a highly engaging series of short, 4-to-10 page pieces about famous, and some not-so-famous, people whom the authors believed deserve to be better known. This is a delightful read that will educate and entertain you as you are stuck at home.
Author Mo Rocca has a long credit of journalistic and writing experience, from children’s TV to the “The Daily Show with John Stewart” to NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me” to Broadway actor to hosting the Cooking Channel show “My Grandmother’s Ravioli” to a novel about U.S. presidents’ pets to host of a podcast on which this book is based. He is one busy guy!
Co-author Jonathan Greenberg is an English professor at Montclair State University and is also an Emmy Award-winning screenwriter for children’s TV and film, as well as author of a scholarly book about satire.
Numerous chapters are about people you might have heard of but did not really know much about, such as intellectual founding father Thomas Paine; the original “Siamese” conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker; fashion trend-setter Beau Brummel; early programmer and and Lord Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace; entertainers Fanny Brice, Sammy Davis Jr, Farrah Fawcett, Lawrence Welk, Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn; “bad-boy” first brother Billy Carter; and composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. It fascinating to learn a bit more about folks whose names are only vaguely familiar, if at all.
There are also some largely forgotten people like Fleet Walker, who actually integrated professional baseball decades before Jackie Robinson did so, or Lois Weber, early Hollywood producer who ruled the industry before the male studio heads pushed her out. Comedian Vaughn Meader skyrocketed to fame in 1962 with a spot-on imitation of John F. Kennedy, only to see interest in such satire collapse after the president’s assassination.
There are also essays about the more productive times of less-than-successful presidents. Herbert Hoover was a world hero for organizing relief to Europe following World War I. He was easily elected president in 1928, but saw his presidency in 1929-33 derailed by the Great Depression. John Quincy Adams was a lackluster president from 1825-29 but later a distinguished Congressman, abolitionist and attorney successfully defending the slaves who seized the “Amistad.”
Another chapter discusses African-American senators and representatives elected to Congress during Reconstruction. They served before being pushed out by the former Confederates retaking the southern governments in the 1870s. The subsequently-imposed Jim Crow laws poignantly removed considerable potential legislative talent for almost a century as the defeated states re-established white supremacy rule in defiance of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution recently passed.
There are also chapters on the death of things or ideas, such as the station wagon (1949-2011), Hadrian’s Wall (128-1746), the country of Prussia (1525-1947), homosexuality as a psychiatric diagnosis (1952-1973), medieval science (800-1928), dragons (3000 BC-1735) and even the strange case of Auburn University’s live oaks poisoned by an obsessed fan of archrival University of Alabama.
Many of the chapters end with a few additional, very brief examples of similar persons, things or trends. For example, “black sheep siblings” portray Branwell Bronte, Magda Gabor, Gummo Marx, and Cain and Abel’s brother Seth. Other dead fashion trends include the fur coat, corset and codpiece. Each one is highly entertaining and interesting.
There are some amusing cartoon illustrations by Mitch Butler, though, sadly, no photographs of the persons discussed. Sometimes, I would have liked to have seen a picture of the person almost lost to history. This, however, is a minor quibble about a fascinating book that I enthusiastically recommend.
Richard Harris is a professor emeritus of psychological sciences at K-State.