Sunday, April 27, 2003

Reach for the Top: The Turbulent Life of Laurence Harvey (Scarecrow Press, $39.95, 373 pages, illus.) is more than an entertaining and well written biography of the movie star of the 1950s and 1960s. The author, Anne Sinai, is married to the late actor’s brother and much of the book is concerned with Harvey’s relationships loving but often stormy with his parents and two brothers. The author combines personal knowledge, family lore, interviews, and media accounts to create a generally admiring but bluntly honest look at her flamboyant, often outrageous brother-in-law.

Laurence Harvey was often described as the quintessential English gentleman, although of South African origins. The truth was much more interesting. He was not Laurence Harvey, not English, not a gentleman, and not born in South Africa. He was in fact Zvi Mosheh Skikne, a Jew, born in a Lithuanian village in 1928. When he was a child, his mother, a difficult, but loving woman took him and his older brothers to South Africa where their father had previously immigrated. After serving as an Army entertainer in World War II, Harry Skikne, as he was then known, decided he would become an actor.

When he arrived in London in 1946, British producers found him too “alien” because of his South African accent and “Slavic” looks. But in a few years, by constantly working at his craft and through sheer chutzpah, he gradually made his way upward in the theater. A bisexual, he didn’t hurt his career by sleeping with rich or influential men and women or by his marriage to actress Margaret Leighton, who was already a star.

By 1959, immigrant Harry Skikne had become stage and screen actor Laurence Harvey. Brash, impeccably tailored, tall, good-looking, and with a strong masculine voice that seemed lined with velvet, he was a star, but only of the second magnitude. But then he appeared in “Room At The Top.” The British film’s central character is Joe Lampton, a ruthlessly ambitious opportunist who claws his way out ofthe working class, and uses and abuses women.

This was a role perfectly suited to Harvey’s talents and character, and he scored a well-deserved international triumph. For the rest of his life he was rarely out of work or out of the gossip columns. He died of stomach cancer in 1973 when he was only 45. As an unknown and not particularly talented young actor, Harvey had promised himself he would one day have it all, and, according to Mrs. Sinai, he very nearly did.

Note: I was never a Harvey fan, but in 1959, along with everyone else, I was stunned by his performance in “Room at The Top” (a daring, sexy movie for its time), and, in 1962, by his portrayal of the brainwashed would-be assassin in “The Manchurian Candidate.” I believe the key to his success in both roles was his uniquely cold, remote, screen persona. I do not know of any actor today who conveys, on screen, this same lack of human warmth. Michael Douglas has a chilly, distant quality, but he is warm and cuddly in comparison to Harvey.

In The Sage of Tawawa: Reverdy Cassius Ransom, 1861-1959 (Kent State University Press, $42, 344 pages, illus.), Annetta L. Gomez-Jefferson tells the story of a man whose life was shaped by the great contradiction between American ideals and the harsh realities experienced by black Americans. Reverdy Ransom, a “pastor, editor, politician, writer, civil rights leader …[and]… bishop” (of the African Methodist Episcopal Church), was seen at various times in his long career as “a radical, social gospeler, reformer, prophet and seer.” He was associated with Wilberforce University in Ohio, first as a student and then as a strong defender of the independence of the black institution. Ransom believed, in the words of the author, that the “Negro has the opportunity not only to illuminate and guide his own race, but to liberate the ‘spirit’ and strengthen the moral purpose of whites in America.”

Here is one example of what he and all black Americans faced: In 1919, 76 American blacks were lynched. Five years later, Ransom was able to report, without irony, that things had markedly improved and “only” 16 lynchings occurred. His belief in the spiritual, redemptive quality of black suffering did not lead him to passivity or pacifism. He was, above all, a fighter, and never shy about voicing his opinions.

At a time when most black clergy were Republicans and prohibitionists, Ransom openly supported Al Smith, a Democrat and a “wet” in the 1928 presidential election because he believed Republicans had not done enough for blacks. The Democrats, who controlled the white supremacist “solid south” in those days were just as bad; President Woodrow Wilson was racially biased and Franklin D Roosevelt, champion of freedom, never pressed for federal anti-lynching laws. Ransom was openly critical of Wilson, but worked for FDR.

For over 60 years he was involved in disputes within the A. M. E. church and among black Americans in general. Rarely was anyone in doubt as to where he stood. He sided with W.E.B. DuBois against Booker T. Washington in their historic debate over the best way to pursue black progress. DuBois said activist participation in politics was necessary; Washington believed American Negroes (the preferred term at the time) must first establish a solid economic base by hard work. Ransom’s support of DuBois against Washington earned him the enmity of some black Americans, but he never backed down.

Mrs. Gomez-Jefferson, professor emeritus of theater at the College of Wooster, personally knew Bishop Ransom, and her father was one of his closest associates. She takes a straightforward, scholarly approach to her story and quotes Bishop Ransom’s sermons, speeches and voluminous writings throughout. While she deeply admires her subject, she deals openly, if sympathetically, with his life-long affliction of alcoholism.

This book reminds us, if we need reminding, that long before Martin Luther King became a national symbol of liberation, there were black giants in the land. They acted with impressive dignity, racial pride and indomitable courage. Reverdy Cassius Ransom may at times have lost hope in white Americans, but he never lost faith in the reality of American ideals, however long delayed or denied.

Return to Paris (Atria Books, $22, 229 pages, illus.) by Colette Rossant is a delightful, lighthearted memoir about the author’s coming-of-age in post-World War II Paris. Mrs. Rossant isa columnist for the New York Daily News and the author of eight cookbooks. Her book is about her two great love affairs, one with the man who would become her husband, and the other with food.

After a childhood in Egypt, she went to Paris to live with with her grandmother, a tough cookie (if I may adopt the culinary viewpoint of the author). Eventually she married an American, discovered Coca Cola, ketchup, and tuna salad, and hated all of it. But when she first tasted barbecued ribs “…[her] prejudices against American cuisine melted away.” The book has mouthwatering recipes every few pages. The highest praise I can give this it is to quote the words of the distinguished American food critic, Homer Simpson: “Ummm! Fo-o-o-od. Gooood!”

William F. Gavin is a writer in McLean, Va.

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