Mel Brooks is a Genius. Polly Adler was a Madam. More Summer Reading: Albania, Poland and Saving Freud

June 23, 2022

Based on the bestseller lists of recent months, books by Donald Trump’s former attorney general Bill Barr, former defense secretary Mark Esper, and White House factotum Kellyanne Conway have amassed readers galore. 

I was not among them. 

Here’s a list of some books I read in the first half of 2022 and my suggestions for summer reading taking a different approach to information, elucidation, and entertainment. 

Mel Brooks’s All About Me: My Remarkable Life in Show Business (Random House Audio). The book is a particular pleasure because Brooks reads it himself. Like so many of my cohort, I first encountered Brooks in the early 1960s with his brilliant and largely extemporized “2,000 Year-Old Man” routine with Carl Reiner. It remains one of the funniest and in its way, wisest comedy acts ever recorded. “Never, ever run for a bus; there will always be another” is a life lesson that has prevented people from a great many slips. Brooks is ninety-six (on June 28) and really has done it all. He has received accolades, the vaunted EGOT -- Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards -- and comedy plaudits too many to count. Less well known are his roles as the producer of movies like The Elephant Man, about a deformed man in the nineteenth century that was a Best Picture nominee on both sides of the Atlantic, and other films that defied convention – alongside the wild comedies that made audiences roar. 

Brooks is generous to his collaborators over the decades. There are few villains in the book. After all, Brooks turned Adolf Hitler into a joke in the Oscar-winning The Producers and his Broadway musical smash thirty years later. If you want to sample Brooks’s genius, find the clip of him with his beloved late wife Anne Bancroft doing a soft-shoe rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” in Polish at the start of To Be or Not to Be, a movie about the Nazis in wartime Warsaw. 

Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Debby Applegate (Doubleday) tells a classic immigrant story with a particular twist. Arriving in New York as a Jewish teenager from the part of Europe known as the Pale of Settlement, Pearl (Polly) Adler became the proprietor of upscale brothels, mainly in New York, starting in the 1920s and well beyond. Applegate, a Yale history Ph.D., won her Pulitzer for a biography of Henry Ward Beecher. Adler herself wrote a 1950s bestseller called A House Is Not a Home, which became a major motion picture. Applegate, through years of research, has assembled revealing (as in client lists) outtakes from that book. There are almost fifty pages of authorial notes and a bibliography. So, this is not a pulp bio about what was, after all, something of a pulp life. 

And then…. 

Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi (W.W. Norton) is the memoir of an Albanian professor now living in western Europe who was a child in the final years of the reign of Enver Hoxha, whose communist state aligned with Mao’s China. And then, almost overnight, Albania was transformed, as were the more Soviet-style regimes in Europe. Her experience in both eras is fascinating, especially because Ypi writes so well about the perspective of a child and later a young woman coping with the upending of her world. 

John Pomfret’s From Warsaw with Love: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance (Henry Holt) answers a question that I, at least, wondered about. When the Soviet satellites pivoted at the end of the Cold War, what happened to their spies? Not the security police per se, but the people who were in overseas intelligence and counterintelligence. Poland’s spies won the admiration of the Central Intelligence Agency, with whom it allied in (among other places) Iraq. This is a true spy story that can compete with the best of espionage sagas. 

Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Bought Him Freedom by Andrew Nagorski (Simon & Schuster, coming in August) provides a lively backstory to the life and world of Sigmund Freud in Vienna and how, when the Nazis arrived, he and his family made it to safety in London. I want to particularly recommend his portrait of Princess George of Greece, Marie Bonaparte, a psychoanalyst who was a great-grandniece of Napoleon. She was a student and eventually a peer to Freud and an expert in issues of women’s’ sexuality. She played a significant role during World War II of supporting Jews at great risk. I can vouch for that because my parents were among her beneficiaries. 

Summer is for a chance of pace. And after the year we’ve all experienced, these books will certainly provide reading to savor. All the books can be found in stores or ordered online – or listened to on audio, especially the Brooks.