A new study in the journal Atherosclerosis found that patients taking statin drugs developed increased coronary calcifications, which is the gold standard for diagnosing heart disease, compared to non-users.

 

When we think of heart disease, we think of cholesterol, which is soft.  But, the word “arteriosclerosis” literally means “hardening of the arteries.” And what do they harden with? Calcium.

 

Coronary calcium is not a test that I recommend routinely because there is a lot of radiation involved with it. But, I do not doubt the accuracy of it. So, if statin drugs increase coronary calcium, it is extremely bad. And apparently, they do that despite the fact that they lower serum cholesterol.

 

A second study in the journal Diabetes Care found that diabetics who take statin drugs also have increased coronary calcifications. And, they found a correlation between the frequency and size of the dose of statins and the degree of disease acceleration.  "More frequent statin use is associated with accelerated coronary artery calcification in Type2 diabetic patients with advanced atherosclerosis."

 

These findings are bad news for healthy patients who have been taking statins on a preventative basis just to lower their cholesterol, and it is bad news for those who are known to have heart disease who have been taking statins to slow the progress and reduce the risk of catastrophic events (heart attacks and strokes). Apparently, it doesn’t work either way, and even prior to this, there was never any impressive evidence that it worked. At best, even in the tweaked and finessed studies, there were claims of preventing 1 or 2 heart attacks- among 100 people taking the drugs. The picture was never too rosy for statin drugs.

 

And why should they ever have placed hope in these drugs in the first place? Think about how they work. They work by crippling the liver so that it can’t do what it wants to do and is supposed to do, which is: to make cholesterol. When did good health ever come from crippling the liver?

 

I was visited by a married couple recently who were both taking statins, having been put on them by the same doctor. He also advised them to eat a total 100% plant diet, so no animal foods, and I am not opposed to that. However, in addition, he put them on a statin drug. So, he wanted them to eat a diet that is totally devoid of cholesterol so that they weren’t getting any cholesterol from their food, and then, in addition to that, he was giving them a drug to cripple their cholesterol production by the liver, so that their cholesterol levels could be driven down severely and well below the normal physiological level. That’s how cholesterol-phobic their doctor was and is. And these are older people too, in an age-group for whom low cholesterol has NEVER been found to be beneficial or advantageous or life-prolonging.

 

Here’s the link to the article in Atherosclerosis:

 

http://www.atherosclerosis-journal.com/article/S0021-9150(12)00522-9/abstract

 

 

 

My view is that the vast majority of people should not even consider taking statin drugs. I am open to the possibility that those who have congenital hyperlipidemia, where the cholesterol level can rise to 600 or 700 or higher, MAY benefit from taking them. But, I am not certain I would take them even if that were my predicament, which fortunately it isn’t. What I believe strongly is that people should eat a plant-based diet, meaning one high in fruits and vegetables, and not just fruits and vegetables, but also other wholesome plant foods, such as raw nuts and cooked beans. I do not assume that a plant-based diet has to be completely vegan to be effective. If people eat mostly unrefined plant foods (as they should) but include some animal foods on a limited basis, they may do very well. But, in light of everything we know about the human body’s nutritional needs, especially in adulthood when growth has stopped, it makes no sense whatsoever to load up on large quantities of animal foods. And, note that the atherogenic effect of such a diet may be the result of other factors besides cholesterol. There is some evidence that animal protein itself may speed up the atherogenic process. So, it really does make sense to be cautious and restrained about how much animal food you eat. It isn’t filler food.   

 

Taking statin drugs is just a medical fad. Do you think it’s going to be in vogue 100 years from now? I doubt it. I seriously doubt it. And the main thing it does is create huge profits for pharmaceutical companies and the whole medical industry. You don’t have to support those people. And you certainly don’t want to do it at the expense of your health.

 

 

I just read a biography of the great actor Jimmy Stewart, but it honed in on his military career.  It’s called: Jimmy Stewart Bomber Pilot by Starr Smith. Jimmy Stewart had an “other life” as an airman/ soldier which lasted for 30 years.  He was a bomber pilot during World War II, and years later, he even did some bombing runs during the Vietnam War. When he retired from the military in 1969, he was a Brigadier General.  That’s Brigadier General James Stewart.

 

But, as always, we are going to focus on his health. Jimmy Stewart was one of those people who was naturally lanky. He was tall and lean, and he was born to be that way. And not just lean, but at times, downright skinny.  It was a constant struggle for him to maintain his weight.  During the war years, when he was under fire for being too thin, he kept a lot of peanut butter around because he found that it was something that he could get down to help keep his weight from sliding.

 

In fact, when he was first drafted into the Army, he was rejected outright for being underweight. He was 6’3” and weighed 144 pounds. That’s only a few pounds more than I weigh, and I’m only 5’6”.

 

But, Jimmy wouldn’t take no for an answer; he was determined to serve his country in wartime. So, he tried enlisting, but again he was rejected for the same reason. So, he waited 3 months, and then re-enlisted. That time, he got in, but there are rumors that there was some monkey business between him and the scale operator: a wink and a nod- you get the idea.

 

Stewart was already an avid and accomplished aviator. He owned his own plane. He had a commercial license, and he was instrument-rated.  In fact, he was already so accomplished as an aviator,  that he started off being assigned to train other B-52 pilots, including giving them their check rides.  The military brass really did not want to send the beloved Jimmy Stewart into battle, but he was determined to go.  So, he used his influence and that of others he knew in high places to get what he wanted: assigned to the mighty U.S. Eighth Air Force in England, which did the bombing runs over Nazi-occupied Europe.  Again, Jimmy Stewart outdid himself. He not only did the bombing flights, but he became the Squadron Commander, orchestrating, on a daily basis, the flight runs of the other pilots in his unit.  Jimmy Stewart flew in the aerial bombardment of Berlin, which was a pivotal campaign of the war. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross for having led a raid that resulted in perfect accuracy of the drops, by him and his men, and without losing a man.  

 

After the war, Jimmy Stewart went back to acting, and the first picture he made was: It’s A Wonderful Life, the Christmas classic. A few years later, he was set up on a date with Gloria Hatrick by his close and good friend Gary Cooper, and a year later, Jimmy and Gloria married. And they stayed married to the end too.  They had twin daughters, but Gloria had two sons from a previous marriage whom Jimmy adopted.

 

But, let’s get back to his health.  I learned that Jimmy Stewart contracted scarlet fever as a child which put him on his back for a while.  I wonder if that had any long-term effects on his health.  Regarding his habits, it seems that he did smoke, but not heavily.  He wasn’t like his pals Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper, both of whom he roomed with for a while before any of them became famous.  Those two were heavy smokers, but Jimmy, apparently, smoked but much less.  In his movies, he is usually seen smoking a pipe or cigar, but I did find one image of him from real life in which he was smoking a cigarette.  I suspect his wife Gloria smoked because she died of lung cancer at age 75- and she was 10 years younger than he was.  I’m sure that when he married her, he never thought that he would outlive her, but he did.

 

Regarding alcohol, it’s the same thing: he drank but not heavily.  And again, the Hollywood stars of that era were all heavy drinkers:  Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum- all of them were full-blown alcoholics.  But, Jimmy Stewart was like a teetotaler, in comparison.  But, he did drink some, mainly socially. He liked the British beer that they had available during the war.

 

Regarding his diet, I couldn’t find much, but my impression is that he ate the standard American diet.  It sounds like he ate whatever the Army put in front of him- or what anybody put in front of him. But, he wasn’t a food person; he wasn’t a big eater.  He really had a small appetite, and eating wasn’t his obsession at all.  He often complained that he couldn’t eat as much as people wanted him to.

 

I found online that his favorite food was pork chops.  But, it goes to show that some people stay thin no matter what they eat.  Is it a blessing or a curse?  It depends on how severe it is. I imagine it’s a real pain to have to struggle all the time to keep your weight UP.  I think it can be just as challenging as having to struggle all the time to lose weight.  

 

So, why was he so thin all the time? Keep in mind that he was a classic and EXTREME ectomorph. It refers to a body type system developed by a Dr. Goldwait early in the 20th century. And ectomorph referred to a Abraham Lincoln type build where there is usually great height, always natural leanness, a short gut, fast transit of food, a tight rib angle, fast metabolism, and generally weak appetite and inefficient digestion. You realize that no one digests their food perfectly. A lot of nutrients pass into the toilet. But, in ectomorphs, the percentage of undigested food (lost calories) is greater. The opposite of an ectomorph is an endomorph- your Dom Deloise type, who are stocky without being muscular, often short, with an expanded rib angle, slow metabolism, and slow digestion, where they wring out every calorie from food with the greatest of ease. Again, Jimmy Stewart was a classic ectomorph.      

 

But, in Jimmy’s case, he lived long- either in spite of being so thin or because of it.  He lived to 89, and it seems that he could have lived longer.  It said that he had a cardiac pacemaker, for which the battery died.  But, instead of replacing it, he just decided to do without it. Well, that was not a good idea. There are a ton of things I object to in medical practice, but a cardiac pacemaker is not one of them.   If you need one, you need one.   

 

So, as a result of that, apparently, his circulation started failing, and he developed a blood clot in his leg which traveled to his lung and killed him.  If not for that, he probably would have lived to his 90s. They said he was despondent over his wife’s death and wanted to join her.

 

And, I’ll add, without criticism or derision,  that he started slipped mentally in his latter years.  You can tell from his interviews and appearances that he was losing it mentally.  And he was a very bright man; extremely bright.  Besides being a master aviator, he had a degree in architecture, which he earned at Princeton.  That was before his acting career.  And it was at Princeton that he got his first taste of acting. He joined the acting club at Princeton, ostensibly as a way to meet girls, but he found that he liked acting and was rather good at it.  And that’s how it all started for him.

 

I think that very few people would dispute Jimmy Stewart’s willingness and eagerness to fight the Nazis, but what about fighting the Vietnamese?  Did he think at all about the righteousness of that war? I figure he must have because he had to be aware of all the public opposition to it.  Indeed, he was aware of it, but he felt it was just to be fighting in Vietnam.  I think he believed in the moral righteousness of America in whatever war we were fighting.  He went from being a Nazi fighter to a Cold Warrior against international communism- and it felt right to him.

 

And even though my view of the Vietnam War and American militarism in general is very different from his, I have to admit, that, like everybody else, I like Jimmy Stewart.  I can’t help it; he was a great guy.

 

And I think it’s fair to say that Jimmy Stewart is probably one of the most beloved Americans of all time, for his wonderful movies, for his war heroism, and for being such a real person and down-to-earth guy amidst all the glamour and glitz.  I have a feeling that, going forward, there aren’t going to be too many people like him.

 

 

I just finished reading the biography Elizabeth Taylor by David Bret. It came out shortly after her death in 2011, which means that he must have been writing it beforehand. Perhaps he was just waiting for her die to write the final words.

 

But, to explain the question I posed above, I meant: How did Elizabeth Taylor last as long as she did, which was 79 years? Her generation of movie stars was a hard-smoking, hard-drinking lot, and she was no exception.  And like other child starlets, such as Natalie Wood and Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor got started with the drugs at an early age: drugs for sleeping, drugs for staying awake, drugs to calm her nerves, etc.  And Elizabeth Taylor had another eerie parallel with Judy Garland: both of them had fathers named Francis who were both gay. Well, I should say that they were bisexual since they fathered children, but, it seems that their main inclination was to be gay.  And like Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor became a gay icon, and her first and second husbands were both bisexual.

 

Elizabeth was born in England, although both her parents were Americans.  As with Natalie Wood, it was Elizabeth’s mother, Sara Sothern Taylor, who had achieved some success on the stage who drove Elizabeth into acting, and that began as soon as the family relocated to Los Angeles when she was 7. Her first movie role didn’t come until she was 9.

 

I am going to focus on Elizabeth Taylor’s health because her life story is way too long to tell here.  And, she had a tremendous amount of illness in her life, and even as a child, she had more frequent bouts of illness than most children do, including back problems, which is not typical of children.  She had  a total of about 40 surgical operations in her life- maybe more than that- including appendectomy, multiple back surgeries, hysterectomy, double hip replacements, excision of a brain tumor, lung operations, throat operations, and over 70 hospitalizations.  She had so much illness that I can’t imagine why anybody would envy her or want to trade places with her.  I realize that nobody gets through life without having some bad days, but one would hope that the good days would at least outnumber the bad days, but I doubt that that was true for her. I don’t know how many times she got pneumonia, but it was too numerous to count.  And as with Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor’s health problems often caused delays in the production of her movies, and most famously that happened during the making of Cleopatra.

 

As for her food, ET was a very conventional eater who ate the Standard American Diet, and her tendency was to get heavy.  She would balloon up to 180 pounds or more between films.  She was a yo-yo dieter her whole life.  And keep in mind that that is a bad thing in itself; it undermines both health and weight control.

 

So, it was bad food, heavy smoking, heavy drinking, heavy drugging (including several suicide attempts with drugs), an aversion to exercise, and did I mention that she had a tremendous amount of stress in her life? Mainly, it was her tumultuous marriages, but she also had the stress of a lot of untimely, tragic deaths of loved ones, such as James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Rock Hudson.  The sudden death of her third husband Mike Todd in a plane crash also hit her very hard.  But, my impression from reading this book is that the husband with whom she had the closest bond and the deepest connection was definitely Richard Burton.  And just think: he was an extremely heavy smoker and drinker, which surely drove her in that direction.  As I said, it seems that that whole generation of movie stars were alcoholics, but nobody drank more than Richard Burton.  But, here is a medical fact that few people realize: women’s bodies cannot handle alcohol as well as men’s. Women’s livers just cannot metabolize alcohol as fast.  For consuming the same amount of alcohol, women develop higher and more protracted blood levels of alcohol, resulting in more damage to their bodies. Therefore, men who coax women to keep up with them drinking really do them harm.

 

I mentioned that Elizabeth Taylor’s mother Sara Sothern Taylor was an actress as a young woman, and I can tell you that, like Elizabeth Taylor, she was quite a beautiful woman.  I can also report that Sara lived to the age of 99. And I think that that explains how Elizabeth Taylor managed to live to 79 despite a very abusive and destructive lifestyle; she had longevity in her family.  Am I saying that she could have lived to 99 if she had taken care of herself? I wouldn't go that far considering how few people live to 99, but I do think she could have easily made it to her 90s if she had taken better care of herself.

 

I have only seen a few Elizabeth Taylor movies, but if I were going to recommend one it would be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  She won the Best Actress Academy Award in 1966 for the role of Martha, the disenchanted, childless, alcoholic wife of a cynical, disillusioned history professor, played by her than husband Richard Burton.  They were the fightingest couple in film history, and people joked that it wasn’t that different from their real lives.  But regardless, it was acting, and they really pulled all the stops to make it seem real. Both of their performances are amazing but especially hers.  

 

In the later years, Elizabeth Taylor was mostly involved in her businesses, retailing jewelry and fragrances, and also with her charitable foundation for AIDS research, which became a very big part of her life. And she became very infirmed at the end, having to move around in a wheelchair, reportedly from severe osteoporosis.  It is said that she had Alzheimer's but that is unconfirmed. She definitely had heart failure.

 

Surely, it is true that Elizabeth Taylor lived in a different world, far removed from ordinary life, and her whole personhood and life experience was far and away different from that of regular folks. But, what was NOT different for her was the composition of her flesh and blood.  Despite her wealth and fame, she was subject to the same rules, the same laws, the same results from the things that she did to herself that other people have to face. Her money and celebrity didn’t help her in that way at all. I suppose you could say that having the money to obtain the best medical care for her numerous problems made a difference in keeping her alive.  But, remember that Medicine is a double-edged sword, and that’s putting it nicely. It was doctors who got her in trouble in the first place- with sleeping pills, tranquilizers, etc.  And having vast wealth was apparently of no value to her in getting her to eat better food. So, the plain truth is that Elizabeth Taylor influenced the culture but not nearly as much as the culture influenced her.  

 

   

 

This is an Australian professor giving a lecture about his advocacy of eating a high meat/high animal fat diet.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fL5-9ZxamXc

It's not that all or most of what he says is untrue; it's that he is leaving out other considerations that are important. And first I'll say that any dietary arguments that are based on Evolution are inherently flimsy since the Theory of Evolution is so flimsy. And I am not saying that as a Creationist because I am not one. But, the idea that life on Earth developed and changed and acquired increasing complexity based on random mutations- pure genetic accidents- that were acted on by "natural selection" is not just dubious; it is mathematically absurd. So, I don't really like to hear anyone use Evolution as the basis for making dietary claims- and there is far too much of that.

But, here is an example of an important point that went unmentioned. How can humans require a high-protein diet/low carbohydrate diet when human breast milk is extremely low in protein and extremely high in carbohydrate? To be blunt: human milk is the lowest protein milk among mammalian milks, and by a wide margin. And, human milk is also the highest carbohydrate milk; it is by far the sweetest milk of any.

And even though human breast milk has only 1% protein by volume (sometimes measured as low as .9%, and I hope you caught that decimal point) human babies can easily double their birth weight in 9 months on a diet of breast milk, and some do it in as little as 6 months. So, even though humans are slow to grow and mature compared to most other mammals, the fact is that the first year of human life is a period of very rapid growth, and it all happens on a very low-protein diet.

And keep in mind that a human mother makes low-protein milk no matter how much protein she eats. She can't force her breasts to churn out a higher protein milk by consuming more protein.

So, if rapidly growing babies can grow and develop and be sustained entirely by low-protein breast milk, why assume that a human adult who is not growing at all requires a high-protein diet?

Keep in mind that I am NOT opposed to eating dietary fat. I do not demonize dietary fat like Dr. John McDougall and others do. I think it is perfectly natural and normal to eat fat. But, I think the best fats are plant fats, such as avocadoes, raw nuts, and oil-seeds. And I am not opposed to using high-quality, extra-virgin olive oil. I think all of these are good, and I partake of all them, and I stay slim while doing so. But, I have to think that all the evidence shows that it is best to limit meat consumption to small amounts- that is, if you don't eliminate it completely. The idea that we should feel compelled to eat meat, and large amounts of it, and just because our ancestors did is ridiculous.

Surely, if they were living in Northern Europe during an Ice Age, they had to eat meat, and in large amounts, because for most of the year there was no plant food available to them, and the storage of plant foods wasn't yet practical on a large and efficient scale. But, that is not the case today. Today, even if you live in St. Petersburg, Russia, the most northern major city in the world, there is plant food available in abundance the year round. The Caveman did not have what we have. And having what we have, there is no good reason for us to eat the way he did.

Look: the first thing you want to do is eat an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, and I presume that like most people you have access to them in wide variety all year. Then, there are other plant foods with proven health-protective effects, such as nuts and also beans and legumes, which are excellent foods.  There are also whole grains, which are popular to trash these days, but I like them, and I eat them. Now, in addition to that, if you want to keep some room in your diet for meat and animals foods, I don't say you can't or shouldn't, but how much room is there? If you obtain for yourself a full ration of all the disease-preventing, health-protecting plant foods available to you, unless you are an extremely big eater, you are probably not going to have much room left for animal foods anyway.

So, as I see it, the important thing is not to decide to be a vegetarian but to decide to eat plant-strong. Good sense should tell you that plant-based diets are the way to go in the 21st century. I don't say that it has to be exclusively plant, but at least make it mostly plant. And don't let bogus arguments based on Evolution talk you out of it.

 

This is a fascinating new report about the effects of giving supplemental zinc to African women. Read it first, then my comments follow:

A randomized, double-blind trial reported online on October 16, 2014, in Nutrition Research found a protective effect for zinc supplementation against DNA strand breaks. This type of genetic damage is caused primarily by reactive oxygen species and can lead to further damage and consequent disorders if not repaired.

The study included 40 Ethiopian women believed to be of low zinc status due to decreased meat intake and high dietary phytate levels, which reduce zinc absorption. Plasma zinc levels were measured in blood samples collected at the beginning of the study. The women were given 20 milligrams zinc from zinc sulfate or a placebo daily for seventeen days. Comet assay of intracellular DNA strand breaks was conducted in cells collected at the beginning and end of the trial.

While plasma zinc levels were not significantly changed by the end of the study, comet tail measurement of DNA strand breaks decreased from an average of 39.7 to 30.0 in the supplemented group.

"Zinc deficiency in both in vitro and in vivo models is associated with increased oxidative stress and increased DNA damage," note Maya L. Joray of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and colleagues in their introduction to the article. "As a result of this relationship between cellular zinc levels and DNA damage, the comet assay, a method that measures DNA strand breaks in cells, may represent a sensitive functional tool to assess response to zinc supplementation."

"Plasma zinc comprises a very small percentage of the total body zinc, and plasma zinc may not be a priority pool for repletion in chronically deficient adults," the authors remark. "Because of zinc's essential role in maintaining DNA integrity, the comet assay may be a useful tool to assess cellular impacts of alterations in zinc intake and possibly zinc status."

 

 

Note that they mentioned that the women were eating low-meat/ high phytate diets. Phytic acid is an acid distributed widely in plants, and it binds minerals, such as zinc, making them unavailable. And it has also been found in Western populations that the high phytic acid in plant-based diets can compromise zinc status.

Zinc is involved in taste perception, and it has been found that vegans perform less well on taste perception tastes, suggesting the possibility of zinc deficiency.

Besides the phytic acid, also the oxalic acid in fruits and vegetables may bind zinc into a non-useable oxalate form. Then lastly, the high fiber content of plant-based diets may impede zinc absorption to some extent. There is a good side but also a bad side to all that fiber.

Note that overall, plant-based diets are very healthy and offer huge benefits. But, it's possible that they are marginal when it comes to maintaining optimal zinc status. Not major, but subtle degrees of zinc deficiency may be occurring widely among unsupplemented vegetarians and vegans. And that's why I prefer, for insurance reasons, to include a zinc supplement in my diet. I would rather be on the safe side.

And here is another consideration: As people age, their natural ability to absorb zinc goes down- way down. Dr. Walter Pierapaoli, a prominent Italian physician, believes that a significant amount of the decrepitude of old age results from poor zinc nutriture.  There are over 200 enzymes that are zinc-dependent. This is way too important to leave to chance. I recommend including a zinc supplement in your health program- especially if you are eating a vegan or mostly vegan diet.

 

 

 

I think it’s very appropriate after writing about Irving Berlin that I write about George Gershwin.  After all, they were contemporaries.  I read the Gershwin biography of Howard Pollack entitled: George Gershwin: His Life and Work. But no, I am not recommending it because it’s almost one thousand pages long, which is quite an arduous read.  And, the focus of the book is more on his music than his personal life.  It’s good; it’s just that it’s a bit excessive.

 

But, I’ll begin by pointing out that many people, to this day, consider George Gershwin to be the most gifted musical composer that America has ever produced.  And I am one of those people. And it’s especially true when you consider that he died of a brain tumor at the age of 38. So, his incomparable wealth of music was all produced within a mere 20 years.  What kind of genius does that make him?

 

When his Rhapsody in Blue came out in 1924, when he was 26 years old, it was met with both praise and derision.  The public loved it, but there were high-brow music critics who felt that it was too undisciplined, too unorganized, too much in violation of the standards of orchestral music, too patronizing of jazz and blues, and not anything that would endure. Well, they could not have been more wrong. Today, the Rhapsody in Blue is one of the most popular and frequently performed pieces of classical music in the world- not just in the United States but all over the world.  Recall the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles when they had 50 white grand pianos on the field playing the Rhapsody in Blue to a worldwide audience.  Why’d they pick that piece?  Because it is the greatest and most beloved piece of American classical music.

 

Like the parents of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin’s parents were Russian Jews, and they were immigrants to New York City from Russia.  But unlike Irving Berlin, George Gershwin was born here: in 1898. His given name was Jacob Gershovitz.  He later changed it to George Gershwin.  Everybody called him George, including his family.  

 

As a child, he was a regular kid. He was very active. He loved sports; rollerskating and hockey were big for him; and he also got into fights.  But, he was a poor student.  His musical life started when his parents bought an upright piano which was intended mainly for his older brother Ira. But, it quickly became apparent that George was the one with natural ability; in fact, it quickly became apparent that he was gifted.  So, they found a teacher for him and then better teachers as his talent became even more apparent.  It became very obvious that he was a prodigy.

 

George dropped out of school at the age of 15 to become a song plugger. That was a pianist who played songs all day for one of the song publishers on Tin Pan Alley in order to showcase the songs.  And he started writing songs. His first big hit was Swanee when he was 17 which caught the attention of Al Jolson and became a national smash.

 


It was the era of Broadway musicals, and George teamed up with his brother Ira, who had become a leading lyricist, and they became an indomitable team. But, George was also interested in "serious" music, and that's what led him to Europe to study with the masters. So, he had a foot in both camps: popular and classical music.

 

One of his last projects was the opera Porgy and Bess which concerns the lives of poor blacks living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina. The music is hauntingly beautiful; the most famous song being Summertime, although my favorite is Bess, You is My Woman Now.  It is regrettable that acclaim for Porgy and Bess did not surface until after Gershwin's death. Today, it is considered one of the greatest American operas, and it is the favorite of many.

 

Gershwin's final project was to write the musical score for the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie Shall We Dance, and that is what brought him out to Los Angeles.  And it is considered to be superb writing, including the perennial They Can't Take That Away From Me. And that, by the way, is the song my parents danced to at their 50th wedding anniversary.

 

For the remainder, I am going to focus on Gershwin's health since this is a health blog.  George had a very athletic way about him. He was toned and chiseled and in good shape for most all his life.  And even though he worked like demon, he always reserved time for exercise. In the afternoons, he would quit composing and do something active.  He was passionate about both golf and tennis and quite good at both.  He loved to swim. And he even boxed.  In those days, they had boxing gyms all over New York, and he went to one regularly.  

 

Regarding food, he was particular, and he became somewhat of a health nut.  When he would visit his parents, he would bring vegetables because he knew they didn’t buy them, and he thought they should all be eating them.  And that made me think that he probably didn’t get too many vegetables as a child. And therefore, he probably did not get too many fruits either.  Remember that this was a time when the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables in the diet was not widely known and appreciated.  

 

Gershwin's digestion was delicate his whole life. He had a sensitive stomach.  And he tended to have digestive complaints,  both upper and lower.  And he complained of irregular elimination.  He always stayed thin, which was probably because he was so active physically but also perhaps because assimilating food was not his strong point. He just wasn't a good digester.

 

He did smoke, but practically all men did back then- as contradictory as that was for an avid sportsman as he was.  His preference was for pipes and cigars, and there are quite a few pictures of him with one or the other, and they may be worse than cigarettes.  He drank alcohol but not excessively.  He was no big drinker. There was no mention of him ever being intoxicated.

 

Gershwin never really studied music academically. He didn’t go to Julliard or any other music school. He learned the technicalities of music from various private teachers that he had, here and in Europe. And that’s it; he never actually took a formal course in music. But, he doggedly traveled the globe to take influence from the masters of the day, including some of the biggest names in classical music, including Debussey and Ravel.  Still, it is amazing what he did without any formal education in music.

 

Gershwin never married, but he was considered the most eligible bachelor of his day. If they had People magazine back then, they probably would have put him on the cover as the sexiest man in America. His longest relationship was with a woman named Kay Swift, who was also a musician and composer herself, and they did some collaborating.   Another girlfriend of his was Ann Ronnell, who was also a songwriter. Her song, Willow Weep for Me, which became a standard, is widely believed to have been a collaboration with Gershwin. But, he went through a lot of relationships, and it’s amazing he had the time for them.  Like Irving Berlin, he often sacrificed sleep in order to produce. He often stayed up all night to compose.

 

So, on the whole, he was athletic and healthy and certainly active and vigorous, and he looked good. However, he suffered with chronic issues relating to his digestion, and that was the worst health problem he had.  That is, until the last year of his life when horrific headaches started to plague him. Also, he developed coordination problems which hampered his ability to play the piano. Even the simple act of bringing a spoon to his mouth to eat food became difficult and troubling.  He also started having olfactory hallucinations; he complained of smelling burnt rubber all the time.  And mentally, he started losing it too with personality changes and sudden explosive and bizarre behaviors. 

 

Finally, a brain tumor was diagnosed, but by then, he was too far gone. They flew out to Los Angeles the best neurosurgeon in the country from the East Coast, and Gershwin was operated on. However, he never regained consciousness after the operation, and he died several hours later. That was on July 11, 1937, and he was 38 years old.  He was 2 months shy of his 39th birthday.

 

What can we say about George Gershwin’s tragic death? And it was tragic for him, his family, and the whole world because there is no telling how much more beautiful music he would have written.  Why did he develop a brain tumor? Was it the result of his bad habits?  I can’t say that because millions of people indulge in bad habits much worse than he did who do not develop brain tumors.  

 

I don’t think we can attribute any particular cause to his developing a brain tumor, especially at that young age.  To me, the lesson from this is that we should do the best we can for ourselves, and all we can, but we need to recognize that there is luck involved in health, that it is not all under our control, and there is nothing particularly fair about it.  But, I don’t think that one should be discouraged by that.  You simply have to recognize that you are trying to do the best that YOU can do.

 

I’m going to leave you with a link to the Andante movement of the Rhapsody in Blue because I don’t think I have ever heard a more beautiful melody than this.  To me, this is musical perfection.  It is so emotional and haunting and moving.  What a gift to humanity.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JaLen4hWyg

 

 

 

As you know, I enjoy reading biographies, and my favorite are biographies of musical genius.  And there certainly is no one who deserves the title of musical genius more than Irving Berlin.

He wrote so many popular and enduring songs, some of which are deeply ingrained in our culture, such as White Christmas, God Bless America, Always, What’ll I Do, Easter Parade, Happy Holidays, Cheek to Cheek, Puttin’ on the Ritz, Let's Face the Music and Dance, How Deep Is the Ocean, and Blue Skies.  But, there seems to be no end to the gems that he wrote. For instance, listen to this rendition of A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody.  It was written in 1919- almost 100 years ago- and I have no doubt that people will be listening to it 100 years from now because it is that good.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkpLnZagXbo

I don’t know what is more amazing: the fact that Irving Berlin wrote such beautiful music without any education in music and with only a limited ability to play the piano OR the fact that he lived 101 years. But, I’ll address both.

Israel Baline (his real name) was born in Russia in 1888. There was an awful lot of anti-Semitism in Russia at that time, and when he was 5, his family had had enough. So, they moved to America. They were Ellis Island immigrants. His father was a cantor, which is a professional singer of religious music at the synagogue.  But unfortunately, he could never find gainful employment as a cantor here. So, he had to work other jobs, like at a chicken processing plant. But, everybody in the family worked. And when Moses Baline died of a heart attack at age 49, it became even more imperative that everyone worked.  Izzy dropped out of school at the age of 14 in order to work. But, he loved music, and when he was 17, he became a singing waiter. He sang popular songs of the day, but he also created his own songs and sang them, and people liked them.  He taught himself to play the piano at night, but he only learned to play the black keys, which meant that he could only play in one key F#.  But, he eventually bought a piano which had a mechanical transposing device, so that he could play in F# and make it sound like any key he wanted.

This was the Lower East Side of Manhatten, a very tough neighborhood, teeming with immigrants. But, it was close to Tin Pan Alley, which was where the music publishing houses were. Back then, sheet music was much more popular than it is today. It was a very big business. And these publishers were always looking for new songs. Izzy Baline saw it as way for him to make money and rise out of poverty. His first song was a collaboration in which he wrote the words and another guy wrote the melody, called Marie from Sunny Italy.  And that is when the name Irving Berlin came to be. And that was soon followed by a song called Alexander’s Ragtime Band, written entirely by Berlin, words and music, which became an international sensation.

That was 1911, and he just rose like a rocket after that. By the time of the first World War, he was the preeminent songwriter in America. However, that did not stop him from getting drafted.  But, he was very patriotic, and he served willingly. Fortunately, the Army realized that putting a rifle in his hands and sending him into battle was not the best use of his talents. So, he spent his war years right on Long Island designing musical revues for the Army- shows to entertain the troops. And by the time of the second World War, he was no longer in the Army, but he did it all over again, traveling the world to entertain American troops.

His first marriage was very brief because his wife caught typhoid fever in Cuba on their honeymoon, and she died a few months later. He was single for many years after that until he met Ellin MacKay, the daughter of a wealthy Catholic industrialist who happened to be an anti-Semite.  His relationship with and marriage to Ellin became a scandal, especially because it was so vehemently opposed by her father. But, it was a good marriage, and they stayed married until her death, which was shortly before his.  They had 4 children, but his one and only son, Irving Berlin Jr., died shortly after birth.

Irving Berlin wrote all of his own lyrics, and that’s amazing too when you consider that English was not his first language. It was actually his third, after Russian and Yiddish. And as I said, he dropped out of school so young that it’s amazing that he could have such a way with words, English words. It was a rare thing back then for a composer to write his own lyrics. The only other prominent one who did was Cole Porter, and they became close friends, even though they were as different as night and day. ( Hope you caught the pun.)    

Irving Berlin was also a very competent businessman. He started his own music publishing company, which published his works and the works of other songwriters. He also started his own musical theater which was called the Music Box Revue.  It was very successful, and he amassed a vast fortune. But, he was also very generous. For instance, he did all that work for the troops during WW2, traveling to faraway places such as New Guinea, for absolutely nothing.  And he donated all the revenues from God Bless America (which was actually written for the 1st World War, but it didn’t take off until the 2nd World War) to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. And that is true to this day through the Irving Berlin Charitable Fund.  During and after his life, he gave away millions.

Before I get to his health and his longevity, I’d like to relate one  more thing about his music, and that is the production of the musical Annie Get Your Gun. It’s amazing how that came about. It was actually produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was their musical. But, they didn’t have time to write the score because of other commitments. So, they hired the great Jerome Kern to do it. So, he came back to New York from California explicitly for that purpose ready to begin work on it right away. But, he died of a heart attack the night of his return.  So, Rodgers and Hammerstein had to scramble. The only names they could think of who were up to the task were Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. They decided on Berlin mainly because Porter had a reputation for being risque’, and they didn’t want that. So, they chose Berlin.

And Irving Berlin was very honored to get the gig. But, he was also very intimidated because he knew that Rodgers and Hammerstein were very great technical composers, and he couldn’t even read or write music.  He wasn’t sure he was up to the task. But, they encouraged him and expressed their confidence in him. The result was the marvelous musical score to Annie Get Your Gun. Here, from Spider Man 2 is Kirsten Dunst singing the beautiful They Say That Falling In Love is Wonderful, originally from Annie Get Your Gun, which is surely one of the greatest songs about love.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orOk6zEzuHU

Now, concerning Irving Berlin’s health and longevity: The bio I read is called As Thousands Cheer by Laurence Bergreen.  And, it’s very good except that it deals mostly with his professional life, and only superficially with his personal life, including his habits.  For instance, the author never stated whether Irving Berlin smoked. And I was unable to find out online. However, the author did make one statement which gave it away. He said that the old transposing piano which Irving Berlin composed on and transported everywhere he went, which is now sitting in a Belgian museum, and which he called his "Buick", got to be “cigarette-stained.” So, I take that as an indication that Irving Berlin did smoke. But, I have a hunch that he was a light smoker, the reason being that I have yet to see one photo of him with a cigarette.

As for alcohol, he did drink some, but he never had a problem with it. It was mostly social drinking; celebratory stuff, champagne and wine.  Not once did the author mention Irving Berlin getting inebriated.

As for food, he just ate regular food for that time, and there certainly was an emphasis on animal foods: meats, dairy products, eggs. He liked duck. Also crabs. I don’t recall the author mentioning any fruit or vegetable being a favorite of his. But, my impression is that he was not a big eater. He wasn’t a foodie. He ate to live; he didn’t live to eat.  And he stayed thin his whole life. He was lean as a boy and lean as a man. And that, I suspect, is the single biggest reason why he lived so long. We know that keeping calories down- undernutrition without malnutrition- prolongs life.  It is the single most proven life extension technique. But, Irving Berlin did it spontaneously. He just wasn’t a big eater.  

Did he exercise? Not really. I saw one photo of him playing golf. But, that was just something that others put him up to.  It was a social thing.  He really wasn't into it.  What he was into much more enthusiastically was playing poker, and he played it a lot with other composers. I kid you not: he, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, and other songwriters of that era had a regular poker club. They were close buddies, and Irving Berlin was the senior member. You might say he started it all.   

Apparently, his health was remarkably good for most of his life. The author never mentioned any medical problems until Berlin got quite old.  Never once did it say that he had to miss an important event or engagement or performance because of illness. There was no mention of any hospitalizations or surgeries.

However, Berlin did have one very chronic health problem: insomnia. And it was lifelong. Typically, he couldn’t fall asleep until 4 or 5 in the morning. It wasn’t uncommon for him to stay up all night and just be active the next day, skipping a night's sleep.  Especially when he had deadlines to write music, he just stayed up all night and did it.  He was most productive at his songwriting in the dead of night.

However, when he was in his 50s, he started taking a drug for sleep, Nembutal, which is another name for phenobarbital. It’s a very strong barbiturate. It’s still around, but today, it’s used more in veterinary medicine than human medicine. It’s considered a harsh drug.  It’s addicting, and if you take too much of it, it can kill you.  But, that's what they gave for insomnia back then, and you know what it did to Marilyn Monroe. It didn’t go too well for him either. He got habituated to it, and he had to keep increasing the dose to maintain the effect.  And sometimes, even with a heavy dose, he still wouldn’t sleep.  

So, Irving Berlin’s sleep problem was his biggest health challenge, and it took a toll on him. In the latter decades of his life, he became clinically depressed.  That was stated, and, his sleep problem surely contributed to it. How could it not? He became difficult and short-tempered. And once rock n’ roll became dominant, he had even more to be depressed about. He probably should have retired sooner than he did.  And once he couldn’t write music any more, it was hard for him to find other things to do with his time.  He tried to take up fishing, but that didn’t go too well. He didn't have the patience for it. He did take up painting, and that he really enjoyed.  However, apparently, nobody thought he was particularly talented at it.

He lived the last decade of his life in complete seclusion. He really dropped out- almost like Howard Hughes.  And other problems cropped up, for instance, a bad case of shingles. He also developed a heart condition and had a cardiologist who would treat him at home.  There was a big television production for his 100th birthday, but, they couldn’t get him to attend. His last notable public appearance was when he sang God Bless America on the Ed Sullivan Show on his 80th birthday with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts backing him up. For 80 years old, he looked and sounded fantastic.  See for yourself.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vmc-pEyUHTs

So, how amazing is it that Irving Berlin lived to 101? Extremely amazing. He must have had a very good constitution, plus the fact that he stayed thin. Physically, he wasn’t athletic, but he had excellent proportions. For instance, he always maintained a healthy shoulders-to-waist ratio, and you could still see it even when he was 80.  He didn't get apple-shaped or pear-shaped. He kept a v shape. He didn’t get fat and sloppy. He kept a youthful shape. And I’m sure it contributed mightily to his longevity.    

You can’t say that Irving Berlin was 1 in a million because he was more like 1 in a billion. His talent to create music was beyond gifted. To me, it is like he was from another planet, not a regular human, but with faculties much greater than a regular human.  And, it makes sense to me that a person with that much capacity to express life through music should have a lot of life to express.  In other words, his longevity came from the same place that his musical creativity came from- his inner vitality.  Irving Berlin had something great inside of him, sustaining him to write music and sustaining him to live.  And, the music that resulted from it shall always live, making him immortal.      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I just finished reading King of the Night by Laurence Leamer, a biography of Johnny Carson.  I had personal reasons for wanting to read about Johnny Carson which I won’t go into except to say that I got to meet him once.

 

And as always, I shall build my review around the health aspects of his life. First, he lived 79 years and died of emphysema. That, of course, is a smoking-related disease, and he was a heavy smoker for most of his life. So, I have to think that if he hadn’t smoked, he would not have gotten emphysema, and he would have lived a lot longer.

 

And he did try to quit smoking at times, repeatedly, but he always went back to it, although I can’t say he was smoking at the time of his death.  But, I think he was lucky to have lasted as long as he did considering.

 

I believe the secret of his success was his brains. He was smart.  You have to be smart to be funny.  It's all about seeing associations that others don't see, and the delight is in the surprise of it. It takes brains to be funny, and that's why they call it wit. As a boy, he got involved with card tricks and expanded it to a whole magic show. After high school, he joined the Navy, and he caught the end of World War II in the Pacific. And even in the Navy, he was involved doing magic and being involved with entertainment.  Once, he even put on a magic show for the Secretary of the Navy.

 

And it was only natural for him to work comedy into his magic show. It may not be true of all magicians, but it was true of him. After the war, he attended the University of Nebraska, majoring in radio and communications, and with a minor in physics.  That’s right: he had a minor in physics.  And he graduated with a minor in physics. As I said, Johnny Carson was a smart guy, and he would have excelled at anything he put his mind to.

 

After college, he went to work in radio and that quickly segued into television. But, his career did not take off until he went to California 1951, which was the year I was born.

 

But getting back to his health, it sounds like he had a good constitution. The book I read, which was written long before his death, said nothing about any health crises impacting his life or his career.  He was slender by nature, particularly when he was young. Not being fat is a big advantage.

 

My impression is that Johnny Carson was not a food person. He wasn’t a foodie. He ate to live; he didn’t live to eat. His taste in food was very conventional, not high-brow by any measure.  Steak was mentioned as a favorite food, but, he wasn’t a big eater. But, he wasn’t the least bit drawn to health food ideas, even though there were people in his life who tried to get him into it, such as his second wife Joanne and his youngest son Cory.

 

Then, alcohol was a big element in his life. He had periods when he was frankly alcoholic. And it was emphasized that he did not handle alcohol well at all. He got inebriated quicker than most people do. He couldn’t hold his booze.  I recall that it was when he was doing the Tonight Show from New York that he had his worst time with alcohol, and Ed McMahon was his drinking buddy. There were a lot of drunken times.

 

So, the heavy smoking was bad enough, but the heavy drinking was another huge burden.  That’s why I say that he made out like a bandit making it to 79.  

 

Then there was stress, and he had a lot of it in his life. He lived an amazing life but not an enviable one, in my opinion.  For instance, I think he made a big mistake trying to become a business mogul. What did he need it for? He was paid a vast amount of money, more than he could ever spend, and he had no need to buy banks and tv stations and other businesses which were more than investments- they were enterprises which had to be run.  And as fate would have it, many of them didn’t turn out well, and he lost money.  But, the greatest cost was all the time involved and all the stress that it imposed on him. Frankly, he should have just bought regular passive investments and not tried to build a business empire.

 

He was married 4X, and when three of the marriages ended, they ended badly, it was very stressful.  He got off easy financially speaking the first time since he hadn’t hit it big yet. But the second and particularly the third divorce were very expensive and very stressful. You might wonder why he didn’t just give up on marriage. The answer is that he didn’t  like being alone. That was emphasized repeatedly.  

 

Even his 4th marriage which lasted until the end wasn’t without its problems, and It’s fair to say that his relationship with his three sons was difficult and stressful throughout.  And then his middle son Richie died tragically in a car accident at the age of 39.  So, there was lots of stress and pain on the fathering side of his life too.

 

I realize that in everyone’s family there are joys and sorrows, but I got the distinct impression that for Johnny, there was a lot more sorrow than joy.

 

And then the other irony was that even though he was beloved by millions, Johnny Carson had few friends, and the friendships he had often ended.  Especially by the end of his life, he had very few friends.

 

But, what were the positives health-wise? As I said, he tended to be thin, and he stayed thin. He didn’t get fat. It was automatic when he was young, but as he got older, he worked at staying fit and trim. He had a full Universal gym in his home which he used religiously. He was also an avid tennis player. He was diligent about exercise.  

 

And the Tonight Show was an outlet for him. He had his problems, but he knew that people were turning him on at night to escape from their problems.  He felt a responsibility to them.  He wanted to make them feel good  in the hour before they went to bed.  His commitment to his audience was absolute.  I believe it superseded everything and anything else.  His devotion to his audience was unwavering.

 

Was he a nice guy? Well, he gave away a lot of money, both during and after his life. He helped people in need, and he often did it anonymously. But, he wasn’t by nature sunny.  He had a dark side. And there was a big difference between his public persona and the real Johnny Carson.

 

He had such an unusual life. If you said he was one in a million, you’d be way off.  He was much rarer than that.  He was an American institution.  He was very, very American, and Americans were proud that he was American because he was class act, and he made the whole country look classy. Johnny Carson was as American as apple pie and the 4th of July, and not because he wore patriotism on his sleeve, but because he embodied the American spirit without doing that.

 

I think it’s fair to say that Johnny Carson was one of the most beloved entertainers of all time, and people felt that they knew him.  He was Johnny- one of those people for whom a first name was enough. Had he never smoked, he surely would have lived a lot longer, but it wasn’t remotely possible.  Like most people, he was a product of his time and circumstances.  It's true of the rich just as it is of the poor.  And it’s very possible, even likely, that no one will ever match what he did, which was to become the late-night viewing habit of this entire country.  Who is going to be the next Johnny Carson? Nobody.  

 

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