A debut biography chronicles the life and exploits of a consummate American con man.
On Nov. 16, 1959, a National Airlines plane plunged into the Gulf of Mexico, killing all 42 people onboard. One of the ticketed passengers was Dr. Robert Vernon Spears, a well-known Dallas naturopath. But as Logan recounts in his absorbing book about Spears’ adventures, a medical career was another in a long line of self-inventions for a consummate con man, who, it turned out, never boarded the ill-fated Flight 967. Spears “could play any role,” the author writes. In fact, he was so good at “playing these parts, he could have had financial rewards aplenty—if he had chosen to play like everyone else. Or if he had been better at not getting caught.” Spears hasn’t achieved the notoriety of such celebrated American grifters as Frank “Catch Me If You Can” Abagnale, Charles Ponzi, or Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil. But he committed his first crime, a forgery, at age 16, and—often in cahoots with close friend William Allen Taylor—roamed the country in search of “marks,” taking money from “the fat cats who could afford it. Or big businesses that would barely notice.” “He’s the conman’s grandma, a real smooth article,” one associate said of him. Making extensive use of public records, Logan uncovers a veritable gold mine of grift and deftly traces Spears’ post–World War II transformation into a naturopath. With a forged medical degree, he became head of the Texas Association of Naturopathic Physicians before a corruption scandal thrust him into the even murkier world of backroom abortions. In July 1959, Spears was arrested in Los Angeles for performing a motel-room abortion. But in perhaps his most audacious con, he reinvented himself as a dead man when Flight 967 crashed. The book suffers from a dearth of information about Spears’ formative years, with the author suggesting only that the criminal was inspired by poverty and a “yearning for escape.” But Spears’ picaresque journey makes for compelling reading and, Logan asserts, may even “inform us about...the ways in which conmen become leaders, whether that involves presidency of a medical guild or a nation state.”
This vivid account effectively captures the many reinventions of a daring grifter.
Privately published by Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and revised by his student E. B. White in 1959, that "little book" is back again with more White updatings.
Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis (whoops — "A bankrupt expression") a unique guide (which means "without like or equal").
Noted jazz and pop record producer Thiele offers a chatty autobiography. Aided by record-business colleague Golden, Thiele traces his career from his start as a ``pubescent, novice jazz record producer'' in the 1940s through the '50s, when he headed Coral, Dot, and Roulette Records, and the '60s, when he worked for ABC and ran the famous Impulse! jazz label. At Coral, Thiele championed the work of ``hillbilly'' singer Buddy Holly, although the only sessions he produced with Holly were marred by saccharine strings. The producer specialized in more mainstream popsters like the irrepressibly perky Teresa Brewer (who later became his fourth wife) and the bubble-machine muzak-meister Lawrence Welk. At Dot, Thiele was instrumental in recording Jack Kerouac's famous beat- generation ramblings to jazz accompaniment (recordings that Dot's president found ``pornographic''), while also overseeing a steady stream of pop hits. He then moved to the Mafia-controlled Roulette label, where he observed the ``silk-suited, pinky-ringed'' entourage who frequented the label's offices. Incredibly, however, Thiele remembers the famously hard-nosed Morris Levy, who ran the label and was eventually convicted of extortion, as ``one of the kindest, most warm-hearted, and classiest music men I have ever known.'' At ABC/Impulse!, Thiele oversaw the classic recordings of John Coltrane, although he is the first to admit that Coltrane essentially produced his own sessions. Like many producers of the day, Thiele participated in the ownership of publishing rights to some of the songs he recorded; he makes no apology for this practice, which he calls ``entirely appropriate and without any ethical conflicts.'' A pleasant, if not exactly riveting, memoir that will be of most interest to those with a thirst for cocktail-hour stories of the record biz. (25 halftones, not seen)