In 1978 we knew him as a superhero. Soaring through the air, he seemed to embody the strength, courage, and virtue of the Man of Steel. In 1995, paralyzed from a riding accident and unable to breath without a ventilator, actor Christopher Reeve became a different kind of hero--a real one of flesh and blood, who bravely faced the most devastating kind of setback, and who ultimately became a role model for anyone who has ever wanted to give up in the face of hardship. In Superhero we see a man who has been driven from day one, driven to succeed academically, athletically, professionally, and after his accident, even more determined-to walk again, to help others in need, and to prove that the soul and spirit can soar, even when the body can barely move.
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CHAPTER ONEAmerica remains a young enough country that many of its citizens feel the need for a sense of history, a background and identity, the knowledge of where their ancestors came from before appearing on these shores.It's a connection to the past the United States alone can't offer. Most often genealogical research confirms that emigration was the only chance a family had to evade poverty, starvation, or some other type of cruel death. The poor, tired, hungry, and the huddled masses have found welcoming arms in America for more than two centuries, even if the barriers are now starting to rise.For some, however, the past reveals surprising amounts of wealth and power. Christopher Reeve is one of those people. His bearing and patrician good looks seem to indicate a moneyed background--which he had--but it's hardly nouveau riche. The privilege dates back generations.On his father's side, Chris can trace the lineage all the way to thirteenth-century France, where the D'Olier family was nobility, appointed to any number of lucrative offices by the kings. Inevitably, the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century made a number of changes. Many of the hereditary aristocracylost their lives. Most others lost their titles, wealth, and land. Even those who clung on didn't have an easy time.Chris's great-great-great-grandfather, Michel D'Olier, was born in France after the Revolution, after the Napoleonic Wars that left the country much poorer and looking for a way to climb into the nineteenth century under the Bourbon kings. As a young man he met an Irish girl and moved to her homeland, specifically county Mayo, where his son, William, was born.If France after Napoleon had seemed like a shattered place, then Ireland in the middle of the nineteenth century must have been like one of Dante's circles of hell. The blights of the potato crop, the mass evictions by absentee landlords, and the failure of the British government to offer any real help had left the population decimated, smallholdings in ruins. Anyone who could headed west, to the land of opportunity.William D'Olier was among them. Landing in New York with a little money, he made his way to Philadelphia. He was better off than many of the new immigrants, with some money and some skill, which he invested wisely to start the first of his cotton mills. Soon there were more, a small empire, which would bring him riches, and his heirs power.Money bought him position in a society where the dollar was king. And it helped his children. William's son, Franklin D'Olier, became the president of Prudential Insurance during the Second World War (as well as one of the founders, and the first commander, of the American Legion).Franklin D'Olier Reeve was Franklin's grandson, born in the family home in Philadelphia in 1928, before his parents settled in the wealthy area of Morristown, New Jersey.Sometimes the children of fortune find themselves hating all that's been given to them on a silver platter. And that seemed to be the case of Franklin Reeve."He reacted against all the privilege by cutting himself off from it," Chris explained.However, he wasn't completely without options. An extremely gifted student, by the time he parted ways from his family he already had a place at Princeton and knew that the ascetic, hermetic world of academia was where he wanted to make his future. He lived on campus, graduating in 1950 with a B.A. in English.Franklin might have turned his back on his immediate family and their money, but that didn't mean he ignored all his relatives. One who caught his attention was Barbara Pitney Lamb, a distant cousin who had barely begun her own degree course at Vassar. In 1950, just after Franklin's graduation, they married and moved to Manhattan, where Franklin was set to begin work toward his doctorate at Columbia University.He quickly made his name as a star student, clambering up the steps of the ivory tower. His degree might have been in English, but his real passion was Slavic, and particularly Russian, literature--hardly a field which would make him rich.Certainly being a graduate student didn't help his bank balance, so, as well as attending school, Franklin took a variety of jobs to help support himself and Barbara--jobs that had more to do with the working than the thinking classes, as a longshoreman, a waiter, even an actor. (His political leanings were to the left, although in the early 1950s--the era of McCarthy and the HUAC hearings--that wasn't something anyone wanted to advertise.) Even living on the Upper East Side, a fairly inexpensive neighborhood in those days, making ends meet was difficult.Barbara did what she could, penning some freelance journalism. But it wasn't too long before she had other things on her mind, discovering at the beginning of 1952 that she was pregnant.On September 25, she presented Franklin with a son, whom they named Christopher. He was a sweet-looking boy, born with a shock of blond hair, and eyes that gradually turned blue. Itspoke volumes about Franklin's academic aspirations that he asked Frank Kermode, the British scholar and writer, to be the boy's godfather.Within a year the couple had added another child, Benjamin. For Franklin, pressured both to support his rapidly growing family and achieve his own goals, it was a difficult time. Neither was it easy for Barbara. She was just twenty, suddenly forced to squeeze every dollar and be responsible for two babies--a shock to someone who'd grown up, if not rich, then at least in very comfortable circumstances.Inevitably, finances put strains on the marriage, which wasn't proving to be the strongest of bonds, anyway. For almost three more years the family managed to limp along from paycheck to paycheck, things gradually worsening.The storms around them brought Chris and Ben close together. With circumstances at home so straitened, the way to lose themselves was in their imagination. Anything was grist for the mill, even boxes that had held groceries."To us they became ships," Chris recalled years later, "simply because we said they were."It was impossible for the boys not to notice the way things were going between their parents. It reached a head when Chris was three, and the Reeves filed for divorce.In the fifties most couples stayed together, even in the bleakest marital situations, "for the sake of the children." But Franklin and Barbara's union had broken down to the point where that was impossible, where hatred seemed to replace everything else, and anything was fair game to get an advantage over the other party--even using the children.The effect on the boys was to send them even further inside themselves, to make them small, independent beings in their own minds."My father and mother were always fighting over me," Chrisexplained, "and therefore canceled each other out. Consequently, I grew up not wanting to depend on them or anybody else. That's probably the key to my personality."On New Year's Eve, 1956, Barbara left New York and moved back to her hometown of Princeton with the kids. While they lived with her, Franklin had visitation rights, which he exercised to the letter, making sure to drop the boys off close to--but not at--their mother's house. He wanted no personal contact with his ex-wife. They were pawns in what would be an almost fifteen-year war of silence and attrition between Franklin and Barbara."I felt torn between them," Chris would say in 1980. "They had a tendency to use me as a chess piece."In the college town, the asthmatic Barbara managed to keep body and soul together for the family by continuing the journalism she'd begun in New York, this time working for the local paper, Town Topics, eventually becoming an editor.It was difficult; financially things were even tighter than when she'd been with Franklin, but at least she was free to be herself again. The real casualties were the children, with Chris in particular "a solemn child," paying the price for her freedom.Franklin had remarried, and was still living in New York, slowly working his way up the academic ladder. He would go on to have a career even more distinguished in its own way than his son's. He'd teach creative writing at Yale, then Slavic languages at Connecticut's Wesleyan University, publishing a number of novels, twelve books of poetry, and several volumes of literary criticism. He was, Chris admitted, a remarkable man, who could "do everything--from playing Parcheesi to translating Dostoyevsky."But Franklin's world was completely circumscribed by the boundaries of the campus and the ivory tower. He knew nothing of popular culture, or the everyday world, and didn't careto know. To a young boy whose world was changing every day, and who only saw his father on the weekends, that must have made him seem distant, possibly even cold.For Christopher and Benjamin life had quickly become complex. But it was about to become even more so. In Princeton Barbara began dating a stockbroker, Tristam Johnson, and in 1959, Barbara Pitney Lamb became Barbara Johnson.Johnson had done well for himself, managing brokerage houses, and for the first time in their lives, the boys found themselves living with money--not only was there was no need to watch every cent, but they were surrounded by material things.But with this luxury came a new strangeness--two younger stepbrothers, Mark and Brock, Johnson's kids--a ready-made family. (And a family of high achievers, at that: Mark is now an architect, and Brock a classicist, having studied at Yale. Allison, the daughter Barbara and Tristam would have later, has become a doctor.)Johnson was a generous, open man, almost the opposite of the emotionally hermetic Franklin. He'd grown up in the privileged WASP traditions, and wanted--and could afford--the best for his family. But one thing he refused to allow in the house on exclusive Campleton Circle was television, which he called "the boob tube." Certainly Chris took much of the Waspish style that has always been his trademark from his stepfather. The household offered stability for Chris and Ben after the seesawing of the last few years, an atmosphere of love and laughter, of weekends away in winter, learning to ski in the Poconos, and summers on Cape Cod.But the past had left its mark on the boys, most certainly on Chris. The patterns had already been set, not only for independence, but also in the need to excel, to be the very best at anything he undertook--a way of pleasing and getting theattention of Franklin, because he simply couldn't understand the emotional distance his real father put between them. Without a doubt, Chris put his father on a pedestal. The man had achieved a great deal, and done it all on his own abilities. The only way his son could live up to that was to be the best at anything and everything he undertook, whatever the price. When Chris was a teenager, his father taught him to sail--a passion that would remain with him--and soon had him skippering boats."I would win a lot," Chris remembered. "But it was at a certain cost. I would terrorize my crew. I was really aggressive, demanding, and critical of myself and other people. If I didn't win, it would set me back for days."Johnson might have been only their stepfather, but he treated Chris and Ben just like his own kids, enrolling them in Princeton Day School, exclusive and private, where they'd be guaranteed the best education and a chance to fulfill their potential (something Ben would begin to do when he was thirteen, inventing a new computer language that would be used at Princeton University). Tests quickly established that Chris was a very bright kid, and it was even suggested that he skip a grade, until an astute school psychologist realized that putting him in a situation where he couldn't excel might be emotionally damaging to Chris, which would likely have been true.He was musically gifted, a soprano until his voice broke, singing with the madrigal group at school. And he'd shown an early talent for the piano, which had been encouraged and enhanced by lessons. In fact, it had become a great solace to him, something he could do on his own, alone, sitting there and losing himself in the compositions, with Ravel and Debussy--notably, both quite contemplative--as his favorites. (He'd go on to become an assistant conductor of the school orchestra.)Even though he participated in sports (he fenced and playedhockey, but steered clear of most team games), Chris tended to keep himself somewhat isolated, on the emotional sidelines. If he didn't become involved, then he couldn't be hurt. And so his interests were largely solitary, like music.One thing he'd never considered was acting. After all, on the surface it was very much a group activity, involving the entire cast rather than the individual. And while theater might have been highly thought of in the Johnson house, the idea of actually performing had never been discussed.Chris ended up in acting more or less through a side door. When he was in the fourth grade, and in the middle of a science class, a representative of Princeton's McCarter Theater came into the room to ask if any of the kids would be interested in taking a singing role in a production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Yeoman of the Guard.Chris could sing, he had musical experience, and for reasons he never fully understood, he found himself with his arm raised. He really had no idea what to expect--his only stage experience had been with the school or church choirs, which didn't involve putting himself into any kind of character. No sooner had he begun rehearsals than he discovered that he had a taste for the theater. There was something about it that suited him perfectly: he was able to lose the rather serious boy in a costume and makeup, and become someone completely different."If you look at pictures of me when I was a kid, I never cracked a smile," he said in Newsweek. "Acting was a way to help me loosen up, expose myself, and relax."That first production certainly seemed to turn his head, and he quickly became very active in drama at Princeton Day, almost as if he felt the need to make up for lost time; of course, involvement in that did offer a few other attractions, too: "Everyone else in school would be sitting there working on some testin third period, but I'd look at my watch and excuse myself and go to the theater."Escaping tests and lessons was fine, but in the end it was a peripheral reason. The theater had simply captured him, in large part because "being somebody else took me away from a lot of the things I was not prepared to deal with."His home life might have seemed perfectly settled, plenty of money, a good education, opportunities to do almost anything he wanted, but the scars of his parents' divorce remained quite raw. Indeed, that might well have been one of the reasons he attempted to do so much, simply to occupy his mind and his body, and to keep the darker thoughts at bay.It didn't help that he'd developed into a gawky and somewhat sickly teenager, not the hunk with Superman looks who'd emerge in a few years. He'd inherited his mother's asthma and suffered from various childhood allergies. There had also been an attack of alopecia, a nervous disease which caused his hair to fall out in clumps. In his own mind, at least, Chris was still very much in the ugly duckling stage. B...
Nickson has achieved a well-researched, carefully written history of the popular actor, director and political activist. Only a true Reeve aficionado, however, will appreciate this audio presentation. Lloyd James strives for an academic approach to his reading, but the result is somewhat stilted. Awkward pacing at unexpected moments and obvious "reading" get in the way of the listener's appreciation of the text. Even his direct quotes of Reeve recounting his courtship sound flat. One can admire Christopher Reeve, his professional achievements and his determination to overcome adversity. It's much more difficult to admire this accounting of his life. R.P.L. (c) AudioFile, Portland, Maine
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Book Description ROBERT HALE LTD, 1999. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110709063857
Book Description ROBERT HALE LTD. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. 0709063857 New Condition. Bookseller Inventory # NEW7.1984488