2:04pm

Thu May 16, 2013
Tina Brown's Must-Reads

Tina Brown's Recommended Readings Have Luck In Common

Originally published on Thu May 16, 2013 6:02 pm

Tina Brown, editor of the Daily Beast and Newsweek, joins NPR's Steve Inskeep again for an occasional feature Morning Edition likes to call Word of Mouth. She talks about what she's been reading and gives us some recommendations.

This month, her reading suggestions have a common theme: luck. Not good luck, not bad luck, but the often-ambiguous element of chance.

A Small Village Wins Big

Brown's first selection is a Michael Paterniti article from GQ, which Brown calls "a fabulous piece of very offbeat reporting."

"The Luckiest Village in the World" describes a poor farming village in Aragon, Spain, called Sodeto. The town decides to enter Spain's annual Christmas lottery, called "El Gordo" (the fat one); the prize is worth 720 million euros.

"The whole country participates in this kind of annual ritual of everybody hoping to win. And by some incredible piece of fortuitous luck, this little village wins," Brown says.

The article starts by describing the ecstasy of the win, but Brown says Paterniti's greatest strength is his exploration of the long-term consequences of this stroke of luck.

"He goes on to do what I absolutely love, when any reporter does [it]. He actually goes on to discuss what happens later. Because [after] this first wonderful rush, where everybody feels kind of morally blessed almost by this Michelangelo hand that has stretched down and saved their lives — it all begins to change. ... After a time what actually is shown is that while luck is democratic and touches everybody equally, money is secretive; money is selfish."

The villagers were supposed to share the money, but the neighbors begin to grow apart. They become suspicious of each other and protective of their winnings.

"They claim to possess fewer and fewer winning tickets than they first announced. You know, they start to hoard and not say what they've got. The people who said when they won that they're going to help this person, gradually those things are forgotten as they think about, well, no, maybe I'll keep it for myself and buy myself a new flat-screen TV.

"The luckiest person, in a sense, at the end of this story, is the loser who was the only person in the village who didn't buy a ticket. Because this guy who didn't win, who everybody felt very sorry for, at the end of the story he has decided to make a little movie with a Danish film crew about what actually happened in his village. And because he's done something, you know, himself, — because he's actually tried to do something — he feels actually happier and more at peace than really anybody in the village."

The moral of the story? "Luck isn't so lucky in the end," Brown says. "It's much better for the soul, in a sense, to work for your own rewards."

Life After Liberace

Brown's second pick is an article from The New York Times called "The Boy Toy's Story," about Liberace's lover Scott Thorson. Thorson was only 17 years old when he met Liberace, 40 years his senior, and he came from a rough background.

"He was an abused child of parents who treated him incredibly badly — from a rotten background," Brown says. "And Liberace fell absolutely, madly in love with him and moved him into his house. So much in love with him was he that [Liberace] actually insisted that [Thorson] drive him onstage in his limousine and open the door for Liberace when he got out, just so that he could see him onstage ... at all times."

It was an improbable change of lifestyle for Thorson.

"This is lightning striking," Brown says — "that this great showman could pick him out and shower him with jewels and shower him with furs and shower him with gifts."

But that wasn't necessarily good luck. "There's something very deeply creepy about this love affair," Brown says. Liberace persuaded Thorson to undergo plastic surgery — not just any surgery, but facial reconstruction that made him resemble Liberace himself.

"The ultimate act of narcissism," Brown calls it: "to really want to be in love with yourself."

"In order to lose weight, also to please Liberace, he gets addicted to amphetamines," Brown says. After five years, Liberace kicks him out, and Thorson sues him for millions of dollars in palimony — and loses, left with only $100,000.

"And so then the spotlight, again, leaves him," Brown says. "And like with the other story, what I find completely fascinating is looking at this guy since. What happens to this guy?"

Today Thorson, the subject of an upcoming HBO movie, is in prison for identity theft. "He has led a life of kind of petty crime," Brown says. "He's led a life where he became the lover of a famous gangster. He's at all times been involved in unbelievably sort of picaresque stories of crime and punishment. I will say one good thing about him: He no longer has the chin implant, which I think is a great redemption for him."

Obama Turns To Guantanamo Again

Brown's final story concerns luck of the political variety: specifically, President Obama's. Amid what Brown calls "a turmoil of scandals," a piece by Daniel Klaidman on one of Obama's failed campaign promises is running in Brown's own Newsweek.

"On the campaign trail, the president said he was going to close Guantanamo Bay," Brown says. After four years of skirting the question, Obama has raised the issue again in recent weeks.

"He's decided that he really has got to now address it, largely because there has been this appalling hunger strike in Guantanamo recently," Brown says.

Many of the striking prisoners have been detained at Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade.

"Eleven years without any kind of due process," Brown says. "They have not been tried; they have not been allowed any kind of access to justice. They are there, stuck in limbo."

Klaidman's article points out that a challenge for anyone trying to motivate Congress to close Guantanamo Bay is that the prisoners there have little or no constituency.

"One of the great questions of this whole story is how to cajole self-interested lawmakers to take a major political risk," Brown says. "And Obama's answer seems to be that he's going to make his case, finally, to the public."

But if Obama wants to make up for years of inaction on Guantanamo Bay, his timing might be unlucky.

"My guess is that it will absolutely fall on deaf ears, given how little leverage he's got in the wake of the IRS scandal and the AP scandal and Benghazi — a trio of nightmares in his inbox," Brown says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, when I was reporting years ago in Colombia, I heard the same thing almost every time I got out of a taxi cab. The taxi driver would say, as I left, suerte - luck. A single word; not good luck, not bad luck, just luck. As I've thought about it over the years, I realized that was appropriate because when you have luck, when something happens in your life by chance, you often don't know if it was good luck or bad. Tina Brown, the editor of the Daily Beast and Newsweek, is going to talk us through that theme with some of her recommended readings. It's a regular feature here, called Word of Mouth. She gives us suggestions on what to read. And Tina Brown is on the line, once again. Hi, Tina.

TINA BROWN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you start with an article from GQ. The headline is "The Luckiest Village in the World."

BROWN: Yeah, this is a fabulous piece of very off-beat reporting by Michael Paterniti. It's about a village in Spain - in Aragon - called Sodeto; very poor, farming village. And this town decides to enter the annual Christmas lottery in Spain, which is known as El Gordo, which is actually Spanish for the fat one, which is this massive...

INSKEEP: Which it is, yeah.

BROWN: ...lottery, which is worth 720 million euros. And the whole country participates in this kind of annual ritual of everybody hoping to win. And by some incredible, you know, piece of fortuitous luck, this little village wins. And he describes, first of all, the ecstasies of the win, and then what really happens later. He starts by saying: Luck is childhood again in the garden, naked and innocent. How could this be? That is the feeling, when they all win. He says the first stage of luck is being chosen. And the massive rush of ecstasy and disbelief at being chosen before everything that will come next, before they realize the full impact of their winnings, luck is a humble village bound by modern straw, touched by this bolt of light. But then he goes on to do what I absolutely love when any reporter does. He actually goes on to discuss what happens later. Because this first wonderful rush, where everybody feels kind of morally blessed almost by this Michelangelo hand that has stretched down and saved their lives, it all begins to change because at the end of it, after a time, what actually is shown is that while luck is democratic and touches everybody equally, money is secretive, money is selfish.

INSKEEP: And now, they're supposed to share all this money.

BROWN: Now, they're supposed to share all this money. And he says, you know, how the neighbors soon grow apart. They're no longer unified by common fortune. And he writes that a strange reversal affects the citizens of Sodeto. They claim to possess fewer and fewer winning tickets than they first announced. You know, they start to hoard and not say what they've got. The people who said when they won that they're going to help this person, gradually those things are forgotten as they think about, well, no, maybe I'll keep it for myself and buy myself a new flat-screen TV. And also, money is suspicious. You know, there are people who have money, who start feeling that other people want it.

And so what actually is shown is that the luckiest person, in a sense, at the end of this story is the loser who was the only person in the village who didn't buy a ticket - because this guy who didn't win, who everybody felt very sorry for, at the end of the story he has decided to make a little movie with a Danish film crew about what actually happened in his village. And because he's done something, you know, himself, because he's actually tried to do something, he feels, actually, happier and more at peace than really, anybody in the village.

You know, he says to the writer: Luck is a facade and fatigue. Luck is not having to worry, but also working hard to preserve the things that once gave your life meaning, like work and love. So the wonderful morality of the story is that luck isn't so lucky, in the end. It's much better for the soul, in a sense, to work for your own rewards.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned that a documentary film crew showed up to document that. We're also going to talk about a movie along the way of this next story in the New York Times. "The Boy Toy's Story" is the headline.

BROWN: Yes. I just adored this story, by David Segal, about Liberace's young lover, Scott Thorson - 40 years younger than Liberace when the great showman met him, picked him up, when he was only 17 years old. He was an abused child of parents who, you know, who treated him incredibly badly, from a rotten background. And Liberace fell absolutely madly in love with him and moved him into his house. So much in love with him was he that he actually insisted even that he drove him onstage in his limousine and open the door for Liberace when he got out, just so that he could see him onstage when he was there at all times. And of course this is lightning striking, that this great showman could pick him out and shower him with jewels and shower him with furs and shower him with gifts. But of course, like, as one can imagine, these things go wrong. First of all, there's something very deeply creepy, of course, about this love affair. Liberace even got him to have a chin implant and a facial reconstruction so that he could resemble himself.

INSKEEP: Liberace wanted a lover but also wanted a son in the same person here.

BROWN: Exactly right. He wanted those two things together, perhaps the ultimate act of narcissism, to really want to be in love with yourself. And after a time, in order to lose weight, also to please Liberace, he gets addicted to amphetamines and becomes, in fact, a drug addict, and of course is kicked out in the end by Liberace after five years and sues him for palimony, which he loses and ends up with less, I think, than $100,000. And so then the spotlight, again, leaves him. And like with the other story, what I find completely fascinating is then looking at this guy since. What happens to this guy, Scott Thorson? And he turns out to have lived the most extraordinary life. When the writer catches up with him, he's actually in prison for an identity theft. He has led a life of kind of petty crime. He's led a life where he became the lover of a famous gangster. He's at all times been involved in unbelievably sort of picaresque stories of crime and punishment. I will say one good thing about him: he no longer has the chin implant, which I think is a great redemption for him.

INSKEEP: And there is an HBO movie about this story that has been made. And of course this article is talking about the real guy and the real story behind it. Let's talk about political luck next here, Tina Brown. President Obama, of course, rose to the White House in almost record time, extremely quickly, in recent years. But of course once he took office, he had the suerte, the luck, of having to try to fulfill his own campaign promises, including one that's been exceedingly difficult.

BROWN: Yes. Well, of course, the president is involved at the moment in such a turmoil of scandals going on all at once. And in fact this particular story we're going to talk about has had no luck at all when it comes to that. You know, on the campaign trail the president said he was going to close Guantanamo Bay. And actually nothing's happened. And now he's decided that he really has got to now address it, largely because there has been this appalling hunger strike in Guantanamo recently in which it has been said publicly that the reason that they have gone on strike because they themselves who have been 11 years, many of them, there, 11 years without any kind of due process. They have not been tried, they have not been allowed any kind of access to justice. They are there stuck in limbo. Dan Klaidman in digital Newsweek this week has done a wonderful piece really recapping all the times that Obama has dropped the ball on Guantanamo and what is now going to happen.

INSKEEP: And you talk about luck. I mean, we have people at Guantanamo Bay, and we've heard a number of stories - some of the awful people, some of them they allege that they didn't do very much wrong at all. And in any case, they are beyond the reach of luck. That's the design of the system there.

BROWN: Well, absolutely right. So I mean one of the great questions of this whole story is how to cajole self-interested lawmakers to take a major political risk really on behalf of many who have little or no constituency, as Dan Klaidman asks. And Obama's answer seems to be that he's going to make his case finally to the public. But my guess is that it will absolutely fall on deaf ears, given how little leverage he's got in the wake of the IRS scandal and the AP scandal and Benghazi, a trio of nightmares in his inbox.

INSKEEP: Tina Brown is the editor of the Daily Beast and Newsweek. Tina, suerte.

BROWN: Thank you. The same to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.