June 9, 2009

Book review: "The President's Pianist," by George Manos

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The President's Pianist, by George Manos
The President's Pianist
By George Manos
iUniverse / ISBN: 978-0-59548-716-5

As I've mentioned here before, I believe these days to be an ironically golden time for publishing, "ironic" of course because by all traditional means of measurement, the industry seems to be in a real crisis right now; but really, once you get past the shock of a bunch of now-useless middle managers at giant corporate structures losing money hand over fist these days, you'll see that it's actually easier than ever for an author to simply get a book designed, printed, and in people's hands, suddenly opening the floodgates that these old cultural gatekeepers used to keep tightly shut. And so in our particular period of history, this means not only a plethora of new work from the usual young, hungry artists out there, but also a bevy of new memoirs from a whole generation of retiring baby boomers, those "Children of Modernism" who built the US into the economic powerhouse it eventually became precisely by deferring their creative sides until they were older, until this fabled old age of wealth and luxury and arts and travel just like such 20th-century Presidents as Eisenhower and Kennedy promised them in their youth.

Take for example the recently released book The President's Pianist, by George Manos (as "told to" [i.e. cleaned up by] writer and editor Daniel Lindley), a perfect example of what I'm talking about; it's the tale of a career that was fascinating but not necessarily that historically important, although one that definitely crossed the paths of history-makers on a regular basis, a great little read that will be of enormous benefit to future presidential historians but that normally would just not be financially worth a mainstream publisher taking on. So thank God then that Manos lives in an age where he can simply self-publish his tight, 100-page tale (through our old friends at iUniverse), and be able to get the book into the hands of the specific small crowd who would most enjoy it; because if this was another day and age, such a memoir would've likely never gotten published at all, and with the world just a little worse off for it.

Because to be sure, Manos has had a fascinating life; a Greek-American child piano prodigy, who joined the prestigious Marine Band in the late 1940s in order to get out of combat duty during the Korean War, through a series of events he eventually came to the attention of President Harry Truman, who unofficially "commissioned" him to be the official White House pianist for several years, a position Truman essentially made up out of thin air and has never been bestowed again. Because for those who don't know, Truman was a pretty decent piano player himself, and an obsessive fan of the moodier classical composers of the Romantic period; and with this being the late 1940s, of course, and with record players back then being not much more than crude lo-fi experiments, those who could afford it were much better off simply hiring a musician to play songs on demand live, whenever the mood struck the listener for yet another specific tune. And thus was it that Manos ended up playing on a pretty regular basis for Truman all through his administration, both on the Presidential yacht that Truman spent a lot of time on and in the "Blair-Lee House" Truman actually lived in during his Presidency, the White House actually going through a massive restoration during those years.

Yeah, didn't know that the White House was closed during the Truman administration? Or that it was Truman himself who instigated the overhaul, and who used to derisively refer to the restricting mansion as the "Great White Prison?" Well, that's the entire charm of a book like The President's Pianist, a memoir full of interesting anecdotes but not exactly essential to history, the kind of title cited by scholars when examining the "human side" of society's greatest figures. And Manos has all kinds of great little yarns to share about the people who were a part of Washington in those years, sometimes surprising but never disrespectful, not tabloid-worthy but simply quirky and funny -- Truman's secret hatred of "The Missouri Waltz," for example, Eleanor Roosevelt's habit after her own White House years of rearranging knickknacks whenever visiting the building again. This is the whole reason for such a memoir to even exist, after all, is to "fill in the gaps" of famous periods of history, to give us a sense of what a man like Truman was like when he wasn't signing treaties or running wars; and since the pressure was off in this case to turn in some 400-page tome that could be more easily marketed by a major press, Manos instead delivers a slim volume packed with interesting stories, versus the padded, fluffy mess that so many of these "minor memoirs" turn out to be (although make no mistake, Manos covers a lot of ground in his book, going into detail not just about his years with Truman but also his schooling at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, his time with the Marine Band during the war [the only military band that has played at every Presidential inauguration since the 1700s], his stint as music director for the National Gallery of Art, and all his various gigs around Washington as the '50s turned into the '60s, then the '70s and beyond).

Like I said, it all adds up by the end to a great little read, a nice tight book that will take most people only a single day to get through; as mentioned, it's I think one of the great things about this age of self-publishing, that such a book can exist without too much of a herculean effort, for the admittedly small crowd who will love a chance to read such a book. For anyone interested in this period of history, or in getting a bit of an insider's look at Washington in those years, The President's Pianist comes much recommended.

Out of 10: 8.5

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:55 PM, June 9, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |