Five People Born on May 8th

Harry S. Truman

Today is May 8, 2010 and the 128th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. There are 237 days left in the year 2010. According the Mayan calendar, there are 958 days till the end of the current cycle. Today is National Have A Coke Day, in celebration of the invention of Coca-Cola.  It is also National No-Sock Day. No answer there.  Here are five people born on this day.

 

 

MELISSA GILBERT

OK, I have a confession:  When I was little, I LOVED Melissa Gilbert on the television show, Little House on the Prairie.  This actress and director was born in Los Angeles. Her brother and sister are both actors, too.  Her brother, Jonathan, played Willie Olson on Little House and her sister, Sara, played Darlene on the series Roseanne.  The sensitive, delicately pretty actor came to fame as a girl playing Laura Ingalls on the NBC period drama series, Little House on the Prairie (1974-82). It was for her earnest, memorable portrayal of Laura that Gilbert became the youngest person to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Gilbert has made a few feature film appearances, but the majority of her work has been in television. She most often opted for roles as suffering, historically significant teenagers, such as in The Miracle Worker in 1979, The Diary of Anne Frank in 1980, and Splendor in the Grass in 1981. She remained prolific and eventually graduated to adult roles, including Choices in 1986 and A Family of Strangers in 1993. In addition, there were a few failed series attempts, such as Little House: A New Beginning in 1982, Stand By Your Man in 1992, and Sweet Justice in 1994. In 2001, Gilbert was voted in as president of the Screen Actors Guild and won win a second two-year term in 2003.  Gilbert has returned to the project that made her famous. Now in the role originally played by Karen Grassle on television, Gilbert has been starring as “Ma” in the touring production of Little House on the Prairie: The Musical. She also has shared her details of her life in A Prairie Tale, a memoir published in 2009.  During her teen years, Gilbert dated actors Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe. In 1988, she married actor and producer Bo Brinkman. They had one son, Dakota Paul (Cody), and later divorced. In 1995, she married actor Bruce Boxleitner. They have one son, Michael Garrett, born in 1995 and named after the late actor Michael Landon.

 

 

ROBERT JOHNSON

A prodigal singer and guitarist, Robert Johnson is considered to be one of the greatest blues performers of all time. But this recognition came to him largely after his death.  During his brief career, Johnson traveled around, playing wherever he could. The acclaim for Robert Johnson’s work is based on the 29 songs that he wrote and recorded in Dallas and San Antonio from 1936 to 1937. These include “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” which has become a blues standard. His songs have been recorded by Muddy Waters, Elmore James, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton.  Robert Johnson came to the attention of many musicians and won over new fans with a reissue of his work in the 1960s. Another retrospective collection of his recordings released in the 1990s sold millions of copies.  Much of Robert Johnson’s life is shrouded in mystery. Part of the lasting mythology around him is a story of how he gained his musical talents by making a bargain with the devil. While that may be unlikely, it is true that he died at an early age. Only 27, Johnson died on August 16, 1938, as the suspected victim of a deliberate poisoning. Several movies and documentaries have tried to shed light on this enigmatic blues legend, including Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? (1997) and Hellhounds on my Trail (2000).

 

 

SONNY LISTON

This boxer, born Charles Liston, grew up working in the local cotton fields. His father was an abusive alcoholic, and Liston left at age 13 to live with an aunt in St. Louis, Missouri.  In St. Louis, Liston quickly encountered problems with the local police. At the age of 16 (over six feet tall and weighing 200 pounds), Liston became a menacing presence in his neighborhood, occasionally working as a strike-breaking labor goon. He was arrested more than 20 times. In 1950, he was convicted of two counts of larceny and two counts of first-degree robbery; he spent more than two years in the Missouri State penitentiary in Jefferson City. While Liston was incarcerated, prison athletic director Father Alois Stevens introduced him to the sport of boxing.  Paroled in 1952, Liston quickly captured the local Golden Gloves championship. He became a professional fighter on September 2, 1953, when he knocked out Don Smith in a single round in St. Louis. Auspiciously, the massive man known as “The Bear” then won his first nine fights before dropping an eight-round decision to Marty Marshall. Liston’s career was interrupted for nine months beginning in December 1956, when he was sent to the St. Louis workhouse for assaulting a policeman and stealing the officer’s gun. After completing his term, Liston relocated to Philadelphia, where his career quickly flourished again.  Liston won 26 consecutive bouts and moved inexorably toward the heavyweight championship. Known for his scowling at opponents, he combined an intimidating ring presence with awesome power. His heavyweight-title-winning victory on September 25, 1962 was indicative of his powerful style. After a mere two minutes, he knocked out Floyd Patterson, which marked the first time in history that a reigning heavyweight champion was counted out in the first round. As the top fighter in the world, Liston became an easy target for sports columnists who remarked frequently on not only his menacing demeanor and vicious punching power but also his criminal background. Liston, who posted a career record of 50 wins to four losses with 39 knockouts, reveled in this role of the fighter America loved to hate.  Liston scored another knockout in a rematch with Patterson, but his 17-month reign as heavyweight champion ended at the hands of a brash fighter named Cassius Clay. Liston, who was viewed as nearly invincible before the fight, was unable to answer the bell for the seventh round, and Clay (soon to take the name of Muhammad Ali) became champion on February 25, 1964. The subsequent rematch with Clay on May 25, 1965 included the infamous “Phantom Punch.” Although it appeared that Liston had barely been grazed by a Clay right hand, Sonny went down after one minute, 45 seconds of the first round and never got up.  In 1966, following the Clay defeat, Liston began a comeback. He won 11 consecutive fights by knockout through 1968 and added three more wins in 1969 before losing a brutal bout to Leotis Martin. He climbed back in the ring against the “Bayonne Bleeder” Chuck Wepner, and registered a tenth-round technical knockout on June 29, 1970.  After being unable to reach Liston for 12 days, his wife Geraldine returned to their Nevada home on January 5, 1971, at which time discovered Liston’s dead body. The official cause of death was lung congestion and heart failure, although Liston had fresh needle marks on his arm and police discovered heroin and a syringe in the house. Liston was buried in Paradise Memorial Gardens in Las Vegas beneath a simple gravestone with the epitaph “A Man.”

 

 

HARRY S. TRUMAN

The 33rd President of the United States and possibly one of the best to ever sit in the Oval Office, Harry Truman was a poor haberdasher (i.e. hat maker) from Missouri who made it to being the most powerful man in the world.  During World War I, Truman served as an artillery officer, making him the only president to have seen combat in World War I (his successor Eisenhower spent the war training tank crews in Pennsylvania). After the war he became part of the political machine of Tom Pendergast and was elected a county commissioner in Missouri and eventually a Democratic United States senator. After he gained national prominence as head of the wartime Truman Committee, Truman replaced vice president Henry A. Wallace as Roosevelt’s running mate in 1944.  He succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, when President Roosevelt died less than three months after beginning his fourth term.  Truman had only been vice president for 82 days.  He had had very little meaningful communication with Roosevelt about world affairs or domestic politics after being sworn in as vice president, and was completely uninformed about major initiatives relating to the successful prosecution of the war—including, notably, the top secret Manhattan Project, which was about to test the world’s first atomic bomb.  Upon assuming the presidency, Truman asked all the members of FDR’s cabinet to remain in place, told them that he was open to their advice, and laid down a central principle of his administration: he would be the one making decisions, and they were to support him.  Truman was quickly briefed on the Manhattan Project and at the Potsdam Conference, he indicated cryptically to Joseph Stalin the U.S. was about to use a new kind of weapon against the Japanese. Though this was the first time the Soviets had been officially given information about the atomic bomb, Stalin (through his spies in the U.S.) was already well aware of the bomb project, in fact learning about it long before Truman himself did.  In August 1945, after Japan did not accept the Potsdam Declaration Truman authorized use of atomic weapons against the Japanese.  The atomic bombings that followed were the first, and so far the only, instance of nuclear warfare.  The end of World War II was followed in the United States by uneasy and contentious conversion back to a peacetime economy. The president was faced with a sudden renewal of labor-management conflicts that had lain dormant during the war years, severe shortages in housing and consumer products, and widespread dissatisfaction with inflation, which at one point hit six percent in a single month.  In the spring of 1946, a national railway strike, unprecedented in the nation’s history, brought virtually all passenger and freight lines to a standstill for over a month. When the railway workers turned down a proposed settlement, Truman seized control of the railways and threatened to draft striking workers into the armed forces.  Truman strongly supported the creation of the United Nations, and included former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on the delegation to the U.N.’s first General Assembly in order to meet the public desire for peace after the carnage of World War II. Although he claimed no personal expertise on foreign matters, and although the opposition Republicans controlled the United States Congress, Truman was able to win bipartisan support for both the Truman Doctrine, which formalised a policy of containment, and the Marshall Plan, which aimed to help rebuild postwar Europe.  Truman was a key figure in the establishment of the Jewish state in the Palestine Mandate.  At the urging of the British, a special U.N. committee, UNSCOP, recommended the immediate partitioning of Palestine into two states, and with Truman’s support, this initiative was approved by the General Assembly on November 29, 1947.  The 1948 presidential election is best remembered for Truman’s stunning come-from-behind victory.  In the spring of 1948, Truman’s public approval rating stood at 36 percent, and the president was nearly universally regarded as incapable of winning the general election. The “New Deal” operatives within the party—including FDR’s son James—tried to swing the Democratic nomination to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a wildly popular figure whose political views—and party affiliation—were totally unknown. Eisenhower emphatically refused to accept, and Truman outflanked opponents to his nomination.  Truman’s inauguration was the first ever televised nationally.  His second term was grueling, in large measure because of foreign policy challenges connected directly or indirectly to his policy of containment.  He also helped develop NATO, saw disgrace in his administration with the McCarthy hearings on communism, and led the country into the Korean conflict.

 

 

PETER BENCHLEY

This American author, best known for his novel Jaws and its subsequent film adaptation, the latter co-written by Benchley (with Carl Gottlieb) and directed by Steven Spielberg. Several more of his works were also adapted for cinema, includingThe Deep and The Island.  He was the son of author Nathaniel Benchley and grandson of Algonquin Round Table founder Robert Benchley. His younger brother, Nat Benchley, is a writer and actor. Peter Benchley was an alumnus of Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University.  After graduating from college, he worked for The Washington Post, then as an editor at Newsweek and a speechwriter in the White House for President Lyndon Johnson.  He developed the idea of a man-eating shark terrorizing a community after reading of a fisherman catching a 4,550 pound great white shark off the coast of Long Island in 1964. He also drew some material from the tragic Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916.  Jaws was published in 1974 and became a great success, staying on the bestseller list for some 44 weeks. Steven Spielberg has said that he initially found many of the characters unsympathetic and wanted the shark to win.  Book critics such as Michael Rogers of Rolling Stone Magazine shared the sentiment but the book struck a chord with readers.  Benchley co-wrote the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb (along with the uncredited Howard Sackler and John Milius, who provided the first draft of the memorable USS Indianapolis speech) for the Spielberg film released in 1975. Benchley made a cameo appearance as a news reporter on the beach. The film, starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, was released in the summer season, traditionally considered to be the graveyard season for films. However, Universal Studios decided to break tradition by releasing the movie with extensive television advertising. Tautly edited by Verna Fields, featuring an ominous score by John Williams and infused with such an air of understated menace by director Steven Spielberg that he was hailed as the heir apparent to “Master of Suspense” Alfred Hitchcock, Jaws became the first movie to gross $100 million at the US box office. It eventually grossed $450 million worldwide. George Lucas used a similar strategy in 1977 for Star Wars which broke the box office records set by Jaws, and hence the summer blockbuster was born.  Benchley died of pulmonary fibrosis in 2006.