Radio Revolution: Pandora’s Box of Musical Delights

Pandora Internet RadioPandora® Internet radio is one of the more interesting concepts to hit the web. Built on a powerful music recommendation engine known as the Music Genome Project®, it enables a listener to hear streaming music selections chosen on the basis of the musical styles of their favorite bands, performers or songwriters.

If you enjoy the jazz piano style of Marian McPartland, for example, Pandora will stream performances in a similar vein – such as the songs of Beegie Adair and Joe Bushkin. And you can create numerous personalized channels (also called “custom radio stations”) focusing on different styles of music to suit whatever mood or occasion you wish.

It’s an approach to listening remindful of Tom Hanks’ famous quote about that box of chocolates in the movie Forrest Gump: “You never know what you’re going to get.”

… Except with Pandora, you do “kinda-sorta” know what you’re going to get. I’ve been a Pandora listener for over a year now, and I’ve been introduced to musical artists I didn’t know before and probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise … and I’m the richer for it.

Pandora may be an Internet star today, but it sure didn’t start out that way. The brainchild of Tim Westergren, Pandora labored under difficult circumstances for the better part of a decade. The Music Genome Project took years to build and calibrate, during which time Pandora’s yeomen developers were obliged to work for large stretches at a time without pay.

Also, as with many Internet sites, figuring out an effective business model was challenging — and a barrier to obtaining funding.

Then in 2007, just as Pandora seemed on the verge of breaking out, an action by the Copyright Royalty Board raised Internet radio royalty fees to prohibitive heights, resulting in a court action that was finally settled in July 2009 in a compromise ruling.

Through it all, Pandora managed to survive, and now is close to having 60 million registered users. The Internet site is attracting sufficient advertising dollars to bring in profitable quarters. Revenues topped $50 million in 2009 (~60% goes to paying music royalties), and revenues are on track to double this year.

Always innovating, Pandora is now expanding into TV sets and automobiles as well, although the majority of activity currently comes from computers and a significant minority from mobile phones.

Long-term, Pandora believes the biggest potential rests in automotive. Consider this: Once listeners realize they can simply skip over a song on Pandora they don’t like, it should change forever the way people interact with radio.

Joel Kotkin: America’s Best Years Are Still Ahead

The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 by Joel KotkinIn the study of demographics – a field that has had its share of doomsayers over the years – the irrepressible Joel Kotkin has been a continuing voice of optimism. The Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and an authority on economic, political and social trends as well as demographics, Kotkin has also been one to defend suburbia as one of the key ingredients of successful urban development.

It’s been interesting to watch how these views have played out in relation to the predilection of many in the American elite to denigrate anything pertaining to the suburban lifestyle. In their characterization, “suburbia” is synonymous with faceless neighborhoods punctuated by numbingly similar commercial strip developments featuring cookie-cutter national chain stores and restaurants. The only difference between suburban Los Angeles and suburban Chicago is the palm trees.

The suburban mindset has also been maligned by many as being obsessed with material pursuits and economic upward mobility … and possessing little if any thinking that’s “progressive.”

As an example of this side of the debate, the publication of Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class – with its claims that metropolitan areas with high concentrations of high-tech employees, artists, musicians and gay people correlate to a higher level of economic development – articulates a theory that has been far better received by the news media and other members of the American intelligentsia.

Now, along comes Kotkin’s newest book … and with it his latest intriguing predictions. In The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, Kotkin argues that the coming 40 years will witness a resurgent America, even as the population swells by another 100 million souls. Comparing the birth rates of America to all other developed nations, along with the continued in-migration of people from other countries – particular Asian and Latin American – Kotkin contends that no other country anywhere will enjoy such ethnic diversity. And to Kotkin, youth and diversity equate with strength.

By contrast, Kotkin maintains that “most of the developed countries in both Europe and Asia will become veritable old-age homes.” Many of these nations, with their generous social safety nets, will face huge pension obligations without having younger workers to help shoulder the costs.

Kotkin’s bottom-line prediction is that Europe and Asia will decline even as America thrives. And not just economically but also culturally: “The most affluent, culturally rich and successful nation in human history.”

Kotkin also believes that the large new numbers of Americans will flock to – where else – the suburbs, which he characterizes as “the best, most practical choice for raising their families and enjoying the benefits of community.”

No doubt, there will be those who question Mr. Kotkin’s conclusions and predictions. What about the rise of China? How will illegal versus legal immigration affect social and economic trends? How about the widening gulf between the earning power of “technocrats” and the rest of the population? Not to mention the collapse of the family unit which has rendered so much of the fabric of “inner-urban” America dysfunctional at best … hopeless at worst?

Either way, this book is very interesting and helps us reappraise some of the “big trends” in social demography. The theories of Richard Florida’s “creative class” ring decidedly less compelling today, barely six or seven years on. It’s time now to consider Joel Kotkin’s interesting theories — with the same critical eye, of course.

Jack LaLanne at 95: Fit for the Ages

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger congratulates Jack LaLanne on his 95th birthday (September 2009).
Woods. McGwire. Vick. Harding. Rodriguez. In the world of sports and fitness, it seems that every other day someone is falling from grace. “Larger than life” seems inevitably to be followed by “all too human.”

But we have at least one sports hero who has forged a career refreshingly clear of controversy … and who has done so for nearly a century.

When Jack LaLanne opened the world’s first modern “fitness club” in Oakland, CA in 1935 at the age of 21, no one could have predicted that he’d still be a fixture in the world of sports some 75 years later.

“I can’t die. It would ruin my image!” he’s quoted as saying. But LaLanne certainly doesn’t have to worry about his image. At 95 years old, he remains one of America’s greatest proponents of health and fitness, communicating his message of exercise and good nutrition to all who will listen.

And unlike the hype surrounding so many other sports celebrities, LaLanne practices what he preaches: He works out at least two hours each day, concentrating on stretch and pull exercises plus swimming.

The story of Jack LaLanne was not always fitness and health, however. Like Charles Atlas, another bodybuilding and fitness pioneer, LaLanne hardly grew up as the picture of strength. But it was a teen-age encounter with nutrition pioneer Paul Bragg that inspired LaLanne to dramatically change his daily routine by joining the local YMCA in the San Francisco Bay area, becoming involved in bodybuilding and high school sports, and focusing on healthy eating.

It wasn’t long before LaLanne was experimenting with new weight training equipment of his own design, attracting a steady stream of policemen, firefighters and neighborhood toughs to his family’s backyard – which would lead to opening his first fitness center just a few years later.

The list of “firsts” in Jack LaLanne’s career in fitness is certainly impressive:

 The first host of a nationally syndicated television exercise show (1951).

 The first person to open a coed health club (eventually to become the 200-unit European Health Spa chain, later sold to Bally). At age 41, swimming the entire length of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge underwater, with 140 lbs. of equipment – a world record.

 At age 42, becoming the world-record holder for pushups (1,033 in 23 minutes).

 The first person to promote weight training for women and older adults.

 The first sports personality to endorse vitamins and exercise equipment on the TV airwaves.

(Coincidentally, LaLanne was also one of the first sports celebrities to warn against the dangers of smoking – long before medical science would come to the same conclusion.)

The Jack LaLanne Show would continue on television for 35 years. But the then 71-year-old host was certainly not ready to retire. Instead, he’s remained active as an author, spokesperson and motivational speaker on health and fitness in the 25 years since.

Moving easily between the world of sports and entertainment, Jack LaLanne has been awarded a lifetime achievement award from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports (1996) … along with getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (2002). And at age 95, LaLanne isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. In fact, his eleventh book on fitness, Live Young Forever, was published just last year.

“Dying is easy. Living, you’ve got to work at,” LaLanne is fond of saying. By the looks of it, Jack LaLanne has certainly followed his own medicine – and it’s worked out beautifully for him.

The End of Privacy

An article by technology author Steve Lohr published last week in The New York Times caught my eye. Titled “How Privacy Vanishes Online,” it explores how conventional notions of “privacy” have become obsolete over the past several years as more people engage in cyber/social interaction and web e-commerce.

What’s happening is that seemingly innocuous bits of information are being collected, “read” and reassembled by computers to build a person’s identity without requiring direct access to the information.

In effect, technology has provided the tools whereby massive amounts of information can be collected and crunched to establish patterns and discern all sorts of “private” information.

The proliferation of activity on social networking sites such as Flickr, Facebook and LinkedIn is making it easier than ever to assemble profiles that are uncanny in their accuracy.

Pulling together disparate bits of information helps computers establish a “social signature” for an individual, which can then be used to determine any number of characteristics such as marital status, relationship status, names and ages of children, shopping habits, brand preferences, personal hobbies and other interests, favorite causes (controversial or not), charitable contributions, legal citations, and so on.

One of the more controversial experiments was conducted by MIT researchers last year, dubbed “Project Gaydar.” In a review of ~4,000 Facebook profiles, computers were able to use the information to predict male sexual preference with nearly 80% accuracy – even when no explicit declaration of sexual orientation was made on the profiles.

Others, however, have pointed to positive benefits of data mining and how it can benefit consumers. For instance, chain grocery stores can utilize data collected about product purchases made by people who use store loyalty cards, enabling the chains to provide shoppers relevant, valuable coupon offers for future visits.

Last year, media company Netflix awarded a substantial prize to a team of computer specialists who were able to develop software capabilities to analyze the movie rental behavior of ~500,000 Netflix subscribers … and significantly improve the predictive accuracy of product recommendations made to them.

To some, the Netflix program is hardly controversial. To others, it smacks of the “big brother” snooping that occurred in an earlier time during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, when over-zealous Senate staffers got their hands on movie store rental records to determine what kind of fare was being watched by the nominees and their families.

Indeed, last week Netflix announced that it will not be moving forward with a subsequent similar initiative. (In all likelihood, this decision was influenced by pending private litigation more than any sort of altruism.)

Perhaps the most startling development on the privacy front comes courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University, where two researchers have run an experiment wherein they have been able to correctly predict the Social Security numbers for nearly 10% of everyone born between 1989 and 2003 – almost 5 million people.

How did they do it? They started by accessing publicly available information from various sources including social networking sites to collect two critical pieces of information: birthdate, plus city or state of birth. This enabled the researchers to determine the first three digits of each Social Security number, which then provided the baseline for running repeat cycles of statistical correlation and inference to “crack” the Social Security Administration’s proprietary number assignment system.

So as it turns out, it’s not enough anymore merely to be concerned about what you might have revealed in cyberspace on a self-indulgent MySpace page or in an ill-advised newsgroup post.

Social Security numbers … passwords … account numbers … financial data. Today, they’re all fair game.

Let’s Revisit the Yugo!

Yugo advertisementThose of us “of a certain age” remember well when the Yugo car was introduced to America with great fanfare. In 1985, the prospect of purchasing a small vehicle with an even smaller price tag (~$3,990) was irresistible to many – even with the high gasoline prices and gas lines of the 1970s looking more distant in the rearview mirror. For those on a budget, who could resist the allure of buying a new car for $99 down and a $99 monthly payment?

Here’s a startling statistic that bears this out: When the Yugo was introduced in the summer of 1985, more than 1,000 of them were sold in one day. In fact, the Yugo was to be the fastest-selling first-year European import ever sold into the U.S. – a record that stands yet today.

But in just a few short years, the Yugo would go from being a star to being a dud … from being the “it” car to being the butt of jokes.

How could this happen? The answers are found in a just-released book “The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History,” written by Jason Vuic (ISBN-13: 978-0809098910). This pithy, irreverent volume takes readers on a merry romp through its 250+ pages … and things never have time to become dull.

One of the earliest signs that the Yugo might not be all it was cracked up to be came when its American investors decided to drive a Yugo car across the country. What better way to test the product? In retrospect, they should have heeded the clear warning signs: the new car broke down not once … not twice … but three times during its ~3,000 mile journey.

Undeterred, they plowed ahead, forming a national dealer network and trumpeting the Yugo as a fresh, affordable European car that came with a small price tag and a big attitude.

But the reviews were scathing from the get-go. The car broke down during a road test by Motor Trend, leading the magazine to conclude that the vehicle was “hard to recommend at any price.” Some customers reported that their new Yugos came off the dealer lot with rust spots already showing in the trunk. That plus noisy brakes … rough-riding clutch … and a few other deficiencies not normally experienced until any other car is years old.

Predictably, it didn’t take long for the magic to wear off. By the time of Saturday Night Live’s famous parody of the Yugo – its fake TV ad for the Adobe clay car (at $179 apiece) – Yugo dealers across America were already closing their doors.

Actually, what’s most surprising to read is that the Yugo actually continued to be manufactured in Europe as late as 2008.

In retrospect, I suppose the Yugo wasn’t a complete waste of time. It helped us realize – once again – that despite the enduring appeal of a low-cost alternative, there’s no substitute for producing a quality product.

It’s also given us 25 years of great jokes.

Farewell to an Audio Hi-Fi Pioneer

1812 Overture

Wilma Cozart Fine, audio Hi-Fi pioneer, operating the controls at Mercury's classical record division in the 1950s.
Wilma Cozart Fine, audio Hi-Fi pioneer, operating the controls at Mercury's classical record division in the 1950s.
This past week, the world lost a legend in the audio recording field with the death of Wilma Cozart Fine, age 82. The name may not be familiar to many. But if you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, chances are your family owned at least one of the recordings Ms. Fine produced for the Mercury label – perhaps the 1812 Overture sonic blockbuster featuring the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (and also featuring real cannons and bells) that would become the first classical album to sell more than one million copies.

A native Mississippian who grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas, Wilma Cozart graduated with college degrees in Music and Business, then went to work in the late 1940s for the newly reorganized Dallas Symphony as personal secretary to the orchestra’s new music director, the fiery Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati. The Dallas Symphony managed to secure a recording contract with RCA Victor – highly unusual for such a young ensemble – and proceeded to release a number of praised recordings including the Bela Bartok Violin Concerto #2 with Yehudi Menuhin.

When Dorati took up a new position as music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Cozart decamped to there as well. Shortly thereafter, she was retained by Mercury Records in New York City to manage the label’s newly formed classical record division.

Using her orchestra management acumen, Cozart, all of 24 years old, snagged a recording contract for Mercury with the lauded Chicago Symphony Orchestra – the first of several exclusive contracts she would negotiate with orchestras in Minneapolis, Detroit and Rochester.

The debut classical recording produced by Mercury’s sound engineers led by C. Robert Fine was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and it caused a sensation in the music world when it was released in 1951. It was widely praised as the best-sounding classical recording made up to that time, with the New York Times reporting that the realism and clarity of the recording made it seem as if the listener was “in the living presence of the performers.” Sensing the marketing power of this description, Cozart would adopt the “Living Presence” moniker for the entire Mercury classical catalog.

The secret to making the Mercury classical records was simple in concept yet quite challenging to implement: A single microphone was painstakingly tested for positioning in the auditorium above and in front of the orchestra at the precise location where the sound would “bloom” most naturally. (Later, when stereophonic disks were introduced, three microphones would be used during recording and then mixed down to two channels.)

Cozart, who married Robert Fine in 1958, learned the craft (and art) of record production from the ground up. In the end, she and her team would release several hundred Mercury classical recordings before the label was acquired by Dutch-based Philips.

It is difficult to cite another instance in which a classical record producer such as Ms. Fine has had such a positive impact on the reputations of the conductors and performers being recorded. Indeed, the enduring popularity of conductors like Antal Dorati, Paul Paray, and Frederick Fennell and his Eastman Wind Ensemble would not be nearly as potent without the documentation of their art as taken down by Fine and her production team.

As the years have ticked by – with new technical innovations introduced and thousands of new classical records produced – the Mercury recordings have retained their reputation as examples of exceptional clarity and realism in sound. For many, these recordings remain the audiophile standard against which all other sound production quality is judged.

But the story doesn’t end there. The pioneering efforts of Ms. Fine would have an interesting “second act” more than three decades later. It was to her that Philips turned in the early 1990s to undertake the endeavor of remastering and transferring nearly the entire Mercury classical catalog to CD. And this was no mere “symbolic” or cameo effort on Fine’s part, either. The original Mercury mixing equipment would be repaired and brought back into production for the project. Ms. Fine performed the digital editing herself – nearly 50 years after she had done it (in analog) the first time around!

And again, the critics swooned.

What is the legacy of Wilma Cozart Fine? It’s not just that she was a pioneer in classical music’s Hi-Fi wave – or that she was the first woman to break into a male-dominated field. It’s that she and her team brought the world some of the best classical recordings ever made …and set a standard for excellence that has yet to be surpassed nearly six decades on.

Jazz music: Gone classic? Or just gone?

The National Endowment for the Arts’ latest survey of public participation in the arts has some very interesting – and sobering – statistics about the U.S. audience for jazz music. In a nutshell, the audience is both aging and getting smaller.

Since this is the fourth survey of its type conducted since 1982, the latest data can be compared against earlier NEA surveys. Here’s one choice statistic: In 1982, the median age of adults who attended a live jazz performance was a youthful 29. In this year’s survey, that median age has grown to a paunchy 46.

Moreover, the proportion of adult Americans who have attended a jazz performance over the past year (fewer than 10%) is down nearly one-third from the previous NEA survey fielded in 2002. That degree of decline was seen across all sectors – including college-educated adults who have typically been the most jazz-inclined audience segment.

The new NEA survey confirms that the median age of the jazz audience is now comparable to the audiences for opera (48), ballet (46), classical music concerts (49), and non-musical plays (47). This is the first time this has happened, and it underscores the significant aging of the jazz audience.

What this means, of course, is that jazz has finally “grown up.” Once an emblem of a more hip and outré culture than those represented by the (stuffy) other arts, jazz seems to have lost its edginess and has settled into comfortable middle age.

… A comfortable “elitist” middle age, actually. Terry Teachout, a drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, notes that in recent decades many jazz artists have been disinclined to present music in a genuinely popular idiom, and instead have focused on creating a form of “sophisticated art music.” It seems that some jazz artists don’t care at all whether their music is understood or appreciated by the “popular masses.”

Indeed for some artists, it may even be a strike against jazz music if it has broad popular appeal. In this sense, the parallels of jazz to modern art and modern classical music are uncanny. It’s all very important and terribly sophisticated … but who’s listening? Who’s looking?

When George Gershwin’s famous Rhapsody in Blue was premiered by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra at New York City’s Aeolian Hall back in 1924, the conductor Walter Damrosch famously declared that Gershwin finally “made a lady out of jazz.” Of course, that statement was a few decades premature. But it we’ve certainly gotten there now – in spades.

Which brings us to the final question: What – besides an audience – has jazz music given up along the way?

Caribbean Tourism: Calypso … or Cataclysmo?

Palm TreesWhen it comes to the travel and tourism industry, the Caribbean seems to have it all: Exotic locales, yet not far from home … a “live and let live” culture that outdoes even Las Vegas or New Orleans in its breezy permissiveness … an area blissfully free of terrorism or other nasty intrusions of the “post-911” world.

And yet, the 2008 financial numbers are in on the Caribbean tourism industry, and they’re not pretty. According to PKF Hospitality Research, hotels across the Caribbean experienced a 16% decline in profits in 2008. And the prognosis for 2009 doesn’t look any better.

The downturn is having a major negative impact on most Caribbean economies, because in this region, “tourism” and “the economy” are essentially one and the same.

How are hotels and resort properties responding? By offering all sorts of special incentives and package deals. Or course, that’s what hospitality properties are doing all over the world, so the law of diminishing returns comes into play.

Many hotel and resort development projects are being shelved, too. PKF Hospitality Research counts as many as 51 of 105 development projects in the region that have been mothballed for the foreseeable future.

Is a turnaround in sight? If there’s to be one, it won’t be known until next year. Most of the region’s tourism dollars are brought in during just three months of the year — January through March.

In 2009, of course, that three-month period just happened to parallel the very worst part of the global downturn. So, based on that very low benchmark, most observers are expecting — hoping — that early 2010 will turn out to be “Calypso Season” rather than “Cataclysmo Season.”

How “social” should your office environment be?

In the early years of the Internet, companies worried about the loss of productivity if employees were tempted to surf online in amongst their work duties. There was also the issue of the “appropriateness” of the web content being viewed. In response, various web tracking capabilities were introduced that enable companies to monitor online activities on networked computers.

On the other hand, as the Internet became all-pervasive in daily life, many companies also adopted a policy of allowing a modest amount of web surfing during work breaks to allow employees to conduct personal business such as shopping and bill-paying.

Now, with the rise of social media, the whole issue has been brought to the fore once again. The proliferation of Facebook accounts in particular has resulted in a new spike of personal online activities at work. A recent study by Nucleus Research bears it out. Based on study findings, Nucleus deduces that companies allowing employee access to Facebook lose an average of 1.5% in total employee productivity. And in an era of cutthroat competition globally, 1.5% of productivity is no slouch amount.

To reach this conclusion, Nucleus Research found that slightly more than three-fourths of the employees surveyed have a Facebook account. Of those who do, nearly two-thirds admitted to accessing their account during working hours.

The average amount of time spent per day on Facebook on office time is about 15 minutes – although the study uncovered a few employees who spent upwards of two hours daily during work hours. (Shame on those employees … but shame on their employers, too, for being so utterly clueless about those employees’ behavior!)

Of course, some people’s activities on Facebook have a business purpose, don’t they? Well … it is true that some employees manage “fan” pages for their company as an adjunct of their personal Facebook account. But that shouldn’t represent more than a small portion of any firm’s workers – perhaps those in the marketing, sales, HR or shareholder relations departments.

And the Nucleus Research study findings reflect this as well, because nearly 90% of the respondents who access Facebook at work could not articulate a business justification for doing so.

Perhaps the study’s most surprising finding was the ~5% of respondents who never access Facebook anywhere but at work. What this may mean is that they built their entire Facebook profile on work-time as well. Chalk up some more wasted hours!

The Nucleus Research findings demonstrate that as time progresses and various social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter become even more pervasive communications tools for people at all levels in the organization, the old guidelines for balancing work and personal life must continue to evolve.

The kneejerk reaction is to simply block access to Facebook on all office computers. But there will always be some employees who have a legitimate business reason to be on Facebook. And then there are the the ever-growing ranks of telecommuters working offsite, who surely have access to alternate laptops or PDAs even if their company-issued equipment blocks access.

As is usually the case with situations like this, the easiest fix is sometimes not the best one. And at the end of the day, “big brotherism” could reduce employee morale even further — hardly the result one would hope for in the current difficult business climate where “improving company morale” is far more just an abstract concept in an HR textbook.

Sandford Dody: The most famous biographer you’ve never heard of.

Sandford Dody, ghostwriter to the stars.
Sandford Dody: Ghostwriter to the stars.
The American author Sandford Dody died a month ago. You’re forgiven if you don’t know who he is – and not just because, at age 90, he was a throwback to another era.

Mr. Dody was, in fact, the author of numerous autobiographies of American stars of the stage and screen. But the public never really knew that, because his name didn’t appear on his books.

Dody was a ghostwriter. Acclaimed “autobiographies” that in actuality he authored of celebrities like Bette Davis (The Lonely Life) and Helen Hayes (On Reflection) became best-sellers, with readers delighted to find out how “good” Miss Davis and Miss Hayes were as authors – almost as great as their acting abilities!

Most would never learn the truth – that Sandford Dody, as confidante and gentle interrogator, was the person who coaxed and teased these great stories out of his subjects.

How did Dody end up becoming “Ghostwriter to the Stars”? Like so many people who made their careers in the field of entertainment and arts journalism “back in the day,” the native New Yorker started out wanting to be in show business, perhaps as an actor or a writer. And like many others with stars in their eyes, he made the trek to California to try his luck in the film industry.

Back in the 1940s, it wasn’t so hard to meet the famous as well as not-so-famous who inhabited the then-relatively small world of the Hollywood film industry. Even as he dreamed of becoming a playwright, Dody took bit parts in a few films.

But as it became clear he would never ascend the heights either in front of the footlights or on the marquee boards, and in need of money, Dody turned to ghostwriting beginning in the 1950s. His first project was authoring the autobiography of a now-obscure silent film star, Dagmar Godowsky. (One could assume Miss Godowsky was obscure even then, some 30 years after her film career had ended!)

The assignments with Bette Davis, Helen Hayes, the Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill, and members of the Barrymore family came along later, in the 1960s. (The Davis autobiography was particularly successful, and is credited with leading to a late-career renaissance for the aging movie star.) And while these projects would prove to be financially lucrative for Dody, it is clear from his own writings that the author was somewhat ambivalent about the whole business of ghostwriting.

In fact, he stopped doing it after his book on Miss Hayes was released. Why? In his own autobiography, published in 1980, Dody gives us a clue. “The most suitable way to view stars is from a long way off,” he declared.

For Dody, it seems that spending so many hours with his subjects as he prepared to write his manuscripts, experiencing their egotism and petty vanity “up close and personal” inevitably came as a letdown. “Let the next star write her own damned autobiography,” is how he would sum it up after he retired.

In later years, Sandford Dody returned to New York City, where he resided quietly in Lower Manhattan, living off his royalties and indulging in his passion for the musical and visual arts. For those of us who know New York as a “walker’s city,” it will come as no surprise that Dody kept up a nearly-every-day regimen of walking an eight-mile loop from his Greenwich Village apartment to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center and back. It’s an important clue as to how he was able to reach his tenth decade despite having battled asthma from the earliest years of childhood.

Ironically, it is a poignant passage from his own autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost, that illustrates the uncommon talent Dody possessed as a writer – and hints at what he might have produced had he taken a different literary path:

“When a ghost’s job is done, he wanders, unheeded, unseen in a half-world and in circles now too grand for him. Unseen by everyone – except on rare occasion by the subject who pretends blindness but winks conspiratorially when the unfamiliars are looking the other way – I have been able to slip through closed doors and between locked mortals as they engage in their earthly affairs. Impossible to be heard, I for one have cried out in protest, in joy, in vain. Isn’t that what death is all about, finally?”