THE HEIR APPARENT: A LIFE OF EDWARD VII, THE PLAYBOY PRINCE
By Jane Ridley (Random House, 722 pages, $35).
How Jane Ridley came to write this biography of Queen Victoria’s oldest son is almost as interesting as the book itself, and that’s saying a lot, because the book itself is fascinating. The man who became King Edward VII (known to his family, and to us, the readers, as “Bertie”) had a miserable childhood — unloved, overly protected, controlled by his father, loathed by his mother. He grew up to be a dissolute and self-indulgent playboy, with little intellectual curiosity and no apparent qualifications to become king.
Ridley had intended to write the story of his life before the crown, but during her research she was granted more and more access, including, sort of at the last minute, 150 volumes of documents from his reign. Eventually she saw the need to write a full biography — one that turned into a revisionist approach to the man. Despite his wayward years as Prince of Wales, once Bertie became king he rose to the occasion, ruling wisely and well for nine years.
Ridley is a scholar and a prize-winning biographer and she is also a wonderful writer, and the 700 pages of this book just fly by. “The Heir Apparent” is smart, it’s fascinating, it’s sometimes funny, it’s well-documented and it reads like a novel, with Bertie so vivid he nearly leaps from the page, cigars and all. From the first page, Ridley drew me into the story of (let’s face it) someone I wasn’t particularly interested in. Know an Anglophile? Buy them this book.
LAURIE HERTZEL, Senior editor/books
A MAN AND HIS MOUNTAIN
By Edward Humes (PublicAffairs, 336 pages, $26.99).
The subtitle of Edward Humes’ thoroughly engaging “A Man and His Mountain: The Everyman Who Created Kendall-Jackson and Became America’s Greatest Wine Entrepreneur,” contains an egregious error. Calling Jess Stonestreet Jackson an “everyman” is like calling Jesse Ventura “Mr. Serenity.” The subject of this biography had almost limitless talents and a relentless work ethic, turning first one hobby, then another, into spectacularly successful careers.
This child of the Depression worked his way through law school, built up an in-demand firm and then decided, at age 50, to “retire” to the wine world. After revolutionizing and often confounding that industry with America’s best-selling brand, Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, Jackson decided to dive into horse racing. The result of reinvention, part deux, was again groundbreaking and surprising: His Rachel Alexandra became the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness Stakes and was named “Horse of the Year” in 2009, two years before Jackson died.
From humble beginning to award-laden end, Humes unpeels the layers of this rich (literally and figuratively) life. This is no hagiography: Humes chronicles the triumphs and travails of Jackson’s professional and personal lives. He shows rather than tells us what a misguided, vengeful and even gullible control-freak Jackson could be — but also what a smart, resourceful, tenacious visionary the man was. So while much of the story involves how Jackson (in a correct characterization in the subtitle) became “America’s Greatest Wine Entrepreneur,” this biography is as well-suited for those interested in people as those interested in wine.
BILL WARD, Features writer