The covers of “The Lives of Isaac Stern” and “Life Isn't Everything: Mike Nichols, As Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends,” both of which feature pensive black and white photos of their subjects

New biographies paint portraits of two Jewish luminaries (one with S.F. ties)

Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

We depend on biographies to bring giants to our level and offer us entry into otherwise inaccessible worlds. I was glad to see the recent publications of books portraying two cultural luminaries who had not yet been captured by a biographer.

Historian David Schoenbaum’s “The Lives of Isaac Stern” profiles the celebrated violinist “whose aptitude for life was matched only by his appetite for it.

These distinct “lives” are reflected in the book’s four sections. “Immigrant” focuses on his early years in San Francisco, where his family had settled after leaving what is now Ukraine when Stern was a baby. “Professional” offers a whirlwind tour of his globetrotting musical career. “Public Citizen” concentrates on Stern’s advocacy for Israel and the campaign he spearheaded to save Carnegie Hall when it was slated for demolition following the departure of the New York Philharmonic for Lincoln Center. And “Chairman of the Board” focuses on Stern’s leadership at Carnegie Hall over the decades and his role in launching the careers of younger musicians.

The first portion should attract local interest, as it recounts the role of San Francisco’s Jewish community in Stern’s development.

One of the figures aiding Stern was Congregation Emanu-El‘s esteemed cantor, Reuben Rinder. It was likely through Rinder’s intervention that benefactor Lutie Goldstein took an interest in the budding violinist, helping to fund his musical training. And Schoenbaum notes that when, after an initially disappointing New York debut, it was time for Stern to return to New York to make a splash at the end of his teen years, “a consortium of fourteen Jewish patrons meanwhile collected $2,350 in personal donations to help see him back to his rendezvous with destiny.”

Schoenbaum, 85, the author of books on a wide range of subjects — from Hitler’s appeal to Germany’s various social classes to the U.S.-Israel relationship to the history of the violin — noted that creating this book involved excavating the 140 uncataloged boxes of personal papers (he amusingly calls it an “extraordinarily interesting landfill”) that Stern left to the Library of Congress.

The result is a tremendously researched volume rich in factual detail, but which is less fulfilling in other ways: Stern’s large personality does not fully emerge, nor do we gain a strong sense of his relationships with family and friends. Given that this is the first full-fledged biography of Stern, I would have appreciated a longer book encompassing both his professional and personal dimensions.

Like Stern, Mike Nichols was a Jewish immigrant. Born in Berlin in 1931 as Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky, he was able to escape in 1939, shortly before World War II. “Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, As Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends” is an affecting oral history of the much-adored late director, actor and comedian, as related by an assembly of friends, colleagues and A-list movie stars.

Although it is related entirely in snippets from a huge variety of perspectives, the book functions rather coherently as a history, proceeding chronologically from Nichols’ childhood through his involvement in college theater to his long comedic partnership with Elaine May and his career in theater, film and television.

The chapter that may arouse the most interest concerns the making of “The Graduate,” revealing how Nichols transformed a novel about the gentile elite of Pasadena through enlisting the sensibilities and talents of screenwriter Buck Henry, actor Dustin Hoffman, and musicians Simon and Garfunkel, all Jewish. The result was the most popular film of 1967, as Nichols’ first film (“Whatever Happened to Virginia Woolf?”) had been the previous year.

Where the book shines is in communicating Nichols’ unique qualities as a director.

There is speculation as to the impact of Nichols’s difficult youth — which included not only being a Jewish refugee, but losing all of his hair as a young child, forcing him to wear wigs and false eyebrows for the duration of his life — and how it may have contributed to his legendary sensitivity to actors. Meryl Streep notes that Nichols was, in fact, himself “acting all the time. Right from the beginning, he was acting being an American.”

Nichols is deserving of a traditional biography that goes deeper, but there is something refreshing in this book that reminds us that each one of us may be seen as a composite of our relationships.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.