Russell, Richard B. 1947-
RUSSELL, Richard B. 1947-
PERSONAL: Born August 19, 1947, in Minneapolis, MN; son of Clarence H. (an advertising executive) and Olive (a piano instructor and composer; maiden name, Nelson) Russell; married Etta Green; children: Franklin D. Education: University of Kansas, B.A., 1969. Hobbies and other interests: Fishing, music.
CAREER: Journalist and author. Topeka Capital-Journal (newspaper), Topeka, KS, sports and feature writer, columnist, 1965-72; Sports Illustrated (magazine), New York, NY, reporter, 1969-70; TV Guide (magazine), Los Angeles, CA, writer, 1977-79; freelance journalist, 1980—. President of Striped Bass Emergency Council, 1984—; clerk for Menemsha Pond Preservation Trust, 1995-96.
MEMBER: Society of Environmental Journalists, PEN USA West.
AWARDS, HONORS: Golden Swordfish Award, National Coalition for Marine Conservation, 1984; Chevron Conservation Award, 1988, for exceptional service to the cause of conservation; Los Angeles Times and Washington Post Best Book of the Year designations, both 2001, both for Eye of the Whale.
under name dick russellm
The Man Who Knew Too Much (nonfiction), Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1992, revised edition, 2003.
Black Genius and the American Experience, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1998.
Eye of the Whale; Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2001.
Contributor to periodicals, including Village Voice, Nation, In These Times, New Times, Harper's Weekly, True, Boston Globe Magazine, Today's Health, Family Health, E, Parenting, New Age, Mother Jones, Ecologist, Los Angeles Times Book Review, and Saltwater Sportsman. Contributing editor to Argosy, 1975-76; Boston, 1981-83; and Amicus Journal (now Onearth), 1986—.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A children's book on gray whales; a book about the Fort Hill community; research on environmental subjects.
SIDELIGHTS: During the 1970s and 1980s, Richard "Dick" Russell built a career as a journalist, specializing in sports and environmental issues. At the same time, however, he was investigating the controversy and mystery surrounding the 1963 assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. In a Los Angeles Times Book Review article about his 1992 book, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Russell revealed that it "became, by the spring of 1978, a curious kind of journalistic double life. The day passed inside my then-office at TV Guide's Hollywood bureau, writing about taking a road trip with [comedian] Bob Hope. At twilight I found myself in a dimly lit Irish bar, sitting across from a tall, scarred man who kept a wary eye on the other patrons. Once, he had been an agent of the CIA—and the KGB."
The double-agent of whom Russell writes in The Man Who Knew Too Much is Richard Case Nagell, who claimed, according to the author-reporter, to have had orders from the KGB to kill Lee Harvey Oswald in order to prevent Oswald from assassinating President Kennedy. Nagell alleged that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) both knew about the assassination plot—which also sought to place the blame for the president's death upon communist Cuba—but did nothing to stop it. Nagell maintained that he got cold feet about killing Oswald. He was supposed to do it in Mexico in September, 1963, but he purposely got himself put in federal custody for firing shots inside a Texas bank. He was in prison when President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.
In his Los Angeles Times Book Review article, Russell commented on the fate of three individuals he interviewed for The Man Who Knew Too Much. "Shortly after we met [two interviewees] ended up dead; another survived a gunshot to the head. It was, to say the least, an unsettling pursuit." Of his own fascination with the subject of the Kennedy assassination, Russell remarked: "I cannot exclude myself from the legion of private-citizen detectives who pursue new clues about the tragedy of Dallas with indefatigable perseverance (or, some observers might say, with a monomania that makes Captain Ahab look like a well-rounded man)."
The Man Who Knew Too Much received favorable attention from some critics. A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded: "No praise can be too high for Russell's mastery of a massive quantity of detail, for his determination to seek out primary sources and for his refusal to over-dramatize. This is a model work of historical reconstruction."
Russell compiled his 1998 book, Black Genius and the American Experience, to provide inspiration for his biracial son. The book's theme is the interconnectedness throughout the generations; Russell focuses on thirty-three African-American men and women, weaving their stories together "in a refreshingly atypical narrative style of juxtapositions rather than linearity," as Susan Hamburger put it in her Library Journal review. Some of the portraits are of famous persons; others are "black innovators often omitted from white America's history books," as a Publishers Weekly contributor explained.
Russell undertakes an investigation of a different sort in 2001's Eye of the Whale: Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia. The book follows the trek of the gray whale, a species that inhabited both the Atlantic and Pacific for centuries before being nearly rendered extinct through harvesting. Conservation efforts have helped bring back some of their numbers, but, as Russell points out in his book, the future of the gray whale is still threatened by hunting. As one of the case studies from the book notes, the Native American Makah tribe of the Olympic Peninsula off the coast of Washington successfully lobbied to hunt a gray whale as part of their native tradition. The event attracted advocates from both sides of the hunting issue: environmentalists, the U.S. Coast Guard, tribal police, and the International Whaling Commission. The hunting party killed one gray whale with a harpoon, amid a media storm of protest. "Though the ensuing struggle between Indians and ecologists wound up being portrayed as a culture war," Sally Eckhoff wrote in Newsday that "we learn from Russell's elaborate and painstaking explanation that the situation was vastly more complicated. He shows that any simple accounting of the conflict remains in doubt, even while the idea that the payoff could be strictly spiritual is effectively deep-sixed." Meanwhile, with international concerns, "the most alarming aspect of Russell's tidal wave of information is how close the gray whale is to being put back on the menu in countries that can do a lot more damage to it than the Makah ever could," as Eckhoff stated.
Because of its tendency to feed near shorelines, the gray whale has become a favorite of tourists who gather for whale-watching expeditions. Eye of the Whale tracks the animals' annual migration from the Baja region of Mexico to the Bering Strait. The author follows the route "up the coast to Alaska and then around to Siberia, including the remote Sakhalin Island …, interviewing scientists and naturalists as he goes, and this is the backbone of his book," reported Washington Post contributor Nicols Fox. Eye of the Whale also chronicles the work of nineteenth-century whale expert Captain Charles Melville Scammon. Scammon, who began his career as a commercial whaler, was responsible for the killing of countless gray whales; later he became a noted authority on the animal, and his writings are still respected as scientific literature. "When Scammon is on the page the book soars, especially when Russell artfully arranges excerpts from Scammon's own papers and scrapbooks," stated Neal Matthews in a San Diego Union Tribune article.
Russell's inclusion of whale husbandry, whaling lore, and modern controversy makes for a large—688 pages—and sometimes unwieldy volume, in the opinion of some reviewers. "With so many stories to tell, Russell's compelling challenge must have been weaving them together into a seamless whole," Fox continued. "He doesn't entirely achieve that goal." "It's impossible not to say it: This is a whale of a book—massive, shapely, surprisingly agile and over-blessed with blubber," commented Matthews. "Five hundred pages would have been more than enough; 400 might have made it a classic."
Still, Eye of the Whale was warmly received by critics, Matthews concluding that Russell has compiled "an engaging, highly readable account that mostly succeeds in melding history, culture and science." While "big and heavy, with a complex construction and a maddingly confusing cast of characters," commented Fox, the book is nonetheless "worth every minute devoted to it." "Better than anyone else to date," Nathaniel Philbrick commented in the New York Times Book Review, "Russell has documented the historical and cultural importance of the gray whale to the peoples, past and present, of the Pacific Coast." And to Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Richard Ellis, Russell's book is nothing less than the last word on gray whales: "Once in a while, a book comes along that redefines its subject to the extent that most previous works immediately become obsolete." Eye of the Whale, Ellis noted, "is such a book."
Russell once told CA: "Writing has been my primary interest since I was in grade school and used to read my short stories and epic novel (sans paragraphs) aloud to my classmates. I was a sportswriter in high school and college, and later achieved my dream of going to work for Sports Illustrated. But, I suddenly found that my interests had broadened considerably during the turmoil of the late 1960s. I was greatly influenced during my formative years by, among others, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer—both of whom I later had the marvelous opportunity to get to know. My fascination with uncovering more of the truth behind the assassination of President Kennedy began in the early 1970s, a long odyssey into the dark side of recent history which preoccupied me off and on for nearly twenty years. What I hoped to achieve by setting down the results of my quest was a greater consciousness of the tragedy from which I believe the country has never recovered. Until the full truth is known about the forces behind the murders of all four great leaders of the 1960s—John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X—we cannot honestly move forward as a nation. In authoring articles about environmental concerns, and in writing a book about the genius of African Americans who remain largely unknown in our history, my goal is the same: to achieve a heightened understanding, one which might inspire young people in particular to become more involved in fighting for a stronger democracy.
"My latest book took me by surprise," Russell later added. "In March of 1998, my wife and I traveled to San Ignacio Lagoon along Mexico's Baja California peninsula, where I had a magazine assignment to write about plans to build the world's largest salt factory within the last pristine breeding ground of the gray whale. In venturing out among these majestic animals in a small boat, I experienced what scientists have called 'the friendly whale phenomenon.' Numerous whales came over, mothers introducing their newborns, each seeking a human touch. The whales simply captured my heart and I resolved to tell their story.
"I ended up following their nearly 6,000-mile-long migration—the longest made by any mammal—from Mexico to the remote reaches of northern Alaska and the Russian Far East. My adventures were many, including traveling by an old Russian tank across snow-covered mountainsides and river valleys to reach a remote Eskimo village. I followed the historical path taken by a renowned whaling captain, Charles Melville Scammon, who underwent a metamorphosis from whale killer to naturalist and author of a definitive book on the marine mammals of the Pacific northwest.
"So the book became a combination of personal travel odyssey, history, and science—based upon interviews with numerous marine biologists—as well as addressing the environmental problems still faced by whales despite a moratorium on the sale of whale products worldwide. The question I was left with is, can we humans survive what whales cannot?—global warming, toxic contamination and noise pollution, carelessness about our habitats in general? By telling the story of the eventually successful fight against the saltworks, I hoped again to offer inspiration to others involved in their own battles to preserve our planetary home."
Russell considers himself "a writer/activist," and explained: "When writing, I follow a basic pattern. I gather far more research than I will ever be able to use, then home in on the essentials. If I have prepared well, often I find that my material almost writes itself. My advice to young writers is to read as many diverse types of authors as possible, having faith that one's own style will eventually emerge. Also, keep a daily journal and seek a wide range of interests. Explore relationships, and one's own being as it unfolds through these relationships, as deeply as you can. A writer needs to experience life to the fullest extent, and be willing to face one's own limitations at the same time."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Baltimore Sun, August 18, 2001, John Muncie, review of Eye of the Whale: Epic Journey from Baja to Siberia.
Booklist, February 15, 1998, review of Black Genius and the American Experience, p. 974; June 1, 2001, Nancy Bent, review of Eye of the Whale, p. 1810.
Choice, July, 1999, review of Black Genius and the American Experience, p. 1953.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1998, review of Black Genius and the American Experience, p. 260; May 1, 2001, review of Eye of the Whale.
Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, May, 1999, review of Black Genius and the American Experience, p. 35.
Library Journal, January, 1998, Susan Hamburger, review of Black Genius and the American Experience, p. 117; June 1, 2001, Judith B. Barnett, review of Eye of the Whale, p. 206.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 7, 1993, pp. 1, 5; August 5, 2002, Richard Ellis, review of Eye of the Whale.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, August 11, 2001, Curt Schleier, "Eye-Catching."
Newsday (New York, NY), August 12, 2001, Sally Eckhoff, review of Eye of the Whale.
New York Times Book Review, August 12, 2001, Nathaniel Philbrick, "The Jolly Gray Giant," p. 6.
Publishers Weekly, November 16, 1992, p. 51; December 22, 1997, review of Black Genius and the American Experience, p. 48; June 18, 2001, review of Eye of the Whale, p. 70.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 19, 2001, Patricia Corrigan, review of Eye of the Whale.
San Diego Union Tribune, July 15, 2001, Neal Matthews, "Thar He Blows."
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 2002, review of Eye of the Whale, p. 68.
Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2001, Adam Good-heart, "Gentle Leviathans," p. W14.
Washington Post, August 5, 2001, Nicols Fox, "Living Large," p. T5.
Dick Russell Web site,http:/www.dickrussell.org/ (February 15, 2004).