The History Center's new compilation of Pittsburgh biographies amuses, informs ... and leaves out too many scalawags. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The History Center's new compilation of Pittsburgh biographies amuses, informs ... and leaves out too many scalawags.

Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred
Senator John Heinz History Center, 304 pages, $39.95


Anyone who loves Pittsburgh has probably had the thought: What a great town this would be ... if we could just get rid of all the jagoffs.

And just in time for Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary comes Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred. It's a birthday gift from the Heinz History Center -- a picture of how things would be if the jagoffs had never been born.

Pittsburgh Born compiles 500 Pittsburgh biographies, created by a team of distinguished writers led by C. Prentiss Orr, Abby Mendelson and Tripp Clark. And the book is impressive in many ways.

All your favorite Burghers are here: August Wilson, Fred Rogers, Myron Cope. The book is copiously illustrated, and the bios, while often crammed two or three to a page, are reasonably informative. There are plenty of surprises, too.

I hardly needed to be told again about Pittsburgh's football and jazz greats. But until I picked up Pittsburgh Born, I didn't know about Ping-Pong ambassador Danny Seemiller, or about Pittsburgh's connection to the worst sci-fi movie ever made. I was pleased, meanwhile, to see credit for often-unsung figures like endurance cyclist Danny Chew and community activist Dorothy Mae Richardson. It's nice to see rabble-rousers like black activist Nate Smith, and labor priest Charles Owen Rice, get their due alongside the Mellon family.

The authors also deserve credit for their commitment to diversity. A wide range of humanity is represented: male and female, black and white -- even libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul.

If anything, the book might try too hard. It's subtitled "500 of the More Famous People Who Have Called Pittsburgh Home," and it sometimes stretches to meet the quota. "There is very little to be said of the unremarkable film career of Natalie Moorhead," one bio begins. Really? Tell me more.

But as with a People magazine "who's in/who's out" list, second-guessing is part of the fun. Weigh some of them yourself: Anti-Flag -- in; Girl Talk -- out. The guy who designed the Civic Arena -- in; Mayor Tom Murphy, who built two stadiums -- out.

If it's any comfort to Murphy, the late Richard Caliguiri didn't get in, either. But to me, the biggest omission of all is ... Richard Mellon Scaife.

No offense to Lawrenceville's Frank Gorshin -- who is profiled largely because he played a villain on the campy Batman TV show -- but the Riddler never prompted a presidential impeachment. Even if you hate Scaife's politics, you can't deny his impact. (Also, Scaife's interest in historic preservation helped conserve much of Pittsburgh's urban landscape.)

And Scaife's absence is just part of my real gripe. According to press materials, the book intends to honor those "who have accomplished something great, achieved fame or fortune, or are loved and cherished by those who call Pittsburgh home." Those criteria, though, leave out some of the most important Pittsburghers of all: the assholes, the crooks and the losers.

Villains shape a place as much as heroes do. Who defined Pittsburgh -- and was defined by it -- more: John Dickson Carr, a Uniontown native who wrote detective novels while living in England? Or Tony Grosso, the legendary numbers king who corrupted entire police forces while appearing on the cover of Pittsburgh magazine? Yet in Pittsburgh Born, Carr gets in while Grosso is orphaned. So is Michael Carlow, the 1980s financier whose misdeeds helped undermine the city he was supposed to save. Also ignored: Matt Cvetic, the Red-baiter who parlayed McCarthyism into a Hollywood movie deal.

Pittsburgh Born doesn't shy from scandal entirely. (It profiles Nick Perry, the Bowling for Dollars host tied to the notorious "666" Daily Number scam, for instance.) But the emphasis, as History Center President and CEO Andy Masich has said, is on "dreamers, creators and innovators."

Does that really describe a TV actor capering about in a heavily punctuated unitard? You decide. For me, the larger question is: Should a history book -- or a History Center -- try so hard to accentuate the positive? Should its cover display a "p!ttsburgh 250" logo, the emblem of a corporate-led booster campaign? And if we can't honestly assess ourselves after 250 years, when can we?

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