43 pages 1 hour read

Chris Gardner

The Pursuit of Happyness

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2006

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Chris Gardner’s memoir, The Pursuit of Happyness, details his pursuit of the American Dream and desire to rise against the challenging circumstances of his birth and attain success. From the outset, life is difficult for Gardner, a poor black child growing up in the Milwaukee ghetto with his mother, sisters and violent, abusive stepfather, Freddie. Gardner’s mother, Bettye Jean, had her own dreams taken away from her, when her father refused to pay for her college tuition and she drew an “unlucky card” when it came to the men in her life (20). The first two men were charming; each, however, was married, and each left her with a child to raise. The third, however, Freddie Triplett, who is drunk and violent to the extent that he runs after Betty and her children with a shot gun, causes the most damage. He is particularly cruel to Gardner, taunting him about his fatherless status.

They all grow to loathe Freddie and, in the instances, that Bettye Jean tries to leave him, he finds some means of reporting her to the police, and the children stay with their uncles and aunts or with foster parents until her release.

Gardner grows up with a deep fear of uncertainty, but he is also quick, curious and daring. He is an avid reader, goaded on by his mother’s sentiment that “the most dangerous place in the world is a public library” and vows to be a better man than Freddie or his abandoning father (25).

As a teenager growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the Sexual Revolution, Gardner gains a sense of himself as a young black man coming of age in a transformative historical period. He also has his first romantic and sexual experiences and falls in love with Sherry Dyson, a woman from Virginia.

They embark on an on-and-off, long-distance relationship, when Gardner joins the Navy. Instead of seeing the world, as he intended, he is stationed at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, where he gains medical training. Gardner is then invited to San Francisco, to become the assistant for a pioneering heart surgeon, Robert Ellis. Learning as much as he can on the job, Gardner publishes in prestigious medical journals and entertains hopes of becoming a doctor. While Gardner is stimulated professionally, he feels a void in his personal life, so, on impulse, he resumes contact with Sherry Dyson. They soon marry.

Marriage is the wrong choice for Gardner, who finds the institution “too structured, too orderly, too rigid” (163). He craves a wilder life and seeks out the distraction of other women. The most significant of these is Jackie, with whom he enjoys a voracious sexual relationship resulting in his son, Christopher. Gardner feels an instant bond with his son, as though he knew him “from a previous lifetime” (176).

Having left Sherry for Jackie, Gardner finds that outside of the bedroom, they are poorly matched. Jackie demands that he should make more money for them and encourages Gardner to abandon medical research altogether. He enters the world of sales and while he enjoys the competitive aspect of the job, finds upward mobility to be slow going.

One day, in a hospital parking lot, he spots a red Ferrari 308 and asks the driver, Bob Bridges, how he became so wealthy. When Bridges replies that he is a stockbroker, Gardner instantly knows that this is the profession for him. He goes for several interviews and is repeatedly rejected for his lack of experience, but eventually he gets a chance at the brokerage firm Dean Witter.

Meanwhile, Gardner’s relationship with Jackie has broken down and he is left as Christopher’s sole caregiver. Gardner and his son become homeless, staying in cheap hotels and a shelter run by the Reverend Cecil Williams.

As Gardner earns more money, he is able to find a stable home and jumps ship to Bear Stearns, a brokerage firm where he is encouraged to pursue his own investment interests.

Both in San Francisco and, later, in New York, Gardner excels and pioneers his own road in stockbroking, eventually concentrating on wealthy and famous African-American clients. In 1987, he starts his own brokerage firm, Gardner Rich & Company, in Chicago, where his vision is conscious capitalism and philanthropy.

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