THE MEN IN MY LIFE: A MEMOIR OF LOVE AND LOSS IN 1950S MANHATTAN
By Patricia Bosworth
Harper, $27.99, 377 pages, illustrated
If reading what Joyce Carol Oates memorably dubbed pathographies leaves you with an uneasy feeling about those who so rough up their subjects, this memoir by Patricia is a salutary antidote. Ms. Bosworth, who has penned no-holds-barred biographies of Montgomery Clift, Diane Arbus, Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda, shows that she can be just as hard, if not even harder, on herself. Which makes you respect her earlier work all the more.
Sure, she gets in a few good shots at others who have injured her in the course of her tale, but she is unsparing about the disastrous choices she has made. As in her biographies, she shows a great deal of kindness as well as understanding toward many people, most notably her brother, who committed suicide at age 18 and to whom she dedicates this latest book.
Born to privilege as the daughter of prominent San Francisco lawyer and public servant Bartley Crum, she has already written about her family in a previous memoir, “Anything Your Little Heart Desires: An American Family Story,” but she is even more honest here in her revelations about herself and her family. Anyone who thinks the 1960s invented the rebellious kid who rejects the supposed frying pan in home and hearth for the real fire of something other should take note of Ms. Bosworth’s story of her early ‘50s abusive first marriage to a would-be artist hoping for handouts from her parents.
Life in his squalid home — shared with a truly weird working-class family replete with a menagerie of birds, a controlling grandmother in a wheelchair and a mother who escapes from a mental institution — taught her quite a lesson. But one not as excruciating as the physical abuse, which she took until an actual attempt to murder her sent her back to be rescued by Daddy.
Of all the eponymous men in her life, her father seems to rank only behind her brother in her heart. Her portrait of this deeply troubled man, who suffered professionally from his legal defense of the Hollywood Ten and fell into a cycle of pills and alcohol before eventually killing himself with an overdose, is deeply empathetic. Thankfully, there is less of the self-pitying handwringing which we so often encounter when reading about what happened to the over-privileged in the McCarthy era, perhaps because Bartley Crum fell on his feet, thanks to such lucrative clients as Rita Hayworth divorcing Aly Khan.
Ms. Bosworth is wise enough to see the personal and family demons which were much more corrosive contributing factors to her father’s downward spiral. To say her parents’ marriage was unconventional is an understatement. During her childhood, when “Daddy was gone again on special missions, first for President Roosevelt, and then for Truman after the former’s death,” Mom began an affair with “a sardonic bearded psychiatrist named Dr. Saul,” that continued after her husband’s return to San Francisco.
Patricia acknowledges the strong bond between her parents: it was not just their Catholicism that kept them from divorce. With hindsight, she recognizes the part alcohol played in her parental drama, and when she meets Nora Ephron, she immediately recognizes a fellow child of alcoholics. She has actually witnessed a drunken brawl between them: Henry Ephron actually broke his wife’s jaw when they were arguing about a play she had written that Patricia was appearing in. The young girls are too shy to compare notes, but true biographer that she is, Ms. Bosworth gives us a lengthy quote written much later by her fellow-sufferer which clearly resonated with her.
Bartley Crum has always occupied a special place in my mind, because of his wonderful account of serving on the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry on Palestine in 1945-46, “Behind the Silken Curtain: A Personal Account of Anglo-American Diplomacy in Palestine and the Middle East.” This was one of the first books on the decline and fall of the British Mandate I read (I was 12) and its strong advocacy for unrestricted Jewish immigration — which he had played no small part in getting the Commission to recommend — and its portrait of the desperate condition of Jews in European Displaced Persons camps all over Europe made a deep impression on me.
I had no idea of just how troubled this eloquent man was until I read his daughter’s memoirs, but it is not hard to see where she gets her essential decency, to say nothing of her writing skills.
Ms. Bosworth’s tale of abusive relationships is interspersed with many happier memories of lucky breaks, including acting alongside Audrey Hepburn in “A Nun’s Story.” Along the way, she strews many fascinating portraits of actors and others, including a starstruck teenage encounter with Montgomery Clift in her family’s living room: she preserved his cigarette butt. These are exceeded only by the often outrageous quotes from the likes of Elaine Stritch and Shelley Winters.
In the end, though, what will, I think, earn most readers’ respect, is Ms. Bosworth’s combination of acknowledging her pain without giving way to self-pity:
“I don’t think I’ve been self-indulgent in these pages. I dislike sentimentality. Instead I truly believe I’ve shown how the glories in my life outweigh the bleak and terrible. Writing this book has been cathartic. It’s finally caused me to feel.”
To which I would add: honestly.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.
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