A Stranger Comes To Town
I'd always prided myself on how unlike my books were from each other in settings and subject matter. But not until late in my career did I realize that a single thread ran through them, that I'd used the same strategy to catch the reader's attention. It is the old Western movie gimmick: A Stranger Comes to Town. I am that Stranger. Together with the reader I will discover what's going on in that town whether it be Paris, London, New York, Sydney, Tupelo, Ferriday--or in a women's federal prison. And eventually we will make sense of it.
Yet I feared not being able to use this energizing strategy in autobiography. After all it was my life and I already knew it. Then chapter by chapter an extraordinary thing happened. In some basic way I had been a stranger to my life. I'd begun work as always by making charts in five year periods which allowed me to see myself as I was living year by year, month by month. They showed me what went before and what came after. In short they showed me that the rule of life is cause and effect. Forgotten incidents sharply imposed themselves on me unearthing new meanings. I understood the social hierarchies, their trigger points and power bases, that threatened or aided me. I saw when I was going along with the mainstream, sticking with the crowd and when I suddenly darted out and walked alone in my chosen direction. I saw at that my background had been my battleground
I was born into a prosperous Jewish family in the 1920s. I grew up on Park Avenue in New York. Always an inspiration to me was my amiable maternal grandfather, a turn of the century engineering genius whose revolutionary screws fastened together two of America's best loved landmarks: Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and the Statue of Liberty's crumbling drapes. In many ways mine was a privileged childhood. But wealth, luxury and opportunity were counter-balanced by fear, unhappiness and repression. I loved school but coming home every day was like returning to prison with my father the sadistic warden, we three sisters the inmates and my mother an onlooker. My father was a hard working business man, hard hit by the Depression. As opposed to my amiable grandfather, he was a rageaholic given to violent fits of temper at the dinner table which could land on any of us. He lost a fortune in the Wall Street Crash in '29 but eventually was able to make another. A wealthy successful businessman, an active philanthropist, in his own home he was a tyrant; a frightening, damaging and destructive father. Every night through my teens I nurtured fantasies of killing him.
Always star-struck I became an actress and moved to Paris where the chances of furthering my career looked good and where I could escape from the family situation.
Living happily there as a moderately successful actress, I accepted an acting job in London. There I met the man who was to change my life irrevocably--the enfant terrible of British theatre critics, Kenneth Tynan. On our first date he said to me: "I am the illegitimate son of Sir Peter Peacock. I have an annual income. I am twenty-three years old and I will either die or kill myself when I reach thirty because by then I will have said everything I have to say. Will you marry me?" And so began a relationship and marriage that was to become compulsive and destructive in equal parts. As Ken said to me, "We gave each other a tremendous feeling of specialness, uniqueness, even glamour. We looked at each other with the absolute certainty that nobody quite like us had ever existed." We spent years in undomesticated bliss, we had a daughter we adored, but eventually we divorced after thirteen years of battles over Ken's sado-masochistic tendencies, his suicide threats, his blatant extra marital affairs, (and my more discreet ones) and my increasing dependence on alcohol.
During my marriage I was to become friends with some of the most distinguished names in theatre, film and literature. They weave in and out of my story in many scenes which include a tense weekend with the golden couple of the theatre, Laurence Olivier and a very highly strung Vivien Leigh at Notley Abbey, a dinner we held for Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe to which the main guests failed to turn up due to Monroe's hysteria; hilarious weekends enjoyed with Gore Vidal who has remained life-long friend and confidante; Groucho Marx who said of The Dud Avocado" If this was actually your life, I don't know how you got through it," (he didn't know the half of it) and Orson Welles who once fired everyone except me from a radio set. I found myself in actual conversation with people I used to have imaginary conversations with as a child.
Photographed by Henri Cartier Bresson at a bullfight, Pamplona in 1952
To me Vivien Leigh was a tragic heroine of classic proportions: chosen, blessed and abandoned by the gods. Obstinately she tried to control and defy her destiny and to know her story is to be inspired by pity and terror.
In 1958 Ken and I dined twice with the Oliviers. Then Vivien called me and we began lunching together. I fell completely under her spell. Her conversation far ranging, and witty included a description of herself as a "Zen Buddhist Catholic." I sensed the wild Irish strain in her temperament which she used to perfection as Scarlett O'Hara. Ken was not reacting well to the attention my novel The Dud Avocado was getting and I 'd decided to move away from his sphere. Vivien's friendship was a godshot to me.
The Vivien I lunched with in smart restaurants was beautiful, elegant, and self-possessed. Then I took her to a little out-of-the-way Thailand restaurant I'd just discovered. It was full of Thai students. Slowly at first, then in ever increasing waves, they came over to Vivien bringing paper napkins for her to autograph. Suddenly she became tense and distressed and her body began to tremble and her hands to shake as she strove to sign them. Finally in a barely audible voice, she said "Please let me eat." I quickly asked for the bill and we left. Outside she was fine again. It was my first inkling that Vivien was having one of her 'attacks.' I would see them several times in the future and learn how devastating her manic-depressive cycles were and how courageously she fought against them as her marriage to Olivier unraveled and she went on to forge a new life.
Based on my experiences with Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, I contrast and compare the two giants of 20th century American letters who finally met in Havana while I was there in '59. Tennessee was a friend whom I admired intensely and who was to say heartbreakingly (and prophetically) about his deminishing audiences late in his life: "They can't wait for me to die so they can commemorate me." Hemingway, I discovered, "had rules for every hour of the day. Rules for how you sat and walked, what you ate and drank, what you saw and how you saw it. It was as if he felt that only by strict adherence to these rules could you get through the day with honor. Being with Hemingway meant joining in his elaborate game playing as a necessary mark of respect. Tennessee asked only that you be colorful and that you be honest. "
Looking back I still find the 50s the most exhilarating decade I've lived through. The only mistake I made then was in thinking it would go on forever. I keep reading it was all Dull Conformity and I wonder where those people were living. Not on my planet. The fact that we had won World War 2 and that we were alive led to a post-war cultural explosion. In movies it produced such bold, original, outrageous stars whose like we shall not see again: Marilyn, Elvis and Brando. It produced Rod Steiger, Harry Belafonte and Tony Curtis-all of whom I'd gone to drama school with. In music it produced the great Miles Davis. In novels Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, Kingsley Amis. It produced playwrights John Osborne. Harold Pinter. and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. It produced The Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King. Dull Conformity?
I write also about life in the high-bohemian set I mixed with in the post-Syphilis and pre AIDS's era. It was a time when many of us were promiscuous--for fun and for free. We lived the high life in every sense of the word. But in the late 60s my life came crashing down and I found myself part of the Valley of the Dolls generation with a full blown addiction to pills. I describe my desperate struggle to get my life back on track.
The Brimberg Girls
Betty, Shirley and Elaine
Hard to write of was the tragic passing of my older sister, the brilliant charismatic Shirley Clarke, a leading Independent Filmmaker, and popular professor of film at UCLA who also made her name as a pioneer of the video camera which she used as a filmmaking tool. I start the chapter with these words" Deliver us from evil whose presence remains unexplained" for certainly my sister was cut down in her prime--a victim of Alzheimer's. Three years into this terrifying disease she did not even recognize me.
Finally I write about my experience of writing Elvis and Gladys (his mother) and the people in Tupelo who helped make it a groundbreaking biography. At some point in my life I realized I knew only celebrities, I didn't know any real people. I think it a master stroke of fate that in researching my book about the greatest celebrity of them all I would at last be meeting real people.