Recommended Reading For Fall 2012
Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them
By Frank Langella
2012 – Harper, 368 pages
Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice famously said, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.” Alice would have found actor Frank Langella a marvelous dinner companion. Dropped Names is Langella’s highly entertaining account of famous people he has met. However I shouldn’t imply that Langella has only biting things to write about these actors, writers and politicians. Both valentines and wickedly witty profiles are deliciously interspersed in this candid memoir, with a cast of characters ranging from Bette Davis to Jacqueline Kennedy.
Dropped Names begins with a lovely account of how Langella saved up his allowance so he could use the money to take a bus to New York City for the day. The 15-year old hopes for some sort of grand adventure, the details of which he can’t even articulate. But as the day disappointingly draws to a close, Langella heads to Port Authority for a bus back to New Jersey. At that moment, a limousine pulls up to the curb and Langella is dumbstruck when a beautiful Marilyn Monroe, glittering in diamonds, emerges. Marilyn’s brief but dazzling appearance – along with her whispered “hi” – awakens in the adolescent a yearning for a life different than the one he has known.
His breathless description of Marilyn serves as a marvelous entry to Langella’s encounters with the rich, famous and often iconic figures of the twentieth century. Divided into sixty-five chapters which are each devoted to a famous person from Langella’s past, the book does not have to be read in chronological order. What they all have in common is Langella’s intelligent, engaging and sometimes scathing observations about not only these individuals, but himself.
While Langella is tantalizingly vague about how intimate his relationship was with Jackie Kennedy, he is not at all coy when writing about his encounters with the older and very bawdy Yvonne de Carlo, the charming Dinah Shore and the ‘divinely arrogant’ Elizabeth Taylor. And his great love and friendship for individuals such as Raul Julia, Jill Clayburgh, Alan Bates and socialite Bunny Mellon are apparent in his descriptions of them.
Conversely, if Langella thought you were a bastard or a fool, he has no qualms about saying so. Who knew for example that Rex Harrison was homophobic and a ‘real son of a bitch’. About Anthony Quinn, Langella writes, “his aura was so sour and his sense of entitlement so pervasive that I was helpless to conquer my distaste for him.” Paul Newman comes across as “physically perfect but emotionally vacant”. And it came as a genuine surprise to learn that many in Hollywood - including Tony Curtis and Mel Brooks - found the legendary Cary Grant “a humorless, charmless bore.”
The witty barbs and asides said by many of the people in the book demonstrate that actors may have cornered the market on deliciously savage humor. Even the macho Robert Mitchum could toss off a bitchy one-liner with the best of them. “Get out your pencil, Frank and take this down. Herewith a list of the ten dullest actors in Hollywood. They are: Gregory Peck.”
Irreverent, funny and smart, Dropped Names never disappoints. And at the end, Langella even has some words of advice as sharp as his humor. “There is no lasting comfort, it seems to me, in the safe landing. Better to stay in flight, take the next bus, relinquish control, trust in happenstance, and embrace impermanence.” Not bad for a book that also includes John F. Kennedy dancing on a coffee table.
(Sharon Pisacreta, October 2012)
Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me
By Pattie Boyd
2008 – Three Rivers Press, 336 pages
If serving as muse for two of rock music’s most celebrated artists seems enviable, Pattie Boyd’s Wonderful Tonight will go a long way towards dispelling that illusion. The former wife of both George Harrison and Eric Clapton, Pattie Boyd describes not only what it was like to be young in Swinging 60s London, but how she came to inspire the songs ‘Wonderful Tonight’, ‘Layla’ and ‘Something’. In a frank memoir remarkably free of bitterness, Boyd tells a tale of love and excess. Taking center stage are Harrison and Clapton – two extremely talented men who fully expected that their money and talent were enough to excuse the most obnoxious behavior. Unfortunately Boyd and everyone around them did just that.
Boyd starts her story with an account of her childhood that will seem exotic to most Americans. Many of Boyd’s relatives served with the British Army and were often assigned to outposts in India and Africa. She and her siblings spend several magical years living in Kenya at their grandparents’ house, which was surrounded by a game preserve. Her obvious love for Kenya along with her descriptions of the vast night sky, the roar of lions and the sound of drums beating throughout the night will make every suburban child regret that they too weren’t shipped off to Africa as well.
The African idyll ends in 1953 when Boyd and her siblings are sent to England, an initially exciting event since she had never seen street lighting before. But in a shift worthy of Jane Eyre, Boyd is next packed off to an English boarding school. “All I knew was Africa – I could talk about lions, zebras, and elephants and snakes coming into my bedroom, which didn’t go down at all well. They would say to each other, ‘Don’t talk to Boyd. She’s mad.’” Life at home was little better; her new stepfather terrified and bullied his stepchildren and her mother can best be described as indifferent.
As a teen, Boyd trained at Elizabeth Arden to be a beautician, but her blonde, blue-eyed beauty soon caught the interest of the fashion industry. At 17, Boyd signed with a modeling agency in London. Along with Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy and Celia Hammond, Boyd soon became one of the signature models of the Carnaby Street/Mod years. Interestingly, the 60s supermodels were responsible for their own hair and makeup. Boyd writes, “we were not celebrities in the way that today’s top models are. For advertising jobs we even had to bring our own accessories.”
Swinging Sixties London was apparently as exciting as it seemed to the rest of the world. “All the old class structures of our parents’ generation were breaking down. All the old social mores were swept away…As long as you were young, beautiful and creative, the world was your oyster. It was a golden age, an exciting time to be alive. As a model, working for the most successful photographers in London, I was in the thick of it.”
Things became even more exciting in January 1964 when Richard Lester cast the teenager in a small role in the Beatles’ first movie ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. And while George Harrison jokingly asked her to marry him at the end of the first day of shooting, Boyd and 21-year old Harrison became romantically involved just two months later on her 20th birthday. As George’s official girlfriend, her modeling career grew even hotter, but the downside was dealing with the unbalanced devotion of the fans, who often wrote hateful threatening letters. Indeed the Beatles themselves feared their fans and it was a major factor in why they disliked touring.
In 1966, Boyd and Harrison married, and Boyd’s years as a Beatle wife go by in a blur of famous names, all-night parties, obsessed fans and copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. For all the frenetic activity, Boyd felt there was something missing. In fact it was she who introduced George and the other Beatles to transcendental meditation, and ultimately the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
George became so devoted to TM that he became obsessed with it, often spending months living like an ascetic. This might be commendable except that these periods were invariably followed by heavy drinking, drugs and a whole lot of cheating on his young wife. For someone apparently making an effort to be more evolved, Harrison often shows himself to be callow, selfish and mean-spirited. The marriage slowly disintegrates, helped along by events such as Harrison having sex with Ringo’s wife while Boyd angrily knocks on the locked door of their bedroom.
Harrison’s friend Eric Clapton meanwhile has fallen desperately in love with Boyd, and eventually she finds the courage to leave Harrison for her new man. Unfortunately, Clapton was a heroin addict and an alcoholic, which doomed the relationship from the start. By the time she walks away from Clapton, Boyd is lucky that she too hasn’t succumbed to drugs or alcohol.
At this point in her book the reader might well remember her naïve description of the early years in Swinging London: “We had no idea that drugs were potentially dangerous or that our friends might end up addicts or kill themselves with an overdose. We had not yet seen anyone spiraling out of control.” During her marriages to Clapton and Harrison, Boyd sees plenty of both -- along with far too much humiliation doled out by men who claim to love her.
Despite her experiences however, Boyd remains almost as innocent as that teenager who first laid eyes on the Beatles at Paddington Station. And as flattering as it must be to have famous songs inspired by you, it seems far better to have been able to survive the exhausting experience of being married to the men who wrote them. That – more than any hit song – is what is truly wonderful.
(Sharon Pisacreta, October 2012)
On The Night You Were Born
By Nancy Tillman
2005 – Feiwell & Friends, 40 pages
Ages 1 and up
Book & CD Set
Every loving parent wants their child to know just how special they are. On The Night You Were Born is a poetic way to convey that wonderful message. The book opens with the passage:
‘On the night you were born, the moon smiled with such wonder that the stars peeked in to see you and the night wind whispered “Life will never be the same.” Because there had never been anyone like you…ever in the world.’
News of the baby’s arrival is carried over farmland and ocean, lofted on the breeze. Polar bears dance and owls hoot the baby’s name. Geese sing and even ladybugs take note while the moon stays up until morning.
Richly illustrated and evocative, On The Night You Were Born deserves to become a classic. And the book has interactive moments when the listening child is encouraged to say their name aloud or count their toes. Its gentle yet powerful message is magically and lyrically conveyed. Btw, my child is in college, but I bought the book anyway. It will be a lovely book to read to future grandchildren.
(Sharon Pisacreta, October 2012)
October - November 2012