Three Lives: Alan, Lenny and Tennessee;
They Entertained You
Alan Cumming: Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir, Day Street Books (USA),
Canongate Books (UK)
This haunting and, at times, surprisingly funny autobiography of Alan Cumming, Not My Father’s Son is a story of how Alan overcame years of abusive and outrageously insensitive treatment by his father to finally break free and become his own man. His tale is written with real control and intelligence and is utterly engaging throughout, formated to skip back and forth between his present of success and some eminence to the childhood that scarred and terrified him. Cumming was the subject of a programme about his family and past, Who Do You Think You Are, by the BBC and this is his catalyst for revisiting his difficult childhood and his family. A series of ever-more-surprising revelations, the book is at times almost a mystery story, so I don’t want to go into too much detail. Not surprisingly, the dysfunctional father ill-treated Alan’s brother and mother too, and it’s the bonding and mutual support system of these three people that is one of the most touching aspects of the tale. Not only is the story well written and told with exemplary insight, it unfolds more or less in the sequence in which Alec Cumming figured things out, so when revelations come they are genuinely surprising and pack a real wallop. The format makes it more possible to read the parallels of past and present. The tale is told very personally and, I think, bravely. Friends of mine, male and female, who read the book at my suggestion, came back to thank me for introducing them to it; all of them said they had cried at some points. A moving, touching and very truthful story, Not My Father’s Son is a well-told tale, powerful in its honesty.
Allen Shawn, Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician (Jewish Lives),
Yale University Press
Allen Shawn’s new book about Leonard Bernstein probably doesn’t replace the magisterial Humphrey Burton tome about the polymath’s extraordinary life, but it certainly is a superb pendant to it and also a very fine shorter introduction. Its emphasis on considering each of his compositions in turn as well as his TV programmes, lectures, and didactic concerts for children, is also especially interesting. I’ve always preferred Bernstein to, say, his rival and near-contemporary Herbert von Karajan, whose post-World War II career so definitively overlapped with Bernstein’s; I would bet a fair amount that it is Bernstein’s reputation as a conductor and composer that will grow over the next decades, while von Karajan will be found to be, in some ways, a more limited artist. I also expect people to become more aware of Bernstein’s persona, his reputation as a mensch, a real human being. He was flawed; he was complex; he was madly in love with his wife for a time (and with her formed one of the early power couples), but he was also essentially gay and ultimately tormented by his love for men. He could be selfish and thoughtless and he caused problems for many people who knew him or who knew him or got close to him, as this book suggests; but he also was a generous teacher, a superlative mentor for other composers and conductors; and a brilliant entertainer as a conductor, as a teacher and as a composer. He was also a very, very good friend to have. How can you not want to know the story of the man who wrote West Side Story and Candide as well as one of the worst atonal operas in existence? He was a man who had a huge influence teaching about music on at least two generations of children in North America.
Two things come through strongly in this book: his ability to form lasting, loving, loyal relationships both personally and professionally; and his complete dedication to conducting, teaching and composing. He was also a brilliant pianist and a great performer whether on the podium, the piano bench, or in front of a crowd and/or camera delivering lectures. So add to all his other gifts that he was a fine writer. Indeed, Shawn shows clearly that he was, in everything he did, a generous, tireless, and enthusiastic communicator. There was much about his life that, in retrospect, seems messy and sad, but what stands out is how much he was loved and how much joy he brought to everything he did professionally as well as personally.
As well as telling the story of the life and placing it carefully in the social and political context of the times, the book carefully analyses and assesses each of his works individually, cumulatively building up a picture of how important the man was to twentieth century culture both in America and throughout the world; and dealing so fully with this major aspect of Bernstein’s life and mentality, with his artistic intensity and the development of his creativity, made me want to go back to listen to things like his symphonies or even his opera A Quiet Place. Because Bernstein was so gifted and energetic in so many different areas, some people considered him to be facile. Shawn clearly admires the results and argues against that belief. I myself had a brief but delightful acquaintance with Bernstein towards the end of his life that was enriching and enjoyable out of all proportion to the time I spent with him. He even had a joke for me that was delivered a year after his death by Michael Barrett. I came away from reading this book remembering the power and charm of his personality, his astonishing polymorphic brilliance, and that, above all, he was a genuinely generous and endlessly creative man.
John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, W W Norton (USA); Bloomsbury Circus (UK)
John Lahr is a respected critic and biographer and in his latest book, a definitive life of Tennessee Williams, he has outdone himself in creating a completely readable and somewhat provocative re-telling of a story that is almost as bizarre and compelling as any of the Williams plays. Again, like Allen Shawn, Lahr takes the line that the work is an important and central aspect of and also reflection of the life. There are plenty of backstage stories that can amuse or shock, but this biography gave me much pleasure mainly because of its concentration on telling how each work was written and produced; it places each work in the context not only of the life of Williams but also of its culture. The anecdotes about the putting on of plays like The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, let alone The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More (Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter created the parts played by Taylor and Burton later in the film Boom!) are worth the price of admission alone. That said, the glory of this book is that it is a fine, extremely sensitive and utterly sympathetic view of a man who was troubled but a remarkable magnet for affection and friendship; as well as in the portraits of his friends and colleagues, including Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando. It’s good to find out where many of Williams’ characters grew from in his life; but it’s even better to come away from a book caring so much for the protagonist and having such understanding for this turbulent and immensely gifted personality and how it fed into the creation of one of the most important bodies of theatrical work of the last century. Through letters, diaries and interviews, Lahr has recreated the life of a fascinating playwright and also thrown a spotlight on some of the ways things worked on Broadway and in Hollywood not so long ago. The book is extremely well-written, thoroughly researched and a damned good read.
What links these three books for me is not only the sense of learning more about the background of three very interesting creative people involved in the worlds of theatre, classical music and film–but above all a sense of getting to know more about them in ways that explain why they and their work are to be respected and admired. In addition, all three were gay, and Williams and Bernstein gay at a time when there was a need to be discreet about one’s sexuality. Cumming, on the other hand, has the advantage of being two generations younger, when fluid sexuality is much more acceptable–even fashionable.
Times change and attitudes change with them; that, in itself, is part of what makes all three books recommended reading.