In her graceful biographies, Patricia Bosworth has written with sensitive restraint about artists whose self-destructive lives often attract lurid coverage, including Montgomery Clift and Diane Arbus. She continued this refreshing practice in “Anything Your Little Heart Desires,” a heartbreaking family memoir centered on her alcoholic father, Bartley Crum, a high-priced, left-wing lawyer who’d represented some of the McCarthy era “Hollywood Ten.’’ So it’s a pleasure but not entirely a surprise to report that in her new memoir Bosworth writes about her own life with the same nonjudgmental candor.
“I had been raised privileged and spoiled rotten,” she writes, “a combination that gives you a weird perspective about life, as well as an unrealistic confidence and sense of entitlement.” Bosworth is explaining how she rushed into marriage with a man she had known only six weeks, ignoring warnings about him from fellow students at Sarah Lawrence, but she also acknowledges her general impulsiveness: “I just plunged into situations, experiences, adventures without ever considering the consequences.”
Bosworth doesn’t beat herself up for her youthful misjudgments; she looks back ruefully at a young woman striving for independence while still relying on her parents’ controlling protectiveness. Throughout her disastrous 18-month marriage, Daddy continued to pay her college tuition, while Mama recommended a therapist and hissed, “Don’t you dare get pregnant.” Her “clinically depressed’’ brother Bart Jr.’s advice to step back and take a hard look at her behavior stung; her closest childhood companion had become a critic, keeping her at arm’s length and refusing to share his own emotional distress.
In 1953, just a few months after Bosworth divorced her abusive husband, Bart committed suicide at age 18. Numb with shock, his 20-year-old sister threw herself into her fledgling acting career, although Bosworth admits that she “had no idea how to act” and frustrated her agent because she dressed “like a bum” — which meant she refused to trade on her blonde good looks. Instead, she auditioned for the Actors Studio, where her inexperience was trumped by the fact that she burst into tears during her scene. Lee Strasberg, the Studio’s revered head, loved it when actors cried.
The testosterone-fueled Studio, its atmosphere vividly captured in some great party scenes, was rife with the blatant sexism that confronted actresses everywhere in the mid-1950s. Bosworth knew that a post-audition invitation to dinner from Studio co-founder Elia Kazan, the hottest director in America, meant “[d]inner and a quick roll in the hay,” and if she declined she wouldn’t get the role he was casting. So why did she turn him down after what she describes as years of “screwing around indiscriminately”? While acknowledging that Strasberg was a domineering, manipulative acting teacher, Bosworth nonetheless credits Studio training with giving her an artistic backbone and, unexpectedly, the self-respect to say no.
Bosworth provides colorful snapshots of the Studio’s starry membership in its heyday, from Ben Gazzara and Elaine Stritch (at the time a boozy couple) to Steve McQueen (on a motorcycle, naturally) and Arthur Penn (acidly depicted as a sadistic bully). Despite the big-name cameos, this is an unsentimental account of life as a journeyman actor. Bosworth worked steadily but seldom securely, an understudy as often as featured player. She got her best-known role, as Audrey Hepburn’s best friend in “The Nun’s Story,’’ on the same day in 1958 that she learned she was pregnant. She grimly recalls the illegal abortion that nearly killed her and marks it as a turning point: “I couldn’t go on living in the same careless, reckless manner.”
The lesson was driven home a year later, when her father took a fatal overdose of Seconal — six years after her brother’s death. His alcohol and barbiturate abuse had shadowed Bosworth’s personal and professional odyssey for years, marking her character as indelibly as the void left by her brother’s absence. (Bosworth holds imaginary conversations with Bart throughout, a risky move that mostly works to make palpable her grief.) In a prefatory note, Bosworth identifies herself as a suicide survivor, suggesting that writing biographies of self-destructive people was her way of trying to understand why the two men she loved most chose to destroy themselves. She was taking her first tentative steps toward that career change as her main narrative closes in 1964.
Self-pity is all too common in memoirs of family dysfunction, but Bosworth eschews it in favor of self-knowledge. Her lucid, low-key prose is nothing like Mary Karr’s salty Texas snap, but “The Men in My Life” shares with “The Liars’ Club” the distinction of describing a turbulent coming-of-age with the nuance and acuity that real lives deserve.
THE MEN IN MY LIFE:
A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan
By Patricia Bosworth
Harper, 384 pp., $27.99
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post.