Art, Movies, Men, and Manhattan in the 50s

Book review: The Men in My Life
by Patricia Bosworth

Patricia Bosworth is a biographer, best known for her books on actors and artists like Montgomery Clift and Diana Arbus; her biography on the latter was the basis for the film Fur. But before she became an author and journalist, Bosworth was a model and actress working in 1950s America. It was a very different time, to say the least. Bosworth struggles to come into her own, especially from the painful relationships she has with her beloved younger brother and her father, both named Bart. Her brother committed suicide at age 18, depressed and seemingly unable to come to terms with his homosexuality. Some years later her father followed, after a long struggle with drug and alcohol abuse.

She comes from a wealthy family, and in the first fifty or so pages of the ebook version, I thought I wasn’t going to finish. There’s only so much attention I can pay to what I felt was becoming a poor little rich girl story. Then she meets a guy at a bar while in college and is suddenly describing a torrid relationship with him, ending in a  quickie marriage after her repressed Catholic guilt and the climate of the times gets to her. Now I’m listening.

These figures of her brother and father, Bartley Crum Sr., a high-profile lawyer who defended the Hollywood Ten, worked with the Kennedys against Jimmy Hoffa, and represented Rita Hayworth in her divorce from Prince Aly Khan, haunt her life and the narrative. She explains that they’re initially the men in her life, the ones who started to shape her, and through a series of relationships and affairs she seeks to recreate the bonds she’s had with both of them, while simultaneously learning more about herself. In this process,

Her biggest, most well-known acting role was opposite Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story. Days before filming began in Rome, she had an abortion. In pain and under pressure for this big Hollywood film starring a woman who was already a beloved icon, she accepts a message that’s been a long time coming, and decides it’s time to leave behind her acting career and pursue writing professionally.

Stars of stage, screen, and literature pop in and out of the narrative. I’m not a big theater or old movie fan, aside from long-held favorites, so most of the names that weren’t household didn’t ring a bell. But I was completely delighted at her anecdotes about Tennessee Williams and Elaine Stritch, and impressed that Gore Vidal gave her some meaningful writing tips. And she’s just done so much amazing stuff  – campaigned for John F. Kennedy, studied with Lee Strasberg (crazy as that sounds like it was), attended parties with America’s elite, got wasted and went for walks in Central Park with Elaine Stritch, was complimented on her performance of one of his beloved characters by Tennessee Williams, shared a cab with Marilyn Monroe, ate hot dogs with Steve McQueen, the list like this goes on and on. And despite being starstruck a few times, she tells it all quite casually. The memoir is focused more on recollecting what she’s done and how it shaped her, even through emotional turmoil.

I was annoyed by her tone at times, and I’m aware I might be too harsh and critical here – but I can’t stand when adult or elderly women refer adoringly to their fathers as “Daddy”. It makes me skin crawlingly uncomfortable. I inadvertently cringed every time she referred to him. I also didn’t like that she imagined conversations with her brother after his death. I know that’s something that happens when our loved ones are gone, but it felt like it came at the expense of hearing more of his real words and thoughts, which were obviously more meaningful in her life. She seems wishy-washy and shallow at times, and it’s in stark contrast to the strong voice she exercises elsewhere – refusing to take a seat on the casting couch, fighting off lecherous photographers, standing up for herself to abusive partners.

And it’s hard to dive into a 300+ page memoir of a person I knew nothing about. That’s like a full-length biography. It felt tedious at times. But I’m glad I read it, I was continually impressed with her observations and strong opinions about the development of feminism, the moral and ethical choices she made in terms of her relationships and career, frank discussions about sex and female sexuality, and the anecdotes that shed some light on the non-public personas of some figures I love. She’s a survivor of assault and of suicide, no small feats, especially considering the repressive culture and family life she endured for much of her life.

I highly recommend it for actors and those in the performing arts, as I can see it could be an incredibly inspiring and heartening story. I also think it should greatly appear to others, especially women, who came of age in the same generation and to whom Bosworth’s choices and experiences should strike some strong, reassuring chords.

The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan
by Patricia Bosworth

published January 31, 2017 by Harper (HarperCollins)

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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