Saturday, February 15, 2014

Popular Biography

After 65 years I still remembered Gene Fowler's biog of John Barrymore.

Public Library reading through a lifetime
A single PBS broadcast can provoke a flood of memories.  In this case, it was the film version of Christopher Plummer's one-man (or two) last year of John Barrymore's life.  Adolescents consume journalistic biographies avidly, to broaden one's views, to test one's feelings, as a source book of Life.  I can date my readings fairly accurately by remembering which library I borrowed them from: Alameda, San Pablo, a branch library somewhere in East Oakland, the wonderful Berkeley Public Library, which  was my library of choice once I discovered that the 51 bus and the A and F electric trains (replaced by buses similarly named) connected everything I wanted.  But, let's face it, I'd have found the same sort of reading wherever I was.  Besides, with the rise of cable TV, canned biographies were abundant; now, only the best of their kind survive, on PBS as American Masters / Experience or, imported, from the UK.
Children of each cohort have their own favorites.  It is no wonder that I honestly remembered how seriously I took not only the British princesses but Shirley Temple.  My second blog post, of February 9, 2009, with the Label 'Shirley Temple Movies', commented on that fact.  There was more than paper dolls, though, that led me to the Barrymores.  Somehow vaudeville had led me to Sigmund Spaeth and him to famous theatrical families of the time; the Dewey Decimal System brought the Drew and Barrymore families into proximity, a current film (which I found hard to understand), None But the Lonely Heart, featured Ethel, we had Lionel telling the story of A Christmas Carol (well, too, as I recall, on 6 sides of 10" shellac 78rpm), and lots of stuff in the weekly magazines on John (who was dead only two years).  Eventually, these led me to Gene Fowler's popular biography (see above: the gossip column dignified as Hollywood history in hard cover).  The Wiki's list will give his range; his own mentions of himself in his"Good Night, Sweet Prince" will hint at his own proximity to the Barrymore life style.  A number of copies are available even today, though most will have been sold off.  By the time I was out of high school, in 1952, I was no longer enchanted with the Barrymores as theatrical artists, but the idea of sinful Hollywood during The War (ours, WW II) had led me to The Dream Life of Balso Snell (much, much worse than Miss Loneleyhearts) but as good an adolescent trip as can be found anywhere: incompetently extremely ambitious.  Something far better kept being mentioned by critics, Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One.  And within a couple of years I had a friend who was a librarian eager to send me de-accessioned copies ("ex-library", if you don't mind marginalia that today can be matched in the comments of Twitter, et al., meaning indestructibly well bound) of memoirs written "with" a writer or alone with a tape recorder and a typist, or independent biographies, written without the object's having the right to object).  None of these are candidates to become a classic Life of any kind.
I don't mean those in the EB 11th edition, the most famous being Swinburne's sv Mary Queen of Scots, that have a remarkable point of view.  Swinburne's, which is only 6 two-colum quarto pages (which will come to about 48 octavo pages of Penguin Classics. and even so much longer than any modern encyclopedia editor will tolerate).  Of course, Mary Queen of Scots has always attracted those in some measure prone to identify with her, at least imaginatively or operatically.  Indeed, I have read only half of one of them, lent to me by a neighbor herself at that time an octogenarian herself, so I was not surprised when she lent me her copy of Victoria Regina, the favorite role of Helen Hayes, a play by Laurence Houseman no longer as highly regarded as it was in 1934.  In the present generation, biographies of Princess Diana probably fill the bill (though I don't know what may exist for more recent celebrities).
Also, for whatever reason, I don't quite know why even today, and even in the most liberal and literary Press, Shirley Temple stands apart.  Or why, even in the conservative Press, most are just as fond of Pete Seeger as I have been.  But why have they forgotten the Tale of Abi Yoyo?
Who has more to contribute?  Did anyone else for a while feel that Edna St. Vincent Millay was a major poet?  Who took her place in the 1960s?
And remember that Drew Barrymore, however talented, is not very closely related to John.
And, again, the Canadian film with which I began this Post is really excellent.
P.S. I had intended to say something about Waugh's The Loved One but neglected to do so.  Anyway, it wasn't a Public Library self-indulgence but a choice of a different kind.  So I'll just say that it is hilarious to read, even when it turns gruesome, so enjoy it.  In Evelyn Waugh (who had problems of his own, of course) reacting to Forest Lawn brought out the best and worst in him.