Patricia Bosworth writes intelligent biographies about troubled artists: Montgomery Clift, photographer Diane Arbus, Marlon Brando. Her own early years were nearly as drama-filled as the lives of her subjects.
Her father, Bartley Crum, was a glamorous and hard-drinking left-wing lawyer who defended targets of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He also represented Rita Hayworth in her divorce from Prince Aly Khan. Crum lost many of his clients during the Red Scare, and he killed himself in 1959, on his fourth or fifth attempt.
Bosworth’s brother, also named Bartley, had killed himself six years earlier at Reed College. He’d been wrestling with his sexuality. The author’s mother, Gertrude Bosworth Crum, like her father, was a dependable generator of drama. She’d written a best-selling novel called “Strumpet Wind” (1938), and Bosworth remembers her carrying on an open affair with her analyst.
Bosworth told this story, and told it well, in her 1997 memoir, “Anything Your Little Heart Desires: An American Family Story.” FBI wiretaps were an everyday annoyance, like lint. She lived as if in an E.L. Doctorow novel.
Her new memoir, “The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan,” rehashes her pampered yet troubled childhood and moves forward, tracing her life from 1953 to 1963, when she was between 20 and 30 years old.
The material she has to work with is, once again, ridiculously good. Clear-eyed and fresh-faced, Bosworth became a successful commercial model while still an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence. She was in splashy national advertisements for Prell shampoo and Helena Rubinstein lipstick.
She was “a skinny girl in leotards and an old duffel coat wandering around New York City,” she writes. Arbus, along with her husband, Allan Arbus, photographed her for a Greyhound bus ad.
She became a member of the elite Actor’s Studio, the birthplace of method acting, where she studied under Lee Strasberg and was hit on by Elia Kazan. She frugged at parties alongside Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Norman Mailer and Tennessee Williams. Steve McQueen strapped her onto the back of his motorcycle.
She changed her surname to Bosworth from Crum after her father told her, “If you become an actress and you get a bad review, critics will say, ‘Crummy performance by Patricia Crum,’ so take your mother’s maiden name.”
Bosworth became a regular presence on Broadway. She was in Phoebe Ephron’s comedy “Howie” (1959), playing a gamin character based on the young Nora Ephron, Phoebe’s daughter. She toured alongside Helen Hayes in a production of “The Glass Menagerie.” Her best-known movie role was in the box-office success “The Nun’s Story” (1959), alongside Audrey Hepburn.
Bosworth does not recount these stories as a striding march through Manhattan and Hollywood. “The Men in My Life” attends just as fully to loneliness and darkness, to the slivers of dread that prickled her psyche. There is a good deal of talk in this book about what she calls “the bereaved creature inside me.”
She continues to reckon with the suicides of her father and brother. She describes her brief and terrible marriage, while still at Sarah Lawrence, to an abusive painter. As an actress, she discovers, to her disgust, that the casting couch was no myth. She loses roles by refusing to become a plaything.
She writes deliciously, in this memoir, about her sexual awakening, her pursuit of ravishment. “After I got a taste of sex, that’s all I thought about,” she writes. She slept with good guys and she slept with lunks. (“I lay there and took a lot of pounding,” she says about one unhappy evening.)
Here, too, a dark side emerges. One former lover is killed in a bar fight. Bosworth becomes pregnant just before filming “The Nun’s Story” in Rome, and nearly dies from the complications of an illegal and poorly performed abortion.
The tone and milieu of this book put me in mind of two excellent earlier memoirs, Anatole Broyard’s “Kafka Was the Rage” (1993), about bohemian Greenwich Village in the late 1940s, and Joyce Johnson’s “Minor Characters” (1983), about the women among the Beat writers, as well as Sylvia Plath’s novel, “The Bell Jar” (1963).
But “The Men in My Life” does not quite belong in their company. This book’s anecdotes are struck like matches, and there are small glowing moments, but no warming narrative fire results. The tone is detached, and the many cameos by the talented and famous are not sharply drawn.
The dialogue is particularly soft. Hepburn says to her, about her children, “They are my biggest blessing.” Calvin Trillin says, about George Plimpton’s exploits as a participatory journalist, “It took tremendous self-confidence and talent to do that.” Everyone tends to sound this lobotomized.
There is something impacted at this book’s core. It’s a survivor’s memoir, a book by an adult child of alcoholics, and Bosworth evokes her suffering with patience and care. But the psychological knots this book presents are not profitably untangled.
In her journals, Plath asked, “How can you be so many women to so many strange people, oh you strange girl?” A similar question lingers over Bosworth’s memoir. Daughter, lover, wife, mistress, actress and finally writer – she throws herself into role after role.
She succeeds at each but can’t escape a sense that these are precarious and deeply provisional successes. At each rung of the ladder, she pauses to take a long look down.
The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan
By Patricia Bosworth
Harper, $27.99, 377 pages