Saturday, February 22, 2014

An Affair to Remember: My Life with Cary Grant by Maureen Donaldson and William Royce (1990)

I recently discovered my newest favourite thing: OpenLibrary. It’s an online library where you can download copies of books for free for a limited amount of time. These books tend to be older books – probably to do with copyright and royalties and all of that stuff – so, not really a great resource for those who like reading the newest stuff. But for people like me who are fascinated with Old Hollywood and the stories it tells about itself, this database is a treasure-trove of literature I would never have been able to access otherwise. It is an amazing delight and proof of the wonderful place the Internet can be.

My first pick was predictable: a Cary Grant story (who else?). It was An Affair to Remember: My Life with Cary Grant by Maureen Donaldson and William Royce, a first-person account of the romance between rock journalist Maureen and an elderly Cary Grant. For those less familiar with the life and loves of Mr Grant than I, Maureen was his second-last relationship (his final was with wife Barbara, nee Harris). Donaldson and Grant were together for about four years but never married.

The story opens with Maureen meeting Dyan Cannon (Cary Grant’s fourth wife and the only one to have a child with him) at a cocktail party. They were both dressed in the same style and Dyan noted that it was a style that Grant had encouraged them to wear while they were with him. Maureen then states that although Grant made her promise to never write about their time together, since he’s dead and she met his ex-wife at a party (and, implied, that a publisher offered her lots and lots of money and the services of a ghostwriter), it was time for her to share the details of their relationship with the world. And share she did…in great detail!

Maureen and Cary met briefly at a function in Beverley Hills. Eight months later, he sees her smoking and says to her, “How can a woman as pretty as you be destroying her life by smoking a cigarette?” He promises to give her an interview if she quits smoking and he then charms her into going on a date with him, although he expresses his misgivings at dating someone as young as she was (Grant was thirteen years older than her father). She is instantly smitten and determined to convince him to go out with her. She succeeds, and the rest is history – or, history as written here. This book is heavily dialogue-based, with Maureen transcribing conversations she had with Cary Grant. Given how unreliable memory is, I strongly recommend reading each of these exchanges with a grain (or bucket) of salt.

Maureen then outlines the (very) specifics of their relationship. Some of the stuff has been covered extensively before, like Cary Grant being both a tight-arse who saved the rubber bands from his daily paper and kept track of the number of toilet paper rolls used but also an incredibly generous person, buying expensive gifts for those he loved and appreciated. He wore women’s underwear because they were more comfortable and easy to wash than men’s underwear. But, the book also contained some new information. For example, Cary Grant was not the most well-endowed man Maureen had ever seen but was a wonderful lover who laughed every time he orgasmed. He was not affectionate and only wanted to have sex once or twice a week but, at least at the start of their relationship, was seeing four women at the same time (four to eight times a week is pretty impressive for a man in his seventies!). According to the picture Maureen paints of him, Grant was profoundly insecure yet very confident in the way that only a world-famous movie star can be – a living bundle of contradictions who was both difficult to live with and love but at the same time completely, totally irresistible.

One of my favourite things about classical Hollywood cinema is never having to watch a sex scene. I like seeing beautiful human beings in a state of dishabille as much as the next person but I’m happy with a fantasy world than ends on a fade-to-black (or, as in North by Northwest, a train entering in a tunnel). I’m not sure I’m ready for stories about Cary Grant getting kinky with some stones he’s picked up from the beach. It’s also hard not to feel like a voyeur when reading this book, especially since, as Maureen tells us repeatedly, Cary Grant was an intensely private person who did not want his personal details shared. I can’t help but feel if you loved someone as much as Maureen says she loved Cary, you’d respect their wishes even after they died. But then, I did borrow and enjoy reading this book, so I suppose I’m complicit in this whole celebrity-gossip cycle.

The relationship ends because Maureen meets and falls in love with a much younger man and/or because Cary Grant starts seeing Barbara Harris (the timeline of events is never made clear. My suspicion is that the latter event preceded the first.). After their break-up, Cary and Maureen stayed friends and remained in contact until he died, at which point she wrote this book. The market for Cary Grant books remains strong, with biographies Grant’s daughter Jennifer and Grant’s ex-wife Dyan Cannon all released over the last four years. Maureen Donaldson claims this story is “the truth”, but it’s really just another piece in the complex, entertaining, irresistable Cary Grant life puzzle.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Love Italian style by Melissa Gorga (2013)

Love Italian style: The Secrets of my Hot and Happy Marriage is not just a bad book – it’s a terrible book. It’s really, truly dreadful, but not in a car crash kind of way – in an awful “Should we call the police? kind of way. Let me explain what I mean.

As I may have mentioned before, I love reading celebrity novels, memoirs, cookbooks – any longform literary printing. Slap a celebrity name on the cover somewhere and I am there, credit card ready. Love Italian style is from Real Housewives of New Jersey alum Melissa Gorga and fits the trash-read bill perfectly. For those unfamiliar with Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise, it’s a cable TV series that focus on wealthy women behaving badly. The most recent series I’ve seen centres on the ongoing drama between Teresa Guidice and her brother and his wife, Joe and Melissa Gorga. You see, Teresa, her husband “Juicy” Joe and her brother Joe used to be best friends but then Melissa came along and stole Joe away. There’s been tables flipped, punches thrown at christenings, the whole family-drama works. Teresa Guidice’s cookbook Skinny Italian was very successful (and, apart from the random chapter on makeup, surprisingly full of really good recipes. Everything I’ve made from it is delicious), so it was only a matter of time before Melissa released one of her own. This is that book.

When Melissa was young, her father was the most important man in her life. Girls were horrible to her because she was so gorgeous and good at things (something about varsity cheerleading? I don’t speak American high school). She even got beaten up for her suspected promiscuous ways (she wasn’t promiscuous! She was a virgin! A woman’s virginity is precious and a gift to her husband). But she always had her dad to rely on…until he was killed in a single-car crash and she and her mother found out he’d lost all of their money. Melissa’s college fund was gone and her mother needed to go to work to support them. Oh, and by the way he was a serial adulterer who would leave the family without notice for weeks at a time when he wanted to “run wild”. What a great man.

Melissa’s giant teenage ego aside, that’s actually a really sad story. Melissa’s family friend volunteered to pay for her tuition so she was able to go to college but she had to work three jobs to cover her rent and living expenses. That must have been hard for her, so good on her for working hard to get an education. Then, while waitressing in one of her three jobs, she met Joe. Five months later they were engaged and five months after that they were married. Then the problems started.

Firstly, Joe didn’t want his wife to work. He believes it’s a woman’s role to cook and clean for her husband. He works hard, he wants a hot wife to rush to the door when he arrives home before serving him a home-cooked meal just like the ones his mother cooked for him (she took lessons from his mother so her food would literally be the exactly same). So, despite how hard she worked to get a degree, despite what happened to her and her mother when her father died leaving them penniless, Melissa doesn’t work. Not a good start. Also, if you were hot when he married you and you stop being hot by getting fat or frumpy, don't be offended when your husband tells you so - he's not being a dick, he's helping you. It's because he loves you so very very much. I think I need a shower.

Then, Joe starts becoming a bit more prescriptive about what he wants his wife to do. He doesn’t like her to talk to people at parties. He doesn’t like her to see her single friends. In fact, he doesn't want her to socialise at all if he's not there. He wants her to wear a wedding ring (she’s his property) but doesn’t wear one himself. He doesn’t let her spend the night away from home without him – he doesn’t like her to spend time away from home at all. So Melissa doesn’t. He’s her king, she does what he says. The relationship as described is not only not healthy, it’s abusive – Joe is controlling, dominating and occasionally violent.

The more I read this book the more disturbed I was by what I was reading. Melissa lists the actions she takes to avoid her husband’s anger. She has sex with him every day, even if she doesn’t feel like it, because when he gets angry he throws chairs and not having sex makes him angry (he calls sex “getting the poison out”. Romantic, right?). Her relationship to marital sex and fidelity is horrific. If you have bad news to give your husband, have sex with him first and then he won’t mind as much. And if you don’t have sex with him, the consequences are dire. She says, “Refusing to initiate is a Top Three reason men cheat. The ugliest girl in the world could come on to a man in that state of mind, and he might have to go for it. He thinks, At least someone wants me.” (side note, these are direct quotes from the books. The random caps and italics are in the original.) Who even thinks this way, let alone puts those thoughts on paper and publishes them?

I made it to p64 and then I had to stop (although I admit I did flick through the rest because I felt bad writing a review for a book I’d only read a third of). I recognise that this book may not be an accurate picture of the Gorgas’ relationship. Maybe it’s the story the publisher thought would sell best. That this book got published at all is really disturbing. I hope if any of it is true, then Melissa’s friends and family get her the help she needs. And even if it’s not, people need to stop reading, buying and borrowing this book.

One final thing – how pissed off would you be if you were Melissa’s mum right now? You raised her, went back to work to support her once your deadbeat husband who lost all of your money and screwed around on you died, and he gets the book dedication?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Tales of the City books 1-6

Every now and then one’s reading life, a person discovers a series of books that, simply, makes them happy. Even looking at these books on the shelf can be cause for a smile and reading them again is like hanging out with old friends. The discoveries of these special stories are more valuable because of their rareness and, for this particular reader, they are cherished and loved and sometimes feel more real than people who are actually living.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is one of those series for me. It opens with the story of Mary Ann, a woman from Cleveland who arrives in San Francisco and loves it so much she impulsively move there. She moves into the house of the mysterious Anna Madrigal on Barbary Lane, where a bunch of other interesting characters live, including Michael (Mouse), Mona and Brian among many, many more. The books don’t focus on any one character – the narration shifts between many different stories in what this reviewer calls a “third-person kaleidoscope narrative”. This is a huge part of both the series’ appeal and the skill of Maupin’s storytelling – each of the points of view shown to the reader feels real (with a few minor exceptions, like that of Queen Elizabeth II in Babycakes) and the relationships, loves and heartbreak ring true.

I discovered the series when I was an undergrad on the recommendation of a friend and I have retained my love of the series although the friendship has long faded (does anyone ever has as many friends as one has when one is an undergraduate? Why am I continually referring to myself as “one” in this review?). One of the things I loved most about these books was how they represented gayness. In Tales in the City, being gay was just one part of a character’s personality. It was of bigger or smaller importance depending on the person but it was never anyone’s defining characteristic – they were “a best friend who was gay” rather than “a gay best friend”. This was true to my real-life experience with friends who were gay and, to find out that it was possible to write gayness like this was honestly revelatory for me. Looking at how many facets of the media still struggle with their representation of homosexuality today (Hollywood, I’m looking at you) make me appreciate how truly groundbreaking Tales really was.

The final book in the Tales series, The Days of Anna Madrigal, has been released. I haven’t read it yet because I’m not quite ready to let these characters go. I don’t want to read a new one knowing there will be no more so, to delay the final sad moment, I have collected the entire series so far and read the first six. I’d never read them all in sequence before and it was fascinating to watch the changing fashions and cultural mores from the ‘70s until the late 1980s of Sure of You. The city of San Francisco is a character in these novels and it to changes and develops along with everyone else. After one weekend binge Tales session I also realised that these books are much kinder to their male characters than the female ones (the most appealing female character in the book was, in fact, born a man) but you can’t have everything and I love Mouse enough to make up for it.

If you haven’t, please read these books. They are a delight and a treasure and I love them.