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.

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