Myself: The Exclusive Interview!
Each of us contains multitudes, but, as we all know, the multitudes can be pretty dull. Thank heavens, then, for Myself, who arrives on the scene via By Myself, a sort of Everybody’s autobiography by the poets D.A. Powell and David Trinidad.
To put it in two words: disaster struck. I was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, a little town of northern Alabama. I was never coddled, or liked, or understood by my family. My mother’s child-bearing had been dangerously botched by a fashionable doctor in New Orleans, and forever after she stood in fear of going through it again, and so I was an only child . . .
Everybody’s autobiography, maybe, but clearly not just anybody’s. The book is composed of lines lifted from assorted memoirs—astute readers of the above passage may recognize the voices of Tennessee Williams, Helen Keller, and Ethel Waters, among others—and the resultant life story is an uncanny core sample of the surreal life of the celebrity class. It is also more than just a memoir. It is prose poetry in the collagist tradition of Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath and Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, but with the bon vivant spirit of Diana Vreeland’s D.V.
Recently, poet and journalist Michael Brodeur found himself talking with Myself (or, Powell and Trinidad expertly channeling the book’s multitudinous character). Brodeur asked Myself about some of what the autobiography’s turbulent arc wasn’t able to cover—or conjure. In By Myself’s spirit, these questions have been asked before (follow the links to find out where), but the answers are Myself all over.
My grandmother was the storyteller of the family, a woman whose memory seemed to stretch far back into antiquity. She would often perform the roles as she told our family saga, changing voices, postures, even donning wigs. It was the perfect training for my later work as a radio go-go dancer, and I was often conscious of channeling her energetic spoken style through my interviews and later film work. It made perfect sense for me to copy her.
Since I turned to writing late in life, I had no time to rankle over my own prose. I studied catalogues, the way their language made every item into an object of refinement. That, and I called up from a summer in France the memory of Gallic sailors, how they swore and spat. I wanted my own sentences to lie somewhere between Grandmamma, Lord & Taylor, and the Corsican fleet. Sometimes, that space was gratifyingly small. She had had her share of adventures with shopping and with seamen, though you might not think of it to look at her.
Oh yes, all the time. I’ll often find myself sitting on my veranda, pouring tea, or on a movie set, in the director’s chair labeled “Myself” (like Joan Crawford, I furiously knit between takes; it steadies the nerves), and the memory of something awful will flare before me, and I’ll be filled with an intense longing for the past. Like that time I was attacked by a motorcycle gang. I describe it in my autobiography. It seems to me now a glorious opportunity. I can’t for the life of me figure out why I resisted. Pure craziness! I should have just let those hooligans have their way with me!
In the early part of my childhood, we had no electricity to speak of. Apparently my father was something of a whiz at inventing water-and-mule-powered gizmos, but that was probably during the period when I suffered from hysterical blindness. All of the toys I had were hence very tactile: horseshoes (not that I could do much with them!), dolls, a spinning top I’d unleash at inopportune moments, causing my mother to curse a bluestreak . . . I’d bang on the piano for hours, too, if they’d let me, though eventually I was banished to the woods where I’d imagine I was a beaver, and I’d gnaw the bark of various trees, especially, it seems, the ones that caused diarrhea. Slippery elms, I think they were called. The imaginary world seemed more real to me than anything. I still chew my nails, though I know that’s hardly the same thing. And a few of my co-stars from the television years would accuse me of chewing up the scenery. [smiles wryly] I had almost forgotten that you asked me to tie those years into my art. [stares into space for a few moments] Are you going to eat the rest of that torte?
Like I said, not letting that gang go at me! About France, I do have regrets about the time I spent there. The cakes, in particular. We’re talking serious poundage! And that was before Weight Watchers was invented. Weight Watchers est un concept de régime aidant les personnes ayant des difficultés à perdre du poids par elles-mêmes. I also have regrets about the time I didn’t spend there. I missed out on so much: Surrealism, Henry and Anaïs, Gertrude and Alice, Existentialism. Can’t you see me sitting at a café, wearing a beret and smoking a Gauloise and reading Sartre? Je regrette. Je regrette.
I’ve only been a writer for the last ten years or so. Before that I was a thespian, a socialite, a communist organizer, an occasional singer and dancer, and a game show celebrity. In short, I was rather like one of the Gabors. You know: glamorous on top; goulash underneath. I lived with a writer for a time, but that was really before he hit it big. All of which is to say, I don’t think any of the major events of my life—except perhaps the assassination of JFK and the gruesome murder of my friend Sharon—ever compelled me to be silent. But if you mean by your question, “does the truth get in the way of art?” Well, then, my dear boy, you should know that I’ve made it a lifelong mission to be as straightforward as possible, even though that meant there were times when I was shunned by the Hollywood elite. If anyone would dare to write the truth about my life, I fancy that they’d tart me up, focusing on the sex, the mayhem, the meaningless incidents. What I’ve set out to do in my book is to write the inner truth. It may not all be diamond watches and yachts (I did, after all, grow up in a fairly humble world), but you can bet I’ve left nothing to the imagination. Gone are the days of radio, and I am no longer the stuttering bellboy, ashamed to deliver the line, “would you care for a turn-down, sir?”
Vogue was my first modeling job, but I don’t consider for a moment that it was real work. I was still just a youngster. I had tried out for a Pictureplay shoot, but that ended rather disastrously. Then along came a photographer who was mostly interested in seeing me in my undies. I knew that, but I thought, “what the hell?” I wasn’t getting any work or any action. I figured I’d maybe kill two birds with one stone. Most of my poses couldn’t properly be published in a magazine. But that did lead to some referrals, and eventually my name was on the lips of quite a few players. Oh, if I had a dime for every time I had to let some lecherous man with a camera shoot me in silk. There were probably more than a few rolls that were never developed. The camera in those days was a pretense. But I ached to be famous, and I wasn’t afraid to use what God had given me.
Without a doubt, it is the frock I wore the evening I won my Academy Award. Oh, that was a garish thing—hideous! Enough to strike fear in the hearts and minds of hardworking, honest, God-fearing folk. Thankfully that was before they televised the Oscars. Then there were the Kenneth Lane jewels I was once photographed in. A more random act of terrorism cannot be imagined. And we mustn’t forget my sissy short pants. Or the big black plastic garbage bags (designed by Glad®) that I wore on West End Avenue. The more I think about it, it’s not the outfits I’ve worn, it’s me! I am the missing link between fashion and terrorism!
Oh, there are so many possibilities. I have seen the most uncivil moments in history with my own eyes. But I’ve also seen kindness and loyalty and true compassion. I have had, for a man so nearly destroyed so often, a remarkably fortunate life which has contained a great many moments, both pure and impure. Some say the world will end in ice and some say it’ll end in fire. I say it’ll end in butter: delicious, sweet, seductive . . . but ultimately a betrayal of the human heart.