Pasatiempo - - Book Reviews - — Natalie Mosco

Thank Heaven: A Mem­oir by Les­lie Caron, Vik­ing, 272 pages

Les­lie Caron, the luminous French-born star of the mid-20th-cen­tury MGM mu­si­cals Lili and Gigi, first ex­pe­ri­enced un­ex­pected in­ter­na­tional star­dom when, as a teenager, she was plucked from the in­su­lar co­coon of clas­si­cal bal­let to team up with Gene Kelly in An Amer­i­can in Paris.

That Caron was ill-pre­pared for all the sub­se­quent at­ten­tion is an un­der­state­ment. In Thank Heaven, this self-con­fessed “shyest star ever” en­deav­ors to find co­her­ence in the jum­ble of her life— or, rather, her many lives: her af­flu­ent be­tween-the-wars Parisian child­hood, her danger­ous-and-des­per­ateWorld War II years, her pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment to bal­let, her sud­den fame as a re­sult of the MGM pub­lic­ity ma­chine, her nu­mer­ous part­ner­ships (in­clud­ing a tem­pes­tu­ous af­fair with the then-ul­ti­mate-heart­throb War­ren Beatty), her nar­row­ing ca­reer op­tions con­cur­rent with her in­creas­ing age, the loss of her par­ents (a French fa­ther and Kansas-born mother) and friends, the resur­gence of her film and the­atri­cal ca­reer, and her cur­rent role as pro­pri­etor of a bed-and­break­fast in Bur­gundy.

Caron’s book is a de­li­cious ram­ble of peo­ple, places, and im­pres­sions. The en­cour­age­ment for such me­an­der­ing may have come from her dear friend di­rec­tor Jean Renoir, whose fa­ther, Pierre-Au­guste Renoir, coun­seled, “Just bob along life like a cork on the river.” While Caron’s “bob­bing” doesn’t ini­tially sug­gest a shape or pur­pose to the book’s jour­ney, there are bonuses along the way— for ex­am­ple, bub­bles of mem­ory from child­hood: Caron sneak­ing down to the kitchen to over­hear her grand­mother’s Gas­con but­ler, Al­ban, play the ac­cor­dion, “en­rap­tured by the plain­tive sounds of the in­stru­ment and their jaunty rhythms,” or her de­scrip­tion of sum­mers at her grand­par­ents’ es­tate in the Pyre­nees: “Goyetchéa [trans­lated from the Basque lan­guage as “the house of the sun”] was sim­ply par­adise. ... The cry of white pea­cocks… the fir trees… formed per­fect arches and the red fish flaunted their silky fins as they swam grace­fully in their shal­low pond.”

But child­hood can­not last for­ever, and her war mem­o­ries are of Paris as “a for­eign town to the Parisians,” where “bread was down to one slice per day per per­son— two-thirds flour, one-third wood shav­ings.” Her de­scrip­tions of a visit to post­war Ger­many are equally evoca­tive.

Such ex­tremes of ex­pe­ri­ence left their mark on the im­pres­sion­able young girl al­ready scarred by a with­hold­ing mother: “She ad­mit­ted that chil­dren bored her. ‘Dar­ling, I know I’m not do­ing much now, but I will be there when you’re a star.’ ”

The book’s ti­tle al­ludes to the Lerner and Loewe song, “Thank Heaven for Lit­tle Girls,” sung by Mau­rice Che­va­lier in Gigi. Che­va­lier is among a panoply of fa­mous names pep­per­ing Caron’s pages — Cary Grant, Zsa Zsa Ga­bor, Or­son­Welles, Ce­cil Beaton, Christo­pher Ish­er­wood, Ru­dolf Nureyev, Roland Petit, and Zizi Jean­maire share space with Vit­to­rio De Sica, Vin­cente Min­nelli, Louis Malle, and Jack Lar­son ( Jimmy Olsen in TV’s Ad­ven­tures of Su­per­man). And, there are the in­evitable eval­u­a­tions of co-work­ers and friends: Judy Gar­land (“Her voice came straight from the heart …[with] a fever­ish in­ten­sity… that burned her.”), El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor (when Caron spoke of study­ing act­ing with the renowned Rus­sian teacher Ge­orge Sh­danoff, Tay­lor asked, “What do you learn? What is there to learn?”), Fred As­taire (“He was as light as a cat on his feet, and he never ran out of breath.”), Ten­nesseeWil­liams (“His can­dor and sim­plic­ity amazed me.”). Of the film cap­i­tal it­self, she writes: “Every­one in Hol­ly­wood was in tran­sit. You were ei­ther ris­ing or slip­ping.”

Her most scathing as­sess­ments are re­served for ex-husbands and lovers. Soon af­ter her mar­riage in 1956 to Bri­tish the­ater di­rec­tor Peter Hall (cred­ited with found­ing the mod­ern Royal Shake­speare Com­pany), he asked: “‘Are you plan­ning to con­tinue your ca­reer?’ To my pos­i­tive an­swer, he then asked, ‘ Why? Why ... so am­bi­tious?’ ” Caron broke her con­tract with MGM, moved to Eng­land, and took on the role of “Strat­ford-upon-Avon’s first lady,” giv­ing lav­ish din­ners for vis­it­ing artists work­ing with Hall. He den­i­grated Caron’s achieve­ments—“He wasn’t with me on the evening I won my Best Ac­tress award” (from the Bri­tish Academy of Film and Tele­vi­sion Arts, for The L-Shaped Room), and “his be­hav­ior was dic­tated by pro­fes­sional jeal­ousy.” Beatty played an im­por­tant part in her world, but she re­fused his of­fer of mar­riage; she re­al­ized “his raw am­bi­tion and ruth­less­ness.”

There are sear­ing mo­ments (such as her mother’s sui­cide) and rev­e­la­tions: “What does it feel like to reach fifty when you’ve been known for your ju­ve­nile charm? Age crawls be­hind you and sneaks un­der your skin like an im­poster.” There are also rec­ol­lec­tions of her ner­vous break­down and slow re­cov­ery.

De­spite be­liev­ing that “hap­pi­ness grows with age,” Caron con­fesses that “the best part of my life is over. ... I will never re­ally be at home any­where.” None­the­less, she is grate­ful for “the in­cred­i­ble in­di­vid­u­als I have en­coun­tered… ex­traor­di­nary teach­ers.” And for them Caron can say, “thank heaven.”

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