IN OTHER WORDS
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.”