A biographer’s own charmed and tearful life
C.S. Lewis famously said that writers “don’t write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.” And Patricia Bosworth confesses in the very first pages of her new memoir, “The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan,” that comprehension — and healing — were the dual forces driving her latest project. “Writing this book has been cathartic,” she says in the author’s note. “It’s finally caused me to feel. I’ve cried and cried as I’ve written it, but that’s good.”
Bosworth is best known as the author of intimate biographies of Diane Arbus, Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando. But Bosworth’s own life — which includes a charmed and troubled childhood, an acting career, and the suicides of two family members — is as intriguing as any of her subjects.
In her 1997 memoir, “Anything Your Little Heart Desires,” Bosworth chronicles the travails of her father, an activist lawyer who defended the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors targeted during the communist paranoia of the mid-20th century; he then fell under FBI scrutiny.
If that book was designed to unravel the mysteries of her father’s life, this one is an attempt to comprehend the misfortunes, advantages, choices and motivations that shaped her own frenetic existence.
Bosworth spent the early part of her childhood in California, where her father’s legal career was ascending as her mother’s writerly ambitions stalled. But the bulk of Bosworth’s time was spent in the company of her younger brother, Bart Jr., whom she adored, despite their wildly different personalities. “Eventually,” she writes, “he would barricade himself within his eccentric mind while I lived out every reckless desire.”
Bosworth’s new memoir recalls an early marriage and other love affairs, but the men in her life — at least the ones at the heart of this book — are her father and brother. Bart Jr. killed himself with a shotgun while attending college in Portland, Ore. Her father overdosed on pills and booze six years later.
As a young woman, Bosworth was haunted by questions about her brother’s suicide. Later she would learn that in adolescence, he was spied in a naked embrace with another boy at an elite boarding school. And that the day after they were seen together, her brother’s amour hung himself from a tree near the schoolyard.
Bosworth remembers depression blanketing her brother in the months and years that followed. At times, he would barely speak to her or anyone else. Still, Bart Jr. tried to warn her off marrying a man who would become her abuser, and picked her up on a corner when she finally fled the violence.
And long after his suicide, Bosworth’s brother would be the voice of reason and constancy in her life. “Over the next decade my brother and I would go on talking to each other, and each time I heard him, it would be a comfort,” she recalls of the period after his death. “His visitations were as real to me as the traffic outside my window, the rain pelting against my cheeks.”
Bosworth would hear her brother implore her to take herself — her talents and her life — more seriously. And a great deal of the book is devoted to that endeavor. Bosworth takes readers inside the audition process at the renowned Actors Studio, where she studied under Lee Strasberg and encountered bright lights of the day, including Marilyn Monroe and Steve McQueen. Occasionally “The Men in My Life” gets slowed down by Bosworth’s recollections of luminaries who appeared in her orbit. (Though her description of a particularly raucous night of drinking with Elaine Stritch earns its space on the page. “Keep goin’, Patti baby, it’ll put hair on your chest!” Stritch commanded.)
As readers, we know early on about the deep losses in Bosworth’s life, and we know she survived and went on to have an illustrious career on the stage and in publishing. That deprives the book of any natural tension. The only question that remains is how long it will take Boswell to follow her brother’s advice — to live up to her potential.
Along the way she meets mentor after mentor who prod her on. Gore Vidal, who became a friend, told her years ago that she would one day have to write about her brother. “You will have to go to a place inside yourself you cannot bear to go,” he instructed. “You have to swim in the pain, absorb it, understand it, and then when you do, you detach, because you must be detached to write something like this.”
By the time the book ends, we learn that Bosworth has married a nice man and found success and satisfaction in writing nonfiction books. It seems unlikely that “The Men in My Life” will go down as the most important book in Bosworth’s career. But perhaps, privately, it will be the most important one in her life. “I’ve been carrying around a huge burden of grief and guilt for much too long,” she writes. “Now it’s almost gone.”
So in the end, every tear Bosworth shed while writing this book was worthwhile.
THE MEN IN MY LIFE A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan By Patricia Bosworth Harper. 377 pp. $27.99