A bi­og­ra­pher’s own charmed and tear­ful life

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY ELLEN MCCARTHY Ellen McCarthy is a fea­ture writer in the Style sec­tion of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

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

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