Wednesday, March 4, 2009
WHAT DID I DO? THE UNAUTHORIZED AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF LARRY RIVERS AND CARRIE FISHER'S WISHFUL DRINKING
I picked up Larry Rivers' autobiography in a used book store another artist, and friend, Don McGlaughlin takes me to now and then. He spotted the book and recommended it.
The first thing I did was check the index to see if I was mentioned. I too often do that with a book written by someone I know, or knew, or about a period or event I had something to do with. Last vestiges of a big ego. My name wasn’t there.
Not that it even should be. I wasn’t close to Rivers. But I did encounter him many times over a few decades at events or under circumstances that seemed memorable to me.
And it was co-authored by a man I loved for his openness and kindness and for always treating me like a dear old friend—the playwright Arnold Weinstein. Rivers didn’t do that, and I wasn’t crazy about him in person, but I admired and respected his work and his life and thought we had some things in common, things not many others share.
But despite that, and even though he was famous and rich and way ahead of me in most things, Rivers was always treating me competitively, as his wife [Clariice] once loudly pointed out to a room full of people at a party at Joe LeSueur's where Rivers was giving me a hard time. She said it was obviously because an attractive young woman was paying more attention to me than to him.
Another time we were on a panel commemorating the 10th anniversary of poet Frank O’Hara’s death. I was the only one invited to be on it who hadn’t been a personal friend of O’Hara’s. Rivers countered almost anything I contributed with one of his cleverly dismissive wise cracks followed by a personal story that seemed to contradict what I said, or often more broadly what anyone else said. I was still honored to have been included [and actually dug his insights into O'Hara's work methods].
At any rate, Rivers’ autobiography is as unique as he was—sometimes fun, sometimes disturbing, always lively. And full of a raw honesty that was his most impressive and sometimes endearing quality (like when he read the autopsy report at O’Hara’s funeral as an elegy).
His is the story of a working-class kid who had a creative drive that first led him to jazz and then to painting. His recollections of particular people and incidents from his family life (both the one he came from and the ever evolving one he started at a young age) and his life as a jazz musician and artist, blow a hole through any fusty ideas of life being any less exciting back when he was starting out during, and after, WWII than it is now. At least for people like Rivers.
The circumstances of his life, and the world’s, changed, naturally. So did the approach to making music and art, and even families for that matter. But being the unique spirit he was, he naturally approached everything he did with the kind of openness to experimentation that he employed in his art and in his relationships.
If you dig his art (which I did and mostly still do) or have an interest in the “New York School” of art and poetry—i.e. the post-WWII avant garde downtown scene—or just love memoirs and autobiographies of interesting people, I recommend it. But expect to be put off as much as drawn in by his story and voice, as I’ve always been by his art and him.
WISHFUL DRINKING is Carrie Fisher’s printed version of a one-woman show she performed (maybe still performs) based on her incredible life.
Incredible not just because she started out famous, on the cover of major magazines (LIFE et. al.) as the baby of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher when Reynolds was one of the most famous and popular young movie stars in Hollywood and Eddie Fisher was one of the most famous and popular singers in the USA.
Or because she grew up to become a famous and popular young movie star herself (most famous still for her tours as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars and a few sequels, though she’s done great movie acting work in several less known films over the years), and married one of the most famous and popular singers in the USA at the time, Paul Simon.
It’s like a fairy tale. Only very much not. As she has told in versions of parts of her life story in her barely fictionalized novels, like her first, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, and now much more directly in WISHFUL DRINKING, where she tells it with honesty as raw as Larry Rivers does in his autobiography and did in his life.
But Fisher’s a woman, a small one too as she points out repeatedly, who didn’t come from some long line of wealth nor work her way up from some ethnic working-class background, but instead was somewhere unlike any of those more typical stories because her sense of reality was skewed right from the beginning from always being in the limelight as well as from the unique personalities and lives of each of her famous parents.
But like Rivers, Fisher is really clever, in the best sense of that word. Both are wise guys, in the old sense of always cracking wise, as they used to say. Which meant making wise cracks at the expense of others. But in the case of Fisher, it’s more often at the expense of herself. And ultimately, in ways that are deeply wise in the original meaning of that word.
It’s sometimes easy to miss how smart she really is, especially since this book is more like an annotated stage monologue than her novels or a typical autobiography. We were friends in my Hollywood years, and I still consider her a dear friend even though I haven’t seen her in many years nor made any effort to stay in touch, a pattern born of too many moves, too many responsibilities, too many projects on my plate all the time, etc. leaving me little time for keeping up with too many old friends I think of daily but fail to let them know…
But my point isn’t to make a big deal out of the many interesting people I know and have known, though I’m totally grateful for that, but to say that over my lifetime I have known some pretty uniquely brilliant people, some famous and some not. And out of the handful I consider to be the brightest, I include Carrie.
Of course life takes its toll. I used to have a photographic memory when I was a kid, tell you what page something I was referring to could be found on. Can’t even remember what book now. But Carrie is still cracking wise in ways that few others can or do. There’s a lot of great jokes at her expense in here, and sometimes at the expense of others, but never without an injection of common humanity. Many of them made me laugh out loud, a lot.
And—of course, as most of know the story by now—there is a lot that’s not funny in her story, not just the drugging and drinking and mental health problems, but the price paid for the pressure to always be on, to always be striving to impress and wow and delight and entertain and live up to people’s expectations, whether live audiences, movie and TV audiences, readers, strangers in public places, or even too often friends.
When I knew her best, she seemed to relish her quick wit, as well as that of others (not me, one of the reasons I write is because I usually think of the clever thing to say when I’m back home alone, if then). If you spent any time with her you not only laughed a lot but would be amazed at how original her quips usually were, and the ways she reinvented our common language to pull them off.
WISHFUL DRINKING doesn’t capture that as fully as I would have liked, and there’s a deep sorrow to some of it that can be heartbreaking, even if heartbreakingly funny. But there’s no denying the uniqueness of her story and therefore her perspective. Her ability to transcend that uniqueness and make us feel like we can truly understand what she’s been through, that we somehow were there too with her, is the proof of a great story teller.
I hope she keeps telling them.