xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #17: The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski, by Samantha Geimer

Samantha Geimer, who in 1977 was the 13 year-old who was “the girl” in the infamous Roman Polanski sexual abuse case, has finally chosen to tell the whole, sordid story in her own words in The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski. The book’s title is more apt than might first be suspected. Geimer not only endured the events of that evening so many years ago, but has had her life inextricably, unfavorably linked with the famous director ever since.

In The Girl Geimer takes a mostly unblinking look at her life and Polanski’s, and details, step-by-step, the events that led up to her being plied with champagne and part of a Quaalude, and eventually subject to multiple sex acts with Polanski against her will.

Samantha Geimer, at 13, photographed by Roman Polanski

Geimer’s mom, an aspiring actress, moved her two young daughters to Los Angeles with her latest boyfriend, who got a job selling advertising for Marijuana Monthlymagazine. Welcome to 1970s L.A. Mom didn’t just want to secure acting jobs for herself, but encouraged both of her daughters to try out for parts too. One evening she met the director Roman Polanski at a party. He told her he was interested in photographing American girls for a Paris Vogue magazine spread. Excited, she invited him to meet Samantha. He came to their house and then took her on a drive to a nearby park, where they “rehearsed”: he photographed her, first clothed, and then, with a little encouragement, topless.

Geimer is able to channel her teenage self, in all its insecurities, as well as attitude. She articulates very well her resistance and fear mixed with the ambition and misplaced starstruck hopes that this “little thing” of taking her top off might lead to a big career. She of course didn’t tell her mother the little detail about taking off her shirt when she got back home. Geimer wants the reader to understand that at no time did she think there was anything sexual or untoward about the shoot with Polanski. And most importantly, that her mother had no idea, and would never have “pimped out” her daughter, an accusation that was hurled many times after the rape.

“You know, there’s something about fame. There just is. I mean, think about the kids who had sleepovers at Michael Jackson’s house and all the accusations that followed. Think about their parents. Were they bad or stupid people? No. They just wanted to believe that being famous made you good.”

Polanski came back a second time, a few weeks later, and suggested that he was ready now to do the shoot for real. Again her mother didn’t accompany them, as Polanski told her that it might make her daughter nervous, less natural. He took Geimer first to the home of actress Jacqueline Bisset, where she was offered some wine (she declined). They took a few photos and then he took her to another friend’s house – the actor Jack Nicholson, who was away from home at the time. Polanski started plying her with champagne, which now she didn’t refuse. He also gave her part of a Quaalude and photographed her in the kitchen.

“He asked me if I knew what it [the Quaalude] was. I didn’t want to seem like a stupid kid, so I said, ‘Sure.'”

Polanski then suggested she take off her clothes and get in the jacuzzi for more photographs, where he joined her. He soon moved her to the bedroom, where he proceeded to have sex with her. Geimer transmits her failing resistance as the drugs and alcohol and general atmosphere took effect. She details the sex acts, and later, the pounding on the bedroom door which helped end things – Nicholson’s girlfriend, Angelica Huston, came home early. It’s a sordid, upsetting read.

At Jack Nicolson’s house

And then things really got ugly. That same evening, after he took her home, Polanski showed her mother photos from the first shoot, which included some of the topless photos. Shocked, she asked him to leave. Geimer’s sister quickly discovered the truth and helped her mother put two and two together. The police were called and the nightmare really began. Geimer’s life became a cycle of making depositions and trying to stay out of the picture as Polanski was arrested and Hollywood and the public began to take sides. Her family and lawyer tried to keep her identity secret for as long as they could. But as the story was reported (and reported and reported ad nauseum) it seemed that as many thought “the girl” was a slut or an opportunist as an innocent child. Geimer knew she had been used and abused by Polanski, but she was also angry at her mother for bringing the whole embarrassing episode into the public eye.

Geimer never apologizes for Polanski, but over the years she has had a lot of time to consider his behavior, and she ors have empathy and understanding. She proclaims she is no fan of his films –Chinatown bored her – but she writes feelingly about his youth, and persecution as a Polish Jew during WWII, and his escape from the Kraków Ghetto. How he watched his parents being taken away to concentration camps. His mother was killed in Auschwitz. His father survived Mauthausen, but they were never as close after he finally came home. He attended film school and eventually began to have success as a director. He life seemed to have finally come together when he met and married the actress Sharon Tate, who he met on the set of his film The Fearless Vampire Killers. But a year after they were married, she was brutally murdered by The Manson Family. She was eight months pregnant at the time.

Throughout the book she tries to frame the events of her life, and especially that evening, in the context of the times. She is very aware that Hollywood, especially in those days, had a taste for nymphets – with Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby (1978), Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver (1976) and Foxes (1980), and Tatum O’Neal in Little Darlings(1980).

“In the 1970s … There was something considered generally positive about erotic experience then, even in the absence of anything beyond the sex itself. The idea was that emotional growth came about through an expanded sexuality – for both the person in power and the relatively powerless. This is important to consider, because this is the cultural paradigm Roman Polanski was sopping up in 1977. As wrong as he was to do what he did, I know beyond a doubt that he didn’t look at me as one of his victims. Not everyone will understand this, but I never thought he wanted to hurt me; he wanted me to enjoy it. He was arrogant and horny. But I feel certain he was not looking to take pleasure in my pain.”

Geimer and her family accepted a plea bargain from Polanski’s lawyers to keep her name out of the public record, and most importantly, the papers. But the judge on the case, Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, seemed more interested in the reflected limelight than justice for either party, and he reneged on his original decision of probation for Polanski (after he had already served 42 days in jail) to additional potential incarceration, of up to 50 years. Not surprisingly, Polanski booked the first flight out, and sought refuge in Europe, staying in countries like France, where he could not be extradited to the U.S. And he has been exiled ever since.

But Geimer’s life didn’t settle down once Polanski was out of the picture. Every time his name might come up in the news – whether for a new film being released, or an attempt to reopen the case, she and her family would be hounded by the press. She writes unflinchingly of her teen pregnancy, drug use, and drifting aimlessly for a number of years through life, from one crisis to the next. She is not one for regrets, but admits that undeniably her life would have been different if she hadn’t taken that ride in the car with Polanski to Nicholson’s house.

The Girl is a fast and compelling read, but it doesn’t provide any easy answers. The case, even after all these years, is far from closed. Geimer points out that Polanski the artist, the director of such classic films as Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Pianist, should be viewed separately from the horny man with a taste for young girls. Many people are able and willing to do that, but there are just as many who aren’t. Geimer, who was the victim of a rape, of sex against her will, would also hope that she would not be viewed forever as a victim. She doesn’t consider herself one. She comes across beleaguered at times, but always strong.

Samantha Geimer is married, with three sons, and splits her life between Hawaii and Nevada. For better or worse, Geimer’s and Polanski’s lives, from that evening in March 1977 forward, were forever linked. She acknowledges that Polanski has been just as much a prisoner, as pursued relentlessly by the media and misused by the U.S. criminal justice system, as she has. Strangers but not strangers, they seem to have settled their differences and found some sort of peace with one another. She may not ever be able to completely leave that night with Polanski behind her, but she has finally had the chance to tell her story, unfiltered.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #16: Inherit the Dead, edited by Jonathan Santlofer

Twenty best-selling mystery authors have teamed up to write a new novel, Inherit the Dead. Similar to 2011’s No Rest for the Deadeach author writes a chapter to tell a modern noir tale that centers around private investigator Pericles “Perry” Christo. Author Linda Fairstein, who contributes the afterword, approached Jonathan Santlofer to edit a novel that would bring together some of the most well-known crime authors to not just create an original mystery, but a book that would benefit the victim assistance charity Safe Horizon.

Santofler not only edited the book, but starts things off with the first chapter, which introduces former cop Christo, who has been hired by the ultra-rich Upper East Side society matron Julia Drusilla to find her estranged daughter Angel. The more Christo finds out about the enigmatic yet lovely Angel the more confused he gets. The girl is set to inherit part of a large fortune in a few days on her twenty-first birthday — if she shows up to sign some paperwork. But nothing quite adds up in the case. Her cold-as-ice mother would benefit financially if her daughter stayed gone. Her father seems distracted and unworried about her disappearance, even when her car shows up, abandoned. Her sometime boyfriend has already moved on to many other ladies. Christo finds himself bouncing back and forth between wintry New York City neighborhoods and the rich enclave of the Hamptons, as well drawing parallels to his own complicated past as he searches for the truth, and tries to find Angel — alive.

Lee Child writes the forward to the novel. The other participating authors include: Stephen L. Carter,  Marcia Clark, Heather Graham, Charlaine Harris, Sarah Weinman, Bryan Gruley, Alafair Burke, John Connolly, James Grady, Ken Bruen, Lisa Unger, S.J. Rozan, Dana Stabenow, Val McDermid, Mary Higgins Clark, C.J. Box, Max Allan Collins, Mark Billingham, and Lawrence Block, who gets to tie up all the loose ends in the final chapter.

The authors, for the most part, all manage to propel the story forward, and Inherit the Dead is a fun, fast read. There’s more than a bit of repetition, as each writer seems especially attracted to Christo’s habit of self-criticism, most notably in regard to the fall from grace that led to his dismissal from the force, and his regret at not getting to spend enough time with his daughter after his divorce. His domestic issues are a good parallel to the family drama he is investigating, but they are also all too familiar territory in the hardboiled detective genre. While so many different voices may not offer the reader too in-depth a take on any of the characters, they do sketch out a cohesive mystery. Seasoned mystery fans may not be quite as baffled by a last-minute vital clue that has Christo stumped, but they will likely enjoy joining him on his journey to finally figuring things out.

Originally published on Blogcritics: Book Review: ‘Inherit the Dead’ by Various Authors, Edited by Jonathan Santlofer

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #15: George Cukor: A Double Life, by Patrick McGilligan

The University of Minnesota Press has recently re-released George Cukor: A Double Life, by Patrick McGilligan. Originally published in 1991, the book became known for its “outing” of the Hollywood director, the first biography to write about his “double life.”

Meticulously researched, George Cukor: A Double Life spends equal time investigating what went into the making of his films as it also tries to go behind the facade of Cukor’s Hollywood homosexual life. McGilligan manages to portray Cukor as a well-rounded man, but one wonders what the director, who tried so hard to keep his open secret under wraps would think about his “tricks” being discussed alongside his A-list friendships with such movie stars and celebrities as Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Somerset Maugham, and Vivien Leigh. Cukor would never have mixed the two groups in his life. In fact he went out of his way to keep his public and private lives very separate.

While it may have seemed revealing when first published, McGilligan tends to be a bit repetitive when discussing Cukor’s homosexuality, constantly emphasizing that the director liked a certain type of “rough trade.” He does draw a good picture of Cukor’s fabulous Hollywood home, which became a home-away-from home on Sundays to “the chief unit,” a group of Hollywood gay men who could relax and enjoy each other’s company. Cukor reportedly formed few close relationships, sexual or otherwise. He preferred to keep things light. Even life-long friend Katharine Hepburn, who he championed when her career was labelled box-office poison, directed in ten films, and who lived for many years in a guest house on his estate, was kept at a distance when it came to his personal, sexual, life.

The most controversial anecdote in the book, and perhaps the most impactful in Cukor’s Hollywood life is the detailing of how he lost his job as director on the epicGone With the Wind. There are most likely many reasons, including Cukor’s tendency to shoot many takes and spend lavishly on sets and costumes, but certainly the most significant, and most hurtful to Cukor was how his leading man, Clark Gable, felt about him.

“Everyone was dumbfounded. Because whatever else he was, Gable was an absolute professional. Somebody asked, ‘What’s the matter with you today?’ And suddenly, Gable exploded. ‘I can’t go on with this picture! I won’t be directed by a fairy! I have to work with a real man!’

With Clark Gable on the set of Gone With the Wind

With Clark Gable on the set of Gone With the Wind

The bigoted Gable was the King of Hollywood, but most likely he was mostly concerned that Cukor was spending most of his time showcasing Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland’s performances in the film, to his detriment. Cukor didn’t find any support from long-time friend and producer David O. Selznick.

“I think the biggest black mark against our management to date is the Cukor situation and we can no longer be sentimental about it. We are a business concern and not patrons of the arts.”

Gone With the Wind wasn’t the only film that Cukor was dismissed on as director, but it was the one that he and Hollywood never forgot.

As comprehensive as his behind-the-scenes detailing of Cukor’s many films (and film ideas that never came to fruition), McGilligan is not much of a film critic. He completely dismisses Cukor’s classic The Women in just a few negative paragraphs, while dwelling on the merits of lesser efforts like The Chapman Report and The Blue Bird. He does help bring Cukor’s early days to life and his youth in New York City. Cukor was able to turn a love of going to the theater into a career, first by directing summer stock shows in the 1920s in Rochester, N.Y. and later on Broadway, to joining the talkies revolution and heading out to Hollywood in 1929, first as a dialogue coach, and later as a director.

Once Cukor left New York he never really looked back. He loved living in Hollywood and was an enthusiastic product of the studio system. He worked with all of the great producers, including David O. Selznick and Irving Thalberg. Cukor was dubbed “the women’s director,” which some came to take as a euphemism for homosexuality. But Cukor truly was interested in actors, and helped direct many Academy Award-winning performances, including Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story, Ronald Colman in A Double Life, Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.

With Greta Gable on the set of Camille

With Greta Gable on the set of Camille

Cukor was definitely the recipient of homophobic attitudes, but seemed to not hold any grudges. He was especially appreciative of films by the “macho” director John Ford. In his own films he tended to showcase stereotypical homosexual characters. It’s hard to determine whether this approach was some inner self-loathing or an attempt to “fit in.” Cukor had every reason to try to keep his sex life secret. MGM helpeddismiss a morals charge (when Cukor and interior designer friend Bill Haines were involved in a bar fight) and Cukor was apparently very concerned to never breach any moral turpitude clause in his contract.

Hollywood seemed more than a little aware of Cukor’s sexuality. Producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz could be both dismissive and insightful on the topic,

“In a way, George Cukor was the first great female director of Hollywood. … A woman could come on his set and be absolutely safe. … With the other directors, there was always that moment, Is he going to make a pass at me?”

As good a director of actors as Cukor was, he never seemed to be too interested in the camera, preferring to stage a scene and perfect a particular piece of dialogue or bit of business for an actor. His cameramen were more responsible for a shot’s composition — something that seems anathema in our concept of how Hollywood directors/auteurs should work.

What really comes through in George Cukor: A Double Life is the sheer amount of wonderful and eclectic films that were directed by Cukor. He definitely had a flair for comedy, as evidenced by  Dinner at Eight (1933) and two films with Judy Holiday, Born Yesterday (1950 ) and It Should Happen to You (1954). Although not particularly interested in musicals (he would usually have the dance numbers staged by someone else, like choreographer Jack Cole), he directed quite a few: A Star Is Born (1954), Les Girls (1957), and My Fair Lady (1964). He even directed two films with Marilyn Monroe,Let’s Make Love (1960) and her last film, the unfinished Something’s Got to Give(1962).

With Marilyn Monroe on the set of Something's Got to Give

With Marilyn Monroe on the set of Something’s Got to Give

George Cukor: A Double Life more than anything makes one want to hold their own mini Cukor film festival. So many of his films are Hollywood classics, and film buffs could program a few movie marathons, depending on where they would like to focus. The films he made with Tracy and Hepburn? Try Keeper of the Flame (1942), Adam’s Rib (1949), and Pat and Mike (1952). The five that were written by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon? How about A Double Life (1947), Adam’s RibPat and MikeThe Marrying Kind (1952), and It Should Happen to You. Or maybe check out some of the films that helped give him the reputation as a “women’s director.” Camille, with Greta Garbo (1936); Susan and God, with Joan Crawford (1940); GaslightTravels with My Aunt(1972), with Maggie Smith; or Rich And Famous (1981), with Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset. No matter what the choice, it will be impossible not to think of George Cukor reading those scripts and working out the costumes for his actors after one of his lavish Sunday night parties.

Originally published as Book Review: ‘George Cukor: A Double Life’ by Patrick McGilligan

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #14: D’Aulaire’s Norse Gods & Giants

I grew up with D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Mythsa wonderful book full of fabulous interpretations of the wild lives of the gods, complete with illustrations by the talented husband and wife children’s book team, Ingri and Parin D’Aulaire. I spent hours reading and re-reading these stories, trying to draw Aphrodite, Dionysus and the other gods and goddesses that the D’Aulaires portrayed in their distinctive lithographs.

I remember seeing their book on the Norse Gods when I was a kid. I must have taken it out of the library, but I frankly don’t remember it at all. When I was with the kid at the library the other day and saw D’Aulaire’s Norse Gods & Giants (reprinted recently as D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths) again I grabbed it, figuring it would be like my favorite Greek myth book. Well, sorta. The illustrations are as wonderful as one would expect. But the stories — they are so very, very different from the Greek myths. The Norse pantheon, although it shares a superficial resemblance to the Greeks, with creation stories and Odin as the head of the gods, is full of very distinct and different personalities from Zeus and his brother and sister gods and goddesses.

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Battling a frost giant

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Ygdrassil

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Loki plans his next trick

The D’Aulaires seem to be having a great time telling stories about the world of the Norse gods, including the world tree, Ygdrassil, Valhalla, and the gods’ ultimate destiny, Ragnarokk. Fans of comic books and recent superhero moves will recognize some of the main players — Odin the all father, hammer-wielding Thor, the god of thunder, and the shape shifting trickster, Loki, as well as the lovely Freya and the Valkyrie. The D’Aulaires’ books are geared towards children, but their retelling of these classic stories are dense and layered and could be equally enjoyed by adults. I’m glad I got a chance to find this book again.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #13: More Room in a Broken Heart: The True Adventures of Carly Simon, by Stephen Davis

I picked up More Room in a Broken Heart: The True Adventures of Carly Simon, by Stephen Davis, at the library and found it a quick, if not fabulous, read.

I grew up hearing many of Carly Simon’s songs on the radio (“You’re So Vain,” “Anticipation,” “Nobody Does It Better”) without knowing too much about her. Then a few years ago I read how James Taylor, her husband of 11 years, had been a junkie throughout their marriage. How did she cope with that? How did these two seemingly mellow soft rockers live a druggie existence? I always liked Simon’s rich, honeyed voice, but have to admit that I never cared too much for Taylor’s music — I found it so laid back to be almost soporific.

Carly Simon and James Taylor

The best part of the book are the opening chapters, where Simon’s parents early lives are outlined — they were quite interesting people — as well as Carly’s first forays into music, with her older sister Lucy as part of the duo The Simon Sisters, and then her tentative but determined efforts to go out and perform on her own. Simon (as well as Taylor) was born into a privileged background. Her father Richard Simon was the Simon of Simon and Schuster. The family shared time in a large home in Riverdale and an even larger summer estate in Connecticut. Richard Simon was an accomplished classical pianist, and through him Carly Simon met such musical luminaries as George Gershwin, who would visit the Simons from time to time. Music was always a part of Simon family gatherings. The family communicated best through music, as both father and mother seemed rather distant from their children.

There is no bibliography or notes or references in More Room in a Broken Heart, but there are sporadic references throughout the text to old interviews or magazine articles about Carly Simon. It soon seems that one is reading a cut-and-paste job. For some reason author Davis feels compelled to list every song on every Carly Simon album, while glossing over, or just simply not trying to dig into the personal sides of Simon’s and Taylor’s lives. He has no problem listing old lovers (Warren Beatty, Kris Kristofferson, Cat Stevens) and breakdowns, but not much interest in probing the whys and wherefores. The complicated Simon surely would provide plenty of opportunity for more in-depth analysis and investigation. She stuttered as a child and suffered from extreme stage-fright, which caused many difficult situations throughout her career, always reluctant to go out and tour to perform her latest album.

For someone who prefers the relative safety of the recording studio, Carly Simon has not only been prolific, but has been honored many times for her music (Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1994, Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004 for “You’re So Vain”). Her song “Let the River Run,” which initially appeared on the soundtrack of the film Working Girl, was the first song ever to win a Grammy, Academy Award, and Golden Globe Award for a song written and performed by a single artist.

Mid-’70s Carly Simon

More Room in a Broken Heart is an unauthorized biography, and after a little searching online it apparently is chock-full of factual errors. Some of the mistakes with dates are less glaring or annoying than some of the completely off-the-wall “interpretations” of Carly Simon’s lyrics. One of the more amusing is Davis’s summary of her 1980 hit “Jesse,” which he describes as “a song about a woman’s ambivalent feelings for an incontinent lover who wets the bed and needs fresh sheets … by the end of the lyrics, she decides to put fresh sheets on the bed.” Really? Here are Simon’s lyrics:

Oh mother, say a prayer for me
Jesse’s back in town, it won’t be easy
Don’t let him near me
Don’t let him touch me
Don’t let him please me

Jesse, I won’t cut fresh flowers for you
Jesse, I won’t make the wine cold for you
Jesse, I won’t change the sheets for you
I won’t put on cologne
I won’t sit by the phone for you

If you hoped that this (or any) book would give an insight into the real story behind her top hit “You’re So Vain” this is not the case. As many errors or missteps as this book may take, there are a few underlying suggestions, that if they are true, are quite interesting. That Carly’s interest in working with Rolling Stone Mick Jagger led to a long-term friendship (and possible affair). That her success may have fueled jealousy with husband Taylor. That she enabled his relapses into drugs. The last few chapters of More Room in a Broken Heart gloss over most of her recent work as well as a (successful) bout with breast cancer. What was the rush?

There is another book on Carly Simon, “Girls Like Us,” by Sheila Weller, which Davis may have “borrowed” heavily from. The book covers the careers and lives of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon and may have been a better read. It has recently been optioned to be made into a film, with Taylor Swift rumored portray Joni Mitchell. Oh boy.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #12: The Fairest of Them All, by Carolyn Turgeon

Fairy tales have been always been popular with old and young, but recently they have been enjoying a pop culture resurgence, with television programs like Once Upon A Time and films like Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror, and Tangled. Fairy tales are designed to be spun and embellished — there are no definitive versions. At least that is the concept behind The Fairest of Them All, the latest book by Carolyn Turgeon. Turgeon’s dark romantic fantasy poses the intriguing question — what if Snow White’s evil stepmother turned out to be another familiar fairytale heroine, like Rapunzel?

Clearly a tale like Snow White’s or Rapunzel’s is still ripe for retelling, and Turgeon is comfortable in the world of fairy tales, with two previous novels re-imagining favorite heroines Cinderella and the Little Mermaid, in Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story(2009), and Mermaid (2011). In The Fairest of Them All she writes from Rapunzel’s point of view. Rapunzel still lives in a tower in the middle of an enchanted forest, and she has that long, luxurious hair, but she is also a 17 year-old witch-in-training who has not much knowledge of the outside world — especially the ways of men.

Carolyn Turgeon

Rapunzel lives with her guardian, the witch Mathena, who seems to be a more sympathetic creature than the old woman who kidnapped the young Rapunzel from her radish-eating mother in previous versions of the tale. Part feminist, part cautionary tale, The Fairest of Them All examines how Rapunzel’s world changes radically when she catches the ear and eye of the handsome prince Josef. But what happens when Rapunzel, with the help of her beauty and more than a little magic, is able to realize her dreams of winning Josef’s love and becoming his queen? And it’s a package deal, as widower Josef has a beautiful young daughter, named Snow White. Complicating matters, and Rapunzel’s world view, is Mathena’s wedding gift — a magic mirror.

Turgeon manages to makes all of her heroines’ stories engaging, even when they are doing and thinking things they oughtn’t. Although the author is clearly familiar with the Brothers Grimm and Disney, The Fairest of Them All is a distinctly adult spin on some classic stories. The lush prose pulls the reader in, as the story takes Rapunzel and then Snow White for some unexpected twists and turns that will still surprise the most avid fan of folklore. Turgeon proves that there are still exciting stories to tell and retell, featuring beloved fictional characters.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

Originally published as Book Review: ‘The Fairest of Them All’ by Carolyn Turgeon on Blogcritics

xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #11: Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner

“I either write the book or sell the jewels, and I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.”

Ava Gardner, in 1988, after suffering two strokes a few years previously, felt pressured to come up with some money, somehow, to cover her expenses. She could no longer act, as the strokes had left her fabulous face paralyzed on one side, and her right arm useless. She toyed with the idea of an autobiography, and friend Dirk Bogarde suggested journalist Peter Evans.

Ava Gardner, in her heyday

Evans enthusiastically took on the task of ghostwriting Gardner’s memoirs, and things moved along, if not swimmingly, at least steadily, for several months — until Gardner learned, most likely from ex-husband number three Frank Sinatra, that he had sued Evans and the BBC many years before for writing about his association with the Mafia. The collaboration came to an abrupt halt. After Evans’s death in 2012, his publisher, with the permission of Gardner’s estate, decided to publish the notes for the book as Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations.

If one is looking for an in-depth look at Gardner’s life and her tumultuous relationships with many famous men, this book will not exactly fit the bill. But it does contain some interesting glimpses of her life, and of Hollywood in the 1940s. What it really does is give a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to write a celebrity biography — with a reluctant, mercurial star and a diffident author. But fans of Gardner will be more than a little disappointed about the lack of coverage of her Hollywood career, and her most celebrated relationship, her marriage to Sinatra, as the book and notes are cut short very soon after he enters her life.

Gardner was a legendary beauty, but never received much acclaim for her acting skills, which she herself said were close to none. But she was good, even great, at times in many of Hollywood’s best films, working with its top directors and co-stars:

  • The Killers (1946) – With Burt Lancaster, directed by Robert Siodmak
  • Show Boat (1951) – Her voice was dubbed in the movie, but she did sing two songs on the soundtrack album
  • Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) – With James Mason, directed by Albert Lewin (with amazing cinematography by Jack Cardiff)
  • Mogambo (1953) – with Clark Gable and Grace Kelly – Gardner was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress
  • The Barefoot Contessa (1954) – with Humphrey Bogart, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  • On the Beach (1959) – With Gregory Peck, directed by Stanley Kramer
  • The Night of the Iguana (1964) – With Richard Burton and Deborah Kerr, written by Tennessee Williams, directed by John Huston

Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations does cover, glancingly, her early life in rural North Carolina, and her unusual path to Hollywood. Her brother-in-law, who owned a photo studio, displayed a portrait of teenage Gardner in his shop window. A man who claimed to be a talent scout for MGM (as a way to get to pretty girls), tried to get her number by saying she should get in pictures. Gardner and her family didn’t share her number, but took him at his word and brought her to MGM’s New York offices.

Her beauty impressed, but her thick accent did not, so a silent screen test was sent to Hollywood and Gardner and her older sister were soon packed off to the West Coast for her new life as a starlet. She claims to have met Mickey Rooney, who was one of MGM’s biggest box-office stars of the day with his Andy Hardy films, her first day on the lot. He certainly didn’t waste any time trying to get to know the 19 year-old hopeful, and the two were soon an item, and sooner married. Gardner was quite naive when she arrived in California, and although the two were mad for one another, she was blind to his non-stop womanizing, even, ostensibly, after being warned by his own mother.

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Mickey Rooney and Ava

“I still didn’t know that he was the biggest wolf on the lot. He was catnip to the ladies. He knew it, too. The little sod was not above admiring himself in the mirror. All five foot two of him! He probably banged most of the starlets who appeared in his Andy Hardy films — Lana Turner among them. She called him ‘Andy Hard-on.’ Can we say that — ‘Andy Hard-on?'”

“I don’t see why not,” I said. “It’s a funny line.”

Practically as soon as she had signed her divorce papers, tycoon Howard Hughes was auditioning her for the role of his next lover. Their affair lasted many years, but she didn’t love him enough to marry him, and soon fell for band leader and clarinetist Artie Shaw, which would result in another very short-term marriage. Rooney ignored her and constantly ran around with other girls, while Shaw put her down and tried to make her feel inferior. Gardner definitely had a taste for macho men, as she also had romances with famous bullfighters and Hollywood co-stars Robert Mitchum, and later George C. Scott, who purportedly knocked her around. But she found her match in Frank Sinatra, who may have been waiting in the wings all along:

“I was with Mickey in the studio commissary. We had just gotten married. Frank came over to our table — Jesus, he was like a god in those days, if gods can be sexy. A cocky god, he reeked of sex — he said something banal, like: ‘If I had seen you first, honey, I’d have married you myself.’ I paid no attention to that. I knew he was married. He had a kid, fahcrissake!”

Most of the fun in Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations comes from the sense that the reader is hearing Gardner talk to Evans in her actual voice. But sometimes the Southern drawl and epithets seem to be poured on a little too thick. Ava admonishes her would-be ghostwriter after reading a sample chapter, “Does she have to curse so much?” If Gardner did indeed speak this way, every other sentence punctuated with “fahcrissakes,” she held onto her Rat Pack parlance until the end.

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Frank Sinatra and Ava

What also comes through in this short and fast read is an inescapable sadness. Beauty and fame don’t last, which Gardner was intelligent enough to be aware of, but her strokes also robbed her of her physicality, as she describes how she used to enjoy sports like tennis and swimming. She seems to always be alone, calling Evans in the middle of the night, with a tumbler full of wine or liquor in hand, reliving some of her past exploits. There is not just a ghostwriter, but ghosts everywhere, as she laments the passing of friends and mentors like John Huston and “Papa” Hemingway, and morbidly begins to dwell on death, which she fears and believes is soon coming for her. Gardner died of pneumonia in 1990.

Perhaps most poignantly, Gardner resents that the book must focus on her “mistakes,” her broken relationships, which Evans is constantly prodding her to talk about. Ava wants a book, but her way. “Why can’t we settle for what I pretend to remember? You can make it up, can’t you? The publicity guys at Metro did it all the time.” Maybe that isn’t just a question from a Hollywood actress past her prime. Don’t we all tend to remember things the way we want to and not the way they were? Evans never got his memoir, but Gardner did get to tell it like it may or may not have been, soon after ditching this project, in Ava: My Story. Apparently Sinatra had no objection to that.

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Originally published on Blogcritics: Book Review: ‘Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations,’ by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner