In Pages from the Arts we review books on the subjects of what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, who has retired from the Dallas Public Library and is now based in Urbana, Ill.
In this edition of Pages from the Arts, we review new biographies of Carrie Fisher and Patty Duke, two actresses who worked in film, TV and onstage, and have more than a few things in common.
Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge
By Sheila Weller
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019
When Carrie Fisher died unexpectedly in 2016 at age 60, I felt my usual frisson of sorrow per any celebrity death but nothing especially deep: I certainly knew of her and her accomplishments, but I had not personally experienced her talents directly in any real way. But then, the following year, a friend recommended I watch her one-woman stage show Wishful Drinking on DVD: it had been recorded live for cable at one point. And so I did — and barely stopped laughing for 90 minutes straight. “She’s brilliant,” I said to myself. Yes, she was.
Sheila Weller’s thorough and lively biography pays tribute to a versatile, multi-talented woman whose premature death stunned the entertainment world and saddened multitudes. Fisher was not only an iconic actress immortalized for all time as Star War’s Princess Leia, but she was also an immensely gifted wit and wordsmith who in time became the celebrated writer she had always dreamed about for herself. And thanks to 1950s show business parent icons Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher (and family friend Liz Taylor, ha ha), she was also a bona fide member of Old Hollywood Royalty: a heady combination. Her personal challenges proved plentiful, but she survived and brought incalculable joy to many, strangers and intimates alike.
All her life, Carrie Fisher was a genuine wit, with caustic humor and cutting observations falling from her mouth like water from a faucet. This secondary talent didn’t find much room to flourish on celluloid, so she eventually turned to writing, with her first novel, 1987’s Postcards From The Edge, the tale of a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship (a concept with which the author was well acquainted), a commercial success and the basis for the hit movie. The opuses just kept coming — Surrender the Pink (1990) and other novels, plus memoirs Wishful Drinking (2008), Shockaholic (2011), and The Princess Diarist (2016) — while Fisher continued her acting career and embarked on relationships both marital (Paul Simon) and more casual. After some years, it could be argued that her writing persona began to overshadow her acting accomplishments, and she was even enlisted to “script doctor” on occasions — to punch up a film’s humor level where necessary. Her contributions in this latter area became one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets.
However, hardships also arose, including drug addiction and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. But with aplomb and characteristic self-deprecating humor, Fisher incorporated her struggles with mental illness, menopause, overweight, and other challenges into her public persona: there seemed no other alternative for her. She was one of the first celebrities to embrace mental health as a topic of wide-ranging, no-holds-barred discussion.
Her unmarried relationship with Bryan Lourd produced Fisher’s only child, daughter Billie, born in 1992. Billie immediately became the true love of her life, and motherhood an anchor of sustenance for her various ongoing demons. But Weller also details Fisher’s relationships with force-of-nature mother Debbie and particularly with 1950s matinee idol father Eddie, whose post-Debbie and post-Liz years were less than stellar. To the end of his days, daughter Fisher was more attentive and caring towards him than some might have expected, considering the circumstances surrounding his early departure from her life.
And that brings us to the other undeniable fact about Carrie Fisher — she made and retained friends for life, as her loyalty knew no bounds. This theme permeates the entire book: Fisher’s personal generosity to those she cared about was legendary. She demonstrated devotion to her “circle” in numerous ways, including lavish gift purchases, places to stay as needed, and constant presence in her friends’ daily lives. As a result, news of her untimely death hit Hollywood hard, and the sense of loss among the celebrity set (and others) was profound and genuine. The author paints a moving portrait of Fisher’s 24/7 devotion to her “posse,” no matter what other demons manifested themselves in Fisher’s life.
Sheila Weller offers us a well-written, engrossing look at a woman we may have thought we “knew,” but probably not from top to toe. Thanks to her efforts, we witness a fascinating life well lived, by a woman immensely loved.
In the Presence of Greatness: My Sixty-Year Journey as an Actress
By Patty Duke and William J. Jankowski
On March 29, 2016, upon hearing that Anna Pearce had died, I cried. “Anna Pearce” was the preferred name by which she was legally and personally known to family, friends, and the fellow citizens of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and surrounding areas. But to those millions of fans, like myself, who cherished all she had accomplished and represented in her eventful 69-year life, she was the legendary Patty Duke.
Duke was a lifelong touchstone for me, beginning with, at age 16, her 1962 Supporting Actress Oscar-winning turn as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, one of the greatest film performances of all time, in my opinion, and continuing with her mid-60s network TV series, The Patty Duke Show. Additional big-screen and television movies followed, along with a few Emmy Awards, albeit with some notoriety in the mix (e.g. 1967’s Valley of the Dolls). Her personal life was troubled and tumultuous with a damaging childhood, multiple marriages and fleeting relationships until she married the love of her life, drill sergeant Michael Pearce, in 1986. In 1982, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but thanks to lithium, eventually found her way back to normalcy and fulfillment, as, in later years, she raised her family and devoted herself to both performing and activism on behalf of mental health. I followed her through it all, secure in the certainty that, Patty Duke would always remind us she was one of the finest actors of our time.
Patty Duke the author also shared her life experiences with readers over the years in a series of memoirs including Call Me Anna (1987), and A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness (1992). But in the years immediately preceding her final illness, she also collaborated with William Jankowski on a collection of reminiscences solely about her long and prolific career. After her untimely death, Jankowski continued working with the material Duke had already written, and posthumously produced this book in 2018. We can all be grateful for his efforts.
Patty Duke worked with an enormous number of stellar actors, directors, and producers during her decades in the spotlight, and she pays frank yet loving tribute to many of them via her brief but substantial vignettes. Anne Bancroft, her co-star in both the stage and film versions of The Miracle Worker, was a particular friend and mentor to the young actress, but many others left their mark on Duke’s personal and professional lives.
To name but a mere few, she pays homage to Judy Garland, Lee Grant, Al Freeman Jr, Susan Hayward, Lucille Ball, Fred Astaire, Liza Minnelli, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Kim Stanley, Margaret Hamilton, Elizabeth Montgomery, Patricia Neal, Martin Balsam, Jerry Lewis, Jacqueline Susann, James Farentino, Martin Sheen, Richard Crenna, and many others.
Duke also discusses each television series she tackled post-The Patty Duke Show, and nearly every small-screen semi-potboiler or gold-star film production in which she appeared: some of the latter narratives become a smidge tedious at times, but all of her entries offer insights into her versatility and strong work ethic, and the integrity and professionalism she brought to every project. Duke garnered 10 Emmy Award nominations along the way, with several victories: she declares the award of which she was proudest was for a 1980 TV revival of The Miracle Worker, in which, in a reversal, she portrayed Anne Sullivan opposite Melissa Gilbert as Helen. This may have seemed a bit of gimmick casting at the time, but it resulted in yet another showcase of Duke’s magic.
This book also includes some of the best photographs of Duke I’ve ever seen, encompassing both her acting and personal lives. This title is a must for anyone whose life she touched via the big or small screen.
Patty Duke was a remarkable woman, a survivor in all senses of the word. She brought dedication, enthusiasm and great talent to her chosen profession, yet also used her celebrity standing to benefit others facing struggles similar to hers. In her latter years, spent mainly in Idaho, she was a devoted grandmother and an active member of her community while still a proud member of the acting profession and, clearly, a living repository of many rich memories.
As per this book’s subtitle: I have loved and admired Patty Duke for nearly “60 years” myself. Anna Pearce will always be with me, and fortunately, we are all now in the presence of her greatness, indeed.
PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS
- February: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey's autobiography, Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
- March: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
- April: Two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; a story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and gorgeous book (and CD) for musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
- May: A book about Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, a portrait of how Venezuela's El Sistema became a model for publicy funded music education, and a biography of the late comedian Joan Rivers.
- June: Three memoirs from classical musicians: Andrea Avery's Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano; Min Kym's Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung; and Marcia Butler's The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir.
- July: Dominic Dromgoole's chronicle of taking the Globe Theatre's Hamlet to nearly 200 countries; a new biography of dance/choreoraphy legend Gene Kelly; and the script of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.
- August: Biographies Sam Sephard and stage and screen actress Teresa Wright; and the script of David-Lindsay Abaire's Ripcord.
- September: A biography of Sarah Vaughan, an informative journey through theatrical history, and the scrip of Martyna Majok's play Ironbound
- October: A biography of choreographer Katherine Dunham, a new book by acclaimed set designer David Hays, and the script of the play Application Pending
- November: A biography of singer Julie London, a history of the stand-up comedy club The Improv, and a look at Annie Baker's 2016 play John.
- December: Memoirs by jazz musician Fred Hersch and coloratura soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick, and a biography of turn-of-the-20th-century actor M.B. Curtis.
- January: Biographies of acclaimed and award-winning actress Anne Bancroft, quixotic pianist Glenn Gould, plus the scripts of Lucas Hnath's Hillary and Clinton, and Quiara Alegría Hudes' Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue.
- February: A memoir by director/producer Harold Prince; an introduction to classical music by Jan Swafford; Rick Elice's love letter to the late Roger Rees; Jenna Fischer's survival book for actors; and the script of Marco Ramirez's The Royale.
- March: John Mauceri on the art of conducting, a memoir by ballet great David Hallberg, a memoir by British actor Tim Pigott-Smith, an interesting look at Paul Robeson, and the script of Rebecca Gilman's Luna Gale.
- April: Biographies of Sophie Tucker and Richard Wagner, and Nicholas Hytner's memoir of his time at the National Theatre of London.
- May: A tome about Angels in America, a memoir about music as therapist, and Paula Vogel's Indecent.
- June: memoirs from actress Christine Lahti and Leonard Bernstein's personal assistant; Martyna Majok's Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living.
- July: A biography of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a memoir from polio-stricken pianist Carol Rosenberger, and Robert Askin's Hand to God.
- August: A new biography of Bob Fosse, a primer on how to watch ballet, and the definitive Broadway plays and musicals.
- September: A memoir from Andrew Lloyd Webber; a lesson from Leslie Odom, Jr.; and Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2.
- October: A memoir from Sally Field; and the rivalry between Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse
- November: A memoir from director Kenny Leon, an easy guide to jazz, and Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin.
- December: A new biography of Jerome Robbins, an ode to the art of opera, and the script of The Band's Visit.
- February: A book about the past and future of the New York City Opera; the script to Will Power's Fetch Clay, Make Man
- March to October: On hiatus
- November/December: A memoir by Dallas arts philanthropist Donna Wilhelm, trailblazing women of comedy, a rembrance of Woodstock, and the script of Elise Forier Edie's The Pink Unicorn.
- January/February Chicago-based theater critic Karen Topham reviews P. Carl's Becoming a Man; and Cathy Ritchie reviews new biographies of actress Elaine Stritch and blues-rocker Janis Joplin, and a detailed look at a great American story-song.
- March/April: a new memoir from actor Gary Sinise, a biography of Ray Bolger, and a guide to Sci-Fi cinema.