Ever since I was a kid I’ve been drawn to the arts—most of them, anyway. At one time or another, I’ve fantasized a career as a
- movie director,
- TV producer
Unfortunately, the only career I was ever able to make a living at was as a professional musician (Well, maybe a little as a writer, but not the way I’d imagined). No matter, though: I lived out my dreams vicariously, through biographies and autobiographies. What follows are three autobiographies that had the strongest impact on me and informed me as the person I am today.
Act One: An Autobiography By Moss Hart (1959).
Act One by Moss Hart
The name Moss Hart might not be familiar to most of you reading this today, but during the ’30s and ’40, the playwriting team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart was as well known as Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of South Park) are in the naughts. Together, the two of them wrote Broadway hit comedies that are still performed today, such as You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came To Dinner, and George Washington Slept Here.
In Act One Mr. Hart tells the story of his early life in best-seller fashion: from his impoverished Manhattan childhood to his discovery of live theater and the lure of Broadway to his apprenticeship as social director at myriad summer resorts to his initial attempts at writing plays and his first meeting with Mr. Kaufman—in prose that is infused with an unabashed affection for all things theatrical and free of any artifice—and ends as the pair’s first collaboration, Once In A Lifetime, opens to rave reviews on Broadway.
Interspersed with Mr. Hart’s own story are tasty vignettes of the period: The Algonquin Round Table, summers in the Catskills, the rewards of Little Theater—but most of all, the story of man who never lost his passion and his dream.
It was this book, above all other things, that provided me a sense of optimism, a passion for art, and a love of live theater that continues to this day.
Papa John (1987
Cover of Papa John
If Moss Hart’s story represents a dream realized, Papa John, this autobiography of the John Phillips—founder of The Mamas & The Papas—is a nightmare of sex, dysfunction, and addiction. In a tale laden with 60s excesses Mr. Philips chronicles his ascension from Greenwich Village folksinger to his gathering the the rest of the group members forming them and directing them to the apex of their critical and commercial success—followed by his downward plunge (spiral is too moderate a term) into drugs and attempts at rehab, all the time dragging with him the other members as well as those with whom he came into contact.
Although Phillips tries to paint a sympathetic self-portrait, he fails and the sense of entitlement that informed him, both personally and artistically until his death, shines strongly though.
Although I admired John Phillips as an artist, Papa John provided me as good an explanation as any as to why I’d always been uncomfortable watching him perform.
Yes, I Can: The Autobiography of Sammy Davis, Jr. (1965)
Yes, I Can Cover
The life of Sammy Davis, Jr. could have been that of any Black man growing up in the 40 and 50s, except for his exceptional talent as a singer, dancer, and all-round entertainer.
Yes, I Can, opens as Mr. Davis is in a car wreck and, fearing an impending death, reflects upon his life from a childhood as the youngest member of his parents’ vaudeville act, through his success and discovery in his teens and early 20s, his marriage to Swedish actress, May Britt (then considered
- Mrs. Sammy Davis, Jr.
misogyny), his friendships with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and eventual induction into the Rat Pack of the 1960s.
Through Mr. Davis’s recollections, we learn the reasons (and accompanying tribulations) behind his conversion to Judaism, his self-doubts, the racism he encountered in the Deep South, the loss of one eye, and finally his triumphs as a world-class entertainer.
Yes, I Can is an easy read and many will find it inspirational if not illuminating. As such, it reads as easily as a summer beach novel.
These three autobiographies—along with one other that will have to wait—are pleasant diversions, yet still offer—if not a glimpse, then a peak—into lives that are different from most of our own.
Image Credits: Respective publishers.