PETER USTINOV and Joyce Grenfell have both written their autobiographies - Ustinov's is Dear Me, published by Little, Brown, and Mrs. Grenfell's is Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure, published by St. Martin's Press.And, although I met them separately, and I found them to be very different people, very different writers. They share a deep sense of the absurd that makes an hour spent in either's presence the high point of any day. Ustinov's forte is the absurdity of life, while Grenfell's is the absurdities in life, which is what makes the chief difference between them.
You may be wondering who Joyce Grenfell is, especially if you are younger than I am. I fell in love with her first in 1951, on my maiden voyage to London, when I saw her in a revue called "Penny Plain." She is one of the funniest women in the world, as anybody who ever saw her "Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure" revue here in the U.S. in the mid-1950s can testify. Or perhaps you remember her as the knock-kneed toothy police woman games mistress in the "St. Trinian's" series of films. Or as Julie Andrews's mother in The Americanization of Emily, a film that deserved more attention than it received. Toothy and leggy and awkward as Joyce Grenfell can make herself appear, she is actually quite beautiful in the English style, although her mother was an American.
Ustinov is world-famous: Grenfell's celebrity is restricted to a smaller circle. Ustinov was off the first leg of a first-class author tour - major guest appearances on the top-rated shows. Grenfell was here to appear before the English-Speaking Union. Ustinov's book has had three printings before publication, a total of some 70,000 before publication. Grenfell's has not. And yet, and yet, they have so much in common.
They have played together twice. Once on a BBC show recorded here, once many years ago, at the outset of both careers, in a long-forgotten revue called "Diversions." Once, when Joyce Grenfell was singing to the troops in a military hospital, she was stopped in mid-note by a cherubic Ustinov, peering at her in solemn and mischievous silence from a hospital bed.
Both authors admit to a fascination with their childhoods. "Everyone loves reading about a childhood, and if you had an amusing one, and an affectionate one, and one you enjoyed, it's very easy to write about." So says Joyce Grenfell, daughter of a southern belle, whose grandmother was painted by John Singer Sargent, and two of whose aunts made celebrated marriages. Aunt Irene married Charles Dana Gibson, and as for Aunt Nancy, imagine being the niece of Lady Astor! Summers at Cliveden, with the likes of George Bernard Shaw munching lettuce at the end of the long dining table. An Upstairs-Downstairs childhood, filled with the warm golden memories of tea served on the August lawn. Love and happiness, affection and approval, mark Joyce Grenfell's childhood, and carry into her marriage, which was lasted thus far some 48 years, and will probably last some 48 more.
Ustinov's childhood was a horror. Born in England, he was nevertheless fat and foreign and Not Good at Games - the son of a creative Russian mother and a bombastic German-Russian father, known as "Klop," who affected a monocle and was fond of instructing Peter's mother on exactly what to paint, although it was she whose work hung in museums; nothing Klop's manufacture survived except Peter. And Peter's survival was miraculous. As he himself says, "The first 10 or 15 years of my life really intrigued me more, because they seem further away, and because there was no guarantee I'd come through it the way I did. Remembering my childhood that way, in individual anecdotes, you string them together and you suddenly get a landscape; it's really quite frightening."
Humor is the survival mechanism; humor is the underlying quality in both these very serious persons - humor and the deep belief that individual happiness or liberty depends upon a sense of order, or boundaries set. Grenfell quotes, "Joy does not happen, it is the inevitable result of certain rules followed, of laws obeyed." Peter Ustinov states, "You're in the prison of your own mind, in any case. Once you accept that, it's up to you to furnish kit properly. The only liberty comes out of order, to my mind, and out of an acceptance of certain restrictions. Which means that you know what liberty's about, because you're always up against this thing. Once, in a surly mood, I described American democracy as exemplified by a man who's sitting on his own front porch in pajamas, drinking a can of beer and shouting to the passer-by, 'Where else is this possible?'"
Both Grenfell and Ustinov are working on a second volume, and each of them states that the second volume will be different from the first, in style as well as content. Neither wishes to continue doing the same thing the next time around. For each, life seems to be joyful; there is freedom that comes with no more money worries, and the simplification process that comes with middle years.
"Your tastes are simpler," says Joyce Grenfell, "you bring more to life, but to fewer things. Your enthusiasms are sharper. Reading, friendship, nature." Mr. Ustinov enjoys his work for UNICEF and UNESCO; it is obvious that he hardly ever thinks of himself as an actor, although films, and not his plays or novels or even his autobiography, are what has brought him his greatest celebrity. Too, he enjoys teaching, and writing. And talking. They both love to talk, lapsing often into the funny dialects they each do so well. It was a day spent bathing in bubble baths of melifluity, a day with a gentleman and a lady. One thanks heaven that it happens so seldom, or how could one otherwise bear the daily drudgery of one's own life?