IN 1954, when Susan Strasberg was barely 15, she was cast as a girl of her own age in a movie, The Cobweb, that I was producing and Vincente Minnelli was directing for MGM. (We had hoped to team her, as one of a pair of young lovers, with James Dean, but sordid studio squabbles over money prevented that.) Closely watched by her mother, she gave a sensitive, controlled performance in a highly emotional role.
In her book, Susan has recorded her own stormy life with that same sensitivity and reserve. Born of driven, power-hungry parents, growing up in a home that, in her own words, was often little more than a theatrical workshop, she achieved great early success. The price she paid was heavy: a fractured career and a painfully disturbed personal life. She writes about all that intimately and convincingly, with something of that childish sophistication that has been her particular quality as an actress.
For my part, I wish she had told us a little more about her professional life and about her acting experiences, but what she has chosen to write is, mainly, a personal story. Her account of her marriage during the drug years is honest and horrifying. Yet the truest and most disturbing parts of her book are not those that deal with her intense and varied amours but those that concern her relationship with her father and mother -- Lee and Paula Strasberg. Through that emotional mine field she walks clear-eyed, loving but unsentimental, free of rancor and surprisingly perceptive in her account of the intense passions (wallowed in by Paula, repressed by Lee) that permeated a household in which the main drive, for so many years, was the promotion of Lee's career and the protection and nurturing of his so concentrated and quirky ego.
Overall, Susan Strasberg reveals her father as a tense but vulnerable and touching figure. There are two moments in her book that I found particularly moving: one is Lee's reaction (he whose whole life was spent analyzing, needling and developing actors) to his daughter's first flashing triumph in the theater. On the night she opened in The Diary of Anne Frank her father said to her, "You know, through you, I feel I touch the world," and Susan "shuddered with the burden of his admiration."
The other took place years later -- on another opening night. For reasons that are easy to understand, Susan Strasberg's performance (with Helen Hayes and Richard Burton) in Anouilh's Time Remembered was less free and far less effective than her deeply subjective interpretation of Anne Frank. On opening night she was particularly tense and muted. When Lee and Paula made their way, backstage after the performance, Susan pushed through the crowd in her dressing room to greet them. She hugged her father and reached out to kiss her mother.
"Don't touch me," said her mother. "You were awful! Terrible, How could you do that to me? . . . After all these years, all I've done for you, how could you be so terrible?"
Later Susan was told by a friend that what had impelled her mother to turn so violently against her was that "just before they went backstage, your father turned to Paula and said accusingly, 'You let her do that performance?'"
Like all theatrical memoirs, this one is crammed with fancy names, but that is not what makes it worth reading. Here is yet another fascinating, individual variation on the mystery that Henry James, among others, tried to unravel in The Tragic Muse: the emotional workings of a young actress -- in this case the daughter of the most celebrated acting teacher of his time.
An altogether different and far less alluring kettle of fish is offered us in Cindy Adams' Lee Strasberg, which is vilely written and represents the thrashing effort of a theatrical voyeuse to deal with the life and work of a serious and controversial theatrical figure. After variously describing the subject of her biography as "the imperfect genius of the Actors Studio," the ultimate shrink who can harness the vagaries of an actor's schizophrenia," and "an endless ocean of specialized knowledge . . . if you stuck him with a pin, knowledge poured out," she assures us that a young actress coming to the Actors Studio (one of the "beautiful, nubile maids sniffing after Lee") "sees a little man pinpoint her problems and it's as though someone had cleaved her open and poured in liquid light and gold."
Aside from such gibberish the entire book is written in the dialectic or "adversary" style of alternating adulation and insult. Each expression of appreciation and respect is matched by one of contempt of malice. Lee, Paula, the children and his new wife, Anna -- they are all subjected to a barrage of unweighed and unfocused quotations from sundry informants who "sniff," "erupt," "reportedly tell," "supposedly admit" and "speak only if assured anonymity."
Adams is an assiduous scavenger, and among her copious chaff some future historian may find some useful grains for a more creative and balanced appraisal of this important man of the theater. But a biographer's function goes beyond research. It is his (or her) duty, after unearthing all available facts and opinions, prejudices and personal feelings, to digest this material until it falls into some sort of informed perspective from which the subject may be objectively observed and judged. This requires a certain knowledge of the subject that seems to be missing from Adams' equipment. A valid estimate of Lee Strasberg's controversial role in the contemporary theater can hardly be expected from a writer who, in her first chapter, describes him as having "declared war on measured movements, conventional phrasings, drawing-room diction and pumpous, stentorian actors who twirled and postured and courted applause after a climax by bowing in the middle of a speech in the middle of stage in the middle of the show. Before the Stanislavsky/Strasberg axis this was the classic commercial theater."
This -- of a theater which, at the time Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman entered it, had recently harbored What Price Glory, The Front Page; O'Neill, Sidney Howard, the Lunts, Jed Harris, George Kaufman, Robert Edmond Jones, George Kelly, Walter Huston, Lee Tracy, Laurette Taylor, etcetera, etcetera -- not to mention the work of Eva Le Gallienne and the classical and modern productions of Arthur Hopkins. By setting up such a fallacious straw man for her champion to tilt at she does him no favor and distorts the situation.
A number of Adams' facts and interpretations are questionable. (For example, her account of the group schism which culminated in the exclusion of Lee Strasberg from the production of Awake and Sing was, to my personal knowledge, the result of a frustrated actors' revolt and not, as she avers, a political action.) But these errors of fact are not my principal complaint. What angers me is that by making Lee Strasberg, his family and his associates the subjects of such loose gossip and unconsidered opinions she obscures his true quality and the real significance of his professional work.
On the subject of her book (to which he apparently neither consented nor objected) she quotes Lee Strasberg as follows:
"So, if it's my feeling that this biography is maybe not going to turn out best for me, well, who knows it's not going to turn out. A lot of things do turn out."
But not this one.