ONE OF LIFE's lamentable truths is that remarkable people who have led remarkable lives do not often write remarkable memoirs; consider, by way of proof, the dreary procession of autobiographies by presidents, statesmen and generals. By way of further proof, consider A Private View, the memoirs of the woman who was the daughter of Louis B. Mayer, the wife of David O. Selznick and--after, against all the odds of her time and place, she went out on her own--the producer of a string of Broadway hits that included A Streetcar Named Desire and Bell, Book and Candle. It is a unique, fascinating story that touches on deeper matters than the machinations and gossip of show business; it is the raw material for a unique, fascinating book that, alas, A Private View falls considerably short of being.
This has nothing to do with Irene Mayer Selznick's age; it's abundantly clear that now, well into her eighties, she has more marbles than most of the rest of us can ever hope to accumulate, and has each of them in place. Nor has it anything to do with intelligence, perceptivity or wit; it is clear that Irene Selznick possesses all of these precious assets in generous quantities. Rather, it is that A Private View is a failure of the imagination. The successful memoirist is the one who transforms life into art--who, by sifting through the raw material of that life and selecting those aspects of it that in the memoirist's view are most revealing, gives it more coherence and meaning than it actually had. The best memoirist is not an autobiographer at all, but a storyteller.
This Irene Selznick is not. A Private View is in many ways a bright and gritty book, but it is not a discriminating one. Its author is under the mistaken impression that everything in her life is of equal interest, and thus assigns equal weight to everything; tiresome and meaningless anecdotes from childhood are given as much space (and thus importance) as such crucial matters as her separation and divorce from Selznick and her long friendship with Katharine Hepburn. A Private View is a book that I had very much wanted to read and fully expected to admire, but its lack of a clear narrative focus and its dogged attention to trivia finally put me off; the book is not as good as the story it attempts to tell.
Imagine yourself born in the first year of the new century to Jewish parents whose own parents had immigrated to the new world from small towns on the Russian-Polish border. Imagine yourself transported as a girl from Massachusetts to California, the American wonderland, and imagine your father soon becoming a rich, famous and powerful prince of the wonderland's new wonder, the movies. Imagine stars not in your eyes but in your living room. Then imagine yourself married, after a long and ebullient courtship, to a man of inexhaustible energy and imagination who would soon produce what still remains, if not the greatest of American movies, certainly the most legendary, Gone With the Wind. Imagine yourself at last fatigued by his wild unpredictability, and escaping it into a wholly unexpected career that permits you to say to the world, as you enter your sixth decade, that the glow in which you bask is not your father's or your husband's, but your own. And imagine yourself at the end, in your "golden" years, a person of respect and renown who can say with absolute confidence: "What could be a better life?"
If you can imagine all of that--and the mere thought of it nearly takes the breath away--then you can imagine the story of Irene Mayer Selznick. Not only has she lived an American dream--she is, as she says, "a child of Hollywood"--but she has lived it fully and well. It is true that for virtually all of her life she has been quite outrageously pampered, waited on, catered to, buttered up, and that she seems not to have any idea of or interest in life as ordinary people live it. Yet it is also true that she has used her good fortune wisely and responsibly; she has been innocent of undue extravagance or garish display, and she has been a quiet but vigorous voice for quality in the movies and the theater.
No matter how awkwardly she tells them, there are wonderful stories here. The best of all is that of her marriage to Selznick. He was a "poet and promoter" who "didn't wish to be bound by anything beyond marriage vows and copyright laws," and she was "methodical, disciplined and organized." He lured her away from the rigid patriarchy of the Mayer household and taught her "what fun it was to be grown-up." The trouble was, "I didn't know that I'd been grown-up for some time and that David was never going to be." That the marriage lasted a decade and a half is something of a miracle; yet they were bound not merely by love but by deep mutual respect--hers for his talent, which bordered on genius, his for her judgment and taste. Their divorce was necessary, especially for her, but their affection remained strong until his death in 1964. Two decades later, writing about the early days of their courtship, she pays him a lovely tribute:
"He was quite uninhibited and, by way of understatement, he was articulate. The words poured out: anecdotes, reminiscences, opinions, fresh ideas, punctuated by witticisms and some fairly profound observations. Marvellous talk just for an audience of one. I was overawed by his erudition and bewailed my lack of education. He claimed there were a lot of educated fools, it was more important to think. He didn't tell me what to think, he caused me to think. He not only made me talk, he made me talk about what I thought. His candor shamed me into not weighing my words. With him I found my tongue, and everything unsaid throughout theeyears came out, the backlog of a lifetime. I don't know how there was time, because he was talking so much himself. The counter-stimulation was enormous. There seemed to be layers and layers, an infinite peeling. No evening was ever long enough. We each had found the perfect audience. That was fatal."
The portrait that Irene Selznick paints of her former husband is admiring but unsentimental; her attitude is exasperated but forgiving, and above all it is fair. It is the fullest of many portraits in this book, but there are other good ones: her father, domineering and bullying, but adoring and, at unexpected moments, supportive; her sister, Edie, whose "artistic ambitions were replaced by social aspirations" and for whom "entertaining became her career"; John Hay Whitney, for many years Selznick's best friend, who "came like an unexpected gift and gave pleasure and affection and fulfillment to David's dreams"; Elia Kazan, her director for Streetcar, with whom she had a professional relationship that gradually shifted from open hostility to a certain warmth and wary trust.
Early in that relationship, when matters were especially tense, she told Kazan: "I've survived Louis B. Mayer and I've survived David O. Selznick. It's no use. You better lay off." She still likes to think of herself as a survivor, and in some respects she still undervalues herself. At one point she claims that "the only talent I had was for being a wife," and at another that "the only real talent I ever had was in my fingers," which "had many a healing to their credit." But there has been much more to her life than marriage and mothering, as is made plain by the evidence in A Private View; if she does not present that evidence with the artistry it deserves, it nonetheless must be regarded with respect and admiration.