Memories of a Rich
And Imperfect Life
By Slim Keith with Annette Tapert
Simon and Schuster. 319 pp. $22.95
LADY NANCY KEITH -- Slim to all who knew her and now to many who didn't -- died recently as this autre-biography was making its way through the publishing process. Born in California in 1917, a woman of beauty, intelligence, energy and charm, she appealed to men most of us see only on the Late Show (Clark Gable comes first to mind) and had friendships with Capote and Hemingway, among others, during and between marriages to movie director Howard Hawks, agent-producer Leland Hayward and the English mogul who gave her the name Lady Keith. She proposed Lauren Bacall, a Vogue cover model, when Hawks was looking for someone not unlike herself to play the wittily seductive lead in "To Have and Have Not." She had a daughter by Hawks, and seems to have been a dutiful-to-affectionate stepmother to Hayward's three children by his first wife, Margaret Sullavan, and to Keith's son and daughter, as well.
One of the many charms Slim held for the famous men who admired her was that she lacked professional ambition of any kind, even the ambition to be an actress. One can only speculate on the number of editors over the years who must have urged her to write her memoirs. The admiration she still elicited in her seventies would turn to fascination as Slim described how Gable courted her after the death of Lombard, or the way Hemingway used her as the threatening third side of a triangle that felt more comfortable to him than plain old marriage. Perhaps she would even describe her feelings about Capote after he crucified her, or someone answering to her description, as Lady Ina Coolbirth in the vicious little piece he called Answered Prayers.
Slim is an easy read, full of pleasant pictures of interesting and/or beautiful people, not weighed down by the sort of keen insight or unpleasant detail that might have made it heavy going for the reader. She tells us she's had some therapy, but seldom allows herself speculation of a psychological nature. One has the feeling that she isn't telling any lies but neither is she about to let her good brain browse in public among discomfiting truths. I put down the book with admiration for her sense of privacy, curiosity about what persuaded her to tamper with it even to this extent, and regret that having gone this far, she did not wish to speculate further on statements like the following:
"I've never been kept, ever." By this she appears to mean that she was married to the men who kept her.
"I was homesick for a little child I didn't even know. And I was feeling silly. What on earth was I doing, running to every port of call like a sailor on a spree? Despite Howard's lack of interest in his wife and child, it was my duty to go home and behave like a real parent." It sounds reasonable, except that her daughter was two months old and the question deserves a better answer than it ever gets. Slim was apparently in the grips of a severe post-partum depression that did not allow her to stay home with a needy infant and an unloving husband and she never does more than skate over the surface of this sad and complicated situation.
"I wasn't the sort of woman who had a group of card-playing girlfriends to help take the edge off the lonely nights. I preferred to do things that soothed and satisfied me -- a lot of needlework got finished in those years. I'd work in my garden, or can fruit, or make hams out of my own pigs. I'd ride or I'd go to the skeet range and shoot skeet . . . It never occurred to me that I might have more to give someone or that there might be someone out there who could offer me real love and companionship and an intellectual foundation in which we were better matched."
This was written about marriage to Hawks and not about life with Hayward, who appreciated her and whom she claims to have adored and admired throughout their marriage, though she says elsewhere that they had rocky times and that she did a good deal of solo traveling. They desperately wanted to have children together and she conceived but had "several miscarriages." It does not seem to have occurred to Keith at any point that she might have "more" to give herself as well as her mate, and that this "more" might have been work outside the home. In the 19th century, a woman could easily fill a short life with domestic activities, but in this time and place something more is required for the post-child-bearing years.
I assume I'm more distracted by questions of ownership and style -- that is, of whether Keith or Tapert authored the occasional interesting line or phrase -- than the non-writing reader would be. That reader might feel a certain flatness to the book, however -- experience a sense of disappointed expectation. We believe this appealing woman when she tells us how Hawks noted her jibes for use in the script of "To Have and Have Not." But her sense of privacy, her general decency -- and perhaps a couple of libel lawyers -- have insured that Hawks and Capote, both dead, are the only people in the book whose character and behavior are held up to a penetrating light. More of Keith's wit and less of her (or whoever's) politesse would have made this a more interesting book. Judith Rossner is the author of eight novels, including "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" and, most recently, "His Little Women."