A Singular Jourey

By Mel Gussow

Simon & Schuster.

448 pp. $30

Reviewed by John Simon

It is hard to write the biography of a living person. Death bestows the final contours on life; distance helps critical perspective. And the dead cannot haunt their biographers nearly as well as the living can. Harder yet if the subject is a writer, whose achievements are not as readily measurable as those of a scientist, tycoon or athlete. And how easy for the biographer to become so enamored of his subject as to incur the wrath of the unconverted, or become too critical and lose the collaboration of the biographee. Mel Gussow is to be commended: His Edward Albee: A Singular Journey traverses this booby-trapped terrain without egregious sacrifices of either credibility or tact.

The former New York Times second-string drama critic, Gussow was not promoted when the top post became available; instead, he was shunted to cultural reportage. Either he was considered too soft a critic, or his writing was thought to lack pizazz. Even if true, these are not problems for a biographer, who must warmly empathize with his subject, and whose stylistic bravura might deflect attention from his primary task as -- precisely -- a sort of cultural reporter.

Gussow had the advantage and disadvantage of knowing his subject at close range, having given him many favorable reviews at both Newsweek and the Times, published lengthy profiles of him, and had him as a guest at his house. Such a nexus was necessary to gain access to Albee's private papers, to various friends and lovers, and to the umbrageous playwright himself. On the other hand, hard-nosed criticism of Albee's work is kept at a minimum here. Still, this is an honorable enterprise that avoids adulation, even if it keeps the warts in somewhat softened focus.

Edward Albee was the adopted child of a difficult couple: Reed Albee, the rich heir to the Keith-Albee vaudeville (and later movie-theater) chain, and his towering, formidable wife, Frankie. In the parental role, Reed was remote and ineffectual; Frankie, overambitious and icy. Both were bourgeois Philistines who had bargained for a very different scion -- to fit in with their standard millionaires' lives in New York's suburbia and Palm Beach. As Gussow writes, "Almost from the moment of his arrival in Larchmont, on that hilltop in the arms of his nanny [a strange place for a hilltop], he was deprived -- pampered, but deprived -- starved of affection and treated more as a possession than as a child who needed nurturing."

He did, however, make a few good childhood friends and liked, besides his nanny, Aunt Jane, Frankie's boozy sister (who appears as Claire in "A Delicate Balance"), and especially his live-in grandmother, who surfaced in several of his early plays. Not all of them are published, any more than the fiction and poetry he was also writing from a tender age, as artistic and lonely children will. When Edward could no longer stand the stifling environment, he either bolted or was sent packing. Not, however, before he got himself thrown out of a couple of good schools, then managing to do surprisingly well at the exclusive Choate, thanks mainly to some understanding masters. At Trinity College, though, he lasted only three terms.

An adopted child who never got to meet his birth parents and felt rejected, he turned into a bristling, grudge-bearing person. When, cutting out from home, he could finally stop playing Tom Sawyer and assume his true Huck Finn identity, he headed not for Western territories but for the West Village. Here he eventually set up housekeeping with the gifted but ultimately unproductive, five-and-a-half-years-older composer William Flanagan. "A historic encounter," Gussow calls it. "Something like the meeting of Rimbaud and Verlaine." The lovers immersed themselves in the life of bohemia, with Albee doing odd jobs in the daytime. His favorite was messenger boy for Western Union, which allowed him to meet casually a variety of people and to steal an office typewriter.

W.H. Auden suggested that Albee write pornographic verse; Thornton Wilder advised better -- that he concentrate on drama. Yet it wasn't until age 30 that he had his first hit: "The Zoo Story," a one-acter sharing the bill with Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape," which had to be a smash in Berlin in German to make it to Off Broadway (1960). Albee was lucky enough to acquire a bustling, hustling producer, Richard Barr, and, later, the services of the director Alan Schneider. Even so, it was a long and often frustrating road to Broadway with his masterpiece, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1962), though along the way there were scattered minor successes.

The history of "Virginia Woolf" -- its title derived from a graffito seen years before on a bedroom mirror -- spans many obstacles and delays. The work is an answer to "The Iceman Cometh" (O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet were prime early influences); as Albee bluntly put it, "O'Neill says you have to have false illusions. Virginia Woolf says get rid of them." The play owed much of its success to the cleverly bitchy, obscenity-studded dialogue in which a husband and wife have at each other. In a toned-down version, it also became a hit movie.

For many years thereafter, Albee's career seesawed, more down than up. His numerous original plays or adaptations were mostly flops, at best a succes d'estime. "Tiny Alice," a play Albee no longer cares for, puzzled everyone, including its director, John Gielgud, but Albee never really explained it. "A Delicate Balance" came nearest to making it, but "All Over" and "The Lady From Dubuque" were spectacular fiascos.

Albee's drinking was out of control for years. The director Peter Hall described the sober Albee as "a very daunting personality. He makes a religion out of putting people off." Drunk, he was, in his own words, "a monster." At a party at the Gussows, for instance, he nearly provoked Joe Papp into hitting him.

Gussow chronicles Albee's several domicile-sharing relationships, including the one with the playwright Terrence McNally. But it is not until Albee started living with Jonathan Thomas, a Canadian artist, that he settled down emotionally and alcoholically. Their partnership has lasted over a quarter century. Before it, however, the all-time low was reached with "The Man Who Had Three Arms" (1982), a howl of vengeful self-pity universally decried -- "the play," as Gussow puts it, "Albee had to write and probably never should have written."

For decades, there was no contact between Albee and his mother (Reed had died long before). Finally a gingerly acquaintanceship developed, though Frankie would never permit mention of, let alone discuss, Edward's homosexuality. After her death came Albee's third hit play -- arguably his finest -- "Three Tall Women," which its author has contradictorily termed "a kind of exorcism" and "not a catharsis." It deals -- innovatively and remarkably fairly -- with a woman at three crucial stages of her life, and her relationship to her son, who appears as a mute figure at her deathbed. In reality, things did not end that well. Though Frankie first made Edward her principal heir, a friend's plea to accept her son's sexuality instead made her change her will and disinherit him.

Gussow's biography is full of interesting particulars, amusing and revealing anecdotes and behind-the-scenes goings-on in theater and life. It makes for stimulating reading for anyone even mildly interested in theater and not disturbed by rather frequent grammatical errors. It ends on a happy note: "I found who I was through my plays." "The Zoo Story," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Three Tall Women" are three tall pillars on which Albee's reputation as a playwright of rank securely rests.

John Simon is the theater critic of New York magazine.