The harder they come, the harder they fall: Behind every legendary person is a mortal being, often deeply flawed -- as these biographies and critical studies show.
1899 was quite a year: It saw the birth of Duke Ellington, Ernest Hemingway and, on August 13, Alfred Hitchcock. "North by Northwest," "Vertigo," "Notorious," "The 39 Steps," "Psycho," "The Lady Vanishes": Add your own favorite to the list of Hitchcockian masterpieces.
To honor the centennial of the master of suspense, Da Capo has reissued Donald Spoto's 1983 The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (Da Capo, $20). Every biographer begins by reaffirming the importance of his/her subject, but even so Spoto waxes excessively poetic: Hitchcock "had an uncanny ability to locate and diagnose much of the psychological suffering of the world, much of the delusion and sickness just below the surface of polite society. He spoke to us out of the twentieth century's sense of guilt, angst, and obsession with violence, sex, and the detached machinery of death. Hitchcock was one of the supreme artists of our time, a poet of anxiety and a romantic in spite of himself."
As Hitchcock once said to a starlet who asked him which he considered her best side, "You're sitting on it." Still, Spoto makes a game attempt to get at his man inside and out, beginning with Hitch's Cockney childhood in London's East End; the biography feels thorough and thoughtful, if too much disposed toward psychoanalyzing its subject.
On the other hand, as Spoto tells it, the director did live most of his life as swathed in neuroses as he was in his own famously ample flesh. Hitch moved through life in a miasma of depression and anxiety, a lonely man put on the rack by his own unfulfilled longings. "Asked if he was ever really frightened about anything, Hitchcock would reply simply: `Always!' -- and the brevity of the reply and the insistence with which he changed the topic are clues to the large truth of it." The biographer recounts the famous story of Hitchcock's overly stern father sending him to the local jail with a note asking the warden to lock up the boy as punishment for some transgression. While skeptical about the specifics, Spoto thinks that "the anecdote certainly does tell what he felt about his father and the sting of memory that his childhood had inflicted."
Spoto has much to say on the subject of Hitchcock's obsessions with his leading ladies, particularly the icy blondes he preferred. Discussing "Vertigo," Spoto writes: "In no other film did Hitchcock have so clear a masculine alter ego [as] James Stewart in this film. The probing questions of a man who wants not only to solve a mystery and to save a woman but also to exert the control that comes from complete knowledge had their counterpart in the protracted, private conferences Hitchcock held with the actresses he most favored -- Madeleine Carroll,
Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly and Vera Miles. . . . The beauty of Hitchcock's most memorable stars is equaled, in fact, only by their coolness . . . . On the one hand, Woman was an abstraction, almost a remote goddess in her purity and coolness. But -- `in the back of a taxi,' as he liked to say -- what such a woman might do was really what he wished she would do."
One imagines Hitchcock giving a little smile and shrug at that. For my money, Spoto's best when he sticks to Hitchcock's career: his launch in film (an able sketcher, he got work doing titles for silent pictures being made by the Famous Players-Lasky company and soon rose to assistant director); the story evolution, casting and filming of his movies; his working methods on and off the set; and his distinctive personality, which -- despite the dark side Spoto focuses on -- displayed a persistent and wry sense of humor.
David Freeman's The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock (Overlook, $16.95) makes no claim to being a comprehensive account of its subject. About a year before Hitchcock's death, Freeman collaborated with him on a final, unproduced screenplay, the text of which takes up the last half of the book.
Freeman has a quiet, observational style that, to this reader at least, plays better than Spoto's more grandiose psychological readings. "When I was working with him he was seventy-nine years old and sometimes lost in the solitude of great pain, mostly from arthritis. He moved in an out of senility, and yet for all that, he seemed in no hurry to finish his work, even though his life was clearly limited," Freeman writes. "The time we spent together was always decorous, frequently pleasant, occasionally tense. I can try to tell you a bit about him as I saw him, but I warn you, in the end, to me at least, he was ultimately unknowable. . . . With his high-waisted black suits -- the trousers rested above his enormous belly, leaving just a few inches of white shirt exposed and with a black tie tucked into his pants -- he looked positively fictional, from Dickens perhaps or a banker by way of Evelyn Waugh."
Some intimate details emerge: One day the director tells Freeman that he and his wife, Alma, " `do not have relations. Haven't had for years' . . . Whether the remark about his marriage was true or not only the principals could say for sure. But it's clear that's what he wanted the record to say. To say to the world that sex and passion, the absolute fundament of his work, was not a part of his marriage, was surely to be trying to say: `I am my films, my films are me. If you want to know either, look at them. . . . `It is said that after making love, Balzac always said, `There goes another novel.' I think Hitch must have believed it."
Calling Dr. Freud
This seems an appropriate place to mention Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend, edited by Frederick Crews (Penguin, $13.95). "A mistake that grew into an imposture" is how Crews, a noted anti-Freudian, describes Freudian psychoanalysis. "Our great detective of the unconscious was incompetent from the outset -- no more astute, really, than Peter Sellers's bumbling Inspector Clouseau . . . . Unfortunately, however, there is nothing comical about the uses to which Freudian ideas are being put in our own time. During the 1990s, the most fervent trend within the English-speaking analytic world has been a sinister revival not just of Freud's pretensions to veridical memory retrieval but also of his rash efforts a full century ago, just before `psychoanalysis proper' was born, to ferret out repressed sexual abuse in the histories of his patients" -- recovered memory, in other words.
As you can tell from that excerpt, Crews passionately believes that Freud went horribly wrong, both in his science and its applications. The 20 contributors to this volume take up the cudgel -- no Freudian readings of that, please -- beating Freud over the head with charges of unscientific, even unscrupulous behavior: willfully misreading case histories, putting his own ideas in patients' heads, etc. A witch hunt? Maybe so -- Crews's criticisms edge toward (dare I say it?) hysteria, and some of his proofs seem flimsy. Others, however, support his charges, and, combined with 20 other takes on Freud's weaknesses, it makes for an intriguing assault on Father Freud.
Lovers of biography take note: Last year's Pulitzer-winner Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg (Penguin Putnam/Berkley, $16) is now out in paperback. Reviewing it for Book World, T.H. Watkins found it a "wonderfully diligent biography. . . . As an account of Lindbergh's professional career alone, Berg's book is a comprehensive and valuable text, not least when he writes of the historic flight itself. It is a tale we know, or at least we think we know, but Berg's detail-rich narration gives it an excitement that transcends familiarity, as he follows the sleep-deprived Lindbergh (he had been awake for 23 hours even before he took off) across the Atlantic through storm and fog and cold to Le Bourget field outside of Paris, where, at 10:24 p.m. on May 21, 1927, he taxied into the arms of a screaming mass of humanity, a hero to the whole world and, in the United States, little short of a god." Berg does not gloss over the ugly side of Lindbergh's character: his isolationism, his taste for fascism and his antisemitic views.
Also out is Under a Wing: A Memoir, by the flyer's daughter Reeve Lindbergh (Random House/Delta, $12.95). Watkins called it a "touching memoir of life with her legendary father. . . . Her Lindbergh is a distant and mysterious figure . . . but one given to moments of tenderness and physical affection that add a softness to the portrait. But there is honesty and anguish here, too."
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.