GLORIA STUART

I Just Kept Hoping

By Gloria Stuart with Sylvia Thompson

Little, Brown. 328 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Deborah Baldwin

So here's this actress who partied with the Gershwins and Groucho Marx, had Dorothy Parker over for dinner and M.F.K. Fisher for lunch, was a colleague of the muckraker Lincoln Steffens, smoked opium with the writer Emily Hahn and drank martinis with Robert Benchley, performed for John Ford and Thorton Wilder, got married and divorced and married again, hung out with Humphrey Bogart, helped organize the Screen Actors Guild and loaned books to Bill Faulkner. And the main reason we are hearing from her is not because at 87 she has known and seen it all -- from the first white person born in Carmel, Calif., to the invention of Caesar salad -- but because she happened to land a role in one of the most expensive and highest grossing movies in all history -- or what passes, in these meretricious times, for a true cultural event -- turning Gloria Stuart, forgotten '30s movie star, into Gloria Stuart, Woman of the Hour.

Today it's all between hard covers. You saw Gloria Stuart in "Titanic." Now read all about how she got there (and it wasn't by helicopter!).

As readers of People magazine may already know, Stuart waited a lifetime for her first Academy Award nomination. When it finally came, she responded exactly as a real starlet should: by praying she wouldn't have to share it with that upstart Kim Basinger (well, she didn't -- Basinger won it outright).

That's our girl, and what a girl she is. Nothing could stop her, from a cruel stepfather and a social-climbing mother to marriage at 19, a botched abortion and a one-night stand with "a very charismatic actor" who asked her please not to send roses again -- it embarrassed him in front of his fiancee. And all that before page 26! Stuart doesn't live life so much as barrel through it, often with little time for reflection. "When I started, I had to sign a seven-year contract at Universal Studios," she writes in her characteristically Dan Quaylish prose. "How that happened is a lesson in not doing your homework -- assuming you know there is homework, and what the assignment should be."

Whatever. No one's going to read Stuart's memoirs looking for a moral -- assuming they know there should be one. The book feels less like a thoughtful looking back and more like excerpts from Dear Diary. Pluses: Stuart kept good notes, so we now know who came to dinner May 29, 1944, and what they ate -- right down to the mustard pickles. Minuses: You may leave each scene wondering if everyone else will remember it as revolving around The Star.

Sometimes you get an inkling of how others might have felt. Stuart and famed food writer Fisher may have been "intimate friends for years," but the fact remains that when Stuart penned a little novel about illicit romance, Fisher perversely suggested they "put it in the incinerator" -- some nonsense about not offending Stuart's husband -- and that night they did.

Stuart had other setbacks, including promised roles that never materialized and insulting ones that did. She also had an impecunious second husband who thought nothing of dropping the kid off with grandma and taking a round-the-world trip on borrowed money. But Stuart rarely let things get her down. "I think my natural exuberance," she writes at one point, "my happiness at being a person -- or personage -- mezzo-mezzo talented, in love with an amorous man who was in love with me, mother to an adorable daughter, popular with friends, fairly young, quite beautiful -- kept me going."

That's the right attitude! And never more useful than now. Having been exploited by studio moguls at the prime of her life, Stuart is now a victim of contemporary publishing mores. Where oh where did all the copy editors go? Stuart uses exclamation marks so liberally she must turn to italics for extra emphasis, and when something's really important she must then engage cap lock (e.g., "I SLEPT IN MY MAKEUP"). An editor might have prodded Stuart to explain how she financed a second career as an artist -- and what price she paid in the '50s for speaking out against McCarthyism. And how about insights beyond "adoring" to describe that daughter -- the one who shares the byline?

As if having her first book fed to the fire weren't bad enough, this poor author must live with the fact that she got little professional direction when she needed it most. But Stuart doesn't seem like the kind of person who dwells on the past. There's always the future, and the refrain that got her where she is today: "I just kept hoping."

Deborah Baldwin is a writer and editor who recently moved to New York from Paris.