DANCING AT CIRO'S
A Family's Love, Loss, and Scandal
On the Sunset Strip
By Sheila Weller
St. Martin's. 339 pp. $24.95
"This is the book Sheila Weller was born to write," biographer Patricia Bosworth suggests in a cover blurb, and it's true. Weller manages here to turn a family chronicle of winsome glamour and almost Shakespearean tragedy into a scorching intellectual exercise -- a vivid, intricate essay about what it means to be Jewish in this country, a companion volume to Sherwin Nuland's recent Lost in America: A Journey with My Father.
Dancing at Ciro's shares one key point of departure with Nuland's pained coming-of-age memoir: This country may indeed be a version of the Promised Land, but oppressed immigrants inevitably bring with them an accumulated history of nightmare. Material success, "dazzling accomplishment" -- even the southern California sun -- can't cancel out a legacy of disaster in just one or two generations. And so came the clinical depression that clamped down on Nuland and the nervous breakdown that felled Weller's mother -- until they were both brutally yanked back into shape by electroshock treatment. Suffering and sorrow are not easily outrun.
Indeed, as Weller, a journalist and author of several previous nonfiction books, suggests, they get woven into the intimate lives of the families who are doing the running. "I've crossed paths with many New York-to-Hollywood early mid-century Jewish families," she writes in the introduction to Dancing at Ciro's. There's a pervasive social pattern at work, she suggests: This particular brand of Jewish-American family often has "certain hazy stock characters. . . . There's the Abrahamic figure, the Glamorizer -- the man who, through his talent and fortune, moved his family west and pushed them all out past their timorous parameters, their hereditary plainness and bookishness. There's the Perfectionist, the Tortured Soul: at once tempted and insulted by the new values, he is alienated and wounded and superior. There's also the Female Partner, thrilled by the promise of the new life -- until she realizes her nervous system and her program is overmatched by the milieu." And, if womanizing becomes an issue with these stock characters, there's often "the beautiful, cold-hearted shiksa" to be reckoned with.
Weller's first chapter opens with a horrid sense of impending doom. She and her little sister, aged 12 and 10, are taken by their impatient, vaguely angry brain-surgeon father, Daniel Weller, out to a Chinese dinner in Beverly Hills. Their mother, mysteriously melancholy, stays home. As their father drops off the girls, a man emerges from the shadows, tries to kill him and almost succeeds. The man is the girl's uncle, brother to Helen, their mom -- their beloved Uncle Herman, owner of Ciro's, a famous Hollywood nightclub. We hear no more of the circumstances of that fateful evening until page 221, when a "cold-hearted shiksa" is introduced as the volatile agent who will destroy the family already waiting for something to blow it to smithereens.
From Brooklyn to Broadway to Hollywood in just a few years was the journey taken by the Hovers, Weller's maternal family. But death early on dogged Helen and Herman: They lost a sister to influenza and a brother to tubercular meningitis. For a while, Helen and Herman seemed to dance out from under cruel fate. He worked for showman Earl Carroll, first in New York, then in L.A. Then he opened Ciro's, inventing a circus of glamour and casting himself as ringmaster. Helen, his kid sister, pluckily tagged alone, defining herself as a perky celebrity reporter for magazines such as Modern Screen. She'd already made a good marriage to that respected brain surgeon, but he hadn't managed to escape his doleful heritage. A childhood sufferer of rheumatic fever, Daniel Weller knew that his adult life would be short, and he was not happy about it. He seethed, in fact, with rage and envy, as his friends and colleagues fawned over his brother-in-law. It was Dr. Weller who was the "Tortured Soul" in this family scheme.
Much of Dancing at Ciro's bursts the bounds of the Hollywood memoir genre: There's a wealth of information about brain surgery (still so primitive in the 1950s that, after certain operations, patients were hung upside-down for three days to "recover"); a clear clean look at what it meant to manage a mythological nightspot as glamorous as Rick's in "Casablanca" (and at what that glamour might actually mean); and an affectionate look at what it meant to be an intrepid girl reporter in Hollywood 50 years ago.
At bottom, though, it's the Shakespearean tragedy, the sense of doom both terrible and inevitable here, that enslaves the reader. Surely, what's going to happen can't be going to happen. But it does, and everyone concerned, except for the cold-hearted shiksa, is utterly destroyed or irrevocably maimed. The death toll runs to the double digits by book's end.
Is this only a Jewish-American pattern? When I read about the "Tortured Soul . . . alienated and wounded and superior," I had to think: "Wait a minute! I was married long ago to not one but two of those guys, one Slovak, one Eurasian." And my Irish ancestry bristles with just such "hazy stock characters." What if the whole country is teeming with just such familial time bombs waiting to explode?
Weller does admirably dissect one cultural universal that afflicts many doomed families: Perhaps more than any other book I can remember, Dancing at Ciro's examines womanizing as an instrument of male rage. The impulse to destroy, seen from a warrior point-of-view, is fairly straightforward: Let's all go out and slaughter some strangers! But the furious womanizer bides his time, flirts and subverts, and when he's done -- if he's ever done -- his wife, his children, his family, his girlfriends, maybe even he himself, will have endured the tortures of the damned.
This chronicle of glamour, rage, sorrow and despair makes a substantial contribution to American social history. We are a country of immigrants, by and large; Weller's story is at once deeply idiosyncratic and resonantly universal. Dancing at Ciro's is a very important, very disturbing book. *
Carolyn See reviews books each Friday in the Style section of The Post.