This memoir found its starting place one summer night during a party at Gloria Vanderbilt's Southampton house. Gordon Parks, a former rural and urban ghetto black -- who at a low point once pulled a knife on a trolley conductor for a dollar before apologizing and fleeing -- now an accomplished photo-journalist, novelist, poet, composer and film director, was sipping champagne. Suddenly, a voice cut through the crowd: "Gordon," it boomed, "they're bringing in watermelon! Are you going to eat it?"
Parks, outwardly cool, was thrown for a moment. The comment and circumstances were an indication of how far he had come, and apparently not quite far enough for a bit of light-hearted racism to set his teeth on edge. What followed is the only flash of personal anger in "To Smile in Autumn" -- an otherwise complacent and listless sequel to earlier volumes also detailing Parks' rise to the top.
The first was "The Learning Tree" (1963), an autobiographical novel about his childhood and adolescence, which alternated between stirring nostalgia and unsettling violence. Then "A Choice of Weapons" (1966), a memoir covering his life between ages 16 and 32 (and his experiences as a piano player in a hordello, a semiprofessional basketball player, and an award-winning still photographer), developed this seesaw of sentiment and melodrama into a powerful theme for young blacks: one's choice of weapons must be dignity and hard work over the self-destructive, if perhaps understandable, emotions of hate and violence.
"To Smile in Autumn," which after the opening angry gambit, flashes back to where the previous volume left off, finds the author in a mellow, almost perfunctory, mood. (The title should be a tip-off.) Here Parks writes about his fantastic success, but without the vividness which made the earlier pair so inspiring and indispensable. The material is certainly there: 20 years of photo-journalism for Life magazine, enabling him to rub elbows with almost anyone who achieved fame in the '50s and '60s, as well as writing and photographing in-depth profiles of the entire black leadership of the '60s. There is also his entirely separate career as the first black director of major motion pictures in Hollywood, which include the film version of "The Learning Tree," the wildly successful "Shaft" (which set off dozens of imitations) and the cult film "Leadbelly" about the legendary folk singer.
Instead of streamlining the wealth of material into a coherent and meaningful form, Parks settles for a cheery, anecdotal format of three or four-page chapters: lunch with Richard Wright at Maxim's, tennis with King Farouk, brandy with Winston Churchill. We discover, among other splashy items, Duke Ellington's fondness for the telephone ("The only way to keep me from answering one is to padlock my lips."); Marlon Brando's macho reaction to Martin Luther King's assassination (He has his secretary order a score of rifles, pistols and ammunition); Gloria Vanderbilt's whereabouts the night she parted from Leopold Stokowski as the press was turning New York upside down looking for her. (She was attending a piano recital at Parks' home in Westchester County with Frank Sinatra and other guests.)
There is nothing in particular threading these particulars together, and one begins to wonder the point of it all.
Midway, he gets down to some serious writing, discussing his reportage on and participation in the black revolution in the '60s. If much of this material seems familiar, it is. On the copyright page a small note informs us, "The author has here recast material dealing with the 1960's earlier presented in his "Born Black" -- vignettes and character studies commissioned by Life and the writer's personal, often mixed reactions to them, which was published in 1971.
"Recast" here is an overly polite euphemism for "rehash." The nine chapters that made up the excellent "Born Black" are shorn of their depth, and each section has been packed up and transferred to a corresponding similarly titled chapter in "To Smile in Autumn," making up roughly half of the new book. The titles have been changed slightly: "Death in San Quentin" becomes "Execution at San Quentin" in the memoir. "The Death of Malcolm X" becomes "Malcolm X Murdered. Parks next?" and so forth. The same photographs are reprinted and the text, with few exceptions, has changed little. Paragraph after paragraph is practically duplicated without additional reflection or information -- including the only genuinely witty moment in both books: Stokely Carmichael stuck driving in a snow storm, wheels spinning in futility, both fists shaking in the air, shouting, "Black Power! Black Power."
The "recasting" would be all fine and good had Parks transformed these chapters with the new point of view that a decade has surely provided. (This would have compensated for the lack of detail and loss of immediacy.) There is, indeed, a theme which could have supplied focus or perspective to the proceedings. From time to time Parks mentions feeling guilty or hypocritical about his success: reporting on poverty and injustice to blacks -- the same discrimination he once faced -- then heading home to live the life of the establishment, the very world the movement seeks to change. This satin-cushion life style/bed-of nails conscience dichotomy and the attempt to reconcile it gives the book some welcome moments of tension.
It's unfortunate to see a major talent and cultural force coast on former successes. Yet, even at half-mast, Parks manages a sporadic eloquence, as in the last few pages when he pays tribute to his son Gordon Parks Jr., also a film director, who died in a plane crash last year. And, since much of the '70s has been left out this go-round -- personal relationships left dangling, filmmaking largely neglected, the celebrated effect he and others have on young blacks unexplored -- one hopes that voice of power will speak again.