I know why I was assigned this book. It's because once, in a weak moment, I "ghosted" the autobiography of a show business dog. That hardly puts me in Sandford Dody's class; he has ghosted five lives, and not all of them dogs.
As the man who hitched his wagon to star after star -- Dagmar Godowsky, Elaine Barrymore, (John's wife) Bette Davis, Robert Merrill and Helen Hayes -- Dody has been a fly on some celebrated walls. Now he has given up the ghosting business; as he himself puts it, "I've had them up to here." Time then for a last waltz with some unwilling partners, time to tell all about what it was like to be an anonymous pair of ears, an unsung typewriter, a Boswell without honor.
Certain questions immediately come to mind. Is there a real book in any or all of this? In other times, the old Saturday Evening Post might have printed it as an article, under the headline "I Led Five Lives: The Stars' Autobiographer Tells Secrets He Was Bound to Keep Before . . ." But a book of more than 300 pages? Hardly; there's enough padding here to stop a .38-caliber slug. Dody writes much more about himself than about his subjects, and he is much less interesting than any of them.
Next question: What are his obligations to keep his mouth shut? It's true we live in an age when King Gossip rules. We drink in details of an actress' cocaine addition with our morning coffee. We gobble the news of who is getting it on, and where, along with our dinner's dessert. And yet. Isn't a ghostwriter, and above all, uncritical? Unlike a biographer, whose duty it is to probe all sources of information about his subject, the ghostwriter has only one source, the subject himself. Although the ghostwriter may, as Dody says he did, insist that his subject tell the truth to the world, he is not engaged in painting a warts-and-all portrait, but in presenting an apologia. His subject trusts him; certain weakness are displayed that the subject has the right, I think, to expect will not be dragged into the light later on in a book of this kind. In a limelight universe, even the most public of celebrities can demand that his own autobiography not exploit him.
But here is the book, valid or not, so the next question must be: How does Dody do this job? The oil from the second pressing of the olives is cloudy and somewhat rancid. The only chapter I found to be of more than passing interest was the one devoted to Helen Hayes. Of all his subjects, he admires her the most, and treats her with the most objectivity. She emerges from this chapter as a person you'd like to know, witty and acerbic not merely a theatrical institution.
But the man's writing sytle! It's like a 25-cent candy bar -- to sweet, too artificial, and you keep breaking a tooth on nutshells. Never can he use a simple world where a fancy one will do. Nothing is ever "crowded" or "filled," it is always "replete." Efforts are always concerted; morsels are always tasty; when one is ensconced, one is safely so. Dody is also not unaddicted to litotes, that form of expression in which a not unlocked-for pair of negatives is not unused to form a not unwanted positive. He also mixes metaphors with abandon. (I always mix mine with vermouth.)
Here is one of my favorite brief paragraphs in the book. It follows a report of an argument on the set of Maugham's "The Letter" about how Bette Davis will deliver her famous line, "I still love the man I killed."
"Despite the nonsense and the happy defeat she suffered at her favorite director's [William Wyler] hands, (though on frame it looked like a draw to me) Miss Davis on her unchastened return conveyed emotionally, though her feverish brain led her elsewhere, precisely the right disdain for such contemptuous idolatry. Without knowing why -- an evaluation which I am certain would enrage her -- and allowing (if she must discuss the subconscious) Ruth Elizabeth Davis and the popular star to block her road, with the chips down her creative genius still took over and she sailed right over the hurdle."
I've read this paragraph many times in the context from which it was taken, and I still don't understand it. I think I broke a tooth.