Poor Gregory Peck. After reaching the pinnacle of his profession, after winning fame, wealth and honor -- he now is embalmed in Michael Freedland's dull, worshipful biography, which leeches his vitality, and leaves a pale halo-capped shadow on the printed page. The only marvel about this sloppy, superficial book is the inordinate number of awkward, ungrammatical constuctions that slipped by the two editors given dubious credit in Freedland's acknowledgements.
To begin at the beginning -- there are even problems with the dust jacket. Although always filled with hyerbole, dust jackets usually are accurate in listing characters and events to be found inside. This one, however, garbles anecdotes and locations, and promises and "angry, never-before-published" political confilict between Peck and John Wayne, which this reviewer was unable to find. Of course, an index would be helpful, and of course, there is none.
Although this is not supposed to be an "official" biography, the author -- a journalist-broadcaster who lives and works in England -- had full cooperation from Peck and his family, as well as access to Peck's personal records and private photo collection. Perhaps this was his partial undoing. It is difficult to say unpleasant things about someone who is smothering you with kindness. Furthermore, he knew Peck's views on the subject -- at least, as expressed in 1959: "It's all rather second-rate to expose one's inside to the public view. I'm not interested by the vogue for actors to tell all . . . My performances are the only forms of self-revelation that I go in for."
But Freedland's failure is not really due to a lack of blue "tell it all" detail. Nor is it due to his superstar subject who has lived a life any biographer would relish. Rather, it is in Freedland's dogged attempts to be breezy and conversational. The result is a writing style of little grace, and even less color or wit. Some might call it illiterate.
In describing Peck's efforts to develop a winning horse for the British Grand National steeplechase he came up with this runaway sentence: "Once, he bought a horse in England and took it over to California, a promising animal called Tretread, from the Anglo-Irish Blood Stock Agency, run by Frank More O'Ferralll and his brother Rory, two men whose friendship he had first made while filming "Moby Dick."
Further along, when writing of Peck's work with the American Cancer Society, and the $50 million raised the year he was national chairman, Freedland produced this bit of nonsense: "Other show business personalities who lending their names to good causes are happy -- and indeed inwardly content -- merely to be listed on the notepaper and to make occasional speeches." Indeed, reading this book turns into a game. One becomes more excited by each successive writing aberration than by Gregory Peck's personality, talent, political views, tragedies or victories.
And there were generous portions of each of those elements in Peck's life. An only child, Irish-Catholic on his pharmacist farther's side, Peck's lonely childhood was dominated by his parents' broken marriage (which made him closer to his father), and his parochial military schooling, where hiss self-discipline was honored, and where he developed an abiding attachment to Catholic faith and ritual.
His discovery of the New York theather; his rocky marriage to Greta, Katharine Cornell's ex-hairdresser, which produced three sons; his blossoming film career; his flirtations with the Communist Party and membership in several suspect organizations that earned him an invitiation from the chairman of the California State Committee for Un-American Activities (he was later to find himself on Nixon's "Enemies' List"), are all skimmed over lightly, along with a running commentary about his most important films.
Then there are his theater and film producing actities, the two-week binge when he and Greta finally decided to divorce, and his marriage to Veronique, the beautiful French journalist, 20 years his junior. Of them all, only two episodes really stand out -- the delightful story of how he landed his first acting job with Guthrie McClintic, producer-director husband of Katharine Cornell, and the tragedy of his eldest son's suicide.
Behind Gregory Peck's reserve is an intelligent, talented individual who has a great love for his profession, and deep social-political convictions. This is an intensely private man who has lived a fascinating, satisfying life. tAccording to Vernique: "In spite of his 'good works' and his awards and honors, he is still in private life what he has always been, a bohemian who does pretty much as he pleases, doesn't conform and refuses to be labled."
Someone ought to write a book about him.