An Autobiography

By Beverly Sills

and Lawrence Linderman

Bantam. 356 pages. $19.95

While listening to the popular '30s radio show "Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour," my grandmother, a classic southern provincial who deplored all foreign influences, heard a 7-year-old girl sing the coloratura aria from "Rigoletto," "Caro Nome," which ends on a high E. Ever on the lookout for ways to warn me against the evils of the larger world, Granny said: "Those Eyetalians stuck a pin in that poor child to make her do that."

The poor child was Beverly Sills, ne'e Belle Silverman of Brooklyn, who went on to do radio's first singing commercial, a paean to laundry soap that is seared on my brain from a childhood spent listening to it: "Rinso white, Rinso bright, happy little washday song." Stage-managed by a calmly ambitious mother over her father's sputtering objections, little Beverly starred in the role of an abused child opera singer in the radio soap "Our Gal Sunday," the one about the girl from a Montana mining town who married an English earl. "I played the daughter of the overseer of Lord Henry's estate," Sills recalls. "The overseer was a drunkard, and every time he got soused, he'd beat me. Every time he beat me, I'd run off into the hills and sing."

"Beverly" is a sitcom full of belly laughs and Brooklynese wisecracks that has all the immediacy of a kaffeeklatsch confessional. The funniest story concerns the time the 17-year-old Sills went on a summer tour of the Midwest that found her in a village near Kearney, Neb., in the middle of a grain fungus blight called "stinking smut" that was killing cattle. Picking up a copy of the town's weekly paper to send to her proud mama, she found on the front page a picture of a dead cow with the caption "Beverly Sills to Sing at High School," and underneath it a photo of herself captioned "Stinking Smut Hits Nebraska."

At the same time that she met the man she was destined to marry, Mayflower descendant Peter Greenough, she discovered a strange new pastime far removed from the "potsy" games she had played on Brooklyn sidewalks. "Beagling is sort of like a foxhunt without the fox," she deadpans. "Something that smells like a fox is dragged through fields by a rider, and a bunch of beagles chase after it, and then a bunch of 'beaglers' on horseback chase after the beagles. We're talking serious WASP recreation here."

Studying the French repertoire under Mary Garden, the Scottish soprano who took Paris by storm in 1900, Sills found her to be a great teacher, but "charming she wasn't. Mary Garden often struck me as the meanest woman I'd ever met." When the diminutive Garden proclaimed, "Ladies simply do not wear size nine shoes," the tall, voluptuous Sills shot back: "I wear size seven gloves. Maybe I'll try walking on my hands."

Between doing love scenes with a self-doubting tenor who whispered, "I'm going to be a used-car salesman," in the middle of an amorous stage tussle, and telling conductor Kurt Adler to drop dead, Sills also met several U.S. presidents. The most memorable one was malapropping Gerald Ford, who told a White House gathering that she was "as much at home in a Verdi ballad as she is in a Strauss operation." By the time he introduced her as "Beverly Tilsit" the audience was in such stitches that Sills said, "Mr. President, from here on in, wherever I sing, I want you to come along and warm up the audience for me."

She is equally forthcoming about the tragedies in her life, namely the afflictions of the Greenough children -- a daughter born deaf and a son born retarded. Sad as this is, it is sadder still to contemplate what happened to this great artist's priorities.

"My main concern in life was the fact that I had two children with severe problems," she writes. "The career was really rather incidental at that point -- it was nice to have, but not essential. I'd survived so much in my personal life that I didn't see how a career could make a great difference to me. As a matter of fact, when you don't need the money and you have a very satisfactory marriage, it's difficult to muster the drive necessary to establish a great career."

Passages like this, plus the numerous admissions of guilt Sills felt about leaving her family to go on tour, are reminiscent of the articles in '50s women's magazines -- wherein a famous woman assured homebound readers that marriage and motherhood were better -- that were roundly condemned by Betty Friedan in "The Feminine Mystique." They give Sills' book a depressing here-we-go-again quality that sometimes overshadows its many charms.

The reviewer is the author of five books, including "Southern Ladies and Gentlemen" and "Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady."