CALL ME ANNA:The Autobiography of Patty Duke
By Patty Duke and Kenneth Turan
Bantam. 298 pp. $17.95
"I've survived. I've beaten my own bad system and on some days, on most days, that feels like a miracle."
Patty Duke's personal miracle occurred in 1982, at the age of 36, when she discovered she was a manic-depressive, and that her violent off-the-edge anxiety attacks could be controlled by medication. Though she had already achieved stage, film and television stardom, and was the recipient of Oscar and Emmy awards, her entire life changed with this diagnosis and the resultant stability lithium treatment has given her. This emotional and physical stability also helped her attain the respectability she had always craved: In 1985, she was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, the fifth-largest union in the United States.
Anna Marie Duke, the youngest child of an alcoholic father and a depressive mother who separated when she was 6, was born in a poor New York Irish Italian neighborhood. She inherited their violent temper and their strong Catholic faith -- describing herself in "Call Me Anna," her newly published autobiography, as having had "the kind of acceptance that Catholic priests pray for in their little parishioners."
When she was 7, her mother took her to John and Ethel Ross, managers of child performers, who had worked with Anna Marie's brother. They agreed to take her on. Perhaps they sensed in this tiny, "offbeat"-looking child an innate intelligence and instinctive acting ability they could develop, as well as the extreme docility that would allow them to control every facet of her life.
That control even extended to the inner core of her identity. Ethel casually announced one day: "... We're gonna change your name. Anna Marie is dead. You're Patty now." If indeed "Anna Marie is dead," then who was she?
Over time she came to live with the Rosses. They erased her New York accent; dressed her like a miniature Grace Kelly; taught her to lie about her height, weight, age and experience. Her audition interviews were programmed and rehearsed. They fed her booze and prescription drugs; at least once they made drunken sexual overtures to her; and they ripped off the bulk of her earnings. Her life revolved around auditions, rehearsals, performances and the hypercritical, browbeating Rosses, who dissected, analyzed and disparaged everything about her.
In 1959 John, who was a much kinder person than Ethel, as well as an excellent drama coach, read of a nationwide search for a child to play the young Helen Keller in an upcoming Broadway drama. For a full year they drilled her daily, hours at a time, in all aspects of being blind and deaf. Of course, she won the role in William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker," and played it to great acclaim.
Clearly, the Rosses were responsible for most of Duke's professional success. If not for them she might never have become an actress, certainly not the youngest person to win an Academy Award. But she also might never have become suicidal, have had her stomach pumped or spent time in psychiatric facilities. On the other hand, the Rosses are dead, cannot answer her charges and obviously weren't responsible for the neurosis and violence that existed in her family before they came into her life.
Duke has had romantic flings with various celebrities and now is married for the fourth time. Having been shortchanged in her schooling, she has made concerted efforts to educate herself and to become involved in important social and political issues. The style of "Call Me Anna," written with Kenneth Turan, is candid, fresh, breezy and pleasant. No doubt it is the way she speaks. But surely the editors could have corrected some of its ungrammatical, overly informal constructions without assaulting her personality.
In many ways this is an appalling book that could be considered just another entry in the fast-growing industry of entertainment children "telling all." It is, however, related with such appealing honesty, courage, self-deprecating humor and strong desire to make the reader understand how it all could have happened, that she succeeds in winning you over. After the gory details of her own terrifying manic episodes and her mistreatment by the Rosses, Anna Marie-Patty Duke does try to sort out her love-hate attachment and indebtedness to them, even to the point of including them in her dedication. One can like her for that, admire her intense will to survive, achieve and lead a productive life, and hope that her lithium miracle continues to work.
The reviewer is the theater critic for WTOP radio.