President Kennedy once quipped that he would leave the White House at “the awkward age — too old to begin a new career and too young to write my memoirs.” Now two television stars from the Camelot era, the age of NASA and the New Frontier have proved the opposite: that one can pursue a new career late in life and, in so doing, wait too long to publish a memoir.
Even so, “My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business,” by Dick Van Dyke, and “Jeannie Out of the Bottle,” by — who else? — Barbara Eden, are, like their authors, earnest, funny and appealing, and each captures the essence of an eventful life lived on and off the small screen.
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” originally aired on CBS from 1961 to 1966. Its star was a lanky comedian and song-and-dance man with an easygoing manner and blandly handsome features. He played Rob Petrie, a sitcom writer who commuted between his gag-a-minute Manhattan office and his idyllic home in New Rochelle. Wife Laura, a beautiful dancer who gave up her career to look after Rob and their son — but who was still prone, fortuitously, to the occasional pirouette in tight capri pants — was played by Mary Tyler Moore. TV historian David Marc has written that the pair functioned, effectively, as America’s sitcomic Jack and Jackie.
At 85, Van Dyke has little use for such theorizing. “Anyone who has been in a hit TV series will mention the same thing as the essential ingredient,” he writes today. “It was the writing.” He accordingly credits series creator Carl Reiner as the “genius” responsible for the show’s enduring appeal.
“My Lucky Life” does not offer a trove of backstage intrigue and trivia. In part, this reflects a half-century’s distance from key players and events. Van Dyke’s account of his co-stars and their interaction suffers from a certain broadness, even vagueness; the famous ottoman stumble was his idea, he tells us, but beyond that, fans hungry for lost scenes, continuity jumps and the like are better directed to “Nick at Nite’s Classic TV Companion” or “The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book.”
His breezy tone also reflects the star’s value system. “If you are looking for dirt,” he warns on page 2, “stop reading now.” And it’s true: The closest Van Dyke comes to dishing is to confirm that Maureen Stapleton and Dean Martin liked to drink. He is also no fan of the director, or final cut, of the 1968 children’s classic “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Of Moore, the most stinging criticism offered is that she initially seemed “stiff and proper.” Swiftly, however, Van Dyke reports they developed a “special timing and chemistry . . . such that people actually thought we were husband and wife in real life.” Indeed, like everyone else in America, Van Dyke developed a “crush” on MTM — but never acted on it. “If we had been different people,” he writes, “maybe something would have happened. But neither of us was that type of person.”
Yet Van Dyke became that type of person: In 1976, amid a long-running battle with alcohol, he left his wife of 28 years, the mother of his four children, for a younger woman, his agent’s secretary. It took him 14 years to sober up, but he and Michelle Triola remained devoted partners until her death in 2009. Comprehensive and spare, “My Lucky Life” deals forthrightly with Van Dyke’s ups and downs, demons and misdeeds, yet still conveys the decency — and deft humor — of the legendary performer.
Barbara Eden, by contrast, seems determined, after long-suffering silence, to name every leading man, crooner, president and celebrity who made inappropriate advances, and given the actress’s knockout face and figure — she and Marilyn Monroe once shared the same stand-in — the list of offenders is long and notable. Although her co-star, Larry Hagman, was not among those offenders, Eden wastes no time cataloguing his boorish, bullying, substance-abusing behavior on the set of “I Dream of Jeannie,” the show that aired on NBC from 1965 to 1970 and made them both household names.
Co-authored by Wendy Leigh, “Jeannie Out of the Bottle” is poorly written, with cloying segues such as “Time for a Jeannie blink” and “But back to Larry.” Leigh’s stylistic poverty is all the more unfortunate, because Eden has a wealth of funny and poignant stories to tell about the extraordinary number of Hollywood legends she knew, starred with, entranced and gingerly fended off. And her life after “Jeannie” has borne witness to so much heartbreak that it borders on the gothic.
With admirable candor and wrenching detail, she tells of the stillbirth of her second son and the lengthy drug addiction and death, at 35, of her first. And after harrowing accounts of marriages to two men who bitterly resented Eden’s fame and earning power, to read of the kindness of her third and current husband, Jon Eicholtz, is to emit a silent cheer for a woman who was talented, hardworking, beautiful and classy — but not always lucky.
Rosen is a Fox News correspondent and author of “The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate.” He is at work on a book about the Beatles.
MY LUCKY LIFE IN AND OUT OF SHOW BUSINESS
By Dick Van Dyke
Crown Archetype. 287 pp. $25
JEANNIE OUT OF THE BOTTLE
By Barbara Eden with Wendy Leigh
Crown Archetype. 274 pp. $25