Kate Mulgrew has so convincingly played strong women on screen — think Capt. Kathryn Janeway on “Star Trek: Voyager” and Galina “Red” Reznikov on “Orange Is the New Black” — that you can be forgiven for believing she’s probably that way in life, too.
Her memoir, “Born With Teeth,” will prove your suspicions correct.
Mulgrew swaggers endearingly across its pages, her “able and hardy constitution” ever on display as she powers through the many challenges — both personal and professional — that life has tossed her way. Eloquent and impassioned, the book reaches beyond the standard Hollywood memoir to something more affecting and enduring.
In the beautifully written early pages, Mulgrew recalls a world conjured by McCourt memoirs and McDermott novels: the besieged Irish-Catholic mother, her house run wild with children, her husband a philandering drinker only home long enough to conceive more children, some of whom don’t survive childhood. There were eight kids in all, and Mulgrew wore the title of eldest daughter with a resentment bordering on rage. In one shocking moment, she confesses to having tried to kill her baby sister (who dies not long after), a revelation tossed off with the same kind of nonchalance Mulgrew uses to describe playing in the back yard with her brothers.
Not surprisingly, Mulgrew has a theatrical flair, a trait she seems to have inherited from her mother, Joan: After giving birth to her last child, Joan placed on the mantel “what looked like a large jar of preserves” but, in fact, contained her ovaries. Written across it in black ink were the words: “FROM WHENCE YOU SPRANG.”
A beauty who danced with President John F. Kennedy at his Inaugural Ball, Joan fueled her daughter’s bravado, especially when it came to men: “ ‘If you ever call a man on the telephone,’ my mother had told me when I was ten, ‘you will get cancer of the hand,’ ” Mulgrew writes. And it was through her sly handiwork that Kate first experienced the intoxication of performing before an audience. Reading a work selected by her mother — an excerpt from Alice Duer Miller’s elegiac “The White Cliffs” — Mulgrew brought a room full of nuns to tears. The following night, Mulgrew found “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” under her pillow and a note from her mother: “Find what you love and the rest will follow.”
Mulgrew indeed found it, even if the rest did not exactly follow. (Otherwise, there would be no memoir.) She heads to New York, where she studies with Stella Adler, and despite her more serious aspirations, opts for the more lucrative, steady work of television. Still, Mulgrew never stops yearning for more, and her tale of life on the set and stage is fraught with mixed emotions — and sprinkled with gossip. She reveals, for example, that she knew little about “Star Trek” before she took helm of its starship. “They travel around in space wearing strange costumes, right?” she asked her manager before an audition.
In the book’s later pages, Mulgrew turns more intensely to her personal life — to the daughter she gave up for adoption, to the difficulty of having a meaningful relationship and raising a family in Hollywood. Throughout, she narrates with the grandeur of a stage diva holding court: “Actresses. What a bunch of sad saps, we are,” she intones. “Madly in love with the child. Madly in love with the craft. Trying desperately to forge an alliance with the two, and constantly failing.”
Mulgrew can be proud that this memoir, her defining monologue, proves otherwise.
Nora Krug, a contributing editor of Book World, writes monthly about memoirs.
By Kate Mulgrew
306 pp. $28