Piper Laurie, born Rosetta Jacobs in Detroit, in 1932, achieved Hollywood stardom before she was 20, having signed the customary studio contract at the age of 17. A shy child who often remained mute even when she most desired to speak, she was stunned when her mother somehow intuited her daughter’s desire to be an actress.
It was all the more surprising because Rosie (which is how she refers to herself in this book) grew up uncertain of her parents’ feelings for her. They never really explained why they put her in a children’s asylum when she was only 5, leaving her there with an older sister, an asthmatic, and visiting her only a few times, and then resuming family life three years later in Los Angeles as if nothing especially important had happened to the girls.
The asylum experience seems to have strengthened the young girl’s core personality, making her rely upon herself — although Laurie apparently sees herself as just the opposite: a rather vulnerable and passive creature who simply acquiesced to the conditions Universal Pictures imposed on contract players. It is true that she obeyed the studio’s commands, which meant appearing in a series of frivolous films that typed her as a superficial actress, one of those window-dressing ingenues.
By the time she was reaching the end of that seven-year studio servitude, however, Piper Laurie (a name invented by her agent) had had enough. She could no longer abide the trite productions that invariably earned her the snide comments of reviewers who assumed her talent was no greater than the tawdry vehicles she appeared in. Laurie turned to the theater, and especially to live television, as a way to redeem her career and her self-respect.
It was not easy. New York directors and producers turned her away, again equating the actress with the slight parts she had played. But Laurie persisted, and with the help of fellow actors who recommended her for roles and notable directors, especially John Frankenheimer, she excelled in live drama in television’s so-called Golden Age, appearing in “Days of Wine and Roses,” for example, before returning to the screen in such triumphs as “The Hustler” and “Carrie.”
Laurie writes very well and with candor, making few excuses for herself. Especially convincing is her portrayal of her fitful and very gradual appreciation of her mother, who encouraged her daughter but did not enact the role of pushy stage mother.
Particularly revealing is the cameo appearance of Ronald Reagan, the debonair but ultimately callous suitor who had no idea that he was making love to a virgin and oafishly implied that she was frigid. Especially tender is her memory of Dana Andrews, a Hollywood star she worshiped, going through one of his worst alcoholic periods and yet sobering up by entrancing her with hours and hours of Shakespearean verse. Paul Newman of the piercing blue eyes seems the very model of the self-effacing star. And most intriguing is her insight into a young Mel Gibson, doing his first part in a film, following her lead carefully and by the end of the production joining her in bed, a surprise to an actress nearing 50 — twice his age.
This memoir is much more than a Hollywood survivor’s tale. As Laurie herself notes, each decade of her life has entailed a new beginning — really a kind of rebirth, beginning with her overcoming the desolate years in the children’s sanitarium, adjusting to life with her estranged parents in Los Angeles, breaking free of Hollywood, marrying the journalist Joe Morgenstern in a fruitful but troubed union that ended in divorce, and starting again in her 40s as the mother of an adopted child.
Through it all, Piper Laurie kept working — even at times when she doubted her talent — refusing bad scripts even if that meant serious loss of income and waiting for better roles that might not be offered. She does not say so, but she must have a tremendous gift for friendship. At crucial points, she had people looking out for her, and she has repaid their devotion with handsome tributes to the parts they played in helping to sustain an impressive life and career.
Rollyson is the author of many biographies, including forthcoming lives of Dana Andrews and Sylvia Plath.
LEARNING TO LIVE OUT LOUD
By Piper Laurie
Crown Archetype. 357 pp. $24.99