NEW YORK — There, in one of the final chapters, Candice Bergen commits to print a confession that quite possibly has never been uttered, seriously, by any actress anywhere:
“Let me just come right out and say it: I am fat.”
That this makes news, the tabloids and “Today” says everything about our culture and about Bergen, who has gained 30 pounds since the “Murphy Brown” decade (1988 to 1998). In her new memoir, “A Fine Romance,” she admits that “I am a champion eater. No carb is safe — no fat either.” Sitting in her spectacular starter Central Park South duplex (now her daughter’s residence), she confesses, “I just can’t face a life of fish fillets,” and pops a brownie bite into her mouth.
At a certain age, the French advise, a woman must make a choice between her face and her rear. Bergen, at 68, has made hers.
That face. It is impossible to talk about Candice Bergen without talking about her gobsmacking beauty. Jaws drop, conversation halts. The sapphire eyes, the nose that launched a thousand cosmetic surgery requests, the exquisite tension between her glacial Nordic looks and the deep whiskey timbre of her voice.
Yet Bergen’s most intoxicating feature may be her rigorous honesty. She’s Candid Bergen. By her own admission, she doesn’t easily warm to warm and fuzzy. Published three decades after “Knock Wood,” which covered her childhood, this second memoir is a tribute to her life’s great loves: her late first husband, French film director Louis Malle; her second husband, philanthropist and real estate developer Marshall Rose, whom she met at a dinner party thrown by 60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt; and her daughter, Chloe Malle, an editor at Vogue. (During the interview, she occasionally sighs over Chloe’s upkeep of her former apartment, noting a nicked end table here, a pile of papers there.)
“I see how important my looks have been to people. I had no idea how much they mattered,” she writes. Beauty is “an all-access pass.” It opens doors and elicits job offers, sometimes long before they’re deserved. (Her early acting reviews were savage.)
Diane English, who cast Bergen at age 41 in “Murphy Brown” (the network preferred younger, tinier, vixenish Heather Locklear), says of her friend’s looks, “That’s a heavy mantle to carry around your whole life.”
Beauty “is not nothing,” says Bergen, attired in navy and fuchsia, J.Crew and Armani. “It’s to be dealt with. Nobody ever thinks of that. It’s often the elephant in the room, and you have to work to put people at ease.” The noted ventriloquist Edgar Bergen cautioned his daughter: “You know, Candy, it’s the beautiful women who commit suicide. It’s the beautiful women who struggle in life.”
Thanks, Dad. But she understood that he spoke from experience: “I mean, he dated Ava Gardner.”
She listened. “It’s harsh,” she says. “But I did exactly what he told me. I pursued my other interests, I wrote and I photographed. I never asked for a mirror on the set. Ever. I’m the only female or male that I’ve seen who didn’t care. I mean, once your makeup is done, that’s it. I don’t have much vanity, though more as I get older.”
She cops to the cosmetic work she’s had done — “I’m one of the few, I might add” — eyes, neck, Botox and Restylane, until the needle became too much.
Bergen has worked in film with Mike Nichols (“Carnal Knowledge”) and on the stage with Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones (Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man”), she married fascinating men, and she was the first woman to host “Saturday Night Live” (and then join the Five-Timers Club). She has resided in envy-inducing homes (featured frequently in Architectural Digest), and lives with Rose on an entire floor of a Fifth Avenue building (once home to Jackie Kennedy Onassis), in an apartment so grand it used to have two libraries. (She turned one into a TV/dog room. She’s more partial to the latter.) A child of Hollywood, she attended Elizabeth Taylor’s Easter egg hunts. She knows everyone you might dream of knowing. The tufted leather sofa in this apartment came from Roger Moore’s Los Angeles home; the Christmas cactus was a baby gift from Gianni Versace.
She describes Malle as “an altogether extraordinary man,” and the book is a tribute to the director of “Murmur of the Heart” and “Atlantic City.” They fell in love hard. “Both of us thought it was a miracle,” she writes, yet tended to their careers, working on separate continents, or in different parts of the country. They were “married for fifteen years, all of it faithfully but a third of it absentee.” And rarely, it appears, boring.
Bergen became famous early, but she became a star with “Murphy Brown,” the outspoken pit bull of a TV reporter, “Mike Wallace in a dress,” who happened to look like Candice Bergen and was notorious for shedding secretaries, 93 in all, the last portrayed by friend Bette Midler.
“I’d barely watched a half-hour sitcom in my life, much less been on one,” Bergen says. Comedy “was never a possibility because of the way I looked.” Yet it “was the only place where I was comfortable.” She has a pronounced irreverent streak: She was formerly spokeswoman for a fragrance that she compared so often to a household disinfectant, a rider had to be put in her contract to stop the jokes. She carries a tony Goyard tote (customized, they sell for almost $1,600) monogrammed with “FEH,” Yiddish for disgust or disapproval. Says Connie Freiberg, a friend since eighth grade, “She was always funny and very chic” and defined by “being mischievous, by having adventures.”
“Murphy Brown” became Bergen’s “first regular job,” where she thrived. “I had no fear whatsoever, no vanity for the laugh. To me, it was the answer to my prayers.”
In May 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle attacked Murphy’s fictional pregnancy as “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” The debate commanded headlines and fueled the culture wars, not only for months during an election year, but to the present day. On the sitcom set, mock Time and Newsweek Murphy covers were replaced by real ones featuring Bergen. Nearly 36 million viewers watched the September episode in which Murphy finally responded to the vice president’s criticism. She thanked Quayle when she collected her next Emmy.
“We came to create this character together, who was a person we aspired to be,” English says. “Gradually, we became more like her. Murphy didn’t have a filter. She wasn’t a people pleaser. Candice became a really aggressive driver. We just started to stand up more for ourselves.”
The show ran far too long, Bergen says, “way past what it should have, way past. It should have ended after four years,” when English left. The actress took the money and success for granted, she writes in her memoir. But when Malle got lymphoma, the show provided a sense of order, a routine to a life that had long been led without one. The book’s most affecting passages describe Malle’s final months — he died on Thanksgiving 1995 — and how Chloe and her father finally bonded.
Bergen’s later roles as a conniving, often bitter Vogue editor/pageant executive/New York mayor in “Sex and the City,” and in the movies “Miss Congeniality” and “Sweet Home Alabama” were not of Murphy caliber, though reflective of the acting work available to women of a certain age. She also found regular work on “Boston Legal.”
Bergen is also candid that Rose, a widower, wanted them to be together all the time, when she had thrived on independence. Though they’ve been married since 2000, Rose’s lifestyle continues to confound her.
“I’ve never had a conventional life. It’s my husband now who is unconventional,” she says. “Really, to watch a man with this briefcase go to work? To me, those are people who are another tribe.” Rose is also “not a man who seeks publicity,” Bergen notes, “although, in that case, you shouldn’t marry an actress.”
The memoir, warts and all — and a few descriptions of bodily functions — is the only way Bergen felt she could tell her story. Someday, there may be a third, equally candid, volume. Though, please, not after another interval of three decades.
“If you’re going to make the commitment to do a memoir, which is only narcissistic,” she says, “you have to really commit to the honesty of it.”
She pauses. “I think one could say I’ve held nothing back.”