The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan. What a hell of a title! And it’s now out in paperback.
If there is one classical myth serving as a leitmotif in this riveting, startling, and heartrending memoir by acclaimed biographer and former stage-and-screen actress Patricia Bosworth, it is the heralded Phoenix myth. Again and again, in her private life and her professional endeavors, Bosworth had to rise from the ashes and begin anew. Her victories were won against all odds.
She grew up as the daughter of a high-profile attorney whose liberal, left-leaning tendencies were rewarded during FDR’s epoch and the postwar Truman years too. But her father’s long, slow slide into alcoholism and depression coincided with the ways in which his career came undone as the McCarthy Era cast its shadows across America in the early 1950s.
After vigorously defending the Hollywood Ten in the late 1940s, when the postwar Red Scare accelerated, Bosworth’s father was in hot water with J. Edgar Hoover, whose FBI agents trailed him relentlessly. After Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s 1950 rise to fame, when his lists of alleged spies in the State Department and Communist allies in each nook and cranny of American life upended innumerable professional lives, it wasn’t long before young Patricia Bosworth witnessed her father’s deterioration.
Liquor and pills were omnipresent. And in that era, Bosworth’s mother and her father were representative of “successful” adults whose dependence on alcohol and sleeping pills (and other uppers and downers) was never questioned. Denial about everything was the status quo. When firm after firm let go of her father as a partner, neither Bosworth nor her beloved brother were told about anything untoward.
Everything’s fine, they were reminded. But nothing was.
Around three a.m. my brother and I were both awakened by a thud. It seemed to have come from the kitchen. We rushed into the upstairs hall and clutched at each other. Yanking on our robes, we tiptoed down the two flights of stairs to the first-floor landing. We were just in time to see our father lying inertly on a stretcher and being carried by two attendants out the front door to a waiting ambulance. We couldn’t tell whether he was dead or alive. Mama followed, wrapped in her mink coat and smearing lipstick across her mouth. She climbed into the ambulance after him, and it sped off into the night, sirens wailing. Daddy had taken an overdose of pills. It was another month before Daddy pulled himself together. He returned home pale and shaky, insisting he’d kicked the pills.
That crisis was followed by a short-term recovery, when yet another law firm made room for Bosworth’s father and he rallied long enough to rope in newly-minted film star Montgomery Clift as a client. Before age 20, Bosworth befriended Monty Clift.
More than three decades later, an older and wiser Patricia Bosworth took seriously the advice of her prestigious acting teacher (legendary Actors Studio innovator Lee Strasberg) and shifted her career from acting to writing. And she authored the first full-length biography of Montgomery Clift, which remains in circulation as an e-book to this day.
However, the chronological bookends of this captivating memoir are, by and large, the years spanning 1950 through 1966 – with flashbacks and fast-forwards included.
The bulk of her memoir chronicles the 1950s. Bosworth eloped when exceedingly young, and struggled against the miserable constrictions of her abusive husband’s idea of marriage. Unfortunately, society at large clung to equally harsh ideas about a woman’s role in life. Soon enough, their marriage capsized. Nonetheless, nothing was worse than her treasured brother’s suicide.
Tormented by his sexual orientation and tremendously high IQ, Bosworth’s younger brother found no peace, especially after he had been discovered at school in romantic embrace with another teenage boy. At age 18, he took his own life. Only six years later, her father also killed himself. (Meantime, her mother’s once-promising writing career stalled and fizzled out.)
In her quest to transcend all the above, and steeped in a culture that made smoking, drinking, pill-popping, misogyny, and domestic abuse all supposedly “normal,” the young adulthood of Patricia Bosworth was literally acted out within the milieu of the New York theatre in the 1950s. Eventually, for a brief period, Bosworth managed to balance a vibrant combination of high-profile appearances in works ranging from an esteemed stage version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie to a co-starring film role (opposite Audrey Hepburn) in The Nun’s Story. Bosworth was everywhere.
And yet, no matter what, she was anything but fulfilled. Her memoir recounts how desperately the spirit of the age was infused with the exhaustions of ambition, the contradictions and hypocrisies of men, and her own heedless adventures with sex.
Bosworth sums up with hard-won wisdom:
Today it’s said that women own their sexuality and can have sex on their own terms. I don’t know if that’s true, but back in the late 1950s, just before the sexual revolution and the advent of the Pill, women bargained with sex for love and money, or they were too repressed and ignorant beyond belief – especially about their bodies. I for one was totally disconnected from my emotions. So many sad lost nights reaching out to sad lost men.
The title of her memoir is a clever lure. In the end, it is her father’s gradual collapse and her brother’s tragic demise that truly define The Men in My Life. Nonetheless, there is also the carousel of her private life, about which she is blunt and honest.
How could she be otherwise? Throughout her entire life, but especially in the decade and a half that forms the body of this narrative, Bosworth has forged ahead in her own blunt, honest fashion. And she did so in domains where seeking truth, exposing one’s emotions and deepest feelings, served as methods of operation.
Not long after her brother’s suicide, Patricia Bosworth passed one of the toughest tests any American artist could face in her time. She was one of six (out of 500 hopeful applicants) whose audition at the Actors Studio in New York City met with success. Thus she spent her twenties amid workshops and classes and seminars and rehearsals with the likes of Paul Newman, Elaine Stritch, and many others (Marilyn Monroe included). Elia Kazan and Gore Vidal become allies and advisors. Lovers were rife, the years went by, and this former Sarah Lawrence College girl made her way in the embattled realms of theatre and film at a time of creative ferment in America.
Astutely, and with great clairvoyance, it is acting guru Lee Strasberg who finally tells Patricia Bosworth that she seems most centered and most engaged when seen in the act of writing. He recommends that she develop her gifts as an author. And she did.
Nothing happened easily or fast. But in bookstores and libraries all over the world now, readers can find critically acclaimed biographies by Patricia Bosworth about iconic figures as varied as Montgomery Clift, photographer Diane Arbus (for whom Bosworth once posed), Jane Fonda (with whom she studied acting), and Marlon Brando.
The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan is a narrative detour from her well-known biographies. But it is most definitely a necessary work, as it clears the air regarding the toxicity of the sentimentalized 1950s; it also lowers the boom on the contorted ways a free-spirited woman could be hamstrung then by the suffocating expectations of school, home, church, and work environs too.
In her own maverick way, Patricia Bosworth has written not just a personal memoir, but, something akin to the autobiography of a generation. This book matters.
(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was recently published by Heliotrope Books. He is completing a biography of Mario Puzo.)