Biography, My Father, Dana Andrews, and Me


Carl Rollyson

Here I sit, day-after-day, beginning usually by 6:00 a.m. and quitting between 11:00 and noon, writing my biography of Dana Andrews (1909–1992), best known for playing the detective in Laura (1944), the picture (he always said picture) that made him a star. I hope to finish a draft by July, so that I can get on with my biography of Sylvia Plath. Not that I am rushing it. Dana Andrews is no less important to me than Sylvia Plath, and in some ways he is more important to me than she is (more on this later). I’m just explaining the way I work. I often describe my writing as exercising a mental muscle, which has grown stronger, I believe, by my diurnal, matter of fact method of getting to work. Rare is the day I fail to produce a thousand words. I rarely get sick. I teach twice a week and can’t write on those days. Otherwise, I don’t deviate much from this regimen, which fills me with a sense of joy, of fullness, like nothing else does. After noon I eat, play with my Scotties, ride a bike, garden, go to the gym or, if I can summon the energy, read (now usually on my Kindle, iPhone, or iPad). If I can find what I want as an audio or a text-to-speech Kindle book, I am overjoyed to have someone to read to me, even in a computer generated voice. At night, I watch movies or television series—usually on Netflix or Hulu Plus. I can’t do much else, I guess, because of who I am and because I find biography an all-consuming enterprise. Except for the writing part, I do not do this alone. I also have a low maintenance wife, Lisa Paddock, who edits much of what I write—which is fortunate for you, dear reader—who watches movies with me and has to put up with my palaver about what I’ve just written. A writer herself (a better one than I), she understands what a self-absorbed biography drone I have become. It can’t be easy for her. I’m afraid to ask. (Yes, she will have edited this column before I send it in to BiblioBuffet for further editing.)

I say all this, in part, in response to my last column, in which I quoted Keats, who wanted to know what writers do while they are writing. I don’t suppose there is any other excuse I can offer for that self-indulgent paragraph above. I will try to make amends by returning to my biographical subject, Dana Andrews, explaining why he is important and why it is important that I write about him. Biographers don’t usually get so personal, since readers come to their books wanting to know about the subject, not the biographer. And yet, as Paul Murray Kendall asserts in The Art of Biography, every biography is an autobiography. That statement may not hold true for every biographer, of course. I know a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who scoffs at the idea, saying it is the subject that interests him, not some personal connection he believes exists. For him, I suspect, the psychology of the biographer is a bore, not to mention a diversion from the main event. But for me this column is a license for diversion—as well as, in a very immediate sense, a momentary departure from writing the next thousand words of my Dana Andrews biography.

As long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with Laura. I can’t remember when this obsession started, but I have a vivid memory of showing the film to my former agent one summer in the mid-1990s. It was late at night, and after watching it on a fairly small screen in VHS format, she turned to me perplexed. The plot seemed improbable; the film was dated. I could hardly contain my outrage. She did not respond to it as a stylized piece of romanticism—a film noir as the French so appositely started calling it in the 1950s—but rather as a piece of failed realism. I should have known then what I realized only years later: I should junk that agent! Just recently, when I told an old professor of mine about my Dana Andrews biography, he said condescendingly, “What a wonderful piece of schlock Laura is.” He did not seem to see the steam coming out of my ears. And let me record one more insult before I rev up my motor about Laura: “Isn't Dana Andrews a rather small subject?” This from a member of the NYU biography seminar I attend. I held my tongue and smoldered. As Billy Crystal says, “Don't get me started!”

You get it, I’m sure. To speak slightingly of Laura or Dana Andrews is to strike at the heart of what I do, what I am, and where I come from. When I watch Laura and Dana Andrews, I am watching myself, my father, and what I do as a biographer.

By the time I was thirteen, my father was dead, and I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: be an actor. Something about impersonating other characters appealed to me, and only much later did I realize that this draw was part of the biographical impulse: an inherent fascination with the way other lives are put together while one is putting together one’s own. The choices people make, the conditions surrounding those choices, the “script” we make of our lives—this was what fascinated me. I loved to hear my father talk about his years as a cop in 1940s Detroit. Ordinarily a taciturn man, he came to life telling me about the Detroit race riots of 1943, when he got knifed in the hand, and then later when he was called to a robbery in progress and had to shoot a man, who took three days to die in the hospital. He even took me to the scene of the shooting and showed me how it had played out. My father was, in short, a romantic figure. My mother thought he bore a resemblance to Clark Gable. If so, it was very slight, but he was a handsome man and nothing like my friends’ mild-mannered fathers. I was afraid of my father, but not because he did anything cruel to me. I can’t remember him ever hitting me. But then he did not have to. He was just awesome—a character right out of a film noir. He would sit eating dinner, often not uttering a word, reading (usually) a copy of U. S. News and World Report. He never finished high school, but he was brilliant. He was also self-defeating—no follow-through, you might say. When he died of cancer, I felt I was on my own. No one else could possibly take my father’s place—although my drama teacher, James Allen Jones, a charismatic black man who had played Othello on the British stage—came very close. My mother could not have been more supportive, but she served mainly as a prop that her self-centered son took for granted while he pursued his pell mell course to stardom.

But of course I did not become a star. Summer stock: check. Community theater: check. College and some television performances: check. I think I was a contender, but I lacked the nerve to go for broke—the nerve that Dana Andrews . . . but I am getting ahead of my story.

Almost two years ago I became consulting editor for the Hollywood Legends series published by the University Press of Mississippi. The job entails reading proposals and manuscripts, as well as soliciting proposals for biographies of movie stars and others in Hollywood (producers, directors, and so on) who might fairly be considered legends. (Email me if you have a subject in mind). Not too long after I assumed this position, the director of the press, Leila Salisbury, forwarded an email from Susan Andrews, Dana Andrews’s youngest child. Susan has an older sister, Katharine, and a brother, Stephen. Dana also had another son by a first marriage that ended tragically with his young wife’s death. Susan was looking for a biographer. Did Leila know of anyone who might be interested? She forwarded the query to me.

In this case, I did not have to consider who would be interested, I was—especially when it became clear that Dana had kept a diary, was a wonderful letter writer, and kept all sorts of documents that biographers crave. Even though I was committed to writing a biography of Amy Lowell, I simply could not resist. Other than my powerful attraction to Laura, I did not know much about Dana Andrews, to be honest. I reacted with my gut. Although this biography would be written with the full cooperation of his family, I decided to do it mainly because the project seemed not merely right for me, but (again based on very little evidence) something I must do.

I knew, for one thing, that Dana and my father were of the same generation and that, on screen, in Laura, at any rate, he behaved like my father, one of the walking wounded. (Dana’s character, Mark McPherson, carried around a leg full of lead collected during a shoot-out with criminals.) Then I learned that like my father, Dana was one of thirteen children. He had grown up in Texas, the son of a Baptist preacher who railed against movies and drinking—both of which Dana took up the first chance he got. Essentially, Dana ran away from home and hitchhiked to California. My father, who also became an alcoholic, ran away at fifteen and, lying about his age, enlisted in the navy. Both ended up in California in the 1930s, pumping gas. Many people would have predicted that both men would never amount to much, even though both had considerable charisma. At this point, I’m going to leave my father out of it simply because, although the autobiographical impulse may get me started owing to identification with a biographical subject, the subject soon takes over. To be honest, as a biographer I cannot use biography simply as some sort of therapy, even though I find the process of writing biography an analeptic adventure. I'm also going to refrain from telling you how Dana made the transition from pumping gas to appearing on the silver screen. It took nearly ten years (1931-1939) before he signed his first movie contract, but to read the details you're just going to have to buy my book (due out in late spring of 2012).

Since I never made it to the big screen, watching Dana act on film is a vicarious experience for me. But the experience is also a biographer’s dream. As Mark McPherson, Dana listens to various Manhattanites describe Laura’s career-girl progress through the world of fashion. She comes to New York, as I did, to make a success of herself. Laura’s mentor, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) denigrates Mark as a lowlife type incapable of appreciating a lady like Laura, but our hero is alternately fascinated and repelled by the high-performance, deceitful world of literary and cafe society. I side with Mark, never having liked this milieu, even if my subjects have often been drawn from it. To my surprise, Dana felt the same way about Hollywood. It was mostly phony to him, even though he made his living there. Just how out of it I am was best expressed in super agent Andrew Wylie's reaction to the announcement that my wife and I were writing a biography of Susan Sontag: “Who are these people?” he asked. “I’ve never heard of them.” We were the detectives deemed unworthy since we were not a part of the inner circle—like Mark, the biographer, an outsider having to figure out who murdered Laura. Not only does he interview those close to her, as any respectable biographer/detective would, he gazes at her portrait again and again, reads her letters, rummages through her lingerie drawer, opens a bottle of her perfume and smells it—just as I smelled one of Amy Lowell’s cigars, which I found deposited at the Brown University library. Mark’s immersion in Laura’s things reminds me of a conversation with a Brooklyn neighbor (when I was living in Brooklyn) who knew the man who cleaned Sontag’s apartment. I wanted to speak with that man for all the same reasons I had spoken with Rebecca West’s hairdresser. Alas, I never did get to that Sontag cleaner-upper. He felt it would be wrong to tattle. I was the criminal, after all—at least that’s how some people seem to think of biographers. Now, if Sontag had committed a crime, that would be a different story.

At any rate, Mark makes himself at home in Laura’s apartment, thus provoking my envy. He drinks her whisky and falls asleep, only to be startled by her entrance. (In fact, another woman mistaken for Laura was the murder victim). Laura is not dead! Mark rubs his eyes and shakes his head, but the apparition of Laura, the ravishing beauty Gene Tierney, does not disappear. I’ve had such experiences, but only in dreams, such as when a charming Susan Sontag appeared to me and engaged in friendly chatter—as she did in reality the one time I met her, in Warsaw, Poland.

Even though by this point Mark has fallen in love with Laura, this ideal woman who remains unspoiled despite her success in Manhattan, he cross-examines her, suspecting that he will find a flaw in this too perfect, lovely fantasy of a woman. He takes her down to the police station and shines a bright light on her face, but her beauty does not fade, her innocence remains intact. The murderer is . . . well, I won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen the picture. The point is that Laura has not disappointed Mark, her biographer, as the subject of his imaginings.

The movie is profoundly satisfying because Laura falls in love with her biographer (at least that is what Mark has become for me). He has read private correspondence of hers that she never meant anyone to see, and yet, as offended as she is by his prying, she also realizes that he is the first man ever to truly understand and accept her as she is. And that, of course is what biographers are supposed to do. In the end, we must love our subjects (not in the romantic sense) as individuals who have become completely and intrinsically important to us. There are no small parts, only small actors. The same is true for biography: no small subjects, only small biographers.


Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. He is currently completing a biography of Dana Andrews and beginning work on a biography of Sylvia Plath. When not writing, he is playing with his three Scotties. Contact Carl.



Contact Us || Site Map || || Article Search || © 2006 - 2012 BiblioBuffet