Biography by Twitter, or The Aftershocks of Biography


Carl Rollyson

After I finish a biography I become my own reader. Of course, I recognize that I’m the one who wrote the book, but at the same time, I have some distance from it and begin to see it differently. While writing about Dana Andrews I thought deeply about his alcoholism and about my father’s own drinking. I wrote about the autobiographical roots of Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews in a previous column, but my reactions to my own work continue to reverberate like aftershocks.

Because I have developed close relationships with Dana’s daughters, I still write to them about their father. Here is an email I just sent to them:

I think I may have pinpointed the time when your father started drinking heavily. For some reason, I did not quite make the connection in my book—or make it strongly enough. In my book, I quote a letter your father wrote to his brother Charles about his disenchantment with Hollywood, a cold and calculating place, he says. Then when I’m discussing The North Star, I mention that Lewis Milestone tells Farley Granger not to bother your father because he is recovering from a heavy night of drinking. Granger reports this conversation in his memoir. The letter and Farley Granger’s memoir seem to demonstrate that just as your father was on the cusp of stardom (just before Laura) he was disgusted with the world in which he had to work. To relieve the stress, he took to drinking heavily. Of course, what I’m saying is not news to you, except, perhaps, in so far as I think I have nailed down when the drinking emerges as a significant factor in your father’s career.

The odd thing is that I suddenly put 2 and 2 together while scanning my biography for the twitter entries I make each morning promoting Hollywood Enigma. I never thought that twittering would yield an insight. But there it is. Certainly a reader of my biography could make the connection between the letter and the passage I quote from Farley Granger’s memoir, but I wish I had done so a little more explicitly.

Here is what Susan Andrews wrote in reply to my email:

Thank you Carl. Streetcar named Desire opened on Broadway in December, 1947. It was then that my father read the piece in the New York Times by Tennessee Williams regarding success and the “morning after” feeling. My father underlined, “I sat down and looked about me and was suddenly very depressed.” and later on annotated the following: “I soon found myself becoming indifferent to people. A well of cynicism arose in me. Conversations all sounded like they had been recorded years ago and were being played back on a turntable. [Underlining stops but the whole paragraph is annotated below] Sincerity and kindliness seemed to have gone out of my friends’ voices. I suspected them of hypocrisy. I stopped calling them, stopped seeing them. I was impatient of what I took to be inane flattery.” In the margin below that paragraph he wrote, “(I know exactly what he means.).” And lastly, towards the end of the piece, Dad underlined this sentence: “Security is a kind of death.” His last notation, in his lovely writing, says, “Keep this!” and we did!

Well, he began drinking long before 1947. Laura was made in 1944 and North Star before that. In fact, Carl, it was with you that I learned that Dad was partying heartily in Austin that famous summer noted in Norma’s letters, before he ever made the trip to L.A. The seed had been planted.

Carl, I wish to reiterate an important point that you may or may not agree with. Dad had plenty of good reasons to drink. His despondence mirrored in Williams’ article would be reason enough. There was a darkness in there, as there often is with artistry, a sense of being different; clearly, he was a troubled guy, an anomaly with a dark family. Many successful artists fit that description. But they do not all become alcoholics. Although many do. Alcoholics can’t drink. I am not an alcoholic, I can drink a couple of glasses of wine, and then I don’t want anymore. It doesn’t hit the addict button in me. Dad was an alcoholic, and over time it caught up with him. He could no sooner have two drinks than he could sit still. There were many psychological, and perhaps neurological (ADHD?) reasons that surely compelled him to drink. But once he did, the secondary “disease” of alcoholism took over.

I love that you’re still coming up with new insights about DA. So am I! So are my brother and sister too. He’s a very interesting character. And that’s why I’m so glad that you have done all this research and written a biography. Thank you.

When I was a child, my mother used to try to explain him to me/us. Once she did so by using the word, “megalomaniac.” That must have been on a bad day. I still get a chuckle about it, and I remember exactly where I was, in the Arcola house, when I was probably about 9. I always thought, yea, like Ahab in Moby Dick. Yes, all these years later I can note that Ahab was played by Dad’s nemesis, Gregory Peck!

You can see how fortunate I was to have Susan Andrews helping me with this biography. Below is my response to her:

To me the key sentence in your response is “Alcoholics can’t drink.” You can drink two glasses of wine. So can I. I never come anywhere near alcoholism, even though my father was an alcoholic. Whatever else was happening, I feel sure that part of the explanation is neurological. It can’t all be psychological. After a few glasses of wine, I feel more mellow, but I don’t keep drinking. Drinking relaxed your father, but then he couldn’t stop. The intense but also boring routine of filmmaking might make me say after a long day, “I need a drink!” And I’d probably have one. But I wouldn’t keep drinking. Your father would. So would mine. I’d watch him down beer after beer—maybe a dozen bottles in the course of an evening. I know. Because he would be sending me to get another bottle.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop thinking about your father anymore than I could stop thinking about mine. My father had a kind of genius but he never accomplished anything. Yours did. Boy, did he ever.

Books mentioned in this column:
Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews by Carl Rollyson (University Press of Mississippi, 2012)


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. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews is now out and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. He is currently writing a biography of Amy Lowell. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.



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