Book Review: Dizzy & Jimmy

Dizzy & Jimmy by Liz Sheridan.

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Here’s the first part of the very long blurb from the dust jacket:

A long time ago, when I was a young dancer in New York City, I fell in love with Jimmy Dean and he fell in love with me.

So begins this beguiling memoir of Liz “Dizzy” Sheridan’s passionate yet ill-fated romance with the young, magnetic, soon-to-be-supernova James Dean. The year was 1951. Dean had recently arrived in Manhattan in search of Broadway stardom. Sheridan was a tall, graceful aspiring dancer. They met one rainy afternoon in the parlor of the Rehearsal Club, a chaperoned boarding house for young actresses–and before long Dizzy and Jimmy were inseparable. Together they hunted for jobs, haunted all-night bars and diners, and gloried in the innocent rebellion of early ’50s bohemian New York. Dizzy Sheridan and James Dean were lovers; they lived together; as even ardent Dean fans may be surprised to learn, they were engaged to be married. But when Dean began to find success on the Broadway stage and then was lured to Hollywood, the couple parted amid tears and broken dreams–dreams that would be dashed forever when Dean died in a car crash in 1955, not long after seeing Dizzy for the last time.

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This is James Dean. Unless you’re interested in him (or Liz Sheridan herself), this book probably won’t be interesting to you unless you really enjoy memoirs about young love.

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Ms. Sheridan, “Dizzy”, was a dancer and an actress. You might recognize her from Alf or from playing Jerry’s mom on Seinfeld.

Dizzy and Jimmy were best friends and lovers for over a year, and this book is her memoir of those times. It is fantastically classy and tasteful, relatable, funny, and romantic (aching heart, tears flowing, warm romance). She shares personal moments and the intimate details of their relationship. Because the book was published about fifty years after the romance there’s no way the included dialogue is verbatim, but one never really forgets the way another person spoke or behaved. And it’s those little details that really made me feel like I was living through the romance with them. This book, more than any other I’ve read, really helped me to understand what spending time with a man as complicated as James Dean would have actually been like.

As a great big James Dean fan, I’ve read several James Dean biographies in the last twenty years. Most of them leave a lot to be desired. But what was always conspicuously absent from those books was Dizzy Sheridan. Typically they would give her what amounted to a footnote: “Oh yeah, he also, um, dated Dizzy Sheridan for a year and they were engaged.  Moving on!” She wasn’t even featured as a character in the James Franco movie based on his life. This always bugged me. Those biographies would be filled with anecdotes from random people who only met Jimmy once in passing, but the biographer didn’t even bother to speak to Dizzy?

But now I know–she didn’t speak to them. Their relationship was theirs, and not for the public. When James Dean died so suddenly, only one of his movies had been released. And as Rebel Without a Cause came out, and then Giant, the public were in a frenzy to get everything James Dean they could find. The studios capitalized on this and produced all kinds of photos and fictitious interviews, even an entire movie, anything they could conjure to satisfy the public. But Dizzy remained silent.

I don’t know why she finally decided to write about her relationship with Jimmy, but I am grateful to her and I hope she doesn’t regret it. I can’t imagine how painful it must have been for her, both to experience Jimmy’s passing and then to write about it. Hopefully writing it down brought her some kind of peace or closure. After finishing the book, I think Dizzy would be a wonderful person to know, and I completely understand why Jimmy was in love with her.

If you’re interested in reading about James Dean, this book would be a great place to start.

Book Review: Vivien

Vivien The Life of Vivien Leigh by Alexander Walker

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I picked up a copy of this biography of Vivien Leigh years ago when I was going through a biography kick. Gone With the Wind is one of my favorite movies, and I always wondered why she didn’t appear in many films after that. I knew she suffered from bipolar disorder and passed away at a young age due to tuberculosis, but that was as far as my knowledge of Ms. Leigh went.

After finishing this book, I know that Ms. Leigh didn’t make many movies because she preferred performing in the theatre. The book also told me about her two marriages and her daughter, along with a chronological listing of the main events of her life.

But, I didn’t learn anything I couldn’t have easily discovered on her IMDb page or her wikipedia page.

The book is divided into three sections: Leigh (her first husband), Larry (her second husband), and Jack (her male companion at the end of her life). Frustratingly, the book reads more like an ode to these men rather than a biography of Ms. Leigh. In fact, I suspect the author really wanted to write a biography of Sir Laurence Olivier (aka Larry) but couldn’t get a publisher to pay him for that due to the many already available Olivier biographies, not to mention Sir Laurence’s autobiography.

And so this book feels like a lengthy anecdote regarding Olivier’s second wife and how she affected his life. Here and there you catch a glimpse of what Ms. Leigh might have been like herself, but these moments always came across as detached and offhand. She had a great many friends and admirers, and was not without her eccentricities, but all of this was told through the eyes of men agonized by being in love with a woman with bipolar disorder. And, the author seems to presume that anyone reading this book is already well aware of Ms. Leigh’s diagnosis and personality. It’s the rare biography that was written for her friends and family instead of her fans.

I’ve read many biographies, but this is the first one that felt voyeuristic to me. Despite the book’s missing personal details, I felt as though I was invading Ms. Leigh’s privacy. If this book taught me anything it was that she was acutely aware of her fans and her public persona, and that maintaining her proper, graceful image was terribly important to her. So really, why should any respectful biography of Vivien Leigh contain any personal details?

And why should I read biographies, anyway? Just because someone is famous does not mean their privacy is forfeit or that I have any right to know their life story. I stopped buying magazines years ago because I got so tired of my dollar funding paparazzi photos. And now I can’t help but think that biographies are just another part of that intrusive industry.

I pulled the rest of the unread contemporary biographies from my shelves. They’ll go to Good Will with this one.

Book Review: Alive

Alive by Piers Paul Read

Alive

The blurb from the inside cover:

Their plane crashed high in the Andes. Their only shelter was the plane’s shattered fuselage, their only supplies a little wine and some bits of candy. In the beginning, there were thirty-two survivors. Then, only twenty-seven; then, nineteen . . . and, in the end, sixteen. This is their story–the greatest modern epic of catastrophe and human endurance.

A few years ago, I found this at a used book store and I bought it out of sheer morbid curiosity. I saw the movie based on this book when I was young, but the only elements I remembered were the cannibalism and that Ethan Hawke’s character was kind of a pushy jerk. 

This is the story of forty-five people, most of whom were rugby players, on a chartered plane flying from Uruguay to Chile on Friday the 13th of October, 1972. Know what’s between Uruguay and Chile? The Andes. The plane, called the Fairchild, flew off course in a storm. Its right wing clipped a mountain, and the Fairchild crashed.

The boys were not dressed for especially cold weather and there were no real food supplies with them. The radio in the plane had been destroyed, but they had a small transistor radio that managed to pick up the news. After ten days, they learned that the search for them had been called off. Facing starvation, they made a choice to eat the food that was available to them.

But, that’s not really the whole story. If cannibalism is the only aspect of this tragic tale that interests you, you might as well just watch the craptastic movie, and you should check out the only slightly better Ravenous while you’re at it. Or if you really feel like sitting through a truly terrible movie about cannibalism, check out Bone Tomahawk.

This book was written with the cooperation of the sixteen survivors. The media in the 1970s was no better than the media is today, and reporters had a field day when these boys were recovered more than seventy days after their plane crashed. Wild stories and accusations were thrown around in the media with no respect for the living or the dead. And so the survivors put this book forward as a way to tell their side of the story. There is a note from Mr. Read at the beginning of the book that indicates not all of the survivors are pleased with his book. You can’t please everyone all of the time, though.

Having read this, I can honestly say those boys didn’t do anything wrong or malicious, certainly nothing that any of them should be ashamed of. They were in an extreme situation. And I believe that were they not healthy young rugby players who were used to working together as a team, none of them would have survived. The things they did in order to survive their injuries, starvation, avalanches, sunburns and sun-blindness, and finally managing to rescue themselves from the mountain, were all carefully considered and planned. These were thoughtful young men with a stubbornness that kept them alive. And the man Ethan Hawke’s character is based on? Absolutely not a pushy jerk.

There is also a great deal of information in the book regarding the relentless searching the parents did. Many of them were convinced their boys were still alive and followed every lead, no matter how dubious (yes, they even talked to psychics). And I was struck by how much the people and governments of Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile all worked together to help search for the crashed plane. Borders don’t mean anything when it comes to a parent searching for a lost child, do they?

This book does not have any sensationalism or scandal. It is a fair account with objective insights into each of the boys’ characters, both in the high times and the low. If you’re one that enjoys tales of survival, near-death experiences, triumphs of the human spirit, etc., give this book a try. It’s written well and is an enjoyable, intense read.

And if I may suggest…

Touching the Void

Touching the Void by Joe Simpson (also a brilliant film) is the autobiographical tale of two men climbing Siula Grande in the Andes. They become separated and each assumes the other died. Alone and injured, they both survived to tell the tale. And if I ever meet Joe Simpson, I’m going to hug him tight.

And of course there’s…

Endurance

The Endurance by Caroline Alexander, or really any book about Ernest Shackleton’s trip to the South Pole. To date this is the only book I’ve read of that expedition, and oh boy! It will make you feel wimpy and cold.

And that might be why I read about these heroic adventures. I don’t think I would have survived in any of these situations, and these heroes motivate me to try to become stronger.

And to not go south.

Book Review: Margaret Mitchell Reporter

Margaret Mitchell Reporter

Margaret Mitchell Reporter, edited by Patrick Allen

The blurb from the dust jacket:

Captivating journalism from the pioneering author of Gone With the Wind, including:

  • Mitchell’s first professional writing assignment – an interview with an Atlanta socialite whose couture-buying trip to Italy was interrupted by the Fascist takeover.
  • conversations of the flapper-era famous and infamous, including matinee idol Rudolph Valentino and Harry K. Thaw, convicted murderer of high-society architect Stanford White.
  • a jailhouse interview with a DeKalb County, Georgia, convict who made artificial flowers from scraps and sold them from his cell to support his family.
  • the concerns of the Jazz Age beauty: can bobbed-hair girls be good? will Atlanta women ever go for the knickerbocker? which Atlanta men have mastered the newest dance steps and slang?
  • a rollicking account of Georgia debutantes afoot in Egypt as King Tutankhamen’s tomb is explored.
  • a sketch of a ten-year-old’s poignant visit to the governor of Georgia appealing for a pardon for her mother, a “lifer” at the state prison farm.
  • profiles of prominent Georgia Civil War generals, the research for which, scholars believe, led her to her work on Gone With the Wind.
  • chronicles of the youth rebellion of the 1920’s which resulted in the end of debutante culture and the advent of the New Woman.

The sixty-four columns in Margaret Mitchell Reporter present a never-before-seen portrait of a lively, far-ranging mind and an insightful observer well on the way to her full literary power long before the world even knew her name.

I snagged a copy of this book because I love Gone With the Wind and wanted to read anything else Margaret Mitchell had written, and I’m glad I did. Ms. Mitchell was a very talented writer and it was a pleasure to read this book.

Some of my favorite articles included an interview with two young women who were diagnosed with tuberculosis, and so they set off on foot to Texas to cure their disease, selling magazine subscriptions along the way to fund their adventure. In another she interviewed a woman who raised canaries, and the stories the woman told about bird behavior were more eerie than any Hitchcock movie.

Ms. Mitchell wrote these articles in the early 1920’s, and she was an incredibly skilled, professional journalist. When I compare these thoughtful, unbiased, interesting articles with the news stories I read today in local, national, and international publications, I shake my head at how pathetic the state of journalism has become.

If you have an interest in history, this book offers a fascinating glimpse into the 20’s and even the 19th century as Ms. Mitchell interviewed many Civil War survivors. She chatted with high society folks, college students, drifters, inmates, and celebrities. Her meeting with Valentino was hysterical.

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Trying to sum this book up, I think of words like graceful, dignified, insightful, eloquent, satisfying. They all fit. If you’re interested at all, I highly recommend checking it out.