Monday, March 26, 2012

The Farmer's Daughter Remembered The Biography of Actress Inger Stevens by William T. Patterson

Swedish-born Inger Stevens, originally Stensland, knew from the age of six that she would be an actress. Often compared to Grace Kelly, a comparison which she detested, Inger would have preferred to have been called “the new Greta Garbo,” but she never achieved that level of legend or fame, though in her fifteen year career she would appear in sixteen movies, including Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Buccaneer,” over fifty tv shows, including all 101 episodes of her own hit show “The Farmer’s Daughter,” 3 Broadway plays, numerous summer stock productions, and hundreds of personal and publicity appearances. She overcame a difficult childhood—abandonment by her mother, an aloof and emotionally distant father, and a cruel stepmother—the determined, independent-minded young woman worked hard to better herself, working as a cashier, telephone operator, and in record stores and selling popcorn and tickets in movie theaters, and even a couple of short stints in burlesque chorus lines to pay for modeling lessons to give her poise and learn makeup techniques, singing lessons to improve her fine soprano voice, and ballet, where in exchange for helping with the younger pupils she was given free tuition. Though the work bored her out of her mind, this natural blonde with a perfect 34-22-34 figure, later worked as a model for ready-to-wear clothing lines to support herself and finance her move to New York where she could attend casting calls and auditions. Determined to be a serious actress, not just another blonde cutie, she managed to persuade Lee Strasberg, who had little faith in her, to accept her at his Actors Studios where the likes of Marlon Brandon and Marilyn Monroe studied Method Acting. A prolific reader all her life, Inger loved poetry, and called her set of encyclopedias her “pride and joy,” she could converse intelligently on almost any subject, she also enjoyed playing chess, pool, and cards, painting, collecting art, teaching herself to play piano and guitar, and embroidering yellow flowers. And after her aunt wrote a book about her experiences caring for her two mentally handicapped children, Inger began to devote much of her free time to this cause, organizing celebrity art exhibits to raise money for institutes to help these children.

Inger began obtaining work in television commercials, and later numerous tv series and drama anthologies. Throughout her career she would appear on such shows as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Bonanza,” “Route 66,” “Twilight Zone,” “Playhouse 90,” “Studio One,” and “The Dick Powell Show,” an episode where of which, “The Price of Tomatoes,” where she played opposite a young Peter Falk, earned her an Emmy nomination, though she lost out to Julie Harris’ “Victoria Regina,” as well as several talk and game shows as her fame increased. She also acted on stage in summer stock and even on Broadway, though most of the plays were flops, critics were almost united in their praise of Inger. From New York, where she left behind a rocky marriage to her volatile and insanely jealous agent, whom she would soon divorce, Hollywood beckoned. When Fox failed to sign her to a contract, Paramount did. And Inger’s star was on the rise. Along the way there were numerous affairs with her leading men, including, if there is any truth to the rumors, Bing Crosby, Harry Belafonte, Clint Eastwood, Dean Martin, and Burt Reyonds. There was also a suicide attempt in 1959 after actor Harry Belafonte reneged on his promise to leave his wife and children and marry her, though this was kept secret as interracial romances and marriages were still frowned on by most of the public. The press reported that Inger downed 25 sleeping pills with an ammonia chaser which left her blind for two weeks, with her legs swollen to four times their normal size, and a blood clot in her lungs. But according to the author this was grossly exaggerated by the press.

In 1961 Inger secretly married the hard-drinking, womanizing, and abusive Isaac Lolette “Ike” Jones, a smalltime actor and musician, who worked for and toured with Nat King Cole. The couple agreed to keep their marriage a secret so as not to damage Inger’s career and only a few close friends were ever made privy to the secret. It is generally believed that the couple married traveled to Tijuana, Mexico to be married, but somehow, perhaps through sloppy filing or a clerical error, all documentation subsequently disappeared, even when it was in the best interests of Inger or Ike, following her dearth when he petitioned the court to make him executor of her estate, to prove the validity of their marriage. Whatever the truth, the couple lived together, albeit discreetly, on and off again as they quarreled, parted, and reconciled repeatedly, for the rest of Inger’s life. Ike cast a spell over Inger which she could never really break.

In 1963 she landed the starring role in a new tv series called “The Farmer’s Daughter,” loosely based on the 1947 hit film that earned Loretta Young an Oscar. It was an instant hit and ran for three years. Inger threw herself into promoting the show, keeping up such a crowded and frenetic scheduled of personal appearances, both in person and on television, that she joked that the “William Tell Overture” would be the perfect musical background for her schedule. During this time rumors occasionally bubbled to the surface that Inger was married to a black man, but she always vigoriously denied it and gave many interviews about her longing for love and loneliness. The prodcurers of “The Farmer’s Daughter’s,” concerned for their production and loss of sponsors even hired private detectives to search the marriage records of every state, but luckily for Inger they never thought to try Mexico. Satisfied that they had nothing to fear, the series ran smoothly for most of its three year run, despite occasional dips in viewer numbers, and Inger won a Golden Globe for Best Female Television Star of 1963. In the final season, when Inger’s character, Katy, married her congressman boss, it was the highest rated show in its time slot and the most watched episode of the entire series. After the series ended in 1966, Inger returned to movies, appearing in a series of westerns and thrillers, and even briefly baring her breasts to Walter Matthau in the popular comedy “A Guide for the Married Man.”

While filming “5 Card Stud” with Dean Martin on location in Mexico, Inger and her leading man became lovers, but instead of ending with the film, their relationship progressed into something more serious. When they returned to Hollywood, Inger left Ike and lived in a house rented for her by Dean Martin. But the affair soon ended, some believe because Dean refused to leave his wife, though Inger claimed she left him because he wanted her to participate in a ménage a trios with him and his wife.

By this point in her life, Inger had decided that she wanted to make a fresh start, without Ike in her life. She wanted a man who could give her love, devotion, and fidelity; not someone like Ike who hosted parties for other women in their home while Inger was away on location, once she even returned early and found him with her former secretary, who to add insult to injury, was wearing one of Inger’s dresses. The couple separated again. But, as before, they were unable to make it stick, they couldn’t live with each other or without each other. And Inger wanted to give up acting in a year or two, and branch out into screenwriting and directing, and start a family. If she could make her marriage work, she was even, according to a close friend, contemplating going public, so they wouldn’t have to hide anymore and could have children.

In 1970, Inger went to Arizona to make a movie with Burt Reynolds. Predictably, the pair became lovers, and like her previous relationship with Dean Martin, this one became more than a fling. Inger told Ike it was over and he beat her so badly she couldn’t show herself in public for a week. And the relationship with Burt Reynolds was also proving volatile, leading Inger to question whether he was really the man for her.

But as far as her career was concerned, things were looking up, Inger had just signed a contract with Aaron Spelling to star in his new series “The Most Deadly Game,” she had bought a new wardrobe to wear on screen, that would also spill over into her real life, and had made arrangements to purchase some expensive antique chairs in Mexico for her home.

On the morning of April 30, 1970, Inger’s friend and hairdresser, Lola, found Inger lying dead in her nightgown on her kitchen floor. She was thirty-five years old. The autopsy revealed the cause of death was an overdose of sleeping pills. There was also a fresh cut on Inger’s chin, she had quarreled with Burt Reynolds the day before and he had hit her. Curiously, sandwich fixings were laid out on the kitchen counter, a glass of vodka, which Inger reputedly never drank, the phone was missing from the living room, and the bedroom rug was turned back and photos of Burt Reynolds hidden beneath it, red Seconal capsules, a popular sleeping pill, and one which Inger, supposedly never took, were scattered all over the bedroom floor, and there was also a bottle of an asthma medication--a condition which Inger did not suffer from--was found with her body in the kitchen. The author of this book, a former private investigator, believes this all points to a sinister conclusion, that Inger might have been forced to ingest the pills that took her life, and many of Inger’s friends refused to accept that she had intentionally ended her life; her future looked too bright for that. She spoke to several people on the phone during her last day and night and all reported she sounded upbeat, not down or depressed at all.

I am personally straddling the fence between suicide and murder, with one leg dangling on each side, but I am leaning more towards the former. I readily admit some of the circumstances are puzzling, that there are many questions surrounding Inger Steven’s demise that have never been satisfactorily answered. But one must remember that in Hollywood drugs have always been readily available, and just because Inger never had a prescription for Seconal, or was never known to take it, doesn’t mean she didn’t somehow obtain it, and that no one ever came forward claiming to have supplied it really doesn’t surprise me. Ike often entertained other women in their home when Inger was out of town; perhaps one of those women left behind the sleeping pills as well as the mysterious asthma medication. As for the vodka, when discussing Inger’s drinking habits and preferences, the author mentioned that she liked a Scandinavian drink called Aquavita, which he compared to vodka flavored with caraway; perhaps Inger wanted a strong drink and since vodka was on hand, perhaps for guests who liked it or bought by Ike for himself or his lady friends, she decided to make do with it.

When I was much younger (I'll be 37 next Thursday), I used to be a very enthusiastic supporter of the murder conspiracy theories surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s mysterious death, like many I used to believe she had too much to live for, so many exciting plans and projects in the works, but time has taught me that looking at a person’s life from the outside is not the same as looking at it from the inside as only they can see it. As a person who has had many dark nights of the soul, even in the daytime, and often been told that I have “no reason to be unhappy” while I struggle with my own loneliness and the depression it causes, I know that the pain, and the fear, the thought of a future alone, can like a sudden, violent tsunami, overwhelm and drown out all the achievements, hopes, plans, and dreams that everyone else sees as evidence of a bright future. And, as Boy George in his Culture Club heyday once sang in a song he wrote about the troubled actress Frances Farmer, “spirits die alone at night of life they cannot hold.” I now think this is what happened to Marilyn, as well as Inger Stevens.

The book ends with a moving elegy to Inger’s memory, delivered at a memorial service attended by her friends, before her body was cremated and the ashes scattered at sea. The final chapter concerns the tangled web of Inger’s substantial estate, which many decades after her death remains unsettled, with many claims, discrepancies in the financial records, unlawful sales of property, etc. cluttering up the nearly six inch thick file. The case was ultimately given up and abandoned by the probate court in 1992. What, if anything, remains of Inger’s money, is most likely in the Dutch West Indies if it has not all been lost through Ike’s shady business dealings. Knowing that Inger, according to friends, had drawn up a new will, shortly before her death, leaving almost all her money to charities to help the disabled, makes this even more tragic. But this will, which Inger made the mistake of having drawn up by Ike’s lawyer, disappeared. Another marker pointing to foul play? Perhaps, but we’ll probably never know for sure what happened to Inger Stevens on her last day or to the fortune she had squirreled away practicing the craft she loved.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Perfect Match by Jodi Picoult

Nina Frost is an assistant district attorney who devotes her days to prosecuting child molesters while trying to juggle the demands of being a wife and mother to her five-year-old son, Nathaniel. It’s a world, she knows, where justice doesn’t always prevail. Sometimes the monsters who hurt children slip and slither like slime through the cracks in the justice system and go free.

When Nathaniel suddenly starts misbehaving at school and then stops speaking and a doctor’s examination fails to yield a physical cause, Nina is advised to take him to a psychologist. And there, without any prompting or leading questions, Nathaniel mimes anal rape by jabbing a crayon between the buttocks of a boy doll. A follow-up medical exam reveals evidence of rectal penetration.

When Nathaniel still refuses to speak, the psychologist suggests that he and Nina learn sign language and during a lesson, when asked who hurt him, he makes the sign for “father.” Nina instantly jumps to the most logical conclusion, that her beloved husband, Nathaniel’s father, Caleb, is the one who hurt their son. But it’s all a misunderstanding, in the heat of the moment Nina forgets that Nathaniel has always called Caleb “daddy” not “father.” Frustrated at being misunderstood, Nathaniel shows Nina the page for religious symbols in the sign language book and signs the words “Priest. Hurt. Me.” And a fresh wave of horror washes over Nina as she realizes the enormity of her mistake and this new startling truth that their popular and beloved priest has taken advantage of his position of trust and power to molest her son and possibly other children as well. The children, unable to pronounce Father Szyszynski’s name always call him “Father Glen.” But it is just the start of a tragic series of misunderstandings. When he can talk, Nathaniel suffers from a speech impediment and he isn’t really saying “Father Glen” but “Father Gwynne” but the adults don’t realize this, at least not in time to avert tragedy.

At the arraignment, Nina, knowing how the justice system sometimes fails these small victims, and wanting to spare her son the ordeal of taking the stand, takes justice into her own hands and shoots and kills Father Glen in open court. She afterwards feigns insanity, hoping this will save her from a lifetime in prison so she can be there for her son as he grows up.

But there are more twists and tangles ahead, and as the knots become untied Nina realizes that she has murdered an innocent man.

This was another gripping, un-put-down-able novel by Ms. Picoult and I loved following the maze-like plot, to the very end.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Lady In Waiting by Susan Meissner

Antiques dealer Jane Lindsay was a contented wife, married—happily, she thought—for twenty-two years. But everything changed when her husband, Brad, walked out. He swore it wasn’t an affair; he said he just needed some time to himself to decide if their marriage is worth saving.

While Jane, feeling powerless and bewildered, waits for him to make a decision, she finds an antique gold ring set with sapphires, rubies, and diamonds with the name Jane and a Latin inscription engraved inside the band. She feels an instant, inexplicable, connection to it and sets out to trace its history back to the original owner and discovers that it is a betrothal ring that belonged to a noblewoman in Tudor England.

The story then shifts back to 1548 when dressmaker Lucy Day is sent to outfit Lady Jane Grey with mourning for Catherine Parr’s funeral. The two young women, from very different social classes, become friends, and Lucy learns that Jane loves Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector’s son. Discussions for a betrothal between the pair are currently underway and Edward, gives Jane the ring her 21st century namesake will later discover. But, alas, as those who know the sad history of Lady Jane Grey know, Fate had something else in store for this young woman.

For those who like stories that unravel the history behind interesting artifacts and do not like their historical fiction too ponderous or weighty this is a great book to curl up with and it is interesting the way the author combines the stories of two women with the same first name, one whose lengthy marriage has fallen apart with that of a young girl who died at sixteen, cheated of the chance to marry the man she loved.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Danny Boy The Legend of the Beloved Irish Ballad by Malachy McCourt

This slim volume endeavors to trace the history and legends behind the haunting Irish ballad, and sort fact from fiction, to unravel ravel its enigmatic origins.

At only two verses, a mere 155 words, "Danny Boy" is one of the most powerful and moving songs of all time. The music, known as the Londonderry Air, or The Derry Air, may have originated in Scotland in the early 1700s and spread to Ireland via itinerant musicians. Some believe it sprang from the bow of a blind fiddler or a roving piper. We do know the melody was first written down in 1851 by Miss Jane Ross, a collector of Irish folksongs and music, living in Limavady. Over the years there were many sets of lyrics composed to fit the Londonderry Air but it wasn't until 1913, a year before the outbreak of World War I, that an English barrister (lawyer) Frederick Edward Weatherly composed the immortal and enduring words of the song now known and beloved as "Danny Boy." Ironically, for such a tender and touching, soul-stirring song, it was written while he was riding on a crowded commuter train on his way to court. Frederick Edward Weatherly was a very prolific songwriter, it is estimated that he wrote 3,000 songs during his lifetime, but he is best known for "Danny Boy" and "The Roses of Picardy." He was also briefly considered as a Jack the Ripper suspect by conspiracy buffs because of his association with the Maybricks. James Maybrick, alleged author of the notorious and still hotly debated Ripper Diary, was allegedly poisoned by his beautiful American wife Florence, who spent fifteen years in prison for this crime, though many consider this a gross miscarriage of justice. James' brother Stephen was also a songwriter and an associate of Frederick Edward Weatherly.

Another mystery that surrounds "Danny Boy" is who the narrator is, just who is addressing this heartfelt farewell to the departing Danny? Sweetheart, wife, father, mother, sister, brother, parish priest, gay lover? All these theories are explored. Though the most likely, despite how beautifully the song has been sung by men, is that the narrator is Danny's mother. Weatherly was devoted to his mother, who first kindled his love of music, and his entire career, even after she was gone, often imagined her voice singing his songs as he wrote them. And there is good reason why the song can be so effectively sung by either sex, during those days when songwriters depended on royalties from the sale of sheet music, it was in their best interest to compose songs that could be sung by either gender.

Another mystery of the song is just where is Danny going? Off to war? Or is he emigrating to America to make a better life for himself or escape starvation? When their sons emigrated to America, .mothers of the era often held what were known as "American Wakes" because it was very unlikely that s they would ever see their son again. They would either die before he returned to his homeland or he might never return at all.

There is also a chapter that discusses attempts to inject the song with nationalism or military fervor by adding additional verses about dying for Ireland. The author also queries various famous people about what the song means to them including Liam Neeson, Roma Downey, and his own brother, author Frank McCourt.

The book ends with a timeline about the song's history and also a discography, which includes some of the artists who have recorded the song including Mario Lanza (the absolute best in my opinion), Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, Freddie Mercury of Queen, Elvis Presley (who struggled with the high notes to such an extent that after ten tries he had to record the song singing in a lower key), Sinead O'Connor, Eric Clapton, Conway Twitty, Boxcar Willie, and Bing Crosby.

This was a very interesting little book, though at barely over 100 pages, not counting timeline and discography, it had the feel of a magazine article stretched like taffy to book length.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Girl Who Chased The Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

I always enjoy Sarah Addison Allen’s books, they’re not the typical chick-lit or light romances, magic and charm suffuses the pages of each one and makes them a delightful escape from the humdrum.

After the death of her mother, Emily Benedict travels to the Mullaby, North Carolina, the hometown her mother left vowing never to return to. Emily wants to know why. What happened there to make her mother slam and lock the door on her past?

Emily takes up residence with her grandfather, Vance Shelby, known as “The Giant of Mullaby” a semi-reclusive gentle giant eight feet tall. She is soon befriended by the local baker Julia Winterson, the former wild child who still wears a streak of hot pink in her hair to remind herself of who she used to be. A proud woman who can only communicate her love through baking special cakes, Julia has promised herself she will only stay in Mullaby two years, to pay off the mortgage on and sell her late fathers BBQ restaurant, and then return to Baltimore to fulfill her dream of opening her own bakery. Meanwhile, she tries to dodge the attentions of Sawyer Alexander, who, during their schooldays, was the most popular boy who has a complicated history with Julia.

Mullaby is a place of mysteries. Ghost lights dart across the backyard at night and the wallpaper in Emily’s room—the room where her mother grew up—changes to mirror the occupant’s mood. And then there is the mysterious Coffey clan, the town’s most affluent family, who still harbor a grudge against Emily’s mother and never go out at night. And no, I will tell you right now, this is not another vampire or werewolf book.

This is an enchanting book, peopled with a cast of quirky, endearing characters, and a nice treat if you want a break from historical fiction or heavy, serious drama but don’t care for the typical contemporary romance or chick lit.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tabby Picks A Winner for The Queen's Pleasure!

Tabby has chosen a winner for an Advance Copy of THE QUEEN'S PLEASURE. Congratulations Marci! I've emailed you privately and as soon as I receive your address your book will be on the way. I hope you will enjoy it.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Deceptions by Rebecca Frayn

Julian Poulter, the narrator of this novel, and Annie Wray have just announced their plans to marry when what should have been just another ordinary April day turns tragic. Annie’s twelve-year-old son, Dan, rides off to school and vanishes. An exhaustive investigation that leaves no stone unturned fails to yield a single clue about his whereabouts.

Three years later Annie is still holding fast to her stubborn belief that her son will come home someday, alive and well, but Julian just wants to put it all behind them and go on with their life. But Annie refuses to do that and instead pushes Julian out of her life.

Then, out of the blue, the phone rings. There is a social worker in Scotland on the other end of the line and he claims that Dan is with him, suffering from amnesia. Mother and son are soon reunited but Anne, wanting to give Dan time to readjust, refuses to notify the police of his return or let them investigate his story as Julian urges her to do. Instead, Annie spoils the boy, letting him sleep in late and lounge around playing with the Nintendo and Game Boy she bought him. She is determined not to screw up and risk losing her son again.

Julian begins to doubt that Dan is really Dan, certain things just don’t add up, and he suspects the amnesia is really a smoke screen. He gives Dan a bike as an early Christmas present and a peace offering, an apology for the tension between them in the days before he disappeared, and Dan immediately crashes it. This is odd—while the mind may forget the body never forgets things like riding a bike. And why are Dan’s blue eyes now brown? Annie insists he was given a drug to change their color and refuses to listen to Julian or contact the police.

Based on a true story, the real life, and still unsolved, disappearance of Nicholas Barclay in 1994 and the impostor, Frederic Bourdin, who tried to take his place, this gripping novel is hard to put down, it makes you feel a mother’s desperate hope and her lover’s frustration at her refusal to face hard truths.