"LITTLE Lyova Haskell Rosenthal is precocious," commented The New York Times after the young child actress had warned the tenor onstage that an actor was sneaking up on him with a big knife in a scene from "L'Oracolo." (Little actress Lyova was confined thereafter to Gladys Swarthout's dressing room to protect the opera from future ruining of the dramatic scene.)
The minute I looked at the new memoir of little actress Lyova Haskell Rosenthal, better known as actress Lee Grant, I knew I wouldn't be able to resist "I Said Yes to Everything." Now the book is here from Blue Rider Press and I'm afraid I pretty much abandoned everything else until I read it.
She was nominated for an Oscar for the famous movie "Detective Story," which made Kirk Douglas a star. She then found herself listed as a communist and ruined for movies when she landed on the infamous Hollywood black list. (She didn't really know what a communist was; and as it turns out, neither did Hollywood, where frightened producers and studio heads condemned giant talents to nothingness over nothing.) Lee Grant didn't get off the list for a dozen years, not until JFK was president.
Meantime, Lee Grant went right on acting, acting out, writing, reading, searching, exploring life and sex and meeting everyone who was anyone and finally to making classic TV and big-screen movies like "Valley of the Dolls," "Peyton Place," "In the Heat of the Night" and "Shampoo."
It has always been a great secret cachet in my crowd to meet Lee Grant and to try to understand her myth and survival, to enjoy her burgeoning talent and sympathize for her mistreated soul. Eventually, she won an Oscar, an Emmy, the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award given by Women in Film, and founded her own production company. She now makes prize-winning documentaries.
I CONFESS I was disappointed not to find myself in the index of the glorious in the back of this book, though I am such a minor player in her saga. Lee does make you feel like the only person in the world she has ever loved or trusted (although all I was doing was talking to her about Elizabeth Taylor and what made the star of stars tick). Like Helen Gurley Brown, Lee Grant lets you remove from her presence while thinking you are the most fab person she has ever met. Quite an art!
ANYWAY, I love, adore and admire Lee Grant. Some of this book makes you think she is crazy; other parts open the reader up to her humanity, love of others, tolerance and the way she keeps show business at arm's length with a jaundiced but innocent eye. I can't really do justice to this memoir; it is crammed with names from Orson Welles to Warren Beatty, Jill Clayburgh to Faye Dunaway, Kim Stanley to Meryl Streep, Roddy McDowall to Chris Walken, Oscar Levant to John Garfield, and on and on. Let's also include Gloria Steinem and Susan Sontag.
Here is just a sample of the eye of Lee Grant talking about Grace Kelly after the Hollywood star and super beauty had decided to leave the movie business and become Prince Rainier's Princess of Monaco. You haven't read this particular description of the girl from Philadelphia, nor of how the writer Lee Grant segues from her own important business to comment on elements of her own private life. And she never writes or warns the reader of these amazing digressions, not even saying, 'But I digress...' You seldom know what road you are going to travel down with Lee.
She writes: "A kind of elegant ex-actor, mixer in social scenes approached me about doing an hour-long TV program on Princess Grace in Monaco. Budd Schulberg was writing. Interesting. Budd had given names to the committee (on Un-American Activities.) He'd also written 'On the Waterfront,' the great film Elia Kazan directed. This was the project Kazan and Arthur Miller had shopped in Hollywood and been turned down because -- it seemed to favor the unions -- and the studios were trying to strangle them.
"Budd was a charming worn-out guy. Very simpatico. We met on the way to the airport -- we looked in each other's eyes, saw the worlds apart in them, and kept our thoughts to ourselves.
"I visited the castle, went through all the formalities. Castles are dreary old places. One thinks, the upkeep, the upkeep. We were taken to the royal living quarters -- a comfy living room. Grace was welcoming, charming, stressed and nervous -- I asked her the questions Budd had written. The answers were formulaic and pleasant. Her posture was that of a girl whose mother had told her to sit straight.
"After the first set of questions, while the camera was reloading, I spoke to her as one woman to another, one actress to another. Before this choice to be princess, Grace had gone with my first theatre boyfriend, Gene Lyons. Gene and I were together for two years: Grace and Gene were together for two years -- and he was madly in love with her. She was a rich girl from Philly. Taking away the trappings, I said to her, 'Why are you so cowered? What are you afraid of? Here's a chance to talk about your life, your children, your husband -- be open. You're so closed off; the things you're saying sound scripted. It's boring.' She started to cry. The producer, who had been her friend in an earlier life, stepped in. 'Am I boring?' she asked. 'Am I boring? I don't want to be.' I watched and wished the camera were rolling. There she was, our Grace, so vulnerable and appealing. The producer was furious.
"On camera she relaxed more, was very charming, but revealed nothing. She saved the reality for the periods when the camera reloaded, and then she would really talk. She had no friends in Monaco, and the women in the royal families, those who were in the court, were very critical of her free and easy American style. She, at the time, was surrounded by sharp, mean critics. So she had to watch what she said at all times. Her husband, Prince Rainer? He had a lot of other interests, and she missed him. And he was sending her off that year to live in Paris by herself, because Stephanie was going to start school there, and he felt that the child needed her mother's guiding hand. I said, 'Well, Paris -- you'll be away from here at least!' She said, 'I spent time in Paris. I was never invited to dinner. I was never invited to anyone's house, their home. The only time anyone asked me anywhere was to some big function, where they wanted me with the ribbon across my chest!'
"While I was getting to know and care for Grace, Joey and Larry joined me in Monaco. I miss Larry Hauben more than any other of my dead friends. He was so f--king unique and smart. And a total druggie. Larry won the Oscar for the screenplay 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.'
"Larry and Joey took off for Rome, where Joey's friend Cerro was the biggest and cuddliest coke dealer in town. They all stayed up at the Spanish Steps at the Hotel De La Ville, which had been my favorite hotel, and then went through, literally, pounds of white powder piled up on the coffee table. Joey and Larry understood Italian perfectly, though they didn't speak a word of it, and had hours of heated discussions with Cerro and his friends. Larry slept upright in a closet, and they were both thrown out of the Vatican for lying on the marble floor in order to better view the Sistine Chapel. A boy's life. All the while I stayed behind in Monaco.
"The producer never spoke to me ever again."
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)
(c)2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.