WRITING an autobiography requires the author to dexterously balance compelling modesty and repelling conceit, high-minded truths and titillating details. Obviously, the autobiographer must also have an intriguing life story, and a sensibility that’s at least faintly recognizable.
Into each life some rain must fall, and readers are understandably eager to sniff out that rain in the pages of the book. Writers who keep their personal tragedies and disappointments masked are sometimes seen as cheating. Why write about yourself if you’re not going to tell the whole truth, critics ask, forgetting that not everybody has the capacity for complete honesty or self-analysis.
No matter how humble the autobiography’s protagonist, he or she must provide evidence for why sharing this particular life story was worth killing trees. If the author has any brains, he lets others do the praising for him, merely quoting what some authority has said and then pretending to blush. It’s not an easy gig. People appreciate confidence, but nobody likes a braggart, and arrogance has a way of shining through any cracks.
You certainly get a glimmer of that in, for instance, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, the autobiography of British-Indian author Salman Rushdie. As you know, he had the great misfortune of having a fatwa issued against him by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini because his book, The Satanic Verses, supposedly blasphemed Islam. He spent years in hiding, under police protection; others involved in the book’s production and promotion were injured, even killed. Rushdie thinks enough of himself to believe that the issuing of the fatwa kicked off the dramatic rise in Islamic fundamentalist terrorism worldwide, and he may be right.
Over the years, reams of media ink have been devoted to discussions of Rushdie’s artistic merits, his human worth, and his plight, so he can naturally seem self-involved when documenting his life. Nevertheless, Joseph Anton is an engrossing book that discusses such major issues as freedom of speech from one of the most informed perspectives imaginable.
For sheer entertainment, one of the best autobiographies I’ve read lately is I Remember Me, by Carl Reiner (who also wrote My Anecdotal Life: A Memoir in 2004). I learned about his latest book when I listened to a superb interview with Reiner by Marc Maron, which I mentioned in this column March 24th. I bought the audio version and spent about a week listening to the comedy legend read it to me. I Remember Me is superb.
At 91, Reiner remains smart, amusing and unpretentious. He started out in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, the younger of two sons of a Romanian watchmaker and an Austrian homemaker. Even as an adolescent he was a wise-guy, not bothering to learn Hebrew and instead employing a faux Hebrew “double-talk” when required, like at synagogue.
Reiner fell in love with performing, and his friends, people like Mel Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, Sid Caesar, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart, wound up defining popular culture for decades. Reiner wrote for iconic TV series like Your Show of Shows, performed in a comedy duo with Mel Brooks, acted in such movies as The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, and directed and co-wrote films like The Jerk and All of Me. He even sang in musicals.
He also managed to sustain an apparently blissful lifelong marriage, fathering two sons – actor-director Rob and painter-director Lucas -- whose childhood baseball games he assiduously attended and enjoyed -- and daughter, Annie, a poet, playwright and author. He lovingly sings the praises of his children and grandchildren in a way that’s only slightly self-indulgent.
Reiner has known and worked with countless comedians, actors and musicians, including Jerry Lewis, Steve Martin, Judy Garland, Dinah Shore, and Sidney Bechet. His anecdotes are peppered with references to them at the same time as he celebrates friends we’ve never heard of in tales that feel integral to his repertoire. The man tells good stories, and he regales you like a master.
Among Reiner’s most charming features, and he has a lot of them, are his liberal views and his frank disregard for those who consider themselves important without any particular reason for it. His story about trying to “out-polite” the FBI when a couple of its agents drop in on him for a casual commie-hunt at the height of McCarthyism is but one example.
Another: in 1958, Reiner developed a TV pilot called Head of the Family – the precursor to The Dick Van Dyke Show -- that actor Peter Lawford wanted to bankroll. Lawford’s father-in-law and money-man Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. demanded to see the pilot beforehand to ensure that it upheld the strong values with which he felt his family was associated. Reiner notes that Kennedy Senior, who’d reputedly earned his fortune by bootlegging alcohol during Prohibition and was notorious for cheating on his wife with actress Gloria Swanson, was in no position to be censoring anything. In the end, though, he approved the show, and according to Reiner, that was the only good thing Joe Kennedy ever did.
Mr. Reiner, however, keeps churning out the hits. Go, old man, go.