In Spite of Myself: A Memoir

In Spite of Myself: A Memoir

3.8 15
by Christopher Plummer

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A rollicking, rich portrait of a life. And what a life! By one of today’s greatest living actors.

He was born a Canadian on a Friday the thirteenth in 1929—the year of the Crash. His boyhood was one of privilege: an ancestor was a Governor General; his great-grandfather Sir John Abbott was Canada’s third prime minister and owned railroads.


A rollicking, rich portrait of a life. And what a life! By one of today’s greatest living actors.

He was born a Canadian on a Friday the thirteenth in 1929—the year of the Crash. His boyhood was one of privilege: an ancestor was a Governor General; his great-grandfather Sir John Abbott was Canada’s third prime minister and owned railroads. There were steam yachts, mansions, and a life of Victorian gentility and somewhat cluttered splendor.

Plummer tells how “this young bilingual wastrel, incurably romantic, spoiled rotten, tore himself away from the ski slopes to break into the big bad world of theatre, not from the streets up but from an Edwardian living room down,” and writes of his early acting days as an eighteen-year-old playing the lead in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, directed by the legendary Komisarjevsky of Moscow’s Imperial Theatre.

We see his glorious New York of the fifties, where life began at midnight, with the likes of Arthur Miller, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, and Paddy Chayefsky, and how Plummer’s own Broadway world developed and swept him along through the last Golden Age the American Theatre would ever remember . . . how the sublime Ruth Chatterton (“she might have been created by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis”) introduced him to the right people in New York . . . how Miss Eva Le Gallienne gave Plummer his Broadway debut at twenty-five in The Starcross Story (“It opened and closed in one night! One solitary night! But what a night!”). He writes about Miss Katherine Cornell (the last stage star to travel by private train), who, with her husband, Guthrie McClintic, added to what experience Plummer had the necessary gloss, spit, and polish to take him to the next level. Guthrie bundled Plummer off to Paris for a production of Medea, opposite Dame Judith Anderson (“a little Tasmanian devil . . . who with one look could turn an audience to stone”).

Plummer writes about the great producers with whom he worked—Kermit Bloomgarden, Robert Whitehead, and Roger Stevens—about Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, Elia Kazan (“If you weren’t careful, this chameleon of chameleons might change into you, wear your skin, steal your soul”), and the miracle that was the new Stratford Festival in Canada, where Plummer blossomed in the classics under the extraordinary Tyrone Guthrie. He writes about his (too brief) encounters with his favorite geniuses, Orson Welles and Jonathan Miller. He writes about his lifelong friendships with Raymond Massey and the wild Kate Reid, and with that fugitive from the Navy, “that reprobate and staunch drinking buddy, the true reincarnation of Eugene O’Neill, whose blood was mixed with firewater,” Jason Robards, Jr.

Plummer writes about his affairs and his marriages, and about his daughter, Amanda, who “despite her slim looks and tiny bones could raise tempests, guaranteed to loosen the foundation of any theatre in which she chose to rage.”

We see him becoming a leading actor for Peter Hall’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, with a company of young talented players, each destined for stardom—Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Peter O’Toole, et al., collectively the future of the English stage. The old guard was brilliantly represented by Dames Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft and Sir John Gielgud. Plummer, the only fugitive from the New World, played Richard III, Benedick, and Henry II in Becket.

He writes about his film career: The Sound of Music (affectionately dubbed “S&M”) . . . Inside Daisy Clover, which brought him together with the beautiful Natalie Wood . . . John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (Plummer was Rudyard Kipling). He tells the story of accepting Sir Laurence Olivier’s invitation to join the National Theatre Company, playing in Amphytron directed by Olivier himself (“a great actor but lousy director”), and writes about falling deeply in love with and eventually marrying a young actress and dancer, Elaine Taylor—to this day, his “one true strength.”

Seamlessly written, with stories that make us laugh out loud and that make real the fascinating, complex, exuberant adventure that is the actor’s (at least this actor’s) life.

Editorial Reviews

Jennifer Schuessler
…rich and riotous…"I shall never forget" is Mr. Plummer's refrain, and boy, does he mean it. He writes with the nostalgia of a man who has seen the passing of more than one golden age: of Montreal cafe society, of theatrical New York of the '50s, of live television, of London's swinging '60s, of the out-of-control period epics of the jet-set '70s…To Mr. Plummer it's all part of one "unidentifiable golden age when the actor reigned supreme." In the pages of this fine book, it's still not over.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Fans of Plummer's acclaimed Shakespearean performances or his stately film roles, from Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music to the Klingon General Chang in Star Trek VI, may not recognize him in this breezy, bawdy memoir. Plummer drinks and parties his way through a six-decade career; beds starlets, prompters and wardrobe girls; and endures countless mid-performance indignities and pratfalls. (Lesson repeatedly learned: actors and stagehands should not get drunk right before the show.) Plummer is ebullient, a bit hammy ("I cried myself to sleep for weeks," he sobs, after his dog Toadie dies), full of canny insights into the actor's craft and prone to occasional stabs of self-reproach over his own failed marriages, aloof parenting and unjustified tantrums. Throughout, he's an enchanting observer of the showbiz cavalcade, drawing vivid thumbnails of everyone from Laurence Olivier to Lenny Bruce and tossing off witty anecdotes ("George C. Scott turned up at our doorstep one morning at 4:30 a.m. looking most sinister and as usual dripping blood from head to toe") like the most effortless ad libs. The result is a sparkling star turn from a born raconteur for whom all the world is indeed a stage. Photos. (Nov. 11)

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Library Journal

Born in Toronto to a privileged family, Plummer, with all of his Shakespearean acting credits, could easily be mistaken for a product of jolly old England. He had some lucky breaks-his youthful charm held him in good stead, and he was able to hone his craft until he became a well-established actor. His memoir is humorously self-deprecating but decidedly formal and florid (for example, he writes, "very few paid heed to a would-be Eulenspiegel, whose merry pranks had the consistent habit of backfiring"). The book is more of a challenge than the usual celebrity memoir. Plummer's habit of inserting verse is annoying, and, considering the length of the book, an index would have been appreciated. Overall, this is a detailed record of a distinguished acting career and a life well lived. He knew "everyone," and he dishes the dirt. His section on the making of The Sound of Music(which he called "S&M") is worth the whole read. Recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/08.]
—Rosellen Brewer

From the Publisher
“For anyone who loves, loves, loves the theater, not to mention the vanished New York of the 1950s and ‘60s. . . a finely observed, deeply felt (and deeply dishy) time-traveling escape worthy of a long stormy weekend. Just grab a quilt and a stack of pillows. No need for a delectable assortment of bonbons. They’re in the book. . . In spite of himself–his relentlessly high artistic principles; his penchant for playing the underdog, even when he was the star; his keen ear equally attuned to the precision of Elizabethan verse and to what passes as truth across a whiskey at 5 a.m. . . . this man has experienced a life rich in textures, and he is able to give most of them glorious voice. His is a life in the theater lived hard and true, in the grand tradition of those distinguished players who went before, whom he surely made proud. Good sir! I raise my glass to you.”

—Alex Witchel, The New York Times Book Review

“A staggering parade of theater-world luminaries struts, swaggers and, yes, occasionally staggers through this compulsively readable memoir. . . Mr. Plummer seems to have worked with just about everyone imaginable–Ruth Chatterton and Katherine Cornell, Jason Robards and Laurence Olivier, Julie Harris and Judith Anderson, Tyrone Guthrie and Edward Everett Horton (!) – and he has a tasty anecdote about onstage, backstage or drinking-hole doings about every single one of them.”

—Charles Isherwood, The New York Times

“ [A] splendid, lively memoir, and for that matter a fair description of his life and personality… An immensely satisfying memoir, of rare grace, good humor, and unapologetic self-honesty…. as rich as a Christmas pudding… Plummer’s book is chockablock with a lifetime’s worth of good stories, interesting people and memorable performances, the distillation of a great career, and, I would guess, a great life. In tact and generosity of spirit, it is the very model of what a memoir should be….Nobody tells a better theatrical story, or more of them, than Plummer (well, almost nobody, John Gielgud was in a class by himself, and Plummer has three great Gielgud stories)…Plummer is above all a great storyteller…always deliciously indiscrete, and often very funny…I read every page of his book with interest, pleasure, an occasional tear, and many rich guffaws: it is, frankly, a treat, not only for its theatrical stories, but also because Plummer is that rarest of actors, intelligent, thoughtful, hard-working, talented, imaginative, generous, dedicated to his craft, and occasionally struck by spark of thespian genius. . . Anyone who still loves the theater will love every page of it.”

—Michael Korda, The Daily Beast

“[A] fascinating memoir…The book records so many trysts, pratfalls, drunken evenings–and afternoons–that it’s amazing he has survived… amply shows how Mr. Plummer has managed a long, successful career in spite of himself...”

The Wall Street Journal

“An enjoyable read, packed with anecdotes and amusing stories…this belongs on any library’s film or theater shelves.”


“A veteran actor of stage and screen rehearses his long personal and professional life, often with humor, rarely with rancor…revealing and charming.”

Kirkus Reviews

“An enchanting observer of the showbiz cavalcade, drawing vivid thumbnails of everyone from Laurence Olivier to Lenny Bruce and tossing off witty anecdotes like the most effortless ad libs. The result - a sparkling star turn from a born raconteur for whom all the world is indeed a stage.”

Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONEI was brought up by an Airedale. I won’t deny it, ’tis the truth and nothing but, Your Honour—a bumbling, oversized shaggy great Airedale. The earliest memory I have of anything resembling a pater familia, bouncer, male-nurse or God is that dear slobbering old Airedale. My sword, my lance, my shield, he never failed to stand at the ready to rescue me from all my early Moriarties! Wherever I happened to be—on the floor, in my bath or on the potty, there— looming above me, panting heavily, one large, drooling Airedale reporting for duty, sir! If I went for a ride in my little cart, I would look away and pretend there was no one there at all and then when I did look back, of course he was there. He was always there padding along beside me—how could I miss him? He was my only horizon— he filled the sky. Like Romulus or Remus, I was his cub and he was my Wolf of Rome. His name was Byng.He was christened after another shaggy old Airedale, Field Marshal Lord Byng of Vimy, whom my grandparents had known when he was governor general; and also for the very good reason that if any of our household showed guts enough to sit down to tea or play a hand at bridge, the day’s calm would invariably become a stormy séance as tables, taking on a life of their own, began to shake violently and with one quick loud explosion, Bing! they would catapult themselves ceiling-ward as teapots, cups, toast, crumpets, cards and markers flew madly across the room! My canine patron had, quite simply, decided to rise.But I like Byng, my dog, becauseHe doesn’t know how to behaveSo Byng’s the same as the First Friend wasAnd I am the Man in the Cave(Apologies to Kipling)Nothing ever came between us—Your Honour—nothing—he was my world; I knew no other. Until one day, one sobering day, the spell was broken when a meddling family friend pointed out to me that the nice tall lady pushing my pram was my mother.Mummies and dogs! You can beat ’em, kick ’em, treat ’em as shabbily as you like—they will eternally forgive you and still come back for more. Such degree of devotion is as hard to grasp as it is unshakable. Being a child, I had no comprehension of it. It embarrassed me. I regularly ran away from it; in fact, I still do.I didn’t throw myself into the struggle for life—I threw my mother into it.—g. b. shawI came into the world that monster of infant monsters, who can clear a room more swiftly than a Sherman tank; that very monster which causes fear, dread, revulsion to seal the lips of those that dare to speak its name—The Only Child! And being an only child I was more than frequently left on my own. Can you blame ’em?! A little boy’s mind can play some pretty macabre tricks on itself. I was so damned terrified of the dark that Mother had to sing me to sleep, snatches of old French songs she particularly loved.Chante, rossignol, chante,Toi qui as le coeur gaiIl y a longtemps que je t’aime,Jamais, je ne t’oublierai.But the terror never left. It stayed through all the early years. Because of books, which Mother insisted I read, my imagination began to take over, and the long winters gave one so much time to dream up horrors. My grandparents’ tall, forbidding house in the city could be pretty ominous, full of dark corners to jump out of and scare yourself to death. Every time I tried to rob my grandfather’s overcoat pocket of change so I could sneak downtown to Ben’s delicatessen for a smoked-meat sandwich and a Coke, some sudden sound would force me to drop everything and run like hell. My room was on the very top floor and in the middle of the night I would steal from my bed and sit shivering on the uppermost step, clinging tight to old Byng, staring down into the center of the long circular staircase, down into that black hole, that bottomless pit, and wait—wait for “them,” whoever “they” were, to climb up and get us.Every spring we moved to the country. Lingering in the city after school, I generally took one of the late-night trains. As they never knew when I’d arrive, there was no family car to meet me and I was obliged to walk the long way home. When finally I reached our gate, I was tired and hungry but there was still some distance to go. Our driveway from the gate to the house was at least a half-mile long—it was always dark—no streetlamps lit the way. The first portion of the drive was long and straight but suddenly it dipped precipitously and turned a sharp corner. It was next to impossible to see. I could only feel my way and would invariably slip and fall on the loose gravel.The drive resumed, snaking along by a deep swamp to my left near the edge of the lake. The dense woods which made the darkness even more impenetrable gave out a dank fenlike smell. I kept glancing behind as I hurried along but there was never anyone following me. To gain confidence I tried singing, but the sound of my voice was more sinister than the darkness itself, so I quickly gave up. A faint light glowed from the fields to my right and more than once I was sure that I saw, lit by a young moon, a still, solitary figure standing there. I bolted the rest of the way up the hill and it wasn’t till I reached the top and could see, through the eight tall poplars the lights from the house beyond, that my heart stopped pounding.Very softly down the glade runs a waiting, watching shade,And the whisper spreads and widens far and near;And the sweat is on thy brow, for he passes even now—He is Fear, O Little Hunter, he is Fear.—RUDYARD KIPLINGMore than once in the mountains north of the city, snowshoeing in the woods, I would lose my way. Night fell and I’d stop and stand dead still listening to the wind. The ice-bound trees cracked and rattled like the bones of skeletons. I was sure I would freeze to death. I started to cry and the tears froze against my face—little icicles hanging from my eyelids. The wind was stronger now and began to moan and howl through the tops of the pines, a sad and terrifying sound. I was certain at any moment I would be snatched up by that Spirit that hovers high above the trees the half-breeds talk of—that carries you away into the sky at such frightening speed that you burn alive. And so the energy that imagination generates warmed me, and at last, I could concentrate and find my bearings.In the snow-covered city, I would ski from the top of Mount Royal down its winding trails past the great stone wall surrounding an estate called Raven’scrag and onto our street, Pine Avenue. Often Mother would join me on her skis, but she also loved taking walks up those same trails. Frequently alone, as her selfish wayward son had less and less time for Mummy, she very seldom wore an overcoat even on the most frigid day, just a heavy tweed suit, thick brogues and flowing scarf. Very thirties, very smart, very brave! One late afternoon as I whirled down the hill full speed along by Raven’scrag’s wall, I saw her coming up toward me on foot. I waved at her as I whisked past and out of the corner of my eye I saw her wave back. When I reached the bottom I looked around, but to my astonishment there was no one there, just an empty hill. I climbed up the trail again on my skis; how could she have disappeared so quickly? Was she behind the wall? But there was no door, hole or space into which she could have vanished. Had my eyes deceived me? Had I seen her at all? I kept still and listened for footsteps on the hard crust—there was nothing but silence. The sun dipped behind the mountain and a chill set my teeth chattering. I turned and skied the rest of the way home faster than I had ever made it before.AS A FAMILY we were knee-deep in dogs—Canines Unlimited. That was all right by me. I adored them all. But to one in particular, a long- suffering cocker spaniel called Scampy, I am ashamed to say I was rather cruel. We played “power games” together, instigated by me, of course, and I caused him to suffer a bit, I’m afraid—just the sort of tricks a lonely, spoiled-brat child with too much time on his hands might play. Until one day I saw something that made me swear that I would never ever hurt an animal of any kind again.It was dead winter in Montreal, an uncomfortable cold, the roads treacherous, icy—almost impassable—no traffic to speak of. I was staring out of our living room bay window onto the streets below. The familiar little horse-drawn cart carrying coal came clattering with difficulty up the steep hill. The same horse, the same old man that had made this trip together winter after winter since time began. The ancient horse, now almost all bones, was faithfully struggling to reach the summit—the old man urging him on with his whip. But the hooves could not get a grip on the ice. The horse bravely kept up the struggle, slipping backwards as he went. The old man, beside himself, gave the poor nag a severe lashing—but in vain—the horse stopped. He could move no longer. One last lash of the whip proved too much. His heart cracked as he sagged to the ground between the halters. It began to snow. Something heaved inside me—I ran from the window to hide and when I returned I looked down and the old man, his livelihood gone forever, was sitting in the middle of the road cradling the horse’s head in his arms—rocking back and forth in silent grief as the big gentle flakes began to cover everything beneath them in a warm soft blessing.There’s an island deep down in my sleepA lost land I long to findBut I wake ’ere I reach the islandSo it must only live in my mind.It could be the dream we yearn forThat on earth we may never attainBut I know there was love on that islandFor it chased away all of my pain.If you looked through the oaks and the balm of Gilead across the bay from our country house on the shore, you could just see the island. You couldn’t always quite make it out, not all at once, and sometimes it simply decided in its mischievous way to hide behind a fog—but from my earliest infancy, I knew it was there. It seemed to float on its own, just a little above the water, not too permanent a thing as if, free of its moorings, it would drift away at any moment. I just hoped it wouldn’t forget me but beg me to follow.It had a habit of disappearing and reappearing through the mist and beckoning . . . always beckoning. When I grew older I was allowed to go there with my mother. It was like playing truant; it was the most wonderful escape. It didn’t take me long to realize it was an escape for Mother too.It belonged to her greatest friend—a lady of similar age with the warmest, most sympathetic of hearts and the deepest, darkest, most beautiful eyes I had ever seen. Her name was Pauline but everyone called her “Polly” and the island was “Polly’s Island.” She was Canadien Français, spoke a little of all sorts of languages and her English was unique. Her voice was coated with a husky timbre which was not unmusical and in an extraordinary way enhanced her attractiveness; its Creole-like drawl made you want to smile. It gave her conversation an unusual extravagance—an almost theatrical cadence— she elongated her “ma chères,” affectionately stretching them out to infinity. When she spoke, the world was an easy place to be in. She made me feel as grown-up and as wise as she, and she listened as if I were her only friend.The island on weekends overflowed with guests from all over the globe, it seemed, considering the variety of tongues, and Polly, with breathtaking ease, practiced her phenomenal talent for making everyone feel that this was perhaps the only home they’d ever had. No one wanted to leave. Whenever there was a crowd, Mother and I knew just where to hide. On the way up to the house there was a bridge where we could stare down at the giant lily pads that carpeted the black waters below. There were lots of mysterious paths through the woods with surprise openings where we could both get splashed from the waves crashing against the shore; the swimming hole, with a raft you could swim out to, the stables which housed the ponies, and the inlets through which we would paddle our canoe and watch the bitterns stand on one leg or listen to the long sad chorale of the frogs.Polly had the most exquisite eye, and there was always the heady fragrance of fresh-cut flowers that penetrated every room. The great screened-in porch with its burnt-sienna tiles where cool drinks were served was the place to while away many an hour looking out across the lawn to the far point at the island’s tip and watch the sun go down. This enchanted isle would remain for me throughout my life, a hidden world . . . a place lodged firmly in the heart. It also became for me all the islands I never knew, perhaps too far at times to reach, and almost always, a little too wondrous to be true.Lord Ronald said nothing; he flung himself from the room,flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.—stephen leacock

Meet the Author

Christopher Plummer was born in Toronto, Ontario. He has acted in more than a hundred feature films, and, in addition to performing leading roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he has starred in Great Britain’s National Theatre, the Stratford Festival of Canada, and sixteen Broadway plays. He has been nominated for seven Tony Awards and won twice for Best Actor for Barrymore and Cyrano. He lives in Connecticut.

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In Spite of Myself 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
LyndaLovesBooks More than 1 year ago
His autobiography includes much name dropping, but it's all because he began working with some a very well known, and soon-to-be well known actors of radio, stage and screen...He writes beautifully and I was eager to read every page... and saddened to see the book was coming to an end. I enjoyed this book... If you are interested in the history of the theatre, especially care to learn about Broadway live theatre, the early days of so many who went on to become the heart of the American Theatre, this is the book for you....
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this entire book but was very disappointed in it, particularly after reading the review in the New York Times Book Review. It is not well written nor is it well edited. Christopher Plummer uses exclaimation points so often they lose their effect. He makes obvious errors that an editor should have corrected, such as referring to someone running for "mayor of Maine." While Plummer is quite honest about his failings, he comes across as being arrogant and it gets very tiresome reading about his drunken exploits.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Christopher Plummer has earned his honors over a long lifetime. It is fascinating to read his take on himself after viewing his many incarnations of the stage and screen. Some of it is delightful, some a trip through the dark night of the soul. But with a smile and a laugh. I am just amazed that with the amount of alcohol involved (fulfilling the stereotype of the great actor!) he has such recall! A joy for us all.
I'll raise a glass to him. He has reminded us that the acting profession
is not all sturm und drang, but very much comedy overlaying tragedy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed Christopher Plummer at Stratford, Ontario in the late 50's and was eager to read of his full life in the theater. He knew and worked with a lot of people, so he asks the reader to plow through very, very, many names, but many of them are big names that are interesting to learn more about. If you are not interested in absorbing all the names, you can skim over them and still learn a lot about classical theater and actors as well as some interesting movie history. His life story was very interesting and compelled me to read all 647 pages.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was not an autobiography that I would recommend to anyone. It was so boring. He wrote a long book, over 600 pages and it had about maybe 40 pages about himself. The rest were about his co stars and their lives. He wrote about the directors and producers and all the drinking that went on. He wrote little about himself. Isn't that what an autobiography is suppose to be about?
And what upset me the most was that he was a terrible father to his daughter. Now they are close, so that makes it seem alright. It's hard to make up those lost years.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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CultureMaven More than 1 year ago
Haven't read it yet! Gave it to my friend who's a theater nut and I'm waiting until she's done to borrow it and read it myself.