In Spite of Myself: A Memoir

In Spite of Myself: A Memoir

3.8 15
by Christopher Plummer
     
 

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"Christopher Plummer 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."… See more details below

Overview

"Christopher Plummer 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 writes of his early acting days as an eighteen-year-old playing the lead in Shakespeare's Cymbeline, directed by the legendary Kornisarjevsky 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 Katharine 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." "Plummer writes about the great producers with whom he worked - Kermit Bloomgarden, Robert Whitehead, and Roger Stevens - about Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, Elia Kazan, and themiracle 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 tells of his lifelong friendships with Raymond Massey and the wild Kate Reid, 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. 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." 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."

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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)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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
“A roasting, rollicking, went-everywhere, met-everyone portrait of a life.”
National Post

“The relish and zest in his retrospection sweep the reader along.”
The Globe and Mail

“Studiously disarming . . . Plummer is a born raconteur.”
The Gazette

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307271167
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
11/04/2008
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
660
Sales rank:
228,990
File size:
4 MB

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

I 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, because

He doesn’t know how to behave

So Byng’s the same as the First Friend was

And 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. Shaw

I 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 gai

Il 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 KIPLING

More 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 sleep

A lost land I long to find

But I wake ’ere I reach the island

So it must only live in my mind.

It could be the dream we yearn for

That on earth we may never attain

But I know there was love on that island

For 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

From the Hardcover edition.

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