Smacking Foreheads in the Night: A Sexual Narcissist Remembers

It Seemed Important at the Time: A Romance Memoir, by Gloria Vanderbilt. Simon & Schuster, 161 pages, $22.

Do you wish that you’d found the time to have sex with Frank Sinatra? Is it a source of eternal regret that—in between bouts at the dry cleaner and walking the dog and the gym—you never did squeeze a young Marlon Brando between your sheets? If so, then Gloria Vanderbilt’s book, It Seemed Important at the Time, might seem just the tonic. Billed as a “romance memoir,” this is Ms. Vanderbilt’s third pass at her life story—after Once Upon a Time (1985) and A Mother’s Story (1997)—testimony, at the least, to quite heroic levels of editorial patience. I mean to say, two whole books, from proof to page to printer, before someone at Simon & Schuster finally snapped: “Look, give us the dish, will you?” And what dish: “[E]yes like steel found me, made me sense that I could be the stream to feed the roots, for his love seemed like a tree, needing a strange alchemy from my eyes—green moss, absorbing his eyes that shut me out …. All he needed was me to ease his dark-blue pain. But was it dark blue? Or simply dark gobbledy-gook?” How nice of you to ask.

That’s Lawrence Tierney under all that compost, although he sounds more like Bilbo Baggins in an off-moment, but then pen portraits are not really Ms. Vanderbilt’s thing. She moves too fast for starters, whisking us from school, to moonlight serenades at the Waldorf-Astoria and her first engagement, to Catalina Island on the arm of Howard Hughes, in the space of the first 20 pages. It wasn’t to be with Howard. What was to be was her marriage to “world-famous” conductor Leopold Stokowski (“archangel come to earth, entering my body, possessing me as I breathed, in and out, out and in”), although Leopold is just a tap of the baton before the full orchestra unleashed by Marlon Brando (“If Leopold was God, here was Zeus”), who calls her up one day and flies her out to L.A. for dinner and a digestif. “We were alone at last. Sounds like a romance novel doesn’t it?” Possibly, although Gloria can’t help but notice that Brando keeps a picture of Marlon Brando on his bedside table, and she spends the next week waiting for him to call. “He didn’t. Instead it was Gene Kelly dancing in, singing in the rain of my heart, so to speak …. We drifted off into another room and started kissing.” Onward and upward! Occasionally her iron discipline wobbles: “From now on I’d give myself only to my work,” she announces on page 68, putting Gene behind her, only to hear the telephone ringing again two pages later: “ringie ding-ding …. Frank Sinatra was in town and wanted to meet me.” Dagnabbit!

Sinatra, too, departs without so much as a goodbye, leaving Gloria’s “secret heart”—of which we hear much—still intact, although somewhere along the line, somewhere between Leopold and Marlon, Gene and Frank, the exact nature of Ms. Vanderbilt’s achievement begins to dawn on the reader: It Seemed Important at the Time is a memoir written without the slightest hindrance from anything resembling self-knowledge—written from within a ground zero of complete bafflement. Sure, it comes decked out with the usual self-help clichés on such matters as surviving divorce (“Try not to think of its as ‘failure’ … bring some yoga into the picture”); and there’s an awful lot of “searching” and “seeking,” but these airy, absent-minded verbs only strengthen the impression of a life lived at the behest of drives way beyond their owner’s comprehension, like Wittgenstein’s leaf, fondly imagining itself lord of its fate as it’s blown hither and thither down the street: “I think I’m going to go this way … wait … no, how about this over there …. “

This need not be a reprehensible thing, or even anything worth remarking upon—who can honestly claim otherwise, particularly after midnight? The crosswinds of unfettered sexual ego can make for quite a ride, as long as you keep your eyes open and your wits about you; but you finish Ms. Vanderbilt’s book thinking how damn unobservant these sexual narcissists can be as they bump up against one another, lightly smacking foreheads in the night: “What did we talk about at dinner? I haven’t a clue,” she writes of dinner with Marlon. Again and again, Ms. Vanderbilt achieves intimate physical congress with someone, only to write about them in such a way as to suggest a quick five minutes spent in the company of their press clippings: Sinatra is “On the one side Mafia-dark, on the other Clark Kent light”; Howard Hughes is “handsome as a movie star,” while Ms. Vanderbilt has repeated recourse to italics in order to convey the unique quiddity of the soul in question: “It was him …. Him and me.” I don’t wish to cast any doubts on Ms. Vanderbilt’s credentials, but is she absolutely sure she slept with these people? Only once does a resonant detail slip through, princess-and-pea fashion, when she spies John Huston on a plane, and—more importantly—the tongue of John Huston: “so pink—pink as a Popsicle, and I couldn’t stop looking at it.” Truman Capote is on hand to administer the killer quip: “Honey, that’s because it’s had a lot of practice!”

It was Capote, of course, who did for Gloria and her gang in Answered Prayers, and it says something for Capote’s book, whose neat drafts of vitriol can be hard to take on an empty stomach, that it now reads just slightly less unfairly than it did. By comparison, Ms. Vanderbilt’s is a much more tepid read, its matte surfaces dulled by self-absorption and further scored by the prose equivalent of wire wool: It seems light and fluffy enough, but it’s brittle to the touch, and beneath all the fluttering talk of “secret hearts” and “Que Sera, Sera” sentiments, it’s not too hard to catch a glint of something a lot more hard-hearted. When one ex-lover, the movie executive David Begelmann, commits suicide, Ms. Vanderbilt remarks that he left 20 suicide notes, but “not one for me, boo hoo!” It’s hard to know what to say.

Tom Shone’s Blockbuster: Or, How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer will be published by the Free Press in November.