Thank Heaven

A Memoir

by Leslie Caron

Viking/Penguin, 288 pp., $25.95

If, hovering around the tell-all memoir genre, another category exists—such as, say, the “tell-some”—then Thank Heaven, with its excellent blend of exposure and decorum, falls gracefully within it.

Leslie Caron is a good writer with a volume of short stories—Vengeance (1982)—under her belt, as well as (as she puts it) “a few scripts.” Her concision, grace, and good taste still leave room for revelations aplenty—though since many of the anecdotes are one-liners at heart, repeating them would make a reviewer a spoiler. Though she may not often delve deeply into any given story, the outer edges that she navigates are just so darn interesting that it doesn’t much matter. However decorously told, there is plenty to savor. For instance, behind the scenes of Gigi (the musicalization of which was Caron’s idea), was her pregnancy with a second child. (Look at the publicity and behind-the-scenes photos to see how surprising this is.) Do the fans of the ingénue of An American in Paris and Gigi know that this Parisian was in Paris during the German Occupation, piecing together slivers of soap, picking maggots out of food, eating bread half-made of sawdust?

Those of us who can’t resist turning to the photos first will see them grow in resonance and meaning, turned to again in the course of reading or after. The first are of her (lovely) grandmother and her American mother, each dramatically costumed; it was that kind of family. The childhood begins in idyllic times on her grandparents’ enormous farm-estate which served as a summer residence. Soon comes the German invasion and occupation and horrendous times, the well-to-do family sinking from riches to something in the vicinity of rags. It is not quite clear how difficult things got, for though her parents managed to send Leslie and her brother to a summer camp of sorts, we also hear that young Leslie gave away her “second shirt” to a homeless woman. It was impossible not to be greatly affected by what was happening all around.

As an 11-year-old, young Caron studied ballet at the same decrepit studio she would later recognize as Zelda Fitzgerald’s, fictionalized in Save Me the Waltz; she often swooned from malnourishment in class. Studying with Roland Petit’s teacher of choice, in due time he appeared in class himself and selected Leslie for his Ballets des la Champs-Elysees. From there, Gene Kelly spotted her and invited her to Hollywood for a screen test—presumably successfully, though she calls herself “the shyest star ever.” Holed up in a seamy hotel with her mother, it was some time before she began to live a star’s life. (Eventually she was taken to the studio’s costume department to get clothes decent enough to appear in public.)

Her career as a professional ballet dancer continued, with appearances in Petit’s company long after her move to Hollywood. Dancing was her serious art, no mere star’s gimmick; late in life she still held, and struggled with, her sense of herself as a dancer who acted rather than the opposite identity one might expect. She used her influence to obtain needed (if rather pedestrian) film work for Petit’s entire troop. She does not note the irony of being a Parisian girl coming to America to film a movie about an American coming to Paris. Or to continue to ride the biographical seesaw, that her own dancer-mother was an American in Paris, marrying a French man.

Beyond stage and screen, the acting continued, for things were not as they seemed. At the time of Gigi, Caron’s second marriage, to the British director Peter Hall, foundered: He disparaged her abilities and discouraged her career, later admitting that it was professional jealousy that drove him, not his professed wish for a “traditional” wife. But despite being under Hall’s frown of disapproval, and sometimes with one or two children in tow, Caron continued to travel and work while her husband rarely visited, and, looming in the background, seemed to acknowledge her need neither for work nor for his support or company. Lonely and disappointed, and by now shedding some of the moral reticence of her protected, Roman Catholic upbringing, she admits to affairs on locations.

As the first decades of her life were spent under a succession of thumbs—first her mother (later alcoholic and a suicide), then the Hollywood studio’s rules and chaperones, next the aforementioned husband, followed by a desperately needy Warren Beatty, not to mention the constant watchful eyes of the tabloids and the church—it shouldn’t surprise that she would finally break free with a flurry of good times and partying, accepting role after role.

When Caron left school early to dance, her mother helped out by providing a precocious and somewhat bizarre reading list. What young Leslie wasn’t given she discovered for herself; and so, despite a lack of formal education, she became well read, alert to languages, and sophisticated in her literary leanings, paving the way to an international career in the truest sense. Her cosmopolitan nature granted her hundreds of regal friends and acquaintances, and her career spanned an astonishing array of film and stage roles. Her directors ranged from America’s Gene Kelly and Vincent Minnelli, to Canada’s Arthur Hiller, to France’s René Clair, François Truffaut, and Jean Renoir, Bryan Forbes and Ken Russell in England, in Italy, Nanni Loy and Franco Zeffirelli (and a near-miss with Federico Fellini), Krzysztof Zanussi in Poland, and more. She crosses paths with Fred Astaire, Christopher Isherwood, Rock Hudson, Ingrid Bergman, Orson Welles, Noel Coward, David Niven, Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, and more. She champions struggling actors and directors—Zero Mostel after his blacklisting; Montgomery Clift, whose reputation rendered him unemployable—and among the Hollywood stories is how eerily close she and her family came to renting the house in which Roman Polanski would briefly live with his wife Sharon Tate and where she was brutally murdered.

In later years, as roles came less frequently, and she struggled with alcohol and depression, Caron reinvented herself as the creator of a small-town auberge, leaving her months of construction and contracting to do the occasional acting role. The auberge is clearly a remarkable place, and she emerges from her depression at peace with the world and her family, bringing us these enlivening tales of an extraordinary career, from a golden time which still resonates.

Kate Light, poet and violinist in the New York City Opera, is the author, most recently, of Open Slowly.

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