Introducing Our Newest Writer, Susan Strasberg
At the age of 40, she decided to write her autobiography. "My acting career wasn't going where I wanted it to," she explains. "I wasn't getting good parts. I got so bored with myself that I started writing." She was determined to be candid. That worried her until she discovered "most people were more concerned they would be left out than by what I would say."
Once she began, Strasberg wrote incessantly, scribbling longhand on yellow legal pads. When she wasn't writing, she was thinking about her life. At parties she surreptitiously jotted down recollections on napkins. "Once I even wrote on my nylon slip." By the end of summer 1978 she had finished 50 pages. "I found it so pleasurable," she says. "In the past I would sit by the phone waiting for a job offer. I found I liked controlling what I was doing."
G.P. Putnam's Sons, the publishers, also liked the chapter and outline her agent, Morton Janklow, submitted that fall. After 18 months of research, writing, rewriting and careful scrutiny by lawyers, her life story, which she titled Bittersweet (after considering but wisely rejecting Indecent Exposure), was ready. It is a powerful, poignant, painfully blunt account of her family, her famous acting-teacher father, her experiments with drugs, her marriage, the tragedy of a child born defective and—finally—a happy ending.
For some time, we had been looking for a book to serialize in PEOPLE. We thought you readers would enjoy the change of pace; it seemed like an interesting and entirely consistent departure from our editorial format. Publishers and agents sent us manuscripts, both fiction and nonfiction. We chose Bittersweet, and in this issue (page 61) we present the first of three consecutive installments. We will follow them, from time to time, with excerpts of other outstanding books.
In some respects, Bittersweet reminded us of Haywire, Brooke Hayward's best-selling memoir of her own turbulent show business family. Susan is the daughter of Lee Strasberg, artistic director of the Actors Studio, and the late Paula Miller Strasberg, an actress and acting coach who counted Marilyn Monroe among her pupils. Susan herself played on Broadway even before her birth. Her mother had a role as a prostitute in Many Mansions and was seven months pregnant before the producer complained that the audience could no longer accept a streetwalker in Paula's condition. "We were fired," Strasberg notes at the beginning of Bittersweet.
Strasberg remembers crawling in diapers under her parents' dining room table while the likes of Elia Kazan, John Garfield, Tallulah Bankhead and Clifford Odets ate and entertained one another. As Strasberg grew up, her father was to gain a worldwide reputation as the developer of extraordinary talents—Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, James Dean and Paul Newman.
It was not surprising that at 15 Strasberg was acting off-Broadway. At 17 she starred in The Diary of Anne Frank. In later years she appeared on stage and screen with Richard Burton, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson.
Beginning about 1963, Strasberg embarked on a course of near self-destruction. "For five years I lived my life and wasn't aware of it," she says now. "It wasn't just the drugs. I was asleep." She brought herself out of it in order to guide her daughter, Jennifer, through a series of painful operations to correct the birth defects.
Today, at 41, Strasberg is a different woman. While still an actress (she was seen recently in NBC's miniseries based on Irwin Shaw's Beggarman/Thief), she is devoted to writing. A novel is in the works, a challenge that Strasberg would not have undertaken before writing Bittersweet. "It was cathartic," she says. "I felt so badly about some of the things I had done. Somehow, if you can get them out, they don't threaten you anymore."
Bittersweet is a courageous book. We are grateful to Strasberg for sharing the details of her troubled life with us. We hope you are too.