Picks and Pans Review: A Life

updated 06/27/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Elia Kazan

This is one fascinating and infuriating book. All 825 pages of it. Kazan was involved with the Group Theatre in the '30s. He directed A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman on Broadway in the '40s. In the '50s he named names during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and directed the movies On the Waterfront and East of Eden. He became a popular novelist in the '60s and 70s. In this self-serving yet absorbing book, Kazan (who immigrated to the U.S. from Turkey at age 3) keeps saying that he was for many years an angry man, filled with pent-up rage from trying to fit in. From the tone of this volume, nearly 60 years later, he has lost little of his anger. Kazan tells a lot of stories, many of them nasty, about other famous people, including those he professes to like. He writes that Marilyn Monroe slept with him the night she became engaged to Joe DiMaggio, that Ethel Waters—after drinking too much at a party—admitted that despite her religious pieties she hated white people, and that Marlon Brando's main concern when negotiating for the lead role (eventually played by Kirk Douglas) in The Arrangement was his hairpieces. Kazan tells stories about himself too, many unflattering, but he seems able to rationalize even the worst of his behavior. Chronically unfaithful to his first wife, Molly (he seems to have bedded half the actresses he cast), he insists he loved her then and loves her still, 25 years after her death. "My 'womanizing' saved my life," he writes. "It kept the juices pumping and saved me from drying up, turning to dust, and blowing away, like some of my friends." Explaining why he revealed to the HUAC hearings names of former friends who had been fellow Communist Party members, Kazan gives a convincing imitation of a pretzel. He says he truly felt the nation was at risk and that he didn't want to jeopardize his own career for a cause in which he no longer believed. Kazan often seems in fact to have been ahead of his time: He prematurely discovered the Me Decade. Not, of course, that such egocentrism prevents a reader from eagerly moving to the next page, hoping for yet another revelation about Kazan's own indiscretions or those of his well-known friends. (Knopf, $24.95)

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