Picks and Pans Review: Slim

updated 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Slim Keith with Annette Tapert

She was born Mary Raye Gross on the Monterey Peninsula, but her mother soon thought better of things and changed the child's name to Nancy. During childhood and adolescence, her physique gave rise to nicknames like String Bean or Beanpole. When at the age of 17 she met actor William Powell at a desert resort hotel, he dubbed her his Slim Princess. The princess part of the moniker soon evaporated, but the Slim tag stayed with Lady Keith until her death at 72 earlier this year.

As this very readable memoir suggests, wherever there were fun and glamour and laughter and household names, Slim was there. Viewed by some as the original California girl—the tawny, long-stemmed, fresh-faced beauty—she came to Hollywood in the mid-'30s looking for excitement. She saw, and she quickly conquered—on the West Coast, on the East Coast, on the Continent.

Slim had taste, style (she was a Harper's Bazaar cover girl four times in one year), and she was a great shot. Ernest Hemingway, who called her Miss Slimsky, was wildly attracted to her. So was Clark Gable. Truman Capote (he used her as the model for Lady Ina Coolbirth in his infamous story "La Côte Basque") adored her. Cary Grant was her dear friend. Jerome Robbins her best friend. Filmmaker Howard Hawks, who used Slim as the inspiration for the Lauren Bacall character in To Have and Have Not, declared his intentions on their third date. Her second husband, producer Leland Hayward, and third husband, English mogul Sir Kenneth Keith, popped the question with equal alacrity.

There are women whom men find alluring while other women find them loathsome; Slim Keith's dazzle knew no gender boundaries (Babe Paley and Lauren Bacall were her chums) or, for that matter, class boundaries (the hired help thought she was swell) or age boundaries (Slim's stepchildren adored and trusted her).

At times, the book becomes too much shall-I-compare-me-to-a-summer's-day. Keith writes, for example, that her "celebrity was born less from me than from others' perception of me. It was about good looks, brains, taste and style. I can't take any credit for the good looks and brains, that was heredity. And I really can't take credit for taste and style; that was mostly instinct."

And after Slim's soon-to-be third husband proposes, she pouts ingenuously, "I've never understood why people always propose to me so soon after they've met me. After two marriages that started in this way, you'd think I would have expected a sudden proposal from the delivery man."

Still, this memoir makes clear that Slim was the one to sit next to at dinner. Even a 12-course dinner would be fine. (Simon and Schuster, $22.95)

From Our Partners