But this was more of a challenge. Not only was it a book that Vicki was giving me, over 400 pages, not a screenplay that one can breeze though in a couple hours, but far, far, FAR more problematic is that it was a memoir about her parents. If I didn't like -- no, if I didn't love -- the book, how on earth do you tell someone that their story about their parents isn't any good.
The added challenge here is that Vicki's parents were renowned. Her father was screenwriter Robert Riskin, one of the founders of what is now the Writers Guild of America, as well as the long-time partner of director Frank Capra, and the Oscar-winning screenwriter for It Happened One Night (the first film to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress). Robert Riskin was also the writer of Mr. Deeds Comes to Town, Meet John Doe, You Can't Take It With You, Lost Horizon, Lady for a Day (which was later remade by Capra, as well, as Pocketful of Miracles), and many, many more. And he headed the U.S. government's Bureau of Motion Pictures during WWII. (I wrote about him in more detail here.) And her mother was even more famous -- honest -- the actress Fay Wray, best-known, of course, for starring in King Kong, but also with a half-century-long career of making more than 100 films, and even wrote Broadway plays and books. And an autobiography with one of the best titles ever -- On the Other Hand.
I knew that Vicki was an excellent writer. She herself is a former president of the Writers Guild. And the writer and producer of numerous screenplays and TV movies. (Not to mention a former practicing psychologist, an international board member for 12 years of Human Rights Watch, and recipient of the WGA's Valentine Davies Award for "bringing honor to writers everywhere.") But writing a book is another matter entirely from a screenplay. Especially one that's a memoir of your parents.
So, it was with great trepidation that I opened the fist page of that first draft with clenched fingers and clenched jaw. And it's important that you know all this as I dive into my reaction to it all.
The book was tremendous.
I don't say this lightly. Or as a friend of Vicki's. I say it in relief. I was terrified about what to say if to her it wasn't any good. By page 30, I was overjoyed. By the end, I was sorry to see it over. And I said this to her not to be nice, but knowing that if I'm not honest with the author when they've given me a draft to read for comments, I don't do them any good. Worse, I'm doing them a disservice because they can't fix what needs work. And I did give her some comments about things I thought should be addressed. But the overriding first comment was that she'd written an absolutely wonderful book.
And before I go any further, it's important for me to interrupt here to say that I'm not alone in thinking this, because after battling the hellish and uphill world of publishing, Vicki broke through the near-impenetrable walls and sold the book to Pantheon Books (part of Knopf Doubleday) and it's being released in just a few weeks, on February 26, 2019. The title is Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir.
Like biographer Michael Korda of such Hollywood tales as Charmed Lives and Queenie, and a former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, who says, "Victoria Riskin has written a fascinating, richly detailed and superbly illustrated account of the lives of two remarkable people," adding that "This is not only the love story of two brilliantly talented people, it is a brilliant piece of cinematic history, at one robust, touching and deeply satisfying.". And he finishes with "For anybody who is interested in the movies, Victoria Riskin’s book will be must reading."
So, I'm not lying. It is tremendous.
Beyond the writing, it did something most memoirs don't do, which is note flaws in character, especially when those characters are your parents. But thankfully, while being open and honest -- even going into their romantic relationships before meeting one another (Fay Wray had had a loving, but very difficult first marriage that ended with her husband passing away, but also a romance with the playwright Clifford Odets and what was largely a one-way relationship with an infatuated Sinclair Lewis, all of which the book deals with) -- both main characters come across as pretty wonderful, even noble people, but not white-washed by an adoring child, rather as well-rounded individuals with highs and very real struggles, all deeply documented and supported by their actions professionally, politically, with family, and through social concerns. In fact, after finishing reading the book, one of Vicki's nervous questions to me was "How did my parents come across? Were they okay??" I thought for a moment and then finally answered, "They come across like I wanted them to adopt me by page 140." (I should note that a few years back I had reason to meet her mother one time when she was in her 90s, and in just that brief time she was as warm and lovely as she comes across in the book.)
But the main reason I loved the book is that it did in a memoir what I look for when reading biographies of any sort. I tend to wade in very warily when I read biographies, most-especially celebrity biographies. What I like in any memoir is not so much that it's just nice tales of famous people's lives, but that it's as much a history book of the times with "edges" and shadings that give context. And to my great pleasure, this is that. It is not a mere collection of stories by a loving daughter putting her family world in the most-shining light, but rather about the Depression, the Golden Age of Hollywood, world war, McCarthyism (with her father being a target, despite his work for the government's war effort) and more -- at the center of which are the two separate lives of the author's parents pushing through it all until they finally meet. Fascinatingly, that meeting doesn't even come until the last third of the book, so it's like following a winding path of successes and major hurdles before simply getting to that point.
And its portrait of Hollywood is no snapshot thing, but encompassing since her mother's 57-year movie career began in the silent film era up to an acclaimed TV movie with Henry Fonda in 1980, the true-story Gideon's Trumpet (written in a nice bit of life's kismet by her son-in-law, and Vicki's husband, David Rintels). And Vicki's father's career started with SIX movies in 1931 -- including the classic Platinum Blonde with Jean Harlow -- and continued through TV work in the mid-1950s, before his untimely death from a stroke. And included his involvement with Frank Capra and also in the creation of the then-called Screen Writers Guild..
(Okay, here's another quote about the book, worth mentioning since it specifically is in regards to the Golden Age, from Kirk Douglas. "I was always curious about life in Hollywood before I came here. I found out in this fascinating book. And wow! What a story it is!")
And the thing is, the book doesn't just tell Hollywood Golden Age stories about her parents -- but from all manner of perspectives. There is a long, detailed, fascinating diversion into the life history of Merian C. Cooper, who directed King Kong, that is as adventurous and odd as that famous movie itself. And some of the best stories in the book have nothing to do with her parents at all, but are about that era in Hollywood.
(I'll digress a moment with my favorite story from the book about the screenwriter Jo Swerling who was one of Robert Riskin's closest friends -- and who with his wife Florence were godparents to Vicki. Swerling was a highly-accomplished writer whose many credits included It's a Wonderful Life, The Pride of the Yankees, and co-writer of the Broadway musical -- and its film adaptation -- Guys and Dolls. Swerling was a no-nonsense fellow not easily pushed around and working at the time at Columbia Studios, run by the dictatorial and oppressive Harry Cohn. One day Swerling's wife came to visit him at the studio. She got flustered this day and rammed her car in the parking lot into Harry Cohn's very expensive Rolls Royce. The tyrannical Cohn was furious and came storming into Jo Swerling's office. "What the hell was your wife doing smashing into my car?!" he screamed. Swerling calmly looked back and finally replied, "She probably thought you were in it.")
The book also includes my favorite "writer's story" that I'd read long before I even met Vicki (in fact, when I was still in college) and as it happens is attributed to her father. Though Vicki knows the tale, she notes that she's never been able to verify whether it's true or apocryphal. When Robert Riskin and Frank Capra teamed up on their series of classic movies, it was director Capra who got all the acclaim, known throughout the press and to movie audiences for his "Capra Touch." Indeed, Capra was happy to push his prominence throughout his career, and when writing his autobiography called it The Name Above the Title. One day, as the story goes, Robert Riskin came into Capra's office, dropped a ream of blank paper on the desk, pointed to it and supposedly said, to the eternal gratitude of screenwriters everywhere, "Let's see you give that the famous Capra Touch."
Helping too is that it's wonderfully written by a daughter who is herself a terrific, professional writer with great skill and insight. The risk of all memoirs like this is that it will fall into adulation, and in fairness while there are a few times when the book does creep towards that, it consistently pulls itself away by adding context, further depth and then moves on. I sense that's because (beyond being so well-written) underneath it all is the running theme that the best biographies have in making them not just specific on fascinating lives, but universal, asking who we are and how did we get here? The book is a gem.
For those interested, you can pre-order it here. And if you want to read more about the book, or people involved, or see more photos, this is the website for it all.