11.29.08

A Late Night Visit From Christopher Plummer

The Sound of Music star’s rich new memoir, and the author’s encounter with him through a peephole many years ago.

The best way to introduce Christopher Plummer’s memoir, In Spite of Myself, is with a theatrical story: many years ago, when I was teenager, I once spent a summer on a yacht in the company of Vivien Leigh and a number of other famous theater people, guests of my Uncle Alex. Apart from falling in calf sick love with Vivien Leigh, the cruise through the Mediterranean sticks in my mind most because when we anchored and went on shore at Calvi, in Corsica, we sat down to lunch at a waterfront café, a large, noisy, glamorous party of at least ten people, all drinking lots of wine. I seem to remember that it included, apart from Vivien, Lillian Hellman, Carol Reed, and his wife, the actress Penelope Dudley-Ward. A pair of elderly English ladies at an adjoining table stared at us disapprovingly. When Vivien had had a few drinks, she not only told bawdy theatrical stories at the top of her voice, but had a laugh which could be heard from one side of the harbor (not just Calvi, but any harbor) to the other, and one of the elderly ladies clearly complained about it to the other. “Pay no attention, dear,” her companion said, glaring at Vivien. “They’re only theatricals.”

John Gielgud, in a moment of mild rebuke, greeted Plummer by saying, “Ah, Christopher, and how are you, in your own small way?”

Well, “theatricals” could very well have been the title of Christopher Plummer’s splendid, lively memoir, and for that matter a fair description of his life and personality. Plummer has written an immensely satisfying memoir, of rare grace, good humor, and unapologetic self-honesty.

Being the son of one British actress (Gertrude Musgrove) and the nephew of two others (Merle Oberon and Joan Gardner), I have always had a taste for theatrical memoirs, and published many a one in my day, including two by Vivien Leigh’s ex-husband, Laurence Olivier. The smell of grease paint, stories about a youth spent in theatrical boarding houses on tour, anecdotes about other actors, famous, infamous, or not famous at all, but beloved by other actors, have always appealed to me, and despite the best efforts of Dick Snyder, then the boss of Simon and Schuster, and the entire Simon and Schuster sales force, I was seldom able to resist a good theater memoir.

If Sonny Mehta, at Knopf, had not been quicker off the mark, I might have published Christopher Plummer’s memoir, which, as rich as a Christmas pudding, fairly drips wonderful theatrical nostalgia and anecdotes, familiar names and memorable performances. Also, like Larry Olivier, the man clearly wrote the book himself, without the help of a ghost, or indeed of any censorious editor to say, “Cut this bit out, nobody has ever heard of these people.” Plummer’s book is chockablock with a lifetime’s worth of good stories, interesting people and memorable performances, the distillation of a great career, and, I would guess, a great life. In tact and generosity of spirit, it is the very model of what a memoir should be.

Some people might say that the first 83 pages devoted to Plummer’s family, childhood and youth, in Canada, could have been cut a bit (in fact my wife Margaret said exactly that). But this was balanced out for me by the mention of such thespians, great and small, some of whom I knew, but all of them no longer great names to the modern public: Edward Everett Horton, Hume Cronyn (whose memoir I published), Kit Cornell, Judith Anderson, Eileen Herlie, Donald Wolfit, Eva Leonard-Boyne, Margery Maude, and, well, I could go on and on.

Nobody tells a better theatrical story, or more of them, than Plummer (well, almost nobody, John Gielgud was in a class by himself, and Plummer has three great Gielgud stories). A good example from the hundreds in this book is the one about John Emerey, the actor who was married to Tallulah Bankhead, who at one point informed him in the marital bed, “I don’t go down anymore, dahling; it gives me claustrophobia,” and sometimes showed her indifference to his amorous advances by singeing the tips of her pubic hairs with a lighted match.

The other thing is that Plummer’s childhood—he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth in Canada—is very interesting. I liked the bits about upper-crust Canada (whoever knew there was such a thing as an upper-crust Canada?), and the revelation that so many of the theater names that we think of as American are in fact Canadian. Whether about his own family or others, Plummer is above all a great storyteller. Again and again, his stories bring tears of recognition to my eyes, whether it is the legless British air ace Douglas Bader who, while Plummer was working on the film The Battle of Britain, stove in Plummer’s Mercedes with his metal crutches, shouting, “Get the filthy Kraut car out of here!”, or his care in London at the hands of the gifted and eccentric Dr. Tibor Csato, our family doctor, a Hungarian who always had the most beautiful nurses who cooked his lunch for him in the sterilizing trays. Plummer is discreet about his marriages, but that’s not a bad thing—I don’t like memoirs in which the writer uses the book to get his or her own back against ex-spouses. However, he is always deliciously indiscreet, and often very funny, about everyone in show business. He can tell a good story against himself, too, my favorite being that of John Gielgud, in a moment of mild rebuke, greeting him by saying, “Ah, Christopher, and how are you, in your own small way?”

Also, Plummer is not only a good actor who has gone on getting better and better as he grows older, he has that elemental drive about acting that really appeals to me—the ferocious desire to keep on working, whatever one’s age or the problems of one’s private life, and the ambition to reach out to every kind of part, from movie and television roles to the great Shakespearean ones. I mean, here is a man who played the male lead opposite Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music yet still managed to perform Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear on stage, and who, in his old age, was better at the part of playing Mike Wallace than Mike Wallace himself (in The Insider). As for range, Plummer has the gift of aging gracefully from star roles to becoming a great (and well-remunerated) character actor, always the fallback position of older British actors like Olivier, Richardson, and Gielgud; in his time, Plummer has played the Duke of Wellington, Oedipus (three times), King Priam of Troy, Rommel, John Barrymore, you name it. . .

Plummer is wonderful in writing about the theater—he has an apparently flawless memory, a vivid gift for recreating scenes, and great sense of narrative—there is none of the plodding feeling of reading through a collection of Playbills, as there is in most of his fellow actors’ autobiographies.

A brief word of confession is due here. While looking through the book I came across a photograph from Life magazine of my mother, playing Irina, the youngest of Chekov’s three sisters on Broadway in 1943, with Kit Cornell and Judith Anderson as her sisters (and Ruth Gordon as the dreadful sister-in-law). The very same photograph sits in a silver frame in my office, as I write this. The fact is that I have only met Christopher Plummer face to face once, when as a very young man on a visit to New York (I may have been on leave from the R. A. F. or on vacation from Oxford), I briefly stayed in my mother’s apartment at 344 East 58th Street in New York City while she was away somewhere for a day or two. Late one night I heard a loud knocking at the door, which I ignored, but it increased in volume and finally a rich theatrical voice cried out, “Gertie, Gertie, for God’s sake let me in!” I got out of bed, peered through the peephole, saw a shadowy figure kneeling on the doormat, and explained that I was Gertie’s son. Our downstairs neighbors were Patricia Nye, a robust and baritone-voiced actress who had once been a wartime Lieutenant-Commander in the WRENS (the Royal Naval Women’s Service), and a big hit as Ftatateeta, Cleopatra’s murderously protective maid in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (in which Vivien had played Cleopatra) and her long-time companion Polly Dick. Judging from the murmurings that followed from downstairs, I assumed that Pat and Polly were taking care of things—events like this were not unusual in the building, which housed several actors—and the next day, as I was going downstairs, Pat opened her door, fixed me with a glare worthy of Captain Bligh, and in her deepest, quarterdeck voice bellowed, “Not a word to your mother, young man!”

Well, I never did breathe a word about it to my mother—neither would you had you even seen Pat Nye as Ftateeta. It was not until several years later, when I saw Christopher Plummer in a film, that I thought I recognized the voice and the penny dropped. It did not escape my notice from then on that my mother always had nice things to say about Plummer, whenever the subject came up, and from the expression on her face when she mentioned his name or saw an ad for one of his plays or films, it was easy enough to guess her feelings for him, even though he had been 14 years younger than her when they both toured in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Husband all over the United States and Canada. Even to the very end of her long life (she died at 94), my mother could still manage a hearty, good-natured and indulgent smile at any mention of Plummer, and it made me very happy that even as she slipped in and out of dementia, he still played a role in what were clearly among her happier memories. Good for her! I always thought. Good for him, too—Gertrude was always lively company.

Plummer quotes a long story from my mother about how my father had seduced her as a schoolgirl in Switzerland, but I am doubtful that it was entirely true, and suspect she was thinking of somebody else. My father was perhaps the least romantic of men, even when faced with a beautiful, blond English schoolgirl on the ski slopes, and I think Gertrude may have been mixing him up with somebody else, or perhaps wishing she had met him that way. There were more men in her life than she cared to admit (at least to my father), but she was not only a wonderful comedienne, she was also somebody who, if she had loved you, would go on loving you for life, whatever your faults, and yet still tell hilariously funny stories about you over a drink with her theater friends. Anyway, I was touched by what Plummer had to say about her, and like him even more than I did before reading his book, which is not always true of memoirs. Besides, he writes movingly, almost lyrically, about my friend Gloria Vanderbilt, who deserves every word.

Indeed, I read every page of his book with interest, pleasure, an occasional tear, and many rich guffaws: it is, frankly, a treat, not only for its theatrical stories, but also because Plummer is that rarest of actors, intelligent, thoughtful, hard-working, talented, imaginative, generous, dedicated to his craft, and occasionally struck by spark of thespian genius, as he was, years ago, when he starred in the film of Royal Hunt of the Sun (Don’t miss the story about how he got in shape for the role!), in which, as Margaret often points out to me, he was one of the three most handsome men she has ever seen on the screen (the others being Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia and Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans).

I know Gertie would have loved every page of it. So will anybody who still loves the theater.

New York Times bestselling author Michael Korda's books include Ike, Horse People, Country Matters, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charmed Lives. He lives with his wife, Margaret, in Dutchess County, New York.