Dear Famous Actress,
You ran a few minutes late so I killed time in the Brooklyn Heights coffee house where we were supposed to meet by wondering why the streets in that part of town were named for fruits—pineapple, cranberry, orange. Was the original developer an orchard fan? Or maybe he just liked slot machines?
Then there you were, standing at the counter, buying us coffee and apologizing all over the place for getting stuck in traffic, like the traffic was your fault, and you kept on explaining, in that slightly ragged voice that people get when they’re tired and more than a little talked out, how you had just come from one interview in Manhattan, and you had one to go when our hour was up, and then maybe you could salvage the day with a hockey game that night, although you were too nice to use the word salvage.
And anyway, you had me at… hockey?
“Oddly, I am a hockey fan,” you say, sitting there with your anonymity at once protected by the black top and the black jeans but slightly undone by that dazzling pair of black patent-leather loafers. “I wouldn’t say I’m a knowledgeable hockey fan. But I do enjoy watching it more than the other… like, um, golf,” and the last word comes out almost in a whisper, as though you are thinking to yourself that maybe you haven’t given golf a chance.
This is the first hint of the fundamental decency, or the sense of fair play, or maybe just an impulse for generosity that steers you away from easy answers or mean-spiritedness, a quality that bubbles up repeatedly in your conversation and dominates your new book, Dear Mr. You.
You are a famous actress, a movie star, a TV star, a star on stage, and your excellence has been rewarded with a Tony, an Emmy, an Obie, and a couple of Golden Globe awards. And yet when you sat down to write a book, you wrote about none of that (and you certainly didn’t write one of those currently voguish books in which performers barely out of their twenties feel entitled to give the rest of us life lessons.)
You wrote a book about men. Every chapter in the book is a letter to a man in your life—father, son, mentors, boyfriends, your accountant, the doctor that saved your life when you almost died a year ago from influenza A and pneumonia and septic shock, your helpful neighbor in the country, your emergency contact, a cab driver, all of whom you leave with their anonymity—and dignity—intact.
Yes, we see glimpses of your life in what you say to those men—in fact, we get a very good idea of what you’re made of—but it is safe to say that the only disappointed readers of your book will be those who come to it looking for scandalous revelations or those expecting you to stick it to the opposite sex in one of those books that should all have the generic title Men!
But you never generalize about the opposite sex, you’re never preachy, never about getting even, not even when you have every right.
I mean, we all know because it was all over the papers how you got left by that boyfriend while you were pregnant, but of that, not a word, save one sentence in “Dear Mr. Cabdriver,” in which you describe at length the day you had a meltdown in the back seat of a cab that was going resolutely the wrong way, screaming and yelling and teaching your driver several new Anglo-Saxon constructions until he stopped, you got out, and apologized. You are at pains in this piece to not cut yourself any slack. There is never, you as good as say, any excuse for allowing some poor guy you don’t even know to become the collateral damage in your private drama. Which somehow makes that one line near the end—“I am pregnant and alone”—not even self-serving but just the poignant truth.
Even in the letter that collectively addresses three bad boyfriends, you end gracefully with an acknowledgement of complicity, ’fessing up that you, too, had “done enough bad things to be the beast in someone else’s story.” Even here, there’s hardly a trace of score settling.
“It wouldn’t occur to me,” you say. “If I get to write one book, I don’t want it to be a mean one. The world doesn’t need another mean book. And I do love men.”
And if being decent and fair-minded weren’t enough, you wrote a good book. Dear Mr. You is smart, funny, sad, entertaining, never boring. It is that rare thing in books written by bold-faced names: a very pleasant surprise. Put it another way: If no one knew who you were, this would still be a book worth reading.
You manage the almost impossible: You are charming without ever lapsing into cute, as when, in “Dear Risk Taker,” you address a pop musician who’s inspired you and begin with a story about your childhood infatuation with the Beatles:
“When I was seven or so I was putting on a play in my backyard for an audience of zero, called ‘Imposter Beatles.’ My character was a girl named Sweetie who was seduced by four men claiming to be John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Sometimes the girl down the block joined in but usually I enacted the whole thing alone or with my dog… Some days Sweetie was gagged and handcuffed by the Faux George with sadomasochistic implications that were probably unsettling, having been conjured by a second-grader. The play ended with me atop a dirt mound in my yard, arms raised and reaching for the escape rope tossed by helicopter from the genuine Paul McCartney. Paul climbed down and risked his life, all the while singing ‘Here, There and Everywhere.’ The whole thing satisfied my rescue fantasies and my need to be validated by a rock star while wearing a halter dress. I wrote a letter to a television station trying to get some interest, but my parents never mailed it.”
You are also sexy (“Dear Popeye”), grateful (“Dear Emergency Contact”), and a mom to be reckoned with (“Dear Future Man Who Loves My Daughter”). And more than anything you yourself are a daughter whose love for her father drives this book even when he’s not the subject being addressed. Or as you put it succinctly in that Brooklyn coffee shop: “It’s because of my dad that there’s a book.”
Your admiration for this career military man whose service in three wars left him with nightmares and a sense of rectitude and duty that brooked no compromise and therefore ill-prepared, once he left the service, for the slippery ethics that dominate private life. He was not, you make plain, always easy to live with. But he was easy to love because he loved so unstintingly.
You capture him best in a letter that’s not even written to him, but to the anonymous oyster picker who collected the oysters that provided your father’s last meal, in which you try to explain to that oyster picker just who he was collecting oysters for:
“He’d pull me aside and say, look what I got your mother for Valentine’s Day when it was not even Christmas. He didn’t need a holiday as an excuse, though. My mother was heartbroken over the city tearing down her childhood home, where my father had picked her up for their first date. He drove over and dug, with his cane, through the refuse at the site until he found a brick representative of the house. He had the address carved into it and placed a picture of the house on top so she’d have something tangible to remember it by. He would sit around and think of things like that, what would make others happy, and then he actually did it.”
You told me that before you were a writer you were a reader, and all that came from your father:
“He loved books and words and poems and taught me and loved them with me and through me. He was my hero. He’s just my compass for everything probably. He wasn’t always easy, as I sort of delve into in the last letter, but that’s part of what made him so phenomenal to me, was that he went through all that [the trauma of war] and he evolved past that—my brother and I have talked about this, how we always loved him so fiercely, even when he was impossible and even though he imbued us with some of that impossible-ness, because we never questioned for one second that we were loved. I’ve never articulated this before, but I never, ever needed to hear the words I love you from my father because he did them every day, even when he was in pain or when he was intolerable or when he was difficult or when I was difficult. He did it when he was angry. He did it in his sleep. He just loved so fiercely, and so completely.”
The little miracle of “Dear Oyster Picker” is how contagious you make your love for your father. When you’re done, anyone would want John Parker for their dad.
Near the end of our interview, with your next interlocutor lurking in the wings, you let it slip that you wrote nearly the whole book in four months, which leaves someone who can write a little bit and can’t act at all more than a little envious. But also hoping already for a next book, even if it were Dear Mr. You II.
In the meantime, hope all is well.
P.S. Thanks for the coffee.