I started to cull my books recently. As old age approaches I routinely decide that I need to gain more space, and to really get rid of what I will never get around to reading, sort of like “use it, or lose it”.
I noticed once, in a list of ‘best-ever books’, Stendahl’s Scarlet and Black. Sometime later I spied a copy in an op-shop for $2, and promptly bought it. It has been gathering dust ever since. No disrespect to M. Stendahl, but I will never read it. Not even if he could arrange for someone, maybe his great grandson, to pay me.
There are other books, and authors, with whom I have a warmer relationship. The finds can be illuminating, and as often as not the books you find can be a trap, because once you start to pull them out of their hiding places, you are apt to find old friends, and enemies, and then your state of mind is thrown into turmoil. Forgive the over-wrought writing, but we are discussing literature, we hope, and it probably sends your pulse racing. N’est ce pas?
How does Graham Greene connect with Rita Hayworth?
One such book pulled from a dark corner was ‘Travels with My Aunt”, by Graham Greene. Greene died in 1991, and his reputation has not faded, as much as receded into the background, with qualifications. Easily pigeon-holed as a ‘Catholic writer’ he is so much more. Anyway, I happened on this book again, and found myself drawn down an interesting rabbit hole. Bear with me as I re-trace my steps.
Reading about his fictional aunt reminded me of what might be called a meme now, maybe a theme then; that of the rogue maiden aunt, who is wild and free, against all expectations, and unashamedly so! We have one in our family, but that is another story!
The name Auntie Mame sprang to mind, and having a minute on my hands, I googled the term. Were the fictional aunts connected, had Greene lifted the character, was his tale an original book, or was it all based on a movie, written by someone else?
Discovering Rita Hayworth – You will love her
The first entry for Auntie Mame was a YouTube film clip. It was of Rita Hayworth dancing, and her dancing was, to my untrained mind, spectacular. But even more spectacular was the fact that Rita Hayworth could actually dance, at all. I’d heard of her, but she was of the distant past. Some had described her as the most beautiful of the Hollywood female stars, but I expected that the funny hair-do, and the wooden speech, would lose me.
That video was of her dancing with Fred Astaire. We’ve all heard of him, but he is very definitely last century. You know, the 1950’s called, and they want their tap shoes back. The song is called “The Shorty George”, and I defy anyone with a pulse not to be gobsmacked by their virtuosity, and the swinging charm, and sheer joy, of it all. See it here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUhhKELUxB0 You don’t see dancing like that, anywhere, anytime. She is one of six dancers to have danced with Fred Astaire, and also Gene Kelly. Gene Kelly was known as the most athletic of the male dancers in movies, but Rita Hayworth matches him, every step of the way. Watch this and breathe in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mz3CPzdCDws If I sound awed, I am.
By now I was wasting lots of time, so I decided to waste some more. I looked Rita Hayworth up in Wikipedia. Her biography is relatively straightforward, but with profound and disturbing facts, which are treated as incidental, and almost glossed over.
From a very early age she was sexually abused by her father, and the abuse appears to have continued until at least early adulthood. She seems to have, in some ways at least, overcome this horrendous start, however, and managed to build a very successful career, over a long time. She was the most successful female actor of her generation.
She was however, then married to a succession of exploitative men, some of whom were introduced to her by her father, and she never found happiness with any of them. She was battling dangerous demons, however, and the Wikipedia entry tells a tale of monumental rages, escalating alcohol abuse, and mental deterioration. It is almost a relief when Alzheimer’s Disease makes an appearance, because she shows a steady decline in her physical and mental health. In this way the movie industry can move on. She has a disease, and that explains her demise. No problem.
There is no speculation about the effects on her, and her mental health, from her early, and sustained abuse. It is quite shocking to read, because it assumes a level of acceptance, of another one of life’s hurdles, with no sensibility of, and no admiration for, her resilience. And of course, her father is not mentioned again; he was not sent to jail, he seems to have sailed on into obscurity, and her life was shortened, so that she died at age 68. Her daughter looked after her until her premature death. Thank God for small mercies.
Of course she has been dead for thirty years now, but it seems that history has treated her roughly, and without due care and consideration. Her tale, to me, smacks of courage, character and indomitable will. Who knew her story in full? Her videos still deliver much, of vitality, of an inner beauty, and of joy. Fred Astaire always said she was his favourite dance partner. Watch her here, again. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mz3CPzdCDws
Travels with My Aunt is a great book. I must review it sometime.
Mark Buckley is a Melbourne based writer and publisher. His interests include history, politics and the arts. His work can be found at www.askbucko.com