Literature it’s not, but what a read! Christopher Plummer has written a memoir of his life on the stage, on the movie set, and in the bedroom. We were riveted by every page of stage gossip and titillating reminiscences.
In Spite of Myself reads in Mr. Plummer’s own voice; there’s no trace of a ghost-writer. He begins with his childhood in Montreal, where his mother read him the Just So Stories and The Wind and the Willows (just what Emsworth read to his own children!) and the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock (introduced to Emsworth by his favorite college professor). She also took him to the theater (his first play: J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose, another of our favorites).
Plummer studied piano but was upstaged by a more talented high school classmate, Oscar Peterson. Still underage, he began to hang out at Montreal nightclubs, where he met an alcoholic Diana Barrymore, who asked her to escort him to a posh after-dinner party. As Plummer remembers it,
I boldly sat down at the piano, hoping to accompany Diana in a French song or two. She winked at me and took up the cue. As was her custom, she had decked herself out in a daringly revealing low-cut dress. In the middle of a song in order to emphasize a phrase, she made a sweeping theatrical gesture, miles over the top, when suddenly, not just one but two glorious breasts popped out in full view and stayed out for the rest of the number.
That’s on page 49; this 650-page book is full of juicy bits like this.
And his amours! For the most part, Plummer names names. By his account, he has enjoyed the favors of scores of beautiful women (besides his three wives) over his long life.
His show-business stories (not all of which involve him personally) are marvelous. One that tickled our fancy has to do with the composer-pianist Percy Grainger, whom Plummer saw in Montreal as a teenager:
The Australian, Percy Grainger, came to town very often — declined hotels and insisted on sleeping on his piano in a studio at Steinway Hall. He was most eccentric and would play only two encores: “The Man I Love,” as if Grieg had written it, and his own “Country Gardens.”
For the most part, Plummer’s gossip is good-humored; several accounts of nasty behavior by show business colleagues omit names. One is left in awe of the sheer numbers of distinguished actors, directors, playwrights, and producers, from Noel Coward and David Selznick to Katharine Hepburn and Julie Andrews, that Plummer has known during his career.
And there’s plenty in this book about the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), which is clearly close to Plummer’s heart, as well as about Plummer’s work in England and on Broadway. Did you know that Duke Ellington dedicated his 1957 album Such Sweet Thunder to the Stratford Festival? Plummer met Ellington when the composer, doing research for his album, was in Stratford monitoring a rehearsal of Hamlet. The dedication’s right there on the front cover.
One does not have to believe all of Plummer’s stories to enjoy them. (Did Grainger really sleep on his piano?) At one point Plummer tells of a Montreal music critic who fell asleep, missed a performance by Horowitz, wrote a glowing review of a performance he did not hear, and only discovered afterward that the maestro had become ill and did not play. Over the years we have heard other versions of such a story, with different performances and critics; no doubt Plummer thinks he is telling the original.
Another tale that tested our credulity involved an affair between the young Plummer and a married actress. According to Plummer, he and the lady were making love on a chair in a dressing room when the lady’s husband walked in and engaged them in casual conversation. Supposedly, the husband never suspected what was happening, because the lovers’ lower limbs were fully covered by the woman’s long, full gown. It’s clear that’s how Plummer remembers the incident. But it’s hard to believe it happened quite that way.
We expect that it is because Emsworth has raved for years about Plummer’s performance as Lear at the Stratford Festival in 2002 that one of our daughters knew to snap up a copy of In Spite of Myself for our Christmas stocking. In fact, Plummer’s King Lear remains the high point of our theater-going career. Plummer’s ribald, swaggering king seemed to us exactly what the Bard had in mind. And with Plummer, the language barrier simply disappeared; he rendered Shakespeare’s immortal lines so naturally that he might have been speaking twenty-first century American.