For years friends, knowing of my interest in autobiography and biography, told me that I should check out the collection of master improviser and Annoyance Theatre founding member Susan Messing. Each time I ran into her she urged me to come over, and when I finally called her to do just that she immediately screamed, "Get your beautiful white ass over here fast because all these books are going into boxes!"
Messing and her husband, Joe Canale, were in the midst of rehabbing their Lakeview two-flat when I stopped by. It was a very hot, sunny August afternoon, but Messing, pregnant with her first child (due in January), was full of energy. Throughout our conversation she prepared food for a barbecue, took calls from her husband, made iced tea for a friend, petted cats, and never sat down. But little distracted her from the 300-odd books stacked against the wall on a ledge in the kitchen, which she yanked out individually and then caressed as she talked about them. From time to time she would toss a book onto a pile that grew on the counter. The stack eventually became three bags that I carefully carted home.
RK: Do you remember when you first started picking up books like these?
SM: Yeah: my first one is Little People Who Became Great. This is a childhood book and there are little baby biographies in here of people like Andrew Carnegie, Michelangelo, Jenny Lind--the opera singer, Thomas Edison. These little people became great.
So you were a little girl.
Yes, but both my parents were sociology majors and we had a lot of books like Nigger and Black Like Me. I'd sit down with Campbell's tomato rice soup and I'd read Nigger almost every day. I was nine or ten. My original copy is held together by rubber bands.
What appealed to you about the genre?
It was fascinating--it was not my life. I guess that's what's fascinating. With autobiographies primarily; biographies are my second choice. I like first-person narrative better. I'd much rather have Kitty Carlisle Hart write about herself than somebody write about her.
I love that you've got Barbara Bush on top of Nancy Reagan's My Turn.
On top of Patti Davis and Pat Nixon. Pat Nixon rocks but her daughter wrote that book. Pat wouldn't've written it, but it was a good one because I'd just read Chuck Colson's autobiography--there's another born-again Christian who fucked up. Or, well, he was born-again after he fucked up.
Does anybody get born-again before they fuck up?
No. No. No. Which is really fun. Now this one, The Walrus on My Table, is a guy who massages animals like walruses and dolphins, and it was really cool.
When did you start collecting?
Somewhere around college. I just realized that I'd stopped buying fiction and started buying stories of real people. It's not only autobiographies in the sense of they have to be a political person or a Hollywood star. It can also be--well, we've got the Babe Didrickson story right here, we've got Frida Kahlo. That is a good Frida. I've got here, for example, Dreams and Nightmares of a German War Bride. Always good if you're escaping from the Nazis. Del had everything from Leni Riefenstahl to Goring.
Yes--he left me his biographies and autobiographies in his will. The fact that he thought about me was really sweet. He's got all the Nazi shit, which actually [laugh] appeals to me in a sense.
You shared this love of autobiography with him?
No, he just knew that I was really interested in it. He gave me shit like this Camille Paglia, which I don't count in my biographies. [She picks it up and reads the inscription.] "Dear Susan: This isn't a first edition so it's okay to write in it since it's next to worthless in the secondhand market and no collector would touch it. It's not a biography but maybe a multiple biography of Western culture. Anyway, any dyke who finds good things to say about the Marquis de Sade, compares Shelley with Elvis, and calls Emily Dickinson a ghoul is OK in my book. In passionate friendship, Del, Ramadan '98." This was a year before he died, I think. This one he had given us, but I hate this book. He also gave me a Dean Koontz book, which I despise.
There's Survivor, by Christina Crawford.
And there's Mommie Dearest right across the way. [Survivor] is even worse than Mommie Dearest because in this one she has a stroke and all sorts of shit. Oh, there's Michael Reagan with Nancy and the gang--he's on the outside looking in there. Everybody coexists. If you read Debbie Reynolds, you gotta read Eddie Fisher because you don't believe her until you see his side of it too, and then you go, "OK, you guys are ridiculous." Then you read his version of what he thought Liz Taylor and his romance was and then almost everybody else who knows Liz will tell you something else about Eddie: that he was a cock and an idiot.
What do you make of that--those connections?
Everybody wrote an autobiography in that group. They all went home and ratted on each other, the old farts.
What are good autobiographical topics?
Escaping the Nazis is good. Nazis are not good, but Nazi books are good. Fighting and winning against Nazis--life affirming. Very good. Born-agains, good. Mormons, good. Born-agains and Mormons are not the same. Paraplegic is good. If they are a quadriplegic who happens to be a born-again like a Joni Erickson--brilliant. Black, good. Alcoholism. Incest. Both good. Drug addiction can be. Multiple sex partners is very good. Abuse by parents is very good. Maybe it's because there's a very safe distance in exploring those lifestyles, but they just really fascinate me. Heiresses are always good--Vanderbilts and Rockefellers--always good and life affirming because they don't end up happy. Money does not solve anything. Gay is oh so good. Honor Bound is a really good one about the guy who got kicked out of military school for saying that he was gay even though he never screwed anybody. That goes nicely with the lesbian ones. Have you ever read that?
I have not.
Idiot! It's so good. Have you read Serving in Silence by Margarethe Cammermeyer?
I saw the Glenn Close movie that Barbra Streisand produced.
Not as good. No. No. No. Oh, this one is a good one too. She married a gay man. Brilliant. Very life affirming. The gay ones are good, and the ones that attracted the gay ones are good, like The Private Diary of My Life With Lana by her gay hairdresser. There's also someone who spent time with Lucille Ball and I've got that around here too.
I love that one, Lucy in the Afternoon.
Exactly. She and this guy played back-gammon together every afternoon. She was real tough and I loved Lucy, she was my favorite growing up. Reminds me of this Ethel Merman autobiography here. Boy, was she a pompous bitch but in such a good way. I always love when Rock Hudson's and Liberace's lovers come out and write their books. I'm thrilled. Scandalous is cool. These tell-alls are also good. Like Maureen Donaldson went out with Cary Grant later in life and then the guy who fucked Priscilla Presley--oh, oh, oh, the guy who slept with her who broke up her marriage! The guy that was her karate instructor--he wrote a book--it's right here.
A karate instructor broke up the marriage of Elvis and Priscilla?
Yes, he did!
I remember in the Esther Williams book that Fernando Lamas would drive to a party naked and then get dressed before going in because he didn't want a crease in his clothes.
He was very weird, but then you get a nice Danny Thomas book with Danny, first-person, and part of you keeps reading through it saying, "And when do you shit on the table?" You know, based on what everybody has said. I'm dying to find the first-person narrative that says, "I was under Danny when he pooped." Sooner or later some poor relative is going to write that book. You always have poor-relative books, too. I'm looking at Eddie Fisher, but what I'm really thinking is Jodie Foster's brother, Buddy. He wrote a good one. It's a nice, fast pooper reader.
You mean a good bathroom book?
Who spent their life with Jacqueline Kennedy? Who's Mary Burrely Gallagher?
I think she was her social secretary. The best one is Torn Lace Curtain. This is the best Kennedy book of all. This is Frank Saunders who worked as a chauffeur for the Kennedys--Rose is a cheap fuck! She is so cheap! And under that we've got Times to Remember by Rose Kennedy. Oh, Swanson on Swanson is a goodie, right here next to Rose. If you read anything about the Kennedys you're going to read about Swanson. Everybody's interconnected. Everybody's either fucked everybody or joined each other's religion.
After 15, 20 years of reading these, what have you learned?
I can't find a more palatable way to learn about history and sociology and religion or politics, but even more, it's the emotions behind politics. You learn about culture, pop culture, you learn everything! You learn more about alcoholism by reading Potato Chips for Breakfast and Keeping Secrets by Suzanne Somers than by going to AA--and she's lots more fun.
What do you think of these serial autobiographers? Maya Angelou? Shirley MacLaine?
After awhile they're probably going to be describing their new bathroom or something. As a matter of fact, I was horribly disappointed with Me by Katharine Hepburn. She talked more about her shutters than she did about her life with Spencer Tracy. I expected a little more hot Spencer action. That's when you have to go third person and that's when you get pissed off because the person's still alive, they can finally tell you, they're sitting down, they're getting paid a huge advance to write their life, and now they're not. Like is Hillary Clinton going to really talk about what the fuck went on with her and Bill?
Could you put together a list of favorites?
Rosemarie Reid. You've got to read this one--"An extraordinary life story of the Mormon woman who started a bathing suit empire." Very Mormon. She proselytized her ass off. Your mom and grandma remember Rosemarie suits. It's a big deal.
Then let's go with the paraplegics and Joni Erickson. You get born-again plus paraplegic. God, this is going to make me sound so hateful! It's hard enough for me on two working legs. I guess when you don't have working legs and arms that just fascinates me. What do you do and how do you manage to keep up your quality of life and what do you do so that I can have empathy toward the situation?
Are they life-affirming books?
Very life affirming. Because not one of those books ends with, "And now I'm in a pit of disaster and will kill myself." Joni Erickson is a born-again who draws with her teeth....Then anything by Ann Rule. They're sociopath murderers, true stories. She's a good solid writer. I'd also have to go with The Color of Water and Coming of Age in Mississippi--James McBride's book and Ann Moody's book. And Slim Keith's autobiography--I think it really was that good. It's a really lovely read.
Then political mommies--Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Rosalyn Carter, and Betty Ford. Because they don't make it on their own. But if you put them in perspective and in consecutive order, you're happy. As a group they work for me but not individually. They're not good enough alone.
I'd have to go with Mommie Dearest, plus B.D. Hyman's book, My Mother's Keeper. Mean mommy books. Frankly, My Mother's Keeper was more fascinating, but then when I read more about Bette Davis I realized that B.D. was a spoiled little brat as well.
And a born-again.
Exactly! Always good. Always good. Going My Own Way by Gary Crosby really should go here too. I really enjoy this group. Bing was really a cold man and a tightwad.
I always go back to Jane Russell. Everybody always wants to know about Howard Hughes. She speaks in tongues--always interesting--and she curses like a sailor. Works very nicely with the bust and the Hollywood and the...everything.
Nigger by Dick Gregory is my favorite. Unfortunately it ends in 1968, and now everybody knows him for saving obese people and boycotting Kmarts for rolling papers, which is a real shame.
Why is that number one?
It was sad and it was funny and it was honest and it was brilliant.
And the writing?
It's simple. And that's another thing--I read Sidney Poitier's This Life and I didn't like it half as much, and he was three times as--I won't say erudite, because he's not smarter than Dick Gregory, but he was writing in much more flowery language and I find it half as palatable.
Is the appeal anything that takes you out of everyday life?
Yes, please! But what is everyday life? I'm a Jew from Jersey. Ava Gardner might be from barefoot South Carolina, eatin' chicken, and that's definitely not my gig, and then she also happens to be one of the most beautiful women on the planet, which certainly isn't my gig either. And then she happened to be married to Mickey Rooney, who was married to eight or nine other women, which wouldn't be my gig, and then Frank Sinatra, which is all over everybody's gig because he hit on almost everybody who was a widow.
I call them junk-food books; they're really pleasurable.
I agree. There's something very junk food about them. You eat them and you throw them up and you move on. But is somebody's life junk food? People either write an autobiography because they have something to teach you or they think that their life is incredibly entertaining no matter what. And somebody who has the audacity to say that my life is so interesting that I want you to read about it? That alone piques my interest.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.