Review: Biography: Dear Cary: My Life With Cary Grant by Dyan Cannon
Robson Press, £18.99
Published 11/12/2011 | 06:00
There's a classic anecdote that recounts how a journalist on deadline once sent a telegram to Cary Grant's publicity agent asking: "How old Cary Grant?" Grant saw the query and replied: "Old Cary fine. How you?"
The leading man himself said the story was untrue, yet it's still doing the rounds. You can see why when you read Dear Cary, a memoir written by his fourth wife Dyan Cannon, because the first thing that strikes you is his mischievous wit.
In the beginning, though, Dyan didn't want anything to do with this handsome star of the silver screen. When she hears he wants to meet her, she is less than enthusiastic.
She's 25 years old, a young actress from a well-off, conservative family, and newly single: the last thing she wants is a relationship with a three-times-divorced man, 33 years her senior.
Yet Cary Grant persists and, in a charming narrative that lasts 100 pages or so, Dyan explains how the Hollywood golden-age idol eventually wins her over.
When she refuses to have dinner with him, he rings her daily -- at 7.45am sharp -- and insists they both listen to an inspirational radio show called the Daily Word.
She graduates to dinner dates, but baulks at an invite to Palm Springs. She eventually goes, but only because her friend Daphne is going too. Cary is the perfect host. He takes both girls out to dinner and fusses over them.
In an amusing aside, Dyan talks of his love of food; at dinner, he clears his own plate and then hoovers up their leftovers. He also keeps a personal stash of Picnic bars sent specially from England.
When all is going well -- which is often, in the first three years of their courtship -- the Cary/Dyan romance seems perfect. He calls her 'silly child' affectionately, writes her witty notes and letters and pens several drawings, some of which are reproduced in the book.
When they are together, life is a blur of mostly happy days. They mix with big stars -- Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Dean Martin and Audrey Hepburn, who was then filming Charade with Cary in Paris -- and are invited to dine with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma. The night they go to dinner, Hitchcock is in his element when James Stewart sits on a whoopee cushion the great director has planted on the couch.
"You see," Hitchcock says, "next to fear, flatulence is the most fundamental aspect of the human condition."
When there are doubts, they are conveniently dispelled. Playwright Noel Coward puts Dyan's mind at ease by discounting rumours that Cary is bisexual. All she wants now is the perfect end -- marriage and children. She gets her wish, but it is far from a happy ending.
Cary seems genuinely delighted when he becomes a first-time father at 62, yet he can't shake off his own awful childhood. For 20 years, he thought his mother was dead but his alcoholic father later told him he had her committed to a mental institution.
He tells Dyan the story in strands and, she writes, "every one of them seem[ed] to come at the expense of a pint of his own blood".
He was also coming to terms with the fact that his star was on the wane and that he was in the autumn of his career as Hollywood's greatest leading man.
Suave, urbane, impossibly good-looking, the epitome of sophisticated glamour, he had been the biggest star of the golden era and there is great poignancy in this glimpse of him near the end of his time in the brightest spotlight. Inevitably, it affected both him and their relationship.
At one point, Cary thinks that LSD, then legal, would help solve the couple's problems. He was a regular user and believed it to be a wonder 'chemical'.
Dyan tries to get into the spirit -- 'the family that trips together zips together', she forces herself to quip -- but the acrimonious divorce is not far away. Dyan details the break-up and her own subsequent breakdown in depressing detail.
You wonder why this successful actress, director and screenwriter has decided to write about her relationship with Cary Grant now.
She says herself that the time seems right. It's certainly not a cheap attempt at validating herself -- she doesn't need to do that since she went on to prove her talent by being the first woman to receive Academy Award nominations both for her acting and her work behind the camera.
Even so, while there's no doubt that Dear Cary is an absorbing read, it does leave you feeling like a prurient voyeur. At one point in the book, Grant says: "Real life is my own business". If only we could all leave it at that.