"You Boig?"

“I don’t have much respect for biographers,” I once told John N. Hall, noted author of Trollope: A Biography and Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life. I was being mischievous, knowing my professor to have a sense of humor that makes him just the man to examine the lives and fictions of the humorists who attract him. Indeed, I have rarely met an academic whose mentality was better suited to his subjects. I was not merely being facetious, though. I was also being honest. I don’t read biographies; not cover to cover, at least. I am too impatient to go through a series of incidents designed to trace the traits and career of a famous so-and-so to great-grandparents who were semi-literate peasants from Eastern Europe, to illustrate what impact the childhood agony of losing a balloon during a rainstorm had on an artist’s psyche, or explain what it really means to be a supposed nobody before becoming an alleged somebody.

You might say that I am not easily impressed by facts and downright doubtful of them; that I am unconvinced a life can be told by means of sundry scraps of evidence culled from contemporary sources or the recollections of contemporaries whose lost marbles are dutifully dredged from the gully of memory lane. It’s all that; but I would like to think that respect has something to do with it as well—respect for a creative mind expressing itself in a work of art by someone who might not be willing or able to open up otherwise. In other words, I take what an artist is willing to give, even if the limited supply of such works are dictated, to some extent, by market demands. Nor do I believe that being told about traumas and toothaches ought to compel me to regard an artist’s works as the product of such ordeals. Nothing is more tedious than arguing that a character who slips on a banana peel was destined to break his neck because his creator was terrified of the tropical fruit a health-conscious aunt was trying to shove down his three-year-old throat. If I want a story or a picture to be a mirror, the reflection I find therein should be my own.

Autobiographies are a different kettle of fishiness altogether. They are the storied self, the persona an artist has decided to display in a public performance. (Dr. Hall, by the way, has since written his own memoir titled Belief [2007].) I accept them as such, which does not mean I am any more patient as I am being subjected to the courtship of an artist’s maternal grandparents, to Ellis Island flashbacks or dim impressions from the cradle. There is some of that in the aforementioned Molly and Me (1961), the autobiography of Gertrude Berg (pictured here in a photograph freely adapted from the March 1943 issue of Tune In).

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Berg was the creator of the radio serial and subsequent television sitcom The Goldbergs, as well as the lesser known House of Glass, about which I got to read in Radio and the Jews by Siegel and Siegel, a volume I picked up at the Jewish Museum in New York during my last visit to my old Upper East Side neighborhood. Molly and Me may be short on the drama of radio, for which I initially picked it up, and lack the to researchers indispensable index, for which omission I immediately put it down again. I need not have been quite so prickly, though. Berg’s memoir, like her writings for the air, is alive with Dickensian characters, a conversational style, and challenges to literary theory that tickle the wayward scholar. Let me give you a for instance:

Well, I saw [New Orleans]. There were hot, wide streets, charming Old World houses—all hot—wonderful hot restaurants, and lovely, well-decorated, hot hotels. In the evening, when the sun goes down, the heat goes down also but the humidity goes up. It’s no wonder that Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner write such good tragedies. With air conditioning maybe there’ll be a change in our Southern literature.

This passage, my favorite in the entire book, makes me wish Berg had been the ghost writer of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies:

The Lyceum [a New York restaurant her father managed] was a huge place that could take care of fifteen hundred people [. . .]. It was not only big, it was gemütlich, it was where people came to laugh, and it was before publicity men talked about atmosphere. The ceilings were high and absolutely guaranteed not soundproofed. The whole idea was to have fun and not to be quiet. In those days silence was for funeral parlors, not restaurants. There were chandeliers that were chandeliers—all cut glass with teardrops and draped strings of little glass balls, not straight pipes with blisters on the end or holes in the ceilings that drop light on you. I’m not saying that those were the good old days. It’s just that there was something about bigness that was friendly. Today if it’s big, it’s a bank or Grand Central or a cafeteria where you go in fast and come out fast. There’s no place to relax any more except at home—and with the foam rubber they put into everything today, who can relax?

“You Boig?” an agent once addressed the writer at the beginning of her career. I can just see him there, facing her. I can hear him, too, thanks to Berg’s writerly gifts and a long exposure to actors like Allen Jenkins. She’s “Boig” all right. I feel that I got to know her as she wanted to be known, a woman who tells her audience not to expect the story of someone who “divorced three husbands, became a drug addict, and finally, after years of searching, found the real meaning of Life in a spoonful of mescalin.” So what if there’s more Molly than “Me” in this production. I’m not going to tear up the cushions Berg arranged for me in hopes of finding a needle in what is too comfortable to be foam rubber . . .

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