Interview with Patricia Bosworth

By Christine Stevralia and Marian Kaufman

Patricia Bosworth is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. A winner of the Front Page Award, she taught literary nonfiction at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and Barnard College and ran the Playwrights-Directors Unit of the Actors Studio, where she was a board member. Her book, Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, was on the New York Times Bestseller List. She has also written biographies of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and the photographer, Diane Arbus, as well as a memoir about family and the Hollywood Blacklist entitled, Anything Your Little Heart Desires: An American Family Story. Harper Collins recently published her second memoir, The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950’s Manhattan.

You recently visited New Orleans for the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. Could you talk some about your experience playing Laura in Glass Menagerie opposite Helen Hayes at the Palm Beach Playhouse in 1956?

Playing Laura in Glass Menagerie was the high point of my acting career. It was a masterpiece that dramatized a mother’s obsessive love and ambition for her children. Amanda (the mother in Glass Menagerie) reminded me of my own mama – edgy, wayward, domineering. Our battles ran on her energy. The play also reminded me of my brother and our obsessive closeness. Playing Laura, I remembered our times together all over again.

While I was in the show, I met Tennessee Williams. I also got to know Gore Vidal. Both influenced me. Gore, especially, encouraged me to write. He was both critic and friend. He said, “Write about what you know, especially your torment.” He said it wouldn’t be easy, that it would take years. He said I would have to go to a place I could not bear to go to. “You won’t be able to do it for a while, maybe not for a long time. Maybe in thirty or forty years.” We laughed, but I knew he was telling the truth.

You’ve written biographies of artists who have fascinated the public: Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Diane Arbus. Can you tell us what drew you to these subjects? How did your relationships with them evolve during the process?

I met them all during the decade I’m writing about in The Men in My Life, which is paradoxical. I gravitated toward them for good reason. The photographer, Diane Arbus, died by her own hand. Jane Fonda was a suicide survivor. Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando engaged in extremely self-destructive acts. Writing about them was one way to cope with and try to understand why my brother and father, the men I loved most in the world, had decided to kill themselves.

But I didn’t start writing about them for decades. My relationship to each evolved in different ways. I’ll give you an example: I modeled for Arbus when she was a fashion photographer and I was a teenage bride. I looked up to her; she taught me how to stand up for myself in this difficult, male-chauvinist photographer’s world. By the time I researched her biography, she’d committed suicide and had become legendary. When I knew her, her diffident manner hid the fact that underneath she was fierce, adventurous, driven, ambitious, and most of all relentless in exploring dark worlds. Being a biographer is like being a detective – you’re always looking for clues. But she remained something of a mystery.

What is the difference for you between working on a biography versus a memoir?

With a biography, you’re responsible for collecting an enormous amount of facts. The process involves shaping those facts into a narrative. A biography contains an entire life, whereas a memoir may focus only on one decade in the larger narrative. Process includes selectivity – what to leave in and what to take out.

By the time I started writing memoir, I’d completed two biographies. When writing memoir you discover your own voice. It’s mysterious. You often don’t know where it comes from. In The Men in My Life, I was trying to develop two voices – my voice now as an older woman juxtaposed against my voice as a young girl. How I achieved this I have no idea. But I think part of it comes from having been a writer for close to fifty years.

You’ve written about Jane Fonda, Diane Arbus, and yourself, three women whose identities and paths were defined by the men in their lives. Yet ultimately, you all became strong and successful, role models for independent, young women. As a woman ages, does she become more true to herself? Do you think success is easier for women today?

Gloria Steinem says when a woman gets older she becomes more radical because she’s no longer judged as a sexual being, she’s just a human being. As you get older, you become more true to yourself because you no longer care what anyone thinks about you.

It is harder for young women today. There are so many false pressures. And it’s harder because the world is more impersonal, with social media and technology. There’s not as much personal interaction between people as there was when I was young.

In The Men in My Life, you write “Women have never been able to express their true sexual natures… Even today most women don’t talk openly about what they like to do in bed. The deepest truth about female sexuality is that we have never had the freedom to shape it.” I was touched by the audacity and truth of this statement. Why do you think this is? How can we overcome it?

We haven’t had the freedom to shape our sexuality because it’s a man’s world and men are threatened by women’s huge sexual power. We have to keep talking about this problem and dealing with it. Oddly enough, many men who’ve read my book have referred to the way I write about sex, and they understand it and seem to appreciate my observations.