1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink

By Taylor Downing

Da Capo Press | 2018 | 400 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

Scary Stuff

When I was just a teenager I can remember thinking that because I lived in New York City, I am going to one day, perhaps soon, witness a bright flash of light and be already dead before I get to hear the enormous roar that is right behind that blinding light. So far, years later, I still walk the streets of New York City, and it is as intact and full of life, even more so, as it was years ago.

However, author Taylor Downing book, 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink, gave me the chills as he described how I, and millions other, almost got fried.

This segment from his prologue says it all: “This [book] highlights…the story of the 1983 war scare when the Soviets convinced themselves that the United States was preparing to launch a nuclear first strike against them… It shows how minor and unpredictable events can rapidly escalate into major confrontations. And it climaxes with a night on which the Soviet nuclear arsenal was put on to maximum alert, when missiles were deployed to action stations… If these missiles had been fired it would have prompted a nuclear exchange that would have destroyed much of North America, most of Asia, probably all of Europe. The fallout would have brought down a nuclear winter that would have covered Earth for years or decades to come. The death toll would have been counted in the hundreds of millions, dwarfing every conflict in human history."

How did this nightmare come about? Taylor Downing gives us a riveting account in this book, but first we have the two men who held the fate of the world in their hands: President Ronald Reagan of the United States of America and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov.

Reagan had recently turned 70, then the oldest man to run for president, and Andropov was 68, when General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, died on November 10, 1982, and he was chosen by a handful of elderly men who ran the Soviet Union. Andropov also, like with President Reagan, was the oldest man elective to hold this leadership position.

Most of world knew a great deal about President Reagan: Radio, movie and television star; two-term Governor of the great American state of California, and finally, President of the United States of America. And he was one of the loudest out spoken voice against “godless Communism,” and the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union.

By contrast, outside of Russia, few knew anything about Andropov. Author Downing points out that “In the 1970s and 1980s, Western observers of events behind closed doors of the Politburo and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were known as Kremlinologists.”

These “experts” were taken aback when “a pale, stooping elderly man in heavy glasses stepped forward.”

However, Andropov was as strong as Reagan in his deeply held belief in Marxism/Leninism. He joined the Young Communist League at the age of sixteen. Then Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler was about to ravage Russia and most of Europe. Andropov rose quickly through the ranks, until in May 1967 he was appointed head of the famed, and deeply feared KGB, a huge organization with perhaps a half a million employees. It controlled spy missions both domestic and worldwide.

In that sense it was wise for the master spymaster to keep a low profile which Andropov did until he was suddenly thrusted into the world spotlight.

One of the problems that soon faced the aging rulers of Russia was Ronald Reagan. In fact, as I read this book, I felt that the author was clearly blaming Reagan for almost blowing up the world. The author writes, “The Soviet leadership was looking at a President who had spent much of his life mounting an anti-communist crusade and whose ideology was deeply opposed to theirs.”

What scared them the most was first, Reagan’s rearming. Writes Downing, “He planned for total defense spending from 1982 to 1989 to increase to $2.7 trillion. This amounted to the biggest peacetime build-up of military spending in American history”

Added to that was the placing in Europe of the Pershing 11 missile that could carry a nuke to the windows of the Kremlin in only six minutes. And to top it off, President Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, quickly dubbed “Star Wars” by the press. The aim was to put in place ways to shoot down any missile coming from anywhere in the world. This idea included station lasers in space to kill the missiles before they reenter the earth.

At this point the Russian economy was a disaster. Food and general goods and services were a joke. There was no way that the old men in the Kremlin could compete with America and Reagan knew it, and the old men knew it.

Andropov and his close associates also came to the belief that what Reagan was really up to was a first strike against them. He had already said publicly that he thought that Mutual Assured Destruction(MAD) was “crazy.”  The Pershing 11, which was introduced in Europe to counter the Soviet’s SS 22, really kept them up at night. They were under the opinion that it was a first strike weapon, which confirmed their belief that Reagan wanted to “decapsulate” the leadership of the Soviet Union. They became so obsessed with the idea that they started Operation RYaN. It was a human intelligence operation to keep a sharp eye on any movement in the West that would indicate that the USA was about to launce a first strike against them.

This all came to a head in November 1983 with a war game by NATO titled Able Archer 83. By this time, Andropov was very ill and was being treated at the Kuntsevo Clinic twenty miles out of Moscow. And, like Reagan, he had nearby the “football” a briefcase that contained the codes need to launch nuclear weapons.

As the war game became more alarming, “At his bedroom in the Kuntsevo Clinic, a military aide sat beside Andropov with the chegget (“football”) ready to send out the nuclear launch codes. Marshal Ogarkov, one of the men authorized to launch nuclear weapons, settled into the central command bunker outside of Moscow for the night.”

The KGB and the GRU was sending out “Super Urgent Flash” telegrams to “their people around the world that the situation was now critical, and that the NATO exercise was in all likelihood preparation for sudden nuclear attack.”

Their double agent West Germany Rainer Rupp, who had penetrated the upper level of NATO headquarters, was asked to keep his eyes open.

Writes Downing, “Rupp could see that there was absolutely no gearing up for war at NATO headquarters. The war game was just that.” And he was able to send this important message back in time to the leadership in the Kremlin

Notes Downing, “A paranoid leadership could never trust one source that stood out against the rest. But almost certainly Rainer Rupp played a small part in helping to save the world from a nuclear holocaust.”

The old men in the Kremlin finally stood down, along with all their missiles, submarines, and aircrafts all loaded and ready to launch.

So, we can now see that Reagan and his associates had no idea that Andropov and his associates were so scared to death of Reagan. And Reagan later confided to an associate that he “shuddered” when he found out that his words and taunts almost ended human life on this planet as we know it.

President Trump, and every President from this moment on should read this book.

Fred Beauford is the Editor of the Neworld Review.

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Nothing is Forgotten (A Novel)

By Peter Golden

Atria Books | 2018

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

All the Forgotten Faces

Aside from its literary integrity, narrative power, and other qualities, the title of Peter Golden’s new novel, Nothing is Forgotten, is worthy of attention.  Why?

Because recent news stories have highlighted that a significant portion of Americans think that either the Holocaust did not happen or that the number of Holocaust victims—especially Jewish victims—is far smaller than what has been documented and reported since 1945.

In other words, in the America of 2018, apparently, everything can be forgotten.

However, novelist and journalist Peter Golden has committed all of his talent as an author toward one goal: storytelling that is steeped in carefully researched history.

Yet, this is far more than what’s commonly called a “historical novel.”  Instead, this novel blend mystery, coming-of-age motifs, Cold War cultural signposts and a rich sense of yearning for family members lost in World War Two.  The alchemy of the novel is brilliantly mixed by Peter Golden, who lets details emerge in the dialogue of his characters, as well as in his narrator’s first-person ruminations and the spoken monologues of other main characters.

It all begins, innocently enough, in South Orange, New Jersey, where Chapter 1 comes to life with this clear, relaxed opening paragraph:  Narrator Michael Daniels tells us: “I was never too interested in my family’s history.  My indifference wasn’t just the apathy of a kid bored by school and obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll; it was because my father and his mother, Emma Dainov, preferred not to talk about it.”

From there, Golden’s narrator takes readers back to the halcyon postwar days of America in the late 1950s – when early rock ‘n’ roll was the new soundtrack of youth and the Second World War concluded for well over a decade.  Nonetheless, the war never ends in the traumatized minds and souls of those who survived it – and that lingering gloom, that ever-present dark shadow, dominates this unique story.

In fact, a constant oscillation from suburban innocence to grim experience gives this novel its page-turning power.   What seems to be a coming-of-age novel narrated by Michael Daniels, an archetypal Baby Boomer raised in the safe domesticity of the Eisenhower Fifties, soon transforms into a profound search for truth and taboo revelations.

The narrator’s grandmother is found murdered in the New Jersey candy shop she has presided over for years.  Setting out to discover more and more about why she might have been killed, the narrator plunges into the past, time after time, while also navigating the transition from the seemingly calm 1950s into the tumultuous 1960s.

Nothing looms larger, though, than World War Two. Thus, it is fitting that Michael Daniels, the ever-curious maverick narrator of Nothing is Forgotten, is hosting his own underground radio show at the beginning of the story – he’s broadcasting lots of early rock ‘n’ roll at a time when Fats Domino, B.B. King, and Howlin’ Wolf were all performing at their peaks, and considered dangerous.  He’s also using his radio shows as a platform to satirize the Russians (while most media at that time were trembling over Sputnik), and his open ridicule of Nikita Khrushchev is transmitted on the air all the way to avid listeners in a tiny Soviet city.

Once he makes learning the truth about his murdered grandmother’s life his own personal mission (he concludes that he has to discover the secrets of her wartime life, long before she made her way to America after the war), Michael Daniels sets out on a quest that leads to the South of France (where Picasso makes a 1965 cameo – nothing trivial, either; it’s an important plot point), as well as Munich, Paris, and eventually Soviet Russia.

There’s also a riveting, scabrous, gut-wrenching series of scenes that involve more than one of Hitler’s concentration camps.  No “spoilers” will be described here.

We live now in an era of information overload and most of what’s seen or heard on all screens (and in so much print) is intended only to distract and entertain.  The study of history is sneered at.  Peter Golden is bucking that trend.  With devotion.

Nothing is Forgotten is an unforgettable reading experience, a lamentation, and it’s also solid proof that precise historical milestones can anchor an intelligent novel.

M J. Moore is a frequent contributor to Neworld Review.)

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So Where Are We?
City of Our Dreams

By Lawrence Joseph

Atria Books | 2018

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

I want to talk about the poetry collection So Where Are We? by Lawrence Joseph.  I have only lived in big cities for short periods of time, and I have never lived in the city of all cities: New York.  So, I do not know the street names Joseph frequently refers to or the restaurants, cafes.  However, the intimacy with which he describes the landscape is virile and alive; it’s as if he is describing a long friendship.

I don’t think it’s without care that Joseph’s poems often focus on the natural—the elemental—parts of the city.  Barges and waterways.  A sliver of sky painted violet (consciously painted by himself, the poet).  The “Hudson River, black and still.”  “The landscape turns yellow…”  This homage to nature, entwined in the moving, pulsing world is reminiscent of poet’s past and reminded me specifically of Walt Whitman, although the feeling of the poems are quite different.

Seeing nature for New Yorkers may be more “significant” than for someone like me, because from my perspective nature is abundant—I look out the window, view endless sky and a field where the cows have left because they’ve eaten all the grass (the cowboys have moved them once again).  I feel sorry for people who live in cities sometimes because they are not immersed in the natural world.  And I’m sure they also feel sorry for me…

In his opening poem, “A Fable,” Joseph writes about water:

“Great bronze doors of Trinity Church, hours
told by the sounds of bells.  A red
tugboat pushes a red and gold barge
into the Narrows.  A bench in the shadows…”<

The humble barge is a common motif in So Where Are We?   The poems are hinting at a different time when goods were transported by water rather than transported in the nether realm of cables and computers.  This metaphysical stance—what are we as humans now? —what are our goods, if not coffee, tea, and spices?  Mere bytes and megabytes—a hustling manipulation of cyber entities? —infiltrate the book. The poems are about our cultural identity and highly evocative: So, where are we?

Where are we as a country now?  (I scan the Op/Ed section and find this: “Is the United States Too Big to Govern?” asks one op/ed contributor.)  Our country has grown so unwieldy that at times it does seem impossible to govern.  And yet we communicate in a blink of an eye.  We are connected as a country—as a world-with astonishing speed, and yet our tissue is cancerous.

 So Where Are We? traces our discomfort back to 9/11.  It also poses a more piercing question: Where are those who got killed in 9/11?  Joseph writes:

“So where are we The fiery
avalanche headed right at us—falling
flailing bodies in midair—
the neighborhood under thick gray powder—
on every screen.  I don’t know…”

The lines beg the question: where were you when this tragedy happened?  How were you affected, frozen into this time, like the bodies jumping from buildings, frozen on our screens, with the mind-numbing crystallization of truth of this magnitude burrowing into our skulls, forming us, changing us.

The victims are ash, vaporized.  That’s where the missing are.  According to a New York Times article written around the anniversary of 9/11, only about 40% of those who died in the tragedy have been able to be identified through science.  One could ask why this matter.  Why does a scrap of metal revealing a DNA trace matter?  But it does to the families of the victims who want closure and a tangible record of their loved ones.  It makes sense.  I want pieces of my children—their baby teeth, dirty still, under their pillows—even though they breathe and walk and bounce on the trampoline.  It is unfathomable how I would manage their non-existence.

Watching the ending of Avengers: Infinity Wars gave me a creepy feeling.  I have no interest in Superheroes except for the fact that my kids love them, so because they love them I too love them in the way you love things for your kids.  But the ending…  I found the ending amazing.  Even though my daughter’s friend was crying because she was so upset by the vaporization of the Superheroes (she couldn’t stand it!), I felt that I understood something—the filmmakers were giving a nod to 9/11, to our panic and uneasiness, our downright shitless fear about what happened.  So, I found the ending scary, provocative and oh-so-good.  In short, I’m excited that our art—high and low, if you feel like making that distinction—is finally coming around to 9/11 in ways that aren’t didactic or obvious.

Joseph is also exploring how fragile or malleable our memories are.  One thing was for certain—that day in September was described as heavenly, radiant, a cloudless, perfect September day:

“The streets, the harbor, the light, the sky
the blue and cloudless intense and blue morning sky.”

What do we do about this perfection?  Where are our memories housed?  Joseph writes, “…What you said—/the memory of a memory of a remembered/memory, the color of memory, violet and black.”  Again violet.  A favorite color of Joseph’s.  When do our memories become stories we tell ourselves?  When do memories flash, erotic and new in our minds, recreating us?  Likewise, where would we be without our memories, even if memories just become memories of memories?

Joseph recounts the poet William Blake in his work.  Blake was a champion of worker’s rights in England in the 18th century.  Like Blake, Joseph questions the morality of economic greed in the face of human suffering.  In “Visions of Labor” he writes about an injury to a worker’s hand when he describes the end of a thumb being nearly scraped off and the thumb getting infected.   For obvious reasons this poem reminded me of other horror stories of laborers—some desperate and illegal, some not—being worked to the bone and sacrificing their bodies to the machine.  It seems strange, absurd that in an industrialized, automated world these accidents can still happen.

Similarly, in “In a Post-Bubble Credit-Collapse Environment “ Joseph writes about the “have’s” and “have not’s.”  There is the illuminated Stock Exchange and then there is the downtrodden, a person hauling her sleeping bag, “bananas, figs” etc.  And a man in a grungy yellow t-shirt eating from a garbage can.  The disparity of lives is touched upon here, but it is in actuality global that warming that will kill us all in the end, when the ferocious hurricanes come and other global “equalizers “disrupt our daily lives.

And then there is war.  The poem “Syria” is not only a heart-wrenching look at war with all war’s cruel manifestations (her voice/lowered, almost a whisper— “a decapitated/body with a dog’s head sewn on, for example…”).  But, it is also an examination of how we are complicit in ongoing wars and how we are taught to think that: “Yes, I know, it’s much more complicated than that.”  Or so, we are led to believe.  But when do the atrocities outweigh our subtle, erudite responses?  These are the questions that Joseph asks.

Lawrence Joseph is a lawyer, as well as a poet.  He writes, “As I said, I’m a lawyer. Technically   speaking.”  Perhaps being a lawyer gives his poems more grit and nerve.  I’m not sure.  There are poets who ride it out quietly from the wilderness, and then there are poets who write in the murky thick of things.  Joseph resides in the murk.

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Black Swans
Eve’s Hollywood
Slow Days, Fast Company

By Eve Babitz

Seminal LA Books Brought Back into Print

Reviewed by Michael Moreau

book jacket

Eve Babitz asked me to dance once, but I rebuffed her.

It was at the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association where she had been invited to sign her new book on the tango, and I waited in line to also ask her to autograph my copies of Slow Days, Fast Company and Eve’s Hollywood, two of her earlier books that I revered, and when I reached the table and set them down, she said something like “Oh, yes, I remember these,” and I probably gushed out something like, “I love these books.” She said, “We’ll have to dance later,” and I said something like “Sure. I look forward to it.”

But I knew I couldn’t ask her to dance. A girlfriend who was a swing devotee had coaxed me to come to the PBDA dances that offered lessons before the main event, but I literally didn’t know my right foot from my left. And I couldn’t bear the thought of mistakenly trying to lead the writer I admired so much in a fox trot while the music signaled a waltz. It all seemed so incongruous that Babitz, the consummate chronicler of 1970s and 1980s Hollywood and hip Westside L.A. should be signing books in this drab hall behind a Lutheran church in unhip Pasadena.

She may have wound up dancing with a NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer who shed his white shirt and pocket protector for the evening and donned something sparkling and black, cutting a figure that would put John Travolta to shame.

Two by Two: Tango, Two-step, and the L.A. Night, published in 1999, would be the last book Babitz published. After a terrible car accident that left her hospitalized for weeks she apparently quit writing. This is our loss. But, fortunately New York Review Books and Counterpoint Press have over the past couple of years republished her books going back to her first one, Eve’s Hollywood, first published in 1972, and just this year, Black Swans, a book of stories from 1993.

One can count on two hands the really good books about Los Angeles and, curiously, most of them, whether fiction or fact-based, are about crime and law enforcement. Babitz’s are neither of these.

Spare me Raymond Chandler or John Fante or Charles Bukowski (try to go back to him as an adult), for my money the two best L.A. writers are Joan Didion and Eve Babitz.

As I am writing this I have just heard on the radio of the death of Anthony Bourdain. I’m feeling deep loss as I think of heroes and friends I have seen pass too soon. In a Times Book Review interview just a few months ago he said of the books he treasured most, “I’m a great Eve Babitz fan. I have everything she ever wrote.”

Both were children of privilege who lived exuberantly and wrote exquisitely. Babitz was a child of Hollywood royalty—but not of the movie star ilk. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a composer and first violinist for the 20th Century Fox orchestra, and her mother, Mae, an artist. Her godfather was Igor Stravinsky. The Babitz household was a gathering place for the likes of poets, Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen, Lucy and Edward Herrmann (he, the composer of the score for Citizen Kane), Orson Welles, Vera and Igor Stravinsky, and composer and Stravinsky assistant Robert Craft, Charlie Chaplin, and Aldous and Laura Huxley.

She graduated from Hollywood High but resisted following her classmates’ path down Sunset Boulevard to UCLA. But except for a short time in New York she never ventured far from Hollywood where she found her inspiration and her métier.

Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album are definitive books about the ’60s and ’70s in California and L.A. They defined New Journalism, but the vision was largely apocalyptic, and Didion hated Los Angeles. The Northern California native wondered if there was any future at all in what she saw around her. She has a keen eye, but she is always the writer looking from outside in, observing, never the participant.

In The White Album she sits in a recording studio with three members of The Doors waiting for Jim Morrison to show up. When he arrives she writes, “He had on his black vinyl pants and sat down on a leather couch in front of the four big black speakers and closed his eyes.” All was silence. When at last he spoke it “was almost a whisper, as if he were wresting the words from some disabling aphasia.” Then “he lit a match. He studied the flame awhile and then very slowly, very deliberately, lowered it to the fly of his black vinyl pants.” Was he trying to shock her?

The difference between Didion and Babitz is that while Didion wrote about Morrison, Babitz not only wrote about him—she also slept with him. But that was before she became a writer. She was to write later (in Esquire Magazine): “Being in bed with Jim, was like being in bed with Michelangelo’s David, only with blue eyes. His skin was so white, his muscles were so pure, he was so innocent. The last time I saw him with no shirt on, at a party up in Coldwater, his body was ravaged by scars, toxins and puffy pudginess. I wanted to kill him.” But, she writes, “I could never be mean to him.” When he called at night, obviously drunk and incoherent, she says, “I just wished he were there.”

Babitz books are about the people she knew and the Hollywood scene from an insider, and an insider who also turned out to be a really good writer. But in her case there is never an ounce of the gratuitous cynicism of L.A. books going back to Nathanael West. She was immersed in the scene and she loved it, and she loved many men along the way as well, some of whom she names, others who are masked in her memoirs/short stories.

Babitz started out as an artist. In Eve’s Hollywood she writes lovingly of her paternal grandmother, a survivor of pogroms in Russia, “who is responsible for all of her children and grandchildren regarding art as the only possible occupation.” Eve didn’t disappoint. She designed album covers for the Byrds, The Buffalo Springfield, and Linda Ronstadt and hung out with the artists who made the art world pay attention to L.A.: John Altoon, Ed Kienholz, Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengstson and Ed Ruscha, with whom she had a long-term affair.

She also famously, at the age of 19, sat nude at a table playing chess with artist Marcel Duchamp, for a promotional photograph for the surrealist’s exhibit at the Pasadena Art Museum.

In Black Swans, the narrator says “in those days we thought we’d live forever. We thought the more we had to regret, the better. Besides, we didn’t think death applied to us personally.” She found out differently as friends were lost to alcohol or drugs, or later on, AIDS.

In the chapter from which the book is titled, “Black Swans,” Babitz writes

I once knew someone who said their “drug of choice was whatever you had,” and I was more or less that way too. Wally was not an LSD aficionado; he didn’t believe in taking it anywhere but pastoral environs of charm and safety, whereas I came from an ethic that said if a drug was there, you grabbed it or someone else might. My friend and I used it as a thing to be on at night, socially, on the Sunset Strip before I met Wally. Other people may have used it to enhance their spirituality, but we used it to enhance nightclubs. You could suffer fools a lot more gladly when you were one yourself.

In eventual drug and alcohol recovery, Babitz transformed herself from the hedonist to a literary chronicler of her times.

But before that, starting in the mid-‘60s, she frequented clubs like the Whisky A Go Go, Ciro’s and the Troubadour. It was at the Whisky that she met her friend Jim Morrison who fronted the house band, The Doors. She recalls trying to dissuade him and keyboardist Ray Manzarek from naming the group after Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception. “It was so corny,” she said.

Coming from the uncool San Gabriel Valley, my friends and I, still in high school, would hang out on The Strip weekends, but we were too young to get into the coolest clubs that all sold alcohol. But we could get into Pandora’s Box and the Fifth Estate, a teenage hangout that got its name from the office of the underground Free Press, published in beneath the main rooms. The Fifth Estate showed free foreign films in one room, had an open mic for folksingers and poets in another, and served coffee and hot chocolate for free. It was also the focus of what would become a massive teenage protest in October of 1966 against the city’s newly imposed curfew law which led police to arrest and load into buses pre-18-year-olds found on the Strip after 10 p.m.

Eve Babitz friend Stephen Stills would write a song about the protest/riot called “Something’s Happening Here,” which became a hit for his band Buffalo Springfield.

We were on the outside desperately wanting into Babitz’s world.

But her writing isn’t primarily about celebrities. In “Tangoland,” from Black Swans she writes about her on again, off again attempts to master the most demanding of dances, and of trips to a club in the San Fernando Valley where one of the best teachers was to be found. For most people, she writes, “the valley was a cold shower.” You went to Malibu or Beverly Hills or downtown L.A. but the Valley was ground zero for L.A. haters. If you went there at all it was for a day job at Universal or Warner Brothers. “No one I knew would set foot in the valley,” she writes. But she went there to an obscure Bolivian restaurant called Norah’s that turned Argentine at night. She wanted to learn the tango from a master who taught there.

In a scene from the book, she’s at Norah’s for the tango master Orlando’s last night before returning to Argentina. Babitz draws us into the scene with some of her most graceful writing and typically sharp attention to detail. It was “on a Sunday when almost no one was there, he danced his last tango with a student who wore a cerise silk dress that opened like a rose in the steps they did, her white legs in black stockings, pivoting on silver high heels, his silver head and slinky feet—just one more time—carrying the dance below sea level into mermaid time and space, into deepest darkest tangoland.”

She finds though that after spending thousands of dollars and two years on lessons she just can’t master it. “Truth was…I wasn’t a dancer.”

Maybe I was wrong that night so long ago. I should have asked her to dance. She probably would have forgiven my ineptitude.
It’s good to find that most of her books have come back into print. Also in the works, Tristar Television will be producing a TV series about the 1960s and 1970s based on Babitz’s books. Hopefully, they’ll do justice to her fine writing.

Michael Moreau is a frequent contributor to the Neworld Review

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My Girls: A Lifetime with Carrie and Debbie

By Todd Fisher

William Morrow | 2018 | 208 pages

Reviewed by David Bruce Smith


A son's affectionate memoir of growing up with a famous mother and sister.

When a relationship comprises three interdependent people, it can be inherently flammable — and emotionally asymmetrical.

According to Todd Fisher’s new memoir, My Girls: A Lifetime with Carrie and Debbie, he and his beloved best friend/confidante/for-keeps sister interpreted life very differently. Carrie Fisher was prickly, penetrating, and pernicious, while Todd was inclined to be mellow, measured, and matter-of-fact.

Early on, Carrie perceived a jittery household dynamic that Todd — at first — didn’t recognize. It was disguised by alcohol, over-the-top parties, and an endless current of glittering guests who included Jimmy Stewart, Frank Capra, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Eva Gabor, Groucho Marx, Bette Davis, Lucille Ball, and mother Debbie Reynolds’ closest friend, Agnes Moorehead.

Carrie and Todd were children of a well-publicized divorce that absorbed the world. Their father, singer Eddie Fisher, abandoned Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor. Though Carrie was too young to recall the extensively played-out event, it is likely the loss was imprinted given future disappointments and no-shows from Fisher, who remained a wispy presence in her life until his end. Reynolds tried to counter, cushion, and compensate for the familial calamity with more than ample love:

“Mom really was incredible since Carrie and I were born, about doing everything in her power to make sure we were included in her life as much as possible. She never sequestered us or treated us like accessories to be trotted out for photo shoots and then handed back to a team of nannies like so many other ‘show-biz’ kids we knew.”

In 1960, Reynolds married Harry Karl, retired president of the Karl Shoe Stores chain. He lived in listless, laidback luxury and regularly played high-stakes poker and golf at Hillcrest Country Club with his influential friends and acquaintances, while his wife worked, endlessly. She guilelessly transferred the management of her financial affairs to her husband for safekeeping until she discovered — too late — that he had lost his $21 million and her $10 million to gambling, embezzlers, and bum-steer investments.

By then, Reynolds’ movie career was on the decline and, at 41, she was suddenly destitute. Her huge collections of art, silver, and jewelry were liquidated; the house was seized by the bank; and she and the children moved to a modest rental property.

Not long after that debacle, Reynolds was rescued — partially — by an opportunity to star in the Broadway revival of Irene. Carrie acted in the chorus, Todd was enrolled in school, and the show “broke every [box office] record,” morphed into a national tour, and garnered a Tony nomination for their mother.

Even with that success — and a $15,000-a-week salary — Reynolds’ finances were a fiasco. California’s community-property laws required that she pay half of Karl’s $2 million debt, five years of alimony, 50 percent of her Irene earnings, and 10 percent of her other income. Writes Todd:

“She did an amazing job in public of being the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds, just as she’d done through her divorce from Eddie. In private, though, she was drinking too much…she seemed to have two moods when she was drunk — either she was laughing and loud and almost obnoxiously happy, or she was maudlin and miserable, rambling endlessly about Harry and Eddie.”

After the tour, Reynolds returned to Las Vegas for lucrative engagements at the Desert Inn and the London Palladium. Carrie continued to perform, despite panic attacks, which she quelled with weed, Percodan, and angel dust. It was a secret dependence-on-the-rise known by Todd — who sometimes participated. Ironically, he had no indication or foreshadowing then about his sister’s troubled trajectory into addiction.

Todd, in the meantime, had achieved acclaim as a trained and traveled photographer, fine filmmaker, and competent sound engineer. He was managing and supervising the technical aspects of various musical acts and his mother’s productions.

When the London run finished, Carrie stayed there a year to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama, abruptly suspended contact with her mother — without remorse — and auditioned for an unassuming film called “Star Wars” that she hoped wouldn’t capsize her career:

Star Wars [at the 1977 premiere] had already been rolling for a minute or two. Along about the time that the battle cruiser flew overhead, I leaned over and whispered to Carrie, ‘This is no B movie.’…And when it was over, we were both speechless, wide-eyed, and to understate it, blown away…Carrie clearly wasn’t just in that movie, she stood shoulder to shoulder with it, which was a triumph in itself.”

Eventually, Carrie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but she had a particular affinity for quack doctors who were open-minded about supplying her with large stashes of feel-good drugs. She was partial to Percodan to diffuse her mania, but that agenda clashed with the proficient professionals who genuinely wanted to quiet her cerebral chaos with mood stabilizers, rehabilitation, and shock treatments.

Despite those inner volcanic "voices," Carrie emerged into a much-in-demand, uncredited script doctor — of “Lethal Weapon 3,” the “Star Wars” prequels, and other hits — plus the admired author of Postcards from the Edge, Wishful Drinking, and Shockaholic.

In 2008, Carrie reunited with her weak, widowed father, and co-opted his care:

“It was nothing short of mesmerizing to see the deep joy it gave her to be with him…He’d sit in his wheelchair all day, or lie in his bed, watching CNN…smoking one joint after another, prompting her to give him the fond new nickname ‘Puff Daddy.’ As she marveled more than once, she finally got what she’d always wanted from him …in the end, she was a great parent to Eddie Fisher.”

He died two years later.

But Todd Fisher “didn’t shed a tear…Eddie Fisher deeply, deeply hurt both my girls…”

In her last years, Debbie Reynolds fretted and feared for her daughter’s future wellbeing. Then, on the morning after Carrie’s death in December 2016, the 84-year-old actress informed Todd, “I want to be with Carrie” and — within hours — followed her child into eternity.

David Bruce Smith writes for the Washington Independent Review of Books 

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