Monday, February 8, 2010

Here's A Fact-Checker For You

Last summer I had the chance to listen to Debra Gwartney give an argument against doing research for memoir. There’s a certain contradictory ring to this advice since a memoir should be closer related to one’s personal journalistic account than homespun fiction. What Gwartney was driving at was the inherent need to keep the facts straight can sometimes mess with the story.

When you are attempting to fact-check your life story you are bound to get many lopsided opinions from relatives and friends. Naturally, they all have their interpretations. Memoir writing is subjective business, but that’s okay. Gwartney’s point was that “memoir’s job is not to answer the question, but to deepen it. We are puzzling after our own shadows and are trying to shed light on our inner selves.”

Today we are inundated with memoir. This blog is a kind of ad hoc coalition of personal notes. We’re swimming in this stuff. So then what truth, if any, are we really after? Is it only our inner selves? I read a recent blog post by the Southern Bookman, Louis Mayeux, who wrote that we can trace a lot of the preoccupation with our inner selves to Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography”, to Thoreau’s “Walden”, and Mark Twain. So clearly we as a society have been preoccupied with this for a long while.

I don’t know about you, but I enjoy sinking my teeth into new stuff. I love to learn. I am not always trying to get to know me better, but the world around me. It so happens that I’m on biography kick. Interestingly enough, one of which was about Benjamin Franklin, the other two I recently finished were about Frank Sinatra and Elvis.

Now ordinarily I wouldn’t pick anything about Elvis. I don’t particularly care for his music. I was lured by the author’s name etched on the jacket, Bobbie Ann Mason, author of “Shiloh and other stories.” Her style is mint juleps. The Sinatra book, “Why Sinatra Matters” is by Pete Hamill who I consider to be a solid, but not a knock-my-socks-off kind of writer. Early on in Hamill’s book the author recalls a night he spent drinking with Old Blue Eyes in which a clutch of newsmen are tossing back drinks in the iconic PJ Clarke’s. Hamill makes it a point to play out a scene of ordinary, beery chitchat. Sinatra flirts with a young woman who he believes is eavesdropping on the conversation. He asks her if she’s ever heard of Jimmy Cagney and she says “He was the captain in that picture with Henry Fonda, right? About the navy?” To which Sinatra responds “You win a dish of strawberries, sweetheart.” The young woman is baffled while the guys rip into laughter. She says “I don’t even like strawberries.” Now Hamill later notes Sinatra himself had gaffed on the strawberries because they belonged in the film “The Cain Mutiny” with Humphrey Bogart. Sinatra should have offered the young woman a potted plant as Jack Lemmon did in “Mister Roberts” the film that Sinatra was talking about.

Why go into this roundabout scenario? Was this really how it unfolded? Hamill is a well-respected journalist. Who knows if this is how it played out bit by bit, but it does say a lot more about Sinatra who saw that era as a blur. Sinatra himself was in a slew of War Pictures though he himself had never served. When you take this mix-up and then hear Sinatra lash out at Jilly Rizzo when Rizzo confuses Joans and says “Joan Crawford” and Sinatra replies “Blondell, dummy” we get the Chairman of the Board’s sometimes imposing persona. Hamill evens things out. In the same scene the talk diverts to favorite literary authors. Care to guess who Frank’s vote went out to? The Great Gatsby. He clearly professed his preference to Fitzgerald over Hemingway. Sportswriter, Jimmy Cannon, cast his vote for Hemingway.

This is the golden fodder of reading biographies, finding out the friends and foes and foibles of famous people. I am sure that Hamill saw his task as depicting the most accurate picture of Sinatra as possible through the limited and imperfect topography of recollection. Let’s not hope Hamill pieced together a stenographic account of those drinking nights with Sinatra, but I’d like to think that he arranged the music of those memories the way Nelson Riddle arranged the late recordings and gave us a distinctive timeless voice.