It’s time for summer reading, and I plead guilty to loving Frank Langella’s Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them. The book is an enjoyable romp through the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and through an astonishing number of sexual encounters. Langella is candid and gossipy. In addition to being a fine actor, he is a gifted writer, a sharp-eyed observer and interpreter of the human comedy. His celebrated subjects, even those he does not like, are never less than real people for whom we can feel sympathy, admiration, or distaste. And while his sexual appetites are nothing if not varied he is both discreet and generous, and sometimes hilarious, in his recollections.
Mr. Langella grew up in Bayonne, NJ, in an Italian-American household that he felt “imprisoned” him, and he fled at the first opportunity. He seldom mentions his family, and never with affection. He does, however, note that when as a struggling young actor, he was accepted into Elia Kazan’s training class in New York, his father agreed to aid him with $100 a week, big money in 1962.
All the people Mr. Langella writes about are dead, with the exception of the very rich Bunny Mellon, whose daughter, Eliza Lloyd, was his friend and fellow-actor. As a young man he began to spend many pleasant days at the Mellon homes on Cape Cod, in Virginia, and on Antigua. One of Mrs. Mellon’s best friends was Jackie Kennedy, and between them the women apparently gave Langella an education in how not be an Italian-American from Bayonne–presumably freeing him from that “prison.” Mrs. Mellon, whom Langella greatly admires, was a gentle tutor who helped him to be comfortable in the rarified atmosphere inhabited by the very rich. One of the more telling scenes in the book has Mr. Langella coming upon Bunny and Jackie playing like schoolgirls with a basket of precious gems–rings, bracelets, necklaces, and a tiara or two–that Ari Onassis had sent to Mrs. Kennedy when he was wooing her.
Among the people Mr. Langella liked are Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, Billie Burke, Elsa Lanchester, Deborah Kerr, and Delores Del Rio, all his senior by many years and all portrayed with sympathy and admiration. He apparently kept Ms. Hayworth and Ms. Taylor company through many lonely evenings, the former sad and pleading, the latter bossy and entertaining. How intimately he held them is irrelevant; what matters is the poignancy with which he remembers them.
Most of us will never have the words “iconic” or “celebrated” splashed before our names, which is a good thing because then we might become objects of Mr. Langella’s ire. He admits to his own bouts of grandiosity over the years, but he harpoons a few inflated egos when he feels the condition is permanent. Charlton Heston was more clueless than arrogant or mean. Having played Moses, El Cid, and Michelangelo, as well as larger-than-life roles in Ben Hur and Khartoum, Heston simply assumed that he was the center of the universe. Rex Harrison was a cold and haughty man, five-times married, and so homophobic that he rejected any roles that would, according to the author, “give off a hint of his being light in the loafers.” Mr. Langella felt that Anthony Quinn would take his self-importance to the grave: “a big bully . . . or an imperious mob boss looking to get his ring and his ass kissed unto death.” He also writes, with barely concealed amusement, that Quinn had “two Oscars up his sleeve and clearly one in his pants, having fathered at least a dozen children.”
One of the pleasures of this book is Mr. Langella’s ability to convey the romance of the acting life, of the bonds as well as jealousies shared by all who inhabit it. He gives life to the “divine monsters” and “angry babies” who strut across stage and screen, enriching us with the magic of their performances. He also serves up excellent dish on a variety of famous names, both in and out of the theatrical world: William Styron, Tip O’Neill, Laurence Olivier, Paul Mellon, Stella Adler, and Brooke Astor are among the sixty-six individuals whose humanity (or lack thereof) Mr. Langella takes some pains to portray. He is exceedingly generous in his critiques of fellow-actors such as Alan Bates, Raul Julia, Robert Mitchum, George C. Scott, and Ida Lupino; and, to use his words, he puts “a fork in the eye” of those he considers phonies.
Mr. Langella has traveled a long way from Bayonne, where presumably he first learned about forks in the eye. The theater really was his Harvard, and he was a brilliant student. His book, much more substantial than the usual show-business memoir, will entertain you but it will also give you a view of who and what is behind the magic curtain, of what popular culture was and what is has become. Having grown up a mile or two from Mr. Langella, only a year or two ahead of him, I have one quibble with the book. On the first page he writes that he fled his “small house” in Bayonne, NJ, for Journal Square, in Newark, to catch the bus for New York City. Mr. Langella, everybody knows that Journal Square is in Jersey City.