Elia Kazan – A Life

Memoir as a literary genre is in the news. Not only because it’s so incredibly popular, with new memoirs by the famous and not, hitting book stores every week; but also for the criticism of the genre that’s appearing in equal measure. Too many memoirs. Too much fabrication. Too much confession.

Criticisms aside — and they are valid in many cases — I love memoirs and their cousins, biographies and autobiographies. I’ve always steered toward that section of the library and bookstore as much, if not more, than the fiction shelves. I am drawn to memoirs as I am drawn to great novels, short stories and poetry: out of hope. Hope that I will learn something true, something real and universal about life and myself, something that will help me wade through my own complexity. And although I am a firm believer that the worlds we invent through imagination are as real as anything else we experience, I admit that memoirs offer a certain greater appeal as they lead us through the dramas of other flesh and blood beings. Somehow, this increases my level of hope that I will be able to draw stronger parallels and find a truer truth.

Which brings me to Elia Kazan. I recently finished reading his memoir Elia Kazan  A Life, published in 1988 when Kazan was in his late 70s. Kazan died in 2003 at the age of 94. Although he was a leading director of many Hollywood classics (On the Waterfront; East of Eden; A Streetcar Named Desire) and Broadway hits, his popular legacy remains his ‘naming names’ of  Communist Party colleagues during the early 1950s McCarthy era in the U.S.. The House Committee on Un-American Activities conducted a witch-hunt in the American  artistic community, threatening to kill the careers of those they called up, unless they confessed to their own involvement in the Communist Party and provided names of others they knew to be involved. Kazan did confess his own membership in the Party in the late 1930s, and also named names. He did so after significant consideration and from a desire to be true to himself, having rejected the controlling tactics of the Party years before. After his testimony, Kazan was reviled by many, if not most, close friends in Hollywood and New York. This became a defining moment in his life, an anguishing event that cracked the shell of his personal and artistic life up to that time and liberated him to live more authentically for decades more.

Kazan’s memoir is long. At over 800 pages in paperback it strains the hands and wrists to support its girth. Kazan was religious about recording his thoughts and, having saved his journals, was able to reconstruct in great detail, his incredibly full and fascinating life. Born in Instanbul to a Greek family, he emigrated to New York at the age of four. Unwilling as the eldest son to take his rightful place as the heir to the family’s oriental rug business, Kazan instead went to college, then drifted into acting, then directing and eventually also writing. He married a blue blood American woman who died quite young, then remarried twice more. He was fiercely devoted to his wives but a chronic philanderer until his third and final marriage. He writes of feeling guilty and regretful about his chronic infidelity, but also maintains that it was unavoidable and that it also kept him healthy and able to continue to be productive and good at his work.

He directed the best, notably the young Marlon Brando, whose performance in On the Waterfront is considered by many to be the best acting performance ever in films. He moved from acting, to theatre directing, to directing films. He was known as the nice guy who was always ready to work hard and help out in any way. From his early days as a stage manager, he earned the nickname Gadget or Gadge, which remained with him throughout his career. Despite all his success, he admits to always feeling like an outsider, never shaking off the insecurity he developed  as a kid and young man, the poor immigrant among the Americans he studied and worked with.  He was tortured by his own deferential behaviour, inherited from his father and other Anatolian Greeks who, as minorities in Turkey, adopted a public face of subservience and solicitousness to avoid persecution and violence. He wrote of the ‘Anatolian smile’ (also the alternate name of what he considered his best film, America America) — the outward conciliatory persona he and his forefathers bore, that belied a deep self-hatred that Kazan was to finally confront and try to overcome following his public fall from grace.

If reading memoir is an attempt to find truth, then Kazan’s personal account is a masterpiece. He admits that his advanced age and the fact that many of those he writes about are dead, allow him the luxury of brutal honesty in describing events such as his countless affairs, as well as his innermost feelings of shame, despair, ambivalence and insecurity.  You know you’re bumping up against something real as you read his conflicted thoughts about his first marriage to Molly, about the long term affair and ‘love child’ that threatened to dissolve that union and his ultimate realization that he is committed for life to this now sexless marriage because of both deep love and a neurotic mutual need. He even admits to a  paternalistic and sexist “Anatolian men don’t divorce their wives”  stance.

Kazan’s memoir spares no one, least of all himself. He lays out his life, explains why he thinks he did what he did, asks for understanding from those he cares about, but in the end does not apologize. Instead, we get the truth. That everything in life is ambiguous. That to live is often to act with the humbling knowledge that we are hurting others we care deeply about. And that despite this, we don’t want to live an ‘either/or’  life; we want both at the same time, and carry on as if we can, to our own and others’ peril.  That sometimes, in an effort to be true, to reveal ourselves by dropping the Anatolian smile, we overturn our lives and create havoc instead of harmony, with others rejecting the person we’ve been hiding. And that despite this pain and alienation, the person behind the mask may emerge, damaged and imperfect, but able to live by inner standards that temper the wrath of the outside world. Kazan’s memoir is so aptly titled:  A Life. It’s his, but it’s also mine and yours.

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