GOOD STUFF: A REMINISCENCE OF MY FATHER, CARY GRANT
By Jennifer Grant
Knopf, $24.95 77 pages, illustrated.
The eponymous good stuff was the all-purpose term Jennifer Grant's father, Cary, used to describe all the nice things that make up what the French like to call "douceur de vie" - sweetness of life - and certainly her memory of life with this extraordinarily devoted father and unusually civil and civilized man is a lovely distillation of her halcyon childhood and youth.
In his essay "Culture and Anarchy," the great Victorian critic Matthew Arnold identified sweetness and light as the salient qualities of true culture always in search of perfection. So it is fitting that this fond memoir of this best of fathers, who was a true icon of the movies that formed an important part of the culture of his time, should be so suffused with those very qualities, that linger:
"Many people long for a father's love. I had it. I have it still. Perhaps by writing this book, I can transfer some of the love I feel for him ... If so, good stuff. I can hear my father's tone now, a little grumble with a Cheshire cat sparkle in the mix, "gooooood stuff."
Cary Grant was in his 60s when for the first and only time, his fourth wife, actress Dyan Cannon, made him a father. The 1960s saw other established male movie stars marrying much younger up-and-coming actresses - Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, Rex Harrison and Rachel Roberts, Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow etc. - but the Grant-Cannon union was one of opposites.
Unsurprisingly, it was short-lived, but notwithstanding the conflicts between them, they appear to have produced a child who had two devoted parents - and ones who could function as a unit for her when necessary:
"The rhythm to my parents' postdivorce relationship was staccato. They fought. If they weren't fighting, they were at best curt with each other. And if they weren't fighting, it was generally because I stirred up adolescent trouble. When there was a Jennifer issue, they joined forces and coalesced. It was obvious in the timbre of their voices on the telephone. I knew they were hearing each other in a new way, thankful for each other's parenting. They were in tune. It was sweet. ... I could hear and somewhat feel them being together."
One of the nicest things about "Good Stuff" is that it doesn't ignore the more unpleasant features of life in general and for her family in particular. But she felt fortunate that her parents showed her by example how they could be dealt with and handled inside the nuclear family (however fractured) and the result is a daughter filled with love for both her (very different) parents.
While always treating them with the respect they showed her when growing up, she provides some fascinating insights into them. The seemingly conventional Grant was a staunch agnostic while the offbeat Cannon (originally raised Jewish but now Christian) profoundly religious. Both imparted to her a sense of being loved that is truly beyond price:
"Something in me has always felt that my parents came together to make me. Vanity? Perhaps. Of course, they had love for each other. However, it's doubtful that either of them truly believed they'd stay together. Mom and Dad were and are headstrong beings. Both, in my opinion, needed to rule the roost. ... Though their mixed beliefs were challenging to sort out as a child, I'm now happy for their dissimilarities. Mom and Dad divorced when I was about a year old. Both parents encouraged me to love the other. ... We never discussed their marriage. Their love. Their good stuff."
Jennifer Grant knows that she was raised in a milieu that was extraordinary, and she is alive to its oddities as well as to its benefits. How many children had a father who was actually older than her maternal grandfather or had a man turn up on her driveway claiming he was the offspring of her father and Queen Elizabeth? How many girls had Frank Sinatra stop his song to croon directly to her from the stage, or years later, fiercely run interference for her the first time she ventured out in public after a messy split? Or spent holidays en famille in Monaco's royal palace?
Both parents spent a lot of time with her and were flexible about bending assigned custody periods to accommodate each other. Miss Cannon had a busy career acting and directing, Grant had long since given up his screen career but was assiduous in his duties on the boards of several corporations which took him all over:
"In many ways my parents flipped roles. Dad played more of the traditional mom; Mom, the traditional dad. When I was at Dad's, he took full charge of my care. ... Being a star is quite a balancing act. Dad had done his time on sets, now it was time to play at home. So as Mom was out 'bringing home the bacon,' Dad and I made bacon at home."
But what her parents really taught Jennifer Grant was to make hay and in the sunlight they provided for her, she made plenty of it. Clearly, it was difficult for her to write this book, her ineluctable drive to share the joys of her unique legacy warring with a natural reluctance to invade her (and her father's) privacy. Lucky for us, she did decide to write it, all the while managing to honor his memory as she makes us privy to the man behind the public image: an uncommon father who not only talked the wise talk but, despite his advancing years, really walked the walk for a beloved and grateful daughter.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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