- - Tuesday, November 15, 2011

LUCK AND CIRCUMSTANCE: A COMING OF AGE IN HOLLYWOOD, NEW YORK, AND POINTS BEYOND
By Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Knopf, $25, 304 pages, illustrated

It is refreshing to encounter this memoir by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. His life was haunted by a specter, and yet he is able - on paper, anyway - to bear it lightly with consummate grace. The specter in question was none other than the overwhelming figure of Orson Welles, who may or may not have been his father and flitted in and out of his life like a benevolent if detached deus ex machina. (Look at the picture of the young author and decide for yourself if you don’t want to wait for the book’s denouement.)

At the end of “Luck and Circumstance,” Mr. Lindsay-Hogg notes drily, “In writing this book, I have come to learn of many lies and deceptions.” What makes his story in these pages so attractive is his unwillingness to whine: He concentrates on luck brought to him by the odd circumstances of his upbringing and never stresses worms in the apple.

The many viewers of fine television dramas such as “Brideshead Revisited” will find the name Michael Lindsay-Hogg familiar, but how many who have admired his excellent directing skills will know that he grew up in the world of stage and screen as the son of the Oscar-nominated actress Geraldine Fitzgerald?

His view of life in Hollywood and in theatrical New York manages to combine ingenuousness and sharp-eyed observation. How many young lads were invited in off the beach by Marion Davies to chat about the L’il Abner comic at a forbiddingly large dining table reminiscent of “Citizen Kane” with William Randolph Hearst, who informed him it was one of “his comics?” Or was privy to insider gossip like John Houseman’s characterization of his split with Orson Welles: “‘It wasn’t so much that he threw a table at me,’ Jack [Houseman] had told my mother. ‘But he’d set the tablecloth on fire first.’ “

It’s unsurprising that young Michael took all this in stride. After all, that was pretty much all he knew. (Eddie Lindsay-Hogg, Fitzgerald’s husband, scuttled back to Ireland during World War II, reappearing only sporadically.) More surprising is how calm and accepting the adult Michael is as he looks back on what swirled around and swept over his youth.

Nowhere is this more remarkable than in his forgiving attitude toward a mother who was inconsistent in almost everything except her determination to be vague about his paternity, a subject of which hints were everywhere, ranging from the slyly unsubtle to the outright blunt. “I have secrets, too. You don’t have to tell your therapist all your secrets. There are secrets you have to keep,” Fitzgerald told Michael’s longtime girlfriend (actress Jean Marsh of “Upstairs, Downstairs” fame - one of the many “who knew?” moments that are an additional delight of this book). That Fitzgerald kept so much from him rightly amazes him, but he does not repine.

Mr. Lindsay-Hogg’s quest of discovery about his paternity is a kind of leitmotif throughout this memoir, but it is not so obtrusive as to prevent fascinating glimpses into his life and career. In the 1960s, he spent a good deal of time around the Beatles, producing, even in those pre-DVD days, videos of them performing. He already had experience, and his eye for contrasts between music groups is acute:

“I’d worked with the Rolling Stones on “Ready, Steady, Go!” and found with all of them, and Mick Jagger in particular, a fairly even exchange. With Mick Jagger, I’d suggest, he’d question, I’d clarify, and he’d agree, usually. But with the Beatles that evening, I found an idea was something to be mauled, like a piece of meat thrown into an animal cage. They’d paw it, chuck parts of it from one to the other, chew on it a bit, spit it out, and then toss the remnant to me, on the other side of the bars.”

His vantage point makes his take on the Fab Four unique, and later he even gets a ringside seat to the volcanic effect of Yoko Ono’s addition to the mix. So whether you read “Luck and Circumstance” for what it reveals about its author or for insights like these, there’s plenty to chew on.

Martin Rubin regularly reviews books for the Wall Street Journal.