- - Friday, October 21, 2011

By Dyan Cannon
HarperCollins/It Books, $25.99, 352 pages

Dyan Cannon’s memoir “Dear Cary,” a nostalgic account of her five-year relationship with the legendary Cary Grant is part fairy tale, part nightmare. The first half is like sitting down with a lovely glass of vintage champagne - bubbly, frothy, sparkly, just like one of the debonair actor’s delicious comedies. You are enveloped in the aura of Hollywood superglam - the smart, fast repartee, saucy one-liners and glitzy names such as Doris Day, Jimmy Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn, Noel Coward, Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas.

Then there are the swanky locations, including Paris, London and Beverly Hills. And the famous restaurants and night spots: Romanoff’s, Chasen’s, Ciro’s. But when you reach the second half, the book turns into a bad morning after as Ms. Cannon describes the dark, domineering side of the famous star, his mental cruelty and drug abuse, and her own experiments with LSD as she gradually descends into madness and struggles to survive a doomed marriage.

The plot line is simple.

A nice Jewish girl from Seattle, Samille Diane Freisen, an aspiring young actress with the stage name of Dyan Cannon, is spotted on an obscure TV show by the suave and sophisticated British-born Archie Leach, better known to the world as the inimitable Cary Grant. Despite a 35-year age difference, he is smitten and assiduously courts the 22-year-old with phrases such as, “I don’t want to let you go” and “I’ve changed, it’s like I’m starting all over.” And the incredibly alluring, “Do you know how I feel about you? Head over heels, that’s how I feel.”

He came with a lot of baggage - three previous marriages, affairs with some of the world’s sexiest women, including the incomparable Sophia Loren, and, supposedly a gay relationship with fellow actor Randolph Scott early in their careers. And, oh yes, a tantalizing challenge: He did not plan to re-marry.

His tortured childhood, which he covered up with an air of insouciance, plays a major role. At 9, he was told by his father that his clinically depressed mother had died, when in reality she was institutionalized. He discovered the truth when he was 31 and never forgave himself for his years of neglect. This guilt distorted all his relationships with women and led to morbid depressions and hallucinogens.

Ms. Cannon writes that when Grant asked to meet her, she thought it was for a job not a date. She was stunned and wary, yet captivated, by his attention and charm.

Dinner at his house early in their romance: “He motioned for me to follow him straight through the dining room - into his bedroom.

” ‘This,’ he said, indicating the far side of the bed, ‘is your side. And this is my side.’ Before I could get a word in Cary turned on the TV and flopped back on his side of the bed propping himself up with two pillows. He patted my side of the bed. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘I won’t bite.’

” ‘Dr. Kildare,’ starring the ‘60s flaxen-haired heart throb, Richard Chamberlain, was playing on TV. ‘I just love this show,’ he said.”

At that moment, Helen, the housekeeper arrived with a massive silver tray containing china, crystal and an elaborate dinner. As she lowered the tray to the bed, Ms. Cannon pulled up her knees and sent the contents flying. Grant reacted calmly and seemed bemused when Ms. Cannon started to scrape food off the floor, “You don’t want to put Helen out of a job do you?” he quipped.

“What kind of a looking glass had I stepped through?” Ms. Cannon wondered. “I felt I was walking through a hall of fun-house mirrors, each reflecting its own scenario.”

She began to mull over the sound of the name Dyan Grant but stopped short. “Don’t get carried away Dyan,” she told herself.

But she did, and after a series of breakups and reconciliations, which included more romantic getaways and a sable coat, Grant finally proposed. He was driving his Rolls-Royce after a stop at Baskin-Robbins, slammed on the brakes and came to a screeching halt in the middle of an L.A. street and sputtered, “Damn it Dyan Cannon. Do you want to get married?”

They eloped to Las Vegas and three months later their daughter Jennifer, Grant’s only child, was born. It was downhill from there. Grant became a Svengali-like figure, remote and controlling. He refused to let her work and was overly protective of the baby - so much so that he gave away Ms. Cannon’s beloved dog, Bangs, before Ms. Cannon came home from the hospital and refused to tell her where Bangs had gone.

He encouraged her to join him in tripping out on LSD and coming down on Valium, which left her confused and spacey. Eventually, he sent his lawyer to tell her he wanted a divorce. She collapsed.

To read about her crash is chilling and disturbing, yet she managed to move on, re-establish her career and, now in her 70s, write her late ex-husband a poignant letter: “Dear Cary,

“Thanks for the romance of a lifetime and for teaching me the difference between romance and love.

“I wish I could have loved you then the way I love you now.

“All my love, Dyan.”

It is a graceful and regretful tribute to the matinee idol of all matinee idols.

• Sandra McElwaine is a Washington correspondent for the Daily Beast.

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