MOON RIVER AND ME: A MEMOIR
By Andy Williams
Viking, $25.95, 320 pages
REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.
One of America’s most beloved entertainers, singer Andy Williams has long possessed the image of being a wholesome, clean-cut, all-American boy — although he is now in his 80s. “And that voice!” exclaimed novelist and screenwriter Earl Hamner, a longtime admirer, on one occasion. “It has been described as champagne honey, gold and silver, but without question it is smooth and romantic and unique.”
Indeed so. Renowned for his stylings of such American classics as “Moon River,” “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” Mr. Williams has lived the American Dream, rising from obscurity and poverty through hard work, a desire to exceed his own expectations and wise business decisions to become a world-famous entertainment icon. In “Moon River and Me,” he describes a long life filled with triumphs and joy — though one not without some regrets and heartaches.
He takes the reader from his Depression-era upbringing in rural Wall Lake, Iowa, through his early years of triumph as a member of the singing Williams Brothers. From there, he tells of his years of superstardom as a solo act, his high-living success in Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles, his marriage to Claudine Longet, his years of doubt and spiritual struggle after his workaholism ended his marriage. The memoir carries the reader on to the present time and Mr. Williams’ years of contentment in his second marriage (to the outdoorsy, beautiful Debbie Haas) and as the proud owner of the Moon River Theatre in Branson, Mo.
“As I look back over my life, I realize more and more that one of the most important things about achieving success is that famous dictum of Winston Churchill’s, ‘Never give up. Never give up,’ and, as Churchill also said, ‘When you’re going through hell, keep going,’” Mr. Williams writes. It may come as a surprise to some readers that at one point early in his career he was reduced to living in fleabag hotels and eating Alpo dog food from the can. Stick-to-it-iveness has served him well throughout his life; and he notes that to achieve success as a singer or anything else, “You’ve got to be good enough, but while some of it is luck and timing, it is also being ready when opportunity comes along.”
In “Moon River and Me” it is plain that the story of Andy Williams’ success is not entirely the singer’s own story, but the story of his kindly mother and especially his blue-collar, entrepreneurial father, Jay Emerson Williams. This gentleman, the hard-charging “Willie Loman of Wall Lake,” recognized a unique singing talent in his four sons (Andy was the youngest of the four) and moved his family from the dusty plains of Wall Lake, to Des Moines, to Chicago, to Cincinnati, and eventually to Hollywood in search of a bright future for his sons. He drove them to perfect their singing, forever urging, “You have to practice harder, because you’re not as good as the others out there.”
In each city where the family settled, the fortunes of the Williams Brothers surged a little higher, in large part because of their talent, but also because of Jay’s remarkable ability to cajole and convince radio station managers and theater owners to give his boys a chance.
At the very least, he had an uncanny talent for putting the Williams Brothers in the right place at the right time so that they would be noticed. In 1944, the boys managed to land a recurrent gig singing on the “Mail Call” radio show, hourlong programs recorded for American servicemen overseas in World War II. In this venue, they came to the attention of Bing Crosby, who hired them to provide backup vocals (at $25 apiece) on what became a hit single and enduring pop standard, “Swinging on a Star.”
Later, singing at the Hollywood Canteen for returning servicemen, Mr. Williams recalls, “we had one of those life-changing chance encounters that could never have been predicted by anyone — except possibly my dad. Louis B. Mayer’s executive secretary, Ida Koverman, happened to be in the Hollywood Canteen one night when we were singing. She went back and told her boss about us, and within a week we were signed to a contract by MGM.”
Thus, before he had reached the age of 20, Andy and his three brothers — Bob, Don, and Dick — were under contract to one of America’s most storied film studios, where they made a half-dozen fairly forgettable films. But it was there that they met Kay Thompson, the studio’s influential vocal and choral director, who took the Williams Brothers to the next level of stardom, working up well-received shows that taught the youngest Williams brother how to be not only a singer but an entertainer: to delight audiences with song, movement, humor, and effervescent presence.
After the breakup of the Williams Brothers in the early 1950s — it was simply time for a change, with the boys, now men, having worked together for 17 years — Andy set out to make it on his own. There followed several years of struggle and then modest success for him, but after he recorded “Moon River,” from the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in 1961, there was no looking back.
Many readers will perhaps find the best bits of the book in these chapters on the high point of Mr. Williams’ career, the 1960s, and its short portraits of various public figures he came to know. It was during the ‘60s that he landed his own successful television program, enjoyed a steady string of hit songs and became a member of the show-business elite. It is also the time when he learned firsthand the consequences of upstaging Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” the truth behind Frank Sinatra’s association with leg-breakers, the towering self-regard of aging comedian Joe E. Brown, the essential decency of Bing Crosby and the quirks and foibles of many close friends.
Many readers will also be fascinated by Mr. Williams’ account of the ugly ordeal he and his ex-wife endured during the 1970s after Claudine accidentally shot and killed her lover, skier Vladimir “Spider” Sabich. The writer loyally and convincingly argues that the shooting was a horrible accident and nothing more, though it was relentlessly portrayed as a cold-blooded murder by certain citizens of Aspen, Colo., where it occurred.
However, perhaps the most moving part of these memories of the famous are those of his friendship with Robert and Ethel Kennedy. Mr. Williams provides an affectionate portrait of the middle Kennedy brother and records his soul-shaking sorrow upon learning of RFK’s assassination and the honorable ordeal of singing at the late senator’s funeral.
“Those of us who perform and record or make movies and television shows are seen and heard by people over and over again,” he writes in conclusion. “In a small way we become part of their lives, and the legacy of our work gives us some sort of immortality, if only in flickering black-and-white films and television reruns on obscure cable channels. If I’m remembered at all, I hope to be thought of as a good man who brought much joy to many people, but above all I want to be remembered for my music. Whatever happens to me, I hope the music lives on. And finally, I’m beginning to accept the fact that maybe I really am as good as the others after all.”
He is right about that, and about much in this well-crafted, most readable memoir. As long as people enjoy listening to memorable songs sung by a voice like champagne honey, gold and silver, the music will endure.
• James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House Books) and has completed a novel.