Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Shirley Booth was widely regarded as one of the best American actresses of her time. Although she won three Tonys, two Emmys, and an Oscar, it is only recently that a biography of the actress, who died in 1992, has been published. If David C. Tucker's Shirley Booth: A Biography and Career Record is really more of a career overview than an in-depth biography, it's generally well done within its limitations.
This rather short book is a paperback in a large-page format (10" by 7"). The main text is 140 pages, followed by the "career record" section, consisting of appendixes documenting in detail Booth's appearances on Broadway, radio, film, and each of the two television series in which she starred (though there is no section covering her other television appearances). There are many photos throughout. Tucker has scoured newspaper and magazine articles about Booth and quotes from them liberally.
Booth, born Thelma Ford in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan in 1898, adored her mother and detested her authoritarian father. The family moved several times, ending up in Hartford, Connecticut, where her acting career began despite her father's objections. She did well enough that she was able to stay in the profession, but it wasn't until she was 36 that she had her first major Broadway success, playing a lovable if dumb gangster's moll in the hit comedy Three Men on a Horse. Within the next few years she'd demonstrate, as Liz in The Philadelphia Story and Ruth in My Sister Eileen, that she could also play bright, articulate women. In Tomorrow the World, she proved she could play drama as well as comedy. What she couldn't play was beautiful or glamorous. She claimed to be happy about that, but she also claimed to be nine years younger than she was.
Her first appearance in a movie didn't occur till she was in her fifties, but that appearance—recreating her stage triumph as Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba—won her a slew of awards for Best Actress, including the Oscar and the New York Film Critics Circle Award. Nonetheless, the industry didn't know what to do with her and she made only a few more movies, while continuing to appear on the stage. Two of the Broadway hits in which she starred during the 1950s (The Time of the Cuckoo and The Desk Set) were filmed with Katharine Hepburn in the roles Booth had originated. (Booth had appeared with Hepburn in the Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story, but that didn't stop Hepburn from stealing her roles.) In the early 1960s, after several infelicitous Broadway career choices, she had a tremendous success as the title character in the TV series "Hazel," playing an unflappable suburban maid. When the series was over, she was unable to find comparable success in her remaining stage and television ventures. By 1974, she had done her last acting.
The book moves along swiftly and smoothly and gives us a good but somewhat generalized feel for Booth's career. Her personal life is dealt with in even more generalized fashion. Admittedly, even if Tucker had wanted to delve into Booth's personal life in more detail, it might not have been possible, as the actress seems to have avoided airing many details of her personal life. In addition, for her last 40 years there may not have been very much going on in her personal life. She had no children. Her first marriage, to Ed Gardner (producer, star, and co-writer of "Duffy's Tavern," one of the most popular radio shows of the 1940s), ended in a divorce provoked by his infidelities and alcoholism. Her second marriage, to a man not in show business, was happier but he died in 1951, less than eight years after their wedding. She never married again. If she ever formed another serious romantic attachment, Tucker seems not to have learned of it. It's not even clear if she had any truly close friends. If she did, we don't learn who they were. This is a bit of a problem. You shouldn't have to wonder after reading a biography whether the author knows if the subject had any close friends, at least not for someone who lived as recently as Booth.
Still, the picture emerges of a rather private woman, sometimes insecure but she could be quite strong willed when it came to what she knew well: acting. She could play comedy, drama, comedy-drama, and musicals. She could convey great warmth and vulnerability, but she could also land sarcastic zingers with the best of them. Her insecurity may have been the cause of both her greatest strength and greatest weakness as an actress: she was so concerned with the audience liking her that she was sometimes reluctant to play unpleasant aspects of her characters.
For all the warmth and likability she possessed as a performer, as she got older and more famous she could be quite tough offstage, asserting her star's prerogative to have people fired when their working methods were not in tune with hers.
If Booth is still a bit of an enigma when we finish the book, she's not a total enigma, thanks in part to some telling anecdotes from people who knew her. Still, there are places where Tucker really drops the ball. For example, early in the book he jumps ahead in time to tell us that after Booth's mother died in the mid-1930s, Booth never again spoke to her father, but that mention is virtually the last we hear of either parent. When we reach the mid-1930s, there's no mention at all of the death, much less any attempt to place it in the context of Booth's life at the time.
While it's disappointing that the book doesn't go into more detail, the execution is generally competent. Tucker's writing is almost always straightforward and clear, though a few brief moments of confusion arise to thanks to some odd punctuation peccadillos.
I do question Tucker's assumption that all of his readers will know who people like W. Lee Tracy, Alma Kruger, and Florence Eldridge were, but this is pretty minor, especially since nowadays it's easy to look people up on the Internet.
There are times, however, when I wondered if Tucker himself knew who some of the people he mentions were. For instance, he writes that Booth appeared in a play at "Lawrence Langer's Westport Country Playhouse." Lawrence Langner, not Langer, ran the playhouse. He was one of the directors of the Theatre Guild, an organization for which Booth had worked and would work again, a relevant fact that probably would have been mentioned had Tucker realized it (and had gotten the name correct).
In a similar example, he identifies the producer of Excursion, a play in which Booth appeared, as Jack Wilson, telling us nothing more about him. But surely John C. Wilson, known sometimes as Jack, merited identification as the producer and director of many successful Broadway shows and Noël Coward's theatrical and romantic partner for a number of years.
There are occasional factual errors, though in some instances the right information is elsewhere in the book.
If not the in-depth study for which we might have hoped, Tucker's book is (for the most part) decently put together. Perhaps the most striking thing in the book is not in the text, but is a photograph of Booth and her first husband, Ed Gardner. They are dressed in evening clothes at a table in a restaurant or nightclub. They don't look at the camera. They appear to be very unhappy. Were they unaware they were about to be photographed? Were they so unhappy that they didn't bother to pretend otherwise? Like Booth herself, the photo is a striking enigma.
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