Mothers

Michael Church

  • Gypsy and Me: At Home and on the Road with Gypsy Rose Lee by Erik Lee Preminger
    Deutsch, 277 pp, £9.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 233 97736 8
  • George Thomas, Mr Speaker: The Memoirs of Viscount Tonypandy
    Century, 242 pp, £9.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 7126 0706 4
  • Toff down Pit by Kit Fraser
    Quartet, 129 pp, £8.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 7043 2513 6
  • Menlove: The Life of John Menlove Edwards by Jim Perrin
    Gollancz, 347 pp, £14.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 575 03571 4

For his 15th Christmas, Erik Lee Preminger’s mother gave him an antique gold watch and two glass eyes set in clay, with a card which said: ‘Remember dear, Mother is always watching.’ She thought it a hysterically funny gift, but he found it strange and unsettling. The last thing he needed, on the brink of manhood, was a symbolic reminder of her domestic omnipotence. Preminger may not move on the exalted literary plane of Edmund Gosse, but the impulse behind his book is not dissimilar to that which gave rise to Father and Son. Gypsy and Me absolutely had to be written, ostensibly as a tribute to a remarkable woman, but more importantly as a way of resolving a near-mortal conflict.

That conflict consisted of nothing so banal as simple hostility. The author is 12 as his tale begins, and he implies that until this stage the relationship has been agreeably harmonious. He introduces his mother at a turning-point in her career, and he introduces himself in a role which would make psychiatrists reach eagerly for their notebooks. We meet Gypsy Rose Lee, world-famous stripper and comedienne, as she works a New Year’s Eve date in a provincial club. Erik is her acolyte and general factotum. She is imperiously displeased with everything and everyone, and his thankless job is constantly to smooth things over. She has decided it’s time to quit, and the ground trembles under his feet. He panders nervously to her whims, feeds her superstitions (12 grapes to be consumed as midnight strikes), but is swept joyfully into her show once it gets under way. Four hands animated by a single brain, they prepare the spell together. She glues on her G-string and the black lace bows (one carefully crooked) that cover her breasts. Between numbers, he officiates as dresser, the spotlights set so that only his arms are seen: she wants the audience to assume her dresser is a maid. The act is provocative yet chaste: the audience are maddened with delight, and he is proud and happy.

As her career begins to veer and dip, Erik moves into the rapids of adolescence. The huge success of her autobiographical show Gypsy finances a grand European tour on which he acts as her cameraman, helps her spend vast sums on antiques, and aids and abets her kleptomaniac raids on hotel foyers and linen-cupboards. He enjoys all this, but he also learns the pleasure of defying her, if initially over trivialities. Back at their palatial Manhattan home things start to go wrong. She ‘employs’ him to sell copies of her books outside theatres, and pleads poverty when he asks for a new suit. His lifelong habit of petty thieving from her coffers is suddenly no longer petty, and rows ensue. Legally under age, he gets himself wheels, and gets himself laid. She sends him to a psychiatrist, who bolsters his rebellion. But the worst thing is that, to her, all this represents merely a peripheral disturbance. While he is drowning in the maelstrom of her casual caprices, she is plotting new projects and gallivanting around with her high-powered showbiz friends. One day, with sudden and shocking brutality, she forces him to terminate his first big love affair, as he weeps into the phone under her unrelenting stare. His first feeling, he says, was self-loathing, but ‘next I hated Mother, not passionately, but with an icy revulsion.’

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