Valet of the Dolls

Andrew O’Hagan

There was only one other person in the life of Samuel Johnson who stood a chance of writing a biography as entertaining as Boswell’s. Francis Barber was overqualified by modern standards, and too loyal for the job in any era, but for more than thirty years he was Johnson’s (black) manservant. There in the small hours – peeling oranges, brewing tea, mending stockings, lifting papers – Barber was considered to be all the disciples other than Judas, though one now wonders, naturally, what the servant could have offered the great moralist in the way of a horrific posthumous disservice.

The words ‘great moralist’ are unlikely to appear again in this essay, seeing as we’re dealing with Frank Sinatra, a man who managed, without much effort, to make the majority of his rowdy compatriots look like barefoot regulars in Bernadette’s grotto at Lourdes. It’s not that we could really have expected a straightforward portrait of Frank Sinatra with votive candles: even those who never worked for the crooner, Kitty Kelly among them, have had no trouble finding instant and compelling evidence to prove he was a complete nightmare. Yet this book by George Jacobs, who was Sinatra’s valet for 15 years, might be understood to be wired in a whole new way: it is perhaps the ultimate diatribe by the disgruntled ex-staffer; a new high point (or low point) in a super-readable genre that should surely be given its own section in bookshops.

‘I’m looking for a book which proves that the underpaid and the down-trodden always get their revenge in the end?’

‘Have you tried the Cookery section?’

‘No, something more violent.’

‘What about the Forward Poetry Prize selection? Australian Fiction, maybe?’

‘No. Something unforgiving. Something crazed. Nearly evil . . .’

‘I know. You want a new section we’ve just invented. It’s full of books written by people who used to work for the famous.’

‘Oh? What’s it called?’

‘We keep them in the basement. Just ask for the section called it’s always the quiet one.’

The genre got off to a cracking start a long time ago with Marion Crawford’s book about the Little Princesses. That really set the standard: ‘Crawfie’, the former governess, got excommunicated, everybody (except the reader) felt betrayed, and the world of the British royals suddenly seemed quite comic. Dozens of volumes followed suit, but some, like Crawfie’s, have that extra sparkle, usually because the world being described is so closed or because the people being ratted on are so especially absurd. Lena Pepitone’s Marilyn Monroe Confidential was irreproachable for the sheer relentlessness of its reproach. Monroe, her one-time maid writes, took the peroxide bottle to her pubic hair and never washed her sheets; meanwhile, Arthur Miller hid away in his study pretending to write a play in order to avoid his wife’s demands for arguments, babies and pizza.

Rough stuff, but not that rough when compared to some of the more recent semi-penitents who rush to take up the pen as soon as they lay down the Hoover. Who can forget Rosemary Mahoney, who spent a summer scrubbing Lillian Hellman’s floors in Martha’s Vineyard? On taking the job, she thought of Hellman as a brilliant writer, a woman ‘brave and strong and full of noble ideas’, but after a few twists of Hellman’s fiendish mouth (smeared in lipstick ‘the colour of dried blood’), we are all set for the main business of Mahoney’s memorable squeal-fest, A Likely Story, which set a new standard of malice for books by vengeful factotums everywhere. Hellman, we hear, would go into the worst rage imaginable when Mahoney forgot to put her eyedrops on ice.[*]

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[*] A Likely Story was written about in the LRB by Terry Castle (15 April 1999). The review appears in, and gives the title to, her latest book, Boss Ladies, Watch Out!: Essays on Women, Sex and Writing (Routledge, 309 pp., £55 and £15.99, October 2002, 0 415 93873 2).