Read about John Lahr’s recently published biography of Tennessee Williams, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, here.
UK: Bloomsbury, 1991; Flamingo, 1992; Bloomsbury 2002
In 1989, when Dame Edna was knocked them dead at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, John Lahr spent a month in the wings watching the elusive Humphries and his partners in mayhem—Dame Eda, Sir Les Patterson, and Sandy Stone—drive audiences crazy with pleasure.
What emerges is a superb chonicle of a great act and a great clown, full of fun and insight, that gives the reader both the buzz of backstage life and the jazz of Humphries’ private conversation. Lahr, himself the son of a great clown, understands comedy and clowns from the inside; he offers us an insider’s account of Humphries’ prodigious talent and Dame Edna’s majestic frivolity. In showing the connection between laughter and the life it decoys, Dame Edna and the Rise of Western Civilisation goes beyond reportage to an inquiry into the nature of comedy which Lahr has pursued over the years in his biographies of Bert Lahr, Noel Coward, and Joe Orton.
Lahr paints a word picture so vivid that we can almost touch Edna’s natural wisteria hair (actually yak) and see Sir Less add the finishing touch of Lea and Perrin’s to his tuxedo shirt before going out to spit on the paying customers. We also glimpse the mysterious transformation of this enigmatic Australian aesthete into one of the era’s most glorious comic turns. In this transfixing close-up, Lahr takes the reader on an unprecedented journey. Many books have been written about comedians and comedy but never, like Lahr’s, from backstage.
Winner of the Roger Machell Prize for Excellence in Writing about the Performing Arts.
“This is the definitive study.”
Michael Coveney, Observer
“Brilliantly precise, exhilaratingly perceptive.”
Hilary Spurling, Daily Telegraph
“John Lahr’s portrait of Edna is definitive and perfect. Lahr is the most penetratingly perceptive and articulate analyst of theatrical comic performances since Kenneth Tynan”.
Patrick Skene Catling, Evening Standard
“I AM A SYMMETRICAL MAN, ALMOST TO A FAULT,”
Frank Sinatra once said. It is a peculiar statement, because Sinatra is precisely asymmetrical. How to reconcile the enchanting crooner and the explosive bully? What to make of the smooth tones of his voice and the rough edges of his persona? To find the true correspondence between the public and the private Sinatra, the artist and the man, is no easy task.
Lahr traces the trajectory of the “solitary latchkey kid” from Hoboken, New jersey, into the stratosphere of fame. Sinatra kept company with presidents and mobsters; he kept up the front of a happy family life for as long as he could and then took up with the most desired women in the world-Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall, Anita Ekberg, Marilyn Monroe, and many, many more. He led a life of manic gregariousness, yet spoke to the romance and loneliness of the “wee small hours of the morning.” He desperately needed to exist within the gaze of the audience but at the same time would express aloofness toward his fans, saying he was happiest “when I’m onstage all by myself with an orchestra and nobody to bug me:’
Sinatra: The Artist and the Man also examines the miracle of Sinatra’s return-much of what is marvelous about Sinatra today is that we know who he is at all, so far did he fall in the late forties. Sinatra came back with a vengeance as Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity, a heartfelt and brilliantly comic performance that won him an Academy Award. At the same time, he reclaimed control of the recording studio and, with the help of an ingenious arranger named Nelson Riddle, perfected the swinging sound of his mature years. Sinatra then proceeded to build a media empire that has been the standard by which all other stars have measured their success.The artist and the man: Sinatra epitomized control and he raged uncontrollably, destroying friendships, love affairs, and a plate-glass window or two; he won fans around the world across three generations, created an unparalleled body of recorded work, and almost single-handedly invented the postwar American swagger and “the image,” Lahr writes, “of perfect individualism:’
Sinatra’s life and art happen to be extremely well documented in photographs-from Weegee’s hilarious pictures of bobby-soxer hysteria at New York’s Paramount Theatre to William Read Woodfield’s definitive and rare “Chairman of the Board” images. Sinatra:TheArtist and the Man collects one hundred of the best photographs ever taken of Sinatra (some never before published)-representing his film work, the special intensity of his recording sessions, and the many swinging nights of this complex and fascinating man.
In five dexterously argued chapters, John Lahr investigates all the many plays and many of Coward’s lesser known pieces. Hay Fever, Private Lives, and Design for Living, for instance, make a fascinating group of “Comedies of Bad Manners”. Blithe Spirit and Relative Values raise “The Ghost in the Fun Machine”. In all Coward’s stage work, Lahr detects a coherent philosophy in which charm is both the subject and the trap which makes his very public life a perpetual performance in which frivolity—both as a mask and an admission of Coward’s own guarded homosexuality—tested the “normal” world and made his own self-involvement irresistible.
“A stunning, thoughtful, and very good guide to Coward’s plays.”
John Lahr reconstructs the life and death of Joe Orton in another extraordinary biography that was chosen Book of the Year by the Truman Capote and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White when it first appeared in 1978
‘As good as literary biography gets.’
New York Times Book Review
‘An important and illuminating book…Lahr writes beautifully.’
David Mamet, Chicago Tribune
‘This is a biography of the late Bert Lahr, that clown-comedian who played everything from burlesque to Aristophanes and Shakespeare, by his son, who is one of that rare species, an authentic theatre critic… John ahr is frank and objective about his father. He sees that Bert was wildly funny on the stage and unhappy off. He was a haphazard father, a selfish lover, a thoughtless husband (his wife cherished him), a hypochondriac and a ruthless “professional”. The past becomes present in this biography, so that we come to know and understand the actor as clearly as the man. The book abounds in anecdotes that smack of the footlight world and its fascinating fauna. John ahr is an honourable as well as a talented writer on the theatre.’
Harold Clurman, Front Page, New York Times Book Review
‘Endlessly fascinating, excellent… A work of literature, a work of history, a subtle psychological study.’
Richard Schickel, Harper’s Magazine
‘An always intelligent, often moving biography that shifts with impressive ease, depth, and clarity from a son writing about his father to a theatre critic and cultural historian analyzing a great comic and his time.’
‘A book-length love letter. To open it is to enter a life, to participate in a sensibility and, perhaps most important, to laugh. Uproariously.’
Stefan Kanfer, Life