Books: Cary Grant: A Class Apart by Graham McCann

I've been familiar with Cary Grant's work since I was very small. He was first known to me as an angel named Dudley. You see, my parents watched The Bishop's Wife every year at Christmas. And I, like so many, was drawn to this sophisticated man. I've since seen many of his films, though not all. And I still watch The Bishop's Wife every year, too.

So not too long ago, I thought: Why don't I know more about him? It's a mistake to assume the person on the screen is the equivalent of the person themselves, even if an actor plays a certain type. And Grant—romantic comedian, suspense hero (or anti-hero)—played a lot of types. So who was he really? I decided to read about it.

I went to Half Price Books and there were two Cary Grant biographies. A quick check on Amazon showed me which had "more stars" (that is, was better reviewed). It was between this one and Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart, and according to Amazon it was no contest. This one won. (Though, flipping idly through the other, I did find some intriguing passages.)

It's not entirely possible to be subjective when writing I biography, I don't think, and anyway, readers don't want an objective story. To remain objective would be to boil the person's life down to stale facts and figures: He was born on this day, in this place, and these were his parents . . . He went to school, here are his marks . . . He made this movie, that movie, and here are the box office totals . . . Dry stuff fit for a résumé or Wikipedia but not a book.

In this case, Mr. McCann is clearly a fan of Grant, but then so are many people. The readers of the book almost certainly would be. So maybe McCann just writes to his audience, though there is a defensiveness in his tone that it sort of strange considering he goes on about how fiercely private Grant was and then is writing a book about the man's life. The way McCann goes after other biographers of Grant, how he bitingly touches on the  rumors of homosexuality, and in the epilogue of the book degrades other entertainers for more or less not living up to Grant's standards . . . There is a definite bias at work.

Not that it's a bad read. No, A Class Apart is very readable and enjoyable. Set up largely in chronological order, it is neatly arranged. McCann clearly read a lot about his subject, though it doesn't seem he spoke to anyone directly; everything appears to be culled from other books or magazine articles and interviews. I could be wrong, but that's the impression, and while I skimmed the notes and saw nothing to suggest any one-on-one conversations between McCann and anyone who knew Grant, I could have missed it. I guess many of the primary sources have since passed away themselves.

As the subtitle suggests, the book largely promotes Grant as sophisticated, intelligent, and though shy also very friendly. Not so different from his screen persona after all. But it does seem to gloss over his relationship problems, except to sympathize with Grant's failed marriages. A Class Apart downplays anything that might damage Grant's standing reputation. It brings up and then quickly buries the homosexuality rumors and moves quickly through the LSD years. In short, this isn't a "dishy" kind of book. It really seems designed to preserve the idea of Grant as set in celluloid: talented, funny, possibly with a little bit of a shadow side (but if there was one, McCann seems to posit, it wasn't his fault, it was the circumstances, the difficult studio system and wives that did it). Archie Leach appears to have been a naturally buoyant personality; only later did those aforementioned circumstances shape the more grave Cary Grant.

In any case, A Class Apart is a good primer. I would still like to read a couple other biographies about Grant, if only to pull together a few different points of view. And maybe a few of those details that McCann felt necessary to sail past.

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