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Renowned Biographer Patricia Bosworth Writes A Chapter From Her Own Life

Jan 28, 2017
Originally published on January 28, 2017 12:26 pm

Patricia Bosworth has authored acclaimed biographies of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Diane Arbus. Now, she's written about a chapter in her own remarkable life.

The Men in My Life chronicles Bosworth's time in Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, learning and working alongside Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Penn, Elaine Stritch and Tennessee Williams. Bosworth starred with Audrey Hepburn in the 1959 film The Nun's Story, before she turned to writing.

Bosworth's mother had been a writer — a crime reporter, and then a novelist. "It had been the happiest time of her life, to be a writer," Bosworth tells NPR's Scott Simon. "I think part of me wanted to be like her. ... I loved the act of writing, I loved finding out about people, and making up stories. I enjoyed that much more than being on a stage and performing."

Ed. Note: A warning that Bosworth's story is, in part, sad and harrowing and includes situations and descriptions that some readers may find upsetting.


Interview Highlights

On this being a book of survival

[My father] committed suicide. That's part of what my book is about — he's one of the men in my life, you see, one of the most important men. The other was of course my brother, Bart Jr., who also killed himself — so I had a double whammy there. It was very difficult but that's what part of the book is about: Me being a suicide survivor. ...

This particular 10-year period which I write about is absolutely incredible in terms of all the things I managed to do — like getting married and divorced, finishing college, becoming an actress — all this happened in this 10-year period and I just wanted to write about that.

On riding on the back of Steve McQueen's motorcycle

It was incredible. It was very sexy. We were at the Actors Studio together and he was a new member. He was just gorgeous, and not at all interested in me. And I boldly kept staring at him during class until he just said, "You want me to take you out don't you? And I said, "yes."

So I hopped on his motorcycle and we went off to Central Park and we actually had a wonderful afternoon he talked a lot about his life ... he was a real gentleman. In the very end he said, "Look, I can't take you out. I'm in love with someone else. I don't want to fool around with anybody right now and I hope you understand." ...

But I did have that one afternoon with him, on the motorcycle.

On the culture of the Actors Studio

The Actors Studio was an amazing place ... Elia Kazan who founded the studio, he called it a zoo. It was open 24 hours a day. Projects were always going on. It was a very kind of sexy atmosphere about the place — lots of affairs going on and also a lot of arguments.

But it was also very male chauvinist pig-ish in those days. These guys — all of them — they really thought they were terrific and that women should be sort of kept in their place — and also we should go out with them whenever they wanted us to go out with them. I would come in and I would be grabbed and I would have to fight my way out of their embraces. This is the way things were there. But it was also sort of fun.

On learning she'd been cast in The Nun's Story -- and finding out the same day that she was pregnant. (In 1958 abortion was illegal and Bosworth paid $500 in cash to an underground abortionist in Manhattan).

I realized I didn't want to have a child at that point. I knew that having an abortion would be a difficult experience. I didn't realize how difficult both physiologically and psychologically. ... I did have the abortion and the doctor had given me some pills because I was about to go to Rome on a plane. We stopped off in Paris. I had these pills I was supposed to take in case I might hemorrhage on the plane because of the altitude. And I left the pills in the ladies room. Don't ask me why.

And so we were flying on to Rome and I suddenly started to hemorrhage. I didn't know what to do. I got a pad — you know one of those sanitary pads — from the stewardess and managed to stem the blood. ... Got to Rome and we rushed to the studios to get costume fittings and I met Fred Zinnemann, the director, and it was all very exciting.

Meanwhile, I am feeling very, very sick. ... I know that I'm still bleeding. The next morning Fred Zinnemann had agreed that we should go and meet with nuns and stay in convents. And I was, for some reason, sent to a hospital convent called the Salvator Mundi hospital which was run by nuns. I was supposed to talk to this nun about what it was like to be a nun.

So I got there, and luckily she spoke English, and the minute she saw me she said, "Oh, Miss Bosworth, you don't look well at all." And I said, "Oh, I'm fine, I'm fine." She said, "No, I really don't think you are well, I think you should go back to the hotel and rest ... if you continue to feel badly, here's my phone number and you can phone me."

So I got back to the hotel and I was bleeding so badly — all over the rug, it was just horrific — and I called her and I told her: I had had an abortion and I thought I was dying. And she rushed me back to the hospital and I got to the operating room and the doctor sewed me up, and he was very angry at me. He said: "I've been working with actresses for too many years! Sewing them up! And you're a fool! Why didn't you take precautions!" He really chewed me out. ...

I never told Warner Brothers. ... The hospital didn't tell them, the nurses didn't tell them what had happened — they said I had a stomach ailment. The picture was delayed. ... I recovered and I went on with the movie, but of course it was a traumatic, traumatic experience, and I had really almost lost my life.

On whether the nun caring for her chastised her for having an abortion

I said to her, "Sister, I could have died," and she said, "Well, you didn't die because God has plans for you. You're going to stay around a little longer." She never made a judgement.


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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Patricia Bosworth, who's authored acclaimed biographies of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and the great photographer Diane Arbus, has now written about a chapter in her own remarkable life that is also at times sad, harrowing and not for children. "The Men In My Life: A Memoir Of Love And Art In 1950s Manhattan" recounts her time in Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, learning and working alongside Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Penn, Elaine Stritch, Tennessee Williams and starring alongside Audrey Hepburn in "The Nun's Story" before making the turn in her life to literature.

Patricia Bosworth joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

PATRICIA BOSWORTH: Oh, I'm very glad to be here.

SIMON: I guess we have to begin with - you have such a distinguished, and yet in many ways tragic, family background, don't you?

BOSWORTH: Yes, I guess you could say that.

SIMON: Your father, Bartley Crum, a great lawyer who defended many targets of the House Un-American Activities Committee then became a target himself, didn't he?

BOSWORTH: Yes, he was blacklisted after he handled the Hollywood Ten. He lost all of his corporate clients, and it was very difficult for him.

SIMON: And he met a sad end, a sad tailspin, didn't he?

BOSWORTH: Well, he committed suicide. That's part of what my book is about. He's one of the men in my life, you see, one of the most important men. And my other was, course, my brother, Bart Jr., who also killed himself. So I had a double whammy there, and it was very difficult. But that's what part of the book is about, me being a suicide survivor and surviving and going on.

And this particular 10-year period which I write about is absolutely incredible in terms of all the things that I was - I managed to do like, you know, getting married and divorced, finishing college, becoming an actress. All this happened in this 10-year period. And I just - I wanted to write about that.

SIMON: Yeah. I wish I could think of a clever way to ask this, but here goes. What was it like to ride on the back of Steve McQueen's motorcycle?

BOSWORTH: (Laughter) It was incredible. It was very sexy. We were at the Actors Studio together, and he was a new member. And he was just gorgeous and not at all interested in me. And I boldly kept staring at him in class until he just said, you want me to take you out, don't you? And so I said, yes. So we - I hopped on his motorcycle and we went off to Central Park. And we actually had a wonderful afternoon. He talked a lot about his life and...

SIMON: He was a real gentleman, too, wasn't he?

BOSWORTH: He was a real gentleman. And at the very end he said, look, I can't take you out because I'm in love with somebody else and I don't want to, you know, fool around with anybody right now, and I hope you understand. And I just thought it was so great. But I did have that one afternoon with him on the motorcycle (laughter).

SIMON: (Laughter) Yeah. There's this trio of handsome Italian-American actors - Harry Guardino, Tony Franciosa and Ben Gazzara. And they - by today's standards, they would greet you in the most appalling way, wouldn't they?

BOSWORTH: Well, you know, the Actors Studio was an amazing place. It was just - as Kazan called it, Elia Kazan who founded the studio, he called it a zoo. It was open 24 hours a day. Projects were always going on. And there was a very kind of sexy atmosphere about the place. There were lots of affairs going on and also a lot of arguments. But it was also very male chauvinist piggish in those days.

These guys, all of them, they really thought they were terrific and that women should be sort of kept in their place, and also we should go out with them whenever they wanted us to go out with them. I would come in and I'd be grabbed and I'd have to fight my way out of their embraces. This is the way things were there. But it was also sort of fun.

SIMON: I have to ask you about a sad period you recount toward the end of your book. You were cast in "The Nun's Story" alongside Audrey Hepburn. And on the same day you got that good news, you got some other news.

BOSWORTH: Yes, I found out I was pregnant.

SIMON: And there's no role for a pregnant nun in that film.

BOSWORTH: No, no, not - certainly not in those days, not in the 1950s.

SIMON: And it - well, you didn't want to be a mother then anyway.

BOSWORTH: No, I realized I didn't want to have a child at that point. I knew that having an abortion would be a difficult experience. I didn't realize how difficult, both physiologically and psychologically. And I did go through with it. But as you know, I mean, I could tell the story if you want and what happened to me.

SIMON: Yeah, please, yeah.

BOSWORTH: Well, when I - what happened was I did have the abortion. And the doctor had given me some pills because I was about to go to Rome on a plane. And we stopped off in Paris, and I had these pills I was supposed to take in case I might hemorrhage on the plane because of the altitude. And I left the pills in the ladies room. Don't ask me why.

And so we're flying on to Rome, and I suddenly started to hemorrhage. I didn't know what to do. Got a pad - you know, one of those sanitary pads from the stewardess and managed to stem the blood, etc. Got to Rome. I met Fred Zinnemann, the director, and it was all very exciting. And meanwhile I am feeling very, very sick. I don't feel well. I know that I'm still bleeding.

And the next morning, Fred Zinnemann had agreed that we should go and meet with nuns and stay in convents. And I was, for some reason, sent to a hospital convent, and I was supposed to talk to this nun about what it's like to be a nun. So I got there, and luckily she spoke English. And the minute she saw me she said, oh, Ms. Bosworth, you're - you don't look well at all. And I said, oh, I'm fine. I'm fine. She said, no, I really don't think you are well. I think you should go back to the hotel and rest. So she said, but you know what? If you continue to feel badly, here's my phone number and you can phone me.

So I got back to the hotel, and I was just bleeding so badly all over the rug. It was just horrific. And I called her and I told her I had had an abortion and I thought I was dying, and she rushed me back to the hospital. And I got to the operating room and the doctor sewed me up. And he was very angry at me. He said, I've - you know, I've been working with actresses for too many years, sewing them up, and you're a fool and why didn't you take precautions and, you know, really chewed me out.

So I went back to my hospital room, and I never told Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers didn't know. The hospital didn't tell them. The nuns didn't - the nurses didn't tell them what had happened. They said I had a stomach ailment. The picture was delayed. So everything was fine, and I recovered and went on with the movie. But, of course, that - it was a traumatic, traumatic experience, and I had really almost lost my life. And so that's the story, really.

SIMON: Sister Rose, not judgmental?

BOSWORTH: Not at all.

SIMON: Didn't shake a finger at you about Vatican teachings and - yeah.

BOSWORTH: Not at all. No, no. She said to me - I said to her, Sister, I could have died. And she said, well, you didn't die because God has plans for you. You're going to stay around a little longer. She never made a judgment.

SIMON: Looking back on it now, what do you find yourself most grateful for about this period in your life in the '50s?

BOSWORTH: I'm grateful for all the amazing experiences that I've had with all these people. And I think I've been very, very lucky. I think luck has a lot to do with - in anybody's life, and I think I've been incredibly lucky.

SIMON: Patricia Bosworth, her book, "The Men In My Life: A Memoir Of Love And Art In 1950s Manhattan." Thanks so much for being with us.

BOSWORTH: Oh, thank you so much. I really enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.