When André Gregory was young, he tells us, his mother had an affair with movie star Errol Flynn. When he was younger, his parents served him caviar so excessively that he was hospitalized for malnutrition. Before he was born, his father had escaped the Soviet Union to Berlin as a sales representative for IG Farben, the chemical conglomerate that a decade later developed the gas used in Nazi death camps — and then escaped Nazi Germany because he was Jewish. André Gregory was born in 1934 in Paris, which his family then also escaped.
“By the time my family arrived in America I had experienced so much—violence, dictatorship (including within my family), war, and flight. I already had so many stories to tell. That was my initiation into the world of the artist,” Gregory writes near the beginning of This Is Not My Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 210 pages.) The Dada title fits. If the stories in the book about his parents feel improbable, like a child’s fantasy, there are plenty of moments in his subsequent account of his adult life as an avant-garde director and occasional actor where the reader may be tempted to stop and ask: Is he putting us on?
Gregory teases us with that possibility in the very first story of the book, about how, as a freshman at Harvard, he worked as an assistant to a burlesque stripper named Princess Totem Pole, feeding the large blackbirds that stripped off her clothes as part of her act. “After telling people this story for years, I decided that it was so unbelievable, so outrageous, that it could not possibly have happened. I must have made it up. So I stopped telling it.” Stories, he writes, “are slippery creatures…filtered over time through the prism of selective memory.” But at the end of this first chapter he recounts meeting a classmate years later who reminded him of his moonlighting with the Princess. “So it was true all along,” he writes.
In the 37 short chapters that follow, we’re told many stories — about how he physically held up the ailing Billie Holiday throughout her last public concert before she died; how his wife of 33 years Chiquita as a toddler inspired Carmen Miranda’s Chiquita Banana jingle; how Gregory Peck slugged him after André told him he acted like a Wooden Indian; how he was buried alive on fashion photographer Richard Avedon’s Montauk property in an elaborate ritual that I assume was some kind of performance art; how Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was the only adult member of the audience to like his production of Tartuffe.
He writes about his “inexplicable encounters with the inexplicable.” Some of these stories approach parody – I’m not sure whether this is intentional or not. He tells us of traveling to the Tunisian Sahara with a Japanese Buddhist priest, which he somehow thought would inspire him to do a stage adaptation of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s story of being plane-wrecked in the desert. “One night, desperate, we just started to eat sand. We just ate sand and threw up. Then we gave up the project and went home.”
André Gregory is surely best known as the riveting raconteur, world-traveling bon vivant and dabbler in New Age spirituality of the 1981 movie “My Dinner with André,” which was created and performed with his long-time collaborator Wallace Shawn. While he assures us that he is not that André — that was a character he helped create for the film — he is unquestionably a colorful character in the book as well. He has a new collaborator for this book, Todd London, who is a respected theater artist, academic and author in his own right. But Gregory’s co-author is even more self-effacing than Shawn was in the movie; London doesn’t exist at all in the narrative (nor even in Gregory’s acknowledgements page; London doesn’t mention Gregory in his either, which makes me suspect there’s an untold story here.)
“This Is Not My Memoir,” however, is more than just a collection of remarkable stories. It also chronicles Gregory’s theatrical career in such a way that we get a clear description of some landmark experimental theater – and not just his own — without the impenetrable jargon that often accompanies such accounts. He visited Bertolt Brecht’s theater in East Germany and Jerzy Grotowski’s in Poland, and learned important lessons from each. “My God, could Grotowski’s actors move! Each one could move twenty or thirty muscles in the face alone, so there was no barrier between an emotional impulse and the physical expression of that impulse.”
He takes us through some of the over-the-top or in-your-face productions that got him fired — “Firebugs” in Seattle (which included a actual fire engine driven onto the stage), “Beclch” in Philadelphia (fired, even though he founded the company), Tartuffe and The Glass Menagerie in Los Angeles (because he cast a Black actor as the Gentleman Caller) — and also those productions that made his reputation, such as his adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. He recounts how he organized his theater company the Manhattan Project, so-called because they figured they would bomb. He tells us the mission of the theater (“We wanted to make theater about theater, the way action painting is about the event of painting, the way a circus is about the acts”), what it accomplished, and how painful it was to disband eight years later. He writes about how “Vanya on 42nd Street” was made into a movie. He lets us into his process, which he admits is unusual: He rehearses his productions not for weeks but for years.
He also talks at length about “My Dinner With Andre,” and specifically cites this YouTube video from the movie:
Almost forty years later, he writes “Fascism can happen anywhere. I smell it today in America. I hope to God I’m wrong.”
Yes, he also writes about his gurus and his psychological and spiritual journeys, but not insufferably. In fact, he dips into his spiritual learning to offer what I count as some down-to-earth wisdom.
“I’ve read that the Buddha believed we are always in a state of bliss or ecstasy. Three things get in the way of that ecstasy: rage, envy, and illusion. Normally, that would have seemed like religious gobbledygook. Suddenly I thought, Oh yes, I get it. I’m in a rage about getting older. I envy everyone who is younger. And I live with the illusion that I can live forever. Since reading that, my eighties feel just fine.”
Now 86, he does make a convincing case that his life is happier now than it was in his youth; for the first time, he says, it is filled with love. After the death of his first wife, he remarried a much younger woman, a filmmaker who made a documentary about her husband, “Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner.” He has taken up painting as a hobby. “Plays tend to be sad affairs, which I try to lighten with laughter. My drawing, though, is all laughter.”
“This Is Not My Memoir” is not a book that goes into much depth about anybody or anything except André Gregory himself. I would like to have learned more, for example, about his collaboration with Wallace Shawn, “one of the longest collaborations—director/actor and playwright/actor—in the history of the American theater,” he writes. “Forty-five years and only one fight.” His two or three paragraphs analyzing Chekhov are so intriguing — his plays are not about boredom or about the Russian aristocracy, he says, but about ordinary people who yearn for things they cannot have — that one yearns for Gregory’s take on other plays and playwrights. While the book proceeds more or less chronologically, a more scattershot and unfocused look at his current life is threaded throughout the book and takes up the last fourth of it, as if deliberately reflecting his conscious choice later in life to take it easier.
Still, I can’t imagine getting past the first sentence of any other book that begins “When I was a freshman in Harvard….” and finishing it with the feeling that I’ve been entertained, and maybe even a little enlightened, by somebody worth knowing.