Out of the Corner, by Jennifer Grey (Ballantine, 335 pages)
She had the time of her life. I’m sorry, but it had to be said.
There’s no other way to sum up the gilded, glossy existence of actress Jennifer Grey (best-known for Dirty Dancing and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), her much publicized problems with her nose notwithstanding.
I came to Grey’s new memoir, Out of the Corner, with exceedingly low expectations, having read too many celebrity memoirs that exist only because the authors are famous. Shockingly, it turns out that Grey can actually write and has entertaining things to say. Granted, some chapters are more riveting than others — she charges out of the starting gate with an essay on her plastic surgery that’s as good as anything I’ve read in months.
Things necessarily slow down when she fills us in on, say, middle school — there’s really no one famous enough to make me care about what their life was like when they had braces and acne. But even then her life was interesting enough (naked people in a hot tub at Larry Hagman’s house, anybody?) to drag us through the wonder years to return to the interesting stuff.
Grey is the daughter of Academy Award performer Joel Grey and Jo Wilder, and the granddaughter of Mickey Katz. She admits that this star lineage earned her “a certain degree of warmth right out of the gate” whenever she met someone in New York or L.A. In New York, she recalls her parents giving star-studded dinner parties and going to a grand Christmas party each year where famous musicians, actors and directors would stand around a grand piano robustly singing show tunes — accompanied by Stephen Sondheim.
“So even though we were Jews and didn’t have our own Christmas tree, we did okay,” she writes in an understated style.
Her parents led glamorous lives and were often gone for weeks, but were fiercely devoted to their family (which included Grey’s younger brother who was adopted). But for all of Grey’s fond memories, there are glimmers of dysfunction — her mother, for example, would at times walk around the house naked in front of her daughter, once told her that she’d tried to commit suicide by putting her head in an oven, and once told Grey that her brother was beautiful but she was “interesting looking.”
It seems like stuff you tell to a therapist, not put out in the world, but it makes for interesting reading, even though it’s unclear what Grey’s motives are, given that her parents, now divorced, are still alive and she doesn’t seem to hate them.
Side note: Grey’s father, who recently turned 90, came out as gay in 2015 at the age of 82. But in her memoir, Jennifer Grey explains how she and her mother found out years before: when the mother of Matthew Broderick, whom Grey was dating at the time, told her.
“It was like a sniper attack,” Grey writes, saying the knowledge “rattled me to my core” — not because of his sexuality, but because of the deception. It was heartache, she wrote, to know that he had to hide an important piece of his life from the people who loved him.
Out of the Corner is filled with deeply personal revelations like that — often wrapped in a tale about a Hollywood superstar. And she provides a backstage pass to all her movies, telling, for example, how she was cast before Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing and had not wanted him to get the part.
But that isn’t why the book is good. It’s good simply on the strength of its writing, which sent me digging through the acknowledgements to see if there was a hidden ghostwriter. Apparently there was not; although Grey credits an editor, Barbara Jones, who worked closely with her, she says that the novelist Dani Sharpiro told her she needed to write the book herself. (Is there anyone she doesn’t know?)
There are also surprisingly mature themes running through the memoir, such as Grey’s mother’s increasing unhappiness as she sets her own talent and ambition aside to support her husband’s career. “I come from a long line of women who became mothers and wives at the expense of the career they wanted.” That said, Grey herself got married and became a mother at the age of 41, an experience, she writes, “that far exceeded my wildest dreams.”
About that nose — Grey writes that her mother’s attitude was “In case of emergency, break nose” and that when she was young, “I had always felt like my nose needed protection, like a kid sister who regularly got bullied on the schoolyard. I was my nose’s keeper.”
But Grey liked how she looked, and she only succumbed to pressure to have it altered after a surgeon told her that a deviated septum had her breathing at only 20 percent of normal capacity. Two procedures later, it did not go well; on a plane, Michael Douglas (there she goes again) didn’t recognize her. A woman working an airline counter looked at her ID and said, “I’ve seen Dirty Dancing a dozen times. I know Jennifer Grey. And you are not her.”
Grey now seems to be deeply at peace with her nose and her life, and for someone who has seen Larry Hagman naked in a hot tub, seems to be shockingly well adjusted, and even, dare I say, wise. Her book is an unexpected summer pleasure, though it helps if you’ve seen the movies. A
The fiction winner has a title that sounds like a Borat movie: The Netanyahus: An Account of A Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family (New York Review Books, 248 pages).
Joshua Cohen’s novel is described as historical fiction, which assigns way too much gravitas to a novel that looks more to be a merry romp through history enlivened by imagination. I plan to read it not because of the Pulitzer, but because of its title.
Yet someone left a one-star review on Amazon and wrote: “Clueless author.” That didn’t age well.
The Pulitzer for biography went to the late Winfred Rembert — and his “as told to” co-author Erin I. Kelly — forChasing Me to My Grave, an Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South (Bloomsbury, 304 pages). The book intersperses photographs of Rembert’s art with his stories of growing up in Georgia in abject poverty amid undisguised racism, his time in prison and his evolution into an acclaimed artist.
No one could vilify this poignant remembrance or author, but there were only 80 ratings on Amazon, an astonishingly low number, compared to, say, 19,000-plus for Stephanie Myers’ Twilight and 23,800 for Jodi Picoult’s Wish You Were Here.
Finally, the prize for general nonfiction went to Andrea Elliott, a staff writer for The New York Times who spent eight years following the life of a homeless Brooklyn child named Dasani. The resulting book is Invisible Child, Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City(Random House, 624 pages).
This one fared better with Amazon readers — 910 ratings, many of whom followed Dasani’s story as it was serialized in the Times. And most found the book engrossing, despite its formidable length. There were Pulitzers awarded for history and poetry, as well, but these three merit your attention — no matter what anyone on Amazon says.
JAMIE RASKIN Author and congressman presents Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of American Democracy. Gibson’s Bookstore, 45 S. Main St., Concord. Fri., June 3, 11 a.m. Visit gibsonsbookstore.com or call 224-0562.
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• UNDER THE MADNESS Magazine designed and managed by an editorial board of New Hampshire teens under the mentorship of New Hampshire State Poet Laureate Alexandria Peary. features creative writing by teens ages 13 to 19 from all over the world, including poetry and short fiction and creative nonfiction. Published monthly. Submissions must be written in or translated into English and must be previously unpublished. Visit underthemadnessmagazine.com for full submission guidelines.
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