Arthur Laurents’ “Original Story By” probably isn’t going to win any literary prizes. Subtitled “A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood,” the book is really just a disorganized autobiography, and its prose is strictly conversational — it often sounds as if it was dictated right onto the page. But whatever his limitations as a stylist, Laurents delivers in spades what readers of showbiz autobiographies prize most, namely savory backstage stories about big names, here told with a frankness and an eye for comic detail that give them the ring of unvarnished truth.
Laurents peppers his early chapters with the requisite details of his upbringing in Brooklyn, his college years at Cornell, the draft years spent learning his craft writing training films. Even here there are colorful glimpses of fellow war workers such as John Cheever and George Cukor, and distinctive details of Army life. Laurents recalls a strange sight at Fort Aberdeen, Md.: “A poster tacked to a scraggly pine:’Tonight at the service club! An All-Male All-Soldier cast in John-Frederics hats in Clare Booth’s ‘The Women.’ ” Hmm.
Laurents seems to have had a relatively angst-free ride to a successful and lengthy career as a playwright, screenwriter and eventually stage director, notwithstanding a few early flops after his succes d’estime “Home of the Brave,” which opened on Broadway when Laurents was just 28. His journey to personal happiness was a little bumpier, thanks to years in therapy trying to come to terms with his homosexuality. But just a little bumpier: Even as he’s detailing his perverse relationship with a shrink trying to cure him, Laurents also boasts frequently about his priapic adventuring: “I’d had ten different partners over the weekend. By different, I also mean no two from the same branch of our armed forces or from the same rank.” Well, bully for you, Arthur!
The book’s structure is rather inelegant, sometimes maddeningly so. Laurents alludes to some people for hundreds of pages before properly introducing them, and he hopscotches back and forth through the years confusingly, swinging from digression to digression like a kid on a jungle gym. A paragraph about Laurents’ early flop “Heartsong” leads to a digression about abortion, which evolves into an anecdote about “Heartsong” producer Irene Mayer Selznick, which takes time out for a digression about the colorful epithets she was called, years later, by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, when she produced “A Streetcar Named Desire” in London.
This devil-may-care chronology allows Laurents to end-load his book, making for a big finish. The result is a lopsided read, with the early chapters somewhat scattered while the final third, concentrating on his most famous productions, is entirely engaging. These last chapters focus on the creation of the movie “The Way We Were” and the musicals “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” and they’re full of interesting backstage arcana as well as illuminating, funny, not infrequently condemnatory anecdotes. By his own admission, Laurents has a reputation for acidity, and he lives up to it here.
Almost as funny as anything in “Gypsy” is Laurents’ portrait of Gypsy Rose Lee. Admiring Laurents’ creation of the Herbie character in the show, she says, “I wish I’d thought of him for my autobiography.” We see Jerome Robbins backstage at “West Side Story,” viciously calling Larry Kert a “faggot” even as he stole his boyfriend. “The Way We Were” chapter is a classic in detailing Hollywood’s famous disrespect for writers. Laurents has plenty of eye-opening tales of Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford’s maneuvering on the production, suggesting that Pollack’s ineptness and Redford’s vanity essentially turned a serious movie into a sudser.
Throughout the book, names fly fast and furious, and Laurents’ affable narrative voice — brash, a little pugnacious, entirely unpretentious — moves us swiftly through the more wayward portions. From the Group Theater group to the ballet world of Robbins and Nora Kaye (with whom Laurents had a long, complicated relationship) to various Hollywood figures like Hepburn and Tracy, Alfred Hitchcock and Lena Horne, Laurents interacted with an eclectic array of showbiz folk, and their personalities are all vividly if briefly evoked.
The book is also valuable as a first-person account of Hollywood’s gay subculture in the ’40s and ’50s, a milieu that’s been chronicled and analyzed before, but rarely from such a privileged and authoritative perspective. Laurents is refreshingly — even tediously — frank about his sexual history, detailing his affairs with dancer Harold Lang and Farley Granger, as well as numerous smaller flings. He also gives us firsthand accounts of George Cukor’s famous parties.
Briefly a victim of the HUAC black list, and more lastingly if subtly set apart by his homosexuality, Laurents has written a book that is always informed by the perspective of an outsider, which gives it a distinction that most such books lack, even if his writing lacks the intrinsic appeal one might expect from a man who made his living putting words on the page.