Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant
“Dear Cary is a most intriguing and well-written memoir, one in which the actress, having heard it all before, anticipates the reader’s questions and answers them before they are asked. . . . an unqualified success.”
Here in the USA there is perhaps nothing we cherish more than an actor or actress who has achieved notoriety in Hollywood. We tend to discuss these folks and the details of their lives to the point that we develop a false sense of ownership about them.
We are content that they should walk down red carpets while we sit in the grandstands applauding their every step. We expect them to have the best tables in restaurants and to be given clothing and jewels that they could far more afford to buy than we could.
And when they finally come to write their memoirs, we tend to set the bar of expectation very low for them. They are allowed to have “ghosts,” helpers who assist them in organizing their thoughts and memories. And if those memories can find their way down onto the page with the occasional coherent or even literate sentence, then we are satisfied.
Happily, such is not the case with Dear Cary, actress Dyan Cannon’s memoir of her romance with and marriage to screen icon Cary Grant, nor with Ms. Cannon herself. Without a trace of ghostly influence, Dyan Cannon has written a complex and captivating memoir, one that rings with the sound of her own unique voice as we have come to know it from films and television talk shows.
And refreshingly, the author seems to have set the bar rather high herself—and then wrote a book that transcends even her own expectations: a Cinderella story in which it is the prince who wears the glass shoes.
As such, the credit for the book’s success is all her own. And make no mistake, Dear Cary is a most intriguing and well-written memoir, one in which the actress, having heard it all before, anticipates the reader’s questions and answers them before they are asked. And particularly at the early stages of the courtship between these stunningly mismatched persons, the author fills the pages with an electrical current that indicates that—perhaps save Princess Diana—no other woman has likely ever been so bowled over in a courtship with a man.
But then this man was Cary Grant: much-married, older (at the time they met, she was 25 and he 57) but still very much the screen idol about whom Ms. Cannon writes:
“The word ‘icon’ has been hopelessly devalued over the years, but Cary Grant was exactly that and more. More than an actor, really. Cary Grant was glamour. Cary Grant was charm. Cary Grant was class, intelligence, refinement . . . Cary Grant made manners, civility, and style as thrilling as Humphrey Bogart made a good pistol-whipping.”
What Ms. Cannon does particularly well in her memoir—and this early part, the courtship between the two outstrips the later, sadder parts, leading the reader to assume that the author herself is still wistful in her memory of such a romance—is capture the awe of meeting such an icon, as well as the excitement of being brought into his world, and above all, the warmth, the sudden thrill, and the sense of discovery that is all part of newfound love.
As here, where, after Cary Grant, who caught sight of a young, bikinied Dyan Cannon guest starring in an episode of the television series “Malibu Run,” called her agent to summon her to his office as if to offer her a role in a movie:
“He stepped forward and extended his hand. I could barely breathe. Literally. His hand was so large, so warm. He held me with his gaze and broke into an absolutely enchanting smile.
“’Nice to meet you, Miss Cannon. I’m Cary Grant.’ That voice.
“’I-I’m Dyan Cannon,’ I stammered.
“’Yes you are!’ he said, laughing. ‘That’s why you’re here,” he added jovially.”
Amazingly, the reader finds that the experience of dating Cary Grant—the fact that he drove a silver Rolls Royce, that he was swept into any restaurant he entered and was given the best table, that, in every circumstance, he seemed to know what to wear, how to act, and just what to say in the most quotable fashion—as very similar to the experience of watching a Cary Grant movie.
What the reader comes to realize, along with Ms. Cannon—especially after she married the man—was that the Cary Grant that a young man named Archie Leach had crafted was a thing carved from diligence, determination, and sheer will. And as such, that Leach’s peerless creation of such a charming creature was a sign of the anger, frustration, and control issues that lurked below the surface.
Even here, in this movie-madcap moment taken from life, slivers of Grant’s dark side slide into view:
“There was a Baskin Robbins a few blocks away. Cary pulled in and I went in to get the ice cream. He said he didn’t want any, but I got him a scoop of butter pecan anyway and pressed the cone into his reluctant hand. As he was backing out of the lot, a small tuft of my licorice ice cream cone fell onto the seat.
“’Dyan, could you be more careful?’ he scolded. ‘You know [his mother] Elsie used to fine me ten pence every time I spilled my milk on the table.’
“’You poor thing. Well, to keep the family tradition going . . . ,’ I said. I reached in my purse, scooped up some pennies, and dropped them into his shirt pocket. He swatted at my hand, toppling his ice cream onto the seat.
“’Look what you’ve made me do!’ he exclaimed. ‘Damn it, Dyan.’
“’Now you have to pay the fine! Give me those pennies back.’ I reached into his shirt pocket.
“’Damn it, Dyan!’
“‘Damn it what, Dyan?’
“He slammed on the brakes, came to a screeching halt in the middle of the street, and smacked the steering wheel with his hands.
“Damn it, Dyan, do you want to get married?”
See? Remove Dyan Cannon, add Doris Day in a faux Chanel suit and a pillbox hat, and you have any number of movies.
And yet, the “damn its,” the slapped steering wheel, the screeching brakes—all are signs of things to come.
In concluding her book, Dyan Cannon pens an open letter to Cary Grant, one written from the vantage point that decades of life can bring. In it, she refers to writing her memoir as being like “going into an old house that has been shut up tight of many, many years but finding things just as they were when I left.” And yet she admits that while she is looking over the same things, the same landmarks, the same memories, she is looking at them “through different eyes.”
Perhaps it is this—the time that Ms. Cannon has taken to consider and reconsider their relationship—that allowed her to write the balanced and affectionate book that she has. Or perhaps it is a tribute to Dyan Cannon herself that she has the ability to see the full relationship in its successes (among them a daughter, Jennifer Grant, who has recently written a memoir of her own) and in its failures, expressing them so honestly and effectively on the printed page.
In the closing moments of the book, Dyan Cannon writes simply and movingly:
“Cary, I wish I could take hold of your hand right now and look in your eyes as I tell you this: thank you for letting me be such a big part of your life. Thank you for choosing me to be the mother of our child. Thank you for the romance of a lifetime, and for teaching me the difference between romance and love.”
That difference between romance and love might well have been that which ultimately cost Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon their marriage. But it is their romance that is the beating heart of this memoir—and the chief reason why Ms. Cannon’s debut as an author is such an unqualified success.