Not very stylish biography of Harrison (1908-90), by Wapshott (Peter O'Toole, 1984). Born Reginald Carey Harrison, the...



Not very stylish biography of Harrison (1908-90), by Wapshott (Peter O'Toole, 1984). Born Reginald Carey Harrison, the future Henry Higgins was a sickly boy, ""cosseted and nursed by his mother and spoilt by his two sisters, who treated him as a doll to pet and coddle""--which, Wapshott says, set the pattern for his lifelong lack of deep male friendships and need for six wives. While he became a leading Shavian, Harrison found Shakespeare's language too much to handle, never played the Bard after failing as a messenger in Richard III, and, instead, achieved acclaim for his urbanity as a light comedian--although he later stretched himself for his praised Caesar in the Burtons' Cleopatra, for Pirandello, and for the odd serious role. For all the love the worm bestowed on him, he apparently was a rude, abysmally self-centered husband who crushed his wives and tromped on his fellow actors. The two great tragedies of his life were the suicide of his mistress, actress Carole Landis, while he was married to Lilli Palmer, and the death from myeloid leukemia of his third wife, Kay Kendall. Harrison kept the fatal nature of her illness a secret from Kendall, who also had been his mistress while he was married to Palmer, who divorced Harrison so that he could marry Kendall for her last year or so, with plans for remarriage once Kendall was dead. When they did not remarry, and Harrison downplayed Palmer's kindness in his autobiography (Rex, 1973, lightly updated in his A Damned Serious Business, 1990), Palmer set the truth straight in her own autobiography. Later, Terrence Rattigan wrote After Lydia, a play about Palmer's last days with Harrison, and Harrison played himself (as a crabbed literary critic) on stage--but only after defanging the critic into a jolly fine chap. Wapshott tells all this rather solemnly, allowing Harrison's waspishness to take on an irresistible gleam through the windowpane prose.

Pub Date: May 1, 1992


Page Count: 352

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1992