The story of the author’s life as stepdaughter to the blacklisted screen and television writer Ring Lardner Jr., with a subcurrent of foggy but appalled unhappiness.
A disembodied narrative voice gives this memoir’s first third a hazy, uninflected tone. “What I remember most about Coldwater Canyon is an old wooden gate falling on my head,” Lardner writes. “I don't know how this happened.” As a tool for the scattershot memories of youth, this dreaminess is effective. The dreams take on more edge and gloom after Ring Jr.—referred to throughout as her father by the author, who was three when he married his brother David’s widow—is convicted of contempt of Congress for replying, when asked if he is a member of the communist party, “I could answer, but I’d hate myself in the morning.” The middle section, comprised largely of letters, clippings, and addenda from Ring Jr., covers his prison years. It highlights the mundanity of getting by during his year in Danbury Prison, when his sense that communism extended beyond economic equality into cultural and political spheres only sharpened, and the thrill when her mother found work on TV or radio. (Frances Chaney was also a communist and suffered from the blacklist.) Finally come the consequences for the author of those early years: her mother's distancing (“Acting was my higher power, baby. That's the only place that I knew about God”), her father's drinking (a five-page letter to him from Dalton Trumbo spells it out in spades), both parents’ relentless chiding of Kate about her weight (father called her “Potato Dumpling,” while mother preferred “Miss Turnip”), and the general family reticence. Little wonder Lardner turned to drugs, which perhaps induced the haziness that returns in the memoir’s third section, chronicling what should have been the good times: college, marriage(s), children. Happily, therapy worked for her, and she can tender a clean and sweet chronicle of her father’s death.
One melancholy baby, with every right to be so. (Photos)