PEOPLE IN A DIARY: A Memoir by S. N. Behrman
Kirkus Star


Email this review


A gallant and graceful memoir by the 77 year-old Behrman in which the playwright and biographer brings to our time personalities long gone, forgotten, or effaced. With the aid of diaries started in 1915 when he was at Harvard (a practice begun ""perhaps as an unconscious impulse to salvage each day from oblivion""), Behrman pays tribute to an astonishing variety of acquaintances: a few unknowns, but mostly prime movers in the creative arts -- theater, films, literature, and, peripherally, music, art, and the social sciences. Behrman utilizes not only his writer's eye for style, his habit of listening (rare for most autobiographers), but also a sympathetic respect for and delight in the vagaries of human beings. His ""people"" walk on strong, and sometimes -- just sometimes -- they say what you hoped they would. Like Lynn Fontanne, observing snowflakes during an impromptu Lunt run-through on a Boston sidewalk: ""how soft and perfect -- like buttercups."" Or Noel Coward in an aside: ""I can go all the way from winsome to determined without change of tempo""; Sol Wurtzel of Hollywood re Lilliom: ""I don't like a picture when the hero dies in the middle! Especially if he's Charles Farrell""; and Nathan's published critique of Woollcott's style: ""a gravy bomb. . . ."" But these are mere quips in passing. There are portraits of two difficult and tortured men -- the poet Sassoon and ""Willie"" Maugham (Behrman keeps an exquisite balance between discretion and revelation) -- both moving and convincing. Despite the rapid parade of friends and peers on Broadway, in Hollywood and England, the reader never feels hurried since Behrman is not one to leave a subject dangling. There are concluding thoughts on the end of life -- Holmes' ""narrowing room,"" the frightening aspect of change in America, the reflection that he has known few contented people -- and intimations contained in an unfinished project on Montaigne where the ""dominating motto is 'Que sais-je?'"" Civil, gentle, and yet sharp as that regret when vigorous lives ""bouldered in by time"" are inevitably lost forever.

Pub Date: June 28th, 1972
Publisher: Little, Brown