TIME Books

Alan Cumming’s Life Was No Cabaret

Peter Hapak

The Scottish actor reveals his harsh boyhood in a new memoir

When Alan Cumming arrives for brunch at a café not far from his apartment in Manhattan’s East Village, he’s wearing a blue baseball cap with a big white yes on the front. It’s been almost two weeks since Scotland voted no to separating from the United Kingdom, but Cumming, a Scot who campaigned heavily for the yes side from New York, hasn’t quite gotten over the loss. He heard the results in his dressing room after a performance of Cabaret, a revival of the 1966 musical that brought him a Tony for his electrifying performance as the androgynous Emcee when it returned to Broadway in 1998. “I just cried,” he says. “I felt like it was the difference between choosing imagination and hope and positivity or being cowed and doffing your cap and letting the Establishment tell you what to do.”

Scotland still defines the effervescent 49-year-old Cumming in a way that nothing else does. He grew up there on a vast estate called Panmure where his father was the head forester. The men who worked the 21 sq. mi. (54 sq km) of woodland addressed the authoritarian elder Cumming as “the maister.” Alan and his brother Tom might as well have called him that too. Doing grueling chores under his unforgiving eye, they were always fearful of paternal rages that often ended with a beating. Cumming once wound up with a vicious haircut administered with sheep shears that left the 12-year-old bleeding and half bald.

How Cumming finally freed himself from the grip of that painful past is the subject of his new memoir, Not My Father’s Son. “I wrote the book partly to say that this kind of abuse is not normal,” he explains. “Abusers make you feel like it’s acceptable. And for the world who knows me one way, now they’ll know me in a different way, and I’m glad, because it’s all a part of me.”

It’s hard to fathom how the terrorized little boy grew up to be the slender, joyful man who can’t stop cackling as he shows off photos of the pink neon sign reading club cumming that he had made for his dressing room at Cabaret. Reading the book, you understand how he got so enmeshed in the Scottish campaign. Self-determination and liberation–of himself and others–from old conventions, gender restrictions or just boredom have been Cumming’s quest since he left home at 17 to study at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

He began writing his memoir after his father’s death in 2010 while working his day job as the Emmy-nominated co-star of CBS’s The Good Wife, now in its sixth season. On that show, Cumming plays Eli Gold, the tightly wound, manipulative political adviser to Chris Noth’s Governor Peter Florrick and his wife, played by Julianna Margulies. His book takes us from his primary school in the Scottish Highlands to London, where he played Hamlet in a cast that included his then wife Hilary Lyon as Ophelia in 1993. His father came back into his life a few years later when a British tabloid wrongly reported that Cumming had been sexually abused in childhood. (Harking back to his father’s beatings, Cumming had told another publication that he had been “abused,” a quote the tabloid misinterpreted.) Cumming weaves into this story his 2010 turn on the British version of the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? which researches the family histories of celebrities. The program’s producers focused on Cumming’s maternal grandfather Thomas Darling, a much decorated World War II vet who died mysteriously in Malaysia. The effort to unearth the truth about his death sparks a crazy journey that sends Cumming around the world, from the former battlefields of France to a graveyard in Asia. It turns out that his grandfather died in a fatal game of Russian roulette. To complicate things, Cumming’s father hears of the family research and announces that Alan is not his son but the product of an extramarital affair of Alan’s mother’s. DNA tests eventually prove the father’s claim is false, but the episode leads Alan and his brother to confront their dad about his lifetime of cruelties toward them–after which, they never see him again.

Cumming leaves off a few years after his 2007 marriage to Grant Shaffer, an illustrator. (His first marriage ended in the mid-1990s, and soon after, he declared himself bisexual.) Now happy, settled and extraordinarily busy, Cumming suspects that not really getting to be a child when he was young might be what keeps him so preternaturally youthful now. (Holding his own in a Cabaret kick line of 22-year-olds is no easy trick.) A friend, British theater director John Tiffany, jokes that there must be a Dorian Gray–style portrait of Cumming in an attic somewhere. He just doesn’t age. “J.M. Barrie could have written him,” says Tiffany. “Alan’s got an incredibly impish, Peter Pan sense of humor. In fact, he’s a gorgeous combination of Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Mrs. Darling.” (Let it be noted that Cumming’s mother’s name is Mary Darling.)

The ongoing tension in his nature between dark and light, so evident in the book, is part of what gives Cumming’s work such breadth. It allowed Tiffany to cast him at various times as both Macbeth and Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy. Cumming can slip from playing a movie Smurf to the übersexual host of Cabaret’s Kit Kat Club and then host Masterpiece Mystery on PBS without dropping a sequin. He combines a Calvinist work ethic with an eternal party-boy vibe. And the party is almost always on. Not only do legions of friends show up nightly at Club Cumming after the show, but he even has a kind of Camp Cumming–a second home in upstate New York where the landscape reminds him of Scotland. He often invites the entire cast of whatever show he’s in for weekends of singing and bonfires.

Cumming’s brother also thinks that in his offstage and offscreen life, his famous sibling may be re-creating a childhood he didn’t have. As evidence, you could point to the big trampoline he installed at the house. When guests ask about it, he’ll insist they try it. “‘It’s really great,’ I tell them. They say, ‘No, no, that’s not for me.’ People are so afraid of being judged. But as the weekend goes on, you look, and there they are, bouncing away. I love seeing that. It makes my heart swell.”

Harvest Boon A month of reaping great reads

October offers something for everyone: a smattering of big-name bios and memoirs, pop science to rock your world and a new novel from a beloved best seller

FRAGRANT: THE SECRET LIFE OF SCENT

by Mandy Aftel

A perfumer by profession, Aftel offers a combination history-slash-recipe book-slash-meditation in Fragrant. Instructions for homemade “Coca-Cola” and flower-infused chocolate, among other aromatic concoctions, are woven through scent-based sections: Cinnamon, Mint, Frankincense, Ambergris and Jasmine.

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: CHOOSE YOUR OWN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

by Neil Patrick Harris

Life is anything but linear in Harris’ whimsical take on the celebrity memoir. Written in the second person, the book uses a hopscotching format that invites the reader to jump around the text (“To kill someone, turn to page 165″). “You” are Harris, careering through a highlight reel of your past, from childhood to Doogie Howser to the arrival of your own kids via surrogate, with contributions from celebrity pals.

LILA: A NOVEL

by Marilynne Robinson

Robinson completes a trilogy of Midwestern novels that began with Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, and which she followed with Home in 2008. Where Gilead told the story of John Ames, an Iowa preacher–and Home concurrently recounted that of his best friend–Lila brings us the tale of Ames’ much younger wife, who struggles from a hardscrabble youth to a quiet Christian life and eventual hard-won contentment with Ames.

THE SONIC BOOM: HOW SOUND TRANSFORMS THE WAY WE THINK, FEEL, AND BUY

by Joel Beckerman with Tyler Gray

Beckerman, a composer who specializes in “sonic branding” (he created AT&T’s four-note tune), combines experience and science to explain how we process sound. Using familiar examples from the sizzle of a Chili’s fajita to Apple’s soothing boot-up tone, The Sonic Boom will alter how you hear the world.

DE NIRO: A LIFE

by Shawn Levy

Levy, the biographer of his share of Hollywood heavyweights (Rat Pack Confidential; Paul Newman: A Life), takes on the iconic but deeply private actor in nearly 600 pages. Levy paints a detailed portrait of De Niro’s career and life, from his early days working with Martin Scorsese to the serious family matter, a son’s bipolar disorder, that drew him to his role in Silver Linings Playbook.

BREAKING IN: THE RISE OF SONIA SOTOMAYOR AND THE POLITICS OF JUSTICE

by Joan Biskupic

A veteran Supreme Court reporter charts Sotomayor’s evolution from a poor Puerto Rican girl living in the Bronx to the first Latina Justice on the Supreme Court. Sotomayor’s sense of ethnic identity, Biskupic argues, may be as important a legacy as the Justice’s legal contributions.

GLASS JAW: A MANIFESTO FOR DEFENDING FRAGILE REPUTATIONS IN AN AGE OF INSTANT SCANDAL

by Eric Dezenhall

In this primer on modern scandal, Dezenhall, a crisis PR manager, explores reputational disaster in the social-media age. The author uses his expertise to examine high-profile fiascoes (Paula Deen, Tiger Woods, the Susan G. Komen Foundation–Planned Parenthood fight) and how they might have been avoided. There is, he posits, such a thing as bad publicity.

TIME Media

German Tabloid Brings Kim and Kate Together With Some Bum Photos

Getty Images (2)

By positioning pictures of the posteriors of Kim Kardashian and Kate Middleton next to each other, Bild has made us realize how much the two paparazzi fixtures have in common

The German magazine Bild broke all kinds of global monarchy protocol this week when they dared to publish photos of Kate Middleton’s royal bottom just as it was exposed by a fierce breeze in Australia.

But that’s not all the intrepid magazine did: they also published their opportunistic photos of Britain’s second-most coveted bum right next to a bottom-focused shot of America’s tabloid royalty and international newlywed, Kim Kardashian.

And then, in a move that will probably disturb the time space continuum for the rest of the month, both backside images were displayed next to each other under a truly tasteless headline containing a single German phrase that somehow combines a host of vulgar concepts involving bottoms, sexual feelings, gratitude and happy, happy weekends.

But the thing is, Bild has done something far more profound than just saying “here are two sets of totally different but equally famous ladies’ bums, aren’t we amusing?” What they’ve really done is broken the thin tabloid membrane that separated these two women whom we thought were opposites.

Think about it: Both had royal weddings. Both were due with their first babies the same month. Both wear clothes that half the women on the planet want (not the same half, mind you, but still). Neither can survive without their paparazzi. Both are married to famous men who look incredibly awkward when they have to pose next to their more-popular wives.

And finally, the one quality that helps us understand that humanity has far more in common that we knew…both women seem to favor sheer hosiery.

TIME Books

My Father Went To Jail For Dealing Weed… and I Would Keep Him There

Random House

Tony Dokoupil, whose new memoir The Last Pirate recounts his father's life as a drug baron, tells TIME that dealers like his Dad should not be freed from prison. He also explains his skepticism of marijuana legalization

In The Last Pirate author Tony Dokoupil writes about growing up with a father who was part of the largest pot ring of the Reagan era. The “Old Man” as his father was called, graduated to transporting ten and twenty thousand pounds of marijuana up and down the East coast right around the time he decided to have kids.

Naturally, Dokoupil’s early childhood wasn’t exactly ordinary. It was a hedonistic life of beach resorts, yachts and private schools paid for with drug money–a million of it stored in coolers and buried in backyards around the country. The Old Man, who became a kind of “Wolf of Miami” drug baron, eventually gets caught and the business of pot turns into a far more technical and far less glamorous enterprise.

The younger Dokoupil, now in his thirties with two children of his own, mines his father’s memories and his own to produce a funny, beautifully written and sometimes unsettling personal narrative that is entwined with the story of marijuana’s dramatic ascent in the United States over the last three decades. Because this book is hitting shelves in the middle of a national debate about pot laws, Dokoupil says he’s asked constantly what he thinks about legalization. He answers those questions here and talks about what he’ll tell his kids about their grandfather when they are older.

Your father and his friends see themselves as heroes—”the Rosa Parks of legalization.” Do you feel the same way?

Not at all. I don’t think marijuana smokers should face criminal charges. I think the number of arrests for pot possession in this country could fall from 750,000 a year to zero and there’d be no great harm to public health. But while I’ve got no beef with smokers, I don’t think we need to set the dealers free—and I certainly don’t think we should create a wide-open Coca-Cola-style free market for pot. That does strike me as a public health concern and for the very same reasons we already consider sugar, fat and salt to be a public health concern. Very big businesses have a way of using people’s freedoms against them.

In other words, you agree with war on drugs?

No. Look, I keep a New York Times clipping from 1982, a reminder of how ridiculous the war on drugs really got. It’s a news brief that says, a small scale pot smugglers boat ‘eluded two coast guard cutters, a Navy destroyer, and four jet fighters for 27 hours.’ Jet fighters! It’s crazy. Absolutely crazy. But the only alternative isn’t big business. So, yeah, it’s funny. My father went to jail for dealing weed and, to my surprise, I would keep him there.

If the marijuana smugglers of yore were pirates, how do their now-legal descendants see themselves in Colorado and Washington?

That’s a work in progress but one thing is certain: today’s pot barons are a hell of lot less interesting than the old timers. In general I think this country is suffers a criminal awe-deficit. It’s all hackers and leakers, who are massively influential and sometimes heroic, but rarely romantic and almost never sexy. I think this awe-deficit is greatest in the weed business, where yachtsmen and beach bums like my father have been replaced by botanists and above board business types. It’s a snore.

What’s the biggest difference between old pot and the new stuff?

The new stuff is stronger, of course, but that’s not all. It’s also gorgeous and explicitly commercial, a perfectly shaped chandelier of THC and electric sunshine. The old stuff was never less gnarly and shaggy and unpredictably weird than nature itself. Every item on the High Times Top 40 list from 1977, for example, looks like a piece of animal scat or something scraped off a lawnmower on a wet morning.

Do you think legalization as we’ve seen it so far will go national?

For a while, yes, but I expect a backlash eventually. It’s inevitable. Marijuana’s mostly left-leaning backers don’t usually support a genetically modified commercial product that’s getting play on the cover of Fortune and the Wall Street Journal weekend section. They do for now, but they won’t forever. It’s a delicate support, I think. A lot of people who vote for legal weed are really voting against the status quo, against prohibition. They don’t want a third major vice industry.

When did you turn against pot legalization?

I don’t know that I have. If legal marijuana stays small and out of sight, fine. But I started worrying about the big business part of this when I had kids of my own. My son is 5. He loves the kind of dance hits that are in all the kid’s movies these days. Ok, fine. But when we started watching the music videos online, what’s the 30-second ad we have to sit through? Beer. And the next morning when we open up the computer again—it’s all banner ads for beer. The internet wants my kid to drink. I want him to learn to read first.

Will you tell your kids about their grandfather?

Yes, eventually. I talked with my father about this the other day. He said, ‘Can’t you tell them that I imported tropical plants if they ever ask?’ Yes, Dad, I said. Tropical plants it is.

TIME Careers

Arianna Huffington on the Key to Finding Success (Without Burning Out)

With her new book, Thrive, the editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post aims to redefine what we call success

In her new book, Thrive, Arianna Huffington makes the case for upending our culture of overwork and 24-hour connectivity. TIME spoke to Huffington about her mission to change corporate priorities and what we should be giving up to get more sleep.

TIME: You have a lot in Thrive about the importance of sleep. And I know a decent night’s sleep is the holy grail for many of us. So why is that so difficult to achieve?

We are now moving to the point where people know they need more sleep, but actually doing it is the key. That’s why I’ve included baby steps at the end of each section of the book, about three little things we can start doing, like making your bedroom dark and keeping it cool. You can start by giving yourself 30 minutes more a day, or at least taking a nap. I went from 4-5 hours sleep a night, to 7 hours a night. It was a gradual changing of habits over a period of weeks. But then you begin to feel better and it’s such a reward and that makes it easier to prioritize.

What do you say when people tell you it’s impossible for them to get enough sleep?

People say they don’t have time, but if you actually look at what they’re doing, at their day and their night, they do. You don’t need to stay up to watch Jon Stewart. The key for me has been saying no to good things. Now I know that if I get enough sleep, my life is going to be much happier and more creative. In my pre-awakened state I would drag myself through the day. I would look under my desk and wish I could crawl down there and rest.

So it’s about changing our priorities?

I was looking at my phone and saw that it was 95% charged and I thought, we are so much more conscious about how charged our phones are versus how charged we are. It’s too bad we don’t have the same kind of indicator to show how depleted we are. We have a million ways to recharge our phones, portable chargers, cables, extra battery packs, but look at how we treat ourselves. Our own energy has to be below 5% before we figure out that we need to sleep, to recharge, to take a break. That has to change.

In the wake of the recent recession, a lot of people are afraid to set limits with their employers that would help them combat burnout. Do you have advice for them?

I feel very strongly that we’re going to be better at work when we’re taking care of ourselves. We are able to see the one red flag that others are missing or be more creative and more productive. We’re moving to this new era, the second machine age, where a lot of tasks are being done by robots and machines, and increasingly, creativity is going to our most valuable asset.

Let’s be realistic though, there are situations where you might have a terrible boss and horrible working conditions. Let’s imagine all those conditions are true, but even then we still have the opportunity to take care of ourselves outside of work. Our choices do not end with the boundaries of work. You may be struggling to put food on the table, for example, but you still can choose your attitude, however terrible your working conditions. Choosing your attitude has a deep impact on how you feel.

There are lots of new books with advice for young women. How do you think young women should navigate that push and pull between starting a family and ramping up their careers?

I think a lot of young women look at my generation and say we don’t want to do it this way. They say, ‘we don’t want to burn out in the process of climbing the career ladder. We don’t want to make those sacrifices in our health and happiness. They’re prioritizing giving.’ But I have a bigger dream and wish for all women where we lead a third women’s revolution. We don’t just want to be at the top of the world, we want to change the world because it’s not working. I think it’s a stunning statistic, that women in stressful jobs have 40% increased risk of heart disease.

What role does media play in our culture of overwork? After all, we’re still seeing movies like The Wolf of Wall Street in which money and power are glamorized.

We are living in a split-screen world. On one side of the screen you have the old paradigm in full force with people running around the clock thinking that they can’t stop pushing to get more, like the rats in the Skinner experiment who keep pulling the lever even after there’s no cheese. There are billionaires who keep pushing the lever even though more money won’t add anything to their life. And then, on the other side of the screen, you have the 35% of corporations that have incorporated some form of stress-reduction practices in their workplace and a number of CEOs coming out about their own meditation practices. And of course all the scientific data supporting the benefits of slowing down.

How do you change corporate culture in companies that might not have a CEO who has discovered meditation or any other healthy living measures.

The way you do it is to expose leaders to thee facts and the data we have showing the benefits of stress-reduction programs, like yoga, acupuncture and meditation. After CEO Mark Bertolini made these changes at Aetna he brought in Duke University to look at whether there were cost savings. They found a 7% reduction of health care costs (in 2012 for Aetna employees who participated), and these employees had 69 additional minutes per day in productivity. Those numbers are the way to convince leaders that this matters.

Arianna Huffington is the co-founder, president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group. You can find more about Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom and Wonder here.

TIME

In Defense of Smart Women Who Fall For Jerks

Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is mobbed by reporters while attempting to collect signatures to run for comptroller of New York City on July 8, 2013 in New York City.
Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer is mobbed by reporters while attempting to collect signatures to run for comptroller of New York City on July 8, 2013, in New York City Andrew Burton / Getty Images

What we can learn about men, women and dumb choices from the latest Eliot Spitzer scandal

Women usually know when they’re falling for a jerk. In fact, there was a study published in the journal Biology Letters recently showing how most women can spot a cheater just by looking at his picture without knowing anything else about him. Sixty-two percent of women picked out the guys who’d told researchers separately about their less-than-faithful romantic history.

Of course sometimes women have more than just looks to go on. Sometimes, a guy is universally known as a jerk. And in some cases, his jerkiness has even been documented in the national press. Nonetheless, brilliant, accomplished, women with lots of choices still date, hook up with, marry and even have children with men whose behavior has humiliated or otherwise compromised other women. And sometimes, they’ll stick with these guys even after they themselves have been betrayed.

Start with Huma Abedin, who is still married to the disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner whose pornographic selfies and dalliances with women online were tabloid fodder for months last year, and go all the way back to the marital travails of Abedin’s former boss, Hillary Clinton. The story is the same. Smart women with high-profile careers are called hypocrites, traitors to the sisterhood, or at very least deluded because of their loyalty to men who are not good to women and for putting their own careers at risk as a result.

The latest in this line is Lis Smith, a talented political strategist who ran the Obama campaign’s rapid response team and was most recently New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top campaign spokesperson. Thanks to the New York Post, she’s now better known as the 31-year-old who supposedly frolicked topless in a Caribbean hot tub with Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York and failed comptroller candidate who famously humiliated his wife and his supporters by frequenting prostitutes. (The Post’s hot tub reporting has just been called suspect by rival tabloid, the Daily News, but the couple’s relationship promises to be endless gossip fodder.)

The choice to date Spitzer has cost Smith—at least in the short term. After her relationship with the still-married-but-separated Spitzer became public, de Blasio’s team announced that she would not be kept on as communications director in his new administration. The New York Post ran front page photos of Smith next to the words “Ho Ho Ho” echoing their famous 2008 “Ho No” cover published after Spitzer was discovered to be “Client 9” at a prostitution ring. Post columnists have gone on to accuse Smith of dating to get ahead, stealing other women’s boyfriends, and of “scheming to dominate the halls of power” since she was a child. Never mind that Smith would actually have been in the halls of power if she were still working for the mayor of New York instead of populating the front pages of the New York press as Spitzer’s official “gal pal.”

Sure, as Vanity Fair’s Juli Weiner notes, the 54-year-old ex-gov is rich and some consider him hot. Even so, Spitzer seems like a dubious choice for the attractive Dartmouth grad, who’s been described by colleagues as tough, smart and ambitious. After all, dating a tabloid-target like Spitzer would make a job as spokesperson for any high-profile candidate difficult to get.

More importantly, how could a woman who’s spent her working life dedicated to progressive candidates and causes risk her career for guy who has treated women’s bodies like commodity? Or, in the words of Post’s Tara Palmeri, “Is this what the first wave (or for that matter second wave or third wave) feminists were fighting for? The ability for smart women to make stupid romantic choices?”

If you asked one of this generation’s most famous feminists, Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s “Girls,” the answer would probably be yes. Dunham has gotten flack for allowing herself to be photographed by Terry Richardson who has been accused of sexually harassing models. Richardson was dating Dunham’s best friend, Audrey Gelman, a former political spokesperson herself and the woman on whom Dunham based one of her “Girls” characters. Gelman explained the seeming contradiction in principles by tweeting that Dunham was only trying “to see the good i saw in someone & we both have regrets.” Not surprisingly, Gelman stood up for Smith writing: “The least feminist thing one can do is savage another woman based on [her] personal romantic choices.”

But getting judgey about another women’s romantic choices has always been irresistible and that impulse is only accelerated now that we all live in 24-hour hail of social media commentary. It’s something that high-profile women will have to contend with and overcome. The good news is, falling for a jerk and being criticized for it hasn’t kept smart, tough women from success, whatever the emotional cost. Just ask Hillary. So we don’t expect that “gal pal” will be the last title Lis Smith ever has and this surely isn’t the last we’ve seen of Huma Abedin. Just give them time.

Besides, women certainly aren’t the only ones with legendarily bad judgment when it comes to the opposite sex. Men may even be worse off. Just look at all the responses that a fake dating profile got recently from more than 150 men who seemed to be undeterred by the prospect of hooking up with a woman who, while gorgeous, admitted to having an STD, lying to men about pregnancies for cash, lying a lot in general and being a racist. And then there were the men in that Biology Letters study on infidelity. They utterly failed when it came to picking out the women who were cheaters just by looking at their photos. Most of them assumed wrongly that the more attractive women were likely to be unfaithful. The researchers noted that there are all kinds of biological theories about why women have evolved to be better able to spot cheaters than men. Alas, there aren’t so many explanations for why they ignore their instincts.

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