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Books: Charlie’s Sister

5 minute read
John Skow

KNOCK WOOD Candice Bergen Simon & Schuster; 356 pages; $15.95

Memoirs of movie actresses are expected to be long on gossip, short on wit and veracity, and inferior in humility to the autobiographies of deposed presidential aides. They are also expected to be ghostwritten, or catered: you call the service, and they do the book. So much for expectations. Candice Bergen’s account of her first 38 years not only is handwritten, it is one of the better books of the season so far: a shrewd, funny, loving and sometimes appalling account of how it felt to grow up in a family that was singular even in Hollywood.

Young Candy was, of course, the daughter of Edgar Bergen, the enormously popular ventriloquist who delighted the country Sunday evenings on radio’s Chase & Sanborn show. But that meant that she was also the little sister of Charlie McCarthy, Bergen’s cheeky, insulting, wise-guy dummy. A peculiar sibling rivalry existed, in fact, that went far beyond the obvious joke kept alive by newspaper feature writers. Charlie was a startling alter ego for the dour Swedish ventriloquist—that was what Candice Bergen made the act work so well—and he was already a star when Candy was tiny. She remembers that her father would put her on one of his knees, with Charlie sitting on the other, and squeeze the back of her neck, imitating the way he worked Charlie’s mouth. She would open and close her own mouth without speaking, and her father would improvise a dialogue, talking first in Charlie’s voice and then in a little-girl voice.

When she was five, Candy made her first appearance on the radio show, and when she got applause, the jealous Charlie said, “That’s enough, folks. That’s enough. Let’s not let things get out of hand. Goodbye, little girl, get outta here.” (The sly title of her book is a modest exaction of vengeance against such abuse from the wooden-headed dummy.) She said her lines perfectly, and she thought her father was pleased. But Bergen was a stiff, inarticulate man who found it nearly impossible to express affection physically or verbally. And Charlie, who made jokes about not wanting her around, was not really a mocking older brother, he was part of her father. It was difficult for her to know whether what she had done was good enough.

The patterns persisted: trying very hard to please her father, and doing star turns before she, and others, felt she had earned them. In her late teens she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study photojournalism, dashing up to New York to become, without visible effort, a top model. Director Sidney Lumet gave her the small but P highly important role of the lesbian Lakey in his film of Mary McCarthy’s novel The T Group. Playing at moviemak-sing, the blond 19-year-old would waft on set without “sleep after a night on the town, and further outrage the intense young actresses in the cast by taking notes for a “what I did on my summer vacation” article to be published in Esquire.

She had inherited stunning beauty from her mother Frances, a lovely Southerner who married the middle-aged Bergen when she was little more than a girl. But Candy had some of her father’s stiffness as well, and Pauline Kael’s article in LIFE about The Group reported that “as an actress, her only flair is in her nostrils.” The author admits that Kael was right, but the chastisement did not send her running to acting school. She began a period in which she had an affair with an Austrian count, learning to speak English with the slightest of accents, as if it were a second language. She found it difficult to explain to titled dinner companions, whose parents did nothing but shoot animals, precisely what it was that her own father did for a living. She chose her films because the locations appealed to her, and it is clear to her on hindsight that she might have paid more attention to the scripts. Her chilly beauty aroused thoughts of ravishment, at least in the minds of directors, and for one torrid scene, in Soldier Blue, it was determined that she required larger breasts. To her amazement, she recalls, her thorax was coated with Vaseline, a cast was made, and a jumbo rubber bosom was prepared. Nude scenes embarrassed her, but she found herself wondering whether, with rubber breasts glued on, she would really be nude. Alas, the footage was not shot.

Her manner as she recounts such imponderables is graceful and funny. It is also ladylike: she never entangles former companions in rueful confessions. She tells of an unsatisfactory long affair with a well-known director, and although there must be 25,000 people in show business who know his name, she gives him a discreet pseudonym (Robin, for Robin Hood, because of his left-wing politics). She has a good eye for the bizarre and plenty of material to use it on, including a strange dinner date with Henry Kissinger and several Secret Service agents. She spent a good part of the evening, she says, lecturing the patient Henry on the evils of the Viet Nam War.

This is a book about growing up, and at some point after she turned 30, Candice began to settle down, study acting, stop dating Secretaries of State, and make her peace with her father. Her account of Bergen’s decline and death is touching, and the reader feels a real victory when at last she is able to tell the old entertainer she loves him. Her marriage four years ago to French Director Louis Malle (Lacombe Lucien, Pretty Baby) was the act of an adult, not a rebellious daughter, and fittingly she says little more than that it is warm and strong. —By John Skow

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