A bum's life

Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I don't care"

Lee Server<em> Faber and Faber, 601pp, £20</em>

ISBN 057120

Before I read this book, I knew that Robert Mitchum had been to jail, that he drank, that he liked canoodling with women and smoking dope. But I didn't know how much he did these things. Now I know that he did these things all the time. He started smoking dope in his teens and carried on, relentlessly, until he was an old man. He had affairs with countless women, yet he was still married to his childhood sweetheart on the day he died. "He would never be particularly good at avoiding pleasure of any sort if it was offered," Lee Server tells us.

Of his long-suffering wife, Mitchum said: "People who've known me a long time tell her I was a bum when she married me, I'm a bum now, and I'll be a bum when I go." Importantly, Mitchum actually was a bum. When he was 14, his family ran out of money and sent him packing; for months he rode around the country on freight cars, smoking marijuana, "the poor man's whiskey", to get through the freezing, rattling journeys. The young Mitchum ate squirrels, begged on the streets, sometimes slept in police cells. He was arrested for vagrancy and spent time on a chain gang. He lost his virginity to a stripper. When he got into acting, it wasn't because of artistic ambition; he got a part as a bad guy to pay the rent.

He had been rootless from the start. His father, who had Irish and Native American blood, took his family from their native Connecticut to Charleston. Here, he died in a horrible accident at the navy yard where he worked. Mitchum was two years old. His Norwegian mother moved back to New England, but sent the young Robert to live with relatives on a farm. He always missed his father. Server writes: "He was jealous of boys whose dads were coming home after work, whose dads carried them on their shoulders or threw a baseball to them or took them fishing."

Server has done an excellent job here. He is comprehensive without seeming prurient. He is never over-analytical. He's a good storyteller, and he throws detail after detail at you. This is a book you can wallow in. You're never far from a fight or a steamy romance or a drinking binge - Robert Mitchum, after all, was like a Robert Mitchum character. He worked relentlessly, and played as hard as almost any film actor before or since. He never lost his wanderlust, sometimes taking off across country in his car, accepting hospitality from strangers along the way. He was ruthlessly unsentimental about his ability. "I have two acting styles," he once said. "With and without a horse."

Mitchum was perfect for his time. He started off in B-movies, "and then suddenly", as he put it, "there was this thing for ugly heroes". Another thing in his favour was the Second World War - when it ended, there were many parts for rugged-looking men. Mitchum was superb in 1947 as the cynical, edgy Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past, and answered the need, in films such as Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear, for a new type of anti-hero. His best roles were troubled, forceful men who were also intelligent - in other words, men like himself. Tellingly, when he read the script of Cape Fear, he saw Gregory Peck's character, the lawyer who was being harassed, as the bad guy - until the last reel, anyway.

The book stirs up all sorts of characters. Howard Hughes, priapic and obsessed with hygiene, makes a welcome appearance. There is interesting material on some of Mitchum's girlfriends. Ava Gardner liked "performing an intimate act known as a 'golden shower' ". He told Shirley MacLaine that her face was "treacherously beautiful . . . like some enchanted goblin's". He didn't fancy Marilyn Monroe. He worked, and roistered, almost until the very end of his life. As an old man, he was packed off to the Betty Ford Clinic; he peed in the swimming pool. At the end, he refused to co-operate with doctors, Server tells us, because he had "bought into the myth itself, as if it were real". Reading this, you'll come close to believing that yourself.

William Leith is the author of British Teeth: an excruciating journey from the dentist's chair to the rotten heart of a nation (Faber and Faber, £4.99)

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide