Michael Frank grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Laurel Canyon, in California’s Hollywood Hills. His aunt and uncle, Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, worked together on countless award-winning movie scripts. So of course they knew people. Michael’s uncle would take him to the legendary Musso & Frank Grill, where they’d hobnob with the stars. When Conrack filmed on location in Georgia, the whole family went along and even worked as extras. And when director Martin Ritt had a drink or two and started talking about James Dean’s sex appeal, young Michael was there, hanging on every word.
This memoir could have turned into a name-dropping hot property, chock-full of Hollywood gossip. But Michael Frank had a different story he needed to tell — not one about famous people or, indeed, about anyone outside the tight-knit circle of his parents and his aunt and uncle, the eponymous mighty Franks.
Irving and Harriet, known as Hank, could not have children themselves, so when Michael was young, imperious Hank claimed him as her protégé, ignoring Michael’s brothers completely. She instilled her own “refined” tastes in the young boy, encouraging him to avoid his peers and their time-wasters, like television and toys. She taught Michael that it was excellent to be different, which made his adolescence all the more harrowing as he paid the price of his aunt’s eccentricities. In the end, only escaping to Europe allowed him the distance to become his own person.
When he eventually returned to the United States, more aloof and self-protective, he was able to see his aunt and uncle more clearly, see the complex love that had bound them together for so many decades. At the very end of the book, in a magical moment when Hank quite spontaneously teaches Michael’s daughter to memorize Shakespeare just the way she’d taught Michael so long ago, readers feel Michael’s hard shell cracking. After all the selfish things this tyrant of a woman has done to him, he still loves her.
Such an emotionally fraught memoir would be a mess in the hands of a careless writer, but Frank chooses his moments and his words with care. It helps that he has a wry sense of humor, especially when skewering the arch tastes and distastes of his aunt — ”period” furnishings are refined, but “mo-derne” is “n.g.” (no good); Proust is better than Zola; Woolf is better than Stein; and so forth. With small details — in old age she buys bric-a-brac she previously would have labeled n.g. — he conveys his aunt’s decline.
Usually it’s the case that the more dysfunctional the family, the more compelling the tale. Yet, here it’s the odd relationship, the attachment of an aunt to her nephew, that makes this memoir such a compulsive read.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.