The Mighty Franks: A Memoir

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

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.

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