« Season 1, Episode 4: Mother Meets What's His Name | Main | Season 1, Episode 5: Help, Help, Don't Save Me »

Book review: Dick York, The Seesaw Girl and Me

New Path Press © 2004, 231 pages
5 stars

Note: I read this book in part for The Sunday Salon. See this related post.

Dick York had had a great career. He was on the radio as a teenager, then on Broadway, and he appeared in a number of films and television shows before he landed the role we all know him best for. York starred as Darrin Stevens--the "first Darrin"--in 156 episodes of the sitcom Bewitched, which first aired in 1964. But York's stint on the series ended abruptly one day in 1969 when he had a seizure on the set. He had in fact been suffering from chronic back pain during the show's entire run, the result of an injury he sustained while filming the 1959 western They Came to Cordura. The spry Darrin Stevens, who looked the picture of health, often had to be helped on and off the set.

[INSET TEXT: In August of 1985, with rent coming due and having no way to pay it, York settled on the implausible scheme of raising the money by writing his autobiography.] The seizure effectively marked the end of York's show business career. While still in the hospital he resigned from the series. He subsequently became addicted to painkillers, ballooned to more than 300 pounds, and lost all but two of his teeth. Money was scarce enough that paying the rent was a hardship. But by the mid-1980s things were looking up. He'd overcome his addiction, lost 150 pounds, bought some false teeth, and gotten a few acting roles. Then, in the spring of 1986, he was diagnosed with emphysema. He died in 1992 at the age of 63.

In August of 1985, with rent coming due and having no way to pay it, York settled on the implausible scheme of raising the money by writing his autobiography. In nine days. Actually, he didn't "write" anything. On August 20th--between 3:30 and 6:00 in the morning, he tells us--York began dictating his memoir into a tape recorder. Finishing the book of course took him longer than nine days: his final chapter was dictated on September 6th.

The product of York's feverish burst of creativity is an unusual book. York tell the story of his life in a series of vignettes--growing up in the Chicago slums, falling in love with his wife, overcoming his addiction. There are stories about his parents and grandmother, his children, about his Huckleberry Finnish cousin, who did something I wouldn't have thought possible while walking with York one summer. He writes about Gene Kelly and Gary Cooper and Van Johnson:

"But at this point Van's an actor and has been an actor for a long time and dances very little, except in his heart, where he lives.

"We're in the lobby of this hotel and it is my birthday, only I'm in Holland and they're at home. The people who Van loves and who love him, they're at home and he's in Holland. We're sitting in the lobby and I'm reading him the letter I've received from Kim, age four-and-a-half years old. It says, 'Dear Daddy. From out of my pocket I send you all the love I have. And you know what important things I keep in my pocket. Love, Kimmy. Kisses kisses kisses.' Joey adds, 'She wrote this all by herself. I love you, darling.'

"Van Johnson is crying in a hotel lobby with his friend Dick York. They are both about nine years old."

There is very little about acting or show business. There is a great deal about his wife, Joey, the star around whom his life orbited.

York was an excellent storyteller. These vignettes are moving, sometimes surprising, and very well-written. Wrapped around them are some strange bits--conversations between York and his wife written in dialogue form, York chatting with his alternate self, imaginary audience members commenting on his work. It doesn't all make sense, but most of it does.

In addition to its individual parts being well-composed, York has managed to bind the narrative into a cohesive whole with threads that drift in and out of his reminiscences. Considering York's method of composition, this is remarkable: the book in no way reads like something that was dashed off. It is thoughtfully constructed, honest, rich. (It is unclear how much editing the book underwent after the first draft was dictated, but the implication is that there wasn't much done to the text.)

Dick York did not have an easy life. He lived in poverty for a good part of it, both as a child and in his post-Bewitched years. He lived with chronic back pain for decades. He died too young. Knowing this, one understands, upon entering the book, that York's story will be a tragedy. Except....

Except that York had parents who walked from the South Side of Chicago to the North Side in the winter of 1936 to bring him oranges in the hospital. He had a house brimming with children and a wife whom he never stopped adoring. He had friends who came through when it mattered. And he believed--despite all evidence to the contrary--that the world is the sort of place where miracles happen when you need them.

So I think that maybe Dick York was among the happiest of men.

Tags: , , , ,


Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In

Archives and Search:

Links of Interest:
About the blogger: The mother of two preternaturally attractive girls, Debra manages her online universe from her subterranean lair.... Read more.