Book Reviews

by terry mathews - news-telegram arts editor

Her Last Death

By Susanna Sonnenberg

Scribner. $24. 288 pp.

It's been a long time since a personal memoir moved me like Susanna Sonnenberg's retelling of the tortuous childhood she spent under the care of a woman not fit to care for dust bunnies, much less small, vulnerable children.

Usually, an interview with the author adds to a review. Not this time. Sonnenberg has put it all on the page, leaving nothing else to discuss. I can't even imagine what it was like to have lived it.

Sonnenberg's grandfather, Ben, was one of New York City's most successful publicity machines. He lived in one of the city's most recognizable mansions, The Fish House, at 19 Gramercy Park South.

Her father, also named Ben, was somewhat of a literary star in the late 1960s, having founded the journal "Grand Street." He had a fling with Susanna's mother when she was 15, got her pregnant and married her when she was 16, and divorced her when Susanna was in the second grade.

Sonnenberg's maternal roots are just as impressive, even though she has changed their names, "to emphasize that this story could only be mine." (I spent an evening on the Internet trying to find some names from her mother's side, to no avail.)

She says her maternal grandfather was a successful musician, playing Carnegie Hall. He wrote tunes for the movies and was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Her grandmother could have been Carole Lombard's twin. After the two divorced, her grandmother kept houses in Barbados, London and Monte Carlo.

But wealth and privilege could not protect Susanna and her sister, Penelope, from a truly twisted mother.

Forget Joan Crawford and the wire hangers. 'Daphne' was addicted to drugs, sex, and rock 'n roll.

"Her sexual allure extended from bartenders and cabdrivers to rock stars, football heroes and anchormen," Sonnenberg writes of her mother's prowess.

If Sonnenberg has written the truth, it's a wonder her mother survived addiction to morphine, cocaine, Valium and percodan, not to mention her daily alcohol-induced stupors.

She was hospitalized for mental meltdowns on numerous occasions. When Sonnenberg was 12, Daphne gave the child cocaine, telling her it was important for her to know the difference between quality "snow" and powder that had been cut, or watered down. Daphne seduced her daughter's boyfriends. She had sex on her daughter's bed at boarding school. She punched her daughter in the stomach - a lot.

Even after Sonnenberg left for boarding school, never to live with her mother again, Daphne couldn't cut the cord.

"She called me from restaurant cloakrooms and lovers' beds, ready to start new rumors. She called from hospitals after back surgery. She phoned from airports, dinner parties and the lobbies of movie theaters in which she stood weeping over a love story," Sonnenberg writes. "She needed me, she said, to calm her down."

How Sonnenberg ever found her way to normalcy is a miracle. Now living in Missoula, Montana, with a loving husband and two young boys, she has written a glorious accounting of her time in hell. Her ability to tell her story with a precision-like detachment is a testament to her incredible talent.

Sonnenberg doesn't just shine a harsh, unwavering light on her mother's shortcomings. She is painfully honest about her own behavior. Until her marriage, Sonnenberg used her sexuality to get what she wanted and to fill the gaping holes in her heart. She was, in a word, promiscuous. It's a wonder she wasn't an alcoholic or druggie to boot.

I suspect "Her Last Death" will garner a lot of attention come awards season, and I'm sure Hollywood will scarf it up, even if the screenplay would have to be rated X.

Warning: This book is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Daphne's drug use is just the tip of a very deep, dangerous iceberg. Reading the book is like watching a train wreck. You know it's going to be brutal and bloody, but you can't take your eyes away for even one second.


Alice

By Stacy A. Cordery

Viking. $32.95. 590 pp.

As Teddy Roosevelt's oldest child, Alice Roosevelt Longworth was introduced to the lifestyles of the rich and politically well-connected early in life. She never quite got over living in the White House during her father's presidency. To her, subsequent families were mere interlopers. She was meant to get back under its roof. Alice was a diva. She was the original "it's all about me" celebutant. Very few people ever denied her, and when they did, woe be unto them.

She lost her mother at birth, acted out to gain her father's attention, married the Speaker of the House, had a child by a distinguished senator from Idaho and held political sway over the inner circles of Washington, D.C., until her death in 1980.

Stacy Cordery's biography is voluminous, coming in at 608 pages, not including 105 pages of acknowledgments, notes, indices and selected bibliographies. While Cordery has done a thorough and sincere job, her meticulous efforts can't make "Princess Alice" a likable creature. She may have been admired by the press and the public from afar, but up close and personal, she was selfish, self-centered and hated sharing the spotlight with anyone.

Hard to warm up to a cold fish like that.

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