True Story

This Is Not My Memoir by André Gregory and Todd London. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 224 pages. $27.

The cover of This Is Not My Memoir

THOUGH THERE IS NO SHORTAGE of preposterous tales told in André Gregory’s memoir, the most implausible is that a well-off New Yorker like Gregory, living rent-free in an Upper West Side apartment in the late 1960s, would voluntarily take the subway downtown, every day for months, to watch three men sit at a table in an East Village classroom and slowly go insane. The men, who were actors under Gregory’s direction, spent the days improvising the tea party scene from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. They played it as the mood struck, veering from maniacal to pornographic to scatological. Bathroom breaks were forbidden. In case of emergencies, Gregory had placed a teapot under the table.

In total, Gregory and the members of that theater collective, the Manhattan Project, would rehearse what would come to be their stage version of Alice for two years, making it one of the most quickly realized projects in the director’s life. “Is it a play?” asked the New York Times. Apparently so. Three years later, the Times would hail Gregory, at the age of thirty-nine, as one of the “most interesting and innovative directors in the world.” Working as the rare kind of artist not under the influence of sheer survival, or paying next month’s rent, Gregory would take his time going forward. (He was a student of Lee Strasberg, taught to pursue truths that could only be discovered through process.) It would take almost half a century for him to process his next three major projects: the film My Dinner with André (1981) and underground productions of Chekhov and Ibsen plays filmed as Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) and A Master Builder (2014).

The conditions under which people make art today are more degraded, to say the least. Slow art—that is, art made off the grid of seasons, contracts, the obligations and expectations of culture and its cycles—seems mostly nonexistent. With few exceptions, the artist in your life is most likely just getting by or is a beneficiary of monthly deposits from mom and dad. The latter group of artists rarely contribute anything memorable, so it’s jarring, confusing even, when the rich-kid artist escapes the stereotype and gives the world a body of work that now stands out as one of the most unique, and precisely assembled, in the recent history of theater and film.

Born in 1934 to Russian Jewish parents, who fled Europe just before the start of World War II, Gregory was raised in New York City, in a “privileged world” of “private clubs, private schools, and debutante balls.” During the war, the family would summer in Los Angeles with other European émigrés, boasting a social circle that included Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and the Marx Brothers. There were tennis lessons at the Beverly Hills Hotel and private recitals from Vladimir Horowitz, a close friend of Gregory’s mother. Back in New York, Gregory attended St. Bernard’s private school, where he gave his first performance at the age of six—pretending every day to be a White Russian aristocrat instead of his true self, a Jewish immigrant whose last name had been changed to Gregory from Josefowitz. (“The family fib,” he explains.) Gregory would go on to graduate from Harvard, but his hopes of going to Yale’s Drama School would be garroted by a dean at the school who saw in André “no talent whatsoever.” Theater, the dean explained, was “impossible enough” for those with talent. Instead of becoming a doctor or a lawyer, as both his father and the dean suggested, Gregory briefly joined the Army, before his father arranged a job for him (courtesy of a wealthy poker buddy) stage-managing the American Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Expo.

Louis Malle, My Dinner with André, 1981. André Gregory.
Louis Malle, My Dinner with André, 1981. André Gregory.

Money might not be able to buy talent, but it does buy the time to acquire talent. Gregory is honest about the financial safety net he could always rely on. “I feel some shame about the money I was born into, but not about the work it allowed me to do,” he writes. “My parents’ money bought me the freedom to imagine and live this creative life. I am extremely lucky, because I believe in that life.” Gregory believed, above all, in having a life—away from the gated communities of privilege, the elite professional networks, and the cold emotional politics that defined his adolescence. Surveying a roomful of Waspy acquaintances at his thirtieth-birthday party, Gregory writes: “I thought, If these are my friends, I’m fucked.” (Two days later he’d begin analysis and remain in “some sort of therapy” for decades.) Much like his time-consuming work for the stage, the work of “awakening” a different André, one that wasn’t “bitter” or “resentful” about his upbringing, could be thought of as a lifelong project.

Earlier in his career, Gregory writes, theater was a “drug to relieve the pain of living.” But escaping into his “calling” came with no shortage of throbbing side effects. One of the “most awful” days of Gregory’s life is the one when he directs a scene at Strasberg’s Actors Studio only to receive a brutal critique from the famed teacher in front of his fellow students, among them Marilyn Monroe and Paul Newman. (He’d stay away from Strasberg’s class for months.) The belated success of his Alice came only after a succession of early failures: being fired from three consecutive directorships at small regional theaters. An “enfant terrible” in these years, Gregory hired a chemist to synthesize the smell of “rotting flesh” for a production in Philadelphia, resulting in an actor vomiting during a tech rehearsal and Gregory’s dismissal from the play. Another firing, from a theater in Los Angeles, came after he was punched by the program’s benefactor, the movie star Gregory Peck.

My Dinner with André, the film that most people know Gregory by, came from an ordeal in the wilderness, both literal and figurative. Swearing off directing following the breakup of the Manhattan Project in 1975, he abandoned his familial duties and went on to spend his “bum days” in search of a teacher. (“I was always looking for a teacher,” he writes.) This search took him to the farthest reaches of the world: to the Polish woods, to study with his personal idol, Jerzy Grotowski; to the Saharan desert, to study with a Buddhist priest (a fruitless trip culminating in the pair eating sand and vomiting); to the Himalayas, where Gregory met another Buddhist priest, the Rinpoche of Ladakh, and felt a love “more powerful than anything I had ever experienced.”

It was Wallace Shawn who suggested that Gregory make something out of these lost years, proposing that the pair use the stories for a “talking heads TV show.” They had been introduced years before by a mutual acquaintance, the writer Renata Adler, who worked for Shawn’s father, the New Yorker editor William Shawn. Wallace Shawn spent a year editing many hours of material from months of conversation between himself and Gregory, creating one of the longest dialogues ever on film. And their personal collaboration is one of the longest, at forty-five years, in American theater. “Wally’s vision is prophetic,” Gregory writes. “He sees the shape of things to come.”

The making of My Dinner with André reads like a herculean feat of tenacity, one that should put to bed any accusations of dilettantism against Gregory (and Shawn, another progeny of elite New York society). The pair had to scrape together funding, a humiliating experience that required the legendary Louis Malle, who directed the film, to join their pitch sessions to the wealthy. (Gregory’s own father vowed to “never forgive” André after contributing $500 to the project.) It would take Gregory nine months to memorize hundreds of pages of lines, which were filmed in twelve-minute takes inside a frigid hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Lacking the funds to heat the space during their winter production schedule, Gregory wore an electric blanket under the dining table and downed shots of brandy between takes.

His performance as a “flighty, off-the-wall” version of himself would become a surprise success, critically and financially. While he doesn’t share box-office numbers, he proudly notes that the film has garnered “tens of millions of hits on YouTube.” One reason for its breakthrough, after nearly flopping, came in part from glowing reviews from Siskel and Ebert, as well as Pauline Kael, who described the film as the “story of the search beyond theatre turned into theatre, or, at least, into a movie.” Just the same, Gregory’s memoir, and his life, could be described as the story of the search beyond art turned into art itself. “Might this,” he asks, “be part of the task of being human: to keep working on oneself . . . so your life can be more like a work of art itself?”

Can you have all of one without cutting into the other? The work? A life? The question trails Gregory across every decade, and it sits dormant in the corners of the vivid set pieces throughout his memoir. Gregory’s friend of thirty-five years, the photographer Richard Avedon, used to berate him for being unserious about the work, lacking the dedication an artist required. He would lob Yeats’s poem “The Choice” at Gregory during their intense quarrels on the topic. (“The intellect of a man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work . . .”) Following Avedon’s death, Gregory wrote a letter to his deceased friend as a kind of closing argument, and as an answer to this question. He shares it with us: “You chose work. I have chosen the life. The work and the life.” It’s here, for a moment, that Gregory’s immense privilege registers vividly. It’s hard to imagine future generations of artists having conversations like these, let alone possessing the ability to choose between the work and the life fully. They’ll be grateful, most likely, for whatever little bits come their way—but it’s doubtful that’ll make for as good of a story as Gregory’s.

Nathan Taylor Pemberton is a writer from Florida who works and lives in Brooklyn.