Normally when I read an autobiography of a well known individual I hope that their early years are given only a cursory glance, perhaps a few stories told which help give an understanding of why someone became the person they did, but then it will move on to the years they were famous and be filled with fascinating behind the scenes stories. That’s largely because many a book that I’ve read which contains stories about a famous person’s younger days have been quite tedious, and while the author may find them interesting I really didn’t.
There are exceptions to the rule, Vic Reeves’ Me Moir and Tom Baker’s Who In Earth Is Tom Baker? are packed full of hilarious stories of a before they were famous variety, and now I can add this book to the list as well. Not that it isn’t slightly frustrating that we get so much of Sturges time as a child / teenager and so little from the period he worked in Hollywood, but there is a good reason for this for once as he sadly died before it was completed, and this autobiography is a mixture of an incomplete manuscript, letters to friends and loved ones, and journal entries, all of which were edited together by his fourth wife Sandy Sturges.
Perhaps due to that we get a rather flattering portrayal of the man, and other biographies have suggested he might have been quite the patronising, sexist type on occasion, but judging him from what we have here we get to witness a compelling and often self-deprecating tale of a boy born in to an unusual family which rarely stayed in one place for more than a few months. That’s because his mother Mary Dempsey (later known as Mary Desti) flittered across Europe, often in the company of famous dancer Isadora Duncan, jumping from one relationship to another.
Very little is said about Sturges’ biological father but he has an endearingly close relationship with the man who brought him up, and who he gained a surname from, Solomon Sturges, but most of the stories in the first third relate to his antics at school and his adventures with his mother, whose own life story is worthy of a biography and who briefly became infamous after she had a romantic affair with the rather shitty self proclaimed magician Aleister Crowley and worked with him on his book Magick.
All of these stories are very funny and it’s a fascinating insight in to what it was like to be rich and carefree before the beginning of the first world war, though once that begins Sturges was sent back to America as his mother didn’t want him to fight in a war which she felt was of no concern to them. This leads to a teenage Sturges larking about in New York for a couple of years, running his mother’s business and already becoming interested in inventing products, though by 1917 the urge to join the war became too much to resist and he headed off to train as a fighter pilot. Another batch of amusing stories follows and it once again is a captivating look at something that is not often written about, though Sturges was only on the verge of completing his training when the war came to an end. It was still almost a decade before he began writing for the stage however, but it’s a section of the book which is once more filled with charming stories, many relating to his love life, travels around the world, and the various friends he made.
Around the 230 page mark he finally finds a passion for theatre, and in the next hundred pages the following thirty years of his life play out. The majority of this is devoted to his work on the stage and writing for films before he became a director, and it’s undoubtedly frustrating that when he finally managed to persuade a studio to let him direct we learn very little about his time directing some of the biggest names to come out of Hollywood, with some of his films only getting a page before he moves on.
The end of his life and times when he struggled to get work also get very little coverage, though at least on that front there’s his son Tom Sturges’ collaboration with Nick Smedley “Preston Sturges: The Last Years of Hollywood’s First Writer-Director” which covers that ground and has a superb selection of Sturges’ ideas and plans for various films, tv shows and products, a review of which will be posted soon, but anyone who wants to know more about Sturges’ Hollywood years will be disappointed and will need to seek out one of the other books written about the man.
Despite this it was a book that I found incredibly enchanting and engrossing, it was a world that I loved spending time in, and many of his experiences informed his films and so while little is written about them here where many of his ideas came from is clear to see. Sturges is a superb writer with a sharp wit and this is just as his funny as his very best films, and while Sandy Sturges may have left out elements which portray his more negative side, at least there are other books exist which cover that, and it’s such an alluring read that even if you have no interest in the movies he made it’s something I’d highly recommend.