The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

February 13, 2009

Book review: Hamilton an emotional armadillo

‘Don’t Mind if I Do’

By George Hamilton and William Stadiem

Here’s to the unsung hero of autobiographies/memoirs of famous people — the ghostwriter. At least Hamilton had the grace to credit his co-writer, unlike many.

The term “ghost-writer” refers more narrowly to those writers whose work remains uncredited, but also those who, as in this case, do receive recognition. Having read a few autobiographies and memoirs that really, really could have done with a ghostwriter (or a better one), I appreciate Hamilton’s good sense (or his publisher’s) to employ a good one. The book reads as though written by Hamilton himself. You can imagine him narrating the stories aloud, for the most part. Now that’s successful ghostwriting.

Now, having dealt with authorship, how about the book? Well, it’s a mixed bag.

It’s very readable, but I found it oddly distancing. The first third is the most engaging, and it deals with his life until he went to Hollywood. Hamilton’s family was, to say the least, dysfunctional. His parents divorced when he was 5, and George and his mother and two brothers moved to her parents’ home in Blytheville, Ark. Five idyllic childhood years followed, only to be crushed when both of his beloved (and stable, unlike his mother) grandparents died.

After that, his mother pursued her next husbands (not to mention numerous other conquests) and the family moved about more than a little. Now, returning to the ghostwriter theme, the acknowledgment at the end of the book helped clarify why this was the most engaging section. Turns out that most of this part was really written by his brother, David, one year his junior. On the face of it, it’s a bit hard to understand why his younger brother should be the one who would have more complete memories of their childhood. Then again, given the tenor of most of the rest of the book, perhaps not. As I said, I found the book distancing. I think that, perhaps, that’s because George Hamilton has divorced himself pretty thoroughly from any depth of feeling. His brother evidently has not. Given their upbringing, it may be more remarkable that David did not cut himself off from his emotions than that George did.

So, what’s left? The last two-thirds of the book cover Hamilton’s career in a rather off-hand way, with a lot of anecdotes thrown in. His personal life is covered a bit more fully than his career, but again in a very casual way. Hamilton appears to be an emotional armadillo — all armor and very little left vulnerable. The light, amusing raconteur he often portrays on screen is evidently his own persona. Any depth of feeling he displays is for his mother, his older brother and his two sons.

That said, there are some very amusing anecdotes and a glimpse of Hollywood, particularly as it was in the 1960s.

One of my favorites is Hamilton’s account of his contract with Universal Studios. He had been contracted to do a television series and two movies. The series tanked, and the studio had no interest in making the two movies. Hamilton, though, had a “pay or play” contract, so they were legally obligated to pay him for the movies even if they didn’t make them. Being a Hollywood studio, however, they tried various shenanigans to get out of either paying or playing. It all came to a head finally with a phone call from the much-feared Lew Wasserman, head of Universal.

“George, how are you doing?” he opened the conversation.

”Mr. Wasserman …” I began, but he cut me off.

“Call me Lew.”

Wow. Nobody calls him Lew, except maybe Jules Stein, who founded the place.

(There follows a bit of social conversation about dining together, how much Mrs. Wasserman and he enjoy George, blah blah blah and discussion about money in which Hamilton is intimidated into accepting half what he’s owed, then ...)

“My man will be there in a half hour with the check,” Lew said, closing the deal.

“Well, Lew, it’s been great. I would love to see you and Edie soon ...” I tried to make the most of being steamrollered.

“You can call me Mr. Wasserman now,” he said, and hung up.

Ah, Hollywood.

Linda Cannon is the circulation supervisor/ collection development librarian at Joplin Public Library.