Missing Jimmy

By Jennifer Hartig
James Kirkwood Arthur Beckenstein

“Ponies & Rainbows”
Sean Egan
BearManor Media, $32.95

    Buried somewhere in Sean Egan’s biography of James Kirkwood Jr. is an interesting book and an interesting man. Unfortunately the storyline is so smothered in irrelevant detail that it takes extraordinary patience to unearth them.
    Kirkwood is perhaps best known as one of the writers of the long-running musical “A Chorus Line.” He also wrote several novels, one of which, “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead,” was made into a play that I saw in its third revival in New York. I remember it as original and shockingly funny.
    Jimmy Kirkwood was the son of two movie stars, Lila Lee and James Kirkwood Sr., actors in silent movies who made the transition to talkies. They were members of the Hollywood elite of that era. James Kirkwood Sr. was not only an impressive stage and screen actor, he directed Mary Pickford in nine movies and he and Lila were friends with her and other major stars: Gloria Swanson, Al Jolson, and Dolores del Rio. Their marriage was a battleground, however, and they divorced in 1930.
    When he was 12 years old, Jimmy Kirkwood suffered a trauma that, in all likelihood, profoundly affected him for the rest of his life. He discovered the decomposing body of his mother’s fiancé, of whom he was allegedly fond, in the garden hammock of a friend’s house where they were staying. How long had it been there? Was the gun in the victim’s hand the weapon that had killed him? Much mystery surrounded this incident, at first listed by the police as a suicide, later investigated as a possible homicide. The death had all the ingredients of Hollywood crime fiction. Kirkwood later used this story as a central theme in his first novel, “There Must Be a Pony!”
    It is at this juncture that my major objections to this biography surfaced. There is a blurring between the real events in Kirkwood’s life and the fictional situations he created in his novels. A biographer’s task is to bring clarity to his subject, but Mr. Egan indulges in outright gossip.
    The reader gets no hard facts about this man, Reid Russell, with whom Kirkwood’s mother claimed to have been “madly in love.” Was he the kindly, reliable father figure Kirkwood depicts in his novel, or was he a suicidal depressive, fired from his job and facing financial ruin? If the latter, why was Lila engaged to a man who constantly threatened suicide?
    We are never told but instead given conflicting opinions from the press coverage and various friends, some of whom met Kirkwood many, many years after the 1936 event. One, William Russo, speculates that Kirkwood may have killed Russell, and moreover that the boy, who was fascinated by death (what imaginative adolescent isn’t, particularly in these circumstances?), could possibly have been a serial murderer. Another friend, Jim Piazza, who was Kirkwood’s lover in the 1980s, suggests that 12-year-old Jimmy may have had an incestuous relationship with his mother — they were “almost unnaturally together” — and that the boy could have killed Russell out of jealousy. With friends like these . . .
    That brings up the question of Kirkwood’s homosexuality, which is obsessively discussed in this biography. There is little doubt that he was gay, despite relationships with women in his early years. A friend at the time, when asked if Jimmy was straight, responded, “Straight with a lot of curves.” He was known to be both the partner and the lover of the talented actor Lee Goodman when they performed in a successful stand-up comedy act that lasted seven years. Later he was a lively part of the gay scene in the Hamptons (he met his longtime lover and steadfast friend, Arthur Beckenstein, at a gay bar called the Millstone).
    But he has been criticized for not being open about his sexual orientation in his novels. As Mr. Egan points out, when his early novels, “There Must Be a Pony!” and “Good Times/Bad Times,” were written, homosexuality was still a punishable offense for which you could be given a jail sentence, so it was wise to be discreet. However, those gays who read the books responded to the coded message they conveyed. The paramount themes were the pain of being young and an outsider and the passionate need for a strong, loyal friendship with another like-minded person. Years after they were published, Kirkwood was still getting letters from young admirers saying the books had been life-changing for them.
    I remember watching “A Chorus Line” and being riveted. Here was a show so current, so remarkably frank, so unlike any musical I’d seen before. I have to think that regardless of all the interviews with the dancers that shaped the script, and some carping about his contribution to the show, Kirkwood was a perfect choice as librettist on this particular project. He loved theater but he had quit performing because he hated the humiliating audition process. Moreover, he was a writer who was funny and irreverent. He was the ideal choice for the musical, and it made him a millionaire.
    Sean Egan’s “Ponies & Rainbows” (a terrible title) is worth reading, if you have the time. There are some lovely passages about the pleasures of living in the Hamptons, where Kirkwood became a year-round resident. His second house sat on a bluff in East Hampton 40 feet above Three Mile Harbor, from which vantage point it provided a spectacular view of the whole bay.
    Kirkwood was a complex man, sensitive yet with an explosive temper, particularly if he felt slighted. Among other reported violent outbursts, he got into a much-publicized physical confrontation with Joseph Papp, the producer of “A Chorus Line,” on the occasion of the musical’s 5,000th performance.
    On the other hand, he was capable of long-term, loving relationships, like the one with Arthur Beckenstein, which he maintained till the end of his life. He was vital, witty, and intelligent, loyal and generous to friends and family. I particularly liked the quotations at the end of the book — this one from a fellow playwright, Terrence McNally:
    “People will still say out of the blue, ‘God, I miss Jimmy.’ . . . When people say ‘Jimmy,’ they don’t have to say ‘Jimmy Kirkwood’ — and it’s a pretty common name. But he was Jimmy and people still miss him and I can’t think of many people that you can say over fifteen years after they’ve left, ‘Oh God, I miss Jimmy.’ ”

    James Kirkwood died in 1989 of AIDS-related cancer. Sean Egan has written books about the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.
    Jennifer Hartig is a former stage actress who regularly contributes book reviews to The Star. She lives in Noyac.