During the winter lockdown (the one before Christmas – remember that?), I took a six-week course in biography writing with City Lit. Professor Robert Fraser and my classmates were inspirational and encouraging (I hope I also provided some useful comments for their projects) and I often miss it and wish it could have continued indefinitely for the accountability and interactive dimension. At that time, I really believed that my project could go all the way, and that helped to sustain me through the interminably grim post-Christmas lockdown and the loss of my beloved cat Paddy. However, for the last few months, I’ve been having serious Doubts (I can’t type that without thinking of Prendy in Evelyn Waught’s Decline and Fall) and don’t know how to proceed (or even if I should).
My subject is Gordon MacRae, the American baritone and film star best known for his starring roles in the film adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Carousel. There are people who are better than me at just about everything but I do believe that I have some kind of ‘calling’ to write the first ‘proper’ biography of the man with the most beautiful voice ever. I’m fairly young, if not quite young enough to be a ‘Promising Young’ anything (not that age should have anything to do with a biographer’s suitability); I have quite good writing and research skills, plus tons of fangirlish enthusiasm combined with a strong academic grounding (well, I think that’s a good combination – others might say they’re completely incompatible). I have the grandiose idea of writing something closer to cultural history than ‘celebrity biography’ but, most of all, I want to do justice to Gordon the artist and human being to the very best of my abilities.
Of course, the project isn’t ‘mine’ because I want it and have been thinking about it for such a long time. There are four major obstacles:
- My self discipline, and lack of. This is entirely my problem and only I can overcome it.
- Who would want to publish it? I’m realistic enough to know that Gordon MacRae isn’t exactly hot property and the potential readership is pretty niche. I struggle to envision a respectable commercial publisher being interested (and I don’t think my approach would be considered commercial enough) and I’m not interested in those tacky nostalgia presses. There is one academic publisher with a series in which I think a biography of Gordon MacRae would fit perfectly and if I ever do draw up a proposal and find that they’re not interested, there’s nowhere else to go.
- Can I afford to do it? I can’t over emphasise that I’m not motivated by money. In the miraculous event that I was to write a proposal (there are so many hoops to jump through) and have it accepted, there’s no payment in academic publishing. You even have to pay for image rights yourself. I accept that, even though I don’t think it’s right, but the fact that travel to the US to visit the relevant archives (whenever that might be allowed again) would be out of my own pocket is extremely prohibitive (would anyone like to sponsor me?). Also, the basic logistics (I’m a terrible worrier about things like that). New York is one thing but if I did make it to LA, how would I get to the Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox archives (held at USC and UCLA respectively) as a non-driver?
- Earning the trust of those who hold the personal histories and archives. It’s no secret that MacRae was an alcoholic and I have no intention of sensationalising anything but there’s no reason why his loved ones should trust a stranger with such sensitive matters.
Are there any biographers who can offer any words of wisdom? I feel as if I’m stuck in Jud Fry’s smokehouse. I thought I’d share something I wrote for homework on the City Lit course, when I could see the ‘bright golden haze on the meadow’.
Gordon MacRae: One Alone
As the Oklahoma! overture reached its climax, the image of the dashing cowboy with his curly dark hair (befitting a character called Curly), manly bearing and glorious smile riding through corn ‘as high as a elephant’s eye’ was formative indeed. I was in my early teens and had never seen such a handsome man (and almost two decades later, no one else measures up). Then he started to sing and the alchemy of the aural and visual was nothing less than sublime. If I couldn’t be Laurey, the recipient of his affections played by the beautiful Shirley Jones, then I wanted to find out everything I could about this marvellous man.
I am a middling millennial born two years after Gordon MacRae died and I developed a fascination for classic musicals in the early 2000s at around the time VHS tapes were giving way to DVDs. This made me part of the first cohort of teenagers to ‘grow up’ online, a godsend for anyone with little in common with their peers. Several years before the likes of Facebook or Twitter, I was part of a community of like-minded young women on a delightful classic film website called Reel Jewels, where I took my self-appointed role as the Number One Fan of Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones very seriously indeed.
The term ‘fan girl’ is often used to undermine women, to suggest that they’re too emotional to have intellectual authority. However, I remain a fan and unashamedly so. Being a fan is a state of mind that takes various forms at different stages of life and doesn’t disqualify the ability to think critically and address problematic elements. If anything, it heightens the aspiration to create as rounded a picture as possible. Gordon MacRae was a Warner Brothers juvenile lead, a Rodgers and Hammerstein leading man and radio and recording star who for many years was a self-described ‘One hell of a drunk’. However, he was eventually able to overcome this disease and his story is one of redemption.
Gordon MacRae isn’t a ‘forgotten’ star but he is an underrated one. With this project, I hope to examine and contextualise MacRae’s professional and personal life as sensitively, fairly and thoroughly as possible, and to argue for his position as one of the greatest figures in twentieth-century entertainment. While the ‘best voice ever’ is subjective, we Gordon MacRae fans just know that he was ‘One Alone’ in the power, versatility, expressiveness and sheer beauty of his voice. I hope that he would be pleased to be so warmly remembered 35 years after his death and that he wouldn’t be too unhappy about the idea of a biographer with no interest in his beloved golf.