Tender Buttons

After All

by Mary Tyler Moore
Putnam, 332 pp., $24.95

Mary Tyler Moore
Mary Tyler Moore; drawing by David Levine

This story of a beloved TV star’s repressed youth, rise to the top, subsequent vodka-laced despair, rescue by a sane young doctor husband, and late redemptive discovery of a fondness for Palomino horses has been excerpted in People, and its revelations of familial and addictive dysfunction have been autopsied in newspapers and picked over in dozens of TV interviews with the author. The author, meanwhile, timed its release to coincide with an attempted comeback—not as a comedienne this time, but as the world-weary queen of a realistic (in the stressful, crisis-laden contemporary sense) hour-long drama set at an underdog Manhattan newspaper. It makes you feel, if you pay attention, like the publicist’s favorite sucker. And yet, to Mary Tyler Moore’s credit, her confessions sound not opportunistic but vague and reluctant. When it comes to the theater of the day—the press-conference airing of private affairs—she is an entertainment fossil unearthed, reanimated, and driven by habit to put on a show.

From her prim style on camera, you might guess that she was a WASP reared in some square Midwestern town, but she turns out—first surprise—to be from Brooklyn. She was born, to young and unprepared parents, in 1936. Her father, a devout, Jesuit-trained natural intellectual, loved classical music and read Greek and Roman history on his days off, but resigned himself to working beneath his mental level, as a clerk at Con Edison; her mother, a “good-hearted madcap” depressed by the father’s gloom, could often be found drunk and passed out on the couch.

It does not seem beside the point that this heroine of a secular, diabolically powerful commercial medium grew up carting around a heavy Catholic burden of sin and shame, which she claims to have thrown off but which hovers accusingly over nearly every paragraph of this charming, repressed memoir. Early on, a familiar exploration of the celebrity’s fear of being exposed as a fraud slides into original sin. “If you look carefully while walking through the park, you will see that there are snakes in the trees. And those snakes are all-knowing—they see your core.” Shyly, elliptically, Moore presents her childhood in tiny parables of disgrace. By the time she is twelve months old her parents have her out of diapers and using the toilet. So far so good, but at the age of four she shoplifts a Tootsie Roll and is forced to return to the store, mouth stuffed and hands coated with chocolate, and publicly recant. Later, approaching puberty and eager to stop sharing a bedroom with her little brother, she begins to sleep in the living room, just three feet away from a glass-paned front door. At night she imagines that all her “normal” classmates are filing past, “peering in and seeing me asleep with my mouth open, drooling.”

“And not one thought of God,” Moore tells us. Without ever attending to her…

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