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 soul, she was learning the imitation of rectitude that she would use, years later, to play the moral beacon Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In church, while kneeling to pray, she fell into a trance of self-consciousness. What was the proper form? Should she bow her head, close her eyes? Should she press her hands flat together or curl and interlock the fingers? Already, as an unpopular, secretive little girl getting into street fights with neighborhood Orthodox Jews, she began to see career possibilities in entertainment. Her dream was helped along when her family decided to move away; the recollection provokes a sentence whose misanthropy is more arresting than any of Moore’s missteps that the tabloids have picked up: “Whenever I come across a scene in which a little girl (Margaret O’Brien, say) has to face the fear of moving to a new place and the sadness of leaving her playmates behind, I remember the relief I felt at realizing I’d never have to see any of those little shits again.” The new place the family was moving to was Hollywood. As single-mindedly as a future saint anticipating the scene of her martyrdom, Moore imagined where she would be sitting when a producer appeared and scooped her up to heaven.
They stayed for a while with an uncle who worked as an agent at MCA, representing, among others, Abbott and Costello and Ronald Reagan. This was in 1945, a time when the studio system was starting to teeter, and just a few years before Hollywood would begin to experiment with earnest “message” pictures and with the Method, the fancy new introspective style of acting. But by and large Moore worshiped the low road: mediocre musicals and the new show starring Ozzie and Harriet, who lived just two blocks away. One comfort of this book is its reminding us that broad popular culture during Mary Tyler Moore’s adolescence was every bit as lame as it is now—the difference being that the mood then was a saccharine innocence, while the current cliché is an equally facile and one-dimensional cynicism. In Hollywood, she began dance lessons with two spinster sisters, Ann and Agnes Ward, whose great glory was that they had once instructed Arlene Dahl. Destiny, speeding her to a stardom based on acute insecurity, actually sent a newspaper reviewer to the first rinky-dink recital where ten-year-old Marry, dressed up like a “señorita,” played the castanets and danced to the Malagueña; the reviewer cruelly noted that “Miss Moore danced well, but her head work seemed stiff.”
To say that she approached her career as a mere craft rather than high art is not putting it strongly enough. She started out aspiring to be a baton twirler because she coveted the tasseled white boots; she had no guiding taste, not even an adolescent fantasy of self-expression, only an unexamined drive to get more and better gigs as an entertainer. In real life, as high school wound down she married a kindhearted salesman, but her mind was on her first job: a TV commercial for an appliance company in which she was shrunk down to miniature, dressed in a one-piece elf costume with a tight cupless bra underneath to suppress her breasts, and superimposed skating on an ice cube tray in the freezer. Soon she was a TV chorus girl for Eddie Fisher, George Gobel, and Jimmy Durante. She was the “voice” of the sexy crossed legs that appeared in the opening segment of the Richard Diamond detective series. And then, at the age of twenty-four, with what she herself describes as still no more than a larval personality, she was sent along to Carl Reiner and hired to play Dick Van Dyke’s wife.
The Dick Van Dyke Show borrowed all kinds of popular styles, from the happy-family situation comedy to standup to the variety show, with its sudden time out for a song (or Moore’s specialty, the soft-shoe number). Without breaking much ground, the cast was fresh and unusually appealing—like its contemporaries, the very early Beatles, back when half of their songs were new and the other half covers of Chuck Berry and Little Richard. If Moore stood out, this was partly owing to her total lack of experience anywhere outside television; while Rob Petrie seemed like a contraption for Dick Van Dyke’s rubbery body routines, and the other characters imported shticks they had worked up in the Borscht Belt, Mary Tyler Moore was practically subsumed in giddy, prancing, gorgeous, slightly hysterical Laura Petrie. An early episode about a botched hair job unveiled her comic signature: the humiliation tantrum. As Moore recalls in a rare descent into technique, “a sobbing Laura with hair half blond and half brunette…greets her bemused husband at the door and tries to explain all the imagined slights that drove her to this desperate act.” She follows up with a rare boast: “I was very funny as I attempted my sobbing explanation through a clenched throat, which produced mangled speech, with eyes rolled up, and gulping for air.”
Moore wasn’t the first actor to make a career out of embarrassment—the thirty-minute show favors a slow buildup to the point where a pile of mistakes hits critical mass and knocks a character over, exposing him or her for a fool. But she was different from Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball, the great humiliatees who had gone before her. They had the hard armor of the clown, the schemer who won’t accept life’s limitations and who dusts off disaster with cartoon resilience. Moore’s Laura Petrie, on the other hand, was beautiful, loved, financially safe, and basically content. What provoked her tears seemed to be some invisible inner strain. One can imagine Gleason or Ball going home at night, putting on an unknown private personality like a change of clothes, and carefully, consciously plotting the technique of the next day’s mishap. But Mary Tyler Moore seems to have drawn on instinct alone. All the time she’d spent worrying that people were sneaking by the house to spy on her asleep and drooling had made her into someone who excelled at (you could even say she had a genius for) being watched. Never mind that she saw performing as a grim trial, which “fed my self-doubts rather than eased them.” The actress was brittle and defensive, but the character would be guileless and wide open to hurt.
It wasn’t so much an act as her own self with the rough elements sanded down and camouflaged. Later, the almost spooky blurring into character would occasionally threaten her career. When the show was finished, Lew Wasserman, then head of Universal, told Moore she could be the next Doris Day, but neither this strategy nor an attempt to crack Broadway as Holly Golightly opposite Richard Chamberlain panned out. In the first case, she wasn’t extroverted enough for a big-screen romantic lead. In the second case, no one wanted to see Dick Van Dyke’s totally innocent wife playing a whore who said “Goddamn.”
Luckily she had undertaken an off-camera role as wife to Grant Tinker, a former advertising executive and now a budding TV producer and entrepreneur. Without Tinker, Moore’s star might easily have sunk; without Moore, Tinker’s star probably never would have risen. The pair began looking for a vehicle. This was a difficult task, because although Moore was to be the star, she couldn’t quite carry a whole show, and yet unlike the screwball heroines of the Thirties she was not especially interesting, only girlish, sparring with the same man over and over again. She wasn’t a manic exhibitionist like Ball or Gleason. And she hadn’t armed herself with a portable comic persona by doing standup in clubs. (In fact, it’s scary to imagine Mary Tyler Moore pacing the stage, waving a microphone and improvising. What would she say?)
Aside from the crass measure of ratings or the undiscriminating haze of nostalgia, we lack a vocabulary for talking about television; art is not a relevant term to bring up in connection with a medium that interrupts whatever mood it is evoking to sell cars, nasal spray, and above all itself. The pseudorespectable approach, a staple of academic studies and newspaper entertainment supplements alike, is to use television as a diagnostic tool, a stethoscope on the mood of the moment. Along these Zeitgeistian lines, thrity-five years after the fact, Mary Tyler Moore’s first television life, as a happy housewife who dared to wear form-fitting pants, looks like a bookend on one side of the 1960s; on the other side, her second incarnation, the still wholesome but more independent Mary Richards, postponed marriage, moved alone to Minneapolis, and boldly went to work. The Mary Tyler Moore Show sticks out as one of the first fictional setups in the movies or on television to star a woman holding a job above the status of secretary who was not supposed to be shrewish, pitiable, or biding time until she entrapped a man. The nonpathological professional woman was a new character, and it made new awkwardnesses available for sympathetic satire. You may remember an episode in which Mary Richards took the liberated step of deciding to call her boss by his first name. It was a small collegial gesture, as automatic as walking upright for most men but less precedented for a workplace virgin, and to do it Mary had to lower her eyes. Age and cigarettes had deepened her voice and slowed down the famous gulp. The name, Lou, came out with a low wobbly vibrato, like a wounded animal’s moan; at the end of the show, done in by the strain, she gave up and went back to calling him Mr. Grant.
We could string together a few more sociologically suggestive items from Moore’s two TV shows. (To wit: as Laura Petrie she slept in a twin bed across the bedroom from her husband, while as Mary Richards she took a studio apartment and played the field.) We could throw in her memorable performance as the archetypally repressed mother, Beth, in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. We could add this new, terse confessional book, and, if we felt like it, make Mary Tyler Moore into a reluctant pioneer, a fourpronged icon: the Composite American Woman, 1960-1995. Actually, though, despite an occasional reference to “women’s lib,” and a cast that included a couple of out-of-the-closet Jews, The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t deal with the world at all. Compared to the television that followed, from Norman Lear’s “issue” comedies like All in the Family and Maude to any number of shows featuring gutsy divorcées, widowed waitresses, and barrier-toppling careerists, its sociology and its grasp of current affairs were remarkably weak.
You’d almost have to go to Jane Austen and her famous inattention to the Napoleonic wars for an equivalent safe, compact, completely oblivious world. And in fact Lou Grant, the grumpy boss, and Ted Baxter, the greedy, illiterate newscaster, are not so much less sharply defined than Mr. Bennet and the vain Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice as you might expect. (Moore’s own comments on her celebrity peers tend to be respectful, cold, and unenlightening. One of her few light-shedding memories concerns Ted Knight, who played Ted Baxter. Apparently his buffoon act was taken for the real thing, too, and the “character takeover” so humiliated him that he begged to be released from his contract.) And Mary, like an Austen heroine, was pretty, omnicompetent, and modest, stuck in the provinces with a limited circle of acquaintances, superior to everyone around her and silently, sometimes resentfully, recognized as such. She was also a bit too proud and only half awake, most of the time, to her inner desires; there was always a threat of melancholy, a sense that if an equal, a Mr. Darcy, didn’t fly to Minneapolis and give her her due, she could end up bitter and alone. A touching vulnerability and moral concern are what is memorable about The Mary Tyler Moore Show—not its particular “take” on the issues of the day. For what now seem like painful reasons, Moore was able to give her character an inwardness one rarely sees on television. Week after week she was a fully drawn fictional heroine brought to life—worries, hesitations, and all.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show is perhaps the best situation comedy so far, but it eventually reached a dead end. In Jane Austen, of course, Mr. Darcy finally arrives, but in a sitcom, where in place of a forward-marching plot there is only glacial drift meted out by the half hour, he can’t. No matter how tenderly and hopefully a show starts out, its built-in ephemerality and open-endedness slowly turn the characters into cynics; instead of the old false wish fulfillment you get a kind of flat fatalism.
There is a life cycle to this process. A show starts out like a rough draft, then hits a rhythm sometime in the second or third season. Right at this point one of the stars suddenly dies, or—as in the case of Rhoda, Mary Richards’s neurotic best friend—gets her own spinoff show. A new sassy colleague, needy neighbor, or stray child to become just like one of the family has to be written in. A new rhythm and a tentative new warmth are established. And then around the fifth or sixth season the whole ensemble, as if to protest their stagnant lives, begin to act as if they’re being held in detention. A lonely woman becomes coarsely nymphomaniacal; a sad man whose Walter Mitty-like delusions used to be touching begins to rant offensively. Perpetually sparring characters like Sue Ann the Happy Homemaker and Murray the bald-as-a-cue-ball newswriter, who used to end their arguments with a hug, now rig complicated pranks to degrade each other in public. (An interesting argument could be launched here, along the lines of the debates about talk shows and TV violence. Moralists could just as easily pick on the sitcom, where characters acters can’t learn or grow, schemes for self-improvement fizzle by the second commercial break, and no rash act can’t be undone in half an hour, while viewers learn to see their lives as a string of inconsequential “episodes.”)
In any case, by the seventh and last season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary Richards looked haggard and irritable (probably because Moore was anesthetizing herself with booze every night) and the old, comfortable, kind aura began to wear off. Everyone—except Mary Tyler Moore—decided to move on.
Once again without a plucky character to play (her marriage to Tinker was also dissolving) Moore was helpless. The bizarre and not very healthy pressures which for so long had hollowed out her personality, and made the empty space into a vessel for millions of viewers’ insecurities, finally reached a crisis. The tabloids have already chronicled the horrendous illnesses, drug overdoses, and deaths that have shattered Mary Tyler Moore’s personal orbit. For our purposes, it is enough to say that this was the period, post-cancellation, that made her think of snakes in the trees.
For a while, hoping to nourish a long-neglected self, she tried on feminism. But in a moment that seems scripted for one of her trademark mortifications, Moore reluctantly spoke at a NOW rally, and afterward Tip O’Neill approached, ignoring Bella Abzug, Gloria Allred, et al., and yelled, “Where’s that little cutie? I want a big hug from Mary Tyler.” Luckily, Mr. Darcy arrived, in the form of a Jewish doctor seventeen years her junior. She checked into Betty Ford; she attempted to reconnect with her parents by arranging an audience with the Pope; she had a face lift, the strange, movie-alien-like result of which has finally freed her of the burden of being taken for Mary Richards. She says she has lately found solace in vegetarianism and animal-rights activism. With some of the old Catholic taste for ceremony she proudly describes the moment she donated a brand new Russian sable coat to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals so that it could be soaked in blood and paraded, like the relic of a self-flagellating saint, at public demonstrations.
Television has evolved, too, becoming cleverer, more self-conscious, more topical, and more demographically specific, and slowly awakening to the limits of the medium. The rare tenderness of The Mary Tyler Moore Show can still be found, in smaller doses, on hour-long melodramas like ER; but if MTM recalled a nineteenth-century novel, this new manifestation is knowing and jaded—stoically sad, like a Hemingway story. As for the best sitcoms today, they tend to display flippant comedians playing weak-willed, paralyzed neurotics (Seinfeld), or else to angrily probe the pathology of the so-called average American family (Roseanne). In either case, cynical or enraged, the urgent personal shame of Mary Richards has moved up to the metalevel. The new plots are often critiques of the old sitcom plots. The joke is that we’ve seen it all before. The point, more and more, is the boredom and frustration of television, as if no one can believe anyone else is still sitting there, watching.
February 1, 1996