Monday, March 4, 2019. Lackadaisical Sunday in New York mid-afternoon. The weather map showing the snow and the rain massing over the whole Northeast. Forty-two degrees at 3 p.m. 5:30 pm, snow started.
Children of famous parents. That’s a whole category for psychology buffs. I’ve known several, and known of many others. You find the subject in New York and Hollywood. Although the condition is everywhere.
I was reminded yesterday, coming upon an article “My Mother’s Daughter” that Molly Jong-Fast wrote for the New York Review of Books Daily online. Coincidentally, Molly’s mother is Erica Jong, the prolific novelist and poetess. Erica came upon the scene in 1973 with a boffo first novel “Fear of Flying,” hitting the Zeitgeist with a bulls-eye.
The book made her famous. Her life moved into the goldfish bowl. And the experience gave her enough material to write dozens more.
I have the privilege of knowing Erica. We are not close friends but she and I share a similar curiosity where you come away feeling as if you’d known the person for a long time. I also have the privilege of knowing Molly. I can’t remember how I met Erica or Molly but we’ve known each other for quite a few years. We rarely see or speak to each other but always get right into conversation when we do, like old friends. Molly also has that same quality on meeting, and with an equally compelling personality. Different definitely but….like mother, like daughter.
I happened upon Molly’s piece visiting the NYRB site, and instantly started reading bemused. I’ve been in the company of mother and daughter together several times. There’s wit, intelligence, sensitivity, and the parent/child relationship which is still very much there. The parent may be the elder, but the child still holds “the goods” on mom, Famous mom, Best-selling author, where the world’s been her oyster (or so you might imagine).
It’s a relationship that is about power, about a competition between mother and daughter ( or father and son, also)(or even mother and son). Molly explains, in writing about her own life: “the memoir I was writing …. was not directly about her but when you’re the daughter of a powerful woman like that, everything is ‘about her,’ even the things that aren’t’ ‘about her’ are, in fact, about her.”
Molly is as frank and to the point as her mother. She refers to herself as a real person, moving along through the struggle of life, married with children, writing because that’s what you feel compelled to do. It’s a great article, flows along like a good conversation armed with insight and sensitivity.
I laughed out loud a few times reading it. She reveals her mother as first-of-all a professional who keeps herself in the running. That’s a big job in itself, and it is a job. Molly doesn’t sound resentful but she does sound exasperated, the lifelong kind. I don’t know about Erica’s feelings about her daughter because all I’ve ever heard from her is loving praise. That doesn’t mean that’s all Erica expresses privately to her daughter. After all, she is still a “mother.”
The other night at dinner, conversation turned to another mother-daughter story. Famous successful mother who has given her daughter “everything” but is deeply resented to the point of questioning one’s mental health. Again, it goes back to the beginning when daughter came into the world of mother that was owned by mother’s ambition and great career.
I was reminded of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. Same story. Carrie had the good fortune (as well as the talent and the great connections) to have a successful career for herself as both actress and writer (one-upping Mom in a contest). She leaned on her mother financially for most of her life even when earning a huge income. She spoke sarcastically in public, joking about her mother even with witty lines that had originally come from her mother’s mouth (Debbie had the natural quick-wittedness of a trouper, as well as the “experience” to back it up.) In the end, mother lived – on the same property – with daughter. And in the end mother left right after daughter. That was not fate; that was Debbie. And Carrie.
Molly Jong-Fast reveals similarly, writing “Sometimes, in memoirs, children of famous people lionize their parents and grandparents. I wasn’t taught to write like that.” Erica told her she was “supposed to do as Hemingway once said: “sit down at the typewriter and bleed.”
Mission was accomplished with this wonderful piece where the child acknowledges that even at forty she’s not over her childhood. She’s now in the process of learning that all of life is a playing out of childhood, at least it is if you’re a writer.
Coincidentally, I was reading the latest issue (March 21st) of the NYRB and found in the letters to the editor that Molly’s mother Erica Jong had written a letter to the editor referring to an article by Elaine Blair in the February 21st issue about Henry Miller and his writings about sex. I’ve never read Henry Miller, so I can’t agree or disagree. When I was a teen-ager, Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” was first published in this country to great debate (and best-selling numbers). Because it was about sex. Erica knows.