Authors: Barbara Cook
SOMETIMES I WISH
we were all cell phones. Yes, phones. The new mobile phones that exchange information with one click. Then I wouldn't have to write this whole book. It's not the time and the work involved, it's the talking about the hard stuff. I believe I'm an optimistic, positive person, but, you know, it's the painful stuff that really sticks out. I have had so many amazingly beautiful things happen in my life, but I think perhaps it's the difficulties and the bone-crunching crappy things that have really shaped who I am. I wonder who I would be if my little sister hadn't died when we were both so young. Oh, and how many times have I wondered who I would be if my father hadn't left when I was six years old.
I have been asked several times through the years to write my story. Frankly, most of the time I thought, “Who the hell cares?” But now I do feel that this book might help some people through bad times, might help them see that they can come out the other side and have a new life. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “There are no second acts in American lives.” Well, he was wrong. That's exactly what happened to me.
I did a lot of good work in the theater. God, how I loved it.
And then I became a drunk. I was depressed, and unemployable.
My life fell apart in lots of ways.
My son chose to live with his father instead of me. At the time
I thought that might kill me, but of course he made the right decision.
Then Wally Harper came along and helped me work again. What a coming-together that was. I stopped drinking a couple of years after we met. He was my accompanist, arranger, and friend for the next thirty years, and while I hated it when people said I had begun a second career, that's exactly what it was.
So here it isâthe parts I can talk about. I don't want to hurt anybody. Of course a lot of people in my story are dead and can't be hurt anymore. I'm eighty-eight now, and that's one of the things that goes with age, isn't itâall kinds of loss.
But let me also tell you some of the great things about this business I've been in practically all my life. Because I never thought little Barbara Cook, sitting there dreaming on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta, would have anything resembling the life I've ledâand, by God, I'm still having it.
I KILLED MY
sister when I was three years old. I was responsible for my father leaving us when I was six. I truly believed I was responsible for those events because my mother told me so. Now, that's not exactly what happened. You'll see what I mean later on. I had a lot to deal with before I became the person I am. We all have a lot to deal with. This is my story.
I was born; I breathed; I sang. I have no memory of a time when I didn't sing. No one in my family was a musician or singer, but my dad loved listening to music. He particularly loved Bing Crosby, while my granddaddy, Charlie Harwell, my mother's father, had a great love of music and theater. I didn't see him nearly as often as I would have liked because he and my grandmother, Minnie, were divorced, but he often came over to her house for the big Sunday supper she always cooked. On those occasions he would always ask me to sit on his knee and sing to him. He smelled of tobacco and whiskey, but I loved the way he smelled because I loved him. His scraggly old dog, Rags, would sit nearby, Granddaddy's battered fedora on his head and his pipe in his mouth, while I would sing “Indian Love Call” to Granddaddy. Dear sweet Charlie Harwell. He was a darling man.
God, how I loved to sing and prance around and dream and pretend. Somewhere around 1932, when I was five years old, my mother and dad took me to see my first stage show. I was in heaven.
When we came home I whooped around the room, singing and dancing all the parts for them. They were delighted, and I remember loving the fact that they were enjoying me.
My daddy was a traveling salesman whose specialty was ladies' millinery. Everybody wore hats in those days; a lady or a gentleman just didn't go out without a hat, and ladies would complete the picture by always wearing gloves. Daddy would usually call home two or three times during the week when he was on the road, and he always asked me to sing for him over the phone. He mostly traveled to neighboring states, but sometimes he went as far as Texas, and then he would bring back Texas boots for me. I loved them. I don't remember other little girls having boots, but they fit right into my tomboy life.
As I write this I realize that my happy childhood memories almost invariably revolve around my daddy. I adored him because we had so much fun together. Every morning when he was home he would turn on the radio so that we could listen to
Don McNeill's Breakfast Club
. Every day McNeill would ask us to “march around the breakfast table,” so Daddy and I would stoutly march around the table, singing and laughing. He was my protector and my defender. When, for some reason, at the age of five or six, my mother wanted me to eat baby food, right out of the jar, I violently objected. It was strained spinach, a truly hideous taste, and I was
, not one. My mother insisted: “Eat that spinach!” My dad said: “Let me taste it.” Thenâ“God, Nell, how can you ask her to eat this stuff?” End of debate.
My father was thrilled to be a parent. My mother later told me that he would cry every month when once again she had not become pregnant, and when I was conceived he was ecstatic. He always made me feel loved, but the truth is that he really wanted a
son. I must have somehow understood that, and was delighted at Christmastime when I was five years old and got an Indian suit, a cowboy suit, a drum, and a tool chest. Together Daddy and I cut an airplane out with my new saw from the tool chest and had great fun putting the pieces together. I loved playing cowboys and Indians and beating my little drum. I also received a doll that year. I named her Buttercup, and then proceeded to totally forget about her. There's no question but that some aspects of that persona persist in me to this day. I was recently talking to my friend Sybil and she was chattering happily about how much she enjoys having her nails done every week. That's just the sort of activity that holds absolutely no interest for me. I really am an eighty-eight-year-old tomboy!
My father supplied the fun in our household, but my mother could be a very difficult personality. For instance: one Easter my parents gave me a sweet little yellow chick that I adored. I'd lie on the floor and it would hop all over me. Of course little chicks become big chicks, and one day when I couldn't find my little pet, my mother told me it had scurried onto our back terrace and fallen down three stories to the yard, where the rats ate it. I found out years later that of course that's not what happened at all. Clearly they had to get rid of this growing chicken, and they gave my chick to friends who had a farm outside of Atlanta. Why my mother didn't just explain that to me in the beginning puzzled me for ages, but I finally came to the conclusion that she couldn't bear to take the blame for having taken my pet away. Somehow she felt it was better to lie to me and make up a dreadful story about rats eating her than risk my anger about the chick's permanent vacation in the country. Sometimes my mother meant well, sometimes she didn't, but often her reasoning remained unfathomable.
I want to be fair to my mother, yet it's difficult to talk about her and be fair, because she'll never be able to give her side of the story. My mother was two people, and I never knew which mother I was going to get, the good or the bad. She could be very funny, and she could be outrageously generous with me, but that's not how I remember her for the most part. So much of what she said and did injured me. I believe she loved me. I know she did. But her idea of love was a complete incorporation of my life into hers. I think she had no concept of my being a person separate from her. No boundaries existed. None whatsoever.
The truth is, to my now adult eyes my parents seem like a pair of mismatched opposites. My father, Charles Bunyan Cook, was born in 1900, a native Georgian just like my mother, Nellie Mae Harwell, who was one year younger. They met in a neighborhood ice cream parlorâhe was a salesman and she worked as a switchboard operator for Southern Bell. They must have loved each other, but they were vastly different people. My dad loved music and language, books and ideas. He introduced me to the novels of Thomas Wolfe, loved teaching me new words, and gave me my enduring love of crossword puzzles. My mother, sadly, shared little of this. I remember having only what I call “meat-and-potatoes” conversations with my mother. We never talked about ideas.
They could not have been more different, but at the very start of their courtship something clearly clicked. One day, after my mother died, I found some old correspondence between them, all written on very old-fashioned notes and cards, covered in chiffon flowers topped with shiny glitter. In the cards I found beautiful vows of undying love. When my dad was in the cavalry, stationed in Seattle during the First World War, long-distance phone calls to his sweetheart Nellie were out of the question, so in order to feel
closer to each other they agreed to both go outside and look at the moon at the same time. One in Seattle, one in Atlanta. Romantic. Touching.
I tell myselfâand I believeâthat it all started well for them; and when I was born, on October 25, 1927, it seems like life was fairly solid for them. My younger sister, Molly Patricia, was born eighteen months after me, and my memories of that time are very happy ones.
My sister was so pretty; she had big, round, brown eyes and lovely light-brown, softly curling hair. My blond hair was straight as a stick, and oh how I envied her curls. I have a photograph taken in the backyard of our house on Oak Street, and Pat's beautiful curls are certainly in evidence, but as she comes down the back steps she looks thin and frail, with dark circles under her sweet eyes.
She must have died shortly after the photograph was taken because she was only eighteen months old when she passed away. Pat had recovered from pneumonia some time before her death; I was three at the time, and my mother told me that the doctor said Pat's lungs had been severely weakened and if she ever contracted pneumonia again it could be very serious. Soon she was suffering from double pneumonia, a dangerous disease for anyone in the early 1930s, but particularly so for a baby. This was before antibiotics, and treatment was rudimentary at best.
To make things even more difficult, I had caught whooping cough right before Pat contracted double pneumonia. I had recovered, but not before passing it on to Pat. She was not in a hospital, I believe, because they felt there was nothing they could do to help her. My mother's child was dying, and she felt helpless: “What can I do for her? Does she need the window open more? Or closed? Should I cover her? Dear God, what can I do to help her?”
Increasing my mother's desperation was the knowledge that at the exact same time, her big brother, Ralph, was fighting for his life after having been shot just a few days earlier. He had been sitting in a police car with a friend who was on the force when a man just released from prison came looking for vengeance and shot my uncle, having missed his intended victim, the uniformed policeman. My mother went to the cemetery to bury her brother, whom she adored, and the very next day returned to bury her daughter. She must have been crazed with grief.
Since I was only three, it was decided that I was too young to go to Pat's funeral. But I have a very clear memory of my father lifting me up in his arms, carrying me to the kitchen window, and painting a smiling face on the palm of my hand with Mercurochrome: “While we're gone, open your hand and look at this little face. That will cheer you up until we come back.” Daddy was burying his daughter, too, but somehow he was able to think of me that morning, trying his very best to cheer me up. I loved him very much.
I don't remember crying over my sister's death, and I don't remember my own feelings with all this chaos swirling around me. Even at three, however, I knew that something was very wrong, and when family and friends got back to the house after the funeral I found a way to communicate that all was not right with me. People were lined up across the front porch on this very hot July day, rocking back and forth and fanning themselves, when I had what I thought was a great idea. I picked up the garden hose lying in the front yard and turned it on full force, dousing everybody in sight. My uncle Johnny, my dad's brother, rushed out to stop me, but not before he got completely soaked.
We moved after my sister's death. Our new home was a small
ground-floor, one-room apartment with a little attached kitchen. We must have lived there for several years, because when I look at photographs from that time I can see how much I changed physically from year to yearâbut the background in those photos remained the same. Our lives, of course, were filled with sadness after my sister's death, but there were still aspects of our new home that I liked, most notably a nice big backyard with a swing. I have a picture of me in that swing with a playmate. She's a pretty little girl with long, Shirley Temple curls, neatly dressed, with her shoes and socks looking perfect. I'm sitting next to her, with not much onâjust a little pair of panties, legs all spread out, no shoes or socks, Dutch Boy haircut. There is nothing girly about me at all. I look like a miniature W. C. Fieldsâall I need is a straw hat and cigar.
The truth is, it didn't matter that much to me where we lived. We were just trying to regain some semblance of “normal life,” and when, after a year or two in that ground-floor studio, we moved again, to a one-bedroom apartment with a little banistered porch off the living room, the change didn't really affect me.
My sister's death would have left a dark and lasting impression on my life under any circumstances, but for me the loss was compounded by a brutal sense of guilt. Sadly, I believe that guilt was instilled in me by my mother. For years I had a powerful memory of my mother standing before me, saying, “If you hadn't given Pat whooping cough, she would have lived.” I grew up believing I was responsible for my sister's death. That's what I took in, and what I lived with for many years. I would casually say, “I gave my sister whooping cough” and believe it was the truth, because somehow my mother had made me feel it was.
I see it differently now, but no matter how much I understand, intellectually, that I had nothing to do with Pat's death, somewhere
in my unconscious lies the residue of the belief that I killed my sister. My first therapist wisely asked me the question, “Has it ever occurred to you that you didn't give her whooping cough? That she caught it?” Now, after a lot of work, I believe that memories can lie, and on that dreadful day when my mother, mad with grief, had to go back to the cemetery for the second day in a row, she, within my hearing, may have said to someone, “If only Barbara hadn't given Pat whooping cough, she might have lived.”
As my friend Stephen Sondheim wrote in one of his typically wise and double-edged lyrics: “Children will listen.”
The result of all this is that I have often felt I didn't deserve all the good things coming to me. Now I've come to believe that we gain only the success we believe we deserve.