I was very excited when I found this book in the charity shop near where I live. I’ve been an ardent Ustinov fan ever since I first saw him in Viva Max on Saturday Night at the Movies when I was younger. Then came Logan’s Run in 1976 where Ustinov played the world’s oldest man. I became a fan for life and deeply mourned this great man’s passing in 2004.
For the record, Ustinov was not just an actor. He was also a writer. Plays principally; films and books, one book was the autobiography Dear Me. It was one of those books that I had always wanted to read. There were only a few books about the entertainment world, that for whatever reason, I’d never read. They just refused to be found.
At least two of the books surfaced a few years ago in a second-hand book store in Felixstowe. This wonderful shop, called Treasure Chest Books, searched tirelessly for the book Everybody loves somebody sometimes (especially himself): The story of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis by Arthur Marx (son of Groucho). I had seen the book in the Pasadena California Public Library in 1977 and spent years searching for the book afterwards so I could buy it.
The Treasure Chest Books shop found a copy and held it for me. I have been indebted to them ever since. They also had, no searching required, a copy of Sheridan Morley‘s brilliant Tales from the Hollywood Raj: The British Film Colony On Screen and Off: The British in California. Another book that I had been searching for years, ever since I first read an excerpt from it telling of one ex-patriot English actor calling out to Dame Gladys Cooper (Morley’s grandmother), “Darling! There is an American in your front garden!”
But Ustinov’s 1977 autobiography stayed stubbornly out of my reach. Not necessarily because I could not find it, but, because I had stopped looking quite some time ago. Of course now if you hop onto your laptop or home pc you can type the book’s title in the search engine of your choice and find a regular cornucopia of Dear Me’s out there for purchase. Or any other book title for that matter.
Ustinov had a fascinating life and an equally fascinating family tree. With Dear Me, he uses the device of an internal dialogue with himself at choice points through the book. He questions the validity of his story (or stories) and the feelings that he relays about his life and the events that shaped him.
It is interesting to hear his side of the story when he was writing a WWII propaganda film and had to be assigned as Lt Col David Niven‘s Bat man (personal aide). Peter would be writing away at the script and whenever a “real” officer would approach the room, Niven would yell, “Cave!” Ustinov would then start furiously polishing brass. It was in this way that the 1944 film The Way Ahead was written and to some extent filmed. Ustinov, despite his education and intelligence, never rose above the rank of Private. His co-workers in the British Army were all officers and in the ever class and rank conscious military it caused some problems; a lot of them quite funny.
If you ever had a chance to see him on a television talk show, it was obvious that Peter was a brilliant raconteur; charming, funny and often erudite in his stories. Dear Me recounts some of these stories, but it also recounts the plays he wrote, the people he worked with, and his relationships; relationships with his wives, children and his parents.
Peter wrote 35 plays and novels (including Dear Me). He could speak four languages fluently and was able to communicate in even more. He was an infinitely fascinating and talented man.
It may be a little difficult to “get into” the book as it is written the same way that Ustinov spoke. But hang in there, once you find the cadence and the pattern, the book will entertain you and surprise you.
Thankfully you will not have to trudge down to your local charity shop or second-hand book seller to get a copy. Just go to Amazon.com and type the title and author in the search bar and you can find copies of the book for a cheap as a penny and as expensive as 36 dollars and some change.
Or failing that, just hop down to your Library, they might just have a copy; but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
So yes, it is a difficult book to start, but one that if you persevere will reward your efforts with new knowledge about a very talented individual and a man whose humour is most certainly self-evident
- Peter Ustinov Showcases Masterful Storytelling (wnyc.org)
- Cagney by John McCabe More Yankee Doodle than White Heat (mikesfilmtalk.com)