BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIRS : An Engaging Tour of Celebrityville : OFF STAGE <i> by Betty Comden</i> ; Simon & Schuster $23, 256 pages


Remember the film “My Dinner With Andre?” Do you read People? If you can answer “yes,” you’ll probably love Betty Comden’s memoir of life backstage and off-screen. With partner Adolph Green, lyricist, playwright, screenwriter and sometimes performer, Comden has hung out for decades with America’s cultural elite--and now she wants to tell us all about it.

The result is an engaging, if slightly disjointed, combination of philosophy and humorous reflection, played to the staccato beat of names being dropped at a rapid-fire rate. At one point, having rattled off the names Lenny Bernstein, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Ethel Merman, Humphrey Bogart and others without so much as an intake of breath, Comden writes, ‘How can I apologize for these egregiously name-riddled paragraphs?” Nobody expects her to. Much of the point to a book like this is getting a guided tour through celebrityville.

Betty Comden, nee Basya Cohen, seems to have had a flair for the dramatic from an early age, whether she was slumped in a chair in an ecstatic stupor over the Brahms she heard on the radio, or throwing up all over her aunt’s and uncle’s cash register when they caught her stealing birthday candleholders. What a waste of energy it would have been if she had chosen any future but the theater.


She was performing at the Village Vanguard when she met the man she would marry--who, in perfectly romantic fashion, was an artist managing his father’s underwear factory. And then they were off to the races, Comden responsible for some of the most memorable entertainments of her era: Her theatrical credits with Adolph Green include “On the Town” and “The Will Rogers Follies,” and over the years her efforts have brought her six Tony awards.

She also co-wrote the screenplay for “Singin’ in the Rain,” which, as far as I’m concerned, is credit enough for anyone.

But this book is not so much about the nuts-and-bolts of her working life, as it is a series of observations on her personal life. The book reads like a series of marvelously entertaining dinner-table conversations; it’s as though the reader has struck it rich at a dozen parties in a row, always seated next to the guest with the most interesting tales to tell.

My one hesitation--it is Comden’s blessing, but it can work against her--is that the tone of the book is so consistently clever, so stylish, so witty. She recalls her friendship with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and remembers Bacall at the time of her second pregnancy, “beautiful in a cool summer dress. . . .” But then, a paragraph later, Comden writes of Bogart’s death, and observes, “Betty was beautiful in black at the funeral . . .,” and it’s hard not to wince. Still, sometimes this cultural travelogue reads a bit thin. Comden, the blithe spirit, skims just a bit too easily over her material.

What is most engrossing--ironic, since it has nothing to do with big names--is what she remembers of her childhood, and what she observes all on her own about life. The anecdote about the cash register is a vivid one, as is the story of how little Basya tried to be generous and donate a doll to a museum, only to be told that her offering wasn’t good enough.

Maybe it’s the childhood material that provides a clue to the later chapters. Comden speculates that she’s been ill at ease since the moment she was born, when, it was later reported to her, her father and grandfather found her something less than gorgeous. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: If she believes it, it’s true. Are all the famous people named in the book meant as compensation? Is the “egregious name-dropping” supposed to make us like her more?


I like her just fine. Truth is, I read those celebrity party paragraphs quickly, hunting instead for more of the real thing.