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Patricia Bosworth, ‘as big in life’ as the stars she wrote about

Patricia Bosworth in 2017 and in 1979.
Patricia Bosworth in 2017 and in 1979 with her biography of Montgomery Clift.
(Andrew Coppa / Graham Bezant, Toronto Star )

Patricia Bosworth had the life many of us might dream of. As a teen, she was enamored of Montgomery Clift; then she met him in the family living room. She became a fashion model, then was accepted into Lee Strasberg’s famed Actors Studio. She shared a motorcycle ride with Steve McQueen.

She performed on Broadway and in a movie with Audrey Hepburn. That was all before she wrote definitive biographies of Clift, Diane Arbus and fellow Actors Studio alums Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando.

But there was her abusive first husband, whom she married at 17, her powerful father, who killed himself on the third try, and a brother who also died by suicide.

It was a complicated life, and it ended on Thursday in Manhattan at the age of 86.

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While she had some success as a performer, Bosworth’s true talent and passion turned out to be writing, as a Vanity Fair contributor and writer of biographies — the most heralded being the one about Clift, her first celebrity crush.

Her skill lay in turning private explorations of public people into mysteries of a sort. The reader discovers these fascinating folks along with her. And because Bosworth had some personal experiences with her subjects, the books feel like a genre of their own.

”I so admired her approach to biography,” said screenwriter and former Vanity Fair writer Stephen Schiff. “She wrote about Clift after the height of his fame, and Arbus before the height of hers, while illuminating the worlds around them in the process. She was a superb storyteller and an indefatigable researcher.”

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The director Robert Benton attributes Bosworth’s accomplishments as an author to her wealth of experience. “I think what made her so good was that she had done something else before,” he said. “She became a writer out of life.”

Benton added, “she was as big in life as the people she wrote about.” That’s why many of us found her autobiographies even more compelling than her books about others’ lives. The first, “Anything Your Little Heart Desires,” largely focuses on her father, a lawyer who defended two members of the Hollywood Ten and paid a heavy price for it during the Red Scare.

Patricia Bosworth, left, with Audrey Hepburn in "The Nun's Story."
(Patricia Bosworth)

The more recent was “The Men In My Life,” about her young adult years. It is filled with bold-faced names, but also personal reflections and the search for truth. Arnold Margolin, 85, recalled performing in plays in New York at the same time she was. “I was in awe of her intelligence and even her wisdom, especially given her youth. She did not suffer fools — especially men — kindly.”

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Suicide hovers over all her work, and clearly she craved closure. “There I was, after so many years,” she wrote of visiting her father and brother’s graves in Sacramento. “The two Barts, father and son, buried side by side. It seemed ironic. In life, they had never been close.”

“E.T.” and “Empire of the Sun” cinematographer Allen Daviau, jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz and music producer Hal Willner have all died from COVID-19.

I was privileged to get to know Patti over the last few years. After attending an event at my home in November — to hear about a trip I had taken through the South — she was determined to do the same one. “Thank you again for introducing me to all this,” she emailed me excitedly, though she was concerned, at 85, about how much walking would be required on the two-week journey. “That trip is demanding for anyone, so I kept an eye on her,” said the guide, Andre Robert Lee. “She was wonderful, always attentive, and hopped on and off the buses with her notepad and pen in hand.”

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation magazine, which sponsored the trip, later received a note from Bosworth: “It was a life changing experience for me, feeding into my book on Paul Robeson.” That final work, about the singer’s battle with J. Edgar Hoover, is scheduled for future publication.

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For all her success, she could be endearingly open in asking for help. “Patti was anxious for advice on dealing with publishers, agents, as well as the structure and focus of her new book,” said Jonathan Alter, who, with Bosworth, was part of a prestigious biographers’ cohort in New York. And she was there for others. Alexandra Jacobs, a New York Times reporter and author of a biography of Elaine Stritch, recalled, “She and Elaine had been in a play together in the ’50s, and she was one of the most encouraging and helpful people to me. And she wrote the kindest note when it was published.”

Patricia Bosworth’s energy, ebullience, and curiosity could not be stopped. It would ultimately take a so-far-unstoppable virus to do the deed.

Willens is a bicoastal freelance writer.


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