Books—along with Walter Winchell—made America's down-home queen of gossip head for the bright lights, big city.
I grew up Texas-style, listening to Walter Winchell on the radio, yearning for bright lights or something undefinable. My education came largely from the local movie theater, which saved my life during the Great Depression. Having learned early on to read anything the Fort Worth Public Library would let me take out, at age 16 I stumbled onto two books that changed my life.
One was the white jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow's Really the Blues, which gave me an informed look at racism in action and the music that African-Americans were making famous for the rest of us. Fort Worth was an unsophisticated, deeply segregated little city in those days, but Mezzrow taught me to love modern music and to see "the race" in a different light.
Then I found Christopher Morley's Kitty Foyle. This is the story of a feisty Irish girl from the wrong side of the Main Line tracks who falls madly for a handsome socialite. She dumps him when she discovers his family is getting ready to "improve" her, philosophizes her way out of Philadelphia and takes New York by storm in her white collar and cuffs. By the end of the book, she has exerted a startling feminist independence and is making money in the cosmetics business.
She is also thinking about settling for a nice Jewish doctor with whom she isn't in love. After Ginger Rogers played Kitty on the screen, I began to think seriously about going to the Big City, making something of myself. Morley had made me realize that a broken heart from a major love affair can mend. (This was a lesson I'd need to learn over and over again.)
I was also inspired by Moss Hart's memoir, Act One, which drew me to the Broadway theater. [See the excerpt below.] This is an astonishing life story, and later I would pattern my own memoir after it to some extent.
I did finally land in New York City, where I began reading books like Philip Wylie's Generation of Vipers and Rebecca West's The Thinking Reed. But I was still a hick, beset by religious fundamentalist worries. Then I read Guy Endore's Voltaire! Voltaire! about the 18th-century French author and Renaissance man. Voltaire's brilliant intellectualism and his agnostic independence from the multitudes, as well as his deathbed return to Mother Church, all got to me.
I decided to be more like Voltaire, even if I couldn't be intellectual. I deliberately shed my fears and ideas about heaven and hell, salvation and damnation. I figured I'd worry, like Voltaire, later. I liberated myself from the shibboleths of the Baptist Church and began to question everything. I became a student of history because I felt that was where the answers were.
Since then, I have pursued life on my own terms, changing my mind continuously about everything under the sun from sex to faith to ideology to ideals. Reading remains fundamental to me.
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, December 8, 2013
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