Mr. T: I Pity the Fool Who Can’t Write an Autobiography
Whenever I pick up a new autobiography, flipping through the pages and testing its weight at the bookstore (yes, I still go into actual bookstores to buy books), I ask myself one critical question. Will it pass the Mr. T test?
Back in 1984, the Rocky III and A-Team star published his autobiography, Mr. T: The Man With the Gold. He opens up the tome by declaring: “I’m sure there will be other books about me, but they won’t tell it like it is.” The former nightclub bouncer then launches into the story of his hardscrabble early years, which included serving as a vigilante for his tough Chicago neighborhood.
About what you’d expect from Mr. T’s life, right? Right.
Except there’s a pretty good chance it didn’t happen that way. “Mr. T has conned America,” his brother Nate told People magazine shortly after the book’s release. His sister, Linda, added: “If you find any truth in there, let me know.”
Let’s hope Linda isn’t waiting by the phone. (That’s something people did in the ’80s.) Because Mr. T’s book is still out in circulation, with no cover blurb from brother Nate to warn the unwary reader. One T fan writes on Amazon that the book’s “an inspiration” and “ranks with THEY CALL ME ASSASSIN by Jack Tatum.”
I’m not sure I’d put Man With the Gold up there with Tatum’s modern classic, but I will say that Mr. T had every right to be annoyed at his siblings for taking shots at him. After all, he was writing an autobiography. The autobiographer writes about what he remembers, not what’s true. (If the author happens to suffer from delusions of grandeur, all the better for sales.) But now T’s opus, instead of disappearing into the folds of time like A-Team co-star Dirk Benedict’s memoir, is a featured text of the Drama Desk Award-winning Celebrity Autobiography, in which performers give mostly straight-faced readings from the books of the famous and pseudo-famous. (The tagline for the show: “We couldn’t make this stuff up!”)
It was perhaps inevitable that someone would come up with the idea for Celebrity Autobiography – and that it would become an enduring stage hit. Autobiographies are odd literary ducks. Have you noticed how first wives consistently get the shaft in them? Jane Wyman receives one whole sentence in Ronald Reagan’s autobiography. (They had three children together and were married for eight years.) Eliot Ness’s first two wives are zapped into nonexistence by his book, The Untouchables. In his bestselling 2009 autobiography, Open, tennis star Andre Agassi insists he never actually wanted to marry Brooke Shields. For weeks while thinking about how to pop the question, he was “like a murderer, plotting, thinking constantly of the time and the place,” he wrote. “Except that a murderer has a motive.”
Do you buy it? Did Agassi carefully plan the perfect proposal, jet Shields off to a private beach in Hawaii, and then, at the moment his longtime girlfriend tearily said yes, feel not joy or relief but regret?
It’s possible, sure. People get married for the wrong reasons all the time and some of them are self-aware enough to recognize their mistakes – sometimes as they’re making them. More likely, Agassi is fudging things in his book.
If the above passage from Open is a lie, it’s for an understandable reason. Do you think Steffi Graf, Agassi’s current wife, would enjoy reading about how happy Agassi was when he proposed to a gorgeous movie star? Do you think Agassi wanted her to read about how happy that gorgeous movie star once made him? Let’s face it: there really was no way Brooke Shields was going to end up looking good in the book.
When he was still in his twenties, the late British critic Kenneth Tynan decided he would write the first entirely truthful autobiography, with all the “snarling, retching and wanking” included. It’s a compelling idea, someone writing honestly – truly honestly – about their heart being broken, about their embarrassing failures and greed and nastiness. But you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Tynan ultimately decided to zero in on the wanking – he created the erotic revue Oh! Calcutta! – and left the autobiography undone. One can’t help but conclude that the Marquise de Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV, had it right 300 years ago. She wrote: “I shall not write my life. I cannot tell everything, and what I could tell would not be believed.”
If only Mr. T had followed her lead.
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