Reading reviews of Clarissa Dickson Wright’s Spilling the Beans: The Autobiography of One of Television’s Two Fat Ladies, I notice one writer describes Dickson Wright as “a larger than life character.” My take on that remark is that if Ms. Dickson Wright was one jot “larger than life,” producers of Two Fat Ladies would have had to ditch that motorcycle-sidecar rig and haul the ol’ broad around in a ten-wheel dump truck.
Speaking strictly of autobiographers, Dickson Wright is more fun than most and better reading than many. Clarissa is a competent writer, a side-splitting raconteur (think Clarissa Dangerfield), and a maniacal name-dropper. If she actually knows half the people she claims to know or have known, she’s done enough living for a couple of dozen ordinary folks.
Through it all I was most impressed by Dickson Wright’s forthright confession of her alcoholism, to sleeping on the streets occasionally, to squandering every dime she had, to the swamp of shame and degradation into which John Barleycorn leads those who (like this writer) are fool enough to follow. Many members of polite society, never having been there, have no idea how low one can actually go on a liquor binge. My own experience leads me to believe that Dickson Wright doesn’t tell the half of it.
If I’m correct in that, what Clarissa left out is between her and her god, and that’s exactly as it should be. (I once sat in a 12-step meeting and listened to the most angelic young woman I’ve ever seen tell how she used to go to the restroom at the supper club where she worked and lock herself in a stall so she could squat over the toilet and fill her cocaine syringe from the bowl. There aren’t many who’d have the nerve to admit that in print under their own byline.)
Based upon what Clarissa gives away in this book, I’ll guess that the miracle of Dickson Wright’s recovery had much to do with the fact that she was born into and grew up in a home where social skills were appreciated by the parents and instilled in the children by whatever means. I say so because however unhappy Clarissa and her siblings may have been, they at least came up in the world knowing how to make friends and how to keep them. Boarding school also seems to have helped them a great deal. Many children are less fortunate, and the worth of what they miss is in many ways immeasurable.
The last of my surmise is that Clarissa Dickson Wright is one of those whom folks in recovery call “a high-bottom drunk.” She fell off of 20 stories but somehow hit hard on the eighth or tenth floor, so she didn’t get hurt as badly as those who hurtle headlong all the way to the bottom. Good things that happened after she sobered up didn’t simply fall into her lap nor did she create them from whole cloth. Always giving her credit for having the sense to seize opportunity when she stumbles upon it, some of those opportunities were dropped in her way by old friends from better days, friends who had always hoped for and (when the chance came) were quick to aid her recovery. Hats off to people like them and to Clarissa for giving credit where she knows it is due.
On a darker note, it seems to me as if Clarissa’s 12-Step commitment to “rigorous personal honesty” is less than rigorous where matters other than alcohol are at issue. In Los Angeles,
“. . . the three of us went to Nobu for dinner, where the Food Network had in error booked us seats at the sushi bar rather than at a table in the restaurant. … I went to bat with a splendid tantrum in my best English vowels. A rather ordinary-looking man with stubble on his chin and unkempt hair came up and said we could have his table. On being seated Pat asked how we had got the table and I pointed out the man; … her jaw dropped, since the man was none other than Robert de Niro, the owner of the restaurant. We thanked him profusely but . . . he wouldn’t join us. De Niro had discovered and backed chef Matsuhisa, the creator of his new wave Japanese cuisine. There are now Nobu restaurants in New York, Paris, London, Aspen and even very bravely in Tokyo. I find his food incredibly exciting and whenever Pat offers to take me out to dinner in London I ask to go to Nobu.”
There we see that TV star Clarissa can’t bother being civil to “an ordinary-looking man with stubble on his chin and unkempt hair.” But when that same man turns out to be Robert de Niro, Clarissa is ready, willing, and eager to kiss his butt from L.A. to Tokyo and back. Others will feel as they may but, personally, toadies make me hurl.
Same goes for Clarissa’s politics. In the last three chapters, her middle-class hypocrisy comes to the fore. She smears her opponents with allegations that they are paid terrorists. She tells horror stories about searching for bombs under her car. She implies that her television series, Clarissa and the Countryman, came to an end because there was some sort of collusion between BBC big-shots and her political opponents. All of those accusations are unsubstantiated.
So it is that in politics Dickson Wright exhibits the sort of behavior that, in her opponents, she would decry as lies or as wacko conspiracy theories. We see it is with Clarissa just as it is with most activists everywhere: Those who engage in confrontational politics typically cry “Foul!” when the blowback is not to their liking.
Well, I don’t like boohoos any better than toadies. The first three quarters of Spilling the Beans is some of the best tragicomic entertainment that human nature provides. In this reader those first chapters built an empathy for Clarissa that, unfortunately, the author went a way toward wrecking in the final few chapters.
Solomon sez: One of the Two Fat Ladies died. The other should have stayed in the kitchen. Five stars for good writing and an entertaining story, minus two stars for mucking up a perfectly good autobiography with a lot of snobbery and crank politics. Read Clarissa if you get the urge. Depending on what you have survived, her book may well repay your effort.
Spilling the Beans: The Autobiography of One of Television’s Two Fat Ladies (New York: The Overlook Press; 328 pp., 2009. $29.95)