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Kael led many to believe that she had been married three times during her youth, but actually it was only once, to the manager of the Cinema Guild movie theater, Ed Landberg. In maybe my favorite passage from Kellow’s bio, Landberg describes how on their first meeting he grazed her breast with his hand, and she looked up at him and said, “What have you got to lose?” It’s a sizzling moment, a moment that proves that Kael could sometimes speak in movie dialogue herself, but it was pretty much her last effort in that direction. Before Landberg, Kael had mainly been frustratingly involved with gay male artists like Robert Duncan and Robert Horan, with whom she hitchhiked from California to New York. They were homeless for a time, but Horan was picked up by composer Samuel Barber and quickly moved in with him and his lover, Gian Carlo Menotti, leaving Kael in the lurch. There are gaps here, of course, but the sense I get from Kellow’s bio is that Kael in her twenties and thirties had to put up with the worst kind of indecision, poverty and neglect. It was Manhattan during the war, and it just wasn’t a good place for Kael or for anyone, really. By 1946, Kael went back to California in defeat.
She took up with another gay or bisexual man, poet James Broughton, and became pregnant with her only child, Gina, who she raised by herself. Gina needed money for a heart operation shortly after she was born, but Kael had to wait because she didn’t have enough money; she never had enough money for almost all of her life. And Kellow intimates that that gun moll movie moment she had with the unappealing Landberg was a ploy to get a little more money so that Gina could have that operation she needed (it worked). Gina didn’t talk to Kellow for this bio, and her silence hurts the book, but it’s also suggestive, for it seems clear that her mother made her name because she was so entertaining and she couldn’t shut up, whereas Gina kept in the shadows as her all-purpose typist, driver and helpmate.
Kael worked in publishing sometimes, but she also ran a laundromat and worked as a seamstress. Took in washing, scrubbed floors, you get the picture. She labored on writing plays and screenplays, but they never quite turned out. The most revealing thing in this book is a screenplay synopsis she tried to sell around 1950 called The Brash Young Man, where an older male writer named Benjamin Burl is miserable after finally achieving literary success until he meets a ferocious female critic, Amanda Magill, who sasses him in print and then stands over him as he writes and tells him what he’s doing wrong, to his delight. Kael might not have sold this screenplay, but it’s a template for how she saw herself in her glory days at The New Yorker, where she had lots of male film director pets who she nurtured and criticized out of what she felt was love.
As Kael reaches middle age and her career as a film writer finally gets going, a lot of life drains out of Kellow’s book as he conscientiously keeps up with her reviews of movies and situates them in the landscape of their time. Most of these stories from this period, the 1960s and 70s, have been told before elsewhere. At Warren Beatty’s invitation, Kael went to Hollywood to try to produce films in 1979, but nothing much came of that because she was reporting to cokehead jerk-wad Don Simpson and he had it in for her. It was the first serious money she had ever been offered, she was sixty years old, and she felt that she could make a difference; the timing just wasn’t right. If she had gone out a few years earlier, Kael might have made some of the tough, small ensemble pictures she so treasured.