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He Ran All the Way: The Life of John Garfield

Charles Wright leafs through Robert Nott's biography of John Garfield, belatedly released by Limelight Editions. logo
For a long time earlier this year, Limelight Editions, the estimable specialty publishing house, had Robert Nott's He Ran All the Way: The Life of John Garfield on its release schedule for July. As the summer proceeded, however, the publication date was pushed back again and again, from August to September to early October and then to the end of the month. This delay was provocative enough but also, at some point, the publisher's promise of prepublication galleys was withdrawn and reviewers were told they would have to wait for "finished books." The final press release, when it arrived at the end of September, described Nott's work as 392 pages; the version of He Ran All the Way (Limelight Editions, $27.50) that landed in reviewers' mailboxes is approximately 40 pages shorter. It's hard to avoid surmising that this biography's journey from manuscript to first edition has been tumultuous and that, for some reason, revisions were still in the works as the book arrived at the bindery.

As scholars and journalists strain to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the so-called McCarthy era, John Garfield is a prime subject for biography. Born Julius Jacob Garfinkle on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and known to his friends throughout his life as "Julie," Garfield abandoned high school in his sophomore year, determined to make it as an actor. He studied with Richard Boleslavski and Marie Ouspenskaya at the American Laboratory Theater but his power as a performer seems to have been less a function of technique than of something inborn. Garfield worked at Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Rep and participated in seminal projects of The Group Theatre. To the dismay of East Coast colleagues such as Harold Clurman and Morris Carnovsky, he acceded to the lure of studio bucks, resigning from one of the Group's most famous productions -- Odets's 1938 play Golden Boy -- to try his luck in Hollywood. Garfield had a decade of success in momentous films such as Gentleman's Agreement, Body and Soul, and The Postman Always Rings Twice but returned to the stage when scrutiny from the House Un-American Activities Committee made him a pariah in the movie industry.

Nott's Garfield bio doesn't make a good first impression. The author, an arts reporter on the Santa Fe New Mexican, is nonchalant about grammar and gets off to a dreary start with a didactic account of immigrant culture in the early 20th century. He makes some notably careless errors, mistaking Leonard Bernstein for the product of a New York City ghetto rather than privileged Boston suburbs and locating the skyscraper factory of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company -- the site of an horrendous, deadly fire on March 25, 1911 -- on the Lower East Side rather than in Greenwich Village. Although these particular slips concern matters ancillary to the topic of the book, they suggest a lack of thoroughness that calls into question the accuracy of the whole endeavor. Like Martin Gottfried's well-intended but disappointing Arthur Miller: His Life and Work (just out from De Capo Press), He Ran All the Way suffers from a dearth of annotation -- could this be an epidemic among current biographers? -- which leaves the reader puzzled about the sources of information and the time and circumstances of key interviews.

Robert Nott
Yet, for all its flaws, the book holds rewards for the persevering reader. The author is at his best when writing about his subject's films; at choice moments, he lets loose with impressive rhetorical flourishes that evoke in vivid detail Garfield's on-screen accomplishments, and he relates them provocatively to the actor's off-screen neuroses. Describing Garfield as Mickey Borden in his first film, Four Daughters, for instance, Nott writes that "Julie gives a superb, acerbically comic performance. He bats a pair of Robert Mitchum eyes years before there was a Robert Mitchum. Playing a character who continues to tempt the fates, Julie exudes an economy of energy, doing a lot with a little, and the camera fell in love with him. So did most of the women in the movie audience. Mickey is begging for love, much like Julie Garfinkle was, and women instinctively wanted to mother or bed him. Watching him is like witnessing a meteor shooting across the skies: It's exhilarating to see, but you better enjoy the moment because you just know it can't last." It's an appealing piece of writing on Nott's part, no less striking for its odds and ends of cliché.

Garfield was only 39 when he succumbed to a heart attack. He Ran All the Way is a mournful, compelling saga of early success followed by thwarted ambition, dead-end sexual conquests that predictably failed to quench Garfield's neediness, and a fatal collision with the machinery of the anticommunist right. What's refreshing about the book is that Nott manages to analyze his subject's decline and fall without engaging in amateur psychoanalysis. "In his final days," writes the author, "Julie had been alternately edgy and relaxed, energetic yet exhausted. There's reason to believe he was being shadowed by the FBI. He probably didn't know who to trust most of the time. The obvious cause of his death was the stress brought on by his inability to find work. And the only way to regain his professional self-esteem, it seemed, would be to sell out his personal self-esteem and name names."

In a poignant introduction to Nott's book, Garfield's daughter, the actress Julie Garfield, writes that she has "spent much of [her] life hiding from all the hard facts about [her] father," in "denial that at any moment some creature may appear from anywhere and whip out a mirror to [John Garfield's] past, shattering" the "delusions [she has] clung to about his infidelities and other weaknesses of character." Nott addresses those weaknesses in a straightforward manner, as a biographer should; but his portrait of Garfield, balanced as it is by informed appreciation of the subject's gifts and accomplishments, is likely to be comforting to the actor's survivors and fans. He Ran All the Way impresses the reader, most of all, with the degree to which this bantam with the sad pup countenance, brooding demeanor, and slow-sizzle virility -- not to mention all that natural talent -- has left his imprint on 20th century culture.

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