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Double Life (Magnus Books) has to be one of the most unusual, intriguing, and satisfying biographies I have ever encountered. From concept to tone to execution I was repeatedly surprised, engaged, and moved. Double Life is the autobiography of two men : Alan Shayne, an actor, casting agent and producer, and Norman Sunshine, a painter, editor and sculptor. Like so many of us, Shayne and Sunshine wore many different hats throughout their lives. The structure they came up with is ingenious. Beginning with their first introduction and culminating with marriage after years of living together, the two take turns writing unnumbered chapters. For instance, one is titled, “La Ultima Noche : Alan : February 1959,”and the next, “What Becomes A Legend Most : Norman : April 1960.” They’re in chronological order, but not necessarily written the way you might expect.
Each chapter stands on its own as memoir or essay, detailing a key incident in the history of the author. There’s some overlap, to be sure, but a particular chapter by Alan might or might not mention Norman. There might be two chapters in a row by Alan. Considering the title, you might expect Double Life to extol the whole concept of lovers becoming one entity, or halves of one another. But if anything, Shayne and Sunshine make the case for autonomy and independence, and it’s very clear, they’re crazy about one another. They make joint decisions, they pine when they must be apart, they thrive in each other’s company. Yet they also seek solitude and don’t feel some burning imperative to constantly be together.
Any biography raises the question of adversity, from everyday challenges to the catastrophic. These problems act as litmus tests of character. When they arise in Double Life, it might be a disappointing critical response to a gallery exhibition, or a conference that triggers a sea change. Whether trivial or horrendous, Sunshine and Shayne describe these situations without resorting to purple prose, pathos or histrionics. Like Joan Didion, they give you just enough to infer their state of mind, without feeling the need to manipulate. They are frank in the best sense of the word. They confide transgressions and triumphs, pettiness and virtue. When explaining why they waited before consummating their erotic bond, they don’t sound self-righteous or judgmental. Merely practical and earnest. They take into account the impact of their actions, but they never sound didactic.
I was very impressed with the celebrity anecdotes. It didn’t feel like name-dropping, or tawdry gossip. Stars like Vincent Price, Lee Remick, Lena Horne, Katherine Hepburn, arise naturally from content, and are discussed with candor and genuine emotion. It was quite pleasurable learning about the politics and transactions that went on behind the scenes when Norman was evolving as a painter, or consultant to Frances Lear (ex-wife of Norman Lear and editor of Lear’s Magazine). Alan contributes lots of rich details from the world of television and film : the diva that must be coddled or the script that must be passed from writer to writer, in desperate need of a fix.
I must express admiration for the clarity and eloquence that Sunshine and Shayne brought to this story of two talented, vibrant, artistic young gay men who met in their early twenties (1958) and might have been one of Hollywood’s power couples, had they not just happened to be the same gender. This is a biography that values sincerity over political correctness. The two give us a unique perspective on the discretion they needed to succeed, not always staying in the closet, but too often forced to choose between viability and assertiveness. Alan and Norman were not living in enlightened times, so they had to be smart and discriminating. Occasions when they could not appear in public as a couple, for fear of destroying their careers, make for painful, somber reading. It’s quite endearing that they mention a fight on the day they finally decided to get married. The best romances are the ones that succeed without resorting to spin or sugar-coating.
Double Life: A Love Story From Broadway to Hollywood
By Alan Shayne and Norman Sunshine
Hardcover, 9781936833023, 400 pp.
November 2011 (1 edition), August 2012 (2nd edition)