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'Such a Lovely Light' : PRESTON STURGES By Preston Sturges (Simon & Schuster: $22.95; 236 pp.; 0-671-67929-5)

September 16, 1990|Kenneth Turan | For a year, beginning October 1, Turan will be interim editor of Book Review. Jack Miles, who has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, will be on leave.

Many things in life charmed Preston Sturges, the most gifted writer/director of comedy that Hollywood has ever seen, but biographies were definitely not among them. "It is often stupefying to read a piece about somebody one knew intimately," he thundered, "and to discover its extraordinary inaccuracy." In fact, he continued, "A good reason for writing one's auto biography is that it may prevent some jerk from writing one's biography."

Determined to save himself from that most unwelcome of fates, Sturges signed a contract early in 1959 to write just such a book. Fewer than six months later, however, he died of a heart attack, the book unfinished, and in the intervening years some of his fears were realized. Four books already have come out on his life and work, including a very reputable biography earlier this year, not to mention a collection of screenplays published by a prestigious university press. All very serious, but all almost by definition incapable of capturing the fey, playful spirit of this quite unusual man.

Now, 30 years later, Sandy Sturges, the director's fourth wife, has marvelously redressed the balance. Working from Sturges' unfinished manuscript, plus the man's letters and diaries, she has fashioned a charming better-late-than-never autobiography. Heavier on style thansubstance, it is not the place to go for hard facts and figures and unfortunately it shortchanges Sturges' movie career. But if you want a sense of the man, if you want to hear the beguiling voice of one of the most charming and talented rapscallions ever to grace a Hollywood sound stage, this book succeeds where all the others have come up short.

Sturges is certainly a man whose like we could use again. The first screenwriter to persuade a major studio to allow him to direct the words he'd written, he repaid Paramount Pictures by both writing and directing eight pictures in the five years between 1940 and 1944, getting nominated for three writing Oscars and winning one (for "The Great McGinty") in the process. Those films, including "The Lady Eve," "Sullivan's Travels" and "The Palm Beach Story," are among the very best American comedies ever produced, combining bracing verbal wit with unashamed slapstick and completely unhinged plots in a way that no one since has even thought about duplicating.

"Certainly the apex of his career was brief," said Mel Shavelson when the Writers Guild gave Sturges its Laurel Award for Writing Achievement in 1975, the first time it had been awarded posthumously. "But how many of us would not be willing to burn out as fast if we gave, in Edna Millay's words, such a lovely light?"

Though Sturges claims toward the end of this book that "the only amazing thing about my career in Hollywood is that I ever had one at all," that is really only partially true. As a schoolboy, he much preferred athletics of all sorts to academics of any kind and "loathed" Shakespeare to such an extent that "if there had been a poll to guess which boy in the class was least likely to become a playwright, I would certainly have won, hands down." But, in truth, the wildly eccentric life he led as a young man unfitted him for any real-world employment and made his eventual drifting to Hollywood, the perennial home of clever, off-center, vaguely ambitious young men, all but inevitable.

Though he idolized Solomon Sturges, the wealthy Chicago stockbroker who married his mother and adopted him when he was 2 1/2, the key influence in Preston Sturges' life was clearly that mother. Mary Desti, as she elegantly renamed herself, was a world-class eccentric and free spirit who was, her son recalls, "endowed with such a rich and powerful imagination that anything she had said three times, she believed fervently. Often, twice was enough." Among the many roles she played in her life was proprietor of a successful Parisian perfume house, purveyor of something called "Le Secret du Harem," mistress of noted Satanist Aleister Crowley and, most lasting of all, great friend and confident of dancer Isadora Duncan.

Sturges' mother met Duncan in 1901, soon after her marriage to Solomon Sturges, and for the next quarter of a century, until the dancer's death (strangled in an auto accident with a scarf that Mary had in fact given her), the two women were as close to inseparable as they could manage. Preston spent much of his youth in Europe in the wake of these two women, often parked in some prestigious private school or other until "every so often a beautiful lady in furs would arrive in a shining automobile with presents for everyone. This was Mother, of course."

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