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THE SATURDAY READ

Lipton admits insecurity while living in mod times

Breathing Out ;Peggy Lipton, with David and Coco Dalton; St. Martin's: 310 pp., $24.95

June 04, 2005|Carmela Ciuraru | Special to The Times

Breathing Out

Peggy Lipton, with David and Coco Dalton

St. Martin's: 310 pp., $24.95

*

The spate of recent books by Hollywood actresses -- including those of Jane Fonda, Goldie Hawn and Kirstie Alley -- are variations of the kiss-and-tell memoir to a lesser or greater degree. They also share a sense of reflection, openness and candor without actually being very reflective, open or candid. Yet fame has its own uncanny way of making their stories compelling.

Peggy Lipton's "Breathing Out" is the latest entrant in this category and is similarly full of hard-won wisdom, self-deprecating humor and tales of mingling with the famous. She is best known for two things: playing hippie chick Julie Barnes on ABCs hit "The Mod Squad," which ran from 1968 to 1973, and for being the (now ex) wife of music legend Quincy Jones.

As expected, however, the willowy actress has more to share: a lonely childhood, sexual abuse, affairs with married men and feelings of deep insecurity in Hollywood. With the help of co-writers David and Coco Dalton, Lipton reveals vulnerability and awkwardness. Her disclosure of a 2004 bout with colon cancer makes her an even more sympathetic figure.

Lipton portrays herself as a fumbling, foolish, insecure suburban Long Island teenager who overcame stuttering and crippling shyness to become a famous model and actress. When she confesses flaws and follies, she does so without seeming needy or implicitly begging the reader to like her. Somehow, without trying too hard, she comes across as an appealing and sweet protagonist. Her story at times lacks depth and lapses into fuzzy, New Age-y prose. And yes, dirt is dished, but blink and you might miss it.

Yet she isn't out to settle any scores.

Lipton, born in 1947 into an upper-middle-class family, to a strict father and a mercurial mother, began modeling for the Eileen Ford agency at 15 and studied acting at Uta Hagen's famed HB Studio in Manhattan. She describes herself as a morbid, gloomy child, belying her sunny, attractive exterior as a tall, slender blond with huge brown eyes. "Sometimes I would make myself very still and try to imagine myself dead," she writes. "I tried to invoke the feeling of the very last breath I would take."

At 17, Lipton moved with her family to Westwood, where she soon would discovered the power of her beauty and sexuality, which she used to mask her lack of self-esteem. She also learned to self-medicate (marijuana, cocaine, diet pills) to deal with depression. And she became acquainted with Hollywood glamour. As Lipton's acting career took off, she found herself embarking on a series of doomed relationships, many with married men and alcoholics. She had brief, intense affairs with Paul McCartney, whom she seduced at the height of his Beatles fame, with Elvis Presley and with British actor Terence Stamp, with whom she tried peyote for the first time in 1968. "My love affairs were more often about the fantasy than the actual person I was involved with," she writes. And in one of the book's more amusing chapters, she describes narrowly escaping a romantic encounter with an insistent, manic Sammy Davis Jr.

"The Mod Squad" drew millions of fans for the show's stars, who played young delinquents turned detectives during the height of the counterculture era. Lipton became a bona fide "It" girl and fashion muse. "Unfortunately," she writes, "I was hardly able to enjoy it. I was so unsure of myself. Off the set, I didn't know how to talk to people. I didn't know how to smile for the paparazzi."

A few years later, when the show ended, Lipton found the love of her life in Quincy Jones, with whom she was expecting a child. She also found herself antagonized by racists, including her mother: "She thought I was going to be with a white prince charming or some great Jewish king. She couldn't envision my life with a black man and mixed-race babies." At 26, Lipton wound up having an abortion. (Later, though, she gave birth to their daughters Kidada and Rashida, and her mother accepted Jones.)

By the end of "Breathing Out," her 17-year marriage to Jones has ended in divorce (though the two remain close), and Lipton has lost her parents and a brother, among others. Her memoir offers the inevitable wisdom gained, about healing and redemption, and cliched observations. It ends on a trite note as well.

But when ranked among celebrity tell-alls, "Breathing Out" conveys enough poignant fragility throughout to keep Lipton's story engaging. Moreover, she kisses and tells just enough to feed a reader's hunger for celebrity gossip.

*

Carmela Ciuraru is the editor of six anthologies of poetry, including the most recent, "Motherhood: Poems About Mothers."

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