Carol Crissey Nigrelli on Swoosie Kurtz and Lee Grant - The Buffalo News

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Carol Crissey Nigrelli on Swoosie Kurtz and Lee Grant

Part Swan, Part Goose:

By Swoosie Kurtz with Joni Rodgers


312 pages, $25

I Said Yes to Everything

By Lee Grant

Penguin Press

480 pages, $28.95

By Carol Crissey Nigrelli


Lee Grant and Swoosie Kurtz were born a generation apart; their family backgrounds polar opposites. Grant, the only child of Jewish parents of Eastern European heritage, grew up in Manhattan and strived to fulfill her parents’ vision of the American dream.

Kurtz, also an only child, inherited the dream. Her father was an Olympic diving champion and highly decorated WWII bomber pilot from California. Her photogenic mother, a newsreel and war-bond tour staple of the era, hailed from Omaha.

Whatever blood flowed in each actress’ veins intersected at the same place: Broadway. Both Grant and Kurtz made their bones on the stage, winning prestigious Tony and Obie awards along the way. But the almost 20-year difference in their ages puts an entirely different spin on their life experiences, smartly and compellingly detailed in two new autobiographies.

Kurtz uses the title of her book, “Part Swan, Part Goose” to explain the origins of her first name. Her father Frank’s “heroically cobbled together B-17” was called the Swoose. When Kurtz came along in the fall of 1944, battles had yet to be won and her father was in the thick of them. The name Swoosie (rhymes with Lucy, not woozy) pays homage to the aircraft that eventually brought him home.

Settling in Southern California, they remained a happy family of three until Frank’s death in 1996.

The book seamlessly ping-pongs between her family’s past and the logistical challenges Kurtz faces today – caring for her mentally failing 98-year-old mother while maintaining her stage presence in New York and filming a hit CBS sitcom in Los Angeles. Kurtz holds her own and then some as Melissa McCarthy’s sexually charged mother on “Mike and Molly.”

That she would reach the pinnacle of her popularity at age 70 is an irony not lost on the actress. When she speculates on her luck, “I feel the urge to spit, throw salt over my shoulder and sacrifice a goat.”

Comedic timing always has been Kurtz’s hallmark and in “Part Swan, Part Goose,” she proves she can write a line as humorously as she can deliver one. The book crackles with wit. The book lists Joni Rodgers as a co-author, but the candor, clever turns-of-phrase and hilarity seem very Kurtz-like.

Humor also pervades Grant’s book – the dark kind, as dark as the era that held her career in a vise for 12 years.

Born in 1926 as Lyova Haskell Rosenthal, the dark-haired child with luminous eyes immersed herself in ballet and song, but acting became her “holy, safe place.” As a teenager she won a full ride to the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse under the direction of Sanford Meisner, who became her mentor and greatest teacher.

She won the small but crucial part of a shoplifter in a big Broadway play called “Detective Story” in 1949. Two years later, Grant reprised her role in the movie version starring Kirk Douglas, for which she earned an Academy Award nomination. Lee Grant was on her way.

But the storm clouds had started to gather. His name was Arnold Manoff, a thrice-married writer with Communist sympathies. The love flowed mostly one way. “I was married to a sexy, charismatic, intellectual Jewish guy who loved me off and on, mostly off,” she writes. (Their daughter, Dinah Manoff, became an actress).

It was the era of the Hollywood blacklist, a culling of people in the entertainment industry considered un-American and subversive. Grant landed on the list – guilt by association. And when she wouldn’t name Arnie Manoff as a Communist, she stayed on the list for more than a decade; no film, no television work from ages 24 to 36.

“I Said Yes to Everything” goes on to detail her years of frustration trying to make a living solely on the stage and the actress’ determination to clear her name. Grant took on Washington and eventually won. Her first triumph was nabbing an Emmy for her role in the breakthrough 1960s nighttime sudser “Peyton Place.” She won an Oscar for “Shampoo” with Warren Beatty. She became a sought-after television director. And she found a new love that has lasted more than 40 years.

A postscript on our two authors: According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), Grant directed an episode of “Intimate Portrait” for the Lifetime Channel in 2000. The subject? Swoosie Kurtz. How appropriate that their written intimate portraits could intersect on the best-seller list.

When she was a Buffalo anchor named Carol Jasen, Carol Crissey Nigrelli was inducted into the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame. She now lives and writes in Omaha, Neb.

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