Book review: Thank Heaven by Leslie Caron

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She started life as a ballerina and her long career as a celebrated film star has also kept the beautiful Leslie Caron on her toes.

But rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in the film world was all a far cry from her fraught childhood in Occupied France.

Now aged 79, Paris-born Caron has finally put pen to paper and given us a warts-and-all account of her career, ill-starred marriage to Royal Shakespeare Society founder Peter Hall, love affair with Warren Beatty and more recent battles with alcoholism and depression.

Born of a French father and American mother, she had a comfortable early childhood despite her mother confessing to her that children bored her and an insistence that Leslie and her brother fend for themselves - to the point of making their own way to the doctor’s.

War changed everything for the family...the frenzied retreat from Paris to the Basque coast, and then a return to the capital where life was dominated by German soldiers, shortages and constant fear.

Ballet lessons were the only consolation and in 1948, with the war over and the 17-year-old Caron now a member of Roland Petit’s legendary ballet company, her life was to change forever.

Spotted by Gene Kelly on a visit to Paris, she was plucked from relative obscurity and became an overnight sensation when he took her to Hollywood to dance and co-star with him in An American in Paris.

It was a heady time for the talented teenager who went on to make films like Gigi and The L-Shaped Room, and go to. all-night parties where Judy Garland tried out her new songs, Zsa Zsa Gabor declared that acquiring a diamond ring was essential for a girl’s reputation and Fred Astaire had everyone in stitches.

Others were more complex characters; Cary Grant, one minute mischievous adolescent, the next a tyrannical producer tormenting his assistants, and Rock Hudson, a man so nervously obsessed with hiding his homosexuality that he rubbed his thumbnails into a state of deformity.

After marriage to Peter Hall, a relationship which foundered because they spent so little time together, her two-year love affair with Beatty, a man of ‘all-enveloping tenderness,’ was flattering even if it did not last.

There were two other marriages, her two children with Peter Hall and close friendships with author Christopher Isherwood, ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev and Hollywood director Vincente Minnelli.

And Caron does not shrink from revealing how overwork in the early Nineties brought on a dark spell of depression and alcohol abuse - ‘Loneliness and distress had bored a hole inside me.’

Now recovered, she is at that stage of life where one looks back and finds the bad experiences along the way ‘just as enriching as the successes’.

One or two regrets linger, not least the fact that the French film industry has steadfastly refused to offer her any roles, regarding her as an untouchable product of Hollywood.

Caron’s honest and moving account of her colourful life and career is a wonderfully entertaining and revealing addition to the roll call of showbiz memoirs.

(JR Books, paperback, £12.99)