Slim: Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life

When Nancy Gross from Salinas, Calif. — a.k.a. Slim Hawks Hayward, the Lady Keith — died at 72 in April, her autobiography was already in type. It’s a shame she didn’t live to see it published. She would have enjoyed being the author of a best-seller — which Slim: Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life seems sure to be. When Clark Gable sailed for Europe in 1947, she went to the ship to see him off and later received a postcard that read, ”You were wonderful.” ”Wonderful doing what?” demanded the jealous Leland Hayward, soon to become her second husband. ”I was just wonderful being wonderful,” she replied. And that, by her own account, was pretty much her career. Slim toiled not, neither did she spin. Her tall, lanky good looks provided her nickname, and her sporty, original style caused her to be named, in 1946, ”Best Dressed Woman in the World” — a title, she remarks, ”about as empty as ‘Miss Butterfat Week’ in Wisconsin.”

The 136 photos in her book are eye-catching. Seventeen-year-old Slim diving into a pool at a desert inn where she attracted the attention of the movie actor William Powell, who introduced her into Hollywood society; at a circus party for William Randolph Hearst’s birthday; in Sun Valley, Gary Cooper beside her, ”attempting to pick up a dollar bill with my teeth while standing on one foot with my hands behind me”; on a pheasant hunt with Hemingway; at the wedding of Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall in her garden; and so on.

But this pictorial glamour would hardly hold our attention at book length. The far more compelling attraction is her salty wit and down-to-earth honesty. Coauthor Annette Tapert, who ”picked up the tattered banner” after an earlier collaborator dropped out, has done a good job of bringing into clear focus a brainy, generous, totally unpretentious woman. We hardly expect, in a celebrity memoir, to hear that Slim’s famous first marriage to director Howard Hawks was a op: ”Mostly, I think he liked the way I looked. For him, I was a fabulous armpiece, the ultimate decoration, the embodiment of the Hawks woman. It wasn’t about the woman herself, it was about a look. Howard liked a no- nonsense femininity. His woman could be chic, she could be sexy, but you’d better believe she could also make a ham and hoe a row of beans.” Lauren Bacall, who was ”discovered” by Slim on a Harper’s Bazaar cover and who was repeatedly called ”Slim” by Humphrey Bogart in Hawks’ To Have and Have Not, brought this image to life on-screen and remained Slim’s lifelong friend.

The love of Slim’s life was Leland Hayward-talent agent, later Broadway producer of South Pacific and Gypsy — to whom she was married for 10 years, until he dumped her for Pamela Churchill, now Harriman. Her account of this loss is savagely painful. She’d gone through an unsuccessful third marriage, about which she is scathingly funny, to a British tycoon who gave her a title, when she received news of Hayward’s death: ”I had made a life for myself. I’d had a beau, remarried, divorced, and was now living happily alone. But in the end, when I lost Leland, I lost the best part of my life.”

Some of the book is just celebrity boilerplate (”I arrived in New York and went on a whirlwind of cocktail and dinner parties, and dancing at El Morocco”). But she moved in an arti cial world without ever losing her rock- solid integrity. When her feelings are engaged, as in her account of her friendship wlth Jerome Robbins or her complicated relationship with Hemingway and his wife, the dread Miss Mary, we trust her. She was ”Big Mama” to Truman Capote until he portrayed her as Lady Ina Coolbirth in his infamous ”La Cote Basque.” Despite his charming efforts at reconciliation, she never spoke to him again. A friend of Slim Keith’s recently said, ”Many of us who knew her don’t think she did herself justice in the book.” That may be. But it makes one wish one had known her. That’s enough, isn’t it?

Slim: Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life
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