The title of actress Mary Wicke’s biography is comic and tragically true; a woman whose face you remember, but have difficulty placing her. When I started describing Wickes to my mother, she immediately believed that Wickes played Mrs. Kravitz on Bewitched. I had to laugh as author Steve Taravella mentions the other actresses Wickes was commonly confused with, one of them being the actress who played Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched. Similar to the recent book about Mae Murray, author Taravella explores and gives readers deep insight into Wickes, warts and all. You root for Wickes to find a role that will propel her into superstardom, but by the same token you can’t understand her bizarre Victorian ideals and how poorly she treated people later in life. Regardless, Wickes’ story is one deserving of its biography, and if you’re interested in learning about a chameleon of stage, television, and film the book is worthy of your time.
Mary Wickes workload was diverse and constant. Her appearances on stage, film, and television go into the hundreds, and yet she was nixed from the “In Memoriam” section of the Oscars the year of her death (1995); then again, that section is pretty much an advertisement and is filled with controversy over who is included. Mary Isabelle Wickes was her mother’s daughter; the two would live together until her mother, Isabella’s death and Mary would be compelled to work constantly so as to avoid being lonely. The mother/daughter relationship is the unspoken specter of the book, with Mary’s mother influencing her daughter’s decisions and life choices. Family plays a big part in the book, but the audience is left puzzled by Mary’s treatment of her family. A chapter devoted to the cousin Mary outright ignored for her entire life is fascinating and sad considering said cousin never understood why he was abandoned by his family relative. The greatest descriptor used when talking about Mary is “Victorian.” Mary was a woman never suited to the times, obsessed with manners and shying away from material that she deemed “offensive.” Even as a young woman Mary was a somewhat difficult curmudgeon. Her cantankerous spirit was counterbalanced by her warmth and extreme kindness. For every slight to Mary’s personality there is a story about Mary’s desire to help others; she volunteered at hospitals until the end of her life, even when patients were unkind and wished to be left alone.
I’m always a fan of the biography that highlights the unsung star, and Steve Taravella obviously enjoyed writing this book. His focus on Mary as a person prevents this from becoming a staid list of credits and making-of stories (although those are included). He explores Mary’s personality, and how it helped and hindered her career. Mary wanted to act, and right until the end of her life she sought it (her final work was the voice of Laverne in The Hunchback of Notre Dame; she was replaced by the darling Jane Withers). Her life as a struggling actress is no different from other stories of the unsung character actor, and yet Mary received opportunities to star in iconic films such as The Man Who Came to Dinner – reprising the role she played on-stage – and Now, Voyager. The one element that hovers around the book, and Taravella tries to be as nice as he can while still remaining candid, was Wickes’ appearance. Wickes was no beauty, but nor was she ugly (although that word is used to describe her). The saddest realization is the unoriginality of Wickes’ story: that she failed to obtain superstardom simply because she wasn’t glamorous. Wickes would joke that to be beautiful would give her an expiration date (also a true statement) and that by being less than pretty she’s been able to work in entertainment longer; while Mary was a good sport about it, Taravella’s prose explains that it hurt her. Wickes also never married or dated seriously which is attributed to several theories ranging from Mary’s Victorian sensibilities to beliefs that she was a lesbian.
Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before is a straightforward biography that celebrates and shines a light on a woman who Hollywood never took seriously. Her friendships with various Hollywood hoi polloi, including a long-standing friendship with Lucille Ball (Wickes would famously play Lucy’s ballet teacher in I Love Lucy) is a tender chapter in the book and daughter Lucie Arnaz‘s recollections will cause tears to well up. I’ve mentioned this previously, but these biographies – about lesser known actors – are always fascinating because you never know what to expect. Taravella doesn’t stoop to naming names or providing salacious gossip; he wants to give you insight on a woman who made people laugh but never got her due. Hopefully, this biography will give readers a new batch of movies to watch, and a new actress to root for.
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