Part Swan, Part Goose: A Review

04/29/2014 09:03 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2014

PART SWAN, PART GOOSE: an Uncommon Memoir of Womanhood, Work and Family, Swoosie Kurtz (with Joni Rodgers)

In this age of mega-puff celebrity biographies, self-important, sensationalistic, dumbed-down and glitzed-up with gossip and sex scandal, this "uncommon" memoir of Swoosie Kurtz feels new. Like any memoir, it traces an individual life - here the personal and professional history of a successful actor. But what feels both novel and traditional is how Kurtz shares this book, as she has shared her life, with the stories of her parents' lives.

The lives of her parents intersected world events, a World War. Her father, Colonel Frank Kurtz, was Group Commander of the 463rd, "Swoose Group," named for the aircraft, "The Swoose," a B-17 bomber, christened after a popular song of the time about a confused gander who was "part swan, part goose," a "swoose." Colonel Kurtz piloted this bomber, a famous "flying fortress," throughout WWII. His wife, Margo Rogers Kurtz, endured the lonely uncertainties of a military wife at home, but she was also a highly visible partner, appearing in newsreels and war bond fundraisers, learning to pilot a plane herself. She also wrote a memoir called "My Rival, the Sky" - excerpts from the book appear throughout her daughter's book. These sparkling excerpts show a natural writer's talent - and steal the show as the best writing in PART SWAN, PART GOOSE.

The book has another scene-stealer - an airplane - one so famous that it ended up in the Smithsonian - and so unforgettable that Swoosie Kurtz was named after it. The Swoose hums along in the background throughout the narrative. The voices of her parents interweave with their daughter's - as time is collapsed between the 1940's and the present (Frank Kurtz died some years ago, but Margo Kurtz is alive at 98 and lives with her daughter in Los Angeles - and she continues to contribute wandering but important quotes.)

If the reader expects Swoosie Kurtz to be haunted or overwhelmed by these powerful voices, as the undeniable drama of the past claims its authority - it becomes clear, as Shakespeare says, that "the past is prologue". In this case, remarkable history creates a remarkable soul.

Swoosie Kurtz' narrative, her own story, never stops - the way an actor's life, once it begins, moves relentlessly forward from job to job, running on the energy of expectation. From adorable ingénue to consummate stage actress, she provides the fascinating details of her own passion and stamina, the unbelievably hard work and obsession that lead to success onstage and onscreen.

She has won Tonys, Obies, Drama Desk Awards for her work on Broadway, in multiple unforgettable roles. I have seen her in many of these roles -- she has that astonishing capacity to burn herself into instantly-summoned memory - from her Bananas in John Guare's House of Blue Leaves to Lillian Hellman in Imaginary Friends to the mother of a murdered daughter in Frozen. Her hilariously anarchical capacity for comedy is matched by her bravery in traveling deep into darker roles. Her film background provides a different variety and range - from "Liar Liar" to "Citizen Ruth". Her TV series roles include a substantial conventional turn in "Sisters," then the entirely unconventional "Pushing Daisies". At present she plays a nutty outspoken mother in the hit series "Mike and Molly".

She says that she "forgot to get married" and she has no children - yet there is something both childlike and maternal about her "aura" - a powerfully sympathetic energy that flows through the book.

Perhaps it has something to do with being named for an airplane: that high-flying daring-do wed to minute-to-minute control. In her acting and in "real life," she's at home in the sky, but executes perfect touchdowns on earth. It's all in the name, for the winged past and her present: part swan, part goose.