Back in June I put together a summer reading list that included a delightful-sounding memoir called Deeply Superficial: Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, and Me, written by film executive Michael Menzies. I had heard about it through my upcoming book's editor, Don Weise, who also worked with Mr. Menzies. Don had been gushing about what a delight Michael's tome was, so I was eager to dig in. Despite the obvious conflict of interest, it turns out that Don didn't lie -- or even exaggerate much. Part Coward biography, part Dietrich biography, part memoir and all heart, Deeply Superficial is a must-read for fans of Old Hollywood, or really anyone who's ever felt a special kinship with a celebrity.
Growing up a fish out of water in New Zealand during the 1940s, Menzies discovered the autobiography of actor/writer/composer Noël Coward and was consumed by it. While just 12 years old at the time, he identified hugely with Coward -- so much so that he believed that he must be his hero's love child. But who was his mother? Like any budding gay boy of that era, of course he thought she could only be Marlene Dietrich. Menzies then decided that as soon as he could leave NZ, he would trek around the world to confront Coward and Dietrich in person and announce himself as their son. Yet even after he finally abandoned his dreamy plan, Menzies continued his search for them -- and their pasts -- spending the rest of his life following in their footsteps, traveling to London, Paris, New York, Berlin, Switzerland and Jamaica.
I recently pinned Mr. Menzies down at his West Hollywood home for five questions about the summer's sweetest read.
Kenneth M. Walsh: I was drawn to your book because, like you with Noël Coward and Marlene Dietrich, I grew up thinking I was the love child of Genghis Khan and Madeline Kahn. Please tell us how your quirky story wound up becoming a book?
Michael Menzies: When I was about 4 years old, my mother, correcting some flaw in my character (the nerve of her!), said to me, "People don't behave like that in the real world." That was the moment I decided to reject reality and create my own world. I felt I had to write about this, to give people an alternative way of seeing life. It doesn't have to be all grey and dull. For instance, no matter where you are, if you squint, you can see Paris. Odd, too, that you should mention your relationship with your "parents." In 1979 I worked on a movie in New York City titled Simon, which starred your mother (Madeline Kahn), who did a great impersonation of my mother (Dietrich). It is quite possible, through this connection, that we are distantly related, even though Ms. Kahn never mentioned anything about you , despite the various lunches we shared on set.
Walsh: As a fabulous gay boy, you were more than ready to leave New Zealand behind you. Have you been back recently? And if so, do you think today's gay boys would find it more welcoming to their way of life?
Menzies: Last time I visited New Zealand was in 1988. (I was quite spry then.) I am contemplating another trip sometime within the next year. Historically New Zealand has always been politically progressive. it was the first country in the world to give women the vote (in 1893!). They approved same-sex marriage in April 2013, and the New Zealand senate burst into song at its passage. And as for the current boys there, Google "New Zealand male models."
Walsh: There is a point in the book where you are literally lurking outside one of Mr. Coward's homes, Chalet Covair in Les Avants, Switzerland. Driving by for a photo is one thing, but peering through the windows for a lengthy period of time is, well, stalkerish. You seem to find it rather cathartic, though, saying you could not remember another occasion when you were "so full of joy." Were there any things you did in the name of fandom that you left out of the book?
Menzies: You are right: It was stalker-like on my part. (Is "stalkerish" a word?) I apologized in the book for doing so. But I was beautifully dressed and arrived at Coward's Chalet in a chauffeured limousine, so if challenged, I am sure my knowledge and affection for The Master and my mode of arrival would override any call to the police. I did nothing else in the name of fandom (is that a word, too?) that I left out of the book.
Walsh: Who would play Michael Menzies in the big-screen adaptation of Deeply Superficial?
Menzies: I have written a one-man show based on an incident in my life: the night I was attending the first show Marlene Dietrich did on Broadway. It was a truly starry occasion: The world was there. I was 33 at the time, and my ideal choice for the role is John Krasinski, who was partly educated in England and therefore has the right voice. And why not choose someone sexy and handsome if you are going to cast yourself? If two other characters are added to the play who could play both Dietrich and Coward and my real parents, I would choose Constance Towers and Peter Katona. A movie of the book seems daunting, but the chapter where Dietrich at 60 falls in love with a Polish actor 25 years her junior could be adapted, I think. For that I would want Charlotte Rampling and John Krasinski, whose father was Polish and who therefore has the right voice. What do you think?
Walsh: I approve! And finally, if Noël and Marlene have Kindles in heaven, what do you think they would say about your little tale?
Menzies: I prefer "frothy tome" to "little tale," but in answer to your question, I think Noël would say, "Dear boy...," and Marlene would say, "Sweetheart, can you show us how these things -- the Kindles -- work?" I would have to say, "No, I can't, but when Kenneth M. Walsh arrives, I am sure he will be able to show all of us." Noël will probably respond that "it is unlikely that Mr. Walsh will arrive in heaven: Have you seen his blog?" Thank you for the interview, and may I have a second helping of that delicious English trifle, please?
Deeply Superficial: Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, and Me (Magnus Books) is available in paperback, eBook and audio book here.