Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Books

Book review: The love of Carol Burnett's life — her daughter

On Mother's Day, every mom is a celebrity, at least to her family. These three new memoirs by well-known women explore their experiences with motherhood, as daughters, as mothers or both. Maya Angelou recalls a mother just as strong and unusual as the daughter she produced, although not always an easy mother to love. Carol Burnett remembers, with both grief and joy, her relationship with her oldest daughter, which ended too soon. And Julia Sweeney mines the absurdities of modern motherhood with a warm touch.

Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

When the great comedian Carol Burnett took her first-born daughter, Carrie Hamilton, to school for her first day of kindergarten, the principal was waiting in the parking lot. In her new memoir Carrie and Me, Burnett writes that she imagined walking Carrie to her classroom and getting her settled, but the principal tugged the child out of the car and hollered, "PULL AWAY! PULL AWAY!"

Too soon for most parents, it's what the world tells them to do, and their children often join the chorus. Burnett is still dealing with the pain of pulling away from Carrie for good. Her oldest daughter, a talented and charismatic young woman who, after a rocky spell in her teens, had a close and creative relationship with her mother, died of lung cancer at age 38, in 2002.

Carrie and Me is certainly a memorial, but it's more a celebration of her daughter's life than a somber elegy. Burnett is the most famous person in the family, but in this book she gracefully shifts the emphasis from herself to Carrie.

Burnett had her children — Carrie was soon joined by sisters Jody and Erin — just as she was gaining show business success herself, and she and husband Joe Hamilton, who produced The Carol Burnett Show, tailored their schedules to their little girls.

Despite a privileged childhood, by her teens Carrie was having problems that soon grew into full-fledged drug abuse. Her parents put her in rehab multiple times, but she always backslid until she and her father, an alcoholic, ended up in the same facility together. Her parents' marriage ended, but Carrie got sober.

That period of their lives is no secret; mother and daughter appeared on the cover of People magazine with the headline Carol Burnett's Nightmare, which prompted Carrie to jokingly call herself "Mama's Little Nightmare." Burnett covers it briskly, with just a sprinkling of the gory details and a tone of pride in Carrie's public efforts to combat addiction.

Burnett focuses most of the book on Carrie's multifaceted career. She was an accomplished singer-songwriter as well as an actor on stage (the first national tour of Rent), TV (Fame) and screen (starring in cult favorite Tokyo Pop). She and her mother appeared together in several TV shows and movies.

The most affecting part of the book is a series of emails exchanged between mother and daughter when Carrie took a road trip in 2001 to visit Elvis Presley's home, Graceland, as well as her mother's childhood home in San Antonio, Texas, and the Belleville, Ark., home of her great-grandmother, Mae Jones, who raised Burnett. Carrie's emails are full of lively intelligence, sharply observed detail and a warm sense of humor, as well as her growing desire to learn more about her family's past.

The trip was a personal quest but also research for a mother-daughter collaboration: Carrie and Burnett were writing a play, Hollywood Arms, based on Burnett's 1986 memoir One More Time. It would be produced on Broadway, but Carrie wouldn't live to see it. Burnett tells the story of her illness and death sparingly, again largely via emails, as if it's a wound still too tender to touch directly.

The book's last 40 pages consist of a screenplay Carrie began to write, inspired by that trip to Graceland. She asked her mother to finish it, but, Burnett writes, she couldn't. It's clearly unfinished and in some parts mere sketch. But its ending is a poignant, almost eerie foreshadowing of the unexpected ways mothers find they must pull away.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

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