'Part Swan, Part Goose': Actress Swoosie Kurtz on the balance of work and family
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In "Part Swan, Part Goose", author Swoosie Kurtz recounts the most empowering decisions of her career and the misadventures that have made her the person she is today. Taking care of her elderly mother while also building a career as an actress has proven to be a great struggle, as told by Kurtz in this thought-provoking memoir. Here's an excerpt.
Chapter 1: Enter Breathing
There are two time-honored professions in which the first thing you do when you get to work is take off your clothes.
I’m in the other one.
Arriving backstage or on a back lot, ascending the winding staircase in a Broadway theater or climbing into my trailer at Warner Brothers, my first order of business is to shed my street clothes (my father would have called them “civvies”) and be delivered into the skin of whomever it is I’m getting paid to be that day. I’m surrounded by nimble artists who appraise my appearance with unforgiving technical eyes and craft me from heel to eyelash, evaluating my rear end, propping up my meager décolletage, making sure my earlobes and knuckles don’t clash, checking for knee wrinkles and hem threads.
Rarely does all this happen with any deference to my dignity. In my line of work, while humility is an asset, modesty is a bother. I’m lucky enough to have been brought up by two people who knew the difference.
My father, Frank Kurtz, was an Olympic diver in his youth. There’s not much room for modesty up there on the ten-meter platform and even less room in a pair of aerodynamically snug swim trunks. But to make that leap without humility—without respect for gravity, without remembering how applause disappears under water—that would be a terrible mistake.
My mother, Margo Rogers Kurtz, was Frankie’s foil in witty dinner table repartee and his staunch ally in every other aspect of life. She was the “ever-fixed mark” Shakespeare noted in sonnet, a small, brilliant pin on his private map of the world. Margo was the model wartime bride in the 1940s: industrious, beautiful, capable, the perfect combination of stiff upper lip and fire-engine red lipstick. She could pilot a small airplane, feed a small army and fit nicely into those tailored peplum skirt suits that were all the rage.
Newspapers and newsreels couldn’t help noticing her as my father flew higher and farther, collecting scars and medals. Every time he made it home in one piece, it was a stunning blow in the cause of hope, and during World War II—under the darkness and din of the air-raid sirens, as inhumanity sucked innocence into a genocidal oven—hope was highly prized. It was sought after.
Frankie and Margo were recruited along with Hollywood stars and other celebrities for war-bond tours. These junkets were utterly purpose driven: no frills, no egos, just as many recognizable names as the organizer could cram into a train car and parade to the autograph tables. One town after another, starstruck fans lined up to buy bonds. Even the most pampered celebrities were gung ho about these rustic excursions. I’m certain any attempts at modesty would have been laughed out of the tiny train car water closet, so Margo and Frankie fit right in. He was a hero, and she was the classy, garrulous sidekick who kept his clay feet warm.
My mother’s book, My Rival, the Sky, came into the world the same year I did. We both grew inside her while my father flew bombing runs over Italy in 1944. G. P. Putnam (the publishing magnate who was also the husband of Amelia Earhart) had taken an interest in my parents after they collaborated with W. L. White on the book Queens Die Proudly, which told the story of the great Flying Fortress bombers, including my father’s heroically cobbled together B-17D, the Swoose. A contract was proposed and accepted: Margo was to write a war memoir from the home-front perspective, title to be determined, $250 to be remitted on signing and $250 on delivery of the manuscript.
I was born in the fall of 1944, a few weeks after Nazi forces put a brutal end to Hungarian resistance, a few weeks before US troops landed in the Philippines. My father was somewhere in the thick of that as my mother and day-old me were being photographed for the newspaper. People desperately needed to see this beautiful, young mother treasuring her fresh baby and believe in a God who would either bring that baby’s daddy home or send straight to Hell the scurvy tail gunner who took him out.
I look at that photograph on a bookshelf behind my desk and see nothing but hope, hope, hope. My mother’s face is filled with optimism and love. It’s hard to turn away. But it’s time.
“Margo, darling?” I call on my way to the car. “I’m off.”
“No, you’re not,” she says. “You’re just right.”
A quick hug, and I’m out the door. I drive myself to work (mechanically and metaphorically), and it doesn’t take long. Every day I’m grateful for this five-minute commute to the studio. The kismet is unbelievable. After decades of bicoastal and intercontinental commutes, almost always working more than one job at any given time, just when I needed it most, I landed a steady gig on that rarest of beasts: a television show that is a critical and commercial success. That’s something we hardly dare hope for in this business. Most people have no idea how many pilots disappear into the mosh pit, how many promising starts go the way of the pet rock before a show comes along with a genuine heart and exactly the right creative team, writers, cast and production crew. You’re more likely to find narwhal steaks on special at Ralph’s. Above and beyond that, this particular cast and crew—all souls counted—are smart, delightful, mellow, ego-light professionals who’ve become my dear friends.
From Part Swan, Part Goose by Swoosie Kurtz. Copyright (c) 2014 by Swoosie Kurtz. Reprinted by permission of Perigee Trade, an imprint of Penguin Group.