Dear Reader, this is a review of a Celebrity Tell-All.
We dislike these kinds of memoirs, but we agreed to review this one before exercising Due Diligence. So here we are.
As you might guess from the title, Seen from the Wings: Luise Rainer. My Mother, The Journey. (2019), by Francesca Knittel Bowyer, is a curiously-punctuated memoir that ought to have seen more stringent copy editing.
The big drawback, in our opinion, is the lack of historical research. We were hoping to learn more about the film and theatre communities of the United States and Europe during the mid-20th century, when Luise Rainer was the Actress To Watch. However, despite the title, this is not Luise Rainer’s story.
At the same time, we learn very little about author Knittel Bowyer’s own professional life. Here is a woman who enjoyed a multi-faceted career in Europe and the U.S., but there’s only brief mention of her work or the professional experiences that impacted her. That’s too bad, because those would have been valuable insights.
We do learn, though, that Luise Rainer was not a nice mother, and that her daughter had a time of it, navigating life around Rainer’s considerable influence.
You may be asking: Who was Luise Rainer?
Rainer was a stage and Hollywood film actress, born in Germany, who signed with MGM Studios in the mid-1930s. The studio immediately reframed her background to say she was Austrian.
She won two Oscars for her performances in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937). Rainer was the only actress to win back-to-back Oscars until Katharine Hepburn’s wins in 1967 and 1968.
After her Oscar successes, Rainer found her film roles becoming less interesting and, in decision that shocked – Shocked! – the Hollywood community, she abandoned her MGM contract and left Hollywood in 1938.
Her daughter, Francesca Knittel Bowyer, was born in New York in 1946. Her father, British publisher Robert Knittel, was based in England, and the family relocated to London when Knittel Bowyer was a young girl. Here is where she spent most of her uneasy childhood.
As soon as she was able, Knittel Bowyer fled her parents’ home and moved to Italy, where she found gainful employment and married an architectural student with communist sympathies.
Her mother was Not Amused.
The striking aspect of this memoir is the portrait of a woman with admirable resources and determination. By that we mean the author, not her mother.
Knittel Bowyer’s descriptions are extraordinarily vivid. We can easily imagine ourselves living in Milan or hobnobbing in Beverley Hills. We feel tense as she smuggles currency out of Switzerland, or when she’s questioned by a U.S. Customs official. She describes people in a way that makes us feel we know them.
The author confides in her reader like an old friend. You can’t help but like her.
While we can’t wholeheartedly recommend this book, we don’t want to dissuade you, either. Seen from the Wings could be an oft-referenced work if it had (a) rigorous editing, (b) historical research, and (c) insights from Knittel Bowyer’s own professional career.