The Long Arm of a Hollywood Mother

L-R: Francesca Knittel Bowyer, Luise Rainer and Joan Rivers. Image: Francesca

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.

Fair enough.

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.

Luise Rainer in 1937 with her Oscar. Image: Latest Wrinkle

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.

Knittel Bowyer with her mother. Image: Francesca

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.

Notes

  • You can order a copy of Seen from the Wings: Luise Rainer. My Mother, The Journey. HERE.
  • Francesca Knittel Bowyer’s website is HERE.
  • Disclosure: Jonas Public Relations sent us a copy in exchange for an unbiased review.
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18 comments

  1. Very interesting. To be said as if you were Arte Johnson in Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Loved the series – seminal part of my childhood, partly because we always watched as a family. In fact, I still say these words in his voice! Hollywood mothers, though!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think there could be a second book here, one that focuses on career – either Rainer’s or the author’s or both. As for historical research, yes, I was really hoping to learn new things, e.g. a sociological look at Milan in the 1960s, for instance, combined with the author’s experiences at that time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It sounds as if there are some missed opportunities with this publication, but tomorrow is another day and possibly there will be another book as you constructively suggested.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting! I don’t know as much about Luise Rainer (outside of her films) as I would like. It’s too bad about the parts lacking that you mentioned. What do you generally dislike about tell-all style memoirs? The gossipy aspect?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this! When I saw the book online recently, I thought it was about Ranier as well. Based upon the strength of imagery you noted, I may still be inclined to read it too. Shame she didnt hone in more about her professional life to tie together more. Perhaps a sequel or something will follow. BTW, the title is weird :/

    Liked by 1 person

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