VINCENTE MINNELLI'S SHOWBIZ CAREER must have been preordained. He was literally born in the trunk, as Judy Garland, his future wife-actress, would famously sing in her 1954 movie, A Star Is Born.
Lester Anthony Minnelli entered the world on February 28, 1903, in Chicago, Illinois. He would change his name to Vincente, a Latinized version of his father's name, in the 1930s while working as an art director at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Minnelli's father, Vincent Charles, and his uncle Frank founded the Minnelli Brothers Tent Theater, a company that toured the summer circuit of small towns in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, bringing culture to the provinces. During the winter the members of the troupe were forced to go their separate ways because engagements for the company were scarce.
Minnelli's father viewed his work as a job since his great passion was for music. His self-image was validated by the townspeople of Delaware, Ohio, who regarded him as a well-known music conductor and horn player. Among other accomplishments, Minnelli's father wrote Sousa-type marches, and several of his songs, such as "White Tops," were popular with the circus bands.
Mina Mary LaLouche LeBeau, Vincente's mother, was the company'smultitalented leading lady, as she could act, sing, and dance quite well. Mina, who was known to her husband and those who loved her as May, worked until the last moment of her pregnancy, a tough challenge considering she was playing ingénues and had to conceal her growing belly. When the time to deliver arrived, Mina left the company and went to Chicago, where her mother and sister lived. Soon after giving birth she returned to the troupe with her infant son in tow.
Before Minnelli was born, his older twin brothers had died from some mysterious childhood disease. Another brother, Willie, curiously bearing the same name as the dying son in East Lynne, a play in which Minnelli would later perform, died when he was an infant. After these traumatic tragedies his parents decided not to have any more children. The Minnellis buried their grief deep inside, seldom talking about their losses in public. But the losses also meant paying much greater attention to their surviving son and having more exacting expectations for him.
Minnelli's mother was not so much domineering as overprotective; after all, he was her only surviving son. Born when his mother was in her thirties and his father even older, the young Minnelli was always told that he was a special kid. This label put tremendous pressures on him to excel and to prove that he deserved to be treated as special.
The whole Minnelli family performed in East Lynne, an old chestnut of a play based on Mrs. Henry Wood's 1861 novel. His mother played a dual part, Lady Isabel and Madame Vine, and at the age of three Vincente played Little Willie, her son. In the melodramatic plot the wife elopes with a scoundrel, but upon hearing that her son is fatally ill, she returns, disguised in gray wig and spectacles. Pretending to be a nursemaid, she is hired by her former husband and his new wife to take care of the dying boy.
Minnelli's mother tried to rehearse Vincente onstage, but already stubborn, he resisted. Realizing that the stage, with two chairs standing in for a bed, was not realistic enough as a setting, Mina decided to rehearse her son at the boardinghouse. She reminded Vincente time and again, "Just pretend that you're dying." Mina coached Vincente indefatigably until he learned his lines for his big emotional death scene.
Minnelli did the reunion scene beautifully. Years later he recalled having read his lines with "great panache." After Little Willie's death, themother has a great hysterical scene in which she throws off the wig and says, "Willie, speak to me, tell me that you're not dead!" Mina's sobs were so heart-wrenching that Minnelli decided to "comfort" her. All of a sudden he got out of bed and said in a firm voice, "No, Mom, I'm not dead. I'm not dead. I'm just acting!"
Of course, the whole audience burst out laughing, and Minnelli's father, who was in the box office, rushed in to see what was wrong. Smiling broadly, Minnelli turned his head from side to side, while his mom managed to finish her speech. Then, as soon as the curtain came down, so did his father's wrath. Minnelli viewed this episode as the first of his long series of flawed performances at best and stage debacles at worst.
Minnelli was a lonely, awkward, painfully shy boy, more interested in painting than in sports or other games that appeal to most boys his age. Vincente, or Lester, as he was then known, spent much of his time alone, in his backyard "studio," a converted chicken coop. He would sit in a packing crate in the backyard and fantasize about being on an airplane or in an army tank. Minnelli's fertile imagination always gravitated toward the theater world with all its mysteries and intrigues.
Astrologists are inclined to predict that Pisceans are shy, imaginative, superstitious, emotional, and low-key. By his own account, Minnelli was certainly all of the above. As a child, he was cursed with a short attention span and found it hard to concentrate. For the rest of his life, Minnelli suffered from vagueness of memory for names, people, and places, a problem that caused him many public embarrassments.
Minnelli attributed his shyness to his strict upbringing, a combination of rigid Catholicism with a strict puritanical work ethos. As soon as his family's troupe reached a new destination, Mina took her son to an early mass. However, he wasn't blessed with his mother's piety and his experience as an altar boy was very brief.
One of Minnelli's most vivid childhood recollections was staring at his image in front of the mirror on the medicine cabinet and telling himself: "Here you are, nine years old, and what have you done? You're nothing, nothing but a failure." That persistent anxiety, the urgency to achieve higher and better, continued to haunt Minnelli for the durationof his life, even when he was at the peak of his career as M-G-M's highest-paid and most acclaimed director. No matter how much he accomplished, it was never enough.
Vincente's grandmother, May LeBeau, was not the typical stage mother, though she was aware of her daughter's talent and took Mina to auditions in Chicago, where the family had settled after emigrating from France. Minnelli's mother adopted the stage name of Mina Gennell, her surname deriving from a distant branch of her family. Minnelli believed that his mother could have become a Broadway star had she really been ambitious or liked the theater. But Mina was a reluctant star who lacked an emotional affinity for her calling. His mother's dislike of the stage rubbed off on Minnelli. Forced to perform, he felt like a boy who's unwillingly conscripted into the military.
Mina's sister, Amy, performed a trapeze act with the Ringling Brothers Circus, and Mina's brother was an equestrian. Minnelli didn't remember much about his uncle except that he, too, died young from a mysterious illness. Stories in the family circulated of how his uncle was humiliatingly reduced to being a circus clown. After his death, Aunt Amy left the circus and retired to Chicago with her sister. Never married, she looked after Grandmother LeBeau until the latter died.
Despite the rigid limitations, Minnelli never considered his upbringing to be horrible or boring; at times, it was even glamorous. Whenever they arrived in a new town, children bombarded him with questions about theater life on the road. To compensate for his loneliness, Minnelli would fabricate all kinds of tales that made road life sound much more fascinating than it really was.
Minnelli remembered the old Pullman trains, which took them from town to town. The company was composed of his father, mother, uncle, eight actors, and a manager, who all rode in the passengers' cars, while the crew were placed in the baggage cars with the tent. His father and uncle supervised the construction of the theater tent on a vacant lot, rented by an advance man, who also took care of the troupe's housing and other basic needs.
One of the early lessons Minnelli learned concerned the coexistence of two codes of behavior--in public and in private. If he misbehaved or broke something at home, he was just cautioned to be more careful in the future. But it was a different story if he caused a problem on the roador involved hotel property. His father would then cast a warning look at him, and physical punishment would follow.
Minnelli's mom was in a road show when she met his father, then working as the show's musical conductor. Vincent Charlie Minnelli was a handsome, good-natured Sicilian. At their very first meeting, the couple fought hard over the kind of music to be used in Mina's act. His father thought that Mina was standoffish. For her part, Mina found him to be not only stubborn but a downright snob. Which meant that they were made for each other and their marriage was inevitable; it was only a matter of time before it happened.
After his parents got married, Mina joined the Minnelli Brothers Tent Theater. Though she didn't like the theater, Mina didn't find it easy to quit, as she was on her way to becoming a big star--"a Dresden China doll," a Chicago critic called her. But, ultimately, for Mina, acting was just a way of making a living.
Minnelli's parents were utterly devoted to each other. They conveyed a sense of commitment, almost in defiance of the more prevalent image of showbiz couples, notorious for their eccentricities, tempers, and quirks. There was not much erotic passion between them, but they compensated for sex with tenderness and love. As a mature man who would divorce three times and would finally find happiness with his fourth wife, Lee Anderson, during the last decade of his life, Minnelli became even more appreciative of the durability of his parents' union than he was as a boy. And like his parents, he learned quickly how to separate sex from marriage, or sex from love, particularly during his first marriage, to Judy Garland.
Minnelli's father became a musician, just like his father, Professor Minnelli. His grandfather moved from the bustling city of Palermo in Sicily to the small town of Delaware, Ohio, to head the music department of Wesleyan University. After settling in Delaware, he became known as the town's most eccentric resident. Professor Minnelli walked to work while singing to himself oratorios from beginning to end and whacking at flowers with his rattan cane. Half a block later he would run back to whack any flowers he had missed along the way the first time. Living up to the stereotype of academics, Professor Minnelli was vague and easily distracted. Following in his footsteps, Minnelli would become as absentminded as his grandfather, but without the academic career to match the stereotype.
Each morning before going to school, Professor Minnelli worked in his garden. He typically wore a black Prince Albert coat, a heavily starched white shirt, and white trousers. Grandma would often force him to change his muddy clothes before leaving for school. One morning, Professor Minnelli set out to prune the branches off a tree, when the branch he was sitting on suddenly collapsed. He died from his injuries the following morning at the hospital. The details of the accident would become the stuff of family folklore, told and retold by Minnelli to his friends in different versions.
After her husband's death, Minnelli's grandmother married a farmer named Maine, but it was not a happy marriage. They had one daughter together, and when she was grown up, they divorced. Minnelli remembered the care with which his grandmother prepared for Christmas in Chicago, the beautiful crystal and china she displayed, the quantities of food she made.
One of his most treasured toys was the Dancing Sambo his grandmother gave him as a child, though at the time he was unaware of the toy's racist character. Later, in Hollywood, he would seldom display the Sambo in public, instead keeping it in a secret place, but he never got rid of it.
Minnelli also recalled the disapproving glances of Grandmother Maine whenever Aunt Stella, Uncle Frank's second wife, was in the same room. Stella was young and pretty, but from his grandmother's religious perspective, Stella was frivolous. Stella was a far cry from Aunt Edna, Frank's first wife. Uncle Frank had built Stella a special room in the house, and the young Minnelli loved visiting them. In the future, he would accommodate Judy Garland's request to have a private space of her own in their house, fondly recalling Frank and Stella.
As a young boy, Minnelli felt the sadness in his family, a logical result of the multiple deaths they had endured. Aunt Edna and her daughter Francine, with whom Minnelli shared a love for music and literature, had both died of consumption.
For one year Minnelli went to school in Wheeling, West Virginia, where his mom was appearing in stock. He hated the experience because it called for yet another relocation and readjustment. His mother wouldget up early in the morning to go to mass, then return home to fix breakfast and take him to school. After four hours of rehearsals, Mina would take Minnelli back to the boardinghouse for lunch, walk him to school, and then head back to the theater for the matinée performance.
After school, Minnelli would go to the theater and watch his mother perform from the wings. When he got tired, he would slip into her wardrobe trunk for a catnap. At the end of the show Mina would take him home, feed him, put him to bed, and return to the theater for the evening performance. As a child, Minnelli liked to sing himself to sleep. He would make up tunes while holding at bay the goblins beneath the bed. It was a way to endure the intolerable loneliness that continued to plague him for the rest of his life.
Because of endless touring, Minnelli understood why his mother was desperate to establish roots somewhere--anywhere. In later years, Minnelli would experience the same yearning for home but would never have it, in the real sense of the word. In their efforts to settle down, the Minnellis bought a house in Delaware, Ohio. Situated across town from where his grandmother and aunt lived, the Minnellis' house was at the end of the trolley line, about one mile from the center. It was an ordinary house, but to his mom, just having a permanent residence was a cause for joy and celebration.
To avoid paying royalties, it was customary at the time to use pirated editions of Broadway shows and tunes. Because the offerings of the touring companies weren't sufficient enough entertainment for the culturally starved residents, the towns produced their own plays with local talent. For years the Minnellis themselves toured the Plains states every summer, bringing "real culture" to people like the Smith family in Minnelli's future musical film, Meet Me in St. Louis, set in 1904. Soon, though, silent movies killed the tent-show business. Money became scarce and the Minnellis experienced rough times.
Delaware was a conventional town. The birthplace of Rutherford B. Hayes, it was located a few miles north of Marion, where Warren G. Harding ran a newspaper. Minnelli would recall the tree-shaded streets of this university town set in a semirural area. The houses were furnished with bilious green sofas, tiny rosebuds in the ceilings, wallpaper, andpongee curtains, all of which Minnelli would later re-create in his movies.
Starting up housekeeping at a relatively late age, Mina didn't possess the Victorian attitude that other housewives had at the time. More modern, she decorated the house with golden oak furniture and chintz fabrics. Minnelli learned to appreciate these decorations by looking at them through his mother's eyes. He would stand in front of an art object and stare at it for hours from different perspectives, a skill he would later use as a director.
Significantly, Minnelli's formative years were shaped by a uniquely female sensibility since he was always surrounded by women. This background would account for his effeminate behavior and for what was considered to be distinctly female aesthetics.
Minnelli's father would come home and talk for hours about everything he did or saw during his professional travels. Already enormously curious, Minnelli insisted on hearing about each and every detail of life on the road. From a very young age Minnelli learned how to recycle his life experiences and apply them to new creative endeavors. His most basic mental images stemmed from his childhood days on the road. Minnelli perceived life as one endless free association, linked by strong imaginative flights and random experiences that often defy clear logic or rationality.
Minnelli was seven when his mother took him to a matinée show in the city. When the curtains parted, he saw a blond girl sitting on a crescent moon. The stage was black, with a single spotlight on the young girl, who sang "Shine On, Harvest Moon." The effect became even more dazzling as the moon started to move toward the audience. Years later Minnelli would use the same device, a crane covered in black velvet pushed around by men also dressed in black velvet, in his Broadway show The Show Is On.
Similarly, Minnelli would borrow the red tam-o'-shanter that his aunt Anna used to wear for the costume of the maid (played by Marjorie Main) in Meet Me in St. Louis. And he would turn Aunt Anna into the character of Aunt Elsie in his movie The Long, Long Trailer, starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. In that film Lucy says, "This is poor Elsie," by way of introduction of the silent woman. Desi Arnaz's eyebrows shoot up. "Well, she's very shy," Lucy explains. "She doesn't meet people, she doesn't shake hands," all references to Minnelli's real-life aunt.
Minnelli again revisited his childhood when he re-created the small-town carnival for his 1958 melodrama, Some Came Running. Booths were set up in front of the stores, which were just like those on Sandusky, the main street of Delaware, Ohio, along with a merry-go-round and Ferris wheel. Banners and bunting transformed the dreary business streets during these fall shows, which were attended by people from all the neighboring communities.
Minnelli's boundless flights of fantasy took him to the exotic locales in the books he was reading. He would transport himself to Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads, or envision himself in the midst of an O. Henry story. Minnelli became such an expert on his father's books that after hearing just a few lines, he could guess from which book the text was drawn. With his imagination fully absorbing the tall tales, Minnelli determined to be far nobler than a character like Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities.
Minnelli didn't make it as an actor in the tent theater, but by immersing himself in those books, his imagination became more limitless and filled with derring-do. In time, Minnelli didn't need books to stimulate him. Stretched on the floor with a pad, he began creating his own fanciful images, placing himself in all kinds of idiosyncratic locales.
Minnelli could quote from Snappy Stories, Life, and the other magazines Uncle Frank had lent him. More sophisticated than his dad, Uncle Frank became a mentor, exposing Minnelli to a wider world. Minnelli was already envisioning life on a grander scale, with an insatiable hunger for sophistication that would continue into his teens and twenties.
Though they couldn't afford drawing lessons, Minnelli's parents encouraged him to pursue his artistic interests. After school his father allowed him to use the chicken coop in the backyard as a studio. It was there that Minnelli spent his loneliest--and happiest--hours. By that time, as painful as it was, Minnelli had already learned to value his solitude and take full advantage of the amazing bursts of creativity that it enabled. Occasionally Minnelli would ride his bike with friends or go skating and swimming in an abandoned quarry. He would also fight with neighbors for the privilege of swinging the trolley car around when it reached the end of the line. But his heart was really not in those male activities.
Along with his tours as music conductor, Minnelli's father had local engagements. Making a living was more difficult after his father became afflicted with rheumatism. Minnelli's mother scraped by in near-poverty to raise the family in a normal, satisfying way.
Though encouraging his son's artistic inclinations, Minnelli's father refused to allow him to study music because there was no money in it; somebody in the family had to be pragmatic. When Minnelli showed him his paintings, his father would look at them and say, "It's good, but it isn't up to your usual standards"--as if he had established any standards. Minnelli would then go back to his chicken coop and try to do better. In later years Minnelli realized that his father was teaching him a useful lesson: Never be fully satisfied with your work, always strive to do better.
Minnelli's parents didn't hang his drawings on their walls, nor were his "artworks" shown in school. But he didn't worry. While Minnelli was still in grade school, a sign painter offered him a job making show cards to be displayed in store windows. Minnelli's apprenticeship was cut short due to the drinking habits of his boss, forcing him to fill in for his absent employer to deliver an order on time. Gradually he inherited all of his supervisor's customers, who much preferred dealing with him than with his stern boss.
At one point he was hired to go to Columbus, eighteen miles away, to paint show cards and do artwork for various conventions. Minnelli gave his entire wages to his parents. Family money was so tight that he couldn't indulge himself in any luxury. The family's frugal existence taught Minnelli to get as much use out of his clothes and shoes as possible. Even after he became a successful director, waste of any kind was a cardinal sin in Minnelli's vocabulary.
One summer, a neighbor got Minnelli a job helping a farmer. He had to report at six o'clock in the morning to help with the daily chores. Not used to any physical work, Minnelli came home on the verge of collapse after the very first day.
"How much do you get paid?" Minnelli's father inquired.
"A dollar a week," Minnelli said.
His father strongly disapproved.
The next day the farmer brought a steer and asked Minnelli to hold it before hitting the steer with a sledgehammer right between the eyes.After letting out a horrible sound, with blood trickling down its face, the steer collapsed. The farmer then asked Minnelli to hold a hose on the carcass, while he began butchering it. Minnelli could barely control his nausea. When he came home, he was sick and threw up all night.
The boy was too sensitive for this kind of grueling job. After a brief family consultation, his father decided that Minnelli was not going back to work. Inspired by his industrious mother who, to make ends meet, always kept busy, Minnelli began looking for another job right away.
At age thirteen, Minnelli accomplished his most ambitious assignment to date. He repainted the curtain of the local movie theater. The painted pillars had draperies with square boxes at each side, to be filled in with ads. A truck arrived at Minnelli's house and the enormous curtain was unloaded. Unfortunately, while he was painting the curtain, it began to rain and the colors started running, threatening to damage the fabric. To protect it from the rain, his father placed a canvas over the curtain, and Minnelli was forced to finish the job much more quickly than he had intended. Needless to say, the end result didn't please him.
Minnelli spent the first three years of high school at St. Mary's, where Sister Patricia became his mentor. A tall, slim woman, regal in bearing, Sister Patricia instilled in him enormous faith in himself and his personal hobbies. Because St. Mary's had no twelfth grade, he was sent for his last year to Willis High School in Columbus.
Minnelli tried acting again, playing Deadeye Dick in the school's production of H.M.S. Pinafore. This was followed by the lead role in The Fortune Hunter at the Delaware opera house, which was left vacant after the town was dropped from the vaudeville circuit.
Too shy to court girls, Minnelli worshiped them from afar, perceiving them as "goddesses to be placed on a pedestal." He was too timid to ask a girl for a date out on the town. During this period he had cultivated only one friendship with a girl, a classmate who introduced him to the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other writers.
Minnelli's shyness would become a major problem when he moved to Hollywood, an industry known for its toughness and aggressiveness. But his courtly, gentlemanly manner would prove a major asset in dealing with and courting women, who found it an old-fashioned yet vastlyappealing quality. Some of the problems he would encounter in his marriage to Judy Garland, and in his role as father of Liza Minnelli, were based on what he himself knew was an "unrealistic" approach to women, treating them as deserving of soft and special treatment, even if it meant spoiling them.
With a population of six thousand, Delaware was too small to have an upper class, but Columbus boasted one with a lifestyle to match. Minnelli got his chance to experience it when, in his senior year, he attended high school in that city. At school, Minnelli came into contact with kids from the upper echelon and found socializing with them quite easy and natural. Minnelli shared his interests with them, particularly his love for classic literature and paintings and for the silent clowns Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Lacking any specific career plans, Minnelli felt that college would serve as a useful stopgap, allowing him time to figure out what he wanted to be or do. But the family could not afford to send him to college anywhere, not even in Ohio. Hence, at the young age of sixteen, having just graduated from high school, Minnelli left rural and provincial Delaware, Ohio, for urban and urbane Chicago. To this Midwestern adolescent, Chicago epitomized the Big City, with all the culture and sophistication he desired to experience.
VINCENTE MINNELLI. Copyright © 2009 by Emanuel Levy. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.