If you remember Andy Williams at all, you remember “Moon River,” the easy smile, the colorful sweaters. He was among the last clean-cut crooners to hit before rock dirtied up the scene. His career was a stubborn refutation of ’60s Sturm und Drang—where hip singers were dazed and confused, Andy had a Happy Heart. (Small wonder his “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” was successfully covered by a ska band, whose peppy approach to romantic loss mirrored Andy’s.) Abbie Hoffman said, “Kill your parents”; Andy Williams did Christmas specials with his.
Have you ever wondered about the real man behind the theme from Love Story? Me neither, but the very existence of Moon River and Me, the autobiography Williams penned while overseeing his successful Branson theater and restaurant, made me want to see what Ol’ Yellow Sweaters brought to the celebrity bio game.
Andy’s book has a few racy tales, and some folks he encounters on his rise to fame don’t come off well (like Fred MacMurray, tight with a buck and, per his wife, “hung like a horse”). But the voice is Andy’s, which—predictably, but not at all disappointingly—is a little corny and a lot positive, even when he’s reflecting on his acid trips.
Acid trips? He took those under a doctor’s supervision in Canada. He experienced “heightened senses” and mood swings, and at the end he was . . . Andy. “I’m not sure if the LSD experience ultimately did me any real good overall,” he muses, “but . . . it was probably the first time in many years that I had taken even a few days away from my career.” That’s our boy—the only thing that keeps him from the workbench is hallucinations.
Hard work began early for Andy in Wall Lake, Iowa, where “very little disturbed the sleepy calm” except the Williams Brothers ceaselessly rehearsing. Their showbiz-mad father drives them relentlessly, moving house constantly in search of opportunities, and tells them, in his hard-but-loving way, that they’re just not good enough, and must ignore whatever other ambitions they have until they are.
Andy starts “taking a bottle of beer in my lunch box to school every day” at 14, has an affair with a 37-year-old at 17, and is deferred from a second stint of military service at 21 because of a stomach ulcer; by the time the Williams Brothers get to Vegas in 1947, Andy has taken commands to smile for the audience so to heart that he develops a “rictal grin” and “was still smiling when I fell asleep . . . my jaw muscles ached all day.” Hence the famous Andy charm. As he says later, “Being spontaneous takes an awful lot of rehearsal!” (And vomiting.)
The Williams Brothers score a hit in Vegas with Kay Thompson (“We all felt a certain ambivalence about the gangster for whom we worked,” Andy admits), and move on to Hollywood. There, Andy dubs the singing voice of Lauren Bacall and is kissed by a homosexual (“It was OK with me if you wanted to walk on that side of the street, but it wasn’t for me”). His brothers flee show business at their first chance, but Andy takes up with Thompson (19 years his senior) and tries to crack the New York club circuit as a solo. It doesn’t go well, leading to one of the book’s many classic lines: “Now I was apparently such a has-been that I’d been reduced to eating dog food.”
But Andy has an epiphany: He’d been trying to win the audience with Noël Coward numbers foisted on him by Thompson—now, he’ll go pop. But well-rehearsed pop! Before his big New York debut, “I sat down on the sofa, lay back, and closed my eyes for a few minutes . . . it did me good to shut out the world and retreat into my own thoughts.” If you expect here, or anywhere else in Moon River and Me, a moment of introspection, you’ll be disappointed: “I went over and over my act in my mind, running through the lyrics of each song . . .”
Andy knocks ’em dead, and from there, it’s blue skies: TV, hit records, celebrity anecdotes. (An accompanist for Marlene Dietrich tells Andy that the actress had a “special” LP made that contains nothing but his “Hawaiian Wedding Song” repeated over and over, tempting us to imagine Dietrich crooning, “Now that we are one/Clouds won’t hide the sun,” drunk and wearing a grass skirt.)
But what changes does this wring on Andy the man? Well, he switches from older women to younger—including, when he’s 49, a 20-year-old baton twirler—and develops outside interests, like collecting modern art. What Andy sees in Mark Rothko et al. is hard to say, or at least hard for him to say (“Steve [Martin] knows about art in an intellectual way. I don’t. I buy from the seat of my pants”). But he usually turns a profit on the paintings he sells and, perhaps encouraged by that, collects more until he’s “run out of wall space.”
Andy has one apparent hero: Robert Kennedy. He admires the senator’s way of “cutting through the bullshit” and “lighting up a room”—he has principles and charisma! The two grow close enough that Andy asks Bobby on the beach at Malibu whether, after Jack, “the fear of another assassin preyed on his mind.” (What sweater, I wonder, is appropriate for such a question?) When Bobby is cut down, Andy tearfully gives his own tie to be placed on the corpse as it is prepared for the funeral—a detail that will haunt my sleep forever.
What does Andy believe in now? Success, mostly. The existential questions that sometimes haunt him in the book (“Why wasn’t I happy? Why wasn’t I feeling well physically?”) are always solved by disciplined action: rehearsal, another marriage, getting off Pritikin. Andy’s always in for the big win. Even after RFK’s death, he finds, “one good thing came out of that bitter experience for me . . . as we passed the Richard Gray Gallery, I caught a glimpse of a painting . . .” And, do you know, that painting was a Hans Hofmann, “recently valued over $1 million.”
In short, Moon River and Me is Forrest Gump as outlined by Thomas Mann and written by Peggy Noonan, and it gave me more pleasure than any other book I’ve read this year. Get it soon from a remainder bin near you!
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 13, 2009