The first half of Elliott Nugent’s memoir, Events Leading Up to the Comedy, is pretty forgettable. Nugent, a classmate of James Thurber at Ohio State University, is probably best known for The Male Animal, the play he co-wrote with Thurber. The son of two professional actors, Nugent first hits the boards at the age of eight, and after his graduation from college, became an actor himself.
He soon expanded into writing, and quickly gained a hit on Broadway with Kempy, in which he co-starred with his father and sister. He married a fellow player, Norma Lee, and became a producer and director as well.
In 1929, MGM picked up an option to use him in their movies, and his first starring role was in “Wise Girls,” the film version of Kempy. Then, starting with “The Mouthpiece” in 1932, he became a film director as well. He went on to play in over twenty movies and direct over thirty–few of them much remembered today, however.
Despite its rich potential for anecdotes, though, Nugent relates his story in an uninspired, “this happened, and then this happened” manner that would have led me to set the book aside after a few chapters had there not been a promise of something remarkable to come.
That something is an account of his battle with an illness he never actually labels, but which has all the signs of manic depression. Starting in the mid-1940s, Nugent’s pace of activities reached a frenzy. At one point, he watched in make-up the opening act of a play he was producing, then cut across the alley and took his first entrance in another play he was performing in. Aggravated by too much drinking and too little sleep, his few reserves of patience and perspective were exhausted and he began acting erratically.
He would go for days on end from work to parties to spur-of-the-moment trips, spending wildly, accosting strangers, and launching into angry tirades against long-standing friends. Then, days later, he found himself toying with the idea of suicide:
I scribbled a note to Norma, shoved it deep in a trouser pocket, got in my car, and drove to the Roosevelt Hotel. I remembered a certain fire escape on the tenth floor and in the back of the building, near the room my father used to occupy.
I checked my hat and coat downstairs, then rode up in the elevator, nodding to the operator as if I were one of the guests in the hotel. I pulled open the hall door to the fire-escape door, went outside, and closed it, then peered over the railing to the alley ten stories below. Instead of climbing the railing, I lighted a cigarette and sat on the railing, experimentally teetering a bit. In another moment, I might have toppled over backward, but the door opened and a stranger emerged. He gave me a curious look.
“It’s getting colder,” I said casually. “I don’t think I’ll stay out here very long.”
I offered the man a cigarette, bu he refused and went inside. I imagined that he could see me through the Venetian blinds of my father’s old room. Abruptly I rose and went downstairs, almost without thinking or making any decision.
Nugent’s behavior reached a point where his wife resorted to having him committed to a Connecticut mental hospital known as the Institute of the Living. There, he was subjected to most the known treatments of the day short of electric shock: drugs, wrapping in cold towels, spending nights in tepid baths, and insulin shock. The latter finally brought him to a level of self-control that convinced his wife and psychiatrist to release him.
Within months, however, he was back on a high. This time, he headed off on a cross-country tear that landed him in jails in Palm Springs and Hollywood and nearly got him drowned in riptides off Acapulco. His wife finally tracked him down after he returned to New York and checked into four different hotels under four different names–all in the course of one day. This time, he was sent to Bellevue Hospital and then a reputable facility upstate.
Nugent’s account of his bouts of manic depression reminded me very much of those of Washington Post publisher Phil Graham–as seen from the perspective of his wife, Katharine, in her memoir, Personal History. Except that Nugent survived where Graham took his life. Both men’s illness was ineptly treated, though they had access to the best care available, and endured by their bewildered family and friends.
Written in 1965, nearly twenty years after the start of Nugent’s illness, Events Leading Up to the Comedy comes to a rather abrupt end. Aside from the need to “try to forgive myself,” Nugent takes no great lesson from his experiences.
Perhaps, as a writer of light, comedic plays, Nugent lacked the darkness of imagination to really convey the terrors of his depressions. The passage above, for example, is utterly matter-of-fact–no different in tone, really, from that of the rest of the book. And so, in the end, Events Leading Up to the Comedy amounts to an interesting but not particularly moving account of mental illness.
Nugent, whose stage and film career ended by the late 1950s, wrote one other book after this memoir. Of Cheat and Charmer tells of the end of a Hollywood film director on a bout of drinking and fighting and womanizing that must draw heavily on Nugent’s own adventures while on manic highs. Nugent died in New York City in 1980.