Reading Between the Lines:

A Memoir By Janis Paige

Golden Age Press

Reviewed by Salli Stevenson

I discovered Janis Paige in 1960 in Please Don't Eat the Daisies. She played my favorite "other woman" as she brought sly delight to her attempts to break up Doris Day and David Niven. 

As a rule, Paige played energetic upbeat characters, so I expected her memoir to reflect that quality. More than that and in collaboration with writer/editor Ray Richmond, Lines is a uniquely layered look at the "mixed messages" child abuse she suffered and a professional career in which her naivete helped her avoid, for the most part, the "me too" machine of Hollywood in the 1940s. Included are her worldwide travels, the people she met, her tours to Vietnam with Bob Hope and their influence on the way she dealt humorously with the barbs of life. Under the humor are darker levels.

Reading Between the Lines grabs you with its anecdotal wild ride through her showbiz life. Conversationally, she pulls you into the intimacies of her glamorous, turbulent, yet essentially lonely life. Her cerebral disarray was hidden by the "Hollywood" smile, until she discovered therapy late in life and a glowing new feeling of having finally claimed "personal" ownership of the totality of Donna Mae/Janis. 

Born in Tacoma, Washington in 1922, Donna Mae Tjaden was a Depression child. Poverty was her sidekick. Her cold, "me first" mother judged Donna Mae into invisibility. Though encouraged by her grandparents, she could not shake her feeling of being a shadow child ̶ invisible and completely undeserving of recognition.  At the age of five she discovered her lifelong love of singing. That gift she thought was hers was not hers to claim, her mother informed her in an ego kicking proclamation: it was her mother's gift. Donna Mae was just a reflection of her mother's talent.

Oddly, with this self-centered approach, her mother would actually construct the beginning of Donna's professional life, which led her to the USO Hollywood Canteen and onward to a multi-decade career starting with MGM, Warner Brothers and other film studios. On Broadway, she sang and danced lead and secondary roles in plays and musicals, most notably The Pajama Game and Mame. Vaudeville and television sharpened her comedic timing. Paige had her own series, It's Always Jan, for Desilu and later appeared in the soap operas, Capitol, General Hospital and Santa Barbara.

Illustrated by both theatrical and private pictures, Paige's memoirs are a banquet. It's hard to pick the funniest, best and saddest stories, but Marlene Dietrich, in a vulnerable moment with/without Adlai Stevenson, is astounding. Judy Garland, shortly before her death, is given a loving and painful view of some of the hard choices Paige made in her life. Curiously, different dinners shared with Frank Sinatra in a warm family Thanksgivings and her early dates, of a strikingly chaste nature, with Howard Hughes stand out. In her stint at Desilu, when Paige was late one morning (thanks to Vivian Vance) Lucille Ball reminded her that, "Time is money, Janis."

There were several encounters with a fabulously romantic David Niven, but the topper for me was her work with Fred Astaire in Silk Stockings, in their unrehearsed free fall at the end of their big number into an Al Jolson knee slide, which captured moments of the unflappable Astaire's film nerves.

Travels reveal Paige's adventurous side, both professional and fun. Two visits, one to Rome where she fell in love with the city, "I became Italian," while she filmed La Strada Buia, and the other to South Africa, where tribal practices alarmed her and gave her nightmares. Near the Cape she fell in love with Lucy the Ostrich and captured in adorable pictures of her. Christmas tours with Bob Hope to Asia and particularly Vietnam hold both devastating and shocking memories of visits with soldiers and highlights of performances for "our boys."  A later trip to Australia was recalled as magic.

The 97-year-old Paige gives intriguing insights into her private "people pleasing " life ̶ three marriages, miscarriages, the therapies she embraced, the sociopath who almost ruined her life, the loss of her singing voice, and the struggle to get it back towards the end of her career

Stylistically, her stories of people are accompanied by dates of births and deaths, or remembered quotes from the people ̶ unusual, but a tribute to each.  As this is a memoir, Paige freely includes her views of morality, truth and loyalty (both private and political); qualities she feels should be readopted in order to save our country from its current confusion.  For those to the right of the political line it may be a bit off-putting. I found it somewhat strident, but well intentioned.

Overall, Reading Between the Lines exposes a lifetime of some truths boldly excavated while others glossed over.  What happened between a lonely Christmas away from her husband, while performing in dinner theater and six years later when he died is left unsaid. There was a conflict. How was it resolved? No answer is given.

In reading and re-reading Paige's tome, I found clues to the puzzles that her journey hid between the lines on the page. There are tantalizing hints of what might have been that peek from behind a letter here and a phrase there, years overlooked or the elimination of a last name that shared a Manhattan evening during The Pajama Game. It is an engrossing exploration of a working actor that is, for the most part, generously shared and worth the read. 

̶ Salli Stevenson is a new reviewer for the Neworld Review

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