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Cumming’s new book filled with showbiz tales

But ‘Baggage’ is no vapid, Tinsel Town celeb concoction

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Alan Cumming’s new book is a worthy followup to his biography. (Photo by Josh Going — @joshuagoingphoto)

It was the night of the Tony Awards. Actor, singer, writer, and activist Alan Cumming had just received a Tony for his performance as the emcee in the 1998 revival of “Cabaret.” He was in the press room, giving soundbites to the media.

In the middle of one interview, “A hand appeared on my left shoulder, a tall body joined it to my right,” Cumming, who was born and grew up in rural Scotland, writes in his new memoir “Baggage: Tales From a Fully Packed Life.”

For a second, Cumming thought he was being mugged. But, the stranger hugging him was Sean Connery, a fellow Scot, known for playing James Bond. Connery had won a Tony as a producer of the play “Art.” Connery, looking into the cameras, said of Cumming, “This is my new son.”

He took Ecstasy that night at the Tonys, Cumming reveals in “Baggage.” The drug for him was, ”my self-prescribed anti-anxiety medication,” Cumming writes, “And it worked.”

For most of us, winning a Tony for an acclaimed revival of “Cabaret” would be merely a fantasy. For Cumming, winning the prestigious award is just one of many accomplishments.

Walt Whitman said he contained multitudes. Cumming, 56, who is bisexual and married to the illustrator Grant Shaffer, is Whitman on octane.

Cumming is a polymath. He has appeared in numerous films, plays and TV shows. He’s written two children’s books; a novel; a book of photographs and stories; and the memoir “Not My Father’s Son.”

His film roles range from the James Bond movie “GoldenEye” to “Eyes Wide Shut” to the “Spy Kids” trilogy. Cumming has won the Olivier, BAFTA and Emmy for his stage and screen work. On the London stage, Cumming has performed in “Hamlet,” “Bent” and other plays.

He has appeared in the “Threepenny Opera” and “Design for Living” on Broadway. Cumming created and appeared in his one-man adaptation of “Macbeth.”

On TV, he is known for playing Eli Gold on “The Good Wife” and Dylan Reinhart on “Instinct,” the first broadcast television drama to have a lead gay character. Recently, Cumming played  Mayor Aloysius Menlove on the Apple TV+ show “Schmigadoon!” 

All of this would exhaust most of us. But Cumming has energy to spare. He hosts the podcast “Alan Cumming’s Shelves” and is the amateur barman at Club Cumming in New York City.

Cumming is known for his LGBTQ rights advocacy. He has worked for marriage equality in Scotland and with the Human Rights Campaign and other LGBTQ organizations. 

In 2009, Cumming was appointed an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List. In “Baggage,” Cumming writes that he received this honor because of his work for LGBT rights.Cumming’s first memoir “Not My Father’s Son” is the story of his harrowing childhood. Growing up, Cumming endured  physical and psychological abuse and violence from his father. In the memoir, Cumming grapples with secrecy and shame and with the post traumatic stress brought on by his father’s sadistic treatment of him. “There is never shame in being open and honest,” he writes.

“Baggage” tells many entertaining showbiz stories. Who wouldn’t want to hear the tales of a writer whose friends include Liza (as in Liza with a Z)?

Yet, “Baggage” isn’t a vapid, Tinsel Town celeb concoction. In “Baggage,” Cumming examines his relationships to his family, significant others and himself. It begins with his divorce from the actress Hilary Lyon and ends with his marriage to Shaffer.

Cumming, who has dual United Kingdom/United States citizenship, talked with the Blade by phone about a range of topics from “Baggage” to politics to getting Helen Mirren on board with crocs.

Cumming was pleased by the positive response to “Not My Father’s Son.” He was happy that readers felt his words helped them to confront people who had abused them and to “reckon” with their shame.

But, Cumming worried that people might think he’d “triumphed” over the despair caused by his father’s abuse. That he’d never encounter this trauma again.

“I wrote ‘Baggage,’” Cumming said, “to overcome this idea of triumph.”

“You don’t actually recover,” he added, “you manage it. You always have to manage it.”

Cumming is witty and exudes hopefulness. But, he’s worried about what the future might bring for LGBTQ and women’s rights. The election of Joe Biden as president “was a real reprieve,” Cumming said, “but the way we’re headed, things could go the other way any second.”

We need to be vigilant, Cumming said. “Women’s rights – with what’s happening with abortion in Texas – are in real danger,” he said.

But life isn’t all worries for Cumming.

There is his work. In 2022, he’ll continue performing “Och and Oy! A Considered Cabaret” with NPR’s Ari Shapiro. He’s making the film “Rare Objects” with Katie Holmes.

And there are his friends. “Liza is lovely,” Cumming said of his friend Liza Minnelli. One day, Cumming was rehearsing with Minnelli. Along with Joel Grey, Bebe Neuwirth, Chita Rivera and other celebs, they were going to put on a salute to the songwriting team Kander and Ebb.

They were going to perform Minnelli’s signature song “New York, New York.” “It looked so easy,” Cumming said, “But I couldn’t get Liza’s dance moves. First, Liza tried to help me.”

But, without success. “Then Chita came over to help me,” Cumming said, “it was overwhelming having two legends trying to teach me.”

After these attempts failed, Minnelli said to him, “Oh, darling, just make it your own!”

There was the time when Cumming made Helen Mirren see the light on Crocs. He was in Hawaii filming “The Tempest” with Mirren. “We were in the desert. I’d wear my Crocs,” he said, “she said my Crocs were ugly.”

“I said, ‘Helen, that’s fair enough. But when I say things are ugly, I use my inside voice,’” Cumming added.

A few weeks later, Cumming saw Mirren. She was wearing Crocs. “She said she’d been wearing flip-flops and they made her feet sore. Now she loved Crocs.”

“I told her ‘you were a hater, now you’re a lover,” Cumming added, “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Cumming is currently on a book tour in the U.K. The tour stops in Miami on Nov. 20; Chicago on Nov. 21 and several other U.S. cities through spring 2022. For more info on Cumming’s new book, visit alancumming.com.

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Love of baseball unites father, gay son

‘Magic Season’ explores family life after a tragedy

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(Image courtesy of Hanover Square Press)

‘Magic Season: A Son’s Story’
By Wade Rouse
c.2022, Hanover Square Press
$27.99/ 304 pages

You’ve always looked up to your dad.

Sometimes it happened literally, like when you were a child and “up” was the only way to see his face hovering over yours. You’ve looked up at him in anger, embarrassment, dismissal, and yeah, you’ve looked up to him in the best ways, too – never forgetting, as in the memoir “Magic Season” by Wade Rouse, that sometimes, the hardest thing is seeing eye-to-eye.

Wade Rouse threw like a girl.

He couldn’t catch a baseball, either, and he wasn’t much of a runner as a young boy. He tried, because his father insisted on it but Rouse was better with words and books and thoughts. He was nothing like his elder brother, Todd, who was a natural hunter, a good sportsman, and an athlete, and their father never let Rouse forget it.

And yet, curiously, Rouse and his dad bonded over baseball.

Specifically, their love of Cardinals baseball became the one passion they shared. The stats, the players, the idea that “Anything can happen,” the hope that there’d be a World Series at the end of every season was the glue they needed. It was what saved them when Todd was killed in a motorcycle accident. When Rouse came out to his father, Cards baseball was what brought them back together after two years of estrangement.

In between games, though, and between seasons, there was yelling, cruelty, and all the times when father and son didn’t communicate. Rouse accepted, but didn’t like, his father’s alcoholism or his harsh life-lessons: his father didn’t like Rouse’s plans for his own future. Rouse admits that he cried a lot, and he was surprised at the rare times when his father displayed emotion – especially since an Ozarks man like Ted Rouse didn’t do things like that.

Until the time was right.

Love, Wade Rouse says, is “shaped like a baseball.” You catch it, throw it, or hit it out of the park, but “You don’t know where it’s going.”

Just be sure you never take “your eye off it, from beginning to end.”

Oh, my. “Magic Season” is a 10-hankie book.

First, though, you’re going to laugh because author Wade Rouse is a natural-born humorist and his family is a great launching-pad for him despite the splinters and near-clawing despair of the overall theme of this book. That sense of humor can’t seem to let a good story go, even when it’s obvious that there’s something heartbreaking waiting in the bullpen.

Which brings us to the father-son-baseball triple-play. It may seem to some readers that such a book has been done and done again, but this one feels different. Rouse excels at filling in the blanks on the other, essential teammates in this tale and, like any big skirmish, readers are left breathless, now knowing the final score until the last out.

If you like your memoirs sweet, but with a dash of spice and some tears, here you go. For you, “Magic Season” is a book to look up.

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Calhoun and O’Hara give us hope that art will still be a life force

New memoir ‘Also a Poet’ will inspire readers

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(Book cover image courtesy of Grove Press)

Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me
By Ada Calhoun
c.2022, Grove Press
$27/259 pages

Families. Especially if your parents are acclaimed writers and artists, they can get under your skin. They love you, but sometimes withhold praise and suck the air out of the room. You wonder if you’ll end up as a second-string imitation of your famous folks.

That was what growing up was like for writer Ada Calhoun, author of the new memoir “Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father and Me.”  

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy wrote in “Anna Karenina.”

If you’re queer, you know not only how right Tolstoy was, but that family tension makes for riveting reading.

Calhoun, a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in the East Village, doesn’t disappoint. 

Her parents are creative and talented. Her mother Brooke Alderson started out performing stand-up comedy in lesbian bars. Later, she was an actress whose most well-known roles were in “Urban Cowboy” and “Family Ties.”

Her father Peter Schjeldahl, born in 1942, is a poet and The New Yorker art critic.

Schjeldahl is far from a pompous gasbag. As The New York Times book critic Molly Young said recently, in his book “Hot, Cold, Heavy, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018,” Schjeldahl received, perhaps, the most awesome blurb ever. “Bruce is no longer the Boss; Schjeldahl is!” Steve Martin said of the volume.

Not surprisingly, Calhoun didn’t have a typical childhood.

Gay writer Christopher Isherwood, author of “The Berlin Stories,” was among those who Calhoun’s parents hung out with. “One of the most agreeable children imaginable,” Isherwood said of Calhoun when she was a child, “neither sulky nor sly nor pushy nor ugly, with a charming trustful smile for all of us.”

Most of us as kids see “The Nutcracker” with an aunt or grandma. Calhoun saw the holiday classic with a “dreamboat” poet. An artist posing topless so other painters could paint her wasn’t shocking to the young Calhoun.

While Calhoun’s Mom makes several memorable appearances, “Also a Poet” is focused on Calhoun’s relationship with her father.

Relationships between daughters and fathers can be difficult. But they’re often more fraught when the dad is a renowned writer. Especially when Calhoun, born in 1976, was growing up.

Then (thankfully, to a lesser extent, now) if you were a male writer, life in your household centered around you. You didn’t help with housework or pay much attention to your spouse and kids.

Though Calhoun was raised in the sophisticated East Village, life with her father fit this pattern. One day, Schjeldahl let her go alone, with no directions, at age eight on a bus to a friend’s birthday party. 

When she was young, Calhoun wanted to escape the Village literary life. “My typical answer was farmer because that was the most tangible, least cosmopolitan option I could think of,” Calhoun writes, when as a kid, people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. 

But Calhoun couldn’t evade the clutches of the writing bug. From early on, she wanted to get away from her father’s shadow. So her work could be judged on its own merit. She changed her last name from Schjeldahl to her middle name Calhoun.

Despite their difficulties, one thing bonded Calhoun with her dad: their love of Frank O’Hara, the openly queer poet and Museum of Modern Art curator, who died at 40 in a Jeep accident on Fire Island in 1966.

In the 1970s, Schjeldahl, who like so many poets, writers and artists then and now, idolized O’Hara, tried to write a biography of the beloved poet. But O’Hara’s sister and executor Maureen Granville-Smith derailed his attempt to write the bio.

But all wasn’t lost. Decades later, Calhoun discovered the tapes of the people (from Larry Rivers to Willem de Kooning) who Schjeldalhl had interviewed for the project in the basement of her parents’ building. 

In a magnificent Rubik’s Cube of literary history and memory, Calhoun weaves a tale of family and of making art. 

The memoir will inspire you to read O’Hara. O’Hara wrote funny and moving poems out of the pop culture and sadness of his time (from the “The Day Lady Died” on the death of Billie Holiday to the hilarious “Poem” – with the line “Lana Turner has collapsed!” to “Personal Poem” about Miles Davis being beaten by cops).

“His life force was on the page,” Grace Cavalieri, Maryland’s poet laureate and the producer/host of the radio show “The Poet and the Poem, said of O’Hara in an email to the Blade.

In this “Don’t Say Gay” era, Calhoun and O’Hara give us hope that art will still be a life force.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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New queer biographies make for ideal summer reading

Array of options, from somber to outlandish

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‘How You Get Famous’ by Nicole Pasulka is a fun read about drag in Brooklyn.

Another Pride month is in the can.

All that planning, preparation and execution of events is done, and now you find yourself with lots of time on your hands. So why not reach for one of these great memoirs to read?

A little bit of memoir, a little bit of sympathy, advice, and several biographies are at the heart of “Here and Queer: A Queer Girl’s Guide to Life” by Rowan Ellis, illustrated by Jacky Sheridan (Quarto, $14.99). This book leans mostly on the serious-but-lighter side, with plenty of colorful artwork and suggestions for teen girls on figuring out who they are and what it means. There are fun activities, quizzes, essays, and tips inside; readers will find plenty of one-liners to take away, a comprehensive timeline of LGBTQ history, and biographies that reflect women of many ages and races. That all makes this a book that even adult women and, perhaps, some questioning boys will appreciate.


Speaking of lighthearted, try “Start Without Me (I’ll Be There in a Minute)” by Gary Janetti (Holt, $27.99). TV producer, writer, social media star, and sometimes curmudgeon Janetti is annoyed. Mighty annoyed in several essays here, but his aggravation is not meant to bring readers down. It’s meant to make you laugh and – with very funny, wry takes on finding the perfect tan and the perfect man, friendship with a nun, hotel rooms, mothers-in-law, “The Wizard of Oz,” vacations, weddings, and more – you will.


For something a little more somber, reach for “Side Affects: On Being Trans and Feeling Bad” by Hil Malatino (University of Minnesota Press, $21.95). Honesty is at the root of this semi-biographical look at being trans: if you are trans, says Malatino, you may struggle with several righteously negative feelings you have — disconnect, anger, fear, numbness, burnout, exhaustion — feelings that exist, in part, because of the times in which we live now and the transphobia that seems to be everywhere. Counteracting these feelings – or, at least being able to survive and thrive despite them – may be as simple as some type of activism, and Malatino explains the details as he shares his own story as well as many case studies.


And finally, if you love watching or participating in drag, then you’ll absolutely love “How You Get Famous” by Nicole Pasulka (Simon & Schuster, $27.99). This book tells the story of a coat-check boy who loved performing in drag and who talked her bar-owning boss into letting her host a drag show in Brooklyn. But this was no one-night stand and soon, the event had a lot of fans – among them, dozens of “kids” who sneaked into the club to practice their acts next to experienced performers. But when you’re on the edge of what’s about to be a popular kind of entertainment, amateur status doesn’t last long enough – and neither does this upbeat, wonderful book.


And if these don’t fit the bill, be sure to ask your favorite booksellers or librarians for help. They’ve got your next best read in the can.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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