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Striking a fine balance with peace

Uma Mahadevan- Dasgupta  |  New Delhi 

It's a book I was least prepared to like. A celebrity movie star memoir, yoga as a theme, not one of my all-time favourite actresses in any case, and mostly written in that bland prose that characterises movie-star memoirs. Finding My Balance, by Mariel Hemingway, is all that.

But it is also more, because Mariel - Ernest Hemingway's grand-daughter "" actually turns out to be rather an interesting person in her own right. Don't expect scintillating prose, or Spanish bulls "" the only animals mentioned here are her beloved Labradors "" but nevertheless, the drop-dead gorgeous blonde heroine of Woody Allen's Manhattan and Bob Fosse's Star 80 isn't just a Hollywood bimbette.

She isn't even Hollywood. She's as Idaho as, well, a red-skinned potato. All Labrador retrievers and high-altitude hiking, Mariel Hemingway charms us by being less Hemingway and less Hollywood than we might have expected "" and more grounded in the very real business of living.

The book begins with a dedication to her 'beloved Guru Paramahamsa Yogananda', and then opens with the Mountain Pose. While this thread of yoga poses continues through the chapters, here are the facts of her life.

She was born in their family house near the Big Wood River, just a few miles from the cabin where her legendary grandfather had lived. Months before her birth, Hemingway had shot himself. It was the fourth suicide in his immediate family, and not the last. The 'Hemingway curse' seemed endless.

Mariel's mother, Byra 'Puck' Whitlesey, was an administrator for Sun Airlines when bellhop Jack Hemingway met her. They married, but not happily; and the unhappiness remained, to put a strain on the children from the beginning. Mariel had the added and rather 'dubious honour' of going to the Ernest Hemingway Elementary School, named after the grandfather who had killed himself.

Mariel was eleven, a self-confessed 'slow reader', when she began her own reading of her grandfather's works, and she began with the school-age favourite, The Old Man and the Sea. She persevered, as she would do all her life with what she had set out to do.

And then came the movies. Even in the limelight and glitter of cinema and Cannes, Mariel was still very much a young Idaho girl. After all, she did Lipstick when her mother was still undergoing chemotherapy.

She tells us of how, after the filming of Manhattan, she invited Woody Allen "" whom she earlier remembered only from seeing Sleeper, in which he played "the small, odd-appearing man who seemed to find great pleasure in rubbing an egg" "" to visit the family at their Idaho farm.

Wonder of wonders, he accepted. Even more surprising, he actually landed up there one cold November morning, and went up with them, accompanied by their 'slobbering Labradors', on a trail up a mountain.

As she tells us about it, she barely suppresses a giggle: "He arrived in Idaho on a dark November day. It was bitterly cold." Not surprisingly, the urban Allen left for New York soon after.

Not only was her parents' marriage a cold and loveless one, but also, the teenage Mariel found herself having to support her mother emotionally during her long battle with cancer. She was so young that even as she took her mother for chemotherapy at regular intervals, she would be hunting in the grass for four-leaf clovers.

Illness appeared in one form or the other in the family. After all, Hemingway blood rushed through the veins of the three sisters: the oldest, Muffet, and celebrated model and actress Margaux suffered long and deep bouts of emotional instability, exacerbated by bulimia, drug abuse and alcoholism.

And then, suddenly, enough was enough. Determined not to end up like the rest of her family members "" as anyone who has seen a parent suffer is bound to "" Mariel embarked upon a long and arduous dietary discipline, eating bizarre quantities of popcorn and drinking bottomless cups of coffee, starving herself of vital nutrients in the process. She had breast implants before Star 80, and then, when she had her children, found that silicone and lactation didn't go well together. She finally had the implants removed.

Emotionally, she found a rock in the form of Stephen Crisman, with whom she has had two daughters, and they are, today, she tells us with quiet satisfaction, a close-knit, happy family. Happy "" until real life comes up again, first in the form of her father's cardiac surgery, which ends in tragedy; and then, again, when Stephen is diagnosed with a rare form of melanoma. The family is again stricken, but they rally together, and come through.

Yoga, and sensible eating, have formed the basis of Mariel's peace of mind so far in life. The form of yoga itself has been arrived at after an unsatisfactory experience with Bikram yoga, and classes in Los Angeles from "Bikram himself": "He sat shirtless in a Speedo on red velvet cushions arranged like a throne. In his hand was a Coke or Pepsi to help fend off the 110-degree heat."

And then came Power Yoga at 'Yoga Works', again difficult: "The amount of time we spent in Downward Facing Dog Pose amazed me. It felt like a lifetime to my arms! When we went into the push up pose of Chaturanga, I was toast."

But she laughed, and shrugged, and stuck with the yoga itself -"" and today, as she runs her yoga studio in Idaho, that is what has helped her find that rare position called balance.

A refreshingly unpretentious memoir. No exaggerated weepfests, and no sanctimonious homilies. Just the calm, straightforward story of one person's life, and how she has come through so far. And I enjoyed it.


Mariel Hemingway

Simon and Schuster

Price: $ 24

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First Published: Mon, August 11 2003. 00:00 IST