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Life Isn't Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends

Review

Life Isn't Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends

“Men are divided into two groups,” a friend of Mike Nichols says on the first page of this book. “There are guys who want to be Babe Ruth, and there are guys who want to be Mike Nichols. That’s it.”

Yes, that’s it, if you’re collecting Social Security. Younger men don’t know or care much about Babe Ruth; they barely remember Michael Jordan. And as for Mike Nichols, who died in long-ago 2014… Mike who? Oh, he’s one of the elite, who won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — but can you name one thing he directed? The Graduate. Really?

So. It is stipulated that Mike Nichols was famous for many of his 83 years. And that these are stories from his equally famous friends: Richard Burton, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Kushner, Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, Robin Williams, Emma Thompson, and 90+ others in a who’s who of late-20th-century show business.

" I skipped over the long Nichols-and-May section that will be catnip to some oldsters, but everything else grabbed me hard.... Yes, the show biz stories are great. But the pathology is the hook."

Stipulate also that although there is a long section about the Nichols-and-May years that launched his career, there is no contribution from Elaine May. And that the book skids over his three previous marriages and his three children, focusing instead on his fourth marriage, to Diane Sawyer. And that there is no mention of what a biography of Richard Avedon --- AVEDON: Something Personal --- describes as Nichols’ secret 10-year affair with the photographer.

Stipulate all those omissions, and you still get a book you can’t put down. Okay, I skipped over the long Nichols-and-May section that will be catnip to some oldsters, but everything else grabbed me hard. Just for the account of an outsider who felt like an alien no matter how successful he became. Just for the sense that everything he had could be taken away in an instant. I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that no matter how much I achieve, I’m never quite enough, which is why I think you’ll read this book non-stop. Yes, the show biz stories are great. But the pathology is the hook. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Here’s the “Rosebud” of this life: He was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in 1931 Berlin. His family fled Nazi Germany late --- in 1939 --- and changed their name in New York City. At four, a reaction to vaccination for whooping cough caused him to suffer alopecia, which cost him every hair on his body and condemned him to a lifetime toupee. Yes, he was the first director to be paid a million dollars for a movie, and the first director to get five percent of a play’s gross. It was never enough.

Some samples…

DAVID HARE (playwright): Mike liked being Mike Nichols: very, very good at his job and known to be very, very good at his job. He got this tremendous sensual pleasure from being in America. He liked being king in his town. But underneath it, there was that sense that he’d come out of the midcentury catastrophe --- that he’d managed to get out, and very few people had.

EMANUEL AZENBERG (producer): It would be presumptuous to try to figure out Mike’s life, but you can’t get away from the fact that he escaped the Nazis.

JEREMY IRONS (actor): In a way he was carrying the flag for those dead brethren, not wasting his life, because his had been given to him while it hadn’t to many others.

ROBERT NICHOLS (brother): My mother always emphasized how extraordinarily intelligent our father was. And yet: Hitler became chancellor in 1933. It was obvious --- the dislike and humiliation of Jews was out there --- but my father didn’t leave for five years. Why the hell did he stay around? German Jews often feel more German than Jewish, and I’m afraid my father might have been one of those.

HANNAH ROTH SORKIN: He would never ever, ever touch anything vaguely Holocaust-related. He had tremendous survivor guilt.

PETER LAWRENCE (stage manager): At the opening of “Death and the Maiden,” I was standing in front of the theater talking to Fred Zollo, the producer, when Mike drove up in a huge, top-of-the-line Mercedes that he had just bought. When Mike got out of the car, Fred said, “It’s the Mengele 500.” The next day, Mike sold the car.

PAUL SIMON (musician): We were once at dinner with Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey, and Tina said that she speaks German. I think Mike was surprised. They started talking about how people who speak German don’t tell you that their second language is German.

RENATA ADLER: Mike and I came from similar backgrounds. We were both refugees. Our first language was German. Every once in a while, he would use a little phrase from our childhood, “Riech mal dran,” if there was a question whether something was spoiled or not. Meaning literally, “Smell at it.” Quotations, jokes, rhymes.

CANDICE BERGEN: At what age did he become “Mike”? Because it couldn’t have been easy being Igor in New York at that time. I don’t think any child was ever put through more.

ART GARFUNKEL: Let’s face it: “Mike Nichols” is a construction of a human being. He is busy leaving this guy who left Germany behind and becoming a very appealing American guy named Mike Nichols. What a choice: Mike Nichols.

RENATA ADLER: Mike said that if you are a refugee, you begin to read people’s minds. Which is true in a way. It’s from learning a style of comprehension. In order to assimilate, to become one of them.

There was a big upside to being Mike Nichols. He knew how to direct, and as you watch him do it, you learn how to do it --- even if you’re only directing a kitchen staff. You learn how to use humor to deliver the hammer blows of tragedy. You learn that drama is about relationships, not plots. And you learn that you are an actor, acting your life. Mike Nichols paid a price for that. By the end of this book, you won’t envy him. But you will understand him. And you’ll have some fresh compassion for the Nichols in you.

Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth for HeadButler.com on January 10, 2020

Life Isn't Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends
by Ash Carter and Sam Kashner

  • Publication Date: November 12, 2019
  • Genres: Biography, Entertainment, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 1250112877
  • ISBN-13: 9781250112873