Patricia Bosworth, Actress-Turned-Author, Dies at 86

those we’ve lost

She gave up the stage for the writing life, publishing biographies of some famous friends and two powerful memoirs. She died of the coronavirus.

Credit…Graham Bezant/Toronto Star, via Getty Images

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic.

Patricia Bosworth, who gave up acting for the writing life, turning her knowledge of the theater into a series of biographies and mining her own extraordinary life for a pair of powerful memoirs, died on Thursday in Manhattan. She was 86.

Her stepdaughter, Fia Hatsav, said the cause was complications of pneumonia brought on by the coronavirus.

Ms. Bosworth had some success as an actress. She was admitted to the Actors Studio in its glory days, learning method acting alongside Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. She won some important roles onstage and appeared alongside Audrey Hepburn on film.

But she always wanted to write, and she found material in the many friendships she had cultivated with luminaries in Hollywood, the theater world and elsewhere — Brando, Montgomery Clift and the photographer Diane Arbus among them.

She became a successful journalist as well, as an editor and writer for several publications. She was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair for many years.

Ms. Bosworth’s best subject, and the one that underlay most of her work, was her own eventful life. She explored it in “Anything Your Little Heart Desires: An American Family Story” (1997), which centers on her charismatic father, a lawyer who defended two of the Hollywood Ten in the postwar anti-Communist hysteria and saw his career destroyed by the blacklist; and “The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan” (2017), about her coming-of-age and emergence as a writer.

Suicide haunted her. Her father, who had long abused barbiturates and alcohol, killed himself, on his second try, in 1959. And her beloved younger brother shot himself in his dorm room at Reed College in Oregon in 1953, tormented by depression and conflicted over his homosexuality.

The subjects of Ms. Bosworth’s biographies were either suicides (Arbus), survivors of a relative’s suicide (Jane Fonda) or flamboyantly self-destructive (Clift, Brando). She explained that writing these books was “one of the ways I coped with and tried to understand why the two men I loved most in the world had decided to kill themselves.”

But as challenging as it may have been, Ms. Bosworth’s life was hardly grim.

Patricia Crum was born into privilege on April 24, 1933, in San Francisco, the daughter of Bartley Cavanaugh Crum and Anna Bosworth Crum, who was known as Cutsie. Her mother was a former crime reporter who wrote several novels, among them “Strumpet Wind” (1938).

Her father, who was known as Bart, encouraged Patricia’s acting aspirations, and it was he who advised her to take her mother’s maiden name — depriving future critics of the chance, as she put it, to castigate a “crummy performance by Patricia Crum.”

During Ms. Bosworth’s childhood, her father practiced law in San Francisco and served as an adviser to the liberal-leaning internationalist Wendell Willkie in his Republican presidential campaign in 1940 and for some years after.

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Credit…Patricia Wall/The New York Times

In her first memoir, Ms. Bosworth remembered her parents as glamorous figures, always leaving for parties or throwing them, their living room crowded with celebrities. But there were shadows behind the California sunlight.

Her mother, feeling abandoned by her constantly traveling husband, had affairs; her father’s heartfelt liberalism would run athwart of the postwar Red Scare. More than one reviewer of “Anything Your Little Heart Desires” compared the Crums’ story to an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

Mr. Crum’s decline followed his defense of members of the Hollywood Ten, who had refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee in its attempt to root out suspected Communists in the movie industry. His corporate clients disappeared. He moved the family to New York, where he purchased the left-wing newspaper PM and tried to turn it around as The New York Star. The attempt failed, and he became despondent, worried about money and harassed by the F.B.I.

Mr. Crum eventually joined a Wall Street law firm and attracted celebrity clients. He represented Rita Hayworth, for one, in her divorce from the playboy Prince Aly Kahn. Ms. Bosworth, then a star-struck teenager, met another client, Montgomery Clift, lounging in the family living room. She kept one of his cigarette butts for the rest of her life.

Enrolling at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., Ms. Bosworth, in her first semester, impetuously married a fortune-hunting art student she had known for six weeks. He quickly became psychologically and physically abusive, she later wrote.

Ms. Bosworth’s parents paid her tuition, but she was left to support her husband and his grandmother. While continuing her classes, she began to model, landing a national campaign for Prell shampoo. It was as a model that she met and formed a bond with Diane Arbus, who at the time was assisting her husband, the fashion photographer Allan Arbus.

Her brief marriage over, Ms. Bosworth graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1955 and auditioned for the acting teacher Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio; her acceptance, she later said, was “one of the high points of my life.”

The studio, the birthplace of method acting, was in its heyday. In addition to Monroe and Brando, fellow members included Paul Newman, Elaine Stritch, Ben Gazzara and Steve McQueen, who took her for a ride on his motorcycle.

The studio crackled with erotic energy, and in the mid-’50s the casting couch was an accepted furnishing. Ms. Bosworth was castin “Blue Denim,” directed by Arthur Penn, at the Westport Playhouse in Connecticut in 1955. Among other roles, she went on to play Laura in “The Glass Menagerie” at the Palm Beach Playhouse in Florida in 1956 (“the high point of my acting career”) and a character based on Nora Ephron in “Howie,” a 1959 play by Nora’s mother, Phoebe Ephron.

As a film actress Ms. Bosworth played a young nun, the best friend of Audrey Hepburn’s title character, in “A Nun’s Story” (1959).

Ms. Bosworth ended her adventurous decade by marrying Mel Arrighi, a playwright and novelist, in 1966. They were together until his death in 1986. She began writing during those years, contributing articles about theater to The New York Times and New York magazine. In time she worked as an editor at McCall’s, Harper’s Bazaar, Mirabella and Vanity Fair magazines.

Ms. Bosworth’s first book was “Montgomery Clift: A Biography,” published in 1978. Rosalyn Drexler, writing in The Times, praised Ms. Bosworth’s “total immersion in the subject as well as her artistry.”

When “Diane Arbus: A Biography” appeared in 1984, the Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt acclaimed it as “detailed and balanced” as well as “highly intelligent.” (The book was the basis of a 2006 film, “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus,” starring Nicole Kidman.)

Ms. Bosworth moved on to “Marlon Brando,” a book in the Penguin Lives series, in 2001, and later to “Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman” (2011), a best seller. Ms. Bosworth had first met Ms. Fonda when they were both students at the Actors Studio.

Ms. Bosworth told Publishers Weekly that in “Jane Fonda” she had tried to write as much a cultural history as a biography, to give context to Ms. Fonda’s ever-evolving career.

“In the 10 years I took to write her biography, I observed many Janes,” she wrote in an essay for The Times in 2011. “I saw the Jane with the agenda; the girlish, self-effacing Jane when she’s with men; the armchair shrink Jane who spouts advice about sex and love and exercise as if by rote whenever she’s on TV; the ruthless, hard-as-nails Jane in business and self-promotion; the generous Jane with friends in need; the loving grandmother-matriarch Jane; the celebrity Jane who in May walked down the red carpet at Cannes in a glittery white gown and left all the young starlets in her dust.”

Creating a biography, Ms. Bosworth wrote on her website, was “like solving a mystery, always looking for clues.” Elegantly, and without self-pity or sentimentality, she eventually turned her attention to the mystery of her own life.

Her first memoir, “Anything Your Little Heart Desires,” was also a cultural history, backed by prodigious research, as it followed her father’s life from his high-powered law career in San Francisco to his radicalization by the general strike of 1934 and his involvement in left-wing causes.

Ms. Bosworth’s second memoir, “The Men in My Life,” covered her 20s, from 1953 to 1963. It is both the story of a survivor who struggles with the suicides of her father and brother and an entertaining account of her sexual awakening and life among actors in New York.

In addition to her stepdaughter, Ms. Bosworth is survived by her partner, Douglas Schwalbe; a stepson, Léo Palumbo; and five step-grandchildren.

She taught literary nonfiction at Columbia University and Barnard College and for some years ran the Playwright-Directors Unit at the Actors Studio.

Her final book, “Protest Song: Paul Robeson, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Equality,” is to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux next year.

Julia Carmel contributed reporting.

  • Updated April 3, 2020

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