Born in Virginia in 1905, Joseph Chesire Cotten realized at a young age that he wanted to be an actor. Picking up the art of storytelling through summers spent with his uncle Benny, Jo began to dream of a career on the stage. Despite the doubts and disapproval of his parents, Jo decided to make his dream come true at the age of eighteen, starting lessons at the Hickman School of Expression.
Lessons led to a move to New York City, an unsuccessful attempt to crack Broadway. Then there was a movie to Miami and a brief adventure in the potato salad business, before finally gaining some traction in his acting career.
Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, Cotten’s autobiography, shares the story of this rise to fame, as well as his later experiences as a Hollywood actor. First published in 1987, the copy I own is a paperback edition (and ex-library copy) from 2000, found for a mere $0.50 at the library’s used book sale.
Don’t let the tacky cover and rainbow font of this edition fool you: Cotten’s book is a pretty great read, and an unusual example of a Hollywood memoir. Vanity Will Get You Somewhere is more of a meandering collection of memories than a straightforward, self-absorbed, comprehensive autobiography.
The book is separated into two sections, “Book One” and “Book Two.” “Book One” tells the stories of Cotten’s youth, his beginnings as an actor, many of his most well-known films, and his marriage to first wife Lenore. The section ends with Lenore’s death, with “Book Two” continuing the story of Cotten’s career, also paying tribute to the happiness he found with second wife Patricia.
Cotten is a great storyteller with an impressive knack for writing. My immediate assumption was that the book must have been ghostwritten, for it’s so deeply descriptive, at times even flowery. “It is those bitter cold days in Grandma’s house that I remember with such vivid joy,” Cotten writes on the very first page of his autobiography. “When the icicles hung long from the eaves, when the snow piled in drifts around the house, it always meant that I would be confined indoors, and that after breakfast, after the table had been cleared and the rest of the family had left the dining room, Grandma would rustle (she rustled whenever she moved) herself into her rocking chair by the crackling fire, and when I had perched myself on the carpet at her slippers (which always matched her dress) she would tell me a story.”
As I progressed through the book, I became convinced that Cotten must have written it himself. Once you get used to his voice as a writer, reading the book feels like sitting next to him on a porch, listening to his sometimes long-winded recollections of the past.
There’s a self-awareness to this book and a sense of honesty that’s sometimes lacking in books about Hollywood stars and makes this one seem truly personal. Cotten doesn’t hesitate to write frankly about his own mistakes, particularly those he made in his first marriage. And rather than stroking his own ego, he sings the praises of and shares fond memories of some of his close friends, including the great Orson Welles (who was given a copy of this book before it was published, and encouraged Cotten to publish it, as discussed in the later chapters).
Vanity Will Get You Somewhere is perhaps not the most insightful book for those looking for in-depth information about the studio era of Hollywood, nor is it the book to turn to for juicy gossip, but for fans of Cotten it’s well worth a look. I rated the book 4/5 on Goodreads.