In 1976, James Cagney published his autobiography. Three biographies about the actor had previously been published, all with “Cagney” in the title, but these were “heavy with cockeyed conclusions and some solid misinformation.” It was time for the man to reclaim his name and tell his own story, in his own words.
So, Cagney by Cagney was born, an effort to tell the real story, “from someone who knows Cagney pretty well”: the man himself. Cagney called the memoir “some reminiscences that might add up to a book.”
The book moves at a quick pace, sharing bits and pieces from Cagney’s early life, stage shows, and film career, never dwelling on a single project or life event for more than a handful of pages. This allows quite a bit of ground to be covered in just 202 pages, though of course in such a brief page length, it isn’t the most thorough autobiography ever written. As promised by Cagney in the opening chapter (quoted above), the book is more of a collection of memories and thoughts than a direct, linear account of his life and career.
Before digging into the Hollywood tales, Cagney tells of a rough and tumble New York City childhood full of fistfights, illness, and family troubles… but also a lot of love. Additionally, I was delighted to learn that before breaking out as an actor, he worked at the New York Public Library as a janitor and shelver!
Cagney writes early on that his book is just as much about the people he’s shared his life with as it is about himself, which I’d agree with. He writes fondly of his mother, his wife, and his co-stars and collaborators. Memories of Joan Blondell and Pat O’Brien are shared. Director Lloyd Bacon is described as a joy to work with, using baseball lingo to offer direction to his actors (which made him a perfect fit for Cagney, who also loved baseball).
One of my favorite Hollywood stories shared in the book has to do with Bette Davis. Cagney and Davis worked together, but he found her difficult to make friends with. Still, he had positive things to say about her, admiring her professionalism and talent. Years after they shared the screen, Cagney says he wrote Davis a fan letter after seeing her stellar performance in All About Eve!
These memories of Hollywood are a lot of fun to read, but even more interesting is Cagney’s self-reflection throughout the book. He didn’t like to watch his own films, but says that he would sometimes watch the dance routines from his musicals — and only the dance routines. He writes very critically of many of his films, holding a staunch distinction between art and “sheer product.”
Insight is also offered into Cagney’s off-screen personality. He weaves his own poetry throughout the text of the book, adding a unique touch to this autobiography, and giving the reader a great sense of his personality and sense of humor. He talks a bit about politics and his philosophy of life, in addition to his career and craft.
There is one quote from Cagney by Cagney that I think sums up the man and his book: “Absorption in things other than self is the secret of a happy life, I’m sure.” This theme rings true throughout Cagney’s discussion his career, his love for nature, and his relationships with others. This autobiography paints a picture of a strong-willed, talented, passionate, opinionated man and is a great read for any Cagney fan.