Liz Smith: “Sweet Charity” for Shirley MacLaine?

I HAD to be cool with everything.”

That was the eternal mindset of Sachi Parker, the only child of actress Shirley MacLaine and Shirley’s distant, mysterious husband, Steve Parker.

Sachi has written an extraordinarily touching and disturbing book about her helter-skelter life with mother and dad. It is titled, Lucky Me: My Life With–and Without — My Mom, Shirley MacLaine.

The book has just been “officially” published, but it has already garnered plenty of attention and reviews on Amazon and the Barnes & Noble websites. Including from Shirley MacLaine herself, who bitterly denounces Lucky Me as fiction.

She says she is “heartbroken.”

We will have to take her word on that. If you happen to read Lucky Me, you’ll find very few instances of MacLaine heartbroken about anything, and certainly not about her daughter, who she appeared to view — from Sachi’s vantage point — with suspicion and perhaps envy.

(“Sachi is a pathological liar,” MacLaine tells one of her adult daughter’s boyfriends, “And don’t believe anything she says about me!”)

SACHI PARKER spent her formative years in Japan with her father, and his longtime Japanese mistress who Shirley supposedly didn’t know about. MacLaine has given various accounts of why she allowed her daughter to be so far away. From the mundane (Japan was a better environment than Hollywood) to the melodramatic (Sachi was in danger of being kidnapped!) In any case, while mother and daughter did see each other, and MacLaine was always attentive and amusing — lovely walks on the beach — Sachi certainly didn’t feel she was number one in her mother’s life. Or even number four or five.

Her father, Steve, was an even dicier proposition, affectionate and giving sometimes; cruel, dismissive and then showing often inappropriate behavior with and in front of his child. (His favorite “nickname” for Sachi was “Idiot.”)

Sachi was also absorbing the passivity of that submissive, unusual creature, the Japanese woman. She internalized, she rarely confronted; she accepted her lot in life. This would lead to a long series of unsatisfactory relationships with men. (Sachi, to her credit, is as hard on herself as she is on Shirley and Steve. Harder, really. Her lifelong — and continuing — effort seems to have been to win the love of both parents and to try to understand their bizarre lives.)

And believe me, it’s bizarre. Lucky Me is so rich with surprises I hesitate to be a spoiler. But, in a nutshell (pun intended) the long, and long-distance marriage of MacLaine-Parker ended when Sachi is able to convince her mother that — get ready — her father is not a cloned extraterrestrial, as Shirley believed, but rather a con man who had been duping the actress out of $60,000 a month.

The details surrounding this deception; the very idea that MacLaine believed it, and possibly still does, explains a lot about the actresses’ late-in-life loveable kookiness on the subject of alien visitors. But it’s not funny, not Sachi’s version. It’s pathetic. And yet further mystery for the daughter who increasingly comes to wonder if anything anybody has told her about her life is true? (Steve Parker? Is he even her real father?)

As the book progresses, as Sachi moves into adulthood and spends more time around, if not with, her mother, Miss MacLaine is portrayed as somebody capable of wit and charm and warmth — for four hours. (After four hours, no matter who you were or what the occasion, you were a dead duck. MacLaine just shut down, bored.)

She is also, by her daughter’s account, extremely tight with a buck, and had no interest in doing much for Sachi, in any way. The girl spent years peripatically traveling from job to job — waitress, stewardess.

Finally, Sachi settles into acting, and it is here that MacLaine comes off worse. She is described as mostly demeaning, uninterested and in one case, per Sachi, through a confession by the late highly respected PR man Dale Olson, the Oscar-winning star literally sabotaged her daughter’s career.

And yet throughout this — and much more! — Sachi remains mostly passive, bewildered and desperate for her mother’s love, acceptance and (she doesn’t deny it) financial help. She is generally rebuffed. When Sachi persuades her mother to join her in therapy, it ends disastrously. But before MacLaine’s dramatic exit, Shirley furiously asks Sachi, if she expects extra help because she is the daughter of Shirley Maclaine? Sachi answers honestly — “Yes!” (And why not? She didn’t seem to get much else out of her mother. Not even money for college.)

This is Sachi Parker’s story. She knows it spells the end of whatever relationship she attempted to have with her mother. MacLaine, as reported above, refutes her daughter’s version. The truth often lies somewhere in-between.

Wherever the truth is here, Lucky Me is a palpably painful account of a lifetime spent trying to unravel mysteries — the actions of her parents, her own failures. Whatever actually happened, Ms. Parker is an excellent, evocative writer.

Sachi now revels in her relationships with her own two children and says she no longer seeks to understand her mother:

“I have to forget she’s my mom, because we can never connect on those terms. She never said she was going to take care of me and be there for me when I needed her. That’s something I came up with on my own. We can’t blame people for being true to themselves … she doesn’t need me, not at all, and she isn’t going to pretend for propriety’s sake that she does. She’s off fulfilling her destiny.”

Hmmm … for all of MacLaine’s spiritual awakenings and interests, I somehow doubt that she ever thought something like Lucky Me would be part of her destiny, and her history. Well, even the toughest cookie can crumble and be naive.

When Sachi says to her mom: “You need someone you can trust,” Shirley replies: “I work in Los Angeles. I don’t trust anyone.”

Those last four words are probably the only ones from “Lucky Me” that MacLaine would have etched on a pillow.

That said, I have always adored Shirley MacLaine. And I just can’t truly express how astounding and sad this memoir is. I read half of the book with my heart breaking and the rest in sheer amazement.

There is no physical abuse here. But Lucky Me puts Mommie Dearest — the story of the late Joan Crawford and her children — in the shade, in every way.

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 2/18/13

7 comments so far.

  1. avatar MacAdam says:

    What I’m getting here is that Shirley MacLaine is a complex, brilliant woman who bores easily, was not a born mother, has a short attention span, but is great at drive by intimacy. I buy that. Liz, your comment “The truth often lies somewhere in between,” is compassionate and accurate, I”m sure. Still, Shirley never pretended to anyone, including the press, to be mother of the year. Charming photo ops, yes, but that was clearly the extent of it. This is not to say that I don’t think Sachi has a legitimate ax to grind.

  2. avatar JERILYN says:

    I have always liked Shirley MacLaine and must say this book by her daughter is a shock to me. Love your comment Liz “The truth lies somewhere in between.” But I never expected this from the daughter who I always thought was being protected by her mother from the life in Hollywood. I know Shirley was a dear friend to Dame Elizabeth. I certainly hope we don’t have another shock in store with a book by one of Dame Elizabeth’s children. That would break my heart because I adore Dame Elizabeth Taylor & saw her as a great mother who always had her children with her and was loved by her grandchildren too.

  3. avatar mickie1 says:

    I DON’T THINK WE WILL EVER SEE A BOOK ON DAME ELIZABETH TAYLOR AND HER CHILDREN. TO ALL ACCOUNTS THAT I HAVE READ— WHICH ARE MANY — DAME ELIZABETH WAS A GOOD MOTHER AND ENJOYED BEING ONE. HER CHILDREN WENT WHERE SHE WENT  — AROUND THE WORLD AND BACK. IN LATER YEARS SHE ADORED HER GRAND CHILDREN AND SEEMED TO LOVE BEING A DAME GOOD GRANDMOTHER. NA NO “LUCKY ME” OR “MOMMIE DEAREST” BOOKS ON THE WONDERFUL DAME ELIZABETH TAYLOR. BY THE WAY NEXT WEEK ON THE 27TH DAME ELIZABETH WOULD HAVE HAD HER 81ST BIRTHDAY.  HOW I STILL MISS THE FACT SHE IS NO LONGER WITH US. HOW I ADORED AND ADMIRED HER SO. LOVE YOU DAME ELIZABETH TAYLOR.

    • avatar JERILYN says:

      I sure pray you are correct mickie1 because Dame Elizabeth was adored by her grandchildren and always had her children with her around the world. Yes we sure do miss our Dame’s passion and spirit. We will celebrate her birthday. How she loved those celebrations whether in Roma, Venezia or New York she always celebrated with A Passion for life, love and above all caring. God loved Dame Elizabeth and so do we! “There ain’t nothing like a DAME!”

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        She wasn’t the perfect mother but as the years went by they became the perfect family. And no one ever doubted her love. And I doubt any of them will ever write a word either way. Simply because she wouldn’t want them to. She also made sure none of them would ever have to.  Reality is many of the “tell-alls” were written for monetary considerations as well as purging the ghosts that haunted. I doubt we would have ever read “Mommie Dearest” had Joan Crawford not chosen to so publicly humiliate two of her children.  But as for ghosts that haunt, I doubt there are any in the family of Elizabeth Taylor.  She carried too many of her own. And in the end I suspect she made sure none of her children did. 

  4. avatar janie k says:

    I just finished Sachi Parker’s book and unhappily, most of it rings true to me. I don’t believe it is a work of fiction, but I also believe she resents her mother. If the stories are true, with apparent good reason.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      Sachi and her husband lived in Houston at one point.  Shirley would come to visit. But apparently coming to see her family was merely an excuse to have chocolate souffle at Tony’s and talk about herself with friends she made when she filmed Terms of Endearment. Reality is Shirley herself confirmed a lot of the book through the years in her interviews. And she can’t undo the interviews. Any more than she can undo the book.  She’s actually a genuinely nice person.  But for some reason didn’t “connect” with her own daughter. Maybe she thought she had. Sad that her daughter had to write a book to tell her that she hadn’t.