Center Stage

This is the first biography of Douglas, who died in 1980. Scobie had the virtue of meeting and getting to know this energetic and provocative figure—indeed the biographer had to struggle (as she recounts in her introduction) to maintain her objectivity and distance from a woman who knew how to woo followers and make them please her. Not a hero-worshipping tome, CENTER STAGE is a well-balanced book that presents a complex public and private person whose various careers were no more separable in her life than they are in this biography.

Drawing on archival sources and important interviews with Douglas’ friends and family, Scobie is able to present a detailed, well-modulated portrait. The biographer carefully evokes Douglas’ upbringing in the upscale Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, her rapid success as an actress, her career in Europe as a singer, and her years in Hollywood married to the actor Melvyn Douglas. Also important are Scobie’s accounts of Douglas’ friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and how Douglas waged her campaign against Nixon. Much of this material is new and freshly presented.

Scobie’s introduction sets the tone for the whole biography, providing not only an overview of Douglas’s life but also an incisive account of how her interest in Douglas developed and matured over several years. Without making too much of the point, Scobie suggests that her own dilemmas as a wife and professional informed her interpretation of her subject’s life. This is especially apparent in her candid but sympathetic portrayal of Douglas’ marriage.