(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 28)

The Edward Albee presented by Mel Gussow is at once prickly, deeply troubled, alienated, sentimental, and extremely vulnerable. Gussow, a longtime friend and associate of the playwright, knows him perhaps as well as anyone does. In this well-written and compelling biography, however, he consistently maintains the objectivity necessary for the worthwhile presentation of a life.

The first clue to Albee’s vulnerability comes in Gussow’s decision to begin his biography with a reference to James Agee’s A Death in the Family (1957), in which Agee writes about Knoxville, Tennessee, in the summer of 1915. The passage he quotes poses the question of who the character of Rufus Follett really is. When Albee talks about this passage, his eyes well up with tears and he becomes highly emotional.

Perhaps the question of one’s identity is the quintessential question most effective writers must eventually answer. Certainly Arthur Miller poses it in plays like Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949) or in All My Sons (pr., pb. 1947), in which Joe Keller’s son asks his father who the hell he is, thereby precipitating Keller’s suicide. Eugene O’Neill agonized over similar questions of identity inLong Day’s Journey into Night (pr., pb. 1956).

Edward Albee has more justification than most to question his identity. Born in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 1928, to Louise Harvey, he was delivered within two weeks to the Alice Chapin Adoption Nursery in New York. Six days later he was placed with Reed A. and Frances C. Albee, a childless couple from Westchester County who very much needed a child to satisfy their longing for a grandchild for Reed’s aging father, head of the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theaters, after whom young Edward was named. The Albees formally adopted Edward on February 1, 1929.

Brought up in luxurious surroundings, Edward had a nanny. The Albees spent winters at their place in Palm Beach. The material part of Edward’s life would receive an “A” rating. Nevertheless, even as a very young child, Albee felt that he was not really a part of the family into which he had been introduced when he was three weeks old. Looming large in his background was Frances, a dominant woman who, at 6 feet, 2 inches, towered over her husband and, by force of will, controlled those about her. Frances, at least from Edward’s perspective, radiated little warmth.

A remarkably sensitive child, Edward knew from an early age, probably about six, that he had been adopted, although he did not see the adoption papers until after Frances died in 1988. At that point he was faced with the decision of whether or not to seek out his birth parents. Curious about medical histories and other details that might give him some clue to his real identity, he finally demurred, probably concluding that more pain than satisfaction would be gleaned from anything he might learn if indeed either of his birth parents still lived.

Although Albee does not have a good memory for dates and names, he has had a unique visual memory from a very early age, which accounts for his impeccable use of detail in his best writing. He claims to recall visually situations to which he was exposed when he was three months old, notably a scene in which his parents and his nanny were in a field looking at their Larchmont mansion, on which scaffolding had been erected. Although some might question such claims, they are not unlike those made by Georgia O’Keeffe, who remembered in detail visual images of a quilt on which she had been placed when she was seven or eight months old and of what her Aunt Winnie had been wearing at the time.

Frances was Reed Albee’s third wife. News reports of the marriage suggested that Reed, whose father was worth over fifteen million dollars, had married beneath him. An also-ran in Reed’s love life at that time was comedienne Charlotte Greenwood, who, like Frances, was tall and gangly. Albee often speculated on what his life would have been like had Charlotte been his adoptive mother rather than Frances, concluding that with Charlotte there would have been many laughs. Frances, apparently, evoked little laughter.

In early childhood Edward was aware of his homosexual leanings. Although he sometimes tried to mask his gay orientation, he did answer “yes” when he was asked by the Selective Service Board whether he was homosexual. Frances was aware of Edward’s sexual proclivities but refused to acknowledge them or to discuss them with anyone, including Edward, who grew up with a sense of shame and with no one who...

(The entire section is 1871 words.)