Over time, fans of classic cinema have enjoyed biographical works written by the offspring of many different Hollywood stars. The latest addition to this intriguing genre comes from the perspective of Francesca Knittel Bowyer, daughter of German-America film actress, Luise Rainer. Francesca’s book is entitled, Seen from the Wings: Luise Rainer. My Mother, The Journey.
Rainer herself was a woman of many accomplishments. In addition to being the first actor to win more than one Academy Award, she was also the first performer to receive an Oscar back-to-back. Passing away just 13 days prior to her 105th birthday, Rainer was also the longest-lived Academy Award recipient.
After beginning her acting career in Germany under the guidance of Max Reinhardt, she cultivated her talent for performance on stage and, soon after, in films. When discovered by talent scouts from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, she signed a three-year contract as a competitor to Greta Garbo and was on well on her way to becoming one of the most accomplished Hollywood stars.
While Rainer is discussed heavily throughout the book, the story does not center around the actress. Rather, Francesca shares with her readers how her mother has influenced her life in a variety of ways, both positive and negative. Francesca offers stories of her upbringing in Europe and Beverly Hills throughout the book. Though her mother’s film career had essentially ended by the time of Francesca’s birth, her life was still affected by being the child of a celebrated Golden Age actress.
Interestingly, while fans of classic cinema will be familiar with Francesca’s mother, readers are also offered a glimpse of her Francesca’s father, Robert Knittel. The two individuals parents are illustrated as foils of one another, with Francesca growing up in between two very different personalities. While her mother could be described as imperious and strong-willed, Francesca recalls her father as being more gentle and understanding of her relationships and overall happiness.
In terms of writing, this book is gripping from the very beginning. The story begins with an end–in this case, the passing of Rainer–and Francesca’s journey on to a future with her mother being present in a different way. Instead of being governed by her mother’s presence, Francesca now finds herself at the helm in making a series of decisions for herself in addition to choices regarding her mother and mother’s legacy. Her situation is presented in a pensive yet conversational style, conveying a sense of honesty and realism to the reader.
Drawing from a very intimate albeit complicated relationship, Francesca’s story shows readers what it was like to grow up as the child of an Oscar-winning actress, trailblaze new achievements, formulate a strong identity beyond the shadows of someone else’s fame, and navigating a new life that is informed by past experiences, influenced by impactful individuals, and inspired to move forward with confidence and self-assurance. Studded with fascinating stories about life in “the wings” and overcoming dark moments in one’s lifetime, Francesca’s book proves to be a meaningful reflection on her life.
Though Francesca is reflective of her past in order to depict her present, her book is truly a story of progress, overall. Her book offers a discussion of how she has grown from challenging experiences and reinvigorated her sense of self, faith, and acceptance in order to move forward. She acknowledges the importance of her past and uses it to strengthen her journey in the present.
Courtesy of Jonas Public Relations, I was able to interview Francesca when I finished reading her book. Our interview is included below.
Annette: What inspired you to write this book?
Francesca: For years, many have asked, ‘What was it like growing up with…’ It was a spur of the moment thought that made me pick up a pen and start to write. I wanted to share and dispel the notion that being born into fame and fortune makes us any different from another human being. I experienced emotional pain, doubt, fear and insecurity as well as wonderful experiences. To me, however, there were no bad experiences, rather only learning ones. But through an untapped faith as a child that grew into a platform as I became older, I also had a God-given gift called humor. It was a tool with which I could quell much of that pain, doubt, and fear. My mother had always told me, ‘Walk through fear like a fire, never let it stop you’. I always looked at Fear like an unwanted thief to be thrown out of the house of my mind. Fear is the enemy who is the greatest destructor.
I discovered years later, fear was my mother’s greatest destruction, despite what she had taught me. It was Faith and humor who were my allies and friends that gave me the confidence to move forward, to take risks and discover who I was apart from a mother I adored and looked up. She was a mother who seemed to shred all I did and dreamt of because of her own insecurities. I think it was because if I was somewhat less than perfect that would reflect on her.
It was my father who fed me the confidence I needed through little encouraging compliments on many of my accomplishments. I want to inspire others to have the same faith. To dispel fear, to take risks and to believe in themselves for who they are and what they are and know that no matter how bad it gets, there will be a time when they look back with a story to tell and a smile on their face.
Annette: Do you have a favorite performance that your mother gave? If so, what is it? Why is that your favorite?
Francesca: I have seen all of her movies but one, Escapade (1935), which she seemed to love and I cannot get hold of. Her movie career was long before I was born. After I was born, my mother performed in the theater and some television, though she did do a
couple of films on location which I never saw. One with Fellini, which she never completed. Fellini wanted her to have a bed scene with Mastroianni. She refused and walk away from the set never to return to the chagrin of Fellini.
Very often my mother would rehearse the lines of plays she was doing while I sat quietly on her bed. My mother always told me, ‘Act in front of a child and they will give you the truth, even if they say nothing you can see if you capture their attention.’ My favorite was when she toured a one in a woman show. It was Lord Tennyson’s Enoch Arden. My mother, with her tiny frame, became larger than life, on stage with no intermission for almost two hours, as she portrayed three characters. I was mesmerized by the way my mother could actually make you think you were seeing three characters on stage rather than just her persona alone.
Annette: What is your favorite memory of your mother?
Francesca: Growing up, my parents would always take me on a four-week vacation to ‘the Continent’ as we called all the countries outside England, where we lived. My father, a prolific and well-known publisher, would spend three of those weeks together with us before flying back to England for work, leaving my mother and me to gallivant in the car. My mother was at her most wonderful then. We shared stories, we would giggle, talk about life and laugh like school kids as we drove at [the] speed of lightning, traveling to cities and towns like tourists on the loose. I seemed to be away from her reprimands and the tirades of her emotions which would terrorize me at home. She liked to drive at the break of dawn, avoiding traffic to any destination. We would gawk at the rising sun and the clean freshness of a world taking its time to awaken. We grabbed the most delicious foods from local delis and have picnics. We would eat with the locals at restaurants. I was proficient in several languages from early on and my mother would marvel at how I made friends without effort, while she would try to master the little she knew of Italian and French with hand an arm gestures. I loved it when she was proud of me. I actually hungered for it.
Memorable was when we missed our car ferry in Dunkirk on the way back to England. It was late. There was a convention going on and not a hotel to be found. My mother finally found what I believed was a bed and breakfast. We locked the car with all our belongings. My mother clutched my hand with a tight grip as she led me up the old rickety stairs to the very top floor. ‘Don’t open the bed and keep your clothes on,’ she directed me with a mischievous eye as we entered the small room with one rather small springless bed. ‘Why?’ I asked with the normal curiosity of a young teen. ‘Because we’re in a whore house!’ We both laughed [until] we exhausted ourselves to sleep.
Another memory was getting off a school bus while we still lived in America. I was eight. A boy had used a word I had never heard and teased me with it. When I got home I immediately went to my mother and ask, ‘Mummy, what does ‘f***’ mean?’ Horrified, my mother guided me gently into her beautiful emerald green ‘workroom’ as she called it, sat me down next to her and softly held both my hands as she explained to me in the fullest detail all about the beauty of love-making. Since then I have always regarded lovemaking with a sense of great beauty. And I have always loved the color of emerald green.
Annette: Do you have a certain item of significance that you inherited from your mother? Why is it special to you?
Francesca: My mother passed away in the beauty of her home in London. She had precious antiques and artwork, most of which I disposed of at auction. She had hurt me desperately in the last 30 years of her life. Insecurity and jealousy which I still find hard to understand made my mother look and treat me as a threat. I had become another female who could possibly steal her spotlight. It was only when I broke down sobbing in front of her that she would then take me in her arms and call me lovingly ‘her child’, which is what I wanted to hear from her so very much. So, rather than hold on to her possessions, I auctioned most of them.
One of the possessions I kept and treasure is a silver-embossed box, inset with a large tourmaline. My mother bought this box with the money received from her first film in America. It means a great deal to me. It is demonstrative of her passion, her pride, her will to accomplish what she believed in and a token of that accomplishment. It also represents her joy of all that is beautiful. However, [my] most treasured possession is the legacy of stories she left me to tell.
Annette: Why do you think it is important for audiences today to be aware of your mother’s story?
Francesca: My mother was an innovator. She was the first to walk off the studio lot at around 6pm [and] claim a close to the workday. The Unions adopted these criteria. My mother was fearless in using her fame and power as an actress to extricate victims of Nazi Germany. There was no creative task she could not master. Though she had no formal education since the age of 16 she took a leap of faith and followed her passion as an actress, even though being an actress in those days and in her inherited social circles was viewed as low as becoming a streetwalker. Her determination was her strength. She learned from life and surrounding herself with some of the greatest intellects of our time in order to learn. She was a sponge for knowledge and the information they offered, regardless of the fact that her impatience impeded her ability to get through a book.
My mother put every emotion and experience of her life, joy, love, torment, anger, grief and stored it in her entire being. She lived it in order to use as a tool to portray any character or expression of humanity. She had the most amazing understanding of life and human beings. Though, outwardly, she always seemed so self-possessed, the only human being who often stood in her way was the deep insecurity of self.
My mother was made of a need to make use of her great gifts as an artist. To give out what she knew best, to be multiple personalities. To make money was not her problem; what she needed most of all in life [were] love and beauty.
Once, [she was] asked on a British radio show “Desert Island Disks”, what luxury, if any, she could take with her. My mother responded after a pregnant pause that it was something far more valuable than anything tangible, ‘To be missed,’ was her answer. While I sat by [my] mother as she was dying, I cradled her and whispered in her ear, ‘Mummy, I promise I will never let you be forgotten.’
Annette: How can fans of your mother’s work best preserve her legacy?
Francesca: Talk about her. Look for her movies. Her eloquent interviews. Show them. Talk about her work as an artist and humanitarian. Spread the word or write articles about her and all the amazing feats she accomplished, not only as an artist but a woman before her time. A life relived.
Annette: What was the most shocking or exciting part of your research process for this book?
Francesca: Discovering that I kept on being magnetized by her personality in the men I married, especially my second, who was at the same time my great love and my worst torment. My husband of 26 years loved me, yet through his own insecurity was jealous of me, the extraordinary man that he was. He was like my mother. He had abused me. On this particular occasion, physically. I was in a dark restaurant hiding my bruises behind large, dark glasses. I absented myself to the ladies room just to relieve my eyes from behind the darkness of my shades. I looked deep into the mirror to examine my bruising and how it was healing. What I saw in the mirror was not the reflection of myself; rather it was my mother talking to me.
‘Why do you stay with that man?’ my mother’s image asked as she had so often. ‘Because I love him. Because he is you!’ I answered, standing in my truth. That was what propelled me to leave my husband and not to take any more of my mother’s verbal abusiveness.
To close the interview, Francesca shared two poems written for her mother. One poem was from her 100th birthday, while the other followed her 104th and final birthday when Luise was bed-ridden and wheelchair-bound. The two poems are as follows:
Cherished pictures in my eyes
She stands erect, her head upheld
Looking at the clear blue skies
Her arms upheld and stretched up high
Like a willow in the summer breeze,
‘B e a u t i f u l’, I hear her cries
Clear and loud as bells that peel.
Cherished pictures in my mind,
We sit in bed side by side
She tells me stories of her past
And reads me letters of her youth
The words flow softly
Some with joy and some with grief
Like a poet’s tales of days gone by.
Cherished pictures in my heart
Of Christmas nights and Easter days
And all the joys at my Birthdays
Of bedtime kisses and happy morns
With her embraces sweet and warm.
Cherished notions in my thoughts
She is strong as a mountain,
She is fragile as a flower,
She can change her course
Like a bird in flight
And paint her moods
From the chill of a winters night
To the warmth of the summer sun
Cherished words from deep inside
It is my Mummy of whom I speak
The one I love with all my heart
And every day I say the Prayer
Thank you, God, that I am hers
And keep her with me for many years.
I see your fragile frame moving in circles
Like a bird who’s been grounded,
Your wings so suddenly clipped,
Looking out at the big blue skies
Searching for unanswered questions
And sorrow in your large brown eyes.
If I could only give you strength
To lift your wings to the blue beyond
And listen to the gurgle of your laughter
And watch your movements dance
Like a willow in a soft morning breeze,
It is my wish for this, your new year
That your Spirit fly on the wings of a pure white bird,
That your Soul rest on the branch of Serenity,
That Laughter be the melody of your Heartbeat
And the Blue Sky always is above you.
For no matter what the distance between us,
My thoughts will always embrace you,
My ears always hear the music of your voice,
And smell the sweetness of your scent,
While my eyes will always see your beauty
And my heart will always love you.
Seen from the Wings: Luise Rainer. My Mother, The Journey is available for purchase starting on June 3, 2019.