“Seen From The Wings: Luise Rainer. My Mother, My Journey.” An Interview With Francesca Knittel Bowyer

 

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When she passed away in 2014, actress Luise Rainer was only thirteen days shy of her 105th birthday. The striking star left behind an impressive body of work in the eternal culture of European and American theater, film, and television. Just as dramatic and fascinating as the characters she portrayed, however, was Rainer’s own unique professional and personal life story. It was a story that could rival any Hollywood script to this day. Rainer started her acting career in Germany at age 16, under the tutelage of Austria’s leading stage director, Max Reinhardt. Within a few years, she had become a distinguished and critically acclaimed stage actress. In 1935, she was discovered by MGM talent scouts, who signed her to a three-year contract in Hollywood. Rainer would go on to make history, winning two back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Actress: one for The Great Ziegfeld in 1937 and the other for The Good Earth in 1938. She won both envied awards before the age of 30. Rainer was married twice, her first marriage being to playwright Clifford Odets and the second to famed publisher Robert Knittel. In 1946, Rainer — who was described by some publications (albeit somewhat inaccurately) as “retired” from showbiz– gave birth to her only child, a pretty and smart little girl named Francesca.

fkb2Francesca Knittel Bowyer has just released a new book, named Seen From The Wings: Luise Rainer. My Mother, My Journey. Throughout the memoir’s 454 pages (including 14 pages of exciting photos), Knittel Bowyer tells many priceless stories about growing up with the privilege of having been born to a famous and wealthy parent– complete with world travel and many exciting opportunities. This mother and daughter stayed in each other’s lives until the very end. However, life with Mummy the Movie Star wasn’t always a constant stream of unmitigated bliss for Francesca. While there was always great love between Luise and her only daughter, the star could also be cold, dominating, tempestuous, and emotionally abusive. Incredibly detailed and highly personal, Knittel Bowyer’s book is no less than a fascinating read told from a distinctly female perspective. Readers expecting an exploitative, Mommie Dearest-style “expose”, however, won’t find it with Seen From The Wings: Rather than giving the reader an anecdote-by-anecdote account of bittersweet memories solely for shock value, Knittel Bowyer mostly tells her own story, which was often shaped by lessons learned the hard way. It’s the story of one woman’s life which was no less unique than that of her famous mother, albeit mercifully without the glare of the public spotlight. Knittel Bowyer candidly tells about  her quest for approval as a child, her marriages (The first one, in the author’s words, was “not solid”; the second was rife with abuse.), her professional career path, and ultimately the search for true love, starting in young adulthood– which she metaphorically described as “looking for the invisible golden cape”.
fkbToday, Francesca Knittel Bowyer is a mother of two daughters of her own. She is happily partnered and divinely happy with life in general. The author took the time to speak to me about her new book and much more.

JR: Hello, Francesca. Greetings from New York! Congratulations on the new book. I enjoyed reading it very much.
FKB: Oh, I’m so glad you like it. I’m really happy that it’s finally out there.

JR: What made this the right time to come out with your book? What was inside of you that said “OK, this is the right time to finally share my memoirs?”
FKB: It was because my eldest daughter, who I mentioned greatly in the book, said that I should either shove this book out in the air, or she’d shove me off a cliff! (Laughs) No, she didn’t mean that literally! (Laughs) She meant it metaphorically. And I had so many people who I had spoken to about the book and they said, “You’ve got to get it out there!” And so I finally did. And I think, you know, everything is destined. There’s a time for everything in life. And I think that this was the right time!

JR: That’s great! Your descriptions in the book are very colorful and they’re very detailed: everything from what you were wearing, to your descriptions of Princeton and the “scene” that was going on when you were living there, and Italy– which we all know is a gorgeous place, but your descriptions of it and everything to the way they set up during dinnertime to the architecture was just so vivid. How were you able to bring back those memories?
FKB: You know what? I have no idea. I actually started writing this book to my children, because they thought that they were the only ones who had difficulties with their mom.
JR: (Laughs)
FKB: We’re all very, very close. We adore each other. But it was just one of those moments when I started writing and I didn’t finish until I was finished. But basically, the premise of this book is that we are all made of the same cloth. Some of us are from privilege and some of us are from less privileged backgrounds, but we’re all made of the same cloth. We just somehow color in our lives in different shades. And so, this book is really very relatable, because it’s something that everybody in one form or another goes through in life. So often, we choose the strong personalities that we looked up to in the partners we choose in our lives. I chose the personality of my mother, who I adored and worshiped… but who was also quite emotionally abusive and restrictive with me. And I chose that personality in the man that I married. My father was kind of the Band-Aid for all the emotional upheaval in my life, and made things better, and gave me encouragement. I found THAT personality in another man– Bill– who I knew throughout the ins and outs of my marriage, who made me be able to walk back and go in for “Round Three” until I finally decided, “What am I doing? I’ve married my mother, and I found my father in another man. I have got to find my own corner in life. I’ve got to find my own breathing space in life.” And this is something I think we all go through.  I am hoping that this book is a premise of relatability to so many who say, “Oh my God, I’m going through that!”, or “I can’t believe that I went through the same thing.” So just because she– Francesca– was born into this so-called privilege, the reader would know that we are all the same. It doesn’t matter. We’re all human beings who struggle to find their purpose and to find their reason for being. And I found mine.

JR: How true! As you’ve said, there is clearly a theme in your book about how in our relationships, we often unwittingly choose partners that sometimes have the same, shall we say, “less than desirable” characteristics that our parents had: at best unhealthy, and at worst downright negative. Do you feel that’s what happened to you?
FKB: I feel that every negative in my life turned out to be a positive, because it was a learning experience. And I think that if we stop wasting time complaining about the upheavals in our life and look them straight in the eye and say, “What am I learning from this? What am I getting out of this?”, then we are good to move on… and we will all move on. I always said and still say to my children that no matter how bad it gets in life, there will be a time when you can look back with a story to tell and a smile on your face. And here I am, with a story to tell and a smile on my face. (Laughs)
JR: Oh, that is so wonderful! Now, a lot of people may buy the book– especially those who are into the history of cinema and stories of the great leading ladies throughout time– and look for some salacious celebrity gossip. They may be expecting a “Mommie Dearest”- style expose. But when I was reading your book, I realized that it was definitely more about your very unique life than it was about your mother.  You talk about your mom, but it was definitely more about your own life. Was that intentional?

FKB: Well, I’ll tell you: The awakening was at the end, in a very powerful chapter. My husband, who is actually a wonderful man in many ways, had the demons of drinking and became… “difficult” at best when he drank. He once hit me, which was the end of one of our chapters. I remember being very bruised and going to a very famous restaurant that we used to frequent all the time called Dantanna’s. We used to sit in the bar area, which was very dark. We were with friends, and I had dark glasses on to try and hide this black eye. I wanted to relieve myself of the darkness, so I excused myself and went into the ladies room, and I took off my glasses. I was relieved to see some kind of light. I looked in the mirror to study my eye to see, you know, how the black was going from green to yellow as it was healing. But instead of seeing myself, I saw a reflection of my mother talking to me. She asked me, as she had always asked me, “Why are you married to this man?” And I answered the mirror and I said, “Because, he’s you.”

JR: Wow…
FKB: … and this was the awakening and the premise of this whole book. The thing is that yes, there are people who might be interested in the movies and salacious talk or gossip. No! Gossip goes nowhere. It is a flat line. It is something you fall right through. What is important is a message. And it’s a message that I think that a lot of people who have read this book already have gotten: the ones who don’t really know who my mother is, but who say, “Oh my God, this is so true!” It’s about the way you have come to realizations in your life, and have come out of all the various valleys to a plateau in your life. And it’s because, again, we are all made from the same cloth. We just paint our lives in different colors.

JR: Yes! How true! You also make it clear from the beginning that there was a great love between you and your mother there. But there were many moments when she could be, shall we say, “rough” or cool towards you… or moments when there was a mixed message: You mentioned how she would always say, “You’re so beautiful”, but at the same time, she would criticize you if she felt you were being “vain”. But again, your love for her really comes through, as does your desire to win her approval.
FKB: I climbed mudslides all my life from my mother’s approval because I really adored her– until finally, in the last years of her life, I gave up.  I thought, “You know what? If my mother leaves me nothing in the world…”– well, she did leave me things, but she was cruel there too, in a very conniving way. She was jealous for some reason, which I never understood. I think it was because I was a female. Maybe she felt that I was competition, or whatever it was– but I always said that if she left me nothing in life, she will leave me a legacy of stories to tell. And she did.

JR: Yes! There was certainly were many of them, and I for one did enjoy reading them. I enjoyed reading the anecdote about using the Oscar as a door stop!
FKB: Everybody loves that story.
JR: That could be probably the most famous one! But was there any kind of “evolution” in the journey of your relationship with her? I know there was a lot of ups and downs along the way.
FKB: Yes. I realized that “I could!” rather than “I couldn’t!”. My mother put me down all the time, and my father always put me back together. Like Humpty Dumpty– even though I’m thin! I kept falling– not falling, actually–but being pushed off walls and getting back up again. And it drove my mother crazy. My father was a very prolific and well-known publisher. His writers ranked amongst Herman Wouk, Sidney Sheldon– all sorts of great writers. He actually turned down Harold Robbins, who was dying to have my father as his publisher. My father said to me, “Francesca, you’re a very gifted writer. Do something about it.” And that’s what started me writing. I’ve written a great deal of poetry. I was writing this book and my mother was always convinced out of her own guilt that I was writing a “Mommie Dearest”. I assured her I wasn’t, which I didn’t and don’t believe in. I actually told Christina Crawford that I thought what she did was very unfair to her mother, even though much of it was true. But it was very unfair. What I did was I realize in the process who I was. When I look back, I realized that it was all my learning curve. Without that learning curve, I would never be where I am today. So thank you, Mummy.
JR: I understand! So, in the book you write about how with your second husband Jim, there were a lot of ups and downs. And as I was reading, I kept thinking, “OK, this must be the end.” Then you gave him another chance. And another…
FKB: Yes. Like I gave my mother. He WAS my mother. But he was also a brilliant man. Extremely attractive. For family reasons. I never put any pictures of him or of Bill or of any of the other gentlemen involved. But he was extraordinarily attractive and extremely successful. I always said that he is what every man wants to be and what every woman wants to have. My mother was what every actress wants to be and what every actor wanted to have on his side. They were manipulators, but they were very insecure. Before my husband died, he wanted us to get back together– which I write briefly about– and we did get remarried. And he said to me, “You know, you were always the love of my life. But the reason I was so terrible to you was because I was so afraid somebody would take you away from me. Therefore, I had to make you feel insecure.” And that was like my mother speaking. My mother was terrified of me getting anywhere and overshadowing her. It was all insecurity. And, you know, the thing about fear is that it’s a thief of joy. We have to throw fear out the door and have it gunned down– because fear is what causes us the worst in all our personalities.
JR: Yes! Fear can become very crippling. It stops us from taking risks.
FKB: It really does. And what it does, not only to us, but to those around us, is very crippling.

JR: Yes it is. Now, with your late husband’s physical abuse, and verbal abuse, and accusations of infidelity, and the separations: What gave you the moxie to be so patient and so forgiving?
FKB: I learned from the best: my mother! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs)

FKB: I adored both of them. I’m a very loyal person. Even though I had Bill, as long as Jim and I were together, I never consummated my relationship with Bill. I still believe in loyalty and I believe in making something work. You see, in America, people tend to give up their relationship over the slightest ripple. I don’t believe in that. I don’t think there is a relationship in the world that isn’t out there to be worked at. I don’t care if it’s a friendship, if it’s a partnership, if it’s a work relationship, I don’t care what it is… You have to work at it. Otherwise, it will never happen. If you don’t plant the seed, if you don’t water it, it will not grow. And I kept on watering that seed until finally I said, “This thing ain’t growing!”

JR: Right! I do believe that loyalty is a rare quality in America nowadays… sadly.
FKB: Yes. It’s a shame. It’s a sad, sad commentary. There are very few people who have the “staying power”. I am with a man now who is the most wonderful human being. He was married for 38 years and had difficulties in his marriage, but he stayed loyal to his wife until she died of cancer and died in their home. He took care of her. I know a lot of marriages, but there isn’t one successful one that doesn’t have to be worked at. If anybody says, “Oh, but you have such a wonderful relationship.”, don’t think for one moment that these people haven’t worked at it.

JR: Yes! It doesn’t “just happen”, that’s for sure! Now, you mentioned Bill. In your opinion, is it possible for someone to really be in love with two people at the same time?
FKB: My mother once said to me when I was with Jim, “You don’t love me like you love Jim!” And I said, “You know, Mummy, there are different types of love. There’s the love you have for your husband. There’s the love you have for your mother. There’s the love you have for your children. And they are all different types of love.” Now between Bill and Jim, I was in love with Jim. But I loved Bill very deeply. It was very different. Very different.
JR: I understand! So, your mother left us in 2014, at age 104. Do you still watch her movies or TV appearances?
FKB: I don’t watch her movies that often because I know them well. Whenever I see Luise Rainer in a movie, I’m seeing my mother. I’m not seeing the character! (Both laugh) But I do watch YouTube. There are so many wonderful clips of my mother on YouTube where as a matter of fact, she is Luise– and I have to say, she was an immensely intelligent human being. Very intelligent. The meaning of intelligence is not “bookworm”. The meaning from the Latin word “intelligere”, which means “to understand”. She had a very innate understanding of life. And she taught me a great deal.

JR: Yes! I can understand that. I enjoyed reading about your wedding day, when Elizabeth Arden did your nails and your hair…but at the same time, your mother insisted upon designing the dress and wanted you to wear a certain headdress…
FKB: Yes! She insisted I wear this headdress which I didn’t want to wear at all– this wreath with this “thing” coming down my forehead: it was a precious jewel. Nevertheless, it’s not what I envisioned. My mother wanted to take me down the aisle and I said, no, my father is going to take me down the aisle. So instead, my mother stood right at the end of all the aisles, right in the middle– practically blocking me from my husband. It’s almost as though my father was bringing me to her instead of my husband. It was amazing.
JR: (Laughs) That story did not surprise me one bit, having read about her personality through your eyes as a child and young adult!
FKB: She had to be “center, focus”. She had to be the most loved, the most focused on… There was an English radio program that I used to love to listen to as a child. They took celebrities and they said, “If we were to put you on an island, what books would you take? What records would you take?”… and “What clothes?” and this and that and the other. And then finally at the end, the interviewer asked my mother , “If you were allowed one luxury, what would it be?” And mother paused– as always with her pregnant pauses– and said that the luxury “would not be a tangible one”. And the interviewer kind of looked at her with Morey Amsterdam eyes and asked, “Well, what would it be?” Again, after that famous pregnant pause, she said “to be missed”. And I thought, Wow! Often she would say that if she died at an early age, she’d be far more famous. Hmmm… Those are statements that kind of have you scratching your head a little bit, right?
JR: Indeed! Well, she must have been doing something right. I mean, 104 years old. Wow!
FKB: Definitely. She had an energy for life. She did have a love for life, but she also loved the drama of life. We were sitting in a restaurant. I think she was 101 or 102. She was walking with great difficulty, with a cane. I tend to talk to people that are next to me– especially as it was hard to talk to my mother, because at that point she was pretty deaf. You had to write everything down and then she’d answer you. There were four ladies who sat next to us, and my mother saw that I was talking to them. All of a sudden she thought she was going to talk to one of them too. She asked, “Do you know how old I am?” And they looked at her and shook their heads and she said, “I am 102.” And, you know what? She was amazing. I mean, she dressed elegantly, and she looked beautiful until the end. Never had one thing done to her face and no surgeries. She was amazingly beautiful until the very end. These ladies couldn’t believe it. They asked, “What is your secret?” And my mother said, “I had a terrible life.”
JR: (Laughs)
FKB: Well, I looked at my mother and I said, “Seriously? What was it that was so terrible about your life? You were born into fortune.” I mean, she was born into a very wealthy, well-to-do family. I said, “You went straight to the profession that you love the most, achieved fame and fortune immediately. You married my father, who was the best man ever.” I didn’t mention Clifford Odets! I said, “You lived at the best addresses, traveled in style to the best places all over the world. And you had me! What exactly was so terrible about your life?” And she kind of gave that ethereal look and didn’t answer me!
JR: Well, it’s great that you were able to finally ask her a question that she didn’t have an answer to (Laughs).
LKB: I asked her quite a few questions that she didn’t have an answer to. I became very direct in the end. (Laughs) Because at that point I didn’t put up with some of the things that she dished out at the end– things that a lot of people wouldn’t have handled very well!

JR: How has the response been to the book been so far?
FKB: Wonderful. It’s amazing. There have been people of all ages, and both and women like it. It’s a demograph which I’m very happy about because men seem to like it as much as women… and younger people who read it love it too. So, it’s out there. It needs to be heard about so that people know that it’s out there. I’ve had the most beautiful responses from people. There are a lot of people who say exactly what I want the book to represent: They all could relate to the story. And that’s important. That’s important to me because in life, if you can give and if you can help, that is a purpose to live for. We all want to give out, and we all want to contribute in our life. Hopefully with this book and the books that are to come, I will feel that I have contributed with the so-called talent that I claim is not mine. It is the one that God gave me!

JR: That’s so great to hear!
FKB: It’s been said before, the only risk life is not taking risks. I think risks are terribly important. You have to learn how to jump off ledges and know that you’re going to land on your feet. And if you break an ankle, it will heal. You can get up and move on.

JR: Agreed! So, how is life going for you now?
FKB: It’s been SPLENDID! (Laughs) It’s wonderful. I live between Austin, Texas, and La Qunita, California in the desert– which is absolutely beautiful. I am surrounded with wonderful friends. Since my late husband passed away, which is right at the end of the book, I moved on to a very difficult engagement. It wasn’t supposed to be. And thank goodness I got out of it. A year later I met this wonderful man who I described to you before. He has a home in Austin. We both enjoy life and call each other’s homes our home. We are having a wonderful time. I write a great deal, and during the day, I also love that torturous game of golf! I don’t know why I keep on following that little white ball. I have no idea! But I guess I enjoy it sometimes when it works– and when it doesn’t, I threaten to sell everything that has to do with golf immediately.  And then I go back for more punishment!  So, we share that enjoyment of golf. We have the same pleasures, we enjoy the same things, and most importantly of all, we have a great respect for one another and enjoy each other’s company– and that’s great. It’s wonderful. I’m very, very happy. So, how’s my life? It is SPLENDID!

JR: That’s so great to hear! You deserve it! I want to ask you one last question. How do you feel about social media? Love it, hate it, or both, it seems to have become the primary method of communication in this day and age!
FKB: Danger zone! I think we’re going overboard with all of this. I think that we’ve completely lost it. There is no respect for humankind. There’s invasion of privacy. Now let me tell you: I go on Facebook, but I go on Facebook for two reasons. One, I love my friends and I love seeing what they’re doing. I’m not interested if they go for a cup of coffee to Starbucks. That doesn’t interest me. But it’s like having pictures on a page on your piano. I also like writing blogs, but I like to give something inspirational. I’ve written a lot of blogs on my Facebook, because I like to give back– but as far as the Instagram and Pinterest and Snap Chat… please! It is such an invasion, and a dangerous invasion– and I think it permits too many people into too many lives in a negative way. I mean, there are people who have had very sad outcomes from all the social media. When this book came out, all of a sudden I thought, “Oh God, I’ve got to learn how to Twitter!” I mean, the word itself is so ridiculous, you know! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) Agreed.
FKB: There’s a lot of information out there, and a lot of harmful information out there! You know, we used to write letters. We used to make phone calls. We could actually wait to get home to make a telephone call. How’d we do it? You know, we had address books. We sent cards to people. There was a warmth and a human denomination that just does not exist now. Today, people are in too much of a hurry– and that’s why they trip over their own feet! I can’t say I don’t use social media.  But the only one that I think I know how to manipulate his Facebook. I gave up on Pinterest! I mean, it’s just too much. I do read books on a Kindle and I read e-books… but I miss reading a book and turning the pages. The smell of the book: It’s wonderful. But you know, there are the practicalities: I don’t have to have luggage that weighs 20 pounds more because of all the books I’m taking! My mother used to say, “You’re on that machine again!” She called my phone a machine. She called my computer a machine! So yes, times have changed. I’m in my generation. I just hate to think what my grandchildren are going to live through. But then, my mother probably said the same about me. Life keeps on going. But I think that we’re headed for some serious trouble!

JR: I’m hoping myself that it goes into turnaround where we will eventually reach that stage where we do go back to sending cards after occasions: thank you cards, and birthday cards…
FKB: I still do!
JR: Me too! So is there anything else that you would like to tell the masses– besides obviously. “Go out and buy the book!”? Which I’m going to tell everybody to do anyway!
FKB: Yes.  Live fully. Make your platform in life be your faith, and the rope you hang on to be humor. Because, with a platform of faith and with a rope of humor, you will get through so much in life. And, go buy the book! (Laughs) It’s a real page turner. I’m not saying that because I think so, but I’m saying it because I’ve heard it from everybody that I know who’s read it. I get wonderful letters. I’ve heard from people that I don’t know: “I loved your book. I couldn’t put it down!” One person said, “I’m so angry with you because I’m supposed to be asleep by 10 o’clock and I’m still awake reading your book!”
JR: (Laughs) They’ll be just fine! Thank you for speaking with me!

Francesca Knittel Bowyer’s Seen From The Wings: Luise Rainer. My Mother, My Journey. is available in both hardcover and Kindle versions from Amazon.com and other sellers. See more at www.francescaknittelbowyer.com.

(Photos courtesy of the author.)

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