The Mighty Franks

Michael Frank’s childhood was more complicated than many. Although relatively privileged, it was also somewhat fraught, colored by two very different forms of bullying — one in school, the other at the hands of a doting but overbearing aunt who played an outsized role in his upbringing. In this vividly written coming-of-age memoir, he makes it clear that it’s taken most of his life to get over it.

When he was eight, he overheard his aunt tell his mother how much she adored him — “beyond life itself” – before adding, “I wish he were mine.” Nearly half a century later, Frank recalls that he could “feel the weather in the room change.” After a pause, his mother replied diplomatically, “I wish you had a child of your own.”

The aunt was Harriet Frank, Jr., who with her husband, Irving Ravetch, was part of the successful screenwriting couple whose many movies include Hud, Hombre, The Long, Hot Summer, and Norma Rae. Harriet -– called Hank or Auntie Hankie –- was the older sister of Michael Frank’s father, Marty. In addition — here’s where it gets complicated – her husband, Irving, was the older brother of Mike’s mother, Merona. On top of this, the author’s maternal and paternal grandmothers -– the mothers of both his parents and his aunt and uncle -– shared an apartment in their last years, although not altogether happily. When it came to family ties, the Franks were lashed together as tightly as sailors bound to the mast.

Michael was the oldest and most artistically inclined of Marty and Meron’s three sons. Harriet and Irving had no children but a seemingly endless supply of disposable income, time, and energy. The two Laurel Canyon households were within walking distance of each other, facilitating the further blurring of boundaries.

But Hankie — according to her nephew’s unforgettable portrait — ignored most boundaries, particularly those that impeded her wishes. She was an “impossibly glamorous woman” who was also often just plain impossible. She had strong opinions about everything. She loathed mediocrity, laziness, and “mo-derne” design, and she considered Brahms the last top-rate composer. Her style was formal and brisk. A shopaholic who bought more antiques than she had room for, her “decorative fervor” extended to hotel rooms, summer rentals, and her relatives’ homes, whether they wanted her bounty or not. She was generous to a fault – always bestowing largesse with strings.

Frank, singled out and pulled into her orbit when he was a small boy, at first reveled in “the force of her attention…My aunt was the sun and I was her planet,” he writes. He was wooed by her lavish presents and intoxicated by “her talk, which was like an unending river emptying itself into me.” He absorbed her many edicts, including “Less is not more; more is more” and “Make beauty whenever possible.” He read and read from her approved list of great books – excellent training for his eventual job as a book critic for The Los Angeles Times — and memorized “yards of Shakespeare.” His aunt and uncle’s eccentric Hollywood Regency house was “a little bit fake and a lot fantastical, like a movie set,” but with four walls. It was, he writes, “the central school of my youth, the school of culture, aesthetics, literature, music, movies, architecture and design.”

But all that glittered was not gold. His parents decried his aunt and uncle’s unequal treatment of their three sons, but had little success in getting them to mitigate their favoritism. It took Frank years to realize that his family’s situation was “not remotely normal.”

The Mighty Franks chronicles this fascinating family’s indirect route from poverty and pogroms to the land of movie stars and backyard swimming pools, along with Frank’s difficult path to self-definition and the painful repercussions of pushing back against his aunt – who turned 100 this year — as she became more difficult. The shadow at the heart of this memoir is the emotional cost of suffocating love — ties that bind but also choke.

Revisiting the scene of his childhood, Frank reflects: “My parents and my surrogate parents, my parents and their siblings: each pair represented two different worldviews, two different paths through experience that had intermittently been aligned but more often were set against each other, toggling, or torquing, between the reasonable and the dramatic, the ordinary and the magical….” Standing midway atop the hill between the two houses and worlds between which he had been pulled off-balance in his youth, he comments, “it was as if I were standing on my own personal equator.”

Heller McAlpin will discuss The Mighty Franks with Michael Frank at Barnes & Noble on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on Tuesday, June 6th at 7 p.m.  More info here.

The Barnes & Noble Review

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