When I think about underappreciated actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood, I realize that a multitude of women don’t receive the attention and respect that they deserve today, but few actresses fit this description better than Luise Rainer. Despite holding her own in exceptionally challenging roles and becoming the first person, male or female, to ever receive back-to-back Academy Awards, the majority of people who consider themselves fans of classic film have trouble remembering her insurmountable impact on Hollywood. Finding a genuine fan of Rainer’s among the general public today is next to impossible, so when Oscars season rolled around two years ago, I decided to write an article about Luise and her incredible accomplishments. I was so proud to introduce this fascinating artist to current audiences who had never heard of her before, but after the article was published, I only thought of it now and then. In fact, I wasn’t reminded of it again until a month ago when I was approached by Jonas Public Relations and informed of the release of a new memoir: Seen from the Wings: Luise Rainer. My Mother, The Journey written by Francesca Knittel Bowyer, daughter of none other than Luise Rainer herself. I was given a copy of the book a month before it was set to hit the shelves, and even better, I was given the amazing opportunity to interview Francesca herself. I was over the moon!
I have to admit that I was first drawn to Seen from the Wings because of my adoration for Luise Rainer, but this book ended up being so different than what I expected. I began reading it just after finishing Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, a dual biography penned by Victoria Riskin with rich historical context about Hollywood during a time of transition along with a deep dive into the specific careers of her parents. After becoming aware of Rainer’s exceptional yet largely untold story, I had hoped that Seen from the Wings would contain something similar to Wray and Riskin, with insight given to Rainer’s career in Hollywood and a deeper explanation as to why the actress left the film industry after winning two Academy Awards. I think a book like that would be especially relevant and important today, as I’m a staunch supporter of Luise and I feel that her story is one that deserves to be told. The memoir started out that way as Francesca explained to her readers exactly who her mother was and why she was so world-renowned. However, this description of Luise’s life and career only lasted a couple of chapters, and after the birth of Francesca we find out what Seen from the Wings truly is: a remarkably written autobiography of Francesca that discusses what it was really like to be raised by a Hollywood icon, and it’s a story that doesn’t shy away from the bitter truths, including both the happy and tumultuous times in her life.
At this point, some fans of Luise who are more sensitive about negative comments may want to set the book down, but if you’re willing to test the thickness of your skin you’ll find a gripping and important coming-of-age story that’s surprisingly relatable to young women and people at large, both those who are fortunate enough to call a legendary actress “mom” as well as those who aren’t. Francesca is surprisingly candid about her mother’s verbal abuse, but instead of merely pointing her finger, she attempts to lift the veil in order to figure out in retrospect precisely why Luise Rainer felt threatened by her own daughter. As Francesca matures into adulthood, we also see the profound effect that her mother’s comments and harsh treatment of our protagonist had on her daughter’s life and relationships. As someone who holds Luise in the absolute highest regard, I was of course shocked to read some of Francesca’s more harrowing experiences. I was even warned by a colleague before I started reading Seen from the Wings that it was possible a Mommie Dearest-esque tome, but there’s so much that sets this book apart from the latter memoir.
Despite what Francesca went through, it’s so obvious that she always has and always will adore her mother, forgiving her for every unkind word and act even when another person under similar circumstances would not. On top of that, the author’s vivid detail and her growth as a person throughout the text convince me that her words are genuine, even if they end up being somewhat detrimental to Luise’s image. Above all, Francesca admits that despite everything, she wouldn’t be the person she is without her mother, and her mother’s memory is one of the most important things in her life. I would highly recommend that everyone who holds an interest in classic film memoirs give Seen from the Wings a try, but more importantly I think this book is easily recommended to those who couldn’t care less about Hollywood, too. Francesca’s story reveals a person who did everything she could to step out of the darkness cast by Luise Rainer’s shadow, and she succeeds in building her own life outside of her famous family while still making very real mistakes that everyone can read about, relate to, and grow from, just as she has. Ultimately, Luise Rainer is just another character in Francesca’s life, albeit an important one, so if you can’t handle that lack of focus on the Oscar-winner, you might not enjoy this book. I personally can’t help but admit how much I would also enjoy a firsthand account of Luise Rainer’s life in and out of the limelight, but Seen from the Wings is still a gripping story about her daughter that can be read and appreciated by everyone, and it’s a real joy to read.
Below you’ll find my fascinating and eye-opening interview with the author of Seen from the Wings, Francesca Knittel Bowyer.
Can you recall the first moment you realized that your mother was a movie star?
Ha ha! In London, we were walking down the street. I was about ten years old, I think, maybe eleven. A couple of people went up to my mother and asked her for her autograph, and she pretended she wasn’t Luise Rainer. I stood back from my mother and turned around and nodded my head. As any kid would do, I gave her away completely!
That is too funny! Was she trying to not let on to you who she was or was she just trying to avoid them?
She just wanted to be left alone, I think that was it. I don’t know why, because I used to tell my mother, “Mummy, your fans are the people who made you who you are. I mean, your talent is amazing, but it’s the fans you’ve got to pay attention to, because if you didn’t have fans, you wouldn’t have followers.”
Honestly that seems, and forgive me for saying so, like a very European way that the stars behaved in Old Hollywood. You have the Garbos and that sort of a star who would shy away from the fans and the spotlight a little more.
There was a great mystery, but my mother, you’ve got to understand, her real fame was long before I was ever a thought. I mean, I’d say about eleven years before I was ever born.
I have to say too, I am so surprised how much you sound like her. That was something that I didn’t expect. I don’t know if you’ve ever been told that before, but you have her accent little bit.
I wouldn’t say I have her accent, she had a very thick Viennese accent.
I guess it’s the tone, after seeing her movies it’s a little similar.
I don’t say “I am my mother’s daughter”, but I do say “I am the daughter of my mother.”
You can’t help some similarities sometimes. Why do you think it was Luise Rainer of all people who became the first person to win back-to-back Oscars, and what was it about her that you think helped her accomplish such an impossible feat for the time?
She was immensely talented. I think it was raw talent that Hollywood hadn’t seen yet, and she came out of the blue. She was recognized as an extraordinary artist, probably unlike anything… there was Marlene Dietrich, there was Garbo, but these were all people that she came after. That’s a difficult question, that’s a question you’re going to have to ask the Academy.
That’s very true. It was such a surprise at the time.
But isn’t an Academy Award always a surprise? It’s a wonderful award that takes people by surprise very often.
That’s a good point. She did beat out some some really stiff competition for the time, like Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer, and Barbara Stanwyck. She just sort of came out and surprised everyone. Do you think that your mother would’ve kept on working in Hollywood if she had received parts that were worthy of her, or do you think that after a certain point she was finished with filmmaking and would’ve stopped no matter what?
I don’t think she was ever finished with filmmaking. Yes, I think you’re right, I think she could never find the parts she really liked. As a director once said to her, “You’ve got everything to lose and nothing to gain,” because she had come to her peak. She always said, “The worst thing to ever happen to me is that I hit my peak right at the beginning,” because then you have a plateau that you can’t come down from. That made it difficult, but she never stopped acting, whether it was in real life or on the stage. She worked a great deal in television and on stage after Hollywood, but I think she walked out on Hollywood because she didn’t like the whole setup that Louis B. Mayer provided. She didn’t want to be a part of it.
She seemed like such a true artist, telling him that she had no more to give. When you compare it to some actors, especially today, who would just take whatever part was given them. She was very much not that person.
You’re right, you’re absolutely right.
I can’t help but notice the similarities and differences between Seen from the Wings and Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, Victoria Riskin’s recent release about her parents who were also big names in Hollywood in the 1930s. While Victoria’s book focuses on her parent’s career accomplishments, I see that you’ve given a more honest account of your own self-discovery and your personal relationship with your mother, both the happy and tumultuous times. What made you decide to give such an honest take and tell your own story instead of talking about your mother’s career through a historical lens?
That is a multiple answer to a very good question. I started the book for my children, to show them that I was a kid also. Then, slowly, I kept on writing and writing and developed this story. What I wanted to show people is that we are all made of the same cloth. Some from privileged, some from less privileged, we are all made from the same cloth. The only difference is that we tend to color those cloths somewhat differently, which makes our lives colorful. It’s a success story, it’s a story of how in life we so often choose the partners in our life according to those who are so influential in our upbringing. I married a man who was the personality of my mother, who was very tough on me. He loved me, but felt somewhat threatened by me, for lack of saying ‘jealous’. He was always afraid that I would overshadow his center stage, which I never wanted to do or thought of doing, and then on the side I had another man who I had met who built me up after my husband had torn me down. He was the person who reminded me of my father, so basically I found both of my parents in two different men: the one who tore me down, and the one who built me up again. It’s a very human story that a lot of people can relate to. As I’ve said so often in life, we choose in our partners those people who are so influential in our upbringing.
I completely agree. This seems to me, regardless of your connection to your mother and how famous she was and how iconic she was, like such an important story for any young woman to read. To learn from what you learned, and someone who is going to make similar mistakes and learn from those mistakes and move forward as a person.
I would say, rather than a young woman, I would say that men and women [can relate to my book]. I have had men come up to me and say, “I couldn’t put your book down. I understand what you’re talking about,” which lends to the fact that people call it a page-turner, which makes me very happy. I think it’s a page-turner because I believe in taking a lot of risks. I believe in opening unknown doors. Otherwise, you don’t go anywhere. Don’t get too comfortable with your life, always appreciate it, and always know that if you make mistakes… You may break your leg, but let it heal. Then you can get up and move on. There are no mistakes, just learning experiences, and any mistakes that I’ve made were learning experiences and pushed me forward to do better.
One thing I have to ask: Luise Rainer’s story is so largely untold and underappreciated in my opinion. Would you ever consider writing a straight historical biography talking about your mother’s career and accomplishments?
Yes, I think that’s very important because she was an extraordinary woman. She was quite a renegade and daredevil. She had immense intelligence, coming from the Latin “intellectualis”, which means understanding. She really understood life, and she hungered to learn more about life and humanity, which is why she surrounded herself with people that we read about in books. She was thirsty to absorb rather than learn. She was thirsty to learn, yes, and she was thirsty for beauty, but she was an extraordinary woman who took risks too.
She really was such a pioneer, and that’s one of the reasons why I admire her. I can imagine that it’s a big step for you to go from the art world to the advertising business to now writing an autobiography. What were some of your literary inspirations for the book, and how did you find your voice and style through the writing process?
You know, W. Somerset Maugham was speaking at a university in Europe. He entered the auditorium, standing room only, and he looked out in the audience and proclaimed, “I hear you all want to be writers,” and there was applause, applause, applause. And he said, “Then go home and write.” There’s something to be said for that. People say, “How did you write this book?” It came from my gut.
Not to mention the fact that it’s your own story.
Well, it’s a human story that came from my gut. I received my baccalaureate, which enabled me to go to university. I got so sick of hearing from my parents, “As long as we’re paying for it, you do what we say…” My father was a graduate of Oxford University in England, and he wanted me to go to Oxford. Instead I thought, “Nope, I’m going to work!” I thought, “I don’t want to have a job that’s connected to my parents.” I went to a dinner party and met one of the editors of Harper’s Bazaar, which is what started me writing. I was a sub-editor. Somebody once said that I was the first The Devil Wears Prada girl!
I can definitely see some similarities to that story.
Except for the fact that I didn’t dress like a frump! I was always very well-dressed, but the story is the same exactly. I’ve seen that movie and I think, “Oh my god, that was me!” I had the same editor who treated me exactly the same way, but I learned such a great deal and I learned that I loved to write. I wrote an article on bullfighting because I was so outraged about bullfighting when I was thirteen years old, which was published in Queen Magazine. It received a lot of accolades, but my mother never encouraged me. She allowed me to do something, but she was always very discouraging. I don’t know why, but she tore everything up that I did. My father was the one who always encouraged me. He was a very prolific publisher, publishing works by Herman Wouk, Sidney Sheldon, the list goes on. He looked at me once when I showed him something I wrote, and said, “Francesca, you are a born writer. You’ve got to start writing.” That’s what gave me the incentive. People love painting, people love walking, people love knitting or sculpting or whatever they love doing the most. I love writing, that’s what puts me at peace.
I’m really astonished that your mother would turn down your writing after being married to someone like Clifford Odets and after being a creative herself.
My mother felt threatened by me; she did not want to be overshadowed. She was an extraordinary mother on one side, but on the other she was very, very, very difficult, and very difficult with me. She tended to put my sense of self-worth in the shredder because of insecurity. I even married the personality of my mother, but I was madly in love with him, the same way that I adored my mother. I wanted nothing more than to make him proud but he too, like my mother, was insecure thought he would lose me so he thought, “I’ll make her insecure so she will stay with me.” My mother felt the same way. It doesn’t matter if your parents are well-known, bankers, service people, it doesn’t matter what you are. Everybody has a situation which is in some way similar somewhere down the line. We are so influenced by those who programmed us as children. I was programmed by my mother who I absolutely adored and looked up to. To be emotionally put down, and I fell in love with a man who did the same thing to me, and I constantly wanted to please him until I finally realized, “Wait a second, this is wrong.” I think this is why every time I succeed in a profession I move onto the next. I was always challenging myself to see if I could and what came out of this book, when I wrote the last line, I said, “Francesca, you can.”
And you did. You speak about your mother so candidly, about her treatment of you, both the good and the bad. How do you still speak of her so fondly after those hard times?
We are all human, Samantha. We have human failings, and sometimes you have to look at the good in a human being. I think what brings out the worst in people is fear and insecurity. It walks into your life every now and again, sometimes obvious and sometimes less obvious, like a thief for your joy. What you have to do is kick all that fear and insecurity out the door and slam the door behind it. I loved my mother very, very, very much, I always tried to please her. I wasn’t able to. Finally later in life I gave up and I just gave it back to her. I was never unkind, although she always tried to paint me as the terrible daughter, which hurt terribly because I’m thinking, “Wait a second. I’m travelling 6,000 miles from California four or five times a year to be with her, to take care of her, to love her.” It was very, very difficult, and it became worse as time went on.
Do you have any advice for those who are currently facing stormy relationships with their parents?
Try to find the good side. Know that this is not your problem, it is their problem. Walk away when it hurts too badly. Try to understand where they’re coming from, and sometimes they can’t help themselves. Walk away, but not without trying to work it out. Relationships only work if you work at them, but if you’ve seriously worked at it, walk away from that hurt because it’s destructive. It’s destructive for the person giving out the hurt, and it’s destructive for the person who is receiving the hurt. Walk away. Walk away, but never walk away with resentment. Always look at the person as, “This person has a problem.” That would be my advice.
Absolutely. It’s so apparent reading your story that there are so many other people going through something similar. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m one of those people, so it’s great to hear that.
Hurting somebody else is cowardly, it’s always cowardly, because it’s a weakness that makes the individual giving out the hurt feel stronger. But if you keep your head up and understand it, walk away from it, take a breath. You know, we can’t divorce our parents, so you have to stand back. Do not accept it. Never accept an abuse, because that is wrong, and the person who’s receiving it is just as guilty if they stand there and allow it to happen as the person who’s giving it out.
What do you hope readers learn from your story?
Well, there’s so much I hope they learn. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. If you fall, think about how much you’ve learned from that fall, get up, and move on. Stand on the platform of faith. Hang from the ropes of humor. Humor is the most extraordinary tool to get through life. Even God has a sense of humor. Have humor, see things from a humorous point of view. I remember when my mother, about a few years before she died right around her hundredth birthday; we came back right from her celebration where she gave an extraordinary party, and I was standing in the guest bathroom, which by the way has makeup lights on top. All of the bulbs except for two were taken out; however, at my house, I had to have specially built bulbs all around the mirror, which was about four feet by five feet, and every light had to be on. When I put the bulbs back in [her mirror], she was just furious. She said, “Those cost too much money!” Of course, this woman could afford anything. So I put [the bulbs] by the back mirror and I thought of all the things she’d done, and like a crazy person, I started a stand-up comedy [in my head], and I was laughing so hard at everything that went on. I thought, “Thank goodness for humor.” Humor is very important in life, especially when it’s difficult. I always tell my children that no matter how bad it gets, you can take it with humor later on as a story to tell with a smile on your face.
What do you hope people remember about your mother?
That she was not just a pioneer, but an amazing artist, an amazing craftsman. That she could pull out of her any personality. She studied people, she was a great humanitarian. When I knew that she was on her last leg, I had to run back to California to get some things together because I knew she was dying and the doctor said she had about three weeks to go before everything would shut down. She was lying in her bed, she hadn’t eaten anything or woken up, but she was breathing. I was trying to feed and hydrate her, and before I left for America I said, “Mummy, I’ll be back. I’m coming back in two days,” because that was the turnaround. I whispered in her ear and I said, “Mummy, I want you to know that I will never allow you to be forgotten, and you will never be forgotten.” I don’t want anybody to forget this extraordinary human being who suffered within her own shell. She was her own worst enemy, but she was a great artist.
I couldn’t agree with you more. There are so many people who continue to love her and appreciate her, people who will also make sure that she’s never forgotten too.
Thank you. That’s a gift.
If you could recommend one film of hers to someone who had never heard of Luise Rainer, what would it be and why?
Well, it depends on your attention span. The Good Earth is just an amazing film. It’s very moving. I’ve seen it so many times, countless times, but I remember as a child I couldn’t stop crying for days. I think The Great Waltz is a very wonderful, wonderful film. Beautiful costumes, singing, and she’s charming in it. She has enormous charm and great fashion at the same time. My mother had an extraordinary talent for being able to demonstrate both joy and sadness at the same time. It’s unheard of, she could laugh and cry at the same time.
You speak to my own heart because The Good Earth is my favorite film of your mother’s, for sure.
It’s an extraordinary film.
I’m so honored and moved by the time that you’ve given me and by your answers. This has really been incredible for me.
It’s been a joy talking to you, too.