SOME PEOPLE WITH LONG AND unabridged memories may recall a golden moment at Los Angeles’s Coconut Grove nightclub in 1966: With his wife, Sandra Dee, beaming in the front row, headliner Bobby Darin hoisted their son Dodd, 5, onstage for a hug. The boy, clad in a tiny tux, said into the mike, “I love you, Dad.” The audience sighed, then cheered this perfect showbiz family: the smooth, scrappy crooner; the blonde onetime teen star who had starred in the original Gidget—and their adorable only child. How could their life not be perfectly fabulous?
It wasn’t—and the family’s painful past still resonates today. Bobby Darin, who died of heart disease in 1973 at 37, was, by many accounts, a bully and a womanizer; his marriage ended only a year after that appearance at the Coconut Grove. Today, Dee, 50, who last appeared on the big screen in The Dunwich Horror (1970), talks about a comeback of sorts but continues to struggle with alcoholism and anorexia. According to Dodd, now 32 and a real estate broker and radio talk show host in L.A., the 5’6″ actress currently weighs 95 lbs. Darin can look back on times with his mother and confess, “She has put me and everyone around me through such hell.”
The story of their complicated relationship—and what it was like growing up as Bobby Darin’s son—can be found in Dodd’s new memoir, Dream Lovers (Warner Books). Though written, he says, with “my mother’s blessing,” the book plays a harsh light on the lives of the two stars, particularly Bobby. The younger Darin, who was 12 when his father died, supplemented his memories by interviewing, with coauthor Maxine Paetro, his father’s friends and family. He describes Bobby as “an egomaniac” who verbally abused his wife and as a groupie-groping “swinger” who, before he wed Dee, participated in ménages à trois with his own stepfather.
Yet Dodd also saw Bobby’s vulnerability. His heart weakened by rheumatic fever as a child, “my father knew he wouldn’t live long,” Darin says. “He was trying to pack a lifetime of ambition into what little time he had.” And, his son reveals, Bobby learned a devastating secret at age 32: his 49-year-old “sister” Nina was really his mother. Stunned by this, his son suggests, Bobby tried—despite his career, the divorce and his egotism—to be an attentive father. Behind his father’s “coarser sides,” Dodd says he saw “his love for me shining through.”
His mother’s life—and their relationship—Dodd admits, is an often-stalled work-in-progress. “I love my mother,” he writes. “But I’m angry at her.” While owning up in the book to his own adolescent bout with booze and drugs, he says he is “furious” about having to deal, over the years, with Dee’s denial, relapses and need for special attention. He does say, though, that he softened certain passages about his mother after “she pointed out that she was taking the brunt of the criticism, and I realized she was right.”
Darin traces Dee’s ills to her early years, adding texture to revelations she first made in PEOPLE three years ago. Dee was a top model by age 10, but growing up in Long Island and Manhattan was misery. Her stepfather molested her daily. Her mother, Mary Dou-van, was obsessive about food. She often spoon-fed her daughter a soup of oatmeal, eggs and meat, doubtless contributing to Dee’s eating disorder.
Dodd says his mother’s alcoholism started after she met Bobby Darin on the set of the film Come September in 1960. The Bronx-bred Bobby was witty, inquisitive, charming. When they wed that December, Dee hoped finally to have a real family life. But when he wasn’t touring, Darin hung out with his musician pals. Feeling neglected, Dee, says Darin, “fell apart under the stress. Her coping mechanism was alcohol.”
Dee, who says she has been sober for the past year and is dealing with her anorexia with psychotherapy, admits that “reading the book was very hard—but he told the truth. It’s exactly what Dodd and I wanted. The book is done and out now, and I can breathe.” She says she will soon market a perfume called Summer Place, after her 1959 movie with Troy Donahue. Dodd, meanwhile, will be serving as a consultant on director Barry Levinson’s planned movie about Bobby Darin’s life and is getting good ratings as the moderate “anti-Rush,” he says, of KTMS radio. Last year, he married his childhood sweetheart Audrey Tannenbaum, 33, a costume designer for NBC’s Mad About You, though the couple had gone through some tough times, Tannenbaum says, when Darin seemed to be consumed by his mother’s problems and his own anger. The book, friends feel, may be a milestone for Darin. “It’s been a catharsis for him,” says Bobby’s manager Steve Blauner. “He needed to do it to become his own man.”
F.X. FEENEY in Malibu