'I'm Insane,' Says Dory Previn 'With Papers to Prove It,' but She Harnesses Her Despair at Last
No more sad songs for Dory Previn, if you please.
The high priestess of angst, the balladeer of wounded psyches, the screamer in the 20-mile zone—in short, the Dory Previn whom a small but intense cult of worshipers had learned to love to suffer with—has moved on to other things.
They include an autobiography of her childhood called Midnight Baby; a musical play for which she wrote book, lyrics and music, to be produced on Broadway next season; a couple of screenplays; a European concert tour in May, and a happy love affair with artist-actor Joby Baker.
If this doesn’t parse with the stubbornly persistent public image of Previn as the fragile, brink-of-madness lady whom André Previn jilted for Mia Farrow eight years ago, it’s because a lot has happened in a relatively short period of time.
So I quit my job
And I spent my money
Now I can laugh
‘Cause now it’s funny
Now I will support myself I said
‘Cause I’m out of my head!
Now I’m gonna keep myself together.
—Dory Previn, from her most recent album
By sheer determination, intellect and guts, Dory Previn has indeed pulled herself together. At age 46, basking in the nearly unanimous praise for Midnight Baby, she addresses life with the ebullience of a schoolgirl.
“I’ve had it with angst. I’m now into hope,” she says in her woodsy Hollywood Hills home, a place full of Mexican and American folk art, stained glass, wooden beams, lofts and a picture-window view of drought-parched Nichols Canyon. Two furry white dogs lie at Dory’s feet. “I was terrified to write anything larger than a lyric six years ago. Now, after seven albums, I’ve retired from writing songs. I feel there are no limitations to me now.” For her devout fans, who bought her records in small but consistent numbers and filled Carnegie Hall to hear her sing the litany of the lonely, the news may come as a blow. But for Previn it represents, with the writing of her book, the completion of a trip through madness—or, as she prefers, “the assimilation of madness.”
With characteristic candor, Previn admits to being what traditional doctors call schizophrenic (“I’m insane. I have the papers to prove it”). She is still deathly afraid of flying (she was pulled screaming from a plane at L.A. Airport in 1969 and institutionalized for the fifth or sixth time—she doesn’t remember which). And she still faces periodic episodes of reality disorientation, irrational fears and paranoia.
But the pill phase is long gone, as is the 20-year chain of therapists and institutions. She explains, “R. D. Laing [the British psychiatrist] talks about people who ‘decide to embark on a career of schizophrenia…’ That’s what I did. In 1973 I broke off from the therapy and decided I could go through one of those episodes on my own, in my house. I found there is no real need to be locked up. I found that I was able to use that kind of awake dreaming that you go into during insanity and look at it and live with it and relate to it and become friends with it.”
Out of the terrifying loneliness of those encounters, Previn learned to deal with previously devastating schizoid experiences. The voices she hears in those moments she now understands as messengers of her inner spirit. “I set up a regimen where every morning I would talk to those people—not taking pills or drugs to still them, but listening to my inner self. I get help with my work, my writing. I am the drone, the worker, the carpenter.” From these “conversations” came Midnight Baby. During a psychotic episode three years ago, Previn recalls, “Every time I’d close my eyes, I’d see myself as a child. I figured out that myself as a child wanted me to write so the child could have her say.”
Previn wrote her book in the deceptively naive argot of a 9-year-old. The style is episodic, free-associating, off-putting at first. Gradually a reader yielding to the cadence of the language is engulfed by the snake pit of Previn’s early life.
Midnight Baby has gone through a first printing of 15,000 and into a second of 5,000. It is an alternate Literary Guild selection for April. The Washington Posts reviewer compared it with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
But the portrait of this artist as young girl is more Grand Guignol than James Joyce. Dory Previn was born Dorothy Langan, the daughter of a rigidly Catholic couple in Woodbridge, N.J. Her father, gassed in World War I, believed he was sterile, one of many fantasies that deviled him to eventual madness.
At 3 Dorothy learned that her father never believed she was his child. As another of her lyrics goes:
Anybody I might have missed
Would you care to state
That I exist
I ain’t quite sure
What it is I did
To make him swear
That I ain’t his kid
Yet a year later she was suddenly at the center of her father’s show business fantasy. Although the family lived in near poverty on the proceeds of a small diner, Mike Langan paid for singing, dancing and acting lessons for Dorothy. He got her on radio and on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour and found her jobs tap dancing in local clubs.
When Dorothy was 9, her mother gave birth to a sister. Mike Langan again denied it was his and barricaded the family in the dining room where they stayed docilely for four and a half months. When it was over, Dorothy was physically free but psychologically scarred.
On the dining room door
And Daddy put away his gun
I forgot it happened
I’d been dreaming
Till eighteen odd years later
When I suddenly woke up
During those 18-odd years Dory attempted to live up to her father’s fantasy. She worked briefly and unsuccessfully as a New York chorus girl, studied for a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and sang in small nightclubs for $75 a week. Along the way there were a quick marriage and divorce about which she will say nothing.
Unable to afford a writer, she began creating her own material. Her work came to the attention of MGM producer Arthur Freed, and by 1955 Dory was in Hollywood as a $250-a-week junior lyricist.
When MGM dropped its option, Dory spent the next several years writing Gerald McBoing Boing cartoons and episodes for TV dramas. During this time she suffered her first breakdown, but, propped up by drugs and distracted by her career, she married a promising young composer-conductor named André Previn in 1959.
During the next 10 years, often collaborating with her husband, she wrote lyrics to movie songs, winning Academy Award nominations three times. Outwardly successful, Dory lived through a familiar Hollywood syndrome of pill reliance and hidden terror. Her lyrics for the million-seller Theme from the Valley of the Dolls were a more personal testament than most people knew. “I was taking lots of pills,” she remembers, “and I was part-time crazy sister and part-time this supposedly very, very normal woman, wife, writer. In fact, I slept through most of the ’60s.” The big sleep came to a rude awakening in 1969 when her by-then-famous husband ran off with the movie star.
That event, now a mere benchmark in the larger landscape of Dory’s life, has lodged itself in the public mind. And that infuriates her. “I am so bored with the references to André.” she rages, color rising in her face, hands gesticulating furiously. “I wrote one song about my relationship with him—Beware of Young Girls—and ever since every interview refers to it. Look, I write music, I write lyrics and I am a concert performer. I have written two books. What do I have to do to be just my own person, where my biggest credit doesn’t end up that I was the former Mrs. André Previn? It happened eight years ago. There’s no blame, no guilt, no nothing. I don’t know why they continue with it when it’s a boring pot of crap.”
That said, it remains fact that Dory’s emergence as a songwriter-performer coincided with the drastic turn in her personal life. The songs, including the now-classic Twenty-Mile Zone (“I was doing it alone/I was doing it alone/I was screaming in my car/In a twenty-mile zone”), established her image as the delicate, schizzy lady who had the temerity to expose the darkest demons of her life in her work. Over the past six years her songs have been used by psychiatrists in mental hospitals and by professors in poetry classes. But they are not for everybody. Despite brilliant craftsmanship, sly humor and ironically contrasting musical themes, the songs are too close to the nerve to gain mass public acceptance. Lyrics like “Listen whisper/Please don’t go/Listen whisper/Don’t you know/I’d rather/Madness/Than this sadness” were hardly Top-40 material.
Some reaction has been hostile. Certain critics find Previn’s work self-indulgent, even masochistic. “Those people not interested in self-knowledge or self-help are of course going to recoil,” says Dory. “What my things say are very frightening to a person who doesn’t want to know himself.”
Yet, as she makes peace with her own demons, Previn’s work becomes consistently more optimistic. “It’s been a beautiful growth,” says actress Barbara Feldon, an intimate friend since 1970. “I see a tremendous positive-ness, an affirmation, a kind of joyousness now.”
Much of the joy obviously emanates from the 18-month relationship with 42-year-old Joby Baker. It is the first time since André that Dory has allowed herself to share her life with anyone.
Baker was a promising juvenile actor in the 1950s (Last Angry Man, a raft-of Gidget movies), a standup comic and part-time painter. But stardom eluded him, and, after two unsuccessful marriages, Baker turned to art. Working on miniature pieces of ivory and bone, he developed a scrimshaw engraving technique as personal as Dory’s lyrics—one of the things that drew them together. His surreal, primitive renderings are fashionable, owned by the likes of Paul Newman, Ali McGraw, Steve McQueen and Sally Kellerman.
Baker works in a converted garage off the main house while Dory creates in her loft studio. She and Joby come together frequently during the day with humor, anger and obvious affection. “We’re either screaming or laughing,” says Baker. “We don’t withhold anything.”
Adds Dory, “For the first time I don’t have the feeling that the man’s the king and I’m the subject. I feel we’re equal partners. He and I fight terribly, and we love. I see all the things about him that are foolish, and therefore I’m free to be foolish and hateful, make the mistakes, be a fool, be a clown.”
Free to be a clown. It’s one of the privileges for which Dory Previn has paid her dues.