Manhattan Memoir
by Mary Cantwell


Penguin Books, 2000. ISBN 0140291903.
Reviewed by Janet Caplan
Posted on 10/31/2006

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Relationships

Manhattan Memoir by former magazine editor and New York Times editorial board member, Mary Cantwell (1930-2000), incorporates her three autobiographical works, American Girl (1992), Manhattan, When I Was Young (1995) and Speaking with Strangers (1998), into one volume. Each section addresses particular periods in the author's life.

American Girl is about just that—the story of Mary Cantwell, a somewhat typical American girl growing up between the 1930s and the 1950s along the east coast of the United States in Bristol, Rhode Island. We read about Cantwell's close-knit family; the major influence her father played in her life from her earliest years to well after his death; the importance to her of living in a multi-generational home that included her loving grandmother, Ganny. She also reminisces about her difficulty fitting in with others as a child. Not until well into high school did she feel comfortable in her own skin and accepting of her own idiosyncrasies. This section culminates with high school graduation.

The second piece of the memoir, Manhattan, When I Was Young, picks up on Cantwell's life after finishing four years at Connecticut College in 1953. She moves to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a writer and lands an entry level job at Mademoiselle magazine. Her Manhattan years through the fifties and sixties include many at Mademoiselle and many more at Vogue, doing everything from research to feature writing to being managing editor at Mademoiselle. On the personal side, we follow Cantwell through her married years—some good, some not so good—the birth and early years of her two daughters, and finally, her divorce.

Part three, Speaking with Strangers, deals in large part with Cantwell's middle years, her well-established career and, as a single parent, her somewhat roller-coaster-like relationship with her children. Through her fine writing, we also accompany her on her travels and are made party to her love affairs.

Mary Cantwell writes very eloquently about her life and her dreams. The three pieces that make up Manhattan Memoir flow seamlessly, so much so that it is hard to believe that they weren't written as one. We move from Cantwell's childhood through her mid and later years with the sense of knowing the subject firsthand. Descriptions are sharp and to the point. Emotions and reactions to life's various joys and difficulties are abundantly clear and strongly felt by the reader. Although Cantwell's life was not without its moments of great happiness, there is a sadness that, I believe, permeated it; a sadness that seemed to result from her lack of control over important life choices. There is no doubt that Cantwell was the master of her own destiny as it related to her career, however, she appeared to hand her personal life over to others, such as her husband, her lovers. As Cantwell said, "it's easy to write about sorrow dry-eyed, but not about joy." Perhaps if Cantwell had shed a few more tears in the writing, she might have been able to bring forth and share a few more of her joys.

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