Saturday, February 09, 2008
The Other Man
Our book today is The Other Man by Michael Bergin, and it should be an extremely simple matter to dismiss out of hand.
As some of you may know, Michael Bergin was a successful male model in the early 90s and a cast member of Baywatch at the height of its popularity (which was saying something - it was and remains the most popular TV show in the world-wide history of the art form). What you may not know is that he started out his young life as an ordinary mook from Naugatuck, Connecticut, a town so obscure, he says, you'd have trouble finding it on a map. In 1992 he was a struggling young model, working as a bellhop, hurrying off to one casting 'cattle call' after another, and looking up at all the brightly-lit windows in all the high-rises, imagining all the happy people living behind them.
At this point, his story is much like that of all the other handsome young men who went to those 'cattle calls.' But in 1992 he met a beautiful young woman named Carolyn Bessette, and everything changed. It was bound to: the besetting irony of Carolyn Bessette's life was that she who wanted stability more than anybody created change, stimulation, and upheaval in every life she entered. She couldn't help it; her presence was simply electrifying. Long before Bergin met her, when she was a student at Boston University, it was the same: you met her, and your life changed.
She swept into Bergin's life like a whirlwind. He was instantly in love, and being very attractive himself, it wasn't long before they were lovers and he was even further besotted. His book has an open, frank tone throughout (no co-author or ghost-writer is credited), but nowhere is it more honest and athletic than in its descriptions of what it's like to be young and entralledly in love:
She looked across at me and smiled. Her whole face lit up when she smiled. I thought, I could look at that face for the rest of my life. I didn't even know her, but I felt connected to her in ways I couldn't begin to understand.
But with him it was only love - with Carolyn Bessette, it never was. When she found a beautiful young man who could answer for himself well enough, she set about ... well, shaping that young man. It was her way: she could spot potential a mile off, and once she saw it - in a musician, an ad campaign, a male model -she set about almost involuntarily (but if not so, certainly dutifully) doing what she always did, refining, improving, enlivening.
She so set about with young Michael Bergin, and he himself knew exactly what was happening. It stands to his credit that he absorbed it all with wide-eyed and incredulous gratitude:
She even helped with my diction, but she did it with such gentleness and such generosity of spirit that I was never embarrassed. 'Try not to drop your word endings,' she said. 'It makes your sentences sound unfinished'
She was right. Doin'. Sayin'. Goin.' I sounded like a small-town hood, and Carolyn was trying to help me change that. She was educating me. Shaping me. refining me. And I not only allowed it, I appreciated it.
He benefitted from it, too, as he'd be the first to admit: she changed the way he talked, the way he walked, the way he presented himself to the world, the way he thought about himself - she made sure he bought the right clothes, the right shoes, the right skin-care products ("all the boys use them, whether they admit it or not," she told him, and she was right).
His career blossomed - it might not have been specifically due to her ministrations (although it might have been too - there's no telling which casting director or marketing developer here or there responded not to the chiselled abs but to the added polish provided by this one so unlikely source), but suddenly he was getting steady work, his body was on billboards twenty feet high in Times Square, and he was living a life - in Manhattan, Milan, and parts south - that he hadn't dreamed as a high school sports star in Naugatuck.
In his account (and, realistically speaking, whose counter-version are we ever likely to have, all those concerned being either happy or dead? Indeed, it's a small wonder this book itself ever got written), none of any of this mattered to him: he was entirely smitten with Carolyn, and not even the temptations of the wide world could serve to distract him.
She was mysterious about herself, always, and this drove him crazy - she was always ready with a dozen very good, very pointed questions about him, but she was equally adept at deflecting attention from herself. But Bergin is persistent (although he admits he's had more than his share of meaningless sex, when he squarely asserts that he prefers deeper relatioships, you believe him), and eventually he learns more about her.
In the course of all this, while the focus of the book remains very much the love story between these two, readers get a whole lot more. Bergin is something of a natural storyteller, and he has a winning, everyman voice that perfectly juxtaposes with the weird high-life world in which he finds himself. Baywatch gets off lightly, but the world of professional modelling is delightfully skewered in all its trashy vapidity. Bergin is grateful for all the opportunities it provides him, but he's got a mischievous streak in him, and like any good storyteller, he always remembers his best lines:
The entire thing [a photoshoot with drug addict Kate Moss] was insane. I remember standing around in my underwear while they were setting up the lights when this gay guy came over, reached inside my crotch, and grabbed my penis like it was a piece of meat.
"Hey!" I screamed at him. "What the fuck are you doing?"
"Hey yourself!" he shouted back. "That's my job. I'm the stylist. I have to style your penis, too."
"I can style my own penis, thank you very much."
"You're not being very professional, Michael."
"Just tell me where you want my penis, and how you want it to look. I can take care of it myself. My penis and I understand each other."
Bergin characterizes himself as 'the straightest guy in the world,' and he'd pretty much have to be, to tell an anecdote in which he says 'just tell me where you want my penis' to a grabby gay man.
But the story always comes back to her, and it's increasingly complicated by a development Carolyn would certainly have preferred to keep from Bergin: her deepening relationship with the scion of American royalty, JFK Jr.
As you read Bergin's account, and despite what he himself says, you can't help but think the avoidance went both ways, but it doesn't matter: she was actively deceiving him long after he deserved better from her. She was secretive about their comings and goings, she was evasive about the blank spots in her calendar, and when he confronted her directly, she lied about the extent of her involvement with JFK's son.
Bergin's book is studded with literary quotations about love lived and lost but there's not a word about love's lies, and that's because he's a gentleman, the kind of 'good guy' who never met a person but made a friend and never made a friend but kept one. And if the book went only that far, it would be a touching memoir of the price that even relatively innocent bystanders can pay for connection with the tumultuous Kennedy clan.
But the book goes further, and that's why it ought to be dismissable out of hand. Bergin goes through agony as he loses her to the world and the persona of JFK Jr, and he's open about it:
Finally, the fascination with them [in the media] abated, but only marginally. I don't think a week went by without some mention of them in the press. As for the photographs, they were everywhere. I found them hard to look at. Carolyn seemed so damn happy, he was so damn handsome, and they looked so damn good together - and so rich.
All of which must have been heart-breaking, and like we said, if the book only went that far, it would be a clean little tragedy. But it goes one step more. It goes to the point where Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, the lawfully-married wife of John Kennedy Junior, first called Bergin wanting sex.
That's where everything should have stopped cold. Bergin's parents were small-town salt of the earth, and they raised him with care and attention. He knew perfectly well one of the most basic rules of being a good guy: you don't sleep with another man's wife. It doesn't matter what emotional ties you have with her, and it doesn't matter how miserable she tells you she is: you don't sleep with another man's wife.
Bergin does, every time she asks. He reduces himself to expedient excuse-making, and to hurrying out the rear entrance, shoes in hand, whenever JFK Jr shows up at the front door. It's not manly, and it's not moral, and even so, credit has to be given to Bergin for narrating it all so unflinchingly. He tells us he coudn't help himself, and it takes guts to admit that.
She married her American prince, even though a dispassionate reader might think she'd made a mistake in her choosing. Bergin had to read all about it in the tabloids and see it all on the news, even while his own life was moving forward with Baywatch Hawaii (those of you who scoffed at the mention of Baywatch will scoff all the more at the mention of Baywatch Hawaii, but if you look at the tapes you'll see it clear as day: in the midst of his personal tragedies, somehow Bergin learned the beginnings of how to act).
And he had to live through thet horrible day in 1999 when the news broke that JFK Jr's private plane had gone down at sea with the loss of all hands - including Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. She died young and beautiful, alongside her quite-probably-troublesome husband, and that was all the world at large had to say on the subject.
Unless you were Michael Bergin, that is. In the months following the tragedy, more and more trash-journalists scented the scandal of Bessette's last months, and Bergin found himself in the spotlight again, forced to watch the press hound his former lover even more fiercely dead than it had when she was alive. That, he tells his readers, was the genesis of this present book: he meant it as a defense of Carolyn's reputation. And despite everything that by all rights ought to make it disgusting (not only the cheating, but the praising of a former lover after you've got yourself a new one - if it didn't work for King David, it's not going to work for a kid from Naugatuck), you end up believing him. This book was the last thing he could do for that tortured young woman, the last help he could be to her.
Certainly he saw it that way. His book - his entirely readable and touching book - is subtitled 'A Love Story.'