October 18, 2007
Actor-writer pens memoir of life marred by murder
"Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir," by Dinah Lenney (University of Nebraska Press, $24.95)For the past 10 years, Dinah Lenney, author of the memoir, "Bigger Than Life," has lived with the memory of the murder of her father, a prominent New Jersey businessman and onetime senatorial candidate who was knifed to death by three teens in Manhattan.
Lenney says that she is a "spiritually challenged" person. Still, as she wrote, she once contemplated the possibility that a wounded white pigeon that had adopted her backyard as its home might be her father. When reminded of this during a visit to her Los Angeles home, the author smiles and jokes that Sully, her barking dog, might be her father. If so, he is a cheerful, rambunctious spirit.
That is not so far from the man Lenney describes in her book. Although her father could be a scoundrel -- he served six months in federal prison for campaign fraud and always made her know how important his golf game was, even when he visited Lenney and her children -- he nonetheless was, she said, "incredibly charismatic."
A tall, burly real estate tycoon, Nelson Gross had always been able to control anyone and anything. He delivered Bergen County in northern New Jersey for Nixon in 1968, served as assistant secretary of state in the Nixon administration, and even conferred in the Oval Office with the president and John Ehrlichman.
To his young daughter, Gross seemed all the more omnipotent and exotic because he was rarely around. He and Lenney's mother divorced when Lenney was a toddler, and growing up with her mother and stepfather she was "brainwashed," as she put it, to think of her father as a "bad guy."
Inside Lenney's Echo Park living room, books are piled everywhere -- stacked on the floor, tiered up on a shelf and placed inside a glass bookcase. There's also a photo of her father inside that bookcase, a dark-haired, handsome man standing by a squash court at what looks to be a private club. Even at the time of the photo, when Gross was probably in his 60s, he looks daunting and muscular, 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, with biceps palpable under his sleeve and a strong torso.
It still boggles Lenney that three "punks," not one of them taller than 5-foot-8, could have overcome such a powerful figure.
One of the ironies of Lenney's life, as she reveals in the book, is that she was more fearful of facing her own family than the killers when she appeared in the courtroom at their sentencing. The book indeed deals more with this toxic brew of upper-class Jews than it does with the three Latino felons.
Lenney, who is tall and dark-haired like her father, is a longtime TV actor who teaches acting at UCLA. She also has a background as a writer, having received an MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. Last year she published her first book, titled, "Acting for Young Actors: The Ultimate Teen Guide."
"Bigger Than Life" gives her more of an opportunity to display her literary chops.
Consider her description of the cast of characters in her family to whom her husband, then boyfriend, Fred, was introduced one Christmas: "Iris ... a renowned archaeologist who wore the family kilts with a crested dagger in her sock ... Audrey, Noel's mother, whose hair shone shoe-polish black and whose skin stretched like an old flesh-colored bathing cap across her narrow skull. She was in her nineties with toothpick arms, and she trembled when she spoke, beautifully, with a mid-Atlantic lilt. Her escort ... was a man in his sixties, slim, coiffed, and affable, like something out of a Noel Coward play."
Lenney said she had several premonitory nightmares about her father in the days when he was missing, nearly all of them involving death. In the book, she dramatizes her "conjecture" about the final moments of her father's life, the dialogue and action that may have transpired between him and the three punks, one of whom is named Christian.
In the dramatization, she depicts her father as a mensch even in the face of his impending death, as he defends his son, Neil, whom she speculates may have been involved in drugs.
"Listen," he says, "you leave Neil alone. You don't deal with my son. Ever. Just deal with me. I'll take care of you."
Unfortunately, punks of the 1990s and 2000s, nihilistic Generation Y-ers, are not like the punks of Gross' youth in the 1940s and 1950s, who might have cut your face with a knife and left you with a mark but probably would not have killed you.
Though not religious, Lenney says that she respects most of all what one rabbi told her, that what happened to her father was "simply evil" and that there is no such thing as an afterlife. She said, however, that "I carry my father in my genes -- he's bound to turn up here and there, in this one's smile, that one's reticence, this one's athletic ability, that one's lack of sentiment...."
At the end of her memoir, Lenney writes about how in a summer stock production of "Peter Pan" the director came up with the idea of having "a shadow, a stagehand dressed in black," help each performer simulate flying through the air. Then she writes about how her own shadow appears more confident now when she goes for a walk in Elysian Park, near her home.
It leaves open the possibility that that shadow may be a spirit of a sort, like the wounded pigeon that healed and flew away, and the dolphin who leaped by a boulder out at sea after Lenney tossed her father's ashes into the Pacific, and Sully the dog who is no longer barking.
Like the Ghost of Hamlet's father at the end of Shakespeare's tragedy, Nelson Gross may finally be at rest.