A good autobiography requires a truly interesting life and a willingness to share it. By both accounts, William Gargan’s, 1969 memoir Why Me is a masterful example of how an autobiography ought to be written.
I knew Gargan for his TV and radio detective work with I Deal in Crime, Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator, and Martin Kane, Private Eye. The Martin Kane series was Gargan’s best known role. Along with Ralph Bellamy’s Man Against Crime, it was one of the first successful TV private eye shows, enjoyed by fans if for nothing else than the novelty of doing a live TV detective series.
However, Gargan’s life was a lot more than TV and radio glitz. Gargan’s acting career included stage work in the 1920s and movies in the 1930s and 1940s. Gargan’s varied life included assisting his bookie father when he was a kid, being thrown out of high school, working as a store investigator/collector and a private detective, and being a bootlegger during prohibition.
In Why Me, Gargan shares inside stories in Hollywood: How his best-supporting actor Oscar nomination for They Knew What They Wanted came out of a frustrating shooting experience with the hammy Charles Laughton. He tells a more fond story of actor hammyness when he and John Barrymore staged an epic battle with Lionel Barrymore to stop Barrymore from stealing a scene. You’ll also run into fun stories about James J. Corbett, Leslie Howard, Bing Crosby, John F. Kennedy, and others.
Gargan’s life included meeting both famous and infamous people, some thanks to his father’s connections. Gargan tells the story of a man operating a protection racket in Chicago who was shaking him down for $10 a week. He called his father. One of his dad’s friends contacted him about it. A friend by the name of Al Capone. Gargan was never bothered after that, but did worry about what had happened to the wildcat shakedown artist.
Gargan knew there was a “dark side” to his father’s life and underworld connections, however in his youth, Gargan was mostly shielded from that side and had mostly fond memories of his father and mother. Gargan was endowed with an incredible love of family and zest for life. One of my favorite stories was about his mother’s funeral. The funeral director told him they planned a slow procession from the church to the cemetary. Gargan rejected the idea of a slow mournful procession, telling the undertaker, “She was a spirited woman. Go like hell.”
Gargan wrote, “Every morning to this day, I say a prayer for my parents. God love them. I love them.”
Gargan’s life included many ups as he made his way to a comfortable living making a lot of “B movies.” and television. The title, “Why Me?” references the great turning point in his life. At age 55, while playing a dying ex-president in the stage version of The Best Man, he began to have pain in his throat. He was diagnosed with cancer of the Larynx, which required surgery that would remove his larynx, silence his voice, and put an end to his acting career. When Gargan was brought home from the hospital, their TV repairman was fixing their set, and turned on the TV, and one of Gargan’s old films came on and he slammed his hand down on the table, wanting to scream to have it turned off, as pain and self-pity overwhelmed him for the moment.
Why Me is not a self-pitying book, rather it tells how Gargan came to answer the question. It’s Gargan’s story of how he learned to talk again through esophagael speech and then began to work with the American Cancer Society: raising funds, making personal appearances, and helping scared patients as they prepared to go through the same process as Gargan did. It was in this that Gargan found an answer to the question, “Why me?” He’d gotten the cancer, so he could help others.
The book revealed the view that Gargan had taken of cancer as he listed one by one, every friend, and every great person who got lost to cancer. Cancer was an enemy and Gargan and the ACS were at war with it. Gargan, a former two pack-a-day smoker for more than thirty ended the book with an appeal for people to stop smoking cigarettes. Perhaps, the most surprising part of the book for twenty-first century Americans is that Gargan didn’t have any thoughts on how Martin Kane promoted tobacco use. Gargan took personal responsibility stating that even as a teenager, they’d referred to cigarettes as “coffin nails.”
Gargan’s faith also plays a part in the book. While he writes about his involvement with the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and meetings with Pope Pius, the more interesting passages are those that show how his faith grew stronger through tragedy and helps him find new purpose in his 60s.
Mixed with honesty about his falings, and a fascinating life story, Why Me is an inspirational tour de force by Gargan. It is sadly out of print, but I was able to get my copy through an interlibrary loan and used copies are available on Amazon and Half.com.
If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically delivered to your Kindle.