Born With Teeth: A Memoir
Little Brown and Company
Release Date: April 14, 2015
In the summer of 1975, I spent a week in bed suffering from some unnamed ailment that kept me weak and listless. While I normally never watched television during the day, out of sheer boredom I switched on it on – and was swept away by an incandescent actress in a soap opera about a working class Irish-American family in New York City. The soap opera was Ryan’s Hope, and the actress was Kate Mulgrew. While I didn’t watch the show beyond that week, I never forgot the actress with the impossibly sharp cheekbones, gravelly voice and wide, guileless grey eyes.
Ms. Mulgrew resurfaced in my awareness when she became the first starship captain in the Star Trek franchise: Captain Kathryn Janeway of the U.S.S. Voyager. I loved her depiction of the feminine future – smart, capable, equal to any of the men, yet willing to show a softer side when the situation allowed. She reminded me of a modern Katharine Hepburn. When she turned up years later as Galina “Red” Reznikov, the prison cook of dubious background in Netflix’s breakout series Orange is the New Black, I was taken aback with how drastically she was able to change her image and craft a totally new – and not necessarily sympathetic – character that nevertheless was immaculately portrayed.
So when I learned that Kate Mulgrew had penned a biography, I was psyched.
Born With Teeth is a fascinating read. It’s not great literature – it’s too frenetic and incomplete for that – and we get the sense that throughout the book we’re not getting the full story that makes up Kate Mulgrew, but what she does give us is searingly honest and provides a captivating peek into her life.
The title is not a clever play on words – it’s a statement of fact.
I started out in a green house with a red door in a small town, where mysteries abounded. Immediately after issuing me into the world, my mother took me to this house and put me in a shoebox, which she placed on the dining room table so that one and all might come and gaze upon my perfect miniature beauty. Hands like starfish, to hear her tell it, grave but ravishing cornflower-blue eyes, and, most remarkable of all, a set of baby teeth. Two pearls on top and two, nonpareil, on the bottom. Shakespeare, my mother said, would have a field day.
From the onset, little Kate was able and hardy, with a growing appetite for solid food and no sense of pain. As she passed into womanhood, Kate Mulgrew would certainly develop the ability to feel pain, but it seems like she could never quench her ravenous appetite for life. In fact, reading Born With Teeth, one gets the feeling that Ms. Mulgrew drew so much out of life that she scarcely could stop long enough to apply her memories to paper.
With an eccentric mother and hands-off father, and a huge gaggle of brothers and sisters (we’re talking a 1950s Irish Catholic family from the Midwest, after all), it’s a wonder that she wasn’t swallowed up with responsibilities and traditional expectations. But instead she excelled in whatever she put her mind to, graduating from high school early, moving to New York City to train in theater, being accepted into the renown Stella Adler Studio of Acting and then leaving that program early when she not only landed the role of Emily in Our Town at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, but also was cast as Mary Ryan in the soap opera Ryan’s Hope (the production studio actually made accommodations in order to allow Kate to be in both the play and the television show). She was 20.
To read the memoir, it would seem like successes such as this were not some kind of fairy tale, nor beholden to any amount of luck: Kate Mulgrew simply expected things to happen, and they did, as if life knew better than to try to play games with her. She didn’t marvel when she found herself, while in England for a final audition for the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, being “introduced” to Hal Bagot, the youngest member of the House of Lords, and then being asked to join him at his parent’s home in Kent for the extended weekend (he didn’t realize she was only 16). Nor did she stop to marvel that NBC developed a prime time television series specifically for her (Mrs. Columbo) when she was 24, an offer she originally turned down because she wanted more time to work in the theater. She didn’t marvel when she was asked to spend a summer in Ireland, shooting a film about star-crossed lovers Tristan and Isolde, opposite Richard Burton, when she was 26. Then there were the travels, the parties, the plays, the flirtations, the roles, the champagne, the work, the men…. and the memoir simply blows through them all like a tornado, because that’s what Kate Mulgrew seems to be.
It’s not that everything was champagne and roses, though – not even close. Ms. Mulgrew has had her share of tragedy, of heartache, of pain and fear and loss. But just as she does not linger on the triumphs, neither does she draw out the tragedies. While she is experiencing them in the book, they cut deep (the loss of her beloved sister Tessie is especially wrenching), but when they come to a conclusion, as hard as they are, she moves on. Except for one thing: the daughter she gave up for adoption at age 22. That loss was to haunt her for most of her life – a thread of sadness which continued to entangle her throughout the years.
But although this memoir is short of specifics and details (Ms. Mulgrew never mentions the year she was born, nor the name of the movie she starred in with Richard Burton; she lays very little out steeped in strict chronological order, instead jumping and flitting from one experience to another with no explication, no foreshadowing, and gives up precious little upon which to draw conclusions), it feels like we are truly seeing who Kate Mulgrew is, more thoroughly than other memoirs that march dutifully step by step through a carefully drawn up sets of personal schematics. It ain’t always pretty. It’s sometimes confusing, sometimes turbulent, so tightly focused that it brooks no other perspective than Kate’s, period. And yet, that feels right, and it’s fascinating perhaps because it smacks of being genuine. It feels like we truly are seeing Kate Mulgrew.
Tough as nails yet guileless. Uncompromising. Unguarded. Unapologetic.
Born with teeth.