Acerbic Bernhard, pushing her book, shows a soft side

August 07, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Somehow the words come unexpectedly from Sandra Bernhard:

"I don't really try to provoke. I'm really not trying to do anything purposefully controversial."

Stranger still, she seems unquestionably sincere. And this from the comedian/actress/fashion fatale widely whispered to have been Madonna's lover. An edgy, assertive presence on stage and television, she has also posed nude in Playboy, plays the lesbian friend Nancy on television's "Roseanne," frequently banters suggestively with late-night talk-show host David Letterman and was once termed in London's Independent newspaper "America's best-known out-of-the-closet bisexual."

She's sitting sinuously on a sofa in a Georgetown hotel room, doing a newspaper interview before heading off to National Public Radio to tape a "Weekend Edition" interview.

The night before, President Clinton's economic address to the nation had bumped her off "Larry King Live" on CNN. The next day, she's due in Chicago for another round of appearances to promote her new book, "Love, Love and Love" (Harper-Collins, $20).

So goes the celebrity book tour routine. But Ms. Bernhard dislikes the "celebrity" part of the equation.

"I never thought in terms of being a celebrity writer. . . . I'm not a celebrity. I don't live my life in the public eye." She says she doesn't know how to play the part of a celebrity, because "I'm not a very good actress in real life."

She says she had no interest in writing the familiar "self-serving" kind of show-business reminiscence/confession celebrity book.

And she hasn't. A reader unfamiliar with Ms. Bernhard might not guess she is even in show business from this collection of intimate stories, essays and other short pieces.

The new book follows 1990's "Confessions of a Pretty Lady," which reflected on "growing up in America" (she was raised in Flint, Mich., and Scottsdale, Ariz.).

"I think writing feeds all my work, because so much of my art is self-generated," she says.

In the late 1980s, for example, she scripted and performed a one-woman show off-Broadway, "Without You I'm Nothing," which has been turned into film and audio versions. Last year, she wrote and performed the HBO special "Sandra After Dark."

Finding time to write

She also fits the kind of literary writing of "Love, Love and Love" into the odd corners of time in her life, jotting notes while flying in airplanes, sitting up late at a computer keyboard or occasionally dictating ideas into a tape recorder.

"It's something I have to do," she says simply, and suggests, "I think I'm ready to move on to the next level of fiction," such as a stream-of-consciousness novel.

"It's all about inspiration. . . . It's really something from the atmosphere, something ethereal. Who knows where inspiration comes from?"

The author has been struck with story ideas even while performing on stage and, she concedes, "There are a lot of thoughts that escape me because I can't write them down at the moment."

Asked to contrast her book with another recent publication, Madonna's ultra-visual "Sex," she responds with characteristic bluntness.

"I mean, how could you? This ["Love, Love and Love"] is not a sensationalistic schlock book."

Instead, she says, "Ask me how it compares to Patti Smith," the singer/songwriter/poet whose 1970s and '80s work she cites several times as an influence.

In performance, Ms. Bernhard comes across as aggressive, acerbic and assertively sensual. In person, she seems softer, almost reserved. Nice.

The title of Ms. Bernhard's book comes from the film "La Dolce Vita" voiced by Anita Ekberg, who says there are three things she likes most in life: "love, love and love."

But the author says, "My book is a reaction to that kind of superficiality" stirred up by last year's "Sex" sensation.

Her 151-page volume at times is sexually explicit -- and involves both sexes. But the stories are more about feelings than anything physical, and many ring so personal as to make the reader vaguely uncomfortable, as if peeping into the writer's most private thoughts.

Public and private

How can a private person be so public?

"I know it's a dichotomy, but do you see what I mean? I just happen to be a person who's willing to share my inner self," she replies, contending, "What the world needs now is vulnerability and understanding."

Far from seeking to shock conservative sensibilities, she insists, "If anything, I'm trying to reach that right wing with love and gentleness."

In "Love, Love and Love," some of the stories (almost all written in the first-person) are true memoir, some are fabricated, and others are "a mixture of both." And, the author says, some real people will recognize themselves, but "most of them are people who I don't have contact with anymore."

One short piece reflects the reaction of a reader to her first book, a woman who feared "this is a very unhappy person."

"She took it very, very seriously," muses Ms. Bernhard, suggesting "I think everybody's a mixture of discontent and content."

The new book might best be described as presenting an author who is serious and acutely sensitive to some of life's pain and puzzlement.

Is Sandra Bernhard happy?

"I feel very rich emotionally, that's a better term. I've met great people and had a lot of experiences. . . . Who knows what 'happy' means?"

Will "Love, Love and Love" shock readers?

"Oh, I hope not, I hope it doesn't shock people. Hasn't it all been written before in more sordid terms?"

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