Son's book takes new look at Darin, Dee

December 14, 1994|By Lynette Rice | Lynette Rice,Los Angeles Daily News

It was 1966 at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, and everyone who was anyone was there to hear Bobby Darin sing -- Mia Farrow, Ben Gazzara, Eddie Fisher, Andy Williams, Ryan O'Neal.

Dressed to the nines in regal emerald green was wife Sandra Dee -- America's sweetheart -- and their 5-year-old son, Dodd, clad in a custom-made tuxedo that not so coincidentally looked just like his father's.

The curtain call was ending and Bobby Darin was standing on stage with his son in his arms. The audience was captivated; the little boy was telling a riddle and his father was laughing in delight.

"I think we've run out of material," Darin said. "Do you have anything to say to me?"

"Yes," the little boy replied. "I love you, Dad."

Sandra Dee started to cry. It was one of the happiest moments of her life.

Dodd Darin, now 32, remembers it much the same way -- a quintessential Hollywood night, a nostalgic moment with his famous parents. But it's a superficial snapshot of the father he never really knew and the mother who never really grew up.

The sobering reality about his parents has taken Mr. Darin a lifetime to understand. He said he recognizes now that his incredibly talented father also was a mean and insecure man, while his anorexic mother never learned to care for herself because her own mother was busy doing it for her.

"My dad lived, breathed and tasted stardom. He wanted it from the earliest age," said Mr. Darin, now a Malibu book publisher and part-time radio personality on KTMS-AM in the Los Angeles area. "I don't mean to denigrate her, but she didn't want it as bad. It wasn't important to her. My dad created his destiny, and my mom had it forced upon her."

Mr. Darin's father died of heart disease in 1973. His 50-year-old mother remains as diminutive now as when she appeared in those "Tammy" and "Gidget" movies, infiltrating the dreams of teen-age girls who longed to look like Sandra Dee.

The couple's only child attempts to tear down the celebrity facade that surrounded them and reintroduce his parents in "Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee."

Much of the story, co-written by Maxine Paetro, is told in their son's voice, save the interviews with his mother, relatives and professional acquaintances.

It has proven to be a story worth pursuing -- for Mr. Darin himself. He was only 12 when his father died, so he never knew the man who sang such hits as "Splish Splash," "Early in the Morning" and "Mack the Knife." His father won a Grammy Award in 1959 as Best New Artist and received an Academy Award nomination in 1963 for his work in the movie "Captain Newman, M.D."

"Obviously, his dad was a shrine to him," said Ms. Dee, who married Bobby Darin in 1960 and divorced him seven years later. "I'm alive. I have faults, he knows my faults. It helped him to put it in perspective -- the man, the shrine. It helped him greatly."

Ironically, some research for another book helped Mr. Darin to tell his parents' story today. His father's estate had commissioned a biography in 1976, but it was never released, so details about the singer's upbringing -- such as the mystery surrounding the identity of his true mother -- were revealed in the latest book.

For example, months of research and interviews with his mother and family members helped Mr. Darin to learn how his father never knew his "sister" Nina was actually his mother. The singer didn't learn the truth until he was an adult.

The same kind of research was available on his mother: What had started as a simple profile of the famous Sandra Dee by People turned out to be a tell-all article on America's sweetheart, who was a model at 10 and a movie star by 13.

In a 1991 article, Ms. Dee revealed her childhood molestation by her stepfather and her lifelong battle with anorexia because of an overbearing mother who controlled her eating habits. Now a recovering alcoholic, Ms. Dee still bears the wounds of childhood, her son claims.

Ms. Dee spends a great deal of her time alone and won't spend holiday time with Mr. Darin and his wife, Audrey, a costume supervisor for TV's "Mad About You." It's hard for him to admit that his mother can appear on a Sally Jessy Raphael talk show but couldn't find the courage to attend her son's 1993 wedding.

"Sitting at a table with her mother-in-law and brother-in-law is completely frightening to her. She's unable to do it," Mr. Darin said. "That's real, that's intimacy, letting her hair down. On TV talking to millions, that's a front. She's done it for so long, she's fine with it."

The book has taken Mr. Darin on a nationwide tour -- and his mother has often gone along for the ride. The book has long had her blessing, even though her son threatened to abandon the project several times because he thought it was unfair to his father.

"When I read the first draft, I was aghast," Ms. Dee said in a ## phone interview. "But if this is what he sees as the truth, then this is the truth."

Don't mistake that remark for bitterness. She remains thankful that she finally exposed her demons to a reporter so many years ago; at the very least, it brought fans out of the woodwork who were appreciative of her candor. And it's helped her to start a new life.

"I'm proud of what I could do to help her," Mr. Darin said. "It's a balancing act, trying not to enable her as a co-dependent while trying to be a loving son. I hope that comes through in the book. She's sober now, she's got some projects going, and God willing, she will have a second crack at life. She deserves it.

"It's one thing to never have success and never have fame. But to have that adulation, and then lose it, you don't know what it is. It's painful to have had it and lose it. That's brutal. For her to still be fighting and trying, it's amazing and inspirational."

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