Book Review 17: The Longest Trek

Finally, in the summer of 1966, on stage 9 at Desilu Studios, I was home. I belonged. I was Yeoman Janice Rand, I had a character of my own to explore and develop, week after week. I was part of something wonderful and exciting, something called Star Trek.

I had no idea how soon it would all be ripped away from me.

Page 1

Grace Lee Whitney played Yeoman Janice Rand for half of Star Trek's first season. Then her character just disappeared from the show with no explanation. This book is her story.

Whitney is a recovering alcoholic, and that fact is never far from the reader's mind.

She talks about growing up as an adopted child, her early movie and singing career in the 50s and 60s, her time on Star Trek, her deeper decent into alcohol, drugs and sex, how she began her recovery and finally was born again.

It's a fascinating story, but not primarily a Star Trek one. While Star Trek is rarely far from the narrative, Whitney's story could be about any wildly successful show.

This is also not a happy memoir. The entire book follows the structure of the opening quote. Whitney talks about a part of her life, a movie she was in, friends she had, etc. After a couple pages of that, when the reader is caught up in the narrative, Whitney's alcoholism pops up to assert its role in her story. After a few stories like this, I knew the alcoholism was waiting in the background for the proper moment to pop out and break any illusion that Whitney's life was going well.

I believe that's an intentional structure. And it's a powerful way to keep reader interested. The book doesn't have wide sections of Whitney talking about just alcohol, pills and sex addictions. Instead, the stories of her life provide the context to understand the insidious nature of her addictions.

Whiteny doesn't waste any time in getting to the challenges she faced. In the first chapter explains that an executive involved with the show lured her away from a wrap party after they finished filming an episode. He wanted to talk to her about the direction her character was going, and how they could expand the role of Yeoman Rand aboard the Enterprise. They went to an empty studio building and into an office suite. Then Executive locked they door and assaulted her when she refused his advances.

I went through the rest of the day with a sinking feeling that I had shot myself in the foot – no, in both feet. Getting ahead in Hollywood is often a matter of knowing who holds the power, then finding a way to get close to that power, and even in bed with that power. I had refused to get close to that power. It might have been the morally defensible choice –but it was tactically stupid, in terms of my career. Inwardly, I kicked myself for not playing along, because in the end I was just as violated and exploited by this man as if I had – yet I had no career advancement to show for it. Bad move, Whitney, I thought. You've done it to yourself again.

Page 8

We don't know who The Executive is. Whitney chooses not to name him.

A number of years ago, I was offered a considerable sum of money by a major New York publisher to write a book and tell this story – if I would publicly name the man who did this to me. I refused to do that. It wasn't because I was so noble and wanted to protect him. The fact is, there were two reasons I refused to name him. One, I am a recovering an alcoholic, and in order to keep my sobriety, I must take a continual, day-to-day moral inventory of myself, and I must make amends to all the person I have harmed – even those who hurt me. I must not harm others. So I refused to hurt this man or his reputation. And two, I was afraid of him and what he might do to me.

Today, The Executive can no longer hurt me—but I still refuse to name him. This book is my story, not his. Naturally, I can't tell my story without disclosing some of my interaction with other people—but I'm not going to tell anyone else's story or damage anyone else's reputation. Ask me about my life and my story, and I'll be happy to share it all with you. Ask me the identity of The Executive, I will not answer you. So please respect my wishes. Don't ask.

Page 14

Whitney did not want to leave Star Trek, yet was fired several days later. There are several possible reasons she was fired.

  1. The Executive punished her because she refused his advances.
  2. The powers that be made a creative decision that character's presence on board the ship interfered with the direction they wanted to take Kirk's character.
  3. Whitney's alcohol and drug use interfered with the production.

I don't believe Whitney actually says she was fired for reason 1, but she certainly implies it though out the book. Given the timing it seems likely, though.

The powers that be told Whitney's agent they were firing her for reason number 2.

"Well," Alex explained, "I'm told it's a creative decision. The producers feel the romantic relationship between Kirk and Rand is becoming too obvious, and it limits the story possibilities. Apparently, they think Captain Kirk needs to be free to have affairs with other women on all these different planets. If the relationship between Kirk and Rand is too intense, it looks like he's tow-timing Janice Rand. The viewers will get mad at Kirk and tine out. At least, that's what they tell me."

Page 9

This is an interesting possibility, given the original intent of Whitney's character.

Yeoman Rand was intended to be a romantic interest for Captain Kirk. They wouldn't actually be involved with one another, but the simmering romantic potential would always exist beneath the surface. When he designed the roles, Gene Rodenberry had "Gunsmoke" in mind. He intended for Rand to be the Miss Kitty to Kirk's Marshall Dillon.

Until I started reading these books, (Shatner and Nimoy also discuss this role of Whitney's character) I had no idea Rand was Kirk's love interest. While the creators hinted at the relationship in early episodes, it wasn't readily apparent in syndication. I started watching Star Trek in mid-seventies when it aired in syndication. Since the episodes were often out of order, Rand appeared seemingly at random, and not as a major character.

And I was 8 at the time.

Regardless, this appears to be a reasonable explanation for Whitney's departure from the cast. The timing makes it suspicious, however. Additionally, Whitney report an odd conversation she had with Rodenberry several year later:

Gene and I talked about my removal from the original series, and he told me it was the biggest mistake he ever made. He blamed the decisions on the network, claiming that the edict to remove me came from NBC. Supposedly, the network had wanted Captain Kirk to be unencumbered by a girlfriend back on the ship as he went from world to world, leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake. I believed him then, though I've since learned that it was typically Gene's pattern to use the "evil network" as a scapegoat. The fact is that Gene could have put his foot down and kept me aboard, but he didn't do so – and he later apologized to me for it. That's all that counts.

Page 131

The third possible reason Whitney was fired was the impact of drugs and alcohol on her performance. This the reason Shatner cited in Star Trek Memories, and Whitney quotes Shatner for her book.

In his book Star Trek Memories, William Shatner and his co-writer, Chris Kreski talk aobut the diet pills I took and the fact that I sometimes drank to take the edge off the nervousness caused by the amphetamines. That much of my story is exactly as I related it to them in our phone interview, and as I related it here in this book. But after that point, inaccuracies and misinterpretations begin to compound themselves in Bill's version of my story. He writes:

Even during our first few weeks of production, Grace had become noticeably distracter, visibly ill, and as a result her performance suffered terribly. By the time we were filming our tenth episode ["What are Little Girls Made Of?"], Grace's condition had worsened to the point where here scenes were consciously being given to other characters or completely written out of episodes. For example, Grace was to have costarred with Captain Kirk in our eleventh episode, "Dagger of the mind," but her deterioration forced Rodenberry and Justman into a decision to rewrite the episode, adding the guest character of Dr. Helen Noel and entirely deleting Yeoman Rand. Further, in Grace's final episode, "the Conscience of the Kin," her performance consisted solely of walking onto the bridge in the background of the scene, taking a quick look at a particular piece of equipment, then exiting. She was let go the following day.

Page 101-102

Whitney then spends several pages disputing Shatner's comments. She acknowledges drinking at the time, but argues she was never drunk on the set, and kept her dinking confined to time she was off the set.

Whitney did start taking pills because of the show:

Right at the beginning, when I went in to be fitted for my uniform, Bill Theiss, the costume designer, said to me, "Grace, you're a little overweight. You really have to slim down a bit, or the costume won't look right. Why don't you call your doctor and have him give you some pills?"

Page 86

She continues to assert that her alcoholism did not impact her performance on the show.

Regardless of why she was fired, it turned her world upside down.

Finally, I had what I wanted: a continuing role on a weekly series. It meant fame, money, security – and not just career security, but the kind of emotional security I had been searching for ever since I learned I was adopted. I felt accepted. I felt beautiful and wanted. I felt chose. Finally, I was home – home aboard the Starship Enterprise.

Page 72

And suddenly she was out.

Whitney's closest friend in the cast was the much maligned Leonard Nimoy.

The one person who really reached out to me after I was written out of Star Trek was Leonard Nimoy. He was the only one who really knew how much I was hurting. No one but Leonard knew what had happened to me that horrible Friday night after the wrap party.

Page 12

Leonard is the exact opposite of the emotionless alien he played. While Mr. Spock is mysterious, cool and smugly logical, Leonard Nimoy is sensitive, vulnerable, and attuned to the feelings of those around him. As an actor, he is the complete professional. He always cares about the character, the show, the quality of the performance. He's not interested in one-upping the other actors.

Page 83

Despite Shatner's comments about Whitney in his own book, Whitney goes out of her way to defend Shatner.

William Shatner has been criticized by some of his fellow cast members for being self-absorbed and inconsiderate on the set of Star Trek. In Bill's defense, there was a lot going on in his life. I remember him as being very sad and withdrawn during those early weeks of shooting. His father was dying at that the time, his marriage was breaking up, and he obviously loved his two little girls and wanted to be a good dad to them, no matter what happened to his marriage. H didn't seem to have close friends to confide in, and he was under a lot of stress as the star of a network series. I suppose Bill was self-absorbed during that time – but given the way his life was disintegrating, I can't hold that against him. The wonder of William Shatner is that, with so much going on in his off-screen life, he was so engaging and commanding on-screen.

Page 83

Whitney also admires Shatner for his acting knowledge. No, I'm not kidding. He stuck around the set to help her film a scene of "The Enemy Within."

We had to shoot the rape scene a day or two earlier; and sometimes it's hard to get back into the emotions of a previously shot scene when some time has passed. Bill just knew that a surprise slap across the face would put me right back in that frame of mind, that painful sense of having just been violated by the captain. He knew that it would provide just the right emotional impact to motivate me to do the scene. As a result, I have a terrific performance in a single take.

Page 94

Whitney doesn't just tell Star Trek stories, though. She greatly admired Phil Silvers for his energy when she acted with him.

Phil Silvers was one of the greatest comedic performers of all time, and it was fascinating to watch him prepare for a performance. As he waited for the curtain to rise, he would paste furiously, back and forth, for at least 15 to 20 minutes. He was getting up a big head of steam, building up energy and momentum, so that when he came out on stage, he would burst onto the stage with blazing energy. That was the secret to the vibrant performances he gave. I never saw another actor prepare himself to go on the way Phil Silvers did.

Page 33

Whitney also tells some great stories about working on the set with Marilyn Monroe.

A lot of the learning experience was fun, too – luxuriating in the beautiful surroundings , the beach, the yacht, the beautiful clothes, watching Jack and Tony walking around in women's clothing, being continually awed by the on-screen chemistry between Tony and Marilyn – and watching the chemistry dissolve into off-screen loathing as soon as Billy yelled, "Cut!" Tony later said that his love scenes with Marilyn were "like kissing Hitler."

Pave 44

Whitney even appeared in the King Tut episodes of Batman.

Shortly before joining the cast of Star Trek, I appeared in a two-part episode of the campy cult classic, "Batman," shot at Twentieth Century-Fox. The two-part episode is entitled "King Tut's Coup" and "Batman's Waterloo." King Tut was played by my friend Victor Buono, one of the sweetest men I've ever known. I played Princess Neela, one of King Tut's concubines. Lee Meriwether appeared in the show as an heiress who is kidnapped by Tut to be his unwilling Queen of the Nile (she later appeared in a Trek episode, "That Which Survives").

I didn't have many scenes with Adam West (Batman), but we talked a lot on the set, having known each other from our days together at Warner Brothers. He was another one of those gorgeous Hollywood men I was extremely attracted to. Though I never got involved with Adam, I was always aware of powerful sexual electricity on the set.

Page 68-69

Even when she's telling Hollywood stories, Whitney's stories all come back to the impact of alcohol and drugs.

When Arthur Miller left her, he said he couldn't live with her anymore because she was so self-obsessed, so demanding. When she was around him, he couldn't work, he practically couldn't breather. I know what he meant, because I did the same thing to the men in my life. That's what alcoholics do. We don't have relationships, we take hostages. We're so involved with ourselves, so needy and demanding of attention, that no one can be with us.

Page 46

Whitney did the same thing in her own relationships.

I was also attracted to Steve because he didn't drink. I drank all the time, but Steve was an abstainer. I thought, Maybe if I marry him I'll stop drinking. I'll be a good girl. I saw myself as bad, but I really wanted to be good. I thought a nice Jewish boy would help me to be a good Jewish girl.

Page 34

I blame myself, not Steve, for he divorce. I thinks he really meant to do right by our marriage, but I was a very difficult to live with. I could list a lot of Steve's flaws, but why? I was the alcoholic, not him. If he was hard to live with, I was even more so. He was not an abuser. He was good to the kids when we were together. He was even kind to my parents; he treated them with respect. So, looking back, I have to shoulder most of the blame for our failed marriage.

Page 88

I call my time with Harlan my "cookies and milk days." Always with Harlan, it was Oreos and milk, or Oreos and ice cream. I always wanted a drink, but Harlan would screw up his face and say, "How can you drink that stuff? Alcohol tastes terrible! Worse than medicine! Here, have another cookie."

When he'd say things like that, I would look at him like he was crazy! I couldn't see how anyone could have a good time without a drink! At the same time, I found Harlan's abstinence very attractive. I was initially attracted to that same quality in my first husband. When I dated Harlan, I had the same idea aobut him that I did about Steve: Maybe if I marry him, I'll stop drinking. I'll be a good Jewish girl. I saw Harlan Ellison another nice Jewish boy who could help me to be good.

Page 114

In 1970 and '71, I made some big changes in my life. I took another hostage. I married a base player named Jack….I also put the plug in the jug and stopped drinking. Was I finally clean and sober? Hardly. I just switched from drinking to smoking dope. It's called "switching seats on the Titanic." I stopped drinking but I didn't get sober – I only switched addictions. I was a dry drunk. I avoided alcohol and only smoked marijuana for the next eight years or so. I used to roll joints that were as thick as cigars, trying to get as high on week as I used to get on the bottle.

Page 119

Whitney tells more stories from her life and how they were impacted by alcohol. She doesn't glamorize it. And she takes responsibility for actions. At the same time, she frames everything in the context of her addiction.

The alcoholic mind is insidious. I've been plagued by that kind of mind all my lifew. Even before I drank, I had an alcoholic mind. Alcohol is only a symptom of the real disease. The "ism" of alcoholism runs much deeper than alcohol alone.

Page 121

Ultimately the alcohol, drug, and sex addictions nearly killed her.

Around the beginning of 1981, I left the guy I was living with, then moved to my mother's house for a while, then went back home to Jack for a few weeks and tried desperately to put my life back in order. I was hoping Jack would forgive me and I could start over and start living right. But by the that time, I couldn't stop drinking. The hell of it was that I drank and drank, but I couldn't get drunk anymore. But if I stopped drinking, I couldn't get sober. I couldn't clear my head. When an alcoholic drinks but can't get drunk, or stops but can't get sober, then that is the end of the line, one way or another. There is no way out if you get to this point and can't get sober. You either go insane from a wet brain, end up in prison, or kill yourself.

Page 144

Whitney, who had converted to Judaism for her first marriage ultimately began her recovery after attending a 12 Step program and becoming "Born Again." She spends some time talking about he religious conversion, but it is really about sharing her experience. She doesn't get preachy, which keeps the latter part of the book accessible.

Later on, while travelling in Israel for her son's Bar Mitzvah, she has a vision:

Then I saw Jesus.

He was beyond the iron bars, praying in the garden [of Gethsemane]. His appearance was neither as solid and three-dimensional as reality, nor as unreal and insubstantial as a dream. It was more like an inner reality, something that seemed completely real, but real within me – not objectively, externally real.

Page 156

She goes to great pains to explain that Christ did not appear in the physical sense. She is well aware that no one else would be able to see what she did.

She tells her conversion story well. She uses it to talk about her life, her recovery, and how she liver her life now. She doesn't use it as a call for conversion or for evangelical purposes. It's a good balance for the book.

That's not to say she hides her faith or appears ashamed of it. She actually spends several pages discussing Gene Rodenberry's atheism and the spiritual undercurrents in Star Trek.

Even if it is true, as such creations as Nomad, V'Ger, and Questor suggest, that some hidden part of Gene wished and longed for God, he seemed unable to get past the notion of biblical faith as a refuge for the ignorant and uneducated. Gene was profoundly annoyed by evangelicals and fundamentalists.

Page 176

Whitney's story would make a good Lifetime movie -- and I mean that in the best possible way. Her tale of mid-west girl goes to Hollywood is engaging. She tells the story of her addiction and recovery with neither romanticism nor bitterness. It's a cautionary and real world tale of how someone can function up to a certain point with the lifelong disease of alcoholism.

The writing itself is good. The story jumps around a bit in her personal timeline, but for the most part it's still easy to follow. She skips over much of the 70s in her book, which I thought was odd choice. But given that instead of alcohol, her addictions then were mainly sex and drugs, she likely did it to make sure the book didn't get overshadowed by sex.

There are too many exclamation points in the book for my taste, but that's a personal pet peeve of mine.

If you have primarily interested in the history of Star Trek, this book probably shouldn't be at the top of your list. Nimoy and Shatner go into much greater detail about the show and movies. This book is Whitney's story.

If you are interested in a story of addiction and recovery, or the story of a Hollywood starlet who may have drunk herself out of being a major star, then this is a good book to read. It's not a happy book; it's not light reading. But in the end it's worthwhile.

Tomorrow: Star Trek Movie Memories, by William Shatner

1 comment:

Jon Clarke said...

Great review!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!