Trigger Warning: Alcoholism, child sexual abuse, adult sexual abuse, domestic violence, anti-semitism
I read this memoir by 1920s film star Lillian Roth for my final paper in my class on Addiction. This was not an easy read for content but the pacing was excellent and the story engrossing. At the time she wrote I’ll Cry Tomorrow, in 1954, Lillian Roth had been out of the spotlight for years and was only recently reentering the business though to a much different extent than before. She was 44 was it was published and through her book we’re given a new look into the life of the pre-code era in Hollywood.
She recounts her youth with her parents who desperately wanted her and her sister to be stars. She discusses her father’s alcoholism from the distance that time affords though with no less pain or poginancy than you would expect. Roth’s life was filled with trauma from youth from being molested to the sudden death of her first fiance who ended up being one of two men in her life who did not abuse her in some way. From a mental health perspective I found it especially interesting tracking her descent into alcoholism as it was thrust on her to shut her emotions down in lieu of actually supporting her. She also takes the reader through the expected social aspect of being a celebrity which also included a significant amount of drinking.
Roth’s many marriages and significant relationships are overshadowed by abuse, her growing dependence on alcohol, and her struggle to conceive or adopt a child. She suffers other losses including her career and her father and nearly her own life by the time she is admitted to rehab. In many stories rehab is where it ends but Roth also provides the perspective of someone who went through rehab, graduated out, and then relapsed and ended up working with an AA program. She credits the AA program as a driving force for her recovery and became involved in helping others who struggled with addiction. She also married and had a healthy relationship with a man after years of harrowing violence from partners.
When looking at clips of Roth in movies in the 20s and 30s, it’s hard to reconcile the peppy and professional dancer with dimples and all of the coquettish allure of the iconic flapper with the accounts she gives of her grief, trauma, and struggle with addiction. This is one of the reasons I think this book is so important. It highlights the fact that we cannot know what is going on beneath the surface and that the lifestyle that comes with celebrity is often rife with loss and pain. It was also powerful reading her account of how she did finally manage her addiction and enjoy sustained recovery.
Due to the troubling subject matters discussed in the book, I would advise that if any of those topics are triggers, especially the domestic violence, you skip this one. If you can manage reading this topics and have any interest in the impact of addiction and behind the scenes of Hollywood in this era, I highly recommend this book.