When I served as the president of an Equity summer stock theatre in the mid 1980s, my home was an actors’ sanctuary, and we had a lot of social interaction. Most actors do impressions of celebrities to entertain each other, and I tried to join the fun with my own efforts to do Cary Grant, Howard Cosell, David Brinkley, and the Queen of England. For these impressions, I was booed off my own living room stage. There was one character, however, that the real actors would abide me to imitate—the great British film star James Mason.
In case you are not a James Mason fan, allow me to remind you of his significant filmography. Mason was nominated for three Oscars. You may remember him in North by Northwest (1959) with Cary Grant, Lolita (1962), A Star Is Born (1954) with Judy Garland, and The Verdict (1982) with Paul Newman. As a kid in the 1950s, I remember him as Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), and The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951).
James Mason started making movies in 1935, and he starred in a lot of television drama in the 1950s. His last film, The Shooting Party (1985), is especially poignant, because he was very ill when he performed the dying scene in the movie and did not live to see it released. In all, James Mason starred in 153 movies and television shows.
On a family trip to cruise the Inland Passage in Alaska, we dressed for the cruise ship Captain’s Reception, and since the Princess Line is British, I revived my James Mason impersonation. Suddenly the idea for a very unusual novel turned the family holiday into a research trip.
I completed James Mason Lives! in 1997, and since then, I have been unsuccessful in getting any publisher to even read it. So much for film-star fame. Nevertheless, rather than have James ignored on my orphaned novels bookshelf, I want to share with you a synopsis of the novel and its one-page opening chapter. In using family and myself as protagonists in the novel, I fear that I have made James Mason Lives! an unrecognized genre. Please lend your opinion.
JAMES MASON LIVES!
They met James Mason on the Star Princess at the beginning of a seven‑day Alaskan cruise. Their party—Monty, his wife, his sister and her husband—were taking his mother Evelyn’s dream trip to celebrate her 79th birthday. Monty, intrigued by Mason, yet suspicious of his motivations, feels that the imitator holds dark secrets. By the end of the cruise, mutual need almost leads to an exchange of confidences between the two men, but the moment is lost.
Back at his mountain home in Boone, North Carolina, Monty obsesses with the idea of the impersonator and devotes himself to researching the life of the real James Mason in order to uncover his faults and fallacies. One of the disappointing discoveries that he makes is that the actor James Mason applied for Conscientious Objector status during England’s darkest hour in WWII. James Mason had been branded a coward, rejected by his own family. By exiling himself to Hollywood, Mason was a man without a country—a complex character who never felt comfortable with himself or his profession. Monty, as narrator, rationalizes most of Mason’s excesses as artistic temperament and delves deep into the psyche of the public personality.
When the “impostor” Mason calls to accept their shipboard social invitation to be a houseguest, Monty and Pat (who has endured her husband’s obsession) must find a new way to relate to the subject of their intense study. Is this James Mason an amazing impersonator totally immersed in the character and personality of a dead man, or is he somehow the celebrated British actor, as Monty believes?
Mason finds in the narrator a sounding board for reviewing his career, his marriages, his decisions, and his prospects as a man who cannot possibly be alive. In the tradition of Nabokov, an obsessed narrator attempts to bring reason to a set of bizarre circumstances. Nothing about the narrative depends on science fiction; and although it explores the life of James Mason in detail, it is not a biography. It is rather an accessible literary novel that unites British and American characters in self‑discovery. It is filled with humor, pathos, and unique points of view of our culture from the 1930s to the present day.
This is one of those believe-it-or-not stories that one is compelled to tell in an attempt to seek self-validation, as if the record in words could stand for the experience and be tested over and over against reason and common sense.
The validation that I seek is that in June, 1996, I met James Mason, the English film actor, while on an Alaskan cruise and that some four months later he did accept our invitation to be our house guest and was in residence with us for more than two months. The rational problem for those who have seen his films, and for those of us who considered him a star, is the historical record, which states that the very same James Mason died in 1984 at the age of 75.
And yet, in the face of accepted facts, I affirm to you, as will my wife, my mother, my sister, my brother-in-law and an assembly of our friends who attended dinner parties where James mesmerized us with accounts of his movie land adventures, that he lives. And moreover, that personally to me, James Mason reasonably accounted for his death and resurrected life between 1984 and the time that we met and hosted him.
I ask you now to judge my full recounting of all that happened and all that was said so that you might lend your weight in the balance of my validation.