Jamie Lee Curtis: Memories of Mother

"I vowed to not be like my mother and yet found myself so very much the same."

By Jamie Lee Curtis
Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe

My mother persevered through it all and survived; I’m not sure my sister and I did. There was no Demi-and-Bruce amicable divorce or joint family vacations for us. No love was left between them. My early memories involve only her fourth and last husband, a tall, dark and handsome businessman named Robert Brandt, who became my Daddy Bob. (Incidentally, Daddy Bob had never wanted to be a father, and I am grateful to him for stepping into that role as completely as he did.) My mother never really created her own identity; rather, she made her men’s views and interests hers. Where Tony was an artist and an art collector, so was she. She and Tony were ardent, passionate Democrats, both performing at Kennedy’s ­famously snow-covered inaugural. Shortly after the president’s death on my fifth birthday, she was offered but turned down an ambassadorship to Finland under the Johnson administration. She felt that it would harm her new marriage and be hard for her daughters, so instead she subsumed herself to his life. Bob was an athlete and an outdoor enthusiast, so Janet became one too—and also a Reagan Republican. Like all working mothers, she did the priority dance, and after marrying Bob she ended up doing very little substantial film work. I know she felt her choice was correct, but I believe she missed the work, the attention and the great camaraderie that occurs on a film set.

The life we had with Bob was as near to normal as you could find in Los Angeles. At our simple, ranch-style home—actually a remodeled pool house in Benedict Canyon, where Bob had lived as a bachelor, complete with dirt road and a donkey in the stable—we had big dogs, a big tennis court, a big yard, a big pool and a big family of girls as neighbors. There are thousands of photos from those years in which Janet looks happy, at tennis parties, fishing in Wyoming, skiing in Sun Valley, always showing her dazzling smile, everywhere, all the time. I idolized my mother, but despite all these smiling photos, I came to know that her life was not particularly happy.

There were reasons. Her father committed suicide at the peak of her career, I believe over the lending or losing of money; soon thereafter came her costly, public divorce from Tony. Because Bob and Janet both had emotionally and financially dependent parents, they developed disdain for that dependence and raised Kelly and me to need nothing and no one; in turn, they never wanted to be a burden to us. Neediness was an ugly word. In our profession, my mother and I prided ourselves on being not just low-maintenance but no-maintenance, while surrounded by divas who grabbed the focus with their demands. I understand so well what the pull of dependence does in families—but being dependent is an inherent part of being a child and, as our generation is now learning, an elder. It’s part of being human; we all need assists at different points in our lives. I know I developed a false pride in my self-sufficiency, and for a long time it kept me from intimacy with people I love. The same I sadly came to understand was true about my mother.

She took good care of me—my needs were always met and she showed up to everything—but there was no real intimacy. I think it was a generational issue as much as one of her own making, for many people my age have expressed a lack of connection with their parents. In response, my generation has turned parenting into an obsession, and that’s also not so good. I followed my mother’s custodial, caretaking path with my children at first. Luckily my daughter at age eight loudly demanded a different kind of relationship, real intimacy, and I heard her and changed, or at least tried to. I’m still trying to. I also got sober; that helped.

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Comments

Melissa Gans05.11.2011

Thank you, Jamie Lee Curtis, for writing this honest and moving memoir of your mother and thank you, More Magazine, for making it the cover story so we could enjoy both the writing and the wonderful family pictures. This issue is a keeper! :)

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