I couldn’t quite get a grip on the author’s character and personality or understand why she wrote the book. Topics that might have enriched the story in ways that profoundly connect writers to readers, that illuminated the human condition, casually slid across the page and then disappeared. For instance, in her autobiography, Leon Bing never tells us how not knowing who her father was impacted her emotional life and the choices she made about men. She doesn’t speculate how her mother’s parenting set the stage for the success and failure of her own mothering, or tell us much about how the two most important people in her life–her daughter and mother–related to each other. She doesn’t talk about the emotional, intellectual or psychological snags of being an only child ( Her mother and daughter are also only children.) Every career move happens as if by magic and certainly without effort: Mary Leon simply goes out to dinner, meets celebrity and then the next thing you know she’s a runway model or out on assignment for Harpers and Rolling Stone.
There were mixed messages. For one, she engaged in serial adultery, got very enthused about the creativity or wealth or sexiness of each lover, and at the same time espoused high standards about ‘the right way to live’ and the need to have approval from both her mother and daughter for each new man. The approval amounted to their saying “oh he’s nice, he’ll take good care of you.” One man was big time a coke dealer who she was attracted to because he reminded her of Tony Soprano. But, according to Bing, he was a good man because, being a kingpin, he didn’t get his hands dirty: he sold drugs only to big-time distributors and to celebrities for whom he would cut special coke concoctions. Plus, he regularly peeled off thousands from his big wad of cash and told her “Go out and get yourself something nice.”
Getting even with people who did her wrong in life seemed to play a part of the autobiography, too. For instance: recalling the rape in NYC when she was looking for an apartment, naming the care giver who embezzled money from her invalid mother. Perhaps rationalizing her mother’s sometimes bizarre behavior towards her was a necessary part of the intent of writing her book. Her mother wore Chanel suits, shipped her off to live with grandparents, and married and divorced five times without sneezing. When Mary Leon was a child having a tantrum, the mother poured a pitcher of cold water over her face, “Then, as if she were offering another helping of dessert to a dinner guest, she asked if I’d like some more.” By book’s end readers get a feeling that Bing’s relationship with her daughter is on hold, and I wondered if the book was a public scolding of her daughter, or a plea for her to come back home.
The good parts? Swans and Pistols is an exciting whirlwind tour through the fashion, art and celebrity scene of the 60s,70s and 80s. Readers get a glimpse at fast track L.A. lifestyles, at turbulent party creatures like Mama Cass and Judy Carne, at the intense Ed Rushca, and the endearing Rudi Gernreich. But just glimpses. The ‘true love finale’ is sweet, if a little over the top. Bing, who never reveals her birthdate or age, but who readers surmise is between 55 and 60 when she concludes the book and falls in love with a 29 year old man who is the real thing, the love of her life, her soul mate.
I wish Bing would have gone in deeper. The book has all the fabric for a magnificent retelling of an important life and time. Bing writes well. Alas Swans and Pistols turns out rather skimpy on impact.