Books May 2009

The Passion of Alec Baldwin

The blustering actor’s memoir of divorce is really a love letter to his daughter.

Illustration by Daniel Adel

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Sidebar: "Divorce, American Style"
Alec Baldwin's self-serving memoir will strike a chord with fathers struggling against a campaign of alienation. By Christopher Cahill

Alec Baldwin’s A Promise to Ourselves proceeds from a double-pronged thesis: that American divorce laws are deeply flawed, and that Kim Basinger is a crazy bitch. I would have liked to hear more about the latter—and is that so wrong of me?—but Baldwin is restrained by a combination of his own legal best interests and a desire not to dwell on a series of episodes that probably would have reflected as poorly on him as on the old ball and chain, no matter how carefully he told them. “I never wanted to write this book,” he tells us at the outset, in a hangdog advisory that we shouldn’t expect too much. It was also a book I never wanted to read, but here we are, Alec and I, making the best of a bad situation.

Baldwin’s intention is cloaked as public service—this is the go-to book if you’re thinking of ending a two-movie-star marriage—but his real purpose is to exonerate himself from an incident so grotesque that it’s hard to imagine any piece of written communication short of a suicide note changing our opinion of it. He wants also—desperately—to convince us of the powerful attachment he has to his only child, a girl named Ireland, but on that score, he need never have written word one. As anyone who has followed the case over the years can tell you, at its center is a man who loved not wisely but too well.

It all began as do so many tales of thwarted desire and human suffering—on a sunny day in the San Fernando Valley. Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin had brought their newborn baby home from the hospital and were met in front of the house by a tabloid photographer with a video camera who was eager to get the first footage of the infant. In a matter of minutes, the never-ending saga of Alec, Kim, Ireland, and the legal system was born.

Baldwin’s a regular guy! Massapequa! Nassau County: white flight, GI mortgages, you know the drill. Dad was a working stiff—a public-school teacher and a hell of a good guy, but he refused to kiss ass and never made it out of the classroom and into the administration job he’d been promised. Ended up coaching a little football to make ends meet. Used to bust up fights between his sons in the school hallways, telling them he’d kill them if he caught them at it again, and you kind of thought he might mean it. Long story short: although Alec Baldwin is a man of tremendous artistic talent and considerable intellectual curiosity, and although he has without a doubt transcended his humble origins (when he’s on the Island, he barrels past Massapequa on his way to his house in the Hamptons), it seems fitting that the role that launched his career as a serious actor was his Broadway turn as Stanley Kowalski.

So, back to the story: Baldwin’s driving home from the hospital, and he’s got a carful of girl and a lot on his mind. His wife has just been changed from a sex object into a mother, a transformation well known to trouble even the metrosexual heart, and guaranteed to stir up something deep and volatile within any man who has even a touch of Kowalski inside him. And now he has a baby girl, entirely innocent and vulnerable. Protecting these two females from anyone who would hurt them, and in particular anyone who would try to interfere with this tiny, feminine creature (God help the teenage punk who tried to take her out on a date and treat her the way so many guys had treated so many girls back in Massapequa), had seized him with masculine purpose. He was spoiling for a fight that was 15 years in the future and probably never to happen—by the time prom dates start showing up, so much has taken place between father and daughter that the handoff, while charged, is more an enactment of an emotion than an experience of it—so the next thing you know, he pulls onto his street, comes across the photographer, and punches his lights out. (Didn’t Stanley himself, that “gaudy seed-bearer,” rape Blanche the night Stella went into labor? Guys like this get pumped up when they have their first kid; something’s got to spill over.) And here, from day one, a precedent was established: Dad’s temper combines with the choke-hold love and blinding possessiveness he feels for his daughter, and anyone seeming to stand between him and that little girl gets the worst of his bad side. The baby and Kim went inside the house and locked the door, while Alec—still high on adrenaline—headed off for the booking station.

The Basinger-Baldwin love affair began with a rocking Star Wagon (sometimes hers, sometimes his) on the Disney lot, and it gave birth, in the fullness of time, to a flaccid rom-com called The Marrying Man, but what everyone remembers about the film are the sexual interludes enjoyed, with impressive frequency, by the two principals and the hauteur with which they treated everyone else on the set. You would have thought they were making Reds. When the studio wanted to film a pivotal scene inside the beautiful reading room of the Pasadena Public Library, Baldwin declared that it was all wrong for his character, and offered to pay 150 grand of his own money to stage it out in the desert in front of a ravishing sunset. As day must follow dawn, the picture bombed and the ardor cooled, and they might have gone their separate ways had they not found another way to keep a kind of passion smoldering: a big lawsuit, with beautiful, frail Kim at its center, and a host of meanies circling for the kill.

She had agreed to make a movie, Boxing Helena, but at the eleventh hour, Basinger decided she wanted the character to be “less of a bitch,” and when the studio refused to change the script, she backed out and got sued. “We tried to fulfill her every whim,” read the formal complaint against her, but as the producers—and, soon enough, Baldwin himself—would discover, Kim Basinger has a whim of iron. (This is a woman who got Alec Baldwin—Alec Baldwin!—to become a vegetarian. What’s the first thing Stanley Kowalski does when he comes onstage? Throws a package of raw meat to his wife.) She stuck to her position with Baldwin at her side, fighting the case to the bitter, bankrupting end. The lawsuit was protracted and ugly, and it stirred in Baldwin a sense of protectiveness, changing their relationship’s fundamental dynamic: “The woman who was wealthier and more famous than I was when I met her in 1990 was now bankrupt.” They married after the verdict but while the appeal was pending, and the legal struggle both ravaged them and brought them together: “Anger seethed inside me at the way my wife was being treated.”

The lawsuit ended, and it seemed likely the marriage would too, but then Kim discovered she was pregnant. Eventually, however, they divorced, with Kim and 7-year-old Ireland living in the San Fernando Valley and Baldwin remaining in New York. But passion, always their strong suit, has been sustained, not by their shared upbringing of their child, but through constant legal entanglements with one another over her custody. They fight and fight while the girl quietly grows up in the shadow of their mutual hatred.

Alec maintains that he has been treated abominably, not simply by his ex-wife (that woman could have defeated the Allied forces at Normandy and still made it to her two o’clock spray tan) but also by the family-court system itself, which has often sided with Basinger over Baldwin. For complicated reasons having to do with a long-ago appointment to the children’s dependency court of Los Angeles, I have a fair grasp of the way contested-custody decisions are made in California, and it’s not too difficult to read between the lines of Baldwin’s book and get a sense of what has probably been taking place over the years. Baldwin’s fury at the system emanates from his belief that the institution is reflexively anti-father. Yet he also admits to having a terrible temper, and to having displayed this protean force in front of the very people authorized to decide his fate. Family court is charged with protecting the physical and emotional safety of children, and if you tend to rave during depositions, you’re not going to like the custody orders you get.

The most famous of Baldwin’s tantrums occurred fairly recently and accounts for the huge curiosity the book has engendered. Two years ago, when Baldwin was working on 30 Rock in New York, jetting through the night to California to visit his daughter on weekends, and getting really, really, really angry at the court, he stepped away from a dinner table in Manhattan to place a call to her. He stood outside the restaurant, like a man calling his mistress, and eagerly dialed the number (the court order having guaranteed him telephone contact), but all he heard was the child’s familiar, lilting voice, inviting him to leave her a message. Standing on the street, once again confronted by life’s inability to meet him halfway with his simple desire to be the center of the universe, he snapped. He raved at the child in the ugliest language imaginable, threatening her and calling her terrible names. Shortly thereafter, the message was leaked to an Internet scandal site. (By whom? Cherchez la femme.) And the incident became infamous.

Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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