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.

The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and sometimes it doesn’t even take very long: barely a week after the world heard him screaming epithets at his young daughter, Baldwin appeared, chastened and unshaven, sitting on a couch between Barbara Walters and Rosie O’Donnell and doing some very fancy explaining to the audience of The View. He kept a cheat sheet of talking points tucked under one buttock, and he repeatedly touched the two women gently on their knees, as if to say, “Me? I wouldn’t hurt a fly!”

Watch an excerpt from Baldwin's appearance on The View

The long interview reminded us that Walters, who is a national treasure, has a pair of brass ones. When Baldwin started berating his ex-wife (whom he referred to, chillingly, as “the mother”), Barbara interrupted. Compared to the two beefy Long Islanders to her right, she looked like a child ballerina, her hands folded calmly in her lap, her slender legs pressed tightly together. “There are two sides to this,” she said. For a moment, Baldwin looked sucker-punched and dangerous, but she pressed on: “In every story, there are always two sides.” (Readers: if the runic Basinger ever decides to give an interview, you know who’s going to get it. Do it, Kim! Call Barbara!)

For the most part, Rosie adhered to the terms of the 1974 Jim Dandy Agreement (an oath of fealty between the residents of Commack and Massapequa, sworn over large helpings of the signature sundae at the Friendly’s restaurant off Exit 48), and she showered Baldwin with acceptance and forgiveness, except for one moment when she unexpectedly reached into the open wound and touched nerve: “Now surely you know, the problem that most people had was the use of the word pig.”

It was true. If you were female and heard that tape recording, you remembered two things about it: the pitch and tenor of the snarling male voice and the use of that word. When a man calls an overweight woman a pig, he is saying she is fat. When he calls a slim and attractive girl—someone like Ireland—a pig, he is using the word in another sense, one that suggests a particularly feminine kind of repulsiveness. It was a horribly crude, almost sexual thing for a man to call his daughter. The whole voice mail was clearly a product of the kind of uncorked rage that always ends in remorse and sorrow, but it was not entirely witless. It begins with a lucid description of the situation, proceeds to a vivid accounting of how the event has made him feel, and then lays out an action plan for correcting the problem: he’s going to fly to California for a day, and “I’m going to let you know just how I feel about what a rude little pig you really are. You are a rude, thoughtless little pig.”

When Rosie brought it up on The View, Baldwin squirmed, suggesting that perhaps they should break for commercial (“Nothing doing,” the child ballerina seemed to say; “take your time”); and finally he admitted that it had been “improper” of him to use the word and that he had really intended the message for his ex-wife, not his child.

He really loves this girl. For all of the recriminations and ugly episodes, one thing the child surely knows: she is important to her father. She matters to him. Children have an obdurate desire to be central in the lives of their parents, and almost no amount of bad behavior on an adult’s part can change that. To be yelled at by a father is terrible, but far worse is to be unable to incite him to any emotion at all, to become invisible to him—or, worse yet, to be replaced. As Baldwin aptly observes, legions of fathers throw in the towel if an ex-wife makes life too difficult, then invest themselves emotionally in a new and trouble-free set of children with a second wife. Ireland, for all the trauma her parents have inflicted on her, has never been a forgotten child. Her father has spent huge swaths of his life flying to California every weekend to see her; he has volunteered at her school, rented houses close to Basinger’s to be nearer to her for visits, and—though he is a prideful man—allowed himself to be humbled time and again, through various court-ordered treatments and programs, all for the sake of being able to be with her. This child must know that the endlessly engaging, personally attractive Alec Baldwin would instantly drop everything to come to her assistance if she ever needed him.

Obviously that devotion is romantic, and here is the reason this scandal has engaged us for so long: its true center is not a particularly lurid and public divorce. It’s a father-daughter relationship that is fueled with so much notoriety and bad behavior that it is sui generis, but it’s also limned by the same dynamics—of amorous engagement, maternal jealousy, and paternal protectiveness—as any other.

A father-daughter relationship is a kind of romance, one kept well in check by a variety of forces, not least of them the sexual flattening that prolonged domesticity does to all potentially erotic relationships. Dad doesn’t get too excited by the sight of Mom in her shimmy anymore, for the same reason Buddy’s never taken a hankering to Sissy: they’ve seen too much. It’s not community censure that has kept incest in check all these centuries; it’s stomach flu.

But a romance doesn’t need sex to flourish, of course, and in his daughter a father discovers a person whose very bloodline ensures that she will be charming to him: at the precise moment that his wife is fading into middle age, her beauty resurges in the daughter—there’s that unlined face you fell in love with so long ago! And instead of nattering away about all the tedious things your wife is always going on about, this ravishing new version has been programmed (by you) to talk about and care about all the things you are interested in. As for the girl’s feelings about you—well, you’re everything. You’re not a man; you’re the measure of a man.

If you want to understand a woman, you need to know her father. A woman who was cursed with a wretched mother will regale you at length with each of that woman’s hurtful acts; a mother can be dead for years, and still her daughter will tell everyone who will listen about the time she wanted a particular pair of party shoes and her mother said, “Those would look better on your sister.” But a woman who had a bad father—or an absent one, or an unpredictable one—will nurse that wound tenderly. A mean mother can be boiled down to a reduction of her bitchery, a set of anecdotes. A mean father only grows in scope and power as the years pass.

In Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” the poetess mows down all of western-European history and lore to convey the wickedness of her father, who has been torturing her “for thirty years”: he is a vampire, Hitler. He is personally responsible for every fucked-up, stupid thing she’s ever done, from unsuccessfully attempting suicide to successfully marrying Ted Hughes. “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through,” she proclaims defiantly at poem’s end (rallying call to a generation!), but it’s only in reading the biographical note that we remember that her father (whose greatest crimes against humanity consisted of writing a book about bumblebees and siring Sylvia Plath) had been dead since she was 8.

On the other hand, many women who had especially besotted and doting fathers never get over the experience; there is a childlike quality in those women, a sense that everyone in the world (and the world itself, for that matter) is forever letting them down. A little girl marches her father to a display of expensive dolls at a toy shop, and he says (in a show of delighted helplessness), “She’s got me wrapped around her little finger!” Fathers routinely (and quite callously) announce to the world that their daughters have a special and particularly feminine claim to their hearts that their wives don’t. It would be a recipe for disaster, were it not for the fact that family life is constructed so that it can contain both romances perfectly. And—as Alec Baldwin may someday come to find out—it’s the larger romance that girls (those cunning observers) really have their eyes on. If your father thinks you’re enchanting, but he’s put your mother out to pasture—well, that’s just disturbing. You have somehow beguiled this powerful, grown man in a way your own mother could not; what’s wrong with you?

A girl wants a story to build her life on, the original story of the great love that brought her here. She wants things a boy never will: the dried flowers from her mother’s bouquet, the glass ashtray from the honeymoon hotel, the telling (over and over again) of the way her father insisted to the charge nurse that there had to be, somewhere on that maternity ward, a private room for his wife.

It used to take three buses to get from the Berkeley hills to the I. Magnin in San Francisco. You had to take the 7 to Palmer’s Drugstore on Shattuck, the F across the bay to the city terminal, and then any Geary Street line to Union Square. It was a 14-mile journey that could easily take two hours, and my father and I undertook it each December with a combination of excitement and wariness, determined to bring home his annual Christmas gift to my mother, a quarter ounce of Arpège. We would stand on the plush gray carpeting of the perfume department for a long time, while slender, beautiful young women floated past. The saleslady would dot my own sturdy wrist with the potion, and still my father would stand there, tapping the edge of his American Express card on the glass counter over and over again in agony. We had taken three buses for the sole purpose of buying one thing, the price of which never changed, but every year I was never entirely sure he had it in him. And then—with a decisive nod—he would lay the card flat and push it toward the woman: “We’ll take it.”

My father was a college professor, and we lived frugally, but somehow—unlike all my friends in similar circumstances—we seemed always to be on the edge of financial ruin. Our blender was secondhand; our television, like our dryer, came from a “bargain” emporium down in Oakland that was of such dubious character that I now wonder if it was a fence for stolen goods; things around the house (like the upstairs porch that you were warned never, ever to set foot on) were in a permanent state of decay. Things worked until they broke, and then they were left that way—a broken space heater was still a space heater, after all. Who knew if our luck would change, and one day you’d be inspired to plug the thing in, and out would whir a blast of warm air?

And yet there we were, every year, buying one of the most expensive perfumes in the world from the best department store in California, and the reason had to do with the fact that deep within our family—the spark that had gotten it all started, turning one Flanagan into four and making a certain red-shingle house in North Berkeley an unparalleled trove of talked-out Chatty Cathy dolls and years-long quarrels, Julia Child soufflés and weekend benders—was a consuming passion. The fact that a long time ago, a young man had gone to a cocktail party in Greenwich Village with a Navy buddy, caught sight of a beautiful young woman, and said to the friend, “Introduce me.”

Or words to that effect. I wasn’t there! All I know is that for all of their quarreling and bellyaching, they had begun in romance and they gestured back to that romance a hundred times a year. It was in the gifts they gave one another, the notes they sent when they were apart, the fact that whenever she was combing my father’s fringe of white hair before a party, she would say, “You look so handsome, Tom”—and you realized that she wasn’t exactly seeing something; she was remembering it. The real sorrow of Ireland’s young life is not that she has a father with an ugly temper; it’s that the circle has been broken. She cannot use her relationship with her father as a way of testing the waters of romance without bringing sorrow to her mother. Nor can she exalt in herself—as girls are wont to do—as the product of an epic love, because by now she has become the opposite: the animating force of a great enmity, the only reason these feuding adults are forced to contend with one another. And now, as she casts around in her girlish way for a model on which to shape her own dream of marriage and enduring love, she must look elsewhere. Her own home—that contested piece of property, subject to her father’s mood and her mother’s caprice—can offer her nothing.