She was a child of divorce at a time when broken families were considered a social stigma. But Nora Johnson was also a child of privilege. Thus, her memoir is set to the clickety-clack soundtrack of the streamliners, specifically the Twentieth-Century and the Chief, passenger trains that took her back and forth between her parents' disparate homes and lives. "Ma" had a Manhattan apartment. Her father, the esteemed writer-producer Nunnally Johnson, lived in a Beverly Hills mansion. For Johnson, both locales brought bouts of loneliness and uncertainty, and the nagging fear that she didn't belong at either. Coast to Coast: A Family Romance details her schizophrenic coming of age, while taking the reader on a deft, beautifully written tour of the 1940s and 1950s, as lived by the poor little rich girl.
Born during the Great Depression, Johnson vividly recalls family life during wartime and post-war recovery, the Commie witch hunts that haunted Hollywood, and the "I Like Ike" fervor of the new generation. She describes conversations, decor and fashions, as well as sounds, aromas and even tastes. At the home her father shared with his much younger wife and their children (of whom Johnson was jealous), Tyrone Power showed up to play croquet (first, he stripped off his shirt), and a party guest list included Bogart and Bacall. Anthony Perkins was a childhood friend; Sylvia Plath was a classmate at Smith. And during a shipboard journey, Johnson met the honeymooners Liz Taylor and Nicky Hilton. (While her new hubby played poker, Liz expounded on her love of baby animals and did an imitation of a chipmunk.)But the figure that looms largest in this volume, and Johnson's life, is her complicated and gifted father, Nunnally. Johnson would go on to achieve success as a novelist and essayist, but she would never escape her father's omnipresent shadow. Pat H. Broeske is co-author of the best-selling Howard Hughes: The Untold Story.