I’ve always believed famous people are as entitled to their privacy as anyone else, which is why I hesitated to read “The Eternal Party,” the new biography of Larry Hagman written by his daughter Kristina. The pre-publication publicity made it clear the book would contain information that Larry might have preferred to keep private, and so after I received my copy, I struggled with what to do with it. Curiosity eventually got the better of me, and ultimately I’m glad it did. “The Eternal Party” challenges some long-held beliefs about its subject, but Kristina mostly paints a sweet, loving portrait of her father. She also sheds light on how he brought J.R. Ewing to life, which is all I really want from a book about Larry Hagman in the first place.
“The Eternal Party” is framed as a mystery — a nod, perhaps, to the “Who Shot J.R.?” phenomenon that marked the zenith of Larry’s fame. The book opens with Kristina recalling her father’s final hours as he lay dying in a Dallas hospital in 2012. In his delirium, the notoriously carefree actor begs for forgiveness, prompting Kristina to spend the rest of the book re-examining Larry’s life. She documents his indulgences with his favorite substances — ground that Larry candidly covered in his own 2001 memoir, “Hello Darlin’” — and also shares private details about her parents’ 58-year marriage. The latter passages left me torn. My sense is that Larry and his wife Maj wouldn’t want some of this material to be public knowledge. On the other hand, as a student of “Dallas” history, it’s interesting to ponder the parallels between the Hagmans’ marriage and J.R. and Sue Ellen’s. How much did Larry draw upon his personal experience when shaping this part of his character?
Other passages in “The Eternal Party” show how the J.R. traits that “Dallas” fans know so well were rooted in mundane aspects of Larry’s domestic life. Remember the menacing glare J.R. would offer his enemies when he was about to destroy them? Kristina recalls her father wearing the same scowl when he was trying to housebreak the family’s German shepherd puppy. In another amusing tidbit, she details the years before Larry’s “Dallas” wealth, when the vagabond Hagmans frequently relied on the kindness of others. This includes future “Dallas” co-star David Wayne, who allowed the family to stay at his home whenever they needed a place to crash. Imagine: Digger Barnes offering shelter to a down-on-his-luck J.R. Ewing. The mind reels.
Kristina also has kind words for Larry’s friends and “Dallas” co-stars, Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy. She recalls Gray giving him dietary advice after his cancer diagnosis and Duffy standing near her frail father during their public appearances, “always ready to offer a steady hand in case he needed it.” In another poignant memory, Kristina describes accompanying an aging Larry to Pike Place Market in Seattle, where no one recognized him. (In true Hagman style, though, he purchased a giant, stuffed red lizard from a vendor and walked around with it on his shoulder, helping him get the attention he craved.) The book’s most heartbreaking moments include Kristina’s struggle to come to terms with a sexual assault she suffered at the hands of a neighbor, Larry’s efforts to care for Maj after her Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, and the final chapter, when the author finally solves the mystery of why her father had forgiveness on his mind at the end of his life.
Mostly, though, “The Eternal Party” is about Larry and Kristina’s relationship. She clearly adores him, even if she doesn’t always understand his choices. Likewise, even though I have reservations about some of the disclosures, that doesn’t mean I don’t value the book. In an especially illuminating scene, Kristina recalls accompanying Larry to a public appearance on a military base, where he met a little boy whose father was away in combat. The child knew Larry as Major Nelson on “I Dream of Jeannie” and had come to think of him as a father figure. Kristina writes:
“The boy was so happy, and the way his sad face brightened had a huge effect on Dad. I think he may have had an epiphany that day about his ability to make a difference in people’s lives, and he helped me understand his responsibility to everyone who supported our family by watching him on television. From that day on, I understood that my father would never be mine alone; he belonged to his public.”
More than anything else in “The Eternal Party,” this story makes me appreciate the author, and her willingness to share her famous father with the rest of the world.