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Alan Cumming Took Ecstasy to Quell His Nerves on Tony Night, ‘and It Worked’

BAGGAGE
Tales From a Fully Packed Life
By Alan Cumming

“No one ever fully recovers from their past,” writes the actor, singer, author and nightclub impresario Alan Cumming in his second memoir, “Baggage.” It’s an observation that might feel pat, until you contrast the appalling past he has survived with the enviable present he has made from it. Cumming’s first memoir, the 2014 best seller “Not My Father’s Son,” concentrated on the early part of his life: a bleak childhood on a rural estate in Scotland with a sadistic father, the head forester on the property, who beat and insulted him and his older brother for the slightest perceived infraction.

Despite this painful history — including a moment in his mid-40s when his long-estranged father reappeared in his life to tell Cumming he was not his biological son, a claim later disproved by a DNA test — the adult Cumming has created a rich and meaningful life. He is happily married to a man he has been with for 17 years. As a performer, he moves easily among styles and genres — theater, film, television, cabaret, voice-over work for animated movies — and maintains a wide circle of what appear to be genuine friendships with people both in show business and outside of it. It’s easy to see why he’s so popular: Cumming is delightful company, urbane, self-deprecating and mischievously funny, not above a dishy anecdote or a throwaway dirty pun. Explaining that many of his short-term flings have resolved into lifelong friendships, he muses, “What is a dalliance but an alliance that begins with a big D?!”

With winning resilience and buoyancy, Cumming revisits a stretch of his young adult life book-ended by two marriages: one straight, one gay. The story opens in 1994 as his nearly eight-year marriage to the English actor Hilary Lyon is dissolving — even while, on the London stage, she plays Ophelia to his Hamlet. The combination of channeling perhaps the best-known conflicted son in the Western canon, and feeling pressured by his wife to start a family of their own, throws Cumming into a prolonged crisis. Long-repressed memories of his father’s abuse begin to resurface in confusing fragments; he moves out of the house he shared with Lyon into a “dark bedsit” in London’s Primrose Hill neighborhood. There, in between co-writing (and starring in) the BBC sitcom “The High Life” and flying to Hollywood to voice the horse in “Black Beauty,” Cumming starts to wrestle with the childhood demons treated in his earlier book; though those formative events are briefly summarized here, some familiarity with the first volume is useful in making sense of this one.

It’s a common phenomenon in show-business memoirs that after a performer finds fame, he suddenly has less to write about, splitting the book in half between a hardscrabble Horatio Alger tale and a contented catalog of successive triumphs. By telling his story in two separate volumes, Cumming has made that tonal shift feel less awkward. But the suspense that drove the narrative of “Not My Father’s Son” Would Alan escape the brutality of his childhood home without too much psychic damage to function as an adult? Was his father lying when he told him the story of his supposed illegitimacy, or simply in thrall to a long-held delusion? — is mostly absent from “Baggage.” This book is less structured, an episodic and sometimes rambling collection of reflections on fame and self-discovery, with a modicum of gossip thrown in for good measure.

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