Dory Previn was a brilliant songwriter, author, poet and playwright, and a vibrantly creative human being. She was warm, funny, mystically attuned, extraordinarily sane and, sometimes, clinically crazy. She grew up in a deeply damaging household, the child of an alcoholic mother and an abusive father who at one point locked his wife and children in the dining room for over four months, and who so badly wanted a son that he rejected Dory, sometimes claiming she wasn’t his child.
Dory wrote in her memoir, Bogtrotter, that it takes three generations to make a schizophrenic. Dory herself lived on the edge of schizophrenia, and suffered numerous psychotic breaks over the course of her life, most famously the one that marked the end of her marriage to composer-conductor André Previn. After that, her life was different, better – the pot of gold at the end of a long journey from trauma to healing.
Dory began writing lyrics for songs in movies in the early fifties, at a time when there were almost no women lyricists in Hollywood. She was quirky out of the starting gate, and hugely talented. A three-time Oscar nominee, she wrote songs for Judy Garland, Tony Bennet, Rosemary Clooney and many others. Her lyrics to the title song from The Valley of the Dolls, a huge hit for Dione Warwick, were a series of incomplete thoughts that perfectly captured the fragility of someone trying to shake off mental fog and make her way back to herself:
Dory’s breakdown, post-André, was the start of her own journey of healing. While finding her own way back, she wrote the songs for a stunning album called On My Way to Where, the first of six studio albums that announced her presence as a unique and enormously gifted singer-songwriter. She wrote with unswerving honesty and, often, with great humor, often at her own expense. Not surprisingly, many of her songs dealt with trauma and damage, from deep inside the experience.
I first met Dory in 1972, two years after On My Way to Where came out. She was forty-seven and I was twelve, and my limited experiences were nothing like hers. But we connected on a soul level. I learned a great deal from Dory, about songwriting, and about life. I have her voice inside me, and think about her often. It was hard for me to pick just one of her songs for this newsletter, and no doubt I will write about more of Dory’s songs in the future. To introduce her work, I settled on “I Dance and Dance and Smile and Smile,” a song I think many people can relate to.
I want to leave you with the lyrics to one more Dory Previn song that takes a very different, almost mystical view of trauma across the generations. It’s called “The Empress of China”: