- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
“I was brought up in another era, a time when parents from a certain level of society had little to do with the daily care of their children. People were hired to raise the children while Mother and Father watched from a discreet distance.” — Tony Cointreau
The only problem with that scenario, writes Tony Cointreau in “Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa . . . and Me: My Improbable Journey from Chateaux in France to the Slums of Calcutta” (Prospecta Press, 312 pages, photographs, $24.95) is that children so raised — no matter how privileged with wealth and luxury — grow up deprived of something essential: unconditional love.
Tony Cointreau, an heir to the French liqueur family, writes that his beautiful mother, Dorothy Richards, a silent film star, was emotionally remote. He received more love — unconditional love — from his Aunt Tata, his mother’s sister.
Add to the mix an angry bullying brother, Richard, a cold and unproductive Swiss nurse and sexual molestation at the age of eight by a predatory teacher and Tony was on a quest for love and a mother figure. He reveals that he never told anyone about the molestation, fearing that no one would believe that such a trusted man could also be a monster.
He was fortunate enough to befriend such diverse people as the Queen of Broadway, Ethel Merman; Lee Lehman, the beautiful wife of Robert Lehman, head of Lehman Brothers, and last, but far from least, Agnes Bojaxhiu, born in Albania, in 1910, much better known as Mother Teresa, founder of Missionaries of Charity, dedicated to helping the very poor of the world.
Here’s a YouTube of Tony explaining is work with Mother Teresa: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMhVxx_TLuY
His descriptions of meeting and caring for people in Mother Teresa’s facilities in the U.S. and Calcutta, India, are particularly moving.
His first “other mother” was the internationally acclaimed beauty Lee Lehman, who provided Tony, born in 1941, with the love that wasn’t forthcoming from his mother.
Then, after Tony met the iconic Broadway diva Ethel Merman, she became his mentor and second “other mother.” His memoir describes in detail his intimate family relationships with both women, as well as his years of work and friendship with Mother Teresa, his last “other mother.”
Tony’s memoir voices his opinion that he had no special gifts or talents to bring to Mother Teresa’s work and that if he could do it, then anyone could do it. I think he’s being overly modest, because he was an international singing star, performing in both French and English. In the end, he writes that all that really matters is a willingness to share even a small part of oneself with others.
Tony also describes his relationship with Jim Russo, whom he married in 2008 in Los Angeles. This is a decades long relationship, with Russo providing love and support for a sensitive boy who grew up needing the kind of love we all need.
I’ve said before, in other reviews, that I have a love/hate relationship with memoirs. I’m sure most readers will lean toward the love part in Tony Cointreau’s very readable and moving memoir.
About the author
Tony Cointreau, christened Jacques-Henri Robert Mercier-Cointreau, is an heir to the French liqueur family. Although Tony served on the Cointreau board of directors for several years, his voice took him to the stage and his heart took him to Calcutta.