I actually finished reading a book. I started reading it in Puerto Rico and finished it in my room at the Hampton Inn in Madison on Sunday night. I’m not a huge fan of the biography/memoir genre in general, but the hot pink cover caught my eye at the used bookstore and once I saw the cover I knew I had to have it, read it, and love it. So after a long book review hiatus, it’s time to rock and roll with the original bad girl: Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life as a Fabulous Ronette by Ronnie Spector.
Simply put, Be My Baby is Ronnie Spector in her own words. Normally I don’t like autobiographies; I usually find them either too factual or self-centered, but not this one. Spector speaks from a heart that has experienced the highs and lows of fame. She tells of her humble beginnings in New York, from singing in the living room with her cousins to dancing at the Peppermint Lounge to forming the Ronettes with her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra. To the world, she was a fabulous Ronette, but to herself, she was Veronica Bennett, a cheerleader trying to finish high school. Her life turned sharply after meeting the Beatles in England and after meeting Phil Spector, who would give her the surname she used for her career as well as the heartache of being a prisoner in his house of horrors. She tells of how Phil threatened her and her mother, drove her to alcoholism, and used their three adopted sons as bargaining chips. I was cheering for her when she broke free from Phil’s harsh prison, though it did not read as dramatic as it probably played out in real life. The scariest part, in my eyes, is when Ronnie was faced with potential assassination in Las Vegas, and decided not to take the stage; a threat that may or may not have been real, but changed her life all the same. The story takes a happier turn with Ronnie branching out on her own with help from John Lennon, George Harrison, and the Stones in London and New York. It was heartbreaking to read about the fates of the two other original Ronettes: Estelle, with her mental illness and Nedra with her rejection of her past. It should be noted, however, that after the book’s publication, Nedra and Ronnie reunited to perform “Be My Baby” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame upon their induction in 2007, with Estelle joining them in accepting the award, one of Estelle’s last public appearances before her death two years later. The book concludes with Ronnie’s transformation from troubled alcoholic to wife, mother, and resurgent performer, highlighted by Hillary and Bill Clinton fangirling out when meeting her – at one time, a girl from Spanish Harlem who wore too much makeup and snuck into clubs.
What makes this book shine is the author’s attitude towards herself and the people in her life. Even though we all know what happened to Phil Spector, she is unusually kind and diplomatic when referring to the man she once loved, a decision that probably took all the bravery she could muster. She is not quick to judge others, instead holding herself accountable for her poor life choices and admitting her own failures without sugarcoating them.
The triumph of the book comes when she talks about the birth of her first child. After she gave birth in her home, she and her husband got into a cab, and when he referred to her by name, the cab driver realizes who she is and floors it to the hospital, saying to his buddies over the CB radio “I’ve got the ‘Be My Baby’ girl in my car! And she’s got a baby!’ Spector describes how overwhelmed with emotion and happiness she was. I believe that only at that moment did she realize how much of an impact she’d already left on the world and how many people, both friends and strangers, love her for who she is: not just as a singer, a wife, or a Ronette but for being Ronnie Spector. She is a living legend, and I’d give anything to meet her and give her a hug to make up for all the years she spent without human contact.