Dory Previn: A Life of Conflict

This is the third article in a five-part series – MATRIARCHS – in which Arts Editor Connor Gotto explores some of the forgotten women from across the arts; pioneers of their craft, but so often lost in the shadow of their male peers. Click here to the first article in the series looking at Queen Guinevere, and her role both during the reign, and following the demise of King Arthur.

“Babies born at that moment will never be sure who they are… they go through life not knowing whether they want to go back to the day before Midnight, or go ahead to the day after” 

– Midnight Baby –

Born at the stroke of midnight on October 22nd, 1925, Dorothy Veronica Langan lived her life in constant conflict between the ‘day before Midnight’ and ‘the day after’, so her mother said. It was a constant conflict in a life plagued with indecision and restraint for the relatively unknown singer/songwriter, poet, and three-time Oscar nominee.

Living under the heavy expectations of her father, Dory Previn began her career singing and tap dancing around the New York circuit, performing to whoever would watch in the hope of winning whatever prize – no matter how small – in the name of her undeniable talent. Her father was her roadie and, from her early years, entered her for whatever competition he could. But the burden proved far heavier and, eventually, it all became too much.

Her father – a soldier who was gassed in the First World War – alternately embraced and rejected her, having a profound impact on her later life. The time in which she, her alcoholic mother, and newborn sister were boarded up in their family home was a significant moment, proving pivotal in her psychological state in later life. She described the incident in verse, in her memoirs Midnight Baby:

“daddy boarded up

the dining room

and locked us in

we three

four and a half month

we lived in that room

my mama the baby and me

my mama slept on the table

i slept on a cot

the baby was in a basket

i hated it a lot”

Previn was institutionalised several times throughout her life, most notably following the breakdown of her marriage to André Previn and his affair with actress and model Mia Farrow. Consequently, her songs reflected her insecurities and trust issues. Josh Tillman (of Father John Misty) said of her self-titled 1974 album that it was “terrifying to hear a woman dismantle the male condition with such humour and so succinctly”, describing her as a “lyrical master”. Meanwhile, her 1970 track Beware of Young Girls was a direct attack on Farrow and her estranged husband, with lines such as:

“Beware of young girls,

Too often they crave,

To cry at a wedding,

And dance on a grave”

Never able to move on from the torment of her childhood, or transition into the light of the next day, her past was simply something that she could not distance herself from. It was a part of her. It was within her.

In total, Previn released eight studio albums. Still, she is largely forgotten in the grand scheme of musical history, as both a film-score writer (she co-wrote five songs on the soundtrack for 1967’s Valley of the Dolls as well as Judy Garland’s The Faraway Part of Town from Pepe, amongst others), and a solo artist. Her lyrics are arguably as strong as Dylan’s, yet she is not considered one of his contemporaries. Why?

Perhaps the world was not ready for a strong, female writer who could rival her male peers? Or to embrace and advertise such an eclectic and temperamental personality on the stages of the world? But now, I think the world is ready to give her a chance – to listen to her words and music – and appreciate what a master of her craft Dory Previn became.

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