Cusi Cram's Lifetime of Learning

Special Features   Cusi Cram's Lifetime of Learning
Playwright Cusi Cram debuts a new Off-Broadway play, A Lifetime Burning, but Cram's own life proves to be just as interesting.
Cusi Cram
Cusi Cram Photo by Aubrey Reuben


"I learned that if you're going to make memory interesting," says playwright Cusi Cram, "you kind of have to make it into a story, inevitably altering the truth in some way."

Cram is talking about her play A Lifetime Burning, which is currently being given its world premiere at Off-Broadway's Primary Stages. The plot is loosely inspired by the literary scandal surrounding Margaret Seltzer, who in 2008 wrote a fictionalized account of her life as a half-white, half-Native American foster child growing up as a Bloods gang member in South Central Los Angeles, and passed it off as a memoir — before being called out as a fraud by her own sister. The production stars Jennifer Westfeldt as Emma, a trust fund kid who trades truth for a hefty advance, and Christina Kirk as her angry sister, who may or may not expose her.

When the Seltzer tale broke, Cram happened to be taking a course on writing memoirs, so the tale struck a chord. "There was so much crazy in that story. It sort of obsessed me." She kept asking herself, "How would this happen?"

Cram admits that she, herself, is in the early stages of working on something she is "loathe to call a memoir." (Her actual response was, "You know…I would say…you know…uh…yeah.") If she completes it, she won't have to fabricate any facts to create an interesting read, for Cram has a real back story that rivals any work of fiction. At 13, the 5-foot-9-inch brunette became the youngest model ever signed to the famed Wilhelmina agency. People magazine profiled her, and she appeared in the pages of Seventeen and Interview magazines.

This remarkable start is not so surprising when you consider her stranger-than-fiction parentage. Mom was Lady Jeanne Campbell, the daughter of Scotland's 11th Duke of Argyll and granddaughter of the British press baron Lord Beaverbrook, and gained a more modern sort of fame by marrying the volatile novelist Norman Mailer in the early 1960s.

Jennifer Westfeldt and Cusi Cram
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Cram's dad was of Bolivian descent. (Cram has much family in Bolivia and visits often. Her name is Incan for "happy.") Her stepdad (Campbell's second husband) was John Cram III, a descendant of 19th-century robber baron and all-around scoundrel Jay Gould, who caused a financial panic in 1869 when he tried to corner the gold market. Cram quickly grew tired of modeling and moved on to acting and then, during a transition period in her twenties, to playwriting. She's been scribbling ever since, paying the bills as a longtime writer for the children's series "Arthur."

Not that her fantastical childhood ever goes away. (The People article always seems to land near the top of any Google search.) "I'm always a little wary that people would wonder if someone who was a model would write an interesting play. Nowadays, your past is always with you." Even when you make it up.

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