CNBCfix review: Melissa Francis
turns out OK in erratic Diary

          Posted: Saturday, November 24, 2012

Skimming through the biographies of CNBC personalities, one finds a trend — most have successful parents and come from solid, 2-parent homes.

Some of those homes are undoubtedly more solid than others, evidenced by the childhood tales of former CNBC/now Fox Business anchor Melissa Francis in her memoir, Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter.

Melissa Francis, you'll be relieved to know, is not perfect. She did get a B+ once after being caught cheating in a typing course — "(bleep) her" is Francis' uncharacteristic message to the diligent teacher — and even received an A- once in AP chemistry.

She has brains, beauty, an engaging appeal, a national television contract and A-list friends. But she does not write like Hemingway, and her words lack a richness one might anticipate of someone of her credentials.

"I wrote every word myself," she revealed to Don Imus, 3 times telling him the book is "funny," though it is not. There is appeal to her straightforward, anecdotal storytelling that makes Diary a quick read; she even assures Imus listeners if they aren't hooked by reading 2 pages, she will refund their money. But the Hollywood revelations are minimal, and the book's potential for poignancy is minimized by the uneven contrasts with her considerable personal success.

If anything, Francis' life, given her childhood achievements, may be considered remarkably boring — great for being well-grounded, not so great for selling a book.

Why she wrote Diary can only be answered by Francis. "You can choose to be happy," Francis confidently says in an essay about the book ... but can we? Really? Certainly, choosing to be happy (if that's at all possible) does not require authoring a book. On the surface, the most obvious, albeit cynical, explanation for Diary — a purported Hollywood tell-all — refreshingly does not hold up here; Francis does not force, or induldge in, backstage drivel. Rather, she ultimately writes of abandonment in the text and asserts punishment for her mother in the form of not letting her own children know their grandmother. She claims Diary is therapeutic: "I have relieved the pain, largely because of the support showered on me by complete strangers." Does a person of Francis' success and intelligence and means need complete strangers to heal her pain? Diary is unmistakably a message to Mom: I'm talking now, and this time you have to listen. That so many others apparently hold similar sentiments suggests Francis' grievances are either 1) not that unusual, and/or 2) maybe our homes are a lot more depressing than we think. "We could all write a book!" Francis discouragingly opines.

Francis was semi-famous long before adulthood. A prodigious child model/actress (more on this distinction below) known as Missy Francis, she was cast as Cassandra Cooper Ingalls in the TV stalwart "Little House on the Prairie," albeit in the long-running show's final seasons. The numerous references in her writing suggest she considers this role her most notable work, with a refreshing nonchalance toward it. Francis in Chapter 9 is even overly disparaging, dismissing the program as the "corniest family drama ever," a sign of fatigue with this association.

Diary naturally seems targeted at a female-centric, mother-daughter type of readership, and also a specific niche: Fans of "Little House." All 3 of the personal testimonials on the cover are from women, 2 of them from "Little House" actresses whom Francis barely mentions any connection to.

To both audiences, Diary seems to promise more than it delivers. Juicy backstage tidbits from "Little House" or other Hollywood sets are virtually nonexistent. The family breakdowns are unfortunately not unusual. The pictures included by Francis are gorgeous and happy. And the nemesis, Francis' mother (notably there is no picture of her), is fortunately not as dysfunctional nor as interesting as you might expect from the emancipated-child roster.

Mom's checklist does not include many of the worst elements. She is not plagued by substance abuse, no affairs are suggested, and there are even mixed messages about her financial acumen ranging from shrewd negotiator to (there is decided legal limbo here of which conclusions can't possibly be drawn strictly from this book) at best, misappropriator. Here is one of the book's biggest failings, Francis' utter lack of details about legalities and industry standards for what percentage of the money goes to the child actors and to what extent the parents should be custodians of the cash.

Mother is, however, depicted as a control freak and abusive, not just verbally, but capable of physically striking her daughters during irrational-sounding moments.

Francis makes clear what became for her the last straw, but there is no weighting of mom's transgressions and at certain points some of them just become annoying drivel, bringing to mind venerable film critic Roger Ebert's complaint about "The Doors": "Watching the movie is like being stuck in a bar with an obnoxious drunk, when you're not drinking."

For all of her faults — and this review will not minimize any of them — Francis' mother has an unusual and important quality. She is someone who plays offense in life. A "stage mom," yes, but a savvy one. Most human beings are at least occasionally on defense — we are sensitive to what teachers say, we take budgetary and other restraints seriously, we are stung by negative comments of a supervisor or acquaintance, we are concerned that others at work are advancing ahead of us. Most people upon landing a role in such an elite production as "Little House" would probably initially regard their fellow, mostly older cast members and crew with a certain level of esteem or even awe; Melissa Francis is immediately instructed by her shrewd mother not to let fellow newcomer Jason Bateman "upstage" her.

Melissa credits this insight for preparing her for the work force. "When Mom and I worked together, we were an unbeatable team," she says in her introduction. Mom's professional ambitions for her daughters "felt like a warm rush of motherly support." In Chapter 4, "I felt better when Mom was there ... when we were working, she was careful and precise," which may seem like standard praise but, given other anecdotes Francis provides of talented children who couldn't do the simplest things on cue, takes on a heightened importance.

Mother keenly recognized her daughters' enormous potential for this appealing, if dubious, profession, work that according to the book, neither sister regretted. Surely there was a decided "stage mom" element behind her motivations. But somewhere in here we have a "Patton" story, an illustration of what humans can accomplish when pushed, even when they may not want to be pushed.

Mother's arguments are almost Jedi Mind Trick-caliber; "You have more than spent every dime you have ever made, and don't you dare kid yourself otherwise. ... You don't see me in jewels and furs, do you? You're the one driving the expensive sports car..." Francis in this book entertains no excuses. Mom's transgressions are presented mostly in chronological order but with little to no backstory about her own upbringing and whether it involved a parent like herself.

Francis struggles to establish causal relationships between her mother and sister, where the most serious breaches occurred. Certainly her view is that her mother contributed to Tiffany's lack of direction and self-esteem issues and maybe worst of all, blocked therapy (although her father is equally if not more culpable of the latter). There are dubious passages here of a sibling playing armchair shrink and ultimately diagnosing little more than exasperation. Tiffany was reckless, not in ways people would consider extreme, but enough to cause serious trouble. Much is made in this book of both sisters' longing to escape mom's control, but the stories indicate such escape was reality; each girl got a new car in high school, each was allowed to work and date, each was allowed, despite pressure-filled conversations, to go far away to college. We do learn that Tiffany's rebellious streak lands her in serious trouble even when beyond mom's reach, suggesting a mother's valuable intuition often unfortunately collided here with tyrant tendencies.

Francis barely takes 3 pages before asserting with pride that she will not be intimidated by mom's irrational punishments the way Tiffany is. Melissa only barely acknowledges what would seem a blessing — that she and Tiffany, being 3½ years apart, could be cast together as sisters but would not have to compete individually for the same roles. But perhaps that was no blessing and they were close enough in age that keeping a life scorecard was inevitable. Melissa doesn't blatantly suggest her sister is jealous of her success but sometimes hints at it; she implies that Tiffany simply wasn't as driven toward the same endeavors and had trouble, despite her enormous potential, fitting in with society.

Psychologists could certainly have a field day here; one thing they might consider that Francis in this text does not is whether Francis' mother might be bipolar, which perhaps could explain how she was able to raise 2 extraordinarily high-achieving, gorgeous daughters while simultaneously having "Mommy Dearest" moments. Chemical/biological explanations are beyond the scope of Francis' thought process here, disappointing for someone whose 2nd-lowest grade was an A- in AP chemistry.

Francis notably does not lavish high praise on any of her elders in this book. There is nothing about a favorite teacher or unforgettable acting coach or trusted mentor, never a suggestion that adult guidance was needed and not provided. Melissa realized on her own that she wanted to attend a Stanford summer program, then go to Harvard, and in fact she earned the considerable amount of money needed for these ventures herself. This is Ayn Rand to the nth degree, which might work against Francis in pockets of independents and Republican Party moderates if/when she makes a bid for office.

It may be hard for many readers to view Francis' family problems as extraordinary, given her own enormous personal success. To her credit, her book underscores a powerful theme in "Ordinary People," that one's status and appearance and salary are not inversely proportional to the amount of pain on the inside. Francis has billed the book as a triumphant tale of how she has "broken a family cycle," and there is admirable truth to that, but certainly others have conquered much longer odds.

Male characters drift in and out as minor accessories to Francis' life story, up until her wedding day, when the stories begin to include her husband, Wray Thorn, and at that point the book begins to ramble into social introductions and wedding-detail material providing a disproportionate amount of anecdotal color, some of the passages feeling like an author's indulgence.

Francis' father, it can be inferred, failed to take adequate interest in his daughters' lives and comes across as not the least bit impressed by Hollywood credits, but grounded enough to recognize trouble. He is too grounded, in fact, for this particular household, which would've benefitted from intervention from neutral parties, who might've been able to point out that mother's inability to gradually cede control would cost the family dearly when the girls reached adulthood. Nevertheless, Francis might be giving herself too much credit in amateur diagnosis, explaining that suspicions of her sister having bipolar disorder were based on what she read on WebMd.

Some pictures are worth tens of thousands of words, and meeting that criteria is Francis' publicity photo circa age 4, an unfathomably beautiful child. Of all of her attributes, this is what Francis is off-the-charts good at. Francis holding a Barbie doll in front of a camera is Lee Trevino with a golf club or Michelle Kwan on skates. (Ordinarily a news site would scan the first photo in this book and post it here to easily illustrate this point, but out of professional courtesy and potential copyright issues, you'll have to purchase or at least leaf through the book yourself, though one wonders why the image is credited as "courtesy of the author"; it's Francis' book, was she expecting the publisher to pay for publication rights?). Tiffany is equally darling. Perhaps, somehow, Melissa's expressions convey the tiniest bit more appreciation for the camera, an infinitesimal difference that on a certain level makes all the difference in the world.

There is a nonchalance though toward business throughout the book and in fact toward Francis' own career moves. She offers no philosophy about the merits of advertising and presentation. She helped persuade parents to take children to McDonald's and buy Barbie dolls. She seems not the least bit interested in her Harvard major, economics (other than taxation policy, on which she had clearly already made up her mind as a teenager), and does not specify ever seeking a dream job, though she does profess some degree of excitement for the news business and its deadlines.

The curious thing about child labor is the varying public perception. Mention a 10-year-old picking fruit for 5 minutes and people will recoil in horror; if that same 10-year-old can say "Whatchoo talkin' about Willis," spending days on Hollywood sets is considered a noble endeavor.

Francis does not express disapproval of this dubious, though rightly popular, marketplace, but matter-of-fact acceptance of it. These are jobs to be filled, and there are people capable of filling them. Mom's control of the purse strings — and federal tax policy — is the problem here, not the system.

It is noteworthy that Francis not only modeled for advertisements but acted in televised dramas. Many see acting as a much loftier skill than posing; others see little distinction. Francis appears to be in the latter camp, trumpeting that she never had an acting coach. Tom Cruise and Halle Berry and Arnold Schwarzenegger and a host of others really didn't either; some such as Anne Hathaway, Laura Linney and Keira Knightley have sought a great deal of training. Francis' book suggests acting might be about 90% natural beauty and charisma, the remainder a basic technical skill set involving not looking into the camera, etc.

Francis does make some interesting references to "residuals," something a lot of people in taverns claim to understand but probably don't. They are presented as important to her coming-of-age decisions, yet she needs to go much further in explaining them and the apparent gray area as to how parents collect them. While most people punch the clock and then come back for more, many of Francis' projects were a gift that keeps on giving, proving child stardom actually can pay off into adulthood.

One thing a human being learns from the day of birth forward is how others respond to him or her. Virtually no human being recognizes what he or she is good at as early as Francis did. For her, much of what people consider the challenges of life have come extraordinarily easy. The camera adores her. She earned more as a child than many do as adults. School was easy. She is athletic. Many people would consider those attributes — even just a couple of them — to be game, set, match, recalling the line often attributed to Joe Jackson, "Money buys a lot of therapy." This is a drawback to Diary, in that Francis does not easily demonstrate, despite her obvious losses, what her emotional deficit is. There is a notable omission of regrets, except for one in particular about an inability to save an adult by altering the adult's behavior, a difficult prospect to say the least. Rarely if ever does Francis lament missing some of the simple treasures of life, no mentions of, for example, "I wish I had spent more time playing with friends than auditioning for commercials, or that Mom had just read to me more often, or told me how she and Dad met, what high school was like for her, etc." Nor are there significant regrets about the system, "I wish child actors were better able to ..." Francis does not complain about the hours or the pay. She has done very well for herself despite growing up in this household. Is she longing for a beautiful mother-daughter relationship? It feels like her standards are much lower than that; she'd be happy if mom just relaxed and stopped annoying her and maybe just had a good time at a family gathering for once.

Francis does keep Diary moving, even through some of the slower passages, with a refreshing disinterest in backstory-telling, a sign the book's editing was sharp. In Chapter 8 she mentions a conversation involving "Brother Bill" without bothering to explain who he was, there's no need to. Boyfriends and teachers curiously receive minimal, mostly nonchalant, mention, given that this is a young woman who would've been deluged with both male and academic attention from an early age. Her school choices, which certainly cause consternation among those of her intellect, are presented as matter-of-fact decisions about simply wanting to get away.

Francis does not employ big words, which, contrary to what a lot of book-smart people think, is a sign of skill and tight editing. It's also necessary for reaching a mass audience. But there is also something about the book that feels light, divided into too many chapters that don't really need to exist except, thanks to the considerable white space between the ends and the beginnings, to produce additional pages and quicker page-turning. While most of the anecdotes are necessarily bare-bones, some, such as the extraneous detail on Dad's airport lapses before the flight to Boston, feel padded.

The longer the book goes, the more editing oversights occur, "rode" is spelled "road," a missing "of" or "to" not uncommon; less forgivable is the misspelling of "Facts of Life" star Mindy Cohn's last name in Chapter 4, perhaps an indication of Francis' lack of being impressed by fellow TV stars. Titles of TV programs are listed in italics, although this is hardly the first book to do so.

The chapters stop an anecdote and start with a new one, generally at a different age, but occasionally veer back into the past for a supporting anecdote to the current story, handle-able in this format but a bit of annoyance. Though writing with a distinct air of confidence, Francis is modest enough that it is impossible not to root for her during her limited challenges. Can she produce a tear for Michael Landon, can she submerge herself in a filthy pond. After a time, it becomes clear that her acting recollections are about the wins, not the defeats.

Francis, like nearly all on CNBC and Fox Business, is an outspoken advocate of right-wing economics on television and betrays some of these political sensitivities in Diary in pointing out that much of her earnings as a child went to taxes. On this, she actually agrees with Mom. This digression — once involving a conversation at Harvard — detracts from her focus on a difficult relationship and suggests a broader philosophical beef that isn't in tune with this book.

There is a passage about becoming the first woman president, something within the reach of very few but not out of the question for Francis. She would be a very attractive Republican candidate, although retail politics for her seems a bit of a reach. But this is an overachiever. So far in her broadcasting career she has been far more comfortable opining about politics than entering the trench warfare.

Rebellion is at the heart of so much individual success. Is Melissa Francis a rebel? She clearly understood the value of conformity from the earliest ages, smiling when the people tell you to smile, earning straight-A's. There are no passages about refusing work because the content or production ran contrary to her values. Bill Gates, Matt Damon and Mark Zuckerberg notably dropped out of Harvard to pursue success; Francis assuredly took the conventional route. Hard work, saving money, seeking key internships, steady as she goes.

She does write with some degree of pleasure at defying, in seemingly innocuous circumstances, her mother. She went all the way across the country to attend college, though it is a university most would move 3,000 miles to attend. Like her mother, she tends to play offense. Recently, she also has made a notable career switch, leaving what is widely regarded as the leading business channel (in terms of viewership and influence), CNBC, for the upstart Fox Business, which has low viewership and best serves as an addendum to the highly successful Fox News. Francis is one of several notable onetime CNBC personalities to make this switch, presumably for more airtime, more money, and maybe a little more on-air freedom, and presumably because the career arc at CNBC (especially for female hosts underneath a certain celebrated anchor) is seen as limited. Years ago in her 20s or early 30s, such a career move would be considered risky; today Francis is obviously OK being on a network of lesser prominence and, with the publication of Diary, perhaps even being known as "the one who's got a mom who..." (you'll have to read the whole book to finish that phrase).

Given Francis' ample personal success, skeptics will wonder if this book represents the 1%'s version of therapy, a straight-A beauty queen, Harvard grad, national TV star who has had a falling-out with a parent. Francis does not compare her upbringing to that of other kids around Hollywood vying for the same jobs — nor does she compare notes in this book with fellow students at Harvard, some of whom quite likely would report having very similar parents despite never setting foot in a TV studio.

The climactic last straw, which Francis suggested to Imus is "shocking and explosive," feels less a dynamic eruption and more of a typical outcome of far too many families. Has mom read the book? Surely that answer must be yes. There is unhealable pain here. Yet somehow it seems this relationship is capable of a happier ending.

Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter: A Memoir (2012)
Featuring: "Mom," Melissa "Missy" Francis, Tiffany Francis, Michael Landon, Jason Bateman, Melissa Gilbert, Melissa Sue Anderson, Mindy Cohn, Wray Thorn, Georgina Levitt, Amanda Murray, Judy Hottensen, Maggie Crawford, Mel Berger, Roger Ailes, Anton Francis


Back to CNBCfix home

CNBCfix home

Headlines, reviews & news from the world of CNBC

CNBCfix review:
Leah McGrath
Goodman’s ‘Asylum’

♦ How swashbuckling oil traders make life miserable for exchange chairmen

CNBCfix review:
Steve Cortes’
‘Against the Herd’

♦ How to win by not buying stocks

CNBCfix review:
Gary Kaminsky’s
‘Smarter Than
The Street’

♦ Stock market strategy for sticking it to the big guys

CNBCfix review:
Felix Rohatyn’s

♦ Rainmaker is not hostile to the takeover business

CNBCfix review:
‘Goodbye Gekko’

♦ Do the right thing, millionaire-style

CNBCfix review:
David Faber’s
‘Roof Caved In’

♦ The "good doctor" makes a housing call

CNBCfix review:
Zach Karabell’s

♦ Are U.S., China permanent partners?

CNBCfix review:
Ron Insana’s
‘Make a Fortune’

♦ Schadenfreude victim says you can be rich

Movie review:
‘Wall Street’

Gordon Gekko,
the Michael Corleone
of Wall Street

CNBC/cable TV
star bios

♦ Jim Cramer
♦ Charles Gasparino
♦ Maria Bartiromo
♦ Lawrence Kudlow
♦ Karen Finerman
♦ Michelle Caruso-Cabrera
♦ Jane Wells
♦ Erin Burnett
♦ David Faber
♦ Guy Adami
♦ Jeff Macke
♦ Pete Najarian
♦ Jon Najarian
♦ Tim Seymour
♦ Zachary Karabell
♦ Becky Quick
♦ Joe Kernen
♦ Nicole Lapin
♦ John Harwood
♦ Steve Liesman
♦ Margaret Brennan
♦ Bertha Coombs
♦ Mary Thompson
♦ Trish Regan
♦ Melissa Francis
♦ Dennis Kneale
♦ Rebecca Jarvis
♦ Darren Rovell
♦ Carl Quintanilla
♦ Diana Olick
♦ Dylan Ratigan
♦ Eric Bolling
♦ Anderson Cooper
♦ Neil Cavuto
♦ Liz Claman
♦ Monica Crowley
♦ Bill O'Reilly
♦ Rachel Maddow
♦ Susie Gharib
♦ Jane Skinner
♦ Kimberly Guilfoyle
♦ Martha MacCallum
♦ Courtney Friel
♦ Uma Pemmaraju
♦ Joe Scarborough
♦ Terry Keenan
♦ Chrystia Freeland
♦ Christine Romans

CNBC guest bios

♦ Meredith Whitney
♦ Dennis Gartman
♦ Bill Gross
♦ Diane Swonk
♦ Richard X. Bove
♦ Arthur Laffer
♦ Jared Bernstein
♦ Doug Kass
♦ David Malpass
♦ Donald Luskin
♦ Herb Greenberg
♦ Robert Reich
♦ Steve Moore
♦ Vince Farrell
♦ Joe LaVorgna
♦ A. Gary Shilling
♦ Joe Battipaglia
♦ Addison Armstrong
♦ Jack Bouroudjian
♦ Stefan Abrams
♦ Warren Buffett