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'Just Lucky I Guess'

When Carol Channing decided to write her memoirs, she did it with the same thoroughness she employed when preparing for her classic stage roles in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and Hello, Dolly!"

She found a condominium on a golf course in Rancho Mirage, Calif., near Palm Springs, and wrote "with pencil and eraser" for four and a half years.

"It could a been three and a half, but they kept editing it," Channing complained. "I just had these people stopping me from what I was trying to write: 'No, you've got to have a co-author. This is no good."'

She was finally saved by Michael Korda, editor-in-chief of Simon and Schuster, who told her he liked the book just the way she was writing it. The result is "Just Lucky I Guess," now in bookstores.

Channing's explanation for the protracted writing time sounds a little bit like Lorelei Lee, the dizzy schemer of "Gentleman Prefer Blondes," with shades of Dolly Levi from "Hello, Dolly!"

"We don't know what we're like. You can't just sit down and say, 'This is what I'm like.' All you can do is say, `Well, I'll tell everything I know. Maybe this is what makes me me. Maybe that's what makes me me. I really don't know. So just tell everything as truthfully as you can and leave it up to the reader to decide what you're like," she said.

The whole truth? Well, not entirely.

She is relatively benign in writing about her third husband and longtime manager, Charles Lowe. She does write that he tried to keep other people out of her life, including her son by a previous marriage - political cartoonist Channing Lowe, whom the elder Lowe had adopted.

Channing also doesn't mention the allegations she made when filing for divorce from Lowe in 1998, accusing him of misappropriating her funds, humiliating her in public and having sex with her only twice in four decades. Lowe died after a stroke in 1999.

"Thank goodness, I have this faulty memory gland," she said about the omissions. "I just don't remember anything bad. He was a funny man, and we both adored theater, and we shared the same interests. So I only remember the good things."

Channing came into town from her desert home for an interview at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. With her unruly waves of gray-blond hair and boyish figure clad in a ribbed gray cashmere sweater and tapered gray slacks, she belied her 81 years by a few decades. She did admit that she was a bit deaf in her left ear.

"Patrick Quinn - who played Cornelius in 'Hello, Dolly!' - did that to me," she said. "He stood right next to me, and he sang loud. He's now our president of Actors' Equity. I voted for him to get him off the stage."

Channing was preparing for a trip to New York for publication festivities as well as the Oct. 10 inauguration of the Broadway Walk of Stars, which will be a tribute to stage stars in the manner of Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame.

"I'll be the first one," she said. "How come I'm first? Because everybody else is dead. Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Gwen Verdon, Lunt and Fontanne. ..."

Born in Seattle and raised in San Francisco, Carol was the daughter of George Channing, reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, charismatic speaker and later editor of all the church's publications. He played a pivotal role in her life and does so in the book.

"Most girls like to be like their fathers," she remarked. "They make a deity of them, I think."

Oddly, there is less mention of her mother in "Just Lucky I Guess." Channing said they loved each other, but it was her father who encouraged and counseled his daughter in her future career.

The book also discloses for the first time that Channing was diagnosed with uterine cancer during one of her tours in the late 1960s. After every Saturday night performance for months, she flew to New York for cobalt and chemotherapy treatment. She said she has never had a recurrence.

Channing had a slow start on Broadway; at 6 feet in high heels, she wasn't easy to cast. She found her niche in Hollywood, where Gower Champion was directing and choreographing a small revue, "Lend an Ear." Champion's wife and assistant, Marge, auditioned the lanky blonde and recommended her.

Channing was the hit of "Lend an Ear" at the tiny Las Palmas Theater in Hollywood in 1947 and in New York a year later. That led to "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," in 1949, and her signature song, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." She did other shows with varying success and a few movies, notably "Thoroughly Modern Millie," for which she earned an Academy Award nomination as supporting actress in 1967.

The opening of "Hello, Dolly!" on Broadway on Jan. 16, 1964, marked the start of something really big for Channing. She has played it in New York, London, Australia and all over the United States in multiple tours.

"I did slightly over 5,000 performances, but I'm not supposed to say that," she said with a lowered voice. "Yul Brynner had done 'The King and I' 5,000 times and he told me, 'Look, dahling, if you ever go over 5,000, don't tell anyone; I don't like women going beyond me.' I never told anyone. I hope he isn't turning over in his grave."

Channing said that she missed only one performance, in Kalamazoo because of food poisoning. A friend advised her: "If you have to miss the show, Kalamazoo is a good place to do it."

Unlike the dozens of celebrities who settle into quiet retirement in the Palm Springs area, Channing has no plans for a permanent home in the desert - or anywhere else, for that matter.

After she finishes her book-signing tour, she says she'd like to do another musical show.

"I've spent most of my life on tour, so why bother with a home?" she said with Dollylike rationale.

By Bob Thomas