Thursday, April 21, 2011

Give My Regards to Broadway

Baby June
When I was a child my best friend was Laura Robb, a girl who wanted more than anything in the world to be a great actress. Her parents were quite a bit older than mine, and had a lot more money. Their goal was to make Laura’s dreams come true, so every Saturday Laura and her mother traveled by train into New York City where Laura studied acting, elocution, modeling and anything else her parents could find to help her learn to be an actress.
    The Robb's had a pool, a rarity in our town in that era, and my main goal in life was to be in it. Laura would rather play acting. So we bargained. First we played Rapunzel, with Laura in the lead as Rapunzel, me in the supporting role as the prince, and the baby grand in Laura’s living room (she took lessons) as the castle. After a couple of rounds of Rapunzel, Laura would agree to an hour or two in the pool. And so it went, first drama, then sport. That is until the acting bug bit me.
    Sometimes I was invited to go with Laura and her mother for Saturday in New York. Her father had an apartment there, too, and sometimes we stayed overnight. From the first day I stepped foot onto the marble-tiled floor of Grand Central Station, New York became my Heaven on earth. Weekending there with Laura, was as sweet as my life got.
    We lunched at Tad’s Steak House, and saw movies at Radio City Music Hall, which in those days, featured the fabulous Rockettes. Divine! Then we taxied to Laura’s various groomers -- her orthodontist, her elocution instructor, her ballet teacher and her acting coach, the great Judith Martin. Miss Martin’s studio was in the Carnegie Hall building. Like everything else in New York, Miss Martin was incredible. I was smitten with her, her clothes, her scent, her voice. I was enchanted by everything she said and did. And it seemed she was similarly enchanted with me. I was not accustomed to an adult showing such interest in me and my ideas, which only deepened my love for the drama that was New York.

    On one Saturday I was invited to have a private chat with Miss Martin. She had an idea to propose, she told me. She wanted me to become her student. I would live with her in New York, and she would teach me to act. She was confident she could get me work in television commercials immediately, she said, and I would easily repay her for my acting lessons.  We could make a lot of money together Miss Martin said, as long as my mom and dad agreed to her plan.
    I was so excited I could barely wait to get home and report this good news to my family. Only 50 miles separated my parents' house in South Salem from Judith Martin’s grand salon in Carnegie Hall, but it might as well have been 50 million light years. Precocious though I was, progressive though they prided themselves on being, my parents were outraged at the thought of me leaving home at the age of 8 years old to seek my fame and fortune as an actress. And that was the absolute end of that.         
The most elegant man I've ever seen
    On the next Saturday morning I sat next to Mrs. Robb, in the lobby of Carnegie Hall, crying, as we waited for Laura to have her acting lesson with Miss Martin. Sick with disappointment I sobbed aloud as Mrs. Robb tried to comfort me. I had missed out on the golden opportunity of living in the sophisticated universe of Judith Martin, a person who recognized the greatness inside of me. 
    Suddenly the most elegant man I’d ever seen, tall and handsome in a dove-gray suit, was towering before me, looking down at me with questioning eyes. I looked up with my tear-stained face and he said something like “Why are you crying?” I told him that I wanted to be an actress but my parents were blocking this from happening.
    He spoke to me just as Miss Martin did, with patience and interest. And in the most distinguished voice I’d ever heard, the man told me all I would ever need to know about acting.
    “If this is what you truly want, you will be an actress,” he said.
    He said that no matter what my parents or anyone else had to say about it, I would be an actress.  If it was truly my fate it would happen because I would make it happen. Acting would be the only thing in the world I would care about. Nothing else at all would ever matter to me. It would be the one and only focus of my heart and my soul.     
    I listened, mesmerized, and silent, knowing that acting would never claim that much of me. Ever. Then I asked if he was an actor. Yes, he said. His name was George Sanders. He patted my head and strode off into the crowd.
    I dried my tears. Presto! My broken little heart was broken no longer, because suddenly I knew, with absolute certainty, that I did not want to be an actress if it meant abandoning every other deliciously fascinating thing in my life.

    One of my favorite movies is All About Eve, featuring my great teacher George Sanders. Clearly, he loved acting, at the exclusion of all else. How brilliantly he plays the heartless cad! Who else could do that without looking silly? Who else but a passionate and seasoned actor like George Sanders.
     What I did not understand that day in 1958, but I do now know, is that he was telling me something else, too. He was describing the agony of having no other choice.
    “Are you one of us?” he seemed to say. “If not, recognize it now and get out of our way.”
Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night. All About Eve
    This week my husband, who loves theater, is reading a book by James Lipton, host of Inside the Actors Studio. Lipton recounts his relationship with George Sanders, and Sanders’ heartbreak when he learned his wife was dying of cancer. Sanders cried like a baby and begged to be released from the show in which he was starring. His wife did die, and five years later, Sanders died, too. By his own hand. But before he did, he penned this note:  “Dear World: I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”


  1. Dear June
    I just read out loud your blog to Joel and he mentioned that he also had met George Sanders as a child... So here is Joel telling his bit:
    I met George Sanders at my grandparents house. They were giving a cocktail party and somebody brought him as a guest. He was making a movie and part of it was shot in Bermuda where I was living at the time. He told me he was going to die tomorrow, and I burst into tears, because such a nice man was going to die. He said it was only make believe, and I asked him why he would make believe he would die? and he said, in that silky urbane English voice of his, "because make believe is what I do!"

    June keep on blogging - it's beautiful to peek through a window getting little glimpses of these vignettes of your life. XOE&J

  2. He did have that voice, and the patience to talk to children. I'm glad he didn't torture me like he did you, but he did impart a valuable lesson and I won't ever forget that ah-ha moment when I knew that I would never be able to devote myself, heart and soul, to any one discipline. He told me the truth. Another correspondent told me that what he meant in his suicide note by "cesspool" was acting and the theater and the trend toward realism that he despised. Perhaps. Particularly after reading your story. Happy spring to you both. Love, June

  3. Love this story, love you. How fabulous to have lived so close to the Big Apple, my favorite city in the world. One day when I am rich, I will have an apartment and you can come visit anytime. xoxoxoxo

  4. Thank you June. :-)

    Laura Robb Michaels