No one prepares you for how sad life gets. People you love start dying like crazy. Better to be miserable from the word go. Arm yourself for sorrow. This is something Julie Harris would have rejected flat out. She chose to see the good in everything, and truth be told, had every reason to be happy. Well, she led a charmed life until the stroke that broke that charm thirteen years before her actual death. People who start life with all the luck in the world tend to see it more optimistically. Julie was like that. You only need to read any of the obituaries or tributes that roared onto home pages and blogs yesterday to realize that hers was the biography of one very lucky woman. Hers was a fairy-tale success story that started very early.
The obits are well-meaning, but it does strike me as ironic that her many (more than any other!) awards dominate the story of her life. You’d think “Tony-winning” was an adjective. I don’t mean to be grumpy, but I think it’s a sad (that word again) sign of the times that a life can be summed up by how many awards you get.
I thought about Julie all day yesterday while I painted my garden hut a shimmering green that I think she would have appreciated. And last night, I watched YouTube videos in which she appears, long into the night. I watched Knot’s Landing episodes (a first for me—jeez) and a fierce rendition of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, which must have been taped around the time I knew her. And finally, I watched yet another award ceremony, this one from 2007, long after her stroke, in which that brave and beautiful spirit attempted and failed to read a Dickinson poem which then segued into a halting desperate rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. It was horrifyingly painful to watch. I shut the computer angrily.
I met Julie sometime in the mid nineties after either my then-agent or I sent her a copy of my first play. She wrote me a kind note, and I went up to a college outside New York to see her perform as Tolstoy’s wife. Gradually, we became close. We corresponded a lot. (I spend most of my time in Berlin.) She loved sending greeting cards and little notes which I have never parted with. I am quite sure that many people have a pile of Julie’s cards and notes. She was very loving and enthusiastic. Some time back I realized that people who make you feel special are making other people feel special, too. Julie was like that. We would meet when I came to New York. I’d go to see her in whatever show she might be performing in or we would see something together (it probably goes without saying that she loved going to the theatre and sat absolutely still with childlike wonder, so open, so receptive, when the lights came up) and then we would go out after.
She did several readings of my plays, but a production was not to be. A major off-Broadway theatre had shown interest in that first play long before Julie’s involvement, but even after Julie’s expressed commitment, they decided against doing it. It was a play about two older women’s lives—a mother and daughter—and despite Julie, they decided it wasn’t commercial enough for them. I was learning steadily that actresses, even ones like Julie Harris, have little power in the theatre.
Julie wasn’t one to give up—on anyone—myself included. She was an optimist and utterly generous in her appraisal of others and a true believer in goodness. The goodness of the theatre included. Theatre, she famously said, was “a church” for her, for god’s sake. Theatre, that destructive hot bed of cruelty, ego, ambition, jealousy, misery, rejection, was a church for Julie Harris. Theatre that spits most of us out for lunch over and over until we give up or give in to defeat was a source of joy and wonder for her. I’ll admit it can be an obsession. It has been for me. And it is, undeniably, a welcoming home for misfits and gay folk. And it certainly has a conjuring power. But a house of worship?
I have to conclude that if it comes easily and without pain, a life in the theatre might well be quite a place of transubstantiation. Julie, one of the lucky few, fascinated me. Through her, I could indulge my curiosity as to the nature and effects of success. People who have led charmed lives are an interesting object of study. I had known other successful, even famous actresses, but none who had the lucky breaks she did and from so young. They had all suffered a bit before they got where they were. And all Julie’s wonder and joy didn’t annoy me as it does in others. I think it was because she wasn’t naive, but convinced. She read the papers, she knew the world was a house of horrors. She couldn’t bear it. But she believed in a better world. And with Julie you had the sense that there was another layer below the surface which revealed itself in the haunting quality of her dark voice and her obsession with the poetry and person of Emily Dickinson. I knew nothing of her personal life (only vaguely something about divorces and a son). I did meet a couple of long-time friends, companions of both sexes who were there for her with continuity. But she remained intriguingly mysterious to me, an openly gay woman of another generation. I’m implying nothing more than possibility. If you are gay you will know what I mean.
I liked being with Julie. Walking down Broadway arm-in-arm, as we did a couple times after shows (in which she may have performed), had something. The presence of a legend on your arm felt historical in some way. Interestingly, I never imagined her fortune would rub off on me. And I held out little hope we would really work together. I knew by then instinctively that you either had luck or not. I toyed with the thought of asking her if we might write a biography of her life together and wondered if she hadn’t wanted such a thing. Was it modesty, privacy, mystery, secrecy? I presume it was a confluence of several things. I think she thought her life outside of the theatre couldn’t possibly be of interest. Or did she want to keep it private? Were there aspects of her life she was unwilling to share? But surely the story of her acting life would have been fascinating enough. In any case, I didn’t ask. I put it off.
And then in 2001, I happened to be in Chicago when she had her first stroke. She was opening in a lesbian love story by the playwright Claudia Allen who had become a close friend of hers. She ended up in the hospital, unable to speak. The stroke had cut off her access to the production of language. This was a catastrophe. I remember her being positive and my trying to keep her cheerful. I stayed in touch for a time, but it became complicated. She had a dedicated caregiver who made it almost impossible to reach her directly or to arrange to see her. We corresponded, though her written language was also affected. She was determined through therapy to regain as much of her language capacity as she could. She never gave up, as far as I know. I shudder to think of the consequences of her second stroke in 2010.
But by then, she was no longer a part of my life. In the coldest possible terms, I had put her out of my mind. To be fair, soon after her stroke, back in Berlin, I was run over by a truck. Recovery took upwards of a year. To pun badly, such were the kind of breaks life sent my way. In any case, my life was in Berlin, and my trips to New York were always too short and taken up with social duties and pleasures and career things in the city. And I let our relationship slip away. I never visited her, though she had invited me. I stopped writing to her. It was just too hard to reach her, I told myself. She didn’t need me in her life I told myself. She was surrounded by close friends and people who loved her in the small community in which she lived. But it may well be that in those last years she needed everyone who loved her. This is a regret I must live with.
It says something about the times in which she came to prominence that Julie could conquer Broadway and Hollywood with her sheer talent. She was famously plain and famously modest. Good looking, nice features, but certainly not striking or the kind of beauty who takes your breath away. She was no Marilyn Monroe nor did she try to be. I don’t think her cup size ever came up. She was not the life of the party, either. But she had a wonderful chuckle, and she appreciated humor and energy in others. Julie projected intelligence, goodness, wholeness, and artistry, all at the same time, which might seem like a contradiction but made her interesting. And she glowed. She was definitely tapping into something. Given her inauspicious background and modest physical qualities and personality, she should never have become the star she became. That luck again.
This morning, prompted by an obit in nytheatre.com, I watched again her performance as Emily Dickinson in William Luce’s one-person play, The Belle of Amherst. And as I watched, the despair and anger of the previous night evaporated. Why was she drawn to that reclusive, dark poet with whom, one could say, she lived her life? I’m no psychologist, but I do think Julie had a mission, unconscious but powerful, which the theatre allowed her to fill. I think she wanted to give voice to people who felt different, who were different. Despite her good fortune, she must have felt so herself. The characters she embodied came to her for a reason. She chose to play interesting and often marginalized women and those parts chose her. In “real” life, she was an unusually private and humble spirit who understood misfits and unconventionality and in fact glorified them—from her first major success as Frankie in Member of the Wedding. She was destined to breathe life into those whose lives were anything but charmed. The stroke that robbed her of her church, the theatre, was cruel. As Dickinson said, “Words are my life” and I believe this was true for Julie as well. So the stroke that took her language took everything from her, all that life had given her. It cut off her ability to act, to worship in that church of hers. But like Dickinson said, as spoken so beautifully by Julie, there is no need for pity. Pity, like winning awards, is meaningless in the end. What matters is the reality of a person’s life as it is lived, even if that person is, as was Julie, one of America’s greatest actresses.
August 26, 2013, Berlin.