Just Outside the Spotlight
Just Outside the Spotlight
My favorite photo with Mama –
the way I always want to remember us.
As you approached our house at 135 Comstock Hill Road on a weekend night, particularly during the summer, you were bound to hear laughter and the tinkling of ice cubes in highball glasses. These were the times my parents entertained the most. In the living room of our Colonial manor house, Daddy would be tending bar while my mother held court. When Mama was telling stories, time as I knew it stood still. When I was little, her stories were better than Bugs Bunny, Soupy Sales, or even Nanny's warm chocolate chip cookies. As I got older, they were more important than the Arts & Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times , learning a new monologue for acting class, or listening to Ethel Merman sing "Some People" from Gypsy for the nine thousandth time on the Hi-Fi. If I was in another part of the house and I heard that booming, whisky tenor voice come wafting out of the living room, I ran downstairs for the evening's performance.
Maybe there'd be a new anecdote or a forgotten detail brought to light, a remembered story that she'd never told before. I took my place in the orange velvet wingback chair and leaned forward so I wouldn't miss a word. Even though I could recite most of the stories from memory by the time I was ten, I absorbed each one as if for the first time. When Mama was "on" it was the greatest drug in the world. She could be talking about doing a film with Marilyn Monroe, being cut to ribbons by Bette Davis, having lunch at the White House with Lyndon Johnson or going to last week's PTA meeting. The stories were always funny, brash, outrageous and made me burst with pride to be her son.
Mama was Anna Eileen Heckart Yankee, known on Broadway and in Hollywood as Eileen Heckart. One of the hardest working character actresses for more than fifty years, she acted with everyone from Lillian Gish to Ellen Degeneres. She received an Oscar, a Tony, two Emmys, a Golden Globe, four honorary doctorates, and was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame. She had a longer career than many because she was most often the "second banana," the one just outside the spotlight.
In the summer, the stories got even better. Guests enjoyed Vivian Vance's gazpacho by the pool, then lounged around the living room in silk robes, kaftans and beach towels over bathing suits, while they sipped vodka martinis before going down to dinner.
One particular evening, it was just the regulars: Morton D'Acosta, director of The Music Man and Auntie Mame ; Jan Miner, the actress best known as Madge ("You're soaking in it"), the Manicurist of Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid fame; Teresa Wright, the co-star of The Pride of the Yankees, Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt and Mrs. Miniver ; and her husband, Robert Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of Tea and Sympathy and I Never Sang for My Father . The jokes and stories seemed to go on forever. Other peoples' stories made Mama's even better. Maybe she was competitive that way; maybe it was simply that the audience was already warmed up. Whatever the reason, the stories seemed more exciting tonight, as if I'd never heard any of them before.
Reaching into the engraved, silver cigarette box on the table, Mama took the floor. "So there I am," she said, securing the unlit cigarette in her heavily lipsticked mouth, "I'm walking to the set across a sea of extras when Bette Davis shouted, "Heckart, you and I are the on