‘Mary Tyler Moore,’ ‘Airplane!’ actress recalls her four Hollywood husbands
You might know her as Marie Slaughter (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”). Or Mrs. Davis (“Airplane!”). Or Alice (“Bad News Bears”). Or perhaps she’s more familiar as a panelist on “Match Game.”
And she’s been all of those things. But Joyce Bulifant is also much more: A founder of the River Bridge Regional Center, a Glenwood Springs nonprofit that advocates for children. She’s executive vice president of The Dyslexia Foundation. And now, she’s also an author.
Bulifant shares her story — as an orphan, a person with dyslexia, an actress and the wife of four alcoholics — in “My Four Hollywood Husbands.” The men who inspired the title are James MacArthur (Danno on “Hawaii Five-0”), Edward Mallory (Dr. Bill Horton on “Days of Our Lives”), William Asher (director-writer-producer of “I Love Lucy” and “Bewitched”) and Roger Perry (“Star Trek” and more than 300 TV shows and films), to whom she’s been married since 2002.
Bulifant will sign copies of the book at Explore Booksellers in Aspen, and 20 percent of sales will benefit River Bridge. We spoke via email with Bulifant about the book and some of her favorite entertainment.
Post Independent: Why did you decide to tell your story now, and as a memoir, as opposed to any other form?
Joyce Bulifant: I chose this time to tell my story because so many people had asked me to write a book. I’ve had so many wonderful experiences and met so many fascinating people in my life. I feel very fortunate and the only way that I knew how to tell my story was to sit down and write it as a memoir, which I started 24 years ago when I first moved to Snowmass, Colorado. I was separated from my third husband and I thought writing might help me and hopefully in the end help others. The book is also a love story, set against the golden age of Hollywood, which still bears a fascination for many people.
PI: Your story includes struggle and triumph related to your husbands’ alcoholism. What do you hope readers will learn from your experiences?
JB: All four of my Hollywood husbands were alcoholics and my fourth “Hollywood Husband” has been sober for 21 years. Our marriage is a miracle and a blessing.
It is my hope that those reading my story will learn about the disease and the way it affects the alcoholic and the co-alcoholic, that’s me! Co-dependency plays a very big role in enabling the behavior of the alcoholic.
PI: You’re also involved in a number of charities that benefit children. Can you tell me a bit about what drives your involvement?
JB: The emotional damage to children caught in the wake of a ship captained by the disease last throughout their lives. By getting help through counseling, reading and understanding the disease, one can find a safe harbor for their children and themselves.
PI: What’s your favorite TV show?
JB: I really haven’t a favorite TV show. I think they are doing such good shows today, it would be hard to choose just one.
PI: What’s your favorite movie inspired by a book?
JB: Well, “Dr. Zhivago” (based on the novel by Boris Pasternak) and “Prince of Tides” (based on Pat Conroy’s book).
An excerpt from “My Four Hollywood Husbands”
Copyright © 2017 by Joyce Bulifant. All rights reserved.
Chapter 17: Not The Perfect Mother
One Christmas, Bill and I took the family to Snowmass, Colorado, where Charlie was a ski instructor during his winter break. My mother, “Fifi” to her grandchildren, came along, and a friend of Rebecca’s, Jessica Hancock, the daughter of Herbie and Gigi, were also part of our group. This was going to be a picture-perfect, old-fashioned Christmas.
I asked the realtors to find us a big log cabin where we could roast marshmallows, put our feet up, and relax while we watched the flames dance in the fireplace. When I opened the door to the “cabin,” the place resembled the Guggenheim Museum. There was a modern fireplace, white walls, white furniture, and highly polished wooden floors. Not a place you want to bring a group of rowdy youngsters!
They had to be reminded to take off boots, wet ski clothes and gloves before even thinking about entering the house. Every night I cooked for about 14 people, including stray ski instructors that Charlie brought home. While everyone was out skiing, I was grocery shopping. By the time dinner was on the table, I was ready for bed. But I still clung to my dream of a perfect old-fashioned Christmas.
I sent the older children to the woods with an ax to chop down a Christmas tree. Then I put out colored paper, scissors, crayons and glitter for the younger ones to make decorations. Rebecca and Jessica helped bake cookies and cakes, and I decorated the long dining table with pinecones and berries. Of course, I had pictured all of this in a log cabin. But we were all together and it was Christmas Eve.
We piled into two cars and drove to the community church for midnight service. As we entered the church, I spotted a little red dog sitting in the snow and I leaned over to pet him. He started a low, menacing growl so I decided to leave him alone.
In church there was no room for us all to sit together. John ended up sitting in a pew on the aisle next to a fashionable Aspen lady in a fur coat. During the singing of “Silent Night,” everyone lit their candles. I kept an eye on John who was having difficulty holding his candle upright. Due to the late hour, he started to doze off, and his candle got dangerously close to the lady in the fur coat. As we exited the church,
snow was falling. The sound of church bells and people singing as they carried their candles out into gently falling snow was the picture-perfect Christmas I had imagined. I saw the little red dog waiting patiently in the snow for his master. I had one arm around Rebecca and I held John’s hand as we walked toward the car. All of a sudden there was a loud growling sound behind us and a not-so-reverent “Jesus Christ!” Startled, I looked back and, to my horror, Bill’s hand was being torn apart by the little red dog he had stopped to pet. He wrestled his hand free and walked toward us, blood dripping onto the freshly fallen snow.
Back in our Guggenheim Museum, as I bandaged Bill’s hand, I said to the tired group, “There’s an early Christmas gift on your beds. Please unwrap your gift, put it on and come back upstairs. We can hold hands around our little tree.”
There was a joint protest. “Can’t we do that in the morning?” I had bought matching nightgowns for the girls and my mother, and red long johns for the boys, including Bill. And I insisted they put them on. “OK, everyone, come and gather around our little tree.” Groans and moans came from the bedrooms.
“Go to sleep, Mom.”
“Good night, Mom, see you in the morning.”
“I can make hot chocolate for everyone!”
“Mom, GO to SLEEP!”
“I love you. Merry Christmas.”
I looked at our old-fashioned tree and smiled at my silliness.
Bill and Elizabeth were the kind of parents who put their heads in the sand when problems with the children came up. One night while all the children were still living at home, Bill and I had gone to dinner and I desperately needed to talk with him about one of the children. He looked at me and asked, “Are you going to ruin our whole evening?”
The children’s well-being was left in my hands, and it felt like a very big responsibility. Their troubled teen years, plus John’s struggle with dyslexia, became overwhelming. Bill and I were going to New York and I needed to arrange all the children’s activities before we left. We were in a restaurant in Westwood. I was drinking a glass of red wine and Bill was having his usual vodka.
I hesitantly asked, “When do you think we’ll be back from New York?”
“Why do you keep asking? Why? I told you I would tell you when
I know. Why do you have to know?”
All of a sudden his voice became fainter and seemed to come from within a tunnel. I looked at the wine glass in my hand. If I broke the glass and cut my hand, it would be painful, but not as painful as the sound of “Why do you have to know? Why do you keep asking me?” A primal scream came from the very bottom of my being right through my body. I thought I must be mad. I slumped back in the booth, weak and faint, as if I might pass out. They’ll take me to the hospital and take care of me. Everything will be all right. I’ll just wait here for the ambulance. Why aren’t they coming? I need someone to help me. I could faintly hear talk between Bill and someone, a doctor? When would they come? Oh please, I need help.
Bill’s holding on to me, helping me up, walking me through the restaurant. Out in the air, I feel a little stronger. We walk to the car. Bill helps me in and closes the door. The incident was never mentioned.
A great deal of my focus was on John, who was having a hard time in a special school for dyslexic children. His eleventh birthday was coming up.
“John, honey, what would you like to do for your birthday?”
“I don’t want a party.”
“Because when I was ten everybody said, ‘You’re ten and you don’t know that?’ Now they’re just going to say, ‘You’re eleven and you don’t know that?’ I don’t want to be eleven.”
I put my arm around him. “You’ll be just fine. You’re learning a lot.” So much attention was focused on John’s difficulties in school that Mary, now fifteen, was getting lost in the shuffle. She was having great difficulty in school and going through a rebellious time. She wasn’t too happy with the strict rules at home. Mary was able to convince her father, Jimmy, and Grammy Helen that she should go to boarding school. She chose a school that had few guidelines or rules. I was concerned, but headstrong Miss Mary packed up her belongings and headed to boarding school. I hoped she would be happy, but I knew her secret reason for wanting to go was to get away from Mom’s rules. She had a grand time at boarding school—party! party! party!
Often she called sick from the infirmary and I, the Worrywart Mom, asked the school to get her a counselor to help her through this rebellious period. From so far away, it was the only way I knew how to help. Also, I felt she needed to deal with her feelings toward her father, who continued to torment her emotionally. Oh, he was wonderful to give Charlie and Mary great trips to exotic locations. It was a learning experience for them. But the price was emotional abuse. So much of what transpired on those trips I didn’t learn about until years later. It seems there had been a lot of verbal abuse. I know how harmful that is. There are no visible scars, but the unseen scars on the heart last a lifetime.
At home, all was sort of under control. Robert, now fifteen, was doing well in school. He was never the squeaky wheel and was always a delight to the family (those are the ones to watch out for). Billy, my other stepson, now sixteen, was struggling in school. I found a high school which had a small school within the school for students who learn differently. I thought this might be helpful for him. Billy took a woodshop class and did really well in it. Rebecca was a prize student. Bill’s two eldest children, Liane and Brian, were married and had started their own families. I was even a grandma to Alex, Liane’s first child. It tickled me to go on the set to visit Bill with Alex bundled in my arms and have people think that Alex was Bill’s and my daughter.
I was forty-three at the time. Bill didn’t like me to tell anyone how old I was. He was upset when I had a fortieth birthday party and invited my oldest friends. I gave each of them a prize for being my friends for such a long time. Bill and I took a weekend visit to Palm Springs. On a rainy day in the desert, we turned a nap into lovemaking. That day it rained not only outside, but on our parade. Something had happened to Bill physically that changed our marital relationship completely. There was nothing that could be done except a type of surgery that Bill didn’t want to undergo. It was a very difficult time for us; we had had such a loving, sexual relationship. At the movies it became difficult to watch love scenes. I would look away—it was too painful and I noticed Bill looked away too. Walking through a lingerie department and touching the silk nighties was torture. I was upset that Bill didn’t want to try
the surgery, but I tried to understand. It was his body, but mine felt abandoned.
Through the years Bill knew I was always faithful to him, and he understood for the first time that he was loved for the person that he was, and for no other reason. Our relationship grew into something so special and so close. We always went to sleep wrapped in each other’s arms and rubbing each other’s foreheads until we fell asleep.
Mary came back from boarding school knowing that home was a better place to be. We had boundaries, which make children feel safe. I was so happy to have her back in the fold. Bill and I decided to try living at the beach, a more wholesome atmosphere for the children. Billy went back to live with his mother and finish school in town. John would now attend a Special Ed class in public school. I wanted desperately for him to be happy and healthy. We rented a beautiful blue Cape
Cod home on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The house was circled
with daisies. On Sunday mornings, we looked out over the ocean and ate German apple pancakes. Mary and Robert were attending the same school and drove into town together. John rode bikes with his new friends and had roses in his cheeks again. All was well.
By the end of the summer, the Benedict Canyon house had been rebuilt and we had it on the market again. We also had our home in Brentwood on the market. But as luck would have it, the home in Brentwood sold and we were back in the canyon house again. We were still trying to find a home where the children would be in a neighborhood. Our next home was in Pacific Palisades, near the ocean. Always, it was important for Bill to have a tennis court. He was such a good player, and the children all enjoyed playing too. This house had a court and a guest room that was most often occupied by Bill’s good friend, Jack Warden. What a terrific actor and wonderful story teller. We had the best family dinners! All the children talking at once, Jack trying to get a story in, and me correcting everyone’s table manners. All the while Bill sat at the head of the table quietly drinking his two vodkas.
I was asked to do a play in Canada with Larry Linville, one of the stars from “M*A*S*H.” It was a last-minute casting problem and I had to learn a two-character play in three days! They were trying it out in Palm Springs. Bill went with me to help me learn my lines. I told the children, “I can only talk to you if there is an emergency. That means blood!”
For three days and nights Bill and I ate, slept and breathed the lines from the play. I don’t know how I made it through that first performance. I said the lines but I’m not sure they made much sense.
We decided I’d take John to Canada with me and spend my days tutoring him. It was really going to be the blind leading the blind. When we arrived in Canada we went to a bookstore. I asked John to choose any book he liked for us to read together. He chose a gruesome book on anatomy with popup pictures of the human body. I paid for the book and we walked out into the air, 40 degrees below zero. Our loveable dog, Harry, sort of Portuguese water dog, was with us. Most of all, he was sort of wonderful. He slept on my bed at night and kept my feet warm. We bought a coat for Harry to wear over his black fur. Boy, it was cold!
During the day we often went to the movies. I tried to find the most educational ones. At night, John sat in my dressing room while I was on stage and wrote a report about the movie we’d seen. In the morning we’d go over the report and circle the misspelled words. The word “dollar” was misspelled. I said, “John, that’s an easy one. Just remember the little word doll, d-o-l-l, and add the little word or, o-r. Doll-or.” I
had him write it ten times. That evening, on our way to the theater, we passed a booth with a big sign, “Dollar Rent-A-Car.” John poked me and said, “Look, Mom, they spelled it wrong. They spelled it d-o-l-la-r instead of o-r.” I decided not to teach John spelling any more.
Bill came for Thanksgiving. The hotel staff, who didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, offered to bake us a Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey arrived and our mouths were watering.
“Ick, what’s wrong with this turkey?” John hurried to spit it out.
“Honey, that’s not nice. Why did you do that?”
“Taste it, Mommy.”
Bill made a face and said,” Yes, Honey. Taste it.”
I did. “Yuck! It tastes like soap!”
We tried to be polite, but we just couldn’t eat it. I nicely asked our waiter, “Excuse me, but the turkey tastes a little like soap.”
“Yes, ma’am, it was washed in Dial first.”
When the play closed, John and I were happy to be back home. But we had to face the problem of where he would go to school now. We decided seventh grade would be at the local public school. More tests were necessary for John to qualify for the special education class. He would have been totally lost in a regular classroom of his peers because his grade level for reading and math was more than two years behind.
Poor guy, now he was in another new school. One day John came home from school and the housekeeper wasn’t there. She thought I would be home, and I thought she would be there. When I did get home, about ten minutes after John had arrived, he was crying hysterically.
“John, honey, what’s the matter? What’s the matter?” He couldn’t tell me, just kept crying.
“I thought everyone left me and they weren’t coming back because I’m so stupid.”
One night the children and I went to the movies in L.A. After the movie we went to C.C. Browns, an old ice cream parlor. As soon as we entered, someone in a booth said, “Hi there.” It was Roger with his wife, JoAnne, and some friends.
“Oh, my. Hello. We just came in for some ice cream. How are you?” I certainly hoped I was being casual enough. There was polite chitchat for a moment as I motioned to the children to find a booth. There was that momentary feeling through me, but it passed. Roger was an old love, forever in my heart. But I was married and he was married.
My new purpose became to promote awareness about learning differences.
I wanted to inform parents, teachers and students that children and adults who learn differently are not stupid or stubborn or bad, they just have a different learning style. I didn’t want any child to suffer the way John had.
Bill became the most incredible support and help anyone could wish for. He gave me confidence in so many ways. He told me I was a good writer. I’d never really felt I was a good writer, but I liked to write. Bill would ask for suggestions when he was working on a show for TV.
“Do you think this is funny? What do you think would make it funnier?”
He was asking me? Me, who couldn’t even spell? I would shyly make a suggestion and he would use it in the show. Eventually I became confident about my suggestions. Bill also helped me to think maybe I was pretty. Bill had a way of making people feel good. He really liked actors and would do anything as a director to make them feel comfortable in the role they were playing. It was just great to work with him professionally.
Bill’s belief in me gave me the confidence to write a musical based on the lives of famous dyslexics, “Gifts of Greatness.” In the show were students at Landmark School for dyslexics, which John attended. Many Hollywood stars—Ed Asner, Pattie Duke, Julie Harris, Jack Warden, the Lennon Sisters, and Stephen Cannel—were in the cast. I directed the stage version and Bill directed a professional video.
Not one star asked to be paid. The two men who wrote the musical score did it for love, and there was only one song that they didn’t write, “Follow your Star,” written by Roger Perry. I raised the money for the production and the video has been shown all over the world, even before the royal family of Spain. And I met the Queen!
Meanwhile, Robert and Mary graduated from high school. Robert, an artist, was accepted at Otis Parsons, a fine art school, and was now living with his mom. Mary went from Arizona to Kansas to college. Then she did something wonderful. To this day I remain proud and thankful that she had the wisdom to go to the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage for family week. She planned it all and paid for it with
her own money. At Betty Ford, a person may attend “family week” even if you don’t have a family member going through treatment. You stay off campus and attend classes. There are small group classes to learn about alcoholism and the effects it has on family members. Then you have sessions with your family member, if you have one who is in treatment. If you don’t have a family member there, you communicate to the absent person and express how his abuse of alcohol is affecting you and what you need from that person. It’s an eye-opening experience.
Every night that Mary was there, she called to tell me how it was going.
“I think maybe I’m helping some of the parents here who have children in treatment. I sure hope so. I’m learning so much.”
“I’m so proud of you, honey.” Her last night there, she called to say
“Oh Mommy, I really have learned a lot. I’m so glad I came. “
“So am I.”
“And you know what I learned?” She broke into tears. “I learned…
I really am a good person.”
“Oh, honey, I know you are. Please don’t cry when I can’t hold you.
I love you so much.”
She had been put down so often by her father, she didn’t know she was a good person until strangers convinced her. Oh my sweet girl.
The Varity Club, owned by Milt Larson, was having a benefit that Bill and I attended. Guess who was on the program? JoAnne Worley with Roger Perry at the piano. Of course I had told Bill about my love affair with Roger, just as he had told me about his previous affairs.
We enjoyed the show until JoAnne and Roger’s number. While he was playing the piano, she was making derogatory remarks about him. Bill must have noticed how upset I was. I tried not to show my feelings, but Bill was always good about sensing when something was wrong. He asked if I wanted to leave. I nodded my head, yes.
When John turned eighteen, Ed no longer had the right to stop Bill from adopting John. It was a very proud day when Bill officially became John’s dad. He certainly had been John’s dad unofficially since John was five years old. Now it was John’s turn to leave the nest. He had been working as an actor and doing very well. The world of make-believe, acting, writing, and directing was where he was headed. He had learned much from Bill. We helped him set up his studio apartment. It was an emotional day for me. We all had dinner together at home. Afterwards, we watched him walk to his car. I thought of the line Julie Harris said to him in “Gifts of Greatness”: First I watched you learn to walk. Now I must watch you walk away.
We moved to a house in Malibu on the water. It was a butt-awful looking house painted mustard color, with poop brown trim. I knew it meant a lot to Bill to live at the beach and on the water. He hadn’t been thrilled with the tennis court at the Palisades house. It didn’t face exactly the correct way, north and south. It was a little off and it made Bill a little off too. Everyone in the family thought I had lost it, wanting to move to such an ugly house, even if it was on the water. I really
surprised everyone with that makeover. I painted it gray with white trim, took down a wall that separated the living room from the dining room, and made a staircase between to create an open feeling. There was a stone fireplace in the living room and in the dining room, bookcases for all of Bill’s leather-bound books. The children were promised those books when he died. His Emmys were placed on the shelf too.
Our daughter-in-law, Jeanine, married to son Brian, is quite an artist. She did a lovely etched glass door for us that led to an outer courtyard. The master bedroom overlooked the ocean.
One day while I was on the telephone, I heard Bill casually call me.
“Just a minute, I’m on the phone.”
“Honey, can you come here.”
“Just a minute.” I hung up and went into our bedroom, where Bill was lying across the bed. His upper body was on the bed but his feet were on the floor.
“What is it?”
“I can’t move the left side of my body.”
“I’ll be right back, I’m calling the doctor.” I tried to remain calm. I wasn’t.
“Honey, can you make it to the car? The doctor wants to see you right away.”
“Yeah, sure, if you help me. Just let me lean on you.” With one hand on the railing and his left side propped up on me, we made it down the stairs. Robert was sitting on the sofa downstairs.
Bill said, “Yeah, sure.” I looked to Robert with grave concern as we walked by. I didn’t want to alarm Bill by saying something to Robert.
In the car, I drove as fast as I could. The doctor looked at Bill and said, “Get him to St. John’s hospital right away.”
He helped me get Bill back into the car. I took off like a bat out of hell, traveling down Pacific Coast highway, one hand on the wheel and the other holding Bill’s hand.
Dear God, please don’t take him away from me. His usually tanned face had turned pale and gray. I drove up to the emergency room and got out of the car. The doors opened automatically and I screamed, “Heart Attack!!”
He had had a stroke. I spent the next few nights in the hospital, in a cot next to his bed. Never one to lose his sense of humor, when the nurse came in to take his blood pressure, he’d put my arm out instead of his. The only lasting result of the stroke was a slight limp in his left leg. Oh, he told great stories about that limp. Once he told someone he was hit by a surfboard; another time, it was a hockey stick. He didn’t want anyone to know he’d had a stroke.
A few months later, he had another episode. John and I heard a crash and went running upstairs. Bill’s body was rigid, his eyes rolled back in his head. When he came to, he started crawling on all fours. John and I got him down the stairs and into the car. I got behind the wheel and John sat with Bill in the back. As I pulled out of our driveway, the security guard came by, saw the situation and said he would
drive us to the hospital. The drive along the Pacific Coast Highway seemed unending. Again, I ran into the emergency room. Again, I ran into the emergency room yelling for help.
For several days, I stayed with Bill. He had had another small stroke. The nurse came in to talk about physical rehab. She wanted him to get started at the hospital and continue after he went home. He didn’t seem to have any complications from the latest stroke, and he refused to go for physical therapy after we got home. I was afraid he would have another episode and fall down the stairs. We still wanted to live at the beach because it was so beautiful looking at the ocean. I found a large, more suitable house that still had the ocean view.
Bill started to abuse his medications and act drunk. I checked his medication and found that he had been taking double the recommended dose. He was still drinking his two vodkas and taking sleeping pills and antidepressants. I also discovered that he was seeing multiple doctors and getting drugs from each of them.
One day he wanted to go for a drive.
“Honey, that’s not a good idea. You’re pretty groggy from your medication.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I just don’t want you to get into an accident and hurt yourself or someone else. Would you just let me talk to your doctor and see what he says?”
“Sure, go ahead. Here, help yourself to the phone. You want me to dial the number for you?”
I got the doctor on the phone and told him Bill had been doubling up on his medications and I was concerned about his driving.
“Just let him do what he wants.”
Oh boy, did I ever feel angry and confused! Bill drove off.
This was the beginning of very belligerent behavior directed at John and me, Bill’s nearest targets. The other children were off at school, and Robert and Billy lived in town with their mother. Things got worse. I was constantly worried about Bill. I insisted on driving my car if we were going somewhere. Bill started spending money as if we
had an unending supply. I felt we needed to pull back on expenses, sell the large home at the beach and move into town, closer to hospitals.
Those “white knuckle” drives to St. John’s Hospital along the Pacific Coast Highway were too scary. Every time I drove home and saw an ambulance, my heart would pound, thinking Bill might be inside. The stress of Bill’s illness, the conflict that had developed between him and John, and his distant attitude toward me seemed to be a catalyst for
my migraine headaches, stomach aches, and mononucleosis. I even got
A young man in Kansas City asked Mary to marry him. It was the man she had met the summer we all did “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” I reminded her that she had always wanted to have a winter in Colorado near her brother Charlie. “You don’t want to wake up one day a married woman and wonder why you didn’t have your winter in Aspen,
Colorado.” So she decided to spend a winter near her brother, working and skiing.
Bill and I took Robert on a trip to Boca Grande, Florida, a little island south of Sarasota. The National Dyslexia Research Foundation, for which I had become the Executive Vice President, had an office there. I just had a hunch Robert might love it there. He did, and
shortly afterwards, Dana, his love, moved to be with him on the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. They married, built a home and started a family on the island.
Billy was repairing guitars and started his own business. I felt so proud of him and I also felt perhaps I had helped in his choice of a career. I had found the school where he learned woodcraft and had bought him his first guitar.
Bill and I moved to Mountain Gate, a lovely community on a hill near Westwood Village and UCLA. We were free from the Pacific Coast Highway, and near friends, doctor appointments and the hospital.
Our place was a two-story townhouse connected to other houses, and we had a tennis court right outside our door. The house was much less expensive to maintain and a safer location for Bill, but he wasn’t happy there. He called it a row house.
Bill was withdrawing more and more. The fear of losing him was always on my mind. I loved him so much! I needed to dive deep into something to occupy my mind. The Dyslexia Foundation kept me busy. We had a big fundraiser with Ringling Brothers Circus. The head of publicity for the circus asked if I would ride an elephant from the railroad station through downtown L.A. to the sports arena where the show would be. What fun, I thought! However, after two hours on the back of an elephant I climbed down and could hardly walk. Talk about bow-legged!
Whenever I was in New York City, I never failed to visit my fairy godmother, as I thought of Lillian Gish. Her health was failing, but her wonderful friend and manager, Jim Frasier, kept her life as full and joyful as it could be. The thought that Lillian and Helen, two wonderful ladies who had been so influential in my life, were getting ready to
leave this life for another, made me feel lost. They were the best role models a young woman could have had. Their motto was “Live life to the fullest and give it all you’ve got!”
On my next trip to New York City, I visited Helen, now ninety- two. She was regaining her strength and feeling much better. We had so much to talk about. The happiest news was that Mary had fallen in love in Aspen with Kevin McClure, a good lad of Scottish descent, and Mary and I were having the best time planning her wedding. I told Helen about the engagement party Bill and I had hosted for her in Los Angeles.
“We had the party in the garden, and just before dinner I asked that we all hold hands for grace, and up on our hill we heard the sound of a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace.” He was dressed in full regalia.
It was so beautiful! The neighborhood dogs started howling and the guests started howling too—with laughter.”
“Oh, I can just imagine!”
“And the hit of the evening was Richard Sherman, our friend who composed ‘Mary Poppins.’ Well, he sat down at the piano and played songs from ‘Winnie The Pooh,’ which I had played for Mary when she was a little girl.”
Helen was all smiles.
“After Mary was born, I’d stand here in the living room looking out at your beautiful rose garden and dream that one day she would have her engagement party here! How would you feel about that? I would arrange everything—you wouldn’t have to do a thing. And if you aren’t feeling well that day, you can watch the party from the window in your
bedroom. With an engagement party here, your friends in New York and Nyack, who wouldn’t be able to come to the wedding in Colorado, could share in the celebration.”
Helen was overjoyed at the idea. The color rose in her cheeks and she started chatting like a magpie. “I’ll fly everyone in for it. It will be a wonderful occasion! Oh, bless you, Joyce, to think of that. Oh dear, what shall I wear?”
We finished all the latest family news and I set my teacup down.
“I’ll see you to the door,” Helen said.
“Oh, no you don’t, you stay right here. I certainly know my way out after all these years.”
“No, no, I want to walk with you.” I knew never to argue with Helen. She stood and almost lost her balance. I caught her by the arm and told her a silly joke. She was laughing as we walked through the living room. She stopped by the telephone table and picked up a whimsical angel figure.
“I want to give this to you, I don’t know why.” Then she thought a moment. “I can’t, though. Someone gave it to me.” I was that someone who had given it to her. But I didn’t want to embarrass her. As we passed through the dining room, I glanced at the round table where I had spent so many wonderful and interesting dinners. I touched it
solemnly, remembering each of the great ones in the history of the theater who had sat at this very table—Charlie MacArthur, Ben Hecht, Lillian Gish, Katherine Cornell, Bea Lillie, Ruth Gordon, and so many more. We walked through the butler’s pantry and into the kitchen. At the windows, crisp blue and white curtains. I saw the big stove where
Helen had made some good old homespun dinners, and there was the kitchen table we used to sit around and talk until the wee small hours. Helen, a bit weary, held onto one of the kitchen chairs.
“I’m so excited about the party idea. We will talk and make plans.
Isn’t it wonderful—our Mary is getting married!” I gave her a kiss goodbye. It felt as if years had slipped back to another time when Helen had been “Mom” to me.
“Goodbye my dear, God bless.” She stood waving at the screendoor with a big warm smile on her face.
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Christina Cappelli described playwright Steven Dietz’s “The Nina Variations” as providing a couple with a reset button, the ability to repeat conversations and say something differently and see where things will end up this time.