“We only ever danced at weddings …” That’s a line from a poem I wrote nearly 25 years ago about my father. I was a 33-year-old creative writing student at Oberlin College then, still working through the 20-year-old grief of losing my father soon after I turned 13. In the 1960s, my father and I had several opportunities to dance together—three of my cousins were married in elaborate celebrations of love, with opulent receptions in Cleveland hotel ballrooms. The remnants of these memories reveal snapshot scenes: a fountain flowing with champagne, my glamorous cousins in gowns, relatives and strangers linked in the dabke, a traditional Lebanese folk dance accompanied by drums. But like so much of what passed for happiness in the 1960s, these moments were evanescent. Even the hotels are gone.
That’s why I’m so grateful to have this picture of my dad. There aren’t many of them; he was always the one taking the pictures. One of my cousins found an undeveloped roll of film in her late mother’s apartment, took it to a photography store in Cleveland, and surprised me with this print.
As Father’s Day approaches, my dad feels closer to me than ever. I’m sorting through old photos of him (courtesy of my cousin), reading his war letters home, and working on a memoir in which he has the starring role. I’m also sorting through some of my old photo albums, and came across this picture, which symbolizes so much for me.
The author performing the dabke at an international festival.
After my father died, my Sicilian-American mother wanted to keep his heritage alive for me. She joined the local Lebanese social club, and I was enlisted to dance with other young people at the Lorain International Festival. This would have been around 1972. In this photo, I’m performing the dabke, the dance I learned as a child, watching my relatives at those glamorous weddings.
Two years later, I would represent my culture as the Lebanese-Syrian Princess at this same festival. But that’s another story.
All my life, I thought I was participating in these activities to please my mother and honor my father’s memory. It’s only now that I realize the dancing was as much for me as it was for him, keeping the rhythm of love and family alive in my heart.
Award-winning actress Linda Lavin in A Short History of Decay
There’s a remarkable scene in A Short History of Decay, the début film by writer/director Michael Maren, that will be familiar to anyone whose life has ever been touched by illness—which is to say all of us. Sandy Fisher, played with exquisite nuance by award-winning actress Linda Lavin, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and aware that she’s losing her lucidity. Sandy has just had a brave, candid conversation about the reality of her illness with her son, Nathan, a writer played by Bryan Greenberg. She reveals how scared her husband (Harris Yulin)—is by the prospect of losing her—he’s in poor health himself, having suffering a stroke. The ostensible subject of the conversation is Sandy’s need to move into an assisted-living center, but the subtext is mortality, and Lavin’s performance is a master class in acting. It is during their embrace, when her son cannot see her eyes, that she reveals the fear and terror she’s kept at bay.
I’ve kept my eye on this beautiful film throughout its development. My mother had Alzheimer’s. Unlike Lavin’s character, however, my mother was not aware of what was happening to her—her version of the disease announced itself suddenly, with episodes of paranoid delusions. Having lived through her nightmare, I can’t say I would have preferred a gradual declension of the sort embodied by Sandy Fisher—the “short history of decay” that would have allowed for time to accept and adjust and plan. Knowing my mother as I did, I think that living with an awareness of what was happening to her mind would have horrified her.
My focus on this scene, and my interest in the Alzheimer’s arc of the film, should in no way mislead you into thinking that A Short History of Decay is depressing. Far, far from it. The film’s triumph is the hope that plays like a horizon note throughout its patient, careful storytelling. That, and its moments of pure grace and humor. Maren, whose mother has Alzheimer’s, drew from his own life in writing the film, which he has called “a darkish comedy.” Critics such as Marshall Fine of the Huffington Post are praising Maren for managing “the nifty tonal trick of telling a tragic tale and somehow making you feel hopeful about its characters.”
I had the chance to interview Linda Lavin by phone during the run-up to the film’s release; it opens in New York City at the Village East Cinemas on May 16. I asked what she looks for in a script or screenplay, and what, in particular, drew her to Maren’s film.
“I look for a script that makes me laugh and cry while I’m reading it,” she says. “Michael’s screenplay felt comic, tragic, real, funny, and sad.”
How did Lavin prepare for the role of a woman afflicted with Alzheimer’s?
“I didn’t prepare,” she says. “I just showed up. I used my imagination, and what was in the script—what Michael had written. This is a personal story for him, so we would ask him questions. He was a very gentle guide as a director.”
But enough telling. Let me show you the trailer for the film:
Alice Doesn’t Work Here Anymore Lavin’s portrayal of Sandy Fisher might surprise audiences who know her only as the iconic and beloved waitress Alice Hyatt from the hit CBS series Alice, a role which earned her two back-to-back Golden Globe awards. So, for those who haven’t kept up with her career, here’s a quick primer: Two years after Alice ended its nine-year run in 1985, Lavin won a Tony Award for her performance as Neil Simon’s mother in BroadwayBound, a role for which she also won Drama Desk, Outer Critics’ Circle, and Helen Hayes awards.
All in all, Lavin has earned six Tony nominations—for The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Diary of Anne Frank (where, as Mrs. Van Daan, she was first paired as Harris Yulin’s wife), The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Collected Stories, and The Lyons.
At 77, Lavin is as busy as ever. In addition to the release of A Short History of Decay, she stars in a new play at the Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan. Nicky Silver, who wrote The Lyons, created the part of Audrey Langham in Too Much Sun for Lavin.
“I’m excited to be playing this character—a successful American actress having one spiritual awakening after another,” she says.
When I asked her what life experience had the most significant effect on her art and on her career, her answer was that of a woman intimately familiar with spiritual awakenings:
“Life is about evolving. I can’t say I would point to one experience. I believe everybody and everything that’s ever happened to me has gotten me this far. I have more to learn, more to do. Each experience leads me to a place of knowledge and surrender and truth, and the ability to accept things as they are and the courage to change the things I can.”
Even if you haven’t seen Philomena, the acclaimed 2013 film directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the media attention surrounding it has possibly made you aware of the fraught issue of closed adoption—especially those adoptions arranged and sanctioned by the Catholic Church in Ireland. The heart-wrenching tale of an unwed girl’s loss of her child in 1950’s Ireland, when the nuns at the abbey that took her in adopted him out to an American couple, received many critical accolades and awards—four Academy Award nominations among them, including a Best Picture nod and a seventh Best Actress nomination for Dench. Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, by Martin Sixsmith, the British journalist who helped Philomena in her search for her son—50 years after his birth—the film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, VOD, and Pay-Per-View. If you missed it during its theatrical release, I urge you to see it now—especially if you are an adoptive parent, as I am.
My son is now nearly 33 years old. Because his story overlaps with mine (as each of our narratives intersect with those of others), I asked M if he would be comfortable with my telling my part of our shared story. He assured me he would. (He hasn’t yet seen the film, although he’ll be coming over soon to watch it with me.)
Before I get too far ahead of myself, take a look at the trailer, and note the unexpected moments of humor in this beautifully crafted film:
I’m glad that I was alone when I watched Philomena. Although I was aware of the story and how it develops (I’ll not provide spoilers here, so continue reading without concern)* I viewed it privately not to shield my son from my reactions to the film, but rather to give myself space to have those reactions, and to reflect on what this courageous woman’s story meant to me.
That’s Philomena’s Story. Here’s Mine. If you’ve read the serialized medical memoir on my blog, you already know the circumstances that led my first husband and me to adopt a child. We don’t get much from Philomena’s story about the way adoption changed and fulfilled the lives of her son’s adoptive parents. (The adoption of three-year-old Anthony Lee, later known as Michael Hess, was almost an afterthought; he was paired at the last-minute with a younger girl whom the St. Louis couple had traveled to adopt.)
So let me tell you, from my experience and perspective, what it felt like the first time M was placed in my arms:
I was overwhelmed by love. I was ridiculously happy to have him in my arms.
M was four-and-a-half months old and crying when we first met him in the agency office. (We discovered, once we got him home, that he had a terrible case of diaper rash.) The first thing I noticed was his full head of beautiful, dark blond hair. When your ability to bear a child is taken from you as emphatically as was mine, you are unquestioningly grateful when you are fortunate to adopt. As thrilled as we were to have an infant, I would not realize until later how much it would have meant—to M and to me—to be able to hold him in the moments after his birth. Did he have an uncanny infant-awareness that a difference existed in the warmth and scent of the body holding him now, compared to that of the foster parent who cared for him in the months since his birth? This was not a thought I articulated then. Then, all I could think to say to him, instinctively and repeatedly, was this: It’s Mommy. You’re home now. It’s mommy. I love you and you’re home now.
Among the charming items we decorated M’s yellow nursery with was a framed poem that I would sometimes read aloud to him:
Not flesh of my flesh,
Nor bone of my bone,
but still miraculously my own.
Never forget for a single minute;
You didn’t grow under my heart
but in it.
It would be a while before my delicious feelings of motherhood could allow room for the fact that there had been someone before me. But as my son grew older, it became clear that if ever in his life he felt he wanted to know his origins, I would move mountains to help him in his search. I did not know—I still do not know—anything about the woman who gave birth to my son other than the fact that she had hay fever and (if memory serves), was of Italian and Irish ancestry. We might have been told that she attended college, but I’m not even sure of that. I know I took notes when we got the call, but those are stored in a box in my first husband’s home. I’m relying on pure, faulty memory here. But I can tell you this with certainty: Whatever powerful reason compelled her to make her decision, I thanked her every day. And each year, on M’s birthday, I say a silent prayer for her.
The heartbreaking difference in Philomena’s situation is that she was not given a choice; Anthony was abruptly taken from her after she had three years—such as they were—with him. (The young girls worked long hours in the laundry at the abbey, permitted only one hour each day with their children). I would like to think that the adoptive parents of Michael Hess, who was born Anthony Lee, said a similar prayer for Philomena.
Open Versus Closed Adoption Because my first husband and I were Catholic, and because we had heard that the wait time was not as long as with the non-religious affiliated agency in town, the Catholic Charities organization in our local diocese arranged our adoption, which was legalized through our county’s probate court. As far as I know, closed adoption was the only process through which a couple in Ohio could adopt a child in 1981. That’s since changed, of course; today, open adoption is becoming the norm, with birth and adoptive parents often meeting one another and exchanging helpful information.
Lori Holden is a blogger and writer from Colorado whom I met at a blogging conference a couple of years ago. She is also an adoptive parent. With her daughter’s birth mother, Holden co-authored a book called The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption. I interviewed her via e-mail, and she confirmed that much has changed since our closed adoption in 1981. Holden shared with me statistics from the Donaldson Adoption Institute:
“Prior to 1990,” she wrote, “fewer than 5% of domestic infant adoptions were open. In 2012, 90% or more of adoption agencies are recommending open adoption.”
According to Holden, “there is no set definition” to what open adoption means; she writes that it is not necessarily the case that birth parents meet the adoptive parents, for example. Open adoption might simply mean an exchange of information; for others, it could entail some agreement about contact or integration between the families. To others it could mean access to original birth records, or some combination of all these factors.
“For years, adoption agencies have been telling adopting parents why to do open adoption,” says Holden. There was, however, often no support or guidance in exactly how to go about doing so. The book she wrote with her daughter’s birth mother is, she says, “the girlfriend’s guide I wished had been available at the start of my journey into adoptive parenting. For all the shame and pain caused by secretive adoptions for women like Philomena and her son, Anthony, openness could have been the antidote. Readers say our book helps heal the split that is created at the moment of placement between a child’s biology—the story he’s born with down to his DNA, and his biography—the life that’s written thereafter.”
The Times They are A-Changin’ In Ohio, where I live and where my son’s adoption took place, Governor John Kasich signed into law a bill that will eventually allow adoptees, upon attaining legal age, access to their birth records. According to reporting by Robert Higgs of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, “the law applies to an estimated 400,000 Ohioans adopted between Jan. 1, 1964, and Sept. 18, 1996.” This would include my son; he was born in June 1981.
According to Holden, many states are beginning “to unseal what was once sealed.” In fact, the day she responded to my e-mail, her own state of Colorado put two bills through the legislature. She shared with me a link to a map, created by the White Oak Foundation, illustrating U.S. adoption statutes.
I’m grateful for this new law in Ohio. If and when my son decides to take the next step and conduct a search, his path will be cleared of many obstructions.
What I realized, watching Philomena, was how excruciatingly painful that separation from Anthony was for her. Even as an adoptive parent, I wanted to reach through the screen and prevent that hopeful St. Louis couple from realizing their dream—I wanted to intervene on Philomena’s behalf, so strongly did I identify with her. In experiencing the joy of raising my son and watching him grow into an accomplished young man, I understand the power of a mother’s love.
I look forward to watching Philomena with him.
Postscript Philomena Lee has become an advocate for adoption rights in Ireland, founding The Philomena Project in conjunction with that country’s Adoption Rights Alliance. The organization calls upon the Irish government to implement adoption information and tracing legislation. Philomena Lee is taking her fight all the way to the Irish Supreme Court.
The shame and pain that Holden referred to earlier was such that in Ireland, at the abbey where Philomena was sent, the nuns insisted that the girls’ identity be kept hidden—a fact not included in the film. Anne Midgette, writing in the Washington Post, reported that “the girls in the convent were forced to use other names—Philomena went by “Marcella”—and never knew each others’ true identities.”
When I read this, I had to stop and read it again, and then a third time, to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. Philomena went by ‘Marcella.’
My name is Mari-Marcelle.
* The following articles do contain spoilers, but I provide them for those who would like to explore the story further:
One of my favorite childhood pastimes was playing connect-the-dots. I took great pleasure in guiding my pencil from one numbered dot to the next to find out what would reveal itself to me on the page.
Writing is like that. So is life.
And this is a true story.
About two years ago, I was in Manhattan for a conference. It was Sunday, the last day, my travel day home, but after 72 hours in the airless rooms of the New York Hilton, my friend Nancy and I decided we’d escape and treat ourselves to brunch at Sarabeth’s. Being outside felt wonderful, despite the sticky August humidity. As we walked along Avenue of the Americas to the restaurant on Central Park South, I felt the exhilaration I always feel whenever I’m in the city: the rush of traffic, the clusters of strangers moving with and against me on the broad sidewalks, the glint of granite and marble and glass in the summer sunlight. All of this combines to make me feel as though I’m part of something important and larger than myself. The experience also, strangely, makes me feel grounded and secure; at the same time, I’m aware that at any moment, something unusual might happen that could change my course.
That morning, something did.
Nancy and I reached the restaurant and positioned ourselves to join the short queue that had formed outside the door. Out of the corner of my eye, two people emerged, one of them familiar to me. “Linda Lavin,” I said softly to Nancy. And then, for emphasis, to register my out-of-towner’s surprise at seeing a Famous Person, and to make sure Nancy heard me, I repeated, a bit loudly: “It’s Linda Lavin!” Not only Nancy heard me; so did Ms. Lavin, who looked over at me, probably thinking, tourists!
Thus engaged, I said the only thing I could say to justify my rube-like behavior: “We love you!” Linda Lavin smiled. She was wearing a baseball cap, which looked adorable on her, and she continued on her way.
You might think the story ends there, but it doesn’t.
Nancy and I enjoyed a delicious brunch, walked back to our hotel, picked up our baggage from the concierge and parted amidst the foot traffic of a sweltering day—she to hail a taxi for the airport, me to catch a cab to Penn Station.
Settled in Amtrak’s Quiet Car, heading south to Virginia on the Northeast Regional Line, I picked up my iPhone and sent out a tweet that went something like this:
“Spotted Linda Lavin outside Sarabeth’s in NYC…don’t you just love her?”
A moment passed, possibly two, and then, to my surprise, someone with the handle “mmaren” retweeted my tweet.
“Why would somone retweet this?” I wondered. And “who is “mmaren?” I clicked on his Twitter profile, and then on the hyperlink to his website.
A journalist. A filmmaker—something about a film in production. Husband of writer Dani Shapiro. I filed all this away, and tweeted out my thanks to him for the retweet. (For those who might be reading this hundreds of years into the future, tweeting is how people met one another in the early 21st century, without really meeting each other.)
Back and forth we tweeted, during which Mr. Maren followed me. Here’s a brief exchange:
I have since followed the development of Maren’s film, A Short History of Decay, with great interest, and I’m eager to see it. Throughout the past year, select film festivals have screened it, and Paladin is releasing it in April 2014. If you’d like to know more about it, here’s an interview, from the Hamptons International Film Festival, with Maren and two of the film’s actors:
I wrote at the beginning of this essay that my Linda Lavin sighting on that humid Sunday morning in 2012 set me on a different course; it was, in fact, a course strewn with dots that I connected, one after the other: my tweet about seeing her led to Michael Maren’s retweet, and my awareness of his film about Alzheimer’s—a topic of great interest to me. Our resulting exchanges led me to seek out more information about the writings of his wife, Dani Shapiro, whom at the time I had not read.
Now, after reading two of her novels; one of her memoirs, Slow Motion; and having nearly finished her newest book, the astonishing Still Writing (which I’m recommending to every writer I know), I have made a discovery. In Shapiro’s work I have found a kindred spirit and a literary soul-mate—as I read her I feel as though I’m filling pages of connect-the-dot workbooks, each one studded with epiphanies.
Here’s one of them: I would like to study with her. I’m at work on a manuscript, and in need of a mentor and guide. I find myself at the end of that long cluster of dots that emerged in Manhattan nearly two years ago, to this spot: I am first on the wait-list for Shapiro’s workshop in fiction and memoir at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
I hope and pray I get in. Maybe, if I happen to see Linda Lavin somewhere in the Cleveland area, where I’m living now, I can take that as a good sign.
The news alert that came through my smart phone on Sunday shocked me, as it did innumerable others: Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has died. And like innumerable others, I scoured the Internet for a news source, posted a link on Facebook, and expressed my disbelief and sadness on social networks. The New York Times published a series of Twitter encomiums by fellow actors. Anna Kendrick’s (@AnnaKendrick47) was particularly poignant: “Philip Seymour Hoffman. Unbearably, shockingly, deeply sad. Words fail to describe his life and our loss.”
My own reaction barely warrants a ripple in this tide. Still, I felt compelled to express my sadness, as I feel moved to write this essay. Why? Did I know the man? No.
Or did I?
Bruce Weber, writing in the Times, called Hoffman “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation,” a correct assessment, I’d say. He also zeroed in on one of Hoffman’s ineffable gifts as an actor—“his Everyman mien.” In a wildly diverse array of roles, Hoffman embodied each character so completely as to suggest he could be anyone we knew—either in real life, or, in the case of Truman Capote, someone from the pantheon of culture.
As for Hoffman’s complete submersion in the complex soul of that astonishing writer? Who other than he—and this is to take nothing away from Toby Jones’s own splendid performance in the Capote role— could have accomplished that? The voice, the accent, the demeanor, the neurosis.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Take a look at this brief compilation showing some of the characters memorably brought to life by this singular actor.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in a Greenwich Village apartment on Sunday, Feb. 2, a syringe in his arm. Reports indicate he died of an apparent drug overdose.
I cannot speak to the destructive force of drug addiction. No one I have ever known has suffered under that particular curse, and minds more learned than mine will have to weigh in on its insidious power to invade a person’s soul, and the tragic role it played in Hoffman’s life and death. All I know is this: extraordinarily gifted and utterly ordinary people—too many in our society—have been lost to the disease. If Hoffman’s death sparks a meaningful, productive, dialog in our country about drug addiction, then perhaps that’s something. But in the meantime, his family, friends, and colleagues grieve.
His family’s loss is something I can relate to; my father died when I was 13. Is this why I’m so deeply saddened by Hoffman’s sudden, untimely death? Did losing a parent at a vulnerable age condition me to feel losses such as Hoffman’s more deeply?
Or is it the nature of celebrity itself? A movie screen—a thin membrane, really—separates an audience from the larger-than-life inhabitants on the other side. But such is the power of a performer as profoundly talented as Hoffman that he can pierce that barrier, touch our souls, and sear an image into our memory.
And then there’s the fact that film lives forever. Hoffman cannot really be gone, can he? Not when we can log into Netflix, select The Talented Mr. Ripley, and see him right there on the screen of a device we hold in our hands? The intimacy of film, and our ready access to it, is such that we literally carry these performances with us. This is such a gift, and possibly a comfort, but it nevertheless renders an actor as vivid as Hoffman with a familiar quality.
How must that false sense of intimacy feel for a celebrated actor? To know that wherever he goes, whatever he does in his off-screen, off-stage life, he is recognized. Known, but not known. How much of a burden was fame for Hoffman? How much of a burden is it for anyone living a public life?
In trying to answer one question—why am I so saddened by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman?—I only seem to come up with more questions.
Do we grieve the loss of a man we’ve never met because, like us, he was once anonymous? And, like many of us, he had a dream? And, unlike most of us, he saw that dream realized? Is he our proxy? Those of us who deferred our own dreams, or are waiting to see them come true, feel the icy slap of reality: If we get our heart’s desire, someday it will go away. None of us lives forever. How long, really, might we have to enjoy our dreams made manifest?
The loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman—of anyone in the public eye—is a reminder of our own mortality, writ large.
Or maybe it’s not quite as cosmic as all that. Maybe, for those of us who appreciate art and hold artists in high esteem, it means the end of something great. At the time of his death, Hoffman had three films in varying stages of production—the two-part Mockingjay films from the HungerGames franchise, and a documentary about autism. It is unclear what his death will mean for their respective releases, but suffice to say that after any of these films come out, we will never again see a new performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Ohio artist Leslie Miller was working on this collage—part of a planned series of mixed-media bird paintings—when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer in December of 2003. It is one of the last painted works she was able to complete before losing function on the right side of her body.
In one of cancer’s mystifying quirks, rogue cells bypassed Leslie’s lungs to cross the blood-brain barrier—a highly unusual occurrence—nestling themselves near the center of her brain. Her original cancer, cured after months of chemotherapy and radiation, proved relentless after all: she now had brain cancer. She endured Gamma Knife Radiosurgery (a closed-skull procedure), 10 weeks of radiation, and, finally, traditional open-skull surgery. Her brain—arguably the body’s most sensitive organ—could take no more. Radiation necrosis stilled the hand that had coaxed charcoal, oils, and brushes into astonishing works of art for nearly five decades.
Chemotherapy and radiation saved her life but made it worse.
Ask her what kept her going throughout her health crisis, and her placid demeanor grows slightly emphatic: “I’d just get disgusted with myself for being a crybaby, and tell myself: ‘Stop it! Stop whining and get busy!'”
And so she pushed back against the changes in her life. Eager to return to the bird series, she compensated for her increasing paralysis by resorting to more controllable surfaces on which to work. If she could no longer stand and manage a canvas, she could sit at her dining room table and draw on envelopes.
By 2006, however, the loss of the fine motor skills so essential to drawing was complete. In a masterful reinvention, Leslie exchanged brushes and pencils for a Panasonic Lumix digital camera, finding art in the ordinary elements of daily life: bowls of green apples and cherries (“Because life is a bowl of cherries,” she says with wry humor); a bunch of beets on an enamel table; photographs of every friend who stopped by to visit. No one, myself included, escaped without getting their “portrait” done.
A portrait of the artist with her friends. The curator of her exhibition can be seen at the far right of the top row; I’m at the far left. Photo credit: Marci Janas Rich
Now, at 63—10 years after her first diagnosis—Leslie is overseeing preparations for a retrospective solo exhibition of her life’s work at the Beth K. Stocker Art Gallery on the campus of Lorain County Community College in Northeast Ohio. It is a dream come true, she says; she has fantasized about such an exhibition for years.
Born and raised in the college town of Oberlin, Ohio, where she lives today, this solo exhibition, appropriately titled Paper Painting Before Radiation, is the first to be presented in her native Lorain County.
Guest curator Jean Kondo Weigl has selected 81 examples of Leslie’s works on paper in mixed media—representing drawing, painting, printmaking, and collage—for the retrospective, which will be on view from August 26 through September 28, 2013. The works represent only a fraction of the art Leslie created between 1981 and 2006.
Even though Leslie’s art has won awards and earned her grants, residencies, and solo and group exhibitions—including one at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s prestigious May Show in 1993—much of it has never been seen before.
“Leslie has received significant recognition throughout her career,” says Kondo Weigl, “but her focus has always been the practice of her art, rather than its promotion. As a result, she’s received considerably less public attention and critical acclaim than her work deserves.”
I asked her what her art means to her. (Even though she is no longer able to paint, even though taking photographs has become more difficult, I cannot use the past tense.)
“It’s just a passion,” she tells me. “Something I get lost in. A kind of escape from myself.” She repeats a quote attributed to Mark Rothko that she recalls reading. “He said, and this is a paraphrase, ‘It’s nice when people come to see me in my studio, but it’s nice when they leave. It’s even nicer when I leave.'”
Leslie will just have to put up with the throngs of art lovers who will be clamoring to see her work. I suspect she knows how much pleasure this will give her.
About the Artist Leslie Miller earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in religion from Bates College, and a Master of Arts diploma from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She has been awarded professional development grants from the Ohio Arts Council and the Contemporary Artists Center in North Adams, Massachusetts; she was in residence at the latter for three consecutive years in the 1990s and was part of group exhibition there. She has also held a residency at I-Park in East Haddam, Connecticut. She won the Best in Show prize at the Beck Center in Lakewood, Ohio, where her work was part of a group exhibition called Proscenium ’92.
Other group exhibitions include shows at the Erie Art Museum in Erie, Pennsylvania; the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art; the College of Wooster Art Museum; the Mather Gallery at Case Western Reserve University; the Firelands Association for the Visual Arts in Oberlin, Ohio; the Pearl Conard Gallery at the Ohio State University; and the May Show at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which was juried and curated by Evan Turner, director emeritus of the museum.
Solo exhibitions featuring her work have been held at Jamaica Plain Gallery in Boston, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation in Miami, Florida; and in Israel at the American Cultural Centers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
She began writing poetry in 2006, and Foothills Publishing released a chapbook of her work, Boom Time: 1946-1964, in 2007. She has since completed a nearly book-length manuscript.
Before I was the Midlife Second Wife, in London’s Underground
I could have sworn that the blond man sitting near the front of the Gloucester Pub in London’s Knightsbridge district was Robert Redford. You don’t forget a chiseled face like his, nor do you forget that trademark orb of yellow hair. I’d been half in love with Redford since seeing the film that inspired me to major in journalism: All the President’s Men. (For most women it’s The Way We Were. Go figure.) If I hadn’t been with two friends, or so utterly gobsmacked by my first (and only) trip across the pond, I might have lingered to make sure that the flesh-and-blood visage sitting several tables away matched up with the celluloid version. But my friends and I, famished and travel-weary after our trans-Atlantic flight, were eager for nourishment before checking into the Chelsea Hotel* on the other side of Sloane Street.
And, truth be told, shyness and a sense of decorum prevented me from intruding on a celebrity’s luncheon.
I ordered the Cottage Pie because, you know, when in London…
The food was good but the coffee was bad.
Exiting the pub, we saw we were surrounded by designer boutiques. I noted three of them: Armani, Chanel, and a shop called À la Mode. And of course there was Harrods.
Princess Diana had died only a few months before—the city was still reeling from her loss—and we were in the heart of her territory. With her friends, when she was merely Lady Di, the area was their shopping stomping ground. As such, they were nicknamed after the fashionable street: they were the “Sloane Rangers.”
Walking towards our hotel, I saw more people using cellular phones (for that’s what they called them then) than I’d ever seen in one place before. Entering the sleek, contemporary lobby, the delicate fragrance of lemon verbena seemed to permeate the air. This is from the travel journal I kept for part of my trip:
There is a pervasive … citrus-y scent to the air in London—in our room, noticed it in the Rolls, even catch wafts of it on the street. This is a dream city, unreal, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
I had been transported into a land of luxury.
How did I ever get here? The farthest I’d been from my home in Ohio was California. I felt as though I were living a dream I never knew I had.
My supremely talented friend was to thank for all of this. An award-winning classical violinist, she had snagged the performance plum of a lifetime: a bill on the program for a joint celebration concert: the 50th Anniversary of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the 50th birthday of Elton John. The gala event would benefit John’s AIDS Foundation. My friend had invited me to attend as her guest, along with her conservatory teacher, and another woman who would become my friend as well. We had only to provide the cost of our airfare and meals.
I started my journal on the plane. Since I was reading Milan Kundera’s TheUnbearable Lightness of Being at the time, I began the diary with a quote from the book:
17 December 1997
Sunday 11:45 a.m.
‘There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time.’
On the tarmac, reflecting on the route that would take me from Cleveland to Chicago to Toronto, then south of Newfoundland to Ireland, South Wales, and finally London, I wrote:
Imagine: When we do touch down, it will only be 15 minutes later! [I’m] moving backward in time…
Plucked from the rituals of my satisfying but ordinary life, I was time’s fugitive, granted six days to witness and experience sights and sounds (and fragrances, like the lemon verbena that haunts me still) that I never expected to encounter. Nor have I ever encountered anything like them again. Here are some highlights from my itinerary:
Monday Evening, December 15, 1997 A Rolls Royce picks us up at the Chelsea to deliver us to Mayfair, where the impresario who arranged my friend’s performance hosts us to a five-course meal at Les Saveurs:
chickpea soup with blood pudding
mushrooms in pancake timbale
sweet sea bass on aubergine with cherry tomatoes
lamb with risotto
chocolate mousse timbale with creme
On our way out, the chef, Jean Christophe Novelli, stops us to say he had taken particular care with our orders. I tell him the food was exquisite, and he seems genuinely touched. He asks where I am from, and when I tell him he says that a New York writer is dining at the restaurant that evening.
Tuesday, December 16, 1997 Christmas shopping at Harrods…saw a shrine to Diana and Dodi al Fayed [his father owned Harrods]—quite moving…beautiful portraits of them both.
To the Barbican Centre for L’s rehearsal, followed by a quick pilgrimage to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama next door. Afterwards, high tea at the Hyde Park Hotel, in a private area off the lobby.
Another quick pilgrimage—to Westminster Abbey—follows high tea, then a rushed trip on the Underground back to the hotel to prepare for a concert in the Purcell Room at the Royal Festival Hall given by another violinist, a friend of my travel companions.
The next evening, a Wednesday, was the reason for our trip: the gala performance at the Royal Albert Hall, with Vanessa Redgrave serving as master of ceremonies. L, resplendent in a red Armani gown, performed Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. (Who conducted? Was it Sir Simon Rattle? I cannot remember and I cannot find my program. This bothers me to no end.)
My two travel companions and I left London for Paris by way of the Channel Tunnel. In four days I would be back home. A whirlwind escapade in every sense of the word.
I’ve not been overseas since that trip, but it transformed me in ways that are still revealing themselves to me. (And I’m not thinking only about my sudden immersion into a heretofore unknown world of luxury.) I realize that because of that journey, I finally abandoned my fear of the new and unfamiliar. (I think I would even say hello to Robert Redford now, were I to spot him in a pub. Although I’d still maintain my decorum by being polite and mercifully brief.) I didn’t flinch when, 13 years later, I moved from the region where I’d spent my entire life to begin a new one with my new husband in Virginia.
Time, they say, waits for no one, but I made time wait for me while I settled into a new life.
“Time,” I wrote then in my journal, “is caught in fierce snatches…. No opportunity for extended reflection, so necessary in trying to capture the details of all we’re experiencing. Many entries—such as this one—recorded days later. Memory will have to shoulder the burden…”
With Dave Brubeck in October 2003, prior to taping a television interview with Cleveland’s WVIZ on the campus of Oberlin College. Photo courtesy of WVIZ-TV.
The world lost an irreplaceable treasure yesterday. The legendary composer and pianist Dave Brubeck, whose singular brand of musicianship and artistry changed the sound of jazz in the 1950s while ushering in an entirely new way to listen to the music, died the day before his 92nd birthday.
The Dave Brubeck Quartet had a sound like no other. Brubeck had studied classical music with French composer Darius Milhaud, and although he and his quartet were often considered integral contributors to the jazz genre known as West Coast “cool,” Geoffrey C. Ward writes in Jazz: A History of America’s Music (the companion book to Ken Burns’ PBS series), that there was “nothing remotely cool” about Brubeck’s playing:
He was a fiery, uncompromising improviser—dissonant, unsentimental, rhythmically daring. … His style was perfectly complemented by the playing of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond: light, lyrical, floating …like the sound, Desmond himself famously said, of a dry martini.
On a wintry March night in 1953, the Dave Brubeck Quartet performed in Oberlin College’s historic Finney Chapel. This alone was remarkable; Oberlin, home of the renowned Oberlin Conservatory of Music, was a bastion of classical music. Jazz? No one studied jazz at the conservatory in those days. Jazz was something kept under wraps and underground. Until Brubeck. And the aftermath was groundbreaking. Ward writes:
The audience—including the conservatory students—responded with ovation after ovation. The concert was recorded, and the album that resulted—Jazz at Oberlin—helped build enthusiasm for Brubeck. He was signed by Columbia, the nation’s biggest label; made another live album, called Jazz Goes to College; and soon found himself the leader of the most popular jazz group in the country.
Fifty years after that historic concert at Oberlin, I had the opportunity to meet Dave Brubeck. He had returned to campus with his current quartet to perform a concert marking the 50th anniversary of Jazz at Oberlin’s release. Because I was in charge of media relations for the conservatory, it was my task to publicize not only the concert—ensuring that every seat in the 1,200 capacity chapel was filled—but also the fact of the iconic jazz master’s return to the scene of his great achievement.
He was gracious and down-to-earth, with a twinkle in his eye and a sincere interest in Oberlin’s students. He generously signed the liner notes to my copy of Jazz at Oberlin. He walked slowly when he went out on stage, but when his fingers hit the keyboard, he was transformed; he played with the vigor and athleticism of a man half his age.
There are dozens of albums in the Dave Brubeck Quartet discography—1959’s Time Out is arguably the most famous and revered, and justifiably so. But my favorite will always be Jazz at Oberlin.
Click here for more information about jazz at Oberlin today, including a history of the development of the jazz studies curriculum.
Sally Field very nearly lost the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, even though Steven Spielberg, the Academy Award-winning director of Lincoln, had already offered her the part in 2005. During a recent telephone interview, she told me how she fought to hold on to a role that could well earn her a third Academy Award—and how two-time Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Abraham Lincoln, helped. My article about this astonishingly gifted actress, and her role in the epic bio-pic that is being called “Oscar-bait incarnate” (The Hollywood Reporter), appears in the November 11, 2012, edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“Mary Todd Lincoln was a feisty little thing,” she says. Listening to Field discuss America’s 16th First Lady—and her approach to playing her—reminded me of another real-life character she once portrayed—union organizer Crystal Lee Jordan, more commonly known as Norma Rae.
That role earned Field her first Best Actress Oscar, and is one of the “steel magnolia” parts blooming at the centerpiece of her career. Mary Todd Lincoln takes her place alongside Edna Spalding (Places in the Heart, and a second Oscar win), M’Lynn Eatonton (Steel Magnolias) and Mrs. Gump (Forrest Gump).
At 66, Field is steeped in the methodologies of Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio, employing those processes throughout most of her decades-long career. She called upon her craft as a Method actress, prodigious research, and “every bit of life that I know” to bring Mary Todd Lincoln to the screen. She adds that the work of the “brilliant” costume designer Joanna Johnston also contributed, as did her own physical transformation—Field gained 25 pounds for the role.
Watch the trailer for a glimpse of the majesty and moving humanity of this film, and to see a great actress at work.
Lincoln was filmed on location in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, last year.
My Extraordinary Ordinary Life Sissy Spacek with Maryanne Vollers 288 pages, Hyperion, $26.99
One of the reasons I took a brief sabbatical from the blog is because I was given the distinct honor of interviewing Academy Award-winning actress Sissy Spacek for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I met her at Selba, a Richmond restaurant, for our interview. Afterwards, we were standing and chatting when I noticed a necklace she was wearing—a thin gold chain from which hung a cluster of charms. I asked her to tell me about them, and I’m awfully glad I did; her answer gave me the lede for my article. The story, “Sissy’s Way,” appears in today’s newspaper (which has a few extras that don’t appear in the online version). I’m pleased to share a link to it here so that you can read about this extraordinary artist. You might also like to check out Jay Strafford’s review of Ms. Spacek’s heartfelt new memoir, My Extraordinary, Ordinary Life.
As a bonus, Ms. Spacek shared a little secret with me. She’s been married to film production designer and art director Jack Fisk for 38 years, so of course you know I just had to ask: “What’s the secret to a happy marriage?” Here’s what she told me: