16 April 2008

Madeline Lee Gilford

The only known photo of Madeline and me.
Dining in Connecticut with a friend, years ago.

When Madeline Gilford turned 80, a few years ago, the crowd in the living-room of her Greenwich Village apartment was standing-room-only while friends and family traded testimonials. This one owed his job to her, that one met her husband in this very room. Over the years, Madeline had lent her money (though where she got it was a mystery even to her), she’d offered her advice, she’d thrown herself bodily into protest marches and letter-writing campaigns and boycotts and strikes. Story piled upon story of Madeline’s fearless struggle to make the world a better place, one person at a time. Or, if possible, collectively.

Madeline listened to all this politely, nodding her head and batting the baby-blue eyes that, in her youth, made her a ringer for Ginger Rogers. We, her friends, went on and on. Then at last it was her turn to speak. “This is all very interesting,” she said, “and I thank you. But there’s one thing you should know. It’s OVER!” She was 80 now, and we would have to learn to fend for ourselves.

She was kidding. When I last saw her, in November, she was still reaching for her books (check, address), ready to slay another dragon, and telling me how to get ahead in life.

She was a singer and actress, a casting director, a teacher, the associate producer of the Broadway musical Rags, the widow of the great actor Jack Gilford, a hardy survivor of the Witch Hunts and the Black List, and the only mother I had in New York City. She fed me, told me stories, and picked me up and dusted me off every single time I fell. She died early yesterday, at the age of 84.

Though we met formally early during the rehearsals for Rags, I had already read her memoir, with Kate Mostel, 170 Years in Show Business. And it wasn’t until we were in Boston, in tryouts at the Shubert Theater, that the bond was really set, and I became what I shall always remain: Madeline’s willing slave.

I turned 25 on a show night, and before the curtain went up, the cast and crew assembled backstage to sing “Happy Birthday” to me. Such a thundering assembly of song, by so many gifted artists, was ’way more than the lone production assistant deserved, with Teresa Stratas sailing high above the rest, and ensemble member Joanna Glushak giving her a run for the money.

But then the show started, and I was alone in the wings. Madeline appeared. “Come on, kid,” she said. “I’ll take you to dinner.”

We went to Chinatown, where we shared the first of innumerable Chinese meals, and she told me the first of her stories. Some of these I had read before, in 170 Years, but there was no substitute for hearing them from her own mouth. And Madeline was a prodigious storyteller. Not just story trees, but story cycles. Only Italo Calvino could match her ability to begin Story A, link it to Story B, link that to Story C, then finish off Story B, then finish off Story A. She could tailor this ability to the amount of time on hand. If she had 15 minutes, then three stories might indeed suffice. If she had 8 hours, she could tell 300 stories, never losing the thread, seldom forgetting a name or date.

Her principal fields of interest were theater and politics, and mine was the happy lot to be interested in those topics, too, and to know the names of many of the players in her stories. I knew few of them personally, but Madeline knew everybody. Literally.

She made her film debut as a toddler in the Our Gang comedies. Her final Broadway appearance was opposite Ethel Barrymore. Harpo Marx flirted with her. So did Peter Ustinov. Beverly Sills sang for her. So did Lotte Lenya. When Martin Luther King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Ossie Davis reached into the crowd to pull Madeline and her daughter, Lisa, onto the platform. When Dorothy Parker’s dog threw up on Madeline’s carpet, Madeline protested.

“Oh, that’s all right,” said Parker. “If he hadn’t done it, I would have.”

She used to sit with other mothers and their children in the park. Then one day, one of the women announced that she’d just published a short story. “We didn’t know Grace could read, much less write,” Madeline said. That would be Grace Paley, by the way.

The choreographer Jerome Robbins, under threat of blackmail but a foul character to begin with, named Madeline’s name during the Witch Hunts. Her principal associate in subversive activities, Robbins said, was a man Madeline never heard of. One night, in a restaurant, someone pointed out the man in question, and Madeline went over to him. “Jerry Robbins thinks you and I ought to know each other,” she said.

Jack’s adventures are another story entirely, but let it be noted that he shared a dressing room with Billie Holiday, and once taught a pantomime to Buster Keaton. And lest you think the Gilfords knew only Left-wingers, be it known that Elliott Abrams was Lisa Gilford’s prom date.

Madeline was wonderful about introducing me to her friends: Bella Abzug, Chita Rivera, Jule Styne, Shirley MacLaine, Renée Taylor and Joseph Bologna (a Brown alumnus), Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, Richard Dreyfuss, Christine Baranski, Blythe Danner — I can’t even remember all the famous names. Over dinner one night, Madeline’s friend Rosetta LeNoire, the actress and producer, told me about her godfather, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; her one-time boss, Orson Welles; the kid she used to babysit, James Earl Jones; and her costar, Urkel. Sometimes, Madeline would take me out to Sardi’s, where her caricature hangs on the wall, and where she was greeted much like Dolly Levi at the Harmonia Gardens. For those few hours, I felt like a Broadway legend, too.

The less well-known were a spectacular bunch, too, and I got to know Gerry Kabat, Merle Debuskey, Frank Evans, the feisty Goldie Kiner, my beloved Becky Stein, and the irrepressible Roz Braverman, who accosted me at Jack Gilford’s memorial: “Young man! You are much too nice-looking to be standing there by yourself! Go talk to somebody!” But evidently I wasn’t nice-looking enough to talk to her, because without another word Roz marched away.

Madeline introduced me to her family, to the point that Lisa and her brothers Joe and Sam seem like my cousins, and Lisa’s daughter, Molly, will forever be the Girl Who Got Away. Madeline introduced me to Jack, too, who used to improvise little character riffs to entertain us both while we were waiting for Madeline to emerge from a production meeting, and who once sang “Give My Regards to Broadway” for me alone.

“Oh, Jack loved you,” Madeline said.

“If he did, it’s only because you gave him a good report of me,” I replied. “The reality is that Jack and I didn’t spend much time alone together: we usually had you as an interlocutor.” But Madeline gave me a knowing look. Wasn’t that enough? she seemed to say.

Madeline was married to another man when she met Jack, but their attraction proved unstoppable. By the time I met them, they were a cute old couple, and thinking of them as the players in a sweeping tale of epic passion could be downright weird, like contemplating the inescapable truth that, yes, your grandparents did have sex. Yet they were still pretty passionate, right up to the end, and Madeline took Jack’s death, in 1990, very hard. If there’s a bright side to her passing now, it’s that she and Jack will be together again.

“Sometimes I see these old farts walking around the Village,” she said once. “Ninety years old! And I just think, ‘Goddammit, Jack, couldn’t you have held on for a few more years?’” She’d have given anything for another day with him.

Together they’d been blacklisted, and together they’d endured. Because Madeline acted on the radio, where faces couldn’t be matched to Names, her lot was a little easier than Jack’s; she played Mrs. Peachum, too, in the legendary Theatre de Lys production of Threepenny Opera, opposite Ed Asner. But things were tough for a very long time. When Jack got cast in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, it looked as if things were beginning to turn around. But the show was in trouble, and the producers announced that they were calling in a new director. Jerry Robbins.

Zero Mostel was magnanimous. “We of the Left do not blacklist,” he declared.

Jack, on the other hand, was ready to hand in his notice. How could he work with the man who ratted out his wife? He phoned Madeline in New York — and she read him the riot act. Of course he was going to stay in the show! He needed that job. And moreover, Madeline wasn’t about to let that S.O.B. have the satisfaction of seeing Jack effectively blacklist himself.

Once, I asked Madeline whether she ever got scared, during the Black List. Not just scared — but intimidated.

“No,” she said, as if the question never occurred to her. She thought for a moment and said, “If anything, it made me more outspoken.”

Speaking out — as usual

She started organizing when she was still in high school. As a young mother, she was pushing Sam in a baby carriage during a protest demonstration, when someone from a window overhead threw an apple at them — with an icepick through it. Into the same carriage was thrown the subpoena calling her to testify before the Committee on Un-American Activities. She had to scrape and claw for every bit of work she got, for years. But intimidated? Never.

Jack was blacklisted, too, and when he testified, he was asked whether he wanted to overthrow the government of the United States by violence. “No,” he replied. “Just gently.”

It always struck me as indiscreet to ask precisely what had been the political affiliations of the Gilfords, but I am utterly convinced of this: if the country had ever been overtaken by an authoritarian, Stalinist regime, Jack and Madeline would have joined the resistance the next morning.

While Jack was in his last illness, Madeline and I didn’t see much of each other. When a friend ran into her at a party and told her I’d gone to work for CBS News, Madeline said, “Oh! And I always thought we would make Bill a star — but I guess it’s up to Dan Rather now!”

But after Jack died, I saw more and more of Madeline, and when I left CBS News, she grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and whisked me off to her country house, Freedonia (after Groucho’s homeland in Duck Soup). She plied me with food and stories and gorgeous Connecticut countryside — and plenty of chores. There was no question, so long as she was on duty, of my slipping into self-pity.

As she got older, squiring her around was no longer effortless. Going to the country meant that I would drive, rather than be driven, and the list of chores awaiting me got a little longer. She took a couple of falls (once while she was at dinner with me), and she never got far into a play before she began to nod off. I’d discreetly shift in my seat, so that my elbow might jog hers, and her head would pop up and she’d watch intently for a few minutes, before falling asleep again.

What I’ll never understand is how she managed to see more of the play than anyone else. After spending her entire life in the theater, perhaps her perceptions functioned automatically — and accurately. I did understand that she was a truly gifted audience. When she was awake, and always during the applause at the end of an act, she’d murmur, “Charming! Wonderful! Charming!” This was especially true of shows in which she’d invested. And why not? A little praise never hurt anybody, and who but me knew that she was praising her own show?

She made annual trips to London, where she saw twelve plays in eight days, every January, and held court at Joe Allen’s. Simon Russell Beale, a protégé, often attended. Two years ago, I got the prize seat, next to her — until another, more distinguished protégé, Richard Dreyfuss, showed up. It was a tremendous disappointment to her when she couldn’t make the trip, last year; this year, it wasn’t even a question. She stayed home.

Madeline loved to work, and she got some plum acting gigs, too, in her later years. She was a vicious resident of a retirement community in a TV film called Yiddish, opposite Harold Gould, and the unfazed audience for Nathan Lane’s macho posturing in the brunch scene in The Bird Cage. She walked on Mad About You and took juicy supporting roles on Law & Order and its spinoff, The Beat. She played Alan Arkin’s mother in And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, and she was still auditioning the last time I saw her. I’m told to look for her in the upcoming Sex & the City film, too.

But the last couple of years, she stayed more and more at home. “One event per day is about all I can take,” she said. “Dinner or a show, not both.” She had some very mild strokes, but it was impossible to tell — except that her memory was a little less sharp, and stories no longer came in trees and cycles, but in discrete anecdotes, and sometimes she couldn’t remember a name or two. Her energy continued to wane, and her primary occupations were sleeping and eating. But she read the newspapers and watched CNN, and telephoned the world over (“The Sweetheart of AT&T,” her friend Yip Harburg once named her), and took a vivid interest in gossip and politics. Whenever I went to New York, I’d visit her every other day or so, and she was full of curiosity and advice.

Yesterday, I got word that she had passed away, and a little later I got a message from her older son, Joe, confirming that she’d died peacefully in her sleep, at home.

She opposed my move to France, with a vehemence that surprised me, not least because she had plenty of other friends who could look after her. But last night, I understood. She wasn’t worried about herself — she was worried about me. She knew, I think, how much it would hurt me to be so far from her when she left.

And now I will have to read her book again. There will be no other way to enjoy her stories.

At her command post, November 2007