16 April 2008

More Memories of Madeline

Joe Allen’s, Paris: Madeline’s headshot is roughly at center.

Today for lunch, I went to the Parisian branch of Joe Allen’s. A few years ago, I made my first visit there, and I was struck by Madeline Gilford’s picture. It hangs on the far wall, directly ahead as one enters. Madeline was surprised, too, when I told her, because the picture is one of her most recent headshots. And though she frequently dined at Joe Allen’s in New York’s Theater District, and though her annual visits to the Joe Allen’s in London were a state occasion, she hadn’t been to Paris a single time since the picture was taken.

How did it get there? Well, that’s show biz.

It seemed a fitting place to remember her, and so I’d like to share a few more of my stories of her.

One of the things that made Madeline so much fun was that she enjoyed other people so much. This is surely what made her such a great audience, but it also made her a perfect match for her late husband, Jack. It took me a little while to recognize the signs she used to cue him, but in a manner far more discreet than that of most spouses (“Honey, tell that one about the time when you…”), cue him she did. She gave him subtle Pavlovian triggers and expert setups for all his best stories and shtick and routines. She loved it when he went off on a riff — which is to say that she loved his performance, loved the pleasure it gave him, loved the pleasure it gave to us.

She didn’t particularly need the spotlight. And so in most of her best stories, it’s Jack who is the star, or Zero Mostel or Ruby Dee or some other wonderful friend. She was never happier than when one of her friends succeeded at any endeavor, and she couldn’t stop bragging about the accomplishments of younger friends like Amanda Butterbaugh and Scott Frankel and Mary Cleere Haran, her daughter-in-law. Because her friend Andy Gale works with Audra McDonald, it stood to Madeline’s reason that Audra must therefore be one of the top talents of our time. (Everybody agreed with Madeline on that point, but she’d made up her mind already and didn’t need the consensus.) And need you really ask what the best show in town may be, at any given moment? Why, naturally, it’s the one written or produced or directed by, or starring one or more of her friends.

She enjoyed throwing people together, especially when the meeting might result in work for somebody. One day a young actress came to her, referred by a mutual friend. Madeline picked up the phone and recommended the actress to another friend, a producer, who was casting a show. The young actress got the part.

The next day, the producer telephoned again. “She’s wonderful,” he said. “When did you see her perform?”

“I didn’t,” Madeline replied.

“You mean you referred an actress to me, sight unseen?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, my God, Madeline, what if the girl was terrible?”

“What if she was?” Madeline answered.

Two members of my extended family, Jack and Lenya,
with director Harold Prince

But she was a performer, too, and she could elicit laughter and dread just by riding a bicycle (as she does in Yiddish), or play drama so straight that, in Save the Tiger, most people assume that the woman who plays the receptionist really is a receptionist, a non-actor who perhaps worked at the factory where the scene was filmed. Nope, it’s Madeline.

(Her purse also makes a prominent featured appearance later in that film — for which Jack got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and for which their friend Jack Lemmon won Best Actor. Why, Madeline would ask, years later, is there no award for Best Supporting Purse?)

One of my happiest memories of Madeline is a dance routine she must have perfected when she was still a schoolgirl. She was blonde, and her bright blue eyes often drew comparisons with those of Ginger Rogers — and Madeline was movie-mad as a kid. So one afternoon she demonstrated for me the Ginger Rogers Style, with the simplest means: a tilt of the head, a set of the shoulders, and about three steps of her tapping feet. And there she was, instantly: Ginger Rogers to the life. Madeline had reduced her to her purest essence. Only funnier.

That routine would have been exceptional in itself, but Madeline then announced, “Ruby Keeler!” Different tilt of head, different set of shoulders, different tapping for feet — and there she was, Miss Ruby Keeler. And then, “Gwen Verdon!” Madeline cried, adopting a big, toothy grin. And, every bit as economically, she began to dance exactly like Gwen Verdon. In less than two minutes, I was breathless with laughter — and admiration. Because Madeline was by this point a little old lady, not as spry as she used to be and a good deal plumper. But she was a creature of show business. Some things, you just do, and you don’t stop doing them just because you’re 80 years old.

Besides, Madeline may have gotten old, but she never did get sick. Or so she said. “I’m a Jewish Scientist,” she told me. (It took me a minute to understand that one.)

She couldn’t stand people who complained, and I daresay that’s one reason she “didn’t get sick”: she refused to be one of the complainers. She wasn’t going to spend hours telling you about her Condition. If you asked, she’d respond matter-of-factly. But even in the last several months, when she was pretty much confined to her bed and her sofa, denied the superactive lifestyle to which she was accustomed, she would not complain. “I’m comfortable,” she’d say.

Madeline liked to be sure that her friends appreciated each other as much as she appreciated them. Once Madeline enlisted my help on a benefit show, which starred Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine didn’t exactly high-hat me, but her businesslike brusqueness was teetering on the fine line of politeness, and Madeline didn’t like that. “Shirley!” Madeline cried out. “Have you met Bill Madison? He worked with us on Rags.”

This didn’t entirely impress MacLaine, but Madeline wasn’t finished. “Teresa Stratas brought him to us,” she went on — definitely piquing MacLaine’s interest. Then Madeline added the coup de grâce. “And he works with Dan Rather.”

From that moment forward, MacLaine was positively adorable to me, a kind of instant mentor who began to ask about my background and plans for the future. We even talked a little about her, her performances and support for causes I admire. She’s pretty cool, actually, but it took the intervention of Madeline to help us discover that.

Another afternoon, not long after Jack died, Madeline asked me to come to her apartment to help with some paperwork. Her accountant, Gerry Kabat, was there. And Madeline couldn’t find one of the documents they needed. For several minutes, she wandered around the apartment as she murmured, “Where did I put that affidavit? Where did I put that affidavit?”

At last, I said, “It’s not Passover, is it?”

Madeline and Gerry stared at me.

“Well, isn’t that when you hide the affi-davit?”

Gerry gasped. “This boy is Jewish?”

With one quick word and one quicker gesture, Madeline settled the matter forevermore. “Honorary,” she said.

At the end of the day, she caught me admiring a photograph in the hallway: it shows Jack with Zero Mostel and Buster Keaton during the filming of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It’s an amazing image, I said, because it hardly seems possible that the universe can contain so much genius, and here they are in a single frame.

She nodded and beckoned to me to follow her into the study, where she dug around in a cabinet and fished out an identical print of that photo. “Jack had a lot of these made up for special friends,” she said. “And you are a special friend.”

Because Madeline made me an Honorary Jew, and because she bestowed on me her very special friendship for 22 years, I know that I am truly one of the Chosen People.