31 August 2009

Progress Report 5: Madeline Kahn

In her Un Ballo in Maschera costume,
from Gene Wilder’s
Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother
This seems to have been one of her favorite publicity shots.

We were sitting there, Madeline and I, talking quietly about her life. She was in her early 50s at the time, her red hair was curled and styled, not long, and she wore a chic white suit; we sat in the lobby of a hotel in New York City, undisturbed by the bustle around us.

She began to tell me about an early experience in the theater, when a stage director sexually harassed her — much worse abuse, really, than that heaped mercilessly on her by Danny Kaye, when she appeared with him on Broadway in the Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two. I’d never heard of any of this — none of her family or colleagues had told me such a story. “Didn’t you complain to anybody?” I asked. “Didn’t you try to find someone to help?”

“Where was I supposed to go?” she answered. “I was so young, and he was the one in charge, after all. If I complained to the producers, they’d probably just fire me and hire someone else who could take it. I thought an actress had to put up with this sort of thing.”

I didn’t know what to say. I reached for her hand. “I’m so glad you’re telling me these things,” I said.

Only now did I notice that her eyes were brimming with tears. “So am I,” she said, taking my hand now in both of hers.

Then I woke up.

For it was just a dream. I never met Madeline Kahn, though for nearly a year I’ve been consumed with writing her authorized biography. The details of the story she told me don’t correspond to anything I’ve found in my research. (Except, as I say, a more brutish variation on her experiences with Danny Kaye.) Even if you believe in dreams — as some of Madeline’s friends do — this doesn’t seem to be a revelation. It may not be much of a sign, either. A little one, perhaps, but not more.

Those of a more practical frame of mind will be inclined to analyze the dream thus: I’ve been thinking about her a lot, and so naturally I continued to think about her in my sleep.

I hope she’ll be back, now and then, as I continue to write. In life, she’d have been horrified to know that anyone was writing her story: she was an intensely private person, I’ve learned, and discretion and dignity were among her most treasured possessions. But I believe that her audience — still vast — will appreciate her better if they understand what went into creating her art. And to do that, I’ve got to write as if I knew her.

For many of her fans, she is present. Quite a number of them (and at least one former colleague with whom I’ve spoken) didn’t even know she was dead. But such was her contribution to popular culture that she remains in our consciousness, as vividly as she appeared in my dream. That’s what my words must capture, and honor.

“Taffeta, darling!”
With Wilder, in
Young Frankenstein


The Movie Queens said...

Hi Bill, I'm so thrilled to find that a biography of dear Madeline Kahn is finally underway. This means that now I won't have to write it! Another project I can let go without feeling guilty. Now I can simply anticipate reading your book. I do have some sorta hard to find video stuff of Madeline from that brief period when I contemplated the overwhelming research task that you are now probably finding yourself in. Anyway, if you email me, I would be happy to burn you a copy and send along. iamrkj@yahoo.com

Looking forward to your progress reports and the book (I had this same anticipation over Michele Kort's Laura Nyro biography).


Richard in Chicago

Dan said...

I had the privilege of meeting Ms. Kahn in July of 1991. A friend and I drove up from San Diego to Beverly Hills to see her perform in "Love Letters" with Dabney Coleman. I had sent flowers backstage before the show, so afterward she came out to meet us and sign autographs. Ms. Kahn was wearing sandals and I was struck by how tiny she was, seeming so much larger than life on stage. Unfortunately, I was tongue-tied, but my friend chatted happily to her as she signed our programs. I also saw her at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on October 27, 1990 in a live radio broadcast called "You Say Potato." Billed as a "celebration of two nations divided by a common language," performers included Americans Paul Winfield, Madeline Kahn, and Hector Elizondo and Britons Prunella Scales, Joanna Lumley and Martin Jarvis. I didn't get to meet Ms. Kahn on this evening because there was a VIP reception after the show.

normadesmond said...

you just keep writing darling...and do a book tour thru the twin cities when it's done so that i can get an autographed copy! and don't worry about how private she was....stories need to be told or people are forgotten and i'm sure she'd never abide THAT!