Volume 19 | Issue 26 | November 10 - 16, 2006

For Julie Harris, who has not lived in vain

By Jerry Tallmer

At the Primary Stages gala at Tavern on the Green, Anne Jackson, Eli Wallach, Marian Seldes, and others paid homage to Julie Harris’s career. 
One thinks of Julie Harris — first lady of the American theater and films and TV for most of our lifetime — in terms of, oh, Emily Dickinson, Joan of Arc, or Frankie Adams (age 12), and not of  … shall we say? … Paris Hilton. But here is how another much-loved lady of theater, Anne Jackson, remembers their first encounter:

 “We both lived in Greenwich Village, and were both at an audition for some show. I was waiting my turn when Julie came out, slammed the door behind her, and announced vehemently to everyone: ‘If I had tits I could rule the world.’  ”

 Ms. Jackson, who was at that moment sharing the podium with her husband Eli Wallach, revealed the above on Monday evening during a star-studded Primary Stages gala at Tavern on the Green in honor of the passionately drama-dedicated Julie Harris whose career — skyrocketing with her Frankie Adams of “The Member of the Wedding” in 1950 (Broadway) and ’52 (the film) – stretched from the mid-1940s until a stroke in 2001 had rendered her all but wordless.

Ms. Jackson added that when she and Ms. Harris, early on, were in a show together in which the uneasy Ms. Jackson had to play a very bad young woman indeed, Ms. Harris advised her: “Listen, Anne, just think you’re in pink tights on top of an elephant.”

 Eli Wallach had his own memories, among them being in an “Alice in Wonderland” in 1947 “in which Julie was the Little White Rabbit and I was The Duck and the Two of Spades. Next thing I know she was Mademoiselle Colombe in a play by Jean Anouilh.”

 Yes, but not before she was also, brilliantly, amorally, utterly believably, Sally Bowles in the John Van Druten “I Am a Camera” that came out of Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” and would some day be transformed into “Cabaret.”

 “For 13 years,” Wallach said, “Anne and I have recommended her for Kennedy Center honors. Finally they woke up.”

 It was Marian Seldes who brought the assemblage back in mind of the Julie Harris of West Chatham, Mass., who had toured “The Belle of Amherst” back and forth across the country in the 1970s.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,

[Ms. Seldes read from Emily Dickinson]

I shall not live in vain;

If I can ease one life the aching,

Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.”

 And courage, Ms. Seldes added, glancing at the 80-year-old Julie Harris seated before her. What to say about Ms. Harris’s curage? In the middle of the night, Ms. Seldes had remembered a passage in the memoirs of another memorable American actress, Ruth Gordon, which ends as follows:

 “ … That walk from the darkness backstage through the door or opening in the scenery where [you] make an entrance into the bright lights with that big dim mass out beyond, which bursts into applause, then the first terrifying sound that comes out of my throat, which they describe as a voice, but that first instant it is the siren of terror and intention and faith and hope and trust and vanity and security and insecurity and blood-curdling courage which is acting.”

 There were many more speakers, including Sue Breger, board chairman of Primary Stages, and Casey Childs, Primary Stages founder and executive producer. Ruby Dee and Marin Ireland did a scene from “Member of the Wedding” originally played by Ethel Waters and Julie Harris in which the black Berenice Sadie Brown needles the young white girlchild who’s in love with her own brother’s wedding: “Frankie’s got a crush! Frankie’s got a crush!” Gregg Edelman followed with the great song from that same Carson McCullers wonderworld: “His eyes are on the sparrow.” One could almost hear Ethel Waters in the background, or foreground.

But you had to wait until the film clips in which the 24- or 25-year-old 12-year-old Julie Harris herself – just after crushing into a kiss with “East of Eden’s” James Dean – burst out, midst sobs: “All people belong to a We … except me!” … had to wait for that for your heart to jump a beat and the tears come willy-nilly into your eyes.

 Those tears were replicated a bit more publicly when actress Elizabeth Wilson, a Massachusetts neighbor of Julie Harris, ushered her longtime friend to the stage — Julie Harris, tiny, with difficulty, her tears watering her blonde pageboy. “My voice is lost,” she managed to get out, “but my heart is open.” Then, to the whole room — and beyond that, to everyone in the family of theater everywhere: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for everything.”

 Imagine that. She thanks us. The members of her wedding.

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