Friday, June 10, 2011

The Swinging Sixties Agnes Style

1959 would be the very last time anything about Agnes Moorehead's intimate relationships would appear in the newspaper as general fodder for the masses.  She attended a party given by the clothing designer Don Loper that was in the Hollywood Gossips columns because Loper had spun a tale about a snake dinner that was given in his honor in Hong Kong forcing at least one of the attendees to spend nearly the entire evening in the bathroom being physically ill at the thought of eating snake.  The blurb is one short line that says simply that Agnes had attended the evening on the arm of a new "Egyptian" beau.  I have not been able to determine who this person was as there is never a name given.  I would have to guess that he was simply one of the gentlemen that Agnes used to escort her to private or public events during the 1960's.

The 1960's were the beginning of a revolution in America.  The morals of the 1940's and 50's were being replaced by the "Love Generation."  Everything that had been taboo for ages suddenly became the everyday norm.  The "Sexual Revolution" was taking the country by storm.  The older generation did not approve of the wild ways of the younger generation.  Suddenly one was pitted against the other.  Agnes was part of the older generation.  She had little time for what she deemed to be the lazy reflection of today's society.  In the early 1960's she made a series of movies that were good wholesome family entertainment.  Pollyanna and How the West was Won.
Agnes had begun appearing on television in the late 1950's when it was in its infancy.    She began 1960 by playing Mombi on The Shirley Temple Show.  During 1961 she appeared in the situation comedy My Sister Eileen as well as show called Harrigan and Son. In 1963 she appeared  in a single episode of a show called Channing.  She punctuated these performances with a series of dramatic readings on a show called Studio Three.  She saw the future and knew that television would become to our generation what radio had been to hers.  She approached it with the same kind of dedication and vigor that she had demonstrated with radio becoming a familiar face to audiences nationwide.  Soon she would begin a journey that would forever engrave her image on the hearts and in the minds on millions of people world wide.

I Can Only Play So Many Witches Can't I?

As the story is told it was a chance meeting with Elizabeth Montgomery while both were shopping in New York City that led Agnes to the part the would forever be associated with her.  It is said that Agnes' outrageous sense of fashion, distinct pattern of speech and exaggerated mannerisms attracted Montgomery's attention in the store.  Agnes, it seems, was looking for a particular color of ribbon and was issuing requests with the authority of a 4 star general.  It rang a bell for Montgomery who, along with her husband William Asher, had been working on the idea of turning the motion picture story line of "I Married A Witch" into a half hour sitcom for television.  They had already settled on the idea of Elizabeth playing the witch wife and had made some movement toward casting the part of her husband but they had hit a brick wall with the theme of a parent being involved.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the movie "I Married A Witch" it was released in 1942 and starred Veronica Lake as a beautiful 17th century witch freed from her imprisonment in an old oak tree to persecute the descendants of  the man who imprisoned her in an old oak tree along with her father hundreds of years before.  Both Montgomery and Asher wanted the presence of a parental figure for the young witch but simply were unable to come up with anyone who would fit the bill.  That was until Montgomery crossed paths with Agnes in Bloomingdale's Department Store.   When Elizabeth returned home that day she announced to Asher that she had found "mother."  Agnes was offered the part and accepted it whole heartily believing that the show would amount to nothing and would never be picked up by a network.  She was incredibly surprised when it was picked up by a network and often grumbled about the "treadmill" of television but I think in reality while it was a tiring schedule she loved the limelight that it threw on her.  In a very short span of time Agnes, who was already highly recognizable, became the type of star she had always dreamed of being.  Instantly recognizable all over the globe.

You Have My Encouragement and Best Wishes 

It was during her time on Bewitched that Agnes began her transformation into the aloof, opinionated, religious, conservative that would define her for the rest of her life.  She used her celebrity status to speak her mind in all manner of public forums not the least of which was the newspaper.  She wrote many an editorial piece just like this:
 Actors Need Academy, Star Contends
July 15th, 1967
Hollywood California (AP)
Acting is too often looked upon as a gifted art.  This may be but having the gift is only the beginning.  It must be honed and developed by training and experience.
In the profession today we have many stars with talent who lack the discipline and dedication that comes with training.  
The Mercury Theatre Players in the 30's and 40's was a group of actors that practiced both.  We wanted to learn, to experiment, to contribute to entertainment.  To us study was the very important first step in any performance.
Must Be Prepared

This is why casting directors keep using some performers over and over again.  They know what they can expect from them whereas it would be a gamble to give a role to an actor whose work they don't know.
Consider this a bid for the establishment of a National Academy for actors.  Many of the professions ills can be attributed to the lack of an institution that would give neophytes the thorough training they need.
Into this academy would go the ideas and thinking of the best people in the entertainment world.  The graduates would be the stars of the future.
Helps Audiences Too
The American theatre and the public would benefit from the academy as much as the young actors and actresses who attend.  Once they master their craft learn the value of discipline and the importance of hard work they will be more capable of entertaining appreciative audiences.
Here in America we would have no trouble finding students for the academy.  there are many young people with talent in this country.  They are the hope and future of the American theatre.  We just need a place where they can be trained properly.
To those young readers considering becoming a performer I send my encouragement and best wishes.  To you who think acting success comes overnight I can only say you have a great deal to learn.

These ideals were pure Agnes and she reiterated them as often as she could find a forum to iterate them in.  She had begun speaking on this topic at college and universities in the early 1960's prior to the success of Bewitched.
Agnes Moorehead: Acting Is Work
January 2, 1962
Costa Mesa California (UPI)
Agnes Moorehead says today's young actors are lazy reflections of an "age of mediocrity" in the theatre, movies and television.
"Drama is not great when it's a roll off the curb into the gutter." she told students at Orange Coast College.
It takes plenty of work to become and actor, said Miss Moorehead, in show business since she was three years old and holder of a doctorate in Speech from Columbia University.

She had also begun the art of rewriting her own history.  A more accurate statement would be to say she did not seek to correct flattering errors.  She hadn't been in show business since she was three years old.  She had sung publicly at her father's church somewhere around the age of three.  She didn't have a doctorate in Speech from Columbia University.  She did have an honorary doctorate in Speech from Columbia University.  Agnes was guilty of stretching the truth.  By her own admittance she had been doing it since she was a child.  Often she would spin great long tales about some fantastic occurrence and her parents did not see that as an issue.  They saw it as being a child at least according to Agnes they did.   However, it was a habit she did not outgrow.  She was known to make up fantastic tales and to tell them to people who very obviously knew they were not true.  Joseph Cotten and his wife witnessed one such event during their stint with Agnes in "Prescription Murder."  Agnes spun a great long yarn about being in labor and the delivery of her son Sean.  Once she finished she simply stood up and left the room.  Nobody called her out on just as nobody had called her out on it as a child.  They simply accepted it as a personality trait they could do nothing about.  Paul Gregory is alleged to have said in an interview for a biography many years later that it was a part of her personality that he found troubling. This is one of the most public examples I have found.  Agnes was interviewed for a magazine article entitled  
"You May Come Close But Not Too Close."
Bernice Mason
So much mention has been made of her stellar career, but details of her personal life are not known.  There are things that have set people to wondering.  Signs....trail signs.  Signs that aren't actually there but you read them anyway--like Private Property, No Trespassing, and Stranger, Keep Out.  There also seems to be a general impression that she lives within a created impenetrable fortress composed of layer on layer of self protecting covering, perhaps to guarantee the safety of a hypersensitive spirit against the knife thrust of living...a fortress to which nobody would probably lay ruthless siege but which evokes the wonder if this fine, beautiful granite strength would crumble at too cruel a jest, too sweet a song, a too knowing surgeon's probe.
 We perceived that our questions would have to be abrupt and direct. 
"Are you married, Agnes?"
"I was married--twice.  My first husband died.....The second one I divorced."  She speaks of it with a surprising lack of interest.  "I've been single since 1954,"  she adds--the only information she was to volunteer.
"Do you have any children?"
"My foster son Sean."
"How did you find him?  How old was he then?"
"He was a year and a half old.  My doctor told me about him...He was a legitimate child with about 14 brothers and sisters.  His mother had put six of them up for adoption.  Sean was very anemic, his little eyes were crossed, he had  bad teeth and a spot on his lung."
"A foster son....You didn't think of adopting him?"
"I couldn't.  I was single at the time and single women then weren't permitted to adopt babies.  But I took him into my home and raised him as my own son.  He's grown now and has gone out somewhere on his own."
"You don't know where he is now?"
"No, I haven't heard from him in quite a while."  There is no emotion in the things she says.  Now, quite suddenly, she flashes a most unexpected and radiant smile. "But that's all right.  That's the way boys are."

She doesn't dwell much on what she doesn't have: the son who has gone, the husbands of yesteryear, the hundreds of acquaintances-but only two friends; the absence of anyone close to give her affection, the final lack of any present romantic interest. 
"I don't know why I shut it out," she confesses. "I don't know why.  I haven't sought it, it would have to come to me.  I can't go out and get involved in some scandalous affair--I owe something to the public that has kept me going.  And....I'm not really alone.  I have many pets-- three dogs and three birds.  And then there are the two girls who work for me--one has been with me for 20 years, the other for 14.  They look after me and take good care of me.  As for personal loves---you can't always depend on a human being, you know.  Then again, I seem to need a certain amount of solitude.  It renews me.  Solitude enriches ones being....."
 Agnes flat out lied about Jack Lee being dead.  He was very alive and living in Hollywood.  In fact he had started collecting his social security in 1967.  Jack did not pass away until October 1974 near six months to the day of his former wife. It also seems odd that she would make a point of including her second marriage at all.  They were both traumatic in different ways.  Her detachment from reality is very palpable in this article.  I think her need for fantasy stemmed from a childhood that was not necessarily as idyllic as she often spoke of it as being and it provided her a means of escape from that reality.

Coming in the next installment:
Going Back, Way Back, to the Very Beginning

1 comment:

Erika said...

I've seen his last name as "Kadish". The Egyptian beau. I wonder about the spelling but that was it in the article. I was looking through the article you posted here because of Sean, but I saw the line about the beau and I have seen his name before. No first name though. She refused to give his first name. I'm thinking he was more than just an escort. Maybe you will be able to track him down eventually. I hope so.

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