Wednesday, December 28, 2011

An Echo Continued

Do you know how an echo sounds once it begins?  It is loud, clear, resounding, forceful and understandable.  With each return though it grows softer, dimmer and more distorted.  Often I think that has what has happened with Agnes.  The further away from her we get the more we are forced to figure out what the echo is saying.  Sometimes I think it reaches a point when it becomes less necessary to know what the echo originally said and more important to define a meaning for it it.  For each person that hears it the echo will mean something different.  More for some less for others.   The most marvelous thing is that Agnes is an echo continued.  Every page you ready every word written, every thought given, every discussion had is a continuation of this larger than life creature.

Agnes was a perfectionist.  Someone who was completely dedicated to the idea that with practice and observation life became a useful tool in and of itself.   She used to say to acting students, ""It's interesting, life, colors, brilliance.  Do something brilliant, think!"  If you want to do something, you take the reality and you color it."  "Watch life, watch theatre, be skeptical, analyze successes, failures, analyze it all."  Take reality and you color it.  It  is an interesting premise that falls in line with her failure to fully live in this world and her desire to make reality conform to what she thought it should be.  Whether it was her school, her family, her career, she had certain tints she applied to them to make them bearable.  She rarely moved beyond the fantasy that she surrounded herself with as protection.  She remained in the woods and was whatever she wanted to be whenever she wanted to be it.

I think if we had an IQ test with Agnes' name on it you'd find that she had a ridiculously high IQ.  She was incredibly intelligent.  Anytime you listen to her speak you can hear that intelligence flowing through that deep velvet voice.  She could communicate anything with that voice and she could make you see it in your minds eye just as clearly as if you had been standing right there.  She can still do that.  How grateful we should all be that she made so many recordings.  Just recently I listened to the original "Don Juan In Hell" again and found myself swept away by her portrayal of Dona Ana.   If you watch her talk on any given talk show about her youth you can see like a mist of a ghost the younger version of Agnes in all her glory.

She was also what I call a "wordsmith."  That is someone who is so eloquent and so talented that words become tools in themselves.  Not just their meanings but their use and the way they are used.  Agnes, it has been said, "used words like hammers."  She emphasized them, repeated them and pounded them into the minds of those who listened to her.  Quint Benedetti says, "She hit them like a batter with the bases loaded.  She did the same thing with sentences.  She would question fiercely, and then quietly, then intensively answer her own questions.  She would make an important statement augustly and then repeat it softly, reflectively, more strongly than the first time.  Or intensely, searching, as if inexorably prying out its true meaning.  But her repetition was always an echo that we would continue inside ourselves"  Her echo would continue inside ourselves and so it does in so many ways.  I doubt that the depth of her mark on this world was ever really completely clear to her.

I don't refer just to her time in Hollywood.  Her imprint goes far beyond Hollywood itself.  It goes into every home on this planet that has a television and show old television shows or movies.  Generation after generation has been exposed to her performances, her philosophies, her truths, her prevarications.  The impact is so deep that she or rather "Endora" is considered to be a cultural icon.  Instantly recognizable in nearly every nation on our planet.  To the generation now passing away and moving on she was a radio cultural icon.  Fortunately the love of the old radio shows and the desire to keep our history alive has allowed an entirely new generation to discover this complex, talented, woman and oh how wonderful she would find it.  Although I often wonder what diatribe she would launch into over the moral state of world today.  As bad as the sixties were the 2000's would truly blow her mind.

Agnes was completely dedicated to her art and a stickler for detail.  Benedetti said, " She'd look into the forest and see the insects, the grass, the burned out useless twigs.  She saw all the details of the forest not just the trees and the branches and the leaves.  She had a keen eye for observation. She saw what a lot of us didn't see.  She went places that many people would not be willing, mentally, to go.  Think about the movie "Fourteen Hours"  it's a movie about suicide and I'm sure we would all agree that if you had experienced the suicide of a sibling the last thing you would want is to do a movie about a parent trying to save the life of their child and no matter how annoying or clingy her character is that is exactly what the character was trying to do.  If you get a chance to watch it take the time to watch Agnes' eyes.  She calls up that pain and puts it right there for everyone to see.  Her attention to detail was infallible.  She used to say,  "Therapy? What do you need with therapy?  Oh, my dear," she scolded high handedly.  Then she proceeded to give me a ten minute lecture.  "I'm a great believer in making your weaknesses your strengths.  I have practiced to good advantage, turning my problems over to prayer.  You don't need therapy.  It will ruin your eccentricity and creativity.  All you'll need is God and the Bible."  "And you just have to know what you are about."  It's a simple clean cut view.  I am what I am.  I have lived what I've lived.  I have been taught what I've been taught and that must be right.  It may be a naive simplistic way to view things but then in many ways Agnes never really grew up.
When her mother, who was a dominant force in her life was around, Agnes always acted like a little girl with her.  It has been said that on more than one occasion when they traveled together a disagreement would be stir up and her mother would just say, "Hush, Agnes!"  Agnes did exactly as she was told.  Quint Benedetti says that only person he ever saw upstage Agnes was her mother.

Not much has been written on Mollie Moorehead that isn't as contradictory as anything written about her daughter.  Her fundamentalist beliefs caused more than their share of strain on both the Moorehead Girls but Agnes was tough as nails.  She forged that distance from her mother into a shield that would keep the world at bay and it taught her how to protect herself.  It has been said alternately that Mollie was the sweetest woman in the world and that she was cold as ice.  My own opinion is that she was a product of her time.  My own grandmother Alice was so very much the same way and my great grandmother even more so.  I have exactly 4 pictures in which my grandmother is smiling and none in which my great grandmother Mae, who was incidentally the same age as Mollie, is smiling.  Great grandmother was a fundamentalist too as was my grandmother.  My grandfather, like Agnes' father, was an easy going Lutheran man with strong opinions of wrong and right but gentle ways of teaching them.  So in Mollie's case the apple didn'[ fall far from the tree.  She reared her children, right or wrong, the way she was reared and her husband left her to her woman's work when they weren't engaged in church business.  Agnes and her sister spent a lot of time away from home.  I think that had a lot to do with the inner friction between Agnes and her mother.  It borders on resentment for Aggie.  She was left to rear herself and her sister.  She watched her sister be destroyed and yet Agnes never outwardly acted out towards her mother.  She treated Mollie as a "good girl" should and demonstrated respect for her but under that there was tension so thick it was palpable.  Benedetti calls it envy.  I call it damage....a case could be made for both.

As Benedetti says, "Agnes never ceased to be a star, an important, intelligent lady, a strange, eccentric lady but a big star. She was irresistible to me.  A promise in herself, whose colors and brilliance made some of the students follow her blindly.  Part of the power of Agnes' spell lay in the promises she'd cast.  Typically feminine, but more so with Agnes."

She was very moody and everything depended on her moods or better yet whims.  She could be in many was undisciplined and jump from one thing to another without really completing something before moving on.  At least that is how her personal life seemed to be lived.  Yet with all that she ran her home like clockwork.  She was an enigma, a walking contradiction. 
Her intensity was an inner fire that flowed out to us through her incredible animation.

She said, " A child is born with a degree of primitive savagery and somebody must discipline it out of him.  A child likes discipline.  He likes to know somebody cares.  Discipline gives standards and values to live by, a  basis for morality.  Most young people don't realize that."

Agnes Moorehead was a complicated woman.  She had complete confidence in herself in front of an audience, in front of a camera, in front of a microphone but take that away and she was lost like a child.  She could perform Agnes Moorehead but it was just that, a performance. As an actress women were drawn to her in particular because she oozed a sense of strength.   Something they felt was solid and comfortable.  Something they felt they might be able to lean on for support in time of need.  We've all heard the rumors but seriously what does that matter.  Any human being with a soul would fall in love with her.  She had a soul like a beacon in the dark and she attracted to her those who craved that erudite kind of light.  Her personal intensity was like flame, like internal combustion that she translated into action.

"I love beautiful people," Agnes would say. "I love clean people.;"  She was opinionated, poignant, domineering and possibly one of the most delightful people of the twentieth century!  Her intensity was an inner fire that flowed out to us through her incredible animation.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In A Horse Race There Can Be Only One Winner

Conflict is an awful thing even in the best situations.  Being pitted against one person or another is tiring, to say the least.  I had it done to me when I was younger and I know from first hand experience that the worst thing in the world is to have a parent that you are pitted against by choice or by accident.  I think that with all that in mind reading Quint Benedetti's treatise on Agnes struck a sympathetic note with me.  Why, you may ask, well I'll tell you.  The story goes something like this:
As a young woman, twenty years old to be exact, I got myself involved with an older woman.  Thirty three years my senior she was.  Suddenly I discovered that my mother, with whom my relationship had always been difficult, was now my adversary in every way she could be.  I was caught in the middle of a no win situation trying to please my mother, the woman, the partner of the woman, who incidentally was a best friend to my mother, tearing myself to pieces and ultimately unable to rectify anything with anybody.  I was stunned when I read this passage in Benedetti's book:  " Agnes' vulnerability opened the door for Tanya and, at times, Agnes' loyalty became caught in the middle of her mother, Tanya and me.  She needed us all...but in a horse race there can only be one winner."

Oh my GOD....There it was in black and white.  Immediately I could relate to the stress of that situation.  I also had a complete grasp of why Mollie had such an intense dislike for Tanya Hills.  There are those out there who will dispute this out the yin yang and that is their right.  I have to say to them, to anybody reading this really, there are only a small number of things that will set a parent on edge the way Mollie Moorehead was set on edge by Tanya Hills:
1. The person your child is spending time with is an obviously bad influence.
2. Your child has done this before with other  people and the results were horrendous.
3. Your child is participating in a behavior you consider to be immoral or illegal.
Little can be said about a parent's protective instinct that is genuinely bad unless it involves physical, mental and/or emotional abuse.  But what constitutes that abuse is open to interpretation.  Typically it is the result of a negative reaction in which words become weapons to inflict pain and shame.  Mollie was equipped to down dress Agnes and like my mother with me, Mollie reacted in a very negative way over Tanya with Agnes.  She did so for the same reason my mother did, see all of the above for explanation, it was explosive for me and obviously explosive for Agnes. Benedetti describes it like this: "As I said earlier, it didn't take Mollie Moorehead long to learn what Tanya was trying to do.  Mollie took an instant dislike to Tanya, so that Agnes and Mollie really began to have the starting of a feud, which was to increase.  It was all over Tanya's meddling and trying to "get in.""
And like this: " She must have felt bad physically and phoned long distance to Tanya about what I never learned.  Looking back know, I think it was about her health.  Mollie had overheard her make the phone call and was livid when she found out that Agnes was talking to Tanya.  An argument ensued and Mollie packed her bags and one morning asked Rochell to take her into New Concord.  Mollie Moorehead was going back to her own home in Reedsburg.  She was mad as a hatter at Agnes for Agnes' contacting Tanya behind her back and she made no bones about it.  It was a sad situation and Rochell tried to talk to Mollie and I talked to Agnes, not realizing how serious Mollie's feelings had been towards Tanya all this time.  As it was, I think Rochell finally to Mollie to the bus station and Mollie went to Canton, Ohio to her sister."

Can you imagine having to cope with that?  No.  Believe me when I tell you that you don't want to imagine having to cope with it.  It's horrible, painful, demoralizing and unforgettable.  You are caught between a desire to be around someone or speak with them and disappointing a parent.  I was only twenty but Agnes was seventy years old give or take a few years.  I simply cannot wrap my head around being that old and being intimidated by your mother.  Don't get me wrong my mother was a very formidable woman but I eventually reached an age when I looked at her and said "your approval of my life isn't required and you can accept me or not but I will love you regardless of it all."  My mother lived with that and eventually we reached the point where we had a good relationship.  It seems that Agnes was never afforded that gift.  She spent her time, her energy, trying to win approval from someone who was determined to have a child that was exactly what Mollie expected her to be.  Is it any wonder that Agnes did exactly the same thing to Sean?

Agnes' having to live with the pressure of keeping part of her life away from her mother is likely responsible for her adamant statements that she did not want her mother living with her.  A life of this kind is isolating and very lonely.  You cannot share a portion of who you are with the person who gave you life.  You learn how to be a very good prevaricator but every now and then your life will insert itself  with devastating effect in to the real world.  An incident like this is the reason Benedetti gives for his falling out with Agnes.  He states, 
"Tanya phoned me when she learned I was back from the farm.  She badgered me to death with questions all about the farm, for she wanted to see it and be with Agnes in the worst way.  Agnes, however, could not let her come because of her mother's feelings about Tanya.  I saw Tanya off and on and even invited her as my date to a fund raising function at the hospital.  During one of our conversations about Agnes, her health, the farm, etc., Tanya told me Agnes had told her why she had sent Rochell home.  He was causing so much difficulty with the workers on the farmhouse, that he was giving orders and upsetting the routine.  I didn't believe this and told Tanya that I felt that I knew Rochell better than she and that he would not do this.  He thought too much of Agnes, for one thing, and also he would not do such a thing to place his wife, Freddie, in jeopardy by acting in such a fashion.  Tanya insisted and somehow I felt it was a ruse schemed up between Tanya and Agnes to get rid of Rochell, so Tanya could have her dream of  going to the farm come true.  Freddie and I both loved Agnes and were genuinely concerned for her well being always.  So, I went to Freddie and, in confidence, asked her why Rochell had returned home from the farm, for Agnes had wanted him to stay on until she could find suitable caretakers for the place when she returned to L.A.  She knew that Rochell would want to be with Freddie back in L.A.  Freddie explained that Rochell came home of his own volition and that he explained to Agnes that he felt he wanted to be with Freddie so he came home.  He was not fired, sent home or let go as Tanya had said to me.  I believed Freddie.
When Agnes finally returned to Los Angeles, after her work in Salem, unbeknownst to me, Freddie decided on a confrontation.  Freddie waited until one day when Tanya was at the Roxbury house with Agnes.  She came downstairs and confronted them both about the rumor of Rochell being fired.  Freddie was a fair lady and wanted both Agnes and Tanya to know that she didn't like lies being perpetrated by either one of them about Rochell.  In a conversation with me, Freddie said it was obvious that they both knew they were in hot water by the way they kept passing the buck.  Freddie knew the truth and they both knew she knew it.  Almost immediately after this, I received a frantic phone call from Tanya who had just been through the torments of hell with Agnes.  Agnes chewed her out to hell and back.....In her tongue lashing from Agnes, Tanya had involved me in some way.  It wasn't long before I received a telephone call from Agnes accusing me of lying about her.  I told her I had never lied to her or about her up to this point."  Quite the story and honestly I have no reason to doubt it.  I know how that goes the inventing of situations to put two people in the same place.  I lived that way for a very long time.  I think Agnes' cutting Benedetti out of her life had more to do with him discovering the truth than any kind of lie.  She felt caught, exposed and unprotected.  While Benedetti insists that Agnes' attachment to Tanya had more to do with her being a nurse than an actual relationship between the two women I would disagree wholeheartedly.  I don't think it was a physical relationship but it certainly was an emotional relationship.  Those emotions ran deep too because you don't fly in the face of parent you know is going to call you on the carpet by pitching a fit over a phone call.  I don't care whether you're twenty or seventy you don't put yourself in a negative position with a companion if there are not some very deep emotions attached.  In fact Tanya must have felt in someway empowered by her relationship with Agnes.  Benedetti actually intimates that when he says these words, "Tanya was more interested in being with Agnes than running the school when Agnes would not be there.  Tanya also wanted, in the worst way, to get more involved with the running of Agnes' home on Roxbury, and would go up when Agnes and I would be on the road and suggest to Freddie and Polly that they should take the day off.  She, Tanya, would run the place.  Freddie, a very dignified and conscientious lady and very loyal, told Tanya that she had been running the house for a good number of years and didn't need Tanya to tell her when she could have a day off."  This is not the behavior of somebody who views themselves as "just a friend."  You didn't see Debbie Reynolds doing anything like this and Agnes was her best friend.  This is the behavior of a mate or companion not a friend.

Yet Agnes knew instinctively that she had to have a man at her side to protect herself and she used Benedetti for that purpose.  She even told Tanya that "she could never do the work for Agnes that I had been doing, since it was mostly diversified and mostly a "man's job.""  Just exactly what those tasks were elude me because essentially he booked jobs for her and traveled with her.  There is nothing so physical about that task that it cannot easily be done by a woman.  I work in technical theater which is a realm that was populated almost exclusively by men twenty years ago but Benedetti did very little tech work.  He handled lights occasionally but Agnes taught him how to do that.  The one thing he could do that Tanya couldn't was be male and Agnes wanted to be seen in the company of a male during public functions.  It actually amazes me that she used that as a fall back because Georgia Johnstone had been her primary secretary for years without any issue.  But then when you have to be a chameleon to protect yourself you give very little consideration to the practicality of what you are doing or saying you simply act on instinct.

Agnes was of a dual nature.  That is the antique politically correct description of those of us who are bisexual.  She was unfettered by the container and more in tune with the sense of the soul.  She displayed that side of herself when she was in her element.  Benedetti comments that,  "That evening, both Tanya and I stayed on both sides of Agnes at the front door greeting the guests as they started to arrive."  She showed her attachment to them both openly.  Unfortunately it was the beginning of the race that would drive Benedetti out of her life permanently.  He felt very threatened by Tanya and by Agnes' attachment to her.  He commented that Tanya was trying to "All About Eve" him by replacing him in Agnes' life.  Tanya's motives are an unknown factor. She has never spoken openly about her relationship with Agnes.  She is still alive living in California.

What is certain is that Agnes understood who she was.  She wasn't naive in any way.  She spoke the lingo that went along with the same sex side of Hollywood.  It even startled Benedetti that she knew of it.  He says when referring to a confrontation Agnes had with a woman over a reading, "Agnes didn't like some of the things the woman was saying about her program and staging requirements.  Agnes really let her know in no uncertain terms that her "program was planned the way it was planned and no one, but no one would change it.  Later, she called the girl a "big butch" and I was surprised to hear Agnes use an expression like that."
Not a phrase that anyone unfamiliar with the lifestyle would use.  

Agnes was a woman of contradictions, complications, distractions.  I think Benedetti demonstrates a grasp of her nature when describing her, "Agnes Moorehead was a real lady.  She was very talented, very religious, avaricious, a lover of nature, a phony, a perfectionist, had a distorted but unique sense of humor, a tightwad, a disciplinarian, a frustrated mother, an animal lover...."  She was a chameleon who was comfortable with herself alone.  She liked to walk the vast area around her grandparents farm.  To be alone in the woods where she could pretend to be whatever she wanted to be.  She was alone in a crowd because she had to be.  It was her armor, another facet on a brilliant diamond of a human being.  As Benedetti put it, " It was ironic that Agnes Moorehead should have a soft country side to her, but she did. With all her sophistication, all her success in the entertainment world, there was a breath of nature in her."  What a beautiful breath of nature she was.

Monday, December 5, 2011

111 years ago today

In Clinton Massachusetts was born to Mary McCauley Moorehead and the Reverend John Henderson Moorehead a blue eyed red haired little girl.  It was Thursday, December 6th and thus as a “Thursdays child” she had far to go.  Go she did with strength, intelligence and determination.  Despite her human failings or perhaps because of them she pursued her dream with a dogged determination rarely found in human beings.  Today 111 years later she is still one of the most recognizable faces in film and television.  I have no doubt that she would have been so proud of that.  If the ancient Egyptians are to be believed as long as your name is spoken and your face represented you will live forever………….