Remembering Marian Seldes: An excerpt from an August 2005 Interview:
Marian Seldes: First Lady of American Theater?
By: Ellis Nassour
‘‘Darling, it hasn’t always been fun," Miss Seldes said in her famous stage whisper as we met to reminisce over her career.
In a 2004 Vanity Fair interview, Miss Seldes spoke of how long it took her to establish a leading lady career; and of 1974, which she considered "the most terrible time in my whole career. " She was in her 40s when cast in Peter Shaffer’s Equus. "I wasn’t prepared for the public humiliation [British director] John Dexter subjected me to," when during a rehearsal, he yelled, "Watch those Jewish hands, Seldes!"
Over the following days, she "went onstage with my eyes stinging…I felt I must have been wrong all these years about the theater. I had thought it was a place of joy."
Miss Seldes went on to astound Mr. Dexter, never missing a performance and playing 1,209 of them.
Marian Seldes was the daughter of Alice Hall and Gilbert Seldes, a respected critic, editor, best-selling author and novelist, playwright, screenwriter, director of television news and educator, and founding dean, Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania. She says her parents couldn’t have been more different. "Mother was from a long line of Episcopalian blue-bloods and her father was not. He was Jewish."
She feels her childhood on East 57th Street was particularly blessed not only because her father knew a virtual Who’s Who of that era [including Irving Berlin, Charlie Chaplin, e. e. cummings, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, Picasso and Gertrude Stein] but also because she got to tag along a great deal of the time with her father to the theater. She recalls that her first show was Billy Rose’s Jumbo, which as it turned out was the first show Edward Albee’s adoptive parents took him to. They were born the same year.
At age 14, she was "totally bitten by the bug" on seeing Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, starring [and produced by] Katharine Cornell [directed by Guthrie McClintic, her husband] and featuring Ruth Gordon, then in her 40s.
"I’d never experienced anything like that," recalls Miss Seldes, "and after graduation from the Dalton School I decided against college in favor of going into theater. That didn’t go over well with my parents, but I was going to be an actress!"
Her first marriage in 1953 was to successful writer/TV producer Julian Claman, the father of her only child, Katharine [named after Miss Cornell; she’s a writer]. Claman, who was 10 years older, has been described by Miss Seldes’ brother Timothy as charming but also "complex, neurotic and sometimes abusive." Her daughter has said that her father was "difficult and violent." He died at age 50. They were divorced at the time.
It was 29 years before she remarried , to Garson Kanin, the screenwriter of numerous classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age, playwright, director and widower of Ruth Gordon, who was over 15 years older than her husband.
She notes that she and Mr. Kanin, whom she’d known for years and even worked with, became inseparable. Many times he asked her to marry him, "but I felt shy about saying yes. Garson’s [42-year] marriage to Ruth was so important, as was their collaboration. They were so close and he was absolutely devastated when Ruth died . But I finally said, ‘Okay, let’s do it’ and Garson was the most wonderful companion you could ever dream of. And, of course, witty and stunningly brilliant. We had great fun. But he was also complicated and serious. Getting to know that part of him was wonderful, too."
Is she complicated? Instead of answering, Miss Seldes turns the question back: "What do you see?" The writer’s reply was: "someone very intelligent, educated and urbane and someone who’s very sure of herself. And someone who has a devilish sense of humor." She doesn’t comment.
It’s often said that Miss Seldes is "always on" and she doesn’t totally disagree. "I don’t just come into a room. I want to bring something, to give pleasure. You don’t go through life merely walking in and out of doors. You have an objective."
Her regal way of sweeping into a room as if she had been a veteran ballet or ballroom dancer, her posture, those courtly curtsies and that kiss on the warmly embraced hand, lead some to believe she’s not sincere.
Her dear friend Brian Murray’s appraisal of Miss Seldes speaks volumes:
"Marian always makes you feel like you are the most important person in the room, yet, when you get to know her, there’s absolutely nothing grand about her."
Though legends of fans may have only a momentary "sweep by" with Miss Seldes, she makes such a warm and gracious impression that they speak of it as if they’ve had an intimate candlelit evening with her.
"People love Marian and for good reason," notes playwright Terrence McNally. "There are no bad stories about her." As far as her craft is concerned, he says, "She’s more than a survivor ó she’s a leader of the movement to make sure theater never goes away."
When Miss Seldes is informed that some people are intimidated by her, she seems stunned. "Intimidated? By me? I hope not. I have noticed how very polite people are with me. They approach hesitantly and say, ‘Miss Seldes, I don’t mean to bother you.’ My goodness, it isn’t a bother.
"One’s weaknesses are not so fascinating," she adds, "so I try to give an impression of confidence and well-being. To my way of thinking, that puts the other person at ease. But I’m just as nervous and anxious as the next person. When someone meets me, I’m thrilled. It means they’re interested in my work. It means I’ve communicated something to them. Live. Alive! Not on a piece of film. You’ve been with that person. I always say, ‘Darling, it’s the part.’ They don’t want to hear that. They want to think it’s me. It’s not."