23.7.11

Remembering Rue McClanahan

Originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle June 4, 2010

Two weeks ago, I sat with Rue McClanahan at the slatted patio table in her sunny little backyard on Manhattan’s upper east side. A lifelong dancer, voracious reader, uninhibited artist and deliciously garrulous conversation maker, she’d been fighting hard to regain her mobility and speech since suffering a stroke in January. Her eyes were bright, full of things she wanted to say, but every syllable was an act of will. It took a long time to ask if I wanted lunch, even longer to fill me in on “all the drama.”

She thanked me for not jumping in to finish sentences. People kept doing that without knowing the specific word she was grappling with. They’d interject “lucky,” she told me, where she wanted to say “serendipitous,” and she forged that word — serendipitous — with the painstaking tenacity of a glassblower.


Words were important to Rue. The first day we met to work on her memoir, My First Five Husbands … and the Ones Who Got Away (Broadway Books/Random House 2007), we sat at that patio table until 2 a.m., drinking wine and parsing terms for our collaboration. I did more than edit the 600-page rough draft she’d written, but Rue hated the words “ghostwriter” and “book doctor.” (“My book is not sick!” she insisted. “It’s healthy. Like a Sumo wrestler.”) We settled on “memoir guru” alternated with “literary Sherpa.” But ultimately, we were friends.

Our main challenge: Rue never met a billboard, song lyric, stray dog, walnut shell, math problem, taxi driver or English muffin that didn’t have some hilariously epic story attached to it. Everything fascinated her. She read books about philosophy and physics — yes, Blanche fans, physics! — and history. A breast cancer survivor who spoke for many events benefiting Susan G. Komen for the Cure, she was keenly interested in all things chemotherapy, but also had strong opinions about the spiritual and psychological aspects of cancer.

After she suffered a stroke in January, even that devastating disconnect between her body and brain was something to be wondered at. She studied it. Even laughed at it on occasion. (She called me a couple months ago and said, “Helllooo, Joni. Thish ish Kirk Douglash.”) Two weeks ago in her garden, she said her rehab called on the same discipline and skills she’d learned through decades of dance and drama technique.

Rue took ballet from early childhood and studied at Jacob’s Pillow as a teen. She was a drama major at the University of Tulsa, then studied acting with Uta Hagen at the Berghof Studio in New York, where “we learned to communicate volumes with a eyelash.” She wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, but knew her greatest gift was that she was funny as hell — on stage, on camera and in real life.

Rue’s early hardscrabble gigs included everything from singing waitress to angsty film noir. One night in the early 1950s, she bent to light a gas stove and was blown back against a wall, horribly burned. Two days later, in searing pain, thick body makeup covering her peeling skin, she shot a semi-nude love scene for Walk the Angry Beach (later released as Hollywood After Dark.) In 1958, “pregnant as a giant ground sloth,” Rue followed her first husband to Houston, where he worked briefly as an actor at the Alley Theatre. When the marriage fell apart, Rue went home to Oklahoma and had the baby alone. She agonized over long periods away from her son, lived out of suitcases and closets, sacrificed anything and everything she had to, not to be rich or famous, but to practice her craft.

In 2007, when Rue’s memoir was published, there was at least one The Golden Girls rerun playing somewhere in the world every hour of every day. She embraced Blanche Devereaux, but it’s not how she wanted to be remembered. This book would be funny. A given. But Rue also wanted to say something meaningful about life and art. She hoped her son, Austin jazz guitarist Mark Bish, would read it and understand a few things about his own life as an artist.

Through trials and triumphs, Rue’s joy, generosity and capacity for love were childlike and unstoppable. After seeing her in an off-Broadway production of Dylan, playwright Tennessee Williams wrote, “Your work has that rare combination of earthiness and lapidary polish, that quality of being utterly common and utterly noble. Frippery combined with fierceness.”

“That’s how I want to be remembered,” she said. “I want my obit in the (New York) Times to say ‘Actress’ — not ‘Golden Girl.’ ”

Rue told me this in the context of a conversation about how she wanted her story to end.

Here’s what we came up with:

“The sun is streaming down on Manhattan’s East Side, and across my back fence a children’s tennis class is presently in progress. Every morning we find chartreuse balls hiding in the foliage like Easter eggs … I used to say I wanted to die onstage after the curtain goes down on a play that I’m in. Now I think I’d be just as pleased to check out right here in the garden, listening to those kids’ voices across the fence.

“A writer friend of mine says there’s no such thing as happy endings, only happy intervals and inevitable conclusions, and that an author must choose whether to follow a story to its inevitable conclusion or draw the curtain at a happy interval. And so, my dears, I’ll draw the curtain here. On days like today, there is no ending. Perhaps there never is. All I know is that at this moment, I am happy.”

– By JONI RODGERS, SPECIAL TO THE CHRONICLE

New York Times bestselling author Joni Rodgers lives in Houston. Her freelance fee for this piece has been donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Visit her website at www.jonirodgers.com.

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