Irene Worth: The Goddess of Re-Invention
I loved Irene Worth to such an extent that I was eventually unable to successfully write about her: her role in Follies of God is one of a very intelligent, savvy, laconic supernumerary, darting in from the sidelines to offer the brilliant rejoinder, the quizzical response, the ideal cap to a story or a life or an idea.
It was also difficult to write about Irene because it was not at all what she wished to endure, and she was unafraid to tell me that she didn't relish how she might appear in anything that I might write. Why? I would ask. "Because," she replied, "I've shown you so much about me. I'm rarely this open with people." What Irene offered to me over a decade was not what most of us would consider private: there were no tales of affairs or feuds or disappointments: She even resisted talking about particular roles. "My own past is of no interest to me," she admitted. "What I most remember is the kindness of others; the brilliance of others."
What she shared so openly and freely were her opinions on everything and everyone that she loved, had studied, had used as inspiration in her own work, and it was a vast and diverse list. On some days she would discuss music, and she could talk for hours about everyone from Copland to Poulenc to Gershwin to Bach to Gounod to Glazunov. Irene was the first person to take me--"as my guest," she announced formally--to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a visit that lasted more than four hours, and concluded with lunch at a nearby restaurant, where she spoke for at least two more hours about the application of oils and charcoals and how it helped her apply her "emotions and responses" to the parts she played. Van Gogh had been helpful to her in portraying the Princess in Tennessee's Sweet Bird of Youth, because that woman was, in her estimation, as wild and as thickly applied--to life, to drama, to opportunities--as the "great and swooping artist." It was Irene who defied the fiery glances of Metropolitan Museum security and placed her nose within an inch of Van Gogh's paintings and pointed out where particles of his brushes had become stuck in the thick swirls: She also revealed that you could still smell the paint and, perhaps, the sweat of the artist. The Princess, she believed, had a lot of things stuck in her brain, her maquillage, her memories, and Van Gogh gave her a private canvas she could use to paint the woman's autobiography. (Irene also admitted, with a wicked giggle, that she used Christopher Walken's chest as a mirror in which she saw herself as young, fertile, wanted. "I stared into that chest so much," she told me, "and the eyes of the Princess were renewed, among other things.")
Christopher Walken and Irene Worth in Sweet Bird of Youth (1975)
Edward Albee's Alice from his play Tiny Alice sent her to a variety of artists, but she wound up staring at the works of artists who worked in tight, almost constricted spaces, particularly Josef Albers, but she came to realize that the exterior of Alice might appear as composed and as tranquil as one of Albers' many squares, but the interior of the woman was pure Pollack--wild and messy and out of control--"very much out of the lines; all over the place."
Irene loved writers--words, after all, were the foundations on which she, and all actresses, stood and lived and prospered. She had a remarkable memory for poetry, snatches of novels, parts played and admired. When Irene read my notes on Tennessee and William Inge cuddling in bed and quoting from and dreaming about Hart Crane and Harry Crosby and Mallarmé, she turned to me and began to tell me all she had learned about all of them. Crosby obsessed her--a tragic and beautiful young man, rich and talented and wild, dabbling in opium and cocaine and heavy makeup, he married well and dallied well, and took his lover to a friend's studio in the Hotel des Artistes and consummated the relationship as all of his friends believed he must: he killed her and himself. Irene shared the story in what I can only call Golden Age Grand Guignol, and we would stand on West 67th Street, at the feet of the Hotel, and imagine all the events, all the lovely words, all the ugly implications that led them to the deaths above. "I cannot imagine my life without the constant introduction of words," she told me, and she loved to appear before audiences and share lovely words and ideas with them. "I cannot be more intimate than that," she confessed. "If you see me in that environment, standing alone on a stage with an open heart and memorized passions, that's the most anyone will get of me."
Irene realized far too late, she confessed, how much she was loved, and how lucky she had been: When her apartment building was being converted into a condominium, she was horrified to learn that she did not possess the funds to purchase what had been her home for many years. To her initial embarrassment and amazement, both Alec Guinness and John Gielgud came to her aid and helped her purchase what would be her home until the day she died. "I did not know until then," she told me, "the power of giving."
Irene gave to me abundantly--not only in time, but in the gifts of books and records. The books were not only well-written and beautifully bound novels and biographies, but she was mightily amused by the incendiary and religious comic books produced by the Jack Chick company, particularly one called "The Gay Blade." If we read it together, we would laugh as if inebriated. When I told her that Tenn believed that her mind was similar to a tray of gelatin onto which she impressed multiple images, she looked at me with that bewildered expression that always made Gielgud think of a startled owl. "That," she said, pointing at my notes, "is bad writing from a brilliant writer." We let the thought go, but on my next birthday, Irene sent me a large, heavy, ornate gelatin mold in which hung suspended pieces of fruit. I could smell citrus and sugar before I opened the box. The card read: "Don't just stand there. Impress me."
On a beautiful March night in 2002, Marian Seldes and I set out to the Golden Theatre for the opening night of Edward Albee's play The Goat: or Who Is Sylvia? I had worked as an assistant to one of the play's producers, Daryl Roth, and I had grown to love her; Irene adored Edward. We were both going to be there to witness and share the success of people we cared about deeply. Time went by; the curtain was held. I remember personnel from the production walking up and down the aisles, shrugging shoulders and raising eyebrows. Marian looked at me, and I looked at her. We said nothing. We would not know until the following morning that Irene had died as she was preparing for her friend's opening.
Edward Albee and Irene Worth (photographed by Jill Krementz)
I think it is appropriate to be angry at the death of someone you love. I know that people will advise us that life continues; that blessings abound; the circle remains unbroken. Platitudes do not replace people, however, and I think we need to acknowledge that things are not the same--and are not necessarily better--when someone leaves the room, no matter how beautiful or well-appointed it might remain. Irene left a hole in the lives of a lot of people.
I was more of a fan than a friend, I realize, but she changed my life. Irene never called what she did acting, at least not with me: she referred to what she did as sharing, and all of those writers and artists and composers she had subsumed in her lifetime changed and re-shaped and re-colored her, and she applied it to every role, every gesture, every comment. Irene was beautiful and composed and fully alive on the stage, on the street, in every encounter she had. "That is what I do, all the time," she told me. "Share things. It's our constant occupation, and one that is woefully performed, if at all."
There were people who ridiculed Irene for her constant acts of re-invention, and she was aware of it, and claimed she didn't care. Irene became what she needed to become to do what she felt she must, and if that required altering her name and her past and her vowels, so be it. "In the end," she told me, "we all transform ourselves into what we must to do what we must. Experience, and the sharing of it, changes us, re-invents us. What I have done is perfectly natural."
Walter Matthau, Irene Worth, Liza Minnelli, and Zero Mostel the evening they won Tony Awards, 1965. (Irene won this, her first Tony, for Albee's Tiny Alice.)