Elizabeth Ashley: Sheer Majesty, All The Time

Elizabeth Ashley: Sheer Majesty, All The Time

I knew Elizabeth Ashley's mother--Miss Lucille-- a lovely and sweet woman who crafted the most remarkable works of art, and who opened her heart, her home, and her copious scrapbooks kept for her talented daughter. Miss Lucille gave to her daughter those enormous brown eyes ("like chocolates from the Gods," Tenn remarked), and she loved to speak of her daughter and of her grandson.

I wrote a profile on Elizabeth for a Baton Rouge publication in 1979, and she was sweet about it and thought it charming. Elizabeth has always been kind and open to me, but she chose not to be interviewed for Follies of God. I believe that her experiences with Tenn are hers and hers alone. 

I love her, and I love her talent, and here are some of the notes from Tenn on the woman he called "sheer majesty, all the time, up and down, every time, without fail. My buddy."


"Elizabeth Ashley is precariously talented, and I do not mean her talent is precarious--it does not sit perilously close to extinction nor does it fail to reach its objective: I mean that her talent seems always to be utilized to reveal the precarious, the dangerous, yet utterly real emotional predicaments of whichever character she happens to be playing. She does not subvert the text of the play on which she works, although this would, at times, be a good and sound idea: she is loyal to whatever is presented to her, but that same text--good or bad--is run through the sieve that is her unerring instinct, her brutal eye, and her scalding talent, and what you get is violently good.

"I have only said of a handful of people that I would not wish to come between them and an honest thought or gesture or statement, and Elizabeth--my pal, Liz--is one of those people. I think that honesty has saved her, and I think that honesty is what she prizes most in her life--not merely her theatrical life. When I witness Liz at her most uncomfortable, it is when she is forced to speak to people with whom she has no connection, for whom she has no respect, from whom she can receive nothing she can turn around and use in a gift to a friend or a lover or a part: She moves constantly; she thinks constantly. I cannot keep up with her.

"She dreamed a new life for herself in a garage, dusty and silent, her only audience motes of dust. She danced and acted and furiously projected herself out of Baton Rouge and the limitations that had weighed down her mother and might destroy her. Elizabeth would not be accepted as an actress until she met people of discernment and daring: in her hometown she was nothing, scared, a fighter. She was very much like me. She crafted a person who became an artist. Know her story. Fight to get it.

 Elizabeth Ashley by Hirschfeld

"She now owns Maggie the Cat, I believe. While Liz is lovely and shrewd and could no doubt find her way into the heart and glandular sense memory of any man on earth, she played that part with all of the sexual and intellectual insecurity the part demands. Not once did she ask for pity, or provoke us through easy effect, but I think she shattered people in a way I had never seen. Unrequited love is thought of as flowery, as something endured in a tubercular swoon, but it is, in fact, a violent, angry convulsion of emotions. I know of what I speak, and I wrote that part--within, at times, the rhythms of the Book of Common Prayer--with many pleas and prayers, angry and fervent, and only Liz got that. She replicates nothing from other actresses or memories in other theatres: she replicates what women throughout history have felt, shared, suppressed, regretted, aborted, hidden away.

"I think she is remarkable. A good friend; a great actress. I hope that the billing will not offend her, and that she will not take me to task for extolling her friendship above her work, but her personal gifts are as rare--if not rarer--than those she displays on the stage, in the rehearsal room, on a dark night when I need reassurance or clarity or criticism that gets me back to work, contributing, being truthful.

"In my mind's eye she awaits me on some shore, waving and laughing and ready to tell me something wickedly funny--about me, about herself, about life. And then we get to work, to the brutal, brilliant, fascinating task of living and mattering."


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