Marian Seldes: Benedictions

It is impossible to approach the Tony Awards celebration Sunday night without thinking of Marian Seldes. For many years Marian read what she called a benediction to the nominees at their luncheon, and her preparation for this event was--as all things are to her--serious, diligent, and loving. 

Marian loves the theatre, but she reveres the cultivation of talent, what she calls the "dedication to the community of artists." A day on which she cannot pay homage to her friends--as she sees all artists--is one that is wasted for her.

It is difficult for me to write about her, because of the importance she has had in my life. I met her in November of 1978, at the stage door of the Music Box, and she has been my friend ever since--reading every word I wrote, editing, loving, suggesting. Marian has visited me at every job I ever had, and there have been many. Follies of God is dedicated to her because she wrote letters and made phone calls to secure interviews for me when I had just arrived in New York, and no one knew what to make of this kid who claimed to have spent time with Tennessee Williams, and who had some gifts to share. (One of Tenn's gifts to Marian was a wooden Rosary, crafted in Jerusalem, which she carries with her everywhere.) It is also dedicated to her because she read every word, and claims to keep the manuscript near her, where she can keep "an eye on it always." There is a chapter on Marian in the book, but it is insufficient, as I knew it would be. Tenn told me it would be because "someone like Marian is impossible to believe, even after you've been blessed to know her."

Her hunger and her gift for kindness are both legendary and insatiable. One example: When a film crew was in her apartment, conducting an interview prior to her receiving a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 2010,  Marian suggested that she sit before a shelf of books. Before she did so, she placed several books with their covers facing out. Why? All of the books were what she called "Amanda Vaill" books, edited or supervised by a lovely editor whom Marian admired, and whom Marian recalled had been nice and supportive to me when I worked for a particularly odious literary agent when I first arrived in New York. "Remember," Marian had told me, "that this creature does not represent all of New York or all of publishing. While you are there, learn all you can and find the good people who can teach you how to be of service and how to love." One of those people was Amanda Vaill, and so Marian turned out her books and believed, strenuously, that book lovers would see the covers and want to read the books. "I do," Marian said. "Don't you? Don't you look for book titles?"

Here are some benedictions I have collected over the years about Marian from various people, and it seems right that they should appear as we celebrate Marian's friends at the Tony Awards.

Maureen Stapleton: She's so classy it makes me sick! I always feel so messy around her, because she is so put together, in every way. I never feel inferior around her because of her though: She's too kind. She shows up for everything and says the right thing, not only in support, but in aid. I would absolutely want her when I was in trouble, and she's been there for me a few times when I thought I couldn't cope. She has a gift--on stage and off--of centering people, of making them feel anything can happen, and goodness is abundant and right over there.

Elia Kazan: She is one of the smartest actresses working. She reads and knows and understands a great deal. She is also remarkably tenacious, and stuck around for a very long time before good parts came to her. And she was ready. She rose to each occasion and surprised a lot of people. For many years I thought of her as ardent but untried, and I was right, but I was wrong to have thought she wouldn't impress and alarm me as she did when she had the opportunities. She impressed me, and I was able to love her as both a person and as an actress.

Frances Sternhagen: I have loved her for so long--I guess since we worked in Equus together. Marian is not only devoted to her part in a play, but to everyone who is a part of the production--she embraces fully. She was so kind to everyone, and also to me and to my family. My mother died during that run, and I can't tell you what Marian said or did, but I can remember the effect, and my heart remembers, and I know that it helped. Once you're in her heart, you never lose your place, and she's always there for you: at openings, on birthdays, anything. I always knew that if anything happened in my life, good or bad, one of the first people I would hear from would be Marian, and she would allow me to cope well. One of her students from Juilliard told me that Marian not only taught him how to act but how to behave. I would like to be remembered for such a thing.

Kim Hunter: She's a lovely dame, and I use that term with respect. I like dames--they're regal and tough and real. I never believed that a play of mine had opened or happened until I saw her lovely black hair and alabaster face at my dressing-room door. At that point it was official! Her generosity is remarkable. Do you remember Olive Deering? That poor actress who was Alfred Ryder's sister? Well, Olive fell on hard times and pretty much took up residence on them, and she never had any money. I gave her money; everybody gave her money. Well, I went to see Marian in something and when we walked out of the stage door, there was Olive, looking pathetic and wan, and Marian reached into her purse and handed her an envelope, with Olive's name written in that tiny handwriting of hers. I asked about it at dinner. 'Oh, darling,' Marian said. 'I'm so lucky to be working and being paid well, and Olive needs it.' Olive Deering came to that stage door every week on payday and got her envelope. For years! That took my breath away. And Olive Deering was not the only one.

Lillian Gish: I used to see Marian in the hallways of all these awful hotels in which old actors and actresses now lived. Terribly sad places with leaks and hot plates and sad, discarded people. I would go with food and money and tickets; I would read to them and suggest things to get them out of that place. Marian was there, too. Marian would bring them things and invite them to events--she would beg producers to make tickets available for them, and she would accompany them or make them feel special when they arrived. When actresses I knew like Florence Reed and Aline MacMahon grew old and ill, Marian saw after them, took them things, sat with them. She's remarkable.

Kim Stanley: She writes to me all the time, and I never answer. I'm not good about that. All of her letters are so kind, checking up on me. I don't know how she got that way, but the world needs her. I need her, even if I am a terrible recipient of her kindness.

Jessica Tandy: I was miserable throughout A Delicate Balance; I was treated very badly by our director, and was given a number of cruel notes and cruel lectures. Marian never intruded, never assumed I needed her, but I only had to look at her, and she was at my side. She has the incredible ability to comfort you in a stressful time without expressing anger or rage at the perpetrator of your abuse: She is balanced and present and helpful. 

John Gielgud: I am speaking to you because she suggested it--almost demanded it. I trust her heart and her mind implicitly. Her devotion to the theatre is really astonishing, and her devotion to all of its practitioners is unparalleled absolutely. I have never witnessed a comparable adoration and care of fellow artists in my life.

Marlon Brando: I complain a lot about plays and actors. I leave a lot, and I don't always wait until intermission. This horrified Marian. She would not hear one second of my defense of my time and my sensibilities--she was only concerned that we sit and honor the attempts of our fellow actors. The sin, she said, might be a bad play or a bad director, but let's not punish the actors, who are doing their best and need to be seen, to be witnessed. And if the actors are bad? I asked. 'We look away,' she said, 'and hope that they get better or find another profession.' And I now do as she says.

© Susan Johann

Tennessee Williams: Fabulous Marian. True Marian worship--what the Catholics reserve for the Blessed Virgin-- can and should be applied to her. Take this Rosary and this prayer to her, and let her know that she has been--more often than I'm sure she cares to realize--the light on the shore that got me back home, safe and sound.

I adore that woman.


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