Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach: A Family
Tenn on the subject of Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach
New Orleans, 1982
I know it's common for everyone to regret the one thing he hasn't got. I hate that I don't really have a home. I have portable homes. I can drop in on Maria [St. Just] or Maureen [Stapleton] or Barbara [Baxley] or someone, but I don't have my own home. And a home is not just four walls and your name on a mortgage: it's love and trust and someone to be there for you, and I haven't had that in a long time, and I don't feel that I could ever trust someone enough to have it again. And, of course, now it's too late.
There are so few people in my life who have experienced happiness with another person. I think it's the greatest deception in the world to believe that there is such a thing as true love and unconditional love. The Church tells me that it exists, but I really can't fathom it. There seem always to be conditions. I feel that those who claim to love me are only after parts or the paltry fame that can still be gleaned from an old playwright. Sordid amusements. I don't feel that I'm particularly lovable, anyway, so I shouldn't complain: I never laid my loving wares on a table and had them passed by. I just wanted the perfect love in a selfish, acquisitive way--love was a possession like a cache of pills or bottles of Champagne or cashmere sweaters. I was on a compulsive spree to obtain love favors as though they were party favors. I didn't put myself on the line, and that was stupid. You have to open yourself up in the fullest way to know anything good. I can do that with my writing: I can suspend all prejudices, fears, moods, denials--and write like a dream. Or could. I fully trust my gift for writing, but I cannot give myself to a person, and I know that I could have, and that is a regret that I'll have until the end of my days.
I do not count family love, which I have felt, muddy as it is--or was--but it was pure and it was fulsome, but it was inherited. It was inevitable. It was implanted not presented.
I think that the only love that matters is that pure love that is doled out to us by mothers and dear friends. I've known several priests who have loved me so purely and fully that I've been shamed in its presence. They have been so there for me, and they don't care if Im a playwright or a Cajun short-order cook. They see the majesty of my soul and the beauty for which it was intended.
We really can't love anyone enough, you know. I used to think that if I entered the calming blackness of God--and I saw Heaven as that blue-black of jewelers' velvet--I would know love and happiness, but all love brings is responsibility because you really only get what you give away.
When Frank died--after a long battle attended by cups of blood and sputum--I remember a rush of life entering me. A sign from God that death really is an affirmation, a message to the living to get the fuck on with it. I suddenly could smell, touch, and hear things that had never been there for me. I began to eat not only with my mouth, but with my eyes and my ears. It was too incredible an injection, and I couldn't take it, so I numbed myself for a decade with pills and booze and I missed the life force. I threw away a decade of my life running from my life.
I bring all of this up--all of this prefatory work--because I have people in mind. You know who I think has an enviable relationship? Anne [Jackson] and Eli [Wallach]. How they do it, I don't know. I don't know how anyone does it, but Anne's remarkable gift of love and friendship, her clarity of mind, her remarkable talent, like some lozenge that encapsulates every possible experience and color and form, all certainly play a part in it. It's the woman who keeps the relationship together, for it's women who have the desire for calmness, for beauty, for happiness. Women don't acquire nations, simply hearts, and I've always tried to put myself in the costume of Anne Jackson when I was in a relationship problem. How would she do this, or how would she handle that? My form of drag is primarily mental--I don't look good in dresses--and I usually see myself as one of my women friends when I'm encountering some unfortunate circumstances. Anne has not only helped me to behave in a loving manner, but she has helped me with my awful, persistent prejudices.
I sometimes imagine my own private Catholic church, and along the walls are statues not of St. Anne or Joseph or Mary, but Maureen, Barbara, Maria, Claire [Bloom] or some others. They're the ones I call to mind when my ass is in a crack. They're some of those on whom I call. The others we'll keep talking about. We'll keep adding beads to that Rosary.
I would like to know if Anne's ability to love is learned, inherent, or a complete mystery to her. I can't tell you the number of times I've put paper in my typewriter with her in mind, and I can't tell you how many times I've sat hopelessly wondering about love when her image has come into my vision, filling me with one last burst of hope. There is love, Tenn, she seems to be saying. There is.
I stood one night in their apartment, in a bedroom, and I looked at one of their children--only a baby--in a crib, and I was suffused with so much love and so much sadness. This beautiful baby was wanted and needed and loved. This baby slept and was safe, and I was overwhelmed by the sense of it all. I was terribly emotional about this, and Anne walked in and saw my face, and she stood with me, and she held my hand. There were no words. There was no need for words. She stood with me. She shared her family with me. She is a friend.
Eli, Tenn, and Anne at the Vivian Beaumont, for the opening of the revival of Camino Real (1970).
Eli is perpetually alive and curious--he moves quickly but smartly. He kept Maureen--and to a certain extent he kept me--sane and secure during [The Rose] Tattoo. Is solid a derogatory term? I don't think so, but every time I refer to someone as solid, I'm met with raised eyebrows. When I say that Eli is solid, I mean that he is totally committed and balanced and ready. I can't stress how massive a contribution this is.
You will never know his work on the stage--with me, at any rate--but watch him in Baby Doll: He's diabolically good. Satan with a Stetson, we called him. Lithe and limber and so, so funny. No one turns a corner or a phrase like he does as Mr. V. Oh, I thought he was so wonderful. [Elia] Kazan trusted him implicitly, and it freed Eli up tremendously. The evidence is on the screen.
Both Anne and Eli have healing, metaphysical effects on me. I was in Boston, I think--somewhere--and Anne and I found ourselves in the same hotel. Anne was carrying a suitcase that carried her autobiography. It's called Early Stages: You should read it. I always cry on the final page; she ends it wonderfully, a great dying fall. I had a suitcase of plays--bad intentions and overdue debts. We both lost our suitcases. What are the odds of that happening? We laughed, but we were nervous: This was our work, and it was gone. I don't remember if we recovered our work, but again Anne held me, we laughed, we commiserated. We coped.
Eli always calms me down. Eli always has a story or a joke. Perhaps a parable. A new perspective. A slant of forgiveness, I guess you could call it. I once told a friend that Eli had discovered, perhaps without knowing it, the ultimate way to piss people off: He is happy.
They gave me a home. They were a family.