Barbara Baxley: Forged Through Fighting

Barbara Baxley figures prominently in the final manuscript of Follies of God for her role in attempting to save William Inge as she also sought, with limited success, to reconcile Inge and Tennessee.

I made contact with Barbara in the fall of 1989, and several days a week, I would meet her in her apartment on West 87th Street, as she spoke freely about the theatre, the world, and her place, such as it was, in both.

Barbara was, as Marlon Brando stated, a "jewel-encrusted grudge collector." There was no slight, real or imagined, that she could not recall with frightening clarity. While she was extraordinarily generous and caring of her friends, for whom she took risks and offered whatever resources she happened to have, she could also go on at great length about the well-known actor who never returned a biography of Chekhov she had lent him to help  with a scene they had prepared for the Actors Studio.

Barbara's letters to the superintendent of her building were volcanic in their vitriol, and she remains the only person I know who could argue endlessly and intelligently on the correct usage of the English language, the placement of emphases in Shakespearean plays, and whether or not a certain actor with whom she had a tryst in the 1950s had been circumcised or not--all within the same argument, and all within earshot of several bewildered patrons at a neighborhood restaurant.

She loved the truth, and hated that it was so rarely found,  but she never seemed to grasp, as Tenn and others had noted, that the expression of truth--hers or that of others--did not need to be accompanied by pain. Barbara made an effort, on occasion, to curb her tendency to attack and subdue those she felt were dishonest or untalented or lazy, but she also came to see that she was in a possession of a malignant gift, one that had hurt her friendships and her career.

"I am like this piece of crystal," she said once, holding up one of the St. Louis pieces she had in her apartment, and which she loved. "Clear and solid, beautiful but fragile, pleasing one moment and dangerous and sharp the next." She was also capable of a tough dissection of her work, her soul, and her worth, and it usually took place in the morning, when she was getting herself together, or, as she put it, "tackling the reckoning to come."

I came to love her, even if she loved nothing more than to argue, to pick a fight just to get her blood going: I, like so many of her friends, was simply a means to test her wits, her knowledge, her tastes and prejudices. One could trust her impressions of plays and people, however, and she was an acute critic of literature, lining her books--and mine--with marginalia, questions, critiques. Like so many actresses, she felt that her talent and her intellect were wasted, that her options could never be fully utilized, but she loved and respected the art of acting, loved to teach and to talk about all of its wonderful practitioners, and until the last day of her life, she was making phone calls and writing letters to those whose work had impressed her, moved her, reminded her that she needed to get back to work and be tough on herself, her playwright, her director, her cast.

"The best work is forged through a fight," she told me, but fewer and fewer people wanted to be involved in the battles anymore, and Barbara worked less and less, and grew angrier and angrier.

The body of work she created reads like that of an esteemed British actress, one who seamlessly moved from the provincial repertory theatres to the West End to the United States to film and then to television: She took on the classics, modern plays, musicals, staged readings. Her career began by touring with Bankhead in Private Lives, taking over for Jean Arthur in Peter Pan and Julie Harris in I Am A Camera, and having roles in Tennessee's Camino Real and Period of Adjustment, for which she earned a Tony nomination. Her performance in Tenn's lone attempt to craft a comedy in what he considered a vein similar to Neil Simon or other boulevard writers, was hailed by many, including Brando, who marveled at the way in which she hovered and flitted, full of manic energy, like a demented firefly, as she became a tautly wired Southern girl.  

If she performed in Moliere and Inge and Brecht and Hansberry, she also studied the playwrights until she could have written dissertations on them. When we later went through her papers, we found hundreds of pages of notes and biographies she had written to understand these people and their motives--and her own. Barbara's knowledge of Moliere was so vast that George Grizzard, with whom she appeared in The Misanthrope, deferred to her, not the director, on matters of text and intent.

When she decided to appear in a musical, she studied and imitated and hounded the likes of Lotte Lenya and Hal Prince, who cast her opposite Barbara Cook in She Loves Me. "I killed myself in that role," she told me, "and it was worth every pint of blood."

Film audiences will remember her for The Savage Eye (several photos from that film are on this page) and from Robert Altman's Nashville and Martin Ritt's Norma Rae, in which she was Sally Field's tough, wiry mother. Barbara's work as Lady Pearl  in Nashville was the favorite of  her film roles, because Altman let her write most of her part, then left her alone to expand and soar. Lady Pearl's extended monologue about growing up in Stockton, California, and idolizing the Kennedys was all Barbara, and she could remember the words, and recited them often, angry at the ones that had been edited.

With Barbara Cook in She Loves Me.

Barbara had a friend from her days in Stockton--Jo Van Fleet, an actress Barbara called brilliant but unbalanced. The strongest ally Van Fleet had in all her working years was Barbara, who defended her outbursts and her demands. In the final weeks of her life, Barbara had ordered what she called the world's best hot tamales from a restaurant near Stockton, and she was preparing a meal for her "lost, sad" friend.

Barbara called me one afternoon to tell me that she thought she had suffered a heart attack. I was amazed at the calm manner she maintained, but she told me to calm down, nothing to worry about. She laughed and said she had thought of just dropping to the ground, catching her breath, closing her eyes, but she had been in front of Barney Greengrass, the Sturgeon King, and she refused to die in that location. Barbara told me she was packing a bag and would be meeting her doctor at the hospital in the morning.

She never made the appointment.

I went to Barbara's apartment around eleven in the morning and found her, on the bathroom floor, her hands, as if in prayer, on her chest. The medical examiner, a kind man who was a bit frazzled by the arrival, later in the day, of Dave Brubeck, a close friend of Barbara's, explained that the posture was not indicative of prayer but was instead a "reflex, a natural contraction, an involuntary response to pain." None of us knew how to acknowledge the receipt of this information.

Barbara did not believe in God or prayer, but she was an advocate of open eyes and an open heart, and she fought for her friends. She fought for me.

Michael Feingold wrote a marvelous obituary for her in The Village Voice, one I wished I could have read to her: He could not surmise her cause of death, but imagined it might have been disappointment. Barbara, he realized, had deserved better, but she would have been the first to tell us to shut up and get on with life. Life is tough and no one is guaranteed anything but a struggle. Keep your fists up, your body weight down, and your standards high. I would never categorize her as a positive thinker, but she always insisted that good things were about to happen.

After her death, as we cleaned out her apartment, the telephone continued to ring, and messages left. One of the last to make it onto the tape, before it was used up and snapped, was from Jo Van Fleet. Her small, sad voice left the following message: "Barbara, I'm so sorry you died."


Popular Posts