Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politicsby Jane Alexander
Jane Alexander had never been involved in mainstream politics and was happily engaged in her acting career when she was asked to consider becoming head of the embattled National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1990s. When, during her first visit to the Hill, Senator Strom Thurmond barked at her, "You gonna fund pornography?" she knew it would be a rough ride.
Jane Alexander had never been involved in mainstream politics and was happily engaged in her acting career when she was asked to consider becoming head of the embattled National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1990s. When, during her first visit to the Hill, Senator Strom Thurmond barked at her, "You gonna fund pornography?" she knew it would be a rough ride. Nothing had quite prepared her for the role of madame chairman. Her tenure coincided with the ascent of the infamous 104th Congress, presided over by Speaker Newt Gingrich, and its campaign to eliminate the Endowment completely. In Command Performance, Alexander brings a Washington outsider's perspective and an actor's eye for the telling human detail to an anecdote-filled story of the art of politics and the politics of art. And at the start of a new administration in Washington, she reminds us why we need art and why government should be in the business of supporting it.
The Los Angeles Times
- Da Capo Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- New Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.96(w) x 9.04(h) x 0.80(d)
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My life was never without drama. If the daily events of girlhood failed to arouse the requisite emotions of passion, sadness, or delight, I would provoke them with stories, spun endlessly in my mind. I don't remember ever being bored. Like many other little girls my age, I put myself center stage as a cowgirl, a ballerina, or a nurse, but my imagination drew me more often to the realm of the fantastic. Trees and flowers were animate beings that housed magical creatures at the base of their roots, elves and fairies who tended to the world at night and made things right. I kept a fairy in a Kleenex box and watched her comings and goings on my windowsill with as much conviction as one would watch a bird. And I acted out the dramas of the natural world as I observed it at three feet high. The flutter of a moth entangled in the filaments of a web as the spider stealthily advanced would first scare and then excite me as I played the role of victim and then conqueror. The eternal mysteries of birth, death, and love ignited my curiosity at an early age.
My mother didn't know what she had in me, but she tolerated the interminable whirling to Strauss waltzes and the rudimentary rhymes on subjects as banal as a leaf or as monumental as the birth of a baby sister. She listened with appreciative awe to my fairy tales as I recounted them. All her friends knew that their unwanted clothes had a home in my closet for "dress-up," an after-school event I engaged in with regularity when I wasn't climbing trees. And my mother guided me in wonderland by naming the animals andplants and revealing the worlds to be found under rocks or in the hearts of flowers.
My mother, Ruth Pearson, was the daughter of a farm girl from Nova Scotia and a widowed streetcar conductor, and she grew up in South Boston scrapping for every opportunity. Her good looks and good mind took her from that impoverished background to the highest echelons of nursing, scrubbing for neurosurgeons in the operating room. Mother knew nothing of the worlds of painting, literature, music, and theater but was embarrassed sufficiently by the Nova Scotian handicrafts of knitting and crocheting, which my grandmother practiced so deftly, that she disavowed them completely. My grandmother sold white wool socks for fifty cents a pair back in the 1940s, and her unschooled English was peppered with more "ain'ts" and "dese" and "dose" than my upwardly mobile mother could bear. When my mother met my father in the corridors of a New York hospital where he was doing his residency, she thought him cultured and urbane and fell swiftly in love.
My father was culturedby education, not inheritance. Growing up in North Platte, Nebraska, there was not much to see but corn, cattle, and vast train yards. His maternal grandfather had emigrated from Germany, crossed the plains in a covered wagon, and assumed a management position with the Union Pacific railway, which terminated in North Platte in 1867. There is a photograph of my grandmother, tambourine in hand, surrounded by other members of a teenage musical ensemble a hundred years ago. I imagine it is this grandmother who dreamed of larger horizons, harking back to the museums and concert halls of her own mother's German youth. She sent her only son, my father, away to Harvard on scholarship at the tender age of sixteen. Bart Quigley never returned to live in the West again.
The study of medicine was the natural route for my father to take. My grandfather, born of Irish immigrants, was a pioneer in the use of radium to treat cancer and of vitamins as nutritional supplements. He also wrote of the dangers of white flour and sugar forty years before such information became common knowledge in the 1960s. He rarely left Nebraska, but my grandfather's impact on medicine west of the Mississippi is well documented. One of his patients was the Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody, whose ranch, Scout's Rest, was a few miles from my grandparents' home. I still have many stop-action photos he took of cowboys and Indians on horseback engaged in the mock warfare that Buffalo Bill directed. My grandfather loved his Kodak cameras and passed his love of photography to my father, who in turn passed it on to my brother and me.
My father's inquisitiveness, which consumed him throughout his life, was satisfied at Harvard with its limitless possibilities of study. Dad was a gifted child who excelled in every course he ever took. He had a prodigious vocabulary and kept a standing bet with us until the day he died that we could not stump him on a word in Webster's Standard Dictionary. I collected the five-dollar reward only twice in three decades. He was also a man of wit and silliness, which made our childhood with him either great good fun or deeply embarrassing. He was not above slathering swarthy makeup on his face, toweling his head in a turban, and greeting my blind date at the door with, "Avast ye mate!" The poor boy would cower before him, not knowing whether he should laugh or whether Dr. Quigley was genuinely mad.
April Fool's was Dad's favorite day of the year. He'd go to work at the hospital with a faucet on his forehead or a spool of thread inside his breast pocket with the end flauntingly dangled on the outside of his dark jacket. An unsuspecting stranger would go to pick off the offending thread only to keep pulling and pulling it with no end in sight. Dad's mirth would bubble over.
I was the eldest, my brother Tom was born nineteen months later, and my sister Pam arrived eight years after him. We grew up in a comfortable clapboard house in Brookline, Massachusetts, in a neighborhood called Pill Hill because so many doctors lived there. Fortunatelybecause my mother did not learn to drive until well after I didthe neighborhood was only a few blocks from the Boston border and from public busses and trolleys. Pill Hill was bordered on the east by Whiskey Point and on the west by The Farm, two less privileged neighborhoods where scruffy youngsters sometimes took us on, whirling baseball bats over our heads in their displeasure or screaming words my father never used.
But for the most part my childhood was contained in the one short block of Hawthorn Road where twelve families lived. We children climbed trees together, sledded the tiny hills, and played kick-the-can on hot summer nights until it was too dark to see the can and the cicadas had begun their nightly drumming. At the end of the street lived the only African American family in the neighborhood. It was not easy for them, and they kept to themselves despite the fact that Roland Hayes was one of the great concert singers in America at the time. My mother had an open, generous way with people and befriended Mrs. Hayes. Occasionally their only child, Africa, and I played together. She was a few years older, but I was grateful for her attention. I heard her father sing a spiritual hymn once, the sonorous tones so much more emotional than the Protestant hymns I was used to. The world had greater variety to offer than our little block. Still there was comfort in the fact that we were all known to Pat, the red-faced Irish cop on our beat, and that when a homeless man knocked on our back door my mother would invite him into the kitchen and give him a meal. Life was simpler then.
One summer of the early 1950s brought tragedy to our happy idyll. My friend Sally was diagnosed with polio and taken to Children's Hospital one June morning. The rest of us were quarantined for the next three months lest we too were carriers. We anxiously awaited word of our little friend's daily progress and sensed that things were not going well when our parents said less and less. We continued our games, made up plays and puppet theater, and leaped over whirring sprinklers in the sweltering heat.
Sally died of spinal meningitis one August afternoon. It had not been polio at all. We knew of the dangers of infantile paralysis, and each of us had school chums who had been afflicted, but spinal meningitis was altogether new to us. In our grief we sought to keep her memory alive by creating a fund in her name. Eight of us preteens went door to door with a basket and raised twenty-four dollars for Sally that first day. We gave it to the hospital for spinal meningitis research.
The horror of her death obscured the horror of the misdiagnosis. All of my parents' friends were doctors, and many of them were in the forefront of medicine at that time. My mother's obstetrician, and the man who delivered me in 1939, was John Rock, one of the inventors of the birth control pill. Others were doing the first kidney transplants or specializing in brain surgery, and my own father, who was the doctor for the Harvard football team, helped found the field of sports medicine. Doctors were gods, and I rarely heard a word against them. They were authority figures whom one did not cross or question. But even then, in my eleven-year-old mind, as I lay in bed crying for my friend Sally, I wondered about that misdiagnosis. I never fully trusted the word of authorities again.
My parents insisted that I go to a girls' school, Beaver Country Day, several miles away, rather than attend the Brookline public schools. Given how smitten I was with boys from the age of five, it was probably a wise decision. I cannot remember a time when I was not madly in love. In kindergarten there was a fellow who snapped gum when the teacher's back was turned, delighting us all with his boldness as she searched in vain for the culprit. When he graced me with his cocky smile, I melted. The feeling was so good that I sought to re-create it again and again as one love replaced another through the years. This thing called love was a total mystery to me, but the vagaries of passion and despair that accompanied each devotion kept my life in high drama.
My love of performing was first realized in a school production of Treasure Island in the fifth grade. I played a wily Long John Silver to the delight of my classmates. Their laughter and applause hooked me, and I decided to pursue theater from then on. I performed in school plays, in community theater, and in summer stock productions until I graduated in 1957. Our drama teacher, Mrs. Smith, suggested that I was good enough to make acting a career. Beaver also introduced me to painting, ceramics, woodworking, and choral singing. I made a cradle for my baby sister and vases for my mother and was lucky enough to sing Handel's Messiah in Boston's Symphony Hall with other high school choruses.
Headmaster Crosby Hodgman had strong feelings about education based on the teachings of John Dewey. We rigorously studied the traditional fields of history, languages, and the sciences, but the arts were also part of the curriculum and tapped areas in each of us that might otherwise have remained unearthed. Some of my classmates went on to become painters, writers, and singers, while others excelled in business, education, and science.
Boston was a fine city to grow up in. The public transportation was excellent, and there was always plenty to do, from Red Sox baseball games (where my father was often consulted for injuries) to the Science Museum, or the Peabody Museum at Harvard where the collection of glass flowers never failed to tantalize. But perhaps more than anything Boston represented the cradle of liberty. It was here that tea was dumped in the harbor by disgruntled taxpayers, and it was close by in Lexington and Concord that a citizen militia first stood their ground against the forces of the British crown. Our family would sometimes take Sunday outings to the graveyards along the Freedom Trail and marvel at the famous names etched in the stones, each with a story that had contributed to the building of our nation. Our school education was steeped in the pride of early patriotism. The contributions of Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, and Nathan Hale were as much a part of my youth as Disney's Snow White and Dumbo. (Although Nathan Hale's declaration "I only regret I have but one life to lose for my country" was fixed in my mind forever the way my dad chose to remember it: "I only regret I have but one wife and live in the country.") We grew up well versed in the accomplishments of our revolutionary heroes, proud of what our democracy stood for, and idealistic in our political beliefs.
I played a small role in politics at school. It was hard for me not to be the boss in group situations. I did not enjoy being in large groups generally, but since we were all thrust into them daily, being the leader seemed the least frustrating option. My classmates must also have felt that it was best for me to lead because they elected me president of the class almost every year. We numbered only fifty-seven girls, but I enjoyed being the liaison between them and the faculty and delegating committees for everything from the prom to social work. I had no aspiration for higher office, such as head of the student council, and never once considered a career in politics. My ten years at Beaver were insular and secure and rewarded me with lifelong friendships and a sense that I could accomplish anything I set out to do.
As much as I wanted to forgo college and head straight to New York to become an actress, my father said that all knowledge would serve me and that the more I knew the more I could bring to my work. He was supportive of my hope to become an actress eventually. In the late 1920s Dad had been a member of the University Players, a summer theater group on Cape Cod that had included Henry Fonda and James Stewart, among other fledgling actors. Although my father opted for medicine, his love of theater never abated, and he gave me his utmost support.
He suggested, however, that I have "an ace in the hole" in case acting did not work out. I went to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, because it was close to New York City and its arts program had a fine reputation. I took mathematics as well as theater with the idea of becoming an IBM programmer should I fail at an acting career. Math was always exciting for me; it was the language that got us to the stars and created the giant computers that were making their debut in the late 1950s. A single computer could fill an entire room and took days to compute what is accomplished now in less than a second by a handheld PC. Programming the huge IBMs forty years ago seemed like a glamorous and exciting job. My math teachers throughout school had been exceptional, and although I was never very good at it, I loved the subject. Still, my heart was set on the theater.
The atmosphere at Sarah Lawrence was intense. We women saw plenty of men on the weekends when we rock-and-rolled to Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, but from Monday to Friday we roamed the campus in black tights and leotards debating Kierkegaard and Martin Buber. Harold Taylor, the dynamic president of the college, was an exemplary role model and a kind and gentle man. He was deeply committed to the educational system that Sarah Lawrence espouseda system grounded, like Beaver's, in the philosophy of John Dewey. With the exception of a few lecture classes such as those of the popular Joseph Campbell, we students sat at round tables with our teachers and discussed the subject at hand collectively in seminars. We were required to write extensive papers in all areas of study. This was very difficult work for undergraduates but sharply honed our skills in reading, research, synthesizing, and writing.
I flourished in the theater department, playing many roles in contemporary and classic plays. I even directed the first effort of the playwright Tina Howe, a futuristic piece called Closing Time. Sarah Lawrence was known for its modern dance program under the leadership of the great Bessie Schonberg. I took up the rear of the class watching longingly as Lucinda Childs and Meredith Monk leapt like gazelles across the polished wood. My future would never be in dance, but theater seemed more and more promising.
One rainy evening during sophomore year my roommate and best friend, Nona Evans, was hit by a car; she died five days later. I was bereft and confused. It was incomprehensible to me that my young, vivacious friend could be robbed of her life at the age of nineteen. I made it through the rest of the year in a daze and decided that since most of my friends were graduating seniors, and since Harold Taylor was stepping down as president, I too would leave Sarah Lawrence.
My junior year was spent at one of the oldest universities in Europe, the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. It was the first time I had attended classes with members of the opposite sex since kindergarten, and the result was predictable. I didn't get much work done. Within a few weeks I was part of a high-spirited group of students who hailed from Sweden, Hungary, Poland, Norway, Britain, Africa, and North America. The Swedish girls were loose and gorgeous, living the sexy life depicted in their country's hit movie I Am Curious Yellow. Our African prince was as dark as the dark interior of his continent and had tribal scars in neat rows on his cheeks. The Norwegian boys took us skiing, shushing the powder off the slopes as they "christied" effortlessly ahead of us. We all partied a lot and gathered together in The Paperback Bookshop, owned by an American ex-patriot named Jim Haynes, a handsome Lothario just a few years our senior. The girl from Brookline was getting an education her parents never dreamed of.
I shared "digs" in a converted coal cellar with a beautiful girl from Ohio named Emily Ann Possehl. We both loved theater and quickly became lifelong friends. Advanced calculus proved daunting; I flunked the final exam but went on to triumph in plays given by the Edinburgh University Dramatic Society. We put on Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending at the Edinburgh Festival's Fringe in 1960. There was the main festival and then there was "the Fringe," where college groups and after-hours acts played. It was more fun to be part of the Fringe. The Scottish drama critics wrote reviews of me that my father might have penned, and when I later returned home to the States I was more determined than ever to go to New York and begin my career.
That November, a week after my twenty-first birthday, I voted in my first election. I cast my ballot for John F. Kennedy, and it was the most exciting vote I ever made. When JFK became president, those of us who elected him felt we were on the threshold of a new and brilliant era. He spoke of a vision he had for the nation, of opportunity and democracy for all people, of going to the moon, of a "peace corps," of the importance of education, and of the arts. Young people felt a sense of purpose because he made us feel important and as though we had something to give to our nation and to the people of the world who lacked the privileges we had.
Although I grew up during World War II, my memories of Roosevelt are dim. I remember my mother's excitement when the war ended at last and the anticipation of my father's return from England. My first substantial political memory is of the hearings during the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigation of Alger Hiss in the late 1940s. I recall my mother bent over the ironing board, her eyes glued to the scratchy black-and-white TV. The summer heat and the hot iron beaded her forehead with drops of perspiration as she hushed us into silence. The hearings were the national postwar epic, and the pursuit and elimination of Communists was our collective resolution. The giddy days after World War II turned somber as the country sought to eliminate the spies in our midst.
My parents were Republicans, as were all their friends in the medical world, but I always sensed that I was born a Democrat, although I never knew one growing up. In August 1952, while my parents and their friends, highballs in hand, cheered on the presidential primary campaign of the war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, we children grouped around the Monopoly board in the next room and aped their celebration. I alone found the studious figure of Adlai Stevenson compellingwhether to be different or because war sickened me, I do not know, but the Democrat in me was alive then and there at the age of twelve.
In the three years that Kennedy was our president, I met my first husband, Robert Alexander, in an acting class, and together we pursued our careers in the New York theater. I was on the subway when word ricocheted around the car that the president had been killed. Tears streamed down all our faces, black and white, young and old, our communal dreams smashed in an instant. Still, we persevered through the 1960s, those of us in our twenties bucking up against an old guard, attempting to right wrongs in civil rights and in human rights and to reverse the stranglehold of the military in our society. "Beware the military-industrial complex," said the old soldier Eisenhower on his exit from government. Beware indeed! While we preached peace and love, the Pentagon was stealthily stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, until by 1980 there were fifty thousand or more in the United States and the Soviet Union.
My son Jace was born in 1964. I worked through my eighth month of pregnancy, performing a cabaret act with four talented comedians. One evening a drunk in the front row looked up at my swollen belly disguised beneath my empire dress and pronounced to one and all that I was about to "drop a kid." That was the end of my nightclub career. I continued to pursue work, however, because Bob and I needed the money. I auditioned again for Joseph Papp one afternoon, hoping to be awarded a role in his "Shakespeare in Central Park" program that coming summer. Joe said, "Jane, you look like you're about to have your baby any minute." "No, Joe," I replied, "I just saw the doctor this morning, and he says it'll be another week or so." He tolerated my audition, trying, I suppose, to envision a lovelorn Rosalind beneath the protrusion. I didn't get the job but hoped he would remember me for future roles. I climbed on a bus at 105th Street for the long ride downtown during rush hour, and by the time we reached 42nd Street I was in full labor. Jace arrived three hours later, a healthy six-pound baby boy.
All one's protective instincts emerge when children enter your life. I was more concerned than ever with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their testing. I read all I could on the subject. Kennedy and Khrushchev had signed a treaty ending atmospheric testing, but the buildup and underground tests continued. Hadn't the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki taught us anything? What were we doing stockpiling so many of these deadly instruments when a few were all that were needed to obliterate the world? Why were we spending so much money on weapons when there were so many people to take care of first?
My mistrust of the Pentagon was at an all-time high in the late 1960s. The Vietnam War was obviously a huge mistake, and although I was cognizant that marching against it could jeopardize our troops, my brother among them, I went ahead and did it anyway. I joined the thousands who placed flowers in the rifle butts of the soldiers circling the Pentagon to keep us out, at the same time that I was sending cookies to Tom in Saigon. The young men of America were dying daily because of the flawed and specious reasoning of a few men in Washington, D.C.
I was performing regularly in regional theaters by 1965 when I met the man who became my life partner, Ed Sherin. He cast me as Saint Joan for the Arena Stage company in Washington, D.C., where he was artistic director, and our working relationship developed into lasting friendship, and then two years later into love. We were both married to other persons, we lived in townhouses close by each other, and his three sons were good friends with my son. Time and work separated us often because my career was burgeoning back in New York and we were becoming involved in the movie world as well. Our marriages floundered, and as we navigated the rocky terrain of divorce, it became clear that our future was together.
Shuttling children back and forth between households is difficult for everyone, but Tony, Geoffrey, and Jon were as much the focus of my maternal affection when they were with us as Jace was when he was not commuting to his father. Ours was a boisterous household, heavy on the testosterone, since the four boys and Ed played football, watched football, body-surfed the Atlantic's waves, and fished the waters together. I cooked a lot and looked adoringly at this extremely handsome quintet. We all outgrew my small New York apartment and moved to the country to accommodate expanding feet. In 1975 Ed and I were married, while the boys exuberantly pelted us with confetti and tied tin cans to the muffler of our car.
A few years later I began to have a recurring nightmare. I awoke in a sweat one evening, my heart pounding. I dreamed that three of the boys and I emerged from a camping trip in the woods one sunny day to find thousands and thousands of people walking north, their belongings hanging from wagons and off their backs. "What's going on?" I asked. A man pointed to the headline of the New York Times: "400 Mile Long Cloud of Radiation Blankets the Northeast." Helicopters were dropping leaflets warning us not to eat shellfish or newly picked vegetables. I begged a policeman to let me go past the barrier to find Ed and Tony. He relented, and we began the trek of several miles to get home. In the noonday sun we stopped by a pond to cool ourselves. The boys played in the water and then silently gathered freshwater clams. We were very hungry and ate them, tacitly understanding that we were going to die. This is the point in the dream when I always woke up.
The nightmare visited me a dozen times over the course of three years until finally I read an article written by the pediatrician Dr. Helen Caldicott about the dangers of nuclear weapons and radioactive fallout. I immediately joined her new organization, Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND). I wanted to educate others about the issue, but I didn't know how to proceed. Helen told me that I should never fear talking about the things I was passionate about, and that it would be a surprise to me to learn how few people were in fact talking about these issues. She was right. I began to speak publicly about nuclear weapons and radiation, and people were interested and grateful for the information. My nightmare soon ceased. I was confronting my fears and doing something about them.
The connection between the military and the weapons manufacturers was easy to understandthey fed off each otherbut I hadn't yet made the connection between politicians and the manufacturers. I was naive enough to believe that if our elected officials knew the truth they would act on it. The truth was that nuclear weapons were more dangerous than anything mankind had ever invented and that radiation poisoning was an insidious and slow death that would mark generations of those affected. There was absolutely no need for so many weapons of mass destruction in the world, and the detritus from their manufacture was deadly. No one had devised a totally safe method of handling or disposing of poisons like plutonium and uranium, and with the worldwide proliferation of nuclear materials, an accident was guaranteed to happen. It did at Chernobyl in 1986.
But Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and our politicians neither ratified a comprehensive test ban treaty nor did anything substantial to reduce the almighty power of the military. I wasn't against a strong defense system, but the amount of money awarded annually to our Defense Department was overkill by any standard. I thought that if just 10 percent of its monstrous budget were dedicated to worldwide peace efforts we would be moving all the nations of the earth toward a more secure future. But the military-industrial complex of which Eisenhower warned had a stranglehold on our society that was not to be broken. Congressmen made sure that a base or a weapons manufacturing plant was located in their own backyards, thereby enriching the corporate manufacturers and their stockholders, who then contributed significantly to the next election campaign.
These were the issues that consumed me during the 1980s. I was fortunate to be part of a fine film on the subject of nuclear holocaust called Testament. It dealt with radiation poisoning in a highly personal way, following the daily life of a family after bombs devastate the United States. I played the mother of three children dying from radioactive fallout. It was my nightmare all over again. But it was a movie, and no more real than my dream had been. It was the real thing I was hoping to prevent.
When Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union he envisioned a road toward democracy and a world with reduced weapons. The cold war ended. The stockpiling of weapons did not.
My frustration with our political leaders was mitigated by the happiness in my personal life. Ed and I had an excellent marriage despite two careers that often found us in two different cities, if not on two different continents. He might be directing a TV film in Hungary while I was working on Broadway, or vice versa. The separations were short mainly because we traveled to visit one another every few weeks whenever we could. The boys attended college and were beginning to pursue careers. Jace had wanted to be an actor and director from the time he was very little and would make a good living at it from the age of seventeen. Tony tried book editing and then would find his métier editing films instead. Geoff would try many things, from Hollywood agent to skiing instructor to restaurant manager, before he settled on cooking, his first love. And Jon, who had long since determined that the last frontier was the human brain, would dedicate his life at the age of sixteen to the study of neuroscience.
My own career was solid in the three arenas of stage, movies, and television. I was receiving awards for my work and turning down more roles than I had time to play. Although I gravitated toward the theater, I made my living in movies and television. I was invited to portray many great ladies in history, from Saint Joan to Calamity Jane to Georgia O'Keeffe to Eleanor Roosevelt. The research I did for these roles was extensive and always made me the wiser for it. Dad had been right after all: all knowledge did serve me.
After playing Eleanor Roosevelt on a TV miniseries in the 1970s I began to be approached about running for office, either locally or nationally. I would explain that I had only pretended to be Eleanor, that in reality I had none of her skills. The truth, however, was that I had overcome my shyness about public speaking by copying Eleanor. One year in the 1920s she had vowed to accept all speaking engagements in order to surmount her fright of speaking in public. I decided to do the same thing in the 1970s. It worked. Although I always felt most comfortable with a script in hand, I no longer needed to hide behind a character to get out in the public eye. With my strong opinions on issues and my hatred of injustice, I almost was ready for political office. But I loved acting and the ambience of the theater too much to give it up.
The theater was the perfect home for me. It combined make-believe and all the joy of performing with a rigorous art form. Unlike many of my fellow performers, I did not sit around New York or Hollywood waiting for "the big break" but chose instead to take good parts in good plays or screenplays wherever they might be. I was always drawn to the classicsShakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov, to name a fewand found myself working in the regional theaters where they were most often produced. Doing a play like Eugene O'Neill's marathon Mourning Becomes Electra was exhilarating. I played Lavinia, based on the Greek Electra, at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, in 1970. She moves in the first scene from a tightly wound young woman obsessed with murder and revenge to a beautiful seductress in the final act. It was like climbing Mount Everestfour and a half hours of intrigue and emotional hills and valleys. There is never enough time to explore all the nuances of a character; certainly a run of only a few weeks or even a few months is insufficient, but the satisfaction of performing in the play nightly and learning something new with every performance has never diminished for me. I've played more than a hundred different characters, no two alike, in plays and films that were mediocre or masterpieces, and I've never tired of the work, the collaboration with others, or the ambiance. The company of players is the best in the world.
Learning to act is a lifelong pursuit, and it has brought me into contact with all kinds of people and all kinds of art forms. Because, as an actor, you are your own instrument and you inhabit the world of the writer, you make use of literature, design and other visual arts, and sometimes music, in building a character. I would search museums and libraries for the right elements to enhance and reveal the life of my character.
I was an inveterate museum-goer from the age of fourteen, when I'd take the trolley to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts after school and wander the halls of Greek antiquities. By chance one day I discovered graphic erotic scenes on the red and black vases; the surprise and delight of seeing them openly displayed drew me to them as much as the subject matter. But there was so much more to see: a tiny ivory Minoan snake goddess, the rich portraits by Sargent and Copley, and the vivid colors of Van Gogh. I revered painters and counted as my close friends three young men who painted brilliantly. We explored galleries together, and they taught me about the great painters and sculptors.
Another teenage friend took me to concerts and introduced me to classical composers both old and new. I listened to Milhaud and Webern but did my math homework to Mozart concertos. My first husband loved jazz, and so my musical lexicon expanded. I myself played the guitar and read Alan Lomax's Folksongs of North America backward and forward. I bought Dylan and Rolling Stones records in equal proportion. Another friend was a poet, and we pored over compendiums of poetry and scratched haikus to each other. My tastes were eclectic and wide-ranging, and as I aged I acquainted myself with everything new that came along. There seemed no end to the possibilities of human imagination, and I was glad I had been exposed to so much.
The only art form I knew really well, however, was theater. There simply was not time in life to know more than one or two art forms profoundly. The theater was a perfect whole, a world unto itself for the time the play lasted. I was content to play my role in it. Then I was asked to play a greater role in the real world.
Meet the Author
Jane Alexander has starred in dozens of movies, including The Great White Hope, All the President's Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, Eleanor and Franklin, Testament, and The Cider House Rules. She was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1993 to 1997. She lives in New York State.
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