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Though I’ve been a professional actress since I was seven or eight, acting was never a dream of mine. What I really wanted to be was a nun: nuns were the only people I came in contact with who weren’t drinking and screaming! I played nun a lot with my friend Margie Stravelli—she’d play anything. We’d fold scarves a certain way, make a bib with paper from school, put on a bathrobe, and flick our rosary beads as we walked up and down. And then we’d just be mean: that’s how you played nun. Assign a lot of homework, whack the table with a ruler, fight about who was in charge. “You were the Mother Superior last week. Let me be Mother Superior.” We played nun for hours.
Yet when I think back to my earliest memory, it was of performing. It was Sundays after church and I’d always be wearing a very good dress, looking very neat and spiffy. My father, John Patrick, would be charged with taking me to a park on Second Avenue between Thirty-fifth and Thirty-sixth streets on New York’s East Side, but we never quite made it. We’d end up instead at “Grandpa’s bar,” where his father, a man with pure white hair, very blue and bloodshot eyes and that kind of handsome Irish face with all the veins sticking out from drinking too much, was a bartender. Grandpa was what they called a periodical drinker, and when he drank, my mother says, he was violent.
As early as I can remember I’d be stood on the bar and, even if it was July, I would recite “The Night Before Christmas.” Sometimes everyone would give me pennies, but mostly it was pretzels—I could be bought for pretzels and Coca-Cola. Dad, of course, would be throwing back a few boiler-makers. He’d always swear me to secrecy, but he’d get in trouble anyway when we got home, because whether I told or not—and I would, every time—it was obvious where we’d been. But I loved being hoisted up on that bar, I just loved it. And that was probably where my passion for acting began.
Until I was about twelve years old, when the place got so infested with bedbugs that it drove us cuckoo, my family lived at 316 East 31 Street. The five of us (my father; my mother, Frances; my sister, Carol, who was eight years older than me; and my brother, Raymond, who was five years older) all lived in four rooms: a kitchen, a living room, and two bedrooms, all without doors. It was at the top of a four-story walkup: we lived in the back apartment and the Callahans and their dog, Scroungy, lived in the front. Scroungy was a black spaniel, so vicious it lived its entire life with a muzzle on: the Callahans would take it off only to feed the dog when nobody was around. Scroungy was mean.
Though we had four rooms, none of them was as big as my den today—you could do submarine work after living in them. The rent was only thirty-six dollars a month, but there was a panic about not being able to make the payment every time it was due. My sister and I slept in the same bed for a while, but she didn’t like it because I moved around too much and I didn’t like it because she talked a lot and out loud in her sleep. We had a sink, stove, refrigerator, and the washing machine my mother got her hand stuck in. Even after the machine was turned off, she kept screaming. I was just a little kid, I didn’t know what to do. I finally figured out I should pull the plug, but I had to get Mrs. Callahan to extricate my mother’s hand. Thank God for Mrs. Callahan. My mother might still be there.
We also had pressed tin ceilings, the kind that are becoming really popular again, only these weren’t nice and white; they had big rust stains where water had leaked through the tar-paper roof because my mother always walked on it in her high heels—she used it for a spy tower. She’d go up there and embarrass us to death. Maybe Ray was playing stickball in the street, where he wasn’t supposed to be, or I had my finger up my nose—whatever it was, she’d start screaming at the top of her lungs. Once she screamed down for Ray to come upstairs, and one of his buddies, a guy named Walter, couldn’t take it anymore and yelled, “Jump, Mrs. Duke, jump!” Of course, the moment my poor brother walked in the door, she gave him a slug because of what the other kid had yelled. Well, she figured, he’d been standing there, hadn’t he?
The neighborhood we lived in, Kips Bay, was almost all Irish and Italian. We were street-smart city kids, but the kinds of things the older ones did, like the boys shooting off firecrackers or maybe stealing hubcaps, the girls chewing gum and putting on black eyeliner because it made them look hard and tough, seem very innocent now. We never really wanted for anything, and I never remember being hungry. So tabloid stories that say “a piece of bread seemed like birthday cake to her” still make me furious. Sure we were poor, but we weren’t desperate, we weren’t like homeless people who may have nothing at all to eat. If I was hungry, it was because my mother made pea soup, which I wouldn’t eat on a dare.
My mother had a strong sense of responsibility to her family. She used the phrase “these children we brought into the world” again and again. She prided herself on the fact that she raised perfectly clean children. People of her generation in that neighborhood had very little to be proud of, but they were proud of the way they kept a home. It was the old “you could eat off the floor” routine, though what my mother forgets is the reason you could eat off the floor is that my sister was washing it! The household might be threadbare, but it was sparkling clean, and her children were dressed better than lots of rich people’s kids; my clothes were much better, much cleaner, much neater than my boys’ are today. When you’ve got the money, you relax and say, “Fine, wear the holes in your jeans, look like a bum.” But when you don’t have it, you want to look as if you do.
My parents had both grown up in that same Kips Bay neighborhood before me; in fact my father’s sister dated my mother’s brother for a while. John Patrick Duke’s family was Irish as far back as anyone could remember, but my mother’s mother was German. She had eleven children and died when my mother, who was the youngest, was only six. It’s a terrible story. Apparently my grandmother had emphysema or bronchitis, some ailment that disturbed her breathing. My aunt Lizzie was taking care of Grandma, who was choking, when the doorbell rang and kept ringing. Lizzie went to the window to see who it was—it was little Frances—and in the interim, before she could get back, Grandma died.
When you think what an old-fashioned Irish Catholic wake on Second Avenue must have been like, with the body in the living room, all the drinking, and how many times Lizzie, not meaning to blame Frances, must have told the story about the ringing doorbell, you realize the kind of guilt my mother must have carried around all these years. I think that, and the fact that I was the youngest and smallest and looked like her, made her feel very, very close to me.
I was born on December 14, 1946, in Bellevue Hospital, the first one of my mother’s children who wasn’t born at home, and named Anna Marie. The Anna is easy to figure; both my parents had sisters named Anna. Who this Marie person is, nobody knows. We figure it might have been a drinking partner of Dad’s, or maybe he just thought another name was needed. My mother always says, “It went good with Duke.”
At first it was the classic case of the baby everyone was nice to, getting all the presents I wanted while Carol and Ray weren’t so lucky. Though I could be a tomboy on the street, I was really a traditional little girl and played with little-girl things. I wanted books and new Crayolas and when I would color outside the line my sister would make me feel dumb. My poor sister. She says I broke everything she ever had. Well, she could play with me. I was a nice toy.
When I was little, it seemed that every holiday, every event that’s supposed to be joyous and wonderful—Christmas, Easter, graduations, weddings, birthdays—turned into a nightmare for my family. We were like a family out of O’Neill, with the melancholy and the fire of the Irish. There was, for instance, the tradition of the Christmas trees always going out the window. Almost every Christmas, my father would get angry about something and there would be an argument, and before anybody knew it the tree was gone, out the window and down into the street. Years later, after my father himself was well gone and we were living in a basement apartment in the Astoria section of Queens, my mother and my brother had an argument about the tree: my mother had bought a fake one and my brother came home and freaked. There was screaming and yelling back and forth and the next thing we knew, the tree was going out the window. Except we were in the basement! Ray was so frustrated and embarrassed that he dragged the tree up the stairs and into the courtyard. So we kept the tradition alive.
Funerals were the big family gatherings where relatives who hadn’t spoken to each other in fifteen years wound up in the same room. They’d have a few too many, sparks would fly, two or three folks would beg that this wasn’t the time or place, and then the free-for-all would begin. We’d hear “Step outside of Skelly and Larney’s,” the local funeral home, and after they’d had it out, everything would be fine.