lee grant
Lee Grant in her Upper West Side apartment.

By Eileen Katz

Lee Grant was born on the Upper West Side and has lived up here for most of her life. She made her stage debut at age 4 at the Metropolitan Opera and never looked back! Ms. Grant went on to a tremendous career on Broadway that she parlayed into a film career. She received an Oscar nomination for her role in “Detective Story”, a role she originated on Broadway, and won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Shampoo”.

Her second Oscar came with her transition to Directing for the HBO documentary, “Down and Out in America.”

Why the West side, Lee?

I was born here! On 148th Street. I grew up in lower Washington Heights. It was great. I loved my block. In those days, your block was your block. And my block had the girls. We all grew up together. And after school, we all went down to the block to play. And the next block was where the boys were. And we’d try and get there, but you couldn’t even walk up 149th Street. You’d interrupt a baseball game, or some such thing. I was raised in a brownstone there 620 West 148th St.   All my uncles and aunts lived there. Then we moved to 706, which was a big white house.

I went all through the Neighborhood Playhouse and studying to be an actress from that block until I got my first job and then we had to move to mid-town so I could get to the theaters. It was just awful. But after I was blacklisted, Broadway was the only place I could work. Broadway had an agreement with Actor’s Equity. And I taught at HB Studios. It brought in a steady income that helped support the family through that awful time. Well, it was awful and wonderful.

You see, I was extremely uneducated. All I had ever known was adoration from my mother and aunt. And approval from acting coaches. I never went to college. I was a poor student. I was thrown out of two schools for not concentrating. Then the blacklist gave me my education. I had only said a few words at a friend’s funeral. Nobody warned me that it could happen. Our government seemed to confuse someone having a talent agent with being a secret agent. It was a bounce. Going from that world of excitement to being married and the mother of two step-boys. And really falling in love with the people who were Communists at that time. I had so much regard for their thinking, their intellectuality. Zero Mostel, my husband, Trumbo. You know, it was like how did I get lucky enough to get abducted by these extraordinary, talented people? It was an excitement of a different kind. I was re-invented. Flying by the seat of my pants! I was like Alice. Down the rabbit hole and that’s where I was. When that ended, I moved to Malibu so that was really like going to Atlantic City from the Upper West Side! It was the beach and very low key. My daughter Dinah was about 7. I went because I had to do “Peyton Place”, which was the biggest soap opera ever! New episodes three times a week.

What brought you back?

When I moved back here, I had decided that I would become a director. I sensed my saleability as a young actress was passing. As an actress who was blacklisted as a girl, from the time I was 24, when I got my first Oscar nomination, to 36 when I restarted my career, I gained a heightened sense of “ getting it back” and “running with it.” Of letting nothing get in my way. Of staying 36 and not getting older. This was an absolute necessity. It put me on a high alert of looking young, of not having anyone find out that I was getting older – 37, 38, ahh! 40!

This was before the computer so you could really hide and my youth juices were really working for me. It was after “Shampoo” though that I knew it was time.   When I moved back, it was to 74th and West End Avenue. Harry Belafonte owned it and I called him. Then we had $75,000 down on an apartment on Central Park West, but I saw this apartment with my best friend Marybeth, and she said: “If you don’t take this apartment, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” And I knew she was right. I’ve been here almost 30 years since and it’s home. We just blew that money! I came back to my own country! I am not comfortable anywhere else. This is my country. I’ll go to the East side to visit my doctors, who are all on Park Avenue, but that’s the East side. But everything that I hold dear is on the West side. It’s home.

What’s the best part about living up here?

Well, look where I live! This is a building that was built in the 1920’s and maintained brilliantly and carefully. My apartment is my house. It has those long, long doors that are supposed to open up to a Chekhov cherry orchard, but instead it’s a fall. It’s my home. In the summer we take up the rugs and we put on the white furniture covers and it becomes the summer house. And in the winter we bring the carpets back up and take off the white summer covers. We don’t have to deal with the Hamptons. I hate the country. I hate the beach. The only time I liked it was when we were in Malibu. But only because it was a community. Ryan O’Neal lived up the block, everyone wore bathing suits everywhere, even to the market. Like here, that was a community.

What’s the worst part of living up here?

I wrote a letter to the Times and went down to the Mayor’s office. The first one to go was Embassy Florist, right across Broadway where the bank is, where all the banks seem to be now. They raised the rent to $30,000 a month. Then the Vietnamese market went down. They raised their rent $40,000. Then the little bookstores went down and everyplace was now a bank or a drugstore. So I went to this meeting for the support of small businesses and it was like talking to the wind. Everyone was bored, sat around, while the character of the Upper West Side was being ruined. I appreciate Banana Republic and the new high-end stores that have moved in, but I miss the character.

Do you have a favorite routine or walk in the neighborhood?

One of my walks is from this building to Zabar’s. I used to throw in a stop at Filene’s where I would pile up so many cashmere sweaters. You couldn’t walk in there without getting one. Such good deals. This is probably one of them that I’ve got on! The walk, the parade of people, I get lost in it.

Favorite restaurants?

I miss Docks! I don’t know why they had to leave. Do you know Joy Behar lives in the neighborhood? When we get together at her house, we’ll go to Carmine’s afterward.

Ollie’s around the corner is good for ribs.

Favorite shops?

Honey, you have to talk about Barzini’s. It saved us when Food Emporium closed. The fruits and vegetables are beautiful. And nice baked goods. Every time we have company we run right there and get a selection of cheeses. The best collection anywhere. And they’re nice enough so that sometimes, when you get a little rumble in your tummy around 2 o’clock you can say, I’m just going to run in to Barzini’s and just sample a little piece of cheese with a cracker. And it’s so welcoming, so nice. And I like the people who run it. Mensches.

What makes someone an Upper West Sider?

This feeling that I know you, even if I don’t know you. It’s family. I feel it even from the homeless people that are here. I brought home a chicken noodle soup and a roll yesterday that I hadn’t planned on because I saw this man on the way to the market on 85th street. It was rough out. Starting to snow. So I said, I don’t have any change. He says: “No, I don’t want any change. I want chicken noodle soup and go across the street and get it from over there.” So I explained I was going to the market. He said again, I want it from that place.

Well, I had to go to the market, I had a long list of things to get, there was a long line, but I saw that they had chicken soup, so I bought it with a roll at the market. I didn’t buy it at the place across the street, even though he told me to, which I resented a little, but when I came out he was gone! I really loved his arrogance though that he felt he could tell me where he wanted it from. Like family! I looked all around for him, down the street, around the corner, but couldn’t find him. This is a rotten time for the homeless. It just breaks my heart.

How would you describe Central Park?

Heatbreakingly democratic! It’s the park of the city and that makes it the ultimate of what we can be…the old with the young, rich with poor, roller-skaters with musicians. And old wonderful trees. I walk home from all my doctors appointments that I told you about on the East side and never miss the chance to cross through.

It sounds like you really spend a lot of time walking around the neighborhood!

I am strong! I am sturdy! In order to get what you need, you have to walk here and it’s my curiosity about the people I pass on the street, and what’s going on and the dog population is incredible! It seems like when we got to this building, this neighborhood, most people had children. But they grow up, leave, and it seems like every parent has replaced their children with a dog. That makes for a lot of dogs! All us dog owners know each other and it’s an even greater sense of neighborhood spirit. They don’t know my name, but they know Bella’s!

People don’t recognize you?

There’s a kind of off-handedness, an acknowledgement, of my work, but never rudeness or overstepping my personal space. We’re all in this neighborhood together!

To read all of our “Why the West Side” columns, click here.

COLUMNS | 24 comments | permalink
    1. Chris says:

      such a nice article!

    2. Lisa says:

      Wow does she look (and sound) incredible for her age! Wonderful article.

    3. UWSsurfer says:

      Lee is such a fantastic actress and director.

      The documentary that she directed, “What Sex am I?” is fascinating.

      Dinah is a wonderful actress too.

    4. Zelda says:

      And really falling in love with the people who were Communists at that time. I had so much regard for their thinking, their intellectuality.

      Yeah, Stalin and the U.S.S.R. were really cool, weren’t they? I wonder if Ms. Lee ever got the chance to experience them firsthand. She would have loved that. No doubt about that.

    5. jill says:

      real new yorkers do not nug acters.

    6. lisa says:

      Really interesting.
      Especially appreciate hearing about when Manhattan neighborhoods were real communities (her childhood memories above) as I have heard from my grandparents and others as well.

    7. Brett Mann says:

      @ lisa: you’re right. it’s incredible how she looks.

    8. Jack says:

      These columns are wonderful. Ms Grant does a lovely job expressing the warmth and caring of your neighbourhood.

    9. End Hypocrisy UWS says:

      If I could give this comment 50 thumbs-up I would.

    10. Mel Wilner says:

      Eileen, you hit the nail on the head….AGAIN. Great interview with Lee Grant and I will say hello should I run in to her..because I too am old enough to remember her.
      Thanks again. Mel

    11. Marci says:

      This series of columns you’ve been doing are great! More, more, more!

    12. barry says:

      it makes me realize that the UWS remains a truly wonderful place for us and an important legacy to maintain for the generations that follow

    13. ann says:

      I had to laugh about the homeless man story. I was at Associated Supermarket the other day, minding my own business, shopping when a woman approached me, neat, nicely dressed and she asked me to buy her a sandwich since she didn’t have money because her ‘check’ hadn’t come in, yet. If you’re a New Yorker you definitely know about the check. So, I said sure, she ordered her sandwich and let me tell you she knew her way around the deli counter. I told her to also get a drink. I do have to say she thanked me profusely, and off we both went, our separate ways. I’m curious, though if we’ll have another encounter another time.

    14. Katherine Weber says:

      Love this series! So much fun to learn about all the interesting people in our neighborhood and what they like about it. It’s a small town, that’s for sure! Keep up the great interviews, Eileen Katz!

    15. maryann slavin mariconde says:

      Met Lee in New Haven, ct in the 70’s while in The Prisoner of Second Ave. with Peter Falk. Wonderful woman…actress. She welcomed me into her dressing room at the Eugene Oneill Theatre many times. She probably doesnt remember me but i do her. If she reads this i want to thank her for her kindness and friendship i will never forget. Love, luck, laughter…good ol’ Maryann

    16. James says:

      Another Upper West Side treasure! So great to read about her and the others in our neighborhood. This column is a fantastic addition to the WSR — keep ’em coming!

    17. withheld says:

      Nice. Where the Frank Langella interview. Isnt he an UWS’r? 😀

    18. Independent says:

      @ #9, “End Hypocrisy UWS”:
      “If I could give this comment 50 thumbs-up I would.”

      Which comment did you mean?

    19. Steven Stark says:

      I have seen Ms. Grant several times on Broadway, but never wanted to pester her. My business, Beacon Paint & Hardware, is still going strong after 116 years, so she should take solace in that! And we are very dog friendly. We’d be honored if she visited us.

    20. John Haracopos says:

      It truly makes me So Happy that Lee Grant is my neighbor. I’ve smiled and said hello to her a few times over the years but I’m such a huge fan that I can’t bring myself to actually stop and tell her how much joy she’s given me! A friend of mine that is a make-up artist, worked with her a number of times and told her about me, Ms. Grant was kind enough to personally sign an 8×10 for me. I Love Lee Grant long with living on the UWS!

    21. Sandra says:

      I enjoyed this so much. I am new to NYC and am happy and grateful everyday that I chose the UWS. I hope some day Lee and Bella walk by me and my little dog, Daisy.

    22. Sidney J. Burgoyne says:

      I have always thought the world of Lee Grant.

    23. Ruthie says:

      Great article – I just love this series!

    24. I’ve been a fan of her acting and admirer of her ethics for decades. Good to read she is enjoying a full life.