By Lee Grant
Roberta Wallach called, “She’s gone” she said. Not sad. Sad comes before, sad comes after. “She went peacefully.” Roberta is Anne Jackson’s daughter, the same age as my daughter, Dinah. Anne brought Roberta to Dinah’s seventh birthday party when she and her husband Eli Wallach lived down the street from us on Riverside Drive – the same apartment, I think, that Anne and Eli lived in most of their lives together.
When Anne and I first met she was sixteen and I was seventeen. It was our first year at the Neighborhood Playhouse, we were there to learn to be actors, a year after high school and WWII was over. We were as clean and new as birds, we would learn to act.
Anne had the same great laugh, husky and eruptive, and turned her sunny face up to you then, as I’ve seen her do through this century. Delighted, delightful. Irresistible. Shiny mop of red hair, naughty blue eyes, that smile, conspiratorial and wide on her pink and glowing face.
The girl you always craved to be your best friend.
And she was the chosen one, the first to act professionally, picked out of school by the god and goddess of theatre Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne.
I think she and Eli collided out there in the stars in those enchanted days, and Chagall like clasped hands two feet above the earth they flew hand in hand forever after.
We did one play together, Anne and I. I was in love, or thought I was, or dazzled by the attentions of a brilliant older writer and was visiting him at his hotel rebelling against my parents. The doorbell rang. He opened the door. It was Anne. It was winter. She was wearing a pull down hat over her red hair, a wool scarf and galoshes. “Can Lee come out and play?” Suddenly I grabbed my coat and ran with her out the door down the hall, down the stairs out into the snow, hand in hand we ran, laughing and gasping till hands on knees we could run no more.
If I had kept running I would have lived an entirely different life.
After Lee Strasberg died Joey and I celebrated New Year’s Eve at our apartment here on West End Avenue, all the actors from the studio and theatres who had gone to Lee’s house, had a party to come to at our house, — anywhere from a hundred to two hundred came and went, the piano was playing, the singers sang, and Anne an Eli and their gorgeous girls Roberta, dark and swift and Katherine, blonde and sultry, for twenty or more New Years, till one night about 10 years ago, an older party girl regular arrived on a walker and pointed at Harry Belafonte, “Who is that in my chair?” — and the piano needed tuning, and the magic left.
Eli was in his eighties when he called me, “Do you have an agent who could get me work?” he said, “I want to work.”
I made a romance between my agent of fifty years Joel Dean, and Eli. Joel matched Eli in age and ambition — Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. Eli took every film and attacked each character as if it were the first one he’d ever played, canny and feisty and brave and original. Eli was honored by the Oscars. Eli was gone, suddenly.
Anne had a variety of ways she said his name “Eli”. One was conspiratorial, “Eli” whispered, one was a joke shared, one was a shock at his daring, “Eli”, or calling — we have to go home now. I got in the back seat of their car once — they drove me home from some event – and they were whispering and laughing at something, head turn, head turn, whisper, laugh – so intimate.
Eli died five years ago. It was a long long goodbye. Leaving Anne lonely and confused.
Roberta her older daughter, called, “Mom’s lonely we’re going to have a gathering at the house.” They’d been sitting on Anne and Eli’s bench, inscribed with their names, on Riverside Drive.
Anne’s memory of friends and faces had been declining for years. She’d covered it brilliantly. Smart talk, conversational, that smile, conspiratorial.
So, on a warmish day in February the Wallach daughters and son Peter and handsome grandsons with their girlfriends flowed through their large apartment — the homestead, familiar to all who came — comfortable, old friends, actors, writers, humorists. I hadn’t seen Harry Belafonte, sitting in the dining room, since the fateful New Year’s Eve at our apartment, ten blocks up on West End.
“Your bangs are too long,” Anne whispered sagely, pulling on the hair over my eyes. “Get a haircut.” I looked in her clever eyes. “Yes mother,” she looked around the chattering friends sitting around her table, and girded for a performance. The one from the many crowded rooms she and Eli had visited or hosted, turning on the glow, playing into small talk, improvising on a part she played all her life. Herself.
I became exhausted watching her, – valiant was a word for Anne. And for her girls, aware, helpful, serving food, cake, watchful. A few hours later I walked the ten blocks home in the rain on West End Avenue. All the cabs occupied in the downpour.
So last week, the April day Roberta called — “Anne’s gone, it was peaceful” — I said, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I saw her three months ago, she was fine.”
I’ve never understood death. Never.
Read more about Anne Jackson’s career here.