A Different Breed Of Celebrity

The Gramercy Theater, where I’m the house manager, has 499 seats-just one short of meeting the criterion for a Broadway theater. On most nights the house is full, and this summer has been no exception: The show is an Edward Albee classic, All Over , and the cast is composed of golden-era stars, namely Rosemary Harris, Michael Learned and John Carter. Part of my job is to keep the audience happy, which often involves reseating people. Our audience has been coming to the Gramercy for years, and many feel entitled to the good seats. Many of them can’t walk up the stairs leading to the rear orchestra. Some don’t like sitting near the air-conditioning ducts. And some are just picky. I move them all.

A few weeks back, during a particularly busy night, an usher ran up to me.

“Patricia Neal needs to be reseated,” she said, her face flushed. I didn’t know who Patricia Neal was, but I didn’t let on. I peered over the usher’s head to get a look at her. She was a portly woman who looked like your average Roundabout subscriber: over 60 and well-dressed.

“Wow,” I said, frantically tearing tickets. “Tell her I’ll help her as soon as possible.” The usher dashed back to the house to deliver the news. Five minutes later, a middle-aged man with a doggy bag in one hand and a sheepish grin on his face came up to me. “Ms. Neal can’t walk up the stairs,” he said. “Would you mind reseating her?” He looked nervous.

I stared blankly at him, then said, “Have her sit in the lobby, and I’ll reseat her at curtain.”

“But Ms. Neal can’t walk up stairs,” he said, raising his eyebrows when he said her name.

“I can assure you I’ll be able to reseat her,” I said. I generally reseat people at curtain call, in the latecomers’ seats.

Another part of my job is to spot celebrities. I’m supposed to let the performers know who’s in the audience and ask the celebrity if he or she would like to go backstage after the show.

This policy generally works fine for certain kinds of stars. I can recognize Reese Witherspoon when I see her, and Laura Linney’s not too hard to pick out of a crowd, either. If I don’t recognize the celebrity, usually the name rings a bell. I know I’m supposed to know who they are. But Patricia Neal meant nothing to me. My only excuse is that I’m 25-I was born after her career had come and gone. Faith Prince I’ve heard of; Patricia Neal, no. And then she came into the lobby herself. “Darling,” she said through her teeth, “I cannot possibly climb those stairs; they’re just dreadful.”

Patricia Neal is no small woman. She’s tall and solidly built, with a round face and a wide jaw line. She was wearing a blinding teal-colored blouse; she was impressive for a woman of any age. But I still didn’t recognize her.

“Please,” I said, “take a seat in the lobby, and I’ll seat you at curtain.”

“But I cannot possibly climb even one step,” she said, lifting a shaking finger. “Not one.” This wasn’t a diva fit. She didn’t look angry, or entitled, or any of the other things I would expect of a celebrity. She looked frightened that I might force her to climb stairs.

The lobby emptied, and I re-sat all the unhappy patrons, Patricia Neal and her companion included. I made sure they had excellent seats: 10 rows back, and center.

It wasn’t until later that evening, after I took the train home and searched for her name on the Internet, that I knew the full extent of my gaffe.

Patricia Neal was an Academy Award–winning actress, Gary Cooper’s mistress and Roald Dahl’s wife. She was the husky-voiced seductress who starred opposite Paul Newman in Hud . Her 6-month-old son was struck by a car while in his stroller, then she lost a 7-year-old daughter to measles. Three years later, she suffered a series of massive strokes at the age of 39. Reported dead in Variety , she clung to life in a hospital bed-three months pregnant. She went on to be a leading force for stroke victims, founding the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, the first of its kind in the country. Perhaps even more impressive, she went back to acting, and received an Academy Award nomination for her role in The Subject Was Roses . In short, Patricia Neal wasn’t just a celebrity, at least not the kind I was used to; she was someone who’d overcome real adversity and made a significant contribution to the world. I wondered if I would have behaved differently if I had known that when she walked in the theater. But that evening, I was clueless. “Would you mind telling Rosemary Harris that Patricia Neal is here?” said her assistant as patrons began rushing out of the theater.

On top of everything else, I had, by that point, completely forgotten her name. Thank God, I thought, and repeated it to myself. But Ms. Neal wouldn’t walk the flight of steps to the dressing rooms. She wanted to wait in the theater. I walked backstage to tell the cast.

“Patricia Neal is here!” gasped Ms. Harris.

“Good Lord!” howled Michael Learned, wearing only her slip.

“Well, send her back, for Christ’s sake!” said Myra Carter.

“She can’t come down the stairs,” I said, not expecting this response at all.

“What should we do?” Ms. Harris said, looking to Ms. Learned.

“We must go get her.”

“Yes,” said Ms. Harris, her hand fluttering at her throat. “We absolutely must.” And she ran through the dressing rooms and out into the house of the theater.

By this time, Ms. Neal had decided to battle the stairs. The lobby-still filled-parted for her. Ms. Neal stumbled. And Rosemary Harris came running past them all, wearing only a white terrycloth robe, her silver hair pulled back in a ponytail.

“Patricia!” she gasped.

“Rosemary!”

“You’ve come all this way!” And she grabbed hold of Ms. Neal’s frail, quivering hand.

“You were wonderful,” said Ms. Neal, reaching the bottom step, her assistant shaken and unsteady.

“Patricia! Oh, Patricia!” said Ms. Learned, as she ran into the lobby.

This was not the way celebrities were supposed to act. They were supposed to be calm. They were supposed to be collected. They were not supposed to run around the theater in their underwear.

“You look divine,” said Ms. Harris, cupping Ms. Neal’s face. “Absolutely divine.”

“You, my darling,” said Ms. Neal, “were magnificent.”

Later, after the lobby had cleared, Ms. Neal and her handler made their way back up the stairs. As I unlocked the lobby door to let them out, Ms. Neal looked me in the eye. “Thank you, darling,” she said. “Next time I won’t use Ticketmaster; they’re absolutely useless.” What sort of celebrity, I thought, would ever use Ticketmaster?

Her assistant, still gripping his doggy bag in one hand and Ms. Neal in the other, beamed. “Thank you so much for reseating us. She really couldn’t climb those stairs.”

“It was no problem,” I said. I shut the door behind them.