Goodbye to All That: Bidding Adieu to Some Real Class Acts

dennis hopper3 Goodbye to All That: Bidding Adieu to Some Real Class ActsThe word “goodbye” takes on a somber and rueful new meaning as I begin the annual task of wrapping up an old year by waving adios to the man with the scythe. We lost so many famous and celebrated people in 2010 that by midsummer I already had 35 pages of names. “Attention must be paid,” wrote Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman, and that applies to one and all.

Topping the list of my personal losses is Jean Simmons, my loyal and cherished friend for 40 years, and a legendary star of the silver screen who truly earned the label. From the good old days when she was married to film director Richard Brooks and we staged canasta parties in their Beverly Hills home every New Year’s Eve, collecting money from guests on their way out, to strawberry picking in muddy Connecticut fields and crawling around on our hands and knees trying to find her reading glasses at the re-release of Spartacus, we had some laughs. Earlier this year, I helped her daughter Tracy stage a memorial at London’s Covent Garden. The attention she deserved was finally paid in a jam-packed royal send-off, with poems and memories by Claire Bloom, Hayley Mills, Edward Fox and Joss Ackland, among others. When Dame Judi Dench ended the hour singing “Send in the Clowns” with Sir Richard Rodney Bennett at the piano, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. One of the warmest, most elegant and luminous stars of the last half-century, her departure was another nail in the coffin of a movie legacy that will never come again.

I will also miss my friend June Havoc, the equally legendary show business icon and sister of famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee whose early days in vaudeville as Baby June were portrayed in two autobiographies and the Broadway musical Gypsy. Havoc, as she was called by friends, never approved of the way that show inaccurately portrayed her mother, Rose, played by Ethel Merman. During the Depression, she stayed alive by entering dance competitions, which she later chronicled in a brilliant 1963 play, Marathon ’33. She died at 97, but never lost her radiant spark right up to the end.

In a diminishing world of first-rate singers whom you can still listen to without an Excedrin, the sadness was overwhelming when Lena Horne died at 92, smoldering through her last eight bars with no reprise. Amid the prejudice that poisoned so many illustrious careers, Lena broke every rule and crashed through every barrier with her supersonic talent and breathtaking beauty. She was an international star in a class by herself, yet she never achieved the respect, happiness or household fame she deserved. Still, Lena became a rabid civil rights activist and proud member of the N.A.A.C.P., getting even with a life well lived in an unenlightened age. I loved my friendship with Lena. She always called Liz Smith and me her “adopted white children,” and one of my fondest memories was sitting on her lap at a party where she fed me birthday cake with long, elegant fingers. In the end, unfortunately, she became a bitter recluse, rarely seeing even her own grandchildren. But there was so much to be proud of. Her singing was unparalleled; she smashed stereotypes, made history and inspired hundreds of singers. In 1981, Tom Snyder gave me 90 minutes on NBC because I was the only interviewer she would talk to, and Lena said, “You get into the habit of surviving.” If only she had enjoyed it more.

Who could forget Patricia Neal, 1964 Oscar winner for Hud, a model of talent and courage who learned to walk and speak all over again after three paralyzing strokes, then returned to the screen in 1968 in The Subject Was Roses? Later she became a great favorite on the New York social scene, raising millions for her namesake hospital in Kentucky. With a voice like a cello rubbed with rye whiskey, she polished her trademark sarcasm in many unforgettable performances on the stage and screen, but my favorite is the 1950 Hemingway noir, The Breaking Point, in which John Garfield asks her if she’s ever been to a cockfight. She curls her lip and snarls, “All that trouble for an egg.”

It’s been a terrible time for the Redgrave acting dynasty. Following Natasha Richardson, this year marked a final curtain call for her uncle, Corin Redgrave, and her aunt, Lynn Redgrave, who lost her long battle with cancer at age 67. Last year also framed final close-ups for Kathryn Grayson, star of MGM musicals like Show Boat, Anchors Aweigh and Kiss Me Kate, and Bronx-born dese-dem-and-doser Tony Curtis, whose career never amounted to much more than a T-shirt and a tight pair of jeans until Sweet Smell of Success in 1957. He made up for lost time with Spartacus and Some Like It Hot, and somewhere along the way, he learned to act.