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Remembering Celeste Holm

July 18, 2012

Celeste Holm (April 29, 1917 – July 15, 2012)
Celeste Holm (April 29, 1917 – July 15, 2012)

It must have been 1992 when I met Celeste. A mutual friend, Carmela Ross, high in years to be undertaking such a thing, was launching a new theater company. The party, on New York’s East Side in the neighborhood of the UN, was chatty, congenial, attended by prospects well enough heeled to possibly invest in the company.

I knew no one but Carmela and was lingering by the canapés table when a voice near the front door announced loudly “I have the flu!” As if plague had been declared, the whole body of guests vacated that end of the room. It was Celeste, making a theatrical but truthful entrance. She sat demurely alone. I went to sit by her, declaring, “Well, I’ve just had a flu shot.”

This was at the time when I had a radio theater production company, Jefferson Radio Theater, lodged at Public Radio Station WJFF-FM.  Like any producer, I ransacked my mind for what “property” I might have that could be of interest to this classic star of stage and screen who was quietly sniffling beside me.

Elegantly white haired, with an oval face as perfect as a Noh mask but with an impish sparkle, Celeste even in her depleted state was impressive. And I had a role for her – though there was no way in the world my little company could afford her. But, luckily, that thought never crossed my mind.

I had a little twenty-minute playlet called “Martha Speaks Up” a monologue of Martha Washington entertaining the officers’ wives at Valley Forge with the story of how she and George met and wooed. Martha, it struck me, was a perfect role for Celeste. And when I spoke of it, she seemed to think so too.

A few days later I delivered the play to Celeste’s Central Park West duplex, a dwelling that combined Hollywood grandeur with feminine, upper class East Coast flowery prettiness. There was of course the piano, where no doubt an array of “greats” had gathered and sung old Broadway favorites of their own creation. And there were portraits of Celeste, done by her artist mother who clearly was smitten by the beauty she had brought into the world. My favorite of the portraits showed only Celeste’s hands with a red ribbon or tassel.

A few days later Celeste called me. She loved “Martha Speaks Up,” but, rather than do it as a radio play – could I enlarge it to a television series for her? There was a producer at PBS who was looking for a “vehicle” for her and this might be perfect.

I had written “Martha” after reading James Thomas Flexner’s four-volume biography of George Washington. The thought of doing a thirteen-hour script on the First Couple was exhilarating, inspiring. Yes, of course I would do it!

Fortunately, I had a good friend in Virginia who was happy to have me come and stay for multiple extended visits. Jean Ryland Walker was a Walker of Walkerton and her family had been in place since the 1600’s.  She knew everyone, was related to nearly everyone, could provide insights into Tidewater culture and access to private homes that were old when Martha was a child. It took me three years to write “The Washingtons” but I had a grand time doing it.

In the meantime, Celeste and I got to know each other better. Celeste performed “Martha Speaks Up” at various venues, including the Boston Historical Society, and I wrote a monologue companion piece for her so that the two plays made a performance of suitable length.

And Celeste was intent upon the prospect of the Washington series. The producer at PBS faded and died so we went searching for a new producer. The search took the form of a performance of “Martha Speaks Up” at the New York City Parks Department Armory in Central Park. Several well known producers not only were invited but showed up.

The armory space turned out to be far from satisfactory with echoes and places where sound vanished, and the producers we were most hoping to interest told us they were looking for an “event” property – like “Titanic.” But the parks department people approached me and asked if I could write little plays like that for the various houses belonging to the New York City Historic House Trust – which is how I happened to write a monologue of Edgar Allan Poe. So the event was not without happy results.

And Celeste seemed to be nursing along a producer. I completed the script, sent it for the opinion of the leading expert on Martha and was waiting his reply when Celeste was offered a role in the lucrative television series “Promised Land.” So Martha was put on hold. Then, while shooting the first episode of PL, Celeste, required to dance with a gaggle of teenagers at the location’s high altitude in Utah in stifling summer heat, collapsed and developed congestive heart failure.

Ever the brave trouper, she not only completed the season but went on to do more seasons with PL. She attempted to bring me in as her writer but that couldn’t be worked out.

Before she’d gone off to Utah, I’d visited Celeste not only at her New York apartment but had driven her out to her little summer house in Hackettstown, New Jersey. In that rather shabby rustic setting that she greatly loved she told me somewhat of her life story, of her sons, one of whom was quite dear but was far away and the other with whom she had never gotten on well. And she told me of her husbands – Hollywood nightmare marriages, then her very happy marriage to fellow actor Wesley Addey. I never met him but clearly this was a marriage that gave her the companionship and love the other marriages had not.

Heading back to New York together, we stopped at a garden center and at the ShopRite grocery store in Chester. This is a vast, cool emporium with wide aisles providing vistas. And it was here I observed the “celebrity effect” in action. People came up to her, announcing – as if she didn’t know it – “You’re Celeste Holm!” and reaching a hand out at arm’s length to touch her shoulder, as if measuring the distance between themselves and fame.

One night, when Celeste was home in New York from Utah, I got a desperate call. She was frantic. She was considering throwing herself out the window. Wesley was dead. He had come down with a relatively minor problem and been taken to the hospital. Thinking he was in good hands, she’d left him – and in the course of a commonplace procedure he had died. She was certain that, if she’d stayed, the apparent mistake wouldn’t have happened, or he could have been saved. She blamed herself for his death.

I told her to sit tight and I would be right down. It’s a three hour drive from my house in rural Pennsylvania to New York City but I made it in just over two. Celeste, in a woolly robe, was sitting in the kitchen with a woman whom I took at first to be a relative – a not mentioned daughter? Diana Walker was as solicitous and able as the daughter one would have hoped Celeste had. 

We stayed with Celeste through the night, until a new shift came to help her through this agony of spirit. In the elevator, leaving with Diana, I found she, like me, was just a friend; she was a theater producer with her own company, The Manhattan Playhouse. She and I became good friends and some years later I gave her a puppy who was so pampered by her that she reconstructed a building she owned in order to provide him with a garden. If not Celeste’s perfect daughter, she was a determined and energetic friend.

Gradually Celeste recovered from the loss of Wesley Addey – and then she met Frank. She was coping with the congestive heart failure with medications so she was already somewhat depleted. She should not have been alone. There was a secretary/general factotum, but he was there only for working hours. Frank Basillio was a godsend.

I met Frank when he came bouncing into Celeste’s kitchen grinning like a boy with a big surprise. The surprise was his early arrival – just back from Teheran where he, an opera baritone with a blossoming career, had been singing. Celeste, in wonderment, had just been telling me about this young man who appeared to have fallen in love with her and who was now living with her – when he wasn’t booked to sing somewhere.

I was skeptical. A good looking young man less than half her age? A fortune hunter? Most likely, I thought.

Frank plunked down on a chair at the kitchen table and gazed at Celeste adoringly, then proceeded to detail why he was in love with her. Her wit, her loveliness, her habit of grabbing the pole of the awning at the apartment house front door and swinging around it like a kid (which I could well believe – Celeste did things like that, delighting in puncturing the impression of an elegant grande dame.)

I remained skeptical. Diana Walker was more so. But year after year passed and Frank was still there. From one health crisis to another he was there, becoming her devoted care giver. His career in opera, so promising before he met Celeste, faded. Whatever he could gain from this relationship, he was sacrificing his life to it – and clearly he was sacrificing his life to her. Celeste was very happy.

Where were her sons who should have been taking care of her? They were opposing Frank and doing all in their legal powers to see to it that the apparently mismatched couple would be miserable. They got control of Celeste’s finances and put the pair on an ‘allowance’ that barely covered the grand apartment’s rent, and the couple’s basic living expenses.

Celeste went on appearing, giving performances. Sometimes irritatingly, as when the New York Philharmonic, advised by the Parks Department, contacted her when trying to reach me to book my Poe show for Poe’s centennial celebration. Instead of giving them my contact information, Celeste piped up with “I’ll do it!” And indeed she did. When I called her about another Poe event, she boldly announced “I did it!” Yes, if it was a chance to be on the stage, she took it – even from me.

Frank managed gala events for her: her birthdays, at theater restaurants where all her old friends of Broadway were invited. It was at one of these that their marriage was announced. The marriage split her friends into the approving ones and the condemning ones. I was among the approvers, seeing Frank as the care giver her sons failed to be. Most important – she seemed happy.

But that happiness was impaired. Law suits followed as her sons tried to make sure Frank would get nothing – now or when she died. And Frank and Celeste fought back. Frank remained with her, devoted in his care of her to the end.

It was a shameful attack that her sons made upon her life, her freedom of choice, and the one person who was willing to give up his life for hers.

Now that he’s alone, my hope is that Frank Basillio’s career can begin again. But Celeste’s friends were two generations older than producers who build careers these days.

If Frank was a fortune hunter – he gave more than he could possible ever have gotten. If he truly loved her, which I believe he did, then this is a strange and sad love story indeed.