Jed Harris The Curse of Genius
By Martin Gottfried (1984)
A genius for Making Enemies
The legend looked like an old man dressed up to not look seedy. His thin gray hair was parted in the middle and plastered down, without concession to current style. He wore a dark ascot inside his open shirt collar. The padding of his camel’s hair sports jacket overlapped his shoulders, too wide. He fidgeted with his hearing aid and coughed, trying vainly to clear his throat between draws on a cigarette. He’d just been released from the hospital and sipped a glass of water through an L-shaped straw he’d stolen on the way out.
In the Hollywood television studio, Pat Burroughs, his forty-year-old girlfriend, stood and watched beside one of the cameramen. The Dick Cavett Show was usually taped in New York, but when Jed Harris heard that Cavett was in Los Angeles, he telephoned. He had a book to publicize. He was penniless and ill and desperate for it to succeed.
Cavett introduced him as “legendary, the golden boy of our theater’s golden age,” and Harris peered up from beneath lids that, once notoriously hooded, now just seemed eighty years’ heavy. He said nothing. Cavett, stagestruck since childhood, was excited by a chance to interview the Jed Harris he’d heard so much about; the Jed Harris he had thought was dead. He arranged for a studio and crew and now Pat Burroughs looked on apprehensively. Beside the preppy production assistants she appeared gauche in her white orlon sweater and gray gabardine slacks, but she was more concerned with Harris’s hearing and alertness. The medication made him so groggy. He had been the subject of her doctoral thesis. They’d been together tor several years now. The relationship had never been placid, but this last stretch had been actively acrimonious.
They had stayed with her mother in Winston-Salem, the seventy-nineyear-old former golden boy not embarrassed to be dependent on his girlfriend’s sixty-five-year-old mother. Though he complained about everything else, he never complained about this final and ludicrous deposit. A lifetime earlier he had declared international celebrity something he put little stock by. Apparently he had meant it. Then, always fleeing somewhere, he told Pat they were going to California. She scraped up two thousand dollars, bought a used Thunderbird, and while he dozed she drove from one TraveLodge Motel to the next. They wound up in a sorry one-bedroom Malibu garden apartment. Now Cavett smiled smartlv at the camera and recited Harris’s credits as a theatrical producer and director. These were faded and spiritless references to forgotten glories. Cavett seemed to realize, as he spoke, that the play titles would mean little to most people and so he abbreviated the list in midstream. Yet he was awed, he said, by the presence of Harris and he kept using that word, “legend.”
Videotape made it possible to come back from the grave. Months after Harris died the interviews were broadcast. After thirty years of oblivion, he had five nights on television, more time than Cavett had ever offered anyone. Old enemies watched with contempt for Harris’s deviousness, his dishonesty, his malevolence to the end. Old friends watched with admiration for his courage in carrying off “The Jed Harris Show” just one last time, and in plain sight of death. Now, as they all watched, he was dead.
Ruth Gordon found a splendid apartment in New York. She always found splendid apartments. This one was at 36 West 59th Street overlooking Central Park. Although they were now more or less together, Jed kept his place at the Madison Hotel. That bothered Ruth, and she said so, but he had the upper hand. Strolling through Shubert Alley one day, she ran into Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan. The actress and the critic were secretly engaged. There was no reason for the secrecy other than Miss Gish’s feverish modesty. She hasn’t seen Ruth Gordon in a year. Of course nobody had. The two actresses scurried to each other, the sparrow and the hummingbird, and pecked one another’s cheek. Ruth said she’d been in Paris, drinking wine, and had tasted “some stuff called Clos Vougeot and it was sen-jo-tional.”
Nathan knew the wine. He said it was a superlative Burgundy but hard to find. “I’ve got a great idea,” Ruth said. “I know a guy who it’s his favorite wine too. He’s dying to meet you, Lillian, so I tell you what. The first one that finds a bottle of Clos Vougeot, let’s all have dinner together.”
Ruth was a woman of many combinations, none of them foolish. She knew that it wouldn’t hurt Jed to befriend a critic, but Lillian was even more important. Chekhov on Broadway needed a box office attraction and Lillian Gish was one of D. W. Griffith’s most glittering movie stars. Ruth found the bottle of wine first because she already had it. One evening not long after, they all met at her apartment. Nathan and Harris talked drama while the actresses listened respectfully, which probably was not an easy thing for Ruth Gordon to do.
“Until then,” Miss Gish remembered, “I had thought George knew more about the theater than anyone I’d ever met. You’d go to a play and there was a certain scene that you liked; he could tell you five or six other plays where they had the same idea and then say how they played that scene.
“Jed was beyond that. I never heard anyone talk about the theater with the intelligence and the excitement and the interest that that man had. When I got up to get my coat to leave I said to Ruth, I’d work for that man for nothing if he ever had anything for me.'”
Three weeks later she received the script of Uncle Vanya. She probably would have gotten it even faster but I farris had to rethink the play. The role he wanted Lillian to play, a heartless flirt, was hardly one with which she would have been immediately associated. “Elena,” he later wrote, “seemed to me a rather old-fashioned portrait of a ‘teaser.’ I decided to modify, to suggest a beautiful and desirable woman, chilled beyond hope of recovery by marriage to a withered windbag of a professor.”
It was a novel interpretation, even a radical one. In most productions of Uncle Vanya, Elena is still played as a man-eater. Gish agreed to do it immediately. She wouldn’t discuss salary and there was no sense in it anyhow. Jed could hardly give her the ten thousand dollars a week she was paid by Griffith. Anything, she said, would do.
He cast the other major roles with actors he’d worked with before. Walter Connolly, his old pal from the Applesauce days, “would make a perfect Vanya. And [Osgood] Perkins, even without the romantic beauty and distinguished style of Stanislavsky who created the part, might make an interesting thing of Dr. Astrov.”
Did he know what he was talking about?
Lillian was going to be a challenge. Her last theatrical experience had been as an adolescent, seventeen years earlier. Her voice had never been a powerful instrument. George was of no help, in fact he was antagonistic to the project. He told Lillian a bit of period stage nonsense—that it was essential for a star to have the last speech in a play. The last speech in Uncle Vanya was not Elena’s but Sonya’s. If she did the play, he warned, she might never have another job in the theater or even in the movies.
Miss Gish knew why her fiance was so negative. Jed was planning to open Uncle Vanya in April, and she had promised to go to Europe with George in June. And, Nathan was an insecure man, jealous of Jed’s magnetism, jealous even of Lillian’s concern for her ailing mother. Acceding to these pressures but embarrassed to tell Harris the truth, Lillian said only that she would have to leave the production after six weeks in order to take her mother to a spa in Germany. He calculated the time it would take to recover the production cost and, presuming that Lillian would be a sell-out attraction, agreed to her limited engagement. Harris wrote:
. . . she came to rehearsal in a palpable state of fright. As she had not been on the stage since early childhood, this was not altogether unnatural. “All these people in the company are so wonderful,” she said mournfully after the first session. “I really don’t think I’m good enough to be on the same stage with them.” I laughed. “They’re not that wonderful,” I said. And I told her that Helen Hayes was so nervous during the first week she rehearsed Coquette that she broke out in a painful rash. “And Helen,” I added, “hasn’t been off the stage since she learned to walk.” If this was meant to reassure Miss Gish, it failed utterly. Her eyes clouded over with compassion, she murmured, “Oh that poor, poor girl.”
Miss Gish recalled an early rehearsal at which Harris rose from his aisle seat and strolled to the stage. “Lillian,” he said, so quietly that she had to lean over the footlights to hear him. “Just do this as if you were in a movie. Don’t worry about projection. Don’t worry about the size of performance.
My only advice is: the woman you’re playing is the pivotal figure in the play. If they believe her, everything else will be believed. And remember, she isn’t merely a woman. You’re playing every man’s idea of a woman. Try and keep that in the back of your mind but don’t worry about it. You’re going to be wonderful.”
As rehearsal proceeded, some were less than convinced of that. Harris let his assistant, Worthington Miner, assume more responsibilities. Some days, he didn’t arrive until late in the afternoon. Osgood Perkins suspected that Jed might be having trouble with his hearing, but nobody paid much attention to that.
Photo: Osgood Perkins and Lillian Gish
When the play opened at the Cort Theatre on April 15, 1930, it was triumphant. The reviews were gaudy. Jed recovered his nine-thousand-dollar investment in six weeks—almost to the day Gish left the company—and the production ran another three weeks on momentum, giving him a small profit on the risky presentation of a classic on Broadway.
These were fine rewards, but none to compare with the observations that critic Stark Young made about the production in The New Republic. Stark Young was the most intellectual critic of the era. Few among those who have practiced the profession of drama criticism have been better equipped for it, or better at it, than he. And Chekhov was Stark Young’s specialty. Soon after this production of Uncle Vanya he would publish his own translations of the playwright’s works, and they would for many years remain the standard versions.
Observing the directorial debut of Jed Harris, Mr. Young wrote, “Writing criticism about a production so careful and intelligent is a pleasure and a form of cooperation with the producer. . . . The whole directing is felt out with naturalness, brains and confidence.”
It was almost miraculous that Harris could have accomplished such a feat with so little preparation. His natural gift had to have been astonishing. Pity he would, in his career, do only two other classics and neither of them in a league with Uncle Vanya. They would be Gogol’s The Inspector General and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. He would never attempt Shakespeare, or even his beloved Shaw.
His return to Broadway, then, was a glittering one. It had even enhanced his image: quality, intellect and art had been added to the reputation for commercial infallibility. The dust from the Wall Street crash had cleared and The Meteor had survived.
Not so the romance of George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish. They returned from Europe to learn that his mother was mortally ill. Lillian visited her in the hospital. On the way home she asked George whether he was Jewish. He repeated what he had told her before: that he was from a Main Line and decidedly Episcopalian Philadelphia family. The mother Lillian had seen in the hospital had not struck her as a society Christian. She asked George’s sister-in-law about it, and Marguerite roared.
“If George’s brother is Jewish,” she said, “I might suppose he would be too.” Lillian was disgusted. She hardly cared who was Jewish. Practically everyone in Hollywood was. But she did care—or rather, did not care — about people who denied what they were. That was the end of her secret engagement to George Jean Nathan.