Near the End
Nineteen seventy-three was drawing to a close. For the second straight year, Agnes was to miss her favorite annual Christmas party at Villa Agnes, her lovely home in Beverly Hills. Her farm in Ohio was managed by the Stovers. She wrote the Stovers on December 10, 1973 [most probably from New York City]:
What a lovely cyclamen plant. It is just beautiful.
Thank you for remembering this tired, weary traveler who longs for home and fireside.
May the holidays bring you great joy, and the New Year a fulfillment of all your dreams.
Love to all
Again at Christmas, 1973, she wrote the Stovers:
What a beautiful collection of gifts! The bag [lilac tote] is divine and matches perfectly my other luggage. The soap is almost too pretty knowhow much the prayers mean to me. [Prayers of Peter Marshall] This beautiful book will be with me always, for I shall treasure it. You are all so good to remember me, to make my Christmas a really memorable one. Thank you, and may the New Year fulfill all your dreams.
January, 1974 [from Mayo Clinic]
Dear Stovers: Vic Sr., Margery, Vic Jr., Holly, Kathy, Heidi & Heather-
A short note to tell you how much I appreciate all the messages on that pretty decorated paper [violet].
Somehow you all make me homesick telling me about the snow and the deer. I love and miss this kind of life, the good clean fresh air of the country and hope one day 1, too, will be able to settle down to having my fill of it. Meanwhile it does my heart good to know you are enjoying it. With every good wish-
Margery Stover said: "Thought you might like these letters, to see no matter how busy or ill, she could still find time to say thank you.
"I thought of some other things after you left that I meant to tell you. Remember how we said we tied a yellow ribbon 'round the old oak tree at the Lane's entrance to New Place? I meant also to tell you that the children would always make big Welcome Home signs and hang them with streamers all over the kitchen.
"Kathy is our artist and always drew Agnes some farm pictures, which would be propped up against the sugar bowl. The last get well card the children sent was a drawing of Bruno with an original poem by Kathy that went:
A get well card on a wonderful day When the fields are full of clover and hay And even though I'm far away I think of you in every way.
On a beautiful warm spring morning The sun will shine warm on you, And Jesus will send his blessing Because you are kind and true.
Holly, Heidi and Heather
"Agnes thought it so cute, her letter said in part, 'Kathy's lovely color sketch was especially pleasing for its picture is close to my heart. The poetry was delightful and very good coming from one so young.'
My mind went back to the interview with Cesar Romero when he recalled their last conversations. It made him reminisce.
Romero had said: "I wish she had never gone into production of Gigi. She began with it in San Francisco in July, 1973. Courageously stayed with it until December in New York City where she left the cast.
"She was a compulsive worker-very much admired by her peers. We only made one movie together, something Warner Brothers put out called the Story of Mankind. She was Queen Elizabeth, as I recall. I was a Spanish nobleman, and Reggie Gardiner was Shakespeare."
I asked Mr. Romero about his fine collection of elephants. "Oh, yes, I've collected the elephants since 1952. In fact, Agnes' last gift to me was a beautiful silver Cambodian elephant the Christmas of '73.
"You've certainly learned what a trouper she was! I recall her telling me of performing her one-nighters in Israel." He paused and looked out the window across the distant lawn. "Agnes was probably the last of the great ladies of the stage to travel so far, so often, and so much.
"Did she ever tell you about our trip to Duluth?" I nodded that I seemed to recall her mentioning it once. "We were supposed to conduct a onenight show for some sort of a high school reunion. Instead of one show for 2500 persons, we had to perform three times for the over 8000 that turned out, totally unpredicted. What a night! I shall never forget it. This led Agnes to say in one of her inimitable ways, 'Never have so few labored for so many for so little.'
"When you think of Agnes, you think of perfectionism. She loved beautiful things. But she never got to see her house repainted and redecorated because her last illness took her first.
"Did you ever know about her aid to the Sybil Brand Institute? Among her other endeavors she was instrumental in helping get the new Los Angeles City Jail for Women.
"She was a self-made woman, just like one hears about the proverbial selfmade man. Everything she had she earned herself. I felt sometimes she had an almost obsessive fear that she would not ever have enough to live on. Her pride in her craftsmanship, her religion, and work drove her. She wanted to be totally independent.
"The night she won the Emmy Award she just sat there stunned. She was totally unprepared to accept. She said, 'I've never won before, so I expected I wouldn't this time. I wish I'd have dressed for it.' She just sat there, too stunned to move. I said, 'Agnes, Agnes-get up, get up, go up and accept it.' "
I observed that through all the personal memos I had scanned, she was so private that I found little or nothing truly revealing about this fascinating lady. I mentioned again to Mr. Romero that all my conversations with her were attuned to philosophical discussions about either religion, Americanism, or her craftsmanship.
Fred Carmichael related: "I first met Agnes at the Nashville Airport when she came down to film Dear Dead Delilah with Will Geer, Michael Ansara, and my wife, Pat Carmichael. The first awesome appearance of the woman we were to come to love as 'Little Missy' soon gave away when she was chatting with a sailor who had sat next to her on the plane, and was signing an autograph for his younger sister while awaiting the luggage [lavender, of course!].
"The seven weeks we spent filming in early 1972 had Agnes darting back and forth to the West Coast and moonlighting between Bewitched segments in order to be with us. She would phone me one day and say she could be on such and such a flight and would be able to stay three or four days. And she would add that if I met her at the plane, allowed a half hour to the mansion where we were shooting, she could be in makeup immediately and work through the night if necessary. What a trouper she was! Words can never capture her almost desperate desire for perfection and total dedication to her craftsmanship.
"Since you have indicated you are heading towards the more inspirational aspects of people's relations with Agnes, I shall try 'to keep to them. We had a marvelous long ten hours once, when I drove her to her Ohio farm and we kept awake by relating our life's stories to each other. She had a kitten on her lap - a stray, which she would give a home to on the farm. The rain poured solidly all night, but we had a wonderful time.
"Her mother was visiting at the farm and had homemade sugar cookies and hot tea for us when we arrived. I promptly came down with the 24 hour flu and was bedded in Agnes' bed, and she brought me tea and medications.
"She jokingly said that if I told the folks in Vermont that I had slept in Agnes Moorehead's bed, I better add that she had bunked in with her mother. Of her farm, Agnes said, 'Here I could hide away with a cup of tea, an apple, a good book and let the world pass by.'
"You probably know of her fondness for trains and that she loathed airplanes, always sitting on the aisle seat so she would not have to look out the window.
"Evidently her parents were very important in her life. Her description of how her mother told of her father's passing was really lovely. It seems that her father passed away at church and Mrs. Moorehead was sure that she saw his very spirit leave the body and seem to ascend from it.
"Agnes was always deeply indebted to her mother for playing along with me' when she was young. She had such strong imagination. She would come downstairs some mornings and her mother would say, 'Good morning, Agnes,' and Agnes would say, 'I am not Agnes this morning. I am Cynthia and Cynthia is sad.' Then Agnes would relate how she would stare out the window with tears rolling down her face. If a neighbor were to chance by and ask her mother what was the matter with Agnes, her mother-keeping up the game would answer, 'That isn't Agnes, it is Cynthia and Cynthia is very sad this morning .'
"Agnes really knew that this strange kind of encouragement (or lack of discouragement) was a great help in undergirding her. She was often to mention how her father would play along with her when she loved to mimic people walking along the streets and he would always enter into the imaginative game with her. [Discouragement of the young at this point is far more prevalent than many parents realize, until it is too late.]
"One night during filming Dear Dead Delilah, we were all gathered in the library of the estate location between shots when the juvenile in the cast came in with a broken arm (which had not happened during filming sequences). Agnes told him how silly he was to risk himself so when he had signed to do a film and 'belonged to the producer and owed it to the producer to take care of himself.' Then she launched into a long speech on the meaning of craftsmanship in our business and what the actor ought to do about it and what he should bring to it. As Pat (my wife) and I have often said, we should have had her totally impromptu speech recorded and play it for each young actor whenever they came for an audition or interview. It was glorious. She had such a respect and love for the business!
"One night we had been shooting for twenty-one straight hours (with meal breaks, of course) in evening clothes and finally were down to the close-ups, and I told Agnes I would take her back to the hotel, but she said she would stay and read in the lines for Pat's close-ups as it might help her rather than hearing someone else read them in. That was being a trouper in the old-fashioned sense of the word - after twenty-one straight hours of working!
"The last scene of Agnes that we shot was her death scene (ironically for a movie that the last was last - not usually filmed that way for obvious production reasons). In it she collapsed after firing a gun and saving Pat's life at the hands of the murderer. They took some of the scenes and then wanted another angle. It was getting on to 10 P.M. and then we were going to leave for the farm afterwards. Between takes, I asked her if she wouldn't like to go to the trailer and rest, but she said she would stay stretched out in the cold on the brick path as it would waste time to have to get her back into the same position where she had fallen after shooting the murderer. It was a sight to see her lying there with all the folds of the long chiffon dress in the same neat position of the last film shot. So we chatted and exchanged stories, and as always she topped me. They suddenly yelled 'Action.' Her face that had been joking went down and her eyes filled with tears. She said her speech and they said, 'That's it. Cut.' Agnes said, 'So be it - let's go to the farm.'
"Whenever she was on the set, there was such respect. She seemed to demand it by her very presence more than anything else. The 'grips' would stop swearing when she appeared - once when I brought her onto the set and they were ripping off four-letter words, she gave a quiet 'shhh' and that was it.
"First and foremost there was a delicious sense of humor, one I did not expect from a lady (as I often told her) who had seared me all through high school by glaring at Greer Garson in one of her many cinematic films. Her stories and her ways of telling them were always gems in themselves and hilarious. I don't think she was ever allowed the chance to exhibit this as much in her roles as she might have been. At one luncheon, the manager of the tiny tea room near some antique shops had asked her if anyone had ever taken her for Endora the witch in Bewitched, and she said, 'Yes, I was, and would you like to be turned into a frog?' He literally backed out of the kitchen and was not seen again. A waitress took over from there.
"I often asked when she was going to take a rest, and she said she would but she should work while she could and in as many different type roles as possible or they would say next spring, 'Who is Agnes Moorehead?'
"On subsequent trips to New York, when she was in plays, or just visiting, we would get together for dinner, the theater, and always it was the height of the evening to listen to her recall and recount how she got her first role, job hunting, and of the three great men in her career life, Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, and Paul Gregory. Her talks of the people she worked with were all the more remarkable because there was never anything vindictive. If she ever did say anything the least bit negative, she would omit their names, and believe it or not, in our presence anyway, this only happened twice.
"Backstage at Don Juan in New York and again the next year with Gigi, she was just marvelous and evidently appreciated one's opening-night gifts, thoughts, memos, and other mementos. Gigi was an unhappy experience for her from first to last, and it will ever be an unhappy thing for me that it didn't turn out the way it should have - I mean the production.
"I just thought of a marvelous scene that comes to mind at the farm. Mrs. Moorehead told Agnes that she had just seen her in a rerun on TV of The Left Hand of God, and that, 'Really, Agnes, you were very good.' I replied that was a foregone conclusion with so many Oscar and Emmy nominations. Then Mrs. Moorehead went on to say she never had seen all of Agnes' films because she had made so many. Then Mrs. M. pulled out a local paper with an article about herself entitled 'Your Neighbors and What They Do.' It had a sub headline 'Mother of Star Kept Busy'-this is not a direct quote, but from memory. It just showed how Agnes was intent not only on her own press clippings, reviews, and such, but was even interested in her mother's, and her mother's opinion of Agnes' theatrical work.
"Delilah has been released in the Midwest and South through some chains, but now is back with the producer and will be recut and then released again-we hope. It is a horror film, more or less, but with some character to it. She plays a dying scion of a family.
"Probably one of the nicest things Agnes ever said to me was once when she said, 'But you are a gentleman,' and that sums her up marvelously. She was ever a lady and liked to be treated like one. I shall always keep the treasured photo signed by her with Pat's and my name from 'Little Missy.' She was a great lady, on and off the stage.
"Did you know that she cut her hair for the part she played of the plain pioneer wife to Karl Malden in How the West Was Won? She didn't have to do it, but she told someone who persisted in calling her Agg-a-ness on the set that she was just too hot - so she cut it, her beautiful long red hair. They told her that there were underwater skin divers specially equipped so as to save anyone if they fell off the pioneer rafts during the filming of the movie. Her reply, 'Humpf, fat chance they'd find me if I was swept overboard.' "
I have mentioned several times that various interviewers told of Agnes liking to do imitations. Fred Carmichael said, "Several of us were astounded at her excellent imitation of Hermione Gingold in A Little Night Music."
While they were making the film Dear Dead Delilah, Agnes once said to Fred Carmichael, "Those who work for the good of the production I'd do anything for, but those who work for themselves alone, they'll just have to look out for themselves."
After seeing and talking with many friends, acquaintances, and theatrical people, I left it to Fred Carmichael to enlighten me as to why Agnes never drove. Many mentioned that she always needed to be chauffeured. I supposed that perhaps she had never learned to drive. Not so.
Carmichael: "She was driving the lavender Thunderbird home from a set one evening when she became so deeply engrossed in thinking about a new character she was portraying that she drove by instinct until she 'came to' way down in a very undesirable part of Los Angeles. She had no idea how she got there. 'That did it,' she said to herself. 'I'll never trust myself behind the wheel again.' And, true to her word, she didn't. This was divulged during our all-night drive that time from filming Delilah as we drove her home to her farm."
That same night each was regaling the other (in order to keep awake on the long drive) with unusual persons they'd run across in their lifetime. Agnes mentioned that years before, she once had a cameraman on the set who was one-eyed. He was forever running out of film. She nicknamed him "Rembrandt." She told how she insisted they try to keep ahead of him by asking if he had enough film loaded. It could be very disconcerting.
One time in Nashville they were supposed to be at a horse farm outside the city to film at six o'clock in the morning. Agnes was eating a breakfast of melon and cottage cheese. She said to Fred, "You're early."
"I don't think so," he said. She looked at her watch and said, "OK, let's go." How many unfinished meals, how many unslept nights on tour, how many unfinished tasks just to be prompt, ready, on time?
With the ensuing events of President Nixon's resignation from the presidency, I am glad that Agnes was not around to suffer his resignation. She had a favorite picture in her living room taken at the garden at the summer White House at San Clemente when President and Mrs. Nixon entertained many old entertainment friends and acquaintances. Agnes received not one, but two, invitations to the 1972 inauguration. One was from the White House, the other was personally from President Nixon. They were dated November 30, 1972 and December 5, 1972. Here is another letter:
THE WHITE HOUSE
December 4, 1972
Dear Miss Moorehead:
As I look back to victory of November 7th, I realize how much I owe to those who with their talent and support helped us roll up a majority of landslide proportions.
I shall always be proud that so many from the entertainment world were willing to play a part in the campaign and I am especially grateful to you for your efforts.
You may rest assured that over the next four years I shall do everything possible to make a record which all Americans regardless of party, can view with pride as we are about to celebrate our nation's two hundredth birthday in 1976.
With appreciation and best wishes,
Richard M. Nixon
One of her most esteemed friends was Mary Roebling, of Trenton, New Jersey, and New York City. Mrs. Roebling wrote me the following beautiful thoughts:
I find myself wondering, in these bitter-sweet days of retrospection now that a much loved friend, Agnes Moorehead, has left us to be with God, what were the special qualities that she possessed that endeared her equally to the intellectual sophisticate and to the innocent youngster.
Agnes was a great artist in the theatre, revered by her contemporaries for her enormous talents and rewarded with accolades and wealth by audiences worldwide. But that rare and special quality that Agnes possessed was that she was an artist in living. All her life Agnes sought to see improvement in every dimension in her life. To seek selfimprovement, an individual has to believe in life which means believing in one's self. Montaigne said, "Of all the informatives we have, the most savage is to despise our being." By this definition, Agnes Moorehead is the model of the civilized human being, she served others, made the world a better place in which to live without sacrificing her own center, her own individuality. She had a talent for happiness, a cheerful disposition, which flowed from her absolute conviction in God and the goodness in life enabled her to endure suffering and illness with rare grace.
Despite her fame there was nothing pretentious about Agnes; she displayed the same ease and grace with the youngsters as she did with the elite of the world.
I would say that Agnes' great triumph was her humanity. I remember the time she came to Trenton from New York City for Christmas. She had been staying in my New York apartment during the rehearsal for Gigi since mid-October. She was very tired, but very brave. My daughter had a small party for her and I shall always remember how this great lady of the theatre spent most of her time entertaining the grandchildren, Bryn and Ryan Balderston, ages 6 and 7 respectively. The children were fascinated with Agnes and they hugged and kissed her, a great sight to see. Agnes had very little to eat and rested much, but smiled in delight at the children. The children were absolutely beside themselves and wanted Agnes to disappear as she did on television as Endora, the witch. With enormous solemnity, she told them she hadn't her magic with her and that she was very, very sorry. We all exchanged presents and Agnes loved opening hers.
Finally, it came time to depart. We all kissed for a Happy New Year and then Agnes went back to my apartment. She stayed there until her illness forced her to enter Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
Agnes Moorehead was a truly beautiful person. I am honored she was my good friend. Now she has gone and I can but echo the words of the poet: "Rarely, comest thou Spirit of Delight."
I was very fortunate to be able to speak with Ricardo Montalban and Edward Mulhare of the current cast of Don Juan. They were just starting tour and came through Arizona.
Tanya Hills was introduced to me by Montalban. She aided Myrna Loy in the cast as she had helped Agnes.
Mulhare told me: "The thing that impressed me most about Agnes when we toured with her in 1971-72 was her always very strict high professionalism." (I was touched by the compliments Mr. Mulhare paid Montalban regarding the previous night's performance.)
Montalban added: "On the night of the day she died, I was opening in The King and I at Los Angeles. I was apprehensive enough as it was. Just as I was to go on the stage, in the final throes of preparation, someone said to me, 'Isn't it terrible about Agnes? 'What is terrible I asked. 'She died today, somewhere in the midwest.'
"I couldn't believe it. I returned to my dressing room to try to recover myself. Just as I entered it another party said to me, 'Do you realize you are using the same dressing room Agnes Moorehead used in Gigi?' That did it. I broke down." Ricardo continued, "You see, Agnes was responsible for my being in the cast of Don Juan in Hell." Then he added, "When we closed the show in Los Angeles, our next stop in The King and I was San Francisco. I nearly fell over when the dressing room they gave me was Agnes's - again. How did I know? The lamp bulbs had all been painted lavender, her personal trademark, you know."
Very few persons knew, even among her friends, that Agnes was in the Clinic. She entered in January 1974. She left us on April 30, 1974. It was her expressed wish that her fatal illness not be disclosed. Thus she was ever a very private person to the end.