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The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

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Steve_Taravella

Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » August 31st, 2013, 9:40 pm

Christy wrote: You mentioned a correspondence with Thelma Ritter, and I was wondering if there was any topic they would revisit from time to time. Since Ritter more or less had her husband, Joseph Moran, functioning as her manager/agent, would they often chat about the business or was it more personal tone to their letters?


Hi, Christy. It was a combination of both work and personal. In a 1959 letter that might be typical, Ritter tells Mary she is in the discussion stage with a couple of jobs and asks her about residual checks she has received, but also shares family news about her son Tony and daughter (Monica, who perhaps went by "Nikki"?). As I say, Mary and Ritter were not intimate friends -- Mary was never in Ritter's New York home, though she had met Joe and her children -- but the two women were close enough that they often had dinner when Ritter was in Los Angeles, sometimes at Mary's apartment.

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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » August 31st, 2013, 9:44 pm

mongoII wrote: Considering Mary was in both the play and movie of "The Man Who Came to Dinner" how did she cope with the irascible Monty Woolley?


Since they no doubt wound up spending a lot of time together, one would think I'd have uncovered an anecdote or two here. But, gotta say, I don't think they had any meaningful encounters, positive or negative, outside of their performances. Sorry to disappoint on this one :)

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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » August 31st, 2013, 9:46 pm

Thanks again for your response, Steve! :-)

How did Mary feel about the sequel to The Trouble With Angels, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows? Were you able to visit with some of her costars from the sequel like Susan Saint James, Stella Stevens, Barbara Hunter or Hilary Thompson? It would seem that it might have been a much more difficult shoot because of all the location work.
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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » September 1st, 2013, 7:50 am

Masha wrote: You have said that she wrote and that she was particular concerning the type of humor and its delivery. I must wonder if the two facets ever combined and she contributed or tried to contribute new lines or changes to lines in the script. I have it in my mind that she would not disrupt a rehearsal with an ad lib but I can readily believe she might suggest to the director that an alternative line would be more fitting for her character.


Hi, Masha. Two things to note here. First is that Mary had an unusual level of respect for the writer. Maybe this came from having written so much herself (she studied journalism as a young woman, and worked in a university news bureau for a few years), or maybe it was something she picked up in the theatre. But she resented others trying to change the writer's word, and would roll her eyes when someone on a set suggested something might go over better if words were changed. (This was different, of course, when she found language off-color or offensive.)

But all bets were off with other parts of a production. Mary, being both clever and strong-willed, had no shortage of ideas on how to improve a production -- and no reticence in sharing them. As much as directors loved her professionalism, it's also true that she drove them nuts with all the "suggestions" she gave directly to fellow performers.

Elliott Reid, the longtime character actor who just passed away, told me about an actress friend who complained after a rehearsal she had with Mary, who seemed to want to manage the scene: “Jesus, your friend Mary Wickes—she’s like the director. She’s got ‘helpful hints’ for everyone!” William Hammerstein once wrote Mary about having arranged a new touring production of Oklahoma!. “During Christmas week I had the flu and missed two or three days of rehearsal, discovering to my horror that everything went along just fine without me. It was the only time I was happy you weren’t there, because you would, of course, have seized the opportunity to re-direct everything.” He was only half-joking.

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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » September 1st, 2013, 8:20 am

Sue Sue Applegate wrote: How did Mary feel about the sequel to The Trouble With Angels, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows? Were you able to visit with some of her costars from the sequel like Susan Saint James, Stella Stevens, Barbara Hunter or Hilary Thompson? It would seem that it might have been a much more difficult shoot because of all the location work.


Hi, Christy. Mary loved both of these films. For one thing, she enjoyed playing nuns because these parts gave her a chance to reinforce positive images of religious life; Mary was a devout Episcopalian. For another, she really liked Rosalind Russell. (In several heart-to-heart talks, Mary helped Russell decide to disclose her rheumatoid arthritis publicly.)

But it wasn’t Russell who Mary was most drawn to on these films; that would be Binnie Barnes, one of the other primary nuns and the wife of Columbia producer Mike Frankovich. Barnes was in both the original and the sequel, and she and Mary spent most of their down-time on the set together.

To promote the sequel, Columbia arranged a national contest to select young girls who would appear in small roles. Mary, Barnes and one of the producers flew to seven cities in seven days in 1967, selecting a winner in Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. They made TV and radio appearances and drew attention from newspapers along the way. Mary and Barnes never worked together again but remained very fond of each other. Almost 30 yrs later, Barnes, in a wheelchair, attended Mary’s funeral.

Mary had little interaction with the other two primary nuns, Dolores Sutton or Marge Redmond, both of whom I interviewed. But Mary was close to the films’ producers, Bill Frye and Jim Wharton, who had also hired her for an erudite but now-forgotten TV show, Halls of Ivy. (The book’s cover photo is from that show.) She so favored them that she asked them to be pallbearers when her mother died. Frye, now in his 90s, living in Palm Desert, offered several of the book's most interesting anecdotes.

Yes, the films had a lot of location shooting –- much of the cast traveled to Santa Fe and Philadelphia and possibly other cities that I can’t recall this morning –- but Mary, in her late 50s at this point, was not troubled by the travel. Only in later years, like when she had to be in cold Canada at age 84 to shoot Little Women, was location-shooting problematic. By then, she was legally blind.
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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Professional Tourist » September 1st, 2013, 9:27 am

Mr. Taravella, during your research were you able to find out or form an impression as to why Mary never married? Had she been interested in marriage at any time? Her religion would not have created an impediment to marriage, and while her looks may have narrowed the field somewhat, once she was working and people got to know her for who she was, I imagine there would have been some opportunities to go out on dates, perhaps with men who shared her faith. [There is an Episcopal Actors' Guild in New York, formed in 1923.] Any ideas on this?

Steve_Taravella

Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » September 1st, 2013, 10:41 am

Professional Tourist wrote: Were you able to find out or form an impression as to why Mary never married? Had she been interested in marriage at any time? Her religion would not have created an impediment to marriage, and while her looks may have narrowed the field somewhat, once she was working and people got to know her for who she was, I imagine there would have been some opportunities to go out on dates, perhaps with men who shared her faith. [There is an Episcopal Actors' Guild in New York, formed in 1923.] Any ideas on this?


For various reasons, Mary rarely appealed to men in a romantic way. She went out with many men -- "beaux," she liked to call them -- because she believed it improper for a woman to be out alone often. In 1969, she said, “(If) you’re not married, people are inclined to say, ‘Pour soul.’ But I have a lot of male escorts, and I’m very choosy. My friends are always saying, ‘Oh, you can’t go on waiting for somebody absolutely perfect.’ And I say, ‘The hell I can’t—I’m havin’ a ball.’ For a tall skinny dame, I haven’t done bad.” In 1982, Mary wrote, “I have always had many men friends. I love them and they say they love me and I believe them. I’ve just always had too much fun to narrow down to one gentleman, and ladies in groups make me rather nervous . . . I think men are dandy, bless 'em!”

Unsaid, of course, was the fact that almost all of these men were gay, something Mary was only sometimes aware of.

Mary's sexual identity has been the subject of much speculation. Many believed she was a lesbian, partly because her strident personality mirrored many outdated misconceptions about lesbians, and partly because of an intentionally mis-leading entry posted in Wikipedia after her death. I conclude she was not lesbian, but lived a life of significant sexual repression. Virtually all who knew her well believe Mary was a life-long virgin. In fact, she did have one sexual encounter, which I discuss in the book. Lucie Arnaz, who was almost a part of Mary's family, theorized that Mary, sexually, simply “was neither here nor there. Maybe because of her religion and the era she was born in, it was just taboo and she wasn’t happy with either one of the options. Certain people just [say], ‘I’m not happy with the options. I can’t go against my morals, so I’ll just deal with it.’ I don’t think she had romances with men. Maybe she had a great relationship in her life that I don’t know about. I hope so. But it was very private if she did.”
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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby mongoII » September 1st, 2013, 10:46 am

Hi,
Did Mary go with Lucille Ball to visit pal Vivian Vance when she was in ill health?
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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » September 1st, 2013, 11:12 am

mongoII wrote: Did Mary go with Lucille Ball to visit pal Vivian Vance when she was in ill health?


Hi, Joe. Yes. This was in the summer of 1979, when Mary was performing on stage in Oklahoma! in San Francisco. Lucy flew up to meet her and they drove down together to Belvedere, where Vance was dieing at home of bone cancer. They spent about two hours with her and said their goodbyes. Vance died just weeks later. I believe this was first reported in Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, by Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert.

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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby moira finnie » September 1st, 2013, 11:34 am

Hi Steve and thanks for coming back today.

Your book's research is clearly encyclopedic. Interestingly, I believe that her personal correspondence is still officially listed as off limits until 2027 by request of the Trustee of the Mary Wickes Trustee. Did you gain access to some of this material?

You interviewed some 300 people when writing this book. How long did you work on this book? How did you touch base with so many people who knew Mary Wickes? Since the biography's publication have you heard from people who knew Mary and told you more about her that you may have wished to include?

You described how Mary rarely seemed to enjoy the company of children, yet from an early age, Luci Arnaz and, as you mentioned here earlier, Jodie Whittaker, both seemed to have brought out a nurturing side in her--esp. when guiding young people into service and developing their skills as a performer. Do you think that her often brusque, no-nonsense exterior masked some maternal urges within her?
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Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Countessdelave » September 1st, 2013, 12:03 pm

Steve,

Thanks for being here to discuss the wonderful Mary Wickes. Although I grew up seeing and appreciating her in many films, I have a special memory of her. I went to high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the early 70s, one of my classes had a field trip to see "The Mystery Cycle", at ACT. Imagine my surprise and delight to see Mary Wickes in it, playing Noah's wife. She was funny and perfect in the role. I was struck by something written in the program's bio. It said that she was going to UCLA to get her Master's degree. Can you comment about this period of her life and why she decided to get her degree at this stage of her career?

Steve_Taravella

Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » September 1st, 2013, 12:18 pm

moirafinnie wrote: Your book's research is clearly encyclopedic. Interestingly, I believe that her personal correspondence is still officially listed as off limits until 2027 by request of the Trustee of the Mary Wickes Trustee. Did you gain access to some of this material?


Hi, Moira. In one sense, Mary was a biographer's dream -- she was a scrupulous saver. Not just scripts, photos, playbills and ephemera of that sort, but ordinary things that proved much more useful -- receipts, shopping lists, Christmas cards, telegrams, contracts, and notes to herself about all sorts of things. She especially saved correspondence from well-known people, reasoning, I'm certain, if the performing arts world did not recognize the star circles she traveled in while she was alive, surely these letters would demonstrate it once she was gone.

Since most of the well-known people she communicated with where in the arts, those letters were considered "professional correspondence" and were made available to me by the archivists managing her papers. That provided a wealth of information.

Per the conditions of her estate, I was denied access to her medical records, her financial records and some private correspondence between Mary and her parents.

Steve_Taravella

Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » September 1st, 2013, 12:31 pm

moirafinnie wrote: You described how Mary rarely seemed to enjoy the company of children, yet from an early age, Luci Arnaz and, as you mentioned here earlier, Johnny Whitaker, both seemed to have brought out a nurturing side in her--esp. when guiding young people into service and developing their skills as a performer. Do you think that her often brusque, no-nonsense exterior masked some maternal urges within her?


Honestly, no. All indications are that she had no interest in children whatever and was at times even uncomfortable in their presence. But, like most of us, she was inconsistent. There were certainly young people she liked. Whitaker was one. Lucy and Desi's children -- not just Lucie but Desi Jr -- were others. Ditto her godson Michael Richards, her pastor's son. When Mary and Isabella spent holidays with Max Showalter and Peter Walker during the 1950s and 1960s, Showalter’s sister and her children often were present. “Isabelle was the one who related to my sister’s children. Isabelle would [bend down and] say, ‘Oh, come here!’ And Mary loved that thing of her mother and the child. But for Mary to sit and hold the child? It would never have happened. She wasn’t really giving to a child.” Amy Jane Ax, Mary’s closest hometown friend, says, “She was very nice to my daughter Janie, but she wasn’t maternal . . . it was the things that she didn’t say and do. She just sort of ignored them. Absence is often much louder than what you do.”

Steve_Taravella

Re: The Q & A with Mary Wickes Biographer, Steve Taravella

Postby Steve_Taravella » September 1st, 2013, 12:49 pm

moirafinnie wrote: You interviewed some 300 people when writing this book. How long did you work on this book? How did you touch base with so many people who knew Mary Wickes? Since the biography's publication have you heard from people who knew Mary and told you more about her that you may have wished to include?


The answer is a bit embarrassing. I started the book in 1998, three years after she died, naively assuming I could complete the research, interviews and writing in 12 months if I took a year off work. I couldn't. Finances beckoned, so I returned to work, but my work took me out of the US frequently (I worked in HIV in the developing world), and I couldn't very well work on the book in Ethiopia or Kenya. So I put the book aside for some years, pulling it out occasionally during a vacation break to work on this chapter, transcribe that interview, or try again to find that one missing person. I wasn't making much progress and, when I was offered a job with the UN in Rome in 2008, I had completed only about 2/3 of it. I decided that if I didn't finish it then, I'd never complete it. So for the first two yrs or so that I lived in Rome, I did almost nothing else in the evenings and weekends but write. I then was able to sell it, from Italy, to the University Press of Mississippi, as part of its Hollywood Legends series. I'm pleased that Mary is the first character actress that the Press chose to include in a series devoted otherwise to big-name stars.

To reach those who knew Mary, I started first by pursuing her generation -- every biography is a race against time, isn't it? Some weekends, conducting interviews in St. Louis, I felt like I was driving from one nursing home or retirement community to another, since many of her contemporaries from her youth never left the area. My one regret about the book is that having taken so long to complete it, many of those who knew Mary longest are not here to read it.

Yes, I've heard from many of those I interviewed, and am so pleased that they feel the book captures Mary well -- her talents and strengths but also her difficulties and weaknesses.


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