"Lauren Bacall, in a sequined mermaid gown, and Jason Robards became acquainted in one of the back rooms. In a burst of some emotion, Jason burned her on the shoulder with his cigarette. Jane Fonda arrived with her dancer lover, who displayed bandages around his wrists, telling everyone he had tried to kill himself because Jane was leaving him. Geraldine Page and Rip Torn argued in the kitchen; he sounded like the army man he had been . . . I looked around at the people I cared about and respected -- Franchot, Maureen Stapleton, Isaac Stern. At the party was the epitome of everything I had run away from and everything I longed for . . ." --Susan Strasberg on her parents' New Year's Eve party 20 years ago.
Two middle-aged women came into the lobby of the Madison Hotel and walked up to the desk. One of them was wearing a pair of shocking pink cotton trousers, a wrinkled white cotton jacket and heavy sandals. Her longish dark hair was stringy and she wore rimless granny glasses.
She was too large for those bright pink pants, those pants that cried out for attention, and for a tny derriere. As she turned toward the elevator, one noticed in the shadows a small face lined and slightly melancholy, but a face that had once been pretty, maybe could be again with a little care.
Fifteen minutes later the same woman appeared in the lobby again, this this time dressed in a loose black crepe dress with a white gardenia, the dress hiding everything the pants had revealed. The hair had been combed, the face was refreshed for a photographer's camera.
It was Susan Strasberg.
It seemed impossible that this was the diminutive dark-haired beauty who at age 17 had played the title role in "The Diary of Anne Frank" on Broadway. This was the Susan Strasberg, daughter of America's most famous acting coach, the master of the method, Lee Strasberg? This was Susan Straberg, once the brightest young star in New York, celebrated by the great and the famous? This was the Susan Strasberg whom every girl in the late '50s aspired to be like? She was so ethereal, so beautiful, so rich, so thin, so talented, so successful. She played Juliet and had an affair with Richard Burton and had a glorious complexion and wore Chanel suits. She was perfect. Her whole life was and was going to be perfect.She had everything.
So who is this woman of 42 who comes into the Madison Hotel and calls herself Susan Strasberg and what right has she to remind us that perfection is an illusion that withers quicker than the rose?
She understands that now and that's why she's here.
Susan Strasberg has written a book about her life. It is called "Bittersweet." She is on a promotion tour for the book, already in her fifth week of it and enjoying almost every moment of it. She has been out of the public eye for a long time. Almost 15 years. She's worked, in second-rate movies and in bit parts, but mostly things that few have heard of. And she has been in therapy, trying to find the answers to the question, trying to find out where it all went wrong.
The book was one way of working through things, as is the offshoot of the book, the promotion tour.
She plunks down on the red velvet loveseat in the lobby of the hotel and begins to chat as the photographer takes her picture.
She seems nervous and eager to please, to be liked. As the photographer works she talks, volunteering in a rapid-fire monologue as quickly as the clicks of the camera until finally she laughs at herself and announces, "In case you haven't guessed, I'm a compulsive talker."
She is saying how much she likes the promotion tour, click click, how many people she has met and liked, how nice people have been to her, how intelligent people are, click click. She talks about "the public and private side of me," click click, about how somebody recently asked her "how did Richard Burton really kiss," click, then emphasizes, "It was a man who asked that. Women never ask questions like that." She apologizes for her weight, click, saying that eating and drinking are the only ways to survive a tour like this and describes the ecstasy of eating a piece of her favorite chocolate, click click, "If ecstasy brings you closer to God than that piece of chocolate . . ." click click. She says she is pampering herself these days. "I'm being nice to myself at this point in my life." Click.
She talks about her state of mind . . . "If my doctors haven't done a good job by now . . ." click, and she says after all the probing of her private life, "I don't take anything personally any more," click . . . "My life really has changed," click . . . "People seem to expect less today," click . . . "if you expect less you can get less . . ." click click click.
Susan Strasberg was a big star when she was 17. She was forced to be a grownup in a very grownup world when most girls her age were worrying about what to wear to their first prom. Now at 42, it is her time to be a sophomore, to question the meaning of life, to examine, theorize, analyze the way her peers did when they were studying Philosophy II in college.
She is not the first stalled actress who has sought another stage. Telling all, sharing her life, has been an appeal to her fans in a different medium to be sure -- but it is a performance, nevertheless. And it has worked. It has brought her money and fame, recognition and that most precious of all things to an actress, it has given her back her audience. Perfection and Wreckage
She learned early the truth about fantasies and illusions. Her mother was the closest friend and confidante of Marilyn Monroe, her father mentor to the greatest actresses and actors of his day. She saw at close hand Monroe's desperation, James Dean's self-destructive nature, Montgomery Clift's personal anguish, Marlon Brando's neuroticism, Richard Burton's battle with alcohol.
She also saw her mother's own frustration at being only den mother to the stars rather than a star herself. Still, at her early age, Strasberg was optimistic enough to think that she could escape the other side of success. The public's vision of her perfection mirrored her own.
Now she is sitting in the buffet of the Madison Hotel, on her way home to New York for a short rest, and she is trying to summon up the wreckage of her life.
A disastrous marriage to a man who, she claims in her book, beat her, dragged her into the drug scene where she almost destroyed herself, fathered her only child, a daughter born with several birth defects; a divorce. Her mother dead of cancer, her career in shambles . . .
Her book Bittersweet" ends in 1974 when her daughter Jennifer, now 14, has had her last heart operation. She runs into Richard Burton, also at the hospital, and he doesn't recognize her.
That was six years ago. What has she been doing with her life since then?
"Lets see," she says, stopping to pause as she orders a Perrier. "What have I been doing for the last six years?"
She says she has just had her 42nd birthday. "May 22, the same day as Laurence Oliver . . . I have stopped measuring my life in terms of years. I now see my father's age as middle age." She giggles. "My father is 78. His wife is my age. I have two half-brothers 9 and 10. It's a strange feeling to say to Jenny, 'Will you baby sit your uncles.'"
She has been living in California all these years until last September, when she moved to New York. "California was a very emotional place. I felt there was a lot of research I could only do in New York on my book. I have moved from Malibu to Beverly Hills, then to a farm in the San Fernando Valley. That was my own fantasy. But everybody was there to plant and nobody was there to harvest. Just like life. And I couldn't see the trees for the forest. I needed a new forest. I needed new feedback. When you're in Malibu, you seem very removed . . . you may have noticed I'm a compulsive talker.
So what has she been doing for the last six year, or ten years, for that matter?
"Well, I did 'Toma,' a TV series, and well, my father says you can't always play Beethoven. Sometimes you can just play good Strauss. I did two films in Europe -- I don't even remember what they were . . . I did 'In Praise of Older Women', a Canadian film last year. I did a film with Tony Curtis. I work pretty steadily. I make a good living. At this point in my life I want to go for quality rather than quantity."
She is interested in the stage again, but it terrifies her.
As for her personal life, that has been on hold too for the last 10 years or so. Christopher Jones, the former actor from whom she is divorced was "my first and last and only husband. Although I don't eliminate marriage . . . maybe central casting will do better next time. I have not made a solid long-lasting commitment to anyone in years. Yet I have a very good life. There's not a stigma to being single. My life is incomplete without someone to share it. But I can be happy without someone . . .
"Y'know, I've stopped looking. The best things in life happen when you let go of it. Now is the best time of my life. I wouldn't go back for a million dollars. You do it until you do it right. You keep putting your fingers on the hot stove until you're not making the same mistakes any more. It's like the man who marries five women and says what's wrong with the women when he should be asking what's wrong with him."
There is something so fragile about her, so nervous, so beseeching. She needs to be protected, to have someone reach out and tell her it's going to be all right.
She stops talking for a moment and seems uncomfortable with the silence. The talking is somehow a buffer against all the scary things out there. She is like a child singing in the darkness to ward off the demons, afraid to stop.
She picks up her wineglass full of Perrier and raises it.
"The best," she says somewhat plaintively, "is yet to come." Vanity and Envy
She begins to munch on popcorn. "As you see, I have given up vanity," she says. The conversation turns to mothers and daughters, to her own strained relationship with her mother, her current troubled relationship with her own daughter. In the book her mother is not painted in a particularly flattering light. She describes a scene on opening night of "Time Remembered" on Broadway with Richard Burton. After the show her mother came backstage, screaming at her, "Don't touch me. You were awful, terrible. cHow could you do that to me?"
"People find it horrifying of my mother to attack me on opening night, but I say it's no different from parents who scold their children for bad report cards. In our house The New York Times drama page was our report card . . . with my child I'm harsh. I want to protect her. But it is dangerous to live vicariously through your children."
Her daughter, she says, who is "taller and tougher than I am" asked to go away to boarding school this past year. "She wrote me a wonderful letter. She said 'I love you, but I love myself more. Maybe if I go away, when we're together we won't fight so much.' I overprotect her. My mother overprotected me. There should be a dues bank so that when our children come along they can draw out of our experience. I told her, 'You can do anything if it makes you happy,' And she said 'Maybe I don't want to be happy.'"
It is clear her experiences with both her mother and her daughter are an ongoing source of pain to her.
And yet she will say, "The experiences that have taught me the most are not the ones I would have written into my scenario, but I wouldn't have had it any other way. The painful experiences are the ones which gave me strength.
"Since I have a teen-age daughter I developed instant compassion for my mother. I saw my mother as a real tragic figure. In the book we all survived and she didn't. She was a woman who should have been famous in her own right.
"There's a wonderful quote from Shakespeare which sums up mother and daughter . . . 'thou art thy mother's glass and she in thee brings back the lovely April of her prime.' One of my few regrets is that my mother and I never really were able to make contact . . . if my daughter wrote about me on a judgmental basis, as a victim, I would be upset. Until you take responsibility for your own life you don't begin to live. I consider myself a victim of my own needs."
It was tempting in the book, she says, to make herself seem "a little more clever, less stupid. But what's the point? I've passed that point. Still, some people think my life is larger than life, better somehow. A woman said to me, 'I envy you having had that affair with Richard Burton.' And I said, 'Did you read the book? Did you see the pain it caused me?' And she said 'Better to have been caused pain by Richard Burton than your high-school boyfriend.'"
She laughs at this concept, at the fact that people out there would view what she calls 'my dark-night-of-the-soul stuff' as something glamorous and enviable.
"Has anyone in their life had enough of what they thought they needed?" she asks rhetorically, then . . . "I read this article about happiness . . . you know you cannot look on success as an ultimate end goal . . . 'a man's reach should exceed his grasp else what's a heaven for' . . . people who are successful get scared, they stop taking risks, they try to freeze it and they stop living."
She is, she says, an optimist.
"Yeah. Incurable." She laughs. Then sobers. "Little Mary Sunshine I'm not. I have my dark moments . . .If I could have done better I would have. My father says no actor wants to be bad."
Recently she went back into therapy. Reichian therapy, a form of physical massaging of the body to release emotional anxiety. "It works on the body where it carries armoring. It's painful, but it's more painful to carry it around. In Freudian therapy you have intellectual awareness, but you never get the heart and the head together. People say, 'Aaahhhhhh, it's nude therapy.' They wouldn't say 'How was your nude open heart surgery?'"
"I've tried many things in life. I've taken what I felt I can use. I do what helps me get through the day." She doesn't, she says, use drugs any more. "I fought too hard to get it together. Also, life is the greatest high." Fantasy and Confession
In her book she talks a great deal of a psychic she has been consulting over the years and how it has influenced her life. "We cut a lot of that out of the book because the publishers didn't want to turn off the Eastern intellectuals. These are tricky areas. People shouldn't be too dependent on them. Her psychic friend and another astrologer friend are both leaving California and moving to Charlottesville, Va., where Strasberg herself is now looking for a house.
"Psychic phenomena for me is a signpost. I've had a lot of clairvoyant and psychic experiences. If it was good enough for Plato and Benjamin Franklin then it's good enough for me . . . somebody told me recently, 'you drop a lot of names . . .' and I said, 'better Plato and Socrates than Farrah Fawcett.'"
Part of what drove her to write the book was surely a certain stagnation in her personal and professional life. And too, she says, she got the idea from reading other books: "Haywire" by Brooke Hayward, Betty Bacall's book, Liv Ullman's book . . . "The book was a great release. I didn't do it for other people's opinion. I did it for myself. People out there want to share, I was reaching out. You have to throw it back in the cosmic pot. You transmute it. Like Anne Morrow Lindbergh I felt if I could help one person . . . .
"Books like these may offend some people, a confessional book. But the lie is the killer, the fantasy is, the dream . . .
"My friends say, 'God, you've wasted 10 years of your life finding out who you were.' Maybe the time made me a nicer, stronger person. Having had fame I found it wanting . . . 'what matters it, if a man gains the whole world and loses his immortal soul?'. . . .
"Success goes in cycles. Burgess Meredith said to me after I did Anne Frank, 'You can wait 20 years for another part like that to come along!' . . . But it's there. I'm now more selective. I will do good things. The parts that Jane Fonda or Meryl Streep or Jill Clayburgh or Sally Field get, those are the parts I'd love to get a crack at. To a degree I should be playing much better parts than I am. But since I don't measure myself by what kind of parts I play I consider myself one of the most successful people I know."
She decided to write books, she says, when she suddenly said to herself one day in California, "This is ridiculous for a 40-year-old girl to sit by the phone waiting for somebody to want me.
"I had become indiscriminate. I'm an actress. I had to act. Paul Newman risks his life in race cars when he doesn't get parts. Gary Cooper once said every time he finished a movie he thought he would never act again."
She pauses again, realizing she has been running on again. She smiles sheepishly. "There's a part of me that's very private despite this bubbling personality," she says. "Like when I take my foot out of my life. A part of me is very private. But then everything is very relative."
Susan Strasberg is a child of her time, ironically more now than when she was a star. Then she was out of sync. Now she is in tune with what people want. Today privacy is not revered. Confession is. Society mirrors itself in the Susan Strasbergs. What was once socially acceptable, laudable, was keeping one's problems to oneself. Today, those who open their guts are those who are lauded and rewarded financially and socially as well.
In the 1940s people wanted fantasies, they wanted the illusion of perfection in their heroes. They still believed in the possibility. Today they want the worst, the ugliness -- as though it will salve their own pain and anxieties to know that no one can escape them. That they are not the failures they seem to themselves. It is important to know that Teddy Kennedy is not the hero he appeared to be. Jimmy Carter is acceptable because he never promised to be anything but what he was.
Greta Garbo's once-fascinating mystery is now boring. Rather than revealing that she plays tragic sonatas on the piano by day dressed in antique embroidered shawls and trysts at midnight with anguished young lovers drinking pepper vodka, let her tell us how she spends her days cutting her toenails, her hair in curlers, in a dirty bathrobe watching soap operas, and she will have a best seller, be an instant star again.
As in A. E. Houseman's poem "To an Athlete Dying Young," perhaps it would have been better for our heroes to die early before their own ugly truths were known. Perhaps Susan Strasberg and others like her would have done us more than a service to stay silent. Let us keep our fantasies of her as she once was, as the blithe beautiful, dark-haired creature she played in Anne Frank.
The public obviously doesn't think so. Her book is selling.
"People think I should be thrilled," she says, "to be called Anne Strasberg for the rest of my life."