Mary Tyler Moore became America’s sweetheart by sharing overwhelming joy with everyone who watched her radiant sitcom characters. But her most courageous act was publicly sharing her deep, lifelong pain.
As tributes for Moore — who died Wednesday at 80 — pour in, much will be celebrated: how she forever altered the television landscape, became a “symbol of women’s liberation” and even inspired a generation of journalists.
These are important parts of her life. But by her own accounts, so were her struggles with diabetes, alcoholism and loss, about which she remained hopeful, humble, grateful and ultimately remarkably candid. She exposed her own dark clouds in two memoirs and countless interviews in the hope she could help others.
Alcohol permeated nearly every aspect of Moore’s life, from her two failed marriages to the premature deaths of her sister and her son. In her memoir “Growing Up Again,” she attributed her subtly “off-center and uneven features” to being a child of an alcoholic mother.
She described her mother as an “entertaining alcoholic.” But Moore wrote, “When one’s mother is an alcoholic and, despite a child’s pleading with her to stop, she continues, you may read that as a cold, selfish act on her part.”
It was difficult on her, she added, since her father “was bereft of the ability to express his love for me.”
She began “reaching for a drink to soften the blows,” not allowing “the hard edges of life to touch me.”
Throughout her life, the edges only grew sharper, the blows coming more quickly even as her fame soared.
In 1955, at the age of 18, she married Richard “Dick” Meeker and had a son named Richie a year later. But after a few short years, as her television career prepared for takeoff, her personal life began falling apart.
“During the first year of ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show,’ as thrilled and bursting with excitement over my work as I was, I was equally without emotion at home,” she wrote of her divorce in 1961 from Meeker. “There is no question about it. By the time Richie was 5, I had already let him down. When he needed me the most, I was busier and even more self-concerned than I had been when he was an impressionable infant.”
A year later, she married ad agency executive Grant Tinker, who would later become the head of NBC and MTM (Mary Tyler Moore) Enterprises, hoping he would serve as a father figure to young Richie. “Grant had the same expectations of children that he had for himself, leaving little room for failure,” she wrote. But “Richie was almost always falling short.”
Five years into her marriage with Tinker, her relationship with her son grew distant just as she was offered a half-hour sitcom on CBS in 1969, which would become “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
That same year, at 33, she suffered a miscarriage. As she told Larry King, the horrid experience contained a silver lining — it may have saved her life, as a routine blood test that day led to a diagnosis of Type I diabetes.
During an Emmy TV Legends interview, she said, “Normal blood sugar levels are to be somewhere between 70 and 110, mine was 750 and they were amazed that I was still walking around.”
She required insulin injections, which she took. She should have stopped drinking immediately, as alcohol could easily have taken her life. But even “though my blood sugars were erratic, I sure drank consistently every evening at six o’clock.”
During this period, she continued to grow estranged from her son, though they lived in the same house. Two years later, Richie moved to Fresno, Calif., to be with his father. There, the boy began slipping into addiction, much like his mother and grandmother before him.
“It wasn’t until a frantic, sobbing Richie called home in February 1973, begging sanctuary from a cocaine dealer who had threatened to kill him over some unpaid debts, that I realized the extent of the tangle that was now my son’s life,” she wrote in her second memoir, “After All.”
Meanwhile, she found herself with excuses to drink more and more. Her son was gone, her marriage to Tinker was beginning to fray. Her 21-year-old younger sister Elizabeth, one of two siblings, died of a painkiller and alcohol overdose in 1978, a year after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” finished its glorious run.
She wrote of the next year:
In 1979, Grant [Tinker] and I had begun hesitantly to talk about the great silence that had fallen on us. We always made these feeble attempts at self-counseling during the so-called happy hour, the only time we had courage enough to broach the subject. In case there’s any doubt about the acute state of my alcoholism, and the insanity it produced, I can recall with sickening clarity that on more than one occasion I played Russian roulette with my car. What’s more, some unwary, innocent people played with me.
The two separated in 1980, and without her son or her husband around, Moore found herself in New York, drinking ever more. “I anesthetized myself at the end of the day,” she wrote, admitting she preferred homemade margaritas, which “had the consistency of a milkshake and the effect of morphine.”
One morning in October after such a binge, her phone rang at 5 a.m. Her son Richie had shot himself with a gun called a Snake Charmer. It was an accident, but he was dead.
Later, when scattering his ashes, “I opened the container and emptied it into the rushing water. What was meant to be a prayer became an outraged demand. ‘You take care of him,’ I screamed at the sky.”
One cannot help but wonder if all this turmoil fueled her sudden, strikingly dramatic turn in Robert Redford’s 1980 film “Ordinary People,” based on Judith Guest’s novel about a woman unable to forgive one of her two sons when the other dies.
The next year, she and Tinker divorced, but the alcohol still flowed. Finally, she grew worried.
She had lost so much.
“Inside I was scared. I knew I’d gone over an edge, some edge, and I didn’t know what to grab for steadiness. I couldn’t, wouldn’t stop,” she wrote.
That recognition, though, ignited light at the end of the tunnel.
“Some part of my brain functioned well enough, however, to get me to the Betty Ford Center, where in 1984, over a period of five weeks, I grew up some,” she wrote.
Moore grew to deeply admire Betty Ford, the former first lady and founder of the clinic where Moore — and several years later, her mother — finally found sobriety. Moore felt she could “be her sister.”
“You see, at that time (and less so today) many women felt that being a female alcoholic was a disgrace, the lowest of the low, and that an intelligent, well-read, dignified woman couldn’t possibly be a drunk,” Moore wrote. But Ford “was, first and foremost, a lady (kind, well-mannered, gracious), anything but the commonly held image of an alcoholic woman.”
The sun had risen.
Just before going into rehab, she met Robert Levine, a physician to whom she would remain happily married for the rest of her life. She also decided to be more public about her personal life, turning her lifelong struggle with diabetes into advocacy as the International Chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
Life, though, wasn’t done with Moore. Her remaining sibling, a brother named Robert, was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer, forcing Moore to do the unimaginable in 1992.
“He called me one day to say goodbye,” Moore wrote of her brother’s attempt to end his own life. “He had stashed hundreds of painkillers and had tried to end his life by taking enough to kill himself. He fell asleep before he could ingest enough to finally end his pain. He felt he could do it again.”
So the next day, with Moore at his side, he again attempted to overdose on painkillers. “He asked me to mash them into ice cream,” which she did. Though the suicide attempt failed, she told the Daily News she “would do it again.”
Three months later, Robert died.
While entertaining America, Moore may have suffered a tremendous amount of heartbreak and tragedy. Through it all, she kept her infectious smile and her kind demeanor. She remained grateful, not just when playing a role on television.
“It has been a wonderful life,” she told Charlie Rose in 1995, “Absolutely terrific. There are very few things I would go back and do differently, if I had that control.”
Despite everything, Mary Tyler Moore made it after all.