Ms. Seldes In Her Own Words – A Transcription by Mari Lyn Henry

The theatre lost one of its greatest actresses on October 7, 2014. I was fortunate to be in the Players Grill on June 19, 1997 when she reminisced about her life and career. I tape recorded and transcribed it in its entirety. I discovered her wit, wisdom, sense of humor, passion, humility, and most of all her love for Garson Kanin, sitting by her during the program. This date also happened to be their 7th wedding anniversary. She referred to her marriage as an amazing experience which caused her life to rhyme.

I sent the transcription to her for her review and corrections. She returned it with her edits in red ink and a note thanking me and adding “Iʼve gone over this very quickly because Iʼm about to go into rehearsal in IVANOV.”

Ms. Seldes In Her Own Words

“I am going to introduce myself with a playwrightʼs words. Because you never know who you are. You only imagine that. These words are from a play called Another Time by Ronald Harwood. I had one entrance when I came on with Malcolm McDowell. While the words are a part of the play, I think it is what most of us feel about the theatre.

“I am a lover of books, a lover of poetry, a lover of art. I believe in art–I mean literature, poetry, the theatre, music, painting, ballet, the opera. All art is an expression of what is best about each and every one of us. My belief is that art is a solace, art is a benediction. My prayers are for more Shakespeares and George Eliots. ….There is not a thought in my head, not a feeling in my body that art hasnʼt in one way or another informed and fired. I believe there is a chance that art might, just might turn the whole world upside down.”

“The theatre that I began in the late forties was the theatre that I had dreamed of and the theatre I thought would go on forever. (Talk about denial!) I thought I would do all the great classic plays and that would be my life. It never occurred to me that people wouldnʼt want to see them. Or that they wouldnʼt be done. I realized what would be greater than being in classic plays would be to create parts in new plays.

I wanted to be a dancer. I knew I could be an actress but I had this irresponsible dream of being a ballet dancer. My mother and father sort of lived with it. My brother started calling me, Gargie, (meaning gargantuan). Each time he saw me, he would say, “I donʼt think you are going to be a ballet dancer.”

When I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse I studied with Martha Graham and it changed my life. She was a great teacher and I could do modern dance. I wasnʼt afraid of it. I think because I am tall and I think because all youʼve got is yourself. I was terribly lucky that I had the dream of wanting to be a dancer because it is not just important to move well, but also to not be afraid to move.

My fatherʼs (Gilbert Seldes) influence on my choice of career was taking me to the theatre when I was very young. And sending me to a school called Dalton where they felt that arts were as important as the sciences. From the time you were in fourth grade, you wrote plays, acted in plays, composed music, painted the sets. That is what made you human, that is what made you creative, that is what tapped you into that part of you that only you knew about.

Once I came home after an opening night and told my mother, “Oh well another distinguished failure.” She roared with laughter. And when I told her I was going to be married (not to my darling (Garson); I had another marriage), she said, “Oh Kit (my nickname), I thought you were just going to be alone with your trunks and your scrapbooks.”

Early in my career I was told I was too tall and I would never play opposite anybody and if you listen to that you can jump in the river. Those things are so insignificant really. They are only significant when they keep you from working.

I really dreamed of a kind of transcendent career. Every year I would be in a great play with a great part. I mean I lived in a dream. And I donʼt know what I can or cannot play. Lucille Lortel called me up one day and said I am going to do a play about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I am fortunate enough to have had a father who knew Gertrude Stein and so I read her always. So I knew Lucille was going to give me a chance to play Gertrude Stein and she said, “And I want you to play Alice B. Toklas.” I thought she knows me and what I can do.

I have never had such an experience in my life as in that part. It was an experience like a dream. I went into my fatherʼs world, a world of Paris in the twenties when you could live on writing words and the romance and the greatness of their love. I just adored it. I mention it because you donʼt always know what you should play. You donʼt always know what you can play.

Because I never got to do all the parts I dreamed of playing, maybe it has made me see that is another way to love the theatre. To do whatever comes along. I had three lines as Eleanor Roosevelt in Truman, but I got to work with Lee Richardson. I feel about him and about his work and about his life in the theatre the way I felt about peopleʼs pictures I cut out of magazines when I was a kid.

I married Garson Kanin, and there you are.”

Mari Lyn Henry, board member, The League of Professional Theatre Women
Chair, Heritage Committee and founder of The Society for the Preservation of Theatrical
History

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