She is an actress and has won two Tony Awards: one for her performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the other for her role in The Country Girl. She was equally celebrated as Shaw’s St. Joan, as Desdemona to Paul Robeson’s Otello, and as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. In her later years, she was acclaimed as Mrs. Klein, a drama based on the life of a renowned child psychiatrist. In her younger years, after an appearance in “a terrible play” in Brooklyn, she was described by Alexander Woolcott, drama critic of the New Yorker, as “the Duse of Brooklyn.” She has appeared in a few television plays and “once in a while in a movie.” She is the founder of the HB Playwright’s Foundation, [*The foundation is named after her late husband, Herbert Berghof, a noted drama teacher and director.] a drama school and theater in Greenwich Village.
I THINK ABOUT DEATH all the time. Then I pretend I’m not thinking about it and I pretend it doesn’t exist. The notion that when we get old death doesn’t bother us is baloney, because it bothers me a lot. It bothers me that I watch my body disintegrate slowly but surely. When people say, “Oh, but you have so much vitality and you’re so alive and look so young,” I always say it’s because I love to work. If I’m allowed to work, I feel younger and I forget that I’m going to die.
I only stopped working in October of this year. I played in Canada for three months and was unbelievably alive and vital and feeling wonderful. I always think it’s my swan song, and I’ll never get another job, just because I’m so old and it’s hard to find parts that are interesting and challenging to me. I just found one and overnight I was rejuvenated! I started exercising, I started dieting, I started working on my role. And I felt now there’s hope again, because I have a part and love to work.
I have faced death often in my life. I had huge emergency surgeries when I was twenty-three. I had mastectomies. When I was through with it, everybody said, “You’re so lucky.” I said, “Why am I lucky? I lost a breast! What’s nice about that?” They said, “But you’re alive.” I said, “I had no intention of dying!” I never for a moment thought I would die, but everybody else thought I would. There’s a kind of blankness in my feeling about death, that I ignore it. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. To this day—I’m eighty-one—I have never seen a corpse. Not of a dog, not of a person, not of my parents. Everybody whom I lost. I never saw a dead person. I have a terror of it. If I see a dead rabbit in my backyard, I run the other way. If I see a dead mouse, I run the other way. I finally can face that I see a dead bird because they knock into my windows in the country. That aspect of death is to me terrifying. And I’ve never faced it. I’ve never had to yet.
I don’t believe in funerals because they’re so loaded with hypocrisy. When I’ve had to go, on the two occasions when there was an open casket, I wouldn’t go near them!
I was against funerals, memorials of all kinds, from the time I was nineteen. I was in a play by Maxwell Anderson, with Paul Muni, called Key Largo. One of the actors in it, whom everybody detested, died—set himself on fire, drunk, in the Brevoort Hotel here around the corner. We had to go to his funeral. Nobody liked this man. I remember Joe Ferrer calling up people to say he had died, and every single person said, “I’m not sorry he’s dead.” [*Jose Ferrer, her former husband.] He was forty-nine. I thought: you spent forty-nine years of your life and everybody’s glad that you’re gone! The church was full. All the people were talking about how glad they were that he was dead. I thought: this is grotesque. Then I went to an awful funeral for my old vet whom I loved. The minister kept talking about hellfire and how he had sinned. I thought, He never sinned in his life! In Broadway, memorials were always so much, “Did you go? Were you seen? Who was there?” That’s why I say this is the most hypocritical reminder of death that I can think of. It’s ugly.
So I never wanted anything like it for myself or anybody I loved. Then I had a student whom I was very close to—he was like my son—Hal Holden. He died at a very early age. The first thing I thought was: I have to have a memorial for him. I became obsessed. I had a memorial at our studio, [*The HB Playwright’s Foundation] and it was beautiful, and people spoke. And it comforted me, most of the people who were there. It was a very, very genuine occasion. From then on, I changed my mind about memorials. I had a beautiful memorial for my husband. [*Herbert Berghof] I have it all on tape. With the most magnificent speeches by some of the most gifted people in New York, about what he had meant to them. Forty-four years we were together. It was unbelievable. I’ll never forget it!
My husband died in this apartment, where we’re sitting right now. He died while I was in the country. The police called me, and I drove in. Friends were here already waiting for me. I said, “Do I have to go in?” And they said no. I’m not sure I shouldn’t have. I might have accepted his death more readily if I had seen him. I just heard every detail: that he looked relaxed, that he had not died in pain. He died, thank God, without tubes and without all the horrible things that medicine keeps us alive with now. But I could not look at him. [Suddenly, she weeps.] I wish I had, but I … I don’t know. I really don’t know whether I should have seen him. I still dream that he’s alive. The other person whom I loved most in my life was my mother. And when she died, I was in the hospital and they said I couldn’t see her because if she knew I was there, she would be alarmed and know how seriously ill she was. So I had an excuse. But I also dreamed for years and years that she was still alive. Maybe if I had seen them dead I would have been able to accept the death more readily. I don’t know …
I remember when Alfred Lunt died. Thirteen years later, somebody said to Miss Fontanne, [*Lynne Fontanne, wife of Alfred Lunt. They were the most popular and revered acting couple in the history of the American theater.] “Do you miss him?” She said, “No, I talk to him every day.” My husband’s ashes are right in his study. And if I die, I want mine and his sprinkled in our yard at the studio. Or out over the water.
I have a funny story. When my daughter was eight, I was playing a comedy. She had seen me before in plays like Othello. I said to the nurse, “Please, if she makes any noise or rambunctiousness out there, take her out, because if I hear her, I won’t be able to play.” During the intermission, the nurse brought her back. In the funniest scene in the play, I heard out front [mock sobs] … this sobbing sound. I thought, Oh my God, what is the matter? Backstage, I said, “Lettie, what is the matter with you?” And she said, “When are you going to die?” And I said, “Lettie, I don’t die in this play.” And she said, “You do, you always do.” [Laughs] She’d seen me as Desdemona—she was terrified that I would die any minute.
When I’m rational, I fear death. I guess I’m not rational very much. [Laughs] Oh yes, I think about it a lot because, as you age, everything falls apart. Your scalp starts to turn pink, and you lose your hair, and your teeth ache, and your bladder gets weak, and you have big brown ugly spots all over your body, and you get skin cancers. It’s a never-ending gradual diminishment of all the correct bodily behavior. [Laughs]
I have had fourteen dogs in my life. And the loss of a dog is immediate. A person takes time to grasp the loss. With an animal, it’s the immediate loss of something you love that’s close to you. Feeding them and getting them water and their dependence on you. I find that sometimes immediately as intense as the loss of a human being. It’s frightening.
Right now, seated between us is a dog.
My dog is GB—George Bernard Shaw. A toy poodle. I got deliberately a small one, so that I could hold it close. He’s been to Europe twice, to California—he’s a great traveler. He’s my constant companion. He’s a rescued dog, so he was neurotically attached to me from the beginning. I can’t leave him alone. Right now he’s deaf and blind and is losing the use of his hind legs. I’m housebound. My life is just around this dog.
You were Shaw’s Joan. You were Desdemona. I saw you in both roles. Your deaths were so real to me. How did you, at those moments, envision death?
A fear of death, if I analyze it as an actress, is a fear of the unknown. The fear of the unknown we experience a lot. We experience it when we’re waiting for surgery. We experience it when we’re waiting to have a tooth extracted, for God’s sakes. And the terror that comes in when we don’t know what is going to happen to us is, to me, exactly the same as the fear of death. So it’s a very unrealistic, strange terror. It’s what I don’t want to face. Because I don’t think we can realize what it means to die and really not be here anymore. I don’t think we know. I think the Lord protects us from that.
I’m not at all religious. My father was an agnostic, although I was baptized and all sorts of things like that. I do believe that there is a power way beyond our comprehension, that is bigger than all of us, but I don’t believe in organized religions at all. I don’t think I need it in my life because my faith—maybe that’s religious—has to do with art. I think that the passing on, if I go … Michelangelo with Adam touching God’s finger … that passing on of art is so enormous to me. If I hear a Bach cantata or chorale I’m transported into a spiritual world. So I have belief in the spirit, but I don’t believe it has to do with an organized God.
When you say God, you’re referring to art … ?
I am, I am. That I am truly religious about. Oh my God, I think that the faith, the miracle of creation is what a human being is capable of communicating. It’s not a private thing, it has to be communicated. Which is what I love about art—that you pass on, you make an offering of your spirit to somebody else hoping that it will help them, enlighten them, make them laugh, make them cry. These are things that make our lives worth living as far as I’m concerned. To me, that’s art. That’s my religion.
What I’ve never understood is people who have survived, let’s say, the Holocaust or any experience of suffering, of deprival, of terrifying loneliness. My life has been so rich, and I demand a lot of it—so that I think if I really lost what is important to me, if I were incapable of enjoying what is meaningful to me in life, I don’t think I would want to live. I’ve never understood people who want to live in spite of … that is, to me, amazing. I’ve always prayed to God that I will die fast: in a car, or an airplane, or in my sleep. That would be the loveliest.
What do you think happens? After … ?
I think it’s over, period. It’s the end. But I do believe, and only really since my husband died, I do believe that there is something in the spirit surviving, and being near and being around. I also think that nobody is really dead until nobody remembers you anymore. I think somewhere my mother is still alive because she’s still so important to me and so alive in my memory.
I’ve found more and more with my peers in age, and we’re all dying, that it becomes important to evaluate what our life has meant. I used to resent that when I was young. There’s something already dead about thinking What did my life mean? But, as I am getting really old, it’s something that occurs to me. Will that have meant anything? Will it still be around? Will our studio still be around? I’ve just finished a documentary on my teaching. Will my teaching go on because I’ve made that film? This is the thinking that ten years ago I would never have thought about. I have a friend who’s a painter and she’s just doing a catalogue of all her work. All she thinks about is this catalogue. That summing-up of your life. That you say there was a reason for it. We weren’t just here and passed on. We had some kind of influence, some kind of value to the world we left, to somebody we were useful …
I was in a car accident once. I thought I’d lost my eye. My flesh was hanging down over my face. I made jokes. Everybody else around me was screaming, but I wasn’t. I was just fighting for normalcy. I sat for three hours in a car with glass from the accident. My whole body was covered with cuts. I didn’t even know it, I didn’t feel it. I think it was the first time I ever understood soldiers having half their heads blown off and still continuing in action. There is something in nature that puts you in a trauma until you can cope with it. I hope death is the same.
Right now, as always, my work is my life. If I could no longer work, I wouldn’t care to live.
But you care now.
Because I’ve got a job! [Laughs]
POSTSCRIPT In April 2001, three months after this interview took place, she was to begin rehearsals for Six Dancing Lessons in Six Weeks.
This excerpt originally appeared in Studs Terkel’s book, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith” and is reprinted with permission from The New Press.