A touch of class

July 17, 2012

This is the kind of person Celeste Holm was.

In the 1970s I wrote about her somewhere that her favorite stage role was Anna in “The King and I,” a role she took over in 1951 at the request of Richard Rodgers after the original Anna, Gertrude Lawrence, died during the run of the show. Celeste saw that and called me. “I wonder if you’d do me a favor,” she said. “Would you send that article to Richard Rodgers. I want him to know how I feel about that role.” I asked her why she didn’t send it to him herself, and she said that she didn’t think it would be “appropriate” for her to send someone an article about herself. “Well,” I said, “don’t you think Richard Rodgers is going to think it’s peculiar that someone he never heard of sends him a newspaper clipping from out of nowhere.” “Oh,” she said with a laugh that she once told me was only slightly removed from wisdom, “you’re a writer. You’ll think of something to tell him.”

So I complied — Celeste was just regal enough that a person didn’t seriously consider not complying — and Richard Rodgers was delighted, as he told me by return mail.

The fact that she managed that transaction so carefully was part of the elegance that enveloped her — a kind of sophistication that I associated with women like Arlene Francis and Kitty Carlisle Hart. But Celeste was anything but distant. A lot has been published since her death this week about her many civic and charitable works. And while that involved titled roles with public and private organizations, it always involved Celeste’s heart.

I saw that first hand on one occasion when I foolishly volunteered to produce a sort of cultural concert of music and drama to benefit an organization that provided services to mentally handicapped citizens. I recruited a bunch of professional performers, but I had no idea what I was doing. The program was what vaudeville used to call an olio — a bunch of unrelated parts, but in this case it was supposed to look like a coherent whole. To achieve that, I had written a script that tied the sundry parts together, and I asked Celeste if she would be the narrator. She, being Celeste, agreed, and I took the script up to her apartment on Central Park and together we tweaked it to fit her particular style of speaking.

As the day of the performance approached, however, I was convinced that the disparate pieces of the concert were going to unravel into an incoherent melange — with about 900 paying customers in the audience. As I anticipated a complete run-through of the various acts on the afternoon before the performance, I called Celeste. She and her husband, actor Wesley Addy, not only came to the run-through but took command of it, checking sound and lighting, talking up the performers so as to assure a smooth transition from act to narration to act to narration.

That night, when the lights went up and Celeste stepped up to a lectern, she looked down at the seats directly in front of her and saw a group of mentally handicapped people whom we had invited to the event. Celeste hadn’t anticipated these guests. Her eyes filled with tears. Instead of beginning the narration, she walked to the edge of the stage: “Thank you!” she told those folks. “Thank you so much for coming!”