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If You Knew Susie—Susan Strasberg

She shares her bedroom with Marilyn Monroe. Marlon Brando drops in to call whenever he’s in the neighborhood. Tallulah Bankhead gave her her first party dress. Clifford Odets bought her her first painting—an original Marie Laurencin. In the short span of her seventeen years, she has known the great and near-great of show business. No wonder that, to Susan Strasberg, Hollywood is not the wonderland it would have been to any other awe-struck youngster arriving here to make her screen debut with such an all-star cast as Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Lillian Gish, Gloria Grahame and Oscar Levant. To Hollywood, accustomed to starry-eyed, well-stacked starlets, five-foot one-inch, 95 lb. Susie, with her natural brown, long hair, which she has steadfastly refused to cut, uncapped teeth, fresh, young beauty, is so completely normal that she’s considered abnormal.

When she first checked in on the Metro lot for “Cobweb,” she was asked if Strasberg was her real name. Since Strasberg is hardly a name you would choose for electric lights, Susie knew that this was a tactful prelude to the suggestion that she change it. But Susie is very proud of her father, Lee Strasberg, well-known stage director who is now devoting all his time to the famous Actors Studio, and she wears his name like a badge of honor. “Besides,” as she explained to the name-changing department, “a plain name like Bergman never hurt Ingrid when she came to Hollywood, so I’ll take my chances on Strasberg!” If this sounds like an inflated ego, coming from a seventeen-year-old newcomer, it isn’t meant to be. It’s just that Susie knows, from her ringside seat in show business, that talent makes the name, and without it, all the fancy, manufactured handles are useless.

Susie was literally carried on the stage before she was born! Her actress-mother, Paula Miller, an old friend of mine, was in a play called “Many Mansions.” I found Paula in her dressing room one day in pent-up fury. The management had just informed her she’d have to hand in her notice because her costume could no longer hide Susie’s obvious presence!

Did this prenatal experience influence Susie to follow in her mother’s footsteps? No, amazingly enough, she never wanted to be an actress. With a natural flair for drawing, her aspirations were to be a commercial artist. At all the schools—public and private—she attended in Hollywood (when her father was dramatic coach at 20th) and New York, she never won a leading role. When she was in the seventh grade she tried out for the part of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” and wound up playing Dorothy’s mother! In the graduation play, she was ignominiously placed in the chorus. But brought up, as she was, in the atmosphere where theatre is the breath of life to her mother and father, where their apartment was always filled with young students from the Actors Studio—Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Jimmy Dean, Jo Van Fleet, Pat Neal, Kim Stanley, Johnny Kerr—where such established writers and directors as Tennessee Williams, Elia Kazan, Maxwell Anderson, Clifford Odets and Truman Capote are the stimulating conversationalists, it was inevitable that Susie couldn’t escape her predestined fate.

She made her professional debut at the age of twelve. Her mother was appearing in a play called “Me and Mollie,” starring Mollie Goldberg, and one night, as a lark, Paula pinned her into a costume and let her go on with one line. Susie remembered her father’s advice to all his new students, “Even if you have a poor script, you must rise above the dialogue and make every line your own.” Susie delivered her one line as if she were Juliet saying farewell to Romeo! Three years later she did play Juliet in her TV debut, thereby seeing a dream come true. Her first stage appearance was also in a highly dramatic role in an off-Broadway production of “Maya” at the Theatre de Lys. Playing the lead was one of Lee Strasberg’s prize pupils, Jo Van Fleet, whose screen performance of Susan Hayward’s mother in “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” is already bruited to be of Academy Award dimension.

Susie herself has never been a pupil of her father in the classroom. During her excursions into the theatre and TV, she studied at Music and Art. When she was in Hollywood filming “Cobweb” and “Picnic,” she had a teacher on the set, and, now that she’s back in New York making her broadway debut in the title role of “Diary of Anne Frank,” she attends Professional School at 61st Street and Broadway. To all her teachers, she is far beyond the average student. The advantages she’s had in the intellectual stimulus of her surroundings, in traveling abroad at an impressionable age, in her keen interest in people of all ages and social brackets, in her passionate devotion to everything connected with acting (her bookshelves include every contemporary and classic book about the theatre)—all these things have made her an exception.

“You can discuss anything with Susie,” director Josh Logan told me, when I visited the “Picnic” set. “She’s pored the wisdom of the ages in her seventeen young years. And she doesn’t just play a part—she lives it. As Millie, the rebellious tomboy who is always being compared to her beautiful older sister (played by Kim Novak), Susie understood every facet of Millie’s complex personality. One day just before we were to go into a scene in her bedroom, she came to me and said, ‘Mr. Logan, will you please change those books on my shelf? Millie wouldn’t own popular fiction. She’d have a more classic library!’ And it wasn’t until I explained that the camera would never close-up to the titles that she was satisfied the books were in character!”

When Susie first arrived in the small town of Hutchinson, where movie stars “in person” are as novel as a smile from Garbo, a breathless fan rushed up to her and asked, “Are you Kim Novak?” Susie didn’t know whether to be flattered that she was mistaken for this luscious blond or disappointed that she wasn’t recognized as Susan Strasberg. She finally decided that she preferred to be mistaken for Kim—until after “Picnic” is released!

Although Susie may not, as yet, be a familiar face to movie fans, the Hollywood grapevine about her unusual dramatic talent has put her in studio demand.

Actually, it is Susie’s fondest hope to divide her career between three mediums—stage, screen and television. She also hopes that one of them will offer her the opportunity to play two of her favorite roles: the young Joan of Arc and Hedwig in “The Wild Duck.” Although Susie can play comedy, too, as will be seen in “Picnic,” she is essentially a dramatic actress. For her cryng scene in “Cobweb,” she astounded director Vincente Minnelli with the spontaneous flow of her tears. No glycerin needed to get her going! And once she started, she couldn’t stop. Minnelli had to shoot around her until her reddened, swollen eyes were clear. Her own favorite actors are Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando. Her favorite actresses—Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Judy Garland, Kate Hepburn and Ethel Barrymore. When Miss Barrymore was told that Susie had always longed to meet her, this great First Lady exclaimed, “Not that divine child whom I saw in ‘Duchess and the Smugs’ on TV! Tell her I want to meet her, too!”

Susie now has her own bank account, although she confided that she is so stingy that she pays cash for everything because she hates to go into her checking account! To date, her biggest extravagance was paying $50 for a skirt. Shopping isn’t easy for her as she is so tiny—even a size 5 must be taken in! She gets a small percentage of her four-figure salary and banks the rest, for the year she hopes to spend in Europe, the art collection she hopes to own and for her hobby of collecting books, records and drawing paraphernalia.

In those rare, leisure moments when she isn’t working or at school, Susan can be found sketching away madly at her easel. During the month of August while she was vacationing at her parents’ summer home on Fire Island, before starting rehearsal for her first Broadway play, “Diary of Anne Frank,” her art companion was Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn used to share Susie’s bedroom. Her friendship with the entire Strasberg family began when she first became a student of Susan’s dad at the Actors’ Studio. She endeared herself to Susie immediately, when on meeting her, Marilyn said, “I don’t know whether you remember me, but we met on the set of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business!’ ”

Marilyn seems equally charmed by Susie. They gossip like two girls in a college dormitory. Marilyn is the sister that Susie never had, and it is their secret ambition to appear someday in a film together. They might even call it “The Sisters Karamazov!” In the meantime, though, Susie’s busy keeping up with a rapidly growing career.





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