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“Life Does Not End With Death”—Efrem Zimbalist

Efrem Zimbalist sat back, reached into a brown tobacco pouch for a match, and lit his pipe. He puffed a few times, until blue-white wisps of smoke came curling up, and then, leaning forward, he reached down and fondly ruffled his wife Steffi’s brown shaggy-cropped hair. She glanced up, smiling shyly, and announced in a soft voice, “I guess it’s time to put little Steffi to bed.”

“Can I help?” asked her fifteen-year-old stepdaughter Nancy, looking up from a book she’d been quietly reading in a corner of the room.

“Sure,” Steffi answered. “Come along.”

As they left, Efrem relaxed deep into his tan leather armchair. “I’m one of the luckiest guys around,” he said, almost as though to himself, “What would I ever do without Steffi?” Then, as though the thought had just struck him, “You know,” most people are lucky to have loved deeply once in their lives—and I’ve been lucky enough,” he said, “to have loved twice.

“Believe it or not,” he went on, pointing his pipe at me to emphasize his own astonishment, “nine years ago I was at the end of my rope. I had a wife . . . a home . . . a family, and suddenly I felt as though I had nothing, after Emily—she was my first wife—died.

“I was very young when I fell in love with Emily McNair. I was studying acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and Emily was a student there, too. We started dating immediately and we were together almost every day for nearly two years. Then I went into the Army and, as soon as we could manage it, we were married. That was in December of 1941, a month to remember.

It was a time when all the world seemed to be falling apart, being destroyed by a war, families being torn apart. But even if the world’s future was uncertain, ours was not. We were in love, we married; we thought. We never dreamed how little time we were going to have.” 

He drew a deep breath, then went on. “I was accepted for Officer’s Candidate School and our first child, Nancy, was born just before I went overseas. I didn’t see the baby or Emily for the next two years. I spent the war in Europe, finally returning to the States in early 1946. I remember thinking, as the ship pulled ‘At last . . . Emily . . . Nancy . . . From now on, I swear we’ll never be separated.’

“From the very beginning, ours was an extraordinary marriage. We were so terribly in love that we lived only for each other, thought only of each other. It was just one of those relationships so incredible that—well, even when we did have an argument, which was almost never, we were so in love that neither of us could bear hurting the other. We’d wind up defending each other’s positions until there was no argument left.

“And then, in June of 1947, our son, Efrem III—we nicknamed him Skipper right away—was born. Our lives seemed fuller, richer than anything we’d ever we hoped to know. Six months later, this happiness was shattered.

“One day our doctor called me into his office. I had no idea Emily had even been 10 see him. He tried to be kind, but what he told me, secretly, was that she was seriously ill. ‘She has a sickness for which there is no cure,’ the doctor said. ‘She has only two years left to live.’

Emily passed away in 1950 And even today, it is still difficult for me to talk about it . . .”

He paused, bending over towards a big glass ashtray and concentrating on knocking the ashes from his pipe. I couldn’t see his face. Then he said, “At first, I brooded because I missed her being there with me, and then, because of my faith and belief in the fact that life does not end with death, I was able, after a while, to work things out. It took me two years to really understand that I had a responsibility to make a new life for the children and for Emily’s sake as much as for ours.

I thought the answer was to try to pick up the pieces of my life by throwing myself completely into acting, and for the next few years that seemed to be enough. Then I met Steffi . . .

I’ll always remember that night, December 15, 1955—just a few days before ‘Fallen Angels, the Noel Coward play I was in, was to go on the road for its pre-Broadway tryout. Rehearsals broke earlier than we’d expected that night, so Billy Windom, a fellow in the cast, and I had a few hours to kill between dinner and a party we had to go to later on that evening.

“ ‘Like to meet a couple of cute girls?’ Billy had asked, and then, I guess because he was afraid I’d say no again, he headed for the phone before I could answer. Ten minutes later we were in a cab on our way to some apartment on the East Side. Billy gabbed away enthusiastically. ‘Linda told me her roommate isn’t too happy about us coming over. Seems she’s working around the apartment and isn’t dressed for company, but I told her I’m not company and you won’t really mind how she looks.’

“I paid the cabbie as Billy searched for the right apartment number. We walked up and Billy made four hard raps with the brass knocker.

“ ‘We’re here,’ he shouted.

“When Linda opened the door, I could see a figure, barefooted and wearing jeans and a wrinkled cotton blouse, sitting on the living-room floor.

“ ‘My roommate, Stephanie Spaulding,’ Linda announced.

“She looked up briefly, said hello and then went on busily polishing a pair of riding boots that looked almost as big as she was.

“ ‘No wonder she was upset about our coming over,’ I thought, as I walked over and sat down near her. Her hair was sort of tousled, and she had freckles on her nose and a couple of smudges of black polish on her cheek. She didn’t have any makeup on and, looking at her, I figured she could be about fifteen.

“Billy kept teasing her, asking why she was working so hard on her boots. ‘I’m polishing them for a hunt,’ she finally burst out. ‘I’m going to one out on Long Island tomorrow. I love horses,’ she added, suddenly beaming, and from then on she seemed to forget that she was angry with us. She chattered for a while and then, in the middle of a sentence, stopped and leaned forward. ‘You know,’ she said slowly, ‘all day long I’ve had the funniest feeling that I’m going to get hurt tomorrow.’

“I tried to make her laugh about it, but when she insisted she was sure she was going to be thrown from her horse, I asked why she didn’t just stay home. ‘Because,’ she answered shyly, ‘I guess you can’t go through life hiding from things because you’re afraid of getting hurt.’

“ ‘All right then,’ I said, ‘just to show how much faith I have in you, I’ll bet you fifty cents you come through all in one piece tomorrow.’

“Before we knew it, we had to leave for the party. ‘It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a good time talking to anyone,’ I told Steffi, and from the doorway, I called, ‘Don’t forget our bet.’

“ ‘You’re on,’ she said, laughing.

“I thought about her when Billy and I were talking at rehearsal the next afternoon. ‘I wonder if Steffi’s all right?’ I asked. ‘Woman’s intuition,’ Billy scoffed, and we both laughed. But when I got home that evening, the housekeeper met me at the door. ‘A lady phoned around four o’clock,’ she told me. ‘She didn’t leave her name but she said to tell you that she won the bet.’ I knew right away what she meant, and grabbing for the phone, I called information and got Steffi’s number. ‘I was thrown,’ was all she said. I asked if she felt good enough to have company. When she said yes, I rushed out of my apartment and headed right for her place.

“On the way over in the cab I tried to think what I could bring her, and then when I got to her house I ran into a store and bought the first thing that’d popped into my mind. Minutes later, I arrived at her door, carrying a beautifully wrapped bottle of Sloan’s liniment!

From that night on we were together almost constantly. Although Steffi and I had never actually discussed my first marriage, I found out later that Billy had told her a little about Emily and the children, and that, somehow, Steffi had understood everything. But I was still pretty worried that first time I took Nancy and Skipper to meet her. Nancy was twelve then and Skipper was only nine. I remember walking into the restaurant, with each child clutching one of my hands, and thinking, ‘I’m even more nervous than they are.’

“Steffi was waiting for us at a side table, and after we sat down, there was sort of a shy silence—I think Steffi felt the shyest—and no one quite knew how to break it. Suddenly, Skipper stopped playing with his napkin, looked up at Steffi and gave her a big smile. From that moment on, Steffi’s place in their lives, as well as in mine, was taken for granted.

“Shortly after, on the twelfth of February, 1956, Stephanie and I were married at the Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut. The next day we moved into my apartment, and Nancy and Skipper came to live with us. We didn’t go on a honeymoon because Steffi felt the children had been without a mother for nearly six years and she didn’t want to let another day go by without their feeling part of a complete family again.

“The following December, Josh Logan asked me to test for a role in ‘Sayonara,’ and when I went to Hollywood Steffi flew out with me. I didn’t get that part, but it did lead to a Warners’ contract and a starring role in ‘Bombers B-52.’

“Since it looked as though Hollywood was going to be our home for the next few years, Steffi and I started house-hunting. We finally found a place in the Hollywood Hills section and arranged to move in on New Year’s Day, less than two weeks away. The studio wanted me to start work right away so Steffi had to go back to New York alone and arrange for the move.

“It was the Saturday morning before Christmas when I took her to the airport. ‘This should have been our first Christmas together,’ I kept saying, ‘and I’ve been looking forward to it so much.’

“Steffi slipped her hand into mine and said softly. ‘I know. I have, too. But at least the children will have one of us with them,’ she reminded me, ‘and it won’t be too long before we’ll all be together again.’

“I waited at the airport until her plane had disappeared from sight. I kept feeling more and more depressed, and when Steffi called the next day and told me her plans for the children’s Christmas, I felt even worse.

“ ‘Maybe I’ll call my sister in Nevada and go there for Christmas,’ I said, and Steffi encouraged me.

“My hotel room seemed even lonelier after she’d hung up, so I went out for a long walk. When I got back, I called my sister and invited myself for Christmas.

“ ‘Oh, Ef, what a shame,’ she answered, ‘but we’ve arranged to spend Christmas with some friends. How about coming out for New Year’s weekend instead?’

“I’ll have my own family then,’ I told her and, murmuring a Merry Christmas, I hung up, feeling like a lost soul. A little later that night I got a call from my friends, the Ira Gershwins, asking me to spend Christmas Eve with them. No invitation has ever been more welcome.

“That night, I was working at the studio for a while, before going over to the Gershwins, when I received a telephone call from my landlord.

“ ‘Look here,’ he said, angrily, ‘a big package has just arrived at your house and you’ll have to come right over and sign for it.’

“ ‘I can’t,’ I answered, ‘I’m tied up here. You accept it.’

“ ‘Not me,’ he said, ‘I don’t want to be responsible for it.’

“It was almost time for rehearsals to end, so I explained my problem to the director and rushed over to the house. As I drove up, the landlord met me at the door.

“ ‘Okay,’ I said sharply, ‘where is it?’

“ ‘In there,’ he answered, pointing his thumb in the direction of the den.

“I pushed open the door with one hand and was halfway into the room before I realized what had happened. There in the middle of the floor was a big Christmas tree all decorated with balls and lights and with Christmas packages heaped under it. I just stood and stared until I heard a giggle and, turning around, saw Nancy, and Skipper, and Steffi!

“After we’d stopped laughing, Steffi said she’d wanted us all to be together for our first Christmas and had rushed back to New York and packed up our furniture, rented the apartment and taken Nancy out of school—all in time for them to fly to California that morning. And when she’d told the landlord what she was planning, he’d not only agreed to let her into the house before January 1st, but had suggested the way of getting me out to the house without ruining their surprise. Later Steffi remembered to tell me that she’d been so afraid I’d spoil things by going to Nevada for Christmas that she’d called my sister and made her promise not to let me come and see them.

A lot has taken place since that first holiday in Hollywood. I’ve made more pictures and, of course, wound up playing Stuart Bailey every week on ‘77 Sunset Strip.’ On the eighth of October in 1957, little Stephanie was born, and since then we’ve moved into this rambling ranch-type house. I guess I should mention that in addition to my wife’s fondness for horses, we’re both crazy about the entire animal kingdom. At the moment, our family consists of three healthy children, two horses, seven parakeets, a turtle and my wife’s latest possession, a black bantam rooster she calls George, who follows her around like a puppy.

“Being married to Steffi has made my life complete again. It has also taught me that within every mature human being there is the God-given capacity for an infinite amount of love, and that because of this, the love for those who are taken from us does not diminish, ever. I have learned that a new love is never a substitute or a replacement for one that has come before.

“I believe sincerely that all love begins with God, and that every one of us, having received the precious gift of His love, chooses in turn those with whom we want to share that love. To me, love means caring for another more than you care for yourself. And I believe this gift of love is a continuous force, a force that began when time began—that has no ending, that goes on reaching from us to those around us, always. Love is what all human beings exist on: Without it, everything else is meaningless.”





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