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Piper Laurie: “I Almost Missed Growing Up”

“It is strange,” said Piper Laurie gravely, “that death, which closes the eyes of those you love, opens your own eyes. As—in a way that I’ll explain later—it has mine. But first I’ll try to tell you what has happened to me, and how it happened, and why.

“When I was young,” twenty-four-year-old Piper smiled, “the only thing in the world I wanted or cared about was to be an actress—a great one. Nothing was too much to sacrifice for this—sleep, peace of mind, hobbies, home life, dates, love itself.

“Once I’d set my sights on being an actress, everything I’d previously cared about went by the board. For instance, I’d done quite a bit of painting, and enjoyed doing it, but when I decided all my efforts were to be channeled in one direction, I dropped painting.

“Throughout my childhood and early teens, I read a great deal. I read widely and, for my age, quite deep and serious books. But hen I envisioned myself as starborne—or else!—I began to devote all my reading to plays, scripts, fan magazines, the movie , sections in the newspapers.

“As a little girl, I used to love cooking for my family. But after I started work- ing in pictures, I ate at odd hours, usually by myself—with a script propped up in a front of me—and I lost my interest in cooking, as well as eating.

“I didn’t have many clothes, and it couldn’t have mattered less. The money I might have spent on clothes went for dramatic and dancing lessons.

“When I dated, and I dated quite a lot, it was mostly because I felt I had to keep up with other young starlets who were doing the same. Or because I wanted to be taken to certain night clubs to see performers in whom I was interested. I remember the first time I ever went to a night club. Buster was my date’s name and he invited me (he thought it was his idea!) to go to Slapsie Maxie’s. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were headlining the floor show there, and when I saw them I was so impressed, I fell madly in love with both of them! Poor Buster didn’t have a very enjoyable evening, I’m ashamed to say, because I don’t think I said two words to him!

“An example of the strictly one-track way my mind was working is that I went along with ‘The Girl Who Eats Flowers’ gag (what had become of my sense of humor?) which was dreamed up by the publicity department at U-I soon after I signed my contract with them. I was told I had to eat flowers for lunch for three days running, while cameras clicked and reporters swarmed. And so, determined not to let the studio down, when salads of gardenia petals were served me, I ate them! Since I was assured that the flower- eating gimmick would land me smack in the center of the Hollywood spotlight— where, above all places on the earth I most longed to be—I would have eaten salads of poison ivy, if obliged!

“In addition to cooperating by eating flowers (I haven’t tasted a petal since) and posing for all sorts of Miss So-and-So cheesecake pictures, I studied the very ink off my scripts, worked my head off on the sets, and saw all the best pictures over and over again, studying the star performances as if they were textbooks! When I wasn’t working on a picture, my favorite ‘pastime’ was getting together with some of the other kids at U-I who were free at the same time, and playing scenes from some pictures I’d admired.

“When I first started to go out on personal-appearance tours—throughout this country, to Mexico, and later to Korea and Japan—my attitude was that of The of Actress. I mean by this that I didn’t really see anything but myself, didn’t think of anything except how I looked, how I felt, what I would wear, what kind of an impression I was making, what the reaction to me would be. When I was obliged to talk with people who had nothing to do with show business, it was a burden. I’m ashamed to say it, but frankly, it bored me. And, although I didn’t realize it, I was in danger.

“Someone said recently, ‘Looking in a mirror all the time, talking and thinking about themselves all the time, blind to all else but self—this is the actors’ vanity.’

“So it is. And it is the kind of vanity to which none of us—in the acting profes- sion, at any rate—is immune. 

“It is dangerous, because the one-track mind, the focus on self, limits you emotionally. It shrinks your horizon down to the tiny atom that is you. It stunts your growth. It is especially dangerous for actors who must be close to, must understand other people—all kinds of other people—if they are to get under the skins and into the hearts of the people they portray on stage and screen.

“I was afflicted with this blind-to-all-else-but-self vanity,” Piper confessed, her hazel eyes widening, “until my eyes were opened.

“I wish I could sound dramatic by saying that they were opened suddenly, in a moment of revelation, by one great experience, such as falling in love on sight or meeting death face to face. But I can’t, because it didn’t happen that way.

“I don’t even know for sure when I stopped looking in the mirror,” Piper smiled, “all the time! But I suspect it was after I got to know Leonard Goldstein, the producer, who died two summers ago. Then I became aware of how unaware I was of—well, of everything but me! Before I really knew Leonard, I was cast in one of his pictures at U-I, then another. Then he left the studio, but we continued to spend all the free or social time we had together. No matter what I say about Leonard, it sounds a little trite. And nothing I could say would be enough. He was always there to take care of me, to see that I was happy. He helped me during all the different times I had various needs. This was the first, the deepest, and truest friendship I ever had. For five years Leonard was responsible for opening my eyes—and my heart.

“Actually, it was a cumulative thing—a combination of the many things I learned from Leonard, experiences and meeting people all over the world—that made me realize there are other things than acting in the world. In Korea and in Japan, I saw homes that had been bombed and were being patiently rebuilt. I saw poverty, real poverty: people living like animals, without decent food, without baths, sweltering in summer, freezing in winter. And I remember feeling ashamed when I thought that I would soon be back in my pretty flowered bedroom, with cool air coming through the window, milk and fruit on the bed-table.

“Looking back, I would say it was after my first trip to Korea at Christmas time, in 1951, that my values began to change, my horizons began to widen.

“For not long after I got back from that trip, I went on tour again through the Northwest, and something happened that would not have happened before. A small thing, you may think, but indicative.

“We’d been on tour for two solid weeks, going every minute of the day and night, not eating properly, or sleeping enough. The last week found us in Boise, Idaho, where, for the first time, we took time to sit down to lunch. No sooner had we ‘sat,’ however, when there was a knock on the door and about twenty kids came in, milling around, wanting autographs. Simultaneously, the house detective appeared, shooed the kids away, and told them to stay away. Five minutes later, there was another knock on the door and one small girl—I’ll call her Annie—was standing there, tears in her eyes, no shoes on her feet, a grubby little package held against her chest. She’d got away, she said, from the ‘de-tek-a-tive.’ She’d never seen a movie star, she said, and she’d hitchhiked all the way from Post Falls, where she lived (a distance. we later learned, of some fifteen miles) in order to see me. She’d brought me a present—a ceramic cow with a cactus growing in it!

“On any previous occasion such as this, I would have been flattered, even touched, but still preoccupied with my own fatigue and with concern for how I would look on a stage the next day. I would have offered the girl a soda, said ‘Thank you’ and then ‘Goodbye.’ But this wasn’t any ‘previous occasion.” I put my arms around Annie, coaxed her to stop crying, and gave her lunch. Later, we drove her to Post Falls, dropped her at her house, then went on to the next town for dinner. But all during dinner I kept thinking about Annie, about how excited she’d been at the prospect of telling her folks she’d met a movie star, and something, for some reason, kept nagging at me. So, after dinner, we drove back to Annie’s house and went in. I’m so glad we did, because her folks hadn’t believed her when she told them she’d met ‘a movie star.’ They thought she’d made up the whole story. Making up a story was, in their minds, the same as telling a lie. Telling a lie was a sin for which the sinner must be punished, so Annie was being punished. Then, when we came and I met her mother and father, it gave them back their faith in their little girl.

“It gave me something, too. There were half a dozen children in the family and none of them wore shoes. The house was very small—a shack, really, with none of the conveniences, very primitive. But there was self-respect there, and reverence for what is right, and love and happiness.

“After that, the people in the towns and cities I visited looked different to me. But they hadn’t changed—I had. I was seeing them for the first time—not as a faceless crowd, an audience whose principal function it was to applaud me—but as men, women and children whose lives, and jobs and needs I was eager to learn about.

“Once a real interest in other people pried me away from my preoccupation with myself, I began to change, to mellow, to realize that acting cannot feed on itself alone, but must be fed.

“I began to paint again, and to read. And the subject matter of the books I bought, and still buy now, ranges far and wide! I’ve books about skiing, skin diving, political matters, art, economics.

“I also renewed my interest in cooking, in preparation for the day when I will be—and soon, I hope—a housewife!

“Then, too, I began to realize that when you think only of yourself and of your work, you leave so many things for other people to do—such as picking up after you, cleaning your room, fetching and carrying for you. This is a ‘queen complex,’ a bland assumption that all others are your ladies-and- gentlemen-in-waiting! This kind of complex was afflicting me—and those close to me. But not any more.

“Once my focus shifted from myself, I was no longer embarrassed if I turned up at a party not as formally dressed as other girls. Or, if I was dressed to the nines, and my date called for me in a beat-up Ford, it didn’t bother me. It was fun!

“One thing I’ve certainly found out since the ‘eye-opening’ is the way I’ve changed, how I’ve changed, about dating.

“When I was in high school, practically the first question girls asked about a date was, ‘Is he cute?’ He might have been kind, considerate, a brain and fun, or he might have been a silent monster. But if he was cute, and the other girls thought so, too, that was enough! 

Now, whether a date is cute and measures up, physically, to my girlfriends’ dates, is one of the last things that enters my mind. Naturally, I notice a person’s appearance, but now it is more of an after- thought than anything else.

“Certainly, now, I wouldn’t be as inconsiderate as I was with poor Buster (and others!), and I don’t get schoolgirl crushes any longer. I still like to see, and am curious about, certain shows and certain performers, but now the primary interest is with whom I am going to spend the evening. I would no longer enjoy a show unless someone I liked very much was enjoying it with me.

“Nor is a fellow’s profession of first importance any longer. I still go out with actors and performers such as George Nader and Gene Nelson. I still enjoy being with actors, still like to ‘talk shop,’ but I am no longer glassy-eyed if the ‘shop’ being talked about is not mine!

“I also date boys who are not actors, and I can honestly say that I would enjoy dating fellows, whether they were plumbers, postmen, Marlon Brandos, acrobats, or whatever, for now it is the fellow himself—not the way he looks, or what he does for a living—that matters to me.

“As for the kind of man I hope to marry —when, and if, I am asked—to list any specifications sounds like picking out a car, and I don’t think of my future husband in terms of automatic gear-shifts, brakes and horsepower! In other words, I do not have an Ideal Man in mind. I’ve outgrown the Prince Charming on the White Charger dreamworld. Actually, it’s impossible, in my opinion, to list specific qualities you want in a person until you find the person, and if he has enough of the qualities you admire and like and some, being human, that you don’t like, then you make your lists, compare them, and say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ ”

When asked if there was anyone special in her life at present—Gene Nelson, for instance—Piper preferred to change the subject. Returning to the matter of her “growing up,” she again thought of her dearest friend, Leonard Goldstein. “Since the great blow and shock of Leonard’s death,” said Piper, “my eyes have opened—all the way. For, when something as important as this, over which you have no control, happens to you, you do grow up.

“Curiously, I’m stronger now, I think, than I have ever been. When, after Leonard’s death, I had to go back to work on ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’, I was afraid I’d never get through it. But I did, and I came out of it knowing that I have a great deal more strength than I thought I had.

“I’ve never been afraid of hard work, but two years ago I would not have been able to stand the pressure, the rush, the long hours I have now. It would have thrown me. But now it wouldn’t. Probably because I am so wrapped up in what I am doing. In other words, the work is important—not Piper Laurie!

“I have always tried to do the best I can in anything I attempt—painting, writing poetry, riding a bike, cooking, as well as acting—and I always shall. And I always shall, I hope, be an actress—but not with a capital ‘A’! For now I know there are other great things to do in the world besides acting, other great things to be besides an actress. A housewife, a mother. Beauty and fulfillment, greatness, too, in small and humble ways of life, doing the little things you have to do every day, working at any job, however modest, so long as you have self-respect—and love.

“Now I know that—unless someone comes up to me and says, ‘I was going to shoot my wife last night, then I saw you in “Kelly and Me” and didn’t—I will never again believe,” Piper laughed, “that acting is a substitute for life, or for love.

“So now, with my eyes wide open, I’ve set my sights, and channeled my hopes anew. I want to be, above all, a very happy human being!”




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