One of the upsides of someone dying is that it becomes easier to gossip about them.
The initial Broadway run of my play I Hate Hamlet was tumultuous, owing to the epic misbehavior of the production’s supremely alcoholic star, Nicol Williamson. The play also featured Celeste Holm, who was known for both her fine acting and the fact that, at the time, she was one of the few surviving cast members from the original Broadway production of Oklahoma and the classic film All About Eve. Celeste enjoyed discussing these experiences and on occasion, she’d pull her Academy Award, for her performance in Gentleman’s Agreement, out of her shoulderbag.
During the play, Nicol was dressed as Hamlet, in a black velvet tunic and black tights. Because he was a fine gentleman, his hands often wandered to his crotch, and during a lengthy technical rehearsal, they stayed there. I was sitting beside Celeste in the empty theater and she commented, “Nicol is so vulgar.” She paused and added, “You know, I’ve seen it. It’s HUGE.”
On another night, during previews, I added an innocuous line to a scene Celeste wasn’t in. Before the performance, I was summoned to her dressing room. She told me, “If that line remains in the script, I cannot appear in the play tonight or ever again. Paul, you have made me feel like a French whore.” Celeste was 73 at the time. Since I’d already decided to cut the line, her virtue was safe.
I always enjoyed watching Celeste apply her many expert layers of makeup. She’d had some work done, but she was very savvy: she never tried to look younger than she was, but simply lovely, with great success. A friend had directed Celeste in a play in Philadelphia, where Celeste had volunteered to pay for the replacement of the theater’s entire lighting system, so it could become more flattering. Upon her first onstage entrance, Celeste would pause for a very precise few seconds, to allow her many fans to applaud. Celeste was old school, and when another actress misbehaved, Celeste murmured, to no one in particular, “She really shouldn’t do that. She’s not talented enough.”
If you’d like to read more about the I Hate Hamlet experience, you can find an essay I wrote about it in The New Yorker archive; the essay also appears in my collection, I Shudder.