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I was very saddened to learn this morning of the death of Celeste Holm, the Oscar-winning actress who starred in numerous classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age — among them Elia Kazan‘s best picture Oscar winner Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), Anatole Litvak‘s The Snake Pit (1948), Henry Koster‘s Come to the Stable (1949), Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and best picture Oscar winner All About Eve (1950), and Charles Walters‘s The Tender Trap (1955) and High Society (1956) — who I was honored to count as a friend over the last decade of her life.
I first met Celeste at her apartment on Park Avenue in New York when I was still a college student. Having fallen in love with classic movies a few years earlier, I had decided that I wanted to write a book that would inform and excite other young people about older movies, and she was among the first big names who agreed to speak with me for it. This was an extra big deal because she was granting virtually no interviews at that time, having only recently suffered a massive stroke that had partially paralyzed her face and rendered her very weak. Indeed, when I arrived that day, she ruefully said, “I don’t feel as thought my face belongs to me at the moment.” But it quickly became clear that this woman, who was famous for her feistiness and independent spirit during her prime, was still very much a firecracker.
Don’t believe me? At that time, Celeste was 88 years old, and her fifth husband, opera singer Frank Basile, whom she had met and married the year before, was 43. When I was preparing for my interview and came across that fact, I thought, as most people probably would, that there was something pretty strange about it. And when Frank, a big, burly guy, came into the living room in the middle of the interview, sat down beside his wife, and turned the questioning on me, I only grew further wary of him. But, over the course of the next couple of hours, and indeed the next couple of years, I watched them interact, and it all started to make a little more sense: Frank provided Celeste with the sort of lively and loyal companionship and protection that few older people get to enjoy (when she struggled to remember words or names he was always ready to provide them), and Celeste provided Frank with a happy and exciting life built around their shared love of the arts (her friends and contemporaries — if not her children — seemed to like him very much). By the time that afternoon’s interview came to a close, Frank, who had initially eyed me with suspicion, was patting me on the back and asking if I wanted to join him for a beer, and Celeste laughingly yelled, “I want a cookie, goddamit!”
The next year, I assumed the leadership of the film festival hosted by my college, which was one of the premier college film festivals in the northeast. I did so under a very clear understanding: I wanted nothing to do with the student filmmaking aspect of the weekend-long event, and everything to do with ushering in a new component: namely, using a portion of our small budget to try to lure two classic movie stars to the festival each year to receive lifetime achievement awards, as well as to participate in a Q&A with me following a screening of one of their best works. That year, the two Golden Age stars whom I had previously interviewed and decided to approach with this invitation both said yes. That is how Margaret O’Brien, the 1940s child star who received a special juvenile Oscar for Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and Celeste Holm, along with Frank, both wound up in Waltham, Massachusetts, of all places. It was a lovely weekend, during which we screened Meet Me in St. Louis and Gentleman’s Agreement for a packed house of students and professors, and then celebrated the careers of these two special ladies. (I believe that it was then that I asked Celeste to describe how she prepared for a certain part, and she — who prided herself on having never taken an acting class and rejected the school of Method acting — replied, to great laughter, “Got up in the morning!”) I’ll never forget stopping by their hotel on the Monday morning after the weekend to express my thanks and say goodbye, and sitting with the two of them in the hotel lobby when Celeste, who was flipping through the newspaper, called my attention to a headline that made both of them laugh out loud: “Study Shows Oscar Winners Live Longer.”
Over the years since then, I kept in touch with Celeste and Frank pretty regularly, and saw the two of them all over New York together at screenings, Q&As, and premieres, including several within the past year. Last October, I was moderating a SAG nominating-committee Q&A following a screening of The Descendants, and spotted the two of them sitting at the back of the theater. Once everyone took the stage, I began to say to the audience that we were lucky enough to have with us not only the stars of the film, but also the best supporting actress Oscar winner of 1947, at which point George Clooney excitedly jumped in and, without having even seen her, said, “Celeste Holm?!” He was just one of many actors who held her — someone who had gone toe-to-toe with Bette Davis (who always envied her ability to convincingly laugh on demand), Gregory Peck (whom she first met when he was working as an usher at Radio City Music Hall, years before they shared the screen together, and whom she later described as “very square”), Grace Kelly, Olivia de Havilland, and Frank Sinatra (twice) — in the highest regard.
The last time that I saw Celeste was in December, at the party at Lincoln Center that followed the world premiere of Steven Spielberg‘s War Horse. I ran into Frank, who brought me over to say hello and give a kiss to Celeste. My date was my mom, who had met Celeste when she came to my college film festival years before, and who joined me in marveling that, even at the age of 94 and wheelchair-bound, she was still getting out and about. What a lust for life! That night, while most of the guests rushed past the quiet old lady in the wheelchair in order to get a word or a picture with the stars of the moment, I pulled aside a few friends and introduced them to someone who would be remembered long after the vast majority of the others had been forgotten.
It was a privilege to know her.
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