Friday, June 4, 2021. Mild weather yesterday in New York, mainly overcast but fair and warm (low 70s, high 60s) and a heat wave forecast to be coming this way from the west.
This quiet time has given me the opportunity to update and re-organize a lot of my material — letters, Diary columns and articles I’d written. Among my souvenirs in this reorganizing, I found a sheaf of letters I’d written to my eldest sister Helen whom I’d been corresponding with all my life, going back to when I went away to college.
Four years ago, Helen, who died that year at 89, sent me a box of scores of correspondence that I’d written to her over the years. Among them was a letter to her about Lillian Sidney whom I knew when I lived in California, and who played an important role in the development of this writer.
The following is one of those letters I’d written to Helen the day after Lillian died on a Monday night, September 1, 1998.
My friend Lillian Burns Sidney passed away today. She would have been 98 on September 17. Lillian gave me my first big break. It was she who decided that I should be hired to write a book for Debbie Reynolds. There were others who were in agreement but she really got behind it. She could be a very difficult woman — very critical. Her criticism, artistic that is, was often very very good.
I often think of her when I hear Judy Garland’s recordings. Lillian was at the studio (MGM) that day in 1938 when Burton Lane the composer brought Judy over to sing for the bosses. Lillian was called in to hear her sing “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart”. She always said that Judy was the greatest performer who ever lived in her (Lillian’s) lifetime. And she had seen and heard Chaliapin, Caruso, Heifitz, Jolson, all of them.
She was a woman of great convictions and she spoke them very persuasively. She was tiny — no more than 4’11”. Her marriage to George Sidney the director lasted for thirty-five years, many of which they lived with his parents whom Lillian nursed on their sickbeds and then their deathbeds. Her father-in-law, L. K. Sidney had been Treasurer of MGM. Then George left Lillian for Jane Robinson who had been the widow of Edward G. Robinson. Eddie, they called him in Hollywood. Jane Robinson had been a receptionist for Hattie Carnegie in New York when Gladys Robinson, Eddie G’s first wife, met her in New York and brought her out to Los Angeles and gave her a place to stay. Their house. Eddie G. divorced Gladys and married Jane. After he died, she got George Sidney.
Lillian hated her. She called her “that whore.” She once stood, legend has it, on a table at Chasens during the dinner hour, and called Jane Robinson a whore. She drew such attention to herself that it was written up in Variety the next day. I can see it. By Lillian’s definition, she was a whore. And George? George was a male who was always on the lookout and grab-out for it.
George was a mean one in the divorce, too. He cheated Lillian out of everything including many assets that she had accumulated in the marriage during which time she was the highest paid non-actress in Hollywood as Acting Coach at MGM and an ally of Mr. Mayer. She never completely recovered from the hurt of that divorce.
Ironically Jane Robinson died a few years ago and George Sidney immediately remarried to a woman named Entratter whose husband Jack had owned hotels in Las Vegas. He married Entratter within weeks of Jane’s death. Fast friends? Faster.
George was a bit of a baby. I used to see him in the Safeway down on Santa Monica just east of Doheny. He always wore a beret and a silk kerchief tied around his neck. In the line for the cash register, he looked a little goofy like an old gay man who’s a bit fruity and daffy.
I’m sure that was how a lot of people saw him. Not realizing that he was a famous Hollywood director, and more than a bit of a ladies’ man. His father had been treasurer of the Studio and Lillian was one of Mayer’s favorites, and she used that influence to help George’s career. He directed many famous pictures: “The Harvey Girls,” “Showboat,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” ‘Pal Joey,” with Lillian working with him every step of the way.
I once told Edie Goetz, L.B. Mayer’s eldest daughter, and the premiere Princess Hostess of the industry, that I knew Lillian. Edie, who could be jealous of people at the drop of a name (and slow to acknowledge anything positive about them), was impressed, commenting respectfully: “Oh she was Powerful!” Meaning at the Studio.
None of it surprised me because Lillian was a powerful woman. Everything about her life had to do with the movies. She grew up and got old with the industry. She was a great respecter of art, of writers, of movie-makers and of the performing talent. She loved talent. She used to work with Judy Garland on her scenes and on her songs. She taught Lana Turner how to walk down a flight of stairs (for the camera).
Once, many years later, in the late ’80s, I was having dinner with Luis Estevez at Chaya Brasserie, and an old woman walked in, very small, whose silver white hair was almost shaved to a crewcut. I first noticed that her walk reminded me of Lillian’s. Fascinated, my eye followed her to a table with two younger woman. I suddenly realized that the woman WAS actually Lana Turner herself. She was having dinner with her daughter Cheryl Crane and Crane’s partner in life, and with Lily Tomlin.
I called Lillian later that evening telling her that I had seen Lana and how she walked exactly like Lillian (knowing the story about the staircase in “The Great Ziegfeld”). Lillian said, “of course darling (we were always darling), I taught Lana how to walk.” She did not emphasize as I have, but she always took credit where it was due. But only IF.
Lana used to call her in the middle of the night asking for Ricardo Montalban’s number. Lillian would scold her. “Lana, he’s a married man! Leave him alone!”
Lillian was there in the house the day Lana married Bob Topping. Lillian was looking after Cheryl and had to shut the door of the child’s room that adjoined her mother’s room because Lana was in bed with Lex Barker. Just before the ceremony with Topping. Lillian made sure Cheryl didn’t see it.
She liked to tell people that I didn’t like her when I was first working on Debbie’s book because she was so critical. She was SO critical. And I didn’t like that. She drove me crazy. I used to avoid her because of that. But I never didn’t like her. I loved Lillian. Little Lillian, I called her. I never thought her criticism was not valid. I just couldn’t stand it because I had already thought of it and it made me doubly as nervous.
I met Lillian because of the episode when Channing Chase died one morning on Good Friday, 1982, on my kitchen floor at 1611 North Doheny. The second day after she was been revived and was then in a coma in the CICU on at Cedars Sinai (when we knew that she was going to survive), I wrote down the experience in my journals. It was called “Sudden Death Syndrome.” I later cleaned it up and tried to sell it commercially. Nobody wanted it although it was effective to whomever read it. Lillian later told me that when she read it, in an effort to evaluate me as a candidate for Debbie’s book, she found herself saying out loud: (about Channing – while I was stroking her and talking to her in her comatose state); “Live! Live! Live!” She was so affected by the story that she decided there and then that I could write about Debbie’s life.
So I was blessed by the presence of Lillian in my life. A magical genius kind of character, dedicated, strong, with the courage of her convictions. She understood a lot about life. She had no use for fools or stupid people. Of course I can say this because I was lucky: she liked me. She gave me lots of encouragement. She said many times oftentimes very reproachfully that my problem was that I did not realize how talented I was. She said that I had to write a “book about (my) father,” and that she would never live to see it but that she knew I would.
She’d say these things with such authority, which possessed so much integrity. She was a very honest woman, and at times impatient with people, although never insensitive — she said it so many times that I felt my inability to comprehend what she was talking about proved that it wasn’t true.
What does it mean to have a great talent? How can one know? Greatness swims with arrogance and ultimately stupidity. As I grow older, I see very very little evidence of greatness in men and women. I don’t mean that cynically. I just mean that to be alive is to be prone to all the vagaries and foibles of the human condition including greed, venality, obstinacy, stupidity and intolerance. We are.
And we are selfish, always thinking of ourselves. And often in these productive or constructive ways. In a way, I always thought Lillian was a great woman. A difficult one — I’m sure George Sidney could have spun a tale of woe about the state of their matrimony. She didn’t suffer fools gladly but she married one and he knew she knew it, and she couldn’t help sharing her knowledge with him. But she loved being a teacher, being an audience to creative talent, and she brought to it, with her approach to all things in life, a dignity and a gravity that made all the struggle and the difficulty a minor matter, compared to the possibility of basking in the ether.
I had heard she was in such bad shape last month that she had closed her eyes and refused to open them. She was bedridden. She’d asked her friends to find a way for her to end it because “this was not living.” They couldn’t and despite her frail health, she lingered on. I felt that she lingered because the force of her personality was so great she couldn’t quell it even in the face of death desired. That great cosmic stroke that was Lillian was how she survived her tortures of the damned. That was how she marched (in high heels and silk pants — well into her late eighties) into great old age with aplomb and perfunctory imperiousness that belongs to those who’ve made it through the storm of life.
Debbie once told me, one late late night where we’d been working (she’d been talking) for hours and hours (and helping herself to the wine), talking about Lillian who had been her mentor and maternal influence. Debbie said: “Well, George was awful but who could ever live with Lillian? Could you? I couldn’t.” She said. And she loved Lillian and will miss Lillian the most of any of us.
I had told Lillian last year when we were talking on the phone about my life here in New York, and the things that have occurred professionally — all of which pleased her greatly, and, she said (aha) surprised her somewhat; I told her about the solitariness of my life and that I fear I will always be alone, that that is my destiny. She said that may be. She said there were some of us that no matter how many wonderful and close friends we may have in life, we will always feel alone. She said she had always felt that way. It would have appealed to Lillian’s sense of drama if I had sobbed with my face in my hands resting on my knees, sobbed with grief at the loss. Too much, however, would have troubled her. “Com’on!!” she would reproach (that word again!) half-seriously.
I thought of all that when I heard the news. Because I thought how much of a gift she was to me; how much she brought to my life and my learning; and how freely she shared her experiences of living. She loved music. Opera, the theatre, the symphony. She could sit there and be carried away, swooning, moaning, sobbing, laughing. She took it all in, living with and along every moment of it.
I take Lillian with me wherever I go. There is no reason for grief. She is relieved.