Lee Strasberg, Reality and Myth
So here I am in Hollywood at the Lee Strasberg Institute in the early 1970s as Walter Lott’s secretary. Walter was this awesome man, the first person Lee tapped to be a teacher when the first Institute opened in New York. We instantly bonded and very soon afterwards I was checking students in and sending them to the office if they didn’t pay.
My memory’s a little fuzzy about what occurred when, which I’ve noticed over time happens with those of us who live a lot of years. But I remember that, in addition to our class, we also had fencing, dance and other free perks, and Margie Haber was then in the throes of developing her awesome cold reading technique. All these amazing specialists helped shape my talent but were also fellow work-study friends. I couldn’t have conjured a better time if I had dreamed it.
I later held sway over the then-43 work-study people. And also held the keys to the place, which stayed on my keychain for years. They eventually ended up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean after I accidentally dropped them beside my sailboat. It was the only way, I guess, that I could let go.
But then, I dove into Method up to my ankles. So when Walter went back to New York I studied with Peggy Feury, Sean Penn’s eventual coach. Peggy was the first to tell me that I made brave acting choices. I can still hear her say, “ . . . more than my advanced students.” WooHoo! But I was yet to study with Lee, and missed Walter, so I eventually left. The first of many times.
Walter returned to LA six months later, and camped out on my floor for a few weeks until he found his own place. This time, he vowed, he was staying awhile. Soon, we were teaching together privately. But he quickly returned to the Institute. And I quickly followed. This time, however, as the assistant to Corinne Broskette. Her official title was Executive Coordinator. And I had a work-study job even before I went back, I guess, because of good old ShowBiz nepotism. Truth be told, together Corinne and I just about ran things then.
Lee first began to notice me, oddly, because of violinist Vladimir Horowitz. There was a flyer in his mailbox about Horowitz being at the Music Center. When he fished it out, I think I made a remark like, “Oh, Horowitz is here!” Lee seemed shocked that I knew who he was. But I reminded him that I, too, was a New Yorker. I think most of us attended plays, concerts, museums, and other things cultural in those days. They’re woven tightly into the New York landscape.
Lee was not someone who believed in niceties. In all the years I worked with and for him, I never remember him saying, “Good Morning” or “How are you?” Most of the time, he either ignored you or was downright rude. I also remember us screaming at each other fairly often. He’d yell, “Darling, it’s my school” and I’d yell back something like “You’re losing money . . . “ Whoever was in the office at the time would then slink out, close the door behind them, and leave us at it. I know it probably sounds weird, but I think those screaming matches made him respect me more. He did know on some level that I passionately cared about the school and his work. Even though we never actually discussed it.
I was, however, eventually invited to a few home gatherings. And, even better, to be an observer at the Actor’s Studio. I met so many of my idols there. The first person to appear from behind the curtain as I stepped onto the hallowed stage of the little theatre behind cowboy legend, William S. Hart’s home, which was also the Studio’s at the time, was Ray Walston. He was a Broadway legend, known then to TV audiences as “My Favorite Martian”. I remember that I kind of bumbled a hello and then froze as he quickly passed through.
Later, after I got used to seeing legends everywhere, I was often invited by Burgess Meredith to ride at his ranch. And Pacino and De Niro, in LA for the Godfather movies, were also around. As were Lee Grant and Shelley Winters, who moderated when Lee was away, as well as a host of other new and seasoned stars.
Ben Gazzara once said that getting into the Studio was more valued than a starring role in a Broadway show. Its reputation had somewhat declined by the time I got there with the huge influx of observers. I was very grateful to be part of that influx, however, and even got to do a few scenes there. I haunted Studio halls like someone prickly with hunger.
Being friends with Walter also had unexpected perks. I was many times an informal girlfriend and companion. I remember once going to a horrible play by Chuck Gordone, the first African-American playwright to win the Pulitzer, where our pretty plain garb paled in comparison to banana gabardine and cushy eggplant velvet suits complete with matching hats hovering over heads like mini-UFOs. And those were the guys! Backstage, Gordone and Walter bumped knuckles while he scanned me from boots to red bob. Having a white girlfriend was a status symbol in those days. His was also blonde. But I was happy to play the part. Walter and I laughed about it later. And he still remains to this day the most influential man in my life.
I can honestly say that all these affiliations launched my career. And helped me pass my first Studio audition. But those are all stories best saved for Part Three, coming up next week. See you then!
Leave your comments about My Life with Lee Strasberg, Part Two Below
What’s your experience or knowledge about Lee Strasberg and Method acting? Any thoughts about what I just wrote? Anything you’d like to know so I can share my experience with you about my life with Lee in the final chapter next week?