Merely Legends: Dinner with Patricia Neal & Celeste Holm

15 Jul

Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with being gay. Well…maybe a little.

About 10 years ago, I was still quite fresh in New York City. The bitterness and jaded behavior had yet to seep into my soul.

I was house sitting for my friend and composer, David Friedman. David had conducted the choirs for a bunch of big Disney films like Beauty & The Beast and Pocohontas and composed the score for the film, Trick.

In the middle of the week at one point, the phone wrang. I picked it up and an older woman crowed into the phone “HELLO! Is David there?” I replied that he was away and wouldn’t be back until the weekend. “Damn! He was supposed to take me to the theatre.” I apologized and she said “Who are you?” in an almost accusatory tone. I told her I was a friend of David’s and I was taking care of his apartment while he was away. She replied “Well you sound delicious, would you like to take me to the theatre this Thursday?” Having no idea still to whom I was speaking, I asked “Who is this?” “Why, it’s Patricia Neal of course.” I told her it would be my honor to take her to the theatre on Thursday.

Me and Patricia Neal

My 23-year old self was thrilled beyond words. I was going to the theatre with the first woman to EVER win a Tony Award for her performance in a Broadway show. She won an Oscar for her performance in Hud with Paul Newman and no one will ever forget her brilliant work in the classic film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with Audrey Hepburn.

I showed up at her East End Avenue pad on the Upper East Side and she proceeded with a tour. She showed me her award room and mentioned that “Most of theses awards are because I had a stroke and lived to tell about it.” She showed me her Academy Award and inquired “Did you see me in Hud with Paul Newman?” I unfortunately had not and terrifyingly told her so. “It’s alright,” she said “If you blinked your eyes, you would have missed me…but I still won the Oscar.”

She told me a few more stories, bragged about her granddaughter, Sophie Dahl (yes, she was once married to Roald Dahl), and with that we left for the theatre.

Patricia Neal

Ms. Neal was 77 at the time and after multiple strokes had suffered almost no short-term or long-term memory. I escorted her down the stairs to Danny’s Skylight Room on 46th Street and we sat down for a cabaret. Others came up to her table to greet her and she’d always say “Darlings, introduce yourselves,” as she just couldn’t recall many names. Among her friends there that night were Jerry Orbach and Joel Grey and with each handshake I sank deeper and deeper into disbelief of where I was and what I was doing.

Towards the end of the show, Ms. Neal asked me “Darling, have you ever been to Sardi’s?” I hadn’t. “Well tonight’s your lucky night, you’re going to Sardi’s with Patricia Neal!” Many of you know Sardi’s for their glamorous days where they’d created caricatures on the walls of celebrities who’d visited. I recalled Sardi’s from Muppets Take Manhattan where Kermit the Frog famously took down Liza Minnelli’s portrait and replaced it with his own.

We walk through the doors, and everyone immediately knew there was royalty in the room. More introductions and sparkling conversations about the old days of Broadway and Hollywood. And despite having so many stories and so much experience, she seemed to want to know more about me than anything else.

Celeste Holm

We’re almost finished with dinner when a smaller older woman came and said hello. She had her scarf pulled up over her nose and a tight knit cap pulled to the edge of her eyebrows. She chatted with Ms. Neal as if they were old friends and finally was asked to join us for dessert. “Darlings, introduce yourselves,” she said. “Hi, I’m Jamie McGonnigal.” “Hi, I’m Celeste Holm.” My heart dropped through my feet and into the hardwood floor. This was the original…ORIGINAL Ado Annie in Oklahoma. She was in All About Eve with Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe. I spent the next 20 minutes choking down profiteroles while they caught up.

Then I giggled…and then I chuckled…and then I laughed. Not the quiet laughter you would expect from someone in the middle of this situation, but an awkardly loud laugh that caused Ms. Neal to turn to me and say “Darling, what’s wrong? You’re hysterical.” “Ms. Neal, I apologize. I just happened to take a step away from myself and realize that I’m sitting at Sardi’s with Patricia Neal and Celeste Holm. Things are just a little absurd to me right now.”

“Darling.” She replied. “It’s nothing to get hysterical over, we’re merely legends.”

It was in that moment that I knew I would forever have a story of my first meeting with Patricia Neal and Celeste Holm. We lost Patricia to lung cancer 2 years ago, she was 84. And this morning at around 3:30am, my other dinner partner from that magical night, passed away. I’ll never forget that night, as you can imagine. And the world will never forget these “mere legends.”

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