Published March 19, 2009
The unbelievable tragedy of the death of Natasha Richardson is certainly most awful for her family.
But it must be so much worse for her mother, the legendary actress Vanessa Redgrave.
For most of 2007, the great Redgrave played writer Joan Didion on Broadway in her play, "The Year of Magical Thinking." Didion, who reportedly visited Redgrave during Natasha’s final hours in the hospital yesterday, wrote the play from her searing memoir about losing her daughter Quintana just a few years earlier.
The one woman show was a monologue that showed how Didion coped first with the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, from a sudden heart attack. At the time, Quintana was in a coma. When Quintana awakened, her beloved father was dead. Within a year, she too, would pass away, leaving a young husband and a child..
Both the book and the play became instant classics. Redgrave’s performance was highly praised, and she was nominated for a Tony Award.
The book begins:
"Life changes fast
Life changes in an instant
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."
Natasha Richardson’s untimely and peculiar death echoes that of Quintana, Didion’s beloved daughter. It happened in an instant. With little explanation.
And something about Richardson’s death has touched people who never even heard of her, or knew little about her. Maybe they knew she was part of the famous Redgrave acting family, or that she was Liam Neeson’s wife. And that may be why this tragedy has so affected us: somewhere in the back of our minds we knew that sexy, funny, smart, incredibly talented Natasha Richardson was uptown, being a mom and a wife, doing her own thing, that she was a cut above the rest and that she could jump back into her career any time she wanted. If she wanted. It made her accessible and cool.
Richardson never really sought the spotlight, or desired to be a movie star. She came to America to escape the Redgrave legacy, and to act. That she did, becoming a sensation on Broadway and a regular player in movies both big and small.
There’s no doubt that had she lived, there was a movie role in her future that would bring her massive acclaim and respect on the level of the Academy Award. But she was in no hurry. Like her mother, Vanessa, aunt Lynn, sister Joely, she had nothing to prove. The Redgrave simply have ‘it,’ the ability to absorb into a role and inhabit it.
And so Vanessa Redgrave did that with the Year of Magical Thinking. The play, eerily enough, begins "This happened on Dec. 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you."
Those words are more haunting now than ever.
Actor and political activist Ron Silver’s funeral yesterday was private a service at Temple Rodelph Sholom on the Upper West Side.
This much I can tell you: Ron’s kids, Adam and Alexandra, gave beautiful speeches, and made their dad proud. Each of Ron’s brothers gave heartbreaking remembrances of their older sibling. Writer Joe Klein was among those who eulogized a friend with laughter and tears.
The historic synagogue’s large vaunted ceiling chapel was full, by the way, with lots of family members, members of Actors Equity (where Ron was president from 1991-2000) and many familiar faces. In the audience I spotted Lorraine Bracco, Joe Pantoliano with wife Nancy, Tony Lo Bianco, former HBO chief Michael Fuchs, "West Wing" writer Lawrence O’Donnell, and even ex spouses Ronald Perelman and Patricia Duff. They sat on opposite sides of the room, however.
Hopefully, a public memorial will be set up for the spring.
By the way, the lights of Broadway were dimmed for a minute at 8pm on Tuesday in memory of Ron. I’m sure the same will be done tonight or tomorrow for Natasha Richardson. Two terrible losses: this Broadway tradition is usually reserved for stars who die at much older ages.
As Natasha Richardson’s family made decisions today for their beloved wife, mother, daughter, sister, and aunt, it was important to recall the actress’s really great life.
She was considered one of the good guys, a welcome presence as a New York transplant on the Upper West Side. With actor Liam Neeson she was certainly a "power couple," and with their sons, Michael, 13, and Daniel, 12, the Neesons were a popular addition to any event.
Over the years, as Natasha easily made the transition - as British actresses do - among TV, movies, and stage, there was nothing she couldn’t do. She had a huge run on Broadway in the mid-'90s with "Anna Christie," "CLoter," (she originated the Julia Roberts movie role), "Streetcar Named Desire," and finally a huge success in "Cabaret," for which she won the 1998 Tony Award playing Sally Bowles.
She first came to movie prominence in a 1988 movie directed by Paul Schrader about Patty Hearst. "She looked the part, and was perfect for it," Schrader said. "She brought none of the baggage of being a Redgrave with her, either." That would have been so easy to do with mom Vanessa, aunt Lynn, uncle Corin, sister Joely (a star of TV’s "Nip/Tuck"), or grandfather Michael. Moreover, her own father, Tony Richardson, had been a famous director.
Schrader also directed her in "The Comfort of Strangers." He told me yesterday: "She was a great friend, a terrific actress, and I will miss her very much."
But Natasha Richardson was the rare example of graciousness and fun. Even though she was divorced from Robert Fox, she never made the tabloids. Even her marriage to Oscar nominee Neeson came with unusual lack of gossip. The couple was often seen dining together on the Upper West Side, too, at restaurants like Café Luxemboug and Compass.
Ironically, their greatest test came about six years ago when Neeson broke his pelvis in a motocycle accident — he swerved to miss a deer — near their home in upstate New York. For months, Neeson hobbled around on crutches with the faithful Natasha by his side.
Natasha Richardson will also be remembered as funny. About three years ago she had me seated next to her formidable acting legend mother at a dinner for their movie, "The White Countess." She left me alone, and I was nervous. When I asked Vanessa Redgrave if she’d liked any Oscar movies that year, she replied that she liked "Good Night and Good Luck" so much she called George Clooney.
"Oh my God," I said, "What did he say?"
Redgrave responded: "That didn’t matter. It was what I said to him."
Natasha, hearing this, broke in. "Now you know what I’ve been living with all my life," she said with a sweet but knowing laugh.
By the way: all the chaos about reporting Richardson’s status yesterday was simple. At the time of her accident, she had no publicist. She had been represented for years by Robert Garlock. He died last year, and Natasha spoke beautifully at the service. So there was no one to step up and handle the massive misinformation following her tragedy. Believe me, if Robert were still here, he would have had the situation in hand.
So who exactly did Diane von Furstenberg sleep with to get to the top?
Last night at the Oak Room dinner for a new documentary about legendary designer Valentino, we got an earful.
Our table consisted — in the middle of a room full of celebs and tall, thin good looking fashion types I didn’t know — of Regis and Joy Philbin, magazine publishers Ingrid Sischy and Sandy Brant, and adventurer Pepe Fanjul.
Around the room we spotted Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow with mom Blythe Danner, Claire Danes with Hugh Dancy, Anne Hathaway, Charlie Rose and Amanda Burden, Gayle King, Martha Stewart, Harvey Weinstein and Georgina Chapman, hotelier Andre Balazs, Padma Lakshmi, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Laurie Durning, famed screenwriter William Goldman, and Lake Bell, who’s about to be famous for something.
Anna Wintour sat in front of me at the very tony screening at the Museum of Modern Art, but skipped dinner. At the dinner a Vogue employee told me: "The Devil Wears Prada? It was like a documentary."
At dinner, Barry Diller, married to DVF, had kind of moved left on the banquette so he didn’t hear this story. DVF, who is really a fashion genius and legend at this point, has been working like crazy her whole life to make her brand a success.
She said to Regis, "I was on your show in St. Louis in 1970."
Regis and Joy were taken aback. Joy said: "After Regis left Joey Bishop, he took this show in St. Louis. It was a talk show and he’d come in and film several episodes at once."
DVF said: "There was no budget for guests. I had to sleep with my sales rep."
That got everyone’s attention.
"Not that way," she insisted. "We had to share a room to save money. I still remember it."
Regis, one of this column’s heroes, enjoyed it. "DIANE VON FURSTENBERG, AS I LIVE AND BREATHE! YOU DID THAT, DID YOU?"
It got a huge howl.
He spoke in capitals and italics and underscores, and maybe scared DVF a little. He was very Regis.
Joy Philbin, who looks like she’s 30, is an inveterate shopper. She told me. "The stores on Madison Avenue are empty. Bergdorf’s is empty. The salespeople are just standing there."
We talked about Ron Silver and Natasha Richardson, whom the Philbins knew, of course. The Neesons are their neighbors on the Upper West Side.
"Don’t be sad, Roger," Joy said as we got our coats. We both agreed, and Ron and Natasha would, too: "Living well is the best revenge."