When I look back and question how I, a little girl raised by lawyers and other rational thinkers in the middle of the US heartland, could end up as an actress in Hollywood, I realize that one person influenced me so strongly, that she opened up doors that I otherwise would never have dared open, and opened my mind to the possibility that such a career would even be possible. And that person was my best friend Kaysie's sister, Helen.
Helen is one of those rare individuals who is always the smartest, the wittiest, the loveliest and the most dazzling person in the room, and Kaysie and I always followed in her wake, watching her intently and trying to emulate every move she made.
Helen was an actress and a writer. She was larger than life. She's the kind of woman who should have either had a Parisian salon which she reigned over, or been part of the Algonquin Round Table, so witty and magnetic was she. She was a fabulous storyteller, and would often regale us with stories of her adventures. Her opinions and tastes were powerful, and we wanted to be just like her. We became her minions, her worshipers, following her around and essentially kneeling at her feet.
Helen is 10 years older than us, and my first strong memory of Helen was when she was a Senior in high school, and I went with their family to see her in her high school production of Oklahoma! I was dazzled and star-struck. Soon after that, Helen went off to college at Tulane University in New Orleans, where she studied theater.
And after college, she moved to...gasp...New York City! The Big Apple. That hotbed of sophistication and cosmopolitan style. A place far beyond the little backwater heart of Texas that we girls called home.
When Helen came home for visits, she always brought something new and amazing to share with Kaysie, and thus with me. And Kaysie and I became fans of anything and everything that Helen deemed worthy.
Musicals! Helen would bring home Broadway cast albums of the hottest shows on the Great White Way. You have to remember this was before iTunes or the internet - we'd never heard this music, and it captivated us. I remember sitting in Kaysie's living room around her family's hifi listening to Jesus Christ Superstar, A Chorus Line, Annie. We'd listen over and over until we'd memorized every lyric.
Books! Helen was always a VORACIOUS reader. She read everything, and Kaysie's family's house is still filled with books which Helen had read and left behind. I remember looking at the shelves of Helen's books and dreaming of a time when I would live in a house filled with books. Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner were all authors that I first discovered amongst Helen's castoffs.
Ballet! I'm afraid that the closest we little Austin girls got to the ballet at that time was the annual production of The Nutcracker at the Municipal Auditorium. Helen introduced us to the greats - Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov! We obsessed over these dancers. While most girls our age were crazy over some teen idols, we wanted to marry Russian dancers!
Friends! Often, Helen would bring her fabulous friends home to visit, and we adored them all too. Helen had a gay best friend named Dwight. Wasn't that incredibly sophisticated of her in those pre-Will and Grace days! We ADORED Dwight, and I think he kind of adored us too, he was so funny and patient with us. He actually directed a play at the community theater in Austin and CAST US IN IT! It was my first "real" play. It was Teahouse of the August Moon, and Kaysie and I were cast as...brace yourselves...Okinawan villagers. So politically incorrect. I remember doing "Asian makeup" - this yellow pancake makeup and black eyeliner - HORRIFYING. But Dwight was adorable and dear and charming and we worshiped him.
Style! Helen was, well...is, one of the most stylish women I've ever met. And as a teenager, I saw her as the epitome of grace and beauty. She always had a perfect manicure, her nails carefully painted a shade called "Camel Coat". She always wore Shalimar. Her hair was colored a vivacious blonde. Her clothes and jewelry were impeccable and very sophisticated. "Good pieces" my mother would have called them - always classic and timeless.
But as much as I idolized Helen, I was also incredibly intimidated and maybe a little frightened of her. I remember getting completely tongue-tied when I was around her. I felt that everything I said and did was completely stupid and hickish. I realize that she must have been an incredibly difficult person to have as a big sister.
And as with most people who burn brightly, Helen had a dark side. She was deeply troubled with bulimia and depression. And eventually, was diagnosed as manic depressive, which they now call bipolar disorder. She would periodically show up in Austin for long periods at a time so her parents could take care of her and get her psychiatric help. This can't have been easy for them at a time when going to see a therapist was considered pretty shocking.
When I was in my 20s, living in Dallas, Helen had some sort of breakdown, and she ended up in a Dallas psychiatric hospital. When she was released, she lived in Dallas for a while so she could stay near her shrink. We saw each other occasionally, and it was during this time that I finally realized that Helen was a mere mortal, who suffered from demons which I, thank God, had never imagined.
The last time I saw Helen was a few years ago at her and Kaysie's father's funeral. She was still absolutely beautiful and vivacious. And when I spoke with her, I found myself falling into my girlish nervousness and insecurity around her. But I suddenly realized that I was now a grown woman, who had actually had the career that Helen had never achieved. And I found myself feeling sorry for her. She was someone with such tremendous potential, but whose demons had proven too powerful.
But I must say that I'm incredibly grateful for her presence in my life. She opened my eyes to a world outside my own which I would never have believed was within my grasp.
Don't forget to drop by all of the other Role Model spinners!
Peg at Square Peg in a Round Hole - NEW on FRIDAY!
Ginny Marie at Lemon Drop Pie - NEW on FRIDAY!
SuziCate at The Water Witch's Daughter - NEW on FRIDAY!
Next week on The Spin Cycle...
It's officially Spring, the time of new beginnings! So I thought that Birth would be an appropriate challenge.
I think it's probably one of the only topics which every human being has experience with, in one way or another, 'cause who hasn't been born?
Have you given birth? More than once? Was it a joy beyond all depth and measure? Pain beyond all depth and measure? A little of both?
Or maybe you want to talk about the birth of you? Or the birth of an idea? Or the Birth of a Nation?
Mmmmm...okay, maybe not that one.
But you get the idea. Spin, write, post, rinse, repeat.
Share your spin!
Highlight the code.
Copy to your HTML.
Et voila! Linked!