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- September 07, 1987
- Vol. 28
- No. 10
A Lifetime Trapped Between the Demon and the Muse
She almost surely read the paper; she took the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette every morning and worked her way through it. Perhaps, that morning, she listened to her records: She knew hundreds of Broadway tunes by heart; she could listen to them endlessly. We know that she became very upset. We will probably never know why, exactly, she opened the window next to her turntable, five stories above the ground, stepped out, and became, in the words of a Pittsburgh detective, "an ordinary suicide."
Those words were unintentionally cruel, and very wrong.
Elizabeth Hartman was an actress, and there was nothing ordinary about her. Before her life went wildly, tragically wrong in the last decade, she seemed destined to be one of the great stars of our lifetime. But fate, and illness, intervened. Her marriage, to a man she adored, unraveled; a succession of psychiatrists and medical professionals found no cure—nor even an exact diagnosis—for her illness. Hidden demons made her uncomfortable, eventually drove her to her death—and perhaps the greatest tragedy is that no one else will ever know what they were.
"There was an old-line producer at MGM who likened her to Katharine Hepburn," says Howard Rubin, her first agent. "When you looked at her screen test, her raw talent leapt out of the film. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her first screen performance." The film was A Patch of Blue, and in 1965 it was a startling, powerful picture. Sidney Poitier, at the height of his acting career, played a young black man—the film used the word "colored"—who befriended a young white girl blinded by her mother in a drunken brawl. Elizabeth Hartman, just out of Board-man, Ohio, played the girl, Selina, with such a shimmering, transparent frailty and emotion that the film seemed not in the least contrived and patronizing, but powerful and true. The shy midwestem girl was soon competing with Julie Andrews, Simone Signoret, Samantha Eggar and Julie Christie for the Best Actress Oscar.
Christie won, for Darling, but frankly, that didn't bother Hartman. "Biff didn't act for the applause," says her sister, Janet Shoop. "She just loved the process of acting. She was the kind of girl who didn't want to go to the senior prom when she was nominated for prom queen. Applause just didn't mean that much to her."
Elizabeth Hartman was born on Dec. 23, 1941, to an upper-middle-class family in Boardman, a suburb of Youngstown. Her father was a construction executive, her mother a housewife. Because Janet—her elder by only a year—could not pronounce her sister's given name, Elizabeth was known to everyone by her sibling's childish pronunciation: She was always "Biff." She was a sensitive child. "I protected her," her sister recalls. "When she wouldn't make her bed, I would, so that she wouldn't get into trouble. The joke in the family always used to be that people would say, 'Jan, you move the piano; Biff, you sit down, you look tired.' "
Some children decide to become actresses; as Janet Shoop tells it, her sister simply knew that she was one. "Our aunt took us to New York when Biff was 11 or so; unbeknownst to anybody, Biff had written to a number of model agencies and set up appointments. She was interested in modeling as a way to get into acting. We went around to all the appointments. They were very nice and said, 'Go back home and let us know when you finish school.' "
Hartman acted in high school; her interpretation of Emily in Thornton Wilder's Our Town made her a local celebrity. A few years later, she played the same role opposite Henry Fonda on Broadway. She spent a year at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, studying theater. But everybody who knew her agrees that she hated school—and few thought she needed to learn much more about her craft in any case. For two summers she worked as an apprentice with John Kenley's theater company in Warren, Ohio. "She had a quality," Kenley recalls. "She was ethereal, really spiritual. She was very pretty in a Victorian way. She could have been as big a star as Meryl Streep." Kenley sent her to New York, importuning friends in the theater to give her a chance. "I've never done it for anyone else, before or since," he says. His confidence was well placed: Within months she was cast in A Patch of Blue. Publicly, she was an overnight success.
But the troubled side of Elizabeth Hartman came to overwhelm her. In later years, professionals would use terms like manic depression and paranoia, but they could never agree on exactly what was going wrong with her. Her illness, like her talent, was undefinable. Early on, though, it became apparent that she suffered from a shyness that, increasingly, crippled her.
Hartman had made a previous, unsuccessful attempt to establish herself in New York before signing for A Patch of Blue. A year earlier her parents had driven her east and put her up at the Barbizon, a hotel for young professional single women. After a few months, she went back to Ohio without landing a part—and perhaps without trying to. "The city beat me, and I went home," she later remembered. "I didn't have the courage to go around knocking on doors."
"I'm not sure she ever went out of her room when she was there," says Janet, who was a nursing student at the time, and occasionally visited her sister in New York. That painful diffidence invaded her life from the beginning. The writer Pauline Kael, describing a visit to the set of The Group, Hartman's second movie, made a prescient observation. "Whether she can develop the toughness necessary for a real acting career is the only doubt one might feel for her future." That insight came more easily to relative strangers than to Hartman's family: "I remember reading that and being frightened for her," says Gill Dennis, then Hartman's boyfriend, later her husband. "Pauline saw something that I didn't recognize—or refused to recognize."
But if Biff, the person, was withdrawn, Elizabeth Hartman, the actress, was electric and impassioned. "She had an amazing intensity," Howard Rubin says. "She internalized a role." Early on, her family found that ability eerie. "Biff became the character she was playing," Janet says. "When she was doing A Patch of Blue she would come home to the apartment she and my mother were staying in, and she would still be Selina. I remember they gave her these dark contact lenses to wear to play a blind girl. She wore them all the time; she never left the character."
It was clear from the start that Hartman would bring her idiosyncratic genius just to roles she identified with. Yet she seemed to choose only those parts that expressed facets of herself. At first this was good for her career. "After A Patch of Blue we had close to a million dollars worth of offers—which was a hell of a lot of money in those days," says Rubin. "Naturally, we got 20 blind girls, deaf girls, crippled girls—name the handicap and there was a script for it. She certainly didn't want to repeat that." When the director Sidney Lumet offered her a role in The Group, his film of Mary McCarthy's novel about the lives of eight Vassar classmates, Hartman turned down all the major roles—one of which made a star of a young unknown named Candice Bergen—and took the small, eccentric part of Priss, a quirky young innocent whose sexual initiation almost makes her unhinged. Hartman made the part memorable, and the critics loved her. It was a pattern that would last throughout her career: Among dozens of clippings about her acting, there are no bad reviews.
During her short time at Carnegie Tech, she had fallen in love with Gill Dennis, a fellow student and aspiring screenwriter. She announced her passion for him again and again in interviews, making her involvement sound like an adolescent crush. "Gill is the kindest, gentlest man I've ever known," she told one interviewer. With a little public prompting from Hartman, the Army gave him leave from his assignment in Korea to escort her to the Academy Awards when she was nominated. But in 1969, when their eight-year courtship ended in marriage, the signs of trouble were already present. "On our wedding night she wept for six hours," Dennis told an interviewer. "I truly had not loved anybody else, and I didn't know if this was what happened on wedding nights."
The beguiling fragility that made people want to protect her masked Hartman's problems for a long time. "I wish I had known how to recognize the symptoms of mental illness," Dennis says now. "Biff might have gotten help earlier." But Hartman's withdrawal from the world was gradual, not abrupt. "There are not many roles like A Patch of Blue in a lifetime," Dennis says. "It was easy to see how she could be disappointed with some of the roles she was offered later."
Still, the choosiness became almost obsessive. Once, in the late '60s, Hartman spent two years mostly staying at home, reading. "Her turning down roles had more and more to do with her illness," Dennis says, "with her fear of leaving home and fear of seeing people. But there was an ability to rationalize everything into a justification for inaction."
Sometimes Hartman had trouble understanding why she turned down roles. She had a long-standing desire, her sister recalls, to work with Woody Allen. Yet when Allen approached her about appearing in one of his films, she turned him down—and regretted the decision for years.
Her movie career wound down. She won acclaim for roles in movies like You're a Big Boy Now—Francis Coppola's first big-league picture—and for The Fixer, the screen adaptation of Bernard Malamud's novel, but neither was a box-office success. After 1973's Walking Tall, she never accepted another major film role. "After a while," Dennis says sadly, "the illness went beyond just turning down parts. It became an inability to function."
Hartman and Dennis had moved to California in the early 70s; his career blossomed, but her condition worsened. Dennis remembers "incredible, prolonged periods of hysteria and panic." Then in 1977, Coppola asked Dennis to come to the Philippines to rewrite the screenplay of Apocalypse Now. When he told Hartman that he would be gone for a long time, she opened a dresser drawer and showed him scraps of paper she had been collecting from their yard. She said that they were threatening messages from an enemy. "I knew finally then that there was something desperately, appallingly wrong," Dennis says. He sent her to stay with her sister in Pittsburgh; he knew he could not leave her alone. The couple never lived together again, and finally divorced seven years later.
"She was very ill when she arrived here," Janet remembers. "She was very frightened, very paranoid. She couldn't eat, she couldn't sleep and she couldn't talk—she didn't do anything." The pattern of Hartman's final years began to assert itself: periods of institutionalization, alternating with the care of doctors and the loving concern of her family. "Within a day of her arrival she was in the hospital," Janet says. "She came back out for a while, she lived at my mother's for a while, then, in April of 1978, she went to the Institute of Living, in Connecticut. She was there until May of 1979."
The Institute of Living, near Hartford, specializes in equipping the mentally ill to live independently. It took more than a year, but the program seemed to work for Biff: Toward the end, she took an apartment of her own near the institution. She even accepted a small role in a theatrical production in Hartford; whatever troubles she had, she was still an actress. "At the Institute of Living, when her mental illness was confirmed, it took a tremendous burden off her," Dennis says. "She knew that she no longer had to feel responsible for her problems, that it was an illness."
In 1979, Hartman returned to California. Although she and Dennis were separated, he helped her find a Beverly Hills apartment. Under a doctor's care, she returned to work in television and made a film that was never released. For a time she maintained an uneasy stability—until 1981, when she joined the touring company of the play Morning's at Seven. "In September, they opened in Boston," her sister says. "Then she called her doctor in California, and he called me and said, 'Jan, I think you need to go to Boston.' I went there that afternoon." Soon after Janet's arrival, Hartman "took an overdose of pills and we got her to the hospital," says Shoop. "She was in intensive care overnight. The next day she was back onstage. She only missed one performance."
Astoundingly, though the disease destroyed her marriage and her happiness, it left her for a long time with what she valued most—her talent. "She was doing a fine job onstage," Janet says of those days in Boston. "She wasn't functioning very well. She was afraid to go to the theater, afraid of the people. But she was marvelous on the stage." In her private life, her mind was often out of control; onstage, her ability remained intact. The producers stuck by her; when the play moved to Los Angeles, the family hired an old friend to watch over Hartman, who received excellent reviews.
Her career was ending on a high note, but it was ending. By the time the play reached Chicago, Hartman could no longer go on. She went home to California and her doctors and struggled to put her life back together. In 1982, she recorded the voice of Mrs. Brisby—a mouse character in the animated film The Secret of NIMH. But there would be no more triumphs. On June 10, 1982, she went back to Pittsburgh.
"Things were getting more difficult for her," Shoop says. "She was very frightened and fearful—with paranoid kinds of fears, seeing signs and symbols nobody else could see—not frightening to other people, but frightening to her. Her doctor thought it would be better if she had the support of family nearby." After a quiet summer in her sister's suburban home, Hartman moved to her studio apartment in a stately, old-fashioned building popular with Pittsburgh dowagers. On good days she could walk to libraries and museums—and to the Western Psychiatric Institute and her doctor's office. For a while she did volunteer work at a local museum and talked to local theater groups about returning to the stage—but the pressure was too much.
In the end, Hartman would visit her sister's house a few times a year for family holidays. "It was always very difficult for her," Shoop recalls. "Sometimes she'd say, 'I'd like to, but I just can't.' " Several times a week, Janet would visit Biff and take her to a local coffee shop for donuts—a treat they were forbidden as children and always delighted in. Once, Biff told her sister that she wanted to go to a local revival house that was showing The Group—she had never seen the movie. When the day came, though, she begged off.
"She had hopes of being well again," says Janet. "She was not totally despairing. She was not a bleak person who thought there would never be another day. The illness would overtake her at times, but on the good days.... Biff had a lot of guts. She wanted to lead a normal life. She was working awfully hard to keep herself above water. I could see the pain, and I could see the incredible stamina. I'm not sure I would have had that kind of courage."
Janet Shoop cannot tell as yet whether any good can come out of her sister's final struggle; she does, however, offer this insight into dealing with loved ones who are mentally ill: "Show them that you do care and that you do love them, no matter what. Be as supportive as you can, but know that you can't change them, as much as you desperately want to. They are people who need protection and love and caring. They desperately need it. You get it back, when they're able to give it. They give it more than anybody."
June 10 was the fifth anniversary of the day Elizabeth Hartman went back to Pittsburgh from California, her brilliant career at an end. She called her psychiatrist that morning, somewhat agitated, but she agreed to lie down. Neither her doctor nor her sister thought that she was more than usually ill. Perhaps, her psychiatrist theorized, she had stopped taking the antidepressant and antipsychotic medications that were prescribed for her. Perhaps something else went wrong.
It was just before noon when she opened the window.
- Jane Beckwith.
January 31, 2015
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