"I'm always thought of as controversial or avant-garde or erotic or salacious," complains bawdy, buxom Sylvia Miles, a critically heralded Off-Broadway actress and a two-time Academy Award nominee (for supporting roles in Midnight Cowboy and Farewell, My Lovely). "But there isn't anybody I know who wouldn't live my life if they could." Chances are almost nobody would have the chutzpah to try.
"I'm not one of those people that hire a press agent to get invited places," Sylvia insists. "I get invited because I'm fun. I have a good sense of humor. I look good. I'm not bad to have at a party."
Thrice divorced (most recently from New York disk jockey Ted Brown), Sylvia makes her headquarters in a 14-by-19-foot Manhattan studio apartment bulging with her clothing and artifacts. "This is how an elegant mole lives," she announces, pulling open drawers that spill over with press clippings. "Everything here is a piece of my life. It looks like a museum." Beaded handbags dangle from doorknobs, ostrich feathers tickle the furniture, bizarre outfits fill the closets and the surplus is stored in the bathtub. "I take a bath every day," she explains, "and every day I have to move the stuff out."
Though friend Andy Warhol's silk screen of Marilyn Monroe occupies a prominent spot over her sofa, the apartment's dominant motif is Sylvia herself. In portraits and photographs she peers down from every wall. Her favorite review—crediting her with "an interborough voice, a great body, and a classical broad's face that ought to be stamped on every subway token"—hangs over the toilet. "That's me and Bob Dylan, me with Bob Mitchum, and me with Joe D'Allesandro from Heat," she observes of her gallery. "I've done 26 Off-Broadway plays, been through 11 years of analysis, and it's taken me my whole life to reduce it to these few possessions."
Born and raised in Greenwich Village, where her father was a furniture maker, Sylvia admits to being a well-traveled 42 and firmly discourages speculation that she is older. "However old I am, I'm doing okay," she says. She resents people who confuse the raunchy parts she plays—hookers, dipsomaniacs, psychotic lesbians—with her own somewhat milder self. "My name is always Dixie, Trixie, Foxy or Doxy," she says. "I finally got this part and my name was Eileen. When I told my father he asked, 'What do you play?' I said, 'I'm an itinerant tobacco worker.' He said, 'So it's the same old role, only you do it in the daytime.' "
Though décolletage is Sylvia's trademark, she protests being typed as a sex bomb. But men—in the plural, she concedes—are essential to her lifestyle. "I play the field," she says. "But it's not just a question of being sexy. I have a lot of good relationships with guys, and I do things with taste and discretion." If many of her escorts are actors and models 20 years her junior, Sylvia is undismayed by the generation gap. "What's wrong with younger men?" she inquires with a shrug. "They have less problems, less bitterness and more stamina."
Her offstage extravagances aside, Sylvia regards herself as a thoroughly professional actress (she will open in Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana in New York in December). She was outraged a few years ago when the acidulous critic John Simon sneeringly described her in a review as a "party girl and gate-crasher." Afterward—at a party, of course—she dumped a plateful of pâté, steak tartare, brie and potato salad on his head. "I have always had the temperament of an actress," she says, "which is just an excuse for volatile behavior."
In fact, she contends, her social life is part of her workday, because of the contacts she makes. "That's my life—going out, working, getting laid," she says cheerfully. "And, you know, going to a party with me is a lot of fun," she adds with a wink, " 'cause I move fast."
She shows up at premieres, screenings, receptions, teas and charity cocktail parties. The joke is that Sylvia Miles would attend the opening of an envelope. On a recent Tuesday she was invited to five separate social functions, and the mail that morning brought 10 more summonses. She is photographed more often than Jackie O, usually with spectacular cleavage in view. She enjoys the drinks (usually wine), blithely wolfs the canapés and has a wonderful time living up to her reputation as the most ubiquitous presence on the Manhattan party circuit.