How to Direct Your Wife: Very Gingerly, Robert Whitehead Learned of Zoe Caldwell in Lillian

updated 02/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/17/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

The eyes of Katharine Hepburn and Jessica Tandy stared out from photographs as Zoe Caldwell, their friend and fellow high priestess of the stage, played out a painful scene. Huddled in her marble bathroom, a sanctuary where she not only performs ablutions but studies lines, Caldwell quivered and wept like Medea—a role that once won her a Tony. "I can't do this," she wailed, clinging to her husband, Robert Whitehead, the Broadway producer and director. "I implore you, Robert. Find a way out." But Whitehead, who was then directing the rehearsals of Caldwell's first one-woman show, Lillian, stood firm. "You can do it and you are doing it," he told his wife, "and what you're doing is marvelous."

Lillian, a two-hour monologue based on the writings of the late author-playwright Lillian Hellman, opened on Broadway last month. Tea Rose, the writer's favorite perfume, wafts out into the audience as Caldwell, wearing a hairspray-stiff Lillian wig and a bumpy Hellman nose made of glycerin wax, recaptures a prickly woman and her era. Though some critics griped that the play, which touches upon Hell-man's affair with mystery writer Dashiell Hammett and her celebrated refusal to bow before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, is rambling and too kind to Lillian, they all championed the star. "Zoe Caldwell is one of the world's great actresses," said TIME.

The leading lady is vindicated, perhaps, but still not fully recovered from the most draining experience of her career. Besides her tearful bouts in the bath, there were days when Australian-born Zoe (which rhymes with "doe") felt almost as if she had morning sickness. "I found it immensely difficult to take Lillian into my bloodstream," says Caldwell of the abrasive, outspoken author who died in 1984. "The play is set in such a painful, difficult time in her life—two hours before Hammett's death. To portray her, I knew I had to go into a state of extreme loneliness, and that terrified me. Poverty is rough, sickness is crippling, but being cut off from the support of others is the thing that scares me the most. During rehearsals, I would wake up feeling lonely, and I had never felt that way since meeting Robert."

Had she known Hellman, it might have been easier, but Caldwell met her only once, at the wedding of Maureen Stapleton's daughter. It was not too long before the playwright's death, and Hellman, ill with emphysema and heart disease and nearly blind, was carried in. "She had great style and would never use a wheelchair," recalls Caldwell. "She wore a beautiful dress and her Blackglama coat. Maureen and other actresses sometimes went over and read books to her, and she asked me if I would, too. I never did." Says Whitehead: "You're reading for her now."

Caldwell, 52, smiles at Whitehead, 69, giving him a proud, indulgent glance. Through 18 years of marriage, they have weathered the potential combustion of a collaborative life in the theater, raising two sons (Sam, 16, and Charlie, 13) in the process. Whitehead was the producer of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which won Caldwell a Tony in 1968. Then, in 1982, he directed her for the first time in Medea. "We got through that very tempestuous piece of work, and it seemed to me our marriage was richer," reflects Whitehead. "I learned that I could trust Robert," adds Caldwell, "that he's marvelously good at editing me. He would say: 'That's too easy for you. Stop.' "

Understandably, the two talk endlessly about the theater. Occasionally they invite over cronies like Stapleton, Tandy and Hume Cronyn to sample Zoe's homemade soups and stuffed pheasant at their dramatic, angular house set on 60 acres in Pound Ridge, N.Y.

Sitting in their living room with its billowy white curtains and French antiques, they could be any genteel couple contentedly growing older. She has just put in the laundry and is dressed in sensible rubber-soled shoes, black corduroys and a grey sweatshirt with a tear at the neck. A clump of brown hair, sprinkled with grey, is pulled haphazardly up on top of her head. A smudge of soot from the fire adorns her cheek. Whitehead, a courtly man with a red polka-dot handkerchief in the breast pocket of his tweed jacket, has just tended to the two German shepherds. Suddenly he interrupts his wife as she makes a point about Lillian. "Do listen a moment," he commands with a directorial air, and it seems clear that he has the upper hand in their marriage.

In fact, domestic normality seems essential to these two, whose most treasured household possession is not the framed letter of praise to Zoe from Helen Hayes or the proclamation from Queen Elizabeth naming Caldwell an officer of the Order of the British Empire. Rather it is a tiny box in Zoe's bath containing locks of baby hair from the boys. "Having children is the most exciting thing I've ever done," says Caldwell as she gives the housekeeper instructions about Charlie's schedule (Sam is at a private school in New Hampshire) before making the 90-minute drive into New York for a performance.

Until Caldwell met Whitehead in 1966, acting consumed her life. Her father was a Melbourne plumber and her mother a retired Gilbert and Sullivan dancer. "Moving and singing were my way of communicating," says Zoe, who made her professional stage debut in Peter Pan at 9. After graduating from high school, she did repertory work in Australia for several years before heading for England and the Shakespearean stage at Stratford-upon-Avon. Caldwell eventually moved on to Canada and the U.S. and in 1965 replaced Anne Bancroft in The Devils on Broadway. Then Tandy and Cronyn fixed Caldwell up with Hume's Canadian cousin, Robert, and her single-minded acting life changed course.

By that time Whitehead was one of Broadway's most esteemed producers, a position he had achieved with luck and chutzpah. Raised in Montreal, where his father built textile mills, Whitehead dropped out of McGill after a year. He dabbled as a commercial photographer and junior advertising executive before deciding to seek his fortune in New York. Long intrigued by the theater, he got a job as third assistant stage manager for a French troupe and then progressed to small acting parts.

Determined to be a producer, Whitehead bought the rights to a version of Medea for $500 in 1946 and somehow persuaded Dame Judith Anderson to star. John Gielgud, hearing that Dame Judith was involved, agreed to be in it too, and the young producer was on his way.

Then came successes like The Member of the Wedding with Julie Harris, The Skin of Our Teeth with Helen Hayes and Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. In 1961 Whitehead was appointed producing director of Lincoln Center, a position he held until 1965. That year his first wife, Virginia Bolen, died of cancer.

Bereft and thinking of leaving America, Whitehead was hardly a candidate for sudden love and remarriage. But along came fiery, passionate Zoe, who told Robert she loved him after their first two nights together in Whitehead's Bucks County, Pa. farmhouse. Soon they were living together. Caldwell, undaunted by the 17-year age difference ("It makes him wiser," she says), eventually began pushing for marriage. "I thought I was too old," says Whitehead, "and that the fun would go out of our relationship, or that I wouldn't be as good a lover as before."

Despite Whitehead's misgivings, they were wed at a tiny Pennsylvania church. The local postmaster officiated, and his wife served as matron of honor. Afterward the four of them had champagne and cake at the post office-general store.

Four months later Caldwell was pregnant with Sam. The obsessively hardworking actress changed focus. "Most actors are very good at being totally absorbed in the moment," she says, "and for me the moment was that child." She did, however, star in Colette off-Broadway the next year, and thereafter she handpicked her roles. In 1977 she directed Colleen Dewhurst on Broadway in An Almost Perfect Person. "I like directing more," Caldwell says, and her husband gives her an unsettled look. "Zoe cannot not act," he says gravely. "I watch her with the greatest pride and find myself weeping at her performances."

The future appears to be a compromise. After Lillian finishes its scheduled run Feb. 23, Caldwell moves on to direct a production of Hamlet at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Conn. Her husband, who blusters occasionally about retiring to fish and be a Sunday painter, will be producing a Broadway-bound play, The Petition, starring Cronyn and Tandy. Come fall, Caldwell and Whitehead hope to take Lillian on tour.

The idea is especially attractive because, they point out, it assures them being together. The "mateship," as Caldwell calls their relationship, has been relatively tranquil since a flash of premarital violence. "We were walking down Madison Avenue and talking about a woman," remembers Whitehead, "when suddenly Zoe began bashing me over the head with her umbrella. She was convinced the woman and I were having an affair. I thought she was completely nuts."

Now that Caldwell reserves her great performances for an audience, their occasional quibbles tend to be about household matters or points of view in the theater. Their obsession with the stage definitely is not shared by their sons. One evening, says Whitehead, he overheard Charlie talking to a friend on the phone. "They're down in the kitchen," Charlie reported, adding with both disdain and the resignation of a child who understands his parents only too well, "talking showbiz."

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