Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Madeline Kahn: Progress Report 14: When Hiller Met Paula

Paula Kahn, Dramatic Soprano.
A head shot, probably from the early 1960s.
In later years on her acting résumé, she listed her “special skills”:
“Belly-dancing, Mother of a Star.”
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kahn.

In 1948, Hiller Kahn’s girlfriend suggested that they drop by the apartment of an attractive divorcée who worked under her. Freda Goldberg Wolfson’s daughter had earned a certain renown already for her singing ability, the girlfriend said, and when they got to the apartment, on West 60th Street just off Columbus Circle, there was tiny Madeline Gail Wolfson, standing on a table for her stage and performing popular standards for about a dozen friends and neighbors, while her mother played piano. Madeline was about six years old, and had come home from the Pennsylvania boarding school where Freda had enrolled her one year before.

Little Madeline was “endearing,” Hiller remembered in conversation with me, long afterward, though Freda didn’t impress him much at first. Soon enough, however, he found himself caught up in her formidable charms (which I witnessed firsthand a few years ago). In 1953 in Mexico, he married her, and at his insistence, he adopted Madeline and brought her to live with them in Jackson Heights. “I wanted her to be part of the family,” he told me simply. Madeline kept his name the rest of her too-short life.

Freda and Hiller divorced in 1958. He passed away on June 6; five days later, she died after several years of declining health. My condolences to their son, Madeline’s brother, Jeffrey, and every member of their families are heartfelt, mingled with shock at the terrible coincidence and with gratitude that Jef consented to share them with me.

I’m struck by how many of the family dynamics came into play already at that first meeting in New York. Hiller and Freda really weren’t meant to be together, as it turned out. Freda, who eventually adopted the more marquee-ready name of Paula Kahn, had studied opera and was Madeline’s first voice teacher; she harbored dreams of success on stage or screen, but it was her daughter who became the star attraction: starting perhaps with Hiller, good things often came to Paula because Madeline made them happen.

But the relationships are remarkably complex. Paula trained Madeline in the talents she needed to succeed, and the same talents might have paid off for Paula, too, if only she’d been willing to work as hard as her daughter did. Instead, she seemed to expect stardom to be handed to her, and if her glorious and inevitable destiny was to be fulfilled at the expense of Madeline’s finances and reputation, so be it.

A thoroughly decent guy, Hiller tried diligently to bridge the gap between him and Madeline, especially in later years, but much of the damage was done already. All of her childhood taught the lessons of abandonment, which surely marked her as an adult. Both her father and stepfather left in the aftermath of divorce; Paula left her at boarding school. Even Jef, always Madeline’s indispensable emotional support, would go off to visit Hiller, leaving her alone with Paula.

Madeline’s romantic relationships were affected as a result, naturally, and she wasn’t consistently able to prevent her insecurities from coloring her professional relationships, too. If her personal experiences made it easier to play fragile or neurotic characters so memorably onstage and onscreen, they sometimes made her a difficult collaborator offstage and offscreen.

Treating Madeline and her parents fairly may be the greatest challenge before me as I write her biography. Misjudgments and misbehaviors by a parent can result in such painful consequences for a child, and yet there was plenty of good, too, and Madeline would not have been the person or the artist she was without their influences. The same is true of any parent–child relationship, of course, and few of us ever manage to reconcile ourselves to that. Until somebody comes up with a better system, there’s nothing left but to study and to try to understand.

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