Monday, August 31, 2009

Madeline Kahn: Progress Report 5

In her Un Ballo in Maschera costume,
from Gene Wilder’s
Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother
This seems to have been one of her favorite publicity shots.

We were sitting there, Madeline and I, talking quietly about her life. She was in her early 50s at the time, her red hair was curled and styled, not long, and she wore a chic white suit; we sat in the lobby of a hotel in New York City, undisturbed by the bustle around us.

She began to tell me about an early experience in the theater, when a stage director sexually harassed her — much worse abuse, really, than that heaped mercilessly on her by Danny Kaye, when she appeared with him on Broadway in the Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two. I’d never heard of any of this — none of her family or colleagues had told me such a story. “Didn’t you complain to anybody?” I asked. “Didn’t you try to find someone to help?”

“Where was I supposed to go?” she answered. “I was so young, and he was the one in charge, after all. If I complained to the producers, they’d probably just fire me and hire someone else who could take it. I thought an actress had to put up with this sort of thing.”

I didn’t know what to say. I reached for her hand. “I’m so glad you’re telling me these things,” I said.

Only now did I notice that her eyes were brimming with tears. “So am I,” she said, taking my hand now in both of hers.

Then I woke up.

For it was just a dream. I never met Madeline Kahn, though for nearly a year I’ve been consumed with writing her authorized biography. The details of the story she told me don’t correspond to anything I’ve found in my research. (Except, as I say, a more brutish variation on her experiences with Danny Kaye.) Even if you believe in dreams — as some of Madeline’s friends do — this doesn’t seem to be a revelation. It may not be much of a sign, either. A little one, perhaps, but not more.

Those of a more practical frame of mind will be inclined to analyze the dream thus: I’ve been thinking about her a lot, and so naturally I continued to think about her in my sleep.

I hope she’ll be back, now and then, as I continue to write. In life, she’d have been horrified to know that anyone was writing her story: she was an intensely private person, I’ve learned, and discretion and dignity were among her most treasured possessions. But I believe that her audience — still vast — will appreciate her better if they understand what went into creating her art. And to do that, I’ve got to write as if I knew her.

For many of her fans, she is present. Quite a number of them (and at least one former colleague with whom I’ve spoken) didn’t even know she was dead. But such was her contribution to popular culture that she remains in our consciousness, as vividly as she appeared in my dream. That’s what my words must capture, and honor.

“Taffeta, darling!”
With Wilder, in
Young Frankenstein