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The Tentacle


March 17, 2006

The Truly Mighty Mo'

Roy Meachum

It was at the White House that I first saw Maureen Stapleton's rear end; she was climbing out of a New York taxi. For my life I cannot recall what she did that day.

But I very much remember the lady never set foot in a plane.

The South Lawn that June 14, 1965, was literally covered with stars. The biggest names in show business had been gathered by Social Secretary Bess Abell for the first (and only) White House Festival of the Arts. I was along for the ride, in my role as sometime advisor.

Throughout the day and into the evening Mrs. Abell had drawn from New York and Los Angeles, the biggest of the big names. Helen Hayes, Marian Anderson and Gene Kelly introduced the acts; if you can imagine.

And there was Maureen Stapleton. Over the years during her visits to the Kennedy Center, she never changed: seemingly confused but inevitably focused. She was brash and big-mouthed exactly as you've heard.

Having seen her, by chance, in Neil Simon's "Plaza Suite," it was easy to fix on her comedic style: the old fashioned rolling eyes Irish sort of mug and grin.

But then you'd miss her substance: She won her first Tony award for Tennessee Williams' "The Rose Tattoo," playing an Italian earth mother, for crying out loud. She took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the turn she did in "Reds." Her fire ball, anarchist Emma Goldman was bigger than life.

But so was the Truly Mighty Mo'.

The last time we talked was at Thanksgiving. She was making Eugene O'Neill proud. Again. His plays fit her like the proverbial glove.

She was stuck in Washington, no time to scurry to New York for a single day; flying was out, as I said. She had given up "the sauce," at least temporarily. In her salad days she drank with both hands, becoming more boisterous and combative as the drinking wore on.

She welcomed my Thanksgiving Eve call, as a distraction if nothing else. Our conversation was about this and that, a continuation of talk started, interrupted and started again, at post performance parties.

I called to give her some comfort, wishing her a happy holiday when I knew it couldn't be. The Watergate was better than most of the hotels she slept in on tours; it was still strange, sterile, and most of all out-of-town.

The obit said The Truly Might Mo' made it to 80, much to her surprise, I know. Nobody who lives that hard expects the warranty to last so long.

Above it all, Maureen Stapleton was one of the Grand Dames of 20th Century theatre. As her friend Arthur Miller wrote:

"Attention must be paid." She deserves it.



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