I have met many interesting people in my life, including Jed Harris, Broadway’s Golden Boy.
He began his career in the mid 1920’s, directing stars like Charles Laughton, Ruth Gordon, and other Broadway stars. None of the people he worked with liked him. They found him self-centered and rude, but they also knew that when he directed a play, the result was first class.
I met him in 1978. I was working on a Master’s in Psycholinguistics, Communication Theory and Theatre at LSU at the time, and had become friends with a young woman named Margret. Her thesis was on Jed Harris. She had done all the research, but she had never met him, and she thought it essential she did. She wrote to Harris’ agent, but received a letter saying Mr. Harris didn’t want to see her. She persisted, and one day the agent called and said Mr. Harris would give her a one hour interview, period.
Margret flew to New York in the dead of winter. By that time, Harris was an old man, and had long stopped directing plays. He liked Margret, and when she suggested he spend the winter in Baton Rouge, he agreed. He rented a town house in the same complex as Margret, and settled in.
One day Margret invited my husband and me to have dinner with her and Harris. Over dinner, I told a story about life in the French underground during World War II, describing the experiences of a good friend of my mother’s.
Harris said it would make a great play, and we should write it together. I agreed, not knowing that Harris would soon become a fixture in my life, as well as my daughters.
His town house wasn’t far from our home, and a pattern began. Several afternoons a week, I would pick Harris up and we would go to my house, where we had coffee. Mine had only sugar, Harris’ had Courvoisier. Very little was done on the play, but I heard many stories of life on Broadway.
One afternoon we had talked longer than I thought. It was time to pick up the girls at St. Joseph’s Academy, and I told Harris he would have to come, because I didn’t have time to take him home. He sat up front with me, and the five girls sat in the back seats of the station wagon.
Harris began charming them immediately, and when I said I’d take him home first, one of them asked if he couldn’t come home with us and share an after school snack. He did, and from then on, on the afternoons he was at our house he went with me to pick up the girls and then stayed to have a snack and a visit.
When my youngest daughter was in an acting class in New York, every new student told why he/she wanted to act. She mentioned that Jed Harris had carpooled with her mother, not expecting the teacher’s reaction. “Jed Harris? How did that happen?” Clearly, he couldn’t believe that a girl from Baton Rouge, LA had not only met Harris, but considered him one of the family.
Jed loved to cook, mostly Northern Italian dishes, but one day he insisted on making gumbo. He added an ingredient no self-respecting Louisiana cook would: rhubarb. We ate the gumbo, but we left the rhubarb in our bowls.
I had mentioned Jed Harris to a few friends, and my husband I decided to have three couples for dinner. A new audience spurred Jed to tell stories, dropping big names like powered sugar on a cake. No one got a word in, though the other guests were well-informed, cultured and civilized people. Several days after the dinner, I received a letter from Adelaide Brent, an artist of note and a sophisticated woman. She and her husband Allen were among the guests at the dinner. The message follows: “Thank you for An Evening with Jed Harris, produced by Melvin and Beth Michel, starring Jed Harris. Supporting cast, and here she wrote a list of the other guests. Not only a fine artist, but a witty one.
Jed and I never finished the play, but after he returned to New York, my good friend Henry Avery, who was the Artistic Director of the Baton Rouge Little Theatre before he moved to Albuquerque, and I co-wrote it. We titled the play MIXED DOUBLES, and Henry directed it at the Baton Rouge Little Theatre. It was a huge success, and is still one of my favorites.
After Jed died, there was program on one of the major TV networks featuring his life. My husband and I and the girls watched it, and for the first time realized what a celebrity Jed was. But to all of us, he was just a very nice man who had brightened and informed our lives, whom we had the good fortune to know.