March 24, 2011:
The news clips accompanying the death of Elizabeth Taylor yesterday included a shot of the young Elizabeth playing opposite Anne Revere in National Velvet in 1944. Anne Revere was Elizabeth Taylor's mother in this movie and she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for it; but I cannot remember my own mother saying much about it at the time. In fact I may not even have known by then that they had been best friends when they were growing up. I was very young at the time, seven years old, and while we went to see the movie and I still remember one or two scenes from it, I don't remember her telling me anything about their relationship. What would you tell a seven-year-old about such a friendship in any case? Years later she mentioned it and there's a beautiful portrait photograph of Anne Revere, signed to my mother, in the box of family photographs I inherited, but she never told me much about their friendship. It was only later that I figured out that her silence probably had something to do with politics. Anne Revere was blacklisted for her left-leaning tendencies and her refusal to testify before one of those idiotic committees investigating communism in Hollywood, and my mother was a lifelong Republican.
What a shame that politics should divide old friends like that. But of course it does.My brother and I hardly dared talk politics with each other. He maintained, with determination, the family Republican tradition, and I turned Democrat in college. He insisted that his six children vote Republican. My children, on their own but no doubt partly under the influence of my wife and myself, grew up Democrats. For a time in our lives my brother and I had not much to do with each other. We weren't hostile, but my train ran one way and his another. And if the opportunity had arisen I would have wanted to know Anne Revere, and he probably wouldn't.
I've sometimes wondered whether there might have been such an opportunity if politics had not separated my mother and Anne Revere. I'm not much for fantasizing about alternative histories: what if the South had won the Civil War? what if Hitler had triumphed? what if Hillary Clinton were President? They seem pointless to me; what happens happens, what doesn't doesn't, and chance and fate play their eternal duet. But I could see where knowing Anne Revere--she comes back to the home town, has dinner with us, we get tickets to one of the many Broadway shows she acted in, and I dream of the theater instead of writing poetry and short stories and novels (poetry is the only one of these forms I really pursued) and she helps me break in--might have changed my life, and my mother's, in (can I say it?) dramatic ways. My mother had wanted a career, not just marriage, and she harbored a certain bitterness at the fact that her parents had prevented it. She wound up working for her father as his secretary, then marrying my father; and there was more to her than that, more than being able to type 120 words a minute. She had artistic talent, she was ambitious, and it all devolved on her husband and her two sons; she became ambitious for us. Just to have kept on knowing an active talented actress like Anne Revere might have enabled her to break away from those family constraints and done more with her life, and kept her mind more active, perhaps even made her a happier person.
Well, we can't know these things. Human life, it says in the I Ching, is limited and unfree, and it's true: circumstances constrain us, lead us down the path or paths that are available to us, and we make bad choices all the time. I sometimes wish I had not stopped writing poetry; I was good at it, I published poems in respectable places, I liked the feeling when I did it well. I wish my mother had maintained her friendship with Anne Revere, but wishes are useless things, little pangs of regret. Nevertheless I'm going to frame that portrait of Anne Revere and hang it up in my office in honor of my mother, and in gratitude for the fact that the road she did take led to a family that included me and my brother, and children and grandchildren in abundance. In her own way she was a great lady, too, a woman of character, and in her own setting, in her family and among her friends, she inspired a good deal of awe.