Marian Seldes, Actress and Emissary of Theatrical Grandeur, Dies at 86

Obituaries   Marian Seldes, Actress and Emissary of Theatrical Grandeur, Dies at 86
 
Marian Seldes, a career stage actress who was perhaps as famous for her grand and gracious off-stage manner as she was for her plentiful and expert turns on Broadway and off, died peacefully at her home today after an extended illness. She was 86.

Her brother Timothy Seldes said in a statement, "It is with deep sadness that I share the news that my dear sister Marian Seldes has died. She was an extraordinary woman whose great love of the theater, teaching and acting was surpassed only by her deep love for her family."

Even in a world populated by florid characters, Ms. Seldes stood out. Tall and angular, her pale face, high cheekbones and arched eyebrows made up to Kabuki-like levels, and forever dressed in royal purple (or shades thereof), she entered a room or a stage with the grandiosity and sense of pomp of a Katharine Cornell (one of her early teachers). Yet, in person, she was far from aloof. She took everyone from co-stars to lowly reporters by the hand — sometimes holding their faces — and called them "darling" and "love." She listened attentively and spoke carefully in a highly affected, breathy voice which nonetheless, for her, sounded perfectly natural. Ms. Seldes espoused a seemingly sincere belief in the importance of community in theatre circles, and could not be made to publicly say a bad word about anyone.

On stage, her manner was a similar sui generis mix of histrionic mannerisms, theatrical elocution, poised technique and warm naturalism. She was generally accounted a good actress, if a highly stylized one. Perhaps no one else in the theatre could get away with the outsized gestures she executed. "When Marian Seldes strikes a pose, it reverberates like a gong," critic Ben Brantley once wrote, appreciatively.

She did particularly well in the arch, wordy world of playwright Edward Albee. She won a Tony Award for the part of an hysterical daughter dealing with negligent, distracted parents in the Broadway premiere of A Delicate Balance in 1967. A quarter century later, she ably handled the elliptical language and acid humor in Albee's comeback play Three Tall Woman (her long arms seemed to touch the floor when she gestured from a chair). Thereafter, she was an Albee favorite, starring in the New York premiere of The Play About the Baby and Beckett/Albee.

"As an actress, Ms. Seldes has spent years refining ham into something as rich as foie gras," wrote Brantley of The Play About the Baby. "As the Woman, she is appropriately dressed in purple, a color that matches both prose and performance... In her glorious, gothic self-dramatizing, Ms. Seldes, a veteran of Albee productions, gives irresistibly watchable life to the contention that we always reinvent our own pasts. Her style is equally serviceable in underlining the play's wry, celebratory self-consciousness about being a play. " A committed workhorse who took the old ethos that "the show must go on" quite personally, she became famous for never missing a performance in the 1,809-show Broadway run of Ira Levin's thriller Deathtrap. Asked if she ever considered a vacation from the show, she answered, "Where would I go? What would I do? I'm not interested in that. I'm not a good tourist. I don't like walking around and looking at things. I like being in a city and working and finding out how other people live."

Marian Seldes was born Aug. 23, 1928, into a rarified cultural world. She was the daughter of Alice "Amanda" Wadhams Hall, a socialite from a prominent WASP family, and Gilbert Seldes, the journalist, author, and editor who was drama critic of Dial Magazine and whose many books included the influential "The Seven Lively Arts." Gilbert and his journalist brother George had been raised in a Utopian community founded by their Russian-Jewish immigrant father. Culture and free-thinking were the watchwords of the Seldes household. Writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and e.e. cummings would visit.

At the suggestion of director Guthrie McClintic, she studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse with Sanford Meisner, and made an auspicious Broadway debut in the 1948 Judith Anderson production of Medea. Credits over the next two decades included Ondine, directed by Alfred Lunt and starring Audrey Hepburn; The Chalk Garden; The Wall with George C. Scott; Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore; and Albee's Tiny Alice, in which she stood by for Irene Worth. (Three decades later she would step in for an ailing Worth in a 1999 Broadway revival of Ring Round the Moon.)

Off-Broadway, she won an Obie Award for her performance as a curiously passive lover in J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man in 1963. Other credits included Mercy Street, Isadora Duncan Sleeps With the Russian Navy (another Obie Award) and Juana La Loca, all at American Place Theatre, and Tina Howe's Painting Churches.

She has one daughter, Katharine (named after Cornell), by her first marriage to Julian Claman. Claman was physically abusive, and she was divorced in 1961 after her father noticed marks on her face and said, "Get away from him." Claman did not provide child support, and Ms. Seldes put Katharine through Dalton and Bennington College on her own.

She did not remarry for three decades, when she wed director and writer Garson Kanin, who had been recently widowed and was 16 years Seldes' senior. Ms. Seldes, who had known Kanin and his wife, Ruth Gordon, for many years, came to the apartment to care for Kanin in the aftermath of Gordon’s death in 1985. She never left.

Her devotion to Kanin's care was so complete that her acting career all but came to a halt for a decade. After Kanin's death in 1999, however, she emerged as a sort of a beloved éminence grise of the theatre, and became ubiquitous, appearing in dozens of productions. She was also regularly honored. She won Tony Award nominations for Ring Round the Moon and a Lincoln Center revival of Dinner at Eight. (Earlier Tony nominations had come from Father's Day in 1971, a play which closed on opening night, and Deathtrap in 1978.) The Drama Desk nominated her turns in a revival of Chekhov's Ivanov, Albee's The Play About the Baby, Terrence McNally's Dedication and Theresa Rebeck's The Butterfly Collection. She won a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010. Her last Broadway appearance was in Terrence McNally's 2007 play Deuce, about two aging former tennis players reuniting to watch a match. Ms. Seldes said at the time that the box office draw and "star" of the show was castmate Angela Lansbury, but true fans of the theatre knew otherwise — there were two show business icons on stage.

Her beloved standing in the theatre was bolstered by her long tenure — from 1969 to 1992 — on the drama faculty of Juilliard School. Her students included Kevin Kline, Robin Williams, Patti LuPone, William Hurt, Kevin Spacey, Kelsey Grammer and Laura Linney.

In many way, Ms. Seldes seemed like a woman out of her time, a poised personage more at home in the 1930s, or even the 19th century. "That theatre of the great leading ladies she grew up loving was ending just as she was getting ready to come into it," her daughter once said. "When she was younger, she must have seemed without the frivolity or easy charm that was becoming popular onstage then."

That quality, however, was likely what made her so cherished by younger generations. "Marian is our touchstone to those theatrical ancestors," said Linney. "She provides an inspiration that makes you want to reach outside of yourself to something more potent and powerful. When I'm in a show and Marian comes, it's like having a guardian there, a personified reminder of standard. There's nobody like her."

Ms. Seldes was once asked in an interview what she would do if she didn't act. The interviewer's intention was to inquire about an alternate passion that might lead to another career. She answered, intensely, "Grieve."

 

 


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