Kathie Lee Gifford, The Saintly and Scandalous Scribe, Talks About Her Passion for Musicals and More

By Brandon Voss
06 Oct 2012

Aimee Semple McPherson with Robert James Semple
You believe her heart was always in the right place?
KLG: No, not all the time. She was human. But there's no question in my mind that Aimee started out as sincere as you can be. Her first husband, Robert James Semple, represented all that's good about a faith-filled person, and he was her first model of what it looked like if you lived your faith. Then she gets all this success, because she's brilliant and gifted, and she sets her sights on Hollywood, because she was a visionary. She was a woman of sincere faith, but she was also sincerely flawed, as is every person in this room. So she goes through a true crisis of faith that we really haven't seen onstage since A Man for All Seasons. By the time she gets to Hollywood, she's a superstar, and with that comes money, Paris fashions, and temptations. She's got two huge vulnerabilities: loneliness, because she chooses men who never live up to her first husband, and her addiction to painkillers.

And it was that drug addiction that eventually killed her?
KLG: People talk about her drug addiction, but here's the truth of it. She had two children, but after her second child was born, she went through seven operations for a botched hysterectomy that left her in pain for the rest of her life. She had severe arthritis. She also battled horrible insomnia and went for days with no sleep at all. Barbiturates at that time were a bad science, and she ultimately died of an accidental overdose. From all accounts, she forgot how many she'd had and took more. She tried to call her doctor and her secretary, Emma Schaffer, never got through, and ended up being discovered by her son Rolf the next morning. She was buried on her 54th birthday.

Does Scandalous focus on Aimee's Hollywood rise and fall?
KLG: You can't understand what she became unless you understand where she came from. She was a Canadian farm girl. Early on in the process in White Plains, some huge people in the theatre industry told me, "Get rid of that stuff in Canada. Who cares about that?" I was tempted, but to just tell the story of Aimee in Hollywood is to tell a diminished story that would not be fair to her. And it's not as interesting. I want to see the climb, the challenge, and everything else.

Semple McPherson circa 1930

Arguably her most negative tabloid attention dealt with her infamous 1926 kidnapping trial. How does Scandalous address that scandal?
KLG: The show opens on the night before the verdict in the trial. She disappeared and said she was kidnapped and held for ransom for five weeks in Mexico, but the District Attorney, who was trying to make a name for himself at the time, said she was actually up at her love nest in Carmel. Years later, the District Attorney was found guilty of embezzlement and all kinds of things, and Aimee went to visit him in prison.

Even though she had been kidnapped in the past, her story about those five weeks does sound fishy.
KLG: Yeah, it's fishy, but hers is the only story out of all the witnesses that never changed. The trial used to be a far bigger deal in our show than it is now; we realized that it really wasn't the most important thing. We can all have our own ideas about Aimee, but the truth is that we'll never know the whole truth, and that mystery is interesting to me. I want people to leave the theatre hungry for more information about this incredible woman. Let people decide for themselves if she was really in Carmel with Ken Ormiston when she said she was kidnapped. I can't control all the different ways that people will perceive her, and I find that exciting.

What about Aimee's life and trials do you most relate to?
KLG: I certainly understand tabloid attacks, and I know what it's like to be accused of something you didn't do — that's probably where we have the most similarities. I'm mostly drawn to her for her resilience. She was conflicted in so many ways because she wanted to be a woman of God, a good mother, a good wife. When you're really good at something, something else suffers. I can relate to that. Because of the long hours and time spent away, theatre is not conducive to a happy family life. My husband jokingly calls himself "Mac" now, after Aimee's second husband, whom she basically dumped and abandoned to go pursue her dream.

You were raised in the Jewish tradition but became a born-again Christian at the age of 12, and you've been very forthcoming about your faith over the years. Did your own religious beliefs inform the writing of the show?
KLG: Of course they did in some way, but more than anything, as a writer, I just wanted to be fair to this woman. Was she a true woman of God or just one hell of a woman? I think it's possible to be both. Her imperfections are fascinating to me, but she kept getting up and doing what she was called to do in this world. No matter what you think about her or where she was during those five weeks, you have to be fair in looking at her accomplishments. She saved one and a half million people from starving to death during the Great Depression. She sold more war bonds than any movie star in Hollywood during World War II. She started the Foursquare Church, one of the fastest-growing denominations in the world. Her radio station that she started, when everyone laughed at her and tried to run her out of L.A., sold in 2003 for $250 million. We do this in our culture all the time, but you can't define someone by one single event or one mistake in their life.


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