Celeste Holm, Legendary Actress of Stage and Film, Dies at 95

By Robert Simonson
and Kenneth Jones
July 15, 2012

Celeste Holm, a theatre and film actress who, through a small but select collection of indelible mid-20th century stage and cinema performances, achieved the somewhat legendary status in show business circles, died at her apartment in New York City on July 15. She was 95.



CNN and others reported her death, citing niece Amy Phillips.

Though much honored by Hollywood (she was nominated for Oscars during three of the four years she was primarily active), Ms. Holm was more a featured player than a headlining star. But her performances were so reliably expert and witty, she often eclipsed the actors she was hired to support. And she was lucky in her choices. She won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her performance as a smart fashion editor in Elia Kazan's 1947 dramatic examination of anti-Semitism, "Gentleman's Agreement." It was only her third film. She was Frank Sinatra's cynical equal as a photographer in "High Society" (1956), the all-star movie musical of The Philadelphia Story. She starred again with Sinatra in the comedy "The Tender Trap" (1955), playing a philosophically suffering maiden-in-waiting to his womanizing press agent.

In her most famous film, Ms. Holm played the common-sensical, yet savvy best friend to Bette Davis' tempestuous stage diva in "All About Eve," Joseph L. Mankiewicz acid love letter to the theatre. She was also one of the backstage drama's off-screen narrators. Mankiewicz was fond of Ms. Holm's mellifluous voice, which effortlessly expressed all sorts of knowing sophistication. He also used it in "A Letter to Three Wives" as the voice of the unseen friend who has stolen away one of the trio's husbands. She was nominated for Oscars for both "Come to the Stable," in which she played a nun, and "All About Eve."

Though a screen natural, Ms. Holm resolved that she preferred stage work over film, and made few movies after "All About Eve." She had first made her mark on Broadway as the original Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, kicking up her gingham skirts and singing about being a girl who "cain't say no." The year after, in 1944, she topped the bill, playing a Civil War-era feminist in Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's Bloomer Girl. The show was a hit and ran for two years. Following her stay in Hollywood, she returned to Broadway with another hit, the comedy Affairs of State by Louis Verneuil. Ms. Holm played Anna Leonowens during Gertrude Lawrence's vacation from the role in The King and I.

Holm in 2011
photo by Krissie Fullerton

"There can be no difference of opinion about Miss Holm," wrote New York Times critics Brooks Atkinson, reviewing Affairs of State, in which the actress played a drab woman who is hired to play a Senator's wife — and is such a glittering success, the politician falls in love with her. "Even before she let go with a bang in Oklahoma!, she was an accomplished actress. Since Oklahoma!, she has been consistently in fine fettle."

In addition to the Broadway R&H shows, Ms. Holm played the Fairy Godmother in the 1965 TV remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella." Ted Chapin, president of Rodgers & Hammerstein, made this statement on July 15: "We have all lost a friend and an ambassador. Everything Celeste did she was good at, and she 'spread the word' better than anyone. Alas, we'll never hear her 'su-wee!' again. And while others will sing it into the future, no one 'cain't say no' quite as well as she did."

In the 1950s, she acted in a revival of O'Neill's Anne Christie, the comedy His and Hers, the Ira Levin melodrama Interlock, and the comedy Third Best Sport. None were successful with the public. She played the lead in Arthur Laurents' drama Invitation to a March in 1960, and stepped into the title part in Mame later in the decade. In 1991 she starred in the Broadway comedy I Hate Hamlet by Paul Rudnick.

Celeste Holm was an only child, born April 29, 1917, in New York City, to Norwegian parents. Her mother was Jean Parke Holm, a painter and her father, Theodor Holm, an insurance adjuster for Loyd's of London. She studied acting at the University of Chicago and made her professional theatrical debut was in a production of Hamlet starring Leslie Howard.

Off-stage, Ms. Holm projected an image of dignified regality. She professed to not be a fan of the smart-alecky characters she played on film, and didn't like smart alecks in real life either. She often told the story of her unpleasant first impression of Bette Davis. "I walked onto the set of 'All About Eve' on the first day and said, 'Good Morning,' and do you know her reply? She said, 'Oh shit, good manners.' I never spoke to her again — ever."

Her personal life was a less polished affair, littered with many marriages and strained relationships with her offspring. In 1938, she was briefly married to producer and actor Ralph Nelson. They had a son Theodor Holm Nelson, who was raised by Ms. Holm's parents following the actress' divorce. (An Internet pioneer, he coined the term "hypertext.") Two more brief marriages followed, to Francis Davies (1940-45) and A. Schuyler Dunning (1946-53). The latter produced a second son, Daniel. In 1961, she married actor Wesley Addy. They remained together until his death in 1996.

In 2004, she surprised the world by wedding Frank Basile, a struggling opera singer 46 years her junior. The marriage led to a years-long, bitter battle between the couple and Ms. Holm's two sons over her fortune and property. By 2011, legal fees drained her savings and made the court fight made headlines. She also endured declining health including "two bouts of skin cancer, bleeding ulcers, a collapsed lung, hip replacements, pacemakers."

She is survived by her husband, and her two sons. Funeral arrangements will be announced.