SECOND FLOOR OF SARDI'S: A Soft Drink (and Hard Truths) With Elizabeth Ashley

By Robert Simonson
August 21, 2012

Tony Award winner Elizabeth Ashley, currently in Broadway's The Best Man, reflects on tequila, Gore Vidal, growing up in Louisiana, Tennessee Williams, director Michael Wilson and how she never played the fame game.



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This feature is called "Second Floor of Sardi's," as in the bar area upstairs from the famous theatrical eatery. But Elizabeth Ashley didn't get that memo and stationed herself in a cozy, corner banquette in a hidden nook of the ground-floor dining room. Anyone who's covered the theatre for any amount of time knows you don't tell Elizabeth Ashley where to sit. So a "Second Floor of Sardi's" on the first floor it is.

Ashley, all incognito in a hat and large dark sunglasses, sipped on a ginger ale. She would've happily had a tequila neat (Patron Gold, please), but she was in between matinee and evening performances of The Best Man and had to keep her wits about her. Tequila is currently trendy among discerning drinkers. It's the new single malt Scotch. But Ashley's way ahead of those parvenus. She's been drinking it for 40 years, and learned to appreciate the nectar of the agave plant at the elbow of a peerless Mexico-phile.

"I was one of those girls who never knew what I wanted to drink," Ashley said in between bites of a chicken club, "and a thousand years ago a great man, Sam Peckinpah, said, 'Young woman, come here. I will teach you the fine art of drinking tequila, which means we start with mezcal.'"

Sticking to the going line of conversation, I asked Ashley what her friend Tennessee Williams preferred to drink. "Anything in sight," was the quick reply.

Elizabeth Ashley
photo by Joseph Marzullo/Playbill

Ashley is one of 20th century's premier interpreters of Williams' work. Her 1974 Broadway embodiment of Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is considered one of the finest interpretations ever presented. She's also acted in Williams' The Glass Menagerie, The Red Devil Battery Sign, Sweet Bird of Youth and The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. She promised Williams, before he died, that she would appear in those four plays, and, though it took a while, she fulfilled the promise.

Whether she is now done with Williams Ashley will not say. You never know what a career will bring, particularly when you're talking about the kind of roller-coaster resume Ashley has put together over 50-plus years. After all, she probably thought she was done with Gore Vidal's The Best Man when she acted in the play on Broadway in 2000. But here she is back in the political drama, and playing the same role, busybody backroom broker Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge. The actress was busy planning her summer escape when the call came from producer Jeffrey Richards.

"Just as I was leaving California," she said, "and planning to go up to Maine, where I go MIA like I do every year, Jeffrey called me and asked me if I would go in for Angela Lansbury. When they say, 'Do you want to go in for Angela?,' it's presumptuous to even look too closely into Angela's shoes, much less stick one's own hooves into them. But I said, 'Of course.'"

Ashley in The Best Man.
Photo by Joan Marcus

When she got to the dressing room, she found a message. "I think it was from Elaine Stritch to Angela, and it said, 'God bless longevity and short parts.'"

Elizabeth Ashley knew Gore Vidal — who died on July 31 — before she knew The Best Man, and she cherished his unguarded tongue. "Gore was one of my heroes, because he was one of the great, great heretics, and I believe heretics are as essential to civilization as air, food, water and shelter," she said. "Without heretics, you only have the status quo. So no truth ever gets spoken to Stupid, as the great Aaron Sorkin has said. Bad guys are always going to win, because that's the order, but you do have a moral obligation to put sugar in their gas tank every chance you get."

When Richards hired Ashley to play the same part in the same play that she did a dozen years ago, there was no danger that the actress would repeat herself. "I have no memory of what I did in 2000," she explained. And so this year's Sue-Ellen Gamadge is nothing like 2000's Sue-Ellen Gamadge. In fact, it's most likely better.

"This production is far and away the best production there's ever been of this play," said Ashley. "The problem of the play is it's a beast to structurally mount in terms of the visual. It's hard to make it visually interesting and clear where people are, and Michael Wilson is the only director who has ever solved that aspect of the play."

Ashley (right) with Hallie Foote in Dividing the Estate.
photo by Joan Marcus

Ashley has worked with Wilson many times, both at Hartford Stage, where Wilson was artistic director from 1998 to 2011, and in New York, where they worked together on Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate and now the Vidal play. The two met in the early 1990s, when Ashley was filming the television series "Evening Shade" and Wilson was an associate director at the Alley Theatre in Houston.

"I kept getting flowers from some kid I didn't know from the Alley who wanted me to do some play," she recalled. "The theatre breaks your heart over and over and over again, and I think I'd been through about my fifth heart in the theatre. I didn't want to hear about plays or the Alley at that time. But the flowers kept coming. And my assistant said, 'He's so nice and he's Southern.' I said, 'All right, I'll give him five minutes after taping.' He brought a bottle of tequila and we were there until four o'clock in the morning." She couldn't do the play Wilson wanted her to do, but she went to see his production of Angels in America. "My back belongs in the Smithsonian. It takes a lot for me to go to the theatre to sit in an uncomfortable chair, not knowing what I'm going to see, where you can't smoke or drink or anything civilized." But the effort was rewarded with a production that Ashley thinks is the best that Kushner's play has ever received, as well as a professional relationship that has yet to run its course.

Elizabeth Ashley
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/Playbill

Ashley was born in Ocala, FL, and grew up not far from the Alley, in Baton Rouge. The way she tells it, she was a wild cat from the get-go. "If you grow up in Baton Rouge, it's like most capital cities. It's got too many statues, and a chip on its shoulder because it's not New Orleans. The first thing you learn, by 11, is to steal a car, hit the Airline Highway, and see how fast you can make it to the corner of Dumaine and Dauphine Streets. I could do it in 47 minutes flat."

Asked if she really stole cars, Ashley softened the tale a bit. But only a bit. "You knew where somebody's parents left the keys. Or you knew the guys at the country club, and could swipe the keys from the board when they hung." Once she and her friends hit New Orleans, they would head for the road houses in Algiers. They were "armpits, but with great music."

The music wasn't bad back at home either. "You've got to understand the three local bands when I was growing up were Fats Domino, Bo Diddley and Little Richard. And for an extra hundred dollars, you could get Ray Charles to come over from Mississippi. They played at high school dances." Ashley attended a semi-private high school on the LSU campus, directly across from the university's fraternity row. "You either had to be extremely wealthy or well-connected or the son or daughter of some professor at LSU. My mother ran the agriculture department at LSU for 35 years. The same bands that played at the fraternities played at our high school parties. We just wanted our music on the one and the three. You went out and smoked weed with the band during the break."

Still, young Elizabeth didn't consider herself particularly fortunate in her surroundings or circumstances. "Nobody thinks their childhood is great when they're living it except the truly boring or truly isolated," she observed. "If you've got curiosity, you take what's around you for granted and you go to see what's elsewhere."

And so she headed to New York, where she didn't have to wait long before becoming the toast of the town. In 1962, at the age of 22, she won a Tony Award for her performance in the Phoebe Ephron & and Henry Ephron comedy Take Her, She's Mine. Nora Ephron, the playwright's daughter, and about Elizabeth's age, used to hang around the theatre.

Michael Learned and Elizabeth Ashley in the 2000 revival of The Best Man.
photo by Peter Cunningham

"Nora was in college. And she used to tell me that I was playing her, which in some sense I was. But the success of that show was due to two people and two people alone, and that was George Abbott and Art Carney. Carney wanted to do a play with Abbott. The original story was like 'A Date With Judy.' But George Abbott saw it as the story of a father who had an extremely peculiar daughter. So the script got rewritten constantly out of town to make it a play about a father and his daughter and the sort of war that goes on. But Art Carney made it work."

"Art started in vaudeville," continued Ashley. "When I was in Take Her, She's Mine, all the old comics would come to Art's dressing room and hang out. They taught me about triple-takes and double-takes and all this old stuff. It was great. I heard several versions of 'The Aristocrats' [joke] before they ever made the movie about it. Art would have guys in his dressing room who would play spoons. He was one of their own."

In 1963, her fame was solidified when she starred opposite Robert Redford as two mismatched newlyweds in Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park. Another Tony nomination followed. Around this time, Sardi's offered to do Ashley's caricature—as much a sought-after honor then as it is now. Ashley declined.

"I didn't have time," she protested. "It was when I was in Barefoot in the Park or something. This was a thousand years ago. It wasn't that I refused. I just wasn't available." When a reporter mentions that he can't think of another example of an performer being too busy to sit for a Sardi's caricature, Ashley widened her eyes behind the dark lenses, and retorted, "What? You never heard of any actor who wasn't begging on her hands and knees for any little slice of approval from the theatre establishment?" (She eventually did receive a caricature, which hangs somewhere in the restaurant.)

Elizabeth Ashley
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/Playbill

Since that heady start, Ashley's career has proceeded in fits and starts. She triumphed again a decade later in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Almost another decade went by before Agnes of God added another bold-faced credit to her resume. Things might perhaps have proceeded somewhat more smoothly had Ashley not repeatedly retired from the stage. "I've retired twice for years at a time," she said. "But when I'm not retired, I've tended to always work."

But even if she hadn't chosen to, say, make mid-career decisions like buying a boat and sailing around the world ("The only reason I came back for Agnes of God is I had run out of money"), it doesn't necessarily mean that she would have become a movie star, or racked up several more Tony nominations. Ashley has never cared much for the business or political sides of the acting world. She did her time in L.A. and, "in the immortal words of Chuck Berry, I was gone like a cool breeze."

"You have to understand, I was a tabloid queen before their were tabloids," she explained. "I was bathed in fire. I've never had a personal press agent in all my years in show business. I know that, in the show racket, if you buy in to even this much of that aspect of it, you eat the bear, or the bear eats you. I just had to escape the bear. I like the work. And quite often I like the people. I don't have any skills at networking or self-promotion."

Ashley in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Lately, the material she's been working with is top notch. Her current hot streak of employment has included not only the Vidal and Foote gigs, but also roles in plays by Tracy Letts and Edward Albee. She's come to be regarded as a treasured theatrical veteran, occupying a place not far from her colleagues Lansbury and Stritch. A nice recurring part in the David Simon HBO series "Treme" hasn't hurt her visibility. "I had to get this old before I was not considered the bad seed of the American theatre," she concluded.

As good as things are going now, she'd retire again tomorrow, and write the sequel to her best-selling 1980 memoir. "I'm a loner, and I always have been. I know people find that odd. I like people, but I like people best when I'm working with them. But I don't have chit and chat, as it perfectly obvious.

"I go out as little as possible. I feel like the United Fund. I gave. I was a night-stalking savage from one end of the planet to the other for about five decades. I have retired to the hall of fame with a plaque. I'm happiest in my bed, with my dog, my Kindle, my laptop, a remote control and a stack of books, and a telephone where I punch in a number, tell them what I want to eat, they bring it to my door, I give them money, I take it to my bed, share it with my dog, and I'm blessed."