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

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21 Aug 2012

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.)


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