Broadway Columnist Radie Harris Dead at 96

News   Broadway Columnist Radie Harris Dead at 96
Radie Harris, one of the last of the old-style showbiz columnists of the kind typified by Walter Winchell, died Feb. 23 at a hospital in Englewood, NJ. She was 96.

Radie Harris, one of the last of the old-style showbiz columnists of the kind typified by Walter Winchell, died Feb. 23 at a hospital in Englewood, NJ. She was 96.

Harris wrote the "Broadway Ballyhoo" column in The Hollywood Reporter for nearly 50 years, beginning in 1940. She also frequently broadcast Broadway news over CBS radio, often directly from Sardi's restaurant, according to Reuters.

Ms. Harris counted among her steadfast friends such actors as Simon Jones, Sally Ann Howes, Millicent Martin, Angela Lansbury, Vivien Leigh, Gregory Peck, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Rosemary Harris. Often, many of these would join her at the Actors' Fund Home in Englewood, where Ms. Harris spent her final years, to celebrate her birthday with balloons and smoked salmon. Many of her closest colleagues were from the English acting community. Mr. Jones commented that the columnist was a great Anglophile who spent much time in London, typically staying at the Dorchester. When in New York City, she would haunt The Russian Tea Room, where she had a reserved table at all times.

According to Rosemary Harris and Simon Jones, Ms. Harris' journalistic discretion allowed her to hold on to her theatrical friends. "There was Hedda [Hopper] and Louella [Parsons] and Radie," said Harris. "But Radie was always the kind one." She would often sit on a scoop if someone specifically requested it. For instance, said Mr. Jones, she knew of the affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton long before anyone else but never reported a word. "It was actions of that sort that kept her very popular for so long," he said.

Rosemary Harris came to know Radie because of their shared last name. While performing The Seven Year Itch in London, the actress received a phone call. "Is that you Radie?," said the voice. "I beg your pardon," answered Rosemary. The speaker continued to ask for Radie, prompting the confused performer to ask who was speaking. "This is Douglas Fairbanks," came the answer. "Well, I'm Puss 'n' Boots," replied Ms. Harris. As it turned out, Mr. Fairbanks had been given the wrong phone number from a secretary's rolodex. Soon after, Radie and Rosemary met at a party. They began referring to themselves as "The Harris Sisters." Rosemary and Radie remained friends well past the latter's retirement from the Hollywood Reporter in 1988. One particularly memorable birthday party was held at the Fifth Avenue apartment of The American Theatre Wing's Isabelle Stevenson. Ms. Harris was in a wheelchair by that time, and when the fete was over, it was discovered that the contraption couldn't be folded into a cab. Seeing no other option, Rosemary Harris and Simon Jones ended up pushed Ms. Harris though the cold autumn air, all the way down Fifth Avenue to the writer's 57th Street home.

Not everyone was enamored of the powerful columnist, who was often characterized as temperamental and a bit of a prima donna. A famous incident grew out of a feud between Ms. Harris and English actress Coral Browne. The reporter had one wooden leg below the knee, the result of a horseback riding accident suffered when she was 13. One night in the 1950s — according to the memoir of Victoria Price, the daughter of Browne's one-time husband, Vincent Price — Browne strode into a London restaurant and said, in a loud voice, "Oh look, there's Radie Harris, with all of London at her foot." Ms. Harris sued Browne for libel and won.

Radie Harris was born in Boston on Oct. 24, 1905. She never married but let it be known that the love of her life had been Broadway producer, Vincent Freedley. The Actors' Fund home has a Vincent Freedley room, a fact that always pleased her.

She published a memoir in 1975, titled "Radie's World." Ms. Harris left The Hollywood Reporter without a pension and was often strapped for cash in her golden years. Friends were known to help out with her expenses from time to time. Throughout, she held on to her expensive tastes, suggesting, for example, to someone who was thinking of buying her a watch, that Cartier's was a good place to find one. She also continued to wear her white ermine fur coat until the last.

Though no longer covering the Broadway scene, Ms. Harris would still attend the theatre. The last show she saw was Noel Coward's Waiting in the Wings, the cast of which included her friends Rosemary Harris, Lauren Bacall, Barnard Hughes and Simon Jones. Afterwards, they all visited with her, Bacall called her "Rudey," using the nickname Humphrey Bogart gave her.

Ms. Harris was cremated. In accordance with her request, her ashes will be placed under a tree in the back yard of Millicent Martin's home.

—By Robert Simonson

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