Life After Jessie : For 52 years, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy shared the love story of the century. Her death last year devastated him, but his love lives on.

Charles Champlin is a regular contributor to Calendar.

The East was made for spring, and it is a supremely glorious spring day in Connecticut, almost cloudless, briskly breezy. The four dogwood trees along the drive--pink, white, pink, white--are in bud. In a week, Hume Cronyn says, taking a visitor for a stroll around the grounds, "they'll be magnificent."

Forsythia are blooming along a stone wall behind the house, a two-story Dutch Colonial, and there are clusters of daffodils here and there. Workers are mulching the flower beds.

"They tell me we have 1,700 square feet of beds," Cronyn says, sounding more intimidated than proud. "They were Jessie's doing. She loved gardening."

Cronyn's late wife, Jessica Tandy, who died in the house in September at age 85 after a five-year battle with ovarian cancer, is an almost palpable presence, the gardens just one manifestation of her life's enthusiasms. There is hardly a room in the house without memorabilia of the couple's extraordinary half-century-plus careers: production stills, awards, play posters ("The Little Blue Light" with a top of $3, cheap seats 90 cents), photographs of famous friends, sketches of Jessie, a beauty at every age.

They were married in September, 1942, after a two-year courtship. She had been married for eight years to British actor Jack Hawkins, by whom she had a daughter, Susan. Cronyn had had a brief early marriage to an actress. Then, as it will, destiny struck.

"Alex Knox and I are both from London, Ontario," says Cronyn, "and I went back to New York to see him in a play called 'Jupiter Laughed,' which Jessie was in. I'd seen her onstage once before, with Barry Fitzgerald and George Coulouris in an Irish play called 'The White Steed.' I won't say it was love at the first sight of her onstage, but I certainly was impressed.

"Then, as now, I was a pipe man, and at the intermission I was standing in front of the Biltmore smoking, when I saw the leading lady of the play, Jessie, run down the alley, leap into a waiting cab and disappear. 'What the devil is going on?' I asked myself. 'She wasn't killed in the first act.'

"It turned out that Jessie was staying at the Algonquin with Susan. The owner of the hotel had arranged for someone to look after her while Jessie was at the theater. So she rushed off to the hotel and had the cab wait while she checked that Susan was OK, then dashed back to the theater. She wasn't onstage at the top of the second act, so it worked out fine."

Several people have claimed credit for introducing Cronyn to his wife-to-be, including the Biltmore's stage manager.

"I'm not sure I can say who it was," Cronyn says. "And it surely doesn't matter." They met, which does.

Of the hard months since her death, Cronyn says simply: "I've had a bad time, which we won't dwell on. We were married and we worked together for 52 years, and suddenly with her gone I was a quadriplegic. Slowly I'm crawling back."

One comfort is family. Stepdaughter Susan, who delighted Cronyn by asking to take his name when she was 12, is married to an engineer, John Tettemer, and lives in Newport Beach. They have four children and four grandchildren. The Cronyns had two children together: Son Chris, born in 1943, is a unit production manager in films, with Montana as a home base; daughter Tandy, born in 1945, has been appearing in Shaw's "Arms and the Man" at the Hartford Stage and living with her father. "It's lovely for me to have her here."

The comforting sense of family has been critical for Cronyn, 83, who lost an eye to cancer in 1962. He also has an incipient cataract in the remaining eye, which has slowed his reading.

"I try to read everything that's sent me--play scripts, movie scripts--but I've had to make a rule. If the author hasn't grabbed me by Page 25, the piece goes back with a note of apology."

Pipe in mouth, Cronyn recently twisted it to align stem and bowl, and broke a front tooth, which necessitated recent root canal work and gum surgery. "And that's what I didn't need just now," he says with a what-next laugh. You don't wonder that Cronyn is eager to get back to work.

"I chose not to work during the period when Jessie was at her worst," he says, "because it meant leaving her. Then after she'd gone, all the wind went out of me, so I haven't worked altogether for about 18 months."

He has a few projects in view. The first, scheduled for September, is a film of Scott McPherson's play "Marvin's Room," in which he will star for director Jerry Zaks with Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio.

"Although I can't swear to this, I believe that Marvin, who's an old man who's dying--I'm very big on dying--was never seen onstage; he was behind a scrim. But in the film he's in six or seven scenes, although he really doesn't speak."

Cronyn is also discussing joining Daniel Day-Lewis in the Nicholas Hytner film of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," for which Miller has written the screenplay.

In August, Cronyn will go to East Africa for three weeks to finish a documentary composed of some extraordinary footage by cinematographer Simon Trevor, whom Cronyn and Tandy hired to accompany them on a safari in 1966.

"I've had a number of offers from people who said, 'We want to buy your stuff on lions' or 'We want to buy your stuff on wild dogs or flamingos,' because I had about 7,000 feet of film. But I didn't want to sell it piecemeal, and I couldn't get anybody else to do the whole thing, so I'm doing it."

Cronyn and Tandy bought the Easton house in 1984, the seventh in a succession of homes they owned, including one in Brentwood and another on a small island in the Caribbean.

Cronyn works in a marvelously sunny book-lined study in what had been an attic. Adjoining the office is a kind of sitting room, decorated with the two National Medals of Art presented to the couple by the President and Hillary Rodham Clinton last year.

"This is what Jessie used to refer to as the Sulking Room," Cronyn says. "The idea was that when one of us couldn't stand the other for one minute more, we could go in here and sulk. And I must say that I never remember it happening once, not ever, never."

Cronyn has had a second career as a writer. Having come to Hollywood initially to appear in Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" with Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright in 1943, he later wrote treatments for the Hitchcock films "Rope" and "Under Capricorn."

More recently he has written four scripts with Susan Cooper. One, an adaptation of Anne Tyler's "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," was written 10 years ago but has just been bought by ABC for a TV movie. "Now we have to do what I hate to do, which is figure out cuts. I think it's the best thing we've done."

At Cooper's urging, he wrote a delightful autobiography, "A Terrible Liar," published in 1991. "She kept saying, 'Write it down, write it down,' because I get going on anecdotage. But, oh, it was hard work." The liar of the title, he says, is memory itself, not a characterization of the author. The memoir takes the Cronyns through 1966, with fascinating insights on the craft of acting.

It would seem an interesting idea to extend the memoir beyond 1966; there were adventures and triumphs yet to come.

"I think about it quite a lot," Cronyn says. Not least, of course, it would be a chronicle of a unique marriage. "That's what I would find most difficult. And I don't want to write, 'And then I played . . . and then I played . . . and then I played . . . ' or 'And then I slept with. . . .' " He laughs. "Just not my style."

As a speaker recently at the commencement exercises of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, Cronyn was asked what one maxim he would pass along to the graduates.

"I used that little poem of Christopher Logue's," he said, reciting it:

Come to the edge.

It's too high [said in a thin, timid voice]

Come to the edge [more emphatic now]

We might fall [a timid voice again].

COME TO THE EDGE! [roaring]

And he pushed them . . .

And they flew!

"I meant also to tell them about Orson [Welles]. I was lunching at Sardi's one day in the late '30s and Orson came over to say hello. I'd just seen his 'Julius Caesar.' He'd given it a modern dress, and it was the only time I'd really seen that work. It was a comment on fascism and very stirring.

"I said, 'Orson, what I admire about the production is your sheer courage.' He said, 'Courage?' Cronyn demonstrates how Welles took a giant step forward, as if off a cliff into space, and said again, 'Courage?' That's it , that's going to the edge, because you have to, to be good."

Cronyn and Tandy carried forward a tradition that is now a casualty of changing times: the theatrical tour.

"We played 'The Gin Game' about 800 times [starting in 1978]," he says. "We did 'The Fourposter' 600 times [1951]. We did Albee's 'A Delicate Balance' I think 400 times [1966] and 'Noel Coward in Two Keys' 400 times [1974]. In the days when we were most active, we had the example of Helen Hayes and Alfred [Lunt] and Lynn [Fontanne]. I don't think I can make it sound significant or meaningful, but it was the thing one did, if you were lucky enough to have a success."

"The Gin Game" played very successfully even in the Soviet Union in 1979, with a simultaneous translation on earphones.

"It took some adjusting," Cronyn recalls, "because there was always a lag between the joke and the laugh, and you couldn't slow the whole play down to wait for what you knew was coming. But it produced one of the proudest notices we ever got. The director of the Moscow Art Theatre said, 'It takes a couple of actors from America to come and show us what Stanislavsky was writing about.' I was thrilled because as a young actor I devoured every word Stanislavsky wrote.

"The play seemed a revelation to the Russians. It had no message in capital letters, and it was familial. What was foreign to them was that the old people should have ended up in a home. It was as if you'd never seen a soap opera and suddenly you were exposed to one, and it was a very good one."

Cronyn says that just before his Hollywood days began he decided to try his hand at producing plays:

"Audrey Wood, Tennessee Williams' agent, was a friend of mine. I said, 'I'm looking for something to produce, and if I find the right thing, I think I can find the money.'

"She went into a back office and brought out a thin blue folder. She said: 'This isn't a play, it's three one-act plays by somebody you never heard of named Tennessee Williams. He's got serious eye trouble and he's bicycling around the South and I expect a telegram any day saying he's been killed. He needs money.'

"I read the plays and they were magical, and I took an option on them. I only needed $11,000 for a Broadway production. Can you imagine that? And I couldn't raise the $11,000. 'Tennessee who? That's nobody's name. One-acts? Forget it.' I went back and told Audrey: 'Renew the option, and I'll throw in six more one-acts he's written.' I took them but never got them on. Eventually they were published as a book."

After they settled in Hollywood, the Cronyns were involved with the Actors Lab Theatre on Sunset, largely populated by New York refugees from the defunct Group Theatre.

"I got them to do three of the [Williams] plays; Jessie did 'Portrait of a Madonna,' " Cronyn says. "I remember Chaplin coming backstage one night. Irene Selznick, who produced 'Streetcar,' came to see it, and so did Elia Kazan, who directed 'Streetcar.' And that's how Jessie became Blanche DuBois [on Broadway]."

Cronyn has stacks of books and scripts in his office, and despite eye problems he has read, for sheer pleasure, all 17 of Patrick O'Brian's novels about the British navy in the Napoleonic Wars not once but twice. He sent O'Brian a fan letter and a gift of a whalebone scrimshaw with a sea battle carved upon it.

The other reading is not so much for work, although it is, for the solace and diversion of work during the rebuilding of life after Jessie.

Cronyn says he believes in meditation and prayer, "but I don't care whether I go to a Catholic church or a synagogue or a Buddhist sanctuary or out in the garden or on a nice long walk beside the river. You make your own temples."

Having lost the appetite and the push for work during Tandy's last hard months, Cronyn on this invigorating spring afternoon seems ready to step back into the flow: to realize that life, inevitably, goes on.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°