Column: At 93, Eva Marie Saint will present an Oscar and remember the man who cheered her own win 63 years ago
The sliding door is open, palms swaying on a cool winter afternoon in Westwood, just a few days out from the 90th Academy Awards show. Eva Marie Saint will be an Oscar presenter, but at the moment she’s telling me about the 27th edition, back in 1955.
She was nine months pregnant, and her husband, Jeffrey Hayden, was worried about her standing up too fast if she won the supporting actress Oscar for her role in “On the Waterfront.”
Frank Sinatra took the envelope and delivered the news.
“The winner is Eva Marie Saint.”
In the black-and-white video of that career-defining moment, the dark-haired Hayden applauds and beams as his wife makes her way to the stage with an angelic smile.
“I may have the baby right here,” Saint said when she accepted the Oscar.
Time moves as quickly as a thief. Saint is now 93, and in the filtered light of her living room, there’s still a golden radiance about her after a decorated career in film, TV and theater. Her leading men were Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Richard Burton and other legends.
But only one man had her heart, and together they beat the Hollywood breakup odds, committed to each other through 65 years of marriage.
“It comes in waves,” Saint says of the bittersweet memories that break over her unexpectedly, ever since her husband died, at the age of 90, a little more than a year ago.
I never knew them well, but Saint and Hayden read the paper every morning and sent emails now and then. Saint once interviewed me at an author event, Hayden and my wife were both University of North Carolina alums, and I wrote about the couple performing the play “Love Letters” to raise money for epilepsy research when a family member was diagnosed with the disease.
Neither Saint nor Hayden ever looked their age, and they kept on working, if only at a slower pace — Hayden was a director of film, television and stage. It was hard for either of them to accept that death could be on the next page, even after Hayden was diagnosed with cancer and spent a year in treatment.
That’s not uncommon, of course. Rich or poor, famous or unknown, we’re united by the inevitability of our own demise, and by the struggle to handle loss. Saint says she didn’t know that’s what I wanted to talk to her about, and she seems to brighten at the thought.
“You have to see this,” she says, rising from the couch to retrieve something.
It’s her pocket-size datebook from 1949, the year Hayden first spotted her in the subway corridors under Rockefeller Center. She was wearing her purple corduroy coat — “I loved that coat” — and Hayden fell under her spell, struck by the cascading blond hair and the way she carried herself. He knew her name even before he approached, because it was on the cover of the modeling book she carried.
Hayden asked her to coffee. Saint told him she didn’t drink the stuff.
But she gave in when he asked her to lunch, where she encouraged him to leave radio and get into television, if that’s what he really wanted. He urged her to stop wasting time as an understudy and bravely go after a career as an actress, if that was her dream.
They understood each other, she says, from the beginning.
And now she opens the datebook.
“Here’s Feb. 20, 1949,” Saint says, showing me what she wrote in her datebook on that day.
“Fun with Jeff.”
On another day, the handwriting was his.
“Fun (sometimes hectic, but fun).”
Handwriting is so personal, Saint says, as opposed to words composed on a computer. When she looks at his scrawls, he’s present.
“Here’s my favorite,” Saint says, turning to June 29.
The handwriting is Hayden’s again.
“Jeff’s here to stay,” he wrote.
“And boy did he,” says Saint.
They clashed occasionally in the early going, but their friends – actors Eli Wallach and his wife, Anne Jackson – seemed to have known they were right for each other. They would invite Saint to dinner, and she’d arrive to find that they’d invited Hayden, too.
“He was the most interesting young man I’d ever met,” Saint says of her beau, who was well-versed in music, theater and art.
They dated for three years, then married. She gave birth to the son she was pregnant with when she won the Oscar, then came a daughter, and years later, four grandchildren joined the family.
The years go faster as you age. It’s one of life’s cruel tricks. As you slow down, time accelerates.
One day, when they both knew what was coming, Saint and Hayden sat together on a bench in the foyer of their home. They had not talked about death, but Hayden alluded to it that day.
Days later, on a Monday, he told Saint:
“I’m going to die on Saturday.”
Sure enough, she says, he died on Saturday.
In the last days, family members took turns being with him. Saint says she struggled to know what to say, and her daughter Laurette, a therapist, offered a thought.
“Tell him you’re going to be OK,” she said.
And she is.
A hospice therapist helped. Books on grief helped. Being around family always helps. And knowing she had all that anyone can hope for — an enduring love — helps, too.
But grief takes its time, and there are days when nothing fills the void or explains the mystery of existence.
“The hardest thing is eating alone,” says Saint with a nod to the table where she and her husband shared their meals. “I’ve lost 11 pounds and I’m trying to put some back.”
She holds up Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking,” about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter. Saint and Hayden knew the family, and the book has helped.
“When it happens to you, you’re the only person who’s ever lost anyone,” Saint says. “You feel such a state of sorrow and sadness and loss. I didn’t have to know [Didion] to be moved by this. It’s really concrete about what people go through...This is a beautiful book about how she survived.”
Saint calls me to the window and points out a flower that has bloomed, from a wild seed, in the soil of a potted palm. It’s an impatiens, Jeff’s favorite flower.
She’s always been fascinated by cloud formations, she says, and how they can resemble people. She sits near the window some days and waits to see her husband’s image float by.
She’s walking in the park again, with a friend who holds her hand because the footing is uneven, and she’s socializing a bit.
“I could get back into living,” she says, and maybe even work again.
Saint tells me she’s sworn to secrecy about which category is hers at the Academy Awards. But she’s looking forward to giving away an Oscar, she says, 63 years after she and her husband took one home.
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