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A Beloved Comedienne Returns

October 13, 1986|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

"Nanny didn't yell. She undercut, and drove Mama wild. She had a way of getting to the underbelly with a subtle knife. When Mama was living in Hollywood, and didn't want us to come out from San Antonio, Nanny just said, 'You don't want Carol? . . . ' "

Of her father, Burnett said, "He really tried. Attitudes have changed about alcohol. Now it's recognized as a disease. You can go to a clinic. If you drank then, it was your fault.

"If Mama and Nanny and Daddy had been alive today, things would've been different. I don't think Mama would've been embarrassed and ashamed over Chrissie (Burnett's illegitimate half-sister), and I don't think Nanny would say, 'You have to get a man to make it.' In those days, men had all the power, the money. When her father went broke, they lost everything. I asked her about all her marriages, 'Didn't you love any of 'em?' She said, 'No. What for?' "

There was a touch of sotto voce in Burnett's impersonation of her grandmother, which contrasted with her even demeanor. Burnett is a personable, plain-speaking woman who doesn't, as a rule, indulge in "takes" or ironic asides. She's like a bright unaffected hostess gifted at keeping a conversation percolating along. Her gaze is direct; her smile is easy and generous.

"It wasn't until I got to UCLA that I began to gain any sense of myself," she said. "I had been searching for something to be good at besides being Goody Two-Shoes. I started to become popular as a performer--I had never been No. 1 in anyone's eyes except Nanny's--but at the time I didn't realize I sought validation through other people. I was very naive. When later I went to New York and met Eddie Foy and asked for career advice, I told him I needed a feature role--I knew I wasn't good enough for the chorus. Nobody should say a thing like that. But how was I to know?"

Burnett made it to New York through the generosity of a La Jolla businessman who gave her and her then-husband Don Saroyan $1,000 apiece with the proviso that they pay it back in five years and help out other needy people when they could--which Burnett has done with scholarship programs at UCLA and the University of Hawaii.

She knew lean times for a while, but they didn't last long. She whipped up a successful variety show at the Rehearsal Club, a theatrical hotel for women. She made a splash with a nightclub number called "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles," and shortly after was a hit as a replacement on TV's "The Garry Moore Show," where her career took off.

"There's always been something to push me up and out," she said. "In a scene I recall for the book--a tiny scene that doesn't mean anything to anybody--I remember Mama, Nanny, Chrissie and me together. Nanny and Mama were at it. I was doing watercolors. I found me, at 52, touching the shoulder of Carol, at 14, saying, 'It's all right,' and I wondered if at 14 I really felt that touch in some kind of reversal of time. I know it sounds like 'Twilight Zone,' but I wonder, 'Did the me from the future touch me then? Is there something in me that knows in advance how things are going to turn out?' I never doubted I could survive. I still don't."

She rose to show off her new word processor, which she bought the same day she bought her house. "It wasn't as hard to learn to use it as I thought," she said. "I'm not a rocket scientist but the IQ fairy did pay me a visit."

She showed her bedroom, where she writes, and when she picked up the dolls she's had since childhood, her manner quickened in a fresh, girlish eagerness.

"You have to understand in life that things change," she said a moment later. "My feeling about show business, or anything, is to try not to go back. Love it for what it is and accept it for what it was. I hope they won't be mad at me for writing this book--well, Nanny will be mad because I told her age." Her voice broke in a ripple of grief. "It's been a great lesson for me."

Asked if any of her conviction had been gained through psychotherapy, she replied, "No. I talk a good game. Most performers do. There's a difference between what's in my head and what's in my heart."

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