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Focus : Georgia on Her Mind : Jane Alexander's Fascination With Artist O'Keeffe Leads to PBS' 'Playhouse'

July 14, 1991|SUSAN KING | Times Staff Writer

Jane Alexander, one of the most accomplished actresses of this generation, has won a Tony, an Emmy and received four Oscar nominations. Her husband, Edwin Sherin, is an award-winning theater and film director. The two fell in love 23 years ago when he directed her to a Tony in "The Great White Hope."

Georgia O'Keeffe, who died in 1986, was one of the most accomplished artists of this century. Her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, was a groundbreaking photographer of the early 1900s. And he was O'Keeffe's mentor and most ardent supporter for much of their 30-year relationship.

On this week's "American Playhouse," Sherin directs Alexander (and Christopher Plummer) in "A Marriage: Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz," which explores the artists' stormy and passionate times.

The parallels are no coincidence.

"Why did you think I wanted to do a story on O'Keeffe and Stieglitz?" Alexander said, laughing. "I mean the truth is my husband is a brilliant director and a very commanding presence. Our relationship has been extremely passionate. We like to be together. But he does tend, when he walks into a room, to take up most of the space.

"When we were making the film, more than one person said to me, 'This is the same story.' I said, 'Yes, but if you notice I am letting him run the whole show.' "

"Working with Jane is easy," Sherin said. "Jane and I met and fell in love when we were both professionally involved. I had a strong estimate of her as an actress and she with me as a director."

It's when they're not working together that times are difficult for the couple. "What is hard are the separations," he said. "The marriage has held together out of a very strong will. Otherwise, it really could have splintered long ago. We love each other and respect each other and we have to make accommodations."

Both Alexander and Sherin were established in their professions when they married. That wasn't the case with O'Keeffe and Stieglitz. When they fell in love in 1916, he was 24 years her senior, married and a very successful still-photographer. A champion of contemporary artists, he found peace and comfort going to the Lake George resort in Upstate New York every summer, surrounded by his family.

The Wisconsin-born O'Keeffe made her living as a teacher and spent her free time creating her bold, evocative paintings. A private person who never felt comfortable living with Stieglitz in New York City or Lake George, O'Keeffe's dream was to live and work in solace in New Mexico.

"They were the Ike and Tina Turner of the artistic community," said Julian Barry ("Lenny"), who wrote the screenplay. "What I loved about these two people was that they were such opposites. She was of the next generation in terms of how she demanded her own freedom and here is a guy who was way ahead of his time as an artist. But as a human being, he was from the last century, no question about it."

Alexander, a feminist and political activist, became obsessed with O'Keeffe in the early 1970s, the decade she refers to as the "feminist decade."

"Georgia O'Keeffe was an old woman then," Alexander said. "Her paintings were getting a great deal of attention. She lived alone. (Stieglitz died in 1946.) She was a private person and this kind of reclusive myth grew up about her. She became someone who was larger than life in terms of a woman going out on her own."

And Alexander was determined to meet her. She finally got the opportunity in 1980 when O'Keeffe was 93. During a visit to Santa Fe, Alexander rang Juan Hamilton, "the young man who came into her life when she was about 83. He was the keeper of the gate, not, as the tabloids say, her lover."

Alexander requested an audience with O'Keeffe, but Hamilton told her it was impossible. O'Keeffe, he said, was not seeing anyone. Finally, "the day I was to leave Santa Fe, he called at 8 in the morning and said, 'Be here at 3 p.m. You have one hour.' "

That one hour turned into an entire afternoon. "It was really wonderful," Alexander said. "I knew I would get along with her. But the woman I met was not the woman of myth or legend. The woman I met giggled a lot. She had this girlishness about her that you could never read about because you couldn't translate it into words."

After their meeting, they exchanged letters. "I wasn't interested in doing a film about O'Keeffe at that time," Alexander said. "I knew she was a private person and she wouldn't want anything done about her life. I didn't even consider it until she was dead."

After O'Keeffe's death, Alexander attempted to get a feature made about her.

"It was to be a small-budget film," Sherin said. "But the budget wasn't small enough. No one would underwrite a production which cost $3 million about these two people regardless of how passionate Jane was in her feelings."

But Lindsay Law, the executive producer of "American Playhouse," thought it would be right for the series.

"American Playhouse: A Marriage: Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz" airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Channel 28 and Friday at 9 p.m. on Channel 15.

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