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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.

June 18, 1995|Charles Champlin | Charles Champlin is a regular contributor to Calendar.

EASTON, Conn. — 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.

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