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A Role She Tried to Refuse

Zoe Caldwell had to be coaxed into writing a memoir on the early lessons that shaped her acting.

January 06, 2002|IRENE LACHER

NEW YORK — None of "my men," as Zoe Caldwell calls her family, has buttons on anything he wears. That's because one of the world's great stage actresses can't sew them on. Numbers are a problem for Caldwell too. They simply don't add up.

"I just disregard maths. I don't take into consideration numbers, and that has been a good way to get rid of it," crows the Australian-born actress.

So when a prominent New York book editor called and asked if she would write a memoir, Caldwell politely declined, saying her learning disability would make that quite impossible. "I don't even write letters," she told him, "but thank you for asking me."

Bob Weil, W.W. Norton's executive editor, wasn't so easily dissuaded. What he had in mind was not your monthly book club, "womb to tomb" memoir. He had proposed Caldwell as a candidate for last year's Norton Lectures, a prestigious, 3-year-old collaboration between the publishing house and the New York Public Library. The first two lectures were given by Random House editor and "Book Business" author Jason Epstein and Yale European history professor emeritus Peter Gay, who also oversees the series. And now the Norton Lectures powers that be had set their sights on Caldwell.

"It was my idea," Weil says. "I think she's our preeminent stage actress. And I felt that she had a story to tell that could inspire and influence people. I said, 'Either it will come out of you in a torrent and you'll realize you can do it, or you'll understand you can't.'"

She could and she did. Caldwell, 68, just disregarded her mild dyslexia and problems with certain motor skills, and wrote her early life story by longhand. Last fall, she delivered the lectures, which Norton recently published in a pocket-size volume titled "I Will Be Cleopatra: An Actress's Journey."

London critic Benedict Nightingale applauded her voyage in the New York Times, comparing Caldwell's writing to her acting, which he calls "hugely versatile yet always lucid." That sentiment is echoed on the back cover by other aristocrats of the theater, such as Arthur Miller and Terrence McNally, who writes that the memoir is "exactly like her acting: clean, direct and magnificent." McNally wrote the role of Maria Callas in "Master Class" for Caldwell, who won a Tony, her fourth, for her acclaimed performance after creating the character at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1995.

That production went on to New York, and during that time, Caldwell bonded with soprano Audra McDonald, whom she calls "our Sophie," referring to her role as one of Callas' students in "Master Class." "She was extraordinary," Caldwell says. "They were all extraordinary. I didn't go on to London because they weren't going on to London, and I said, 'I'm not going without them.' I'm no fool. They made it so easy.

"Well, Audra and I became like...." She pauses, searching for the right word. "She's got a terrific mum, a perfectly good mum of her own, so we didn't become mother and daughter, but we sure became very close. And she has a little girl called Zoe. Zo, she calls her."

That's what Caldwell's intimates call her. It rhymes with "dough" although, on paper, it's spelled Zoe. Her family came up with the nickname to distinguish her from her mother, also named Zoe (pronounced Zo-ee). "[Zo] always seemed like a cozy name, and if anyone said Zo-ee, I was, ohhh what have I done now?"

For Caldwell, Callas was a landmark role, but Cleopatra was a watershed. She says that when she played Shakespeare's heroine opposite Christopher Plummer in a 1967 production of "Antony and Cleopatra" in Ontario, Canada, she emerged from the experience fully formed as an artist and a woman. That's why Cleopatra gets top billing in the memoir. And there the story ends.

"She demanded more of me than I'd ever had demanded of me before," Caldwell says, "and therefore she demanded that I break certain bounds and bonds, and be prepared to dare more and feel safe in the daring. And I just knew that that's when I thought, 'Oh, gosh, this is how I'll be as an actress.' And Robert [Whitehead, her husband] had come into my life, so the two things came together, as a woman and as an actress, the formation of both."

That's where Caldwell put down her pen, because Weil's assignment had been to focus on the part of her life that constituted "the makings of a great stage actress," the editor says.

"At what point did you just realize you had it? My inspiration was Eudora Welty's 'One Writer's Beginnings,' and I felt Zoe is comparable as an actress. Those who know stage acting know there's no one better in America today. I was interested in what in her childhood gave us the clues. If you're crazy enough to consider a career in the arts, what do you need to know? I felt that Zoe would be a splendid person to guide you."

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