Howdy! “Love Letters straight from my heart keep us so close, though apart.” Betsy Palmer and I wrote Love Letters to each other for five years, on far-flung stages, in the play “Love Letters”. Now, Betsy Palmer has passed on thru, never more to put pen to paper. Babs and I hoist mugs of Maker’s Mark on the rocks in your honor, Betsy. We bid you farewell.
Babs, you go first: “This is a love letter to our beautiful, blonde, bedazzling Betsy! You blew into our lives and took us on a magic ride, the likes of which we will never take again. You gave Will the gift of an on-stage partnership that resulted in the best work of his life. Together you were golden—and perfect. We miss your radiant smile and your soothing calm and your outstretched arms giving hugs to us and the world. We are richer for having known you. Thank you, Sweet Betz—for everything—Sleep tight. We love you…Thanks, Babs.”
Ah, Betsy, you Cheshire cat, you—fading, fading, fading—the smile lives forever. A few years ago Mel and Angela Neuhaus invited us to a birthday party and introduced us to Betsy Palmer. We sat at a table with her. Mel! Angela! We owe you more than we can ever pay. Betsy mentioned performing “Love Letters” to children of all ages with a plethora of co-stars, since the play began. Babs piped up, “Betsy, how about working with Will?” Betsy said, “Get us a booking. I work anytime, any place, with anybody from actors to college profs to captains of industry to civilians of all stripes. I love this play so much I do it mostly for free. I’ve made my share. I’m giving back.” Woooeee! And did she ever!
Next day, Babs got on the Ameche and got us a booking a Massasoit Community college in Brockton, MA. We got down to business. We trained to Penn Station in NYC and taxied to Betsy’s apartment in the 80’s, hard-by Central Park. Howdy! Kissy lips. Warm embraces. Meet Peter the cat. The grand tour. Each piece of furniture and décor had its story. We got hip to her jive. And could she cook? Yes! Smacka our lips! Apres dindin, we repaired to the couch for our first read-thru. Betsy told us I had just given her more than she ever got from any-one else in a performance! Dang, if that wasn’t the second greatest compliment in my sojourn on earth, second only to the day Babs said “I do.” Ah, Betsy! The beginning of a beautiful friendship. A deep bow to Babs for getting the show on the road.
Always, it was a work-in-progress, honing, discovering new facets on this gem of a play. Betsy had worked with the author A. R. Gurney. He told her, “Simply, just read it.” Not our Betsy. She acted the pants off it. She took me along. She’s my favorite actor of the female persuasion. She’s my favorite director, steering me back on course whenever I got lost in the fog. Working with Betsy and Elvis made me a Nature Boy: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”
Betsy was an extravert, and she shared her verts with me. She turned strangers into pals with a smile, a wink, a snuggle. She was Zen. She lived the moment. No schmaltz about the past. The future? No worries, mate. The Eternal Now is all. She made it ok for me to be silly ol’ impromptu me, laffin’ and sratchin’. I open doors for pretty gals—They say, “Thank you.” I say, “That’ll be 25 cents.” Sometimes, I get a quarter. I keep it. Once, in a post office, I’m on my way out. An angst-ridden lady’s in front of me. I know she won’t hold the door for me. I let it spring back and clobber my foot—Smack! Ouch! I hold my “wounded” nose and stagger out onto the parking lot where I’m suddenly Charlie Chaplin doing his dance of pain. Onlookers smile. Not the lady! Without stopping, she turns her head, just a tad, for a mere glance, a sniff, a tsk tsk, and she’s off like a shot to far more pressing matters. Yahooo! That one was for you, Betsy!
We joshed a lot. She told us about playing Peter Pan outdoors in Wahsington D.C. Spectacularly, she flew thru a grove of trees, out and over her cringing audience. I told her, “Betsy, you shoulda sung I won’t throw up!”
In “Love Letters” I played Andy Ladd—Betsy played Melissa Gardner. They were born in 1930. They met in school in ‘37, when they began their correspondence, continuing until Melissa’s death in ‘85. Countless times we put on our show. Three times we put on our show hereabouts at a middle school, a hospital, a church. Three times Betsy stayed with us. She slept in the upstairs back bedroom, the Betsy Room. Her pictures are all over the house. So is her spirit.
“Love Letters” opens with the simplest of sets, a table and two chairs. Andy and Melissa enter from opposite sides and sit, and the play begins. Andy reads: “Andrew Makepeace Ladd III accepts with pleasure the kind invitation of Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Channing Gardner for a birthday party in honor of their daughter Melissa on April 19th, 1937 at half-past three O’Clock…” After the party, Melissa writes and thanks Andy for the book THE LOST PRINCESS OF OZ. They’re off on their long journey, never losing touch, thanks to the power of their love letters. Betsy and I didn’t look at each other during the show. We looked out into the audience, now and then. Mostly, we just read the letters. Melissa dies. Andy writes his last letter, this to Melissa’s mother: “Dear Mrs. Gardner, I think the first letter I ever wrote was to you. Now, I’m writing you again about Melissa’s death. As I write this letter to you, I feel I’m writing it also to her. I really don’t know how I’ll get along without her. I know now that I loved her. I loved her even from the day I met her, when she walked into the second grade, looking like the lost princess of Oz. She was at the heart of my life, and already I miss her desperately. I just wanted to say this to you and to her. Sincerely, Andy Ladd.” And Melissa, who has been hovering, says, “Thank you, Andy.” The end. Then, Betsy and I got up from our chairs and walked around to the front of the table and looked at each other for the first time. We kissed. Remember, Betsy? We love you, even from the day we met you. We hope you are hovering. Please keep on hovering. This is my last love letter to you. Here’s a poem 4 U. Y? Because we haiku: Hey, Betsy Palmer! How wondrous our love for you. Then, now, forever…Good night, Sweet princess, wherever you are.
—Love, Babs and Hutch