In Memoriam: Celeste Holm (1917-2012)

Celeste Holm died today at the age of 95, at home in her beloved Central Park West apartment.

I’ll let others report on the nearly seven decades Miss Holm spent gracing stage, screen and television. Instead, I will tell you about the time I met her – actually, the two times, both of which I will never forget.

My first meeting with the Academy Award-winning actress was April 12, 2008 at the Loew’s Jersey Theatre, a restored, 1929 movie palace across the River in Jersey City. Before a screening of ALL ABOUT EVE (for which she received her third Oscar nom) Miss Holm had graciously agreed to meet with fans and sign autographs.

I’m proud to say that I was one of those fans. Because even though I’ve been paid to interview celebrities on red carpets for television, and write about movies for print, I am still, most of all, a fan.

The crowd began to form more than a hour before the scheduled start time, and the line snaked around the theater’s ornate lobby and out the front door. And it wasn’t just the usual collection of middle-aged weirdos (like me) who troll memorabilia shows and collect autographs from the formerly famous. A number of young women were present, and I overheard two of them on line behind me discussing ALL ABOUT EVE, and its timeless story of friendships compromised by pettiness and jealousy.

I’ve met plenty of celebrities in dank hotel ballrooms, but this was an entirely different experience. The elegant, historic setting of the Loews Jersey made the experience feel like a gala premiere, replete with autograph-book-clutching fans, nervous organizers and jaded paparazzi. And although all of us loved ALL ABOUT EVE, we clearly weren’t there for the movie. We were there for Celeste Holm.

“There she is!” someone said, and a spontaneous round of applause erupted from the crowd as 91-year-old Celeste Holm strolled into the lobby.

Miss Holm walked with a cane, and was assisted by her much-younger husband Frank Basile, but she seemed remarkably sprightly and youthful. She wore a gold blazer that shimmered each time a camera flashed, but there was nothing shining brighter than her smile.

She sat down as a small table and began to greet the giddy assemblage, as she pecked on a small plate of grapes and brie. As each fan approached, she looked up from her table as if she had been waiting all day to meet them.

And then, finally, my turn came.

“It’s such a pleasure to meet you,” I said, extending my hand. “You look lovely.”

“So do you,” Celeste Holm said to me, with a sly smile.

“I love your movies, but I also enjoyed you on Loving,” I said, referring to the ABC daytime drama in which she starred as Isabella Alden in the early 1990s.

“With my husband, Wesley Addy,” she added. (Holm and Addy were not only co-stars, they were husband and wife from 1961 until his death in 1996, at the age of 83.)

“Yes,” I said. “I also remember a moment on the Daytime Emmys in 1992, where your co-star Larkin Molloy won Best Actor, and chose to talk about you in his speech. He was so proud to work with you.”

“I was proud to work with him,” Miss Holm replied. “I was proud of that show. We all worked hard, far harder than we ever did in the movies!”

It was a brief, but memorable interaction, and she was remarkably present and attentive. And then I took a picture of her.

After the meet and greet, Miss Holm appeared on stage for a Q&A, moderated by author Foster Hirsch. It was clear that her memories of ALL ABOUT EVE had faded, because each time Hirsch would ask a question, she would look to her husband, who was seated next to her.

“You tell the story,” she said to him, more than once.

And he did. Things were said that night that don’t bear repeating, specifically about Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck and his lunchtime dalliances with Marilyn Monroe. While I enjoyed seeing Miss Holm on a stage in front a room filled with her fans, I couldn’t help but wonder if her young husband was craving the spotlight as much as (or more than) his wife – and encouraging her to dish the dirt on those who were no longer around to defend themselves.

The next time I met Celeste Holm was 15 months later, at a memorabilia show at the Holiday Inn on 57th Street. There was still a distinct brightness in her eyes, but her health had clearly declined. Still, she sat there all day long, graciously greeting fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures.

“We’ve met before,” I said to her, as I again shook her soft, small hand. “Last year, at the Loews Jersey Theater.”

“I remember,” she said, with the same smile.

Of course, she was being polite. But as she signed my 8 x 10 still from ALL ABOUT EVE,  I wondered if her words were more figurative than literal – a declaration from a fiercely independent woman who, according to her husband, had been treated for memory loss, and was clearly approaching her final curtain.

Her husband sat there beside her, cajoling her and collecting money from fans for each picture, promising that it was “a donation for UNICEF” (an organization with which she had been affiliated for many years). I truly hope that was the case, and that their relationship was as genuine he maintained, despite the protestations of her family. Because in my two brief meetings with her, Celeste Holm seemed to be an extraordinarily genuine person.

“Would you like a photo with me?” Miss Holm said, as she finished signing her name to my picture.

“Of course,” I replied. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”

“Neither would I,” she said with a smile, as if she had been waiting all day to meet me.

About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer, reporter, radio host, and #OldMovieWeirdo. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and Slate and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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6 Responses to In Memoriam: Celeste Holm (1917-2012)

  1. Kellee says:

    Wonderful piece, Will! Thoroughly enjoyed your personal stories and insight of meeting Celeste Holm. Many can describe a classic film or a star’s significance to that film, but I prefer to hear a more personal revelation like this. Great writing, too!

  2. loved your depiction of celeste holm. i was sad to hear that she died. too many great stars are disappearing. i’ve seen “all about eve” so many times. it is as good if not better each time through. you did a great job telling an intimate story about your experiences of meetng her. thank you.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks. Every time I watch ALL ABOUT EVE I find another way in which it is analogous to life, in general.

      • It ripples through our present reality all too often – people trying to overthrow those in front of them, in order to get their position in life, when there really is enough room for everyone. This is a tale so archtypal throughout time. Even though we are aware of it, it continues to repeat and repeat and repeat itself. In the entertainment field, it is rampant but it exists all over in every area. I never tire of watching it or when Karen betrays Margo, even though she feels it is done in all innocence, she doesn’t realize she is particiapting in a nefarious plot. jen

      • willmckinley says:

        Jen – I think that’s why ALL ABOUT EVE resonates so greatly for me, and for many people. Most of us can find an analogous experience in our lives. We may not be actors, or in the entertainment business, but all of us have been manipulated by someone who is not as she (or he) appears. In that sense we are all actors, performing characters in our own little plays. And we can only hope that the villains lose out in the end.

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