BY SUSAN ESTRICH
She was my daughter’s godmother. She was my friend. We knew her from politics, not Hollywood: She was close to “Lady Bird” Johnson and her legendary press secretary, Liz Carpenter. We had no family in California. And she fell in love with my beautiful baby.
We used to go to dinner once a month at Chasen’s, the “hangout” for old Hollywood. In those days, Carol brought her own food, in silver Tiffany’s containers of different shapes. The rest of us gobbled up seafood and chili. And Aunt Carol would carry my daughter around in her arms to meet the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Kirk Douglas. Pretty magical, I’d say.
We saw her perform many times. Uncle Charles [Lowe] would arrange everything, all the hotels and reservations, not to mention my mother’s backstage visits when she was in Florida. Watching your godmother/friend eating rice paper [the secret] in front of a live audience is pretty amazing. My kids were entranced. My mother was entranced. So was I.
Her autobiography was titled Just Lucky I Guess, a total misnomer. Luck? No. It was talent. And drive. Amazing drive. Amazing determination. And that was also a lesson.
In all these years, I never met her son, and I never blamed him. Having a godmother who is a Broadway legend and never misses a show is enchanting. Having a mother who never missed a show in 70 years is a totally different matter. Chan is a terrific political cartoonist; he works as Chan Lowe, his stepfather’s surname. His mother was proud of him. I can say no more.
Carol discovered her Jewish roots and came with us the High Holiday services. Someone complained to the rabbi about a Carol Channing impersonator being brought to the temple. So he introduced her. Enchanting.
She came to kindergarten graduation.
She came to see my daughter in plays.
She did not make it to her bat mitzvah. The date had been engraved in stone in her calendar from the day she got it. But by the time the day came, she was engaged to husband No. 4, her middle school friend who briefly ran her life. They were supposed to attend a party in Modesto, CA. A party in Modesto? Because Harry had arranged it? It was clear who was calling the shots.
That was a lesson, too.
When we were all at the same hotel, we would repair to her suite at night. She soaked her feet in ice water. She performed when she was sick, when she could barely walk. She performed with her arm in a sling. She performed when she had lost her stage. The audience loved her, and she loved it with all her heart.
I’ve been sitting today trying to figure out how old she was in the Chasen’s days, the Charles days, the days of the second Hello, Dolly! Broadway show and the national tour and the Hollywood Bowl performance and the fourth marriage. She was older than I am now. I still work almost as much as I used to, except now I get tired. My hands ache after typing all day. I am not an early bird or a night owl. To quote the late Nora Ephron, “I hate my neck.”
And she was onstage, living in different hotels and performing in front of live audiences six nights a week – plus matinees. Aging gracefully may be an oxymoron. Carol aged with zest and vigor, and she never wanted to stop. If there were a contest for role models for aging, she would win hands down.
Sometimes I wonder about my own drive. It sounds silly, but I lived in overdrive on an escalator to the top of the world with folks who would end up running it. I ended up giving up tenure and moving to Los Angeles and practicing law. And I think about Carol and the drive and determination she showed for more than 70 years. She lived the life she dreamt of, lived it bigger and better than even she could have dreamt. I didn’t dream of being a divorced 60-year-old who never remarried and spends most of her time advising corporations and billionaires. But I dreamt for years about being a mother, which is what I live for. I’m the one who is lucky.
Carol Channing died Jan. 15, 2019 at the age of 97. May she rest in peace.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer