Remembering Gilda Radner
In the spring of 1987, Simon and Schuster hired me to conduct a series of interviews with Gilda Radner, who was then suffering from ovarian cancer and had a book contract to write about her experience. In theory, my task was to draw her out and help her organize her thoughts. There were several writers vying for the job and the choice was Gilda's to make; Gilda and I bonded immediately when we began talking about our lives as sufferers of M.E.
As this assignment got underway, I discovered there was very little to do on my part aside from listen well and take notes. Gilda was full of words and memories and keen, ironic observations. Our conversations resulted in perhaps 50 or more hours of audio tapes, the result of our once-a-week lunch dates at the Good Earth health food restaurant in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. When we concluded that series of meetings, I presented her with a detailed outline for her book---one that I assured her was merely a suggestion, something she might consider but need not follow---hoping it would help her get her task underway with the least difficulty. I knew very well how daunting it was to stare at a blank page without a roadmap at least in one's mind if not on paper. I also knew she was in a hurry. I suggested she begin her story with the most cherished event of her life, her marriage in a small French village to Gene Wilder. To my surprise, Gilda followed my outline to the letter (and the number) in her book. But the words were hers...Gilda spun a seamless, engrossing story. "It's Always Something" was a fascinating, funny memoir and I discovered Gilda was a natural writer. Her Simon & Schuster editor Bob Bender told me Gilda had turned in a nearly perfect book.
Gilda died of ovarian cancer in March of 1989. My editor at Rolling Stone magazine asked me to write a remembrance of Gilda. This part-memoir and part-appreciation was published soon afterward (and it is re-published below). What I did not mention in my story about Gilda is the relationship that developed between us as a result of our shared experience of M.E. When we met, I had been ill less than two years, she had fallen ill three years before. Her symptoms began while filming "Haunted Honeymoon" in 1985 with her husband on location in London. The movie was, much to Gilda's distress, an official Hollywood bomb, famous now primarily for the fact that it was Gilda's last appearance in a movie. Of possible interest to long-time M.E. sufferers is the fact that the East Coast doctor mentioned in the story who confirmed Gilda's diagnosis two years after her M.E. began was Anthony Komaroff. She consulted him at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital only a few months before her ovarian cancer was discovered upon her return to Los Angeles.
Though her book was solely about her experience with cancer, Gilda and I inevitably spent 45 minutes to an hour or so at nearly every meeting discussing M.E., or as it was then called, "chronic EBV," always at Gilda's prompting. We compared notes every time we met; I was doing research for a two-part series on M.E. that would appear later that summer in Rolling Stone; she was always hungry for any new information I had collected.
For Gilda, the experience of M.E. had been at least as physically as devastating as cancer and often more traumatic. I fully comprehended the trauma and alienation she had endured. She talked about how the cancer diagnosis had been a relief, coming as it did three years after wandering in the wasteland of M.E. Like hundreds of thousands of other people who fell ill during those early years of the late 1970s and early 1980s, she had been without medical help, without a formal diagnosis, without understanding or compassion. I quoted Gilda anonymously in the piece on M.E. in Rolling Stone that summer. "(The disease) was worse than cancer," she had told me. "It was a nightmare. It killed my spirit."
I learned from Gilda that by mid-1983 the disease was already notorious throughout the film and television industries, as well as the health insurance industry, in Los Angeles. It was viewed with abject fear by actors and producers alike and their dread was not limited to simply catching the disease. For one thing, if actors were known to have the disease, film companies were unable to obtain the high-cost medical insurance actors must have for every film in which they they star. The cognitive deterioration that accompanies the disease was famous throughout this industry as well; actors were frequently unable to remember their lines, a deficit few directors cared to navigate and a humiliation to which few actors cared to subject themselves. Having the disease was a closely guarded secret few in the acting profession could afford to divulge. Gilda mentioned in confidence film stars who were ill and had called her for advice; she had little to offer them aside from sympathy. In the years ahead, I noticed few of the actors Gilda named ever made another major film; they did not look remotely well in photographs as they aged.
I already had an inkling about the impact of the disease on the film community in Hollywood, having met by chance a thirty-something couple who had worked on a film directed by Blake Edwards called "A Fine Mess" and starring Ted Danson. The two had been crew members; they each had come down with M.E. during the making of the film. They said others on the set had fallen ill with M.E., as well. Edwards, himself, they added, was so sick he spent most of the filming in his trailer, coming out to direct a scene, then returning to his trailer where he could lie down. Their recollections may be considered little more than hearsay, but I found them persuasive. They had no reason to make up the story. Certainly, Blake Edwards eventually became a very public M.E. sufferer who remained ill until his death at 88 in 2010. The movie lived up to its name, receiving such poor notices it was entirely re-edited by the studio, then failed at the box office. (Edwards disagreed with the re-cut and did the unthinkable: when interviewed, he urged the public to avoid the movie.)
The Hollywood community was hardly exceptional; at times it seemed all of Los Angeles was in the grip of an epidemic. Ben Stein, the economist and sometime actor, was then a columnist for the Los Angeles Examiner. One day he began his column with the sentence, "Is everyone in Los Angeles sick?" His wife had M.E., among others he knew who had been leveled for months by an "endless flu." Curious, I called the L.A. County epidemiology chief, who told me the county was receiving more calls every day about this apparently new disease from frantic doctors and patients than calls about AIDS. "I'm not sure we don't have another tiger by the tail," she said, "but we can't do a thing about it." The county's money was being diverted almost entirely to AIDS.
I've been thinking about Gilda during this holiday season, though I'm not entirely sure why. Thirty years have passed, but my sense of Gilda is as vivid to me today as it was all those summers and winters ago. Perhaps it's because her husband Wilder, who she loved so dearly, died this year from complications of Alzheimer's disease at 83. Once he showed up unexpectedly at one of our lunches, sat on my side of the booth and threw his arm around me, as if we had known each another for years. He was 54, I was 36 and Gilda was 41. He played the manic comic and even flirted with me; Gilda found his goofy routine side-splitting. I could tell Gene was determined to make her laugh and I suspected she may have been his best audience.
The last communication I had from Gilda was a 1988 Christmas card she sent to me fashioned from a photograph: she is sitting with Wilder on their sofa in their Connecticut house with Sparkle, Gilda's Yorkshire terrier between them. "I have hair this year!" Gilda wrote to me underneath the photo--in which she was pointing ecstatically at her sleek cropped hair.
Among many things that have haunted me about my interactions with Gilda over the years is that such a significant portion of our interview sessions were devoted to a medical topic far afield from ovarian cancer. Yet that topic never found much of a home in either my Rolling Stone obituary of Gilda or her own book. It was as if the subject of M.E. was somehow forbidden, as if it was impolite to impose such a dark and questionable-seeming subject on innocent readers who had the fortitude to read about cancer but couldn't quite handle the looming threat of M.E. Yet for Gilda and for me, it had been our private obsession, a topic we gave nearly equal time, cared deeply about; it had launched the episode in her life that would turn out to be her final undoing.
The relationship between cancer and M.E. is a complicated one, yet to be well-ironed out, likely awaiting the discovery of the cause of the disease. That a connection exists between some cancers and M.E. already has been proven--particularly in the case of B-cell lymphomas and leukemias. Certainly, several of the viruses that are reactivated in M.E., in particular Epstein-Barr virus and human herpes virus H6, are known carcinogens. Retroviruses are cancer-inducers, too, though we know microbiologists who introduced preliminary evidence of retroviral infections over the decades watched in dismay as their data and reputations were stomped into oblivion by U.S. government scientists. We also know that the U.S. government has consistently and with forethought stymied efforts by top cancer epidemiologists to explore this avenue of study. These events were just a few in a long string of outrages--outrages neither Gilda nor I yet knew about because they hadn't yet occurred and so we never discussed them.
Whether Gilda's cancer was in fact instigated by her M.E. is for me a matter of conjecture. However, in 1991, Neenyah Ostrom, a reporter for the long-shuttered newspaper New York Native, published a book called, "What Really Killed Gilda Radner?" Ostrom had been reporting on developments in this field exclusively for her newspaper and she drew many links between cancer and what was then called "CFS" in her book, which continues to be available on Amazon.
What is inarguable is the burden of suffering the latter imposed on Gilda and the degree to which it went mostly unreported, unacknowledged compared to the former. Also inarguable is how little things have changed for the vast majority of patients since those afternoons in 1987 when I had the privilege of sitting for hours with one of the greatest comics of the last century as she struggled to find meaning and even comedy in her terrible fate.
What follows is the memoir of Gilda Radner I wrote for Rolling Stone magazine on a tight deadline, struggling hard to suppress my grief, in the spring of 1989.
ROLLING STONE LOGO
Good Bye, Gilda Radner
The Tragic Loss of a Great Comedienne
You saw the snood first: the small head, wrapped in a chic little turban with a few strands of downy hair showing at the crown. She kept her back to the room, always taking the last booth by the ladies' room. Often, she had been sitting alone for half an hour or an hour, gathering her thoughts, making notes in a small notebook, shaping the senseless events of her life into a story that frequently assumed the power of allegory. She was never late. Over a period of five months, not a soul recognized her, except Jon Voight, and even he was thrown off — uncertain, seemingly frozen in midstride and at a loss for words, as he gathered her in with his eyes and grasped the essence of her struggle.
Our meeting place was a health-food restaurant in Westwood, the Disneyland-tidy province of UCLA students. Gilda liked the Good Earth. She liked the curiously flavored decaffeinated tea; she liked the tuna salad that arrived in a large bowl shedding alfalfa sprouts. When she ate, she ate with gusto; often she didn't eat. Probably, she liked the fact that the management let her sit and talk deep into the afternoon, interrupted only rarely by obsequious help, many of whom were barely past toddling by the time she was a star. Invariably, she was kind to them. Occasionally, there was conversation about trying someplace new, but there is much to be said for predictability when one's life is, at bottom, hopelessly out of control.
By the time Gilda decided to write a book about her experience with cancer, she had been ill for almost two years. One year had been spent in a malaise of fatigue and confusion that began near the end of the London filming of Haunted Honeymoon, in which she starred with her husband, Gene Wilder. When she returned to the U.S., she sought help from a multitude of doctors. Some of them were so surprised to discover Gilda Radner in their examining room they grew tongue-tied and fidgety; she sensed they were waiting for her to say something funny. Others were as ignorant of her identity as they were of the source of her complaints. A few indicated to her that she was imagining her problems. For a while, she accepted their judgment, having suspected herself of being a world-class neurotic for some time. Then one doctor proposed she was suffering from the newly named "chronic-fatigue syndrome," a debilitating malady that is, so far, without a known cause or cure. She went east, where an expert confirmed the diagnosis. When his explanation failed to calm her, the gentle Boston doctor looked at her squarely and asked her just what it was she feared. "I am afraid I have cancer," she told him. He tried to reassure her but advised her to continue having blood tests and to remain in contact with a doctor.
The specter refused to vanish. For Gilda, the disease had assumed the proportion of a family curse. Her grandmother died of stomach cancer shortly before Gilda's birth. When she was twelve, her father, the prosperous owner of a Detroit hotel, developed brain cancer and died two years later. Then the disease claimed her aunt. Her mother was stricken much later with breast cancer, although she recovered. But it was her father, not her mother, to whom Gilda was closest. His lugubrious, unfathomable death haunted her adulthood. Although she occasionally suspected she had outwitted cancer — by talent, by stardom, by goodness, by hilarity — her confidence was always temporary.
"I've been having cancer premonitions since I was twelve," she said.
When the high-tech doctors failed her, she turned to the holistic ones. She had pains in her legs so intense she could barely sit still; like the doomed child in the Hans Christian Andersen fable "The Red Shoes," she had to keep moving. The fog, as she described the strange fatigue ailment, continued to roll in and out intermittently. She found herself envying people who were without pain, without fatigue. Her stomach began to swell. A concerned vitamin purveyor recommended coffee enemas when his protein powders, herbs and roots and "bags of seeds and leaves," as Gilda described them, failed. Gilda passed on the enemas, but she was deeply touched by the fact that he called her once a day. Escalating his protocol, he prescribed colonic irrigation. He gave her a fancy address in Beverly Hills; she was so exhausted his assistant had to drive her there. The procedure yielded a bean sprout. Gilda saw the lonely vegetable splash by in the plastic tube.
The sight of that bean sprout unnerved all involved. Perfectly intact, it was all her body would give up, more a rebuke than a clue. Later, when she had survived what she thought would be the worst of her ordeal, she fashioned the event into a vignette that was funnier than anything Roseanne Roseannadanna had ever pulled from her unsavory mailbag. Here was Gilda, live, without the crude accent and the absurd wig, an innocent foundering in a reprobate world, her body so out of tune it identified the health faddists' favorite garnish as a foreign object.
Inadvertently, one of the high-tech practitioners interrupted the holistic goings-on when he called Gilda to report an unusual blood-test result. "Relax," he told her. "It's probably nothing." Nevertheless, he wanted to see her. She canceled her next appointment with the herb-and-root man. At last a real doctor, impressed by her ballooning abdomen, was moved to action. The same day, technicians in a Century City hospital abandoned her to the joyless interior of a CAT scanner. Film was rapidly available. Her diagnosis was ovarian cancer, a form of cancer that is hard to detect before its progress is nearly unstoppable. Gilda didn't leave the gleaming towers of Century City for some time.
An independent channel in LA. had been running Saturday Night Live segments from the 1970s for some months, and the night before her surgery, Gilda tuned in. There she was: the wild, beautiful hair, the mutable face and expressive body, the clear, penetrating voice. The night nurse assigned to check her vital signs and plump her pillows had never seen Gilda Radner on TV before; the young woman was stupefied. That her attendant should be engaged in such mundane and intimate duties while simultaneously discovering her celebrity was the kind of loony, stranger-than-fiction irony Gilda cherished. More plaintively, the event marked her loss of one identity and acquisition of another. She was launched that night on her frightening slide from Gilda Radner, beloved comedienne, to Gilda Radner, cancer patient. Months later, her hair gone, her sense of herself smashed, she began introducing herself to people with the words "I used to be Gilda Radner."
Gilda's room in the "VIP wing" was decorated in hues of burgundy and pink. There was nicely appointed furniture, carpeting, a VCR — all of it symbolic of the "Rolls-Royce medicine," as Gilda ambivalently characterized it, that she would embrace and reject, then embrace and reject again, in the time remaining to her. In the evenings, Gene came with Gilda's dog, Sparkle, its head protruding from a tote bag. Sparkle wore a pink ribbon and looked like a blond teddy bear. It was probably the cutest Yorkshire terrier that ever lived. Gene was prepared to tell anyone who challenged him that the dog was battery driven and had been acquired in the gift shop downstairs, but the hospital staff looked the other way.
There must be some important distinction between the onset of your worst nightmare and the onset of a nightmare you never imagined. For Gilda, faced with the former, there were the predictable black emotions, but as time passed, something else emerged. Now that the worst was happening, why not face it down, take it apart — piece by agonizing piece? She yearned to share this story — all of it — including its occasional utter silliness, its crush of ironies, its humiliations, its razor-sharp pain. And in her fine dramatist's hands, there was an epiphany at every turn in the plot and a cast of characters — most of them garbed in white coats — that would have raised the roof off Studio 8H any Saturday night. There was never a more enthusiastic author, nor a braver one.
Gilda decided to talk her book before she wrote it; my role was to help her stay on track, to ask relevant questions. As much as any writer, she was full of words and employed them masterfully. But her instinct was probably right: It was hard to imagine this charismatic woman alone in a room facing a blank page, furrowing into her picaresque, even harrowing tale in silence. She liked — perhaps required — an audience. And so she manned the tape recorder, deftly unraveling her story between chemotherapy sessions, which terrified her for days in advance and leveled her for days afterward. When shadows dappled the table top and the dinner shift arrived, she would conclude, Scheherazade style, with her protagonist figuratively hanging from a cliff. Her idea was to give herself a starting point for the next time, but it was as much a psychological technique to sustain her pluck from one session to the next as it was an organizational style.
When the meetings at the Good Earth began, it was spring 1987. The days were still cool, the air smelled good. Gilda already had endured a hysterectomy and the removal of a tumor so advanced it had spread from her ovary to the surface of her liver, as well as six of nine "chemos," as she called them. There was, however, in her general presentation, a palpable confidence in her own survival. She had walked through the valley of the shadow of death and, as she jokes in her book, had decided she would not be buying a condominium there. It seemed sometimes as if it were through the recounting of her story that she was recapturing her sense of control. After all, if she were the one doing the telling, maybe she could, by sheer force of character, create the happy ending she wanted. It would be a sensible, reasonable ending in which she would survive and the purpose of her suffering would be revealed. When she began her story, she was still searching for that purpose with the nearly compulsive energy she turned on everything about which she cared.
In her fortieth year, her life in terrible jeopardy, Gilda was essentially unchanged from the guileless, brilliantly funny young woman who caught the eye of Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels in 1975. Somehow, she had failed to acquire any rough edges on the journey from Detroit to Hollywood, by way of New York. She appeared to be wholly lacking in defensiveness, on any subject. Were it not for her comedic instincts, which gave evidence of her sagacity and keen powers of observation, she might have seemed almost childlike.
As she had approached life, Gilda approached her disease: ecumenically. She submitted to grueling chemotherapy treatments orchestrated by a fleet of cancer specialists. She read Jill Ireland's book about cancer and, taking a cue from the actress, wore crystals around her neck. She meditated. She tried to think of the pernicious chemicals being mainlined into her body each month as health-giving elixirs. She imagined her cancer-infected cells being vanquished by lance-carrying knights atop steeds. For all her discipline, however, she remained awash in anger and fear over her condition for many months after her cancer was discovered. The mere viewing of a Tracey Ullman show was enough to send her into a fit of despair as she compared the fortunes of this talented newcomer with her own.
When Gilda was a child, she was fascinated by the story of Jesus. The notion that one person had to suffer for the sins of everyone else was compelling to her. She grasped the ambiguities of the tale, particularly the fact that Jesus himself had moments of doubt, of despair; that he wasn't always eager to bear his burden. She noted, too, that Jesus had done little to deserve his fate. In her twenties, Gilda performed in a Toronto production of Godspell with a company that included other nascent talents like Martin Short, Eugene Levy and Paul Shaffer. "For a whole year, eight times a week," she writes in her book, "Jesus died in Godspell and we all suffered with him." In those early months after her first hospitalization and the beginning of chemotherapy, Gilda began to think of herself much as she had once thought of Jesus. How else to explain this devastation? Alone among her talented compatriots in the worlds of comedy and show business, she had been chosen to suffer. Her chemotherapy treatments, during which she would be drugged unconscious to avoid any violent physical reaction to the toxicity of the drugs, and the holocaust-like days that ensued, were her time spent nailed to the cross.
Gilda's reluctant first visit to a cancer patients' support organization in Santa Monica allowed her to survive emotionally. The Wellness Community urges cancer patients to become involved in their own treatment and interactive with their doctors instead of serving as passive witnesses to their ordeal. The group also advocates the so-far unproven theories of "psychoneuroimmunology," such as the reduction of stress as a tool to combat disease. It was her simple induction into a brotherhood of people with cancer that most seemed to help Gilda, however. "In a sense, sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow," observed Flannery O'Connor, herself a lupus sufferer, in 1956. Though surrounded by people who cared about her, Gilda had been, metaphysically speaking, very much alone until she began her weekly visits to Santa Monica.
"Gilda never ran away from anything," remembered Alan Zweibel, who was, with Gilda, the creator of characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella and among her closest friends. "She just looked it in the eye and said, 'C'mon — let's fight it out.' The advice she would dispense as a friend had the same sort of bravado and sympathy and understanding her characters had. She would preach honesty. She would preach confrontation. She would never advise anyone to back away. And that's the way she dealt with her own life."
Certainly, that is how Gilda came to deal with cancer. Once she had made contact with the Wellness Community, she sopped up the organization's coping strategies with the alacrity of a Berlitz student. More significantly, she recovered her identity in the yellow house on Fifth Street. She told jokes. She made people laugh. Miraculously, as she spoke, she felt her thumb pop up, and she metamorphosed into Roseanne Roseannadanna. She reclaimed her gift. Before long, whenever a cancer patient told a sad, depressing story, all eyes would fall hopefully upon Gilda for the antidote; every time she provided it, the act boosted her faith in her own survival.
In her struggle to live — and to sustain her humanity and dignity in a medical system that dehumanizes — Gilda tapped her deepest comedic reserves. When her initial course of chemotherapy ended, she submitted to a "second look" surgery, an integral part of ovarian-cancer therapy. Her surgeons took forty-two biopsies, two of which revealed continued microscopic infection with cancer. She then submitted to direct infusions of chemicals into her abdominal cavity. When the chemicals began to destroy her peripheral nerves, causing numbness in her hands and feet, her doctors switched to radiation. Five days a week, for six weeks, she watched as technicians aligned their machine with the indelible connect-the-dots pattern on her stomach, then left the room to watch her being zapped on closed-circuit TV. One Friday, the technicians stared into their TV screen to read a yellow Post-it note Gilda had stuck to her belly: TGIF, it said.
Among Gilda's endeavors to gain some element of control — however small — over events, nothing matched in poignancy the videotape she made of herself playing tennis and later installed on the VCR in her hospital room to be played on a loop during the thirty-six hours she lay unconscious, a recipient of cancer drugs. Gene had filmed her. She lopes around the court, turban tails flying, swatting at tennis balls and basketballs — whatever comes her way. Sparkle makes a cameo appearance. Once, Gilda turns to the camera and explains, "Through the miracle of chemotherapy, I am able to play tennis as badly now as I did before I had cancer." If her specialists wanted to gather in her hospital room and ruminate over her progress as she hung helplessly suspended in sleep, let them at least be made aware by her video surrogate that outside the burgundy and pink chamber, Gilda was a sentient human being with spirit and indomitable wit.
Tellingly, Gilda chose to launch both our conversations and her book with her love affair and marriage to Gene Wilder rather than with the onset of her disease. "My life has been ruled by love," she confessed, and she wasn't talking about the platonic kind. Perhaps unknown to fans of Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella and Lisa Lupner, Gilda was sweetly feminine and potently sexy. "She was," reminisced her longtime business manager, Bernie Brillstein, one week after her death, "a great seductress." Her draw was primal, but the appeal was her sweetness and vulnerability. Were she to plot a seduction, her strategy might be to bake cookies. "There was something about her — the warmth — that was just irresistible," recalled Lorne Michaels, who hired Gilda for his new show without an audition and before any other cast member.
Something Gilda couldn't seem to do, or maybe didn't want to do, was realize a rational synthesis of career and romance. "She had two things that were equally important to her," Michaels remembered. "Comedy and having a boyfriend. She never really seemed to be able to do both at the same time." She had stopped performing and was living with a man in Toronto, hooking rugs, when Michaels first knew her. During her five years at Saturday Night Live, her focus stayed within the hermetic interior of Rockefeller Center. She joked with friends that she loved the job because it absolved her from worrying about whether she would have a date on Saturday night.
Gilda had been in love before, she had been briefly married before. Her relationship with Wilder was different. It was the center of her life; it was her life. One afternoon in the spring of 1987, she described her personal three-year nuclear winter of, in her own ingenuous words, "trying to get Gene to marry me." Suffice it to say it was everywoman's story, a classic case of a woman who can't stop pushing, even though she knows the harder she pushes the worse it gets, except that it was marked by Gilda's inimitable comic sensibility. She determined that it was the five-pound Sparkle that tipped the balance of power and caused Gene to propose. How? Sparkle nibbled rat poison at the airport while the couple waited for their flight to France; Gilda raced to the vet with Sparkle in her arms, leaving Gene to board the plane alone. When Gene witnessed how independent, even indifferent, Gilda could be, he reassessed his position. It was just too bad Sparkle had to attempt suicide before Gene saw reason.
The next time they flew to France, it was to be married. Gilda was able to recall her wedding day, from the lace of her collar to the pattern on Gene's tie to the gray drizzle that enveloped them in the ancient village, in meticulous detail, and she relished doing so. She described, too, how the French recognized her husband as an international star, whereas she, in effect, was invisible on their soil. Her observation was made completely without rancor. "Gene Wilder was her prince charming," Brillstein said. "He was mature. He was sweet. He loved her. And, as a bonus, he was a movie star!" And, Gilda would add, he smelled good. Perhaps Wilder, eleven years her senior, was Gilda's first grown-up. Wilder drew her into his circle of Hollywood friends, people like Anne Bancroft, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. In her book, Gilda exhibits them as "people who survived their careers and their successes with good health." They were people, in other words, who could handle these things without trashing their lives — without OD'ing on drugs — or becoming bulimic, as Gilda had done in her years on television.
Gilda had made stabs at housewifery before she married Wilder, but her relentless energy and creative brilliance always undermined her, mercilessly unraveling her June Cleaver fantasies from the inside out until her choice was to go back to the stage or to go nuts. Life with her movie-star husband broke the pattern. She dearly wanted to be Mrs. Gene Wilder, Hollywood wife. She took up tennis; she learned to love basketball and France; she quit smoking and wore an apron emblazoned with the American Cancer Society's preferred anticancer vegetables. Wilder was publicity shy, and so Gilda stayed clear of the limelight, too. Until she was diagnosed with cancer, Gene Wilder was Gilda's career.
The people who loved her respected her decision. "Gilda wanted to be with Gene, period," said Brillstein. "She was in love with Gene Wilder, and she was playing the role of married lady. This was not him being selfish. This was purely her choice.
"Sure, it bothered me," he added, "but as her friend, I was thrilled."
The meetings at the Good Earth ended on the upbeat in the fall of 1987. Gilda had finished the courses of drugs and radiation, and by her manner she gave every evidence of surviving the disease--except that her pathologist had found microscopic cancer on the second look. Of course, Gilda made everyone forget what little they already may have known about ovarian cancer. She was going to France with Gene once more. When she came back, she would begin writing her book. In it, she would share all she had learned about living with the "delicious ambiguity" of cancer; she would help people with cancer see what was funny about their predicament; and in the writing of it, she would arrive at truths about herself.
Gilda did all those things, but her contest with cancer did not end. One year later, she called. There was more to tell before she could write her final chapter. The new setting was her house in Connecticut, a sylvan property she had owned for nearly a decade. Grace, Gilda's friend and housekeeper, offered me coffee there one rainy morning in October of 1988. Soon Gilda appeared carrying Sparkle. She placed the tiny dog by its dish of kibble, next to which sat a motorized toy dog of equivalent stature. Gilda wound up the stuffed toy, which stood on its hind legs and barked; Sparkle barked back and covetously ate its food. "Sparkle only eats under stress," Gilda said.
She was wearing opaque black hose with large red and yellow polka dots running up the sides, a black miniskirt and a red sweater that hung just above her hemline. The crystals were gone. She moved slowly, she seemed unable to stand completely straight. Sometimes, she held her stomach. Her feistiness was gone; the fatigue was back. Her voice seemed smaller. Still, as always, she had organized her material thoughtfully in a small notebook, and she presented it powerfully over a two-day stretch, stopping only for lunches of homemade soup and sandwiches prepared and served by Grace. Dishearteningly, Gilda was back to eating almost nothing.
The bad news was the fact that her cancer had recurred in the spring of that year. Even worse, the discovery was delayed by a medical computer that had misread a crucial blood test. About the time Gilda ascertained that the monster inside her was flourishing again, her life-size photograph was embellishing bus shelters all over Manhattan; Life magazine was using her image to hype its March 1988 issue. The article inside carried the subhead WISECRACKING ACTRESS LAUGHS IN THE FACE OF CANCER. That month, her SNL colleague Jane Curtin threw Gilda a party in New York. Most of the women who had worked on the show were there. Gilda withheld the truth about her condition from her vibrant, healthy friends; she didn't want to bring anyone down. When she went home, her emotions brutally flung her back into that old, painful place where there were no explanations, where she was back on the cross. Laughing in the face of cancer? She felt like a fraud.
Being in Connecticut, Gilda decided to find a new cancer specialist there. The doctor ordered a CAT scan, which revealed there were "shadows" on her lung and her liver. She recalled sitting in his office as he explained the new developments to his West Coast corollary over the phone. Gilda could hear her former doctor's response emanating all the way from L.A. It was a dismayed, helpless, "Oh, shit." When she stared into the Connecticut doctor's eyes, she saw him imagining her death. It infuriated her. Almost as bad, when she went to his office to surrender to the chemotherapy he advocated, the doctor and his nurse conversed about Gilda in the third person; she might have been inanimate. Little that had come before made Gilda feel more deeply her slackening control over her fate than this doctor's unwillingness to deal with her straight on. In less than a month, the tombstones in the man's eyes grew beyond bearing, and Gilda severed ties with him and the chemotherapy he advocated. She would not be pronounced dead when she was still so very much alive.
For an improbable spring, Gilda became a disciple of macrobiotics. For most of her life her relationship with food had been ambivalent at best; maybe now that toxic chemicals and radiation had failed, her old enemy could save her. Soon, a gregarious Italian joined the household to prepare authentic macrobiotic cuisine for Gilda. He performed tai chi in the garden and made Gilda rise at dawn to walk on the cold, dew-covered stones of the driveway. He advised her to be humble and to stay off the phone. Grace arrived in the mornings to a sink full of carp heads; her cupboards were filled with seaweed. Sometimes, at night, when Gilda was in bed, the Italian would make pasta and dine with Gene. Eventually, Gilda was losing a pound a day, and Gene had had enough. By the time he was able to persuade his wife to consult with a real doctor once again, she weighed ninety-five pounds.
Gilda's death, which occurred early on May 20th, while she slept in a hospital room at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, in Los Angeles, surprised most people who knew her, even close friends. Their optimism had sprung, in part, from the legacy of Gilda's comic persona. "She would get knocked down a lot on Saturday Night Live," Zweibel said. "Belushi would knock her down. Jane would knock her down. And she always bounced back. Everyone who knew her felt that she was strong, that she always got up after being knocked down — figuratively and literally — and that she would do it again." Their confidence derived, as well, from Gilda's reserve, her generous impulse to avoid sharing her dread. "What's important to understand," Zweibel continued, "is that whenever she would call, or come over, she wouldn't want to talk about her illness. She would call and ask if I knew any jokes. It was always about the future and about positive things. More than anything, she kept on wanting pictures of my children. I think that because she was so brave, we all thought she would lick it."
There was denial, too. Gilda had tried to explain, on occasion, aspects of her treatment and her illness to Brillstein, but he always found her words difficult to ingest. "It's very tough to focus when someone you love is telling you these things," he said. The last time he saw her, three weeks before her death, Gilda was suffering from jaundice. "But," Brillstein said, "she explained that away. Whether she believed she was going to make it, I'll never know. But she had me convinced."
For all her courage and her comedy, however, Gilda was unable to distract her doctors from the steady progress of her cancer. Despite everything she had endured, she had failed to respond fully to any of her treatments since her diagnosis. In the fall of 1988, she presented her wraith-like ninety-five-pound form to Manhattan chemotherapy specialist Ezra Greenspan. His "cantankerous rabbi" style touched Gilda's funny bone; in her book, she wrote that it was like seeking a medical opinion from Mel Brooks or Willy Wonka. But the optimistic face he wore for Gilda was a mask. "When she called me, two years after her disease began," the doctor admitted, "she was already in a terminal state — only a miracle would have pulled her out."
In December, Gilda returned to Los Angeles, where it was green and sunny. She remained on Greenspan's chemical protocol for one or two weeks, according to the doctor, then made her second break from conventional medicine, turning to a California purveyor of something Greenspan characterized as "very questionable immunotherapy." "I loved Gilda," Greenspan said. "I called her in California. I said, 'Gilda, you can take that damn stuff, but you keep taking the chemo.' " But Gilda went her own way. "Sometimes she cooperated, sometimes she fought like a tiger," the doctor added. "She did what she wanted. It is the whole problem of the psychology of illness in someone who has a dynamic personality. She wanted to be in control."
Gilda theorized it was her lifelong need for control that pulled her into comedy. She liked leading her audience, like lambs, into every laugh — making them laugh. Her last television performance, on It's Garry Shadling's Show in the spring of 1988, revealed her to be at the peak of her power. For Gilda, it was every inch a showbiz comeback. When Shandling opened the door to his stage-set apartment and Gilda entered, she was enveloped in applause. She raised her clenched hands over her head like a prizefighter and reveled in the warmth. Later, sitting in her Connecticut house and recalling the memory, Gilda confessed that when she stepped through that door onto the fake Hollywood set, she was overwhelmed by a feeling of coming home.
"What I remember about that episode and that experience was not a joke or a specific line," Garry Shandling said recently. "It was the gleam in that woman's eye when that door opened and that audience applauded. I knew there was much more going on than a performance."
At the end of her life, according to her friends, Gilda talked enthusiastically about returning to TV. Work, said Zweibel, was how, finally, she hoped she could vanquish cancer. She planned a weekly series in which she would play herself: a comedienne with a TV series. She wanted her show on cable in order to avoid the stress that attends network shows, where ratings rule the lives of their stars. Gilda had learned something about stress in the last few years.
The group that gathered in Connecticut on May 24th for Gilda's funeral was small. She had wanted a private service. She was, in fact, a deeply private person, for all her revelations in her book. That she revealed so much is a testament to her determination to convey the importance of humor and hope to other cancer patients. Gilda didn't see the finished, hard-bound edition of her book until precisely one week before she died. After receiving her first copy, a momentous event for any author, she failed to call her Simon and Schuster editor, Bob Bender, whom she thanks in her acknowledgments. "That's when I knew what bad shape she was in," Bender said. "I had never gone for more than ten days without hearing from her. And the worst she would ever say was 'I'm having a bad day.' "
The rain came down in sheets the day Gilda was buried. Her SNL colleague Laraine Newman, who did not attend, was still shaken, days afterward. "Sometimes, if you have a faith in God, you can evaluate it or see some lesson in it," she said. "But I'm having trouble with this one. I really am."