“Some working actors lost the best years of their lives and don’t know why.” Those words were written by actress/director Lee Grant in her new memoir, “I Said Yes To Everything.” And she should know. She was one of them.
Grant was the “surprise discovery” of the 1950 Broadway season for her role in “Detective Story.” Shortly afterwards, she was discovered by the House Un-American Activities Committee. For a dozen years, from 1952 to 1964 — essentially what could have been the prime of her career — she could not find meaningful work. Often when she did get a job, it was short-lived.
For example, she landed a role on a TV soap opera, “Search for Tomorrow.” But the network canned her after a supermarket owner from Syracuse, N.Y., told the sponsor’s ad agency he would put up a special display asking shoppers if they wanted to “brush their teeth with a product from a company that employs communists.”
Born Lyova Rosenthal, Grant spoke to the Forward about the blacklist, being her own worst enemy, and sending her adopted Thai-American daughter to Rodeph Shalom Day School in Manhattan.
Curt Schleier: Why did you decide to write your memoir now?
Lee Grant: I wrote it because I’ve had a loss of memory of names from the HUAC thing [where she casually mentioned two friends she shouldn’t have]. I have a problem introducing one person to another, and I was afraid it affected other [aspects of my memory]. So I didn’t want to tell my friends or my husband about it [the memory loss] because people get scared for you. So I just decided I’d have to write it all down.
I started at the place that was the biggest turning point in my life, when my [first] husband [Arnold Manoff] said he’d leave me if I took a job [in “The Captains and The Kings”]. We were through. It was a decisive moment. Either I stayed or I worked. [She took the job and her marriage unraveled.] I wanted to explore that time and everything else flowed from that.
Did you realize as you wrote that this was turning out to be a warts-and-all memoir?
I was writing it for myself. If I wasn’t going to be honest with myself at this point in my life, what was the point? It was self-therapy and it worked for me. That’s why I did it, day after day, longhand, for four years. I was my own twin facing myself.
There was a period where it seemed if you didn’t have bad luck you’d have no luck at all.
One forgets that the blacklist community was made up of some of the most stylish and brilliant people in the world. So it was a continuing education for me and a delight to form friendships with Zero and Kate Mostel and Ring [Lardner] and his wife. I loved being with them. I felt blessed in many ways because these are the kinds of people I wanted to be with and they became close friends. I remember you when you were young. You were gorgeous, yet at age 31 you went in for plastic surgery. Why did you do that?
In your eyes [I was attractive]. I was being cast in a play at the time that called for a 26-year-old ingénue. At the time, I hadn’t worked in two years. My husband was not interested in me and was off having an affair. I was at a low psychological point in my life. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I needed to get myself back again. The best thing in my life was to have the face-lift. It helped me enormously. It gave me a certain confidence and brought back some of the 12 years I’d lost.
But there were other problems. Sometimes it seems as if you are your own worst enemy.
[Laughs] I go ahead and do things and take the jump without really knowing where I’m jumping to. And I’m lucky if I land.
You’d forget lines.
I was trapped into saying the names of two women who could have been blacklisted. It was the most huge psychological blow of my life. I couldn’t say names after that. My constant fear was that I would hurt someone else. I don’t know. Maybe it manifested itself in forgetting lines. I was also taking sleeping pills, it was the last week of the show and I was under a lot of pressure.
You write about other issues, though. You froze at times in front of a movie camera.
I think I’d developed a lack of trust in myself. I think I’d crossed a psychological border where I was just at a loss. I wasn’t able to place where I was. I couldn’t pull myself out of it.
Not to belabor this, but while directing an HBO documentary, you brought cocaine into a prison.
[Laughs] I needed it. I was exhausted. And that’s part of what you’re talking about being my own worst enemy. I wasn’t governing myself. I also had a thyroid condition that saps your energy.
Let’s go on to something more pleasant. You were a bat mitzvah.
They called it a confirmation back then. I don’t know why my father sent me. I wasn’t a shining example.
You also experienced a fair amount of anti-Semitism. How did all that impact you?
I had a fear of being Jewish. But later it became a strength.
You sent both your daughters — the actress Dinah Manoff and Belinda, the Thai-American girl you adopted — to Hebrew day school.
It [Rodeph Sholom] was such a warm and encircling place to be for Dinah, a comforting place to go to. When I brought Belinda there, it was a very embracing place. Both Dinah and Belinda speak Hebrew better than I do.