My husband Bob remembers that he saw Ricky Nelson as the cool guy he longed to be and Annette, blooming into puberty on "The Mickey Mouse Club" for a generation of enchanted young boys, as the perfect symbol of sweet sensuality.
When all of this was going on, I wasn't among the admirers of Elvis or Ricky. Instead, from the time I was nine years old, I was totally enamored with Cyril Ritchard, the 50-something Australian actor who played Captain Hook in Mary Martin's "Peter Pan". He was the villain, but I knew he was kidding. I knew in my heart that he was a good man pretending to be bad. He was about the same height and build as my father -- but, despite his campy villainy, he projected a winning combination of warmth, silliness, outrageous humor and dignity. I felt safe when I thought of him. And, in a home where, at times, I was very frightened of my raging, alcoholic father, I thought of him a lot.
I used to fantasize that he would somehow meet and marry my beloved Aunt Molly -- both were single, after all, he a recent widower, she never married -- and they would adopt me and my siblings and we would live happily and safely ever after.
I used to write him an occasional fan letter -- and he would always write back, in his own hand, on his personal stationery with his home address on Central Park West in New York or from his country home in Connecticut. I treasured the short, but kind letters that were so adult, yet non-condescending.
I used to cut out and save any articles I could find about him. He was in his most active period -- starring on Broadway, on television, directing Broadway shows and operas at the Met. And yet there was never enough press on him to satisfy me. Aunt Molly, a professional writer who found my love for Mr. Ritchard both touching and amusing, stepped in -- writing a series of phony press releases about him that used stills from old silent films. I thought they were hilarious.
Three of Aunt Molly's Mock Press Releases
My father laboriously copied them in his photo lab and we sent a bunch of them to my idol. He replied with delight that they were "excruciatingly funny! I have put them in a very special section of my scrapbook and was showing them to my dear friend Walter Pidgeon last night. He wishes someone would write something like that for him, too! Please extend my warmest thanks to your Aunt Molly! She is very clever, indeed!"
My heart leapt for joy!
I was even more excited when he came to Los Angeles with "Visit to a Small Planet" and invited me, my brother and my friend Mary Laing, to visit him in his dressing room after the matinee performance we attended. It was one of the happiest times of my childhood.
He greeted us enthusiastically, laughing when I shyly told him that I thought he was more handsome than Rock Hudson. "I can assure you, my dear, that no one has ever told me that before," he said, smiling. "But sit down and tell me about you. I want to know about all of you."
And so we sat and told him our likes and dislikes, our hopes and dreams. He asked questions and, most of all, he listened, his attention never wavering. We told him about our teachers and our pets and a myriad of details about our lives. I quietly told him that my father sometimes frightened me a lot. He took my hand.
We talked about faith and the power of God to heal the most painful wounds. He said that his faith had saved him when his only child, a son, passed away shortly after birth and when his beloved wife died of cancer. He assured me that faith could be my greatest support and greatest joy, too, and that it was something we would always share. He hugged me as we said goodbye and I felt a wonderful sense of safety and love.
Afterwards, I called Aunt Molly, who was living and working in Ohio at that time, to tell her the news. "Oh," she said, her voice choked with emotion. "I'm so glad! I'm so happy for you that he is such a good man, such a kind soul. I'm so glad he didn't disappoint you."
He never did -- even though he never met and thus never married Aunt Molly. Even though he never adopted me. Even though I never saw him in person again, the memory of his warmth and kindness, the interest he took in us, in me, when we visited was sustaining. The shared faith kept me hopeful through many dark times.
And I delighted in seeing his television performances and listening to him read "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" on boxed LP's Aunt Molly gave me for my 12th birthday -- records I treasure to this day. And I read articles about him with new understanding -- particularly when Sondra Lee, who had played Tiger Lily in the Broadway production and in all three television broadcasts of "Peter Pan" described him in one as "an absolutely delicious human being, the kindest person I have ever known."
Many years later, when he came to Los Angeles with the Broadway musical "Sugar", there was a free Actors Equity/Screen Actors Guild showing. A close friend of mine, actor Maurice Sherbanee, got tickets. But, at the last minute, I had to go on a business trip and couldn't attend. Maurice went by himself and phoned me later that night to say he was so glad I had missed the show. Cyril Ritchard had had a heart attack onstage, had gone into cardiac arrest and was revived by co-star Larry Kert who quickly administered CPR. "It was terrible," Maurice said. "He nearly died right there in front of everyone. I'm so glad you didn't have to see it." I sent Mr. Ritchard a note when he was recovering at home in Connecticut. He replied that the episode had been frightening but now he was feeling "wonderfully well and my day was brightened even more by your kind note."
Three years later, the outcome wasn't nearly as positive. Appearing in the National Company of "Side By Side, By Sondheim" in Chicago, he had another heart attack just offstage during a Thanksgiving performance. He was admitted to Northwestern Medical Center where he died on December 18, 1977 shortly after turning 80. I heard the news when I was in San Francisco working with Dr. Chuck Wibbelsman on our first book. Knowing my long affection for Cyril Ritchard, Çhuck brought me the newspaper, then embraced me.