PEOPLEMay 5, 1980
Susan Strasberg’s Autobiography
By the time she was 1-1/2, it was obvious Jenny was limited in her activities. She was not able to run and play with the other children. She could not keep up. She walked slowly, stopping to rest every few feet. The other children played with Jennifer until they tired of her sedentary activities or pace and ran off.
Strasberg played the victim of a 400-tear-old medicine man in the 1978 film, The Manitou. Tony Curtis co-starred.
In addition to this problem, Jenny had a speech impediment, which would be partially corrected by surgery. Her voice was very nasal, and there were certain sounds that she was unable to make or that were barely understandable. At 3-1/2 she underwent successful dental surgery.
Her heart doctor said to me, “There are advantages and disadvantages to waiting longer for her heart surgery. When she’s 5 or 6 she should be stronger, more able to tolerate it. But there’s a danger in waiting too long because she might be psychologically crippled. I have seen that happen to children who, after they are operated on, still think of themselves as being handicapped. For now, as long as she’s not passing out or falling on her hands and knees, we can wait. Those are the danger signs for a child with her condition.
The next years passed too quickly and too slowly. With Jenny’s illness, a different sense of time colored my days. I had a heightened awareness–how quickly now became the past. I was grateful to wake up in the morning, hear Jenny breathing, see her crawl into bed with me.
I partially lost sight of my own life as a woman and an actress during those years as I centered on Jennifer, but I was rewarded by the pleasure of watching her blossom despite her handicaps, seeing her courage.
Jennifer started school On her first day she had to go into the classroom on her own. The other children ran down the stairs, passing her by. I saw her shoulders shrink and then I watched her straighten her back and move purposefully, one step at a time down the stairs clinging to the railing. Whether I liked it or not, I was going to have to let Jenny go. She had to stand on her own two feet.
Shortly after that an actress and her daughter moved in across the street, and the divorced father moved in five houses down. I was pleased because the little girl was just Jenny’s age. “Hi,” she said when she came to introduce herself. She was a pretty, vivacious, extraverted girl. “I’m Jennifer Grant. My mother’s a movie star, Dyan Cannon; my father’s a move star, too, Cary Grant, but he doesn’t work anymore. He just sells perfume (Cary was associated with Faberge). What do you do?” she asked.
I looked at her and cleared my throat. “Well, I act too.”
Cary Grant and his daughter Jennifer were neighbors and friends of Susan and her daughter Jennifer in Malibu.
Cary was lovely with Jennifer. She was not seeing much of her own father and she was longing for male company and attention. I went to pick her up at Cary’s home one evening when his daughter was spending the night. They were all three lying on his king-size bed watching television, Cary in the middle in his pajamas, his arms around the two girls.
He kissed and hugged my child, tossing her in the air as if she were his own. “You’re a lovely girl, Jennifer,” he said. She blushed with pleasure. She had never seen him in a film, but it was obvious he rated star billing in her book.
My girlfriend, Pattie McLaine, an intense, good-natured redhead, was a psychic. We had met when I was pregnant. She had been reading cards for me for four years. Approximately 80% of her predictions had come true. One day she spread her tarot cards out on the red Spanish shawl I was using as a bedspread: “Cut the deck three ways with your right hand toward you,” she said, “and make your wish.” She pulled out three cards and reversed them. “Keep your wish focused in your mind, concentrate on it.” Her voice became deeper.
I sneezed. “I wonder,” I said, “why I always get a cold when you read for me? Nerves? Maybe what I don’t know won’t hurt me?”
“Well,” Pattie said, ignoring my comment, “first of all, you get your wish, whatever it is, and I’d say by early next year.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “Next year is only seven months away.”
“You’ve also got the fulfillment card here, and the cards show that you’re very, very anxious.”
“I’m always anxious these days.” I laughed.
“Your worries are passing within six months.”
“It’s June now. That means December or January.”
“Susan, you’re going to be taking a trip by plane. Someone else is paying, so you’re probably going for work somewhere in this country. The South…yes, I’m sure it’s for work. I see you reading a script, and you’re traveling alone.”
“It’s not very likely I’d leave Jenny to go and do a film,” I said.
“This is a short trip. Not months, maybe a week.”
Pattie moved the cards around. They made a pretty pattern against the florid peacocks and roses of the spread.
“You’re going to meet someone on this trip. A man.”
“Well,” I said, “is that good or bad?”
“This man is going to be very, very important to you. I’d say he’s a Scorpio, young, thirties, maybe forty. Lightish hair, blue eyes and very successful businessman, head of his own business. He has children, too. Maybe… I think he’s divorced. He’s going to be very important to your wish card. He’ll lead you to your wish, whatever it is. Oh, Susan,” she said, “this is… Gee, I’m getting goose bumps.”
“What is it? What do you see?” I leaned forward. The pictures meant nothing to me.
“Jenny is dancing on the beach. She’s twirling around, dancing. It’s sometime next year, early in the year, and Susan, there’s no question…. she’s 100% better.”
“If she is then it will be a miracle,” I said, “because she’s not going to have her open heart surgery for at least a year. I’ve just discussed it with her heart doctor. We’re going to do some preliminary tests in six months, but that’s not going to make her 100% better.” Wistfully I stated, ” I believe in miracles.”
“Well,” Pattie shrugged, “whatever. You’re going to be very happy. I see blessings all around you.”
“God willing,” I said, and knocked on wood.
Five months passed. Jenny, then 5, was scheduled to go to UCLA Hospital for a catheterization to see exactly where the blood was impeded and what might be missing. It required an anesthetic and, as a preparation for her open-heart surgery, it was necessary.
Just before her tests I was committed to appearing in a film a friend of mine, Barney Rosenzweig, was producing. It was a cameo part, little money involved, not a great role, but I said I would do it. It required only a week’s shooting, but it meant being in Little Rock, Arkansas. when they sent a tourist ticket instead of the first-class one my union required, I said, “Look, it’s not worth it. Let’s forget it.”
“Insist on first-class,” Pattie said when I called her.
But by then I had decided I didn’t want to do the film. It required too much energy and time.
That night I dreamed that Faye Dunaway was pulling my hair. She seemed to be asking for something, but I couldn’t figure out what. When I woke the next morning I thought it was strange, but put it out of my mind until my friend Steffi Sidney called.
“Don’t ask,” I said. “I’ve got to call Barney and tell him I can’t do his film. Do you think he’s going to be upset?”
“Don’t worry,” she replied. “I talked to him yesterday, and the actor who’s playing opposite you in your scene is living with Faye Dunaway, and she told Barney if you didn’t, she’d like to do the part.”
“Well,” I said, “if it’s good enough for Faye Dunaway, it’s good enough for me.”
At the Actors Studio Susan chatted with her father, Lee Strasberg, and his third wife, Anna, whom he married in 1968.
The day I left for Little Rock, a friend, Barry Parnell, drove me to the airport. He handed me a huge hardcover book, The Seth Material, by Jane Roberts, saying, “This is for your trip.”
“But it’s enormous. There won’t be time to read it, and it’s too heavy. I only carry paperbacks when I travel. Listen, with my makeup kit and my camera and tape recorder, if I take this book I’ll need a donkey.”
“Take it. I feel it’s important to you.”
On the plane there was no one seated next to me, so I settled down to study my lines and read a bit of the book. It dealt with metaphysical concepts of the world and one’s place in it. After a while I got up to go to the bathroom, placing the book on the seat next to me. When I came back, the man across the aisle came over to me. He was young, just under 40, and had blue eyes.
“Mah name is Louis Dorfman an’ ah hope y’all ‘scuse me,” he said in a Texas drawl, “but ah happened to see the title of the book you’re reading, and ah had a strange experience ah’d like to tell you about.”
Oh, no, I thought. I had hoped to have time to myself on this trip, but impulsively I said, “Please sit down.”
He was on his way home to Dallas after some business in Los Angeles. The plane stopped there on the way to Little Rock. We ordered drinks, and he proceeded to tell me about an astral-projection experience that he had had.
I was fascinated, and we continued to chat. He was a lawyer and businessman, divorced and had two sons. Suddenly, in the midst of this casual conversation, I had an overwhelming urge to tell him about Jenny and her heart operation.
I plunged into her birth defects, her throat operation, her impending tests to be followed eventually by open-heart surgery. When I finished, he looked at me.
“It’s funny,” he said, “one of my good friends in Houston is Denton Cooley. As a matter of fact, I’m going to a party at his house this week. Do you know who Dr. Cooley is?”
“Yes, I know.”
Dr. Denton Cooley was the man I always wanted to do Jennifer’s surgery. I had read about his phenomenal success doing open-heart surgery on children. “May I tell Denton about your little girl?” my new friend asked.
“I would be thrilled. Here, let me write the name of her condition down for you. And this is my phone number. I’ll be in Arkansas and New York until the end of the week. After that, I’m home.”
Dr. Cooley agreed to take a look at Jenny, so I canceled her appointment at UCLA. We headed for Houston. Louis Dorfman took us for a glorious meal with his sons, and the next morning before we checked in at the hospital Jenny ate a breakfast fit for four Marines. She remembered the food she had had on her previous hospital visits.
Most of the day was spent running from one floor to another, doing various tests, EKGs, blood tests. First thing the next morning they sedated her. By the time she left the room she was lying half asleep on the hospital cart. “Mommy, come with me.” Her voice was thick with the medication and her speech defect. “It’s all right,” the nurse said. “You can go with her all the way to the O.R.”
Dr. Cooley came to see me later that day. “We’ve evaluated the tests. The way it looks to us, you couldn’t have come at a better time. I’d like to operate on her.”
“When?” I asked.
“The day after tomorrow.”
“But I hadn’t planned on doing it this soon. Not for at least eight more months. After she’s 6.” My heart was pounding. “It’s just so sudden.”
“Susan,” he looked at me, “my hands will do the best they can. After that, she’s in God’s hands.”
“May I let you know in the morning?” I asked.
He nodded. “But you have to decide so we can make preparations.”
I went into the room. Jenny was still sleeping off her sedation. I talked with a friend about the pros and cons. “We could come back in six months.”
Jennifer sat bolt upright in her bed. “Mommy,” she said firmly, “I want to get it over with now. I don’t want to have to come back.” I decided to go ahead.
The morning of the operation they began sedating her at 5:45. Cooley usually operated on the youngest patients first unless there was an emergency. He was reputed to do between 8 and 12 operations a day, moving from operating room to operating room. The patients were lined up, already cut open, ready for him.
Shortly after 11:30 Dr. Cooley’s assistant came into the waiting room in his green hospital gown. He said to me, “They’re just sewing your daughter up. It was a beautiful job. You’re lucky. Cooley would never tell you this, but I don’t think any other surgeon could have done what he did. There was more damage inside her than had been indicated in the tests.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for coming to tell me.” Tears of joy streamed down my face.
When they finally let me see Jenny, I was prepared for the tubes coming out of her mouth, the needle in her arm, the tubes in her nose, the wide bandage across the center of her chest. What caught me off guard were her fingernails and toenails. For the first time since her birth, they were glowing pink like rosy seashells.
“How long do think it will be before she comes back to her room?” I asked the nurse.
“If her fever goes down and her lungs are fairly clear, she could be back late tonight, but more likely by morning.”
They wheeled her in early, with the sun, the next morning. The day we left for home, they handed me a slip of paper reading:
Operative Procedure 11/10/71. Total correction. Dacron patch to VSD. Resection of infundibulum. Excision of pulmonary value pericardial patch to pulmonary outflow tract. Direct closure of ASD.
I comprehended little of that, but then it read: Condition on discharge: Not treated. Diagnose only. Improved. Not improved. Recovered. Died.
“Recovered” was circled in blue ink. It was such an ordinary word.
Nearly a decade after her surgery, Jennifer Jones, 14 is a healthy seventh-grader. She will never be a great athlete, her mother says, mostly because “she’s a dreamer.” Lately, Jennifer has developed an interest in horseback riding at her co-ed board school on Long Island. She wants to be a writer.
Jennifer’s father, Christopher Jones, appeared in Three in the Attic, Wild in the Streets and The Looking Glass War before landing the memorable role of Major Dorian in the 1970 classic Ryan’s Daughter. Since then, he has devoted himself to painting. He lives in Los Angeles with an artisan and their 2-year-old son, Christopher, Jr.
After years in California, Strasberg is now re-acquainting herself with Manhattan. She lives alone in a West Side apartment and sees Jennifer on weekends. Louis Dorfman, the Texas businessman who recommended Dr. Cooley, is still a friend.
The actress appeared recently in the NBC miniseries Beggarman, Thief and has been featured in such movies as In Praise of Older Women and Roller-Coaster. But writing, not acting, is Strasberg’s passion nowadays. She is working on her first novel, Loveknots, which is the saga of a Southern family. “A great performance like Lady Macbeth may be forgotten,” Susan Strasberg says. “Writing endures.”
Susan Strasberg left the earth on January 21, 1999. Her daughter, Jennifer, is alive and well in southern California. Susan was a wonderful friend. I still miss her, but she comes around to visit me now and then. I’ve asked her to throw me a party on the other side when I get there. She always gave great parties. She was the Qabalistic godmother of both of my children. I assume she’s still looking out for them from the other side. Susan’s other book about her friendship with Marilyn Monroe: MARILYN AND ME Sisters, Rivals, Friends, was published by Warner Books in 1992.