Stella! The Book Trailer for the First Biography


Stella Adler Video Links

stella-adler-jpegAn author is supposed to market her book a year after its release. I haven’t been as diligent as most, but after spending over a decade of my life with Stella, I have moved on. I’m an artist, after all and although Stella would say one should play Hamlet or Medea over a lifetime to really nail the role, I have other roles to play as a writer, mother, and wife.  Still, it dawned on me as I was perusing this blog that I hadn’t linked all the amazing videos on my Stella Adler YouTube channel. These include riveting teaching lectures (like the one below), others talking about Stella, and the PBS documentary on her life — all of which you can find here.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll never be through with Stella. She’s a part of me now. But I’m concentrating on a memoir to help heal a chronic illness I grapple with on a daily basis. I take my lead from Stella who lived her life through art, both the suffering and the joy.

If you have read Stella!, it would be a wonderful “thank you” to me to write a brief review on the book’s Amazon page. Only 24 people have reviewed it to date, and I need all the 5 STAR reviews I can get.(If you don’t want to give it 5 Stars, I’d rather you not post a review as it will lower the book’s ranking.) So, if you have a few minutes and a few words about the book, please leave them at the book’s Amazon page here. 


Stella Stories: Acting and Sex

Stella in "Love on Toast" (1938)

Stella in “Love on Toast” (1938)

Once when Stella was speaking about Lee Strasberg’s fame as a teacher, Stella called attention to the fact that Strasberg was great at publicity. She ventured that had she taught acting with a sexual approach, she would have been just as famous, meaning that sex sells just like Strasberg’s “method” sells. I bring this up because I recently met one Albert Erdynast who was a friend of Stella’s when she was in her early eighties. They had what one might call a loveship, not consummated, but romantic in nature. Erdynast shared the following anecdote with me, which he happened to write in a piece titled “Conversational Interests: Sex Is a Conversation.”

In 1981, Stella Adler, the acting coach, had a dinner in honor of Christopher Isherwood, who had won a Pulitzer Prize. Among the guests at the dinner were Isherwood’s partner, portrait artist Don Bachardy and Chancellor of the California State University Dr. Ann Reynolds. During the dinner talk, Stella Adler who had asked me to accompany her to dinner parties and other events while she was in Los Angeles, turned to me and asked several questions in succession. The entire dinner table had lost temporary interest in whatever it was they were chatting about and gave their attention to our exchanges.

Stella Adler began with, “After these dinner events, Al, do you go home to your wife?”

I answered, “No, Stella, I am not married.” It had not occurred to Stella herself, early in her marriage to Harold Clurman, that she was not supposed to accept dinner invitations alone. Her then mother-in-law pulled her aside one evening to educate her about proper marital etiquette saying, “Stella, when you are married you are not supposed to date.” Astonished, Stella said, “Really?”

Stella then followed with, “When you go home, after these evenings, do you go home to your girlfriend?”

I answered, “No, Stella, I don’t have a girlfriend at this time.”

Stella then asked, “Well then, Al, what do you do for sex?”

I have asked others, since then, how they would answer such a question.

At that occasion, my answer was this: “In those matters, I am of the same persuasion as the two philosophers Immanuel Kant and Mae West. “Work is the ultimate satisfaction and sex is the ultimate distraction.”

Stella received my answer by declaring that her choice was the same. “On my bed in New York,” she said, “I have fifty books instead of a man.”

Since this exchange, Erdynast has asked others how they answered the same question the last time they were asked that question at a formal dinner. How would you respond?

Adler vs. Strasberg: How do Actors Achieve Emotional Truth?

An animated Stella telling a story with an impassive Strasberg looking on.

An animated Stella telling a story with an impassive Strasberg looking on.

Few people realize how young acting is as an art form compared to music, literature, and painting. By the time the father of modern acting craft, Constantin Stanislavski, had begun developing a systematic approach toward performance, the profession had barely evolved since its Greco-Roman histrionics of grand gestures, masks, and loud vocal bouts in order to reach the gods. Being the only American teacher to have studied with Stanislavski, Stella would synthesize the master’s system with her own experience growing up on the Yiddish stage under the tutelage of her parents. But when she agreed to join the Group Theatre—the Depression-era theater company that focused on socially conscious plays—Stella was young and willing enough to follow the Group’s director, Lee Strasberg, even though she didn’t agree with his methods. Below is an excerpt from Stella! Mother of Modern Acting during the Group Theatre’s first summer of rehearsals in 1931, describing the notorious debate between Adler and Strasberg that has become the most disputed polemic in modern acting.

(This excerpt was part of a three-part series published in Actors Daily)

The argument over whether an actor should use real emotion or acquire an external technique to play a character is an age-old debate. Prior to Stanislavski, little had been written about how an actor develops a role. The director Jack Garfein points out in his book Life and Acting: Techniques for the Actor:

Up until the time of Stanislavski’s published work and V. I. Pudovkin’s Film Acting and Technique, there existed only two well-known books on the subject—one by Francois Delsarte filled with illustrative clichés (“Put your hand on your heart to show love”) and a philosophical one by Diderot, The Paradox of Acting. In his book, Diderot is trying to comprehend the nature of the actor’s emotions on stage and the ones he experiences in actuality. He is unable to differentiate.[i]

The Group Theatre doing the "thinking actor" pose.

The Group Theatre doing the “thinking actor” pose.

The first summer at Brookfield, however, Stella was years away from developing her own technique. Like her fellow actors, she tried her best to follow Strasberg’s direction, but she was finding affective memory a troublesome mandate. She had grown up researching her character, his or her historical period and every detail therein down to the selection of costume and makeup, which was all carefully thought out so that when she was onstage she was free to inhabit the character. It was distracting to simultaneously experience the character and also focus on a personal memory that in her mind had no relevance to her character. Later she observed, “You couldn’t be on stage thinking of your own personal life. It was just schizophrenic.”[ii]

Stella had a point, which Strasberg himself brought home in class years later by explaining how the actor must

face the problem of bringing it [affective memory] into the scene he is playing. He must fuse his personal emotion with the character and event he is portraying. For example, when the actor’s partner is speaking, he listens and answers naturally, but at the same time [author’s italics] he tries to concentrate on the objects of his own event and thus to fuse his material with the author’s. . . . In the Group Theatre, where we worked with affective memory in production, we would set a definite amount of time. We would allow the actor a minute before the emotion was needed to carry out the affective memory.[iii]

Throughout the sweltering summer, the idealism that accompanies youth and experimentation ambled through the grounds with the country breeze. When spirits grew restless, when affective memory exercises, listening to the Victrola, swimming, playing tennis, and loafing around in pajamas grew monotonous, some of the actors asked to return to the city for a night on the town. Wary of any desire for “a world outside the group,”[iv] Clurman felt disheartened by these requests. He wanted the actors to cherish their limited time at Brookfield, knowing how quickly their summer would come to an end.[v]

Within this idyllic atmosphere romances abounded, some stable, others, like Harold and Stella’s, stormy. Morris Carnovsky and Phoebe Brand roomed together and would later marry, as did Strasberg and Paula Miller. Others, such as the young recruit Clifford Odets, would mail daily love letters to Eunice Stoddard, whose bungalow was walking distance from his, but she never answered his missives. Luther Adler made the trip to the country to partake in the amorous possibilities.

Tall and fair, with chiseled facial features as opposed to Stella’s soft ones, Luther had recently turned twenty-eight. He was as charming as Stella was charismatic, both having inherited Jacob’s sex appeal. Luther felt as disturbed as Stella by the lack of artistic integrity on Broadway compared to the Yiddish theater. Clurman’s collective seemed an attractive alternative.

Predictably, cliques formed among the twenty-eight actors. Bobby Lewis—the youngest thespian of the group—and Sanford Meisner gravitated toward Stella and Harold. In the evenings, while Odets repeatedly played an E-minor chord on the piano and Franchot Tone played chess, Stella would tell stories about the Yiddish theater. Finally giving up on Eunice Stoddard, Odets began setting his sights on a different girl every week, most of whom steered clear of him. One night, he proceeded to throw a billiard ball at Margaret Barker’s door—behind which she was securely ensconced. The racket was numbing. Finally, Stella bellowed, “Clifford, if you don’t turn out to be a genius, I’ll never speak to you again.”[vi]

In an interview in 1966, Stella succinctly stated why she did not use affective memory with her students: “A student is encouraged to respect his creative, imaginative life as a source for his acting craft. To go back to a feeling or emotion of one’s own experience I believe to be unhealthy. It tends to separate you from the play, from the action of the play, from the circumstances of the play, and from the author’s intention. All this has to be embodied in the action.”[vii] Equally important, Stella stressed, was knowing the cultural and political circumstances of the characters and their setting.

While teaching The Glass Menagerie, Stella would tell the actors in the scene to “create the room.” She would say, “Are the drapes torn? Whose picture is on the wall? Washington? Put something there that’s very American. What kind of view does she have? A fire escape. What’s on the other fire escapes? The key is ‘drab’—not just the room, the life. It’s lower-middle-class life. The Gentleman Caller is not of exactly that same class. Know the difference in their larger circumstances.”[viii] Then with Stella’s finesse of mixing pedagogy and humor, she would prod: “C’mon, get going! You can’t be stupid if you’re a modern actor. You have to be sharp. You don’t have to be so intelligent in Shakespeare. He’s a giant, so he carries you—if you speak ever so precisely and have lots of good teeth.”[ix]

For someone as “emotionally fluent” as Stella,[x] using psychological exercises to create emotion was akin to a typist concentrating on each keystroke even after having memorized the keyboard. The natural flow of typing would be hindered, just as thinking about emotion tripped Stella up. She would rather experience the emotion by doing. A correlative conjecture could be applied to Strasberg, who was notoriously aloof and unapproachable. Delving inward to unleash what is sublimated may be useful for such a personality.

Strasberg was a perfectionist. He worked tirelessly to make every movement in a scene matter. No one questioned his authority. Egos could not be tolerated; actors unwilling to listen were unacceptable. “Lee was a God to us,” Phoebe Brand remembered. “We truly admired him. We wanted to do what he wanted even if we didn’t always understand.”[xi] By the middle of the summer the actors began calling him Dr. Strasberg. He kept strict rules where he worked; the barn was deemed a sacred place. Anyone caught smoking or reading a magazine during rehearsal was subject to Strasberg’s explosive temper. During one rehearsal, Strasberg directed Morris Carnovsky in a scene in which he had to climb atop a table and raise a glass. Frustrated with repeatedly climbing up onto the table, Carnovsky finally retaliated by throwing his glass down. The room stilled to silence, and Strasberg exploded. “You! You are committing a central crime against the whole spirit of the group. We are aiming to form a collective theater here. For anyone to transgress is a crime.”[xii]

Between Crawford’s pragmatism and Strasberg’s despotism, Clurman remained the voice of inspiration, with his fervent theatrical ideology. The company had the responsibility of studying and working together on a theater that addressed the sociopolitical milieu of the Depression. Within this microcosm there would be no stars. Everyone would have equal billing and equal work on a project, which meant that if you were the lead in a play one season, you might serve as a stagehand the next. The democratic ideals were nice in theory for Stella, but she preferred playing lead roles. From the beginning, this sense of entitlement, coupled with her aristocratic temperament, aggravated her relationship with the company. As in her childhood, she struggled to integrate.

[i] Jack Garfein, Life and Acting: Techniques for the Actor (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010), 67.

[ii] Chinoy, “Reunion: A Self-Portrait of the Group,” 508.

[iii] Hethmon, Strasberg at the Actors Studio, 111.

[iv] Smith, Real Life Drama, 45.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Robert Lewis, Slings and Arrows: Theatre in My Live (New York: Stein & Day, 1984), 44.

[vii] Paul Gray, “The Reality of Doing: Interviews with Vera Soloviova, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner,” in Stanislavski and America, ed. Erika Munk (New York: Hill & Wang, 1966), 217.

[viii] Stella Adler, On America’s Master Playwrights, 230.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Chinoy, “Reunion: A Self-Portrait of the Group,” 508.

[xi] Adams, Lee Strasberg, 123.

[xii] Ibid., 124.

When Audience and Actors Were One: “Waiting for Lefty”

Waiting For Lefty

While writing Stella Adler’s biography I discovered a strange phenomenon: many American actors are unaware of the history of acting. Some even boast they don’t practice their craft, attend acting classes or work terribly hard on a role, which would be tantamount to me, an author, saying I don’t revise my writing, study other writers or research and build my stories, settings and characters. If you’re reading this now, you probably aren’t one of those actors. You’re probably aware that practice hones your talent. You’re probably aware of the history and evolution of American acting—at least to the extent that that story has been told. Stella! Mother of Modern Acting, the first biography of Stella Adler, spirits you along that evolution through the eyes and life story of one of acting’s most loyal guardians. Last week I posted one of three handpicked excerpts from Stella’s biography, including what follows: the legendary, first performance of Clifford Odets’ revolutionary play “Waiting for Lefty.”

(These excerpts were originally published in Daily Actor)

Studio Portrait of Stella circa 1935 when "Waiting for Lefty" was first produced

Studio Portrait of Stella circa 1935 when “Waiting for Lefty” was first produced

When Stella was a child, two world-renowned actors came to play at Jacob’s Grand Theatre. One of the visitors gave Stella a hat with two rabbits on it that she was quite fond of and wore to watch the production. Normally Stella was either backstage or onstage. This night she sat in the audience. From her box seat Stella could feel the excitement of the playgoers shuffling in, the intangible anticipation of a night at the theater and the wonderful, although sometimes tragic, world the entire house would enter. Yiddish audiences didn’t adhere to the concept of the fourth wall: they cried and laughed with each other and the players onstage. Being at the theater was like being in one’s living room, absorbing one another and the characters in the play as a unit, a family. Stella marveled at how life and theater mingled into one undeniable happening night after night.

Being in the audience, however, was an exciting change for the girl. Before the play began, she couldn’t take her eyes off the red plush stage curtain, which was embroidered in gold and green satin thread with a tableau of colorful scenes.[i] Stella studied the two-dimensional work of art spread out in front of her, promising to unveil a world that would spirit her away.

Some two decades, later on January 6, 1935, Stella found herself again sitting in an audience. Instead of her father’s theater, she was at Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre watching Odets’s Waiting for Lefty. An announcement was tucked in on a throwaway leaflet of the program without the playwright’s name on it. It simply said that the cast of Golden Eagle Guy, the latest Group Theatre production, would present the play.

Stella’s mother and elder brother Jay accompanied her. After sitting through a short play by Paul Green and a dance performance, the audience relaxed to wait through the final act of a typical benefit show. Stella knew better. She had heard Odets’s play the previous October with the rest of the Group. The show about to begin was no ordinary play.

Waiting for Lefty opens with six or seven cab drivers sitting in a semicircle, working-class men dressed the part. Morris Carnovsky, playing Harry Fatt, says: “You’re so wrong I ain’t laughing. Any guy with eyes to read knows it. Look at the textile strike—out like lions in like lambs.”

The audience immediately identified the sound and demeanor of the common New Yorker off the street, and as the other actors chimed in about the question of a strike, the viewers leaned forward as if to jump from their seats and join the debate. Clurman watched from the side: “The first scene of Lefty had not played two minutes when a shock of delighted recognition struck the audience like a tidal wave. Deep laughter, hot assent, a kind of joyous fervor seemed to sweep the audience toward the stage. The actors no longer performed; they were being carried along as if by an exultancy of communication such as I had never witnessed in the theater before. Audience and actors had become one.”[ii]

That winter was a particularly harsh one, the Atlantic Ocean packed with ice from Nantucket Island to the mainland, but the sincerity of Odets’s characters warmed the spirits of an audience weather-worn and beleaguered by three long years of an economic depression. The previous year’s passage of the National Recovery Act and its section giving employees the right to organize “and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing . . . free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers” prompted the formation of labor unions across the nation, demanding better work conditions and wages.[iii] Odets’s prescient play voiced the anger and promise of the new year, a year in which 1,834 work stoppages and strikes stirred up industry across the country.[iv]

At the close of Lefty, the audience is directly addressed: “Well, what’s the answer?” Odets and a couple other stagehands had rehearsed to reply, “Strike!” To the actors’ astonishment, another cry of “Strike!” echoed across the auditorium, and then another, until an entire choir of “Strike! Strike!” erupted as hundreds of people rose from their seats, stomping their feet so relentlessly that Ruth Nelson later recalled her fear that “they’re going to bring the balcony down!”[v] Applause and approval shook the house for forty-five minutes and a total of twenty-six curtain calls, at which point the audience stormed the stage. Cheryl Crawford later recalled how the audience “wouldn’t leave. I was afraid they were going to tear the seats out and throw them on the stage.”[vi]

The playwright watched, astonished by the audience’s reaction: “There was such an at-oneness with audience and actors that the actors didn’t know whether they were acting, and the audience got up and shouted ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ and . . . I found myself up on my feet shouting, ‘Bravo, Luther!’ In fact, I was part of the audience. I forgot I wrote the play. . . . The proscenium arch disappeared . . . when that happens . . . not by technical innovation, but when that happens emotionally and humanly, then you will have great theater.”[vii]

Stella had experienced the disappearance of the proscenium all her life. She understood how adversity unites people who otherwise—during socioeconomic and cultural stability—tend to isolate from their fellow man. A theater that acknowledges the intimate undercurrent of the spectators’ lives will stir that audience in ways even the greatest tragedies cannot. Once again the union of life and theater, a coupling that was the essence of her own existence, revealed itself to her.

With an audience reluctant to leave, the stage manager finally closed the curtain, clearing the audience out onto the street, where they remained discussing the play. Sara Adler was surprised that the playwright was the same man who, when visiting their home, scavenged the plentiful bread on the table. Odets had been used to eating “shredded wheat,” recalling that, “when I saw all that Jewish bread on the table, I’d just die.”[viii] Sara congratulated Odets while Jay ingratiatingly asked the young playwright for his first autograph.

Adrenaline and triumph took the cast and crew out into the night, embracing and laughing, raucously reliving what only a few hours earlier had enlarged their perception of the potential of theater. It was a vessel to empower the people, just as Clurman had preached in his Friday-evening talks. Wandering deliriously through the streets, some of the cast ended up in cafés and bars, unwilling to surrender the night. Odets finally settled into a cafeteria with his codirector, Sanford Meisner, who watched “Clifford at one of those long tables, very, very pale, tense, and absolutely quiet. He seemed like a person in shock.”[ix] Twilight nudged everyone home. By the following year Waiting for Lefty would be more frequently produced and more frequently banned all over the world—from Union Square to Moscow, from Tokyo to Johannesburg—than any other play in theatrical history.”[x]


[i] Stella Adler, in discussion with friends, August 29, 1987, audiocassette, Irene Gilbert Collection.

[ii] Clurman, The Fervent Years, 147–48.

[iii] Watkins, The Great Depression, 168.

[iv] Ibid., 170.

[v] Smith, Real Life Drama, 198.

[vi] Ibid., 199.

[vii] Brenman-Gibson, Clifford Odets, 316.

[viii] Ibid., 317.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid., 316.

When Stella Adler Gave Marlon Brando an Ultimatum

brando_cigAlthough in the public’s mind Marlon Brando was the quintessential “method actor,” he did not study with Lee Strasberg. In 1943 at the age of 19, Brando went to New York and enrolled at the New School’s Dramatic Workshop where he met the woman who would teach him acting craft, launch his career in the theater, and also give him a “syllabus for living.” Stella took Brando under her wing and brought him into her circle of Jewish artists and intellectuals, exposing him to culture, painting and music. She also had a lovely sixteen-year-old daughter who Brando started dating. As you’ll read in the following excerpt from Stella! Mother of Modern Acting, Stella had several reasons for keeping the youths apart. Ellen Adler and Brando would remain life-long friends. I was surprised while conducting interviews with Ellen that she and Marlon spoke on the phone every week up until his death in 2004. 

(The following excerpt was originally published as a three-part series in  The Daily Actor)

Like Stella Adler, Brando loved to imitate people, no one more so than his teacher. The composer David Diamond was among the stream of guests that frequented Stella’s apartment. Diamond remembered how Brando’s “parrot routine,” as they referred to it, went: “She’s talking, and when Stella talks nobody else talks. So Marlon is imitating every gesture.” After ten or fifteen minutes of ignoring Marlon’s antics, Stella, dressed in her peignoir with nothing on underneath, crossed her legs, “which are rather full down around the calves but gorgeous, gorgeous thighs. The peignoir just simply opened and this leg was there. So what does Marlon do? He takes off his pants, and there he is in his boxer shorts crossing his leg over, showing his thigh.”[i]

Here's the young Brando in "I Remember Mama"

Here’s the young Brando in “I Remember Mama”

Upon Stella’s recommendation, Brando agreed to audition for a part in what became his first Broadway show, I Remember Mama. The play’s producers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, were still riding the coattails of their highly successful Oklahoma!, and an unknown like Brando was lucky to be in such company. Rehearsals for Mama began just as Ellen finished her liberal arts study at Bard College. She invariably found herself spending much of her time at the Music Box Theatre. Fran Heflin, also in the cast of Mama, remembered sometimes hiding Ellen in her dressing room whenever Stella came storming into the theater looking for the shvartze (literally, someone dark-skinned, and the term Stella used derisively for Ellen) to send home.[ii] “She wanted to break up the relationship,” Heflin recalled. “It was the only time in my life I saw her strike a maternal pose, and remember I’d known Stella for years since Van, my brother, had been in the Group.”[iii]

Many viewed Stella’s reprisals as a form of jealousy. Physically, Ellen and Stella were opposites. Ellen’s dark features contrasted with Stella’s fair skin and light eyes. Brando’s biographer described Ellen as “striking . . . a dark gypsy type with coal black hair, quick eyes, and a sense and presence that many found disturbingly precocious.”[iv] Robert Ellenstein, one of Ellen’s suitors at the time, remarked how Stella would dress Ellen down in little girls’ dresses—implying that Stella wanted the dark, classically beautiful Ellen to remain subordinate to her.

According to one account, during the production of Mama a cast member walked into Brando’s dressing room and saw Stella and Brando on the floor, the latter naked. Rumors about Brando and Stella abounded, which were fueled by the fact that Stella did not go to any lengths to hide her sexual exploits even though she was now married to Harold [Cluman]. Another boyfriend of Ellen’s from Bard remembered that he and Ellen often went out with Stella and one of her male friends—usually “an older guy with a lot of money who would take us out for delicious dinners.”[v]

I Remember Mama opened on October 19, 1944, and put Brando on the map as a new force in the theater. Stella became concerned about how much Ellen and Brando were seeing of one another. One day she called Brando to the Plaza. Her agitation increasing as the conversation came to a head, she finally bellowed: “You are not to see Ellen anymore until you marry her!”[vi] Several waiters dropped their trays. The piercing demand startled them not merely because of its volume, but because it carried the tone of a royal decree. Barely in his twenties with an unremitting sexual appetite, Brando would have found the idea of marriage unnerving—as Stella knew. As for the rumors about Stella herself, Brando excised them when he wrote in his autobiography: “We had a lot of flirtatious exchanges, and I suppose that somewhere not far beyond the horizon there was the possibility of a real encounter, but it never materialized.”[vii]

The next two excerpts from Stella! Mother of Modern Acting will appear here in the following week.

[i] Peter Manso, Brando, 112.

[ii] Ibid., 153.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., 151.

[v] Ibid., 152.

[vi] Elaine Stritch, in discussion with the author, November 8, 2004.

[vii] Marlon Brando, Songs My Mother Taught Me, with Robert Lindsey (New York: Random House, 1994), 99.

Method, Script & Action: Holland Taylor on Stella Adler

Holland-TaylorWhile writing Stella Adler’s biography, I interviewed Holland Taylor, but I didn’t videotape our conversation. Thankfully, we have this five minute video, in which Taylor crystallizes Stella’s teachings as accurately as any student of Stella’s I’ve heard. Disciples truly do carry on the work. 


When Stella! Arrived at My Door


Stella! at Book Soup (my reflections is in the photo)

Stella! at Book Soup (my reflections is in the photo)

When I heard the distinctive thud of boxes being delivered at my door by our mail carrier, I knew they were author’s copies Stella Adler’s biography. I didn’t rush out to bring them in as I had imagined I would, but left them on the porch. There were more important things to attend to such as editing a Youtube video of me talking about the book, returning emails to bloggers for whom I might guest blog, and pitching an event to yet another venue for my upcoming book tour.

This maelstrom of marketing, of going to bed at night with a new to-do list percolating in my mind has consumed me for over six months: revamp my website, map out my blog posts, find book reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads, make a book trailer, and on and on. The arrival of my book at the door was a quiet thump in the din of the roaring high-speed train from which I could not disembark.

That night my husband came home and carried in the books, his phone camera at the ready to catch me seeing my book for the first time. I pulled a copy out. It was a solid hardback unlike the paperback galley copies. My husband, my copyeditor and I had meticulously gone over each page from my acknowledgments to the last endnote, many times. I wanted an error-free book. I didn’t even take a break on holidays leading up to turning in the final manuscript, working with a stomach full of turkey and gravy after Thanksgiving dinner, and with crumpled wrapping paper still strewn across the living room on Christmas day, reading and rereading for typos, misused words, incorrect spacing.

Judy Garland with barber shop background, 1945I opened the book and slowly began reading the first paragraph of the inside cover flap, which I quickly realized was not what I had entrusted to the copy editor. It reads: “Stella mentored successive generations of superstars, including Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor–” and I snapped the book closed and almost hurled it across the room. How did this error occur? Stella Adler did not mentor these two actresses and I never wrote that she had.

After proclaiming for over a decade that I was writing the book in service to Stella, a labor of love to reclaim her legacy, it suddenly became a lot about me. How would this inaccuracy reflect on my credibility? Writers don’t have room for ego. Still, I haven’t picked up the book again except to cite the erroneous quote above. I’m not a masochist. At some point, I will take that book flap off and look at the biography, hold it, smell it, see the photograph inserts I painstakingly chose, but I don’t know when.

The books are still lying in their boxes, covered with postcards and flyers and envelopes and labels–the mayhem of my marketing efforts. The excitement of their arrival has worn off, and I figure I’ll take a look when life settles down and I can appreciate it. Besides, I couldn’t bear more errors. But don’t worry—this story ends well. You know in the movies when a beleaguered writer or perhaps the unrequited lover of a washed up author suddenly stops by a bookshop window to find the book displayed, all shiny and new? I know it’s cliché, but it happened to me. I dropped by a local bookstore where I was scheduled to appear to leave flyers. As I left the store, something made me go back and look at the storefront window. There I was, a poster with my name in big letters, advertising the event. And there was my book, actually a few of them lined up neatly.

I felt so giddy I went back to my car to do what my husband had tried to do when my books arrived in the mail: grab my phone to capture the moment. It seems appropriate that my first time “seeing” my book should be behind a window, removed, unreachable, because I never really completed it. Paul Valéry wrote, “A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.”

I feel that way about Stella Adler’s biography. After thirteen years, I made a conscious decision to wrap it up by signing a publishing contract and becoming beholden to a deadline. I could have spent another decade writing her story, and though I don’t feel I abandoned the book, at a certain point I just had to let it go, realizing that I have other books to write. Next time, however, I’ll have the wisdom to give myself a break, to allow myself the luxury of congratulating myself instead of judging the work. I’ll hear my new books arrive in the mail and carry them in myself to honor the accomplishment.

This was originally published in the “My First Time” series at The Quivering Pen. I also mentioned the book cover flap error attributing Stella with having mentored Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor in the post “The First Biography of Stella! is Here.” This is the whole, true story of seeing my book in print for the first time. I have since held, opened, smelled and perused my book. 


Stella Stories: The Never Ending Yarn of Family Portrait

Bonnie Adler Lowenthal and me, 2014

Bonnie Adler Lowenthal (Stella’s cousin) and me, 2014

After Stella Adler’s biography was published, I learned of a family member I never met, a cousin Bonnie Adler Lowenthal who lives in Long Beach, less than an hour from Los Angeles where I reside. I was honored Bonnie attended  “Stella: A Life in Art,” a celebration held at the Stella Adler Academy and Theatres in Hollywood to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Stella’s teaching career and, of course, her first biography. Through Bonnie, I learned of yet another cousin of Stella’s, Eric Brown. Together they told me about the “other” half of the Adler clan: Jacob Adler’s sister, Sara, and her offspring (yes another Sara Adler!). Sara had remained in Russia after most Jews fled the persecution of the Russian pale. Jacob risked his life to reenter Odessa and bring his sister and her brood of children to New York. A rift between the two sides of the family ensued as the bohemian, theatrical Jacob and his children didn’t mix with the “conservative,” other half of the family who went into retail.

Francine Larrimore, 1937 (Broadway star and Stella Adler's cousin)

Francine Larrimore, 1937 (Broadway star and Stella Adler’s cousin. Larrimore was a name taken from a Lexington Avenue drugstore.)

And yet the famed Broadway star Francine Larrimore came from this “other” side of the family. Stella looked up to her cousin who had managed to successfully make the leap to Broadway before Stella and her siblings. As legend has it, by the 1920s, no curtain went up on Broadway without an Adler on the stage. Here, Stella’s cousin Eric discusses his side of the Adler clan.

In 1978 I was 28 years old, playing piano bar, and living on East 92nd Street in Manhattan with a writer by the name of Russell O’Neil. As we got to know each other better, at one point he exclaimed to me, “You mean to tell me that you wanted to be an actor? Your cousin is Stella Adler and you never studied with her?”

Indeed I had wanted to be an actor for as long as I could remember and had started off after graduating high school by going to Boston University’s School of Acting. However, after 2 rather fraught years, I decided that music was my greater calling and ended up studying theory and composition at Hartt College in West Hartford, Connecticut.

But the acting bug had never entirely left me (once bitten, does it ever entirely leave anybody?). Although it was true that the great Stella Adler and I were 1st cousins twice removed (translation: she was my maternal grandfather’s 1st cousin; his mother Sara, and her illustrious father Jacob P. Adler, were sister and brother), we had only met each other a few times in my life, and that was mostly in passing.

I decided Russell had a point and called her up out of the blue. Much to my surprise, she answered the phone herself, first try.

“Hello, Stella? You probably don’t remember me, but my name is Eric Brown. I’m Louis Adler’s grandson, and I’ve always wanted to be an actor.” Just like that.

“How old are you, dahling?”

“Twenty-eight,” I replied.

“You’re a little ohh-lld, aren’t you?”

I forged ahead: “Well, better late than never!”

“Good answer! Good answer, dahling! Why don’t you call my assistant and tell him to make an appointment for you to audition. We’ve already started the term. But if you pass, you can audit the class.”

I was accepted (I’m proud to say) and began to audit the class. To say it was an experience is vastly inadequate. To watch her in action was nothing short of a marvel, each and every week. There she’d be in her chair (which was nothing short of a throne) from which she did, for all the world, hold court. Students would present their scenes, either monologues, or in pairs, and she would then set about to rip the actor to shreds. But never spuriously. She had an uncanny and unerring way of absolutely knowing what was false in any given performance. And she knew how to go for the jugular, but not in any pedestrian terms. She could pinpoint how a person’s personal failings as an actor within a given moment in a given scene was the result of some larger social issue, and from there she would do nothing less than pontificate on life’s larger lessons and how we all can and must grow from them. She was regal, and absolute in her authority; at once intimidating and incredibly warm.

Top from left: Stella Adler; unknown; Lillian Barth Adler Myra (Sara's daughter); Myra's husband? Nan and Albert Adler (Sara's oldest son) Second row, left to right: Paul Adler; Amelia Adler; Jacob P. Adler & his sister Sara Adler (holding a picture of her Francine; Stella (Sara's daughter); I believe the man at the end of the row was actually Sara's husband. But he was so "incidental" that even on his deathbed (this is a sworn-to family story), he was relegated to a cot in the dining room so as not to inconvenience Sara.  Bottom row: Charlotte (Amelia's daughter, and later the "Black Sheep" of the family); Irma (Myra's daughter); and my grandfather Louis, holding his first-born child, Helen

Top from left: Stella Adler; unknown; Lillian Barth Adler, Myra Phorylles (Sara’s daughter); Myra’s husband, Nan and Albert Adler (Sara’s oldest son)
Second row: Paul Adler; Amelia Adler; Jacob P. Adler & his sister Sara Adler (holding a picture of her Francine; Stella (Sara’s daughter);the man at the end of the row was actually Sara’s husband. But he was so “incidental” that even on his deathbed (this is a sworn-to family story), he was relegated to a cot in the dining room so as not to inconvenience Sara.
Bottom row: Charlotte (Amelia’s daughter, and later the “black sheep” of the family); Irma (Myra’s daughter); and my grandfather Louis, holding his first-born child, Helen

At the same time, my friend Russell became convinced that I was sitting on a gold mine in terms of my family: not only did I boast Stella and Luther Adler as my cousins, with the great Jacob P. Adler as my great-grandmother’s brother, but my very own great-Aunt Francine Larrimore, my grandfather’s sister, was a star of the Broadway stage in the ‘20s and ‘30s, her most famous role inarguably having been originating the role of Roxy Hart in THE original stage play of “Chicago” by Maurine Watkins on Broadway in 1926. Since he was a writer and had certain connections, Russell was able to get the New York Times Publishing Company interested in our doing a book about the family, with one proviso: that we get the cooperation of Stella Adler.

Russell thought that perhaps, being the actual writer on the project, as well as the liaison between all parties, it might be best if he tried approaching Stella. They had a good conversation, but she was quite adamant: she was not interested in participating in anything in her lifetime.

As fate would have it, I found myself out of work in January 1979, and I physically found tolerating winters more and more difficult. I was offered my first opportunity to play piano on a cruise ship. Although it meant giving up studying with Stella, it seemed the most expedient solution to a number of issues, so I reluctantly grabbed the opportunity.

Francine Larrimore, 1936

Francine Larrimore, 1936

At the same time, I had also done some preliminary research on my beloved Aunt “Tween” (Francine Larrimore), who had passed away in 1972, and whom I had loved very much. Although most of her memorabilia was bequeathed to the drama department of some school in Montana, my grandfather still had a small trove of her belongings, among which was a wonderful family photograph that I knew no one had, and I wanted very much to give a copy to Stella. I also had to tell her why I would be dropping out of her class.

The day before I was to fly down to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to embark on my first cruise in the Caribbean, I was going to have my last class with Stella, the perfect time to give her the photo and tell her about my leaving. Directly after class, I was to meet Russell for dinner at Sardi’s, after which we were going to see the latest comedy satire duo since Nichols and May, “Monteith and Rand” (I had gone to acting school with John Monteith), and then off I’d go first thing the next morning.

Only one hitch: Stella was a no-show for the class! And I wasn’t about to leave my family picture with just anyone: I wanted to see for myself her reaction, for both she and her father were in the picture.

But after class I dashed over to Sardi’s to meet Russell, and we were seated at a banquette table. And who should be shown to the seat RIGHT NEXT TO MINE? None other than Stella herself! I told her about my leaving to play piano on a cruise ship, and then presented her with the family portrait. She was visibly moved.

And then you could see she made some connections she had not made before. She looked at me and said, “YOU’RE the one who wants to do the book about the family! Call me when you get back, dahling. We’ll talk!”

Unfortunately, I spent most of the next several years at sea (it paid very well), so although we did try to keep the book project alive, it did ultimately collapse.

I remember one time calling Stella and her saying, “I’m busy, dahling. We’re packing to leave the country.” “Oh? Where are you going?” “Well, first we’re going to Long Island, and then we’re going to Los Angeles.”

My explanation has always been one or both of two things. One was that “packing to leave the country” immediately summoned up to anyone not familiar with her comings and goings the full extent of the seriousness of her impending departure; and/or she was so territorial about New York City that leaving its environs to her was like “leaving the country.” I truly think it was a little of both.

 By Eric Brown, special to SALIA

Listen: At the Table with Sheana Ochoa

This is an unedited chat with Kelly Lincoln, not a “formal” interview, that we held in the Bronx while I was on my NYC book tour on June 1, 2014. You can listen here.

Onstage & Backstage

Sheana Ochoa, author of Stella! Mother of Modern Acting, visited Kelly Lincoln of At the Table. Together, they discuss “the great, ahead of her time Stella Adler, and how the Yiddish Theater birthed American Theater.”

00121937>>LISTEN HERE<<

Arthur Miller decided to become a playwright after seeing her perform with the Group Theater. Marlon Brando attributed his acting to her genius as a teacher. Theater critic Robert Brustein calls her the greatest acting teacher in America.

At the turn of the 20th century – by which time acting had hardly evolved since classical Greece – Stella Adler became a child star of the Yiddish stage in New York, where she was being groomed to refine acting craft and eventually help pioneer its modern gold standard: method acting. Stella’s emphasis on experiencing a role through the actions in the given circumstances of the work directs actors toward a deep…

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