Why Stella Adler? The Biographer’s Explanation on Oscar Day

I always wanted to be a famous actress. Every year I would watch the Oscars with a special notebook and record who won what for which category.  I thought I was doing something important for posterity (not realizing there were archivist paid to accurately collect this data).  It made me feel that I was a part of that world, that world of magic: the movies.  In 6th grade as my teacher was passing out the play we were going to perform, I was counting which character had the most lines and raised my hand for that role when she called out the name.  In junior high I enrolled in drama class, but by then I had discovered a new love, poetry. I began identifying myself as a writer.

Stella Adler wanted to be a famous actress too.  Only she was born into a family of actors and put on the stage as soon as she could walk and it was her destiny to perform.  Like me, she also thought acting was magic: it gave her the self-esteem and approval she didn’t receive at home.  School did that for me and I effectively earned straight A’s and scholarships to college.

When I entered graduate school, I needed a job to supplement my expenses.  I answered an ad to manage the office at a vocational school.  I knew school.  This was my territory and I wanted the job badly. I didn’t know who Stella Adler was when I went into the interview, nor that the school was for acting.

Walking into the theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, I was transported into film’s golden age.  The building itself had been a nightclub for movie stars in its heyday where Charlie Chaplin drank in the speakeasy and Greta Garbo danced on the outdoor patio.  Poster sized pictures of Stella’s family performing in the Yiddish Theatre lined the walls along with publicity photos of Stella when she was working on Broadway and glamour shots from the one film she starred in, “Love on Toast.”

Stella circa 1938

I was in New York, where Stella was born and where she considered home, when I got the call that I got the job.

At first my fascination, like Stella’s, was for her father, Jacob Adler.  I read his memoir that his granddaughter had written.  I identified with the family, a pack of gypsies, as one member of the family referred to them.  I felt the same in my family: we were all so closely bound by my father and even if we argued, the bond could never be severed.  I identified with the patriarchal hold Jacob had over his children, the same as my father.  I was fascinated with the immigrant story and how Jacob could not act in Odessa where he was from because the Yiddish Theatre was banned.  My father was never an actor (not professionally at least), but he came from a family of immigrants and that legacy somehow carries over in the DNA.  After I’d learned all there was to know about Jacob, I wanted to know more about Stella.

Every day while managing the school, I’d learn a lot about her.  All the teachers and the director, Irene Gilbert, had studied with Stella.  Everyone had stories and they would imitate her and there’d always be a delicious punch line.  Who was this woman, I thought, that so many people adored her?  I could still feel her presence even though she had died six years prior to my arrival.   The most interesting part was that Irene, to whom Stella had bequeathed her west coast school, had dedicated her life to Stella.  I kept the books.  Every month I had to juggle Irene’s personal credit cards in order to pay the rent and the teachers’ salaries.  I speculated whether Irene and Stella had been lovers.  I mean who mortgages their house for someone in order to sustain their legacy?  At 28, my understanding of relationships was nascent.  Truth was, Stella was the mother Irene never had.  Irene’s own parents had been run over by a New York taxicab when she was four.  I admired that loyalty.  I understood Irene’s loss because I too felt I had lost my parents at a young age (emphasis on the word “felt”; the consequence of their divorce) and I knew the hole it created in the heart.  Much of what propelled me to keep writing Stella’s biography was an unconscious pact I had with Irene to keep Stella’s legacy alive, to give Stella due credit for her contribution to modern day acting.

So I began researching Stella, which took me back to New York.  I loved the feeling of achievement as I uncovered more and more information about Stella throughout the city whether I was walking through the Lower East Side or combing the archives at the Oral History collection at Columbia or trekking out to Mount Carmel cemetery where the pack of gypsies are interred and where a tall statue of an eagle over Jacob’s grave still resides over them all.

And so my research continued. Stella was born in 1901 and died in 1991 so I had the entire 20th century to investigate.  I waited two years for Stella’s FBI file to arrive after I applied through the Freedom of Information Act. Once her daughter Ellen Adler finally donated Stella’s papers to the University of Texas at Austin, I had to wait another two years for them to be inventoried and opened to the public. Even today, with the book written, I feel I could study Stella’s life for another 10 years and still not be finished.

At Austin among numerous boxes and recordings of Stella’s classes, there are two oversized albums.  Each page has several letters and cards from students thanking Stella for changing their life.  Ellen must have put these albums together, and I knew there were many more letters.  I even had some of my own that people I had interviewed let me photocopy.

This is the thing: I did not spend the last twelve years researching Stella’s life because we both wanted to be famous movie stars or because we both felt neglected by our parents or because we were both teachers or because we both had been raised with an immigrant mentality.  I was and still am drawn to Stella because as any of her students would say, she didn’t just teach acting.  Stella wanted her students to go out into the world as independent actors, not dependent upon her or any teacher or director (or parent).  In order to do this, she taught them to know themselves. She taught her students how to dissect a character and uncover the root of the human condition.  Students had to understand themselves if they wanted to truthfully interpret a character. Stella taught them to observe their behavior and thoughts as well as the actions of others.  The common person does not go around examining the very visceral and ethereal nature of man.  That is the job of the philosopher.  And so, what students and what I get from Stella is a spiritual training, how to be in the moment, how to be truthful through art, how to overcome adversity and still keep your soul intact, or at least how to strive for those things, which was what Stella seemed to do naturally and what made her so fascinating.

In the end, I wrote the biography as diligently as I used to record all of the Oscar winners when I was a little girl.  I understood then that these “performances” were not just interpretations of stories. They were art, something to be respected and written down.  Likewise, Stella’s story is an indispensable chapter in the annals of an ancient and life-affirming profession: to interpret story on stage or on the screen.  By writing Stella’s story, I have become the chronicler of the evolution of modern day acting, the most influential and beloved art form.


3 responses to “Why Stella Adler? The Biographer’s Explanation on Oscar Day

  1. ..very revealing. I look forward to reading the book. But a question comes to mind, why did she make only one film?

    Did you watch the Oscars last nite? I thought it was a very entertaining show.

  2. Good question. Stella actually played in 3 films, but only starred in Love On Toast. She answered the question herself once saying she had been blacklisted, and that had a lot to do with it, I’m sure, but I don’t know how much. She also did not like the “leisure” of films and thought of Hollywood as a sell-out, so it’s no wonder she left Hollywood and returned to New York. Still, she never quite got over not being an “international star,” which is ironic because she was a star in spite of not being a screen star. Heads of State and entertainers world-wide knew her and respected her. She would never dare say this because she revered the actor and his profession, but I dare say she was more than just a mere actor and that had she been a “movie star,” she would not have had such a great impact on entertainment through her teaching work.

  3. Wonderful!

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