People referred to Stella Adler’s mother as Madame Adler. She and Stella’s father were known as the great tragediennes of the Yiddish stage. Together they ushered in the golden age of the Yiddish Theatre on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They were treated as royalty, not so different from the way fans look at A-list celebrities today.
Upon her death on April 28, 1953, Variety wrote that Madame Adler “was an empress of a whole area of the island of Manhattan, the empress of a family dazzling in its individual talents and, most certainly, empress of the Yiddish theatre in America.” The writer then encapsulated Madame Adler’s legend by relating a story heard from Stella:
She was 88 when it happened: a time when most women are dead or, if they are still live, have no heart for such gallantry. She was to meet her daughter, Stella, at 6 o’clock. At 7 o’clock, the empress had not yet arrived and Stella was frantic. After all, Sara was nearing 90. But at 7:05, she walked in, erect, her hair freshly curled, a look of dismay on her face. “What happened, Mama?” Stella cried. “Ah, the men. Terrible!” the empress replied. “A woman of charm is not safe in the streets any more. Oglers; flirts. They give her no peace. Terrible!”
While Stella’s father was known for his mawkish, tear-jerking performances, Sara’s acting style was prescient. She caught on to the movement of Realism that had already taken hold in the other arts, but not yet in the theater. Audiences were especially moved by her voice. One theater-goer wrote an anonymous letter to a Yiddish paper asking that the “orchestra play more softly so as not to drown out the electrifying voice and speech of Madame [Adler].”
No wonder Stella’s idiolect, which many felt to be false, developed as it did. Difficult to describe other than a mid-Atlantic cum English accent, you can hear Stella’s voice here, in a never before released lecture on acting. Stella joked about her particular diction remembering a time at a shop in New York when the attendant asked Stella where in England they should mail her order. Stella corrected the assumption, saying that she wasn’t English, “just affected.”
But I digress. Although Sara lived with Stella (and Stella’s daughter Ellen and Harold Clurman) during the later years of her life, Stella never felt close to her mother. Sara wasn’t the sort of mom to bake cookies or read bedtime stories. As a child Stella was likely to see more of her mother at the theater than at home. Stella’s first memory of recognizing her mother was on stage playing in “A Doll’s House.”
This raises the question of artists who also decide to have a family. Stella once said, “Actresses are not known for being good mothers.” As the anniversary of Sara Adler’s death draws near, I will continue this homage to her in the next post, which will include an anecdote told to me by Arthur Miller. However, I want to end this post by asking you readers. Is the life of an artist, who never retires, who must have solitary time, who works long, odd hours, conducive to family life?