Happy “Accidents”: Friendship in Art

Stella Adler and Irene Gilbert

Stella Adler and Irene Gilbert

Amongst Irene Gilbert’s two-inch thick letters from Stella Adler, I discovered the following missive:

Dear Irene,

Somewhere, a long time ago, a wandering child was holding a rose and she did not know where to put it. She found a place and stayed with the rose and the place, and I was there by accident; and so you, the rose and I are still together.  Do you see what an accident does?

Stella was an avid letter writer with the hallmark of being effusively sentimental.  Throughout the correspondence I’ve read between Stella and her friends, family and students, I’ve recognized an expression of gratitude that in life she was either too busy or proud to communicate.

Irene and Stella met in 1963 when Stella came to Los Angeles to teach a course on acting.  28-year-old Irene sat in class, like so many before and after, listening to Stella speak about acting with such gravitas, she was called to action.

The teaching engagement was for the current summer only with no plans for Stella to return to the West Coast. Irene had other plans. She stayed in contact with Stella for the remainder of the year and began planning Stella’s return the following summer. Neither the “wandering child” nor Irene realized it was the beginning of a partnership that would bloom into a West Coast school that Stella would eventually bequeath to Irene: the Stella Adler Academy. 

I met Irene after Stella’s death, but Stella’s spirit was very much alive in the classrooms and theaters at the Stella Adler Academy in Hollywood. I ran the office—registered students, paid the bills, juggled the $350,000 credit card debt and paid the teachers. The office was situated across a small hallway from Irene’s, which enabled her to yell out my name when she was dismayed, worried, having a bad hair day, and I would have to go into her office and tamp out the fire.

At 63, Irene was a petite 5’2” red head spitfire who barked orders, questioned my decision-making and was an all around Grinch. But I loved her. I loved her because I barked right back until we came to an agreement and all Irene’s plate armor would melt away as if she were relieved she didn’t have to carry the load any longer. Still, she’d come back to work the next day appareled in chain mail, a little less protected, but still ready for battle. On a daily basis I would have to convince her to trust me. It was exasperating, but I was young.

Most of Irene’s insecurity stemmed from being orphaned as a toddler. She lost both parents to a hit-and-run cab driver in New York.  She was then shuffled around from relative to relative until she finally set out on her own and landed in Hollywood to become an actress. Her life’s work, however, became preserving Stella Adler’s legacy. Stella was as close to a mother-figure as Irene ever had. I got that. Irene’s commitment was contagious.

Irene wasn’t known for her warm personality. She didn’t bother with small talk, lead-ins to conversations or what most people define as tact. If you asked her something as innocent as What do you want for lunch? She would scowl as if you had asked her to clean a trough before settling on something you came up with for her.  She couldn’t be bothered with deciding what to eat, shopping for clothes, or how her tone of voice might offend people. I admired her utter disregard for social grace. She had chutzpah and if you weren’t too self-centered to take things personally, you had a chance to be surprised by Irene’s varied interests, life-experience, and fragile inner world that she would never admit to.

Age does show the seams of one’s weaknesses. Irene developed glaucoma, her sight slowly diminished and she had to rely more and more on others, which made her even crabbier. Soon she was unable to drive herself to work and had to depend on students and helpers.  At play openings or other events, she would not be able to make out the person approaching her and relied on me (or another of the few people she trusted) to whisper the oncomer’s name before they came in earshot. She didn’t want others knowing how disabled she had become, though she could still apply flawless eyeliner and light the end of her skinny Capri cigarettes. Towards the end, when I no longer worked at the school but still visited, I would walk into her office and automatically announce myself: “Hi, Irene. It’s Sheana.”

Finally, the day came when Irene had to stop teaching. Soon after that she was hit with  Alzheimer’s. At home, Irene had an entire bedroom dedicated to Stella’s work: master class video tapes, reel to reels, photographs, Stella’s theatrical reviews, teaching notebooks, correspondence, audiotapes of the two of them talking late into the night, Stella’s commencement robes from her honorary doctorates form NYU and Smith College. By then I was deep into my research of Stella’s biography and the materials yet uncovered were a bit daunting. Irene led me to the closet of her bedroom where she kept letters Stella had written to her, which is where I found the one quoted above.

Unable to afford a live-in nurse, Irene was forced to sell her house, leave her friends and move in with her son in Eureka, California.  She was heartbroken. By the time I knew this was happening I had two weeks to inventory and pack up the trove of Stella’s life work and donate it to the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, where most of the other Adler family papers are housed.

I kept telling myself I would go up to Eureka and visit Irene. I had a decent draft of Stella’s biography by then and had promised to read it aloud to Irene, but I never went.  The last year of Irene’s life, I was engaged and planning a wedding. I figured I still had time. I didn’t find out until I was on my honeymoon that Irene passed on my wedding day May 21, 2011.

People live on in the memories of those they leave behind. Irene Gilbert was not the type of person one would say was giving, nurturing or even nice to be around for any length of time.  She was however, fiercely loyal, astonishingly strong, and true to herself.  Through Irene, Stella was transmitted to me until I embarked on my own journey, excavating Stella’s life, continuing the work of one woman to preserve the work of another.  I don’t agree with Stella that meeting Irene was an accident any more than my meeting Irene was.

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4 responses to “Happy “Accidents”: Friendship in Art

  1. Thank you for capturing Irene so well! I was one of those students that drove her, put on her make up, helped with grading, etc. Although, sometimes was a curmudgeon, she was my friend, my mentor. I love her, and am grateful for all she did for me.

  2. I never met Irene but after reading this feel that I have and wish there were also going to be a biography about her. People with a great deal of passion and focus always fascinate me. Thanks, Sheana.

  3. Stan Harrington

    Without Irene Gilbert, we would not be here today at Stella Adler in Los Angeles!

  4. I love how you captured Irene in this post, like a living photograph told with words. Thinking about her makes me smile. Other than the precious moments I spent in the office with her (after making an appointment and seemingly wasting her time) almost every memory I have of her is a favorite memory of her. Sometimes it seemed as if she was an endlessly busy, distant school director, but then there would be these unexpected moments of warmth and camaraderie — which were, I’m sure, teaching moments. I remember her carrying around a bag of raw baby carrots one day and trying to get us all to snack on them with her because they were so healthy and a perfect snack. (Did this have something to do with her eyes?) I remember her effortlessly demonstrating how she could bend over and place the palms of her hands flat on the floor. She came to our musical voice class recital and gave out hugs afterward with reassuring words about our performances. I know her eyesight was already going when I knew her, but (as you said) she hid it well. I am so fortunate to have known her. (And I LOVE the picture at the top of this post!)

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