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.
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.
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.
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