An unexpected phone call from PR man Charlie Cinnamon in 1975 led me to the dressing room of legendary British actress Hermione Gingold, who without doubt, is one of the most interesting characters I’ve met.
“You wanted an interview with a cast member,” he said. “She can see you 45 minutes before the matinee curtain. Better get over there now. She can let you have 15 minutes, 20 max.” “There” was Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse where Gingold was playing Mme. Armfeldt, a former courtesan, in the touring company of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” It’s the role she created two years earlier in the original Broadway production.
My own theater experience warned me that a few minutes before a performance is the worst possible time for a reporter to interview an actor, who is busily trying to warm up and concentrate on getting into character. But this opportunity was much too tempting to pass up. I grabbed my notebook and dashed to the theater, just two blocks from The Miami Herald’s Fort Lauderdale newsroom.
Hermione Gingold, known for her sharp tongue and eccentric personality, spoke and sang in a rich baritone, the result of vocal cord damage suffered in the 1920s. She was born in 1897 in London, the eldest daughter of a prosperous Vienna-born stockbroker and his wife. She plunged into theater as a child, launching a career that included 26 films, multiple Broadway shows and television appearances. Many Americans know her for her role as Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn, the mayor’s wife, in the 1962 movie “The Music Man.” She continued performing throughout her life, stopping only when halted by a 1977 accident that broke her knee and dislocated an arm.
Out of breath, I presented myself at her backstage dressing room where with a warm smile, she waved me to a chair in a corner and sat facing me on a sofa, Next to her, a tiny Yorkshire terrier quivered on a large satin cushion. “This is Missy, my dearest friend,” she explained. What followed was possibly the fastest 15 minutes I’d ever experienced as a journalist, but it left me with a wonderful memory to last a lifetime.
Life on tour is tiring for an actor, she allowed, particularly for one who had reached her late 70s. But she was doing what she loves, she was quick to add. Then came this unforgettable remark: “I have no friends.” “But you are the toast of two continents,” I protested. “Everyone loves you.” “Ah, but when I come home at the end of a long day, there is no one to share a cup of tea with, no one I can call on the phone and talk with. No real friends. No one.” Then she smiled and looked at the dog at her side. “Except my dear Missy.”
Hermione Gingold died of heart disease and pneumonia in 1987. She was 89. Shortly after our Fort Lauderdale interview, I spotted Missy’s two-paragraph obituary in Variety.