Over the course of the past fifteen years or so, different publishers and agents have reached out to me asking if I would be interested in writing a book. Each letter laid out the specific reasons why they believed people wanted to hear whatever it was I had to say. While I was flattered by their kind words, writing a memoir wasn't something I ever thought was in me. And, to be very honest, I didn't have the time it takes to sit down and write one. As a working actress, wife, mother, new grandmother and a businesswoman, I live with a very full schedule. Most of the time I feel like I've been shot out of a cannon. I spend a great many days reading and memorizing scripts, creating the nuances that bring the dialogue and Erica Kane to life, and then I fill it all up with acting. On top of that, I'm attending design meetings for my products on HSN, I'm taking voice lessons, doing interviews, talk-show appearances and trying to squeeze in my morning workouts somewhere between 4 and 5 in the morning! When I am not working, I am traveling for work or spending time with my family. I am always moving forward, so I wasn't sure that there would ever be a good time...or any time to look back. Those moments of reflection or "savoring the moment" have been few and far between for me.
There were many times when my makeup artist Robin Ostrow and my hairstylist Joyce Corollo, from the New York team at All My Children, also encouraged me to write a book, because people who knew we worked together always asked them questions about me. Robin and Joyce were constantly coming to me with different ideas about what I should write. They talked about fashion, health, beauty and inspirational stories from my life. They were very encouraging, but at the time I still wasn't completely convinced that writing a book was the right thing for me.
In late 2009, I agreed to do a charity event for Francesca James, one of the legendary actresses of All My Children. She played the dual role of Kitty and Kelly. She auctioned off a handwritten letter from me answering whatever questions the winning fan wanted to ask. When I received the questions, I wanted to take the time to sit down and thoughtfully answer them. At first, it was just one of many tasks I had to do that day—something else on my already piled-high and overflowing plate. Much to my surprise, though, answering the questions was really fun and intriguing despite the tremendous time constraints. One of the questions this person asked was "What are some of your favorite things to do when you are not playing Erica Kane?" I love those types of questions because they allow me to be spontaneous in my response. I've always liked flying by the seat of my pants. Answering that letter opened me up, maybe for the first time ever, as I suddenly found myself thinking about the process of writing and what it would really take to someday author a book.
In early 2010, my son, Andreas, came to me and said that he really thought I should write a book too. He had no idea we had received so many letters from various publishers and literary agents. I was curious to know why he felt I should, so I asked him to share his reasons.
"Once the girls I meet find out that you are my mom, they want to know how you accomplished your goals. They're eager to know your story." Andreas was very thoughtful, enthusiastic and really heartfelt in his explanation.
Andreas mentioned writing a book to me a few more times. And then one day Helmut brought me a folder full of those inquiry letters he'd been saving over the years. I had no idea that he had kept all of them. We sat at our kitchen table and began to read some aloud. One by one, each outlined very clearly a singular message. People wanted the book to be about me from me. Everyone agreed that virtually anyone with a television knows Susan Lucci as Erica Kane, but no one really knows much about Susan Lucci. Rereading those letters, especially with the encouragement from my son and so many others, made me realize that maybe now I should make the time to share my story.
So here I am. After spending 41 years in front of the camera playing the unstoppable Erica Kane while successfully shielding and protecting my privacy and the privacy of my family, I am closing my eyes and holding my breath as I begin to peel back the curtain of my life, hoping it is the right thing to do. It's a little bit scary and a lot intimidating. But if I am going to take you on this journey with me, then like everything else I do in my life, I am committed to going all the way—no limits and no self-imposed barriers holding me back. To be certain, this process has been different and challenging for me. But it is something I now fully appreciate and enjoy. I have never spent time in a therapist's office; nor have I ever candidly discussed my private life in public. I have spent many sleepless nights wondering why anyone would want to read my story, and to tell you the truth, I still can't say I know. I am a woman who pays attention to what those around me have to say, and for years, they've been asking me to share my story with you. So, with respect for those wishes and without further ado, here is my story.
My parents, Jeanette and Victor Lucci, referred to me as their "Christmas baby" because I was born on December 23, in Yonkers, New York. As a little girl, there weren't too many birthday cakes or parties for me because of the proximity of my birthday to the holiday. (I'm sure so many Christmas babies can relate to this!) Still, my parents always tried to make my birthday special. They put up our Christmas tree on December 22 so my birthday presents could be slipped under the tree and opened the next day, on my birthday. Much to my mother's credit, she always told everyone in our family that they couldn't combine Christmas and birthday gifts. After all, it wasn't my fault that I was born so close to the holiday.
My parents both grew up during the Depression era. Everything they did was about making life better for their children. Our family moved to Elmont, a suburb of Long Island in New York, when I was 2 years old. We spent five years there before settling into the picture-perfect enclave of Garden City.
My father's parents were Italian immigrants to America. His father died when my dad was only 15 years old. His mother remarried, although I don't believe my dad was terribly close to his stepfather. When my brother and I were younger, my father occasionally took us to visit them, usually without my mother. I didn't understand at the time why she never came with us, but years later I would learn that my Italian grandmother didn't approve of my father's decision to marry a non-Italian girl.
My Italian grandmother only spoke a few words of English. When we'd visit, she'd smile, grab me by both cheeks, and pinch—hard. She showered me with lots of hugs and kisses, but we barely ever spoke. She always offered me a glass of milk—as "milk"was one of the few words she could say that I understood. Oftentimes, my father's other relatives, including brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, would be at his mother's home when we visited. They'd all sit around the living room telling big and boisterous stories, speaking only in Italian, gesturing with their hands, waving their arms and laughing out loud. I didn't understand a word they said, but I always knew that whatever it was, it was hysterically funny. While they talked, I wandered around the apartment, exploring the knickknacks and family memorabilia my grandmother kept. I especially liked going into her bedroom, which was very dark except for the glow of the candles she'd keep lit for the Blessed Mother and the baby Jesus. My Italian grandmother was a devout Roman Catholic.
As a little girl, I remember thinking her home was very mysterious because I had never seen anything like it. I wasn't scared so much as intrigued by what it all meant. I had great curiosity about her bedroom in particular. Going to my Italian grandmother's home was all about mystery because I never knew what she and the rest of my relatives were talking about, yet I knew I liked the sounds I heard and the enthusiasm they had when they spoke. I believe in mystery. I am drawn to it and am very comfortable being surrounded by it. Maybe that is part of why I chose to keep an air of mystery over my own life as I stepped into the limelight years later. Maybe.
My father was one of 13 children. Although his older siblings were all born in Italy, my dad was a first-generation Italian American who wanted a better life for his children than he was given as a child. My father enlisted in the United States Army during World War II. He was a real patriot who considered it an honor to serve his country. Education was everything to him. He believed that there were no limits to what you could do in life with a good, strong foundation. Although he didn't finish college, he was able to put himself through school with help from his local steelworkers' union and the GI Bill. He eventually formed a partnership in a construction business, which primarily helped build the steel infrastructures for high-rise buildings in New York City. My father's business allowed us to live a good but modest life. He worked very hard to provide all of the necessities—and then some—to our family. People often assume that because I have Italian features and have an Italian last name, I grew up in a large Italian family, but I really didn't. My father's family was my only touchstone to that heritage.
When we moved to Garden City, we didn't look like the typical Anglo-Saxon family living there. The community consisted primarily of Episcopalian families. I think ours was one of the few in the neighborhood with a vowel at the end of our last name. My father looked very Italian, with beautiful olive skin, jet-black hair, and big brown eyes. Although I resembled my mother more, I did inherit some of my dad's dark coloring, which made me feel like an outsider during my youth. I felt and looked different from the other children in our neighborhood and in school. There were so many times when people would see my father gardening out in our front yard or doing landscape work on our grounds and they would ask him questions as if he were the hired help. My father always laughed it off, without ever giving it a second thought. There was a certain amount of prejudice that existed in the 1950s, especially if you didn't look like everyone else. It hurt me deeply that people judged or looked down on my dad based on his appearance, especially because he was such a giving and generous man. If there was a blizzard or a hurricane, my dad would always be the first one out there after the storm blew over, driving around the community to see if there was any damage, downed trees, blocked drains or if anyone needed his help. I'd sometimes get to go along for the ride. He'd sit me in the front seat with him, and I felt so proud and privileged to be the one by his side.
My father was a very smart man, a voracious reader, and we all thought of him as an American history buff. In my family, we all referred to my father as the "walking encyclopedia" because of his vast knowledge on so many subjects. He knew everything about the great battles our country fought and took great pride in sharing his knowledge with my brother and me. Sometimes we'd take family trips to historical sites in upstate New York, including West Point and Fort Ticonderoga, so my father could teach us while showing us where these events took place. We'd sit around our kitchen table while he gave my older brother, Jimmy, and me impromptu quizzes or fun brainteasers to solve. Sometimes I'd figure out the answer before Jimmy. I could see the tickled look in my father's eyes—he was proud of me whenever I got it right.
On Sunday afternoons, we would take a family drive in my parents' car, something my brother and I loathed. Jimmy was six years older than me. He wanted to be with his friends on the weekends, not riding in the backseat of our car with his little sister. We'd usually end up having Sunday dinner at a family-style restaurant that my parents loved. As we stood in line waiting to be seated, my father often told anyone who would listen that I was the "brains" of our family.
My father always encouraged me to get a good education, to do the things I enjoyed most, and to never be afraid. We'd sit on a cushioned metal glider on the front porch of our brick house in Elmont, looking up at the stars together. He showed me the various constellations in the sky, explained the solar system, and reminded me to dream big.
"See that moon up there. You can reach that high. Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars, Susan. You can be anything you want to be," he'd say. "Never be afraid because you can be anything you want to be."
I know to some people it may sound clichéd now, because we've all heard that advice at some point, but I was only 5 years old when he shared those inspiring and encouraging words with me for the first time. They made an indelible impression, one I've never forgotten. My father was fantastic in so many ways. I was definitely "Daddy's little girl." In fact, that was his favorite song to sing to me for many years growing up.
I cannot imagine a daughter having a better dad than my father. He made it a priority to spend as much time with his children as he could. In the summertime, he rented a little cottage in Connecticut on the Long Island Sound where we took long walks on the beach, swam together and talked about life. Although it might sound like I was an indulged child, I wasn't. My father spoiled me with love and attention and with the luxury of his time, teaching me to draw, taking me horseback riding, ice-skating, and years later, after he discovered golf, to the driving range.
Although he came from a very rough neighborhood, my father had developed an appreciation for the arts, especially drawing and music. My father and brother listened to opera. And with my mother, he listened to Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. They were always on top of the latest entertainers. I remember walking in on my dad once while he was watching ballet on television. I was mesmerized by the image of him gazing at Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margo Fonteyn dancing together.
And, my father loved to draw, especially with charcoals and pastels. He taught me to do the same when I was a little girl. I loved it too. One of the first drawings I ever did was a portrait of Caroline Kennedy with her dog that I copied from an issue of Ladies' Home Journal. My father and I worked on that drawing for weeks. Sadly, there's been no time in my life to continue that pursuit, but I loved it so. I learned to play the piano as a little girl too, and though I didn't love to practice and wasn't a great pianist by any stretch of the imagination, I loved to sing! When I told my parents I was no longer interested in learning the piano, my father decided to take lessons with me as his way of encouraging me to continue on. I think playing the piano was a secret dream of his. It was fantastic that he cared so deeply about me getting the best education I could—even piano lessons.
Although I appreciated my father's attempt to keep me interested, I wasn't. I had a friend who also took lessons from the same piano teacher and she hated them too. One snowy night she and I concocted a plan to lock our teacher out of our homes. When he rang the bell, I threw myself under the bay window in the front of our house and lay flat against the wall so he couldn't see me. My friend kept to our plan and locked him out too. We were so proud we pulled it off and happy we didn't have to have our lessons that night.
A few days later, the piano teacher called to say he wouldn't be teaching me anymore. Although I felt a little guilty about locking him out on such a snowy night, I was really glad I didn't have to take any more lessons.
My mother is and always has been a very beautiful woman. She has fabulous red hair, perfect fair skin and a gorgeous sprinkle of freckles. Her father was from Sweden and her mother was born in Pennsylvania and was of French and German descent, so my mother's look is striking. My mother is very soft-spoken, can be very funny, is self-reliant, full of common sense, loves fashion, and has a real stubborn streak. She studied nursing in New York and was a practicing OR nurse for a number of years until my brother, Jimmy, was born and she decided to become a stay-at-home mom.
As far back as I can remember, I've had a definite and clear picture of what I wanted to do with my life. Although I was painfully shy as a child, I came out of my shell whenever I was acting, singing, dancing and making believe that I was someone else. Playing games of "make-believe" was just the way I played. I loved to put my parents' musical sound tracks on the record player and listen to songs from Broadway shows and old movies so I could sing and dance along. I loved Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, Golden Boy, and Damn Yankees, just to name a few. In fact, the first song I can remember performing for my family was "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets" from the original sound track of Damn Yankees. I was 3. That's how we knew I'd grow up to play Erica Kane. To be certain, I was a totally different kid when I would perform. The stage was where I wanted to be, and when you're a little girl with a vivid and active imagination, all the world is a stage.
At church on Sundays I would fantasize about climbing the stairs to the balcony that overlooked the congregation where the choir sang from, standing on the rail, pushing off and latching onto one of the many lanterns. In my mind, I'd swing from light to light, high above the ground, until I dropped down onto the altar, where I would regale the congregation (my audience) with my song-and dance numbers. Yes, everyplace I went, I would create a vivid scenario where I could perform—because that's all I wanted to do.
I grew up in a neighborhood and at a time where most of the children were sent outside to play. But I preferred to be inside. When I was a very little girl, my mother finally convinced me to go outside and play with the other kids in the area. So one day I rode my tricycle down the street where we lived and some children pushed me off. I left my bike right there, went running home and refused to ever go back out again. Whenever my parents tried to get me to play with the other children, I'd always find a way to sneak back into the house. One summer afternoon, my mother decided that I should spend the day outdoors. She sent me on my way to play and locked the door behind me so I couldn't get back inside. Thankfully, my mother's mother, whom I called Nana, lived with us. She came to the door and saved the day. I remember her turning to my mother and saying, "Jeanette, you cannot lock this child outside. She's just a little girl!" So they let me back in. I immediately ran up to my room and spent the rest of the day putting on a show with my favorite dolls and stuffed animals. Whenever I'd put on these shows, I'd imagine an audience the size of the Ed Sullivan Theater inside my bedroom. And let's be clear, it was standing room only. Later that afternoon, my parents thought I'd had a breakthrough when they heard what they imagined were a couple of kids from the neighborhood playing with me. It turns out that the various voices they overheard were all mine. It was just me, playing and performing all by myself.
I adored my mother's mother—my grandmother Nana. She was very jolly and had a warm spirit. She was exactly what a grandmother should be—kind, loving and affectionate. Nana had a very sweet fox terrier named Snookie, whom I also adored. But I must be perfectly honest with you. Until recently, the name Snookie has always meant so much to me because it reminds me of my grandmother. Now unfortunately, I can barely say the name without conjuring up thoughts of the Jersey Shore. It just isn't right that such a precious memory has been tainted—make that tanned—by the association!
Nana was the first one up in the morning and the last to go to bed at night. She loved to laugh, play the piano for us, cook delicious meals and bake the best cakes, pies and even fresh bread! My most vivid memories of Nana revolve around music and food. My first exposure to the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin was when Nana played them on her piano. I adored spending time in the kitchen with her every day while she made the most wonderful treats. Nana never used a mixer. She beat all of her ingredients by hand. I remember sitting with her while she put the finishing touches on a delicious apple pie or sprinkled cinnamon on baked apples, which I loved to eat. She taught me what it meant to be a great cook—something my mother and I never really came around to being ourselves, but both now have a wonderful appreciation for. Her family came from Alsace, the same region of France as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of my favorite chefs in New York. Apparently, good food is second nature to people from Alsace. She made great stews, chicken and dumplings, and other hearty dishes infused with a French and German influence. She always started with the freshest of ingredients and only used the best of whatever she could find. Every day when I came home from school, there was always something fantastic and yummy waiting for me—which made me very, very happy. When we weren't spending time together in the kitchen, she patiently let me create many hairdos with her hair. I could set part of it in curls and part of it in rollers. Nana never cared how it turned out, as long as we were having fun together, which of course we were.
I was so lucky to grow up in a home where there was always music playing and the smell of some delicious homemade meal. Since Nana lived with us, my mother never had to cook, and that suited her just fine. My mother preferred to do the cleaning. In fact, she kept a spotless and very organized home, something she tried to teach me to do too.
I don't have a lot of memories of my Swedish grandfather because he divorced my grandmother when my mother was just 5 years old. My grandfather lived half the year in Sweden and the other half in St. Petersburg, Florida. Although I didn't see much of him growing up, I do recall that occasionally he'd write my mother letters asking how we were all doing. He didn't completely disappear from our lives, but we weren't close either. I don't know many of the details about why he left my grandmother other than that he went to Sweden on a vacation and never came back. He sent my grandmother a letter saying he no longer wanted to be married. Nana was a very proud woman. She refused to take any child support or alimony from him. Instead, she chose to play the piano, supporting herself and three children all on her own. She was a very good piano player. She started an orchestra and played piano in the local hotels in the Pocono Mountains near the small Swedish–German communities where they lived. She often accompanied the old silent movies that were shown in their local movie house as well. The Milford Opera House, which looks more like a quintessential Andrew Wyeth barn than a classic opera house, was a favorite spot for my grandmother to play her piano too. I have always been very proud of my grandmother for how she persevered and managed to take care of her children as a single mother. She was so ahead of her time. She chose to take her talent and do something with it rather than sit around and wallow in her sadness. Divorce wasn't common back in those days. I am sure it was a challenge for the whole family because there weren't a lot of single-women role models then for my grandmother to look up to or emulate. Hearing these stories as a young girl gave me the eyes to see and the ears to hear so that I could relate to all sorts of situations growing up. These weren't my experiences, but they were poignant and important to the person I would later become.
I was 11 years old when my nana suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. I didn't like to sleep much when I was a little girl. I seemed to always have lots of thoughts dancing around in my head, especially at night. Sometimes I'd fall asleep then awaken for one reason or another. I didn't have nightmares very often or anything like that. I'd just wake up and was unable to fall back to sleep. The night Nana died was one of those nights.
I had just awakened when I heard a strange sound. It was a scary noise, unlike anything I had ever heard. I was in my bedroom on the third floor and the noise sounded like it was coming from our basement, where Nana lived. My father had finished our basement for her so she could have her own private quarters. He did a beautiful job on the space, making it very comfortable and beautiful for both Nana and Snookie.
I heard some sort of faint moaning. At first, I didn't know what it was until I was finally able to make out that it was somebody calling my mother's name.
"Jeanette, Jeanette." I knew it was coming from my grandmother because everyone else called my mother Jean. Only my father and grandmother referred to my mother as Jeanette. I was so scared. I had no idea what was going on. I was always afraid of the dark and lay there motionless, frozen by my fear. I didn't get up right away. In fact, I never got up to go to my grandmother that night. I stayed silent and still in my bed. Terrible thoughts were racing through my mind. I loved my grandmother very much. I was petrified at the prospect that she might die. That overwhelming thought was more than I could bear, so I pulled back the covers I'd been hiding under and ran into my parents' bedroom.
"Nana is calling you!" I said to my mother. She hadn't heard a sound. My mother dashed downstairs. Since she was a nurse, I knew she could help Nana get through whatever was happening that night. My mother called an ambulance right away. I overheard her tell the operator that she thought my grandmother Rose Granquist was having a heart attack.
"Come as fast as you can," she said.
The ambulance got to our home within minutes. They tried resuscitating Nana while getting her onto the gurney and loading her into the vehicle so they could race her to the nearest hospital. But it was too late. Nana died.
For years, I never told another soul this story. I was so ashamed of myself for being so paralyzed by my fear. My husband heard it for the first time as I was preparing myself to write this book. I have carried my guilt for not getting up sooner and helping my grandmother since that time. Could I have saved her that night? I don't know the answer to that. I will never know. Maybe she could have lived longer. I would have had my beloved grandmother with me for just a little more time if I had gotten out of bed sooner that horrible night. But the truth is, maybe I couldn't have saved her. She smoked and drank coffee for many years. Like my father, Nana smoked nonfiltered cigarettes. Those certainly wouldn't have helped an already strained heart.
If either of my children had experienced a sudden and tragic loss like this, I would do my best to comfort and reassure them that what happened was not their fault. But my mother had no idea that I felt I could have possibly prevented Nana's death that night. And even though logic tells me that I didn't need to carry this weight on my shoulders for all of these years, I continued to feel terribly ashamed about the way my grandmother died, spending so many years wondering, If only.
Thankfully though, I have taken many memories of my grandmother with me throughout my life. Her love of food and zest for living along with her resilience, courage, perseverance, determination and tremendous spirit are all traits I feel so lucky that she passed on to me. I can still imagine her in the kitchen wearing her housedress and pearls, whipping up something yummy. I'm so grateful that my mother gave me some of her jewelry and a green porcelain bowl Nana used all the time. I also have some sheet music from her days playing the piano in the Poconos. Maybe someday I'll choose one of those songs to work into my cabaret show as a way to honor the deep love I have for my nana. I know she smiles down on me every day. If you believe in guardian angels as I do, there is no doubt that Nana is mine.
Although my mother was a nurse by trade, she absolutely had a love and passion for fashion. Mother's love of style made her top dresser drawer a treasure trove for a young aspiring actress with an insatiable imagination like mine. She would allow me to play with all of her grown-up accessories. I was very big on wrapping her scarves around my head or turning them into different costumes. This was inspired by the old movies I grew up watching. Scarves and the sheer white curtains in our upstairs bathroom were magical to me because they allowed me to become virtually anything I wanted to be—a bride, an exotic princess, a first communicant. My mother often wore her hair pulled back in a chignon, with holders that were adorned with rhinestones. These were perfect for me to make a tiara out of. I'd slowly turn my head from side to side as I looked from every possible angle in the large mirror that hung over her dresser to admire the shiny sparkling headpiece I'd made. Once I had the tiara placed just right, I'd pull on her long white or black gloves and hold her ivory cigarette holder, which my uncle Leo brought back from Asia after World War II, between my fingers as if I were Ava Gardner or Gene Tierney. My mother always let me play and explore my creativity. And though she had no idea, she was inadvertently fostering what would later become my passion and calling in life.
As I got older, I began putting on shows with the other kids in the neighborhood. I was a one-girl operation, starring in, creating, writing, directing, choreographing and costuming the entire production. By the time I was 8 or 9 years old, my parents knew I had developed a passion for singing, and they genuinely liked how I sang. I can't say for sure how their friends felt about it, but after dinner, they would have to endure another song from little Susan Lucci. Wherever we went, whether to a dinner or someone's birthday party, inevitably someone would ask me to sing a song or two. They'd clear off the table and lift me onto it, where I'd perform like a female Frankie Lymon. I was too ethnic-looking to be the next Shirley Temple. Plus, my older brother, Jimmy, listened to Frankie Lymon, a wonderful, soulful singer with a beautiful, sweet voice, so I had been influenced by his style. To our family and their friends, I was already a star.
My parents decided to send me to a parochial school from first grade until the time I went to high school. Although I enjoyed many aspects of its curriculum, the school was very strict. In fact, we were not allowed to talk during lunch hour. We were forced into silence for the entire time, which was very hard for me. We could laugh and scream outside in the school playground, but inside, it was mandatory quiet. There was always some boy who would break the silence by blowing up and popping a paper bag. Of course, he'd get into big trouble, but we secretly appreciated his attempt to buck the system.
One afternoon, my girlfriends and I were walking in the hall after lunch when I heard a couple of girls whispering and pointing at me. I wasn't sure what they were saying, but it was obvious they were talking about me. Finally, one of them asked if I was going to be in the local Girl Scout play. I hadn't heard anything about a Girl Scout play. I was stunned that I didn't know about it.
"Well, we are going to be in it!" they said. "We got our scripts and we are going to all be in the play." They were being so cavalier.
They told me the play was called Cindy Ellen and it was going to be a variation of the Cinderella story. Okay, maybe that's why I didn't hear about it. Everyone knows that Cinderella is a beautiful blonde. I was a brunette. Sure, all right. That made sense. I was certain that was why I hadn't been approached. When I was growing up, there were no brunette dolls to play with. There were no brunette angels for the Christmas tree, and Cinderella was definitely a blonde! I tried to justify all of this in my mind, and yet I still felt very bad. I wanted to cry but I didn't want the other girls to see how terrible I was feeling. My girlfriend and I walked away. I was still fighting back my tears when we ran into Mrs. Morrison and Mrs. Smith, our local Girl Scout troop leaders.
"Susan! We've been looking for you." I could see Mrs. Morrison holding what looked to be a script under her arm.
"We want you to play Cindy Ellen in our play." It turned out that I was not only going to be in the play, I got the lead! I had no idea how the troop leaders knew that I wanted to be an actress more than anything else in the world, but I sure was glad they sought me out and that they thought I could do it. It was a wonderful turnaround to go from thinking I had been overlooked to being cast as the lead. I was absolutely thrilled because this was going to be my first legitimate stage appearance.
It was right around this same time that my mother handed me my very first copy of Seventeen magazine and my whole world changed forever.
"I think you will like this," she said.
And she was right; I did.
I believe the day she gave me that magazine, my mother was encouraging me to pursue my dream. The girls within the pages were all beautiful teenagers with such nice hair. I was mesmerized by all the posing and grown-up fashion. I began fantasizing about becoming one of the models I saw on the page. The only problem was, I was very petite and my hair, which is naturally curly, didn't look a thing like their perfectly straight and shiny watching my mother take very good care of her skin and her health, which was a practice she passed on to me as well.The magazine was full of articles that helped me understand how important all of those things were, especially for a young girl. That was the day I realized there was a whole wide world out there to be discovered and it was mine for the taking.
When I was 16 years old, I entered a competition to become an exchange student. It was sponsored by my high school and our local community. There was a required essay and several interviews involved in the selection process to become a student ambassador living abroad for the summer. After giving it some thought, I decided to focus on the program that was called Experiment in International Living. The program took place over three months during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. It turned out that I was one of four kids selected from our community to participate. France and Sweden were my first two choices because I wanted to experience living in a place that I had natural ties to. Unfortunately, I didn't get either of those locations, and I was ultimately placed with a Norwegian family.
Living in Norway was a fantastic experience. This was the first time I really knew what it meant to think in a global way. When we got to Norway, I went through orientation with nine other kids from all over the United States who had come to live there as well. I had never before met anyone who lived in places such as Iowa and Indiana. Our teachers and chaperones were a married couple who were also professors from Yale. Shortly after our arrival, we met our respective families, who typically had a child around our age. The family I was placed with lived outside of Oslo, in an island community. They wanted to host an American exchange student because they wanted their children to practice speaking English. Many citizens of Scandinavian countries encourage their children to learn English as a second language, so although I didn't get to learn much Norwegian, I did get to experience their culture. It was interesting to talk to my Norwegian family, who asked me lots of questions about the Kennedys, American politics and American opinions. This was an awakening for me because it was the first time I had stepped outside my own country as a "representative" of the United States of America. It was the first time I felt a responsibility for the way I spoke about America as an American. I wasn't sure I had all of the right answers. I hadn't spoken of these things to anyone else before this trip to Europe. But I knew the Kennedys were revered in our country, so I could easily speak to that. The world admired President and Mrs. Kennedy. It wasn't a hard sell.
I was very lucky because the family I lived with had the means to open many doors in their country, giving me the best possible exposure and experiences. My Norwegian father was a doctor, who was quite successful. His wife often took my Norwegian sister and me into Oslo to shop and sightsee. She actually knitted a beautiful Norwegian sweater and hat for me as wonderful souvenirs. She took me into Oslo to pick out the pewter buttons she later sewed on. I adored the sweater and hat so much that I still have them.
On weekends, we spent time at their home on a small island in the southern part of Norway, where dusk settles somewhere around 1 o' clock in the morning. Those long days of sunshine allowed for lots of outdoor living. We often took boat rides, walked around the island, picked bluebells and put them in a flower press, and enjoyed all the beauty this wonderful place had to offer.
Toward the end of my stay, I reconnected with the other kids from our program and our teachers so we could all spend a couple of weeks traveling around Europe together. We toured Norway for a few more days before taking a ferry from Oslo to Copenhagen. Most of us were running very low on money, so we decided to pool our funds and voted between staying in the sleeping quarters on board the ship or eating. It was unanimous. We would eat. It was a relatively easy decision for a few of us, especially one of the girls from Kansas and me, who were petite and could pretty much curl up and sleep anywhere. In fact, she and I spotted a luggage rack above some of the seats on the boat that we figured we could easily squeeze into. We removed the bags that had been stored there and climbed in. Unfortunately, the sea got very rough that night and we got thrown right out onto the floor of the boat. This was my first experience with seasickness—one I will never forget. Everybody on board was so sick. If you weren't holding your head over the rail, you were holding on for dear life.
When we got to Copenhagen, we spent a week touring and seeing all of the sites before leaving for a week in Paris and then returning to the United States. When I arrived in New York, I remember sitting with my parents so I could tell them all about my wonderful experiences overseas. I shared how much I enjoyed exploring my Scandinavian heritage and how appreciative I was for the opportunity to live abroad. The Cuban missile crisis was fresh in my mind, as it had been less than a year since that threat was posed to our nation. As a young adult, I was well aware of those tense days. After spending three months out of the country, I told my parents I thought every teenager should have the opportunity to be an exchange student. If they did, I believed it would have a big impact on the younger generation's global outlook, and could result in less war. I was living in an era where war was happening all around us. Although I was just a little girl during the Korean War, I was old enough to be aware of Castro coming into power in Cuba and of the Bay of Pigs invasion. And I realized that we were still living in uncertain times. I followed current events closely and with great interest. I was too young to become an activist, but I wanted my parents to know that I was aware of what was happening. Like most parents, my mother and father did their best to shield me from the horrors of the world, but we were living in a time when they were hard to ignore. And to be frank, I didn't want to put my head in the sand. I was sitting in French class on November 22, 1963, when I heard the news. A friend of mine went running past the open door to my classroom. This was a girl who was usually very upbeat and funny, but she had just heard that John F. Kennedy had been shot, and was running down the hallways of our school screaming to let everyone know. We weren't sure if we should take her message seriously at first though. It only took a split second to realize that no one would say something so horrible in jest. Everything came to a stop. How could the president have been shot? I had never experienced anything like this before. I didn't know what to do. I, along with the rest of our class, was in a state of shock. There was a great heaviness throughout the school for the rest of the day, week, and for many months to come. Our country was crying. Every one of us was in tears. I'll never forget—we were supposed to put on a school play that weekend. Of course, we were taught that the show must go on. Although it seemed wrong on so many levels, my drama teacher reminded us that it was the first rule of the theater, so we all got into our costumes and were standing backstage when the school decided this was one time the show would not go on.
As an aspiring actress, I would use the emotions I felt and witnessed others feeling during these types of tragedies and global events. I found inspiration in everything, the joyous as well as the sad. During my high school years, I was lucky enough to have a most enthusiastic and outstanding drama teacher as my first acting teacher. Inez Norman Spiers was legendary at Garden City High School. Mrs. Spiers gave our school the greatest gift by creating a drama department and theater group called Masquers that was one of the finest programs a public school could offer. Despite the fact that our school tended to focus more on academics and sports than the arts, the drama program was second to none. Mrs. Spiers had curly red Lucille Ball–style hair that was cut short and cropped close to her head. She wore green nail polish and was quite a colorful character in her presentation. As a teacher, she gave me such an incredible head start. I was 13 years old when I took my first class with Mrs. Spiers, and I continued to study with her until I graduated high school in 1964. She always had her students rehearse plays the way they do on Broadway and the way the protracted process works on television with a table read and blocking. She taught us to dissect scenes from beginning to end so we could understand not only the work but the meaning as well. Mrs. Spiers thought it was crucial to understand all areas of theater, so she taught us to apply theatrical makeup and to engage in role-playing, movement exercises and character work. She also encouraged us to learn as much about the behind-the-scenes work of set design and construction as we could. Mrs. Spiers took no prisoners. She was tough and expected her students to comply with the high standards she set for us. She was a strict teacher who placed many demands on her students, but all of them were in line with what we would need to do as professional actors someday. I was very lucky that Mrs. Spiers took to me right away. She believed in me and encouraged me to pursue acting from the very start. I was always cast in the various productions, playing a variety of leading roles throughout high school, which was wonderful. Mrs. Spiers had us performing everything from The King and I to Noël Coward. The woman was incredible to offer that type of diversity in high school.
Doing all of those shows gave me the experience of being onstage and of working at an advanced level at such an early age. It was Mrs. Spiers who taught me never to upstage the other actors and to learn how to improvise when something goes wrong. She helped us discover how to turn every mishap into an opportunity. I remember hearing a story she told about an early Masquers production when a backdrop painting fell in the middle of a performance. Without missing a beat, the actor onstage said, "My, how the natives are restless tonight." My only dilemma was that while I was involved in the drama department, I was also involved in cheerleading. Because I cheered throughout the school year, I'd often have practice or games between play rehearsals. The only way I could rehearse and make it in time to a football or basketball game was to wear my cheerleading uniform to both. Mrs. Spiers hated that and wasn't shy about telling me how she felt. She explained that I didn't move the same way in a cheerleading outfit as I did in my costume—and she was right. So, sometimes, I would throw a dress rehearsal skirt over my cheerleading skirt, which made my hips look really wide, but at least I was doing the right thing. I didn't want to disappoint Mrs. Spiers, but I made commitments to both activities, and I wanted to do both. Mrs. Spiers also didn't like the idea that I would finish rehearsals and then run off to the football field. Understandably, she wanted my undivided attention. I was told the year after I graduated that Mrs. Spiers officially banned rehearsing in anything but your proper attire. I am sure her heart was in the right place. It's not as if she didn't like sports, because she was always trying to enlist the football players to be in her plays. But that Glee mentality hadn't quite sunk in at our school yet—at least not while I was there. Many years after I graduated, the school commemorated Mrs. Spiers by naming the auditorium after her. She deserved that honor and so much more.
My mother started taking me to New York City to see Broadway shows when I was a teenager. We mostly went when I was off from school or during summer vacations. Although New York City was only an hour's drive from our home, we hardly ever made the trip. My father thought New York was a very tough place, especially for women to go to on their own. Still, my mother and I loved the excitement of planning a special day together where we could have some important mother-daughter time and enjoy the experience of taking in the latest show and then dining at Sardi's, a place we had read about in the newspapers that was the most famous eatery in the theater district. It is a well-known hangout for the theater crowd, both actors and patrons.
We spent wonderful days together seeing everyone from Richard Burton in Hamlet to Sammy Davis Jr. and Lola Falana in Golden Boy. I hadn't yet been exposed to Shakespeare in school, so as a teenager, Hamlet was not easy to watch. Still, it was beautiful and spellbinding. I have never forgotten Richard Burton's massive presence on the stage. This was the first time I ever looked at an older man and thought he was sexy. Eileen Herlie, who I would end up working with years later on All My Children, played his mother, Gertrude. This particular production of Hamlet was done in all modern dress. I was speechless when Eileen crossed the stage in a full-length mink coat. She was an inspiration and so glamorous and elegant. On the way out of the theater, I somehow got swept away in the sea of people leaving the show. I was thrust up against a waiting limousine outside the stage door. My mother was trying to rescue me but was unable to reach my hand through the crowd. I turned to look into the window of the waiting car and there was Richard Burton sitting in the backseat with his arm around two young girls. I don't know why, but I thought one of them might have been Elizabeth Taylor's daughter Liza Todd. Mr. Burton looked so protective of those girls. He saw me peering through the window. We gazed at each other for mere seconds, but I was absolutely mesmerized by his very blue eyes. Although I wasn't so happy about being thrown up against his car, I was absolutely thrilled to have shared that moment with someone who was larger than life. When my mother took me to see Golden Boy on Broadway, I begged her to let me wait outside the stage door so I could catch a glimpse of Sammy Davis Jr. Even as a teenager, I recognized Sammy Davis as one of the greatest performers of all time. I wanted to wait so I could ask for his autograph. We stood outside that door for hours, but he never came out. As I turned to my mother to say that we could finally leave, Miss Lola Falana was standing right in front of me. I remember watching her dance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and now there she was! It was thrilling. I don't know why I always remember what people were wearing, but she had on jeans, an oversize crisp white man's shirt, and sneakers. She was absolutely gorgeous.
"You're Lola Falana!" I said. "I've seen you on TV!" I was a giddy schoolgirl.
She just looked at me, like, "Yeah, so?" And then grabbed my Playbill to sign it. She wasn't rude, just quick. It was in that moment and exchange that I said to myself, When I grow up and become a famous actress, I am definitely going to sign autographs!"I would never forget what it was like to be the wide-eyed girl full of hopes and dreams.
Our days of taking in shows on Broadway and spending time together in the city became a tradition that continued throughout high school and into my college years. My mother and I loved to see matinees and have lunch at Sardi's. The very first time we went there, Vincent Sardi, the owner himself, met us at the door. He was extremely pleasant to us, especially since he was used to more sophisticated patrons than we were. He personally escorted us to our table, which I thought was quite extraordinary—that is, until I saw where he was seating us. He stopped at the front table underneath a row of the very famous caricatures drawn of the celebrities who had eaten there. I didn't realize that this particular table in the front and center of the restaurant was a very sought-after place to be seated. At the time, I thought he didn't want his other guests to see the two of us. My mother and I were all too happy to be there, even if we thought Mr. Sardi was not. We had a very nice lunch. As we ate our meal, Mr. Sardi approached us and pointed to a table of well-dressed gentlemen who looked like Hollywood producers.
"I am sorry for the interruption. The gentlemen at that table would like to know who you are." He was talking to me. I was very flattered, although I had no idea why they thought I was anyone notable in this restaurant of notables. I was a mere "nobody" enjoying lunch in the big city with my mother. I wanted to be an actress. I was studying to be one, but at that time I was still a total unknown.
My mother and I continued to frequent Sardi's in the summers that followed. Every time we went there, we were greeted like old friends. Vincent Sardi was always so very nice to us. And, every time, people wanted to know who we were. One day, we were introduced to Marian Probst, who said she was one of the editors of something called the Celebrity Register, a chronicle of who's who in the world of entertainment made famous by Earl "Mr." Blackwell. Marian said she would like to include me in their next edition, which was amazing since I hadn't been professionally cast in anything yet.
I cannot explain what the draw was, but throughout my early life, it seemed that people had an instinctive sense that I was going to be famous. I can't say this with any authority other than my own experience, but from the time I was a young child, I always knew that performing was all I really wanted to do. I suppose there is some merit to the correlation between the image one projects out to the world and what the world sees. If you're lucky—very lucky—and you work hard, that portrayal can and often does turn into the stuff that dreams are made of.
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, December 8, 2013