We First met, Betsy von Furstenberg and I, in 1970 when I was doing a story for LIFE magazine on the playwright Neil Simon. It’s hard to believe that was forty-five years ago. Betsy was co-starring with Maureen Stapleton in Simon’s first serious play, The Gingerbread Lady, which was about to open at the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway. Everyone was on edge as Simon was rewriting lines daily in the hope of having a hit show. The play received mixed reviews although both Stapleton and von Furstenberg were praised by the critics.
It turned out that Betsy and I had a good friend in common: Tammy Grimes, the legendary star of Broadway’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Private Lives, for which Tammy won the 1970 Tony Award.
One of my fondest memories of Betsy was as a hostess. She gave lovely, elegant dinner parties at her home on the Upper West Side. One in particular I remember well. It was the early ’90’s. After dinner one night, a cabaret sprung up as Betsy’s guests started performing one by one. Tammy sang “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square” and then Betsy sang one of her favorites, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.”
Gigi and I were delighted by the surprise performances and laughed until we couldn’t speak as Eli Wallach (who happily did not take much persuading) reenacted his death scene from Godfather III in all its glory which included sprawling flat out on the floor. But it was Eli’s indomitable wife, Anne Jackson, who stole the show with her incredible impersonation of Shirley Temple singing and dancing “The Good Ship Lollypop,” her shoulders pushed up until she had no discernible neck. You had to see it to believe it, and if you were lucky enough to have been there, you will never forget it.
On another fun evening, Betsy joined Gigi and me, our daughter Wendy, her husband Michael Landes, and our friend, the author James K. Davis, for cabaret night at a woman’s club Gigi belongs to. Betsy took the stage accompanied by the talented pianist David Lewis and was followed by Kitty Carlisle Hart and her rendition of “America the Beautiful.” I believe it was one of the last times Kitty performed in public.
I have found over the years that actors and actresses love to sing spontaneously. That they don’t need much persuading is an understatement. One that comes to mind is Judy Garland. I photographed her in Copenhagen and stupidly asked her what was her favorite song—a dumb question, I admit. She replied, “Over the Rainbow,” naturally, and proceeded to sing it for me then and there. And after that, she sang 10 of her other favorites for me.
We lost close contact with Betsy after we moved to Florida, but the fond memories remain vivid–—and yes, it seems like only yesterday.